Daily Press Briefing - March 4, 2013
Index for Today's Briefing:
- President al-Khatib's Visit to Syria
- Aleppo Elections
- Humanitarian Assistance / Support for Moderate Opposition
- Russian Military Assistance
- Reports of Fighting at Iraqi Border
- P5+1 Talks in Almaty and Istanbul
- Policy Progress
- Peace and Reconciliation
- Attack in Karachi
- Dennis Rodman Visit
- Protests / Violence
- Reports of AQIM Leaders' Deaths
- U.S. Assistance
- Rebalance to Asia
- Detention of Political Activists
Daily Press Briefing
1:11 p.m. EST
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. Happy Monday. I’ll turn it over to all of you.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Secretary today in Riyadh talked about empowering the Syrian opposition in their battle against Assad. And he was also asked about arms reaching the opposition and he talked about, it was all right – he said something to the effect that it was okay if moderate members of the opposition were given some arms because they would know how to use them. Could you expand on that a little bit more what he meant by empowering the rebels and talk a bit about this – the idea that the moderate opposition can have arms?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I really can’t improve on the Secretary’s words. But broadly speaking, what we’re talking about, Jo, is that – and this is part of going back to Rome and then going forward, we really are working to empower the opposition so that they can help govern new space. So first of all, you saw over the weekend, and I just want to highlight the really courageous choice by Syrian Opposition Coalition President al-Khatib to go inside of Syria. So we commend him for his courage and his dedication to connect with Syrians who continue to suffer from the regime’s violence on a daily basis.
So we saw him go in. This is part of our nonlethal assistance to get them up to be governing spaces and to show the Syrians really an option for a new day. Clearly, many people have wanted and have long fought for a new day in Syria, but others who have been on the fence have to see that there is the ability for a new way forward where their rights and interests will be protected as well.
In terms of the comment on arms, really this is in the context of it’s the Syrian opposition themselves. We’re trying to – we don’t provide arms, we provide nonlethal assistance, but they’re starting to make sure that the moderate, legitimate opposition is getting some of that assistance. So he’s really talking about their ability to provide those arms to people who want a free, democratic Syria.
Another thing to highlight, Jo, from the weekend is that there were elections for the provincial council of Aleppo that were held in southern Turkey. We view this as a positive sign of the opposition’s commitment to free and democratic procedures. Even though campaigning and elections weren’t possible inside of Syria because of the pervasive insecurity and of course the use of Scuds in Aleppo province, but this is as we help them prepare for local governance. Really it’s a Syrian-led process, but we’re – the international community trying to provide them with the assistance so that they can prepare for that day.
So really that’s the broad framework. But there’s a lot of weapons in Syria. Clearly, as the Secretary highlighted, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, continue to provide arms. Other countries have made their sovereign decisions – we have not – to arm the opposition. But that’s sort of the broader context.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) there’s somewhat a shift in the American thinking on this because, as you mentioned, it’s nonlethal support from the Americans, and you’ve mentioned that other states and nations are making their own decisions about whether to supply arms to the opposition. But in the past there was an American reluctance to allow the possibility of arms going into Syria to the opposition. This would seem to suggest that it’s okay as long as we’re – as long as the arms are reaching the moderates. Is that what Kerry – Secretary Kerry was trying to say?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, go back and read his remarks carefully. I can’t improve on them or sort of reparse them. They’re very clear. But the point being, the context of this is that we’ve been concerned about some extremist opposition members, those who don’t share the views of the vast majority of the opposition who want a free, peaceful, democratic future. And as long as Assad is raining Scuds down on the people of Syria, as long as he’s slaughtering his own people, the opposition is going to fight back. And that’s just a reality on the ground and they’re going to have to protect themselves.
So our position hasn’t changed; we still provide nonlethal assistance. But other countries have made other decisions, and the opposition is working to get those to moderate elements and not those that share an extremist or sort of extremist ideology.
QUESTION: Is it fair to characterize it as an evolution, perhaps, in the thinking of the American position on the arms going into – that are already going into Syria?
MR. VENTRELL: I really wouldn’t characterize it one way or another. I think the Secretary’s remarks speak clearly for themselves. And we’re working with the unarmed opposition in terms of our nonlethal assistance. We also said that we’re going to provide nonlethal assistance to groups, part of the Syrian Opposition Council that include the Supreme Military Council. So that has been the evolution. You heard it announced back in Rome. His remarks today were in a different context.
