Daily Press Briefing - July 16, 2012

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Release of Kidnapped U.S. Citizens / Sinai Peninsula
  • DPRK
    • Changes in Military Leadership
    • Kofi Annan to Meet with Russian President Putin
    • Assad Regime Losing Control / Need for Political Transition
    • Recent Massacre / UN Observer Mission
    • Contact with Opposition
    • Top National Security Priority
    • Al-Qaida / Syrian Ambassador to Iraq
    • Secretary Clinton Trip to Jerusalem
    • Opening of Supply Routes / Clearing of Backlogs /Continued Engagement with Pakistan
    • Senkaku Islands / Positive Relations Benefit Region
    • Budget Review on the Hill
Patrick Ventrell
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
July 16, 2012


Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

12:53 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon and happy Monday. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top.

QUESTION: I don’t have anything that warrants going first.

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Cami.

QUESTION: Can you tell us any more about the Americans released in Egypt?

MR. VENTRELL: Thanks, Cami. We can indeed confirm that two U.S. citizens kidnapped on the Sinai Peninsula on July 13th have been released. We thank the Egyptian authorities for their assistance in securing the safe return of these U.S. citizens, and we are in contact with the citizens and their families, but due to privacy considerations we cannot comment further.

QUESTION: Do you have any more details on what led to the release, since apparently the kidnapper is on the loose?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any further information at this time.

QUESTION: No ransom or anything (inaudible)?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, this – just got word that we can confirm their release, but I don’t have further details.

QUESTION: And when you say that we thank the Egyptians for offering their help, what did they do? Do you know?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we were obviously intensively engaged not only with the families but also with the Egyptian authorities as they worked to pursue their release. But in terms of the details about how the release came about, I don’t have anything further for you at this point.

QUESTION: And finally, are you worried that Sinai is maybe becoming like the wild, wild West?

MR. VENTRELL: The Secretary, as you know, was in Egypt over the weekend. The issue of the Sinai is one of the issues she raised in a number of her meetings, so it is an important issue to us, and obviously the stability of the Sinai was an important issue that was raised.

QUESTION: Do you know where the Americans are now? Are they at the Embassy?

MR. VENTRELL: I do not have any further information. Again, we’re a little bit limited in what we can say due to their privacy considerations.

QUESTION: So all you know is they’ve been released, but you don’t know whether they’re in U.S. custody, whether they were released to U.S. officials?

MR. VENTRELL: At this point, I can confirm that they’ve been released, but I don’t have any further information about their whereabouts.

QUESTION: And they were kidnapped on the 13th, is that right?

MR. VENTRELL: On the 13th.


QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Patrick, could we --


QUESTION: Could we get a comment on the North Korea – whatever you want to call it – shakeup, military (inaudible)?

MR. VENTRELL: Yes. So we are aware of developments concerning changes in the DPRK military leadership. We’re not in a position to comment on the accuracy of these news reports, but changes in personnel, absent a fundamental change in direction, mean little. We continue to call on the DPRK to make the right choice and to take the path available to it and rejoin the international community by refraining from threats and provocations, by complying with its international obligations and commitments, including taking concrete actions towards verifiable denuclearization, and addressing the needs of its people by educating and feeding them rather than pouring scarce resources into nuclear, missile, and other military programs.

QUESTION: So basically you can’t verify whether it’s an accurate report and you don’t have any insight into the meaning of it?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re aware of it. I obviously can’t get into any intelligence assessments, but we’re aware of the news reports.

QUESTION: And you can’t confirm if they’re true?

MR. VENTRELL: I cannot.


MR. VENTRELL: Andy, go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, just a quick – another quick sort of one hit: There was those reports out of the Pentagon about the firing of – on the – by the naval vessel on a small motorboat off the UAE. I’m just wondering if you have anything further on that, any information about, sort of, have you been in contact with UAE officials on the security situation? Now they’ve arrested four Islamists, apparently on plot charges.

MR. VENTRELL: At this point, what I can tell you is we’ve seen the initial reports, but I refer you to the Department of Defense for any further information.

QUESTION: I think one person was killed –

MR. VENTRELL: I couldn’t hear you, Said.

QUESTION: You were talking about the confrontation in the Gulf, correct?


QUESTION: Okay. The one person was killed.

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I refer you to the Pentagon for all further information.

QUESTION: Okay. Syria?


