1:10 p.m. EDT
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. I will turn it over to you all.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: What do you make of the defections today, and how do you see this affecting the regime?
MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Brad. Well, indeed we are encouraged by reports of the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab. Hijab is the highest-profile official to defect from the Assad regime. He released a written statement announcing his defection and declared his allegiance to the revolution.
Additionally, we saw over the weekend that Colonel Yarub Shara, a senior Syrian intelligence officer, defected to Jordan. He was the head of the Damascus branch of Political Security, an intelligence organization responsible for monitoring and suppressing dissent. Reports indicate he was accompanied by two government ministers and three brigadier generals. We also saw reports over the weekend that Syria’s first astronaut has fled to Turkey and joined opposition forces fighting Assad’s regime.
QUESTION: Did you say astronaut?
MR. VENTRELL: Their first astronaut.
MR. VENTRELL: And what we would say about these defections is that they indicate that the regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power as more and more senior military and civilian officials abandon the Assad regime. We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping to chart a new path for Syria, one that is peaceful, democratic, inclusive, and just.
QUESTION: Do you see this increasing rate of defections as the most likely path forward for how the war will end now?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we certainly think that the regime is crumbling, that the defections continue at a strong pace, and that this is further weakening the Assad regime as we move toward eventually -- a transitional authority that will govern the country.
QUESTION: How fast do you see the Assad regime crumbling?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know whether it’s going to be days or weeks or how soon, but clearly they’re losing their grip on the control of this country, as we’ve been saying repeatedly.
QUESTION: I wonder if you have any indication --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Jo.
QUESTION: -- that any of these people who have defected recently are among the Alawite minority? I believe the Prime Minister was a Sunni himself. So are we actually seeing any of the real inner circle defect?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t know about the different ethnic or sectarian backgrounds of these officials. What we’re focused on is a future for Syria that is democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, that respects the rights of all Syrians. So we’re less focused on what stripe or shade of Syrian these people are, but that, indeed, the future holds a more inclusive and just and democratic future.
QUESTION: But you know which ones they are? You said you didn’t know.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t know here standing at the podium each individual that I mentioned. I just don’t have in my notes, obviously, what their affiliation is, but that’s less important. What is important is that there are senior officials that continue to peel off the regime, some of them who – this is – the Prime Minister of the entire country has peeled away, not to mention a senior intelligence officer who was involved in the intelligence apparatus. So these are significant defections. And we’re not focused on – it’s the Assad regime that’s trying to make further sectarian strife. What we want people to be focused on is a just and inclusive new Syria.
QUESTION: Was the State Department --
QUESTION: You talk about the defections even further --
MR. VENTRELL: One at a time. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Are the defections further weakening the regime? You said – what concrete proof do you have of that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, when the Prime Minister of the entire government defects, that’s clearly an indication that they’re on the way out.
QUESTION: They have a new prime minister, correct?
MR. VENTRELL: They may indeed, but we’re seeing increasing defections. And we’re seeing on the ground – the reality on the ground is changing as the opposition continues to gather strength and as the control of the – security of the whole country starts to slip away from the Assad regime. Those are just facts on the ground.
QUESTION: You think the opposition is getting stronger because of the defections?
MR. VENTRELL: It certainly helps. It’s part of it. But it’s also in terms of them becoming more organized and more inclusive and having a concrete plan about how they’re going to govern this country when the inevitable day comes and Assad falls.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. had any communication --
MR. VENTRELL: Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- with the Prime Minister? And did it have any indication that he was about to leave or that anybody else might be leaving?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything in terms of our direct communication. I know he issued a statement when he arrived in Jordan, but beyond that, I don’t have any particular communication with him to read out.
QUESTION: So Patrick, back to --
MR. VENTRELL: Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: In fact, most of the people that defected already are Sunnis. Are you concerned that there may be a sectarian tilt to this aspect, actually, and this could slide the country into even a more bloody strife?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, as I just said, Said, what we’re focused on and our concern is that as the opposition comes together with the remaining elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands, that they create an inclusive Syria where the rights of all Syrians are respected. And so that’s our focus and that’s what we’re directly communicating to the opposition, and that’s certainly where our feelings are.
