Daily Press Briefing - December 1, 2011
Index for Today's Briefing:
- Release from the Afghanistan Mortality Survey 2010 by Afghan Health Ministry / Positive News
- Successful Start to Voting process / United States Supportive of Transparent Democratic Election Process and Governance
- Release of Election Results
- Selection of Egyptian Parliament and Prime Minister / Influence of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
- Export Licenses for Tear Gas / Tear Gas Exposure in Tahrir Square
- Investigation into German Government Report of Alleged Iranian Plot to Attack U.S. Bases / Continued Concerns about Iran's Nuclear Program
- Continuing to Consult with Congress Kirk-Menendez Amendment
- ISRAEL/ PALESTINIANS
- Semiannual U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue / Daniel Ayalon
- Palestinians / Border Issues / Quartet / Special Envoy Hale working with parties to Open up Direct Negotiations again / Quartet to convene in Mid-December
- Support Israeli Government's release of Tax Money / Welcome Hamas to Process if they Renounce Terrorism, Recognize Israel's right to exist, and Honor Past Agreements
- Ambassador Ford Still Plans to Return to Damascus / Need to Serve as Credible Voice for what is Happening in Syria Amidst Sanctions / Asad has Led Country down Dangerous Path with Oppression and Violence
- Ambassador Haqqani
- Supportive of Expansion of Merida Plan / High Profile Captures / Battling Scourge of Narcotic Violence
- Stand by Vice President Biden's Assessment of Iraqi Forces Capabilities
1:08 p.m. EST
MR. TONER: Before beginning today, first of all, welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Before I begin, I just wanted to call attention to, I believe, yesterday’s release of the Afghanistan Mortality Survey of 2010.
We welcome the results of the Afghanistan Mortality Survey and we applaud the Afghan Health Ministry’s work to bring its successes to light. The survey did have some very good news to report. In Afghanistan, more children are living past their fifth birthday than at any time in the past. Fewer women are dying during pregnancy and childbirth than previously reported. Household living standards have improved with more Afghan families reporting access to clean water, electricity, and better sanitation facilities. And life expectancy at birth is also higher than previously reported. A child born today can expect to live, on average, to age 62.
So these are very encouraging trends and the results of the survey show that – show health as a long-term success story, and we’re going to continue to work closely with our Afghan and international partners to ensure these gains are sustained, and to continue to improve health care and access to health services in Afghanistan. But, again, just wanted to note its release yesterday.
And with that, I will take your questions.
Brad. Elise. Who has the -- (laughter) --
QUESTION: I have –
QUESTION: I’m – Lach, go ahead.
QUESTION: I don’t have any.
MR. TONER: Okay. Great. We’re done?
QUESTION: I’ll do it.
MR. TONER: Well --
QUESTION: -- the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists? I know I’m saying that wrong.
MR. TONER: That’s okay. My understanding is that the results are still coming in and the voting process is going to be continuing for some time. So we can’t, obviously, comment on any results or findings so far. It’s – we’d view it as premature.
That said, as we said yesterday, we congratulate the Egyptian people for a very successful start to their election process. As you know, it’s a lengthy one. I think that round two begins on December 14th and then there’s – there are three scheduled rounds of elections for the People’s Assembly, or lower house of parliament. There’s also three scheduled rounds of elections for the Shura Council. And then in mid-June, there will be the election of a new president.
So again, we’re seeing the beginning of a process. I think, everyone around the world has been impressed by the peaceful nature of the voting, and we look forward to this continuing. This is a course charted by the Egyptian people. It’s a difficult one, but so far, the preliminary results are very – preliminary voting is very encouraging.
QUESTION: Given that under the Mubarak regime the groups that ran on an Islamist philosophy found it very difficult to be active or to mobilize in any way, did the U.S. have any sort of relationship with any of them? Did they know their leaders? Did they know their policies? What relationship was there? Or was the U.S. starting from scratch?
MR. TONER: Well I think we said – sure. No, I think we said before that we’ve always – or we’ve – have had contact with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. You know very well our red lines on this, and that is that as long as these parties and individuals are committed to democratic principles and democratic governance, then we are supportive.
