Daily Press Briefing - January 20, 2012

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Possible Arrest of Abdelkader Chaar
    • Arab League Monitors and Observers
    • Zabadani
  • IRAN
    • P-5+1 / Ashton Letter
    • French Soldiers / Condolences to France, Families
    • United States and France / Partners in Afghanistan
    • Ambassador Grossman Tour to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan
    • Pakistani Parliamentary Review
  • CUBA
    • Death of Wilman Villar
    • Match Action for Action / Upgrading Relations
Victoria Nuland
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 20, 2012


11:37 a.m. EST

MS. NULAND: Welcome, everybody. Thanks for coming early. As you know, the Secretary is hosting Foreign Minister Westerwelle of Germany at lunch, and she will have a press availability with him afterwards. So we wanted to get out early and we only have about 25 minutes this morning.

I don’t have anything at the top. Let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: A Syrian – a U.S. citizen detained in Syria. Have you confirmed his arrest and been afforded consular access?

MS. NULAND: Just making sure I have this right here. We are aware of the reports of the possible arrest of U.S. citizen Abdelkader Chaar in Aleppo, Syria on January 8th. We’ve been in contact with Syrian authorities and have requested confirmation of the arrest and requested consular access. We have not yet had a response to those requests. And unfortunately, I can’t give you any further details because we don’t, obviously, have a Privacy Act waiver.

QUESTION: Just one question about Syria and U.S. citizens. Are they – do they follow the policy of Iran that if a person is a dual national that they recognize the Syrian citizenship? I’m not talking in this particular case, but do you know as a matter of course if things like --

MS. NULAND: If we have the same issues that we have in Iran where they don’t recognize the U.S. citizenship?


MS. NULAND: I’m going to take that one, Elise. I don’t know. I --

QUESTION: Because I think – what I understand is that might be – they have a liberal interpretation of what it means to be.

QUESTION: When did you request confirmation and seek possible consular access?

MS. NULAND: I believe it was in the last couple of days, Brad. I don’t think we became aware of this case until quite recently.

Okay. Michel.

QUESTION: Victoria, the Arab League is going to extend the monitors or observers’ mission in Syria. Do you agree with that, especially that the observers weren’t able to stop the violence?

MS. NULAND: Well, Michel, I think you’re prejudging a decision of the Arab League before the Arab League has made it. We’ve seen some of the press reporting that you’ve seen. We’ve seen, frankly, press reporting around all sides of this. So as we’ve been saying for the last few days, we want to let the Arab League bring its report forward, have its meeting, and then we’ll see where we go from there.

QUESTION: But in general, do you support the extension of the observer’s mission?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’ve been talking about this for days and days and days. And as we’ve been saying, we want to see what the Arab League’s own conclusion about this is. As I said yesterday at length, we’ve seen some good aspects of this monitoring mission, particularly the ability of demonstrators to come out and express their views when they’ve felt safe and secure in the presence of monitors. But more broadly, the mission has clearly not led to compliance by the Syrian regime with the commitments it made to the Arab League: The violence continues; tanks remain in the streets; the prisons are still full; and international journalists have not been allowed in.

So, again, I think we need to give those monitors, give the Arab League, the respect of having this report, seeing what they conclude, and then working from there.

Please. Others? Nobody? Are we done? (Laughter.) Andy.

QUESTION: On Iran, I presume the Secretary may address this later in the day, but you’ve got this new statement out by Cathy Ashton’s office. You have President Sarkozy saying time is running out. Can you let us know what the U.S. view of where things stand on the possibility of talks and the Iranian response thus far?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you said, the Secretary may well speak to this if she’s asked a question later today. I would simply say that we’ve seen the Iranians come forward in the press saying they’re ready for talks for a number of days, but yet what we have not had is a formal response to the Ashton letter which was put forward on behalf of the P-5+1 in October.

So I think the effort here by Ashton’s office was to make absolutely clear what it was we proposed, what is on offer to an Iran that is ready to come clean with the international community about its nuclear program, but what is expected as well.

