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Washington, DC
August 4, 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 August 4, 2011

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MR. TONER: Matt, you look puzzled.

QUESTION: No, not puzzled.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: Just wondering if there’s anything new on Syria.

MR. TONER: Nothing to announce yet.

QUESTION: No, that’s not what I meant. I mean in terms of your reaction to what’s happening on the ground. Things seem to be getting worse.

MR. TONER: Well, I can say that Ambassador Ford is wrapping up his consultations and he’ll be headed back later this afternoon. Obviously, it’s very important for him to get back on the ground, where he can go back to his vital work to outreach to the Syrian opposition as well as continue to press our concerns with the Syrian Government.

As for the situation on the ground today, I’ve seen some news reporting. We’re obviously still concerned by the level of violence that’s being carried out on the people of Hama. And as you saw yesterday, the UN Security Council came out with a strong statement condemning that violence. It was important that they speak with one voice, and we achieved that goal, so --

QUESTION: Did the Administration give any thought to not sending Ambassador Ford back?

MR. TONER: We have always believed and continue to believe that his presence there in Syria is in our national interest.

QUESTION: So that means no, there was no consideration given despite the calls from the Hill?

MR. TONER: Again, all I can do is – I thought I answered it pretty directly, saying we continue to believe his presence in Syria is in our national security interest.

QUESTION: You expect him to be back there – what, tonight, tomorrow?

MR. TONER: I don’t know how long a plane flight it is, off the top of my head. Probably tomorrow.

QUESTION: Will he stay in Damascus or will he travel around again?

MR. TONER: I spoke to him. I don’t know that he has any immediate travel plans.

QUESTION: Did you hear about the statement made by Asad about approving the law – election law and multiparty system law and so on that becomes --

MR. TONER: Which rings hollow while he’s – while his forces continue to carry out attacks on the city of Hama.

QUESTION: So you don’t take that seriously?

MR. TONER: Again, we’ve seen so much empty rhetoric from him that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

QUESTION: That’s what I wanted to ask you about. I mean, there’s reports of over a hundred dead in Hama in just the past 24 hours. I mean, has your Embassy been able to – have the – have you guys been hearing the same thing in terms of death toll? And do you have anything to say, other than that you’re concerned about it?

MR. TONER: Right, Kirit. Which is one of the reasons I referred to news reports just now. I mean, they’re trying to get clear information on the ground, but obviously, given the lack of access and the lack of media, it’s very difficult to get hard, certain figures about what’s going on there.

QUESTION: Could I have a quick follow-up?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: When Matt asked you, you said not yet, as of any action and so on. Does that mean something is imminent --

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve said that – I mean, the Secretary has said as much in her statement, that we’re looking at next steps to put pressure on Asad.

QUESTION: What are these steps likely to include?

MR. TONER: What?

QUESTION: What are they likely to include?

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve talked about a number of actions. I think generally, what I can say is that we’re looking at ways to increase both political and financial pressure on Asad, and look at ways to put a squeeze on them – on his regime, if you will, so that they – the – to constrain their revenue and to make it harder for them to carry out these kind of assaults.

QUESTION: The EU announced their sanctions this morning and they did not include anything on the oil and gas industry, which the activists and many others say is the one thing that could squeeze Asad and his company. What does the U.S. think about these sorts of sanctions which are not – which don’t go after one of the main moneymakers for the regime?

MR. TONER: I think it’s all important because, as I said, it’s not so much a one-off sanction, if you will, a one-off action. What’s important is that we continue to build the pressure. Again, we’re looking at sanctions, additional sanctions and measures we can take in the days coming, and we’re going to continue to look at additional measures we can take that apply that pressure.

Anything else on Syria? Anything else?

MR. TONER: Yeah. And now Iraq.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Last week, the inspector general for Iraq issued an abysmal report on the spark of violence, that it’s much worse today than it was a year ago. One, how does this impact your operations in Iraq? And second, how does this factor into the request for increased presence beyond the 31st of December for the U.S. military?

MR. TONER: For the U.S. military – well, in answer to your second question first, we intend to fulfill our obligations under the security agreement signed in 2008 which calls for U.S. forces to withdraw by the end of the year. That said, we also said all along that we would certainly listen to an Iraqi request for additional support in the area of security. And the Iraqis say they would like to discuss training support – you saw the other day – I think it was yesterday or the day before – in support – or training support in the context of the Strategic Framework Agreement. And we certainly stand ready to talk to them about the request.

