US State Department: Daily Press Briefing – May 8, 2013

Press Release – US State Department

First of all, Deputy Secretary Burns is headed to New Delhi to continue the very productive dialogue our two governments now enjoy in the wide range of political, economic, and security issues. The strategic partnership with India is of great importance …Daily Press Briefing – May 8, 2013

Patrick Ventrell
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
May 8, 2013


12:43 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. You don’t want to come up here with us, Nicolas? Please, we can’t have the front row empty. I have a couple things for you all at the top before I turn it over to all of you.

First of all, Deputy Secretary Burns is headed to New Delhi to continue the very productive dialogue our two governments now enjoy in the wide range of political, economic, and security issues. The strategic partnership with India is of great importance to the United States and one in which both our governments are continuing to invest. The Deputy Secretary will exchange views with his counterparts on how to grow the trade and investment relationship and expand our energy and climate change cooperation, including how to further advance our civil nuclear cooperation. The Deputy also looks forward to discussing regional issues, including our mutual goals for greater cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region and in Afghanistan where we welcome the leading role India is playing in fostering regional economic integration and spurring private sector investment.

I just also wanted to say a couple of words on Benghazi here at the top. As you all know, these hearings are going on right now. And this something that I said here from this podium earlier in this week, but just to be clear, what this department is focused on is keeping our people safe overseas. You know that the State Department family is a family of some 70,000-odd professionals around the world at 285 diplomatic posts, and we are doing everything we can to keep our people safe in the dangerous world we live in. And so we’ve had the Accountability Review Board, we’ve had their recommendations, all of which we’ve accepted and are vigorously implementing, and we have to respond constantly to evolving threats, and that’s what our focus is on.

I’m not going to be able today – at today’s briefing provide a specific reaction to the testimony that’s going on right at this moment, but I understand that some members of the Accountability Review Board want to come and speak to all of you. And so we’ll be back in touch if we have a time here to confirm for this afternoon, but I understand some of the members of the Accountability Review Board want to come down and talk to you.

So our focus is on keeping our people safe, on implementing the reforms that we need to based on the Accountability Review Board’s recommendations, and that’s where we think the focus should be on as well with the Congress and with the media and certainly in the context of leaks coming out to the press over the week and the way that this has gone about. We want a collaborative process with Congress, we’re willing to work with Congress, but that cooperation has to go both ways. So having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.


QUESTION: I have nothing on the Libya, but Syria.


QUESTION: The Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said yesterday that there will be an international conference on Syria later this month. Do you have any indication of the location of this conference?

MR. VENTRELL: This was just announced yesterday, so I don’t have a location or time yet. But just to reiterate that yesterday in Moscow, Secretary Kerry reiterated our belief that the Geneva communique framework is the best way to find a durable solution to the Syrian crisis and should be the roadmap by which the international community and Syrian people work to hasten an end to the conflict. And this is through a political transition. You know how important we’ve said political transition is, that it’s the best way to end the violence, and so you have on the one hand – we’ve certainly upped our assistance to the opposition. This is in the context of the upward trajectory of our millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance.

We’re also going to be providing another $100 million of humanitarian assistance. So we’re now going to be at $510 million of humanitarian assistance. We’ll have a fact sheet for you on that later today. So in the context of our upward trajectory of our assistance to the opposition, upward trajectory of our humanitarian assistance to all Syrians, at the same time we can’t lose sight of the political – the need for a political transition. And so what the Secretary’s work with his counterpart in Moscow yesterday with Foreign Minister Lavrov really is about breaking the logjam and getting these parties to the table so that we can, based on mutual consent, get to a transition to a transitional governing authority that has full executive authority for the country. And so that’s what the focus is on now.

QUESTION: And you are talking about a political transition. Are you still calling for President Assad to leave?

MR. VENTRELL: Our policy has not changed. The sooner he leaves, the better, and we’ve been clear about that for a very long time.

Samir, go ahead.

QUESTION: The Secretary said yesterday in Moscow that it’s up – they will leave it up to the Syrian opposition and government within the Geneva communiqué framework to decide Assad’s future. Doesn’t this contradict President Obama’s statement that Assad should step down?

MR. VENTRELL: No. Our policy has not changed. Assad needs to go, and the sooner, the better. But it’s up to the Syrian people and it’s up to the Syrian opposition as they work through this process. It’s –

QUESTION: But what –

MR. VENTRELL: Let me finish, Samir. It has always been based on mutual consent by both sides. And so it’s been both the regime and the opposition have to have mutual consent about sitting down and working toward this transitional authority.

