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Washington, DC
August 18, 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 18, 2011

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MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Ambassador Ford – is he still in Syria?

MS. NULAND: He is.

QUESTION: And the obvious follow-up question is: Will he stay?

MS. NULAND: As you know, we think that his service there and the service of the Embassy are very valuable and he will, of course, stay. Yes.

QUESTION: Could I ask, seriously, if circumstances were to change, if became difficult or the government there made it difficult for him to do anything, I presume you could reevaluate according to circumstances.

MS. NULAND: Well, you’re taking us, obviously, into hypotheticals. I think you know our view that his presence there has been very valuable in giving us a very clear and strong picture and giving us lots of avenues to talk to and work with a broad cross-section of Syrians. So we are hopeful that he will be able to continue that work and that the Embassy will as well.

QUESTION: Just as one quick follow-up please. Some people on Capitol Hill are saying what happened today was long overdue. They point to a long string of he should – he has outlived his usefulness, et cetera, but finally this after months and months. What do you say to that criticism that this really is long overdue?

MS. NULAND: I say that we wanted to ensure that our words were backed by action and that we also were able to assemble a strong chorus to join with us. And if you see what’s happened over just the last few weeks, with so many countries in the region, in the Arab world, the GCC, the Arab League itself, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister of Iraq, strong statements from almost all of the regional players, Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday, and today the strong statement from the EU, from the three European heads of state, Prime Minister Cameron, President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel, this was the kind – this is the kind of coordinated action that we have wanted. And as you know, we will continue to work with allies and partners around the region to tighten our collaboration.

And again, it’s not like we hadn’t taken any steps. We had already sanctioned entities in Syria and around Asad and Asad himself in two or three tranches ahead of this. We had the very strong statement in the United Nations, which, as the Secretary has said, took hard work to get. So this has been a campaign of tightening the noose and using the tools at the time that we thought that they would have the most impact, and at the same time, watching the violence in Syria just increase, even as the international condemnation increased. So it was on that basis that we – the President and the Secretary concluded that it was time to make these moves today.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could just sort of expound a little bit on the Administration’s statements that this move, and particularly the sanctions, U.S. sanctions imposed today, will be a big step toward choking off the resources the Asad regime has, given that the U.S. oil trade with Syria is vanishingly small. I mean, it’s something like 1,900 – 19,000 barrels per day out of 20 million. I mean, there’s nothing there. Why are these sanctions going to have any effect on the Asad regime’s income, unless they’re quickly matched by similar sanctions imposed by Europeans with much stronger business relationship?

MS. NULAND: The net effect of the sanctions that we have imposed today is to close the U.S. financial sector to Syria, a combination of the freeze on all Syrian Government assets that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, prohibiting U.S. persons anywhere under any authority to engage in transactions involving the Government of Syria, and then striking at the stream of revenue to the regime by banning imports of Syrian-origin petroleum and petroleum products into the United States. So this is a closing of the U.S. financial system to Syria. And of course, as we’ve said, we look to other countries to match what we have done and to look at how they also can take national steps to tighten the noose.

QUESTION: I just have a follow-up. I mean, the sanctions would have been much stronger had they also applied to foreign companies that were doing business with Syria, Total and various other ones. Why didn’t the U.S. take that step, which really would put the screws on them immediately?

MS. NULAND: I think our first priority is to see other countries around the world with companies operational in Syria take national measures. And I think our hope and our expectation is that in coming weeks and months, and weeks and days, more countries will take such action.

QUESTION: One last follow-up.

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: On the freezing of the Syrian Government assets in this country, does that also apply to the Syrian Embassy in this – in Washington? Are their assets frozen? How are they affected by this?

MS. NULAND: It does not. We have Vienna Convention obligations to allow operation of diplomatic personnel. There will be an OFAC license issued to exempt the operating accounts of the Syrian Embassy.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on one of those questions about the European Union? I understand there is a meeting perhaps tomorrow, and they account for 90 percent of Syria’s oil exports. Would you encourage the European Union to impose sanctions against Syria’s oil or gas or companies that do business with that industry?

MS. NULAND: I think you saw in the European Union’s own statement and in a statement of some of the big three European leaders today that they are looking at further measures that they can take. So we are hopeful that that meeting will engage on Syria, but it’s obviously a decision of the EU to take.

QUESTION: Toria?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Just a few different things real quick. On the conference call this morning with senior Administration officials, it was related that Ambassador Ford has had contacts with the Syrian regime as recently as this week. Can you tell us first at what level he is communicating with the regime, who his contacts are?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that his last senior-level contact was his meeting with Foreign Minister Mualem last Thursday. His people continue to meet with members of the regime as necessary. I don’t think we’ve had a senior-level meeting since the one with Mualem, and if that’s not correct, we will correct it for you.

