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Middle East Digest - July 7, 2011

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Washington, DC
July 7, 2011


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 July 7, 2011

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QUESTION: Yes. Would you shed light on the Washington Post report that cited Pakistani officials have received money from North Korea – exchange of sensitive materials?

MS. NULAND: Let me start by saying this is not a new story, right? From the time that A.Q. Khan was first busted, we started expressing our deep concern about connections between his organization and North Korea and the role there in illicit proliferation activities. As you know, our concerns about North Korea’s efforts to acquire illicit materials continue, and we want to see North Korea come back into compliance with its UN obligations.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the notes exchange is authentic or do you have any comments on the alleged note itself?

MS. NULAND: I have nothing further on that. That starts to take us into intelligence issues.

QUESTION: You say from the time that A.Q. Khan was first busted you have made clear your concerns? Weren’t you in fact making your concerns clear well before he was busted?

MS. NULAND: We were. Thank you for that clarification.


QUESTION: Can I ask you about Syria?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The violence continues. It’s been months; it’s only getting worse. The Syrian army appears to be surrounding Hama. How concerned are you about a full assault on the city?

MS. NULAND: We are greatly concerned about the situation in Hama. As I said yesterday or earlier in the week, a week ago Hama was the good news story, it was the town where people were being allowed to protest peacefully, and today we see security forces ringing the city. You should know that Ambassador Ford is in Hama today. He’s there on his own trip; this is not a Syrian Government trip. We did inform the Syrian Government that our Embassy personnel would be heading to Hama. He did pass through at least one military checkpoint to get there as well as a civilian checkpoint organized by the population of Hama. And he has spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.

QUESTION: When did they – what did he see? Can you give us any readout of what he’s seen there in Hama?

MS. NULAND: He has seen – he’s spoken to more than a dozen residents of the town. As I understand it, he also went today to visit a hospital that has been treating some of the victims of violence perpetrated by Syrian security forces, and his activities there continue.

QUESTION: Sorry. How long is he going to stay for? I mean, is it --

QUESTION: Yeah. Is he staying till – through Friday, the demonstrations tomorrow? Or is he going back to Damascus?

MS. NULAND: I think he is interested in seeing the activity tomorrow.

QUESTION: Can you share with us what he talked with the residents that you just described? He talked with the residents of Hama?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think his message is the message that we’ve been giving steadily from the Secretary, from this podium in his interactions, that we stand with Syrians who are peacefully expressing their will to live differently and have a more democratic future for Syria. With regard to what he’s seen, the situation, he says, is tense, that a lot of shops are closed, that folks are concerned about whether the Syrian security forces will move in.

QUESTION: Okay. Is that – is his presence there an indication that there is concern in this building that Hama might be Syria’s sort of Benghazi moment, when it comes to security forces overrunning a city like that?

MS. NULAND: We’ve talked for a number of weeks here about the role that an ambassador can play in a country like this at a time like this. Hama is a very important city in Syria’s history, in the history of free expression in Syria. He and his embassy and we in Washington have been watching the ebb and flow in Hama for many weeks. So for him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken.

QUESTION: Let me clarify something real quick.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Just update us on his latest contacts with the Syrian Government – where the trend line is on that, whether he’s been getting access, who he’s been able to meet with. And then if you could tell us whether he was accompanied on this trip by any Syrian officials or whether any of them received him in Hama?

MS. NULAND: With regard to the latter point, this was an embassy trip. It was not an official Syrian trip. To my knowledge, no –

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. NULAND: -- he had no handlers, he had no managers, and the Syrian Government did allow him through their military checkpoints in order to get to Hama. He continues to meet in Damascus with a broad cross-section of Syrians, including Syrian Government officials. Most of his government contacts have been with advisors to President Asad, as we mentioned a week ago. Because he judges, we judge those are the people that need to hear our message.

QUESTION: Did he – a couple of logistical things. Did he ask permission to go? Or did he just say, “I’m going; stop me if you want to,” and they didn’t?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that the Embassy informed Syrian officials that an embassy delegation, without specifying whom, would be heading to Hama, and they then proceeded to make their way there and were allowed to proceed.

