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 16, 2011
12:41 p.m. EDT
QUESTION: All right. Change – can we move on?
MS. NULAND: Moving on?
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if the Administration has any thoughts on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s promotion in the al-Qaida – to take over from bin Ladin. Do you think this is going to have any effect, make al-Qaida a bigger threat or a more dangerous threat or is it just kind of shuffling the decks, shuffling chairs on a deck?
MS. NULAND: We have seen the reports. What I’d like to say today is, frankly, it barely matters who runs al-Qaida because al-Qaida is a bankrupt ideology. If you look around the world, the peaceful movements for change around the world have done far more for Muslim people than al-Qaida has ever produced.
QUESTION: Do you believe the reports to be credible?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to comment on whether they’re credible or not credible.
QUESTION: You don’t know? I mean, you don’t have a view on that?
MS. NULAND: We’ve seen the same reports you have as to who’s going to run al-Qaida. And as I said, it barely matters.
QUESTION: May – may I just follow?
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: In this connection, as far as when you rely on many people for different information, say, like let’s say in Pakistan, those five arrested in this connection, how can they trust you in the future, because many people are asking, if we cannot trust the United States, then how can you – how can they provide you information in the future if you cannot protect them and their identity or you cannot bring them to a safe place?
MS. NULAND: I don’t understand, I guess, precisely what it is you’re asking.
QUESTION: In this connection with those people who were arrested in Pakistan by the ISI, they think that they were providing information as far as al-Qaida is concerned or Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan.
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to comment on intelligence operations or how we conducted that operation or what it might say to the future, if that’s what you’re asking for.
QUESTION: No, Madam, what I’m asking you is how can you protect their – how can you protect them in the future so they can trust you if – in order to provide more information in the future?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re asking me to go to the question of intelligence operations and how they’re conducted, and I’m just not prepared to go there.
QUESTION: On the reports out today that the U.S. relationship has never been more strained with Pakistan, I wonder if you could comment on that, and also the reports that General Kayani is – that some of the people who come beneath him are pressing him to change the strategy that Pakistan has with the – with cooperation with the U.S. Any comment?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think it’s not a secret that our relationship with Pakistan is complex, that it’s not easy, that we have our challenges. But as we’ve said many times from this podium, as the President has said, as the Secretary has said, the U.S. has a profound national interest in working with Pakistan, on terrorism, on extremism, on promoting democracy and stability and prosperity, not only in Pakistan but throughout the region. So it’s important that we keep at it, and we’re planning to keep at it.
With regard to General Kayani and his internal situation, I would just send you to the Pakistanis on that one.
QUESTION: Thank you. The Libyan prime minister is being quoted as telling a Russian envoy, Margiela, that Qadhafi’s departure from power is a red line that cannot be crossed. And I just wanted to see if you could give us an update. There was in the beginning kind of a spate of – well, there was some hope that there would be a spate of people from the inner sanctum, that people who were close to Qadhafi would leave him, fall away. Is there any indication that his really core supporters are weakened at all, or are we really now in a moment of stasis, that there’s no progress whatsoever?
MS. NULAND: Oh, I – we feel strongly that the pressure that the international community has brought to bear on Qadhafi and his regime is having an effect. I would just cite that over 50 senior level diplomatic officials and members of the government have defected, including the minister for foreign affairs, minister for interior, labor, oil, justice, as well as 11 ambassadors, including those to the UN, the United States, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Bangladesh, Jordan, Portugal, Somalia, Sweden, and India, and Qadhafi’s prosecutor general, his chief of protocol, five generals, and lots of regime soldiers. So the guy is getting increasingly lonely, increasingly isolated. His days are numbered.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) he is. I mean, there’s still a lot of bravado coming from there.
MS. NULAND: That’s par for the course with Qadhafi, but we are confident that his days are numbered.
QUESTION: Qadhafi’s son – I believe it was Saif al-Islam – is quoted as proposing elections in Libya and saying that his father would step down if he is – if he were to lose. What’s your reaction to that suggestion?