Go ahead, Josh.
QUESTION: Thanks. How would you characterize the State Department’s level and involvement in encouraging these defections – both the ones that have happened and future ones? Would you say the State Department is not involved and encouraging? They have a high level involvement? What can you tell us about their --
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been saying it loudly and clearly that we think that now is the time for the members of this regime to peel away, to get off of the sinking ship --
QUESTION: Are you saying this in public, or are there private efforts to encourage these members directly? And tell us a little bit about those efforts.
QUESTION: With their families?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any private communications to read out to you, but clearly with all of our communications public, private, and otherwise we’ve been very clear that now is the time for those who are still with the regime to peel away. And I would add to that, in addition, that when we work with all these other countries, we’re talking about a hundred-some other countries who are really with us as we continue to push the opposition toward a more inclusive and just government that they’re on the same page and sending the same message as well.
QUESTION: Can you offer any support to defectors? In the case of Libya, there was extensive U.S. efforts to help defectors both leave and then establish new lives. Are we doing that in Syria? Can you offer any of that to the people who are considering defecting?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything specific in terms of what assistance we might be able to provide, but clearly those that can play a positive role in a new Syria, that’s very welcome. And those that can contribute to the opposition and play a positive role, that would be very welcome.
QUESTION: Can I ask something?
MR. VENTRELL: One at a time.
QUESTION: It just – you had said that – I mean, you said that this – you think this shows that the regime is crumbling. Would it not be a clearer indication that the regime is crumbling if Alawites were to be deserting?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, what we’re seeing is that his power continues to slip away. I’m not going to characterize it further than that.
Ros, go ahead.
QUESTION: But, surely – wait, no, but I think it’s an important distinction. I mean, you were asked about the significance of the sort of sectarian split here. And it is entirely one thing if it is members of his true, sort of, tribal and ethnic and religious inner circle are bailing – and I don’t think they are – versus people who are not part of this sort of hardcore people with whom he has the most powerful affinities.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, what I’d say, Arshad, is that our message, for example to the opposition is, to the extent that they can increase the inclusivity of their work -- to the extent that they can ensure all Syrians that they have a role in a future Syria, that will help engender confidence among those who are either on the fence or actively considering peeling away. And so, again, we think that more and more will continue to peel away from all different ethnicities.
Ros, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, but to go to Arshad’s point and coming back to what Said said, the fact that Alawites are not defecting in any great numbers, and the fact that the numbers of the shabiha, the people have been going into Aleppo and Dara’a also and other communities and carrying out this butchering, have been identified by survivors as being Alawites. Is the U.S. not concerned about the potential for an all-out sectarian war, especially given that Assad does not seem to be willing to leave quietly – if anything, he’s now putting jets and helicopters in the air to try to put down this rebellion?
MR. VENTRELL: Ros, we are concerned about the sectarian dimension, and so that’s something that we’re absolutely emphasizing with all the Syrians that we talk to, that we have concerns about this descending into further sectarian strife, and that’s something we want to avoid.
So, as I’ve been saying repeatedly here at this briefing, that’s why we think it’s so important for the opposition to, as they construct a new Syria, to work to make sure that it’s – it includes all Syrians. And so we’re concerned about that.
QUESTION: So it’s one thing to talk to other countries in the region and to talk to those outside the region about trying to avoid a sectarian fight. But given the problems with trying to get some sort of resolution through the UN Security Council for some sort of concerted multinational action against this, how does the U.S. prevent a sectarian war from breaking out? I mean, it seems as if the only way to get both sides to stop killing each other is to actually send people in at this point.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, there’s no doubt that this is a complicated part of the world. There’s no doubt that there are different groups in Syria. We’re using all of our diplomatic levers, and that includes directly communicating with the opposition, directly communicating with likeminded countries, so that we’re all on the same page on this. And we’ve seen some positive signs, definitely, from the opposition in terms of their public statements and their private statements about their desire to construct a new Syria that is free from these types of sectarian tensions. So we think it’s going to be better for all minorities and all different Syrians if we can see a new regime that respects the rights of all of them, which clearly is not the case now.
