Daily Press Briefing - May 31, 2012

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Lifting of Emergency Law
    • Syrian Transition / Annan Plan
    • Russia Needs to Stop Supporting Assad / Cease Military Assistance to Regime
    • No Option off the Table
    • Spillover Effect of Crisis
    • Iranian Support for Syrian Military
    • Reports of Kidnapped U.S. Citizens
    • Need for Direct Negotiations
    • UNRWA Activities
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
May 31, 2012


12:48 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Is this a sad day?

QUESTION: It is a sad day.

MR. TONER: Oh. Okay. I was sure – I wasn’t sure that this was indeed --

QUESTION: This is the last day.

MR. TONER: -- the last day. Well, I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that, Lach, you’re going to be very much missed by myself. I know you’ve been around for a number of years – four or five?


MR. TONER: And served under – or worked with a number of spokespeople. But for me personally, and I know I speak for Ian and P.J. and Toria and Robert and others, that we really appreciate your professionalism, your collegiality, and your friendship. So all the best.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. The feeling’s mutual. (Applause.)

MR. TONER: Yeah. Hear, hear. Come back. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I would like to very much.

MR. TONER: Yeah. All right. With that said, what are we starting with today?

QUESTION: Well, I’ll defer to Lachlan.

MR. TONER: Okay.


MR. TONER: You have to make it an easy one. No, I’m just kidding. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, the Egyptian military has announced the end of emergency law. This is something that’s endured for decades. Are you taking this with a grain of salt or --

MR. TONER: Right. Well, you know where we stand on the lifting of the emergency law. We’ve always encouraged the SCAF to do that. My understanding, however, is that – and again, I could be mistaken on this – is that it doesn’t expire until, in fact, midnight tonight. That’s what I was told before coming down here. But certainly it’s something that we’ve repeatedly encouraged them to do and it’s certainly in keeping with the timeline that the SCAF has set out for this democratic transition. So it would be another step in that direction.

QUESTION: So how would it change Egypt, do you think? Is it one of the key points that changes the country?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think it’s – we have to see this along the timeline – and a timeline, in fact, that the SCAF has laid out for this democratic transition. We had parliamentary elections, several rounds. We have the constitution writing process that’s still ongoing. And then obviously we’ve got presidential elections. And we have the runoff, I believe, in a couple weeks, 16th and 17th of June. So this is another step, we believe, in the right direction – when it happens.

Anything else, guys? Yeah, Jill.

QUESTION: Mark, on Syria.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: We talk about this a lot, obviously, but some people are really strongly urging military action or some type of force that would remove Assad, just get him out of the way. And it raises the issue of what comes next. And I would like to know the thinking of the State Department on this. The Secretary says he has to go; he has to step aside. But what comes after that?

MR. TONER: Well, frankly, would that we were at the point, we still have to get to a discussion and a dialogue about transition. And before we do that, we need to obviously stop the violence. We’ve long said that Assad, frankly, has too much blood on his hands and that he cannot be a credible interlocutor for that kind of transition.

As we’ve talked about before the Annan plan does talk about a dialogue between the government and the Syrian opposition. And certainly we want to see that happen, but it’s hard in the midst of all this violence to get to that point.

Ambassador Rice, Susan Rice, yesterday laid out three very stark scenarios for how this can go forward. I think the preferable one was that this Annan plan is implemented by the Syrian regime. But as she said, we’re not particularly optimistic that that’s going to happen outside of some external influence – the Russians perhaps – trying to make it very clear to President Assad that he needs to comply with this. Because frankly, the other scenarios are much bleaker, including the one where we spiral into regional instability and civil war.

QUESTION: And speaking of the Russians, if you look at the comments that the Secretary had today, they were really quite strong. I mean, basically she’s saying that they are propping up the regime. I think it was a quote. So what is the level of frustration here in the State Department about the Russians? I mean, are they stopping this process?

MR. TONER: Well, I think – and the Secretary also mentioned, she spoke and got a readout from Kofi Annan yesterday, that she mentioned also in her press briefing earlier today. And I also understand that she is going to reach out to Foreign Minister Lavrov in the coming days.

I can’t improve upon her words. She said very clearly that the only way to get through this is to bring international pressure to bear on Assad and to convince him that he needs to comply with the Annan plan, and that Russia needs to stop supporting him, propping him up, and then move to convincing him to go along with the plan.

