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Washington, DC
May 12, 2011

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 May 12, 2011

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MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything for you at the top, so I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: Well, let’s start –

MR. TONER: Jill.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: You’ve always got questions.

QUESTION: Yes. Well, TNC – my colleague and I were just talking about the fact that Mr. Jibril was pushing, of course, for recognition. And it seems that one of the big hang-ups is the legality of this. I mean, where are we? Because – is it a catch-22 that they can’t get funding unless they are declared legitimate and recognized?

MR. TONER: Well, you’ve asked really two questions in one. Your second question was about funding.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: And that is being addressed on the Hill. We were up consulting with members of Congress yesterday, talking about ways that, as the Secretary said last week in Rome, that we can use some of these frozen assets to meet the TNC’s very legitimate short-term financial needs.

In terms of recognition, we continue to look at that. I don’t, frankly-- I’m not a legal expert in recognitions. I know there are legal hurdles to it. But again, we’ve said all along that it’s not necessarily-- there’s this misperception that that’s somehow the ends to – the endgame, where we can do a lot to help the TNC and to help the opposition going forward short of recognition. That’s not to say we don’t continue to look at it and study it and what it entails, but we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: Right, but to really put a fine point on it, is it correct that they cannot get funding unless they are recognized as legitimate?

MR. TONER: I’m not sure that – I don’t believe that’s the case, but I’ll check on that.

QUESTION: Mark?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe that – legally that that’s an impediment.

QUESTION: Could I follow up on Jill’s question?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I asked him why the holdout on the recognition, and he said –

MR. TONER: You asked – I’m sorry. You asked who?

QUESTION: Yes, I asked Mr. Jibril.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: Okay. On why the – why is the United States holding out on the recognition, and he gave three reasons. He said that, one, you are looking – weighing the qualification of the TNC as the legitimate representative, and to make sure that no extremist elements – two, to make sure that there are no extremist elements, and three, that there’s a bit reluctance regarding the day after. Those were hisresponses. Could you comment on that?

MR. TONER: The last part was?

QUESTION: The last one, he says, well, that the United States was a bit worried about what comes the day after Qadhafi is gone.

MR. TONER: Oh.

QUESTION: So are those the reasons?

MR. TONER: I would just say he raises questions that I think are part of any sound assessment of the Transitional National Council and the opposition in Libya, and are elements that we’ve talked about, both the Secretary has talked about and others have talked about and we’ve talked about from this podium. Number one is we need to get to know them better. We’ve had representation on the ground in Benghazi, and as – Chris Stevens has been there for the past several weeks, and we’ve fleshed out our understanding of their needs. And all along, there’s been action associated with this. We did secure the $25 million in non-lethal aid for them. We are moving forward to unfreeze these assets to get them money. So this sense that we’re somehow frozen in place while we ponder recognition is – I just think, is a bit of a mischaracterization.

QUESTION: Yeah, but why this pondering? I mean, so much pondering. It’s been, like, three months.

MR. TONER: It’s just a matter of, again, some of the elements that he talked about – getting to know the TNC and understanding what their needs are and who they are as they come together as a more coherent organization. There are legal concerns that Ambassador Cretz and others have detailed, and certainly those are part of the consideration. And finally, he talked about what comes the day after, when Qadhafi departs. Well, that’s – we’ve been quite clear on that. We want Qadhafi to depart so that a democratic transition can take place and we can begin that process. We believe that the TNC is saying all the right things, and we’re going to continue to work with them.

QUESTION: Just –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- one other thing that he talked about was – is – kind of following on Jill’s question – he sounded the alarm on the funding for the TNC, saying that they’re running out of money and saying that they felt that they had perhaps four to five weeks before they run out of money. When your – in your consultations with the Hill, do you feel confident that you’ll be able to provide that to them within that time frame so that they won’t run out of money?

MR. TONER: Sure, Kirit, and that’s a fair question and we’ve talked about the urgency here. And I wasn’t privy to readouts of those conversations and consultations on the Hill, but I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands that there’s an urgency to this.

Yeah.

QUESTION: In Rome last week, a senior State Department official told us that the money-- described this process of talking to Congress about passing legislation that would allow for the disbursement of some of the frozen assets. But he was very clear in saying that it was not expected to go through the temporary financial mechanism that was essentially established, or at least agreed upon, in Rome. Why not? Why can’t you, to the extent that you free up any money, give it to that mechanism?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware that it couldn’t go through that, frankly, Arshad. I’ll have to get clarification of that understanding.

