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 28, 2010
MR. CROWLEY: And finally, just to reinforce the strong statement by Ambassador Susan Rice this morning at the United Nations, as she said, the United States welcomes the Secretary General’s most recent report on UN Security Council Resolution 1559, particularly its candid portrayal of the continuing threat to Lebanese sovereignty and security posed by the presence of Hezbollah and other armed militias in Lebanon. We continue to have deep concerns about Hezbollah’s destructive and destabilizing influence in the region, as well as attempts by other foreign players, including Syria and Iran, to undermine Lebanon’s independence and endanger its stability.
With that, Samir.
QUESTION: With these strong statements today and the other day, it looks like the meetings the Secretary had with the Syrian foreign minister and the visit by his deputy here to Washington didn’t lead to any improvements in relations with Syria. Do you agree on this?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, during the course of the Secretary’s meeting with Foreign Minister Mualem in New York, we spoke about a range of issues, but we were very clear about our expectation that Syria would play a more constructive role in the region. We expressed during that meeting our deep concern for Syrian interference with Lebanon’s sovereignty. We also expressed in that meeting hope that Syria would make progress in its thread of the Middle East peace process.
So we laid out for Syria our hopes for cooperation both regionally and bilaterally, but we did in that meeting, and we do not hesitate to express our concerns publicly and privately about Syria’s ongoing behavior.
QUESTION: Do you see any evidence that they have actually taken that message on board? I mean, I think, just to repeat Samir’s question, if you give them this message, it doesn’t seem like they’re listening if they’re still doing things that you have to complain about as publicly as Ambassador Rice did.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, but it’s one of the reasons why we have offered to engage Syria. We’ve had high-level meetings with Syrian officials. We do still hope to place an ambassador in Damascus so we have the opportunity both to continue to express our concerns, but at the same time, to offer the hope that Syria – we can improve our relationship bilaterally and Syria can play a more constructive role in the region.
QUESTION: So do you think that Syria and Iran are viewed equally as a destabilizing factor in Lebanon?
MR. CROWLEY: That’s – we are concerned about the behavior of both countries in the context of Lebanon. At last, I – obviously, we expressed our concerns about the attack on the staff of the tribunal of Lebanon as well. I mean, we – there’s a choice here for Syria. If it wants to have a better relationship with the United States, then it has to be a more constructive player in the region. And within the context of Lebanon, we remain very concerned about Syria’s activities – not only its ongoing support of Hezbollah, its attempted intimidation of a Lebanese Government, the ongoing provision of arms to Hezbollah in violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
So again, we will continue to engage Syria, but obviously, we all – we continue to have sanctions on Syria, and the choice is Syria’s.
QUESTION: But these signs that are coming out of Beirut and Damascus, both indicate that the Syrian president and the Lebanese prime minister have a very good and friendly relationship, that they are getting closer all the time, that there seems to be cooperation. So why this sudden kind of strong sentiment that Samir said?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, see, I’m not sure I would completely share that characterization, but obviously, Lebanon and Syria are neighbors. They have a history together. We would expect leaders of both countries to engage directly, but by the same token, Syria has to respect the sovereignty and security of Lebanon. And its ongoing support of a group like Hezbollah does – it undermines both Lebanon’s independence and Lebanon’s sovereignty. We will continue to support the Government of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon, and we would expect Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.
QUESTION: And lastly, Hezbollah is perceived as destabilizing or compromising the Lebanese sovereignty because of its relationship to Iran, for instance?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we’ve talked about many times, if you define sovereignty, one of the major elements of sovereignty is the monopoly on the use of force. The arms that Syria provides Hezbollah undermines the ability of the Lebanese Government to be the principal protector of the Lebanese people. And clearly, if you go look back in the history over the past few years, it was Syria’s and Iran’s provision of arms to Hezbollah that precipitated a regional conflict just four years ago.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: You’ve laid out the carrots that are offered to the Syrians, i.e., potential of better or improved U.S. relationships if they do these things you want them to do. What’s the consequences if they continue not, not to listen to you?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, there are sanctions against Syria. It still is listed on the terrorism list by the United States, and those have an impact. But if Syria wants the potential – a change in the relation with the United States, a change in opportunities that come with normal relations, then it has to improve its performance. Give you an example: Earlier this summer, technology leaders under the auspices of the State Department had a delegation that visited Damascus, and our message to the leaders (inaudible) Syria is very clear. You want leading technology companies from the United States and other areas of the world to invest in Damascus, then you’ve got to create the appropriate climate to encourage them to do that. You’ve got to have a climate where – change the relationship between the government and the people. So if this is, in fact, the ambition by the Syrian leadership, then it has to change its policies and its practices.