QUESTION: So what has changed? Is the – the change is in the Russian position?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, the change is that both we and the Russians are going to work very hard to get both of these sides to the table and implement this plan. So the plan is still the same Geneva communique, but the idea is that we need to put extra impetus and extra effort on both sides, on both parties to get to the table to work toward a political transition. The Secretary has been clear since he came into office, our aid is on – and our assistance is on an upward trajectory. So we’re trying to help the opposition, and we’ll try to make it clear to Assad that he needs to reassess his calculation. And we’d like to get it to a point where these two parties are at the table so that we can transition away from Assad’s rule.

QUESTION: So the breakthrough now is that the Russian changed their position? Is that what you’re saying?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, the breakthrough is that both sides – we’ve had this communique on paper, and now we’ve worked very hard with the Russians, and we’re going to work to implement it.

QUESTION: Patrick, but you had this agreement since the June 2012 and the problem and the difference was between the U.S. and Moscow about the future of President Assad. Is there a full agreement now between Washington and Moscow about the future of President Assad?

MR. VENTRELL: The communique remains the same. It’s still based on mutual consent, and our position has not changed that Assad has lost all legitimacy and needs to go.

QUESTION: Is the Russian position has changed?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’d ask – I’d refer you to the Russians to define their position, but what we’re clear about is that both sides want to implement this and get both parties to the table so that we can get to a transitional authority. And this is about – in the context of someone who’s trying to destroy a state, who’s literally ripping the state into shreds. And so we’re trying to get to a political transition with the Syria that’s left to save. And that’s what the Syrian people want, and there are institutions that are part of the executive branch of the executive governance of the country that will still provide services and can still be maintained. This isn’t to say that the people who have committed atrocities are going to be governing Syria going forward. What it’s saying is that there are still people on the regime side and there are the opposition who can work together to transition Syria, first to a transitional body and then eventually to the full, free, democratic Syria that they deserve.

QUESTION: How do you view Foreign Minister Lavrov’s statement when he said yesterday that the departure of President Assad should not be a condition for peace talks? And do you view any changes – and they are still insisting that Assad should not be a condition or the future of Assad shouldn’t be a condition to come to peace talks?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, this is for the parties. This is for the Syrian opposition to decide. This is not – our position hasn’t changed. We’ve long said he has to go. And we’ll continue to say that, and he’s lost all legitimacy.

QUESTION: But based on this statement, do you view the Russian position has changed?

MR. VENTRELL: What we’ve seen is that the Russians are willing to work with us to get both parties to the table, and you know they have particular influence with the regime, and we’ve been clear about some of the assistance they’ve been giving stopping, and we’ve been clear that they should exert their influence the best they can to get the regime to the table.

QUESTION: And do you trust —

QUESTION: Patrick, I don’t understand where the breakthrough is or what’s new. I mean, when the agreement was reached about the Geneva communique, the Russians backed it as well as the Americans, and that hasn’t changed.

MR. VENTRELL: It’s not that the – it’s about operationalizing. It’s about breaking the logjam where this was agreed to, and it’s a good framework, and it still is the basis. But what we didn’t achieve, in part because of where the conflict was, in part because of a number of factors, is getting these two parties to the table. And so for diplomacy —

QUESTION: Is this conference – you’re saying – is this conference going to be the beginning of creating a structure that will actually allow that to happen?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, that’s the goal, and we’re going to continue to push forward on – through our diplomacy for a political transition, because the stakes are very high in terms of saving the Syria that’s left to save. And there’s been vicious attacks and vicious brutality by this regime on its own people. Some of the state institutions still exist and can still provide services, and we want those to stay in place.

QUESTION: So will the U.S. have any role in choosing which representatives of the government come?

MR. VENTRELL: That’s not our place to decide. We’re going to continue to work with the opposition, and Robert Ford is en route to Istanbul now in terms of working toward a political transition. In terms of the regime —

QUESTION: Okay. I just ask because you guys have repeatedly, from the podium and elsewhere, said that you don’t think that any negotiations should involve people with blood on their hands, any government or regime figures. And so that would seem to suggest that you would object to certain people coming to the table if that day should ever come to pass.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re not making lists one way or another, and I remember talking about this many months ago here from this podium, this very same topic. It’s for the Syrian people to decide, the Syrian opposition to decide who they can come to the table with. That’s not our decision.


