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 August 2, 2011
QUESTION: I’m sure. Could you or him tell us what happened at the meeting this morning with the Syrian activists?
MR. TONER: The Secretary’s meeting with Syrian American activists? Sure. Well, as you know, the Secretary did meet with a small group of U.S.-based Syrian and – Syrian activists as well as members of the Syrian American community. In large part, she wanted to express her sympathy for the victim of the Asad regime’s abuses.
QUESTION: Sorry. Victims, yeah?
MR. TONER: Victims, I said, yes. She also expressed her admiration for the courage of the brave Syrian people who continue to defy the government’s brutality in order to express their universal rights. And for their part, the activists reaffirmed the internal opposition’s vision for a representative and inclusive and pluralistic Syrian government that respects the rights of all Syrian citizens. And the Secretary did express her confidence in the Syrian people’s ability to chart a new course for Syria.
QUESTION: But she was not able to tell them of any new Administration plan or move to put pressure on Asad?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to wade too deep into the substance of her meeting. It was a private meeting. But I would just say to your – in answer to your question that we do plan, as I mentioned yesterday, to move forward with additional sanctions under existing authorities, and we’re exploring the scope of those sanctions.
QUESTION: But --
MR. TONER: But our goal here is to isolate Asad both politically and deny it revenue.
QUESTION: But you said the primary meeting – or primary – sorry, excuse me – the primary reason for the meeting was for – so she could express her sympathy?
MR. TONER: Well, that was – one of the main messages of the meeting was for her to convey her profound sympathy for the victims of Asad’s abuses.
QUESTION: All right. So when you say you plan to move forward on additional sanctions under the existing –
MR. TONER: -- authorities --
QUESTION: -- the existing authorities, are you aware that there’s legislation being introduced today in the Senate that would allow the Administration to go – to target foreign companies doing business in Syria’s energy sector? Is that something the Administration would support?
MR. TONER: Again, I think we’re working with Congress, certainly. But in the meantime, we are looking at additional steps we can take to increasingly isolate Asad.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR. TONER: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Is there a primary opposition interlocutor that the State Department deals with like Mr. Radwan Ziadeh? Or is the other groups and so on?
MR. TONER: My sense is that – and I know Ambassador Ford conducts regular outreach within Syria with the opposition there. My sense right now is that it is evolving and that it’s not exactly as cohesive as we might say in Libya. But as this process goes forward and as the Syrian people continue to protest the government and, frankly, the government continues to carry out its campaign of violence against these protestors, that the opposition is increasingly trying to come together.
QUESTION: I guess my question, just to clarify, among the people that she met with today, are they an ad hoc group or do they represent anything in particular? I mean, we know of one person who seems to be on all television stations and so on – Mr. Ziadeh. But is there any kind of a group that he represents?
MR. TONER: Again, the primary purpose of the meeting today was to meet with these prominent Syrian Americans and Syrian activists resident here to express our solidarity with the Syrian people. We’re in regular contact in Syria through our Embassy with members of the opposition, and again, we’re trying to get a sense of, as we’ve seen elsewhere, how these groups evolve.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, I have just a follow-up on that. Does the U.S. – are you guys confident that they have a coherent platform or a set of priorities moving forward in Syria post-Asad? Have they explained to you what it is that they think will happen next, and is that something the U.S. can support? And secondly just on this meeting, was this something that they requested or was this – did the Secretary invite them? Who caused this meeting to happen?
MR. TONER: Your second question, I’ll take that. It’s a good question. I don’t know.
On your first question, as I think I just tried to explain, the opposition is coming together, it’s evolving. It’s, as I said, perhaps less coherent than we’ve seen in Libya, where they have taken steps to define themselves and what they stand for. What we’re seeing in Syria is very much a grassroots movement, one that has grown in strength and numbers as the Asad regime has carried out its brutal crackdown. And we’ve said many times that the Syrian Government’s violence against its people only, I think, serves to strengthen opposition to his regime. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint where they’re at in that evolution. I think they’re still coming together. There are – they are seeking to meet both outside of Syria, where we’ve seen them meet in Turkey, as well as within Syria and come together with a more single voice, I guess.
QUESTION: What is the status of Ambassador Ford? Is he going back to Syria?
MR. TONER: He is – he’s continuing his consultations. As you know, he met with President Obama yesterday. And he’s on the Hill today. He, I believe, has his confirmation hearing soon this afternoon, and then he plans on heading back to Syria just as soon as his consultations are over.
And just in answer to your question yesterday, he arrived here Sunday night.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Was Ford at the meeting this morning?
MR. TONER: Good question. I believe he was. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Did he give them any indication of his talks that he’s had with Syrian opposition?
MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ve not talked to him since that meeting, as he’s up on the Hill. But my sense was that he’s – he would have always given his assessment of the situation on the ground, what he views as – his analysis of the situation, as well as his own outreach with the opposition there.
QUESTION: Yeah. And then just one more. Did the activists provide their list of things that they want to see the Administration do? When they came to the cameras, they said they wanted President Obama to say Asad should go, that – UN Security Council sanctions and the ICC. Did the Secretary have any response?
