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 September 1, 2011
MR. TONER: Welcome, all. I don’t have anything at the top, so I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: Can we start with Syria?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Have there been any repercussions for Ambassador Ford or the U.S. Embassy from the Department Spokeswoman’s fairly critical remarks of Foreign Minister Mualem yesterday?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. I have not heard specifically whether there’s been any reaction by the Syrian Government regarding those designations. I think you’re referring to the designations of three senior officials in the Government of Syria that were taken a couple days ago.
QUESTION: No, I’m actually referring to the very harsh and critical things that she said about him --
MR. TONER: Right, which I believe was --
QUESTION: -- followed the designation --
MR. TONER: -- partly a justification of why. Some of you were asking why we designated this individual.
MR. TONER: But to my knowledge, no, we’ve not received any official Syrian response.
QUESTION: And we have a report that the attorney general of the Syrian city of Hama has resigned. Apparently, he’s posted a YouTube video saying this and denying government reports that he had been kidnapped by gunmen. Is this – the reason he gives for his resignation is the killing of prisoners who were held in a jail there by pro-Asad security forces. Is this the kind of thing that you want to see? Do you want to see more civil authorities just bailing on the regime?
MR. TONER: Well, first of all, just to speak to the issue that you raise, which is whether – the reports that the district attorney of the city of Hama has resigned, we unfortunately at this time cannot confirm those reports. We’ve obviously seen them. However, we can say that the abuses that he allegedly describes are consistent with what has been reported by Syrian activists and human rights organizations for months now.
In terms of what – you’re saying whether this is something we want to see, I think it’s just something we’re seeing de facto as more and more average Syrians, but also Syrians within the political and military structure become disgusted by the actions of the Syrian Government and Syrian security forces. We see more and more Syrians joining the opposition. The opposition’s ranks now include Alawis, Druze, and Christian Syrians, as well as businessmen, academics, and I think I just mentioned members of the military. And all these opposition figures are clearly working under incredible duress and difficult situations.
QUESTION: Yes, Mark, on that very point, Syrian opposition figures are more and more expressing frustration at being able to achieve and kind of move forward, and they’re calling, actually, for international intervention – that’s one – and they’re calling on the you and on the European government to reach out to elements within the Syrian military. Are you, in fact, doing that?
MR. TONER: Are calling on us to --
QUESTION: Reaching out to military figures within the Syrian military to take a stand against the regime?
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: Are you, in fact, calling out on Syrian military figures and high-ranking officers to do just that?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to get into the details of our contacts within Syria. I’ll just say that our ambassador on the ground maintains a broad range of contacts, both within civil society such as it is – and I say that because – as a qualifier because this is a brutal regime that has not allowed, really, any civil society to exist during – certainly during the last 40 years. But they do – he does maintain contacts within civil society as well as the government. You are correct in that the opposition – while we are seeing increased coordination between activists that are inside Syria and outside Syria, that they’re operating under tremendous duress, under the threats and intimidation of Syrian security forces.
I did just want to point out one example of this is the brother of a prominent Syrian activist, Radwan Ziadeh, his brother Yassin on August 30th was arrested by Syrian security forces. And as of today, his family hasn’t been able to make any contact with him. We’ve also seen other moderate activists who certainly oppose violence have been jailed for speaking out against the regime. These include Walid al-Buni, Nawaf Basheer, Georges Sabra, Mohammed Ghaliyoun, and Abdullah al-Khalil. And some have been held incommunicado for months.
So in answer to your question, we do recognize that the opposition in Syria is trying to coalesce under what can only be described as challenging circumstances, and we certainly call on Syria’s security forces to end their reign of intimidation.
QUESTION: Can you just --
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up?
QUESTION: I just wanted to – can you give us the spelling --
MR. TONER: I sure will, yeah.
QUESTION: -- of the first two?
MR. TONER: Yeah. The first – yeah. I mentioned the brother of Syrian activist Radwan, R-a-d-w-a-n, Ziadeh, and I apologize if I’m not pronouncing that correctly. It’s Z-i-a-d-e-h. And his brother who was arrested by Syrian security forces on August 30th is Yassin Ziadeh, and that’s Y-a-s-s-i-n.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. Now, Radwan Ziadeh met here in the State Department and met with the Secretary of State. Now, what does this do, considering that you keep saying that Ambassador Ford’s presence in Damascus is very important, he reaches out to these figures, and so on? What does that do to the ambassador’s ability to reach out to opposition figures and so on, considering that their families – members of their families, brothers and sisters – are subject to arrest and torture and possibly death?