MR. VENTRELL: Okay. In the back? Go ahead.


MR. VENTRELL: Oh, you have one more on Syria?


QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: One more on Syria. Will you trust the opposition to come to the conference at the end of the month?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’ll use – this is about using influence with both of the parties, and so clearly, the Russians will have come on board to work with the regime, and we’ll work with our contacts as well. And this is in the context of all the people who are supporting the opposition, because it’s us, but it’s a wide range of countries who strongly support the opposition. So we’ll all be making the case that the political transition needs to happen, and it’s the surest way to end the violence.

QUESTION: And what’s the plan for Ambassador Ford in Istanbul, or what is he planning to do there?

MR. VENTRELL: These were actually meetings that he had preplanned to follow on, and so this has been a longstanding meeting that he had planned, and it’s an opportunity for him to engage with the opposition, which he does frequently, both out in the field and from here in Washington.

QUESTION: He will encourage them to go to – to come to the conference?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, again, part of it is to continue our discussion with the opposition. I’m not going to get into every back-and-forth he’s going to have with the opposition, but this is, again, to talk with them not only about our increasing support and their needs, but also about the opportunities for a political transition.

QUESTION: And excuse me, one last question on the conference: Where this conference will be held?

MR. VENTRELL: I said at the beginning we don’t have a time or place yet to announce. This just was announced yesterday.

QUESTION: May I suggest Rome, maybe, or Istanbul?

MR. VENTRELL: (Laughter.) You’re suggesting Rome or Istanbul?


MR. VENTRELL: All right. Thanks for the suggestion, Nicole.

QUESTION: Anytime.

QUESTION: One more on Syria?

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Hannah.

QUESTION: The last time the regime named an interlocutor, the U.S. brought sanctions against him, I think, the next week. And yesterday, the opposition came out again and said we’re not going to sit down with these guys, they still have – it’s still the same set of security services and everything that wants to guide these talks. And so I’m also asking, is it – who exactly do you expect to show up from the opposition? Yesterday – as of yesterday, they were saying they hadn’t even been briefed on this announcement.

MR. VENTRELL: Right. Hannah, we’re clear-eyed about the challenges here, and we know how difficult this is, and that’s not going to dissuade us from our diplomacy and to continue to work on both sides to get these parties to the table, because that’s the surest way to end the violence. But meanwhile, of course, our assistance to the opposition will continue in its coordinated fashion. As you know, we have a number of countries that have increased their assistance as well, and that will continue.

QUESTION: But the delegation would be ideally led by Hito or led by other coalition members? Is it temporary government or is it opposition coalition?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, all those issues are being worked through.

QUESTION: You don’t see —

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I mean, how do you envision and other partners going to be part of this meeting which is Russian and, let’s say, Americans are putting together? Are you envisioning that or it’s —

MR. VENTRELL: Remember how many partners there are. There is this core group of 11 that we’ve talked about that are providing some of the core assistance, but there’s also a very large group of the Friends of the Syrian People, so there are many countries that are assisting, but we’re in consultation with those core partners right now.

QUESTION: The reason I am asking, because those people were, like, siding with this side or that side. I mean, are the Iranians (inaudible) going to be part of these discussions, or Qataris or Saudis? I’m just trying to —

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we just announced this yesterday. All the details we’re working through.

Nicolas, you looked like you had a follow-on. On Syria?

QUESTION: Yes, one last one on Syria.


QUESTION: Yesterday, one of your bureaus reported a massive blackout on internet from Syria. Do you have any explanation on this blackout?

MR. VENTRELL: We did note the report of the blackout yesterday, and we note that internet service has been restored. We condemn any effort by any group to restrict or eliminate the Syrian people’s access to information and communications of any kind. These shutdowns are hard to attribute to one side or the other, and technical groups are analyzing them, but the regime has a history of restricting the internet in a range of ways to prevent the Syrian people from accessing and sharing information. And this stands in sharp contrast to our support of nonlethal assistance, which includes communications equipment to connect Syrians with the outside world.

So on this particular shutdown on the Internet yesterday, we don’t have a final conclusion, and technical experts are looking at it, but the pattern over time has been that they do cut off Internet and they do restrict the use of Internet of their people.

Okay. In the back.

QUESTION: I actually asked this question to White House, but let me try, about South Korea: According to the South Korea Government, President Park Geun-hye said to President Obama yesterday in a meeting that Japan should have a proper awareness of the history. And my question is: Do the Obama Administration share the same view with what Korean President said, or you have any different position?