QUESTION: But it’s one thing for the leaders of the opposition – and it’s not a unified opposition – to say that they believe in trying not to exert retribution. But individual people are going out and killing people if they get the chance to do so in an act of revenge. What will the U.S. propose to do now to try to keep that from happening and to try to keep Assad’s army from attacking people in communities, essentially, to try to scare them into submission?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’ve been very – Ros, this is the same question we’ve had repeatedly, and we’ve been very clear not only to those members are still part of the regime but also to the members of the opposition, that there not be the type of – when we talk to the opposition we’re very clear that the type of revenge or reprisals are totally unacceptable. And our message to those who are still part of the Assad regime is now is your moment to step away. This is the moment to peel away from this murderous regime.
Margaret, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, with the Secretary going to Istanbul later this week, what can you tell us about meetings she may have with the opposition? We know Ambassador Ford’s been in Cairo working on this. What can you give us in terms of visibility and where Syria falls in her very hectic schedule right now – number of times she’s briefed, who she’s in contact with? Any color?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Absolutely, the Secretary’s very engaged on Syria. It’s obviously one of our top priorities in this Department as well as in the U.S. Government. So she’s fully engaged as she travels in Africa, this is still a major area that she’s continuing to follow. As you mentioned, she’ll be in Istanbul later this weekend. I don’t have any specific meetings to read out at this point, but as we get a little closer, we’ll be able to give a little more color in terms of who she’ll meet with then.
QUESTION: But she’ll be meeting with the opposition?
MR. VENTRELL: Clearly, she’ll be meeting with Syrians. She’ll be meeting with the Turkish authorities. But let’s wait until we get a little bit closer to be able to define some of those meetings. They’re -- it’s still in progress.
QUESTION: Do you have a sense of why it was added to the schedule at this point?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, and I think a lot of you asked me last weekend – or last week about where are we on the diplomatic track, and we’re still engaged on the diplomatic track with friends of likeminded nations.
Obviously, the Turks – the Turkish Government is a close ally. They have a strong interest, obviously, in this being resolved as quickly and as peacefully as possible given their status as a neighboring country and their strong interest in the situation. And so she thought it was appropriate to go and consult with them given that we have a lot of the same interests, and we’re working together to refine our strategy among the key important countries – over a hundred countries in the Friends of the Syrian People, the 130 countries that supported the UN General Assembly resolution, the neighbors. There are a lot of likeminded countries who are really on the same page here. So as our road in the UN may be blocked, now it’s time – now it’s where we need to intensify our efforts with the likeminded nations.
Jill, go ahead.
QUESTION: Patrick, on the direct contacts with the opposition, with Ambassador Ford, can you give us an update on how is it going in those discussions with the opposition? What is the level of their cohesion? And also, is there any leader emerging as a person who could potentially take over if Assad were to go?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Jill, they continue to unify and continue to come together as they sort of congeal around their own Syrian plan for the day after. I don’t think it would be appropriate for the U.S. to be anointing any of them as more significant or less significant. That’s really a Syrian decision about who’s going to emerge as the potential sort of transitional authority. That’s really something that’s going to be worked out between the opposition and the remaining elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands.
QUESTION: Right. But you must be analyzing, looking, seeing who –
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve been very clear that we’re – obviously, Ambassador Ford continues his diplomacy and outreach to the opposition. He finished meetings in Cairo over the weekend, and he continues to work with them as they become more not only inclusive, but organized and draw more strength not only in their political plan, but also the opposition on the ground. So that continues.
QUESTION: What’s the status of this day-after plan?
QUESTION: Patrick --
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s go to Guy who’s been –
QUESTION: I just –
QUESTION: Well, it’s just a follow-up on that.