MR. TONER: Well, we certainly recognize the threat that all of these opposition figures operate under, and it speaks to their bravery and their courage and their belief in a better future for their country. As you mentioned, the Secretary met with this individual as well as other activists as well as expatriates from Syria, I guess about a month ago. And our message has been consistent. We support their movement, their courageous actions. We understand the difficulties under which they’re trying, as I said, to become a more coherent opposition. And we recognize the difficulties that they’re operating under.
In terms of what Ambassador Ford can do or cannot do, he does convey a strong message regarding the ongoing violence. And obviously, we couldn’t be clearer in asking Asad to step aside so that political transition can take place in Syria led by a credible opposition that speaks on behalf of the Syrian people. But day to day, they are operating – they are carrying out their efforts under tremendous duress.
QUESTION: Well, two weeks ago when both the President and the Secretary called on Mr. Asad to step aside, one thing that was noted was that the Syrian people had told the international community we don’t want outside help. If this is indeed the case that they are trying to now get international intervention of some sort, what would it take for the U.S. and for the EU to consider getting involved in the Syrian situation?
MR. TONER: I am, frankly, not aware of the specific request that Said just mentioned. But I think what the Secretary was referring and others were referring to was the idea of any kind of military intervention. This is something that the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people have rejected, because what they’re looking – what they’re trying to carry out here is a peaceful, nonviolent movement that stands in stark contrast to the violence that’s being carried out against them by the Syrian Government. We are --
QUESTION: Would that be put back on the table if that is what the opposition in the weeks ahead actually said – we want some sort of support similar to --
MR. TONER: Our focus right now is on ratcheting up the economic and political pressure. We’ve seen further designations, which Arshad alluded to earlier. This week, we did have sanctions on the energy sector, about two weeks ago. We understand the EU is looking at further sanctions. So we believe – and again, the voices in the region are becoming more strident in telling Asad that he needs to end the violence and to allow a peaceful political transition to take place.
So we believe we’ve done – we’ve made great progress in ratcheting up that pressure and applying it and making it more difficult for the Syrian Government. That takes longer – I agree – but it’s something we’re committed to doing.
QUESTION: Do you see an actual coalescence of opposition forces? How would the U.S. characterize the opposition movement across Syria? Is it as well formed as the NTC by comparison?
MR. TONER: No, it’s not, speaking frankly. But again, they are – I don’t want to compare the two situations because they’re very different in terms of operational space. These individuals in Syria, the opposition, are carrying out their efforts under the watchful eye and intimidation of Syrian security forces. I just mentioned some of their intimidation tactics and arbitrary arrests of peaceful activists. So it is very difficult, but we have seen progress and we do think that they’re becoming a more representative body. As I mentioned, the opposition’s ranks now include a broad cross-section of Syrian society. And we’re also seeing closer coordination between Syrians on the outside of Syria and Syrian opposition on the inside of Syria. But you’re correct in that there’s a ways to go.
QUESTION: And coming back to the plight about activists’ relatives being disappeared, have you seen any more of this related to those who may be demonstrating outside the Embassy here in Washington or at Syrian consulates across the U.S.? Are you hearing any reports of any blowback on relatives in Syria as well?
MR. TONER: I would have to seek an update. I can ask that question, whether there have been specific linkages. I know there have been threats, obviously. We’ve cited those threats here. But whether we actually can, on the other side, verify that there indeed have been threats that have been carried out against these individuals’ families, I’ll have to check.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you tell us – Mr. Radwan Ziadeh, where is he based? Do you know?
MR. TONER: I will find out. My – I don’t have that.
QUESTION: He’s in Washington state (inaudible) though, right? In Washington?
MR. TONER: He is, I believe. Yeah, I’m sorry. Yes. Sorry. I thought you were talking about his brother.
QUESTION: There is another discussion going on between the Syrian opposition that whether they should take armed struggle against the Syrian forces which have been cracking down on them, tanks and armored vehicles and all that. I believe you have repeatedly called on them to be peaceful. How is your view on the opposition’s taking arms at this point instead of waiting to be shelled about every day?