QUESTION: And does the government in cases like this – do they generally – I mean, there are many not so – there are many governments that one might consider repressive around the world that require actual affirmative permission to be granted for trips outside the capital. It’s not your understanding that they needed some kind of a stamped piece of paper that said that they can go and that’s how they got through the checkpoint?

MS. NULAND: No, no. I mean, I can’t confirm the actual procedures in Syria, but my understanding is that as a courtesy to the government they informed them, but it is not, as a matter practice, something that one has to do in Syria.

QUESTION: Okay. And then the last thing is you said they went through a military checkpoint and a civilian checkpoint and the civilian checkpoint was residents of Hama that just kind of an ad hoc – then these are –

MS. NULAND: It was one of these civil protection setups where, as you have seen in press reporting, our understanding is that the citizens of Hama, the citizens on the outskirts of Hama have set up their own barricades.

QUESTION: But these people are not pro-Asad protestors – anti –

MS. NULAND: They are in fact –

QUESTION: They’re protestors or they’re residents who are not pleased with the crackdown.

MS. NULAND: They are residents who are concerned that security forces can move on their city.

QUESTION: Former spokesman of the State Department P.J. Crowley just tweeted yesterday saying that “Having said Qadhafi lost his legitimacy for attacking his people, given Syria’s crackdown, at what point does Asad lose his?” Would you respond to that – at what point you are going to say he’s not legitimate?

MS. NULAND: P.J. Crowley is now, happily for him, a private citizen, has a right to tweet his views and is enjoying liberal access to getting out his – new media to get out his own views.


QUESTION: How is the ambassador received by the residents? Was it a warm welcome? Or is there anger because the United States is not being more forceful in making clear to President Asad it’s time to step aside since he clearly cannot lead that transition?

MS. NULAND: My understanding – and let us get some more for you tomorrow – is that it was a very warm welcome.

QUESTION: Can you expand on that in terms of specific things that these people were talking to him or looking for him to do?

MS. NULAND: I can’t, but let us get more for you tomorrow after he –

QUESTION: What about – just real quick just to close the loop on it – can you tell us if he met with any leaders of the opposition in Hama who may be organizing some of the protests? Did he meet with any of them?

MS. NULAND: I can’t characterize leaders, not leaders, citizens. All I can tell you is that he had at least a dozen encounters with those Syrians of Hama who are dissatisfied and concerned about the government’s action.

QUESTION: You wouldn’t describe them as organizers or anything like that?

MS. NULAND: I really can’t speak to the role that they – these individuals play, but let us take that and see what he –

QUESTION: What about his intention? Can you say whether that was his intention to meet with the people who are organizing these uprisings?

MS. NULAND: I think the fundamental intention was the – where I started, that it was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change, who want a democratic future and are expressing those views peacefully.

Anything else on Syria? Anything else on Syria?

QUESTION: Can I go back to Pakistan just for one second? This is a –

MS. NULAND: Let me just, Matt, just make sure nobody else on Syria.


QUESTION: Sorry. Yeah. One more. I mean, we keep asking the same question again and again, and I don’t think we have a satisfactory answer so far about what exactly do you – what is the policy at the moment towards Syria? I mean, you say that the U.S. has made very clear that it supports the Syrian people’s right to express their views freely, that President Asad has to lead the transition or get out of the way, but this has been going on for months. I mean, how much longer is this going to go on? How much longer is it okay for the Syrian authorities to kill their people?

MS. NULAND: Well, it’s obviously not okay, and we’ve made clear that it’s not okay. In terms of what we’re looking to see, we’re looking to see an end to the violence, we’re looking to see troops return to their barracks, we’re looking to see peaceful protestors wherever they are in Syria allowed to express their views, and we’re looking to see a real dialogue in Syria about a democratic transition.

QUESTION: Would the dialogue include President Asad?

MS. NULAND: We have said – the President said many weeks ago that he had a choice to make. What we’ve said since then is increasingly he seems to be making his choice by his actions, and his actions are to continue to surround peaceful towns like Hama with tanks and security forces.

QUESTION: So is it time for him to get out of the way?

MS. NULAND: Again, this is a decision that Syria and the Syrian people have to make, and I think we’re increasingly seeing them in towns like Hama, in towns all over Syria expressing their interest in change and starting to take action in support of change.

