Daily Press Briefing - October 15, 2012
Index for Today's Briefing:
- Joint Special Representative for Syria
- Apparent Violation of Turkish Airspace
- Humanitarian Aid
- Iranian Restrictions on Imports
- New Sanctions against the Iranian Government
- Iranian Sanctions
- Funding for Security
- Gazan Students Studying in West Bank
- Ambassador Walles Following up with Tunisian Authorities
- Clashes in Tahrir Square
- Egyptian Constitutional Drafting Process
- NORTH KOREA
- U.S. Assessment of the situations in North Korea
Daily Press Briefing
1:15 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: All right, everybody. Happy Monday. The Secretary, as you know, is on her way to Peru. I have nothing at the top, so let’s go to what’s on your minds.
QUESTION: Can we start with Iran? A couple of things. One, what do you – well, Iran and Syria. What do you think about Mr. Brahimi’s trip to Iran? Do you feel that there is any benefit to trying to persuade the Iranian Government, which you have long accused of helping to foment and accelerate the violence in Syria, to try to arrange a ceasefire, as he apparently did?
MS. NULAND: Well, as we’ve been saying for some time now, we understood that before he came forward to the Security Council with ideas about how to move forward, that Mr. Brahimi would make another trip around the region, that he would visit a lot of the neighbors, that he is likely also to go to Syria again, and that this is part of that effort to get a sense from various countries around Syria of what may be possible here. So obviously, we look forward to hearing his report. We haven’t been in touch him since his visit, but I think he will make a number of other stops before we hear from him. So we’re not going to prejudge what he has – what conclusions he’s come to until he’s finished his trip.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. While there, Mr. Brahimi called for the violence to end or at least for a truce during Eid al-Adha, the big holiday after the Hajj. But it was immediately rejected by the deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army. Would you support, in principle, a truce during the holidays, like they used to have during the Vietnam War?
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve always called for an end to the violence and we would obviously support that as soon as we can get it. But it has to be comprehensive. And I think that the concern has always been that the regime would not accept it and that they would not enforce it.
QUESTION: Okay. Just a quick follow-up. He also – there’s talk about 3,000 observer team – a 3,000 strong observer team to deploy in Syria after the Eid al-Adha. Would the United States support such a mission?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t think that we’re going to be looking at any plan until Mr. Brahimi comes forward with something that is comprehensive and he’s prepared to brief all of us, and our understanding is that he’s still making his rounds. So I’m not going to comment on pieces or speculation.
QUESTION: And lastly, there was also a talk about a peacekeeping force a la UNIFIL, similar to what they have in Lebanon, but this was rejected by his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi. Would you also support a peacekeeping force?
MS. NULAND: Again, right now, we have no peace to keep. So we have to do this step-by-step.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just – can we go back to the issue of the truce for a second?
MS. NULAND: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: You said that your concern has always been that the government would – that one, that a truce has to be comprehensive, and two, your concern was that the government would not observe it or enforce it. If it were to be comprehensive, by which I would mean a complete cessation of hostilities, and if the government were to agree and abide by it – even if it’s just for that holiday – is that acceptable to the U.S.?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into speculating about what might happen and how it might happen. We’ve all been calling, for more than a year now, for an end to the violence. If there was an opportunity to do that under Mr. Brahimi’s leadership – under anybody’s leadership – obviously we would want to support that, but that’s not the condition that we’re in at the moment.
QUESTION: Toria, are you tracking – either on your own or with the Saudis or the Qataris – the movement of weapons to the Syrian rebels? And are you concerned about these reports that they’re getting to the wrong people – the extremists, the jihadists – and not to the more moderate fighters, as it were, that you would like to see them go to?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think that we’ve been clear that our own decision has been to provide only nonlethal assistance, that we’re doing that in the form of communications gear, medical gear, we’re doing it increasingly in the form of training and support, particularly for those Syrians in areas that the regime has abandoned who are now finding themselves in the position of having to provide essential services for people. So that’s the focus of our efforts. We’re obviously in touch with and coordinating with and hearing from other partner countries who have chosen a different way to go.
We’ve been clear from the beginning that there are issues here as to where this goes and that we need to all work hard to ensure that extremists, jihadists, al-Qaida, other groups who don’t share our larger interest in seeing a democratic Syria emerge from all of this, get their hands on weapons that can be used to exploit the situation, that this truly be an effort on the opposition’s side which reflects a Syria whose future will be democratic, whose future will be inclusive, whose future will reject extremism. And we’ve also been very clear in calling on all members of the opposition to actively, publicly reject extremists in their midst, reject efforts by extremists to hijack the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: Is there a serious concern though here in the United States? As The New York Times reported today, more than – you’re saying you’re working on it, you’re tracking it, but is there sort of a panicked concern here that this is going wrong, like that these weapons aren’t going where we need them to? Or is that – do you feel that story was overblown?
MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to speak to unnamed sources in a single story asserting certain things. I’m just going to say that we have been tracking this all along, we have been discussing our concerns about extremists hijacking the aspirations of the Syrian people all the way through. We have urged careful vetting, all those kinds of things, and we will continue to do so.
QUESTION: In terms of related tension, the mutual decisions by Syria and Turkey to close airspace to either country’s aircraft, what does this say about the situation between the two countries? Does it mean that the risk of some sort of armed conflict is higher now?
MS. NULAND: Well, certainly we support the decision that Turkey has made in light of the apparent violation of their airspace by this aircraft. It’s not surprising, frankly, that the Syrians took countermeasures there. We are encouraging all of Syria’s neighbors to be vigilant with regard to how their airspace is used, particularly now that we have this concrete example.
I would note, however, that Turkey has been open to granting humanitarian exceptions. One in particular, they recently granted approval for an Armenian flight to deliver – to overfly Turkey on the condition that it would land and be inspected. It was; it was confirmed to be humanitarian supplies, and they were allowed to go on to Syria. So the Turks, from our perspective, are taking a measured and appropriate posture with regard to these things.
QUESTION: And on that point of humanitarian aid, an independent analysis says at least 30,000 now have been confirmed dead in Syria. Where is the urgency to keep this number from consistently rising at this point?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think you know on the humanitarian side, the United States is one of the biggest donors to the UN appeal, both the appeal inside Syria and the appeal in neighboring countries. We have briefed on our humanitarian efforts. We are also working with all of our partners around the world to encourage them to help fill the remaining unfilled portions of the UN’s appeal, the Syria portion and the portion in neighboring countries. Particularly in Turkey and Jordan, the need is urgent now.
And obviously, we are continuing to pursue the policy that we’ve been talking about for many months now of trying to increase the pressure through sanctions on the regime to end the violence, to try to meet these humanitarian needs, to try to support through nonlethal means, as I discussed, the Syrian opposition, and to begin to think as an international community not only about hastening the day that the transition begins but also about preparing to support that transition when the time comes.
QUESTION: Is this still being done apart from the UNSC mechanism, as was suggested from the podium a couple of months ago?
MS. NULAND: Well, beyond the humanitarian piece, where it’s very much UN agencies in the lead and the UN appeal that we are all supporting, and they are the ones particularly inside Syria who are delivering to individuals, we don’t have any other choice with regard to the other piece, because as you know, we’ve tried three times to get real pressure put on the Syrian regime through the Security Council and had that vetoed three times.
QUESTION: I want to get back to the countries that are giving weapons to the rebels. Are you happy with the way they are vetting the groups they are giving weapons to or so, or you still have concerns so far?
MS. NULAND: Again, besides the general comments I made, I’m not going to get into the specifics of our conversations with those countries.
QUESTION: One --
MS. NULAND: Said.
QUESTION: Can you tell us if Ambassador Ford, when he – in his contacts with the opposition representatives, talked to them about these areas, where there is no central authority or government authority in the areas that are liberated or vacated by the government, how they run their affairs there, because there is – there are many reports – it’s like there are summary justice, like Judge Roy Bean or something. I mean, they do it without accountability. Is he talking to them about that?
MS. NULAND: No, absolutely he is, not only when he talks to opposition groups and when he and his people talk to opposition groups inside Syria through Skype, but also when he meets with opposition activists who have made their way outside the country in Cairo or anywhere else that he meets with them. The absolute importance that the opposition represent the best of the Syria that they want to see, a Syria that upholds universal values, that the fighters are abiding by Geneva Convention procedures with regard to the rules of war – all those kinds of things. And many of these training programs that we are offering to Syrians going back and forth are focused on how you deal with local justice in a democratic society, how you create the conditions where Syrians of all stripes will feel comfortable and be able to participate in the civic life of their villages going forward. Remember that this is a country that has been in a political coma in terms of democratic principles for many decades, so there’s a lot to be shared there for those who are interested.
Please. Can you tell me who you are?
QUESTION: Sorry. I’m Yolanda Georges for Voice of America Serbian Service. This is just a complete change of topic.
