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Middle East Digest - June 20, 2011


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Washington, DC
June 20, 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 20, 2011

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12:50 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: Okay, Matt, onto Syria.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on President Asad’s latest speech?

MS. NULAND: Bashar al-Asad has been making promises to his people for years, for weeks. What’s important now is action, not words. We would also note in this speech he spends lot of time blaming foreign instigators rather than appreciating that his own people are simply disgusted by the regime – by a regime that supports itself through repression, corruption, and fear. We’d also note, as the Secretary did in her op-ed piece over the weekend, that the vast majority of those innocents killed in Syria were killed at the hands of security forces.

So what we need now in Syria is action not words. And this weekend we saw even more violence, including the brutal closure of the border region which stranded hundreds of Syrians and denied them access to humanitarian support. I would note in that regard that Ambassador Ford is headed up to the north today so that he can take his own account of what is happening up there.

QUESTION: Sorry. What --

MS. NULAND: So --

QUESTION: Do you know where exactly he’s going?

MS. NULAND: He’s going up to the border regions. We can find – get a report for you tomorrow on how that trip went and precisely where he went.

QUESTION: Is that his first time outside the capital in some time? Can you give us a sense of how often he’s able to move around like that?

MS. NULAND: We will. We’ll get something more for you on that. I don’t have it at hand right here, no.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, that was today he went or tomorrow he’s going?

MS. NULAND: Today is his planned trip up to the north. I don’t know how long he’s staying.

So as I said, just to close on this subject, a speech is just words. What is needed in Syria is action.

QUESTION: Sorry, Toria, just go back on your point about the allegations of saboteurs. You’re saying that that’s a red herring basically, that that’s not true at all?

MS. NULAND: As the Secretary said, we’ve obviously been concerned that Syria has taken a page from the Iranian playbook, and we’ve been concerned about Iranian interference. But with regard to Bashar al-Asad’s allegation that what’s going on in his country is the result of foreign instigators – we’re just not buying it. The fact that the Syrian people continue to protest every week indicates that they’re – that for them his words are not enough, that what they want is action.

QUESTION: And his pledges for reform – to what – how much trust do you put in his ability to follow through at this stage?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’re done judging him by words; we need to see action, as do the Syrian people.

Jill.

QUESTION: Some people who have looked at this speech have said it raises questions as to whether President Asad really is in charge. His statements that things won’t happen when actually on the ground they do – what’s the U.S. understanding? How directly does he control the situation right now?

MS. NULAND: I can’t analyze internal Syrian politics from here. I’d simply say that he bears titular responsibility for the actions of the Syrian Government, and the actions of the Syrian Government continue to be repulsive. So we need to hold him personally accountable, as we have, through our sanctions and other actions.

On Syria – still on Syria? Goyal.

QUESTION: A different question.

MS. NULAND: Anybody else on Syria? Yeah.

QUESTION: Last week you said that the U.S. was stepping up its contact with the opposition in Syria. Do you have any more details on that? Is Ambassador Ford going to make some of those contacts when he’s up north? Or --

MS. NULAND: Ambassador Ford and his entire embassy team have been very active seeing a broad cross-section of Syrians. Obviously, this trip gives him a chance to get eyes on the situation up in the north and to talk to people there, but I’m not going to get into the specifics of who they’ve been meeting with.

Please.

QUESTION: One other one: In our briefing on Friday with two senior Administration officials, they mentioned that the United States is collecting information, data with the aim that perhaps this would lead war crimes charges. Can you give us more information – how they are collecting that, how far along they are, any conclusions?

MS. NULAND: No conclusions yet. I would simply reiterate what our senior Administration briefers told you on Friday, which is that the United States, working with partners, is collecting the kind of information that one might need in order to make ICC cases.

QUESTION: Do you think there’s a strong case at this point?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’re at the information-collecting stage. So I don’t want to go further than that.