QUESTION: And is it still the united position of the P-5+1 on stopping all enrichment, or are some of you okay with a lower level, 5 percent enrichment?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m obviously not going to get in the middle of a P-5+1 negotiation with Iran that Iran hasn’t even accepted to have. What I can tell you is that we have absolute confidence that the P-5+1 will be united if and when sits down with Iran. And if you take a look at the letter which the EU has now made public, they are very, very clear there about what is expected.

QUESTION: And final one: President Sarkozy is saying that time is running out. Do you agree with that?

MS. NULAND: I didn’t see what he said. Time is running out to – for Iran to come to the table?

QUESTION: To get back into talks, yeah.

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I think we are all in this position where we’ve made absolutely clear that if Iran cannot say yes to coming to talks where it is serious about what it’s up to, that we’re going to continue the pressure and that we have to have this dual-track approach. So I think the point he was trying to make is that we’ve been waiting since October for a response to this letter.

Other things?

QUESTION: Yeah. On the French soldiers who were killed today in Afghanistan, President Sarkozy says they’re considering ending their mission there. Has anyone from this building been in touch with the French about this pending decision that they --

MS. NULAND: Well, let me start by extending, on behalf of the United States, our deepest condolences to France, to the families of these soldiers. This was truly a tragic incident and one that we hope will be fully, fully investigated.

We have been in touch with the French. As you know, Under Secretary Sherman is having meetings today with her G-8 counterparts. She has conveyed those same sentiments and talked about Afghanistan with her counterpart, Mr. Audibert. And I would expect that we will also be in touch at a higher level as well later today.

QUESTION: And still on this as a follow-up, the Pentagon says that incidents – green-on-blue incidents of Afghan soldiers or police killing coalition troops is up. Is this – any reaction to that? I mean, is there anything that you guys are doing to investigate that or to work with the Afghans to figure out why this is happening?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think the Pentagon, as you say, did speak to this earlier in the day and talked about some of the measures that ISAF is trying to take. So I am not going to get into the middle of their military issues.

QUESTION: Do you --

QUESTION: Just following up on that, the French are saying that they want credible assurances about Afghan recruits, and that will be part of their decision whether to accelerate their withdrawal or not. Do you – can you help in getting these credible assurances or is it a lost cause, that the Afghans have put on army uniforms before and done this before and this is just one of the most egregious incidents?

MS. NULAND: Well, clearly, this is an issue that ISAF as a whole has had to grapple with, that we’ve had to grapple with with the Afghans. I think the degree to which we are seeking to address this issue, it needs to be addressed in an ISAF context, and that’s what we’re working on. And I think the Pentagon statement speaks to that as well.

QUESTION: On Ambassador Grossman’s trip --


QUESTION: -- can you speak to the claim by the Pakistanis that they denied him a visa and that he was scheduled to travel there early in the week and had to divert his trip?

MS. NULAND: I think you’ve also seen statements from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry which are far more authoritative and far more accurate with regard to the way this went. As we’ve said, what we said to the Pakistanis was that Grossman would be traveling to the region, that he would be delighted to come to Islamabad. The reaction back was that they would welcome him at a later time, but that right now they are still going through their internal review about where they want to go in our bilateral relationship, so the visit is premature. So it was on that basis that he concluded that – he decided not to go. We never got to the stage of submitting visas or any of that.

QUESTION: So I mean – I get that, but just the idea that they’re under this review about where they want to go, I mean, is it your understanding that they’re debating whether to have a relationship with you at all? Because one would assume that, regardless of what the review is, there would still be cooperation to some extent and some type of diplomacy going on between the two countries. So to not receive a senior U.S. official on a critical matter that’s – I don’t want to say breaking, but developing in real time – one would think that Pakistan would want to be included in that. So it just seems a little off to me, that – I get the idea that a kind of bilateral strategic visit might be premature, but a visit to talk about this thing unfolding does not seem premature to me.

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, just to underscore what we’ve said for some time, relations with Pakistan continue. Our ambassador and our Embassy are in contact with the Pakistanis on a daily basis. Our civilian assistance is continuing to flow. Our full range of programs that we do on economic support, infrastructure, all of these, educational things are going forward. Pakistanis are, as you’ve seen, engaged in some intensive discussions among themselves.