MR. VENTRELL: I’d really direct you to the White House. That is the correct address for questions about the President’s meeting.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: North Korea?


QUESTION: Yesterday, Bank of China has ended their ties with a North Korea bank. In your view, what is the significance of this move?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say that we agree with China on the goal to denuclearize North Korea. We’re working closely with China to ensure that North Korea understands that they need to choose the path of denuclearization, or instead to face increased isolation. So we’ve put in place a robust sanctions program to target and impede North Korea’s WMD and ballistic missile programs. And we welcome steps by the international community, including China, to fully implement these sanctions.

QUESTION: And how much influence are you expecting to see by China cutting ties with this North Korean bank?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I’m not going to get into one particular move or another, other than to say that we agree with the Chinese on the core goal here and we welcome moves by the international community to implement these sanctions. But – go ahead.

QUESTION: Are you looking for China to do more?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, this is a dialogue we’ve had very intensively with China, and we welcome steps that increase the sanctions. You know they have a special relationship and a special influence, and we continue to urge them to use that influence to help get North Korea to make better decisions.

QUESTION: In your previous dialogue with China, has China ever told you about this plan?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I can’t get into a back and forth on our diplomatic conversations, whether it’s been specifically this bank raised one way or another.

QUESTION: A follow-up, please.


QUESTION: I understand that United States encouraged the (inaudible) countries, Japan and South Korea, to do the same sanctions that were to the North Korean trading bank. So did United States encourage or ask China to do this sanction?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I just answered the question that I’m not going to get into our diplomatic back and forth about one particular bank. But we’ve had broad discussions with the Chinese over time.


QUESTION: New topic?

MR. VENTRELL: Hannah actually had a question.




MR. VENTRELL: Okay, one more on China.

QUESTION: Just (inaudible) foreign policy. Do you consider this Chinese step as a sanction, (inaudible) sanction?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, my understanding is that this is part of the Security Council resolution. There were some sanctions that are implemented by member-states, and that’s my understanding of what was taken yesterday, the step they took. I’d refer you to the Chinese for more details.

QUESTION: And were you informed from Chinese side about this?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware one way or another or whether we heard through press reports. You might want to ask the Department of the Treasury.

Hannah, go ahead.

QUESTION: The Yemeni Human Rights Minister was just here in Washington and was, I guess, trying to raise the issue of Guantanamo, the release of the remaining Yemenis. But she was tweeting that she couldn’t find anyone to meet with in the U.S. Government. And I was wondering, did she make a request to meet with any State Department officials, and if so, what was the answer? Did she meet with any?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m broadly aware of the visit, but let me check and see if there were meetings here in the State Department or – I’ll have to check with our folks.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.


MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, the new shuffled regime of the cabinet, Egyptian cabinet, and as it was observed and recognized that it was not as expected or wished for an inclusive and broad spectrum, and more Islamists and more Brotherhood people are in charge of it. How do you see it?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, ultimately, the Egyptian people will be the ones to decide if this cabinet meets their needs and aspirations. We’re not going to comment on the composition of the cabinet, but we again urge President Morsy to lead a process that produces compromises, that addresses real concerns and creates greater consensus across the political spectrum. We know that Egypt faces enormous political and economic challenges, and building greater political consensus is essential to addressing these challenges for the sake of the Egyptian people.

QUESTION: Taking – I mean, going back to the same question in a different – I mean, more depth, because one of the observed thing that the – most of the (inaudible) economic team that they were handling the IMF discussions were put aside and new people came in. Do you think this is something facilitating or hindering the —

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I can’t comment on these internal moves with inside the Egyptian Government. We’ve urged them to reach a deal with the IMF. But in terms of one cabinet minister or other negotiating folks with inside the government, that’s up to the Egyptians to decide.

Said, you’ve been patient.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. On Egypt, and then I want to go to something else. But on this topic, last week, the end of last week there was another congressional study that actually expressed a great deal of concern in terms of the direction that the Egyptian Government is taking and so on, and as related to the IMF loan, to the aid that it gets from the United States, and so on. Are you concerned that this turn of events, this new cabinet and the posture that it has, may actually hinder your effort on Capitol Hill in terms of providing aid to Egypt?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, I said that I wasn’t going to comment on the specific moves inside of the cabinet, but we’re making it clear that we want the Egyptians to have a process where they build greater political consensus, and it’s essential for them to address these challenges.