QUESTION: And can I ask about the – on the Aleppo elections, was there some U.S. support that went towards organizing those and making sure they could be carried out?
MR. VENTRELL: We did not play a role in organizing the elections. We’ve provided some nonlethal training to the civilian opposition in terms of some administrative training and that type of governance training, but these elections were absolutely Syrian-led, Syrian-run, and really a positive sign. So we welcome the step, but this was absolutely an indigenous Syrian effort.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up? One follow-up. You mentioned --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay, go ahead. Michel was waiting.
QUESTION: Yeah. Did the Secretary or has Secretary Kerry asked the Saudis to provide their arms to – or the military aids to the moderates instead of giving them to the al-Nusrah Front?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I can’t get into our private diplomacy and countries have made their own sovereign decisions. But the bottom line is you know we support the moderate opposition. We support the opposition that is looking for a democratic, inclusive, and moderate Syria. So those are the people we are supporting with our nonlethal assistance, and others are making their decisions.
QUESTION: Have you conveyed this message, do you think, to the Saudis and Secretary Kerry will convey it to the other Arab states that he will visit?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I’m not going to get into our – the exact form of our discussions, but we’re clear in public and private who we’re supporting and why we think they’re the people who need to receive all of the international community’s support to try to change Assad’s calculation.
QUESTION: You mentioned about Russian arms. Just to – I am wondering, this has been going on for about two years and the Russian officials have been saying that they have been fulfilling the contracts. Do you know when these contracts are expiring? Do you – have you had the chance to ask whether – when was the last time they renewed some of the contracts? Because this just goes on and on.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I really refer you to the Russian authorities, but I can tell you that the Secretary did raise in his bilateral with Foreign Minister Lavrov our strong concern. He strongly urged Russia to stop providing the regime weapons, attack helicopters, air defense systems, and access to Russian banks. So it’s just, in our mind, unconscionable to continue to provide military assistance to the Assad regime. It’s really only the extremists that stand to gain from that position. So it’s something that we have raised with the Russians. In terms of what they’re continuing to supply, I refer you to them.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, Prime Minister of Iraq Maliki said that if the Assad regime falls, it’s going to be a haven and sectarianism is going to increase, and apparently was saying that this should not happen. What’s your position on that?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen his new comments, but this is something that he’s talked about in the past and I responded to last week. But Prime Minister Maliki has talked about the need for the dictatorship to end. We share a common concern about extremism, and Iraq has expressed its concern about the level of violence and the extremist elements who seek to foment violence and capitalize on the situation in Syria. So this is something they’ve been clear about and have said in the past.
QUESTION: There have been also reports that some of the Iraq forces got involved with the fight at the border and they’ve been firing on rebels, or different various reports. Have you been able to confirm those reports?
MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen some contradictory reports about fighting that occurred at the border crossing and whether Iraqi forces engaged. So we’re discussing the situation with the Government of Iraq and urge all parties to act with restraint in these sensitive border areas, but we really don’t have further information. We’ve seen conflicting reports.
QUESTION: A follow-up on this, Patrick.
MR. VENTRELL: Michel.
QUESTION: Forty-two Syrian troops and 11 Iraqi soldiers got killed in an ambush today inside Iraq. Do you have anything on this? And the Iraqi authorities have blamed al-Qaida.
MR. VENTRELL: Michel, we have seen those reports, but we cannot confirm at this time what occurred. So we really refer you to the Government of Iraq for further details, but we have seen the report.
QUESTION: Do you know if Secretary Kerry called Maliki during this trip, or if he’s planning to visit Iraq also?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure that they’ve been able to connect on this visit, whether they’ve been able to connect on the phone, but I’ll look into it and get back to you.
QUESTION: Can I stay on Syria, just to follow up?
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Jo.
QUESTION: I wondered if you’d seen, if the Department had seen the interview given by President Assad to the Sunday Times over the weekend in which he said that he would take part in dialogue if it was – if there was no arms, if the militant – if the rebel opposition put down their arms. And he also rejected the idea that his departure would end the bloodshed, which is something that, actually, analysts have been talking about, that even if Assad goes, the bloodshed’s just going to disintegrate into sectarian violence.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Could you talk to that, please?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, Jo, the bottom line is we did see the interview, but we have seen no serious indication that the regime is willing to engage in a genuine negotiation process that would lead to the formation of a transitional governing authority. So they continue to rain down Scuds, we’ve seen this talk, but it’s actions that matter, and we haven’t seen that.
