State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, July 24, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 24, 2012.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Syrian Opposition / Post-Assad transition planning
    • Prime Minister’s Appointment / Democratic Process
    • WIPO investigation
    • President Mills’s Death
    • Petition to Demolish Homes in Hebron
    • Law on Civil Society
    • South China Sea
    • Chen Guangcheng / U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue


1:12 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Tuesday, everybody. I have nothing at the top. The Secretary did all the work earlier today with the Haitian Prime Minister, so let’s go to what’s left on your minds.

QUESTION: Can you – the Secretary touched briefly on the possibility of safe havens, safe zones developing in Syria. How imminent do you see that? And where do you see kind of areas where they’re gaining a greater foothold of control?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think the Secretary this morning was simply stating a fact, which is that the Assad regime is increasingly losing control of swaths of territory, and clearly the opposition is trying to consolidate so that it can have a base from which to operate. So I wouldn’t read too much into this in policy terms. She was simply calling it as she sees it in terms of what’s happening on the ground.

QUESTION: What would that mean in terms of policy and what you’d be able to do? You’ve cited it in the past as one of the reasons why you can’t do certain things, anything from arming the rebels to greater coordination with the opposition.

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m certainly not going to get into hypotheticals about hypothetical deployments, et cetera, but – where – how they might be configured in the future. But you know that we are committed to helping the opposition become more united both in their political plan and in their other post-Assad transition planning. We are working with them outside Syria. We are working with them inside Syria. So the degree to which they are able to gather and meet and be united themselves inside Syria, then we can have a clearer sense from them how we can best help.

QUESTION: To what – let me follow up on that. I mean, the Secretary said that the sort of inevitable creation of a safe zone within Syria would provide opportunities for additional actions by the opposition. Does it also provide opportunities for additional actions by other actors, not just the opposition?

MS. NULAND: Who are you talking about, Arshad?

QUESTION: Well, the Secretary said – and I think it’s pretty close to exactly what she said – that they would eventually have control of a safe zone within the country and that that would provide an opportunity for further action – actions I think she said – by the opposition. My question is: Does your – her belief that they will inevitably control a safe zone or zones within the country also create opportunities for you to intensify your cooperation with them? Or no, they just – they control the safe zone, and good for them, and you’re just going to leave them to it?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I think we have to see how the situation develops. She was making clear that what we see is increasing control of territory by the opposition, their effort to consolidate so that they have regular bases for operation. Our goal all along has been to try to help them to be unified so that they have a clear message to the Syrian people.

The Secretary also underscored very clearly today our message to all forces in Syria that the future has to be a Syria for all Syrians. It has to be a Syria that protects the human rights, the dignity, the democratic opportunity for all, and that anybody claiming to fight on behalf of the Syrian people needs to be operating in that direction. So the degree to which they are more organized, they are more united, we have an ability to support them in that set of goals.

QUESTION: Going back to Brad’s question, though, I mean, you and Administration officials for months kept citing as one of the reasons why Syria was not Libya was the fact that in Libya the opposition controlled, to use your phrase, swaths of territory. Once the opposition, as the Secretary suggested today, inevitably will, if you believe that, control swaths of territory, does that not – I’m not suggesting a bombing campaign or a no-fly zone, but does that not create a whole range of other things that the U.S. Government or others can do to help them? Surely on the humanitarian side it would, surely on the medical side it would, surely there’s got to be lots of other things. Are you not thinking – if they need to be thinking about this, are you not also thinking about what you can do to help them once they control territory?

MS. NULAND: Again, it remains to be seen how this develops, and we don’t want to get ahead of events on the ground. That doesn’t change the fact that in the Libya case, for example, when the opposition was consolidated in Benghazi, it did allow us to have regular contact with them. We set up a consulate there. They were able to be more united because all of the players in the Libyan opposition came together in Benghazi, but again, I don’t want to get ahead of the developments on the ground. The Secretary today was simply calling out what she sees, that the opposition is endeavoring to control parts of territory to deny the Assad the ability to massacre its people in those places, and we’ll see what that leads to in terms of our ability to support them.


MS. NULAND: Said, yeah.

