1:07 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: All right, everybody. Happy Thursday. I have nothing at the top. Let’s go to what’s on your minds.
QUESTION: Can we start with China? Have you had conversations with Chinese authorities about Mr. Chen’s relatives, including his nephew who is in detention, and about – I don’t know – half a dozen other family members who are either under house arrest or have restricted freedom of movement?
MS. NULAND: We have had contact with Chinese authorities about these concerning reports. Beyond that, we are awaiting further information on some of these issues.
QUESTION: Can you flesh out a little of that contact? Have you expressed your concern? Have you demanded that authorities in Shandong relax these restrictions?
MS. NULAND: Again, we’re not in a position ourselves – because we are not up in Shandong – to confirm these reports. So we’ve made inquiries. We’ve expressed our concern should there be any sense of reprisal, et cetera, but we are awaiting further information.
QUESTION: What would that say, considering the positive developments you had last week – hope to be positive when everything is implemented – what would that say if there are reprisals continuing against his relatives at a local level?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to speculate on this any further until we get some more information.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Anything else on this subject? No? Moving on.
MS. NULAND: I think Assistant Secretary Gordon testified this morning on the Hill with regard to the lay down for Chicago. I think the question of who is going to be invited is still something that we’re working on, but frankly I don’t know whether Gordon addressed this question this morning. But if there’s a definitive answer, I’ll get back to you. But I think the guest list is still something that we’re working on, particularly in the context of the ISAF meeting, which will have a larger participation.
QUESTION: But do you expect Pakistani leaders to represent at the Chicago summit?
MS. NULAND: Again, I think I said that we haven’t yet issued all of the invitations. Anything else on this? No?
In the back.
QUESTION: Are you going to invite countries from the MENA region to NATO summit?
MS. NULAND: From the –
QUESTION: MENA region.
MS. NULAND: Again, I think we’re not at the point of completing all of our participation for the NATO summit.
MS. NULAND: I can’t hear you.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Philippines said yesterday that Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta has pledged to honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, if Philippines were under attack in South China Sea, the U.S. will – would protect them from attack. Is this the case?
MS. NULAND: Well, first, with regard to the South China Sea in general and the ongoing dispute over this issue, as the Secretary has said many times – we’ll say it again – we urge that diplomatic efforts be used to resolve the current situation. We support any kind of collaborative, diplomatic process by the claimants to resolve the disputes without any kind of coercion, and in that regard, we urge restraint and we discourage any kind of escalation of tensions. We opposed the threat or use of force in any way.
That said, in the context of the visit here, as we always do when we meet with Philippine leaders, we reconfirmed our commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty.
QUESTION: So if the U.S. --
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into any hypotheticals. That was a very good effort though.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Is this – why this timing? Is this about the South China Sea dispute?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know that for many years the Administration has supported the Law of the Sea Treaty. We are working with the Congress now on a new push to see what we can do. And we think that we’ve always honored it in practice, so we think it would be a good thing for the United States if we could ratify it ourselves, but we also think it serves as a very good underpinning to help in mutual understanding and some rules of the road on these kinds of issues.
QUESTION: Are you --
MS. NULAND: Elise.
QUESTION: Is it on Philippines? Do you want to --
QUESTION: Philippines, yeah.
MS. NULAND: Go ahead, Lach.
QUESTION: Yeah. Are you concerned it could escalate? I mean, the Philippines – the Chinese travel agencies have announced that they’ve suspended tours to the Philippines under government orders and they’re telling Chinese there to stay indoors. Are you concerned it could slip out of control?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, beyond saying what I said at the front, that we are urging restraint from all parties, we’re discouraging any kind of escalation of tensions. I don’t want to get into hypotheticals.
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: I saw your statement on the – the statement today on the bombing – but I’m just wondering, one of the reasons that you talked about not a more robust kind of international military response to the crisis there is because you were afraid that this would spark a civil war, and that perhaps that would give an environment for chaos and for terrorist groups to flourish. But it definitely seems like that’s happening already, and I’m wondering if this changes your calculation at all.
MS. NULAND: Well, just to repeat here what we said in our statement earlier today, the United States condemns in strongest possible terms today’s attacks in Damascus. Any and all violence that results in the indiscriminate killing and injury of civilians is reprehensible and cannot be justified.
Look, we don’t have clear information about who’s responsible for today’s attacks, but we are concerned about the fact that this is a further indication that, far from having a ceasefire, the violence continues including in Damascus. And again, if the Assad regime were doing what it’s supposed to do, which is to lead the way in demonstrating its commitment to the ceasefire, then we think that that would set the tone and we would not be seeing these kinds of violent episodes elsewhere in the country.
