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Middle East Digest - August 17, 2011

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Washington, DC
August 17, 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 17, 2011

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MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry to be a little late. I understand we had some audio problems today. I have a brief statement at the top with regard to the killing of more Turkish soldiers by the PKK.

We are deeply saddened by the death of Turkish soldiers who were killed in Hakkari Province. We express our condolences to the families and the friends of the victims. We stand with Turkey in its fight against the PKK, a designated terrorist organization which has claimed tens of thousands of Turkish lives. We support Turkey in its fight against terror and we will continue to work with the Government of Turkey to combat terrorism in all forms.

Now let’s go to your questions.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the substance was of the call last night between the Secretary and Prime Minister Netanyahu?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary and Prime Minister Netanyahu did speak yesterday, but we are not going to be going into the substance of the call.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. Well, you just let the Israelis [inaudible]?

MS. NULAND: We’ve seen the same press reporting that you have seen, I assume. Let me simply say that we consider that reporting not to be accurate, not to reflect either the tenor or the substance of the conversation that they had.

QUESTION: Can you be more – what was not accurate and what did not – what doesn’t reflect the tenor of the --

MS. NULAND: There was some reporting with regard to Turkish-Israeli relations. I think you know that the U.S. has long supported an improved relationship between Turkey and Israel. This is a subject that the Secretary herself has been engaged with. She has worked with Turkish counterparts, with Israeli counterparts. We believe that an improved relationship is not only in their interest, but in the interest of the region, in the interest of the United States. Our understanding is that discussions between Turkey and Israel continue, and we very much support those.

QUESTION: But – so she didn’t talk about Turkish-Israeli relations?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into the substance of the phone call; just to say that some of the press reporting that we have seen with regard to it is inaccurate and doesn’t reflect the tenor or the tone.

QUESTION: Well, which reports?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m – there have been some press reporting. I’m sure you’ve seen it.

QUESTION: I’m trying to get at – without me or anyone else in this room bringing up what’s inaccurate, you telling me what’s inaccurate about the reports.

MS. NULAND: There were some inaccurate reflections with regard to our views on Turkish-Israeli relations, our views on Turkish --

QUESTION: What specifically was inaccurate in these reports?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to cite inaccurate press reporting here. I’m simply going to say that our view here --

QUESTION: That’s not particularly helpful for us. I’m trying to find out exactly what is inaccurate about the reports. Nor is it helpful for the people who wrote these reports in the first place to know what specifically is wrong with them.

MS. NULAND: I think I’ve said what we’re prepared to say. The Secretary did speak to Netanyahu. It was the latest in a series of phone calls that they’ve had. And it’s important that the diplomatic confidentiality of that relationship continue.

QUESTION: Well, would the Israelis agreed with you, because they’re blabbing all over the place about this. Did they discuss Turkish relations with Israel? Did she discuss Israel’s relationship with Turkey in the phone call?

MS. NULAND: Again --

QUESTION: Did she talk about the Quartet statement? Did she talk about efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table?

MS. NULAND: I know it’s frustrating. I’m not going to go into the specifics of that.

QUESTION: But she called the Prime Minister of Israel, and you’re not prepared to say that she talked about restarting the peace process?

MS. NULAND: I’m not prepared to discuss, any more than I already have, the substance of the phone call. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Okay. That’s – so they talked about what?

MS. NULAND: Again, I --

QUESTION: Australia? Come on. The Secretary of State of the United States and the prime minister of Israel have a phone call. The Israeli press writes all sorts of things about it based on Israeli officials’ account. You say those accounts are inaccurate. You won’t say what’s wrong with them, what is inaccurate about them. And you also won’t even say whether they talked about the most obvious issue that they would have talked about, or that they could have talked about. I mean, that just doesn’t strike me as being honest.

MS. NULAND: I am simply not going to get into the substance of the discussion that they had, other than to say that some of the press reporting has been inaccurate, doesn’t reflect either the tenor or the tone.

QUESTION: Has some of it been --

MS. NULAND: I think we’ve --

QUESTION: -- inaccurate? I mean, has some of it been accurate?

