State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, January 11, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 11, 2013.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Deputy Secretary Burns Meetings in Geneva with JSR Brahimi and Russian DFM Bogdanov
    • Syrian Opposition Coalition Progress in Preparing to Maintain State Functions Post-Assad
    • Taftanaz Air Base
    • Reports of Uranium in Syria
  • MALI
    • Condemn Recent Aggressive Acts / French Offer of Immediate Support / Embassy Remains Open / Security Advisory out for North of Mali
    • Adoptions / Ongoing Discussions with Russian Federation
  • IRAN
    • Americans Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini Detained in Iran
    • Adoptions / Consular Affairs Working to Assist American Citizens Trying to Adopt
    • Readout of Secretary Clinton’s Meetings with Afghan President Karzai Yesterday
    • Adoptions / Negotiations Ongoing
    • Attacks in Quetta / SWAT / Karachi
    • Release of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah
  • IRAQ
    • Border Closure / Jordan
    • Political Tensions inside Iraq


12:46 p.m. EST

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Friday, everybody. As you know, the President and President Karzai are going to be out at the White House at about 1:15, 1:20. So we will do what we can between now and then and then get off the stage. I have nothing at the top.

QUESTION: Can we start with Geneva, please? Can you give us any readout of Secretary Burns’s meetings there and whether you think you have made any progress whatsoever on speeding a transition in Syria?

MS. NULAND: Well, Arshad is referring to the fact that today was a meeting in Geneva with UN Special Envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi with Deputy Secretary of State Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov. I think you probably saw Special Envoy Brahimi’s press conference right after those meetings closed.

Just to underscore the main point that he made, which is that all of the participants agreed that we need to continue to work toward a political solution that is based on the Geneva agreements and a transitional government that has full executive powers. There is more work to be done. Our understanding is, as Mr. Brahimi said, that the next step will be for him to continue his contacts with the Syrian opposition. He’ll also have another round of contacts with the regime, and then we’ll come back together probably. But he will also be briefing the Security Council on the progress that he thinks he’s made around about the end of January.

So this is a process that is going to continue. We did make some progress today concerting views, but there is more work to be done.

QUESTION: What progress did you make?

MS. NULAND: In the sense that we have reaffirmed that we need to move forward based on Geneva and that the end state has to be a transitional government that has full executive powers, as we said.

QUESTION: And what about on the fundamental question of whether Assad or anyone from his government playing a part in such a transitional government?

MS. NULAND: Our view on that has not changed. Mr. Brahimi’s been pretty clear about his view on that. Clearly, this has to be a transitional government that comes from a broad cross-section of Syrians. As you know, the Geneva document makes clear that it has to be a government that is agreed by mutual consent. Our view that that would preclude Assad’s participation hasn’t changed either.

QUESTION: Right. But I’m really trying to get at the question of whether you’ve actually made any progress vis-à-vis the third member of the meeting today, which is to say the Russians, and their views on this.

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m obviously going to let the Russians speak for themselves, but it’s hard to imagine how you would have a transitional government with Assad still part of it under the Geneva accords.

Let’s – oh, let me also say that Deputy Secretary Burns also took the occasion to brief the Russians on some of the progress that we believe that the Syrian Opposition Coalition has begun to make in developing specialized units of technocrats to begin to shape the kinds of delivery of government services that are going to be necessary, and the work that they are doing to try to cooperate with similar technocrats inside the Syrian ministries, those who don’t have blood on their hands, et cetera, so this effort to begin even at this stage to be prepared, to manage the country in a non-sectarian, technocratic way, and to provide services to the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Can I go back to the preceding question? I mean – and maybe I don’t get this, but it has seemed to me to be that the fundamental sticking point with the Geneva process has been, on the one hand, the U.S. belief that Assad, nor his associates, can play a role in a transitional government, which would have to be arrived at by mutual consent, and the Russians’, on the other hand, resistance to anything that smacks of regime change or – and therefore for Geneva to actually lead to a transitional government, you have to have one of two conditions that just don’t seem to me to be obtained: one, Assad’s assent to leave power; and two, the Russians’ assent for a transitional government that has nothing to do with Assad. And when you talk about making progress, I don’t – maybe I’ve misunderstood, but those strike me as the two problems, and I don’t see that you’ve necessarily made progress on either of those. Have you?