In the interview, you see him saying something along the lines of a real patriot should stay in his country. Well, what a real patriot should do is stop slaughtering his own people, stop raining missiles down against his own citizens, against women and children. That’s what a real patriot should do.
QUESTION: Well, what about this idea that even if he goes, there’s still going to – there still will be bloodshed? I mean, that’s not just Assad who’s saying that; that’s the people who are not involved in the conflict who are saying that too.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we are concerned about the situation in Syria. We are concerned about the further disintegration of the state. And so our assistance and our planning is trying to help provide for a better day so that when Assad does fall, and he will, we’re able to – not only the Syrians, but then the international community, help provide for a better day. And so that’s what some of our nonlethal assistance is designed to do, to help them build up sort of the institutions, to help govern, to provide an alternative. But clearly, there are issues of sectarianism, there are – Syria is a very complicated place, but we’re doing all we can to provide for as quick and peaceful an end to this as possible to stop the bloodshed.
That is the U.S. policy. We want an end to the bloodshed. And so the fastest and easiest way to do that is for Assad to step aside and for us to move to a transitioning governing body with full executive authority.
QUESTION: Patrick, how about intelligence? Do you share intelligence with the Syrian opposition or with your allies who provide arms to this opposition?
MR. VENTRELL: You know we don’t talk about intelligence or intelligence sharing from this podium, so nice try.
MR. VENTRELL: Lalit.
QUESTION: Can we go over to South Asia?
MR. VENTRELL: Sure.
QUESTION: One more on Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: One more on Syria.
QUESTION: After Roma’s meeting, have you set a time and date for al-Khatib visit to Washington?
MR. VENTRELL: We don’t have a time and a date still, but the Secretary – you saw him – had a lengthy meeting with Mr. al-Khatib. They spoke after their meeting. When we have more information about a potential meeting here in Washington, we’d be happy to share that.
QUESTION: One more quick --
MR. VENTRELL: One more on Syria.
QUESTION: Sixty million – the latest aid, $60 million, is there a way you can give us some more detail on that? There are various reports whether armored vehicles or body armor or – what exactly is going to be about – in the $60 million aid?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we talked about this a lot last week. We’ve put out a number of transcripts and background briefings to clarify. You know that there’s three general categories – $385 million of humanitarian, $115 million of nonlethal support, and a third category which will provide some of that in-kind assistance to the Syrian Opposition Council and the Supreme Military Command. So I’d be happy to get you some of – some more detail afterward, but that’s where we stand.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: The Iranian Ambassador to the UN gave an interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria yesterday, and the tone was very positive and he said that the talks show some promise. He said that it looks as if things are moving in the right direction, and that Iran was open to talks with the United States.
So how serious do you view this offer, and whether you think that there’s really an opportunity for direct talks with Iran?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, look, Elise, you know where we are on this. We said the talks were useful. We’ve long said, the President said, going back to since the beginning of this Administration, that we’re willing to engage in bilateral diplomacy with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1 process. But the bottom line is we need to see concrete, confidence-building measures on the side of the Iranians. So we’ll go into these next meetings April --
QUESTION: What specifically – what kind of confidence-building measures?
MR. VENTRELL: We talked about this last week. We’re not going to get into the details of our negotiation on this. But Iran knows very clearly from us, what we laid out in Almaty, that we’re expecting concrete confidence-building measures.
So March 18th in Istanbul, there will be a technical meeting where we’ll continue to refine and discuss these issues, and another political directors meeting April 5th and 6th in Almaty. So we want them to take concrete, confidence-building measures to get – to pave the way to get some momentum heading toward a longer-term comprehensive agreement.
QUESTION: He also said that the amount of uranium that Iran would not – have to ship out is not really the kind of main sticking point. But isn’t this exactly what the U.S. and Israel are mainly concerned about when we talk about redlines, the amount of uranium that Iran would have to ship out?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m just – I’m not going to get into the details of the negotiation. You heard Toria say this about a week or so ago, that Iran currently has enough enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran research reactor for at least a decade. And its recent actions would allow Iran to further increase its enriched stockpiles without any clear civilian purpose.