And speaking more broadly, as the Secretary noted in her address to the National Democratic Institute a couple weeks ago, our focus here is on ensuring a free and fair and transparent election process. And if we can provide support to that end, that’s our goal.
QUESTION: Yeah. Mark, could you comment on the fact that the electoral board is not releasing the results of the first round of elections?
MR. TONER: Well again, I believe, because my understanding is that they’re still, in fact – that this is just an initial round, there’s going to be a second round, and that we can’t expect results. I think fuller results will be announced in January. That’s my understanding.
QUESTION: But I think – isn’t there a slight delay in the release of the results of the round that concluded this week? Isn’t that right?
MR. TONER: You’re right. I --
QUESTION: Is that a good thing? Because --
MR. TONER: I don’t have any particular comment. There’s – I don’t know enough of the details, whether it was due to some kind of glitch or whether there – it’s some kind of effort to make a full accounting. I just don’t know the details.
QUESTION: The only reason one asks the question is that the longer the time between the voting, the counting, and the release, the more opportunity there is for irregularities.
QUESTION: Ballot --
MR. TONER: Understood.
QUESTION: -- irregularities.
MR. TONER: And again, I would just – speaking more broadly, I think I would just say it is absolutely critical that – these elections have gotten off to a very good start, and it’s absolutely critical that the Egyptian authorities continue that positive trend and continue to carry out these elections in a credible manner that ensures the support of the Egyptian people.
I want to – yeah.
QUESTION: I’d like to follow up on Rosalind’s question. With the Salaphists gaining so much and showing so much strength, are you concerned that actually the country not only is moving backward, but it’s also moving to the right and maybe adopting more, sort of, hardline positions?
MR. TONER: Well, again, this is a democratic process. What we’re going to be looking at going forward, and what the Secretary has spoken to many times, is that we’re not so much concerned with party labels. We’re concerned about whether they operate according to core democratic standards. It’s not about just winning elections; it’s about how you may possibly govern and what steps you’ll take to ensure basic democratic rights, freedom of expression, association, religion, assembly. Those are kind of the core, I think, things that we’ll be looking at moving forward. It’s impossible to say right now. There has been, we believe, a democratic election that’s taken place, and we’ll look to the results.
QUESTION: Is there ongoing any kind of dialogue between, let’s say, the Administration or its representatives or a American group, on the one hand, with all the different political groups, including the Salafists and (inaudible) in Egypt? Would you say that there is an ongoing dialogue?
MR. TONER: I think we continue to talk, as I said, with a broad spectrum of the political opposition, or the political parties there, rather. And again, our overriding goal here is to support, where we can, the democratic process.
QUESTION: Anything on the elections in Congo? I know you spoke about it a couple days ago, but now there’s been more clamor or opposition from some of the candidates already to the vote because of --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- widespread anomalies, as you put it. Do you have any update and how credible these elections are or aren’t?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we’ve obviously, as you noted, called on the government to ensure that people were able to vote in a secure environment. We’ve called on all the parties to refrain from incendiary comments that might lead to more violence. We’ve already, obviously, condemned the violence that’s taken place. And the onus now is on – well, again, we don’t – I don’t know that we have a formal take on whether these were considered free and fair elections. I’ll get back to you. I’m not sure that the observers have made a final judgment yet.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Egypt for one sec?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: If I understand it correctly, the SCAF has said that they will retain the right to appoint the prime minister and members of the Cabinet.
MR. TONER: You’re talking about, I’m sorry --
MR. TONER: -- the interim government? Or --
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, we’re talking about – I mean, look. By the end of the round of parliamentary elections, right --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- you are going to have an elected parliament. Is it the U.S. Government’s view that the elected parliament of Egypt should select the prime minister and form a government?
MR. TONER: As you know, the – where we’re at right now is that the Egyptian – former Egyptian prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, was asked to head this interim government, and he’s initiated consultations, we understand, to form a government. And we – in answer – my answer to your question is that’s really for the Egyptian people to determine and decide. I think what we’ve said is that we believe that any new Egyptian government needs to be empowered with real authority, so that would be our bottom line, if you will.