QUESTION: So in other words – just to follow up, so in other words, Russia is really the biggest stumbling block right now. In other words, if the Russians came onboard, things could go merrily along?

MR. TONER: Well, let’s be very clear. President Assad, his regime, is the greatest stumbling block right now. They’ve failed to comply with any of the six components of the Annan plan. They’ve continued to besiege population centers, including the horrible events that happened in Houla over the weekend. Let’s put responsibility for this bloodletting squarely upon Assad. But that said, I think everyone within the Security Council needs to look at how we can move this forward, how we can get this on a positive track, and that includes Russia, and it needs to –

QUESTION: Just following --

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just following up, Toria said the other day that she hoped, or the U.S. hoped that the massacre would spark a turning point in Russian thinking. Have you seen any signs of a change?

MR. TONER: Well, we saw some initial comments out of Moscow expressing the same kind of outrage that the rest of the international community felt. As the Secretary conveyed in her words earlier today, we’re trying to make it very clear – and indeed, Ambassador Rice said the same – much the same yesterday – we’re trying to make it very clear that now’s the time for Russia to use its influence.

Yeah. Go ahead in the back, Michele.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? There were reports today that a shipment of arms, apparently from Russia, has docked in Syria. What can you tell us about that? What do you know about it? And have you raised this with the Russians?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I can tell you that we’re certainly looking into these reports. We always try to get to the bottom of these kinds of reports. I think you know where we stand on the broader issue of providing military cooperation or arms to Assad. We should – or we believe that all countries should cease any and all military assistance with Assad’s regime and we’ve repeatedly expressed those concerns with Russian officials both publicly, as I’m doing now, and privately.

QUESTION: But – so do you know if – did a ship dock?

MR. TONER: We don’t know at this point. We’re trying to – still trying to get some facts about it.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mark, on Ambassador Rice’s comments, the third option or the third scenario that she laid out was that the – if the Security Council remains deadlocked, then countries interested in Syria might have to figure out ways to go around the Security Council. Is that something the U.S. is actively planning for at this stage?

MR. TONER: The Secretary spoke to this earlier today. She said we don’t take any option off the table. We can constantly plan for any contingency.


MR. TONER: But what – just to go back to – Ambassador Rice’s point was that it just speaks to the fact that – of why it’s so important that the Security Council, if this situation doesn’t improve, why the Security Council needs to act with one voice.

QUESTION: And on the regional instability sort of piece of the puzzle, I’m just wondering if you can give us a sense of how the State Department views that the current situation. Are you seeing the Syrian (inaudible), are you seeing direct knock-on effects from that in places? We know it’s in Lebanon, but elsewhere in the region? Is that already affecting regional stability?

MR. TONER: Well, I think from what we’ve seen, it’s had a spillover effect obviously in terms of refugees in Turkey. I don’t have a precise number in front of me of the current level of refugees on Turkey’s southern border, but it’s significant. And they’ve under – they’ve taken on this crisis, if you will, almost by themselves, frankly, and handled it with great leadership.

And then as, also as you mentioned, over the last couple of weeks, there were some incidents in Lebanon that raised our concerns – obviously raised concerns in the region. We know that Jordan is also very concerned about spillover.

QUESTION: And how about Iran? What role do you see Iran playing? I mean, I think at the White House it came up this morning when talking about proxy wars and Iran. Do you see that as already underway in Syria?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think we’ve talked about it. Toria and others have talked about it over the past couple of days. We’ve seen almost an admission, if you will, by senior military leadership in Iran that they have been helping the Syrian military quell the unrest and put down these peaceful opposition demonstrations. They admitted as much. Of course, they spun it as a way of saying that they were actually trying to tamp down the violence when we all know that it’s just the opposite.

QUESTION: Would you go so far as to say that Russia is also party to a proxy war that’s brewing since they have sent arms, or you believe they’ve sent arms, to the Syrians?

MR. TONER: Again, I just want to say that we believe Russia has to make a choice, and that choice is whether it’s going to cooperate with the rest of the international community in bringing the kind of pressure to bear on Assad that will, frankly, finally make him wake up and comply with the Assad[1] plan.

QUESTION: Are you reluctant to say that they would be party to a proxy war, since you have said they’re sending arms?

