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Middle East Digest - July 11, 2011


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Washington, DC
July 11, 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 July 11, 2011

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MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everyone. We don’t have any statements at the top today, so why don’t we go directly to what’s on your minds. Please, right here.

QUESTION: Syria?

QUESTION: Syria?

MS. NULAND: Jill. Please.

QUESTION: Boy, where do we start? Could you tell us, number one, getting to that incident of the breach of security, could you give us a few more details? How serious was it? Where did they – the demonstrators get to – the mob, as it was referred to? Where was the ambassador when that happened? And – well, maybe we start with that and then move on to the significance.

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, let me start by saying that as we made clear over the weekend, Ambassador Ford met with the Syrian foreign minister on Sunday. It was a previously scheduled meeting that we requested to talk specifically about our security concerns around the Embassy. In that meeting, Ambassador Ford made clear that we did not think that the Syrian Government was doing a good enough job in preventing incidents around the Embassy. As you know, we had had on Friday and Saturday some incidents of vegetable throwing and other things.

And in that meeting, it’s my understanding the foreign minister pledged to do a better job. So no sooner does he make that pledge when, today, we have thugs going over the walls. They did not breach the chancery, but they were able to get up on the roof. There were some windows broken and other damage, and then they went on to the ambassador’s residence and there were similar incidents there. They were chased off by the U.S. Marines, as I understand.

But in response to this, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security will again be calling in the Syrians here later today – I believe it’s at 1 o'clock – in this case, it’s the chargé – we understand the ambassador has gone on vacation – to make clear that we consider that the Syrian Government has not lived up to its obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomatic facilities. And it’s absolutely outrageous.

QUESTION: So what – besides calling them in, what can you do?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we have to make clear that they have not done the job that all governments are supposed to do in protecting the diplomatic facilities of all resident diplomats in their country. We’re obviously looking at other measures that we can take to beef up security, but I’m not prepared to give any details at this point.

QUESTION: Would that include sending more Marines in?

MS. NULAND: I think all options are on the table, and we need to look at them today.

QUESTION: And then also just a clarification. The last time I looked – I think it was April 25th – there was an ordered departure for families and dependents and non-essential personnel. Anything changing in that regard?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think in light of all of this, there was a security meeting at the Embassy today. Ambassador Ford will give his advice to Assistant Secretary Boswell, to the Secretary, and we’ll look at other options. But clearly, we’re very focused on the security of our personnel in Syria.

QUESTION: Just to summarize, how concerned are you that this could continue?

MS. NULAND: I think our main concern here is that the Syrian Government, rather than dealing with its own internal problems, and rather than addressing the grievances of its own people, is seeking to make distractions around our Embassy. And it’s dangerous for our personnel. It’s a violation of the Vienna Convention. But it’s clear what this is about. This is about distracting your attention, the press’s attention, the world’s attention, from the real story, which is the story of Syrian people in cities across that country protesting peacefully and demanding change.

QUESTION: Can I go through a couple details just on the event, actually?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Can you describe the extent of the damages to the building?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that there was some spray painting, there were some windows broken, there were some fruits and vegetables and other things thrown at the building, that they did get up on the roof, there were some security cameras knocked out, that kind of thing. And as you know, we will obviously hold the Syrian Government accountable for the damage.

QUESTION: How – you mean monetarily? Is that what you’re saying?

MS. NULAND: That’ll be part of the conversation that Ambassador Boswell will have.

QUESTION: Okay. How were they ultimately dispersed?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that we had U.S. Marines around the facility, and when they made it clear that they were prepared to defend our facility, the mob went back over the walls the same way it had come.

QUESTION: And how long were they inside the compound for? Do you know?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have a time here today. We can --

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of the size of that group that actually breached the compound?

MS. NULAND: I don’t know how many got over the walls. I think there were about 300 around the building at the height of the incident.

QUESTION: Okay. And you said that they were on top of the chancery building; is that correct?

MS. NULAND: Yes, they got onto the roof.

QUESTION: Okay, got it.

QUESTION: And the TV --

QUESTION: What’s that?

QUESTION: The TV station.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, I was going to ask you who do you ultimately hold responsible for this?

MS. NULAND: Well --

QUESTION: Because of this – you’ve mentioned the TV station possibly, but is this ultimately the Syrian Government who was behind this?

