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 29, 2011
MR. TONER: Also, our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Marc Grossman has left already. He’s traveling to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic. He departed June – or July 28th. Ambassador Grossman will meet with senior government officials in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan as part of ongoing consultations with Afghanistan’s neighbors and international partners. In Pakistan, Ambassador Grossman will meet with senior government officials and will represent the United States at the fourth meeting of the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan Core Group to support the process of Afghan-led reconciliation.
QUESTION: Mark, could you – on Libya, could you give us a readout on the understanding that the United States has about the implications of the killing of the military leader on the opposition?
MR. TONER: Sure. Well, I would just say that it’s obviously a very fluid situation. Well, first of all, we extend – obviously, we extend our condolences to the family of those who died yesterday and to all the families who have lost loved ones in the course of this ongoing conflict. Such tragedies speak to the situation that’s been created by Qadhafi and his regime, the ongoing violence, the ongoing tensions, the ongoing situation that’s very chaotic, and it underscores why he needs to leave power and do so immediately.
Again, the details surrounding the killing of Transitional National Council’s Chief of Staff Younis as well as two other officers are still unclear. We – our envoy in Benghazi and his team are talking to the Transitional National Council, trying to get a better picture of what exactly happened. We’ve also had reports of additional shooting in Benghazi overnight, but my understanding is – just prior to coming out here is that the situation now appears calm. Again, just – this underscores some of the challenges that the Transitional National Council faces. This is certainly one more of them.
They’ve had to overcome many challenges in their struggle, and I think what’s important is that they work to both diligently and transparently to ensure the unity of the Libyan opposition. And it’s important to keep in mind that the objective here is to get Qadhafi to step aside and allow the Transitional National Council to lead this democratic transition. So again, I think they’ve faced significant challenges in the past. This is yet another, and what’s important is that they adhere to their pledges and commitment to unity and representation of all the Libyan people.
QUESTION: But does this give you second thoughts about the TNC? After all, there are charges or at least some people are saying that it might have been internal TNC.
MR. TONER: Jill, it’s just too early. We don’t have all the facts yet. We’ve been trying to assess the situation. We’re talking to senior members of the Transitional National Council. But for us to make a judgment one way or the other about who’s at fault for this, I think it’s just premature.
QUESTION: Right. And could I ask you a broader question?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Anne-Marie Slaughter, in an editorial, was – who was, of course, head of policy planning before she left – is now talking about it’s time to rethink what’s going on in Libya. And the insistence by the United States that Qadhafi not only step down but leave the country, that it might be time to look – relook at all this. Because what she’s saying is this is turning into a civil war with its own power itself. It is now – the very reason that this operation was launched by NATO was to save civilians. And now civilians are dying in even greater numbers. Is there any rethinking right now about what Qadhafi should do?
MR. TONER: Well, again – and I haven’t read her editorial or her op ed, but it’s important to place the blame squarely where it belongs, which is on Qadhafi and his refusal to step aside, to step down, and allow for a democratic transition to take place. Our position hasn’t changed. We want him to step aside.
Where he ultimately goes is – that’s really a decision for the Libyan people. But what’s paramount is that he step aside, step down from power, and allow for that transition to take place.
QUESTION: So in other words, you would be open – I just want to make sure I understand – obviously he’s to step aside from power, but where he physically goes depends upon the situation?
MR. TONER: Again, I think it’s – that’s – that is ultimately a decision for the Libyan people.
QUESTION: You said that it’s important for the TNC to work transparently to ensure the unity of the Libyan opposition. Does that imply that you have some concerns of whether this incident -
MR. TONER: I just think --
QUESTION: -- gives you some concern about the unity of the Libyan opposition? I haven’t heard that phrase before.
MR. TONER: Well, again, I said it to underscore that this is a challenge, and we’re not trying to disguise that --
QUESTION: I’m sorry, what is a challenge?
MR. TONER: -- that Chief of Staff Younis’s death is a challenge for them.
QUESTION: Why is that a challenge?
MR. TONER: Well, because it is – he is a senior figure, and they’ve lost both his military expertise and his leadership, and again, it’s very unclear who was at fault here. We’re looking at – we’ve seen reports that this was an internal matter. We’ve reached no conclusions yet; I don’t think any conclusions have been reached yet. But in this kind of fluid situation, it’s important to keep, if you will, eyes on the prize, which is that – which is the democratic transition for the Libyan people.
QUESTION: So you – but you think or you have concerns that this – that his death or his killing may be indicative of some kind of disunity or discord or disharmony in --
MR. TONER: No. I’m saying in the fluidity and the fluidness of the situation immediately after his death, his killing, it’s just important to keep that unified structure and to remember that they represent the Libyan people and that it’s – the ultimate goal here is to lead a democratic transition and remove Qadhafi from power.
QUESTION: Were you aware of reports that Younis was in contact with the Qadhafi government?
MR. TONER: I’m aware of those reports, but I have no confirmation of those whatsoever.
QUESTION: Yeah. And has the U.S. offered to help with the investigation into his death?
MR. TONER: Good question. I don’t know. I mean, I know that our folks in Benghazi are in touch with the TNC, close contact with them; I don’t know if we’ve formally offered our assistance.
QUESTION: Mark, there also are reports about the TNC that they themselves have carried out human rights abuses against civilians. What does the State Department know about that? What is your view?
MR. TONER: Well, I would just say that we take any credible allegations of human rights abuses very seriously, and we have raised them with the Transitional National Council, and where – when appropriate, called for an investigation.
QUESTION: So you have raised specific incidents or allegations?
MR. TONER: I believe so. I believe we have addressed these allegations – some of these allegations with them, and called for an investigation.
QUESTION: So you believe that some might be credible?