So we’ve said that before. The bottom line though is, Elise, we’re just not going to get into the details of the P5+1 process.
QUESTION: And then lastly, he also said that the rhetoric coming from you in terms of this tough rhetoric – and military action is on the table, very tough rhetoric specifically from Vice President Biden and others – is not helpful to the momentum of progress. It’s kind of the same line that you’re talking about, wanting to negotiate, but your tough rhetoric belies that.
So do you think that the rhetoric is kind of getting in the way of meaningful progress?
MR. VENTRELL: Iran knows – and they saw our serious updated proposal – they know the steps that we want to take. They know that --
QUESTION: So then why use negative rhetoric? I mean, if you’re serious about negotiating and you think your proposal’s serious, then why would you handicap the chances of it working with this rhetoric that doesn’t signify that you’re serious?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, Elise, I haven’t seen specifically what rhetoric they’re referring to. You know that we’ve long had a dual track approach where we’re increasing the pressure to try to get the Iranians to make the strategic decision to take these concrete measures.
QUESTION: But is rhetoric helpful in that regard?
MR. VENTRELL: Look --
QUESTION: I mean, I understand your pressure with – when it’s sanctions or other types of aspects of diplomacy, but does – is rhetoric really helpful?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’ve described the talks as useful. We’re going to continue along with the process. But I’m not going to characterize it further.
QUESTION: Can I ask --
QUESTION: A follow-up --
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, go ahead. Do you have a follow-up on this?
QUESTION: On Iran.
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Iran, yeah.
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, and then we’ll go to the back.
QUESTION: Yeah. Prime Minister Netanyahu just addressed, by webcast, the AIPAC --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- meeting happening in Washington. And he said that Iran had moved closer towards the redline, which is Israel’s redline, obviously, since the American hasn’t set one – America hasn’t set one. Is that your understanding of the situation? Has – have they moved closer? Have they managed to make more progress in their nuclear – in their uranium enrichment?
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, I hadn’t seen his remarks since I came down here. But you heard the Secretary say this morning that diplomacy is the preferred choice today. So the window is open for diplomacy, but it’s not open indefinitely, and that’s our position.
QUESTION: And when the window will be closing?
MR. VENTRELL: You know that we want Iran to make the strategic decision to come in line with their international obligations, and we’ll continue to push for that. And it is not open indefinitely.
QUESTION: But is there a timeframe?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re not going to get into characterizing it further.
In the back.
QUESTION: Patrick, you just said that the two-track approach is still the way you’re going to go, which means one track is the sanctions. But it seems like Iran’s expecting easing of sanctions, and in the near future, because just yesterday the Iranian Foreign Minister said that today, not only sanctions will not be intensified, but we will be witnessing the easing of sanctions. Was any promises made to them in Almaty for them to expect this?
MR. VENTRELL: You heard me talk about this last week. We’re willing to take reciprocal measures if they take concrete measures. But I’m not going to get into it beyond that.
QUESTION: So they have to take their measures first before you’ll take reciprocal measures?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not going to get into the sequencing of this.
QUESTION: You said “reciprocal measures if they take concrete” --
MR. VENTRELL: They’re reciprocal –
QUESTION: “Reciprocal” means that you would take them afterwards.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not going to get into the sequencing of this. The diplomacy continues.
QUESTION: Patrick, another one, please?
MR. VENTRELL: One last one on Iran before we move on.
QUESTION: Right. Did the Iranians have any proposal in Almaty for the P5+1?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’ll let the Iranians characterize their position and what they did at the meetings. I think that would be most appropriate.
QUESTION: But did they offer – like, the West’s proposal that was put on the table, did they have another one?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’ll let them characterize what they did at the meeting. Suffice it to say, we’re going to go into a technical experts meeting and then we’ll go into political directors to continue to flesh this out about how all of these issues will work – timing, sequence, everything.
QUESTION: Can I change topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Elise.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vali Nasr, who used to be at the State Department, just came out with a new book detailing a little bit about the work with Richard Holbrooke and how President Obama’s White House team kind of shut him out. Specifically, he writes that “the White House encouraged the U.S. Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency.”
