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Middle East Digest - June 13, 2011


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Washington, DC
June 13, 2011

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of June 13, 2011

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1:11 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: But again, what – she was very clear that she was committed to returning to finish the portion of her trip, but again, these are unforeseeable events that forced her to depart early. Anyway, moving on. The United States welcomes the announcements by Presidents Karzai and Zardari of the full implementation on June 12th of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. This step is a concrete demonstration of the common shared vision of development, prosperity, and peace the two presidents share, and it will make a significant contribution to regional stability. The full implementation of the treaty will provide an economic boost for both countries by reducing the cost and delays involved in transport from Afghanistan to world markets and across Afghanistan to markets in central Asia and beyond. The United States remains committed to assisting Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as their neighbors in expanding regional trade – and trade ties, rather.

QUESTION: Have you talked to Turkish Government – have you sent –

MR. TONER: The Secretary obviously has not because she’s been in Africa all day, and I’m not aware that she’s had any contact. I’m not sure for the – rather the President – as I was trying to find out before coming out here, but I refer you to the White House. Obviously, we congratulate the Turkish people on a successful election, and we look forward to working with the new Turkish Government on many of the bilateral and multilateral issues that we share in common.

QUESTION: So the government had tough time in a landslide victory, but also it fell short to grab super majority to write the constitution again. How do you see in terms of Turkish democracy? Could you please elaborate on this result?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think what you’re trying to get at is really internal politics within Turkey. Certainly what we saw from our viewpoint is a good friend and partner and ally conducted free and fair elections, they were done transparently, and we applaud the results, and we applaud the Turkish people for carrying out these elections in a free and fair manner.

QUESTION: I emphasize on the universal side of the issue, actually, democracy and the opposition in Turkey, and I ask you to comment on this perspective.

MR. TONER: Well, again, our – we have a strong bilateral relationship with Turkey. Turkey is also a strong partner and ally within NATO, and we’re committed to working with the new Turkish Government on the same issues that we were working with Turkey on. We share a number of multilateral and bilateral issues, and those are going to remain the same, and we’re going to continue to work with them.

QUESTION: Mark, there were some questions last week about the role of Iran in Syria. There’s been more reports of non-Arabic speakers possibly among the security forces involved in the north of Syria right now. Do you have any update on that, because you didn’t at the time?

MR. TONER: Right. Brad, I mean, I’m aware of all these allegations, and certainly, we’ve seen, as I said last week, that Iran has played a meddlesome role throughout the region. We don’t have any hard evidence due to the – in part due to the difficulty in our own personnel given the security situation and the restrictions on travel to get out and to visit some of these places. But certainly it’s concerning to us.

QUESTION: And more generally on the situation in northern Syria as well as the refugees that (inaudible).

MR. TONER: Sure. As we’ve seen in press reports and media reports, we understand the Syrian Government is instructing its security forces to use tanks and helicopters – helicopter gunships, in fact, against Syrian people – Syrian citizens in the north over the weekend. What happened there over the weekend and what continues to occur is absolutely revolting, and we condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms.

QUESTION: What is the status on the Security Council, where things are?

MR. TONER: My understanding is that they – there was a meeting over the weekend. We continue to support and see value in pursuing a Security Council resolution that puts additional pressure on Asad and his government, as well as advances the international community’s efforts to end the repression and to focus more world attention on Asad and his actions – his government’s actions.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: But I’m not aware, today, that there’s any additional meetings, but obviously our position’s quite clear: We continue to see value in such a resolution as a way of putting additional pressure on. It’s one of – as I talked about on Friday, it’s one of a variety of ways that we’re looking at, again, increasing pressure on Asad and focusing more attention on what he’s doing.

QUESTION: So you’re waiting for a UN resolution so you can take more concrete steps toward the Syrian regime?

MR. TONER: No, I just think that – again, I talked a little bit about this on Friday. I mean, what we’re – we’re trying to look at a number of different – we’re pursuing pressure on Syria in a variety of fora, and the UN Security Council is one of those forums which we’re seeking to apply additional pressure. Secretary’s spoken about trying to build momentum here, trying to get – increase and bring more pressure to bear on Asad. As I said on Friday, this is the hard work of diplomacy that we’re doing here. But ultimately, we’re looking at a variety of ways to call world attention to what Asad is doing.