QUESTION: And just one more on the sanctions, which we talk about every day. Is there anything new on that? Any – increased sanctions, we keep hearing about them, where are we?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think our briefers spoke to you last week about continuing to look for other sanctioning opportunities perhaps also in the oil and gas sector. But again, we are not at a stage where we can have any announcements on that, but it is something that we’re looking at and that we’re working on.

Still on Syria?

QUESTION: No (inaudible).

MS. NULAND: No? Anybody else on Syria before we move on?

QUESTION: Arab region (inaudible).

MS. NULAND: Sorry?

QUESTION: For the Arab region (inaudible).

MS. NULAND: For the Arab region – sure. Goyal, please.

QUESTION: If I can go back to the Secretary’s visit, Madam, to Central and South America. My question is, if Secretary’s worried about – as far as U.S. security is concerned – Chinese influence in the region and also the illegal immigration flow to the U.S.?

MS. NULAND: I think our briefers spoke to the central goals of the trip, which are security for the region and security for the United States and the region in partnership. With regard to Chinese influence, I think the same remarks that the Secretary made in Africa would apply in Central America, namely that we like to see all international partners operate on the same level playing field and with the same level of transparency and ensuring that the goal of their trade, of their involvement is in support of the increasing democracy, transparency, prosperity of the region.

Please.

QUESTION: I think Morocco announced last Friday constitutional refoms basically relinquishing executive powers in favor of the prime minister. How supportive are you of this move?

MS. NULAND: We are monitoring events in Morocco, including the upcoming constitutional referendum on July 1st. As you know, we believe that all people have the right to free assembly and to express themselves, but we’re encouraged by the proposals that were put forth by the King on June 17th to transform Morocco’s democratic development through constitutional, judicial, and political reforms, and we’re watching closely.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Thanks. Please.

QUESTION: Secretary Gates in an interview yesterday, said that the State Department is leading talks with Taliban. Can you give us a sense, what kind of talks is it, how long it has been going on, at what level?

MS. NULAND: As you know, we have consistently said that the United States supports an Afghan-led reconciliation process. We’ve also been quite clear, and I’ll reiterate them again, what it will take to have successful reconciliation from our perspective: Taliban need to renounce violence, they’ve got to break their ties with al-Qaida, and they’ve got to accept the Afghan constitution. With regard to the specific points made by Secretary Gates yesterday, I think we won’t go farther than to say, simply, that many countries have had these kinds of contacts. The United States has had some preliminary contacts, but that’s as far as I’d like to go. I think the main goal from our perspective is an Afghan-led process of national reconciliation.

QUESTION: So U.S. is just supporting the Afghan-led process in talks with Taliban?

MS. NULAND: That is our main goal, is to support an Afghan-led process. Yes.

Anything else?

QUESTION: But madam, this – these kind of talks also took place in the past. Can you – how can you trust that Taliban’s – they will break from the Taliban or al-Qaida and they will be part of the permanent Afghan society, to accept constitution and other rules and regulations?

MS. NULAND: Again, in supporting this Afghan-led process, our goal in working with the Afghans has been to help them establish systems, procedures, that support these three essential redlines: first of all, renouncing violence; second, breaking ties with al-Qaida; and third, bringing – ensuring that those who are reconciled truly support the constitution. We have a number of programs that support what the Government of Afghanistan is up to, including supporting the Afghan High Peace Council and Provincial Peace and Reintegration Councils. We also, as you know, supported the passage of UN Resolution 1988, which – in the UN on Friday, which allows us to take those Afghans who are truly reconciled off of the sanctions list while maintaining those who are not reconciled on the list.

Other – here.

QUESTION: You said just preliminary contacts. What does that mean? I mean, is that – is the State Department taking the lead on this or on these talks? Or is it one-on-one talks, is it big groups, what does it mean?

MS. NULAND: I think I’ve said what I can on that subject, that like a lot of other countries, we’ve had our feelers and we continue to have very preliminary contacts, but that’s as far as it’s gone.

