MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s London International Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf on her recent travel to Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, and Tunisia. We will have some opening remarks from our speaker and then she will take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer this briefing with simultaneous interpretation in Arabic. We therefore ask everyone to speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Leaf for her opening remarks. Ma’am, the floor is yours.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: Thanks very much, Liz, and good afternoon to everybody. I’m really happy to have the chance to brief you on my trip to the region over the last – previous two weeks, where I consulted with our partners on a range of bilateral, regional, and global priorities.
So the administration remains focused on our enduring interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Thus, my visit to the countries that Liz just mentioned – Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon – from March 15th to March 25th allowed me to reinforce President Biden’s priority of an affirmative framework for America’s engagement in the region, and it also allowed me to do some troubleshooting on some very specific issues.
Over the course of the trip, I reaffirmed U.S. support for de-escalating conflicts, support for democratic principles and elections, human rights, and key economic reforms that are central to our engagement in the region.
In the first part of my trip, I traveled to Jordan and then Egypt to discuss with Israel and the Palestinians, supported by Egypt and Jordan, the situation in the West Bank and the need to de-escalate tensions.
In Amman, I met with senior Jordanian officials as well as those that I mentioned to discuss a variety of regional issues.
I then traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh on March 18th and 19th to join discussions hosted by Egypt with senior security and diplomatic officials that followed up on the February 26th Aqaba meeting between Jordanian, Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian counterparts. I would characterize these meetings as both productive and pragmatic. The participants, in particular the Israelis and Palestinians, reaffirmed the necessity of committing to efforts already underway to de-escalate and to prevent further violence at the outset of the holy month of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. The participants also expressed support for confidence-building measures and other efforts to strengthen mutual trust.
So we are looking forward to continuing those discussions in the months to follow. We have not yet set a date for the next round of discussions, but there’s a firm commitment to do so. And it is our hope that through these efforts, we can achieve a period of sustained relative calm and then create momentum for further dialogue on key Palestinian and Israeli issues.
I then traveled to Libya, where in addition to meeting with UN Special Representative Bathily I met with an array of key officials in both Tripoli and Benghazi. I underscored with all of my interlocutors U.S. full support for Special Representative Bathily’s efforts to build consensus leading to presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, in keeping with the aspirations of the Libyan people. And this is an effort that has won the unanimous endorsement of the UN Security Council, I might add. Libyans have repeatedly made clear they want to vote, and they want to vote for a government that will be unified and provide them the services, security, and stability that they have lacked and that they well deserve.
I also stressed the importance of upholding Libya’s sovereignty and respecting Libya’s own ceasefire agreement by ensuring all foreign fighters, forces, and mercenaries leave the country, above all, Wagner fighters, as well as U.S. support for Libya’s economic institutions to strengthen transparency.
I then traveled to Tunisia, where I met with Foreign Minister Ammar to discuss the critical economic and political challenges facing the country. I underscored that the Tunisian Government last fall put forward its own reform program to address the country’s economic crisis, which the IMF then endorsed. The U.S. is ready to support Tunisia should its leadership decide to go forward with its own economic reform program. We recognize that it’s a sovereign decision for Tunisia. The U.S. has been deeply invested in the Tunisian people’s success for many years, and thus, if the government decides not to pursue an IMF arrangement, we’re keen to know what their alternative plans are.
I emphasized that we remain committed to our longstanding support for the Tunisian people and their aspirations for a democratic and accountable government that preserves the space for free debate and dissent, safeguards human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, promotes long-term prosperity, and respects the rule of law. I also stressed the importance of the work our diplomats are engaging in with the Tunisian people as an important component of our bilateral relationship.
Finally, my last stop on the trip was to Beirut. This was my first trip there as assistant secretary, and I had the opportunity to speak to a range of political leaders, including the prime minister and foreign minister, the speaker of parliament, and others. In all of these meetings, I emphasized the overwhelming urgency of the need to elect a president, form a fully empowered government, and implement critical economic reforms to set Lebanon back on the path to recovery. Helping the Lebanese people through their time of crises remains a priority for the U.S. as we urge Lebanese leaders to adopt a sense of urgency that they clearly have lacked and a sense of seriousness in making the critical decisions and taking the critical steps that will put the country on a path out of the current unprecedented crisis.
We remain committed to the Lebanese people and we’ve demonstrated that commitment by the more than $4 billion in total assistance we’ve provided over the last decade alone, including the $72 million announced earlier this year to provide temporary livelihood support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. Lebanon’s leaders have shown a capacity to make decisions in the national interest in the past year, as they did in arriving at an agreement via the U.S. with Israel on the maritime boundary with Israel, but they have many more difficult decisions ahead and they have no time left to lose.