QUESTION: The foreign minister of France last week called that – said that Asad was losing his legitimacy to rule. The Secretary of State said the same thing. So what is next? I mean, what would be, practically, the steps that you would take to effectuate that?

MR. TONER: Well, I think we’ve been quite clear that unless Asad can lead the way to meaningful reform – and it becomes increasingly clear that he’s either unable or unwilling to do so – that he needs to get out of the way and allow that transition to take place. I mean, ultimately, this is a transition that needs to be led by the Syrian people. What our focus is on is trying to clarify for Asad that he needs to either stop the violence or get out of the way and allow a transition to take place.

QUESTION: Just to clarify.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: So you still believe that Mr. Asad still has the opportunity to introduce reforms?

MR. TONER: I mean, certainly from what we’ve seen over the weekend, these attacks on innocent civilians using helicopters, using tanks, that – it becomes increasingly clear that he has no intention of reforming. What I think we all need to do is to – working with our European partners and our partners in the region, is trying to get more attention focused on what’s happening in Syria and make it very clear to Asad that he needs to stop his abuse.

Go ahead, Jill, and then I’ll get to you. Thanks.

QUESTION: Mark, but right now, you do have, what, about 6,000 people coming over the border?

MR. TONER: We do.

QUESTION: You have --

MR. TONER: The border to Turkey.

QUESTION: To Turkey. You have the imminent attacks. It’s a very serious imminent situation. Is there any plan, including the United States or any allies, to take any military action? Because second question would be, the comparison is always made to Libya – that with the African Union you were able to get the go ahead, that they wanted action – is there any type of action that will be taking place?

MR. TONER: Well again, I – we’ve talked a lot about comparing Libya and Syria. I think the bottom line is that the violence that’s ongoing in Syria is abhorrent to anyone who looks at it, and we’ve been talking about, the last couple of weeks, trying to get more attention focused on it in the UN Security Council, trying to get more people to focus pressure on Asad and make him feel that pressure. We’ve talked about sanctions. There are other ways to increase that pressure, both diplomatically, multilateral pressure is obviously also important, and we’re just going to keep working within our – with our partners. It was a major topic when the Secretary was in Abu Dhabi last week talking to our Arab and other partners there. And we’re going to continue to put pressure to bear on Asad. Frankly, it is alarming to see the violence continue after so much has been said in various international fora condemning his government’s actions. We just need to continue that focus, and it’s difficult, but we believe that we can bring that pressure to bear.

QUESTION: Would you consider the country, like Turkey, a neighbor country – would you let Turkey to intervene militarily to protect the civilians in the border?

MR. TONER: Look, that’s a decision for Turkey to make, and no one’s talking about Turkey intervening in any way, shape, or form. What we are able to do and have – certainly are willing to do for Turkey is to help them deal with the burgeoning refugee situation there.

QUESTION: But it’s not off the table?

MR. TONER: Again, I think that no option is off the table when you’re talking about what’s happening in Syria. But that’s a question for the Turkish Government. Again, what we’re focused on, in terms of Turkey, is they’ve got a real situation along their border, and with a refugee problem, and we’re committed to trying to help.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Friday that you did not offer your help to Turkish Government (inaudible) --

MR. TONER: We did, actually. We’ve offered our assistance. I don’t know that we’ve been formally asked. I believe they have gone to the UNHCR, and, of course, we are donors to the UNHCR as well. So however way we can be constructive and helpful, we’re happy to do so.

Go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: It is known that U.S. warship Monterey will sail at – into the Black Sea to participate in U.S.-Ukrainian military exercises. It was the reason of the very strong reaction of Moscow. According to the Russian minister of foreign affairs, it is a threat of their national security.

MR. TONER: Are we off Syria? Is this a Syria question?

QUESTION: Could you comment on that?

MR. TONER: No. Let’s wait on this, and we’ll get to it. I – we really got to finish with Syria first.

QUESTION: Mark, Madam Secretary and Turkish foreign minister met in Abu Dhabi, and did they discuss this issue? Did any option on military – military operation option in the region?

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: Or any humanitarian assistance (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: I think what we talked about was international concern over Asad’s actions. We talked about the need for more cohesive international pressure to be brought to bear. We’re aware that, obviously, Turkey’s very affected by the situation along the border, and again, we’re ready to help Turkey if it needs it.