MS. NULAND: It’s the Syrian Government’s responsibility to provide security at the Embassy, and they clearly failed in that responsibility. As you saw in our statement earlier today, we are concerned that a government-sponsored TV station seemed to be inspiting – inciting this mob earlier today.

QUESTION: So the government ultimately?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, the government’s responsible for security and they failed in that mission.

QUESTION: Okay. And then are you calling in the ambassador? I’m sorry if I missed that part there. Are you calling in the ambassador to complain about this at all?

MS. NULAND: Well, the ambassador of Syria is on vacation, as I understand it. We’re calling in his deputy, the chargé, at 1 o'clock.

QUESTION: With who? Sorry.

QUESTION: Could you please clarify --

QUESTION: With who? Who’s going to meet with --

MS. NULAND: His number two, the chargé of the Syrian mission --

QUESTION: Right. But who’s meeting with him here?

MS. NULAND: -- will meet with Assistant Secretary Eric Boswell, who is responsible for Diplomatic Security.

QUESTION: Do you believe --

QUESTION: Can you come back to the question of this apparent incitement? Is this a message now that Ambassador Ford is also going to be taking back to his counterpart in Damascus? Will they take the meeting?

MS. NULAND: Well, I assume that Ambassador Ford and his people will have another round of demarches out there. Obviously, it didn’t work too well when we did it on Sunday with the foreign minister.

QUESTION: Now, when Ambassador Ford went to Hama last week, you indicated from the podium that he had given a courtesy notification to the foreign ministry that he was going to be engaging in some travels and that he didn’t have any problems getting to Hama. This looks all very suspicious now, given that the Syrians are complaining that he is apparently out trying to incite people who have grievances with the government. Is it worth having Ambassador Ford in country at this point?

MS. NULAND: Again, in a situation where there is no free media, no free domestic media, no free international media, no internet, our goal is to understand what is going on in these cities, to make our own contacts with Syrians who are exercising their universal human rights to have a say about the future of their country. So the fact that Ford was able to go up there, was able to meet some average people – not even leaders – talk to them, make clear that we stand with the Syrian people, was essential. If he could get on Syrian TV and make our views known, if my briefing were on Syrian TV, if the Secretary’s comments were on Syrian TV, it might be a different story.

But we believe that an ambassador is an essential component not only of conveying our message directly to people and leaders in countries where they serve, but also in transmitting back to us, in very difficult situations like this where information is hard to come by, a real feel for what is going on so that we can base our policy on standing with the people rather than just talking to a government that is clearly not interested in addressing the problems, but only in creating third country distractions.

QUESTION: So to put a fine point on it –

QUESTION: Do you believe that –

QUESTION: -- you do reject the Syrian Government’s allegations that Ambassador Ford is instigating disturbances among the Syrian people? You reject that?

MS. NULAND: We categorically reject it. Ambassador Ford is doing his job as a witness, as an observer, and as you – as I said on Friday, he intentionally left Hama before the events of the day so as to ensure that he couldn’t be accused of such a thing. This is all about the Syrian Government being unwilling to live up to what’s really going – to understand what’s really going on in its country, that its own people want change. This is not about foreign governments, this is not about outside instigators, this is not about gangs of thugs; this is about average Syrians wanting change.

QUESTION: Do you believe that this was staged by the Syrian Government?

MS. NULAND: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Do you believe these mobs and these demonstrations are – were in fact staged by the Syrian Government?

MS. NULAND: I think I spoke to that a minute ago. We believe that the Syrian Government had a responsibility to defend our Embassy and didn’t do so. We are also concerned that on state-sponsored television there seemed to be some incitement. I’m not going to draw more dots than that, but we are calling on the Syrian Government to do its job under the Vienna Convention.

QUESTION: Okay. Now do you believe – in the Vienna Convention, does it call for a cordoned-off area that should be protected by the host country in this case?

MS. NULAND: The Vienna Convention simply speaks to the host nation’s responsibility to provide security for diplomatic presence in however that needs to be done in the circumstances in which an embassy finds itself, and that was not done in this case.

QUESTION: In retrospect, do you believe that the trip by Ambassador Ford to Hama was counterproductive since the Syrians were able to point out that it was – it became a distraction, for one, and second, they’re saying, “See, the Americans are intervening”? Is it – in retrospect, was counterproductive?

MS. NULAND: The ambassador’s trip to Hama made clear to average Syrians, not just in Hama but around the world, that we stand with those who are seeking their universal human rights to stand up and be counted, to ask for change in a peaceful manner. So from that point of view, the ambassador was doing his job, conveyed our message directly to those people.

