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 14, 2011
1:01 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: Mark, are you worried about the situation in Syria (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: I mean, obviously, we spoke to this yesterday. We remain very concerned about the – as you said, the ongoing violence as well as the refugee crisis on the Turkey border. We’re closing monitoring the situation. I believe our most recent guidance – or most recent reporting says that there is around 8,538 Syrians in tent camps. And obviously, we’ve seen these numbers grow since the Sudanese security forces launched an offensive in northern --
MR. TONER: Sorry. Syrian security forces launched an offensive in northern Syria over the weekend. Clearly, we abhor this escalation and violence and the use of helicopter gunships and tanks.
QUESTION: Mark, on Syria, yesterday Michel raised the question of what the ambassador, Ambassador Ford, is doing there. Can you update us on exactly what does he do if the Government of Syria continues to ignore his requests to meet with officials?
And also, this does raise a broader question. When he was named by the President back at the end of last year, the criticism was: Isn’t the U.S. rewarding Syria? And lo and behold, he goes there and he’s ignored by Syria. Doesn’t it send a message that maybe it was a mistake to return an ambassador?
MR. TONER: I disagree with that question or the premise behind your question that he’s somehow not fulfilling the role that we sent him out to perform. We believe and have always held that it is in our national security interests to have an ambassador in Damascus. The fact that he had been unable to meet with his Syrian Government interlocutors over the last couple of weeks, I think only illustrates that they don’t like the message he’s delivering.
But that said, he remains on the ground and he remains in contact with members of the Syrian opposition and with civil society leaders within Damascus and outside – and beyond Damascus as the security situation permits.
And it allows us two things. One, it gives us a U.S. – a high-level U.S. voice in Syria, and if not speaking directly to the government, then to the Syrian people. And then secondly, it sends a clear message that we’re engaged, we’re not going to back away, and we’re going to continue to press the Asad regime to end its human rights abuses.
QUESTION: Can I – the statement today by Secretary Clinton said Iran is supporting the Asad regime’s vicious assaults on peaceful protestors and military actions. Do we – can you give us some examples of what she’s referring to?
MR. TONER: Well, I think what I would refer you to – I mean, it’s pretty clear that just speaking more broadly, that Syria has taken a page out of Iran’s playbook, if you will, in employing a lot of the same tactics that we saw Iran use following the 2009 election. But in terms of evidence, it’s difficult for me to talk about a lot of that evidence from the podium. I would just say that when the – in the executive order that President Obama signed, I believe on April 29th, he did cite human rights violations by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the so-called Qods Force. So we believe there’s clear evidence that Iran is actively helping Syria.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Our reporting is that Syrian troops are now moving toward a second town in northern Syria. The name of the town is Maarat al-Numaan and we quote a named man who’s a pharmacy professor in the town as saying that helicopters have been ferrying troops to a camp several kilometers from the town. And let me read the quote because it’s a great quote: “We met the governor today and he assured us that the army will go in only to arrest 360 people it has on a list. The people of Maarat, however, are skeptical.”
Do you believe that the Syrians are, in fact, deploying troops and that they intend to go into this second town? And if so, beyond the rhetoric, which I realize has been getting more and more heated from the podium and from the Secretary and from the White House over the weekend, can you point to anything else tangible that the U.S. Government is trying to do either to dissuade the Syrian Government from pursuing such tactics or to persuade the international community, by which I mean both Russia and China on the Security Council and the Arab states that have hitherto been resistant to taking additional action on Syria?
MR. TONER: Well, with regard to your first question about this – the Syrian security forces moving on a second town, I don’t have any evidence to support that except what I’ve seen in press reports. However, we’ve seen a pattern develop here over the past several weeks whereby Syrian security forces seem to be moving systematically from town to town and either rounding up individuals or, as we saw over the weekend, using helicopter gunships and tanks to attack civilians.