MS. NULAND: I think it’s a little late for that.
QUESTION: Madam, as far as Libya is concerned, it’s been long time when the people of Libya and opposition were accepting and they were hinting that U.S. will come to their rescue, and in the meantime you have given so much time to Qadhafi to kill more people. How long more now?
MS. NULAND: We are conducting – we are participating in and conducting this NATO operation which is designed to support Resolution 1973. It not only stopped the killing in Benghazi, it’s having a profound military effect. It’s allowed time for the rebels to regroup and to improve their military operations. I think we see that happening by the day. We’ve, of course, provided extensive humanitarian support, moral support, political support, and economic support, and we will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Just on the election idea, you said it’s a little late for that, meaning that --
MS. NULAND: It’s a little late for any proposals by Qadhafi and his circle for democratic change. It’s time for him to go.
QUESTION: So the only proposal from them that you’re willing to entertain is his, “I want to leave --
MS. NULAND: Stepping down from power. Yes, thank you.
MS. NULAND: Jill.
QUESTION: On Syria, there were some reports that President Asad would address the nation. Do you know anything about that or any --
MS. NULAND: I haven’t heard reports of Asad’s plan to address the nation. I would say, and will say it again, that the actions of the Syrian Government are revolting. The barbaric attacks and the violence have got to stop.
Several weeks ago, President Obama, echoed repeatedly by the Secretary, gave Asad a choice: Reform or get out of the way. And increasingly, he appears to have made his choice. Rather than playing a positive role, under Asad, Syria has increasingly become a source of instability in the region. So if he does plan to speak, we’ll be interested in hearing what he has to say, but it is extremely troubling where he has taken his nation.
QUESTION: Could I just as a follow-up? The phrase that’s often used is, “He should reform or get out of the way.” But it sounds like the reform part is basically a moot point; he’s not going to reform. Is that the conclusion of the State Department?
MS. NULAND: As I said, it increasingly looks like he’s made his choice and he’s made his choice in the negative, and that’s very distressing.
QUESTION: But have you reached that point where there’s not one scintilla of hope that he will reform? I mean --
MS. NULAND: I think what we are focused on now is a number of things. We are focused on, as we’ve said a number of times, continuing to increase the pressure on him, isolating him. We’ve had two rounds of U.S. sanctions. We’ve had EU sanctions. We just had yesterday the second of two statements in six weeks from the UN Human Rights Council condemning the human rights abuses in Syria and the violence. And we are actively working with our partners on the UN Security Council on a resolution there.
I’d also like to say that the Secretary herself has been very focused on Syria diplomacy, working with allies, Turkey, others, working with partners, consulting broadly in the Arab world, as have Assistant Secretary Feltman and many others. And we’re also beginning now to increase our own contacts with those brave Syrians who are standing up for change and their universal rights, those inside Syria and those outside Syria.
QUESTION: What does that mean? What – increasing contacts?
MS. NULAND: As you know, we have our ambassador in Syria, we have an Embassy there. They have been having a broad cross-section of contacts with Syrians. We’ve also had contacts with those who are resident outside of Syria.
One of the things I would say to you is that we’ve been struck in the last couple of weeks that Saddam – Asad’s repression has only served to pour gasoline on the fire for change. Syrians from all walks of life, from all professions, from all confessions, are starting to come together and demand their rights. So we are interested in supporting them. We are interested in supporting that struggle.
QUESTION: Are you offering them any assistance or just having contacts with them?
MS. NULAND: We are engaged in dialogue with them. I don’t think I want to go any further than that at this point, because the talks are obviously confidential and we want to be able to continue to broaden and deepen those conversations.
Please, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah. There was a large demonstration in Damascus yesterday for the regime. They laid out a flag that was a mile and a half long. Do you give – take any – give any credence to that? I mean, do you accept that he has domestic support?