MR. TONER: Again, where we have a credible allegation, we follow up on it.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR. TONER: On Syria. Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Mark, can you tell us what the State Department is doing to protect the families of American Syrians who’s being harassed by the intelligence service in Syria itself? We just got a report that musician Malek Jandali’s parents has been attacked in Hamza after an interview he gave to (inaudible). Is there something that you can do to protect the families? And also we heard that the Syrian embassy here is following anti-Syrian regime demonstrators in America itself.
MR. TONER: Well, and you know we spoke to this I guess now a few weeks ago, that our Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security did raise this with the – the issue of some of the conduct of Syrian diplomats and officials here in the United States. We raised our concerns about these allegations that they were intimidating, harassing some of the Syrian Americans as well as their families in Syria regarding the situation there and these protests. So we take these kinds of situations, these kind of allegations very seriously.
Within – talking about American citizens within Syria, we would offer – clearly offer appropriate consular support if they were to be arrested or detained. We raise these kinds of harassment issues on a regular basis with the Syrian Government. On a broad scale, I’m not sure that this particular individual’s case has come up. I would have to check for you.
QUESTION: And what level do you raise it when you talk you have –
MR. TONER: Well, I would imagine the ambassador would raise it if it’s serious enough.
QUESTION: On a different topic?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The – India has some arrears to Iran for its oil program, for its oil purchases.
QUESTION: Right. Billions of dollars worth. There’s been a deal between India and a bank in Turkey to try to pay back these arrears. Does the U.S. have concerns about this? Obviously, Iran is under quite a few sanctions, the Secretary was just in India.
MR. TONER: Right. And I’m aware that it’s – I’m restricted in what I can really talk about and, frankly, it’s a matter that is – Treasury, I believe, is focused on. But we are working with the Indians to resolve the situation, and there’s – there are, we believe, options available that will help them do that that would not trigger sanctions. But beyond that, I can’t really comment.
QUESTION: Does that mean you oppose?
MR. TONER: Sorry?
QUESTION: Does that mean you would oppose doing it through a bank in Turkey?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to get into the details. I’m just saying we’re discussing options with India that will help resolve it.
QUESTION: Was it discussed when Secretary Clinton went to India recently last week?
MR. TONER: I didn’t hear the first part of your question.
QUESTION: Was this issue discussed when Secretary Clinton was India recently?
MR. TONER: I wasn’t privy to her discussions there. I wasn’t on the trip, so I don’t know. I can’t confirm.
QUESTION: The reason of resignations are actually (inaudible) that you raised this issue in the State Department Human Rights Report in terms of the long arrest period without any verdict. Could you comment on that, because as a NATO ally, there is cooperation with Turkey, with Turkish military all around the world, in Afghanistan, in Iraq?
MR. TONER: Obviously, there’s a close cooperation with Turkish military. But again, I haven’t seen the details of the case, of the resignations, so I’m going to withhold commenting until I’ve had a chance to look at it.
QUESTION: One more?
MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead, and then we’ll go back here.
QUESTION: Ms. Obeidi, the woman who accused the Libyan military of raping her, is now in the United States. She’s expressing great thankfulness to Secretary Clinton. Is she going to be meeting with the Secretary and what’s your overall reaction to her visit?
MR. TONER: Well, obviously, this is a case that the Secretary has followed very closely, as I think we’ve mentioned before. And without discussing, since I cannot confirm her location, given privacy concerns, but I’m aware that she’s obviously been out there publicly, I believe with CNN. This is a positive development.
QUESTION: Will she meet the Secretary?
MR. TONER: But nothing --
QUESTION: What’s a positive development?
MR. TONER: That she is in a safe place.
QUESTION: And would the Secretary like to meet her?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have anything to announce. But obviously, as I just said, this is a case that she’s followed closely.
QUESTION: Okay. Great, thanks.
MR. TONER: Catherine.
QUESTION: Sunday is the second anniversary of the Iran hikers’ arrest, and also what is scheduled as their trial. Can you give us an update, and are you confident that that trial will go forward?
MR. TONER: In answer to your last question first, we’ve seen these kinds of announcements, dates set before, and the trials haven’t taken place. We are in regular contact with the family. We are in regular contact with our Swiss protecting power there, and this – their cases, their situation remains a matter of utmost concern for the United States, and we hope that it’s – that it reaches a positive conclusion.
QUESTION: I have two really brief ones.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Last month – the end of last month, actually, the – you – when the Hariri tribunal confirmed its indictments, you said you wouldn’t – didn’t want to talk about it except to say that the process was proceeding. But you said, “As this process moves forward, we’ll obviously have comment on the substance.” So today, the tribunal announced the names – publicly announced the names of the indictees. Has there been enough process moved – moving – has there been enough moving forward of the process for you now to say something now?
MR. TONER: Well, I think our overall message hasn’t changed. This indictment’s an important milestone, and we call on the Government of Lebanon to continue to meet its obligations under international law to support the special tribunal. We have not yet – despite these names being made public, we’ve not yet seen the full indictment that was handed over to the Lebanese Government, so we can’t really comment on its substance. But I’m aware that there is a deadline – I believe August 11th – for authorities in Lebanon to report on progress.
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one is: What can you tell us about negotiations with the Saudis on a nuclear – civil nuclear deal? You seem to have gotten – some people on the Hill are up in arms about this.
MR. TONER: Well, I think it’s – we talk with Saudi officials about civil nuclear issues, but I don’t have any details of any discussions.
QUESTION: Well, supposedly there was someone from the State Department up on the Hill today, who told them – who briefed them and said that this was going to go forward. Is that not true?
MR. TONER: I’ll try to get more information about that. I don’t --
QUESTION: So you don’t know?
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: Thank you.