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Middle East Digest - August 11, 2011


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Washington, DC
August 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 August 11, 2011

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QUESTION: On Syria?

MS. NULAND: Syria?

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am. The Syrian president said that he – he admitted making mistakes and showed elements of regret. Is that a little too little too late?

MS. NULAND: Let me just say that in the last two days alone, since the visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu, the Syrian Government security forces continue their operations throughout the country. No sooner had the Turkish press departed from Hama when the security forces returned. The daily death toll is rising. There are house-to-house raids as recently as yesterday in Deir al-Zour and in Homs. Prominent members of the local coordinating committees and other activist networks have been wrapped up. The local coordinating committees estimate that we have 22 dead at the hands of security forces on August 10th and 34 dead on August 9th. We have some 30,000 people still in detention, in some cases in absolutely repulsive, disgusting conditions. There are reports from witnesses who have been inside prisons that some of these prisoners are being kept in cages and in the courtyards of prisons and in schools.

So we are looking for action. We are not looking for words. We’re not looking for promises. We’re looking for the violence to end, for the forces to go back to barracks, and for a real democratic transition to start.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up on Hama?

QUESTION: Why don’t you just say he should go?

MS. NULAND: The focus, as I said yesterday, is on increasing the chorus of condemnation internationally against him and taking firm action to increase the pressure. That’s why we issued more sanctions yesterday. Our focus is on working with our European partners, our other partners around the world, including in his neighborhood, and particularly encouraging those who are still trading with Syria, particularly in the oil and gas sector – Russia is still sending arms to Syria – to stop so that the pinch will be felt and none of the revenue from this can go to fueling this violence.

QUESTION: Okay. On Hama, Hama is virtually under martial law. It’s like been literally occupied. There are virtually no news. Are you concerned that maybe some horrendous going-ons there – goings-on inside Hama, more killings and so on? And how do you monitor the situation?

MS. NULAND: We are very concerned about the situation in Hama and in other cities at risk, cities under attack. We have our own contacts inside these cities. We have broad contacts with Syrian opposition figures who have their own contacts. Again, this speaks to the value of having a strong Embassy in Damascus and having Ambassador Ford at its helm.

QUESTION: Then would it be fair to say that nothing basically has changed since the foreign – Turkish foreign minister visited there two days ago?

MS. NULAND: I think it’s fair to say that the violence continues at extremely horrific levels.

QUESTION: Would it be fair to say that not saying Asad not go or not saying do not go still, does it mean that you give him still more chances for Asad since there is still hope that he can stay, since you don’t take any firmer stance on this issue?

MS. NULAND: I think you heard the White House spokesperson yesterday, you heard Ambassador Rice at the UN say yesterday, that the United States believes that Syria would be a better place without Asad. This is a decision for the Syrian people. Our focus is on doing what we can to increase the international pressure on him, to support those who want a democratic future for Syria.

QUESTION: You just mentioned about Russian arm transfers. Do you have any information when was the latest arm supply went to Damascus from Russia?

MS. NULAND: I don’t.

QUESTION: Did you make an official request to stop the arms flow from Russia?

MS. NULAND: We have repeatedly, yes, and over many, many years, and more than one administration.

QUESTION: Sri Lanka?

MS. NULAND: Anything else on Syria before we move on?

QUESTION: About Ambassador Ford, has he traveled in other cities so far since he went back to Damascus?

MS. NULAND: He has not yet traveled beyond Damascus. He is looking at when and how that might be appropriate. I can tell you, though, that he met with the Syrian foreign minister today, Foreign Minister Mualem. You won’t be surprised at the points that Ambassador Ford made. He made clear, as we have publicly, repeatedly, that Syria is going to face increasing pressure if this violence doesn’t end, including more economic sanctions from the U.S. and we hope from others, that empty rhetoric isn’t going to suffice. He challenged the regime’s lip service about enacting reforms, and he called for free and open access for the media and also for strict compliance with Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomatic personnel.

You also won’t be surprised that the response from Foreign Minister Mualem was just as defiant and just as unconvincing as President Asad has been in the last couple of days.

QUESTION: Was that meeting requested by the ambassador, or was he called in, or --

MS. NULAND: It was our request, yes.

QUESTION: When was the last time he saw Mualem? Because --

MS. NULAND: I don’t know the answer to that. Let us take that question. I believe it was earlier back in the spring.

QUESTION: So --

QUESTION: On Syria.

MS. NULAND: Please. Still on Syria?