Clearly, it’s an alarming escalation. It has gotten the attention, certainly, of Turkey, which is getting the effects of the refugee crisis that’s – the refugee flow that’s spilling over into its borders, and I think it’s gotten the world’s attention. It’s – as I said yesterday, we’re at work through a variety of fora, including the United Nations, at trying to bring more pressure to bear on Asad and trying to isolate him. But I think what you’re seeing increasingly is that Asad is doing a pretty good job himself of isolating Syria and making it more and more of an international pariah. This is going to have economic effects. It’s going to have political effects that go beyond his current actions.
QUESTION: And are you doing – given how alarming you find the situation, are you making – is the violence helping you to persuade either Russia or China in New York or the Arab states that have, hitherto, been resistant to broader action on Syria? Or no, are they basically indifferent to this in your estimation?
MR. TONER: I hesitate to characterize another country’s position beyond the fact that the Secretary said that we and our partners, with regard to Syria, are on the right side of history. We believe that we are, and we’re working to convince others to join us on that side, if you will. We need to – this isn’t about one resolution necessarily, it’s not about one set of sanctions, but it’s about building pressure. It’s about building a network, building a coalition that increases pressure on Syria.
But again, it’s just – I think it’s useful to look at what Syria’s done on its own at isolating itself in the region and internationally and again, it raises questions about the long-term impacts on that country.
QUESTION: Have there been any conversations from this building from the Secretary to anyone in Turkey? Has she spoken to Foreign Minister Davutoglu or at that level, given that Turkey is bearing the brunt of what’s happening across --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- the border?
MR. TONER: Not aware of how recently she’s spoken to the Turkish Government or counterparts in Turkey. As you know, they had elections over the weekend. But I’ll certainly look into that.
QUESTION: Yeah --
MR. TONER: But I mean, we remain – at a lower level, we remain in constant contact. We’ve been in touch. We’ve offered assistance to Turkey. I believe they’re working through the Red Crescent right now, but we’ve also – we contribute through, as I said yesterday UNHCR, and we’re perfectly willing to bring more resources to bear if Turkey should need them.
QUESTION: And then to follow on to something that Arshad was talking about before about the international lack of response, for lack of a better phrase. Given the context of Secretary Gates’ criticism of NATO last week for not bringing enough troops and materiel to bear in Libya, is there any sense that perhaps there just isn’t the capacity for other countries to respond beyond the diplomatic --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- and economic relations that they might have with Syria?
MR. TONER: Again, I challenge your characterization of Gates’, Secretary Gates’ speech. I think what he was talking about were, more broadly, were some long-term challenges that NATO faces. I think what we’ve seen so far, the conduct of NATO military assets and troops with regard to implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 has been very effective. It’s – this is not a quick process, but they continue to carry out their mandate of protecting Libyan civilians.
QUESTION: Can you --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: What is the evidence for your statement that Asad is isolating himself? There’s been precious little condemnation of him from governments in Asia, Africa, governments representing the majority of the world’s people have not really spoken out against him.
MR. TONER: But Brad, there’s only so long you can continue to carry out these kinds of abuses and indeed escalate these kinds of attacks against your own people. It raises serious questions about the Syrian Government and about Asad. He’s certainly lost all credibility as a reformer, and he’s diminished his government’s image around the world and that does have ongoing effects, as I said, both economically and politically.
QUESTION: Where --
MR. TONER: That’s undeniable, I think.
QUESTION: Is it? I don’t know if it’s undeniable that his image has been hampered around the world. What is the tangible evidence? Besides Europe and the United States --
MR. TONER: But you’ve also seen --
QUESTION: -- where is Syria suffering sanctions --
MR. TONER: I mean, you’ve seen, for example, just next door in Turkey, I think you’ve seen the public sympathy towards these Syrian refugees and an awareness of the situation in Syria spike in recent days due to the fact that suddenly this crisis is on their doorstep and that they’re aware of the suffering of these people. And I think this is an evolution, that people are becoming more and more aware of what’s going on there. It’s hard for me to point to clear evidence and capitals around the world except to say that like the United States and our partners who have been working for some time on trying to bring sanctions to bear, working through the UN, working through the UN Human Rights Commission, other countries around the world are also kind of waking up to what’s going on there.