MS. NULAND: We believe that we are making progress in concerting views on a way forward. As Mr. Brahimi made clear, he now needs to talk further to the opposition. He now needs to talk further to members of the regime. He will do that. We are all standing behind the work plan, which is to have a political solution based on Geneva that creates a transitional government that has full executive powers.

If Assad were still in it, it wouldn’t be a transitional government, Arshad. I’m not going to put you in the room there in Geneva, but just to tell you that, as I said, we think more progress is going to be required, but that these meetings are valuable, and we’re going to continue to have them to concert views.

QUESTION: Just so we’re clear –

MS. NULAND: I’d like to –

QUESTION: — I’m not asking to be in the room.


QUESTION: But when you assert that you have made progress on concerting views, does that include on concerting your and the Russians’ views about – I mean, your view is Assad has to go, and their view is no regime change.

MS. NULAND: Arshad, I think – I’m not going to speak for the Russians. But the Russians have done plenty of speaking for themselves, including at the level of President Putin, and made clear that they are not looking to protect Assad. So I’m going to let you speak to them, but I wouldn’t agree with your characterization of their position.

Jill, go ahead.

QUESTION: Toria, when you’re talking about these specialized units of technocrats that are providing services, is there a possibility that you would just sidestep the issue of the central government, although I’m struck by that phrase “with full powers,” but that you would sidestep the issue of the central government and create these – some type of structure that simply takes over de facto for the government of Assad? Or is that – does it have to be a legitimate, internationally acclaimed – or approved government?

MS. NULAND: Well, there are many ways that this can go forward, Jill, but I think one of the things we talked about earlier in the week was this notion of both a top-down process and a bottom-up process happening at the same time in Syria. So we already have in areas that have been liberated from the regime local coordinating councils beginning to take over and providing services. We have a number of technocrats at the federal level in Syria who quietly oppose what the regime is up to and want to see the ability of the state to continue to be able to provide services to its people. We have the Syrian Opposition Coalition beginning to identify specialists within its ranks who can do things like ensure that the lights stay on, that citizen security can be restored, that food and water and power and jobs can be delivered, that fire services stay in place, that hospitals run, these kinds of things.

So the degree to which we can be helpful in supporting the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s efforts to get folks ready to maintain the functions of the state, can connect them to people inside Syria, whether they are at the federal level or whether they’re at the local level, who are committed to that, we stand a better chance of the state not fracturing, we stand a better chance of creating de facto, particularly in liberated areas, the Syria of the future that the Syrian people want. So we’ll just have to see how this goes forward, Jill, but we’re not going to wait for this process to be completed to get started on support for a better Syria inside Syria.

QUESTION: May I just – could I get one clarification? You mentioned the technocrats at the top level who oppose Assad. Are those people that the U.S. or other Western governments or coalition – supporters, Friends of Syria, are talking to? I mean, how do you know that they’re there?

MS. NULAND: Well, primarily, as we’ve been saying all along, the value of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in its larger formation as it’s come together since the Doha meetings is that they have these kinds of contacts both on the opposition side and on the regime side. So we’re being guided by them on who one might be able to work with in the future who are – is still in the regime and who doesn’t have blood on their hands.

QUESTION: Victoria —

QUESTION: Can I ask about —

QUESTION: On this point —


QUESTION: — you say not blood on their hand. How do you determine that? I mean, what is the criteria for not having blood on their hand? Suppose a colonel or a captain in the army given orders from higher up to attack, he’s a soldier, he’s supposed to follow orders. That’s how he’s been trained all his life. Does he have blood on his hand?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m obviously not going to get into the larger issue that has to follow after this conflict is over, which will be for the Syrians to decide, in terms of accountability, what happens to military, et cetera. I would say two things, though, Said. First of all, with regard to those in the Syrian military who are still following orders, we’ve been calling, the Secretary’s been calling for months and months and months for them to refuse orders, break with the regime, defect, whatever it takes.