QUESTION: Sorry. Yeah. You said just before that you’re encouraging those who trade with Syria, particularly in oil and gas, to stop. Can you tell us more about that, please? Because obviously, I mean, the sanctions you have been talking about haven’t materialized. So what are you doing to encourage them?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary, the President, have had broad contacts, not only with European countries but with neighbors of Syria, with others around the world, who maintain economic contacts, who benefit from oil and gas trade with Syria, and that – those diplomatic contacts continue.

QUESTION: Is there a government (inaudible) on it, not talking to companies?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, we’re doing diplomacy with governments. But we think it’s a bad idea for anybody to be helping the Syrian economy at the moment.

QUESTION: Did you discuss the bilateral sanction option with Turkish Government towards Syria issue?

MS. NULAND: I mean, I think in our ongoing dialogue between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Davutoglu, at the presidential level, we talk every time about how we can increase the economic pressure, the political pressure.

QUESTION: And is – do you think that there is a mutual understanding within U.S. and Turkish side on an assessment of situation in Syria? Because there are some reports today from – coming from the region, especially from Turkish ambassador to Damascus and the Turkish press, that the situation is improving in Hama. But you said that the violence is continuing in Hama. So do you think that there’s a mutual understanding of the situation between two sides in Hama and in Syria in general?

MS. NULAND: I can’t comment on the specific Turkish view today of the situation on the ground. I will tell you that we are quite concerned about the situation in Hama. At a strategic level, I will tell you that we believe that we have good, strong, diplomatic collaboration with Turkey and that that’s been very important in this context.

QUESTION: Yeah. I asked this question to someone from the other Administration agencies, that they said – they referred actually to the State Department. They said that State Department is coordinating this issue. Because I’m wondering, okay, the coordination is ongoing between two governments, but the last year it’s happened in Iran, for example, in Tehran, so something happened, then some differences are clear between two governments.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think we --

QUESTION: So it can happen in Syria too, between U.S. and Turkish side?

MS. NULAND: Our sense is that both sides, American side and Turkish side, are working very hard to maintain tight coordination on this issue, because it’s absolutely vital to our shared effectiveness.

QUESTION: Is there anything on the – they had more meetings with the Syrian activists, just Secretary Clinton did a week ago?

MS. NULAND: I don't think there’s anything on the calendar at the moment, but as you know, in Damascus, Ambassador Ford and his people continue to have broad contacts with opposition leaders and with regular folk who want a better future for Syria.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the status of American companies that were awarded the right to do oil exploration in Syria? Do their offices operate? Are they back? Have they been recalled? What is the status of these American companies?

MS. NULAND: Let me take that question --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: -- to make sure that we get it right.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Still on Syria? Anything else? No?

MS. NULAND: Arshad.

QUESTION: -- Israeli-Palestinian matters, you will have seen that the Israeli interior minister has given final approval for the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. This is the project, I believe, whose announcement during Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel caused such consternation across Washington. Do you have any comment on final approval being given to this project, one, and two, do you believe this further undercuts your effort to try to get the parties back to the negotiating table?

MS. NULAND: We are concerned about continuing Israeli action with respect to housing construction in Jerusalem. We have raised these concerns with the Israeli Government and we will continue to do so. As we’ve said many times, unilateral action against – unilateral action of this kind works against our efforts to get folks back to the table, makes it all more difficult. And we think the best path forward is direct negotiations so that the parties can agree together on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards the unique religious status for people around the world.

QUESTION: Just so there’s no ambiguity, when you say “these concerns,” you are referring to – specifically to concerns about this specific project?

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: And was that done – were the concerns raised in the last day – in other words, subsequent to this final approval? Or are you referring to the concerns that have been raised in the past?

MS. NULAND: I think the concerns have been raised right along since this was – this project was right first announced.

QUESTION: Including since the final approval, or you don’t know?

MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to whether they’ve been raised in the last 24 hours.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you read the taken question response on settlement activity that was put out two days ago? Because I believe it’s identical to what you just said now.

QUESTION: No, didn’t use the word “folks.”

QUESTION: Didn’t use the word what?

QUESTION: Folks. F-o-l-k-s. (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: Didn’t use the word “folks”? I --

QUESTION: Trying to get folks back to the table. Yeah, that’s different. (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: Get folks back to the table.