QUESTION: Why – just one last question. You mentioned that the U.S. still wants to send an ambassador to Damascus. I’m wondering why that is the case given that they’re not doing anything else you want them to do. Wouldn’t that be a concrete demonstration of U.S. displeasure about what could happen if they don’t stop what they’re doing, i.e., don’t send the ambassador?
MR. CROWLEY: I understand the question. We don’t send an ambassador to a country as a favor to that country. We send an ambassador to a country to serve the national interest of the United States. So our ambassador there would allow us to improve our ongoing dialogue and the ability to both inform Syria when we think there are clear opportunities, but also inform Syria very clearly where we think we have concerns about Syria’s policies and Syria’s behavior.
QUESTION: On another subject?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: I have a question about the Gaza flotilla incident. Yesterday, Turkish ambassador told a group of journalists that, in fact, the Mavi Marmara flotilla, had there been no intervention by the Israelis, in fact, was heading to Egypt. And Turks, apparently, informed both Israelis and Americans. As you can see, this changes the whole situation. Were you informed by the – about the route of this flotilla?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m – I will take that question, but my recollection is that the organizers of that flotilla made clear that their destination was Gaza, that is our recollection. But if that’s wrong –
QUESTION: Please, do take this.
MR. CROWLEY: -- we’ll correct the record.
QUESTION: P.J., this Inspector General’s report getting into the misuse of – alleged misuse of funds, et cetera, what do you have to tell us about that? There are quite –
MR. CROWLEY: All right, just to clarify, are we talking about the two SIGAR reports –
QUESTION: Yes, correct.
MR. CROWLEY: -- because there was also an IG report released, I think, today. There were two IG reports – there were two SIGAR reports released, I believe, yesterday. One, involving assistance to Nangarhar and the other involving training for our civilian surge into Afghanistan. Let me address both of them. Obviously, we have significantly increased the number of civilian assets in Afghanistan as part of our civilian-military strategy there. We have had significant training that has occurred and our capabilities here have increased over time to be able to properly prepare our Foreign Service officers, civilians – and civilians for service there. As we have ramped up our capabilities, we have, in fact, adapted our training programs back here, either here at the State Department, at the Foreign Service Institute, at Camp Atterbury where we do a lot of the training for Afghanistan. So this is an ongoing process, but we welcome the comments by SIGAR. In fact, we have incorporated many of those into changes and our training programs over the past year.
In the case of Nangarhar, the SIGAR report expressed concern about the coordination that we have with other agencies and the systems of accountability and their dealings with Afghan officials. We obviously have been very mindful of those concerns and that, in essence, this is part of our ongoing strategy. Things in Kabul like the ROC drill this week are designed to better integrate our activities across the United States Government and in between the United States Government, our Afghan partners and other international partners. And much of our strategy is focused on improving the capability and performance of Afghan – of the Afghan Government so we can have confidence that the assistance that we are providing is being properly employed.
So this is part of the process of building up capabilities in Nangarhar, but across Afghanistan so that we have confidence that as our assistance continues to flow into Afghanistan it is having the impact that we want it to have.
QUESTION: But is there a level of concern here at the State Department when you see a report like that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have stressed accountability for the past year or more as we have increased activity on the civilian side. We’re not surprised by the SIGAR report. We have – but it is part of our efforts to improve our cooperation with the Afghan Government and improve the ability of the Afghan Government to be responsible and accountable for the support that we do provide to them. I (inaudible) think we’re surprised that as we’re going through this we’re going to have reports like this that show weaknesses. We have understood that all along. And our efforts are concentrated on trying to improve the systems of the Afghan Government so that we can have the kind of accountability that is required.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) sort of a related question. I haven’t heard a number lately of the civilians boosted up since the – since some months ago when you said it had been tripled in the first (inaudible).
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is there any new number you have or could you furnish one to –
MR. CROWLEY: Actually, if things work out, Ambassador Holbrooke will be back tomorrow morning and wishes to come down to give you an update. I want to say, Charlie, it’s in the neighborhood of 1,200. We’ll double-check that.
