State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 14, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 14, 2012. 

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Attack on Idlib / Regime Feeling Increasing Pressure
    • Joint Special Envoy Annan
    • Syrian Opposition / Challenge of Unification
    • Assad / Syrian People’s Desire for Change / Sanctions
    • Foreign Minister Lavrov’s Consultations
    • Libyan Government’s Support
    • Technology and Communications Support for Emerging Democracies
    • International Criminal Court / Thomas Lubanga Dyilo
    • Background Checks on Host Families of J-1 Visa Visitors


11:36 a.m. EST

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Wednesday. Only the early birds here today. (Laughter.) I notice the whole front bench is – with the exception of Lach, are sleeping in. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I saw them in the bullpen.

MS. NULAND: You did?


MS. NULAND: Excellent. Excellent.

Well, today is Prime Minister Cameron day, so all of the energy and news are on the other side of town until the crew arrives here for the lunch that the Vice President and the Secretary are hosting. So we need to do our business with some dispatch before the President and prime minister go out at noon.

So, what’s on your minds?

QUESTION: Can we start with Syria?


QUESTION: President Assad’s forces have taken Idlib, and that’s just two weeks after Baba Amr and Homs. Does that tell you anything about the staying power of this regime? I mean, you have been predicting that he’s going to fall.

MS. NULAND: Well, you know that the Secretary on Monday made reference to the fact that it was an incredibly cynical move on behalf of the Assad regime, on the very same day that they were receiving the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for talks, that they were assaulting yet another of their own cities, and surrounding it, et cetera.

Look, our view of this is that the regime is obviously going to use all means at its disposal, but it is now facing a sustained change – call for change on behalf of its own people, and you’re seeing this in cities across Syria. So Idlib for a long time was a town where the protests were largely peaceful, and that peaceful round of protests has now been met with government violence. So the regime is feeling increasing pressure. That doesn’t change the fact that the tactics that they’re using are absolutely horrific.

And as you know, we were also speaking yesterday about this new tactic of mining the escape routes, particularly in border towns. And as you know, Idlib is one of the gateways to Turkey, so —

QUESTION: But even as the rebels are better armed than they were before – and they are rebels – you’re seeing the Syrian regime able to crush them. Doesn’t that tell you that they’re much stronger than you first thought, that Assad’s people are much stronger?

MS. NULAND: Look, our concern all along has been with the escalation of violence, first at the hands of the regime, but now, as we see, town after town trying to defend itself from this kind of an onslaught. That’s why, whether you’re talking about Kofi Annan, whether you’re talking about the President or the Secretary of State, all of us and the Arab League are calling for an end to the violence, because left as it currently stands, this violence is going to continue and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. That doesn’t change the fact that Assad is facing increasing international pressure from around the world. He is also facing increasing pressure inside Syria.

So what we don’t want to see is a prolonged situation that goes on for weeks and months and, perhaps, even longer. We want to see an end to the violence and we want to see a political discussion begin. He is going to go down. Whether it’s a matter of days or a matter of weeks, or whether it is longer, is going to be a question that is, unfortunately, largely a matter of whether he understands that the world is increasingly united against him and will continue to squeeze him until this ends.

QUESTION: You say he is going to go down, but can you point to signs that make you optimistic that he will go down?

MS. NULAND: Well, you see what is happening, that they are having to move forces from one place to another because they no sooner clean out one place than they have to deal with another place, because all over his country there are now groups saying no more Assad regime; we don’t want to live this way. And so he can run around and use this horrific violence all he wants, but it’s not going to change the fact that his country no longer supports his leadership and certainly doesn’t support these tactics.


MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: One on Syria.


QUESTION: Turkish newspapers have said yesterday that the CIA director has visited Turkey and met with the Turkish prime minister and discussed Syria. Can you say anything, or do you know anything —

MS. NULAND: You mean Director Petraeus?

QUESTION: Correct.

MS. NULAND: Sounds like it’s a question for the CIA, not for us.


QUESTION: Kofi Annan’s spokesman said that he’s still waiting for more clarification from the Syrian regime, and he said that the response initially was positive. Can you just shed some lights of what exactly he is waiting to hear from them?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you saw the statement that he released earlier today. I think that he is still in Turkey. As I understand it, the joint special envoy released a statement saying that he had received a response from Syrian authorities, but that he had questions about that response and he was seeking answers from them. So we will obviously await the conclusion of this round of diplomacy that he’s conducting now. Our understanding is that he plans to come to New York on Friday and report to the Security Council, so we look forward to hearing his conclusions then.

