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 29, 2011
First of all, let me begin by strongly condemning what was clearly, earlier today, part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate our diplomats as they were undertaking their normal activities and duties. Intimidation by pro-government mobs is just not civilized behavior. It’s an inexcusable assault that reflects intolerance on the part of the regime and its supporters, and it’s the same kind of intolerance that we see that stirs the regime to use arrests, beatings, and tortures and killings against those whose crime is only exercising their universal rights to gather peacefully and express their opinions. I’m referring, of course, to the Syrian people.
But just to walk you through and give you some of the salient details, neither the ambassador nor any other U.S. Embassy personnel were hurt in the attack; we’re thankful for that. And the ambassador and his counterparts were – did return safely to the Embassy. They did encounter a violent mob that tried to attack Embassy personnel inside their vehicles as they were visiting an opposition figure. It eventually trapped them inside the building. Embassy personnel were unharmed, but the vehicles were damaged. Eventually, Syrian security officers did arrive and helped secure a path to allow Ambassador Ford and Embassy personnel to return safely to the Embassy.
QUESTION: Okay. So when did this assault begin? As they were arriving?
MR. TONER: Yes. My understanding is that they arrived for a meeting with a prominent opposition figure. As they entered the building, they encountered a group of pro-regime demonstrators that began shouting slogans and, frankly, pelting them with tomatoes. And so the ambassador and his party entered the opposition leader’s office. They secured the door, and demonstrators actually beat on the door. And while they were there, I believe, was when they called the Syrian security forces to come.
QUESTION: All right. And so while they were inside, that was when the damage was done to the vehicles?
MR. TONER: I believe so, yes.
QUESTION: So there was no one left outside?
MR. TONER: Just one second. Actually, I take that back. It was several vehicles from the Embassy that came to respond to the scene were actually attacked and significantly damaged by the mob.
QUESTION: So in fact, the vehicles that were damaged were not the vehicles that the ambassador and his party were in?
MR. TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: So --
MR. TONER: And my understanding is simply that when they arrived at the meeting, certainly they were trying to be discreet, but this is part of the ambassador’s regular duties to go out – as we’ve talked many times here – talked about many times here – to meet with opposition figures. He arrived, parked maybe a block or so away, and they walked on foot to the meeting.
QUESTION: All right. And was there some kind of indication? Apparently, these people knew who he was. Is that correct? I mean, the slogans they shouted, were they directed at the U.S.?
MR. TONER: It sounds like they were pro-regime slogans. I don’t know if they were directed specifically at the ambassador.
QUESTION: Is it your impression that they would have gone after any group that would have walked into this building? I mean, or --
MR. TONER: It appears to us that it was directed at the ambassador.
QUESTION: And it was --
MR. TONER: I’m saying the slogans that they shouted weren’t – I just can’t confirm that they were directed at the ambassador.
QUESTION: So you think that it was actually organized?
MR. TONER: Matt, we don’t know. We’re obviously asking for an explanation for what happened.
MR. TONER: But what it appears to be – and I think I said that – is an orchestrated attempt to intimidate our diplomats.
QUESTION: Mark, it – could you tell us – the French have had some similar events or attacks like this.
MR. TONER: They have. I don't know the details, but I’m aware of those.
QUESTION: Yeah. They’ve kind of – tomatoes, rocks, that type of thing.
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Is there a concerted effort by the United States and France, and maybe some other countries now, to test, to probe, to just go out there, even though the Syrians obviously are furious?
MR. TONER: I don't know if I’d put it that way. I mean, I just would say that there’s a concerted effort to continue outreach to the Syrian opposition to go out and continue to serve as a witness to some of these events happening in places like Homs and other areas of the country, because that is what diplomats are supposed to do, especially in the absence of any kind of international monitoring presence or any kind of international media presence.
QUESTION: But this almost – I guess if you took it from the Syrian point of view, it would look like you’re playing with fire; you’re deliberately – if not inciting, but perhaps creating the circumstances in which the ambassador could be injured.
MR. TONER: Not at all. And as I said, the ambassador has been doing these kinds of meetings, has been carrying out these kinds of meetings. We’re going to continue to do so. It is what we do as diplomats overseas. He’s also tried to continue to meet with members of the Syrian Government to express our concerns to them. I can’t tell you how successful he’s been lately; I’ll need to check on that. But this is what we do. This is our role as diplomats in countries – I’ll get to you David, sorry – and we’re going to continue to carry out those. But there’s no incitement to it at all. And in fact, as I just explained to Matt, it – he came in a very discrete manner, parked a block or so away from the actual meeting place, so this wasn’t an attempt in any way to draw attention to what he was doing.