QUESTION: — just to follow up on what you just said, that the Secretary states the obvious, I mean, other than just really general and casual statements that the opposition has been able to gain ground, we have seen no evidence of them controlling anything beyond a day or so. So do you have any kind of other information other than what is being stated publicly in the media to base this on, that they are in fact gaining in control?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we have many sources for evaluating the ground situation in Syria, including our extensive contacts with the opposition. Beyond that, you can see what’s happening, that the regime is having to fight in more and more places, that it is unfortunately increasingly violent across Syria.

QUESTION: So it is your belief or it’s your knowledge that the opposition is becoming more united and less fragmented than it was before?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve certainly said since the Cairo conference when they met and came forward with this code of conduct, with a solid transition strategy, that we are seeing the political opposition come together with a plan for the post-Assad period. On the ground, we are seeing the opposition as well working better together in coordinating their tactics, et cetera. And that’s leading to more success for them.

QUESTION: And you feel that the opposition now has the kind of political program that would be satisfactory for a good and smooth transition?

MS. NULAND: Well, we said at the time, the Secretary said at the time of the Cairo conference, that we thought that the work that they had done in Cairo to put forward a transition strategy that was coherent with what the international community had suggested, and in fact advanced on it in Geneva, reflected a lot of the things that we had been looking for, particularly that broad declaration of human rights and a commitment to protect minorities across Syria; a commitment to democratic governance; a commitment to a transition period and then elections; a commitment to rule of law.

All of those are very important messages, first and foremost for the people of Syria and for those who worry that the future may not guarantee their rights, but also for the international community that wants to support a new day there.


QUESTION: There are reports from Aleppo, apart from the activists, one of the BBC reporters today reports that the regime now using its fighter jets to bomb many place in Aleppo. Do you have any confirmation on that?

MS. NULAND: We’ve seen those press reports today as well, that they are apparently now using fixed-wing aircraft against civilians in addition to helicopter gunships. I’m not in a position to confirm it today.

QUESTION: Before we leave Syria —


QUESTION: — do you have any – is there any new language on the chemical weapons? Or is it the same?

MS. NULAND: It’s the same.

QUESTION: I just want a quick follow-up on Syria. Sorry. Are you —

MS. NULAND: Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Aeroflot, the Russian airline, announced yesterday that they are stopping their trips to Damascus. Do you see that as a change, possibly, in position of the Russian Government?

MS. NULAND: Well, I hadn’t seen that. I can’t evaluate from here whether that was a commercial decision. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of tourist or business traffic into Syria at the moment. But obviously, this is in keeping with what we ourselves have done for some time, but also the European Union has now said very clearly that they don’t accept the Syrian carrier into Europe and that they don’t want to see their carriers into Syria. So if, in fact, it was a politically motivated decision, that would be a good harbinger, but I’m going to guess that the planes are just empty.


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the naming of a Prime Minister in Egypt?

MS. NULAND: Well, we obviously look forward to seeing the Prime Minister now put together a government. We look forward to working with him. I would note that he is American-educated, so he clearly knows us well. And we look forward to having a good working relationship.

QUESTION: Do you have an understanding of what – how exactly this interim system is working? I always thought a Prime Minister serves at the behest of a parliamentary majority, yet you don’t have a parliament right now. So who is the Prime Minister answerable to? Who is he representing right now?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we are in an interim situation in Egypt. The Egyptians themselves are still trying to sort through how they get to a democratically seated parliament, how they get to a new constitution which will presumably dictate the powers of the executive, the powers of the parliament, whether it’s prime ministerial system, whether it’s presidential system, how the powers divide between them.

But it appears that in the interim, the Prime Minister has been appointed by the president and asked to form a government by the President. The President is an elected – the elected President of the country. So we just have to see how this goes forward. But as you know, our message to the Egyptians has been to work together through dialogue, representing the interests of all stakeholders, to get through this period, and clarify all of these democratic institutions in the country.

QUESTION: Do you have – have you seen any evidence that since your visit a week ago, that the parties are coming together, that the President and the SCAF have been able to make some headway on some of these issues?

MS. NULAND: Well, I don’t think we’ve seen any new moves announced beyond the Prime Minister. But it was clear when we were there – in the Secretary’s conversations with both President Morsi and with Field Marshall Tantawi, they both talked about the conversations that they’re having with each other, that they’re endeavoring to work it out. She urged that – them both to listen to the voices of civil society to ensure that as this goes forward, the views of majority, minority, are represented equally, that the system that emerges protects the rights and freedoms of all Egyptians. So that’s a process that clearly is going on, and we are continuing to call for dialogue and compromise.