QUESTION: Mark, if the situation deteriorates so much, the humanitarian situation – I know you don’t deal in hypotheticals, and the Turkish army sends in something to provide help and aid and so on, (inaudible) what happened in northern Iraq and during Operation Provide Comfort or whatever it was called – would that be something acceptable to the United States?
MR. TONER: It’s --
QUESTION: To facilitate humanitarian aid?
MR. TONER: I truly don’t want to speculate. I think it’s – what I would just say in response is that we’re aware that Turkey is facing a burgeoning crisis on its borders in terms of refugees coming from Syria. We have offered to assist them and we’re going to remain in close contact with them as they deal with it.
MR. TONER: Go ahead. Michel and then Jill.
QUESTION: If you’re not able to get a resolution from the UN Security Council, what options do you have? And is the military option on the table or not?
MR. TONER: I think there’s other options, including other sanctions that we could pursue. There’s other avenues out there that we can pursue --
QUESTION: Like what?
MR. TONER: -- short of – well, again, we have – we’re – we have worked with the Human Rights Commission at the UN to hold them accountable. Whether they refer to this ICC as another way to make sure that Asad and his counterparts are held accountable for their actions --
QUESTION: This is the long term, but –
MR. TONER: Right, right, right.
QUESTION: -- in the short term?
MR. TONER: In the short term, we’re going to work with our partners in the region. We’re going to work with the EU in ways that we can – in way – see ways we can ratchet up the pressure. As we said, so far, it’s been through sanctions, but we’re going to look at other methods. In terms of – you said, “Is the military option on the table?” I’m not going to address that specifically beyond saying that we’re looking at a variety of options.
QUESTION: Mark, on the opposition and the ambassador, you said that he’s in contact with them. Is he actually seeing them physically? Because one would think that with all of this repression, it would be highly dangerous for them to be in contact. And then also --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- just give us a thumbnail again of who they are, what they want.
MR. TONER: Well, there’s – in terms of your thumbnail, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the opposition in Syria. There were these meetings last week in Turkey. We understand that these are primarily internal meetings, inclusive of individuals coming together to form a very preliminary opposition. There’s – short of – the ambassador is obviously involved, but our other Embassy personnel on the ground at Damascus are trying to determine what some of these various groups are calling for, trying to get a sense of how they’re coming together, and also trying to determine what the popular support is for some of these groups.
It’s a very fluid situation and obviously, these groups are under tremendous pressure. So I agree; there’s a lot of sensitivity about our contacts with them, and there’s obviously – as I said, they feel a great deal of angst about their security.
QUESTION: And the Syrian Government has not told the U.S. to stop meeting or contacting them?
MR. TONER: Again, these are the kinds of contacts that we would expect in any diplomatic mission around the world to maintain. This is something that we do when we’re overseas. As far as I’m aware, there’s not been direct pressure. We have seen some protests; they’ve not been – some public protests that were geared towards other – or targeted – targeting other embassies, but not the United States.
QUESTION: Have there been any meetings with opposition groups in Washington in recent days?
MR. TONER: Any meeting with opposition groups?
QUESTION: Any meeting with Syrian opposition groups in Washington in recent days?
MR. TONER: I can check on that. I don’t know.
QUESTION: President Obama today called the president – Turkish president, but he didn’t mention Syria. Is it – there will be a follow-up from the State Department? Has he left it to the State Department?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean certainly the main reason for the President’s call was congratulatory with their successful elections over the weekend. But since we’ve seen the first refugees pouring over the border, I think at the beginning of last week, we’ve been in contact with them through our embassy as well as through the State Department, and offered assistance.
QUESTION: Can you see a scheduling of discussion of the proposed resolution at the Security Council given the apparent movement of these troops to a second community? I mean, it sounds like Libya all over again.
MR. TONER: Well, again, I really want to avoid any comparisons with Libya because they are different situations, but we still believe that it’s useful to pursue a Security Council resolution.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
QUESTION: No. Just one more on Syria. There’s certainly fear of what would happen if Asad goes; what next? Could you give the thinking here about that? I mean, is there concern that even if you don’t like him, he is somehow holding things together, and what would happen if he were to go?