In terms of the report that came out over the weekend, there certainly may be an uptick in violence, but I think the overall trend lines that we’re still seeing in Iraq over the last four to five years have certainly showed a sharp decrease in violence. And those statistics point to a steady decrease on the part of attacks on both innocent Iraqis as well as U.S. forces. So the general trend line is positive. That said, we have also been clear-eyed about our assessment that some of these extremist elements that still exist in Iraq are going to try to take advantage of this transition period, and they’re doing so. They’re trying to carry out attacks. They’re trying to disrupt the order and are carrying out these senseless attacks in an effort to sow chaos and create disorder. That’s what they do.

However, we continue to believe that Iraqi security forces are strong enough and have the capability to provide security. That said, again, we are also fully aware of the increased security needs that are going to be put on our Embassy, our mission, our personnel as the U.S. military withdraws, and we’re taking steps to address those.

QUESTION: The fact that you believe that Iraqi security generally – in a general tend is improving, upon fulfilling your agreement, the SOFA agreement signed back three, four years ago and leaving, do you fear that these groups will fill a vacuum, like the Naqshbandi movement, like the Jaish al-Mahdi, and all – the Mahdi Army and all these things, they will take advantage?

MR. TONER: Well, I think they’ll attempt to. I mean, I think they’ll attempt to ratchet up the violence. That’s their MO, if you will. And we just need to be aware of that and to take measures and to work with Iraqi partners in providing security certainly for our personnel. And overall Iraqi security forces, we believe, do have the capacity and the capability and the will to provide security for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: Now that the decision is made to reopen the embassy, is the embassy reopen now and functioning?

MR. TONER: I don’t know. I mean, as – there’s – we did sign off on the order, if you will, to reopen the embassy, but I don’t know. There’s – again, there’s some other legal matters that need to be handled, but – in our view, that we’ve given the go-ahead for them – the green light for them to reopen.

QUESTION: Would there be anything to stop Mr. Aujali from being accredited as a full-fledged diplomat and ambassador to Libya?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe so. That’s a matter for the TNC and – to nominate him as ambassador.

QUESTION: And finally, on this issue, will you provide any special security under the current circumstances to the Libyan Embassy?

MR. TONER: Good question. I’ll take it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) several days ago?

MR. TONER: Yes, I did.

QUESTION: What day?

MR. TONER: Well – but I don’t know if they’ve actually reopened.

QUESTION: Yeah, but what day? It was Monday or Tuesday, wasn’t it?

MR. TONER: Tuesday.

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: A little bit more on Libya, that – there are – Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam gave that interview to the Times where he’s talking about --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- the Qadhafi government aligning itself with Islamists and the rest of the country, and this will be a powerful force. Does the U.S. have any reason to believe this is a credible threat?

MR. TONER: No. We have no way to confirm the reports. We’ve seen him make these kind of comments before in an apparent attempt to splinter the Libyan opposition. Given the history of repression against Islamic groups by the Qadhafi regime, it’s probably more empty rhetoric, but we have no way to confirm it.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any information that would indicate that Islamist factions or groups in any part of the country are working against U.S. interests or against the TNC?

MR. TONER: Well, against U.S. interests, but – I can’t answer that, but I can say that the TNC is working – I think Chris spoke to this – Chris Stevens the other day to – with all of these various militias, whether they be Islamist or otherwise, and as he said, trying to wrap their arms around the issue in an effort to create better cohesion. It’s a challenge, but they’re addressing it.

QUESTION: I mean, there were originally – in the early days, there were concerns raised that Islamists – would sort of take advantage of this situation and this was a potential problem with the rebel movement. To date, however, the U.S. hasn’t seen any evidence of that?

MR. TONER: And I think it’s fair to say that the Transitional National Council is aware of that potential problem and working – but at this point, there’s unity towards the ultimate goal, which is ousting Qadhafi.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) process?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Anything you know on the statement allegedly made by Mr. Netanyahu?

MR. TONER: No. I’m sorry. I don’t. Just to refer you to Netanyahu’s – Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office.

QUESTION: Okay. Now Palestinian sources also that you are exerting a great deal of pressure on them to withdraw their effort toward the United Nations. Could you confirm or deny that?

MR. TONER: I would just say we remain in close consultation with both the Quartet and – as well as both parties, and I do believe Ambassador Hale did speak to Saeb Erekat this week in that effort.

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