Other Releases
Washington, DC
February 18, 2010

The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of February 17, 2010

View Video

MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everybody. You can tell it’s really the B team, eh? Actually, the C team. (Laughter.) Not you guys. I meant that about myself. That was not directed at you guys. (Laughter.) I’m saying – start off with a failed joke; that’s always the best way to go.

Actually, just to start off, Secretary Clinton is back in Washington, as many of you know. She returned earlier this morning. We appreciate General Petraeus, who generously diverted his plane in order to transport the Secretary back home. The Secretary’s plane suffered a mechanical problem. I believe it was a broken fuel valve. The Secretary and General Petraeus took advantage of this trip to consult extensively on regional issues on the return trip. The rest of the Secretary’s traveling party, including her colleagues in the press, are flying back commercially. We wish them, obviously, Godspeed.

The Secretary has meetings today at the White House on the implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, as well as her weekly meeting with the President. And I believe she’ll also participate in a lunch with King Juan Carlos.

In other news, Under Secretary William Burns – Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns was in Damascus today. He met with President Asad. As he said, he had productive and extensive discussions. They talked candidly about the areas in which we disagree, but also identified areas of common ground on which we can build. Under Secretary Burns also reiterated the White House announcement from yesterday that one of our most seasoned diplomats, Robert Ford, will be the next American ambassador to Syria, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate. As Burns – as Under Secretary Burns stated, it’s a clear sign after five years without an American ambassador in Damascus of America’s readiness to improve relations and to cooperate in the pursuit of a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis and progress on all tracks of the peace process, as well as pursuit of regional peace and stability. And he also said that Ambassador Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, will remain in Damascus for another day of meetings.

And then finally, Ambassador Holbrooke is on his seventh trip to the region in the last year. He’s in Afghanistan today, where he met with General McChrystal, General Caldwell, President Karzai, Foreign Minister Rassoul, Interior Minister Atmar, as well as the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Ambassador Mark Sedwill and the U.K. SRAP Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles as well as the interagency team promoting agriculture sector development. Discussed a range of issues, including, obviously, Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Helmand province, as well as the training of the Afghan National Police. And in Marjah, civilians have been involved in every phase of the planning and execution of the stabilization effort, working alongside coalition forces and the Afghan military to support Afghan Government efforts to deliver governance and stability to the area immediately after the security operations.

From Afghanistan, very quickly, just to sum up, he’ll travel to Pakistan and then – not in any particular order – to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Berlin. It’s his first visit to the five Central Asian countries in his capacity as SRAP. Three of them border Afghanistan, obviously, and all five are involved in the region. So he looks forward to the opportunity for face-to-face talks.

That’s all I’ve got. I’ll take your questions. Kirit.

QUESTION: Can you give us any more details about the Af-Pak meeting going on over at the White House this afternoon, exactly what they’re talking about, what the --

MR. TONER: Sure. My understanding is that it’s a regular update on implementation of the Af-Pak program. And I mean, obviously, they’ll discuss the whole range of issues, as well as the more topical ones such as the Marjah. But you’ll have to go to the White House for more details.

QUESTION: On Bill Burns’s trip, I know we’ve talked about this before, but can you tell us why does the Administration think that at this time it is important to revitalize or reestablish better diplomatic ties with Syria with the new ambassador with the highest-ranking official there in five years? And what does it have to do with Iran?

MR. TONER: Well, as you know, the decision was made last year to return an ambassador to Syria and it’s a commitment – it’s a sign of the Administration’s commitment to use all the tools, which includes dialogue, to address our concerns. It also reflects the Administration’s recognition of the important role that Syria plays in the region, and as well as our hope that the Syrian Government will play a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up, and I’m not sure that the decision’s been made on this or whether you can say anything about it. But we all know about the ties with Iran I mentioned earlier and we also know that Iran, in fact, supports a large part of the Syrian economy. And if we want them to at least diminish, if not cut, their close ties with Iran, someone has to help them with their economy. So is the United States ready to give Syria any aid that it hasn’t given in the past?

MR. TONER: Well, look, I don’t want to get out in front of the process. We have a new ambassador. That’s an incredibly positive sign, I think, in the relationship, a turning of the page and one that I think is viewed optimistically, although, obviously, we still have concerns about Syrian actions in the region. But I think engaging with Syria and leveraging its importance in the region is an important step and one that can have --

QUESTION: What are the concerns? Can you say what the concerns are?

MR. TONER: Well, I don’t want to get into it. I just think that we’ve got concerns that they’ve been playing less than a productive role in some of their neighborly relations. But I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: Just on terrorism and things like that?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on who Dan Benjamin is meeting there?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll try to get that for you.

QUESTION: On combat operations in southern Afghanistan, they seem to be going well, but how and when do you see a civilian surge really beginning?

MR. TONER: Just one moment. I mean, I think the quick answer to you is almost immediately. And I think it was reflected in the short statement I read about Secretary[2] Holbrooke. But I do have – yes, civilians have been involved in every phase of the planning and execution of Operation Moshtarak, and they’re actually working alongside coalition forces. They’re standing by to deploy immediately after Marjah is cleared. Civilians will form a district support team consisting of two State Department governance advisors, one USAID development expert, and a British stabilization advisor. And they’ll be there in place to support the Afghan Government efforts to deliver governance and stability after the security operations end.

So I guess just on the heels, as soon as it’s deemed safe enough for them to go in, they’ll be in. And obviously, this is part of a larger strategy where you’ve got – if you simply provide security without bringing in the governance and development and assistance, it’s to no avail. So we’ve really got to make that happen very quickly.


QUESTION: More on Ambassador Holbrooke’s trip. Does he have anything specific he’s trying to accomplish in the visit to the `Stans? I know a couple of them have signed on with air rights for Afghanistan, getting troops in and so on. Is there anything on the table that he wants the `Stans to do that they aren’t doing now?

MR. TONER: I mean, it’s a good question. I think he’s – my impression is that it’s just part of regular consultations that he’s trying to get out there and discuss some of these issues. But I don’t know if there’s anything specific on his agenda other than closer cooperation.

QUESTION: Back to Ambassador Holbrooke, I’m wondering if he’s getting any more information from the Afghan Government about the presumptive peace talks with the Taliban, and if there’s any confirmation from the State side on this report from the Maldives that there was a meeting in the Maldives between the Afghan Government and Taliban --

MR. TONER: You stumped me again. I haven’t seen that report. Look, I can imagine he’s going to talk about the efforts that were first discussed in detail in London. I can imagine that will be part of his regular dialogue with Karzai, but I don’t know whether there’s some new development there.

MR. TONER: Is that it? Thank you.

[2] Special Representative