I’d like your response to that, whether that’s an accurate assessment, and whether the State Department felt that the White House was taking too much control over the Afghan – Af-Pak file.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Elise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics in this book or our interagency discussions.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR. VENTRELL: That’s not something that we do from this podium.
QUESTION: Well, there’s a specific charge laid out in this book from someone who used to be in this building.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not going to comment on a former official’s characterization one way or another, or our interagency processes one way or another. But let me talk a little bit about Afghanistan, where we are, some of the progress we --
QUESTION: No, I don’t – I mean, I’m specifically --
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not --
QUESTION: You can talk about Af – I’m happy to hear what you have to say --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- about Afghanistan, but specifically, do you feel that the State Department has equal equity in the policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m just not going to --
QUESTION: You don’t know whether you do?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not going to comment on a former official’s characterization.
QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you to – so don’t comment on his book, but specifically, do you feel as if the State Department has equal equity on policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: We have an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency colleagues. And let me just tell you a little bit about where we are in Afghanistan, because that’s – some of the thrust of the book is talking about policy development on Afghanistan. We’ve increased the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight insurgents, transitioning Afghan security lead – transitioning to an Afghan security lead, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We now have Afghan forces leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. We’ve signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We’re working on a new – negotiating a new bilateral security agreement. We’re working on preparations for a free, inclusive, and transparent election in 2014. So we really stand behind the record of the progress we’ve made in Afghanistan, but beyond that I’m not going to get into interagency discussions.
QUESTION: But it’s not a new charge. I mean, it’s a charge that analysts are making around Washington, that the foreign policy is being decided in the White House with not enough input, or very little input, from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: We make our input, but I’m just not going to characterize it beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you listened to? Do you feel that you’re listened to properly in the White House?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the State Department has – we have an excellent working relationship, as I said, with the White House, with the interagency, and --
QUESTION: You can’t say whether you feel as if you’re getting equal input?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not going to characterize some sort of historical discussion about what happened in years past. All I’m going to say is --
QUESTION: I don’t think it’s historical, because it also goes to what’s happening today in the White House.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, guys, I’ve said what I can on this. I think we’ve done what we can here. Thanks.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan itself --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a Taliban leader today said that they are planning to have a political movement as U.S. tries to – plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. How do you see this?
MR. VENTRELL: They’d have a political movement?
MR. VENTRELL: I hadn’t seen those remarks. You know where we are on reconciliation, and we believe peace and reconciliation is the surest way to end violence. So we continue to have the objective of Afghans sitting down with Afghans to determine the future of their country. And obviously, we want those who are combatants or who are opposing the legitimate Afghan Government to, of course, lay down their arms and participate politically and through the Afghan constitution.
QUESTION: And last time we spoke on this, you said that Taliban hasn’t responded to the U.S. call of peace talks. Have they now? It has been month or so.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update for you beyond where – you know where we are. You heard, obviously, what President Obama said, what President Karzai said when they were here, but I don’t have an update for you.
QUESTION: And can you cross the border and go to Karachi, where there has been terrorist attack and a lot of people have died? What is your – I mean, they have a series of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan in last few weeks. What is your assessment of the security situation inside Pakistan now?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for raising that, Lalit. You know yesterday we did see a violent attack in Karachi with more than 50 people killed and many others injured. We join – you saw the Embassy put out a statement, Ambassador Richard Olson did overnight, offering the family of those – families of those killed our deepest condolences and wishing those injured a speedy recovery. We do remain concerned about extremist violence of all kinds. Intolerance and violence against innocent civilians is an assault on the values of the people of Pakistan and a threat to a prosperous future for all citizens. So we stand with the people of Pakistan in condemning this violence, and it’s really a senseless and inhumane act, in our opinion.
QUESTION: Given these attacks, has Pakistan sought any specific assistance from the U.S. to address these challenges? I know you have been helping them in counterterrorism operations.
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to look into that. I’m not aware that – of any specific assistance they’ve asked for.
QUESTION: And what impact the sequestration would have on your counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re not in a place where we can make any determinations about exactly how each account is going to be cut and what it’ll mean for specific bilateral assistance. We’re not in a position to make that – I see some folks in the back of the room.
MR. VENTRELL: Sir, go ahead.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MR. VENTRELL: Tell me who you are.