They did not judge that it was timely to have these conversations, but they did make clear that they want to do it at a future date, and frankly, we need to give them the space that they need to work on their issues so that we can have a good set of meetings when they are ready. And Ambassador Grossman has made clear, the Secretary has made clear that when they’re ready, he will come back.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, Madam, Pakistani Ambassador, Foreign Minister, also said that as far as the U.S.-Pakistan relations are concerned, the U.S. must stop those bombings, drones, and – any comments on that?

MS. NULAND: Goyal, we’ve talked about this every single day. The Pakistanis are involved in this parliamentary review. They’re going to review it interagency. Then we – they will brief us on the entirety of their thinking, and we’ll have a consultation on it. I’m not going to prejudge pieces of that when they’re at the – in the middle of their own process.

QUESTION: And finally, as far as Secretary Grossman’s visit to India and the region is concerned, can you (inaudible), please, on his visit to India and on to Kabul?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. With regard to the India stop, he was in Delhi today. He met with Foreign Secretary Mathai, he also met with his counterpart S.K. Lamba and National Security Advisor Menon, and they will continue to consult closely. And this visit was about the entirety of our efforts together to strengthen Afghanistan’s – with regard to the New Silk Road initiative as well, which seeks to open trade and transportation routes between Afghanistan and all of its neighbors. But he also briefed the Indian Government on our support for Afghan-led reconciliation, and this is – it’s not the first time he’s been there.


QUESTION: One more quickly, I’m sorry. As far as a visit to India is concerned, is the U.S. or Secretary Grossman asking India to do more, what India had been doing in Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: No. I think our view is that India has been a strong supporter of a regional strategy, is playing a key role in supporting Afghanistan, and just to compare notes on those issues.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Back to this French story, I understand you said Wendy Sherman would speak with her counterpart.

MS. NULAND: She did this morning.

QUESTION: She did this morning.


QUESTION: And maybe higher-level talks later today. Are you going to caution them not to overreact to this when they’re talking about pulling out of the mission or leaving Afghanistan altogether? Is that something you would say to not act rashly on?

MS. NULAND: Well, you’re implying that we go around wagging fingers at allies. That’s not the way this works.

QUESTION: It sounds –

MS. NULAND: Clearly, there is an issue on the ground in Afghanistan that needs to be addressed. This tragic death highlights that, and the French are obviously concerned about a systematic problem, and we should all be concerned about a systematic problem. So that’s why we have to address it as an ISAF family and why the Pentagon is speaking about the need to do that as well.

QUESTION: Well, is it fair to say that you will ask for their continued support in helping secure a stable and prosperous future for Afghanistan?

MS. NULAND: The United States and France have been partners in Afghanistan from the beginning of this involvement following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and I would fully expect that we’re going to stay in tight coordination and lockstep going forward. But clearly this is an issue that has to be addressed.

QUESTION: Are you already – I mean, I guess it’s a little premature – but are you discussing potential other countries that might be able to fill in the void if they withdraw their troops?

MS. NULAND: You’re getting way ahead of where we are, Elise.

QUESTION: Well, the Pentagon said this morning that it’s not a systematic problem and you just said that it is.

MS. NULAND: I’m going to go with where the Pentagon was, because it’s their beat. But I think they also said that this is an issue that has to be addressed, and it’s something that NATO has to address.

QUESTION: And since – just one more on President Sarkozy. He also said today that the Quartet process was a failure. Do you disagree with this? Or are you upset with him for stating the unsaid obvious?

MS. NULAND: I haven’t seen President Sarkozy’s comments, so I’m not going to speak directly to them. I think you know that we view the Quartet as an important vehicle for coordinating international support, including support of the EU for the parties in trying to get them back to the table in terms of a serious negotiation. So we believe the Quartet has played an important role, continues to play an important role.

QUESTION: Just a quick one – just on the same – in the same area. I was wondering if you’ve sought or received any clarification on the supply route question, whether or not the Pakistanis are reopening that.

MS. NULAND: We have no news to report in the last 24 hours.

QUESTION: No news, but have you asked them for any clarification?