MS. NULAND: These kinds of regimes are very good at mobilizing manifestations of support. I’m not going to characterize the decisions that individual Syrians made to stand under that banner, but I think we’ve seen across the country very strong statements of revulsion and concern about where he’s taking his country.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MS. NULAND: Anybody else on Syria? Please. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just back to the contacts traveling inside and outside, could you – when you say contacts inside Syria, how are those contacts being made?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t think it’s in the interest of the work that we’re trying to do to understand these groups, to understand their needs, to work with them and strengthen their ability to see the Syria that they want to see, to go into too many details. But from this podium, you’ve asked many times why we maintain our Embassy there, why we maintain our ambassador there. It’s to ensure that we have a broad understanding of what’s going on in Syria, and they have a broad understanding of U.S. policy.
QUESTION: One more on Syria?
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: We have seen or we have reported that Asad is continuing to build up forces in the north of the country. Two things: One, do you yet discern any significant shift in the views of Russia or China or your Gulf Arab allies toward the possibility of a Syria resolution at the Security Council?
MS. NULAND: Again, as I said earlier, the Secretary has been very personally focused on this in her own diplomacy, as have others in the Department. We’re working very hard in New York with UN Security Council members. I would simply say, to Russia and China, they are presumably seeing the same pictures that we are seeing, that you are seeing, and we hope that they increasingly draw the conclusion that it is time for UN action.
With regard to the Gulf partners, we’ve had extensive contacts at the secretarial level, at all levels over recent weeks, and there is great concern about where Asad is taking his country and great concern about instability through – that could spread throughout the region. So, everybody is paying attention and everybody is working together to bring pressure.
QUESTION: There may have been great concern, but there has not been, as people have pointed out from the podium, anything like the kind of Arab League response that there was to the events in Libya. Do you sense any significant change in sentiment on that, or is it where it has been for the last couple of months?
MS. NULAND: I think the concern is growing, and I think the sense that the international community cannot just stand by is also growing.
QUESTION: And one other one: You said that the Secretary has been personally involved in the diplomacy on this. Has she spoken recently to either Foreign Minister Lavrov or Foreign Minister Yang of China?
MS. NULAND: I think she will make those personal contacts at the appropriate moment. We are very focused in New York with those delegations, but certainly the option remains for her to make phone calls at the appropriate moment.
QUESTION: But she has not so yet?
MS. NULAND: Please.
She has not done so yet, yes.
QUESTION: And the second one on the – it’s a continuation on her question about – there was a reporter in New York Times about General Kayani of Pakistan being urged to get tougher with U.S., even to the point of breaking. I’m not asking about General Kayani or what he’s doing. I’m asking: Has the U.S. felt any kind of changes in his or Pakistan’s behavior towards the U.S.?
MS. NULAND: We spoke to Pakistan at the beginning of the briefing. I think our view is that we are working through the difficult challenges and this complex relationship that we have. This is why you’ve seen this intense engagement with Pakistan, high-level Americans going frequently over the last couple of weeks. We’ve had – as you know, Secretary was there with Admiral Mullen, Marc Grossman’s been there, Panetta has been there. So our perspective is that we need to keep working on these things and we need to stay engaged with Pakistan’s leaders.
QUESTION: But our correspondent in Islamabad yesterday told us that the Pakistani officials are saying that they have arrested these five people, including a major, on behalf of the Americans that – after the CIA director visited. So how far is that statement true?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to speak to any aspect of intelligence issues, but it was a good effort.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) the freedom and human rights and the Middle East. Yesterday, many women were protesting at the Saudi Embassy for more rights for the women in Saudi Arabia. Any comments?
MS. NULAND: You know that we believe in universal rights for women. I can’t imagine, personally, what it would be like not to be able to drive a car. So I think we stand with all women around the world who want to live and have the same opportunities that men have.
QUESTION: Can I stay --
MS. NULAND: Please, in the back.
QUESTION: I have a question on Iran. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has recently said that in a meeting between the Russian and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he would be willing to join another round of P-5+1 talks to talk about the nuclear issue and that he would also want to talk about cutting down the sanctions. Have you or any member of the P-5+1 heard – been – gotten any communication in this regard, and would the U.S. be willing to consider cutting down on the sanctions (inaudible)?