QUESTION: But what I don’t understand is that leaves open the possibility that the military council could, even once there has been a parliament elected, that they could still pick a prime minister and the cabinet. And what I don’t understand – and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, I believe, this week said that he believed that the parliament that is elected after the final round next year should select the government. And why isn’t that a good idea, that you have an election and you would elect a parliament, and they decide who the prime minister is?
MR. TONER: Again, I think that it’s not for us to say whether it’s necessarily a good or bad idea. It’s up for the Egyptians to work through that process. What I think you’ve seen on the part of the SCAF is that they have, as you said, taken on executive authorities after the collapse of the Mubarak regime. But as you saw last week, they have laid out a very clear timetable leading to civilian rule. We think that was helpful. It was constructive. It was, I think, something that the Egyptian people are looking for. But going forward, I think each step on this process, how quickly these changes take place, I think is – needs to be determined by the Egyptian people, not dictated by us.
QUESTION: Mark, I’m confused because --
MR. TONER: Sorry. Brad. And then Basil.
QUESTION: I’m confused because you say it should be decided by the Egyptian people. They’ve just – they’re voting on a parliament, so that’s a representative body that reflects the will of the Egyptian people.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: The SCAF is unelected.
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: So shouldn’t it be for the parliament to decide, because they are the representatives of the Egyptian people, and not for an unelected council of generals?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that what’s important here is that there is a timeline that’s been laid out by the SCAF that will lead to, following presidential elections, civilian rule, civilian government. In the meantime, I do understand what you’re talking about in terms of whether parliament, once it’s elected, would then be able to determine the makeup of the government. Again, I think that’s something – that’s an internal process that we view that’s something for the Egyptian people to determine.
QUESTION: But right, but when you talk about for the Egyptian people to decide, how else can they decide anything except by voting and picking a representative body to make decisions for them?
MR. TONER: But again, I think that we’ll look to see how that evolves, I guess.
QUESTION: But it sounds as if SCAF is claiming, essentially, veto power over what the parliament would do once these three rounds of elections have been carried out and they have been seated. Doesn’t that raise some alarms here in Washington, especially given that they extended the emergency powers as well?
MR. TONER: Well, again – and we’ve been very clear that we believe that those should be suspended. The – I think that what’s important here is that there is an election process that’s being played out here. It’s multifaceted. It’s going to take some time in the coming months. There will be, as you said, a new parliament in place eventually. And as we move forward through these steps, we hope that there’s continued debate over the transition and the pace of it, but that that’s dictated by the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: And not to get too deep into the weeds of Egyptian electoral politics, but the so-called liberals, the ones who went into the streets earlier this year and then started to campaign, basically said they had no outside help, they were disorganized, they wanted more support from the West as they tried to run their political campaigns, and they feel as if the government is going to end up being something that doesn’t represent the will of the Egyptian people. What is the U.S.’s reaction to that perception?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we don’t offer direct support to any party. What we’re trying to do and where our support is directed is at the overall process – ways we can strengthen the electoral process to make sure that it’s free, fair, and democratic.
QUESTION: You said it again, just before, to her question, that it should be dictated by the Egyptian people, but you’re not saying it’s parliament’s right to do this. So you mean the Egyptian people and the Egyptian generals, who don’t necessarily speak for the Egyptian people?
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to get too far out ahead of the process. I think there’s a voting – there’s an –
QUESTION: But the people don’t have this right by themselves, apparently.
MR. TONER: There’s an election process here that’s playing out. As we move forward, I think, is what I’m saying is that, as we take this in increments or take this in steps, there probably will be more debate and that these kinds of decisions will be determined by the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: And the council.
MR. TONER: The council is playing a role as the interim government, so I’m certain they will have some voice in it.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Egypt? Let’s go to Arshad’s favorite topic – tear gas.
MR. TONER: Is that Arshad’s favorite? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: No. It’s not. I got that from Matt a couple of weeks ago.
MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: What has the U.S. Government been able to find out about the tear gas sales, what the policy is, whether it was the Mubarak government that may have bought the tear gas that allegedly was used against demonstrators last week? Can you walk us through what is known at this point and what the investigation going forward will be?