QUESTION: But what – and his mission will be different from the Arab monitors? Isn’t that just playing for time for the regime, and more people in the meanwhile are getting killed? What do you expect more that he will come that we haven’t heard before?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, he has unique standing as a former secretary general, as a man who has been a senior diplomat on the world stage for decades, who’s had past successes dealing with very, very tough characters. So I’m not going to prejudge what this mission can accomplish. We need to let him finish this round of diplomacy, come report at the Security Council, and then see what we can all do together moving forward to keep the pressure on.

QUESTION: Can you say – what do you make of the response that he got from the Syrians?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I think he believes that the response is incomplete and he’s asking questions. So until he —

QUESTION: But what do you guys think of it?

MS. NULAND: We’re not going to prejudge his view of his negotiations.

QUESTION: No, no. I’m not asking what his view is; I’m asking what your view – you know what it is. You know what the Syrians told him. Is it acceptable?

MS. NULAND: Again, he has made clear that he considers that he is in the middle of this first round, so we’re not going to comment one way or the other until he gets a chance to conclude the work that he’s doing on this trip and come back and report to the Security Council.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that the Syrians have agreed to take steps in the direction of the Arab – that in their response, the Syrians have agreed to take steps in the direction of what the Arab League proposal is?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into what Kofi may or may not have heard from the regime. I think we’re going to let him come back and characterize and report.

QUESTION: And members of the Syrian National Council are breaking away from the council and criticizing its leadership. How do you view this development?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’ve heard the Secretary and others talk about this question of whether the Syrian opposition can become more unified, both in bringing together those outside Syria and those inside Syria fighting for change and representing all of the colors of the Syrian population, all of the sects, all of the ethnicities, et cetera. This has been a challenge. It’s been a challenge for the SNC. It’s been a challenge for the groups inside Syria. So I think what you’re seeing is some reflection of those comments that we’ve been making about the need for them to continue to work together on the question of a common transition plan, a common platform for a future Syria that can attract folks, and this is a challenge.


QUESTION: New topic?

QUESTION: Wait. I just —

QUESTION: Oh, sorry.

QUESTION: I don’t understand why you’re not taking the opportunity to say that this is another – that this response to Kofi is just another delaying tactic on behalf of the Syrians, that it’s an unacceptable response that doesn’t contain any of the things that you – that an acceptable response would have in it. I don’t get that.

MS. NULAND: Again, the special envoy himself has made clear that he is seeking more answers to questions that he has. So until he completes that round of discussion with the Syrians, I’m not going to judge what he clearly considers an incomplete response.

QUESTION: And you said many times that you demanded that Assad should step aside, and now he’s using his military to clean city after city. In your assessment – many people believe that he’s not in any mood to compromise. Why would he compromise if he believes that he’s fighting for his life?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we’ve seen this situation in other countries over the past year and there have been leaders who have understood when they have lost the support of their people and they have made the courageous choice to move on. We saw this in Yemen. We saw it in Tunisia. We’ve seen it elsewhere. There’s that choice, or there’s the choice to enforce your will through the barrel of a gun, killing more and more of your citizens. That is not the way to gain legitimacy. That is not the way to gain the respect for your people or to honor their wishes or the dignity of your country. You just become a man whose hands are increasingly stained with blood.

So we will stand with the Syrian people in their desire for change, in their desire for democracy, until their wishes are fulfilled. Our hope is that we can do this faster rather than slower because he will understand that the world is increasingly arrayed against him and that there is no future for this course of action. But that is work that is still ongoing. And you are right; he’s making – he’s drawing the wrong conclusions and he thinks he can shoot his way out of this, and he cannot.

QUESTION: Is it really your belief that Ben Ali showed courage by fleeing to Saudi Arabia and that Saleh showed courage by clinging on, hanging on for months and months and months after it was clear that the Gulf – that the GCC wasn’t going to back down on their demand that he goes? That’s courage?

MS. NULAND: Well, let’s put it this way: They saw the writing on the wall. They understood that internally and externally they no longer had any support or any legitimacy and they made decisions that spared their nation. They made decisions that allowed their nation to move on in a democratic way. Each of those choices was different, but the choice that Assad has made is a dead end. The problem is how long it will take and how many will have to die before we get to that dead end.

QUESTION: Did Mubarak show courage by stepping down?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think you’ve made your point, Matt.