MR. TONER: Jill, he is holding things together through violence, oppression, and intimidation. It’s very clear that the Syrian people are looking for another way, they’re looking for a greater freedom, they’re looking for more democracy, they’re looking for political and social and economic reform. It’s hard for me to predict what would come next except to say that we have seen an opposition forming. We would leave it to the Syrian people to decide what that transition looked like, but as we – to say that Asad is somehow the glue that’s keeping the country together, I think, is not taking into full account the violence and repression that he’s using to crush any aspirations of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Is that one of the reasons that you’re having trouble rallying international support is because there’s not this cohesive opposition in Syria like there was – there’s no TNC?
MR. TONER: Again, they’re very different situations. That’s why I – I know that it’s very natural to compare the two, but –
QUESTION: Okay. Forget I said Libya.
MR. TONER: -- in fact, it was a very oppressive environment in Syria, as there was in Libya, but certainly there’s not been a cohesive opposition in Syria, and we’re beginning to see this through the public – through this popular uprising, beginning to see that emerge. What we’ve seen, frankly, is as the violence, as the oppression has escalated, the Syrian people have only become more stalwart and more resolute in protesting the government and in pushing for the kind of political transition that we believe is necessary.
QUESTION: Mark, a quick follow-up based on what you said. Do you support the departure of President Asad?
MR. TONER: I think we said he needs to either help the reform take place, help this political transition take place, which looks increasingly unlikely, or get out of the way.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up again. Now, the rationale for Libya was that thousands – there was an impending danger that thousands may perish as a result of the attack by Qadhafi. Could you quantify – is there a point of quantifying at Syria at what point it will be the –
MR. TONER: It’s very hard for me to quantify what’s going on right now in Syria because it’s very hard to get a clear picture of what Syrian forces are doing. We’ve had very limited reporting. There was on the offensive of last weekend some reporting that took place on the – about the assault on this town in northern Syria. But I mean, are you implying there’s some kind of threshold that we need to reach or –
QUESTION: Yeah. Exactly. Is there a threshold by which you can gauge this thing?
MR. TONER: I just think – again, I really don’t want to compare Libya and Syria. We’re pursuing a set of actions with regard to Syria that we believe is isolating Asad, and we’re going to continue to pursue those actions and to isolate him further and to bring more international pressure to bear on him. But there’s no magic number. These human rights abuses need to stop immediately.
QUESTION: Mark –
MR. TONER: Are we still on Syria?
QUESTION: On Lebanon and Syria.
QUESTION: Another subject.
QUESTION: The Lebanese Government, lots of stories today said that it’s made in Syria, and the Syrian president was the first one who congratulate the Lebanese leadership and the formation of the new government. What do you think about that?
MR. TONER: Michel, I said yesterday, we’re going to wait and let the process play itself out and see what the – what government actually emerges in Lebanon, but I made clear yesterday what we’re looking to see, but there’s still a process that needs to play out.
Yeah. Go ahead, Kim.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the Americans, the hikers in Iran? There’s some indication that the Iranians are saying there’s a decision coming soon. Have you heard anything from the Swiss?
MR. TONER: I mean, we’ve – Kim, I don't have any updates for you. We’ve seen these kinds of rumblings of decisions or trials before. I just – our position remains that they’ve been held without justification or cause for far too long. They need to come home.
QUESTION: Did you ever get an explanation for why the trial was postponed?
MR. TONER: We did not.
MR. TONER: And I’m not sure that we’ve been allowed consular access since – for a very long time either.
QUESTION: And since we’re on the subject, any update on that American being held in Egypt?
MR. TONER: The Egyptian – I don't believe I’ve got any updated information. Let me check. We’ve – as I’ve said, we did get consular access to him. He obviously holds both U.S. and Israeli passports, but we were allowed access to them. And our understanding now is that Egypt --
QUESTION: Access to him?
MR. TONER: To him.
MR. TONER: And that Egypt has 15 days to determine whether charges will be brought against him. But I’d refer you, obviously, to the Egyptian authorities for more detail.