MS. NULAND: I can’t – I haven’t seen every press report that supposedly has been written about this phone call, but we are not going to get into the substance of it. It’s not helpful to the diplomacy that we are trying to do with Israel and in the region on a broad variety of topics to – for her to have a conversation with the prime minister of an allied country and to be discussing it here. I’m sorry. I know that makes your job harder, but that’s where we are.

QUESTION: No, it doesn’t make our job harder. It makes it just – it kind of reeks of hypocrisy. We need to know what exactly is inaccurate about these reports. What is it that you take issue with in the reports?

MS. NULAND: I have said here that with regard to Israel’s relationship with Turkey, the United States supports an improved relationship between them. This is something that the Secretary has worked on with both countries. We will continue to do it. That’s as far as I’m going to go on the substance of this phone call or anything else.

QUESTION: So it’s inaccurate to say that the Secretary suggested to the Prime Minister that Israel should apologize to Turkey for the flotilla raid?

MS. NULAND: It is inaccurate and does not reflect the tenor or the substance of the conversation.


QUESTION: That bit is inaccurate and does not reflect --

MS. NULAND: The press reporting on this phone call --

QUESTION: But specifically that report?

MS. NULAND: Yes. That report is inaccurate.


QUESTION: Is it accurate that Mr. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel will not apologize?

MS. NULAND: I am not going to do any more on this phone call than we have just done. I’m sorry.


QUESTION: So you won’t characterize the tenor of it? I mean, you’re saying that their characterizations are wrong. How would you --

MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: -- characterize the tenor?

MS. NULAND: They have a strong and businesslike relationship. They had a warm phone call. It went fine.

QUESTION: Is there any way you can characterize the relationship between Turkey and Israel going forward? The Palmer report, UN report will be released next week. What’s your expectation now?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to predict the future; simply to say that we are encouraged that Turkey and Israel continue to talk to each other. We think that’s important. We think an improved relationship between them would not only benefit both of them, but would also benefit the region and would benefit the United States.

QUESTION: Going back to your announcement – PKK attacks – there are major signs that the Turkish military is about to undertake some major operation against the PKK. Are you worried or what’s your view on this?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into hypothetical operations one way or the other. As you know, we stand with Turkey in its fight against the PKK and we have very close counterterrorism cooperation.

QUESTION: I mean, what is your view on a cross-border operation which will be conducted by Turkey in northern Iraq? Because it’s on the table. It’s obvious. The prime minister said today that Turkey has come off the fence and there will be obvious and kind of cross-border operation. What is your view on such a thing?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’re asking me to comment on hypothetical operations, and I’m not prepared to go there.

Anything – any other issues?

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador Ricciardone met yesterday with some people, some ministers from the office of prime minister. Do you have some details on --

MS. NULAND: Ambassador --

QUESTION: Ambassador Ricciardone met with two ministers in – from the prime minister’s office yesterday in Ankara. Do you have an update on that?

MS. NULAND: No, but perhaps our Embassy in Ankara can help you more fully on Ambassador Ricciardone’s meetings.

Please, Andy.



QUESTION: There are reports out of Cairo today that the U.S. and Egypt are canceling the Bright Star military drills and Egyptian officials are citing the political situation in Egypt as the main reason. Is there anything you can tell us about this? Is it accurate, and what is the U.S. understanding? What – who decided to cancel this – the U.S. or the Egyptian side?

MS. NULAND: I have to say, Andy, I don’t have anything for you on that. It sounds like it’s a DOD exercise, so perhaps better directed there. But I can also take the question here if you’d like.

QUESTION: Okay. Diplomatic reasons – I mean, if there’s --

MS. NULAND: I just don’t – I’m going to have to take it.

QUESTION: Okay. And a second one on Egypt. I’m wondering if the U.S. has any position on the Egyptian military council’s decision to charge the activist Asmaa Mahfouz and try her in a military court. I know some human rights organizations are saying this is a travesty and shouldn’t happen. What does the U.S. think?