MR. TONER: Well, again, one thing – and perhaps if I wasn’t clear enough the other day when we talked about this, we do condemn, and did condemn the use of excessive force against protestors during the recent period of civil unrest in Cairo. With regard to the allegations of misuse of tear gas, we take those allegations very seriously, and we are, in fact, following up on these allegations to determine if there was some measure of misuse. And we’re carefully monitoring the ongoing situation and also seeking additional information.
I can say that we have approved export licenses to two U.S. companies for the export of tear gas, and other non-lethal riot control agents to the Egyptian Government. And the most recent export license approval occurred in July, and that was, in fact, the shipment, I believe, that arrived in Egypt on November 25th. But there’s been no additional deliveries of U.S.-manufactured tear gas made or pending at this time. And there’s also no currently – no previously approved valid or open-export licenses to Egypt for the purchase of tear gas at this time.
QUESTION: Can you help me understand one thing, Mark?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Tahrir Square is, like – the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is like three blocks from Tahrir Square. I mean, this is not a long distance. Why is it so hard to figure out whether –to address the question of whether you believe the excessive use of force included the misuse of tear gas? Why is that so hard to figure out?
MR. TONER: Well, I think because, as I tried to say the other day, is that we’ve seen anecdotal evidence put forth – allegations, rather, that – of individuals suffering effects that seem over the top, if you will, for tear gas exposure. And we’re trying to look into those claims, or those allegations, but we have not seen so far that there was any misuse. We’re trying to look at all these instances, all these allegations, take them seriously, look into them, see if there’s anything more to them. But to this point, we haven’t found anything.
QUESTION: And who were the two companies that bought the licenses, and can you say which company got the most recent one?
MR. TONER: No. I can’t. It’s – it has to do with proprietary information. I think we’re not able to give those – release those names. I’ll double-check on that, but I think that’s what I was told.
QUESTION: Can we change topic?
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, just one more.
MR. TONER: Just finish up.
QUESTION: Follow-up on Arshad’s point: Why couldn’t someone just walk over to Tahrir Square or its neighboring streets and see what they could pick up? I mean, I’m assuming there would be canisters out there.
MR. TONER: Well, indeed. We do – as I said, and we also – a lot of these reports came through Tweets, or the Twittersphere, or however you want to refer to it. And we followed them, we’ve seen those reports, we’ve tried to follow up on them as best we can. And we’re going to continue to monitor it going forward. I mean, it’s not something we just dismiss. We are close to the action, as you suggest, and we’re taking this seriously.
QUESTION: Is there any sanction that can be exerted? I mean, we’re talking about a business-to-government relationship, and if you approved the license, and there are no licenses currently in effect – is it even conceivable to hold a company responsible if the license has expired?
MR. TONER: Well, there’s no – if there’s no license – if the licenses are expired, then there’s no way for them to receive additional shipments of tea rgas. And that would be one way to react, or to – if we did find credible evidence of misuse.
QUESTION: And what about --
MR. TONER: And that’s always – that’s not – I’m not talking just about Egypt, but I’m talking about these kinds of sales writ large. If we did that’s – we talk about end use monitoring, and one of the options available would be to make a decision or policy determination to terminate sales or exports or deliveries of these kinds of articles.
QUESTION: And what about the government that’s accused and then found to have been guilty of misusing the product?
MR. TONER: Well, again, as we would with any country and any government where we found – again, not speaking about Egypt specifically, but in any country where we found credible evidence of human rights violations, we would raise those, obviously, with the government.
MR. TONER: I can tell you that the German Government is looking into the allegations. It’s an ongoing investigation, obviously, so we can’t comment. And I don’t know if the Germans – German Government would be able to provide any more details. We’re obviously coordinating closely with the German Government on this issue and other counterterrorism issues. We take these allegations seriously. Tehran has shown time and time again that its – it doesn’t respect its international obligations and responsibilities. We saw it with the plot against the Saudi Ambassador. We saw it just this week, with the attack on the British Embassy. So --
QUESTION: Do you have any idea of how – yeah --
MR. TONER: So we take them seriously.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea of how advanced these –
MR. TONER: I really don’t.
QUESTION: -- this alleged plot might have been?