QUESTION: But to be fair, I mean, this has been – when you say, like, increasingly he has a choice to make and it increasingly looks like he’s making that choice, Secretary Clinton said that at least a month ago. So I mean, is there – I don’t – obviously, as you say, the Syrians are the ones that are going to make the call, but at what point has the choice been made and now it’s like a clear – it’s time for him to get out of the way? Not only that, but in Libya, for instance, your policy, in terms of trying to get rid of Qadhafi – you have specific policy goals: working with the – working for Libyan transition, tightening the noose of the sanctions, the NATO campaign. What is your policy to get President Asad to move towards a democratic transition?

MS. NULAND: Again, each situation is different. As the Secretary has said, each internal transition obviously needs to be led by its own people. But in terms of the tools that we employ, we’ve employed many of the same tools. We have strong U.S. sanctions on Syria, we continue to apply them; we’re working with the international community on a UN Security Council resolution that would do more; we’re continuing to talk to allies and partners about their own dealings with the Syrian Government so that we can up the pressure on him. But again, increasingly we’re focusing now on giving our support to those Syrians on the ground who are organizing themselves and who are making clear that they want change. And that’s why you see the ambassador going and standing with them at this time.

QUESTION: And what – beyond kind of physical proximity – type of support are you giving? Are you – again, have you set aside more money for the opposition in Syria? Are you going to help with programs? I mean, when you say giving support, what does that mean exactly?

MS. NULAND: I think part of the diplomacy that Ambassador Ford has been conducting and that we will continue to conduct with the Syrian opposition figures is to understand what they would like to see from the international community. We’re at the early stages of that conversation. You’ll recall that just a little while ago it wasn’t very easy to even talk to these people, even get out to see them. So as we go forward with this, we need to ensure that this process is Syrian-led, that we are responding to their interests, to their needs.


QUESTION: So at this point there’s no physical exchange of goods or anything to the Syrian protesters?

MS. NULAND: Again, the stage that we are at is to really take soundings with Syrians as to their needs.


QUESTION: Can I go back to A.Q. Khan for a second?


QUESTION: And I missed part of your answer, so I apologize if I missed this part of it, but I heard you say that you didn’t think that there was anything new in the reporting about the North Korean letters. When I read it, I seemed to think that the new part was the implication of senior Pakistani officials and their instructions to A.Q. Khan to carry this out, which was something that he has been saying for a long time. I was curious what you thought specifically about the involvement of senior Pakistani officials’ evidence this time?

MS. NULAND: Again, with regard to the specific letter and any intelligence evaluation of that one way or the other, I’m not going to speak to it from this podium. I think you know that from the time of the original arrest of A.Q. Khan and his trial, we’ve been engaged intensively with Pakistanis at all levels to ensure that Pakistan is taking as many steps as it can to stop proliferation, working with them on these issues. So those dialogues continue.

QUESTION: Is the United States going to inquire with the Pakistani Government about the evidence that’s come forth in the reports?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into the specifics here, I’m not going to get into intelligence, but our dialogue with Pakistan on proliferation issues, like our dialogue on counterterrorism issues, like our dialogue on security and stability, continues and continues in an intensive way. Yeah – and human rights, of course.

QUESTION: A follow-up on North Korea?

QUESTION: No, hold on. Can we stay on just Pakistan for a second?


QUESTION: And this is a follow-up to a question I think you were asked on Tuesday, but it has to do with this embassy event, the gay pride embassy event. You were asked the other day if you had gotten any formal complaint from the Pakistani authorities or if this is – well, that’s my question: Have you?

MS. NULAND: And did we not – we didn’t come back on that answer?

QUESTION: You said you were not aware. I don’t know if there was; I wasn’t here, so I didn’t know if there was a response. Do you know?

MS. NULAND: I’m still not aware of any official complaint, but let us check.

QUESTION: Can I (inaudible) Pakistan just a moment?

MS. NULAND: Please, yeah.

QUESTION: The tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan with the cross-border shelling particularly – I’m just wondering if the U.S. has or can see its way to any diplomatic role in trying to calm the situation down? They’re both key allies and they’re not happy with one another at all. So what can the U.S. do to help smooth this situation out, and what are you doing?