MR. VENTRELL: All right. Let’s have Brad, the follow-up, and then Guy.
QUESTION: You mentioned the day-after plans.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you give us the status on the day after Assad leaves?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it wouldn’t surprise you that obviously in the U.S. Government, given important U.S. interests at stake and given the volatility of the situation, that we are doing appropriate planning. But beyond saying that the State Department is fully engaged and we have a number of people here in this building and in the interagency working on our planning process, what’s most important is – really, it’s the Syrian planning for the day after that’s most critical. And so it’s the opposition planning for the day after. It’s – obviously, we’ll take into account for our own national security interests and our purposes, but it’s really the opposition planning.
QUESTION: What is the plan?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, as we saw with the Annan plan – and we talked about him stepping down last week – what’s really important is that – the framework that he put in place, the sort of – what forms a basis for a new paradigm. And so that involves, as we said, the opposition in concert with the remnants of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands forming a transitional authority, then having a new constitution, elections, and a new day in Syria. And so that’s the plan ahead.
QUESTION: Are you --
MR. VENTRELL: Obviously, there are critical – Brad, some very critical security interests and other issues that will have to be addressed and planned for for the day after, but we’re not there yet. I think clearly our planning is being done. I don’t have anything else to read out.
QUESTION: Well, I doubt that that can happen the day after Assad leaves. I just want to ask you, these people who are defecting now and joining the opposition, are they the interlocutors from the regime who would be involved in that transition process as the regime representatives?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t want to rule anything out. We’ve just seen some of these defections. But clearly, some of them are just securing their families and their well-being and their livelihood. Then, some of them may reach out. As we’ve seen, the Prime Minister said he’s joining the opposition.
QUESTION: But if you join the opposition, are you one of the regime representatives that then decides on the transition plan going forward?
MR. VENTRELL: Potentially, but we’re also talking about technocrats who are – the ministries will still have to run the day after. There will still have to be water and electricity, and all the basic services – will want to continue. And so that’s also what we mean in terms of constituting the Syrian Government. But again, these – some of these folks are – literally had to escape life and limb and get their families out to protect themselves, and so now let’s give them a little time and see if they’re in a position to reach out.
QUESTION: I’m not questioning that. It’s just that you point to a transition plan that talks about Assad regime people and the opposition agreeing on transitional figures going forward, yet you’re calling for all the moderates to leave the government, which would, in theory, leave a more hardcore grouping of people left. So --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, that hardcore grouping of people – Assad and his cronies with blood on their hands – are not the people we’re talking about.
QUESTION: Well, that was the Assad plan – the Annan plan that you agreed to in Geneva.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we didn’t agree –
QUESTION: You agreed that the Assad government and the opposition would have to agree on mutually agreed candidates to represent in a transitional government. Now you’ve just turned it on its head by saying that no, you wouldn’t talk to them; you would only talk to people maybe who left the government and joined the opposition. That’s a change.
MR. VENTRELL: The opposition was – that’s not a change. We don’t have a change in policy, nor do the opposition who said from the very day – from day one that those with blood on their hands would not be part of that mutual consent.
QUESTION: That’s not what you agreed to in Geneva.
MR. VENTRELL: Our position on Geneva has been consistent throughout.
QUESTION: Just to – maybe we could close it out on the –
MR. VENTRELL: Yes, please.
QUESTION: Just – but before we get totally carried away with the story that the regime is collapsing with defections, are you saying with 100 percent confidence that Riad Hijab actually did defect? Because – are you saying with 100 percent confidence? I didn’t know that it was a known fact that –
MR. VENTRELL: He himself confirmed it, so –
QUESTION: He himself did, or his spokesperson –
MR. VENTRELL: His spokesperson confirmed it, and –
QUESTION: Because state media and Syria said he was fired and he was only in the job for two months.