MR. TONER: Well, I think that it’s indicative of the kind of pressure that they’re under. We’ve seen this occur in Libya. But certainly in Syria, it has been a peaceful, homegrown movement that has shown remarkable courage in the face of tremendous violence and onslaught of violence. It has certainly added an element of nobility, frankly, to their cause and their efforts. This is something, obviously, that’s a matter for the Syrian people to decide how they move forward, but to date they have been peaceful and it’s been remarkable.
QUESTION: You mentioned that the sanctions on the Syrian regime is increased – increasing. Turkey so far has – Turkey has not taken any steps on the sanctions piece of it. What’s your assessment? I know that Clinton – Secretary Clinton had a meeting today with Davutoglu.
MR. TONER: She did meet with Davutolgu, yes, in Paris (inaudible).
QUESTION: Is there anything that you can update us whether Turkey is moving on this direction? If not, then why?
MR. TONER: Well, frankly, if you want to – I mean, this is a question better directed to the Government of Turkey.
QUESTION: Right. Correct.
MR. TONER: I can only speak about what we’re trying to do in terms of applying pressure and speak also to the fact that we want to see other countries and other organizations, if you will, like the EU and the Arab League, take additional steps. The EU has obviously been a strong partner in doing so, but she did meet with – indeed, met with Foreign Minister Davutoglu earlier today in Paris. Certainly they did discuss – I don't have a full readout of their bilat, but obviously they discussed Libya and the way forward there, but I’m certain that they also addressed the ongoing challenge of Syria.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up on the – Mualem, the foreign minister of Syria.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Now the United States three days ago went out on a limb and actually levied some really heavy – I mean, pretty harsh words against Mualem. Was that going out on a limb at a time when Europe is not doing the same thing, while in fact he was – he attacked your --
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that part of the reason we responded so vociferously, if you will, about that particular designation is that we got some questions raised in the briefing about this individual, and we wanted to address those questions and justify this designation. So I don't know about going on a limb. I mean, we obviously chose to designate this individual under the executive order, but – and we gave a justification, albeit a colorful one and a strong one, but this is an individual who we believe is appropriately designated under this executive order.
QUESTION: Do you expect that the Europeans will do the same thing?
MR. TONER: Again, I can’t speak on behalf of the EU. I think they’ve been strong supporters of pressure and sanctions against Syria. We’ve seen them in the lead and, indeed, then following quickly on the heels of us to – throughout this process, at times in the lead and at times following quickly behind us to increase pressure on Asad and to make very clear that his time has passed and that he needs to stop the violence. So we’ve been, I think, very pleased in what a strong partner the EU’s been.
Yeah. Go ahead. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Are you considering going pretty soon or anytime to UN so – to make the sanction broader and --
MR. TONER: Well, we have – there’s been no action, but we are discussing within the UN. Certainly, we’ve seen the UN take action in the presidential statement of a few weeks ago, but we are seeking even additional action through the UN Security Council. But that’s still being discussed in New York.
MR. TONER: Libya. But Rosalind first.
QUESTION: Russia announced today that it’s recognizing the NTC. How – what’s the U.S. reaction to that?
MR. TONER: Well, this is clearly yet another signal or another sign that the page –
MR. TONER: -- God bless you – that the page has turned in Libya and that we’re seeing broad recognition of the TNC as the credible voice of the Libyan people during this transition period. Just another thing that speaks to that is the fact that some 60 odd countries are in Paris today to meet with the TNC and to hear what their needs are. That also includes ten international organizations. So this is – this speaks to the achievement of the Libyan people in overthrowing a four decades long autocrat.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any more insight into why Moscow decided, finally? Because it had been reluctant to move in that direction for some weeks.
MR. TONER: Again, I just – I mean, I don't have any particular insight, other than that we’ve seen many countries over the course of this past week come forward and recognize the TNC. And it’s just a further, I think, recognition more broadly that they are the future.
QUESTION: And then you mentioned that the Secretary had a pull-aside with the Foreign Minister Davutoglu. Has she had other pull-asides during this trip?
MR. TONER: She did. Well, she had a bilat with Sarkozy. She also met earlier today – I’m not sure whether it was a one-on-one or whether she met with them both, the TNC Chairman Jalil as well as the TNC Prime Minister Jibril.
QUESTION: Can I ask you --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There was a – reports out of Paris that the Secretary raised the Megrahi issue with the TNC leadership when she met with them, urging them to quote, unquote, “deal with it.” I don't know if you have any more details on exactly what she planned to say to them.
MR. TONER: I don’t beyond what we’ve been saying the last couple of days about Megrahi. I don't have any specific readout of those meetings.