MS. NULAND: I certainly haven’t heard – I don't believe we have heard about any new feelers from Iran along those lines. We can confirm that for you. But Iran knows very clearly what it needs to do to come back into the good graces of the international community.
QUESTION: What about the sanctions? Would you be willing to consider if it comes and discusses the nuke issue?
MS. NULAND: We need to get Iran back to a place where it’s ready to comply with its international obligations and UN Security Council resolutions, so I don’t foresee, based on where we are right now, that that’s a conversation that is appropriate.
QUESTION: Can we get – stay in the Middle East?
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: I’m just looking for an update on Mr. Hale and Mr. Ross’s visits --
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: -- or visit, singular, and their meetings there? Has anything – have they come out with anything? Has anything been accomplished? Are you closer to getting a re-launch of the talks?
MS. NULAND: They are both still in the region, they are both still working. I had an exchange with David yesterday, and I am hopeful that when he comes back – he’ll be back early next week – we’ll be able to get him here to talk a little bit more about what he’s been trying to do.
QUESTION: Okay. Is it still the U.S. position that there should be a settlement freeze before the Israelis should declare – should implement a settlement freeze before the Palestinians can return to negotiations?
MS. NULAND: I think our position on settlements is unchanged. I don’t --
QUESTION: Which means?
MS. NULAND: I don’t think that I need to repeat it here. But again, why don’t we leave it that when Ambassador Hale comes back, we will seek to have him give you a fuller sense of how this diplomacy has been going forward.
QUESTION: All right. That’s – okay, fair enough. But Saeb Erekat came out of his meeting with David Hale in Amman today and said that the Palestinian position is that it wants negotiations based on the ’67 borders, and as a prerequisite, it needs to have a settlement freeze. And I’m wondering, given the fact that now the Israelis have severe reservations, if not absolute objections, to participating in talks with a government that includes Hamas, if a settlement freeze is still something the United States is – wants to see.
MS. NULAND: Again, our settlement position has not changed. I don’t think it’s appropriate in the middle of conversations that David Hale and Dennis Ross are having in the region for me to comment on one guy or another guy’s reaction to the talks that they had.
QUESTION: Right. Well, if your position on settlements hasn’t changed, can you – what is it exactly?
MS. NULAND: Again, I will – I’d like to come back to all of this when David is back and put it in the context of the work that the President is doing now.
QUESTION: Understood, but there are questions in the region now that won’t – frankly, won’t wait until next week. People are interested in knowing if, given the situation with Hamas and a unity government with Fatah, if it’s still as important as it was for the Administration a year and a half ago, two years ago, for the Israelis to implement a freeze. Or if you think now that it would be a good thing, it would be nice, but it is not absolutely essential to re-launching the talks?
MS. NULAND: It was a good effort to draw me into the diplomacy that they’re doing, but I think we’re not going to go there today.
QUESTION: Well, you said that the position hadn’t changed, and if it hasn’t changed, I just want to make sure that we know what it is. So if you could tell us what the position is that hasn’t changed, that would be appreciated.
MS. NULAND: I think we will come back to that later in the briefing – I mean, after the briefing, I will come back to you with a --
MS. NULAND: -- firm statement of where we are in these – on these issues if that’s helpful.
QUESTION: Can you, at a minimum, tell us who Mr. Ross and Mr. Hale have now met?
MS. NULAND: I think – I don’t have it here with me, but I think we can get you a list of the meetings that we’ve had. I’ll get that for you later today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Good.
MS. NULAND: Please, right here.
QUESTION: I just had a question on Yemen. Have you gotten any updates on the condition of – current condition of President Saleh and the likelihood or not of him returning to Yemen?
MS. NULAND: Our understanding is that he is still in Saudi Arabia, still receiving treatment. I can’t comment on the specifics of his condition or when he might be back. What I would say is that we have been encouraged that Vice President Hadi has started some outreach to the opposition and started some dialogue because, as you know, we believe that there is no time to lose in moving on to the democratic future that Yemen deserves.