QUESTION: Do you have any reason to challenge the estimated figures that approximately 1,800 Syrian civilians have been killed since this uprising began?

MS. NULAND: For all the reasons you know, it’s difficult for us to get our own independent count, including the unwillingness of the Syrian regime to allow free access to the media. I don’t want to cite a number one way or the other. It’s certainly more than a thousand in our estimate, somewhere in that neighborhood.

QUESTION: Given that fact, and understanding that you wanted to coordinate action with allies and you wanted to have the most impact you could and so on, still it remains a striking fact that this Administration did not call for Bashar al-Asad, a longtime state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department’s own designation, to step down until after – well after – a thousand civilians have been killed. Was it not clear to this Administration that he needed to step down after the 600th civilian was killed, or the 800th, or the 1,200th?

MS. NULAND: I think if you look back at the statements that have been made over the last six weeks, or starting, in fact, with the President’s Middle East speech in May, you’ve seen a steady ratcheting up of the pressure. In the May speech, the President says Asad needs to either lead or get out of the way. In the last month, you’ve seen all of us saying we don’t see him leading, he is squandering this opportunity. And then about two weeks ago, the President said, the Secretary echoed, we said here, that he had lost his legitimacy with the Syrian people, he had lost his legitimacy with the international community. Just a week ago, we began saying that Syria would be better off without him.

So again, this has been an escalation on the political side, it has been a pulling together of the international community, and it’s been an escalation on the economic side. And that pressure will continue.

QUESTION: But you took one week during the Egyptian crisis for President Obama himself to appear on camera and demand that our longtime ally, Hosni Mubarak, step down. In the entirety of the Egyptian crisis, maybe 300 people were killed. Here, across five months, 1,800 people have been killed, you have a designated state sponsor of terrorism, and you engaged in some incremental ratcheting up before the President, in a paper statement, calls on Bashar al-Asad to step down? Is there a contrast that is not striking to you there?

MS. NULAND: This issue was also addressed on the conference call this morning, and for those of you who haven’t seen the transcript of the background call that the senior officials made today, I would commend it to you.

In each one of these situations – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria – we have been operating under some basic principles, but the tools at our disposal, both in terms of our relationships and our influence and our long-term investment, et cetera, in the various countries has been different, and therefore the responses has been – has had to be tailored. Not to mention the fact that the situation on the ground, the desires of the people, the response of leaders around the national leader, have been different.

So let me start with the principles just to reiterate. In all of these countries in the so-called – experiencing the so-called Arab Spring, our policy has been grounded in our commitment to the right of all people to peaceful protest, our commitment to universal human rights of speech, assembly, the right to have a say in how you are governed, et cetera, and the obligation of governments to be responsive to the calls of their people for reform, aspirations of their people. So those are the under-girding principles.

In the case of Egypt, as you know, we had longstanding, deep relationships with senior Egyptian officials, we had deep economic and political and other military contacts which allowed us, working with those Egyptians who wanted change, including those Egyptians in the system who wanted change, to support them in the quick transition that they had, which blessedly was far less bloody and far less protracted than what we have seen in Syria.

The situation in Syria is different both in terms of U.S. influence versus the influence of other neighbors; in terms of the need to build a coalition, which has taken time – you’ve seen it happen; and in terms of the ability of the Syrian people themselves to quickly exact the kind of change that Egypt was able to bring about given the 40-year dictatorial rule of the Asad family and the fact that they really had been living in a politics-free zone and have to build from scratch a movement for change.

QUESTION: So that argues in favor of reticence on the part of this Administration to call for Asad to step down?

MS. NULAND: It called for building the pressure, building the coalition, working with partners, working closely with the Syrian opposition, all of which we have done and we will continue to do.

Please, Ros.

QUESTION: I have a few things, so work with me here. Considering that at the beginning of his presidency, President Obama tried to reach out and to build some sort of relationship with Damascus, does this issuing of the EO today and the call for Asad’s departure represent a policy failure for the Administration?

MS. NULAND: Ros, we spoke to this issue about a week ago. The Administration that comes in committed to offering engagement to countries where relations have been difficult across the board and trying to turn the page and having a fresh start. And that was the case with many countries.

With some countries, that has resulted in a positive reset in relations that has paid dividends for both countries, the United States and the country in question, strengthened regional security, helped us to work together. But with some countries like Iran, like Syria, like North Korea, these offers of engagement have not been met with steps to come closer to the international community, to make the kinds of changes that we’ve been looking for so that we can have a better relationship.