MR. TONER: I think what we said is that folks have to decide which side of history they want to be on. And we think that that’s a decision for Russia to make as well.

QUESTION: Sorry. What’s the other choice?

MR. TONER: Just to stand with the Syrian opposition, with the Syrian people, who are, from the very beginnings of this movement --

QUESTION: You said the Russians – you said, we believe the Russians have to make a choice --

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- and then you listed one choice that they --

MR. TONER: The choice is which side of history – I’m sorry, I don’t understand where you’re getting it.

QUESTION: Well, which side of history – the left side? The right side? What is that supposed to mean?

MR. TONER: Which side of history they want to be on? The choice for Russia and for others is to decide whether they’re going to support a regime that is frankly steeped in blood, or whether they’re going to support the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Yeah. Go ahead, Jill.

QUESTION: Again, one more thing here. If you look at post-Assad scenarios, I mean, it just makes sense that you try to figure out what’s going to come next, because you can’t blindly break it apart or have it broken apart. I mean, do you – but here you’re talking with the opposition, right?

MR. TONER: I mean, clearly we’ve been – right. Clearly we’ve been working – sorry, if I didn’t adequately answer that – your question – before. Clearly we’ve been working all along with the Syrian opposition, trying to improve their cohesiveness, trying to help them come together more as a cohesive body. We have seen progress. They met most recently over the weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was a positive, constructive meeting. There’s still a ways to go here, but we need to foster the Syrian opposition so that when this transition does come there is an adequate, functioning opposition to help shepherd this change.

Next subject.

QUESTION: There’s reports out of Egypt that two U.S. citizens were kidnapped by Bedouins. I wonder if you have anything on --

MR. TONER: Yeah. And I was really trying to get – I was trying to get clarity. We’ve seen reports that they were actually released, then we saw reports that perhaps that wasn’t true yet, so we’re still trying to confirm the details here and obviously continue to work with Egyptian authorities to eventually secure their release.

QUESTION: But you can’t confirm that they have been kidnapped?

MR. TONER: I can’t at this point. And as soon as I do, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: And so you don’t even know who grabbed them?

MR. TONER: I don’t have details as to who’s responsible for it. Let’s – hopefully this will reach a conclusion soon, and then we’ll have more details.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Another subject. I think you’ve seen the report today about the unilateral Israeli step want to take with respect to borders. Do you have any comment?

MR. TONER: Well, sure. I can comment. I also would just note – and we’ll release it shortly – the Secretary also spoke to this issue in Copenhagen. And essentially her – you’re talking about remarks by defense --

QUESTION: Ehud Barak. Ehud Barak.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Okay. She’s just said – and I’m quoting her, so again, I would just refer you to the transcript – that there’s no substitute for direct talks between the parties. The only route to achieving this has been – is through – sorry. The only route for achieving what has long been a Palestinian goal, an American goal, and also an Israeli goal – two states living side by side in peace and security – is through direct negotiations. And we believe that this new coalition government provides the best opportunity in several years to reach such a negotiated settlement.


QUESTION: So I’m still a little bit confused about the – this language, the whole Leahy thing. Is it – are you guys going to stick with your –the explanation in the Nides letter, which refers to Senator Kirk’s amendment, even though the language in the bill has been changed now? Or is there a new State Department position on the Leahy language?

MR. TONER: Our position remains what was laid out in the letter, which is we obviously support UNRWA and their activities, but we don’t want to see any kind of amendment or legislation that would attempt to determine – predetermine the outcome of what we believe should be settled during these direct negotiations.

Sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: But is it your – does the Administration view the final language in the bill to do that? Do you think that it does that, the final language predetermines some --

MR. TONER: Again, I – I mean, I don’t want to talk too much about what is in still pending legislation, so I just would say that --

QUESTION: Well, this pending legislation was the Kirk amendment, and Tom Nides wrote a long letter – well, a somewhat long letter – about it.

MR. TONER: Right. Which he shared with those in Congress. And that letter remains our position on the subject.

QUESTION: So even though the language has changed?

MR. TONER: Even through the language has changed.

QUESTION: Okay. But I’m still not sure I understand.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: I’ll bring it up (inaudible.)

MR. TONER: We’ll try to clarify it. Thanks.

Is that it today?



MR. TONER: Wow. Okay. Lach, man. (Laughter.) Everybody’s so sad.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:05 p.m.)

[1] Annan