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Middle East Digest - October 19, 2011


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October 19, 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 October 19, 2011

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QUESTION: Thank, you Mark. Thanks. Regarding the weapons, U.S. weapons sale to Bahrain –

MR. TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: -- what exactly needs to happen for this arms sale to go through?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there was a notification process to Congress. That’s been completed. There are several more procedural steps that remain. And so, I think I said yesterday, I talked about a process, it’s hard for me to put a timeline on it, but this isn’t going to be immediate by any – by – in any sense. But as we move forward, as I said yesterday, we’re going to continue to consider all of the elements on the ground, including human rights. And I did talk about yesterday, we’re awaiting the findings of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry that’s due out, I think, on October 30th. And so we’ll look at that. We’ll weigh those findings, and we’re going to continue to look at human rights as we move forward.

So, we’ve passed one phase. There’s more to this process than congressional notification. As we move forward for these items, which as I said, are for the external defense of Bahrain, we’re going to continue to assess the human rights situation.

QUESTION: There – is there concern that the United States has supported pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, but in this case the weapons could be used – or have been in the past even used – against pro-democracy protesters in the kingdom of Bahrain?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You’re talking about these types of – I mean, obviously this sale hasn’t gone through, and any sale of weapons that are, again I must underscore, are for external defense purposes would also have end-use monitoring elements to it. So we always, whenever we conduct a defense – a sale of defense articles, we always have an end-use monitoring, where we make sure – ensure that these are – that these items are being used for what they were intended to be used for.

Yeah. Ilhan. Ilhan and then –

QUESTION: Just still on this topic.

MR. TONER: Oh. Okay. Great. That’s okay. Stay on Bahrain.

QUESTION: This topic. I mean, Bahrain’s use of weapons and military action was only used against its people. So how would you guarantee that these weapons would be used only in the defense of Bahrain? I mean, after all, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is out there to protect Bahrain. I don’t think it’s threatened by foreign adversaries, at least not in the short term. So these weapons so far have been used against the people. So what kind of guarantees you have --

MR. TONER: Well, Said, again, let me just underscore that this is not a done deal, as they say. There’s other steps to this process, and certainly human rights will be under consideration – under review throughout the process. But we also support Bahrain’s right to defend itself and to seek to defend itself. And, as I just said, whenever we conduct these kinds of sales, whether they be to Bahrain or elsewhere in the world, we always include an end-use monitoring component that allows us to see if these are being used for the purpose for which they were intended.

QUESTION: Okay, on – just to understand the technical aspect of this thing.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Now this – the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – I think they have some sort of a defense pact, so –

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Okay. So how does that work into all these countries? Does that have to be, sort of, coordinated with all of them, one at a time? If it’s used in defense, do they have to coordinate with all these countries?

MR. TONER: That’s really a question that you’ll have to pose to the Bahraini Government. They’ve come to us for these defense articles, but it’s not for us to coordinate within the GCC. That’s for them to do so.

QUESTION: Okay. I guess my question would be: So it would be okay from the U.S. point of view, if these weapons fall, let’s say, in the hands of the Kuwaitis or the hands of the Qataris or the hands of the Emirates, correct?

MR. TONER: Look, I’m not aware of any sharing agreement that they might have for defense articles. Again, any weaponry that we – or any defense articles that we sold to any country would be, as I said, subject to end-use monitoring.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: If Congress doesn’t block the sale, when would the transfer happen, hypothetically? Like, what is the time frame we’re looking at?

MR. TONER: Yeah. And it’s a fair question. It’s hard for me really to put a firm date on it. As I said, there’s procedural steps that need to be taken. It’s a matter of months, not days or weeks.

QUESTION: What happens with your end-use monitoring if you determine that the weapons are not being used for what you thought they were. You ask them to return them and you give a refund, or – (laughter) – or you call them out on it, or what?

MR. TONER: It’s a fair question. I think it’s a question that Toria, in fact, took last week about what are the consequences or repercussions.

QUESTION: Did she?

MR. TONER: I’ll try to find out a more detailed answer for you, what’s actually entailed when we do find that there have been unintended uses.