So from the United States perspective, it was the right thing to try to have a fresh start. But these were squandered opportunities, unfortunately, in some of these places.

QUESTION: And so let me ask you this: Obviously, every time a round of sanctions has been issued the watchword has been, we need to see the impact. Is it fair to say that, given the extent of the U.S. sanctions and given that they go specifically to economic interests which our allies have, is the hope now or is the agreement now, among the U.S. and its allies, that targeting revenue that helps the Syrian military carry out its slaughter might somehow induce some of those within the Syrian military to defect?

MS. NULAND: Well, I don’t want to get into internal analysis except to say what we’ve been saying, which is that our sanctions today are designed to cut the revenue stream that allows the Asad regime to afford its brutal slaughter. The less money coming in, the less money they can spend on carnage, and we’re calling on other countries to match those moves.

QUESTION: But there’s no expectation, then, that those who would be doing Asad’s bidding or the military leadership’s bidding might be rethinking whether or not they should be engaged in this, either as a matter of simply doing their jobs or as a matter of morality. There’s no thought that that might somehow stop this, not just from the pure ability to buy more shells and more ammunition, but to have people actually question, maybe I’m doing the wrong thing here?

MS. NULAND: In all of these situations, it’s up to the people of the country to make their own choices – nationally, collectively, individually – where they want to stand. That doesn’t only apply to those who have already chosen to go into the opposition. It also has applied, whether you’re talking about Egypt, whether you’re talking about Libya, whether we’re now talking about Syria, to those who began the season supporting the carnage and examined their consciences, thought about their futures, and made a different decision. So each Syrian has to make his or her own decision. But obviously, as we’ve said, this guy should go down and he will go down. So people need to make a decision about whether they want to stand with him.

QUESTION: And finally, referring to the conference call that James mentioned a few minutes ago, one of the senior Administration officials said that we see, internally, that the tide has changed against Asad. From where is the U.S. getting its information? Is it getting it from those of this very small opposition that have been able to get information out of the country? And what are those signs that, internally, Asad may be losing his grip on power?

MS. NULAND: Ros, I think this goes to the conversation we’ve been having for a number of weeks, more than a month, about the value of having our Embassy there, which has been able to monitor the growing strength of this opposition movement. And we see this opposition taking root not only in cities and towns across Syria, but it’s also growing in terms of its complexion; it now includes Alawi, Druze, Christians, businessmen, merchants – there are even members of the military who have chosen, as you mentioned earlier, to side with the opposition.

So what we’re seeing now is that, even in just the last few months and weeks, Syria’s traditional political opposition has been joined by new figures, has been enriched with new local leaders, younger people, and has a new sense of energy. And they’re also beginning to do better in working together. And as you know, they are beginning to talk about the need to put together a unified roadmap, and we have been supportive of that aspiration for them to put together a roadmap for their own transition to a democratic future.

Jill, please.

QUESTION: Could you tell us why the Secretary was the face on camera for this and not the President? And could you give us an idea of what her role was in pushing, perhaps, or urging that they do it today?

MS. NULAND: Well, as the President’s lead diplomat, it makes sense for the Secretary to make the announcement on camera. Obviously, the initial announcement came from the President and from the White House, but we wanted to make sure that particularly those of you who are TV journalists, that there was America’s lead diplomat’s face out there.

Thanks for the --

QUESTION: Why not the President?

MS. NULAND: The President made the initial statement. With regard to her role, though, I think on the conference call today you heard quite a bit about the diplomacy that the President has been engaged in. Many of you who travel with the Secretary who are here every day know that she has been working to build this coalition for many weeks, for many months. I can give you a list of the folks that she has been talking with about Syria over the last few weeks if that’s helpful.

They include Arab League Secretary General al-Araby, the Qatari Prime Minister bin Jassem, the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman, Egyptian EGS Director Muwafi, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister al-Sabah, UAE Foreign Minister bin Zayed, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Brazilian Foreign Minister Patriota, Indian Foreign Minister Krishna, German Foreign Minister Westerwelle, UK Foreign Minister Hague, French Foreign Minister Juppe, Norwegian Foreign Minister Stoere, Canadian Foreign Minister Baird, EU High Representative Cathy Ashton, Japanese Foreign Minister Matsumoto, Korean Foreign Minister Kim. Just this morning, she spoke to her Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud. She also spoke to the Jordanian again, Foreign Minister Judeh, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr.