QUESTION: Can you check that? I think the – I mean, my understanding was that it won’t go through that – whether it could or could not, that it won’t, and I wonder why.

MR. TONER: Yeah, there may be some, but I’m not clear on what – there may be some kind of legal impediment, but again, I think that temporary financial mechanism is set in place so that we can find ways to quickly get financial assistance to the TNC. I’ll check on it.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Could you also check on the legality – I’m sorry, I think this has been raised before – but on the legality of them being able to use the frozen assets –

MR. TONER: Yeah, we raised it. That was raised last week.

QUESTION: Yeah, the frozen assets as collateral.

MR. TONER: As collateral.

QUESTION: As collateral, using the frozen assets –

MR. TONER: Oh, as a line of-- yeah, got it, okay.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sorry.

QUESTION: What does the U.S. expect to achieve from Jibril’s visit to –

MR. TONER: Well, really, his visit – obviously, we’ve met with Jibril several times. The Secretary of State’s met with him, most recently last week in Rome, and met with him previously in Doha, I believe. He’s going to be, I think, at the White House and at State tomorrow, and he’s also meeting with the Department of Defense and other agencies, I think Treasury as well. That’s all important. It’s important for him to be out there and to talk with all these different entities. The other important – really important aspect of this trip, and one of the main purposes as I understand it, was for him to be able to interact and meet with Congress and really share his views, share their needs with Congress. So that was a big element of it.

QUESTION: How much better do you need to get to know them? (Laughter.) I mean, no, seriously, the Secretary has met him three times, correct?

MR. TONER: I don't know that we --

QUESTION: And Tom Donilon is going to meet him tomorrow.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: I mean, how much better do you need to get to know these guys?

MR. TONER: I mean, look, Arshad, I’m not trying to say that this is some kind of, like, long-term dating ritual that we’re engaged in here. We’re just trying to – we’re trying to get a deeper understanding of what – how we can assist them. And again, I just want to move away from the idea that the endgame here is all about recognition. That’s certainly an element, but there’s lots we can do short of recognition that can help the TNC.

And so this is part of an ongoing dialogue. What I was trying to stress there was the fact that he is going to meet, obviously, with – at the White House, going to meet with a lot of folks, he’s going to meet with Deputy Secretary Steinberg here. But the other important side of this trip and one of the reasons why it was delayed last time, as I understand it, was to – in order that he could meet with folks on the Hill.

QUESTION: Mark, not to belabor the issue, but how do you conduct diplomacy with Mr. Aujali, the ambassador of the transitional government – Ali Aujali, the ambassador?

MR. TONER: Yeah. You mean --

QUESTION: I mean, how does he function in town? What is his status, how do you deal with him?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You’re talking about the TNC’s representative?

QUESTION: The ambassador, yes, of course. The former ambassador jumped ship and --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- became the ambassador of the transitional council. Now he is in town. How do you conduct business with him? Do you deal with him diplomatically? Does he meet with you in any official capacity?

MR. TONER: I think we’re in contact with him. I don’t think – I’m not sure what the specific protocol is because we haven’t recognized them, so – officially, and that would obviously have a bearing on that, but we are in regular contact with him.

QUESTION: Will the talks with Jibril --

MR. TONER: I mean, at the end, it doesn’t – I understand there’s elements to formal recognition that would impact that relationship, but there’s no reason why we can’t be in close consultation with him apart from that.

QUESTION: Will the talks focus on the preparation for the era after Qadhafi’s departure --

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: -- the elections and new constitutions?

MR. TONER: Sure, there’s a lot of elements to this, obviously. The most immediate ones are – as Jill and Kirit raised, are the financial assistance to the TNC. It is running short on funds. It’s been quite clear about that. And we’re trying to look at ways we can get them the funding that they need.

They’re also – there’s – the NATO operation enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 continues. It’s still unclear whether there’s been progress in terms of the rebels moving on Tripoli. It’s a very fluid situation still. Obviously, that’s a big topic of discussion and, again, how to alleviate some of the humanitarian suffering in and around Misrata.

And then long term, we have talked about this, the need for – post-Qadhafi – the need for a democratic transition to take place that recognizes the aspirations of all Libyans. And that’s certainly a topic of discussion as well.

QUESTION: Are you –

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just one more on the funding. Are you hoping – I mean, you stressed the importance of these meetings on the Hill. Are you hoping that Mr. Jibril’s meetings with U.S. lawmakers will help smooth the way for passage of this legislation under discussion to help funnel some money –

MR. TONER: I think it’s – I don’t want to speak for Congress, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s always important for Congress to get as clear and full an idea or an understanding of the situation on the ground in Libya, and I believe that Mr. Jibril is best positioned to do that. It’s also important that they get to know what the TNC is all about. Obviously, Senator McCain recently traveled to Benghazi, but this is an opportunity for others in Congress to meet with them.