Yeah, Ilhan.

QUESTION: On Turkey. Thank you.

QUESTION: On Bahrain. Excuse me.

QUESTION: Oh, let’s stay on Bahrain.

QUESTION: Are the Bahraini’s pushing on the table the threat they feel coming from Iran to try to convince you to try to close the deal on this arms sale?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Are you talking about the Bahraini Government in terms of --

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. TONER: Look, first of all, I’m not going to talk about what our private diplomatic exchanges may be with the Bahraini Government. They have a right to defend themselves, though, to – from external threats, and they’re seeking to do so through this sale to give their military additional capabilities. We – as I said, we’re moving forward in a very deliberate fashion to ensure that these articles are, in fact, used for what they’re intended to be used for.

Yeah. Turkey, and then –

QUESTION: Today, in southeast of Turkey, there was a terror attack, and according to latest numbers, 24 Turkish soldiers got killed, and wondered what’s your reaction to that, first of all?

MR. TONER: Well, you saw the White House statement – the statement from the President that strongly condemned this morning’s outrageous terrorist attack against Turkey. We stand in solidarity with the Turkish people and condemn in the strongest possible terms these attacks in Turkey’s Hakkari province. They demonstrate a disturbing uptick in violence comparable to the level of the 1990s, and again, we express our deepest condolences, and we stand with our NATO ally Turkey and its fight against the PKK and in solidarity with the Turkish people.

QUESTION: President Obama also wants to cooperate with Turkey. Is there any specific steps that the U.S. Government is ready to do?

MR. TONER: Well, as you know, we’ve cooperated in the past on counterterrorism against the PKK. We do condemn them as a terrorist organization and demand that they cease their terrorist activities, and we’re going to continue to cooperate with Turkey in combating the scourge of the PKK.

QUESTION: Do you think you are going to –

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything concrete to point to, but our existing cooperation will certainly continue.

QUESTION: Turkish Government has been seeking to get some drones and other new arms to fight against PKK. Do you think –

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything on that for you.

QUESTION: On this issue, Mark, in the past, Turkey has pursued the PKK into Iraqi-Kurdistan territory and other places. Would you support Turkey if it conducts such operations?

MR. TONER: Well, I think we would – we look to both Turkish and Iraqi authorities to cooperate and coordinate and work together to combat the PKK. There’s certainly – they certainly have a shared interest. We encourage always Iraq’s neighbors to respect its sovereignty by cooperating closely with the Government of Iraq in combating these terrorist groups that operate along the border region. And indeed, these are a common enemy to both Turkey and Iraq.

QUESTION: Is it, to the best of your knowledge, there is no, let’s say, safe haven for the PKK in any Syrian territory?

MR. TONER: In any Syrian?

QUESTION: Syrian territory.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Look, as I said, we’re going to continue to work with Turkey to combat the PKK. I don’t know about safe havens in Syria, but we’re certainly going to try to increase our counterterrorism cooperation to go after the PKK.

QUESTION: Okay, but --

QUESTION: Do you if these – what (inaudible) calls have been made from here to Turkey in raising this issue?

MR. TONER: Not yet. No.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. No.

QUESTION: One more question. Even though U.S. Government has been helping in terms of intelligence as the public statements we know since 2009, there is this anti-American sentiment in Turkey again today as well.

MR. TONER: Anti-American –

QUESTION: Anti-American sentiment over this new terror attack. Some argue that still it’s some kind of link between these attacks and the U.S. presence in Iraq. How do you explain to these differing opinions, and it is growing actually?

MR. TONER: How do you speak to – look, I can’t be any clearer, Ilhan, that we view the PKK as a terrorist organization, as an enemy of both the U.S. and Turkey. And we’ve been cooperating, as you said, for many years now in combating them.

QUESTION: And this second question: Do you think that the withdrawal process of U.S. troops from the region, from the northern Iraq and all over the Iraq, will cause any void of authority in the region?

MR. TONER: We have confidence in Iraq’s security forces to maintain both external and internal security, and – otherwise, we wouldn’t be moving forward with our withdrawal.