MS. NULAND: Why don’t we just finish with Syria and we’ll come back to you. Please.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
QUESTION: French Foreign Minister said this weekend that Sergey Lavrov told them that there is no way Assad would leave power. Did the Russians communicate anything similar to you?
MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to get in the middle of a French-Russian conversation, obviously. You know where the Russians have been. They’ve been pretty clear about it. They have their own skepticisms and concerns. I’ll let them speak for themselves.
Our view is that the Russians should be applying maximum pressure and maximum influence on Assad and his regime. They have influence that we don’t have, since they have had these military relationships for so long, and we’d like to see them use it to pressure Assad to stop, starting by declaring that they will not ship any more weapons or any other things to this regime.
QUESTION: Isn’t it an indication that maybe the Russians don’t want to do anything about the whole Syrian thing?
MS. NULAND: Again, we would like to see the Russian side do more. That’s the point that we make to them every time we see them. And as the Secretary said very clearly, the Russians have been concerned that this situation devolves into a deeper civil war, a proxy war, that it spills beyond borders, that extremists hijack the situation. All of those concerns have been expressed to us by the Russian side; and our message back is that if you don’t help us put more pressure on Assad, that’s exactly what we’re going to have, and that if you don’t want that situation to occur, then join us in the Security Council in putting pressure on the regime.
Other thoughts? Finished? No? Okay.
MS. NULAND: Please. Yeah.
QUESTION: So one is: Iran appears to have announced that it plans to cut back on imports of nonessential goods, and it’s urging its citizens to reduce their use of foreign-made things such as telephones and cars. Is this a good thing? Is this what you want to see happen, to see the Iranian people’s consumption of imports squeezed?
MS. NULAND: Well, we saw those reports today, reports that everything from shoes and clothing to foreign-imported wallpaper, the Iranian regime is now trying to restrict in terms of the way their citizens use their foreign exchange. Again, from our perspective, this just speaks to the extreme economic mismanagement, the extreme political mismanagement of the Iranian regime and the fact that the Iranian people are now feeling the full effects of the bad decision that their government has made. And these sanctions are designed to continue to pressure the regime to make another choice. And from our perspective, the onus remains on the regime. The door is open, the table is set; they have to just make better choices if they truly care about their people.
QUESTION: So you think this has nothing to do ultimately with the sanctions themselves? You think that the fact that they have less foreign exchange to spend on shoes or whatever is in no way related to the sanctions?
MS. NULAND: I didn’t say that, Arshad.
QUESTION: Well, I’m asking.
MS. NULAND: Obviously it’s a function of both their own internal mismanagement, but also the fact that the sanctions are biting into their ability to export, other countries’ willingness to trade with them, et cetera. So it’s obviously having an economic impact, but so is their own internal mismanagement.
QUESTION: For many years, from this podium and elsewhere, senior officials would say that the United States had no argument with the Iranian people and it was trying to change the behavior of the Iranian Government. But you are manifest – you appear now pretty clearly to be at a point where you are squeezing the people, at least partially, through the sanctions, however much may or may not be due to economic mismanagement. Do you feel any responsibility or – for what presumably will eventually become hardship if it is not already hardship for ordinary people who can’t – can no longer get ordinary consumer goods?
MS. NULAND: Well, let’s start with reminding that under the sanctions policy – U.S. sanctions policy, international sanctions policy – we grant exceptions for medicine and for foodstuffs, and the United States still exports foodstuffs and medicine to Iran, and we don’t preclude or ask anybody else to stop those kinds of imports. So we are not looking to hurt the Iranian people.
Second, I will say what we have said all the way along: We do not have any beef with the Iranian people. We do have serious concerns about the choices that their government has made, and the Iranian people have to understand that the choices their government has made have consequences. In this case, they’re seeing it in the decision by the government not to allow them to import foreign shoes and clothes and wallpaper.
QUESTION: Can we go now to the --
MS. NULAND: Anything else on Iran?
QUESTION: On Syria, the sanctions, I mean – I wanted to ask you. There was a meeting today by the foreign ministers of the European Union. They approved a new group of sanctions, or – I wonder if they coordinated that with you. It’s like the 18th group of sanctions imposed on Syria.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Could you --
MS. NULAND: Oh, well first of all, Jay Carney spoke to this this morning.
QUESTION: I didn’t --
MS. NULAND: He made quite a long statement. I can just repeat the high points.
MS. NULAND: That we obviously welcome the adoption today by the European Union of significant new sanctions against the Iranian Government in response to the Iranians’ continued violation of their international obligations regarding their nuclear program. This action further strengthens the international efforts to persuade Iran to engage constructively and address the concerns of the international community.