QUESTION: Because the prime minister said that, after the election, Turkey will be much more focusing on Syria issue, and military option --

MR. TONER: We welcome that, frankly. I mean, we welcome increased international attention and focus on Syria. And I know that this refugee crisis along the border has affected Turkish public opinion when they’ve seen these refugees pouring across. It’s just – there’s a drumbeat of abuses that we’ve seen over the past two weeks, three weeks, four weeks now, the steady flow of refugees, these horrible stories that they’re recounting on the other side. And it’s certainly, I think, getting the world’s attention.

QUESTION: So that’s why the Turkish military can’t cross the border and can build a safe area until this trouble --

MR. TONER: Again, you’re speculating a lot here. I’m just – I’m talking about the immediate situation with the refugees in Turkey.

Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: Why is there reluctance to take military action?

MR. TONER: Why is there reluctance to take military action?

QUESTION: Yes, to stop this.

MR. TONER: Look, Jill --

QUESTION: I’ve not heard that, even unilateral. But is the U.S. pushing its allies to take some type of physical military action to stop what you’re talking about, the drumbeat of abuses over weeks?

MR. TONER: What we’ve been clear about is that our effort remains diplomatic and economic. We have brought pressure to bear on Asad through these sanctions, both the EU and here in the United States. And the other aspect of this is that we are working through the UN Human Rights Commission so that he and his government will be held accountable for their actions.

But speculating about military action is – we’re just not there yet.

QUESTION: Why is it so difficult to get the support that you were able to get for Libya in this case?

MR. TONER: I think it’s been a little slower, perhaps, to percolate. I think with Libya, you had Qadhafi pledging to go into Benghazi and wipe out the city. He was making bold public proclamations about an impending massacre that I think coalesced. And I think that the violence in Syria has built up over the weeks.

Again, this shouldn’t undermine or in any way – this shouldn’t in any way lead you to think that we’re not taking this seriously just because we’re pursuing a variety of diplomatic efforts to try to put pressure on Asad. We’re very much aware of the situation, the urgency of the situation there. We’re consulting actively with our allies and partners on ways that we can isolate Asad, and that work continues short of military action.

QUESTION: Have you been talking to Syrian opposition? They just had a conference a week ago in Turkey.

MR. TONER: Yeah. There was one in Turkey. We do maintain contacts with Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: Has the forcefulness of the response to Libya scared countries off from maybe taking a stronger condemnation or joining in on a UN resolution against Syria?

MR. TONER: It’s hard for me to speculate.

QUESTION: Have you heard it from anybody?

MR. TONER: No. What we have – what is – what I think is – as I talked to you before, is there’s a lot happening in that part of the world. And obviously, Libya has drawn a lot of our focus with the repeated abuses and attacks that Qadhafi has carried out against civilians there. And we remain hard at work implementing two Security Council resolutions there and also trying to put pressure on Qadhafi for him to step aside and allow for a transition to take place.

But speaking more broadly, I think that as Asad has continued to carry out these abuses, people are waking up to the fact that what’s happening in Syria is abhorrent and that we need to figure out ways to put pressure on Asad to isolate him and to force him to – as I said, either to cease the violence and make an effort at reform or step aside.

QUESTION: But when the Security Council – when the NATO operation started against Libya, the Russians especially said they were surprised by the level of military engagement in Libya. And you don’t believe that this has anything to do with the reluctance now of countries like Russia to adopt a similar resolution against Syria?

MR. TONER: I mean, you’re asking me to speculate on Russia’s --

QUESTION: Well, they seem to be saying --

MR. TONER: -- on Russia’s thinking behind this. All I can say is that we believe we’re on the right side of history.

QUESTION: Could you update us on the diplomatic activity of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and Ambassador Ford in particular?

MR. TONER: Damascus – they do remain functioning. Ambassador Ford continues to report back to Washington giving his views and a picture of what’s happening in Syria, which is important, frankly, given that international media is disallowed access, as well as human rights monitors. Again, our own perspective is somewhat limited due to restrictions on travel, but it’s very useful for us to keep these channels open. He did meet, as I said before, regularly with Syrian Government officials; however, the Syrian government has begun refusing his requests – his recent requests for meetings. But he does continue to meet, as do other people in the Embassy there, with various Syrian activists and NGO leaders and – civil society leaders, rather.