MR. TONER: Again, the German Government is looking into them.
QUESTION: Do you see that, with all that has happened this week – the diplomatic crises, and the other ones – the explosions and so on – that the situation with Iran is getting to a flashpoint any time soon?
MR. TONER: It’s really hard for us to say what’s playing out on the streets of Tehran, what’s playing out in Iran at large. What we’ve – we can only make a judgment on what we’ve seen on the ground, the attack on the British embassy being the most recent indication of just how effective Iran has been, unfortunately, in isolating itself from the international community.
QUESTION: Okay. So do you agree with the Israeli defense minister, who said that diplomacy is not working with Iran, sanctions are not working, and maybe we have a very short window to choose another alternative, which in this case would be a military strike? Do you concur with that assessment?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we’ve been very clear that we believe sanctions are having an effect, and that we’re going to continue to pursue that even while we, as I said, keep the door open to possible engagement if they decide to take a path away from their current course.
QUESTION: So you find yourself at odds with your ally, Israel, on this point?
MR. TONER: I wouldn’t say that at all. I think we all share common concern about the urgency of Iran’s nuclear program.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sure Iran will be a top issue on the U.S.-Israel strategic talks today. What do you expect to come out from these talks?
MR. TONER: Well, as you said, there’s – Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, and they’re leading, obviously, these delegations, and this is a semiannual U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue. This is an ongoing process that allows our two countries to participate in dialogue on a range of issues. That does certainly include Iran and the threat it poses, but also, I think, more largely, the region, what’s going on, obviously sweeping change across the region, and a chance for us to share our views on the future.
QUESTION: Is the peace process part of this conversation that is taking place?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question. I’m not sure whether this is a broader – I can’t imagine that it would not be a part of that exchange because, as we’ve said many times, this is – the peace process is also part and parcel to the overall security of the region.
QUESTION: No, but then the nitty-gritty of the details, I mean, there’s --
MR. TONER: I’ll try to get a readout for you once they’ve met. I mean, obviously, it’s ongoing.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, let me ask you this anyway, while we’re on the topic.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Palestinians are claiming that Netanyahu is refusing to address the issue of borders, and that they have submitted to the Quartet exactly, point by point, what it was – suggestion or a set of proposals on these issues, and that, in fact, the clock is running out, the meeting – the 90-day period expires on the 26th of January. So are all these things being discussed? And what is the position of the United States Government?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we’re working hard to, as we’ve said before, to create an environment that does get us back into direct negotiations. We’ve been very active. Our envoy, David Hale, has spoken in the last 10 days with the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, and we do remain in frequent contact with the parties going forward. And we’re going to have another round of talks with the Quartet and the parties in mid-December.
QUESTION: Yeah. A couple of other things: Yesterday, the Israelis announced that they are releasing the tax money.
MR. TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: Are you comfortable that they have done so, or is it in the pipeline?
MR. TONER: Good question. I think we’ll obviously take them at their word if they said they were going to release it, and we think that’s a good thing.
QUESTION: And lastly, we have a forum in town, the Saban Forum in town where you have a lot of visitors from the Palestinians, from the Israelis, including --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- Prime Minister Fayyad, who will be in town. Are there any plans to meet him officially?
MR. TONER: I will double-check on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you have any more details on the mid-December meeting – when, where?
MR. TONER: No, I don’t. I believe it’s slated for the 13th or the 14th.
QUESTION: The Palestinian Authority said today that they presented their views on the borders and the --
MR. TONER: Yeah, I think Said just --
QUESTION: -- security to the Quartet on November 14th. Are you aware of that? Are you satisfied with their cooperation with the Quartet?
MR. TONER: I think we’re going to refrain from commenting on the actual substance of what they proposed. We continue to work hard at this. We continue to urge both parties to come with concrete proposals so we can get them back in the negotiating – get them back to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: So are you saying the Palestinians have delivered their concrete proposal? Without going into the substance, that they’ve fulfilled their requirement under the 90-day next deadline that is supposed to be met?
MR. TONER: Again, I think I’ll have to talk to Special Envoy Hale to see what exactly has been accomplished, but we remain hard at work to try to (inaudible).