QUESTION: Okay. And finally, on the consultative meeting that took place yesterday, was the ambassador apprised of what happened during that consultative meeting between allegedly some opposition group and the government?

MS. NULAND: We have had some reports about how that meeting went. As you know, some of the major figures in the opposition chose not to attend the meeting, and we will continue to monitor this dialogue. But what we’re looking for is real dialogue, real change, an end to the beatings, an end to the torture, an end to the locking up of people, an end to the use of government military forces against their own people, and a broad-based national discussion.

QUESTION: May I follow up –

QUESTION: Forgive me if I missed some of this stuff, but did you answer Jill’s question about where the ambassador was at the time?

MS. NULAND: I don’t know precisely. I believe he was at his residence when the chancery building was breached, but let us get that for you.

QUESTION: Okay. And at the residence, it was the same kind of – it was the same thing? They got onto the roof? Did they get inside the walls or –

MS. NULAND: They got inside the walls of the compound and then were chased off by his security. I don’t believe they got onto the roof of the residence.

QUESTION: Okay. And it’s –

QUESTION: You don’t know how long they were inside the compound at all? You couldn’t –

MS. NULAND: I don’t think it was terribly long. I think the Marines activated and they got scared off.

QUESTION: Wait, wait. I want to make sure we’re talking about the same place here because they are separate. There are Marines at the residence as well?

MS. NULAND: I believe so. It’s –

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. NULAND: The first incident was at the chancery and then they moved onto the residence.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. And – but you don’t know what the kind of damage there was at the residence?

MS. NULAND: At the residence, my understanding is the same. We have some broken windows, we have some spray paint, we have some vegetables.

QUESTION: Okay. And then lastly, is the Embassy going to be open tomorrow?

MS. NULAND: That’ll be a decision that’ll be made on the ground. They were –

QUESTION: And so it has not – that decision has not been made whether –

MS. NULAND: It has not been made. Anything else on Syria?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: What – so just – the physical, again, disposition, is it one compound with two separate areas, or how does it work?

MS. NULAND: Let me get you some more on the lay-down. [1] I haven’t seen pictures myself.

QUESTION: Do the recent incidents over the weekend, and then I guess last week, does that bring you any closer to feeling that the time has come for President Asad to step aside?

MS. NULAND: The Syrian people have to make a decision about President Asad. Our concern is simply that a number of weeks ago when the President said lead the transition or get out of the way, there does not seem to be any serious effort to lead a serious transition underway.

Jill.

QUESTION: So does that mean those meetings – the meeting with the – what did we call them – it wasn’t minus the opposition, but the meeting that took place – was bogus or what? Because it appears that they were talking about – if you listened to the vice president, I believe he was saying a new democratic structure.

MS. NULAND: They’re trying to talk the talk, but they’re not walking the walk. They still have their security forces around these towns, they still have people locked up, they still have people under torture, et cetera. So you can’t have a sort of meeting and expect people to show up if you’re still repressing them.

Please.

QUESTION: Another subject?

MS. NULAND: Anybody else on Syria?

QUESTION: No.

MS. NULAND: Still on Syria?

QUESTION: Yes, yes.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: What sort of insecurity were you experiencing around the Embassy? What sort of security that was not provided – was not provided?

MS. NULAND: Again, traditionally, the way this works is you have some – a local guard force and then you have the ability of U.S.-stationed personnel, Marines, to either react or to stand on post. So the outer perimeter of any embassy is managed by local security forces. So the concern was that those forces were not doing their job well enough. Last week, they were not doing their job well enough on Saturday, which is why Ambassador Ford went to see the foreign minister on Sunday to ask for more protection. He promised more protection. And not only did we not get more protection; we had the incidents today.

QUESTION: So they were there, but they were not doing their job?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to whether they tried and were incapable, but clearly, it wasn’t a sufficient force.

QUESTION: Madam, a new subject?

MS. NULAND: Anybody else on Syria?

QUESTION: No. Just one last one on Syria.

MS. NULAND: Please. Yeah.

QUESTION: When you say they -- that they were chased off by the Marines, did the Marines have to brandish their weapons?

MS. NULAND: I don’t know the answer to that question. There was certainly nobody hurt. There were no – I don’t believe that there were any firearms dispersed.