QUESTION: The Israelis said he wasn’t a spy. Do you --
MR. TONER: I’m aware of their public statement, and I’d refer you to them.
QUESTION: But he’s an American citizen.
MR. TONER: He is an American citizen. As I said yesterday, our obligation is to, first of all, to request and gain consular access to him, to make sure that he’s healthy and being well taken care of, and to provide – well, to inform him about legal counsel.
QUESTION: Can we go back to the Lebanese Government for a second?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Mark, it is said that this is the most pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian government, but the ministry of defense, the ministry of justice, and the ministry of telecom has gone to Hezbollah, it has no women or civil society and so on, but you are comfortable with that. Do you feel that business can go on as usual?
MR. TONER: I didn’t say we were comfortable about it. I think I was pretty clear yesterday in what we wanted to see in terms of recognition of the special tribunal going forward and preservation of the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon. But again, my understanding is that there’s a process that needs to take place and we’re going to wait and let that process play out.
QUESTION: I’m not trying to –
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: I’m not trying to elicit a value judgment. I’m saying that your position that the diplomatic conduct or whatever, government-to-government conduct will go on as usual.
MR. TONER: I just think our assessment now is to wait and see what the final government looks like.
QUESTION: Is American assistance to the Lebanese military still underway? Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen yesterday --
MR. TONER: Right. Right.
QUESTION: -- called for a cutoff. Do we still see this assistance as a counterweight to Hezbollah?
MR. TONER: Absolutely. We continue to see value in that assistance, but I’ll have to check on what the status is. It’s been some time since --
QUESTION: Have you gotten any guarantees from the new prime minister that he will respect the international tribunal, the UN resolutions, and have you made any contacts with the new prime minister?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that we’ve been in contact with him through – either through our Embassy or from here.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) you mentioned NATO earlier. The British indicated today the head of the Royal Navy indicated that if the mission there goes on past September, that they would not be able to keep up the pace of operations. How concerned are you about fatigue in the mission in Libya, and lack of resources?
MR. TONER: Well, in any kind of operation like this, it’s always a matter of concern that – that’s certainly – one of the great assets of the alliance is that it brings all these many militaries and assets to bear on a given situation. But – and we have seen, as we talked about from here, an intensification of the targeting in an attempt to erode the Libyan military’s capabilities. But right now, this is continuing. We’re going to continue to enforce the Security Council resolution. We feel that Qadhafi’s days are numbered, that – and that he’s increasingly isolated, and we believe the momentum is on our side.
MR. TONER: Yeah, Goyal. In the back.
QUESTION: One quick question. So many briefings are going on in town on Pakistan and U.S.-Pakistan relations at various think tanks, including CSIS, SAIS, Atlantic Council, and Middle East Institute, among others. What they are saying is, most of them, this morning economist came from London School of Economics and he said that U.S. aid, nobody knows where it is going, as far as U.S.-Pakistan relations are concerned, number one. Number two, what experts are saying, as far as ISI and Haqqani and other terror groups’ relations with the ISI. What I’m asking you is:
What is your – I mean State Department’s comments as far as U.S. aid to Pakistan, where it is going? And second, do you believe – I mean the State Department, U.S. Government – if ISI has direct or indirect links with the Haqqani network or other terror Taliban groups in Pakistan.
MR. TONER: Your first question is about U.S. assistance to Pakistan, and without giving an exhaustive brief on it, it’s directed towards building Pakistan’s institutions, shoring up its democratic institutions and infrastructure, strengthening its economy. Also, obviously, much of our assistance was diverted to help with the immediate after effects of the flooding. And we believe that assistance is important in our national security interests and obviously in Pakistan’s security interests to provide that kind of support so that Pakistan becomes a prosperous, democratic nation, or a more prosperous, democratic nation.
With regard to – you said – your second question was about ties between the ISI and Haqqani. I don’t have any evidence of that either way. We remain committed to working with Pakistan on counterintelligence – or counterterrorism operations. We believe they’ve been successful to date. Certainly, there are challenges in the relationship but we’re committed to working through them.