QUESTION: I’m just asking if --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- there’s been any concrete proposal by – has there been any concrete proposal by any side yet?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve encouraged them to present their proposals. I’m not sure that they’ve actually presented their proposals.
QUESTION: Mark, yesterday, I spoke with the Palestinian president chief of staff, and he is in town. He’s saying that they have very serious and ongoing negotiations with Hamas, that Hamas basically agrees with their principle – two-state solution – on the land of 1967 and so on. So do you see this as transformation of Hamas? And would you come to a point where, as you do with the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt – obviously you find some common ground – will you be able to find some common ground with Hamas?
MR. TONER: Well, we talked about this yesterday. As long as they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and honor past agreements, we do believe they can be a credible part of the peace process. We obviously need to see that in very concrete form.
QUESTION: So you don’t see any particular problem in the negotiations between Abbas and Meshaal, the head of Hamas, with the head of the PA?
MR. TONER: Again, based on those redlines, we can envision them as a part of the process.
QUESTION: Excuse me. On North Korea, what can you tell us about Glyn Davies’s trip? And also, do you have any plans to meet with the North Koreans?
MR. TONER: Glyn Davies is obviously back in Washington. I don’t have anything to announce in terms of travel for him. I’ll try to get more information, but I’m not aware that he’s taking any trips. But he is back. I believe this is his first day in the office.
QUESTION: Is there anything you can tell us about what happened during his trip?
MR. TONER: His trip to? I’m sorry. I’m confused. I think he’s just actually left Vienna and come over here for – to begin his new job, is my understanding.
QUESTION: There are reports that he was going to (inaudible).
MR. TONER: I’ve seen those reports, but I haven’t – we have nothing to announce on it.
QUESTION: Can I just go back to the --
MR. TONER: Yeah, Elise.
QUESTION: -- question on the Palestinians? You said that Hamas would have to renounce violence. Obviously, all these Quartet things. But what the chief of staff --
MR. TONER: All these Quartet things. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: -- what he argued is that if the Palestinians have some reconciliation and Hamas joins a government that’s not kind of based on parties or anything but technocrats, that that implies that they’re accepting these conditions and that – does Hamas have to make a separate declaration, or by joining the government of President Abbas that they are, in fact, accepting these conditions?
MR. TONER: I think we’d have to see the makeup of the government and what it looked like. I think we would obviously look for some kind of concrete – those Quartet principles are, as we’ve said many times, sort of our core baseline for what we would need to see out of any Palestinian government in order to negotiate with Israel.
QUESTION: Mark, what’s the latest thinking on sending Ford back to Damascus?
MR. TONER: He still plans on returning. I think we’re still assessing the situation, but we’ll probably have a decision in the near future.
QUESTION: Doesn’t his lack of presence in Damascus suggest that the Administration no longer puts as much value on having him there?
MR. TONER: No. I wouldn’t say that at all. I think it’s – we’re trying to, obviously, ensure that the security situation is appropriate or safe enough for him to come back. But we still believe he can play an important role on the ground as a --
QUESTION: But isn’t – I mean, but by all accounts, the situation – and even by your own Travel Alerts and warning Americans to get out of the country before airlines continue to stop flights – I mean, the situation is only getting worse. So do you really envision an improved security situation, given what’s going on with --
MR. TONER: I didn’t say an improved security situation. I think what I was trying to say was we want to make sure he’s safe. I mean, we’ve obviously seen a deteriorating situation overall in Syria, and that’s due to, obviously, the Asad regime’s ongoing crackdown on the opposition.
QUESTION: Do you see a scenario, like the one in Libya, where basically at some point it’s just not safe for U.S. officials to operate there and you kind of open a de facto embassy back here in Washington, where officials are continuing to work it from there?
MR. TONER: Well, I’d just say we always contingency plan. We always – obviously, security we take very seriously, security for our personnel overseas. So we’re constantly planning, frankly, not just in Syria, but also as well when we have a deteriorating security situation.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR. TONER: But clearly, we’re not there yet, though, Elise.