Iran knows what it needs to do. It has an opportunity to do it. It just needs to make the choice. These sanctions that the EU put forward today were in the categories of financial sanctions, trade sanctions, energy, transport; obviously they are coordinated. We work together very closely in the P-5+1.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, Congressman Darrell Issa said that – on Face the Nation, CBS, he said that “The State Department is sitting on $2.2 billion in cash that should be used for security at U.S. embassies.” He’s saying the money is basically already available for that purpose, but that the State Department chose not to use that money for security. He says, “The fact is, they’re making a decision not to put the security in because they don’t want the presence of security.” “That’s not how you do security,” he said. Do you – have you – did you see these comments? Would you care to react to them, clarify anything?
MS. NULAND: I saw his comments. Frankly, I’m going to take that question, Justin, because I don’t know how his numbers add up versus our numbers. So let me take those – that question and come back to you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
MS. NULAND: I’m not sure what pots of money he’s counting versus how we count the money, so --
Please. Finally, patience is rewarded. (Laughter.)
MS. NULAND: I do, let me see if I can find it.
We congratulate the people of Montenegro on their recent parliamentary and local elections. The OSC’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted that these elections further consolidated the democratic process there. We expect the new government will continue Montenegro’s progress towards Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and we commend the progress since independence. We were also impressed with the high voter turnout on Sunday – 70.3 percent according to observers’ estimates.
QUESTION: Just one follow-up question: There are already talks about forming a new government because none of the – according to preliminary results, none of the parties won an absolute majority. What kind of government would U.S. like to see in Montenegro?
MS. NULAND: Well, we obviously look forward to seeing the government that they form and working with the coalition when it is formed. We have long supported Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and obviously we hope that we will continue to be able to do that with the new government.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MS. NULAND: Thanks. Anything else? Said.
QUESTION: Scholarships for the Palestinians?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you aware that you have cancelled a three-year program of scholarships for the students from Gaza because of an Israeli pressure on the travel ban, and this disallows young Palestinian students, especially women, from traveling to the West Bank, and they find themselves confined to Islamic universities in Gaza?
MS. NULAND: Well first of all, let me just clarify, Said, that there have been no scholarships canceled by the United States or by our Consulate General in Jerusalem for Gazan students to study in West Bank universities. In fact, we are currently funding three undergraduate students from Gaza who are on four or five-year university degree programs in the West Bank with assistance granted through our A-PLUS programs. These folks have been studying for some time and permits have been granted for these students by Israeli authorities.
My understanding of the situation is that the Israeli high court in May opened a case with regard to the future of Gazan students studying in the West Bank. They made clear to us in the context of that that while the case was ongoing, they would not issue any new permits. So understanding that and with the school year starting, we chose this year, for the 2012 school year only, to grant scholarships to folks already in the West Bank. But it is our hope that we will be able to get back in the business of helping Gazan students study in the West Bank.
QUESTION: Are you raising this issue with Israel to allow Palestinians to travel from Gaza to the West Bank for studying purposes?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, those who are already part of our programs and were before the high court took up the case have been able to continue their studies. And we have heard from the Israelis that this is a freeze, if you will, until this court case goes forward. So we will see where we are after the court case is finished, but it’s obviously our hope and aspiration to be able to continue the program for Gazan students.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Okay. Anything else?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Ambassador Walles is reported to have written a letter in which he urges the Tunisian authorities to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the attacks of a little more than a month ago on the U.S. Embassy there. And I wondered why he felt it was necessary to do that. Do you feel that the Tunisian Government has not done enough?
MS. NULAND: Well, it’s no secret that in all of these cases where we had violence against U.S. missions, we have been urging that those who were responsible be brought to justice. So it obviously makes sense that Ambassador Walles and the Embassy are following up with Tunisian authorities. I’m not aware of a particular letter or why, if that’s the case, that was the choice. And under any circumstances, as you know, we’d be unlikely to get into the details of our diplomatic correspondence with another government. But we have been urging, both in Tunis and everywhere else where we had these incidents, that judicial proceedings proceed apace and with dispatch.
QUESTION: And are you concerned that if they do not proceed apace that it will be harder to persuade the U.S. Congress to fund assistance for Tunisia?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, the U.S. Congress, like the Administration, wants to see people, whether they are those responsible for Benghazi or those who are responsible for violence in Tunis or in Cairo, brought to justice. So we are obviously watching and looking for those governments to take action.