And as you know, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns has been in almost constant motion with his contacts and counterparts. Assistant Secretary Feltman has had multiple trips to the region and daily engagement on this. Our Special Coordinator Fred Hof has been to Turkey, to Europe to discuss the global response and to help build this coalition. So this has really been a preoccupation of this spring and summer period, and I think we see the results, but also in large measure, because despite the growing pressure from the international community – obviously Foreign Minister Davutoglu, I don’t know if I said him, but she – they have been on the phone constantly.

So despite this growing pressure, despite the calls around the region, the fact that the violence hasn’t stopped has also encouraged more voices.

QUESTION: So in his latest phone call, you are saying that Foreign Minister Davutoglu is also included within last 24 hours?

MS. NULAND: He – no, no. She hasn’t talked to him in the last 24 hours. She talked to him whenever it was – Monday I believe, right?

QUESTION: In the morning, it was published and reported that the Syrian President Asad called UN General Secretary and said that their operation will be halted. This was not taken seriously? This was the reason you went ahead with the stepping down message?

MS. NULAND: We’ve had lots of promises from Asad – lots of promises, lots of broken promises. But it’s not about his broken promises to us. It’s about his broken promises to his own people. So yes, we’ve seen the reporting and we know that he called UN Secretary – or UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called him and told him that it was time to stop, and he promised to stop. But our reporting from the ground is that the thuggery continues.

We still have Syrian security forces and pro-government thugs rampaging in cities across Syria. They continue to raid home,; they continue to arrest people daily without any judicial due process. We received reports just yesterday that there were 150 people in al-Tal, a suburb of Damascus, arrested, and there were more arrests in Latakia. So he had plenty of time to act, and he didn’t act.

QUESTION: It seems you informed European countries yesterday (inaudible) on this announcement for stepping down. Have you contacted Turkish administration too?

MS. NULAND: We have been in constant contact with Turkey about the staging of our respective diplomatic moves, and Turkey was very much aware of the timing of our actions today.

QUESTION: Because today we have sanctions, we have – it is – in terms of Syrian regime, we have sanctions, we have some countries who withdraws their ambassador from Syria.

MS. NULAND: That’s right.

QUESTION: And we have calls for stepping down. What is the role of Turkey in this picture? Because you said several times that your coordination is excellent. And what is the result of this coordination?

MS. NULAND: Well, yesterday, you saw the very strong statement from Prime Minister Erdogan comparing Asad to Qadhafi and expressing Turkish frustration. So Turkey has tried very hard to convince its neighbor to do the right thing and end the violence. And unfortunately, Asad has not been listening. So we see increasingly tough rhetoric from Turkey, and the expectation is that that will also be matched by action if this bloodshed does not stop.

QUESTION: Have you asked to join the international chorus for calling of stepping down against Syria regime from Turkey?

MS. NULAND: We have been in constant contact with Turkey, and they will make their own national decisions. We took these steps today. They know what we are going to do, and they’ll make their own national decisions. But I don’t think anybody can question that Turkey’s not happy either with what’s happening in Syria.

Please.

QUESTION: Is military action unequivocally off the table?

MS. NULAND: We spoke to this also in the backgrounding call. The Syrian people want our political support; they want our economic support. They themselves have chosen peaceful means to make their views known to their own government. So military action is not the preferred course of anyone – not the Syrian people, not the Arab or European or American members of the international community.

QUESTION: It may not be the preferred course, but it doesn’t sound as if that’s completely off the table, though.

MS. NULAND: Ros, one never takes anything off the table, but it is not the preferred course. It is not what the Syrian people want. They themselves have chosen the Martin Luther King and Gandhi course of peaceful protest.

QUESTION: It seems to be Asad’s preferred course – military action.

MS. NULAND: This is exactly why we have to tighten the noose on him, and that’s exactly why we – the President made the call today that it’s time for him to step aside, because he is a brutal, vicious oppressor of his own people.

Please.

QUESTION: I have two questions. Number one is: The Secretary, in her statement this morning, she talked about foreign intervention. Are you worried that Iran might step in as more pressure now to isolate President Asad? Do you have any indication that the Iranian are helping President Asad? And I have another question.

MS. NULAND: You heard her say today that Syria’s only remaining friend seems to be Iran. Iran knows where the views of the international community are going, and Iran itself needs to see this carnage going on. Is that something that it condones?

Please.

QUESTION: Sorry. I have --

QUESTION: I’m just wondering how much Syrian gas and oil is still – or was being imported until today into the U.S.? And also, how much are the – how many dollars, I guess, worth of frozen assets are there?

MS. NULAND: I’m not equipped to answer those. I’m going to send you to the Treasury Department, as they were preparing these sanctions. They are in a better place than I am to give you a sense of the magnitude of the affected.