QUESTION: But it’s the first time in a while you’ve said this from the podium. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, she – well, she repeated it the other day, but I’m just wondering, has anyone given any thought to maybe perhaps changing this monotonous drone that you produce every time someone asks you about it? Because it obviously doesn’t do any good. It was just two days ago that you said you were deeply – or whatever it was – gravely concerned about settlement activity, and then two days later, the Israelis just go in and do it again. So your words of concern fall, obviously, on deaf ears.

MS. NULAND: This issue is part of our continuing dialogue with Israel. It’s part of our continuing quest to create an environment so that we can get these parties back to the table. I apologize if you don’t like our phraseology. We’ll take that one under advisement.

QUESTION: No, it’s not – it’s just – it’s the same thing, and I think it’s an – it seems to be an exercise in futility. It’s kind of like this bizarre kabuki dance where you express concern about something and the Israelis go ahead and do exactly what you’re concerned about. And it happens over and over again, so I’m just wondering if there’s been any thought given to perhaps changing the message or suggesting to the Israelis that there might actually be a consequence for their action instead of you just standing up there and expressing concern.

MS. NULAND: I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve expressed to the Israelis the consequences of these actions. So I don’t think that’s an issue.

QUESTION: What are the consequences other than undermining your efforts to get the parties back to the table?

MS. NULAND: It undercuts trust, it makes it harder to get folks back to the table, and getting folks back to the table is the main goal here, at least of our efforts.

QUESTION: But --

QUESTION: Well, haven’t --

QUESTION: -- that’s hardly a negative consequence from the Israeli point of view if they’re not interested in getting back to the table. I mean, it’s not like you’re withholding loan guarantees, for example. It’s not a tangible consequence that might actually cause the Israelis some financial or other discomfort. I mean, I think when Matt was using the word “consequences,” he was talking about consequences that are uncomfortable for the Israeli Government for continuing to do what the U.S. Government has for lo these many monotonous years, said it should not do.

MS. NULAND: The focus of our diplomacy, as we’ve said for many, many weeks here is to build on the vision that the President set forth on May 19th to get these parties back to the table, to make the case to each of them that their interests are better served by getting back into direct negotiation. And it is in that context that we also make the point that this kind of activity is concerning and doesn’t improve the environment.

QUESTION: And to follow up on Matt’s question, though, are – is the U.S. Government considering imposing any negative consequences on the Government of Israel for continuing to do what the U.S. Government believes it should not do, or not? I mean, it may be that you’re not considering any negative consequences for Israel, and that may be your strategy. But are you considering any such consequences, or no?

MS. NULAND: Again, our focus is on trying to get these parties back to the table. If you’re asking me whether we intend new measures of some kind, I will take that question if that’s helpful to you.

QUESTION: It is, actually. Thank you.

QUESTION: Has anything --

QUESTION: Can I --

QUESTION: Has anything evolved from the – since the conversation that the President had with the Israeli prime minister a couple days ago, as far as the State Department’s concerned in terms of getting these talks back on track?

MS. NULAND: David Hale continues his conversations, continues his efforts with the Quartet to bring folks back to the table. But this work is very difficult and we haven’t had any breakthroughs, if that’s what you’re asking, in the last couple of days.

QUESTION: Okay. Another thing – another issue is the --

QUESTION: Well, in fact, isn’t the answer to the question yes, in fact, the – that there has – I mean, the President talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday. And the next day – and today, the Israelis announced new settlement construction. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re showing any interest at all --

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- in following or in accepting the idea that talks – that peace talks with the Palestinians are a good idea and they will help them at all.

MS. NULAND: Was there a question somewhere?

QUESTION: Yeah. I guess the question is: Exactly how successful do you think your efforts are when you come out two days ago and say settlements are concerning, the President talks to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and then you get basically slapped in the face by your close ally in the Middle East that exists partly because of the largesse that this government gives them in terms of cash.

I just don’t understand what – it calls into the question the seriousness of the United States when one side of the – one side of these – when the Israelis, in this case, continue to flout your desires, your wishes.

MS. NULAND: Again, our focus is on trying to get these guys back to the table on both sides. I’m not going to get into the details of the private diplomacy or the messages going back one way or the other. The communication channels are open. We’re working hard on this. But each party has to make its own sovereign decision to want to come to the table. And it’s been difficult; we are making no secret of the fact that this has been difficult and it continues to be difficult.

QUESTION: Can I – I want to go back to Matt’s line of questioning about the kabuki dance. I mean, if I remember correctly, when this announcement was made, when Vice President Biden was there, one of the things that calmed it down was the Israelis said, “Oh, this was just for politics and it’s just an announcement and it’s going to be years before these settlements are even moved to fruition.” And you seemed to be satisfied with that at the time that these settlements would never really come to fruition. And now, it’s inching closer.