MS. NULAND: We are concerned by the charges against Asmaa Mahfouz. As you know, the United States believes that all individuals should be allowed to peacefully exercise their right of freedom of expression. We’re also concerned by reports of other democracy activists being summoned to appear before a military tribunal. We strongly support a democratic transition in Egypt. We view that transition as both positive and necessary, and real democratic change in Egypt will serve the long-term interest of Egypt, of the region, of our relationship. But democracy is not only about elections; it’s also about freedom of speech, it’s about freedom of assembly, it’s about respect for the rights of minorities, and strong and accountable institutions.

QUESTION: Has that message been conveyed directly by U.S. representatives in Cairo to the --

MS. NULAND: It has. It has.

QUESTION: And can you tell us when or in what --

MS. NULAND: I will have to take it on that.


QUESTION: There is this report today that says that U.S. is considering funding a hydropower dam project in Pakistan to the tune of $12 billion. I wonder if you have some details on that.

MS. NULAND: That’s another one I’m going to have to take. I don’t have any hydrodams with me today.

QUESTION: Just supplementary to that, the report mentions that India has some reservations on that. So if you could also tell us have there been any such reservations, and if there are, do they deter you from going ahead with this project?

MS. NULAND: We’ll take the whole package.

Please, Matt.



QUESTION: Yeah. So I’m sure you’ve seen – I’m sure you had an advance notice of, you may have even recommended, that the Tunisians remove or recall their ambassador to Syria. I presume that this is part of the growing chorus that you and the Secretary have been talking about. So my question is: When is this chorus become the full-on Tabernacle Choir that allows you to go ahead and start taking additional steps, including calling for Asad to step down?

MS. NULAND: In addition to the message that the Tunisians sent, you may have seen that in the context of opening remarks or closing remarks at the Somali Donors Conference in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan also had sharp words for Syria. This speaks to the point the Secretary made a couple of days ago about the President’s effort, her effort, to put together a careful set of actions and statements that will make our views clear and to coordinate those with others. That process continues.

As you know, her view, the President’s view, is that political steps, economic steps are strongest when they are together. Words and sanctions should go together, and ideally, they should go in concert with others. Those conversations continue --


MS. NULAND: -- and that work continues.

QUESTION: You’re quite – you’re just – you’ve walked up to the drinking pond, will you now take a sip?

MS. NULAND: Do I look like a sipper to you, Matt?

QUESTION: No. Nor a horse either, I’m just trying -- (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: But I got you up to – we got you up to the edge of the water. Are you ready to take a drink?

MS. NULAND: I’m glad that you see that I’m not a horse today. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I have – go ahead. I have another on Syria.

QUESTION: Following on that, just as a point. In Prime Minister Erdogan’s comments, he also drew a direct parallel between the situation in Syria and the situation in Libya. He said essentially, “Now we are in the same position with Syria that we were with Libya before.” Given that you have repeatedly stressed that the U.S. and Turkey are on the same page with regards to next steps with Syria, is that an assessment you agree with that this is now a similar or the same situation in Syria that we were facing before with Libya? And if so, what does that tell you about what happens next?

MS. NULAND: I think if you look carefully at what Prime Minister Erdogan said this morning, he was referring to the fact that the international community called for a long time for reform, for transition. These leaders not only didn’t listen, but increased the violence, increased the brutality vis-à-vis their own people, and that was the situation that he was describing, as I read his statement. Obviously, he speaks for himself.

So in response to that, as the Secretary made clear, we have been working with allies and partners and particularly with regional players on how we tighten the noose, how we tighten the political and the economic noose. We are also looking at how we do that here in the United States with regard to our own relationship with Syria, and we are working on a careful set of actions and statements, as she said, and working with our partners on the same.

QUESTION: So withdrawing of the ambassador is not on the table, right? I mean, in terms of Turkey and the U.S.

MS. NULAND: The withdrawing of --

QUESTION: -- of ambassadors to Damascus for both countries, for both Turkey and U.S., you are not considering to withdraw Ambassador Ford, right?

MS. NULAND: You know where we’ve been. We believe that the presence of Ambassador Ford has been absolutely vital, that his actions have been courageous in standing with the Syrian people, in standing with the Syrian opposition. And the contacts that he’s been able to have, that his team have been able to have, have encouraged us in terms of our understanding about the growing cohesiveness of that opposition and have enabled us to have a real feel for what it is that they want. And what they want is what we want, which is for the violence to end and a democratic transition to begin.