QUESTION: Nick Harper from Feature Story News.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: Changing to North Korea --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- I just wanted to ask about Dennis Rodman’s trip. I know that you made some comments end of last week.
MR. VENTRELL: I had a feeling you guys weren’t going to let me get down from here without – (laughter) – another round on this. So --
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, obviously we’ve heard more from him over the weekend with this interview with ABC, especially talking about Kim Jong-un wanting to get President Obama to pick up the phone. Considering these comments, is there any desire within the State Department to capitalize on this to try and reach out to the regime at this time?
MR. VENTRELL: You know where we are. We have direct channels of communication with the D.P.R.K. They know how to get in touch with us. But instead of spending their money on staging sporting events, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its people, and it should come in line with its international obligations. So quite frankly, North Korean words and stunts such as this have no meaning. What matters is the actions they take and the need to come in line with their international obligations.
QUESTION: What about any desire to reach out to Mr. Rodman and debrief him, considering he’s probably spoken more to the leader in North Korea than anyone else has in the country.
MR. VENTRELL: We talked about this last week. We welcome those who want to get in touch with us after a visit to North Korea. We take the call, but we haven’t been in touch.
QUESTION: Why didn’t – given the fact that you have zero relations with this regime, and you don’t – no American diplomat has ever met with the guy, why wouldn’t, even if – obviously that you’re not going to conduct diplomacy with Dennis Rodman, but why wouldn’t you want every --
MR. VENTRELL: That’s for sure. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: That’s fine, but why wouldn’t you want every little nugget of information that you could possibly get from anybody that’s been in a room with this guy? I’m not saying you would conduct diplomacy, but what was his demeanor? What – why are you not curious in any way about what this guy would have to say?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, if he wants to get in touch with us, we’re happy to receive --
QUESTION: Well, why do you have to wait for that? I mean, clearly you have a big policy problem with North Korea’s launching nuclear weapons.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Every little nugget of information might piece together a puzzle that you could better understand this guy. Why wouldn’t --
MR. VENTRELL: Elise, what our diplomacy is focused on is bringing North Korea in line with its international obligations. And what we’ve seen from this young man since he’s taken power --
QUESTION: You mean the leader of North Korea?
MR. VENTRELL: -- the leader of North Korea; not Dennis Rodman, he’s not a young man, but the leader of North Korea – are provocative actions: ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests, continued starvation of people, continuing not to focus on the lives of his own citizens. So there is a chance for him to change course, and we haven’t seen that. But stunts that --
QUESTION: Don’t you think you’re standing on ceremony a little bit to wait for Dennis Rodman to call you? If he’s willing to call you and talk to you about it, why can’t you just pick up the phone and ask what he saw in the country? Maybe he saw something that could be useful to you.
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, I just don’t have anything further for you on this, Elise. I think we’ve done this one.
QUESTION: What about --
MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: Yes. Rodman is not a U.S. official channels, right?
MR. VENTRELL: I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?
QUESTION: He’s not – Mr. Rodman is not a U.S. official channels, but why not? Will the U.S. appoint him as ambassador to North Korea? (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not even sure I can dignify that with a response.
QUESTION: Well, he said that he is a very good friend with Kim Jong-un.
MR. VENTRELL: Let me repeat what I said last week. I’ll just say it here again. Dennis Rodman has never been a player in our diplomacy, he does not represent the views of the United States, he is a private American.
QUESTION: But Patrick, but any private – wouldn’t you want to speak to any private American that’s been in the country?
MR. VENTRELL: We’re happy to. We haven’t been in touch with them. If he reaches out to us, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Did anybody from this building meet with Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson when they came back?
MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to look into that and get back to you.
QUESTION: If you can take the question.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Moving on.
QUESTION: There’s a report that the Secretary will be going to East Asia following this trip to Israel with the President. I’m just wondering if you have any information you could share with us about that.
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have anything for you on upcoming Secretarial travel, but when we get closer to his next trip, we’ll certainly be in touch with you.
Lalit, you’ve been patient for a sec.
MR. VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: -- do you have an update on the security situation in Bangladesh following this series of --
MR. VENTRELL: I do.
QUESTION: -- protests that’s going on there? And India’s president is also visiting Bangladesh currently. Do you have any comments on that, too?
MR. VENTRELL: What was the second part of that?