So I’ll stop there and I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. The first question is a pre-submitted question, and it comes from Ali Alenezi from Al Jazirah newspaper in Saudi Arabia. Ali asks, “What is the strategy that America is trying to follow to reposition itself in the region?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: Thanks for that question, Ali. So, look, the approach that the Biden administration has taken since January 2021 has been in the first instance to work methodically, assiduously, to help partners across the region de-escalate. When we came into office, it was a very over-pressurized situation. There were rifts and cleavages across the region, with a number of our close partners at odds with each other. We worked to move people out of that space and we saw, of course, in the first instance the Gulf countries taking a big step forward in terms of reconciliation, and that had a good ripple effect which we very much supported and encouraged in terms of sort of a rapprochement between key Gulf countries and Türkiye and Egypt and Türkiye and so on.
We also made it very clear through a variety of channels that we were not looking for – in terms of our relationship with Iraq, that we were not looking for a contest, a competition, a conflict with Iran via Iraq, that we were focused very much on building out that relationship with Iraq, a keystone country for the security and stability of the larger region. And above all, we were very much focused from the outset on doing what we might to help bring the active conflict in Yemen to a close and to prevent conflict from resuming in Syria and from erupting again in Libya.
So I think we’ve made good headway on all of those fronts, and we’ve seen in particular Saudi Arabia really lean into the proposition of getting the war in Yemen wound down, and we have supported that effort, again, very much with the Saudis and with other regional partners.
I think where we are now is trying to move several countries forward out of a deepening economic crisis – one of those is obviously Lebanon, another is Tunisia – but also getting key elections started in Libya and getting election of a proper government done via the parliament in Lebanon.
We have a larger affirmative agenda in terms of collaboration on issues like climate, food security, water security. And above all, what you saw last summer and which is a key theme of our work in this two years ahead is work to help this region which has really suffered from a lack of integration – a lack of economic, political, security integration – help foster that integration. Certainly we’re keen on fostering integration of Israel further and further into the neighborhood, into the region, but we’re also working side-by-side with partners to deepen and broaden security integration so that our partners can collectively, in a multilateral sense and with U.S. support, fend off or defend against the multiplicity of threats, whether from state actors or non-state actors.
I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR: Thank you. If we could now go to a question in the Q&A submitted by Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya. She asks if the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia will reflect positively on Lebanon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: I certainly hope that that will be the case eventually. I think the first order of business will be to see whether it reflects that Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen and that it will cease the kind of lethal aid and training that it has provided to a number of non-state actors, some of whom have attacked the kingdom in a constant way over the last few years.
So I think in terms of Lebanon, anything that starts with the de-escalation of tensions between two big, significant actors in the region – Saudi Arabia and Iran – anything that provides an enduring kind of détente in the tensions and confrontation that they’ve been – that they’ve had over the course of years is a great thing and should have wider regional effects.
And I will just say, I had been asked whether this reflected an end to a proxy war between the two countries. I don’t really see the Saudis fostering a proxy war in the region. I do see Iran doing that. And if this leads to a broader cessation of such activity by Iran, I think it will surely have a calming and beneficial effect for Lebanon as well as other countries in the region.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to a pre-submitted question from Abdelraouf Arnaout from Al-Ayyam daily newspaper in the Palestinian Territories. “How do you evaluate the commitment of the Palestinians and Israelis to their obligations in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh meetings, and what is next afterward? Do you see things moving towards de-escalation?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: So to the last point, yes, very slowly, painstakingly, there is movement in that direction. The first days of Ramadan seem to have passed very well, very peacefully, and that’s a great thing. And of course, as I said earlier, we are looking beyond the holy month of Ramadan and Passover and Easter to see that this – that this broader de-escalation and calming take effect and be of a more enduring nature.
So each of these discussions have been fruitful and clarifying for the parties. There are a lot of things still to be done, so I don’t want to underestimate how much is still left undone. But I would say that both parties have shown a real seriousness of intent, but facts on the ground and activities and actions on the ground often get in the way of the best intentions. But what I saw clearly, what we heard clearly in both Aqaba and Sharm, is that the Israelis and the Palestinians are committed to this process, and the process will help them both provide greater security for their peoples.
And the longer-term effect of building out this sort of roadway of more durable calm and de-escalation will be that it will allow them to build trust and allow them to have the kind of larger conversations, discussions that they’ve not had in years. And as you know, this administration is firmly committed to the objective of Palestinian statehood as the best way for both peoples to enjoy equal measures of security and opportunity and freedom, and so that is the long-term goal here.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll return to a question from the Q&A. Suze Elgeneidy from Alahram in Egypt asks, “After your visit to Libya and Egypt, how do you view the possibilities of having an election this year in Libya according to the UN envoy’s suggestion?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: So, the prospects for elections reside firmly in the hands of Libyan leaders. We’ve already seen two years ago with the unprecedented number – millions – of Libyans registering to vote that there is a deep appetite, actually a demand signal, for elections. And beyond that, a demand signal for a unified government that they have not enjoyed for 12 years.
So, the requirement is there. What I conveyed to all of the leaders that I met with was that the SRSG is launching a process to mediate to get over some of the sort of seismic issues which have prevented them from holding such elections previously. But it comes down to a matter of political will and the ability to compromise. Nothing prevents Libya from holding elections this year except for lack of political will or unwillingness to compromise among key leaders. They are technically in the space of being able to hold such elections. And so what we’ve got to really move towards is getting these key leaders in the place of exercising compromise and getting behind the SRSG’s efforts.