QUESTION: Could you tell us if Mr. Lawrence Pope is already in Tripoli?
MS. NULAND: He is. He is.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
Please. Still in the Middle East? Yeah.
MS. NULAND: Egypt, I’m going to guess, right? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On Friday, it was clash – there was clashes between demonstrators and pro-Islamists or pro-government or pro-Morsi. Do you have any assessment of what happened or your – how do you see it?
MS. NULAND: Well, on Friday, there seemed to be various groups in Tahrir Square on various sides of the issue, and the clashes seemed to be relatively evenly divided among folks on different sides. So I think it’s probably not productive to comment on who was responsible for what, except to make the plea that we usually make, which is that those who are protesting do so peacefully, and that no matter what side of an issue you’re on, you express yourself peacefully.
QUESTION: What I’m trying to ask, because it’s not being judgmental about --
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: -- what happened. It’s more than – because it is expected according – unfortunately, it says expected that more similar clashes are – may take place --
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: -- in the coming days and may affect other things. I mean, it’s like going to the American Embassy, going to other places.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: So how you trying to be in touch with the embassies, in touch with the government, to figure out what’s going on?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, with regard to embassy security, it’s an ongoing conversation with the government, as it always is, but particularly in the wake of the September 11th incidents to ensure that we are working together to properly secure our premises and other diplomatic facilities.
With regard to our outreach to various sectors of Egyptian society, various political groups, et cetera, no matter whom we’re talking to, our message is the same: Express yourself peacefully; be politically active but do so peacefully; that violence doesn’t serve anyone and is not the democratic way.
QUESTION: The – finally, there was – I mean, almost the final draft of the constitution became public, and I assume there is a reading of it from your perspective, especially because when the Secretary was stressing on the international universal liberties and freedoms and the draft that is publicized – or it was published, maybe it’s not finalized yet -- but we don’t have usually to wait till the end – especially with the – regarding the issues of woman rights, it’s shameful that it’s like looking for lowering the age of marriage and similar things. And some people even explained this – their concern about what was mentioned.
I know that the Secretary raised this issue on Friday and before that with Desmond Tutu. Do you have any contact regarding this issue? Is – this issue was raised with those who are drafting the constitution? Or we are waiting till the end when it’s finalized and then we react?
MS. NULAND: There’s no question that we are urging that in the Egyptian constitutional drafting process that universal human rights be upheld, respect for women, respect for minorities, all those things that make for a strong democracy and ensure that all citizens can participate equally. The Secretary was very explicit about that during her visit to Egypt. As you know, she also met with a group of women to show her solidarity with their full participation in Egyptian society.
With regard to the elements of the constitution that have been put out publicly, as you know, these are draft elements. They’re still very much under debate. From our perspective, it’s quite healthy that the Egyptian public is able to comment on it. It gives an opportunity for people in society, including women, who may have concerns to express them and be part of the larger process.
So we’re not going to prejudge the final outcome until we have a final outcome. Right now, what we have is a process that’s actually quite broadly democratic, which is a good thing.
QUESTION: Reflecting the concern that it’s there among mostly liberals and most of the Egyptians, do you think that just focusing or that – focusing mainly on security issues and to be in a good relation with the neighbor, which is like keeping the accords – peace accords – will affect by somehow raising the issues related to human rights and liberties and freedom of expression?
MS. NULAND: We’ve always made clear that from our perspective, we see two key litmus tests for Egypt’s democracy going forward. The first is protection of the rights of all Egyptians, as we said. The second is maintaining obligations – international obligations – and good relations with neighbors. So from our perspective, both of those things are equally necessary in the new Egypt.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Please, behind you. Yeah.
QUESTION: The New York Times reported today, based on interviews with several North Koreans, that the life of ordinary North Korean people has not improved at all since the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took office 10 months ago. They say their life has worsened, got worse. So what’s your own assessment of the situations in North Korea? I mean, do you see any signs of economic reforms or market opening there? What’s your own evaluation there?
MS. NULAND: Well, Mr. Lee, as you know, we don’t have our own embassy there. We don’t have our own personnel on the ground. So any assessment one might share from the U.S. Government side would be based on intelligence, so I wouldn’t, obviously, do that from this podium. But it is obviously of concern that people are coming out and saying that things are even harder and not getting better. We have for many months now been calling on the new leader to make a better choice for his own people and to invest in their future, including by working with us to meet their nuclear obligations. So that’s obviously an issue of concern.
Anything else? All right.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. NULAND: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:48 p.m.)
DPB # 176