So, I mean, at what point does Israel’s statements that turn out to be not in good faith when they know that they’re going ahead with it – I mean, basically, they’re lying to you. And at what point do you not take them at their word and consider that they’re not – when you call them – when you say that they’re wanting to come back to the table in good faith, at what point do you say – do you call them on it?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re asking me to get into the details of our diplomatic exchanges with Israel, and I’m not going to go there. Our position on this issue is clear. It’s clear publicly, it’s clear privately, and we’ve made it abundantly clear that we don’t think that this improves the environment, and we’ll continue to say that. This is difficult work to try to get these parties back to the table. We’re going to keep trying to do it and we’re going to do it at all levels, including, as you saw, the President’s phone conversation yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, yes, it’s difficult work especially when one of the – at least one of the parties, and it seems like both of the parties, are continuing to ignore the guidance that you’re giving them in terms of what’s going to make a constructive negotiation. And, I mean, even if you don’t want to get into the delicate or sensitive discussions, can you honestly say that Israel is a good faith partner in this process --

MS. NULAND: I think there --

QUESTION: -- when they just lied to you again?

MS. NULAND: There are difficult issues and difficult conversations being had with both parties to get them back to the table, and that’s going to continue, and we’re going to keep working at it.

QUESTION: Do you think that –

MS. NULAND: I think I’ve done –

QUESTION: -- Israel is a good-faith partner?

MS. NULAND: I think I’ve done what I can do on this issue, and we’re going to keep working with Israel; we’re going to keep working with the Palestinians to try to get them back to the table.

QUESTION: But based on your view on settlements, do you question the Israelis’ commitment to our peace, toward the whole peace process, based on the continued building projects in what the Palestinians want to build as a state?

MS. NULAND: We believe that the Israeli Government wants to keep working towards the outcome that the President laid out in his speech in May. Each side has its issues as we try to get to the table, and we’ll continue to work with each side on its issues.

QUESTION: Has the level of concern has changed since the – this new announcement came? Has the level of concern has changed?

MS. NULAND: I think this has been hard work before this announcement, and it’s going to be hard work after this announcement. But we’re going to keep doing it. Really guys, I think we’ve done what we can do on this issue.

QUESTION: Can I ask one on this? I think it’s important. You were asked a couple of times about Israeli good faith, and you didn’t, in a way, say that you believe that Israel treats with the United States Government in good faith, which I suspect is the U.S. Government’s position. I just wanted to make sure you had an opportunity to address that squarely, whether you feel like the – Israel, which deals with the United States on an enormous number of issues, not just this one, in general treats with the U.S. Government in good faith.

MS. NULAND: Israel remains a close ally of the United States, remains our partner. We not only work on Middle East Peace, we work on a broad range of regional and global issues, as you have noted, Arshad, and will continue to do so.

QUESTION: One follow-up? Without getting into the substantive details of your – of this private diplomacy, but presuming at the same time that your message to them in private is the same as you deliver in public, how do you rate your efforts so far?

MS. NULAND: I’m not in a position from this podium to give this a grade, and I’m not even sure that that would be appropriate at this moment.

QUESTION: Well, if you look at – but if you look at the developments that have happened in the last three days, surely you can’t be happy.

MS. NULAND: This hasn’t just been difficult for three days; this has been difficult for decades. And it’s going – and we’re going to continue to work on it.

QUESTION: Correct. But I’m – we’re talking about a very short period of time here in the last three days, the developments on the ground. You’re not –

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to grade the peace process today.

QUESTION: On a related matter.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: On a related matter, the American-Israel Education Foundation is sponsoring a visit by 81 members of Congress to Israel on what is expected to be a show of support for the policies of Mr. Netanyahu. Does the President or does the State Department consider this to be, in a way, complicating the peace effort and the peace process? While I understand that the legislative branch can do whatever activities they want, but this is a fully paid trip by an organization based in Washington that may end up complicating the President’s effort on calling for a state on the basis of 1967.

MS. NULAND: Let me just say that –

QUESTION: Are you aware of –

MS. NULAND: I am aware. Let me just say that whenever members of Congress travel, we welcome it because it helps for them to have eyes on the situation. It helps when leaders of the legislative branch speak directly to foreign governments, speak directly to our international partners, can develop their own views. So we always welcome congressional travel, and we look forward to hearing their views when they come back.