QUESTION: Feelers --

MS. NULAND: And again, the focus is on the Afghans making their own reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

QUESTION: And when did it start?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to go into any further detail than Secretary Gates did over the weekend.

QUESTION: By feelers, I mean, no one from – no diplomat in the State Department is in contact with the Taliban or --

MS. NULAND: I think I can reiterate the position, but I’m not going to go any further than Secretary Gates did on the weekend.

QUESTION: Can we move on just a little bit?

MS. NULAND: Anybody else on this subject? No?

QUESTION: Saudi Arabia. Given the Secretary’s keen interest in women’s empowerment and women’s rights, I’m wondering if you can explain why she hasn’t spoken publicly about these driving protests that women – driving protests that have – that at least another one took place over the weekend.

MS. NULAND: I can advise that the Secretary, in the context of the broader diplomacy she’s doing on Middle East issues, talked to Prince Saud on Friday, I believe it was. In that conversation, they talked about Yemen, they talked about Syria, and the subject of driving did come up.

QUESTION: Okay. I’ll ask about the call in a second. But my question was why has the Secretary not spoken out publicly about this.

MS. NULAND: I don't think that the – anybody can question the Secretary’s commitment to universal human rights for women. As I mentioned, she – this subject did come in her phone call. I think she is making a judgment on how best to support universal human rights for women. There are times when it makes sense to do so publicly and there are times for quiet diplomacy.

QUESTION: Does that mean that it – that the judgment has been made that the quiet diplomacy in this case is preferable or may get more results?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary has been engaged, as have others, in quiet diplomacy on this subject.

QUESTION: Okay. But does that mean the judgment has been made that that is the best way to go about this?

MS. NULAND: I don't think it speaks to any final judgment one way or the other, but I think you know where she stands on these issues.

QUESTION: Well, right, but --

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Wait. I want to get back to the call, like I said I did. What exactly did she say about – talk to the Prince about, in terms of the driving issue?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to go any further with regard to her private diplomatic conversations with the Prince, other than to say that she considered this an issue that was important to discuss and they discussed it.

QUESTION: Did she – was – did she think that she got a – any kind of a satisfactory response from the Prince?

MS. NULAND: I’m not in a position to characterize how she felt about the phone call, other than to tell you that the issue did come up.

QUESTION: Can you say whether it would be different, whether a judgment would have been made that some kind of public statement from here would be more effective if you weren’t dependant on the Saudis for so much assistance right now in dealing with the situations in Yemen and in Bahrain?

MS. NULAND: I think the main point is that in our relationship with Saudi Arabia we can talk about a broad range of issues. We can talk about issues in the region, we can talk about global issues, and we can talk about U.S.-Saudi bilateral issues. We can talk about human rights issues, and the Secretary has been prepared to discuss that full range of issues in her contacts with the Saudis.

Please, back here.

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am. Did she discuss with the Saudis’ plans in Bahrain? You said she discussed Syria and Yemen. Did she --

MS. NULAND: Not in this phone call, although the United States has been engaged with the Saudis on Bahrain, including at the Assistant Secretary Feltman level.

QUESTION: Is the United States advising the Saudis to withdraw their forces from Bahrain at this juncture?

MS. NULAND: Our view on the forces in Bahrain is that Bahrain is a sovereign state, has a right to ask for support. You know that we continue to believe that the internal situation in Bahrain is best addressed through dialogue, through national reconciliation, and we’ve been encouraging those efforts, including when the Bahraini Crown Prince was here last week, two weeks ago.

QUESTION: Would you consider the continued presence of foreign forces in Bahrain that – an element that could exacerbate the situation and the tensions in Bahrain?

MS. NULAND: I think I’ve stated our position on those forces. Thanks.

Please.

QUESTION: On the Yemen element of that phone call, can you tell us what they discussed? I mean, what’s their assessment now on the situation in Yemen and anything more about President Saleh’s future?