QUESTION: Has he requested to meet with Foreign Minister Mualem or the president of Syria?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure at what level. I would assume that he has a request in to speak with the foreign minister as well as other levels.

QUESTION: You said --

QUESTION: Mark, sorry I was a little bit late.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Jill. That’s okay.

QUESTION: But on the “Gay Girl” in Damascus, have you talked about that yet?

MR. TONER: I have not.

QUESTION: Okay. So the question would be – this has been shown to be a fake. How do you think this will affect concern in the outside world about what is going on? I mean, if you can’t believe that, could there be other lies, as the Syrian Government says?

MR. TONER: Well, anytime – just speaking more broadly about this case, as I think you saw last week, we were skeptical from the very beginning about this story. But of course, anytime we receive a credible report about an American citizen possibly in trouble, then we’re going to do due diligence on that issue. But we did check it out both here and in Damascus and realized that, as you said, it was reported today that this was a hoax.

Just to your second question, I would switch it around and say that I think it speaks to the appalling human rights situation in Syria that so many people saw the story, heard about the story, took it to be credible, and called for action against her – or in support of her, rather. It just – I think that no one is under any illusions that the Syrian Government hasn’t been carrying out a vicious crackdown on its own civilians, and I don’t believe that that’s affected one whit by this story.

QUESTION: Can I ask you just what role the State Department played in any of the investigations that ultimately determined that this was a hoax? I mean, did at a certain point you realize that this was not true and --

MR. TONER: Absolutely. Yeah. I think – I mean, early on I was hearing that we were unable to confirm her citizenship by working through some of our databases. We had reached out in Damascus. We were unable to contact any of her friends or family members. And as I said, we couldn’t confirm her citizenship through passport records and other databases, so we began very early on suspecting that this was – that she was not a real person.

QUESTION: But you said that you had contacted Syrian opposition.

MR. TONER: I’ll get to you Michele.

QUESTION: Could you elaborate on that? What kind of --

MR. TONER: I don’t because, given the sensitivity of what’s happening right now in Syria, I don’t want to talk about it in any great detail.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. Administration take any part in the conference that was held in Turkey?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe so, but I’ll take that question.

Yeah. Go ahead, Michele.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a follow-up? I’m sorry.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: You said the U.S. ambassador – they’re refusing to see him. Now do you know when the last inquiry he made was, where he was refused?

MR. TONER: Well, I’m sorry. The last inquiry he made – I believe the last visit he had was in late May. I’ll get a precise date for you on that.

QUESTION: And he’s been refused meetings since then? Okay.

QUESTION: Is the Syrian --

MR. TONER: I believe, Cami, if I’m not mistaken, he continues to make requests to meet with Syrian officials, so it’s ongoing. It’s not like one standing request. But I’ll double check on that and get that.

QUESTION: Is the Syrian ambassador to Washington able to meet with American officials here?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. I’m not sure when the last contact we had or whether we plan to call him in. I’ll find out.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on an American citizen, a student in Egypt, who’s been arrested and accused of being a Mossad spy?

MR. TONER: I do, but it’s very preliminary information. But we are aware that U.S. citizen Ilam Chaim Grapel was detained on June 12th by Egyptian authorities. A consular official did visit Mr. Grapel on June 13th at the prosecutor’s office; that was in New Cairo. He’s – we’ve confirmed that he was in good health. Mr. Grapel’s family is aware of his arrest and I refer to you Government of Egypt for details on the charges against him.

QUESTION: Do you have any opinion on those – on the accusations of him being a spy?

MR. TONER: Well, again, the – right now, our function, as we would in the case of any American citizen held overseas, is to provide him with consular services, work with local authorities to make sure he’s being treated fairly under local law, provide information about the local legal system and facilitate communication with his family and friends. The Egyptian authorities did give us almost immediate consular access, and as I said, he’s in good health. And I believe now that they’ve got a number of days to carry out an investigation and elaborate on the charges against him.

QUESTION: You have reason to believe that he is innocent or guilty?

MR. TONER: Again, no. We don’t have any opinion as of yet. I mean, they’re carrying out an investigation, and we’ll wait to see what that --

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Any reaction to the formation of the Lebanese Government? How do you view this new government?

