1:03 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. Very briefly at the top, did want to note that Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell will travel to Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Brunei, Thailand, and China October 5th through 11th, 2011. We’re going to release a media note in a little while with more details, but just wanted to note his travel. And that’s all I have at the beginning. So I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: So can you give us a little bit more information, if you have it, on what happened to Ambassador Ford and his convoy today?
MR. TONER: Sure. I’ll try to.
QUESTION: I have some specific questions.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: One, I mean – well, go ahead and say it, and then I’ll – (laughter) – tell me what you have, and then I’ll ask questions.
MR. TONER: I’m sure we’ll get through everything and all your questions as well. I’ll try to answer them as best I can. 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.
So go ahead with your questions.
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.
Yeah. Go ahead, Christophe.
QUESTION: Have you heard that the Ambassador might not be able to get out of the Embassy anymore, for his own safety?
MR. TONER: Well, look –well, in fact, our Embassy was attacked by a similar mob not too long ago. I know that Assistant Secretary Feltman and others have spoken with Ambassador Ford. I exchanged emails with him. He is calm, he is resolute, and he is determined to continue to carry out his duties.
QUESTION: Is he going to stay --
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.
Go ahead, David.
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.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: It appears to be that they were using air force to – the Syrian army --
MR. TONER: I have not seen those reports. I would just say that to this --
QUESTION: In Al Jazeera and the papers --
MR. TONER: I mean, we’ve seen, obviously, credible reports that they’ve used in the past against protestors, armor and other weapons, but I’ve not seen to this date use of – confirmation --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Homs and a couple cities today --
MR. TONER: I’ll have to look into that.
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: I’ve got a couple more technical, logistic questions.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Matt. Sure.
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: You said that the Ambassador’s visit was supposed to be discrete; apparently somebody got the information. Do you have any idea how?
MR. TONER: No idea, and I just would say that he’s not trying to – by discrete, I mean he’s not trying to call attention to his actions, he’s simply trying to carry out what he believes are his basic and important duties as an ambassador in a country like Syria – to continue to meet with the opposition.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, you just – I believe you said that you had – between your meetings with the Syrian opposition, you don’t see a kind of a united front in terms of asking, demanding for a no-fly zone?
MR. TONER: Again, we have not – what we’ve seen – and what we’ve heard, to be more accurate, is a desire for this to be a nonviolent movement, and for it to be a Syrian-led movement. And, frankly, it is a Syrian-led movement, and what we’ve seen so far on the part of Syrian opposition is tremendous courage in the face of violence.
Yeah. Michael had a question.
MR. TONER: Ok, we want to finish with Syria, then we’ll get to Cyprus.
QUESTION: At the end of last month when Ambassador Ford faced another problem like this, you immediately imposed tough sanctions on the Syrian foreign minister and the advisor to Asad, and the ambassador of Syria in Lebanon. Are you considering any measures now?
MR. TONER: Well, we’re – I would just say – in response to that, I would just say we continue to look at ways to increase pressure, ways to tighten noose – whatever metaphor you want to use – on the Syrian regime. And to that end, we’re still – obviously, there’s ongoing negotiations in the UN Security Council with regards to a resolution on Syria.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, I have one more. Turkish prime minister is supposed to visit the border camps, refuge to the Syrian opposition figures. And it is expected that he’s going to impose some sanctions. Have you been coordinating with Turkish Government in terms of sanctions on the Syrian Government?
MR. TONER: Well, I think we’ve been coordinating not just with Turkey, but with a variety of countries both in the region as well as their partners in the EU and elsewhere. The idea being we’re trying build up – build momentum. I think we’ve said before it’s been tough, but frankly, the Asad regime has been doing a pretty good job themselves in building up international consternation against their actions and then isolating themselves to a great extent. But we continue to coordinate with Turkey. We understand that they’re bearing a very real sacrifice with the refugee situation and we commend them for what they’ve done so far.
Yeah. Go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: Can I go back to the Ford attack, please?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you tell us how long it was between when they made the call for a Syrian security back-up and then when they arrived?
MR. TONER: I will. I don’t have a really good timeline. What I have is that they entered into the building, were met by a group of pro-regime demonstrators, so they entered into the opposition leader’s office, secured the door, and then began to – and then at that point, I think they called for – obviously, for assistance.
QUESTION: And reports indicate, and from those on the scene, I think that the opposition leader who they were meeting with spoke about this, that it was at least an hour between when they called --
MR. TONER: I’ve seen that as well.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about that timeframe? That it was that – too long for –
MR. TONER: Well certainly, yeah. I mean, I think it’s – it is concerning that it took that long.