QUESTION: Okay. Is there anything that you expect Mr. Annan to say or do – convey to President Putin tomorrow?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I can tell you that yesterday the Secretary spoke to the Joint Special Envoy in preparation as he heads out to Moscow. I can tell you that we’re continuing to work in New York intensively with our partners, but again, let’s let the Joint Special Envoy go out to Moscow, have his meetings, and then hear back from him about further details. But the Secretary was in touch with him yesterday.

QUESTION: What’s your reaction to the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s blunt, I mean, provocative respond to the U.S. and the allies that Assad still have the support of his people and he doesn’t think he should leave?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, our assessment is that the violence is increasing in Damascus, that the regime doesn’t clearly hold the territory of the entire country. We think that the Assad regime is losing control and that he continues to take his country toward a dangerous end. And our opinion is that this crackdown is not going to stop the revolution. Protests continue across the country, and the opposition is gaining strength. And that’s our assessment.

QUESTION: But more and more, Patrick, it seems like a civil war. Even the Red Cross came out the other day and used language that they would normally reserve for describing a civil war situation. And in this case, as it seems, he does enjoy the support of the Christian minority, the Alawite minority, and other minorities.

MR. VENTRELL: He’s slaughtering his people.


MR. VENTRELL: He’s slaughtering his people, and we all fear the worst-case scenario, this devolving into a conflict that spills widely across the borders that is even further sectarian carnage. So we’re very concerned about that.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the natural next point, Patrick, is that when you have such violence, and you have two groups committing that violence, and there is a demand that the government cease and desist, and Assad must go, what happens on the other side? The opposition is also adopting very violent methods, they are lobbing rockets and homemade bombs and so on.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we think that it’s vitally important that there be a political transition. And so we agree this is not going to be settled without the kind of political transition that brings in a new government that has full executive control of the country. And so that’s the path (inaudible) we’re all looking forward and looking to.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you have any – got any new information which either backs up or does not back up the Secretary’s very strong statement on the alleged massacre last week, where she talked about evidence that the government – the regime is intentionally killing civilians and so on. The reports from the ground seemed to paint a somewhat cloudier picture as to what actually happened there. What’s your current assessment of what happened there? And do you still hold to this view that this shows that the regime was intentionally targeting civilians?

MR. VENTRELL: We believe that the regime was using heavy weapons to slaughter its own people. We look forward to the UN making its final report. We understand that the UN mission was able to get in earlier over the weekend and made an initial report back to the Security Council and then was able to get in again yesterday and is going to provide a more comprehensive report to the Security Council today. So we look to the – forward to hearing more details about what UNSMIS, the observation mission, was able to find when they went in. But we deplore this despicable violence. And there’s clear evidence that the regime used heavy weapons to slaughter civilians and slaughter people in that village, and we think that’s despicable.

QUESTION: Could you tell us about some reports that suggest that the U.S. Government or the U.S. Embassy in this case is working closely with the (inaudible) tribes. They’re the largest Sunni tribes that roam the borders between Syria and Iraq. And in fact, it was something that General Petraeus and (inaudible) garnered their goodwill and they – the support of (inaudible) at the time the Americans left. Could you tell us if there are any contact now in trying to organize and to provide support against the Syrian regime?

MR. VENTRELL: Are you talking inside of Syria?

QUESTION: Yes. It’s – because each tribe – they’re cross-border tribes.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know that our Embassy is not open in Syria at this time –

QUESTION: I understand. I’m simply –

MR. VENTRELL: But obviously, we maintain --

QUESTION: It’s not on the Iraqi side of the border.

MR. VENTRELL: We maintain our contact with a broad cross-section of the opposition. I don’t have any specific information for you on our contact with these groups, but we are talking to as broad a cross-section of the opposition and people who are looking for a peaceful transition to a new regime.


QUESTION: Just a quick question. The spokesman over at the Pentagon today referred to the situation in Syria as a top national security priority. Is that view shared by officials in this building as well, that Syria is a top national security priority?

MR. VENTRELL: It’s very important.

QUESTION: Your answer is –


QUESTION: On Syria. The defected Syrian ambassador from Iraq, he gave an interview to CNN and to the – to a British newspaper. He said that when he was in Syria and also when he was as ambassador to Iraq, he was helping with the Syrian intelligence to send the fighters to Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis during the – when the U.S. troops were in Iraq. What’s your reaction to this?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, our reaction, first of all, in terms of his wider allegations that there has been al-Qaida infiltration back into Syria is that Assad has left the door open for this kind of negative influence by the violence he’s perpetrated against his own people. That’s caused an opening for some of these extremists. But at the same time, the wide preponderance of violence is being caused by the regime.