QUESTION: Okay. But don’t you think that if it was at least a broader coalition that is perceived as such by Congress, it would make your efforts easier on Capitol Hill?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, I’m not aware of the particular congressional study one way or another.

QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?


QUESTION: Today, Secretary Kerry said that he was returning to the region on the 21st and 22nd, and he was – he had with him the Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni. Could you comment on that?

MR. VENTRELL: Do you want me to comment on the fact that he —

QUESTION: No, I mean, what is he – why is he returning so quick? I mean, what is the urgency in – he will be returning on the 21st, I think.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, you know that the Secretary is going to continue his personal diplomacy on this.


MR. VENTRELL: And he said from the very beginning, some of it’s going to be quiet diplomacy. We’re not going to get into reading out each and every meeting, but he’s going to continue to engage with both sides, and including at a high level. So this is a continuation of that.

QUESTION: Okay, excellent. But there are conflicting reports, because on the one hand you have the Secretary of State and the Minister of Justice, the Israeli Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni praising the Arab League Initiative and the amendment that it has taken, but on the other side you have the Prime Minister of Israel who is actually opposed to that. So is that likely to create some sort of a schism between you and Israel?

MR. VENTRELL: Said, we’ve addressed this multiple times in the briefing room, and the Israeli Government is focused on, just as we are and the Palestinians as well, is getting this process back on that.

QUESTION: Okay. But it was reiterated today that the Arab Peace Initiative forms basis for moving forward. Do you still see it as forming basis for moving forward, although the Israeli Government is not – has not responded?

MR. VENTRELL: Said, we think it’s positive because it’s about reaffirming that the Arab countries, in the context of a final settlement of the issues, will have peace with Israel. And that’s a good thing.

QUESTION: Okay. And finally on the same issue, do you comment on the recent violence around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock?

MR. VENTRELL: I am aware of the arrest of the Grand Mufti. Is this the same incident? I’m not aware that they’re the same incident.

QUESTION: Right. It’s the same incident. Actually, the Israelis arrested the Jerusalem Mufti but they did release him a couple of hours ago.

MR. VENTRELL: Right. I mean, we’re concerned about the recent tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif, including the detention today of the Grand Mufti. We understand that he was released, as you just mentioned. But we urge all sides to respect the status quo of this holy site and to exercise restraint and refrain from provocative actions.


QUESTION: Patrick, are you aware of —


QUESTION: — a settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the West Bank?

MR. VENTRELL: Michel, we’ve seen the media reports. We really refer you to the Government of Israel for additional information. But as we’ve said many times, we believe it is important for both sides to take actions to build the trust and confidence on which a lasting peace must be built.

QUESTION: Can you confirm these reports or not?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, I refer you to the Government of Israel for more information.

QUESTION: But you – as the U.S., can you confirm these reports that there is a settlement freeze at this time —

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’ve seen —

QUESTION: — until the end of the month or —

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen the same media reports, but I refer you to the Government of Israel.


QUESTION: One more. Secretary Kerry has made a phone call with the Qatari Prime Minister today. Do you have any readout for this call?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have a readout. That happened a little bit earlier today, but I’ll see if I can get you a readout afterward.

QUESTION: And he was supposed to meet with the Jordanian Foreign Minister in Roma, and the meeting was not in the schedule today.

MR. VENTRELL: They are going to meet. I think it’s tomorrow morning —

QUESTION: Tomorrow morning.

MR. VENTRELL: — when he’s in Rome.


QUESTION: Apologies for being late. I know you talked about Syria, but I wanted to ask you with regard to the international conference, could it be modeled after the Dayton conference of the ’90s where the Bosnia issue was resolved? Are you aware of something like this that can be used as basis for moving forward?

MR. VENTRELL: Said, we already talked about the conference at great length. I know you like to make these broad, historical comparisons, but —

QUESTION: But would you make that comparison? Is that something – is that like a guide?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, you like to make these sort of broad historical comparisons. That’s not something we do from the podium.

QUESTION: Well, it’s not broad because it was a very specific formula.

MR. VENTRELL: When we have more information about the conference, we’ll get it to you.

QUESTION: Okay. Will the United States host a conference in the United States?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re still working on location and participants.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: The Iranian Foreign Minister made an unusual visit to Jordan on Tuesday. Do you have any comments or any concern regarding the timing of this visit?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have any information on it one way or another. I really refer you to both governments.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. VENTRELL: All right, thank you all very much.

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


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