So it’s very concerning. It very much worries us with regard to whether the Annan plan can be implemented. You heard UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – Kofi Annan himself issue a statement of concern, and frankly we don’t think that we have infinite time for this plan to work.
QUESTION: If he – go on.
QUESTION: Go ahead. I’ll --
QUESTION: If the Assad regime lays down its arms, wouldn’t it be more susceptible to these type of attacks right now?
MS. NULAND: Again, our view is that the onus from the beginning of this Annan period has been on Assad and his regime to lead, that if they were to put down their arms decisively, to be cooperative with the monitors, allow them to get into cities, that we would have more eyes on the street, we would have more ability to influence others who might be seeking to take up arms, and that in fact, it is the Assad regime that created this climate of violence that is causing not only folks to take up arms in defense, but is also providing an environment, potentially, for mischief to be made by others who don’t favor peace in Syria.
QUESTION: Well, granted that the Assad regime should have done a lot of things differently --
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a long, long time ago. In the current security situation right now, if it pulls back its security forces, their control over certain places, would not this open the door for more types of these attacks?
MS. NULAND: Our view remains that if they begin to implement this plan, and particularly when they begin to pull back their heavy weapons, we can use the monitoring mission to flood in monitors to those areas to provide a sense of international community presence, a sense of security to the people, and we can use those monitors also to establish stronger contacts with the revolutionary councils, with those with influence in the towns, encourage them to express themselves peacefully, and discourage other kinds of violence.
QUESTION: Right. I understand that, if these were opposition attacks, but we don’t know who did them. And so you can’t really judge the motives of the individuals who did them because you don’t have a claim of responsibility or a claim of motive, and you won’t even say who you suspect. So in that case, there might be elements who are trying to sow chaos for chaos’s sake. And what would a ceasefire really mean in that sense?
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, let me say that as we look at the kinds of attacks that we’ve had today, we don’t view these elements or their tactics as representative of where the Syrian – the legitimate Syrian opposition wants to be. They appear to operate separately from the more established opposition. So our view remains that if, in a town like Homs, in a town like Hama, in the Damascus suburbs, you were able to get a pullback of Syrian forces – regime forces – and you were able to put monitors in to some of these places that have been most fragile, first of all, you could work collaboratively on a democratic, peaceful transition process with a broad cross-section of Syrians represented in those towns.
But also, it would provide more international support for peace in general and create conditions that would be much more difficult for spoilers to use to exploit. And you would have peaceful protest, you would have people out in the street talking about the future, and it would be much, much more difficult for, as you say, these potential third elements that want to be wreckers of this process to operate. I’m not saying it would be decisive, but I’m saying it would certainly help the situation as compared to where we are now.
QUESTION: Couple of things.
MS. NULAND: Yes, please.
QUESTION: First of all, in the past, you have voiced suspicion that there was al-Qaida operatives operating in Syria that could be responsible for some of these bombings, as you did in December, and part of the reason that you closed your Embassy and pulled the employees – the diplomats out. Is that one of your concerns right now, that al-Qaida could be operating a cell in Syria, taking advantage of this chaos right now?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, as I said, we are not in a position right now to lay blame at any particular set of --
QUESTION: But you suspect foreign fighters?
MS. NULAND: Again, with regard to this one that happened today and the events of the last couple of days, we’re not in a position right now to give you a definitive answer to that question, Elise. But we do have concerns that these kinds of tactics are not in keeping with what we’ve seen from the legitimate opposition. They could be the work of spoilers, of others, and that’s why it’s so important that the Assad regime, if it truly cares about chaos inside its borders, to set the example, allow the monitors to come in, and create conditions that make it harder – including by allowing journalists in, by allowing peaceful protest – for spoilers, for other nefarious forces to exploit the situation.
QUESTION: But this is exactly what the Assad regime has been claiming all along, that this is what it’s fighting; it’s fighting these type of terrorists, these type of attacks.
MS. NULAND: But if that is the case, the tactics that they are using against their own people are precisely antithetical to the result that they want, so it doesn’t make any sense to us. The international community is offering support for a peaceful resolution. We’re offering monitors, we’re offering to be in any cities of concern, and the Assad regime is doing everything it can to hamper that kind of a situation.
