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Middle East Digest - August 8, 2011

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Washington, DC
August 8, 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 August 8, 2011

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QUESTION: All right. Syria. The Saudis have recalled their ambassador, so have the Kuwaitis, so has Bahrain. The Arab League now seems to be speaking about the situation. Are you encouraged by this? What do you think is the next step?

MR. TONER: I would say we are very much encouraged, heartened by the strong statements that we’ve seen over the weekend by the Arab League as well as by the Gulf Cooperation Council. These are certainly – the Secretary spoke last week about increasing international pressure and awareness of the situation in Syria, both more broadly speaking internationally but also regarding Syria’s neighbors and other countries in the region. And I believe we’re starting to see that. These are further signs that the international community are repulsed – is repulsed by the brutal actions of the Syrian Government and is standing with the Syrian people. And furthermore, it’s signs that, as I’ve said before and others have said, that President Asad and his government are further isolating themselves from the international community through their actions.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. The recalling of ambassadors – the Saudi, Bahraini, Kuwaiti – are we likely to see the recalling of the U.S. ambassador from Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, this is a choice by any sovereign nation whether to recall its ambassador. It clearly sends a message to the government. For our part, we’ve talked about this last week, and continue to believe that Ambassador Ford is playing an important role on the ground, bearing witness to what’s going on in Syria.

QUESTION: Okay. A quick follow-up. Are you concerned that this increased pressure might actually push the regime further into going all out, so to speak, in trying to oppress these efforts? Is that your reading?

MR. TONER: I think at this point we need to bring more pressure to bear. We recognize that while the United States certainly – and its European partners and Canada and other key allies – have been responding with sanctions and with strong statements about Asad’s – the Asad regime’s actions in Syria, that we still hadn’t seen that same broader international pressure that’s been brought to bear – for example, in Libya – coalesce around Syria. We’re beginning to see that now.

The Arab League and the GCC both issued these very strong statements decrying the violence, and so we believe this is sending an important message. It’s a message that must be sent. What Asad will do with that message remains to be seen. He’s talked again about reforms, while at the same time carrying out armored attacks, continuing in Hama as well as now Deir al-Zor. So it’s not encouraging.

QUESTION: Lastly --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the Turkish foreign minister plans to visit Damascus tomorrow. Is that considered the last ditch effort before an international call for Asad to step down?

MR. TONER: Well, certainly we’re pleased that he’s undertaking this visit. The Secretary, as you know, spoke to Foreign Minister Davutoglu yesterday. They did talk about the situation in Syria. And we believe it’s another opportunity to send yet another strong message to Asad that this crackdown on peaceful protestors cannot stand.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Does it mean that we – you still have hope for Asad to listen to international calls and you’ll be basically --

MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s – we’ve talked a lot, and last week especially, about trying to ratchet up the pressure. We believe we’re doing so – both we the United States, and our international partners. The Arab League, the GCC now have publicly spoken out against the violence. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors, so yet another strong message. And so this is a steady drumbeat, an increasing drumbeat, and – that we believe that the message is becoming clearer and clearer to Asad that he has fewer and fewer friends.

QUESTION: Will it be possible for you to describe what would be the best outcome out of this foreign minister visit to Damascus?

MR. TONER: I really can’t predict. I mean, we’ve seen these kind of messages delivered before, but certainly we believe Turkey has a powerful role to play here as a neighbor, as a country that has, in fact, taken in refugees fleeing Syria. They are, we believe, well positioned to deliver a powerful message. But there’s no prediction on what the outcome will be.

Jill and then --

QUESTION: Mark, the – in spite of all of it – I mean, it’s good news for the United States, but none of these countries have actually gone quite so far as to say Asad should step down. Is this something that the U.S. would encourage them to do at this point – not just decry the violence but actually encourage him to step down?

MR. TONER: Well, I think, again, our message is that this is about the Syrian people, about their aspirations. We’ve said he’s lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people and this democratic transition needs to take place. But first and foremost, we’ve seen this horrible uptick in violence in the last week against, essentially, peaceful protestors. We’ve seen mass arrests. And so first steps first – we need to see an end to that violence. We need to see security forces return to their barracks and a cessation of these – as I said, these mass arrests of innocent civilians. Then again, we need to have that transition that addresses the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Go ahead. I’m sorry, he – then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: There are reports today that the U.S. is going to have meetings with Saudi and Turkish officials in the region after the Turkish foreign minister go to Damascus. Do you have anything on this?

MR. TONER: I mean, I’m sure we’ll consider – continue to consult closely with Turkey moving forward, but I don’t have anything to announce from here.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. Government play any role in encouraging – even though these are the decisions of sovereign nations, you can still talk to your friends and partners about what they do – in encouraging the three Arab states that recalled their ambassadors or in encouraging members of the Arab League and the GCC to issue the statements? Did you push them to do that, encourage them to do that?