QUESTION: What do you think of these broader Syrian allegations that the United States is inciting violent opposition to the government? Even you have been cited personally on this.
MR. TONER: Yeah. David, it’s another attempt by the Syrian Government, I think, to make this about us versus them when it really is about the Syrian Government against its own people. And it’s really about the courage and determination of the Syrian people who continue to stand up, day after day, to express their universal rights in the face of ongoing brutality and violence.
QUESTION: And many in the oppositions now are calling because of this for a no-fly zone on Syria. Are you going to reject that?
MR. TONER: What I can say about that is that we’ve – we have, to date, in our continuing contact with members of the opposition as well as leaders and folks involved in these ongoing protests is that they want them to remain nonviolent and they don’t want international military and intervention. In terms of whether they are now using air force assets, I’ll have to look into that.
QUESTION: So when the ambassador – when the Syrian security forces finally arrived and cleared this path, the ambassador and his people went back to the Embassy in the vehicles that had arrived, the damaged vehicles?
MR. TONER: Good question. I believe they went into the RSO vehicles, but I’m not absolutely certain on that.
QUESTION: And when you said that --
MR. TONER: And there was actually, Matt – there was a Syrian escort, Syrian police escort that brought them back to the Embassy.
QUESTION: So what happened to the cars that they actually came in and parked a block or so away?
MR. TONER: Do not know.
QUESTION: So they could still be there, sitting in the middle of the street.
MR. TONER: I don't know.
QUESTION: Were those identified as U.S. Embassy vehicles as well?
MR. TONER: Yeah. They probably would have plates --
QUESTION: All right. And then you said that there was serious damage done to these vehicles, that – it wasn’t – they were obviously drivable, though?
MR. TONER: Broken windows, dents – they were drivable, but broken windows, significant damage to the exterior. These are armored vehicles, of course, so they’re pretty well protected.
QUESTION: Okay. And then the last one. Just are there going to be – what is the consequence of this? You expect – I think you said you expect that the ambassador will continue to go about his job and go out and meet people when it is appropriate. But what about for broader implications for the U.S.? Are there any from this incident or you regard it as – you don’t regard it as isolated, obviously --
MR. TONER: No. As we said, it’s part of --
QUESTION: -- but what does this mean in terms of your policy? And more specifically directly to this incident, I mean, will you submit a bill for these damages to the Syrian Government?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’ll look into that second part and take that.
QUESTION: You did, by the way -- I think you charged them for the Embassy.
MR. TONER: I think we did that the first time. I believe so. So I’ll look into that question.
QUESTION: So in fact – while you’re looking into that, can you find out if they ever paid up?
MR. TONER: If they ever paid.
QUESTION: Or how much?
MR. TONER: Fair enough. Matt, it is not an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern that we’ve seen where they are trying to intimidate diplomats from carrying out duties such as what Ambassador Ford has tried to do, which is visit different parts of Syria to see what’s going on firsthand as well as meet with opposition figures. And as Jill pointed out, it’s not isolated to us. The French and others have been – have also been harassed.
It – they obviously have their obligations as signers to the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs, and we expect them to live up to those obligations. Moving forward, this is, in essence, a sideshow from what is really happening in Syria, which is a government that continues to carry out a brutal campaign against civilians who are simply trying to stand up for their basic human rights.
So the stakes haven’t changed here. We’re going to continue to carry out our duties as best we can, and we’re going to expect that the Syrian security forces protect our Embassy – excuse me – and protect our people.
QUESTION: Okay. You hold the Syrian Government responsible for this assault?
MR. TONER: Again, it was – we do believe it was part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate our diplomats, yes.
QUESTION: By the government, not just by random pro-Asad people and --
MR. TONER: We believe by the government.
QUESTION: Can you give us a readout about the Secretary’s meeting with the prime minister of Kuwait today?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I don’t have a readout. Obviously, they discussed – you mentioned she met with the Kuwaiti Prime Minister Nasser al Sabah, yeah, earlier today. Beyond the fact that they clearly reaffirmed our strong bilateral relationship with Kuwait and discussed many of the developments happening in the region involving the Arab spring, but also other issues, including Middle East peace, I don’t have a specific readout.