QUESTION: You keep saying that the world is more and more united against Assad. Can you point to any evidence of that? And specifically, have either Russia or China, which are the members that vetoed past Security Council resolutions, shown any sign at all that they are coming closer to your point of view on this?

MS. NULAND: Well, first with regard to the pressure that he is under, as you know, we now have incredible sanctions, not only from the U.S., but across the EU, the Arab League beginning to close embassies, cut down on its own trade, stop flights in and out. All of these kinds of things take individual sanctions and banking sanctions against members of the Assad regime. And you know that inflation is spiking there and they are feeling the economic pinch. So he is certainly feeling the pressure.

With regard to Russia and China, as we said, I think on Monday, and as we’ve said since, the five points agreed by the Arab League and Russia are an improvement over where we had been previously in some of the Russian positions. They begin to close some of the gaps. You’re now seeing public statements both from Russia and from China that are quite clearly saying that they are not interested in protecting Assad, that they are not interested in anything but something that ends the violence. So are we there yet? No, we’re not there yet, but we are continuing to work on this. But we have seen an increasing convergence.


QUESTION: Mr. Lavrov has criticized Assad today and his regime.

MS. NULAND: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: Do you see any change?

MS. NULAND: Well, there again, I think it’s clear that the trip that Foreign Minister Lavrov made, his consultations with the Arab League ministers, his consultations in New York, including with the Secretary, have had an impact on his public message that Russia doesn’t want to be seen as aiding and abetting this violence. I think we continue to have tactical differences about how to bring an end to it, but we’re seeking to narrow those.

QUESTION: There was talk about another UN Security Council. Have you given up on it, or do you think that something could be in the process after Kofi Annan presents his report on Friday?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think that we will now wait and see what Kofi Annan brings and what his view is about whether a UNSC would be helpful and how that might be structured to have maximum impact, and then we’ll go from there.


QUESTION: New topic?


QUESTION: One more on Syria?

MS. NULAND: Yeah, Michel.

QUESTION: Syrian Free Army has confirmed today that they received arms from Libya. What’s your view on this?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you heard the prime minister of Libya when he was here deny those assertions that the government was supporting this kind of action. So I can’t speak for what the FSA may believe it has. But with regard to the Libyan Government’s support, what they have told us is that they are supporting humanitarian relief, they are supporting the coordination and strengthening of a transition planning team and set of ideas among the opposition. But I can’t improve on what the prime minister said when he was standing next to the Secretary last week.

QUESTION: Well, what the prime minister denied, actually, was not that they were supplying weapons but that there were training camps – that they were running training camps for resistance fighters.


QUESTION: So did – have the Libyans actually told you that they are not supplying weapons? He — that wasn’t —

MS. NULAND: There was no —

QUESTION: The prime minister didn’t the address weapons at all.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. We didn’t have any indication of that in our bilateral meetings.

QUESTION: But did they deny it in the bilateral meeting?

MS. NULAND: It didn’t – the conversation didn’t go like that. The conversation went about the importance of supporting the Friends of the Syrian People three pillars.

QUESTION: So you haven’t – just so it’s clear, so you haven’t had a direct denial, even in the private conversations, of the Libyan Government —

MS. NULAND: There was no indication in the meetings that we had that the Syrian* Government is arming the Syrian rebels.

*Ms. Nuland was referring to the Libyan Government

QUESTION: In other words, the question never came up, so there was nothing for them to deny?

MS. NULAND: I am not going to get into how the conversation was structured. I’m simply affirming for you that there was no sense that the government is arming the rebels.

Okay. Please, in the back. In the back. Yeah.

QUESTION: On a different topic?

MS. NULAND: No, sorry. Do you want to finish this?

QUESTION: Yeah, I just want to finish on Syria.


QUESTION: Just on the support dating back – I think it’s almost two years now, there was support when Ambassador Ford was still there and he would go out to meet with the local coordinating committees. The DRL was running programs that – not Syria-specific but Mideast, generally around the Middle East – in which there was some kind of tech support that was offered to various opposition groups, people who were involved politically, in not just Syria but other countries.

And I’m wondering, is that – is there a rundown of what kind of support was offered in terms of communications, technology? There was – there were seminars held in places like Beirut, public, that were known about publicly, at which know-how, how to get around certain internet blocking technologies, were discussed. Is there a way we can find out exactly what it was that was provided to these people?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we have MEPI programs across the region that are designed to help civil society to communicate its views, to strengthen its capabilities to be an advocate for democratic change, et cetera. I can take the question in terms of whether we have a rundown on those things.