MR. CROWLEY: But we’ll queue up Ambassador Holbrooke to kind of bring you up to date on where we are on that.
QUESTION: I’ll try and hold my breath until he shows up and gives a similar number. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Can we shift gears to the (inaudible)?
MR. CROWLEY: All right. Well, hold on.
QUESTION: An Israeli official told Al Hurra television yesterday that the chief – the Israeli chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, is in the U.S. continuing consultation with the Administration to overcome the problem of the settlement freeze. Can you tell us anything about this?
MR. CROWLEY: Mr. Molcho was in the United States earlier this week. He was here in Washington. He had meetings with U.S. officials. I actually don’t have a full list of who he consulted with. But he has returned to Israel.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: And any news on Mr. Mitchell’s plans?
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: Any news on Mr. Mitchell’s plans?
MR. CROWLEY: No, the senator remains in New York and we are continuing to – I mean, we – as the Secretary indicated in her speech the other day, he will return to the region, but we are still working the timing of that.
QUESTION: Was Senator Mitchell one of the people that the Israeli negotiator met with?
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: He did not meet with Senator Mitchell?
MR. CROWLEY: He was in New York. I mean, I have confidence that George has been on the phone with Yitzhak Molcho, but in the meetings here this week, I’m not aware that the senator was a part of them.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about the speech that Abbas gave saying that --
MR. CROWLEY: Am I concerned about what?
QUESTION: The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech in which he reiterated that they will not go back to the negotiating table unless there is a freeze on settlements. Is that – I mean, that’s much of the same thing that we keep hearing again and again. But what is your position? How will you move to sort of break the stalemate?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, Sayid, I mean, that is what we are doing intensively but quietly. We are having contacts with both sides – as you indicated, with Mr. Molcho, but with others. We’re trying to work through these challenges. We understand where we are and we understand that work needs to be done to get the parties back to the negotiating table. That’s exactly what we’re working on. And I don’t really have a progress report other than to say that this is something that we are working as aggressively as we can.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Andy.
QUESTION: Iran. You touched on it yesterday, but The New York Times has a report this morning which gives a lot more detail about the potential to restart discussion of the TRR deal with Tehran. They mentioned specifics in what they’re calling a U.S. proposal. The offer would require Iran to send more than 4,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium –
MR. CROWLEY: Right.
QUESTION: -- out of the country and also – and so forth. Can you tell us, are those – is that correct? Is the U.S. developing a proposal?
MR. CROWLEY: I would – David Sanger is an outstanding reporter, but I would – there is a difference between ideas that we continue to discuss with interested countries who are supporting the Vienna group process. We have shared many ideas with other countries, including Russia and France and others. This is in support of the P-5+1 process, as we have outlined before. We have not arrived at a consensus yet in terms of the – of how to update the TRR proposal that we put on the table just over a year ago. I think there is a recognition that an updated TRR proposal can be helpful as a confidence-building measure.
As I stressed yesterday, we should not confuse the advancement of a TRR proposal with the core concerns that we continue to have on Iran’s nuclear program and its character. But we are prepared should Iran return to the table to continue – to advance an updated TRR proposal. And crucially, it would have to be updated because we have to take into account Iran’s ongoing enrichment over the past 12 months. But as to – we’ve shared many ideas, but as to a particular updated agreement, we’re still working on it.
QUESTION: So just on the basic that – his first line, “The Obama Administration and its European allies are preparing a new offer,” that’s correct?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we still believe that the TRR proposal can have value. We are very mindful of discussions that did occur earlier this year among Iran, Turkey, and Brazil. In the Tehran declaration, Iran ostensibly continued to express interest in the TRR proposal. We’ve made clear that there are a number of shortcomings in the Tehran declaration, both about levels of material that would be involved and where it is shipped to and what are the authorities if that material were shipped outside of Iran.
But we continue to recognize that there is a potential value in updating the TRR proposal. We are talking to countries about that. Robert Einhorn is in Moscow as we speak consulting with Russia which is a member of the so-called Vienna Group that is supporting this proposal. So we continue to share ideas, listen to our partners, and we expect that – we expect or hope that we would be able to offer a revised TRR proposal to Iran should there be talks in the near future, but we are still working on the specific details.
QUESTION: Is that another way of saying yes?
MR. CROWLEY: What was the question? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: That you’re talking to your – that you’re working on a new proposal?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)