MR. VENTRELL: He defected to Jordan is our understanding.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up on your comments that the opposition is getting more organized and unified.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you give us some examples of how that’s happening? I mean, apart from your statement, just how is that manifesting?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s, for example, Ambassador Ford sitting down in Cairo with members of the opposition, some who are still living inside of Syria, some outside, coming together around some of these precise details that you’re asking about – what will the government look like? How will it function the day after? How we will ensure that our country doesn’t descend into further sectarian chaos? How do we make it work the day after? That’s some of what they’re working on. And I hesitate to us be the ones to give all of that color because, at the end of the day, it really is their plan, and I refer you to them. But they’re --
QUESTION: I’m just wondering, there’ve been so many divisions and – within the larger opposition movement. I was looking for something more like groups coming together to back one certain plan or new coalitions forming – I mean something that would speak to more organization and more unity.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, when I spoke to Ambassador Ford last week when he was in Cairo, the type of people he was meeting with – we’re talking about 250 Syrians of very diverse ethnic, sectarian, and other backgrounds who really represented a wide swath of Syrian society. And so we are looking for the most inclusive and broadest possible support on the political track as well. Obviously, there’s the track on the ground in terms of them gaining strength and they needing to have operational command and control, and the Free Syrian Army and their ability to be more cohesive, which we’re also seeing. But in parallel to that, we’re seeing the political process become more cohesive. And that’s why we’re working with these members of the opposition, who are a group of very diverse members of Syrian society.
QUESTION: Patrick, is it safe to assume that high-level American officials will be meeting with Mr. Riad Hijab in the next day or so, considering that he’s either in Jordan, or more than likely in Qatar – both are U.S. allies?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don’t have anything to read out at this point. He’s just defected today. I don’t have anything further for you.
QUESTION: Patrick, on the issue of safe havens –
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- we have three senators, led by Senator McCain, who are saying at a minimum there should be these safe havens and that they’re kind of being formed already by the opposition. And they add in that statement that Secretary Clinton herself seemed to be supporting that, or proposing that. Could you just clarify what the Secretary – what she means by safe havens, creating them? Is she really on the same page as the senators?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, if you look back at what the Secretary said – and I believe this is in her press availability of about 10 days or so ago with the Haitian Prime Minister – what she said there is that we’re going to see, as the opposition logically gains more territory, they’re going to have safe havens where they can then further their strength and start to not only, as they gain more territory and sort of military strength, they’ll also be able to have more people going in and starting to expand their political strength as well. So she was talking about a reality that’s just on its way to happening. That’s what she was getting at.
QUESTION: But she was not getting as far as saying and you should use, let’s say, planes to protect them, et cetera?
MR. VENTRELL: She was not outlining any change to longstanding U.S. policy on this.
QUESTION: Sorry, Patrick, one more on Syria. Yesterday in a very lengthy article, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested that a major player in the Syrian conflict now, in Syria on the ground, was al-Qaida. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR. VENTRELL: Say that one more time, Said. Sorry, I --
QUESTION: Sorry. Let me repeat that again. Secretary – former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested in a lengthy article in The Post yesterday that a major player in Syria was al-Qaida. And in fact, he says that, in an ironic way, the United States and al-Qaida find themselves on the same side in this conflict. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR. VENTRELL: No. We think that to the extent that there a small number of al-Qaida fighters in Syria, they’re exploiting the chaos that was sown by the Assad regime’s violence against its own people, so we do not see them as a major player.
QUESTION: I was interested – you said that at the meeting in Cairo there were members of the Syrian opposition who are actually living inside of Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Were they physically in attendance, or did they --
MR. VENTRELL: That’s my --
QUESTION: -- take part by video, Skype, or --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if some of it was by Skype or sort of a video teleconference, but I’ll have to look into that and get back to you. I’m just not sure. I believe we did have some people who actually came out to the meeting.
QUESTION: So the next the question would be: How were they managing to get in and out of Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: That wouldn’t be a question for us.