QUESTION: There were some reports that the French, which I think are next door, had to fire off their weapons in order to scare these guys off. You don’t know anything about that?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to that. The French had the same issue that we had, so again, it speaks to concerns that this was to create a distraction about foreign governments rather than to deal with Syria’s own internal problems.

QUESTION: Why isn’t it too much to suggest that this is a kind of provocation by the Asad regime against the U.S. and others who have criticized it?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to parse adjectives with you. They had a responsibility to protect the Embassy. They’ve been repeatedly asked to do so and they’ve repeatedly failed to do so.

Please.

QUESTION: Madam, a new subject. For the first time, U.S. has put Pakistan on hold as far as U.S. aid to Pakistan is concerned and billions of dollars. What is behind – and also at the same time, you’ve been saying, I mean, the U.S. Government will send, that you – Pakistan is an ally and doing the – as far as fighting against terrorism is concerned and Pakistan is essential as far as fight in Afghanistan and in the region is concerned.

So where do the U.S.-Pakistan relations are now as far as this aid is concerned? Because they are furious in Pakistan what’s behind this hold.

QUESTION: And just to (inaudible) to this, if you could comment on any specific reasons for this decision and whether the decision has been officially conveyed to Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: Well, first, you know I think that the United States continues to seek a constructive, collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan. We had a whole series of high-level visits right after the bin Ladin incident. We’ve had our working groups continuing to work on counterterrorism, counter-IED, all of these things. So that work continues, and we are engaging Pakistan’s leaders at all levels, but certainly at the highest levels, on the road ahead. But as the Secretary said when she testified not too long ago, when it comes to our military assistance, we’re not prepared to continue providing that at the pace that we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken.

So let me first say that with regard to U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan, that continues unchanged. With regard to U.S. military assistance to Pakistan, in certain categories, those categories where we need our trainers to be in country in order to deliver and train on the assistance, we obviously can’t do that in an environment where Pakistan has asked our trainers to go. And then in other military categories, we have had a slowing and a pause in some categories while we work through some of these issues where we have been concerned.

QUESTION: When did you inform Pakistan as far as this change is concerned? And do you see any reaction from there now?

MS. NULAND: We’ve been in constant contact with the Pakistanis about these issues throughout those high-level visits. And in the weeks since, Ambassador Grossman and Ambassador Haqqani were on the phone even this morning, and those conversations will continue.

Please.

QUESTION: What steps do you want Pakistans to take before you can remove the suspension of military aid to Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into the precise details because some of them go to our intelligence relationship. But you know that we’ve been looking to improve our cooperation in counterterrorism, in counterinsurgency, and there are a number of aspects there that need to be improved.

QUESTION: How much of this aid that’s affected is controlled by the State Department?

MS. NULAND: This is – this – in fact, thank you for that, Matt – this is controlled on the DOD side. So in terms of the specific breakdown --

QUESTION: So the answer is none?

MS. NULAND: I believe the answer is none, and this is DOD money.

QUESTION: Okay. So maybe you would refer specifics to the Pentagon --

MS. NULAND: I would.

QUESTION: -- so we don’t have to waste time looking for an answer.

MS. NULAND: I would. I would. I would.

QUESTION: Is this a step reflective of the worsening situation between – relations between U.S. and Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think I just spoke to that, that we are seeking to strengthen and deepen our collaboration. This is – there’s – it’s no secret that this has been complex, that this has been difficult, and that we’re working through the problems at all levels.

QUESTION: A spokesperson of the military said over the weekend that (inaudible) has been not notified to Pakistan. Any comment on that?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’ve been talking to Pakistan at all levels about the issues behind these decisions. But with regard to the specifics of who on the DOD side spoke to whom on the Pakistani side, I would refer you to DOD.

Please.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering what kind of message this Administration is hoping to send to Pakistan by holding back this aid. I mean, if there is a message in this, what is it?

MS. NULAND: No. I think I just gave the message that we very much want to cooperate, we think we have mutual interest in getting to the bottom of these problems. But in some categories, where our trainers have to be in country in order to make the assistance effective, we can’t give it in an environment where our trainers are not allowed to be there. And in other circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to move forward with it unless and until our dialogue gets to a better level. But with regard to further things, I think --

QUESTION: Is there still a conflict on the granting of visas to U.S. experts and trainers to Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: That has been one of the issues. That’s how the Pakistanis obviously control the number of personnel who go in based on the visas.