MR. TONER: Well, pushing is – I think there’s been – that’s – I think that’s the wrong word. What I think we’ve seen here – and certainly Secretary Clinton and others in this Administration have helped lead these efforts at the UN – but is a recognition that the violence, as it continues to grow worse and worse, is untenable and needs to end. And the only way to achieve that end and to put the kind of pressure – bring that kind of pressure to bear on Asad to make him stop is not just from the United States, not just from the UN, but his neighbors and other powerful countries and voices in the region need to chime in and get that message to him.

So this has been a process. We’ve been talking to our friends in the GCC and in the Arab League. We’ve been discussing these issues with them, and this is an evolution in their own stance. But to say we persuaded or encouraged them – this has been a mutual effort to bring pressure to bear on Asad.

QUESTION: So – just so we’re clear, I mean, you said “pushing” is not the right word, and you’ve suggested “persuaded” is not the right word, and you don’t seem to like “encouraged,” so --

MR. TONER: I just think that this is – sure.

QUESTION: -- haven’t you made this case to them?

MR. TONER: Absolutely. And we’re pleased, and as I said, heartened that they’ve come out with these strong public statements.

Yeah. Sure, Mary Beth.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. TONER: Sure.


MR. TONER: I think so. Are we done with Syria?

QUESTION: One more. Senior U.S. diplomat Syrian expert Fred Hof is in Ankara.

MR. TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Can you – would you be able to give us anything on his visit?

MR. TONER: I mean, he’s – I don’t have a readout of his visit. I’m aware that he’s there on the ground. I’ll try to get you a broader readout, but certainly, he’s talking about Syria and other issues in the region. But I don’t have a precise readout, who he’s met with or what he’s discussed. I’ll try to get that for you.

Go ahead, Mary Beth.

QUESTION: So on Yemen, there was a report today in Asharq Al-Awsat that the U.S. has persuaded President Saleh to remain in Saudi Arabia and not to return to Yemen. Is that correct?

MR. TONER: Well, look, it’s – as all of you know, we’ve had conversations with President Saleh during his recuperation in Saudi Arabia. I can’t get into the details of those conversations. But our position has not changed, speaking globally. We’ve called for an immediate, peaceful, and orderly transition, and believe that’s in the best interests of the Yemeni people. And we’ve also said that this is something that cannot wait until a decision is made regarding President Saleh’s future, that we’ve got an acting president, and – in place, and they need to – they need to move towards this transition immediately.

QUESTION: Well, has there been any change in terms of his decisions to – whether to essentially stay long term in Saudi or to go back? I mean, are you aware of any --

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve – we have had – John Brennan from the White House is one individual, but have had conversations with President Saleh. But in terms of his future, that’s something I’d really have to refer you to him for.

QUESTION: When was the last time he had a conversation?

MR. TONER: I don't know, Matt. I’ll find out.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding, though, that he – it is now his intent to stay in Saudi Arabia or not?

MR. TONER: I don’t have an answer for you. I don't know.

QUESTION: Can you ask?

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s – I’m not sure that it’s something that we would necessarily need to announce from here. That’s something ultimately that President Saleh needs to determine and announce, either through the Government of Yemen or through himself.

QUESTION: In this persuasion, if you succeed in persuading him to stay in Saudi Arabia, a sign that he’s letting go of his grip on power?

MR. TONER: Again, these are questions really best directed to President Saleh and to his inner circle that’s with him or to the Government of Yemen in Sanaa. All we can do is continue to press our belief that this transition needs to happen immediately, and cannot wait until a decision is made about his future.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: So is it your understanding that his grip on power remains as it was?

MR. TONER: We – our understanding, we continue – our Ambassador Feierstein and Embassy personnel continue to meet with acting President Hadi as well as with senior government officials directly in order to move this process forward.

QUESTION: All right. Getting back to the original --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- question, though, does the Administration think that it’s a good thing for him not to go back?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s – we’ve been through this before. What we think is a good thing is that Yemen move forward immediately on a transition plan that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people --

QUESTION: Yeah. But --

MR. TONER: -- and that Saleh’s future is for Saleh to decide.

QUESTION: But with or without him in the country?

MR. TONER: Well, he’s not in the country right now, so we believe it can move forward without him.

QUESTION: Well, so do you think it’s a good thing – so it can move forward without him and you would prefer to see it move forward without him?

MR. TONER: I’ll say it can move forward without him.

QUESTION: But that’s what you want?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s not for us – it’s not what we want. It’s what the Yemeni people want.