QUESTION: Can you confirm that she raised the matter or --
MR. TONER: I can’t.
MR. TONER: I’ll try to get that to you guys.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. We have seen in the last couple of days – I’m sorry.
MR. TONER: But I mean, obviously we have – sorry. I don’t mean to – just to follow up. And we have raised it at other levels with the TNC. So –
QUESTION: Do you know when and at what level?
MR. TONER: I believe it was Chris Stevens; it was our envoy in Benghazi, but I’ll have to double-check on that.
QUESTION: And is that recently since --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- since the fall of Tripoli?
MR. TONER: Not since the letter yesterday, but –
QUESTION: But since the fall of Tripoli?
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. I wanted to ask, we’ve seen less and less control of – rebel control and TNC control over the whole of Libya in the last 48 hours.
MR. TONER: We’ve seen?
QUESTION: Less control as was purported to be over Libya.
MR. TONER: Less control?
QUESTION: Less control.
MR. TONER: Okay. I’m sorry. I just didn’t hear that.
QUESTION: We’ve seen less and less control by rebels and by the TNC over Libya. There were statements – (inaudible) statements by Saif al-Islam, Qadhafi’s son, and then today by Qadhafi himself. Lo and behold, he just issued a statement rallying people and so on. There are also reports that allege that he is by the Libya-Algeria border and so on. Could you update us on this whole thing?
MR. TONER: Well, there was a background briefing yesterday where senior officials said that as long as these individuals remain out there making these kinds of statements but also just still out there causing trouble, then security does remain a concern.
I think we’ve seen tremendous diligence on the fact that the TNC has shown – or tremendous patience, I would say, that – regarding the situations in Sirte and Sabha, where they’ve surrounded, indeed with the case of Sirte, the city and told those members of the pro-Libyan forces or pro-Qadhafi forces to surrender peacefully, that they don’t want violence. But there is an ongoing security situation in the country, and I think that’s something that we’re going to hear from the TNC about today – what they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to move forward.
I think in the last couple of days, the situation within Tripoli has improved. And so they’re now focusing on reestablishing utilities, addressing certain humanitarian needs, basic humanitarian needs, but I think this is the crux of their task going forward, the Transitional National Council’s – establishing security in more and more parts of Libya and then coming in with the governance that will allow the reestablishment of basic utilities, basic services for the people. And that’s their – we’ve talked about that several times this week, but that’s really the job one.
QUESTION: One quick follow-up on David Welch. Has there been any new development in the last –
MR. TONER: Not at all. Toria spoke about this yesterday. He was not traveling or working on behalf of the U.S. Government. So –
QUESTION: So you consider that story to be concluded that –
MR. TONER: I do.
QUESTION: This time around in Paris, this conference, Friends of Libya conference, is kind of a theater version of the, I believe, Contact Group conference. Why do you think the number of the countries this time around is too many or many more than the previous Contact Group meetings?
MR. TONER: There’s a, as I said, a turning of the page, a moving forward. This Contact Group has grown each time it’s met, and there’s clearly a sense, both within Libya obviously – anyone who has read press reports from there can see that – but also outside of Libya that the country has turned the page and is now moving towards a post-Qadhafi era, even though he does remain at large.
QUESTION: And many experts actually argue that it’s because of the Libyan oil and natural resources that the people – the countries are competing to get access. Do you –
MR. TONER: I can only speak for the U.S. Government, and we are there to listen to the Transitional National Council’s needs and to figure out ways that we can be supportive in what is clearly a Libyan-led process and a Libyan – it’s – from the very beginning, this has been a Libyan-led struggle. They’ve shown remarkable courage. And I would say one reason so many countries are there is to pay tribute to that courage. They see the events of the last week certainly, the very dramatic events, as a sign that this country has made a remarkable evolution in a relatively short time, but that it’s paid a tremendous price for it.
QUESTION: Forgive me if this was raised earlier in the week, the question of any ICC proceedings for the Qadhafis, should they be taken alive. There’s a proposal out now that perhaps they could actually conduct such a proceeding in Libya. Is that something that the U.S. would consider a good compromise?
MR. TONER: I think – I would just say that, as Toria has made clear in the last couple of days, those in the Qadhafi regime, including Qadhafi himself, with blood on their hands need to be held accountable. That certainly has to be done in accordance with the Libyan people’s desires or wishes. And so how this evolves, I think, remains to be seen. But I think we’re both – that both we and the people of Libya are in agreement that these people will be held accountable.