QUESTION: India’s president is also visiting Bangladesh.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Well, while we are encouraged that the situation is beginning to calm down, we are saddened by the reports of over 70 people killed during protests across Bangladesh. We also continue to be concerned by reported attacks on Hindu temples and homes. So while engaging in peaceful protest is a fundamental democratic right, we firmly believe violence is never the answer, and so we continue to encourage all Bangladeshis to peacefully express their views and look to the Government of Bangladesh to ensure the safety of all its citizens.
QUESTION: And how do you see the Bangladeshi Government handling the situation?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I don’t think I’m going to characterize it other than to say we’ve seen things begin to calm down, and we continue to encourage the Government of Bangladesh to ensure the safety of all its citizens.
QUESTION: Can I ask about Mali also?
MR. VENTRELL: Why don’t you – I think Scott’s been really patient. Scott, why don’t you go?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay, but some violence. What’s your assessment so far?
MR. VENTRELL: So you’re right, Scott, and I think you heard me talk a little bit about Kenyan elections last Friday and our strong message that we’re encouraging free, fair, peaceful elections in Kenya.
So today, Kenyans are voting throughout their country. There are reports of high levels of voter turnout. The media and election observers report that the situation is generally calm and peaceful. We commend the Kenyan people, many of whom have patiently waited in long lines to vote, for their active and peaceful participation in the election. And we urge all candidates and their supporters to maintain peace as the results are tabulated and announced.
So we’ve also seen some isolated instances of violence down by the coast and in the northeast. We condemn any violence in the strongest terms and express our condolences to the families of those victims.
QUESTION: Is it your opinion that the Kenyan authorities are doing what they should be to confront those isolated incidents of violence?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, we’ve seen the reports overnight. I don’t have an update on the response. But our general impression – again, this is still ongoing – is that they’ve been generally calm and peaceful and orderly and that things are working fairly well. So – but we continue to urge for people to vote, to participate, and to be peaceful and calm as results come in.
QUESTION: Mali, yes.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Last week we had reports about the death of Abou Zeid, which al-Qaida itself now seems to be confirming. And over the weekend in Mali --
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and over the weekend there were reports that another Islamist leader, Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, has been killed. Do you have any information you can share with us?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. So we have seen reports that AQIM leader Mokhtar bel Mokhtar was killed on March 2nd by French and Chadian forces. We have no confirmation of bel Mokhtar’s current status, so we refer you to French and Chadian authorities. And also we have reports that the commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb’s Mali wing, Abou Zeid, was killed on March 2nd by French and Chadian forces, but we’re also not able to confirm that at this time. So on both of these cases, we really refer you to the French and Chadian officials.
QUESTION: Well, I think – isn’t one of the issues that the Chadians are saying that he’s dead but the French haven’t necessarily confirmed? So until they both confirm, is that when you would take confirmation?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we as the U.S. Government are not able to confirm either case either independently or otherwise. So we’re just not in a position to do that. But we’ll continue to wait to hear more from our counterparts.
QUESTION: Well, what’s the U.S. assessment about how the fighting is going on the ground?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an update on the fighting. You know that we continue to – we’ve repeatedly affirmed our support for the French mission, for the African troops that have deployed, regional efforts to counter the terrorist groups in the region. But in terms of what’s happened on the ground recently, I don’t have anything updated overnight or in the past day or so. But I’ll look into it and see if we have any more information on the ground.
You know, Jo, that what we really want is – of course, the French have made significant gains, but we want them to hold those gains and be able to turn over to the African counterparts as quickly as they can. So we support that process. That’s why we’re providing significant assistance. But that’s the broad stroke, the broad frame of what we’re looking for in Mali. But let me see if I have a ground situation update for you.
QUESTION: The French Defense Minister Yves Le Drian was saying at one point that they hope to leave by March and turn it over. Do you think that’s a realistic timetable, timeframe?
MR. VENTRELL: I can’t really make an observation one way or the other, other than to say we’re working very hard. Obviously, there are some plans up at the UN to see how we can put the African-led international support mission in Mali under UN authority. We think that would help speed and provide an appropriate framework. But in terms of timing, I just don’t have anything for you.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the UN efforts, whether there’s a resolution due this week?
MR. VENTRELL: I don’t. I know we continue to work up in New York, but I don’t have an update on our diplomacy up in New York.