QUESTION: How many visas are upholded? How many visa applications are pending?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to that. We’ve got a larger problem than just the visas. We’ve got --

QUESTION: Is it hundreds, several hundreds, thousands?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to that. I’d refer you to DOD.

Please.

QUESTION: Libya?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: One more --

MS. NULAND: Wait, wait, anything else on --

QUESTION: One more quickly, Madam, just quick. Recently, the Secretary – I mean, Secretary of Defense and Admiral Mullen and also Secretary of State, they’re all talking about Pakistan must do more. So what is this more that U.S. wants Pakistan to do?

MS. NULAND: As I said a minute ago, we are working together on how we can improve our relationship, particularly in the categories of counterterrorism and counterintelligence. And going further to that would take me into intelligence.

QUESTION: In case – you said certain steps – these certain steps are not taken, is the U.S. Administration prepared to take a step further back and suspend aid altogether?

MS. NULAND: I think we are where we are today, and we’re trying to improve the situation. I think you’re taking me into hypotheticals that we shouldn’t go into at this point.

Jill. Still --

QUESTION: On Libya?

MS. NULAND: Anything else? Finished. Please.

QUESTION: The French seem to be indicating that things are shifting a little bit and it might be possible, in their view, to keep Qadhafi in the country not in power, et cetera. I just wanted to get a check from the State Department where you think Mr. Qadhafi ought to be – out of the country, out of power, obviously.

MS. NULAND: I think you probably saw this morning in Paris my counterpart at the Quai d’Orsay, their spokesman came out and said that there was confusion as to France’s position. France’s position remains that they are participating in the NATO operation, that their own policy is based on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, that they continue to believe, as we do, that it is time for Qadhafi to go. The steps required, I think, are the same whether you’re in Paris or whether you’re in Washington: He needs to end his military action; he needs to pull his forces back to barracks; he needs to step down from all of his titular roles; and then a real a conversation could begin about his future.

Please.

QUESTION: Did you – I forget what I was – oh, right, can you explain what you’re hoping to get out of the Quartet meeting this evening?

MS. NULAND: Beyond what we said on Friday, namely, that all of these ministers who will be at dinner have been involved in trying to get the parties back to the table within the context of the framework that the President put forward in – on May 19th, I think we need to let the meeting come forward and see what comes of that. We will have a background briefing for you this evening after dinner is over. We’re calling it for 9 o’clock, but obviously, we will do it when dinner is finished.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I’m not asking what you – what is going to come out of the meeting. I’m asking you what you’re hoping to get out of the meeting. I’m asking what you’re hoping to get out of the meeting. I’m trying to figure out what the point of this meeting is.

MS. NULAND: With everybody conducting their own efforts, whether it is the EU, whether it’s the UN, whether it’s the Russians, to get these parties back to the table following the President’s speech, we thought it was a good idea for them all to touch base at that level, to compare notes on what it’s going to take to get the parties back to the table, and to speak to our shared aspiration that we will have a negotiated solution to this issue rather than unnecessary and potentially damaging action in New York in September.

QUESTION: Do you expect – do you expect the meeting to come out with a statement endorsing the President’s speech on May 19th?

MS. NULAND: I think it’s too soon to know if there will be a statement. Sometimes there’s been a statement and sometimes there hasn’t been a statement. So stay tuned until after dinner.

QUESTION: Well, wait a minute. Considering that they already did put out a statement endorsing the President’s speech after he made it, why wouldn’t they do it again?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think it’s – let’s let them have the meeting. Let’s let them finish their diplomacy. The teams are meeting all day today and the dinner will make a decision at that ministerial level, what makes sense further to say, if anything, in a public setting.

QUESTION: So you’re saying that it’s not a sure thing that there’s going to be a statement tonight?

MS. NULAND: I think it hasn’t been decided.

QUESTION: So things are worst than we actually think they are?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to characterize how things are.

QUESTION: You can’t even get these four people together to agree on a statement on something that they’ve already agreed on before?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to characterize where we are in the discussion. I think the discussion is ongoing today, and let’s see where we are after they have dinner.

QUESTION: So okay – well, regardless of whether there’s a statement or not a statement, there still will be this background briefing? Is that what you’re saying?

MS. NULAND: There will. There will.

QUESTION: Another topic?

MS. NULAND: Anything else on this? No? In the back, please.

MS. NULAND: Thank you all.



[1] The US Embassy Chancery in Damascus and the Ambassador’s Residence are separate locations, two blocks apart.



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