QUESTION: Since the buffer zone is not on the table anymore because some officials from Turkish foreign minister stated that clearly we are not considering the buffer zone options. So since the – also the buffer zone is not on the table, the only option – the only tool in Syria is sanctions, economic sanctions probably. What is the level of your negotiation with Turkey on this issue? Because it’s the critical ally in the region is Turkey in terms of the trade going on in Syria. And what’s your level of negotiation of this issue with Turkish officials?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’ve said for many days, many weeks that our collaboration, our coordination with Turkey has been excellent on this issue, and it continues to be excellent. The Secretary has made clear that there are still countries that are trading with Syria, particularly in oil and gas. There are countries, like Russia, that are still open to selling arms to Syria. So part of the conversation with partners and allies is on the steps that – further steps that they can take to tighten the economic noose as we have been trying to take those steps here as well.

QUESTION: So on that very subject –

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: -- I’ve noticed – read with interest the answer to the taken question that came out this morning on that very issue, in which it said that you’re not going to get into the details of your specific interventions or conversations with your allies. How does that square with what you said – what the Secretary said about calling out countries that are still involved in trade, and particularly in oil and gas, with Syria?

MS. NULAND: She herself mentioned a number of countries of concern. I repeated them here yesterday with regard to our European allies – I think you’re speaking about – our work continues with a broad number of them on that – how they can also tighten their economic noose, and we’re also working with the EU as a whole and that work, that diplomacy, continues.

QUESTION: A quick one, and I apologize if this came up last week; I wasn’t here. But in The Wall Street Journal today, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, in a lengthy piece they had about Syrian diplomats allegedly intimidating activists in this country and elsewhere – but the Syrian ambassador said that Ambassador Ford is limited in his ability to move around Syria to a 25-square mile radius of Damascus, and that’s a reciprocal limitation imposed on Ambassador Ford to one that’s been imposed on Ambassador Moustapha here. Are those – is that your understanding of the situation in both cases, that they’re not allowed to go outside of their – this limited area, however large it is, without official permission?

MS. NULAND: I think you know that after Ambassador Ford went to Hama, the Syrian authorities changed – tightened the procedures for ambassadors in Damascus. It is our usual practice to match restrictions requirements to report – put on our folk with similar restrictions here. With regard to the specifics of what we have done with the Syrian mission, let me take the question so we get it right for you. But I would guess that we are matching whatever the restrictions are on Ford, and my understanding is that it’s a more elaborate permission process.

QUESTION: If you could get the details on that –

MS. NULAND: We will.

QUESTION: -- because the Syrian description of it made it sound as though they did it in response to a U.S. action brought about by this alleged intimidation by Syrian diplomats.

MS. NULAND: You know where we were before the Hama visit, which was that he had free ability to travel around the United States.


QUESTION: Well, just on that subject –

QUESTION: On that subject, yeah. Yeah. The FBI has been interviewing the Syrian dissidents about alleged threats they’ve received, intimidation, also ramifications for their families back home in Syria. So are you in contact with the FBI? And what are the ramifications if the FBI finds criminal wrongdoing by people at the Embassy here?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that we were concerned about these reports of folks associated with the Syrian Embassy or even their personnel filming Syrians in the U.S., filming Syrian Americans at anti-Asad protests in the United States. Ambassador Boswell, our diplomatic security assistant secretary, had them in, talked to them about it, and then, as you say, the FBI began some work on this. I think with regard to the specifics of where the FBI is, I’m going to send you there.

QUESTION: So how much do you cooperate with the FBI on this? I mean, some of the same concerns they’re mentioning, you mentioned.

MS. NULAND: I think you know the State Department’s cooperation with the FBI in general is excellent. I think their work is continuing at this stage.

QUESTION: What are the potential implications for the Embassy if they’re found to be involved in this? Would you kick the ambassador out or –

MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t want to get ahead of whatever the FBI may or may not come back with.

QUESTION: Obviously, you’re fairly certain that reciprocal steps have been taken? And that they were – and that they --

MS. NULAND: I believe so, but I want to check.