One more on Syria before we --
QUESTION: Yeah, a couple more.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Iran has – or there are reports that Iran is organizing a meeting of foreign ministers in Tehran about Syria. Have you heard about this? Do you have any idea who was invited, and what do you think about it?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information on it. What we’ve been saying all along is that Tehran has been Assad’s principal backer in the region. And they have been providing experience and capabilities to the Syrian Government for months, supporting the Syrian Government’s attacks on the Syrian people. So our perspective about their destructive role in Syria has not changed.
One last one on Syria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, the commander of the Free Syrian Army said that he wasn’t really convinced he’s going to need a Western-backed transition plan. If it ends up by the Free Syrian Army being on the ground, being in charge of the ground, would you see any problems there --
MR. VENTRELL: Well, our --
QUESTION: -- representing the transition plan you were talking about?
MR. VENTRELL: Our position is it’s obviously going to have to be a Syrian transition plan. This is going to be for the future of Syrians. To the extent that we – some of the Western countries and dozens and even a hundred-plus countries that have an interest in the Syrian people can be of assistance, we’re there for the people of Syria, but this is obviously going to have to be their plan going forward.
QUESTION: When you signed the plan in Geneva, that wasn’t a Syrian transition plan. So what, is that no longer the plan?
MR. VENTRELL: It’s still the basis for a good framework, but obviously the future of Syria is going to be for the Syrians to decide.
QUESTION: One other quick one. I wanted to ask you about the kidnapped pilgrims --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- the Iranian kidnapped pilgrims in Syria, about 48 of them.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on that?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re following these reports and monitoring the situation closely. We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, but I would just, again, point you to what I just said a couple of minutes ago about the destructive role overall of Iran inside of Syria.
QUESTION: So you have no view on whether they are pilgrims, as some people say, or IRGC members, as other people say?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t have any independent information, Arshad, other than, as I said, they’re – the destructive role of Iran continues. But with these specific individuals, we just don’t have any further information.
Okay. Moving on? In the back.
QUESTION: Change of subject. On India, the India’s Minister of External Affairs has tweeted short while ago that Secretary Clinton spoke to India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna on the Sikh temple shooting yesterday. Do you have any readout on that phone call?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, let me start by saying that our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and the Sikh community. This is a tragic incident, especially since it happened in a place of worship. Religious freedom and religious tolerance are fundamental pillars of U.S. society.
What I can read out at this point – you’re right, the Secretary did have a chance to have a conversation with her Indian counterpart. I don’t yet have a readout of that, but if we have one later today, I’ll share it with you. What I can tell you is that Ambassador Powell in New Delhi met with Sikh and political leaders to express our condolences and support for a thorough investigation into this horrific crime. She also paid respects at the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, Delhi’s largest Sikh temple. Here in Washington, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman spoke with Ambassador Rao to condemn this tragedy and convey our deep sympathy and condolences.
So I don’t have a readout yet on the Secretary’s call, but to the extent we have one later this afternoon, we’ll get that to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: When did the call take place, today or yesterday?
MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is the call took place not long ago. As you know, the Secretary’s --
QUESTION: On Monday?
MR. VENTRELL: Today, while she’s in South Africa. Yeah.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Syria. (Inaudible) confirmed that the information reported last week. What kind of support U.S. Government is doing against the rebels in Syria? Did the U.S. Government already decided to provide the information to rebels?
MR. VENTRELL: Our support to the Syrian opposition was something of lengthy discussion last week. I refer you to our discussion of that in the transcripts.
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s go to Egypt.
QUESTION: I wondered what the U.S. comment was on the incident at the border, Israeli-Sinai border today, in which we saw a number of people being killed by a gunman.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Well, we condemn in the strongest terms yesterday’s deadly terrorist attack against Egyptian border guards in Sinai and against Israel. We extend our deepest condolences to the victims, their families and loved ones, and to President Morsi and the Egyptian people. We support the Egyptian Government’s pledge to bring the perpetrators to justice and to take measures to strengthen security in the Sinai.