QUESTION: Mark, do you have any update on the wives of Usama bin Ladin? No, just a couple of things. I know we ask it every day, but –

MR. TONER: Yeah. I know. And every day, I have the same non-answer.

QUESTION: -- the access question. But also, obviously, the Pakistanis have been talking with them. There seem to be some indications that they might be sharing some information with the United States. Is that correct? Are we – is the U.S. getting anything?

MR. TONER: I truly don’t – and can’t convey sort of the day-to-day intelligence sharing that’s going on. I can’t. I’m prohibited from doing that. I do know that we – what we’ve said before, which is that we’re optimistic, we believe that the Pakistanis understand our request to speak with these individuals and to also get – have access to other information surrounding the – his residence. And again, we remain optimistic that Pakistanis will be responsive to this.

QUESTION: So no update on the level of optimism?

MR. TONER: No update.

QUESTION: I mean, the optimism emerged yesterday.

MR. TONER: We remain optimistic that the Pakistanis will be responsive to our requests.

QUESTION: And what do you –

QUESTION: Any more or less optimistic?

QUESTION: What do you base the –

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. I realize it’s a non-answer, but it’s just –

QUESTION: What do you base the optimism on?

MR. TONER: We base it on the fact that despite all the – all of the concerns raised and all of the media attention of the past several weeks, we – our counterterrorism cooperation with the Pakistani Government continues. And that’s a relationship that’s been built up over the last decade.

QUESTION: On Pakistan?

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just on Bahrain –

QUESTION: Can we just stay on Pakistan real quick?

MR. TONER: Sure, and then we’ll –

QUESTION: There have been calls in Washington, specifically by Mr. Thomas Ricks, for instance, who went on television and says maybe the United States ought to consider, ought to consider, destroying Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and assets. Is that something that is being talked about?

MR. TONER: No. And I’m not going to comment on that. That’s – anyway, go ahead.

QUESTION: On Bahrain, Under Secretary Burns and Assistant Secretary Feltman were scheduled to testify tomorrow before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. They’re not – I understand from the commission that they’re not doing that anymore. Why are they no longer testifying?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I’ll have to find out more information about that. I was not aware that they’d withdrawn.

QUESTION: Also, staying on Bahrain, when was the last time the Secretary spoke to Bahraini officials? There are reports out today that 16-year-old girls, female students, arrested and beaten for having been part of the protest movement, forced confessions from doctors. Any update on Bahrain?

MR. TONER: Sure. She hasn’t spoken – she spoke with the Bahraini foreign minister – I was going to say in her calls, but I believe she actually met with him in Rome last week.

QUESTION: Nothing – so nothing since then?

MR. TONER: No, not since then. But obviously, we remain very concerned by all of these reports of human rights abuses there. We’ve been quite clear in our message that there is no security solution to what’s going on in Bahrain at the moment. And we encourage dialogue, and we also would ask that the Bahraini Government, in any actions it takes against individuals, that it be done in a transparent manner in accordance with international human rights obligations.

QUESTION: Do you feel good about maintaining a large naval base in a country that has, according to many reports, serially and extensively violated people’s human rights for weeks and weeks now, despite your pleas from the podium?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry? That’s the question? Okay.

QUESTION: I’m asking --

MR. TONER: Yeah --

QUESTION: -- do you feel good about maintaining a major U.S. naval base in a country that has --

MR. TONER: Look –

QUESTION: -- violated a great many human’s rights?

MR. TONER: Arshad, we’ve been very frank, both in our private exchanges and our public statements, about the situation in Bahrain. Assistant Secretary Feltman’s been to the country several times in an effort to broker some kind of resolution to the situation there. We continue to work with Bahraini authorities to find a way forward. At the same time, we’ve also been candid and vocal about saying that these human rights actions, abuses are not in keeping with its international obligations and calling on it to respect human rights and the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people. This is a message that has been clear from day one there.

But regarding the station of the 5th Fleet there, it’s an important aspect of our security relationship with Bahrain, and we are appreciative of the government’s hospitality to host it, and beyond that, it’s – we – I recognize that we need to be able to obviously do two things at once, but I don’t want to have any – create an impression that that’s somehow coloring our assessment of the situation there, our handling of the situation there.

QUESTION: So just to follow up, then, so the rights violations are not of such magnitude that would cause the U.S. Government to think twice about its basing?