QUESTION: I’m curious about your reference to him being American-educated. Do you think that’s a guarantee that he’s going to be a success and friendly to the United States? It seems to me there have been plenty of American-educated people who – Anwar al-Awlaki, for one – who don’t exactly turn out the way you want them to be.

MS. NULAND: There are no guarantees in life, as you know, Matt.

Anything else? Oh, are we done? No? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Two small things. One on WIPO, if that’s how it’s pronounced. WIPO. So following suggestions that WIPO allowed the transfer of banned technology to Iran and North Korea, has the United States been able to mount its own investigation of this?

MS. NULAND: Well, first and foremost, to repeat what we said here last week, we share the concerns raised here in Washington, in the media, regarding these equipment and software transfers by WIPO. We’ve been concerned since we first learned that they had transferred equipment to both North Korea and Iran. We’ve been in contact with WIPO and urged them to institute substantive safeguards.

Our own preliminary assessment, but we are still seeking more information from WIPO, is that there doesn’t appear to have been a violation of UN sanctions. However, this has now been referred to the sanctions committee for them to make their own determination, so we will await the views of the respective UN sanctions committees. We are also seeking more information from WIPO so that we can conclude our own work on whether there was any violation of U.S. law, but we don’t yet have everything that we need in order to make that assessment.

QUESTION: I understand that you don’t yet have everything you need to make a final assessment. But based on what you have, are you able to make a preliminary assessment as to whether or not any U.S. laws were broken?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have a preliminary assessment for you. We’re still seeking some more detail from WIPO.

QUESTION: And then one last thing. I believe there was supposed to have been a hearing in the House today on this that got canceled, I think because the WIPO officials were not going to be available to testify. Are you – given that you don’t yet have all the information that you want, are you satisfied that you are getting enough cooperation from them?

MS. NULAND: Well, we are continuing to work with them, and that is a conversation that is ongoing. I think we are – we have seen a number of positive steps from WIPO with regard to their procedures going forward that are important. For example, they have agreed to a commission that will have an external and independent auditing ability with regard to their projects to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. As I said, they’re going to seek a retroactive opinion from the sanctions committee, which wasn’t evident at the beginning of this. And they’re also going to ensure that any future projects are reviewed by their legal counsel. But we are still working with them on some of this U.S. stuff that we need.

QUESTION: But you don’t feel like they’re stonewalling you on this?

MS. NULAND: We do not. No.

QUESTION: Okay, and then last thing for me. The Ghanaian presidency has issued a statement saying that President Mills has died. Do you have any comment on this or any understanding of what transpired?

MS. NULAND: We learned of this just before coming downstairs. We have learned with sadness that President of Ghana, John Evans Atta Mills, passed away at approximately 11 a.m. our time today. Our thoughts go to his family and to the people of Ghana who have a lost a beloved leader. I don’t have anything particular with regard to circumstances other than press reporting.

QUESTION: Can I ask – Israel and Palestine?


QUESTION: The Israeli army announced yesterday or the day before that they are taking over eight villages and hamlets in the West Bank for training – military training and as a firing range – land for firing range purposes – dislocating or forcing out about 3,000 residents. Are you aware of that report? And do you have a position on that?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have seen these reports. We are concerned that the Israeli Government appears to have petitioned the high court to allow the demolition of Palestinian homes in about eight villages in Hebron. If these demolitions are allowed to go forward, and there hasn’t yet been a court decision, you know our view that it would be counterproductive to achieving our shared goal of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. So we continue to urge all parties, as the Secretary did when she was in the region, to refrain from any kind of unilateral actions.

QUESTION: Are you taking any special measures to dissuade the Israelis from doing so?

MS. NULAND: Again, as I said, the Secretary raised this whole complex of issues when we were there.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about the Russia NGO law? I know it was a couple days ago, but I was wondering if you’ve seen the law that’s been signed and if you’ve lodged any complaints with the Russian Government.

MS. NULAND: Well, we have seen the law, Brad, and frankly we raised our concerns about this, including at the level of the Secretary, when the law was in draft. We are concerned by the new Russian law on civil society that was signed by President Putin over the weekend. This law applies burdensome requirements on human rights advocates, anticorruption and democracy groups, and it misrepresents them as foreign agents simply because they accept foreign funds.