QUESTION: -- to follow up on this point, I mean, with this – with the noose tightening and basically a great deal of isolation is imposed on Syria, Syria today suspended its membership in the Mediterranean and so on. So what is the value of maintaining really sort of diplomatic relations or having this pretense that we will send an ambassador back?
MR. TONER: Well, Said, in a country where there’s no international monitors, there’s no international media, it’s important to have a credible observer or observers on the ground who can bear witness to what’s going on, who can get out and try to see what’s going on so that we can – we, the United States Government and our partners around the world, can make the right kind of judgment, but also so that people around the world can understand what’s going on in Syria. And that’s why, again, we just – we’re coordinating – we’re consulting on the precise timing with our allies and partners, some of whom, as you know, have pulled out their own ambassadors in recent weeks.
QUESTION: But I’m saying that what is going on really contradicts that logic. I mean, the Arab League taking these sanctions and these very difficult positions imposed on Syria, so to speak, Turkey saying what they’re saying, (inaudible) another, that really in a way sort of nullifies all this diplomatic effort on the one hand. The Syrians find themselves in a very closed space, so to speak.
MR. TONER: I think each of these countries, each of these organizations, are finding ways to send a clear signal to Asad that he needs to step down and a democratic transition needs to take place. We believe that Ford has – and indeed some other ambassadors who have been there with him – have been, if you will, kind of credible voices for what’s going on in Syria, and that’s a powerful tool.
QUESTION: The White House just released a statement saying that it welcomes the EU’s decision to levy new sanctions, not just against Syria but also against Iran. And then it goes on to say that the U.S. has announced new actions today against Syrian officials and entities. Do you have anything you can enlighten us with?
QUESTION: Treasury announced that this morning.
MR. TONER: I’d refer you to Treasury.
QUESTION: Yeah. On Syria again –
MR. TONER: Go ahead, Lach.
QUESTION: The Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army have agreed to coordinate actions. Are you concerned that this means that the opposition is incorporating a military aspect to their opposition to Asad?
MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ve seen some of those – sure. I’ve seen some of those press reports. Obviously, we have been very clear in saying that we believe that this – the opposition needs to remain peaceful. We’ve also been clear in saying that it’s been Asad’s reaction to these peaceful protests that has led us to, on the part of some, the Free Syrian Army, this violent reaction to ongoing onslaughts of – from the Syrian regime. But we believe that the Syrian opposition needs to and should remain peaceful.
QUESTION: So these reports concern you that they may be embracing an armed struggle? Is that correct?
MR. TONER: Again, it’s hard – I’ve seen reports that have suggested elements have had contact with the Free Syrian Army, so it’s hard for us to judge how profound those connections may be.
QUESTION: I think the UN human rights chief defined it as a civil war today, and it seems like more and more people are starting to take that assessment. Is that an assessment that you are starting to share?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve said before that Asad has created the dynamics that we find ourselves facing today in the country, where his regime’s oppression and bloody repression of the protests has, not surprisingly, led to this kind of reaction that we’ve seen with the Free Syrian Army. So he has taken his country down a very dangerous path.
QUESTION: But you wouldn’t use that --
MR. TONER: I don't know if we’d use that same terminology, because how we certainly view it is that the overwhelming use of force is – has been taken by Asad and his regime. So there’s no – there’s no kind of equanimity here.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just can we go back to Iran for a second?
MR. TONER: Sure. Yeah.
QUESTION: So, as you well know, Under Secretary Sherman and Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen testified this morning. It was clear from the exchange that there is pretty vivid disagreement between the Administration’s position, which seems to be that it opposes the Kirk amendment, the Kirk-Menendez amendment, and many members of the Senate, not just Senator Menendez, who favor it. And it appears that this is likely to go to a vote today. The (inaudible) in the hearing was that there are a lot of people who plan to vote for it. Is the Administration considering vetoing the defense authorization bill if this were to be in it in its final form?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to go beyond what, as you said, was a productive hearing on the Hill today.
QUESTION: I didn’t say it was productive.
MR. TONER: Well, okay.
QUESTION: I just said there was a hearing.