QUESTION: No, no, no. Wait, wait.

QUESTION: You said you want it immediately.

QUESTION: Wait, wait. You just said --

MR. TONER: Yes. I’m --

QUESTION: And that means you want it without him.

MR. TONER: All I’m saying is –

QUESTION: You said this is something that --

MR. TONER: Yeah. You’re trying to make – you’re trying to have me make a determination about whether he stays in Saudi Arabia or not.

QUESTION: No. I’m not trying to --

MR. TONER: That’s his – okay.

QUESTION: No. I’m not asking you to make that determination. I want to know if that determination has been made by anyone in this building. I mean, the question was: Did the U.S. --

MR. TONER: It has not. This is a – that’s a decision for President Saleh.

QUESTION: So did the U.S. tell President Saleh that it would be a better idea for him to stay in Saudi and not to go – or just not to go home, whether he stays in Saudi or not, that it was best – it would be better for all concerned if he stayed out of the country?

MR. TONER: And again, that’s a decision, ultimately, he’ll make and talk about.

QUESTION: Of course.

MR. TONER: Our position is, whether he remains in Saudi Arabia or not, time is wasting in terms of seizing the opportunity, the GCC agreement, moving forward on a transition. So what we’re working on through our Embassy and our ambassador is trying to move the process forward now rather than wait.

QUESTION: But in the – in a previous set of questions, you said that the U.S. was pleased and heartened that the GCC and Arab League had come out with such strong statements about Syria. And you said that you had been talking to them about this, and that this – while it may not be the direct result of your talking to them about it, that that was a good thing. So is President Saleh, who you say you have talked to – is his staying out of Yemen a good thing?

MR. TONER: Again, it’s simply not our decision to determine whether he stays or goes.

QUESTION: Well, you have a position on it.

MR. TONER: We believe that, whether he stays in Saudi Arabia or comes back to Yemen, that Yemen needs to move forward now on these kinds of reforms and on this transition.

QUESTION: And Mark, when was the last time U.S. officials were in touch with President Saleh?

MR. TONER: I know. He asked me the same question. I’ll find out.


QUESTION: Mark, is it not fair to say, to follow up on one of Matt’s questions, that you do want the transition to go forward without President Saleh?

MR. TONER: Correct. We believe President – acting President Hadi is fully capable of moving the process forward.

QUESTION: The Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. In today’s editorial, The New York Times splits the blame but basically puts it squarely on the Administration on – and Netanyahu for the dogged* situation which everybody finds themselves in. And it calls on the President to actually submit a plan with maps and so on that is serious and that can really entice the Palestinians into going back into the negotiation. Do you have any comment, or is there anything in the background that is ongoing in that direction?

MR. TONER: Look, I mean, the President laid out principles in his May speech that we believe provide the foundation for direct negotiations to restart. We haven’t seen it yet. It is difficult. There are challenges that remain to be overcome. David Hale is working hard at addressing some of those obstacles and challenges. He is, I believe, here. He was supposed to speak with Saeb Erekat at some point this week. I’ll try to get an update on you – for you on it.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up. They also – the Palestinian Authority – is really in dire strait financially and they couldn’t pay the salaries and so on to the employees. Is there – is this an issue of concern to the Administration, considering that you guys are the biggest contributors to –

MR. TONER: Well, we want to see these institutions, security institutions especially, continue to operate. We believe it’s in everyone’s interest that they do so.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up --

MR. TONER: It’s actually Tejinder’s, and then we’ll – I’ll go to your --


MR. TONER: Same or --

QUESTION: Southeast Asia.

MR. TONER: Let’s finish with --

QUESTION: Yeah. Last week, you were trying to get a sense of what exactly Prime Minister Netanyahu said. Did you have a chance to --

MR. TONER: We really haven’t gotten any clarity from his office. I would refer you to his office for clarity on what he said.

QUESTION: Another question, Israel. Do you have any concerns about a weekend protest? About more than quarter of million people protested in Tel Aviv. Are you concerned with the stability of the government in Israel right now?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s an internal political situation. It’s really a matter for the Israeli Government to address.

QUESTION: Last week, again, Israel authorities issued 900 new housing permits in east of Jerusalem. My question is to you: Have you raised this issue? And before, I also asked whether Secretary Clinton raised this issue with the defense minister, Ehud Barak –

MR. TONER: Yeah, I’ll --

QUESTION: -- some days ago.

MR. TONER: I can take the question whether we have raised the issue of the new 900 settlement decree or licenses or whatever for – with the Israelis. I’ll take that.


Go ahead, Tejinder.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on this court – passport court case, the issue of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and passports?

MR. TONER: I’m – no, I’m not aware of it. I’ll have to take the question.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yep. Thanks.

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