QUESTION: What is the role of U.S. presence in the region? I mean, you are providing the air security now in northern Iraq? What is the exact role of U.S. presence in the – for – in terms of Iraq – northern Iraq security?

MR. TONER: Well, again, we’ve been – as we’ve been moving towards the January 1st withdrawal date, we have been ceding more and more areas to the control of Iraqi security forces as they’ve grown in the strength of their own capabilities. I’m not sure what the situation right now is in northern Iraq. I’d have to get those details, or I just would encourage you to contact the Department of Defense.

QUESTION: Are you considering a kind of trilateral security agreement between Iraq, U.S., and Turkey?

MR. TONER: I missed that. I – Arshad, just – sorry, but I missed the – sorry. (Laughter.) You’re not distracting. Sorry, I just missed the question.

QUESTION: Are you considering a kind of trilateral security agreement --

MR. TONER: A trilateral security agreement?

QUESTION: Trilateral security agreement between Iraq, Turkey, and U.S. –

MR. TONER: Again, I would just say that we’re working to have better coordination and cooperation both between the U.S. and Turkey against the PKK, but also, importantly, between Iraq and Turkey.

QUESTION: On this very issue, Mark, are you having separate talks with the Government of – the governor of Kurdistan, the President Barzani of the northern province of Kurdistan or his prime minister, Nechervan Barzani?

MR. TONER: On this specific issue?

QUESTION: On this specific issue, because in the past, there has been a great deal of animosity between Turkey and the government in northern Iraq and Kurdistan. So are you sort of gearing talks or seeing – overseeing talks between Turkey and Kurdistan independent of Iraq?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ll take that question. Certainly, our aim is to – as I said is to enhance cooperation between Iraq and Turkey and to focus both countries’ efforts on ending the scourge of the PKK.

QUESTION: This final clarification. In the past, you stated clear stance and support for Turkey to cross-border operation, just a month ago actually, and there are different reports now. It is your stance still to support Turkish military operation? Some say already some of them inside –

MR. TONER: I would just say that we certainly recognize Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. We also certainly encourage Turkey to work closely with the Government of Iraq to combat this threat.

Yeah. Christophe.

QUESTION: There are elections – thank you, Mark. There are elections in Tunisia on Sunday, and the Islamists there have warned against the manipulation of the vote. Basically, what they say is that they would organize an uprising if they are not happy with the results. So do you have a comment on that? And do you have a comment, as well, on the fact that apparently according to the polls, the Islamists are well ahead of any other party in Tunisia right now?

MR. TONER: Well, Christophe, you’re right in that the people of Tunisia do approach a significant milestone in their transition, which is the first democratic election in the country’s modern history, on October 23rd. The right to choose their leaders now belongs to the Tunisian people, and we’re confident that they’re going to exercise that right. And in the run-up and certainly during the elections, we encourage the Government of Tunisia as well as the independent elections commission to ensure fairness, transparency of the electoral process, which includes unfettered and secure access to voting stations, timely, accurate – and timely, accurate release of the results.

In answer to your second question first, the composition of the Tunisian Government is ultimately a matter for the Tunisian people to determine, and we’ve seen in Tunisia as elsewhere across the region that people have demanded political change in the form of a government that’s representative and accountable to the people. We believe these governments should be inclusive of the broad spectrum of civil society, and it’s only natural that religious parties are going to play a role in that democratic process. I guess where we would draw the line is that, as your first question implied, the uses for – the use of violence for political purposes cannot ever be tolerated, and any political party that may use violence to that end cannot be a credible partner in the democratic transition in Tunisia.

QUESTION: Different topic?

QUESTION: On this topic, but you don’t have any problems with Islamists garnering a great deal of power as a result of the vote?

MR. TONER: I think I just said that we want any government in Tunisia to include a – to be inclusive of the broad spectrum of civil society, and that certainly includes religious parties.

QUESTION: Mark?

QUESTION: Right here.

MR. TONER: You have Tunisia? Okay. Tunisia’s done. You are next, Kirit.