MR. TONER: You said there was a hearing on the Hill today, I’ll call it. We’re obviously in agreement with Congress on the urgent threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses and the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We just disagree on this amendment, as you said. We feel that we have been successful in bringing pressure to bear on Iran. And in its current form, we believe that the amendment could undermine this effort. I don't want to talk about possible next steps if the amendment is passed. I think we’re still consulting closely with Congress.
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: I’m not sure that we have, frankly. I don't know. I’ll have to take the question.
QUESTION: And there are two separate inquires launched in Pakistan on memogate, supreme court, and the parliamentary committee. Ambassador Haqqani has been put on the Exit Control List. He cannot leave the country. So are you monitoring the situation? Do you have any concerns with the --
MR. TONER: We’re certainly monitoring the situation. It’s – right now, we view this as a domestic issue. But I think Ambassador Haqqani has himself said that he – one of the reasons he returned to Islamabad was to have this kind of investigation. So we’ll continue to, obviously, monitor it, but we don’t have any particular comment.
QUESTION: I just have one more on Pakistan.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead. Yeah, yeah. Sure. Yeah.
QUESTION: Just have you made any headway in your efforts to persuade the Pakistanis to come to the Bonn conference?
MR. TONER: Nothing. Nothing to report, nothing to add. We continue to be in close consultation with them, but --
QUESTION: On Mexico. Yesterday, was a communication that the Merida plan is being expanded. I want to know if there is any reaction, any comment, from the Mexican Government with the U.S. during the last days. Why is this expansion? There’s no helicopters are going to be sent to Mexico, no training. What’s your view of what’s going on? Do you see really that the border is getting more complicated, especially in the debate last week of the Republicans? The governor of Texas mentioned that if he becomes president he will close the border with Mexico. So I want to know if this is a reaction, or how you see this?
MR. TONER: I wouldn’t view it as a reaction. Look, Merida has been, we believe, a very successful collaboration and cooperation with the Mexican Government in facing down this shared challenge. And I don’t have any details of an expansion of the program; I’ll try to get those for you. I’ll take the question. But we believe it’s, as I said, a very effective program for us to cooperate and to try to, again, build the kind of institutions in Mexico, as well as the capabilities, to combat the scourge of these drug gangs.
QUESTION: But do you think that the Merida program is working in this moment, is really bringing results in this war against the narco – the villains?
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve seen some successes and high-profile captures. We’ve – we applaud the Mexican Government’s, I think, courageous stance in facing this scourge. It’s going to be a long struggle. I think everyone recognizes that. But we do believe it’s been effective.
QUESTION: So you don’t agree with the governor of Texas, that he said he wants to close the border on --
MR. TONER: I have no comment on the Government of Texas’ --
MR. TONER: Iran? Yeah, go ahead.
MR. TONER: Iraq? Okay.
QUESTION: Iraq. Yes, sir. Very quickly, the Vice President today said that the Iraqi forces were more than ready. But that really flies in the face of almost every other assessment, that they are, in fact, organized along sectarian lines, that they really don’t have the professional acumen to conduct their duties or to discharge their duties.
So is there some sort of a disconnect between, let’s say, an assessment that was allegedly made by the Embassy, or even the Ambassador himself, Mr. Jeffrey’s, and the Vice President?
MR. TONER: Absolutely not, so stand by obviously the Vice President’s assessment. We – as we say, our withdrawal from Iraq is obviously premised on the belief that we believe Iraq’s security – Iraq is able to provide for its own security. It’s not to say that there’s not going to be challenges along the way, but we believe it’s on a good, solid path.
QUESTION: Did Ambassador Jeffrey protest the fact that the withdrawal may be a bit too precipitous?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, to whom did --
QUESTION: Did Ambassador Jeffrey, in recent weeks, protest the fact that there would – American withdrawal from Iraq was a bit too precipitous?
MR. TONER: No. I think that we’re all of the common view that this can be done in a way that strengthens our bilateral relationship, and, as I said, that Iraqi security forces are up to the challenge.
QUESTION: And lastly, there has been statements made by Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of Mahdi Army, that there was going to be a great deal of cooperation between Iran and, of course, his group and Syria. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. TONER: Nothing beyond that these are two countries that have played a very unconstructive role in Iraq’s affairs to date.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:53 p.m.)