QUESTION: But do you think it’s helpful when they don’t give a message that’s the same message as this Administration?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re assuming that that’s what’s going to happen. I think in general the Congress supports the goal of getting these parties back to the table.

QUESTION: You really – you can – you want to stand by that: We always, always endorse or support congressional travel? Because I can remember several instances when this building has really gotten upset with in particular Speaker Pelosi going to Syria. Perhaps not in this Administration, but the line that the State Department or any Administration always supports congressional travel is not entirely true, correct?

MS. NULAND: Matt continues to school me to ensure I get it right up here. In general, it is a good thing when members of Congress travel.

Please.

QUESTION: In light of these developments, do you think U.S. Administration is in a position to put forward a clear – means politically doable and diplomatically meaningful reason for Palestinian Authority to not go to UN this September?

MS. NULAND: We continue to believe that going to New York is a bad idea and will set back a long-term peace process.

Please.

QUESTION: Four officials from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were stopped from entering Peshawar city yesterday because they didn’t carry the – which the Pakistani authorities is NOC, no-objection certificate, which is necessary for the traveling documents. Is it true? And why they were not carrying the necessary travel documents when they were entering Peshawar?

MS. NULAND: I haven’t seen that report. We’ll take it.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan.

MS. NULAND: Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am. Yesterday a general from Afghanistan told the Pentagon press that as far as security in Afghanistan is concerned, it all, of course, depends on how Pakistan behaves or cooperates with the U.S. And he said that as far as arms or Talibans or explosives are concerned are still being smuggled from Pakistan into Afghanistan. My question is that how much Pakistan is now cooperating after Usama bin Ladin was killed inside Pakistan and if things have changed ever since.

MS. NULAND: Goyal, I think you know that we continue to cooperate with Pakistan on counterterrorism and to try to work together as closely as we can. You saw all the visits that we have had to improve this relationship and strengthen it, from the Secretary’s visit, Admiral Mullen’s visit, to all of the working groups that we’ve had. So our efforts continue and we’re going to keep working at it.

QUESTION: My question is really as far as security in Afghanistan is concerned, what surety can you give to soldiers there and also to the international community working to rebuild Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: I’m sorry, I didn’t --

QUESTION: As far as security is concerned, what surety can you give them who are working to rebuild Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: To the international assistance workers --

QUESTION: Yes.

QUESTION: -- or to the Afghans or --

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am. International workers.

MS. NULAND: Well, you know that the United States maintains a large military footprint working with our Afghan partners, our international partners. As we seek to draw that down heading towards 2014, we are also seeking to build up Afghan capacity, both military and police, so that the security situation will enable strong development efforts and strong political and economic strengthening. That’s our goal.

QUESTION: Egypt’s government has announced that it is taking steps to remove the emergency law.

MS. NULAND: I missed the first – which government?

QUESTION: Egypt’s government has announced that they are taking steps to remove the emergency law. Is that a good thing?

MS. NULAND: It is a good thing. It’s a longstanding position of the United States that the emergency law should be lifted.

QUESTION: Can we talk about what was happening yesterday on Egypt? Do you know – is it true that the departure of the USAID director for Egypt is at all related to the kind of tide of anti-Americanism that you mentioned yesterday?

MS. NULAND: I’ve got to take that one. I don't have any – a couple of you asked, by the way, when Ambassador Patterson arrived in country. She arrived on August 1st. She has not yet presented her credentials. That’s set for next week.

QUESTION: On India?

MS. NULAND: Yeah.

QUESTION: Madam, I have asked this question before also, but what I’m asking you, on a daily basis there are demonstration going on in India and police brutality against the people who are having peaceful demonstrations against corruption, against the corrupt Indian politicians. Do you concern – are you worried about that?

MS. NULAND: As you know, we support the right of peaceful, nonviolent protest around the world. That said, India is a democracy, and we count on India to exercise appropriate democratic restraint in the way it deals with peaceful protest.

QUESTION: And August 16th could be a very big day in India as far as demonstrations are concerned, next day of the Indian Independence Day, because they are planning a big demonstration against corruption in India.

QUESTION: According to Israeli press reports, the phone conversation yesterday between the President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu also significant portion of the conversation was about Turkey-Israel rapprochement. Would it be possible for you to elaborate whether that was the one of the topics, or is there anything you can update us on the topic?

MS. NULAND: I don't have anything beyond the statement that the White House put out yesterday, but our White House colleagues might be able to help you with that.

QUESTION: Thank you.



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