But in general, we’ve also been very clear that, whether it is in Iran or whether it is in other parts of the world, that we support those folks who want to learn how to circumvent government censoring of the internet and other things like that. So –

QUESTION: I know. I understand.

MS. NULAND: But whether we’re going to give a rundown of those programs, I’m not sure. I’ll take the question.

QUESTION: Well, what – can I follow up? What about that type of technology to help the Syrians’ opposition communicate better themselves? Because one of the things that you’ve said is that they’re not able to communicate inside or – within themselves or to the outside world because of the crackdown by the regime.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think we’ve made clear that whether it’s in Syria or other parts of the Middle East, we are committed to helping groups who want a democratic future to be able to strengthen the way they’re organized, help them to circumvent government efforts to block the internet and other kinds of things. You can understand that in some cases it’s not in their interest or in anybody’s interest for us to be talking about how we precisely do these kinds of things, but we are obviously committed across the region to helping those who want a democratic future deal with the kinds of government controls that are designed to squelch their activities.


QUESTION: Can I change the subject?


QUESTION: On Azerbaijan, there were some reports that Azerbaijan has arrested 22 people on suspicion of plotting attacks on the U.S. and Israeli Embassies in Baku on behalf of Iran.

MS. NULAND: We have seen these reports. We are in the process of coordinating with our Embassy in Baku. Frankly, I don’t have a full picture of who these folks are, but we will get something back for you later in the day.

QUESTION: But you know that there have been arrests made?

MS. NULAND: We do know there have been arrests made. With regard to the press allegations about who they were, we’re in the process of checking and we’re not – we don’t have a clear picture right now, Elise. We’ll get you more.


QUESTION: Still on Azerbaijan?


QUESTION: The defense minister Safar Abiyev —

MS. NULAND: Is that you feedbacking, Scott?

QUESTION: — in Tehran said that Azerbaijan will use military methods to free its territory from occupation. There’s obviously some concern among Armenians about that. Do you – what are your thoughts?

MS. NULAND: I had not seen that. We’ll take that one as well, Scott.


QUESTION: Past 10 days China hosts the National People’s Congress meeting, and yesterday there was a press conference. Chinese Foreign Minister Wen Jiabao* renewed his call for Chinese politic reform. Do you think this is a positive sign?

*Premier Wen Jiabao held a press conference on March 14 in Beijing.

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to comment on the People’s Congress while it’s ongoing.

QUESTION: New topic?


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the first guilty verdict in the ICC finding Thomas Lubanga, the Congolese warlord, guilty of war crimes?

MS. NULAND: I do. So the International Criminal Court has now convicted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. This is a historic moment and an important step in providing justice and accountability to the Congolese people.

QUESTION: So does that change the U.S. position about joining the Rome Statute?

MS. NULAND: I think you know where we are on these subjects. We have strong views about the ICC, so I don’t think it’s going to particularly change our national position. But it’s still a positive step in terms of justice in the Congo.

QUESTION: So you’re supportive of the verdict from the ICC and the ICC continuing to call for justice for Congolese and Sudanese, but the U.S. is not changing its perspective at all about joining the Rome Statute?

MS. NULAND: We don’t have any change in our longstanding view of the ICC.

I’m getting the high sign here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you explain – are you up on this whole visa thing?

MS. NULAND: Which visa thing?

QUESTION: The student exchange visa thing?

MS. NULAND: I am up on it.

QUESTION: Or what exactly – you are?


QUESTION: Can you explain to us what exactly was stopped? Who stopped it – this fingerprinting, this background checks that —

MS. NULAND: Can you articulate the question more clearly?

QUESTION: I can’t really. (Laughter.) There’s a story out this morning that says that the State Department stopped a program that was intended to protect students who were coming on exchange programs, that by doing FBI background checks into their hosts, including fingerprint checks.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. This was an AP story that was incorrect today. And as you know, we have called your reporter and asked for a correction. It asserted that there was an opportunity to give FBI background checks to American host families before foreign students came and stayed in their homes.

In fact, we would need legislation in order to make use of the FBI’s database for this purpose. We had a small pilot program* that the Congress had authorized that allowed us to do this for a short period of time. That program has now lapsed, and we would need new legislation in order to make use of it.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we do do criminal background checks on every single American host family on anybody over 18 who’s living in a household where a foreign student is going to be placed, and we obviously follow up with home visits, et cetera.

*The pilot program was under the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Okay. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:02)