As you know in our country, in most democracies, it’s legal and it’s acceptable for private organizations to raise money abroad and to receive grants from foreign governments. And for example, in our country, the only registration requirement is if you lobby the Congress on behalf of a foreign entity.

So our concern is that this law is designed to intimidate those civil society activists and organizations that Russia needs most to promote the development of a modern, democratic society that’s free from corruption, that’s based on rule of law, and in which human rights are respected. So we see this as a disturbing development, and we’re going to watch how it’s implemented.

QUESTION: Do you see it as part of a larger Russian Government crackdown on pro-democracy voices?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think we haven’t been shy in saying that we are concerned about the democratic trend in Russia. And we raise these issues regularly when we see the Russians at all levels.


QUESTION: Can I go back to Syria briefly?


QUESTION: A bipartisan group of 62 foreign policy experts and former U.S. Government officials just signed a letter urging President Obama to move to create safe zones. And they accused him – called complicity in oppression because of inaction – they called inaction regarding Syria. Do you have any respond to that?

MS. NULAND: I haven’t had a chance to see the letter. I will take a look at the letter, and we’ll get back to you.

QUESTION: The accusation is the complicity in oppression. Do you have any respond to that?

MS. NULAND: The accusation – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Complicity in oppression in Syria.

MS. NULAND: That is absolutely ridiculous. You know where we are. We have been working in the – with the international community to pressure the Assad regime for more than a year. We’ve assembled the broadest sanctions we’ve ever had on Syria. We’re continuing to try to grow that group, which now numbers some hundred countries and organizations which are involved in squeezing this regime for its violence.

We have worked diligently in the UN system to try to get UN support for real consequences. We are the largest humanitarian donor. We’re working with countries around the world, including Turkey, to try to provide humanitarian relief both inside and outside the country. And now we are working with all of our partners to try to bring unity and a clear path forward for the day after with the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: So don’t you think the latest developments in Syria now urges your government to take extra measures to protect the gains of the rebels?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think the Secretary spoke to that today, that the situation is accelerating, and therefore our efforts on behalf of a day when Syria can enjoy a democratic future have to accelerate as well.


QUESTION: Just one on Haiti. Prime Minister Lamothe said to the Secretary, after referring to the opening that will occur in October, that we look forward to your visit. Does the Secretary plan to go to Haiti in October, or has that not been decided yet?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything particular to announce. You know that the Secretary is a big friend of Haiti and she always likes to visit when she can, but I don’t have a particular time and date to announce.

QUESTION: Speaking of islands —

MS. NULAND: Yes, islands.

QUESTION: — South China Sea?


QUESTION: Do you have anything on the Chinese establishing this kind of faux town south of Hainan which a lot of people think is designed to just – well, that it’s going to raise the tensions over the existing – already existing maritime claims?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve seen these reports regarding recent actions in the South China Sea. We remain concerned should there be any unilateral moves of this kind that would seem to prejudge an issue that we have said repeatedly can only be solved by negotiation, by dialogue, and by a collaborative diplomatic process among all of the claimants. And the Secretary herself, as you know when we were on our trip not too long ago throughout the region, regularly expressed concerns about any instances of economic coercion, military coercion, et cetera.

QUESTION: So it’s a bad thing?

MS. NULAND: Were this to go forward, it would be very concerning.

QUESTION: And – but you stated it, I think, at a conditional where you said something about you would be concerned if unilateral actions of this sort occur. You don’t regard this as a unilateral action?

MS. NULAND: Again, what we have seen are stated intentions. We have not seen deployments. Maybe you’ve seen something else, but my understanding is we have announcements of future plans and we are concerned about those plans.

Okay. One more in the back.

QUESTION: Hi. Dialogue with China —


QUESTION: — about the human rights.

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Chen Guangcheng in New York said that he is hoping – still hoping to go back to his country freely. So is this issue discussed in this dialogue as well?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we always raise his case when we talk about these issues. We do intend to have Assistant Secretary Posner offer you all a briefing. I think it’s probably going to be – I guess tomorrow now, just before our regular briefing. So let’s stand by for that, and I’m sure he will let you know how the conversation on that subject went in the dialogue.

QUESTION: And also Mr. Donilon is in China.

MS. NULAND: He is, yeah.

QUESTION: And what is the purpose? What kind of issue is he discussing with Chinese Government?

MS. NULAND: Well, he’s talking about the full range of issues, but I’m going to send you to the White House for more detail.

Okay. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:36 p.m.)