QUESTION: Well, they – okay. But you said generally they are. So that would have been last month, though, right, if they had been?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. If they had been, it would have been reciprocal for what --

QUESTION: Okay. And does that mean – considering that the idea of reciprocity extends beyond just Syria and the United States, does that mean that Pakistani diplomats in the U.S. are now required to carry no objection certificates when they travel around the country, in strict conformity with the reciprocity policy?

MS. NULAND: Reciprocity decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. It is practice in many countries around the world for diplomats to have to carry identity cards. When I was posted in Belgium many times, I carried an identity card. Restrictions on movement are a step closer to the line of Vienna Convention obligations for ambassadors to be able to do their jobs. So it’s on that basis when we believe that Vienna Convention obligations are constrained that we generally take reciprocal action. So I don’t know the precise issue with Pakistanis and ID cards. I can check on that one for you. But in general, an ID card system for diplomats is --

QUESTION: Well, it was a rather – my question was a rather convoluted way of getting to the question of whether that whole situation with Pakistan has been resolved now.

MS. NULAND: My understanding is it has, yes.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up, just general question on this? So much has – had happened between the U.S. and Pakistan. Let’s say Pakistan was accused keeping Usama bin Ladin and then Haqqani Network and also, of course, this aid was held and so much has happened between the two countries. What I’m asking is: Now, where do you stand as far as U.S.-Pakistan relations are concerned? Do you still consider Pakistan to be an ally, which you have been saying for the last 10 years? Any change?

MS. NULAND: Goyal, I can’t improve on the very eloquent comments made by my Secretary just a couple of days ago at NDU with regard to our aspirations and our need for a strong relationship with Pakistan, so I think we’ll just leave it there.

QUESTION: A couple minutes ago, you described Turkish-U.S. cooperation as excellent in terms of – on Syria. Looking back a few months now, how much do you think these excellent relations effective in terms of stopping Asad killing his own people, and how much hope you should have going forward?

MS. NULAND: I think that the Turkish concern, the Turkish frustration, is the same as the American concern and the American frustration, that this is a guy, as the noose gets tighter, as more and more countries condemn him, isn’t stopping, and more and more Syrians are dying. So I think from that perspective, we’re both frustrated and we’re both looking at ways that we can tighten the noose.


QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria too, there are reports that thousands of Palestinian refugees have fled from a Palestinian camp in Latakia. Do you have anything on this?

MS. NULAND: Yes. We are very concerned. We have seen the same reports. We consider them credible that Syrian forces fired into the UN Relief and Works Agency camps, and that it has caused thousands of Palestinians to flee. This just speaks to the brutality and indiscriminate nature of the violence that Asad has unleashed. I think you probably saw Palestinian – the Palestinian Authority condemn Asad’s action against Palestinians in Latakia. It’s absolutely abhorrent.


QUESTION: Syria? Just one.


QUESTION: You were mentioning the countries who are still trading with Syria. So in your discussions with these countries, have you seen any positive response, they’re showing any willingness to stop this trade? And if not, are you considering any steps to put pressure on them?

MS. NULAND: Our conversations have been in the realm of trying to explain to countries the measures that we’re taking, the economic impact that we think that those measures will have. We have been encouraging countries to take a look at their own relationship with Syria and make their own sovereign decisions about what more they can do to get the attention of this murderous guy.

QUESTION: I got a brief one on Lebanon, just on the tribunal, the publication of the indictments today. Do you have anything to say about that?

MS. NULAND: I believe I do. No, I’m sorry, Matt. I’m going to take that one from you. Wait a minute, wait a minute. No, this is --

QUESTION: I got one that would be much more than --

MS. NULAND: -- old stuff, so let me take that one as well.

QUESTION: I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s pretty much the same.

MS. NULAND: It’s the same? The same.

QUESTION: The UN is conducting an operation against the branch of PKK, and the Iranian officials made a statement today that they killed around 50 militants during the operations. And there are some reports that they crossed the border and they pursued these militants within Northern Iraq – within Iraq. Do you have any confirmation on that?

MS. NULAND: I don’t. I haven’t seen anything on this.

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