QUESTION: I saw that the Israeli Defense Minister was saying this was a wakeup call for Egypt. Is this something that the United States would concur with?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we just say that the issue of the security – the security situation in Sinai is something that we’ve raised with Egyptian authorities, it’s something that has been a matter of ongoing concern, and we stand ready to assist the Government of Egypt as it acts on President Morsi’s pledge to secure the Sinai and address the threats of violent extremism and border security.
QUESTION: What kind of assistance – sorry.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: What kind of assistance would that involve?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, if the Government of Egypt were to ask, we would stand ready to provide assistance. I don’t have anything to read out in particular, but the point, more broadly speaking, is that President Morsi has made a pledge about increasing security there. And so we’ve been talking about the security situation in the Sinai for some time. It’s something the Secretary discussed with Egyptian authorities in her visit recently. And so clearly it’s an issue, and it’s something that the Egyptian authorities have pledged to address.
QUESTION: Why do you think the Egyptian authorities have been unable to maintain security in Sinai?
MR. VENTRELL: I would just say that in general, obviously, as we move through a very significant period of transition in Egypt’s history, there’s been a lot of change. And so we’ve seen significant change in Egypt through most of this transition. We’ve seen historic first elections; we’ve seen a lot of positive things from the revolution. But in terms of Egypt consolidating itself and moving into its next chapter, there are still some areas that continue to need attention, and the security in the Sinai is one of those.
QUESTION: I mean, I know that you’ve mentioned President Morsi and his pledge, but under the amendments that were – I hesitate to say passed – but under the sort of interim constitution amendments that were pushed – put through before he took office, the Egyptian military and security forces still operate sort of largely autonomously. The Defense Minister is the same as it has been for 30 years now, I think. Have you gotten commitments from Field Marshal Tantawi about restoring security in Sinai?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I don’t have anything specific to read out about our conversations in the sort of military-to-military channel. Suffice it to say our Embassy has absolutely been in contact with the authorities on the ground, and obviously the Egyptian military has a role to play here as well.
QUESTION: And one other thing. We have this story out of Cairo saying that the Muslim Brotherhood has said on its website that the attack in Sinai on Sunday, quote, “can be attributed to Mossad,” close quote, the Israeli intelligence agency, and was an attempt to thwart President Morsi. Do you think that view has any credibility?
MR. VENTRELL: I haven’t seen that. I can’t speak to its veracity as something coming from the Muslim Brotherhood. What I can say is, obviously, President Morsi is saying the right things, and we look to him as he continues to confront this.
QUESTION: Is it conceivable to you that the Israeli intelligence services could – would launch an attack on an Egyptian police station?
MR. VENTRELL: Doesn’t sound right to me.
QUESTION: Is it true, the reports that said that the Secretary and her staff were chased off the tarmac in Malawi by a swarm of bees?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know. I’d obviously refer you to the traveling party out in Africa. I don’t know one way or another. I’ll check into it.
QUESTION: Is Mossad behind that? (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Ros.
QUESTION: The Chinese Government is criticizing the Secretary’s comments about its – about the U.S.’s relationship with various African countries. They assert that she implicitly criticized China for its extensive economic ties with a number of countries. And a number of countries, as you know, have said we’ve been giving much to the Chinese, we haven’t gotten much in return. Is the criticism warranted?
MR. VENTRELL: All I would say is, really, as you look at the Secretary’s trip in Africa, and especially her initial speech in Senegal, she was really outlining a positive framework for our relationship with Africa both in terms of democracy, universal human rights, economics and development, in terms of sustainable development, obviously our commitment to peace and food security and all of those other issues. And so really her – the vision that she laid out is one in the positive terms, in terms of what we can provide. And so we think that that is really the model for partnership, and we’re pleased to be moving ahead with a number of our African partners on this good program.
QUESTION: Is it the view of this building that the relationship that a number of countries in Africa may have been taking out or have taken out with Beijing may be to their detriment and not to their ultimate benefit?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s really for them to decide. What I can say is the Secretary was very focused on outlining our positive vision for partnership. It’s really up to individual African countries to decide.