QUESTION: I had a question following up on the one I asked yesterday about whether there was consular access for the Iranian American who was detained last week.

MR. TONER: Yeah. And I didn’t get that for you, and I apologize. You mean – you’re talking about whether there’s actually been --

QUESTION: Whether there has – whether there’s been a decision to allow it, and then whether there has been.

MR. TONER: Well, I think I said we’ve encouraged – even though dual citizens aren’t required under the Vienna Convention to be allowed access, consular access, in this case and in other cases we’ve said that we would support such access. I don’t know if it’s been granted. I will find out --

QUESTION: Do you know if it’s been requested?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ll find out (inaudible).

QUESTION: And I’m curious why you keep mentioning the fact --

MR. TONER: I apologize. I forgot that.

QUESTION: I’m curious why you keep mentioning the fact that you’re not obligated to give consular access, seeing how this is – the complaints you always have with the Iranians when they arrest an American citizen in their country that they don’t feel that they are obligated to provide consular access to you.

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: I’m curious why you have to – feel the need to caveat this every single time.

MR. TONER: Because – I mean, because we deal in a very legalistic environment in diplomacy, and so it’s important to say that we are not required by law or under our obligations under the Vienna Conventions to grant access. That said, we do support it. I think that’s the point. And in many cases, as you’ve suggested, in other cases with dual citizens in Iran, that that access has not been granted.

QUESTION: So is it fair to say, then, in that case, that you plan to do so in this case?

MR. TONER: We would support it, yes. We would support access. I just need to find out whether it’s been actually asked for and whether it has been granted. I will do so. We’ll do that as a taken question.

QUESTION: Another question, if I may have – yesterday, Mr. Professor Akbar Zaidi was speaking at the Carnegie Institution. He’s a professor at the Colombia University for International Affairs. What he gave accounts yesterday of India-Pakistan and India-U.S. and U.S.-Pakistan relations and economics. What he said the time has come now for India and Pakistan to work together, and especially Pakistan’s time is now is now to recognize that India is a power, and without India, Pakistan has no existence as far as security and trade and other issues are concerned. But he said the problem is that Pakistan is being run by the two governments, not one. One is civilian, and one is military. But without military, civilian government cannot do anything; maybe U.S. can help in this situation. So what do you have to say about his comments?

MR. TONER: It sounds like it was very interesting academic analysis of the situation – (laughter) – in Pakistan. I’m not trying to be facetious. But our policy remains that, as I’ve said many times before, that we need good relations between Pakistan and India. We need good, constructive relations between India and Afghanistan, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that all three countries can prosper and increase stability and peace in the area. Certainly, an important element of that in Pakistan and elsewhere is strengthening democratic institutions and democratic governance.

QUESTION: And finally, if I may quick, General Musharraf is in town and he has been – he had on and off almost two, three weeks and now he is going to speak again at the Carnegie, but he’s looking, I understand, for some kind of think tank job in Washington. One, if he has met anybody from the State Department, if he’s in touch with anybody here?

MR. TONER: I’ll take the question whether he’s had any meetings here at the State Department.

QUESTION: On Yemen, there are reports today that President Saleh has now said that he is ready to sign the GCC proposal as long as the U.S., Europe, and the Gulf states provide guarantees for implementing the proposal. Have you seen those reports and do you have any --

MR. TONER: Guarantees for?

QUESTION: Implementing the proposal is what he said.

MR. TONER: Right. Well, the – I would just say I have seen those reports, and the GCC, the EU, and the United States have repeatedly stated our unequivocal support for a political transition on the basis of the GCC agreement. I’ve said that many, many times from the podium. So we don’t believe any further guarantees are necessary. We would just urge that President Saleh fulfill his pledge to sign the GCC agreement without further delay, arrange for a presidential election to be held before the end of the year within the agreement – within the framework of that agreement.

QUESTION: So you’re not worried that the Secretary General of the United Nations refused to issue guarantees to Saleh and his family to be immune from prosecution, and as a result this may cause him to stay and remain as long as he can in power?