MS. NULAND: Beyond saying that they share the goal of getting Yemen on the course to a democratic transition, that they both continue to support the GCC agreement, I don't think it would be appropriate to get into the back and forth in the conversation. But it was very much in the context of supporting, moving Yemen in the right direction.

Please, Kirit.

QUESTION: On Libya --

MS. NULAND: Anything else on Yemen? Yeah.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Feltman is going to Yemen and Oman. Can you tell us something about --

MS. NULAND: I know he’s headed out to the region. I don’t a good laydown here of his meetings, but let us get something further for you.

Kirit.

QUESTION: Libya. The minister of the TNC has said that they have run out of money and that they have not yet received any of the funds pledged in Abu Dhabi. Can you say if you have any confidence that that’s going to get to them anytime soon? Have you gotten any information about how much might have actually reached them, when it will reach them, that kind of thing?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we were very encouraged by the pledges that were made in Abu Dhabi, including the fact that so many nations took advantage of the new Contact Group mechanism in order to move funds. With regard to what is moved since we left Abu Dhabi, let us look into that a little bit further for you. But as you know, it was quite a bit of money pledged from a number of countries.

QUESTION: So you don’t seem to have any concerns at all that this money isn’t going to reach them, about their funding, their long-term and short-term funding needs?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have been concerned and we have been working with them, and that’s why we worked with the partners to establish their mechanism. That’s why the diplomacy has been focused on as many countries getting support as possible. As you saw, we made it possible for a U.S. company to buy Libyan TNC oil not too long ago, which also gave them an infusion of cash. So it’s an ongoing effort. But with regard to specific deliveries of resources since we left Abu Dhabi, let me see what we know.

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m curious about your level of concern since then, since, I mean, it appears that they’ve – that it hasn’t happened yet.

MS. NULAND: Again, let me see what we know about money pledged and money delivered. But we remain concerned that as many of us support them as possible.

Please.

QUESTION: When Secretary Clinton was in Rome last month, she said the U.S. would unfreeze part of the $33 billion in Libyan assets to the TNC. Do you have a status update on that? How much of it has been unfrozen? Has it arrived there yet? Is this – do they have that and they’ve run out of that already?

MS. NULAND: You know that we’re working with the Congress on new legislation that would allow us to move some of these assets to the TNC. As I understand it, that legislation is still in the Senate, but we are very encouraging of it. We’ve been working with the Congress in support of it.

In the meantime, we have this $25 million drawdown which we’re using. I think I gave a report on Friday on some of the materiel that we’ve been able to buy with that, and we’ve also opened the spigots for trade. So we are doing what we can and we are urging the Congress to move swiftly on the legislation required to unfreeze and to move some of the frozen assets.

Please, here.

QUESTION: Do you know if there is still country that – ally country that has not freezed the Qadhafi regime – some of the Qadhafi regime assets?

MS. NULAND: I have a list of those countries that have frozen assets, I believe, but I don’t know that we’ve broken it down to check whether there are countries that are – you’re asking are there countries that are allies of the United States that still have not frozen assets? I’ll have to take that question, if you don’t mind.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Please, in the back.

QUESTION: Just a clarification on the frozen assets.

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: What is the protocol or the mechanism through which these assets can be released?

MS. NULAND: What we’re working on with the Congress is a piece of legislation that would allow us to move the money to the Transitional National Council even as it is not yet the governing authority of the entire country so it’s – while it’s in their interim stage, we need legislation in order to move the assets. So that’s how that is working because it’s an unusual, anomalous situation.

Other things on Libya? Jill.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. NULAND: No. Still Libya?

QUESTION: On Libya.

MS. NULAND: Yeah

QUESTION: Italy’s foreign minister said today that the incident, I guess, yesterday when the NATO strike caused multiple civilian casualties was threatening NATO’s credibility in its mission in Libya, and he further went on to say that he was worried that NATO and its allies were losing the propaganda war and this could further undercut that. I’m just wondering if you share that assessment. Do you think that that was a difficult or a dangerous thing to have had happen, and what can be done to prevent it happening in the future?