Yeah. In the back.
QUESTION: Mark, the French foreign minister today characterized the Algerian position towards the TNC as being ambiguous. How would you characterize it yourself? And are you confident that Algeria will not grant access to Qadhafi?
MR. TONER: Grant?
QUESTION: Access --
MR. TONER: Access?
QUESTION: -- to Qadhafi.
MR. TONER: That is still – the whole idea or the whole issue of Qadhafi’s relatives, family members, gaining access or crossing the border into Algeria – still a matter of discussion within the Security Council. We talked about the letter yesterday that we received that cited humanitarian reasons, most specifically the birth of a child without medical attention. And so again, we, the other members of the Security Council, will look at that letter and make an evaluation based on that.
QUESTION: Have you --
MR. TONER: But in terms of judging the Algerian Government, I – all we have right now is – to go on is that letter, so we’re looking at evaluating that.
QUESTION: Do you know what the plan is for – at the UN to look at that letter, what the --
MR. TONER: I don’t. In fact, they’ve been on – I believe on break, so – yeah.
QUESTION: How that works – I know they were off yesterday, but how does it work? Is there a meeting, is there --
MR. TONER: I’ll try to find out more details for you.
QUESTION: Whenever – in the past, there have been some diplomatic issues about Indian officials who’ve been subject to security checks here in the United States. Now had an indication of a report that some in India are not pleased about the way that Indian leaders are being treated in – on Indian soil in Indian airports. Is this something that you’re aware of? Is it something that’s an ongoing --
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. U.S. officials have been treated in?
QUESTION: Indian officials in Indian airports, because of concerns about having a second level of security in Indian airports for flights going to the United States.
MR. TONER: No. I’m not aware of these reports. I’d have to look into it and get back to you. Sorry. I mean, we’ve addressed our – and in fact, shared our regret over some of these incidents involving high-level Indian diplomats here within the United States. But we do have specific security requirements, and we’re committed to ensuring that those are met, but obviously recognizing these individuals’ importance and rank and significance. But I’m not aware of the reports that you’re talking about. I’ll have to look into them.
Yeah. Go ahead, (inaudible).
QUESTION: In reference to some of the WikiLeaks, latest tranche of WikiLeaks that has come out, in which one of the cables refers to State Department justifying such second screening of flights used – flights coming from – coming out – come out from India to the U.S.
MR. TONER: Well, I appreciate the context, but I certainly won’t speak to any allegedly classified information.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: We have a report regarding Belarus. My colleagues in Europe have obtained a letter from Belarus – excuse me, from the Bulgarian foreign minister describing – to Catherine Ashton – describing steps that Belarus plans to take by October, notably to release political prisoners. Do you have any reason to believe that Belarus is actually moving closer to releasing political prisoners, something you have called for since most of them were incarcerated last December?
MR. TONER: You’re right. We have both called on them publicly to do so and, I believe, carried out – initiated some sanctions against Belarus because of their oppression and suppression of civil society. Speaking specifically to that letter, I’m not aware of any moves, but we can certainly look into it. But again, I think we would be wary until we actually saw specific public action on behalf of the Belarusian Government.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: One more. Palmer report, UN report on the flotilla, is about to be released tomorrow, and it’s already leaked in New York Times as far as I understand. Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu yesterday gave a warning, ultimatum, that either Israel is going to apologize or is going to be some sanctions that are going to face from Turkey. Going forward, it looks like this relationship is going down. What would you suggest either side, or do you have any view on this?
MR. TONER: Well, you – the beginning of your question, in fact, holds my answer, which is that the report has not been released yet. I know – I can’t speak to any leaked copies of it or what those leaked copies may or may not say. I would just say that we continue to believe that this is a – this can be a constructive mechanism to help bring these two countries back to closer relations. But beyond that, I’m not going to comment.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: About Sri Lanka’s new security law?
QUESTION: Can we remain on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, please?
MR. TONER: Okay. And then I’ll get to Sri Lanka.
QUESTION: I just want to ask a very quick one.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, that’s okay.
QUESTION: How does the Palestinian effort to go to the UN figure in the Secretary’s agenda while in Paris, or does it?
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I’m not in her specific meetings, so I’ll have to wait and get a clear readout of whether it’s raised. I think it’s safe to say that as we move closer to September, this is --
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Is that it? Great. Thanks, guys.