MS. NULAND: We understand that, in fact, President Karzai and Prime Minister Gilani spoke by telephone about this issue. I don’t know whether it was today – I think it may just have been today, in fact – and that Afghanistan and Pakistan have now agreed to establish a joint military commission. So we obviously welcome those steps, and we will continue to work with both countries and to work in our trilateral format, our core group format to ensure strong security collaboration there, and to work together to combat the threat posed by extremist groups operating on the border and threatening both countries.

QUESTION: Has this – is this incident too recent to have come up in the core group format already or has it already been taken up?

MS. NULAND: Well, the core group met – when was it? What’s today? Wednesday. Core group met --

QUESTION: No, it’s Thursday.

MS. NULAND: Thursday. Core group met last week, and it was focused on these kinds of issues in general. Reports of incidents occurred afterwards. But I think it speaks to the progress we’re making in the trilateral format to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations that, since then, you have these two heads of state talking directly, setting up a commission, and beginning to work on their own on these issues.

QUESTION: The Justice Department has announced a settlement with Armor Group regarding the revelations in 2009 about the guards and their activities. Do – I was curious if you had any comment from this end here about the settlement?

MS. NULAND: We do. Where did I hide Armor Group? I apologize. I can’t find it. Just to say that our diplomatic security folks had wanted me to do a shout-out here to the Department of Justice for the way in which it worked through these issues and for the resolution with Armor Group, and they think it’s a good settlement.

QUESTION: If you had a longer statement you could put out that would be great.

MS. NULAND: I will do that. I will do that.

QUESTION: I appreciate that.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Different subject. There is the hearing in Congress over Camp Ashraf events, and what is the status of the review of the MEK placement on the State Department’s terrorist list? And what is the State Department view of the event in Camp Ashraf?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything to – new to report with regard to the MEK status on the terrorist list. I did speak to the Ashraf issue yesterday or the day before. Just to reiterate, we continue to work actively with the Government of Iraq, with the Ashraf leadership, with our international partners to come up with a plan to relocate the Ashraf residents and we’re still working on that together.

QUESTION: I just wanted to know if you had a readout of the Secretary’s talk with civilians serving in Afghanistan this morning and why she chose to raise it today?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have a readout other than to say that, as you know, she had a phone call with Ambassador Crocker at her side to our civilians in Afghanistan. And her intention going into that was to thank them for all they are doing and to encourage them to continue all the good work that they are engaged in and to lay hands on Ambassador Crocker and make it clear that he will be their leader and their partner as they go forward.


QUESTION: With the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, will there be any surge of civilians – work – U.S. civilians working in Afghanistan for the drawdown because the security reasons?

MS. NULAND: We have been surging civilians in parallel with the military surge. Senior Envoy Grossman spoke to this about a week and a half ago. So we are at the high-water mark of those – that civilian activity because we’re involved both in terms of partnering with the military as areas are cleared, but also in these longer-term strategic projects that we do in Afghanistan. So as we head towards 2014, the numbers will go down somewhat, but that remains to be determined based on our dialogue with the Afghans about where we’re going with some of these projects and what is needed, and we will ensure, obviously, that there is appropriate security for them.

QUESTION: And do you have any figures right now about the number of civilians – American civilians in Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: We had a number out about a week and a half ago. We’ll get you the right number. I don’t want to give you the wrong number.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. NULAND: Whoa, sorry. We’ve got some more here, Matt, if you are willing.

QUESTION: Sorry, Matt.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. In the back please.

QUESTION: The deputy to the foreign minister – Turkish deputy foreign minister is in Washington today, and he will meet with Bill Burns. Could you give some details about the meeting?

MS. NULAND: I know that they met earlier today, that they talked about obviously the upcoming contact – Libya Contact Group meeting. My understanding is that they also talked about Syria, regional issues, but beyond that I don’t have –

QUESTION: And anything about the Israel-Turkish relationship because UN panel is about to release the flotilla investigation report?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: Did they discuss the possibility of Turkey establishing a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria?

MS. NULAND: I know they spoke about Syria, but I think I won’t go into the details.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton’s visit to Turkey, you said yesterday you might have announcement later in the week. Do you have anything?

MS. NULAND: I’m still hoping for an announcement later in the week.


QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Thanks very much.

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