QUESTION: Are you offering any – or is anybody going to complain formally to the Syrian Government, either here in Washington or in Damascus, about this?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve raised and will likely raise another for this incident at the highest levels of the Syrian Government and are demanding that steps be taken by them to protect our diplomats.
QUESTION: That has or will happen?
MR. TONER: It’s kind of in train. I mean, we’re – we’ve done it obviously in Damascus.
QUESTION: You have done it in Damascus. What level was that?
MR. TONER: I will find out. I would expect our Ambassador had some words but –
QUESTION: With the foreign minister or with someone else?
MR. TONER: -- I’ll find out with whom he spoke with in the ministry.
QUESTION: Okay. And then there’s a bunch of reports in the region about accusing the Ambassador’s convoy of having run over a young boy. Do you --
MR. TONER: Yeah, I did see those reports and actually reached out to Ambassador Ford himself, and it’s ludicrous. He actually left as part of a – as I said, that it was Syrian security forces basically escorting their vehicles out. He said there was no incident involving hitting anyone, any civilians.
QUESTION: And they talked about – sorry, did they talk also about his security team having drawn guns on the crowd and that kind of thing? So can you speak to that at all?
MR. TONER: I don’t. He was unable to verify that either way. But, so I – again, my understanding was that the – there was a response by the Embassy regional security officers, who arrived in their vehicles. Their vehicles were set upon, frankly, by demonstrators and damaged – badly damaged. And again, these were armored vehicles, so they were dented, windows broken, so it was pretty severe. And again, and – at that point, I believe the security – Syrian security forces arrived and began securing the area.
QUESTION: And then just to close the loop on it, there’s no chance that those guys, when arriving, would have been the ones who may have hit somebody along – on the way in or anything like that?
MR. TONER: Again, I checked specifically. No one was hit. We believe that that’s erroneous.
QUESTION: Mark, just a couple of things: The demonstrators were not armed with guns, were they?
MR. TONER: No, they weren’t armed with guns that I’m aware of or any kind of weapons. They did have tomatoes, as I mentioned, and were – they were banging on the vehicles. I’m not sure that – whether they had any sticks or stones or things like that.
QUESTION: And just one last thing: The Ambassador, of course, has gone off to other parts of Syria --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- without permission because he said they never give permission anyway. Does that still remain the intent of the ambassador, that he will travel wherever he wants?
MR. TONER: I think he’ll continue to seek or work and – sorry, I think he’ll continue to alert the Syrian Government, as is diplomatic protocol, but he’s not going to let that stand in his way from carrying out his duties. That said, I don’t know that he has any specific travel plans at this point.
QUESTION: Last one from me on this: I just want to – the reports out are that he was meeting with Hassan Abdul Azim, the opposition leader. Can you confirm that that’s who the meeting was with?
MR. TONER: Can I get back to you on that? I’m not sure I want to --
QUESTION: If you don’t mind, that would be great. Thanks.
MR. TONER: Confirm – yeah, okay. Thank you. There may be some sensitivity.
Go ahead, Michael.
QUESTION: Mark, I have a question --
QUESTION: But he’s the one who was originally quoted, so --
MR. TONER: Right, I’m aware.
MR. TONER: I just want to double-check. Thanks, though.
Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, I have a question on Cyprus. Previously, you said, and I quote, that “The United States supports Cyprus’s right to explore for natural gas.” You also said that the U.S. Government support the activities of Noble Energy and energy diversity in Europe. Yesterday, Mrs. Nuland said something else. Can you tell us exactly --
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: -- the real U.S. position on the Cyprus drillings?
MR. TONER: Sure, Michael. Thank you, and I appreciate you actually asking the question, because I do want to be very clear, and I do believe that Toria was clear yesterday but perhaps some of her quotes were taken a bit out of context. But let me just walk you through our position.
The United States supports Cyprus’s right to explore for energy. Having a U.S. company involved in developing the energy resources of Cyprus is also positive. The United States continues to support strongly the Cypriot-led negotiation process, conducted under UN good offices, to reunify the island into a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. That has not changed. We continue to believe that the island’s oil and gas resources, like all of its resources, should be equitably shared between both communities in the context of an overall settlement. And we don’t believe that developing offshore energy resources need hinder those reunification talks.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the threats by the prime minister of Turkey against Cyprus? He even implied that he’s ready to invade again in Cyprus.
MR. TONER: Again, Michael, I just would say that there’s a very clear path forward here. There’s a Cypriot-led negotiation process being conducted under the UN. That’s the best way to resolve all of these issues.
QUESTION: So you are saying that the exploration at this stage does not hinder the reunification talks at the UN. Is this your position?
MR. TONER: That’s our position.
Yeah. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: India – go ahead.