MODERATOR: We’ll now go to a pre-submitted question from Rawad Taha, LBCI, Lebanon, who asks, “It’s been a year since Lebanon signed the staff-level agreement with the IMF, yet there’s been no progress. Is there a way out with this – without this bailout?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: Frankly, the prospect ahead, immediately ahead of Lebanon is so dire – in fact, I think the IMF team deemed it dangerous – that I don’t see an alternative for Lebanon out of this economic crisis except to move forward on that IMF program. So, again, this is where the Lebanese parliament, the elected representatives of the people, getting on with their job to elect a president is the critical first step. And that was the message that I gave to every single leader and politician that I met with. There is no escaping the fact that Lebanon is sinking progressively into a deeper and deeper economic crisis, and we see that impact across the country and across the people.
So, the IMF package is the lifeline. There is just no other way out. And so I have pressed Lebanon’s leaders to do their duty.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Let’s take a question from the Q&A, from Mike Wagenheim of i24NEWS. “Has there been any reaction or concern among the countries you visited or other regional allies to the internal instability in Israel?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: So in the countries that I visited – Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia – they’re very preoccupied with their own internal economic and political crises. I would say my discussions that are ongoing on a regular basis with other partners across the region, and of course to some degree on the sidelines of our discussions in Sharm, yes, very much underlined people’s concern – concern about what was going on in Israel but also that the complete distraction that was inevitable during these last weeks and actually last three months would also mean that there was a distraction away from the kind of urgent issues that need addressing in terms of the Palestinians, in terms of the West Bank, in terms of the issues that we’ve all been preoccupied with going into the holy month of Ramadan.
So every country has – leaders across the region have expressed their concern to me regularly over these last two months about the insecurity, instability on the West Bank, and certainly the ability to deal with that I think was to some degree – to some degree, not entirely but to some degree – compromised by the issues related to public protests and the public disagreement, if you will, over the judicial restructuring plan.
MODERATOR: The next question is a pre-submitted question from Mouad Abu Baker from The Levant News in Germany. “Has the U.S. position on normalization with the Syrian regime been confirmed to Egypt and Jordan? And what is the U.S. position on Tunisia’s restoration of diplomatic relations with the Assad regime?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: So our own – the U.S.’s own approach to Syria is unchanged. We do not support normalization. We don’t intend to normalize with the regime ourselves. And if you look at the actions we took this week, I think there’s – it highlights the actions, the sanctions that we announced on March 28th against six individuals and two entities owned by one of those individuals, who are close to the regime, family members, et cetera. You will see yet another set of issues that go to the heart of why we think this regime is such a disaster for its people, but also for its neighborhood.
So we issued these sanctions along with the UK for the production and export in Syria and Lebanon of Captagon. This is a new and terrible scourge across the region. And so I can go back to 225 – UN Security Council 2254 and cite you all the things that the regime has failed to do, but the profiting from the Captagon trade is just another terrible example of why this – why this regime deserves to be treated as the rogue that it is.
Now, that said, we have regular discussions with our partners about their course of action and their shift in policy. Some of them have said very frankly, privately, and you’ve heard some of them publicly say, that in their view isolation hasn’t worked; they want to try engagement.
And our approach on that score is to say, then make sure that you get something for that engagement. And I would put ending the Captagon trade right at the top alongside the other issues of 2254 that go to providing relief to the Syrian people from the terrible decade of oppression that they’ve suffered.
MODERATOR: And we have time for one more question, so we’ll go to Myriam Mbarek from Tuniscope. “What’s your advice for the Tunisian President Kais Saied and the Tunisian Government?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF: So, look, what a government decides to do in the face of the terrible economic crisis that is engulfing its country is of course a sovereign decision. So Tunisia’s leaders – President Saied – will have to make those hard decisions themselves. We can offer advice. Other partner countries can offer advice. But ultimately it comes down to a sovereign decision.
And look, the package of reforms that President Saied’s government negotiated on behalf of Tunisia over the course of about a year achieved support and endorsement from the IMF. Now, the decision that lies before President Saied and his government is whether to actually embrace the reform package that they put together. And as I say, that’s a sovereign decision.
My only point is, and our advice is, if they are not going to proceed for some reason on that course, then all of their partners urgently need to understand what they propose to do. Because the huge debt that Tunisia already has and the escalating, the deepening economic crisis in Tunisia require an urgent approach and require structural reforms. The debt alone makes it difficult for Tunisia to simply borrow its way out of this problem. It can’t, in fact. And so all of Tunisia’s partners and its longstanding friends like the United States urgently want to see the government take action.
MODERATOR: And that concludes today’s call. I am sorry that we could not get to all questions today. I would like to thank Assistant Secretary Leaf for joining us, and I would like to thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the London International Media Hub at MediaHubLondon@state.gov.
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