MR. TONER: I just would say that we believe that there is a way forward in Bahrain, that we would urge the Bahraini Government to seek that way forward, and that there’s not a security solution to its problems, that it needs to engage in a dialogue with the opposition there and with – and address the legitimate aspirations of its people.

QUESTION: Do you think your message to the Bahraini officials has been the same as it has been to Syrian officials and the Yemeni officials and, before that, the Egyptian and the Tunisian officials? I mean, do you not see an inconsistency in the reaction to crackdowns by governments?

MR. TONER: Look, what I think we’ve seen throughout the region is people in these countries expressing themselves peacefully, and in some cases, not peacefully. I’m speaking broadly now. And we’ve seen different reactions on the parts of different governments and regimes there. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to any of these situations. And that’s why-- and frankly, our relationships with these countries and these governments are different in each case.

So what I think we are crystal clear about is that these governments need to respond in a peaceful way to address the concerns and the aspirations of these people. That message has been clear whether you’re talking about Egypt, Syria, Libya, or Bahrain. And – but we’re not going to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. We are cognizant of abuses; when they occur, we speak out against them. We convey those concerns privately as well as publicly, and that’s where we’re at.

QUESTION: Some say, Mark, that the overriding priority in U.S. policy towards Bahrain remains Iran. Would you concur that Iran is the overriding factor in determining U.S. policy?

MR. TONER: I think Bahrain has been a strong partner, and we are trying to find a way forward that helps it navigate this period of turmoil in a way that, again, legitimately responds to the aspirations of the Bahraini people. I mean, there are – I – there’s been lots of talk about Iranian influence in several of these countries. But we believe that the aspirations of these people – fundamentally, that’s what needs to be addressed and that’s at the root of these situations.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: The GCC countries are enlarging the Council and invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Council, and Iran is not happy about this. What’s the U.S. – how do you view this development?

MR. TONER: Well, it’s an internal decision for the – among the members of the GCC. We don’t have, necessarily, a viewpoint on it.

QUESTION: You don’t encourage it, do you?

MR. TONER: We don’t --

QUESTION: You welcome it?

MR. TONER: It’s – again, it’s really a decision for the Gulf Cooperation Council to make. And these are countries with whom we have good relations, but I don’t want to – it’s not for us to comment on their decision to enlarge or not.

Go ahead, in the back.

QUESTION: Syria?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Syria, and then back – sorry. Back to Syria.

QUESTION: Yeah – yes, sir. Could you – do you have any details or more information on the demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy, apparently pro-government demonstrations?

MR. TONER: I don’t have much more details. I know that there were demonstrations, but I don’t have any details as to size of them.

QUESTION: Are you holding the Syrians responsible for the safety of the American diplomats and personnel? Could you state that?

MR. TONER: At the risk of you putting words in my mouth – (laughter) – sure, we would hold the Syrian Government responsible for the safety of our diplomats.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria --

MR. TONER: Let’s go – okay, one more Syria and then we’ll go back to you. Sorry.

QUESTION: Did you decide on any new options regarding President Asad?

MR. TONER: Well, the Secretary spoke about this in – and let me pronounce it correctly today – Nuuk. I think that’s right. I didn’t want to create any false impressions yesterday. But the Secretary spoke about this this morning in Nuuk, I believe, after her meeting or in her bilateral with Foreign Minister Espersen. She was quite clear in saying the international community is working to make as strong a case as possible to sanction those who are leading and implementing the policies that are resulting in these human rights abuses. And we’re looking for ways going forward to increase the pressure on the Syrian Government.

Yeah.

QUESTION: One more then on Syria. Yesterday, there were all kinds of reports saying that the Administration is getting close towards a moment when they call on the Syrian regime to step aside. Are you getting closer? How close are you?

MR. TONER: I believe I used the metaphor of a window narrowing yesterday. Look, it’s pretty clear that there’s growing international pressure and international concern over the situation in Syria as it’s continued to worsen, as we’ve seen the Syrian military move to extend its reach, to go into places where, frankly, where there’d been no violence, and to engage in arbitrary arrests and other really terrible human rights violations.

There’s-- it’s clear that this is something we’re all aware of. And again, just to echo what I just said, we’re looking at ways that we can increase the pressure on Syria. And we’re working – I would say it’s important to note that we’re working – this is an international effort, that we’re working with our partners, for example, in the EU but also in the region, to find ways to increase pressure on the Syrian regime.

[This is a mobile copy of Middle East Digest - May 12, 2011]