QUESTION: Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary Burns made a statement that he encourages India to engage with the IAEA to look at whether its nuclear liability bill conforms with the CSC or not. Now, two questions, though: Firstly, does the U.S. consider the IAEA an appropriate platform or body to adjudicate on liability matters, and is there a precedent for that?
And secondly, by requesting India to do this, is the U.S.’s position that the liability bill does not, in fact, conform to the CSC?
MR. TONER: Can you just do me the courtesy of the – you said Under – you said Deputy Secretary --
QUESTION: Burns --
MR. TONER: Burns.
QUESTION: -- at a Brookings-sponsored dialogue.
MR. TONER: What did he say again? I apologize. I didn’t hear it.
QUESTION: He said that the U.S. encourages India to engage with the IAEA to judge whether its nuclear liability law conforms with the CSC, the Convention on Supplementary Compensation.
MR. TONER: Right. Again, I would direct you towards somebody who’s much more of an expert, but my understanding is that the IAEA would be the appropriate forum for these kinds of adjudications and these kind of decisions.
QUESTION: But they have – have they judged – made any judgments on the specific question of liability before?
MR. TONER: Before? I’d have to look into it. I’ll take the question.
QUESTION: Okay. And there’s a second part --
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: No. I don’t think it means that at all. But we certainly, as we move forward with a civil nuclear partnership, an agreement with India, we want to make sure that we do comply with international standards on nuclear energy.
QUESTION: But India has repeatedly said that it does comply with CSC, so what is the need to get the IAEA involved?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think I just said it would comply with international standards. So we seek that in all types of civil and nuclear deals, but I’ll take the question about whether – your – the first part.
QUESTION: Okay. But is there some standard besides CSC to which the U.S. is seeking India --
MR. TONER: I’ll have to take the question.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
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.
Yeah. Go ahead, David.
MR. TONER: That’s true.
QUESTION: -- Derek Mitchell. Any readout on that, and --
MR. TONER: Sure. I do have some points to share with you. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell, along with Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell, did meet with –oh sorry. I’m forgetting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner – all met on September 29th, today, with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and that was here at the State Department. And I’d just say this meeting follows on recent U.S. engagement efforts with Burmese – with the Burmese delegation at the UN General Assembly last week as well as Ambassador Mitchell’s travel to Burma earlier in September.
QUESTION: When was the last time a Burmese foreign minister was in the building? Any idea?
MR. TONER: I don’t know. I’d have to – I tried to find out. I’ll have to take that question for you.
QUESTION: Is there anything tangible in terms of the United States lifting sanctions on Burma? I think there are high-level sanctions on top officials who had --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Isn’t a lifting of a sanction for the guy to come in the building?
MR. TONER: Well, that’s another question I tried to get an answer for, and I don’t have that information. Look, we haven’t changed our basic approach to Burma, our policy, which is still a dual track approach of sanctions but also with principled engagement. But we do welcome recent developments in Burma, such as the Government of Burma’s ongoing dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. And we’re going to continue to encourage progress on all the core issues, and that includes the release of all political prisoners, as well as an inclusive dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities towards national reconciliation, and improvements in accountability on human rights, and an end to violence occurring in ethnic minority areas, as well as an adherence to relevant non-UN – or, sorry – to relevant UN nonproliferation resolutions.
Ambassador Mitchell, when he was there – I guess now several weeks ago; is that right? – said he was encouraged by his conversation with Burmese authorities, and I think we’re just trying to build on that momentum.
Is that it?
MR. TONER: Oh.
QUESTION: What are expecting tomorrow at the Security Council?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any expectations. They’re going to continue to – I’m sorry, you’re talking about the Palestinian statehood issue?
QUESTION: No. I was talking about Vanuatu or something. Of course I am. What else is going on in the Security Council?
MR. TONER: Well, they’re also talking about Syria. They’re debate – they’re negotiating a resolution --
QUESTION: Tomorrow on the Palestinian statehood bid.
MR. TONER: I’ll try to get a better sense of what to expect tomorrow. It continues, as I think Toria mentioned yesterday, to work its way through the process at the UN. But at the same time, we’re expecting a response from both the Israelis and the Palestinians on the Quartet statement.
QUESTION: Well, what – my question is very process-oriented. What is the procedure? What is the next step?
MR. TONER: I know, and I’ll get that for you. I mean, I know they’re going to discuss it tomorrow.
QUESTION: Right. I know, but is there going to be a vote tomorrow?
MR. TONER: It’s been – I don’t believe so, but I’ll try to find out. I mean, I would also refer you to USUN. They can probably answer it better than I can, but I’ll get you a better readout on the process if I can.
Is that it? Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:31 p.m.)
DPB # 144
*The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations specifies that the receiving government is expected to carry out and respect the obligations to protect and not impede the work of foreign diplomats in their countries.