MR. TONER: Sure. I mean, I think it’s – we’ll – if I could say, we’ll judge it by its actions. This is, obviously, the beginning of a process. There’s – I believe there’s a parliamentary approval and other steps that need to be taken. What’s important in our mind is that the new Lebanese Government abide by the Lebanese constitution, that it renounce violence, including efforts to extract retribution against former government officials, and lives up to all of its international obligations, including UN Security Council resolutions and its commitment to the special tribunal.

QUESTION: Do you think that this government is a Hezbollah government?

MR. TONER: Again, there’s – we’ll judge this government as it takes shape, as it’s approved by the actions that I just stipulated. We need it to abide by the Lebanese constitution, renounce violence, and uphold the special tribunal, as well as other relevant Security Council resolutions.

Yeah. Lalit.

QUESTION: Mark, change of subject?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Afghanistan, Pakistan. Following this trade thing, what is holding ROZ bill from --

MR. TONER: This trade thing? (Laughter.) You mean the trade agreement that we talked about?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. TONER: It’s an important thing. Anyway, go ahead.

QUESTION: There’s a ROZ bill pending the Congress for past one or two years, and Administration is not pushing it around much to get it passed through. What is holding it up?

MR. TONER: You’re talking about in our Congress?

QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.

MR. TONER: One more time.

QUESTION: Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, which is for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the Administration’s report show the current development in the regions.

MR. TONER: Right, right.

QUESTION: What is holding it up?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’m not sure what the status of those – of that legislation is. I’ll check on it.

QUESTION: And also over the weekend, there was news reports that information being passed on to Pakistan about places of terrorists, where they are, the bomb-making factories are being leaked upon, and so that you are not able to take appropriate actions on them. Is it a serious concern still?

MR. TONER: Look, I’m not going to – obviously, I’m not going to comment on the substance of that story, given that it touches on intelligence issues and matters. I’ll just say that we’ve been consistent in saying that our relationship with Pakistan has many challenges, but it’s also in both our countries’ long-term national security interest, and we’ve also shared many successes. As the President and Secretary Clinton have said, there’s been more terrorists killed and captured in Pakistan then anywhere in the world, and that couldn’t have been done without Pakistan’s cooperation.

QUESTION: At the same time, the largest number of terrorists anywhere in the world are captured all in Pakistan. Can you elaborate on what --

MR. TONER: I thought I just said that.

QUESTION: What are the challenges? Can you specify those challenges with your relations with Pakistan?

MR. TONER: I think everyone in this room recognizes some of the challenges in the relationship, especially in light of the bin Ladin – his whereabouts. We’re taking steps to address those. We’ve had a series of visits, trips to Pakistan, rather, by senior government officials, including Secretary Clinton. And each of them have pledged our commitment to work through these challenges with Pakistan and move the relationship forward.

QUESTION: Yemen?

MR. TONER: Sure. Yemen.

QUESTION: In light of the news today that al-Qaida elements are sort of doing an attack in the south and gaining grounds and so on, are Mr. Saleh’s fortunes changing because of that or are you going to support his return to Yemen?

MR. TONER: Are Mr. Saleh’s fortunes changing? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: The likelihood of him returning to Yemen.

MR. TONER: Right. Well, as I understand it, he’s still receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen some promising reports that the acting president is willing to move this dialogue forward with the opposition. We’d like to see that proceed. As I said, we – the situation right now, the status quo, is clearly creating a security vacuum, and we want to see the GCC agreement move forward, and we believe that it provides, as I’ve said before, a path towards reconciliation and transition.

QUESTION: Any word on – I think the opposition – an opposition spokesman said that the acting president had agreed to a start this transition now.

MR. TONER: I did – I just had seen that, so I’ll have to get back to you on – but as I said, we’ve seen some promising signs there, so we would urge them – just to reiterate what I just said and said before, which is that President Saleh’s in Saudi Arabia obviously recuperating, but this process needs to move forward.

QUESTION: Is the government – the United States Government coordinating attacks against al-Qaida elements with the current Yemeni Government, or is it doing it on its own?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to get into the operational details. Our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen continues.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: There was a question last week about the former prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, visiting this department. Do you have any readout --

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ve – we’ve sought more details for that, but I don't have anything for you yet.

That it?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:46 p.m.)



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