Kathy.

QUESTION: Where is the Syrian ambassador to the U.S. today? Is he still on vacation, I think, was last you said?

MS. NULAND: I believe he has not returned to the U.S. after his vacation.

QUESTION: So he’s not in the U.S. today?

MS. NULAND: I believe he is not. If that is not correct, we’ll correct it for you.

QUESTION: And then yesterday – we touched on this a little bit – but there was the report in The Wall Street Journal that they were targeting dissidents. If that turns out to be true and if you could confirm that, is expelling him on the table? And are you concerned about reciprocal action against Ambassador Ford in Damascus, if that’s an option?

MS. NULAND: We did speak about this. We have had – we had concerns. We pulled him in, talked to him about it. We also opened an FBI investigation which is ongoing. I don’t want to prejudge the results of that investigation or what might follow.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: On Syria, still, in your consultation with GCC countries and the Arab League, to your knowledge, any of them endorse the same position, which is Asad has to leave? And any of them will publicly ask him to leave?

MS. NULAND: I think we should let those countries speak for themselves as we go forward. But you saw the strongest statement ever by the GCC with regard to Syria just a week ago and also by the Arab League. So their patience is clearly running out as well.

QUESTION: Is it a part of the smart power strategy that Secretary Clinton has stated --

MS. NULAND: Is it a part of the --

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton mentioned smart power strategy two days ago, and she said if Turkey, if Saudi Arabia, if other countries call for stepping down towards Syria regime it will be more kind of – she didn’t say exactly the same word, but he said – she said it will be much more effective. It is a part of this strategy, or you’re expecting from other countries to stepping down call and you didn’t wait anymore? What was the statement today in this picture, in this smart power strategy?

MS. NULAND: The Secretary did speak to smart power a couple of days ago. As you know, it’s a hallmark of her approach to diplomacy. And when she talks about smart power, it’s about combining political, economic, diplomatic, development tools not only of the United States, but of our friends, allies, partners, regional players, to create communities of common action.

And I think you see, in the case of Syria, the number of countries six weeks ago who were willing to join this chorus of condemnation, as she has called it, was tiny and now it is quite large, including all of Syria’s neighbors. So yes, that is smart power, along with the notion that you need to match words with action.

Please.

QUESTION: Now the new set of sanctions have stopped all transaction from the United States to Syria and from Syria to the United States. There might be several Syrian people in the United States who might be sending remittances to their families in Syria. What – I wonder what happens to them.

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to send you to the Treasury Department for the answer as to where remittances fall. They’ll be doing some follow-up backgrounding on the details. They’re a better place than I am.

Please.

QUESTION: The Secretary said today that she’s working to arrange a meeting for the UN Human Rights Council. Are – is she going to support referring the violations of human rights in Syria to the ICC as crimes against humanity?

MS. NULAND: We were very pleased to see today that the Human Rights Council did agree to open a second extraordinary session on Syria. I believe it’s beginning next Monday. And this decision was taken with broad international support, including with the affirmative support of Syria’s neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Jordan – who sit on the Human Rights Council. So those meetings will begin on Monday. We expect that they will examine the carnage, broadly condemn it, and decide on next steps.

QUESTION: But the U.S. is going to support referring these crimes to the ICC?

MS. NULAND: I think it would be premature to get into where we think this meeting is going to go or to predict outcomes. But let’s talk about it next week as the meeting goes forward.

Please.

QUESTION: Turkey has launched a cross-border operation yesterday on Northern Iraq against PKK. It was an air assault. Yesterday, you had said that was a hypothetical question. Can I get your comment, if I may?

MS. NULAND: The Turkish military, as you have said, we understand has conducted airstrikes both yesterday and today against PKK terrorists in Northern Iraq. As you know, the United States recognizes the right of Turkey to defend itself against terrorist attacks. Just in the last month, the PKK has killed more than three dozen Turkish security personnel. We also support continued close cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in working to combat the PKK, which is a common enemy of Iraq, of Turkey, of the United States.

QUESTION: It turns out, too, in ground operation, it’s still valid, this statement?

MS. NULAND: You’re again taking me into hypothetical places. That was a good effort, though. That was a good effort.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Anything else? Okay. Whoops, sorry –

QUESTION: I just want to ask if you have anything else to add from yesterday’s conversation in terms of Turkey and Israel and the conversation between –

MS. NULAND: I said yesterday that the characterization that we’d seen in the media was inaccurate. The Israeli Government itself has put out a statement saying – agreeing that the press characterization was inaccurate. So I would draw your attention to that.

[This is a mobile copy of Middle East Digest - August 18, 2011]