QUESTION: Change of topic, China. Regarding sovereignty and territorial tension in the South China Sea, an editorial in the Chinese state media today referred to your statements on the issue from Friday as, quote, “confusing,” and said that the U.S. should, quote, “shut up.” Do you have a reaction to that? And as well, could you give us an update on what came of Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Wang’s meeting with the Chinese on this issue?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for your question, Guy. As you saw, we released a statement last Friday, a very comprehensive statement which we think very clearly laid out our policy and our belief that there needs to be a collaborative diplomatic solution without coercion to all aspects of the South China Sea, really outlining our national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea. And we issued the statement because we have some concerns about the recent increase in tensions, and so we thought it was a very comprehensive and clear statement.
In terms of the Chinese calling in our Deputy Chief of Mission, I can confirm that he did have a meeting with his Chinese counterparts, but I don’t have any specific reaction or readout of the meeting.
QUESTION: Would you characterize the last three months as somehow more tense than, say, what went on a year and a half ago in the South China Sea with what was described by officials here as Chinese muscle-flexing over oil-rich deposits in the sea?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, no doubt we’ve had some concerns about the increasing tensions, which is part of why we issued the statement. And I’d just highlight that directly – with the Chinese authorities we’ve been discussing the situation, but with a number of other partners as well. And so it is an area of concern. We are concerned about economic coercion, for instance. And so given where we are, we thought it was appropriate to make a clear statement of our policy.
QUESTION: Is it the opinion of people in this building that the Chinese attempted to diplomatically sabotage talks at the Asian conference to come hammer out some kind of a formalized agreement on how to resolve disputes in the South China Sea?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, guys, you know we talked about that a little bit at the time of the ASEAN conference. We remain and continue to think that a code of conduct in order to establish clear rules of the road would be a good thing, and so we endorse the recent ASEAN six-point principles on the South China Sea, and we continue to look to our partners as they work on this collaboratively.
QUESTION: Why do you think the Chinese don’t agree and were unwilling to come to the table at ASEAN?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I refer you to the Chinese authorities for their position. I can’t speak for them or get in their –
QUESTION: Are you going to take the Chinese media’s advice that you shut up on this topic? (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: Well, if we want to end the briefing for the day – I’d be happy to end the briefing for the day if that’s what you all are indicating.
QUESTION: But you’re not going to pull your punches on this. I mean, your position isn’t changing at all. You’re going to –
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we were very clear. It was a comprehensive statement, and I think it was very inclusive. You’ve heard us talk about many of these things repeatedly and over time, but this was a way for us to really comprehensively speak about it.
QUESTION: And can you explain to us why you felt it was necessary? I mean, nearly every element of that statement had been previously said, most of it by the Secretary herself, in public.
MR. VENTRELL: Yep, that’s true.
QUESTION: So why did you feel it necessary to put it all together and lay it out in one statement?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, suffice to say we’ve seen an increase in tensions, and so we thought given that, it was appropriate to very clearly state our position.
QUESTION: Was there any particular incident in the days or week leading up to Friday that made you issue it; or no, you’re not (inaudible)?
MR. VENTRELL: I wouldn’t tie it to any one specific incident. We did talk about some concerns about some of the specific actions in terms of economic coercion, in terms of our concerns about the upgrading of this administrative level or this particular city. So there have been some increasing concerns, but I wouldn’t tie it necessarily to one individual thing or another. It’s a comprehensive statement about the overall situation.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Africa, please?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Tomorrow there’s a two-day meeting starting in Kampala of regional heads of state, and they’re going to talk about a neutral force to police the border between DR Congo and Rwanda. And I wondered what the U.S. expectations were for what could come out of this meeting, given that recently the United States decided it was going to freeze its funding to Rwanda.
MR. VENTRELL: I’m going to go ahead and take that question, and we’ll get back to you, Jo.
MR. VENTRELL: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:48 p.m.)
DPB # 139