In terms of his allegations of what he might have been doing for the regime before, we think that those speak for themselves. Obviously, we were concerned at the time about the destructive influence and fighters coming across from Syria into Iraq, and we spoke about that at the time.

Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: I wanted to change topics.

MR. VENTRELL: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Palestinian-Israeli issue?


QUESTION: Could you share with us anything new as a result of ongoing meeting?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, what I can tell you is that the Secretary is in Jerusalem right now. She’ll be shortly finishing her very lengthy day where she met with a wide range of officials. She’ll be holding a press availability in about an hour, and so obviously I won’t preview or get ahead of her as she goes out to speak to the press momentarily.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. VENTRELL: In the back.

QUESTION: On Pakistan-U.S.?


QUESTION: GLOCs have been opened, but the Pakistani media has reported that the two sides are trying to make a deal on the GLOCs. Can you comment on that?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, this came up at one of my briefings last week. I can just reiterate that – again that we’re pleased that they decided to open the supply routes. We’ve already seen several containers move across the border into Afghanistan. We also understand that the process of activating the supply routes has only just begun and that it will take time for the backlog to be cleared. And there are some residual technical arrangements we’re working on, so we continue discussions with the Government of Pakistan to this end.

QUESTION: Do you know how much U.S. assistance has gone to Pakistan since the GLOCs reopened?

MR. VENTRELL: I do not. We can look into that further and get back to you.

QUESTION: And how much time do you think it takes the backlogs to be cleared?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t think I can put a specific time on that. Obviously, we’re working with our Pakistani counterparts to move ahead and clear that backlog, but I don’t have a specific or particular timeframe to share with you.

QUESTION: Are you able to describe what a residual technical issue might be in this context?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, I mean, I think there’s – we’re talking about a lot of – the backlog became a number of containers, a very significant amount of materiel. And so it’s going to take some time to find an efficient way to get that all through and up to where it needs to go.

QUESTION: So if it’s sequencing rather than permissioning or any other – any issue that might cause the flow to slow or stop?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, that’s my understanding. We can get you some further information afterward about the specific technical arrangements, but it’s some residual arrangements to just get this backlog cleared at this point.

QUESTION: So you’ll take a question for us on what the residual technical agreements are and on how much U.S. aid to Pakistan has been released since the GLOCs were reopened?

MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to.

QUESTION: And a related question?


QUESTION: Are the two sides working to resume the stalled Strategic Dialogue?

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead. I couldn’t hear you.

QUESTION: The Strategic Dialogue which was – which has been stalled for more than a year now, are the U.S. and Pakistan, are they working to resume that dialogue?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I don’t have a specific update for you, but obviously we want to get our relationship back on track. We look to the future in our relationship with Pakistan, and so we look forward to more intensively engaging with them on a whole range of issues as we go forward. You know that there was a Core Group meeting in Tokyo between the Afghan foreign minister, the Pakistani foreign minister, and Secretary Clinton. We continue our intensive engagement with the Pakistanis going forward.


QUESTION: I can change the topic?

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: We’re done with Pakistan? Okay. The House of Representatives is going to act tomorrow on legislation that says that Secretary Clinton should declare the Haqqani Network a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Can we get a comment on that?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything specific for you on the pending legislation other than to say you know that we have designated a large range of the top leadership of this network, and they feel the full brunt and force of U.S. sanctions. And we continue to review the wider designation issue and we’ll apply all applicable laws as we review that.



QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Japan’s recalling its ambassador from China over the Senkaku Islands?

MR. VENTRELL: Only to say that we believe stable and positive relations between Japan and China benefit everyone in the region. And so we’ve clearly stated our policy on the issue of these islands, but we want them to have positive and collaborative relations between the two countries.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that relationship between Japan and China is deteriorating? Is that a concern of the United States?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I really refer you to the two governments on this situation.


QUESTION: The House is also taking up the State budget this week.


QUESTION: Can we get a comment on that?

MR. VENTRELL: On the specific markups?


MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a comment for you right now, but I’d be happy to look into it on where we are in terms of – obviously, you know we want the widest possible funding for our frontline states, our priorities like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Those are some of our key priorities. Obviously, the Secretary has been very clear the importance of diplomacy and development as key national security pillars and key to our strategy overseas, and so we obviously want to work with our partners on the Hill for the fullest possible funding for all of our programs, but I’d be happy to look into and get an update for you on where we are in terms of movement this week up on the Hill.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:09 p.m.)

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