QUESTION: Don’t you think it’s a little bit of a slippery slope, though? I mean, this attack was clearly intended for a Syrian Government installation. It was targeted at an intelligence building. I mean, clearly, the target of this attack was the Syrian regime. And I mean, don’t you think it’s a little bit of a slippery slope to start blaming – what the Assad regime is doing to its people and in the streets notwithstanding, but don’t you think it’s a little bit of a slippery slope to start blaming the target of terrorist attacks for creating the conditions on the ground? I mean --
MS. NULAND: First of all, we condemn this attack. Unequivocally, we condemn this attack. We condemn any kind of violence against innocents. That’s a flat statement. That said, for weeks, but even months before that, when the Arab League first put forward the main elements of the program, the Assad regime had the opportunity to create the conditions for peace throughout the country. They declined to do that. Not only did they decline to implement the specific agreements – first of the Arab League plan, and then of the Annan plan – they’re continuing to fire on their own people. They’re continuing to violate the ceasefire themselves.
So the degree to which that chaos that they are leading also leads to other kinds of chaos, we still put responsibility firmly at their feet. We still think that they have it in their hands to bring peace to their country through leadership, and we don’t see any evidence of their willingness to do that.
QUESTION: Okay. Does – that’s my original question, that you – back when, when we were talking, and there’s been a lot of questions about a possible international military response, one of the main reasons that the U.S. has said that a military response is not a good idea – because it would create a situation of chaos and civil war that could lead to this type of instability and this type of attacks. I mean, at some point, this doesn’t only become an issue of people’s rights and human rights. It becomes a national security issue where it spills out, and terrorist attacks are happening all across the region. At what point does this not necessarily only become a human rights concern but an international security concern?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the Secretary and the President have repeatedly spoken out about the risks that this spills beyond Syrian borders, which is why we are so committed to trying to get it under control now. We don’t – we continue to believe that putting foreign weapons in there is not the answer. The answer is to get these peaceful monitors into as many of these hot spots and politically contentious areas as quickly as we can to get ceasefires locally that become ink spots that spread throughout the country. That’s the goal that we are pursuing.
Obviously, if we can’t get there because Assad is failing to live up to his side, because we have increasingly nefarious behavior by spoilers, then we’re going to have to relook. And the Secretary has already laid out what our next steps will be, which will be to go back to New York and seek a Chapter 7 resolution. But again, looking at what we’re seeing today, if you had had monitors in that --
QUESTION: I mean, just to – one last point.
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: I mean, this happened right in front of monitors. So you can have monitors throughout the country and this still would have happened today.
MS. NULAND: A handful of monitors. What we really need are the numbers. We need an example set by Assad that things are improving, and we need no-go zones for violence of any kind. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
QUESTION: Speaking of the return to New York and a possible next step --
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: -- about – is there any idea how much longer you’re giving the Annan plan to succeed? I mean, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but it does not seem like it is. I’m just wondering how long we’re going to try to stick with Plan A before going to Plan B.
MS. NULAND: Well, we are in consultations with our Security Council partners. We are talking to countries bilaterally. In fact, the Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov today. Syria was one of the subjects. She spoke to Foreign Minister Juppe yesterday. Syria was one of the subjects. So obviously we’re watching this day on day, and we will have to see how it goes. But we are very clear that we do not see implementation of the Annan plan at the moment.
QUESTION: I wanted to switch gears to Colombia. Dania Londono was at the United States Embassy in Spain today being questioned by U.S. Secret Service agents. I was wondering if you can divulge any information about that meeting that occurred today and with regards to its purpose.
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything on that. I’m going to guess, based on your description, that it sounds like a law enforcement matter, and we probably won’t comment. But we’ll let you know if we have anything to say.
QUESTION: Well, are you concerned that she was able to travel to Dubai following the incident in Cartagena?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t have anything for you on this at the moment.
MS. NULAND: That is a good question, Samir. Let me take that one. I’m not sure.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Some 40 members of Congress have written to the Nicaraguan Government asking for a review of the conviction of the former Peace Corps volunteer Jason Puracal, who’s serving a 22-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. Do you have – have you been in contact with those members of Congress? Have you communicated to the Nicaraguan Government about this case?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know we’ve been in regular contact with the Nicaraguan Government about the case. We are aware of the bipartisan congressional letter that was initiated by Congressman Adam Smith. It’s got 42 members of Congress on it. I will say – that was sent to Nicaraguan President Ortega. I would say that we do share some of the concerns in that letter, particularly with regard to his fair treatment, with regard to his prison conditions. And we’re continuing to work with the Nicaraguan side on this and provide all consular support to Mr. Puracal. I will also say, though, that we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver from him, so I can’t go any further than that.
MS. NULAND: I don’t. I don’t. I would refer you to the Russian Government. They had a little bit out there, but not that much. Yeah.
Okay. Thank you, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:28 p.m.)