QUESTION: What about an update on the resolution on North Korea? Do you think that that will be coming soon?
MR. VENTRELL: I also don’t have an update.
Okay. Time for a couple more. Go ahead. You’ve been very patient.
QUESTION: On Greece and Turkey. Do you have any comment on today’s meeting between the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey? And also, did you have any involvement in setting this meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Not that I’m aware of. I really refer you to the two of them. So I just don’t have a readout for you. If we do – if we have something further for you, we’ll look into it.
QUESTION: On Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan’s remarks on Zionism. Secretary Clinton – Secretary Kerry raised the issue in Turkey, but before the meeting with the Prime Minister. So according to Turkish officials, there has been a misunderstanding, the meaning of the Zionism in Turkey and (inaudible). My question is: Have you been – reached kind of understanding and – or do you still have the same concerns after the meeting?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not aware of any translation clarification. You heard what the White House said last week. You heard how the Secretary characterized it as objectionable language. It’s something he raised very frankly with his counterparts in Turkey, but beyond that, I don't have an update for you.
Okay. In the back.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask about comments made by former National Security Advisor General Jim Jones at the end of last week. He talked about the phrase “pivot to Asia” being perhaps the most regrettable phrase that the Administration had ever come up with, had ever used. I just wanted your thoughts, whether there were similar regrets within the Department here about the use of the phrase.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I hadn’t seen those comments at all. You know the Administration’s strong commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. It’s driven by our enduring interests, and it won’t change. As President Obama said, we will deepen our engagement in the region in order to seize opportunities for a more secure and prosperous future. I just hadn’t seen those remarks specifically.
QUESTION: I mean, in terms of those regrets, I mean, is there any desire to talk to people within the region to mention that there have been these regrets and whether there might now be some sort of policy shift or change?
MR. VENTRELL: I don't think I can further elaborate on another former official’s characterization one way or another.
QUESTION: But the “pivot to Asia” remains in place then?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, we’re absolutely – we’ve said that we’re going to rebalance to Asia, that this is something that we’ve been working on, and the President has a strong commitment.
QUESTION: Any plans for the Secretary to visit Asia?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I think this was asked earlier in the briefing. When we have information on future Secretarial travel, we’ll announce it. But he obviously will travel to Asia and looks forward to it. We just don’t have anything to announce yet.
QUESTION: In terms of the phase “pivot to Asia,” is it more of a case of wanting to do it but just not using that phrase? Are we no longer using that phrase now?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I mean, we’re absolutely – this is something that the Administration has been working on in terms of our commitment to the Asia Pacific. Obviously, it’s something in the 21st century where we’re very aware of the challenges but also the opportunities in Asia. So we’ll continue to pursue those robustly in a range of different areas. So --
QUESTION: So still a pivot, but just without the name?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I’m just not going to characterize it further.
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Some 90 people are on trial today, including human rights lawyers and judges, teachers, and some student leaders as – allegation is that they’re part of a group that wanted to bring down the government. Human Rights Watch has expressed some concerns about the whereabouts of some of those defendants and the access that their attorneys have had to some of the – both their clients and the allegations against them. Is that something that you’re following? And if you have concerns about that, have you raised them with the U.A.E. Government?
MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks, Scott. The United States is consistently engaged with the Government of the United Arab Emirates in regard to the detention of political activists. We’ve urged a swift and fair trial for those detained that allows them to present their defense. The legal process is now underway. We continue to urge the U.A.E. to ensure that the judicial process is open and transparent.
QUESTION: Is it your assessment that it has been open and transparent for these defendants?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I don't think I’m going to give a grade to this ongoing process, but it’s something we continue to urge.
Okay. Jo, you have one more?
QUESTION: Sorry. I had – yeah, one last one. I think I know what you’re going to say. But there was a delegation of American and British detectives who visited Tripoli last week to investigate the 1988 Pan Am bombing. I wondered if you could talk to us about that. And more generally, I mean, it was 1988, and there’s been lots of – there was a guy who was in prison and then released for it, there’s been compensation paid by Libya. Who are you trying to still identify for possible trial?
MR. VENTRELL: Jo, I’ll have to look into whether we have an update one way or another. I imagine I’ll have to refer you to the Department of Justice, but I’m happy to look into it.
Okay. Thank you, all.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:50 p.m.)
DPB # 37