MR. TONER: They did express their views, and it was a constructive exchange.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Again, from the meeting today, do you have a sense whether the reported harassment of the Syrian (inaudible) here in U.S. has stopped or are there more complaints?
MR. TONER: It’s a good question. You’re talking about something we raised publicly but also raised privately with the embassy here and Syrian officials both in Damascus and here about our concerns that Syrian Americans were being targeted and harassed, who were coming to express their views at events across the country. We did make that clear that we were watching the situation closely. I don’t have an update. I’ll try to find out.
QUESTION: So can we move back to the Middle East?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I presume that you’re aware of these reports out of Israel last night and then again this morning that Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to the President’s proposal to use the ’67 lines as a basis for proceeding in negotiation, and that there are talks underway between the Israelis and you guys to – well, there are continuing talks underway to try and stop the Palestinians from going to the UN with their plans. What can you tell us about either of those?
MR. TONER: Well, in terms of what Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically said, I’d just have to refer you to the Government of Israel and to his office. I’ve also seen those press reports. Our focus remains on how to overcome the current impasse between the parties. You mentioned September and the Palestinians’ desire to move this into the UN. We think that’s a bad idea; we’ve said so. And so we’re working hard with both parties to find a way back to the negotiating table before then.
QUESTION: So the Israelis haven’t come to you and said, “Okay, fine. We’re on board with the Obama speech idea”?
MR. TONER: Again, I’ll leave it to the Israelis to clarify what they said.
QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking what the Israelis said.
MR. TONER: We’re talking to both parties --
QUESTION: I’m asking, have they told you?
MR. TONER: We’re talking to both parties on about how to get negotiations started again. We continue those discussions.
QUESTION: Was this something you would like to see?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve – the President --
QUESTION: Would you like to see Prime Minister Netanyahu say, “Yes. I agree -- ”
MR. TONER: We would like to see – we would like to see --
QUESTION: -- “with the President that the ’67 lines should be the basis for negotiation”?
MR. TONER: We would like to see the parties get back to the negotiating table. We believe that the President outlined principles and goals in his – both in his – well, his speech here at the State Department and subsequent speech that set a foundation for these talks to take place.
QUESTION: Let me put it this way: Are you aware of any change in the Israeli position --
MR. TONER: Again, I really --
QUESTION: -- from where it was last week? Are you --
MR. TONER: And I leave it to them to clarify what their – what, if any, change has taken place.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. TONER: We remain in discussion with --
QUESTION: But – so you’re not aware of any change?
MR. TONER: We remain in discussion with them.
QUESTION: Mark, there’s --
MR. TONER: We’re not aware – we’re really – it’s really up to them to clarify what their position is. I mean, we’re --
QUESTION: All right, forget about what their position is. Are you aware of any change in their position?
MR. TONER: Again --
QUESTION: You’re not?
MR. TONER: I’m not going to qualify or characterize their position. It’s not up to us.
Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. The Palestinian negotiator stated very clearly that if Mr. Netanyahu says that in any language he chooses – Hebrew or Arabic, English, whatever – that we agree to the ’67 principles, that then going through the UN might be changed or the position on the UN might be changed. So in light of this new development, would you issue an invitation to the Palestinians to come to Washington to negotiate such a development?
MR. TONER: All good questions. I think we’re getting a little ahead of the process. We remain hard at work. We believe we can still get both parties to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) As you know, Turkey and the United States have big cooperation on Syria issue. Is that satisfying cooperation or are there any differences to build a mutual policy toward Turkey – toward Syria?
MR. TONER: I apologize; I didn’t quite hear the question. One more time?
QUESTION: Turkey and United States have big cooperation on Syria issue. Is this --
MR. TONER: On what issue? Syria?
MR. TONER: Syria. Okay.
QUESTION: Is this satisfying cooperation or are there any differences to build a mutual cooperation?
MR. TONER: Well, I think I said yesterday we’ve been quick to recognize Turkey’s role in accepting the refugees that have flowed over its border or have been fleeing the violence in Syria, and they’ve taken on this added responsibility and stepped up and provided refuge for these refugees. And I think also you heard yesterday some pretty strong language from the Turkish Government about the situation in Syria. We remain in close contact with the Turks on developments in Syria. Certainly, Turkey is a country that is – as a neighbor is keenly aware of the impact that the violence in Syria is having on the broader region. And we’re working closely with them and consulting with them as we continue to seek to apply pressure on Asad to allow this democratic transition to take place.
QUESTION: On Libya?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Mr. Stevens said that the Libyan people were not monolithic, but in fact, they are tribal but they are, I mean, one group. In fact, they all belong to the same denomination within Sunni Islam, which is almost unheard of throughout that part of the world. So why would he say that? Why would he say that they were not a monolithic group?
MR. TONER: I think he was just trying to reflect the fact that there is many different tribes within Libyan society and it’s a – in that sense, it’s a multiethnic society and that the TNC is working to ensure that all these people are represented.