MR. TONER: Again, the GCC agreement was agreed to after many months of negotiations by both the ruling party and the opposition parties in Yemen, so the Yemenis would decide any contents and details of any political agreement that was reached. We, the United States, support accountability and have called for independent investigations of human rights abuses in Yemen.

But again, I think we’re losing focus here. The real issue is on President Saleh – or the real issue is President Saleh and his continued refusal to sign the agreement. He’s reneged on his promise to – or pledge to sign the agreement several times now. We believe that this agreement has been carefully vetted and agreed to by all the parties in Yemen, and so we should be able to move forward. He should be able to sign it.

QUESTION: So you don’t see the – a bargain for immunity for him and his family as being part of any agreement?

MR. TONER: We don’t – your question?

QUESTION: You don’t see that immunity from prosecution as being any part of any bargain of him to depart from power?

MR. TONER: Again, I – the GCC agreement, we believe, answers these questions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: A different topic?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I believe you were asked yesterday if Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was going to meet any U.S. officials while he is in town.

MR. TONER: He is, and I know we pledged to issue a taken question about it. In fact, it was – so he’s here on a very short, private visit. He doesn’t have any meetings, so I thought it best to just answer the questions.

QUESTION: Really?

QUESTION: So there are no meetings?

MR. TONER: There’s no meetings here that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: That’s interesting. And even though the question of how the Palestinian Authority continues to finance itself remains very much an open question, and even though you have many members on the Hill who said that they would oppose continued U.S. funding --

MR. TONER: And I don’t know whether he’s having any meetings on the Hill. I can’t answer that aspect of it.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. TONER: I know he doesn’t have any meetings in the Department.

QUESTION: Mark, last week --

QUESTION: Hold on, sorry. With the Administration or with the State Department? Do you know if he has an NSC meeting, for example, or something?

MR. TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: So you only know about the State Department, okay.

QUESTION: Last week when asked --

MR. TONER: My impression from – sorry, just to finish – my impression that his visit was more private than in his official capacity.

QUESTION: I understand that – even that – at one of the Palestinian organizations in town. But last week when asked, Victoria said that he was going to meet with someone. She didn’t know who or at what level, but she did say --

MR. TONER: You’re talking about Fayyad?

QUESTION: Yes, with Fayyad, so – who is here in town. He’s speaking in town, but you – there is no – is that something new or (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: That he’s not meeting with somebody? Again, he’ll be in Washington. At this point, no meetings are scheduled, so --

QUESTION: One last question.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: There is U.S.-Israeli citizen being held in Egypt and there are --

MR. TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: -- talks underway to release him in exchange for, like, 800 Egyptians that are being held by Israelis. Are you aware of that?

MR. TONER: Again, I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday when she was on the ground in Libya and said simply that we want to see him released. I’m not aware of any talks.

QUESTION: On Syria, Turkish foreign minister just yesterday met with Syrian National Council that was formed in Turkey.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Some argue that this is the right step in the recognition of the SNC? First of all, are you considering to take similar steps to meet with the Syrian National Council anytime soon?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I – we’ve – we have met with and will continue to meet with members of the Syrian opposition and – going forward. And we’re also seeing this Syrian opposition and this – and in part, the Syrian Transitional National – Transitional National Council, is that right – the Syrian National Council, I think, is what it’s called – continue to coalesce and grow. We believe it’s one of the major voices within the Syrian opposition. We’re still seeing the Syrian opposition coalesce. We maintain contacts both within Syria and outside with Syrian activists and expatriates as we move forward. It’s an important element of our strategy.

QUESTION: So you are saying you met with this particular council?

MR. TONER: I don't know if we’ve had meetings with the council that’s in Turkey now. I’ll take your question.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

QUESTION: What’s your reaction to Libya? The Libyan National Council recognized the Syrian National Council as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people.

MR. TONER: Again --

QUESTION: Do you welcome the Libyan --

MR. TONER: Well, I think that we’re beginning to see, as we move forward, as the violence continues, as the Syrian people continue to stand up to Asad and his regime, an important element of this is that the opposition begin to truly come together to coalesce and represent the desires of the Syrian people, and we’re beginning to see that.

Thanks.



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