MS. NULAND: I would simply note that NATO did acknowledge that a missile – military missile site that was the intended target of one of the strikes in Tripoli, that it seems that one of the weapons systems didn’t hit its intended target, there may have been a weapons system failure, and that there were a number of civilian casualties. We join NATO officials in regretting any loss of civilian life. As you know, these missions are extremely difficult. They are extremely dangerous. We have faced this situation in Afghanistan. We have faced it in the past in Kosovo. Overall, however, our view is that the NATO mission in Libya has been an essential component of our effort to make clear to Qadhafi that his days are numbered, that it’s time for him to go. The NATO mission, which has been increasingly effective, has also provided space for the Libyan rebels to improve their military game, and you see the gains that they have made.

Obviously, it’s always an issue in any NATO mission to maintain popular support, to maintain public understanding for why we are there, and that process continues within the alliance as it continues here in the United States. But it’s important for all allies to remember, for all Americans to remember, that we’re there under UN Security Council 1973 to protect civilians, and that is what we are doing.

MS. NULAND: Please. Also on Libya still? Yeah.

QUESTION: Has the TNC sold any more oil besides the deal with the U.S. that you mentioned?

MS. NULAND: We’ll have to get you an answer on that. I don’t know from this podium.

In the back, please. Still Libya? Still Libya? No. Anybody else on Libya? Moving on, go ahead.

QUESTION: New topic?

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: Israeli-Palestinian lack of negotiation, is there anything new that you could update us as a result of last week? And another note on the same topic, President Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said just yesterday during the meeting with the Dominican President Leonel Fernandez that they are going to the United Nations. Would you comment?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything further to what we said on Friday except that David Hale and Dennis Ross continue their meetings. They’re meeting with the – I think David Hale meets with the Egyptian foreign minister tonight. And again, I’m looking to – we’re hoping to get you a more detailed background briefing, at least I believe it will be, tomorrow on how this diplomacy is going.

Yeah, please.

QUESTION: On Pakistan, can you confirm now that Ilyas Kashmiri is dead? Two weeks ago, there was a drone strike and Pakistani prime minister had said that about it, but the State Department hadn’t confirmed it.

MS. NULAND: Can’t confirm anything based on intelligence or intelligence activities.

QUESTION: But is he still alive or dead? Because a court case going on in Chicago against him.

MS. NULAND: I cannot speak to any intelligence operations from this podium. Thanks.

QUESTION: And secondly, there was a attack on the Pakistani naval base in which two U.S. helicopters which were given to Pakistan were destroyed, after which Pakistan had asked U.S. to give them two more helicopters so that – has U.S. agreed to it? Are you supplying them two additional helicopters?

MS. NULAND: That’s a question I’ll have to take. I would guess it’s probably a question for the Pentagon, but let us look into it and get you some more information.

Can I just – sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: What, if anything, do you know about the state of former President Mubarak’s health?

MS. NULAND: President Mubarak’s health – I’ll have to get you an update on that. I don’t have anything here today.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on his trial?

MS. NULAND: I do not.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Can you go back to Taliban (inaudible)?

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: After the (inaudible) talks, what’s the sense that the State Department is getting from the Taliban? Are they willing to come join the mainstream?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’re supporting an Afghan-led effort. I think you have seen some Taliban reconcile. You’ve also seen that this is a long-term process and it takes continued work. So it, with – it is that spirit that the U.S. is supporting the Afghan-led efforts, both with our assistance to their structures, our support in the United Nations.

QUESTION: You reflected three main criteria –

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: -- redlines. Are you flexible on that, or that’s –there can be no change in those three?

MS. NULAND: Those are firm redlines because without renouncing violence, without accepting the Afghan constitution, and without cutting their ties with al-Qaida, these Taliban extremists have not rot really renounced extremism. Those are the basics for reconciliation.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Anything else?

QUESTION: Thank you.



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