MS. NULAND: Again, our posture, as we’ve made clear, is to let them complete their internal review. We’ve said to them that when they’re ready to talk about all these issues, we’ll be ready.


QUESTION: Toria, can we go back to Syria? Do you have any updates from Zabadani, and do you consider the withdrawal of the Syrian army from this city as a turning point for the regime or in the conflict?

MS. NULAND: Well, Michel, you know that we don’t have eyes on the street in Zabadani, and you also know that whatever has happened there with regard to a ceasefire followed a very bloody and violent attack by regime forces on the city. So we’ve seen these reports that there was a brokered settlement that tanks may be withdrawing, but we, in no way, believe that this sets a pattern for broader regime activity around Syria. There are reports of regime tanks still present and firing in many other cities in Syria.


QUESTION: Yes. A jailed Cuban dissident died --

MS. NULAND: I little louder.

QUESTION: A jailed Cuban dissident died yesterday after a hunger strike. Do you have a reaction to that?

MS. NULAND: I think you’re referring to Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar?


MS. NULAND: We deplore the death of Wilman Villar. He was a young and courageous defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba who launched a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and he succumbed to pneumonia. According to his family and colleagues, he was convicted in November of last year for peacefully demonstrating against the Cuban Government, which is an all too common means for silencing dissent in Cuba. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family. His death underscores the continuing problem of political repression and political prisoners in Cuba.

As the President said in March, Cuban authorities must take meaningful actions to respect the basic rights of their own people, not because we insist on it, but because this is what the Cuban people deserve. His death also underscores the need for greater international scrutiny of Cuba’s human rights record and international monitoring of Cuba’s prisons. We urge the Government of Cuba to allow the UN Special Rapporteur or the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the jails and full – and an ability to fully assess Cuban prisons.

QUESTION: So when you say that you deplore the death, it sounds like you’re placing the blame on the Cuban regime for his death.

MS. NULAND: He was unjustly arrested for peaceful protest, in our view. He went on a hunger strike, and he died in a Cuban jail for a political offense.

QUESTION: So I’m not disputing that he was wrongly arrested. But I’m saying that if someone undertakes their free will to protest their jailing or their detention, arrest, whatever, that you also bear – the government also – if it bears any responsibility for what they choose to do to themselves.

MS. NULAND: Elise, the guy would not have been in jail if he hadn’t been arrested for peaceful protesting.

QUESTION: Okay. I’m just trying to make sure that --

MS. NULAND: He was a young guy, in his 30s, and it’s a tragic loss of life.

QUESTION: She’s thinking of other hunger strikes on the Cuban island in past times, I think.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. following this enormous diatribe that’s going between England and Argentina during the last two, three days? For example, Argentina – Cameron – in England, Cameron accused Argentina of colonialists and a minister of Argentina replied that he was going to send some books to England because it seems that the English doesn’t know the history about colonialism in Latin America. Is the U.S. following all these kind of exchanges between Argentina and England during the last two or three days?

MS. NULAND: We’re following, and we’re sure not going to get in the middle of it.

QUESTION: If I can get quickly back to the death of Mr. Villar, the – while you’ve said – while you’ve implied that it’s the government’s responsibility for his death, the Government of Spain has said that after this incident there should be – all political prisoners should be released in Cuba. Do you agree with that statement?

MS. NULAND: Of course, we agree with that. That’s been our position for years.


QUESTION: Any update on the Burma sanctions? Because Burmese Government is calling on the U.S. that – because of hardship from the sanctions, that they’re requesting for a lifting of the sanctions.

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve made clear that we will match action for action in Burma. As you know, the President and the Secretary announced that in response to the recent positive steps made by the Burmese Government, particularly with regard to the release of prisoners, setting of an election date, allowing registration of parties, and some of the reconciliation work that has begun with the minority groups, we are seeking to nominate and confirm a U.S. ambassador to Burma, upgrading our relations. With regard to any future moves, we have not made any decisions. And these – any such decisions would have to be made in close consultation with the Congress.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: One more? Anything else? No? Good. Okay. See you all upstairs later.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:00 p.m.)