What we’re talking about here is less on the military side and more within the ministries that run the civilian sectors of the government and the economy, that there are plenty of people who quietly have opposed what the regime is doing who have a high level of technocratic skill and who should be good contacts for the opposition for the day after.

QUESTION: I guess my question is: How do you determine? Because on the one hand, if they don’t follow orders, they will be accused of treason, a charge that is probably punishable by death or firing squad and so on. And on the other hand, if they do follow orders, then they stand accused of blood on their hands. I mean, this is really a tough call. What kind —

MS. NULAND: Again, these —

QUESTION: — of measures are taking place to really define some – what kind of criteria, what kind of a yardstick?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, these issues of accountability in any kind of a conflict like this are always essential and are always difficult. The role that we are playing now is to support the ability of Syrians throughout the country to get as much information as they are willing to share about the behavior of individuals into a large accountability database that the Syrians can use later as they begin to work through precisely these kinds of things, which are always necessary to be worked through after these kinds of conflicts, particularly with regard to who’s who in the armed forces.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) go to the fighting on the ground. Could I ask you about the capture reportedly today of the air base and how significant you feel this could be in the progression of the conflict?

MS. NULAND: Well, this follows a conversation we had yesterday about the armed opposition’s efforts to take the Taftanaz Air Base. They are taking credit now for having taken the air base. And as you know, we consider this significant on two fronts: first of all, to ground some of the air assets of the Assad regime that they’ve been using against civilians; and secondly, to break their ability to resupply in the north. So quite significant to the regime’s abilities.

QUESTION: Is it – would it be too far to say it could be a tipping point in the conflict?

MS. NULAND: I think we just have to see how things go forward. I’m not – I’m well beyond predicting a ground situation in Syria, Jo.

QUESTION: So you are confirming that they took over?

MS. NULAND: I’m confirming what they are saying. We’re obviously not in a position to evaluate independently, but the indicators seem to be that they’re in control of the air base now.

QUESTION: But since you trust them on issues such as the amount of people in the government who want to defect and quietly oppose things, you would trust them on their assessment today?

MS. NULAND: They are claiming that they have finished their operation. We understand that there was fierce fighting. It seems to conform with what we are seeing, but I’m not in a position to independently assert the precise situation at the base now.

QUESTION: Can we change topic?

MS. NULAND: Yeah, please.



QUESTION: On Syria, just a —

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: There is also accusation today that Syria has or holds storages of uranium. Have you heard about that?

MS. NULAND: Well, without getting into intelligence information, let me simply say that we have long expressed our concern regarding Syria’s clandestine nuclear activity and its continued failure to live up to its international obligations. We’re obviously aware of these reports regarding the presence of those kinds of materials that could be used for WMD capability. We will continue to work with the IAEA, and we hold the Syrian regime responsible for its management of any kind of stockpiles of – with this kind of thing.

QUESTION: Will the United States, in case that Syria has storages of uranium, be able to determine on its own that they do or they do not?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to get into intelligence information here. The Syrian regime’s noncompliance remains a matter of serious concern for the international community and something that we watch very closely.

QUESTION: And on Mali —

MS. NULAND: Mali, yeah.

QUESTION: — the French President Francois Hollande this morning confirmed that French troops are backing Malian troops and have gone into Mali to try and help them stop this offensive towards the south. Could you comment on that, please, and where we are, where the United States is in relation to the fighting?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, we remain deeply concerned by the recent events in Mali. We echo the international community’s condemnation of these recent aggressive acts. As you know, we joined in a very strong Security Council statement on this last night.

We do understand that France has offered some immediate military support to the Malian armed forces at the request of the Malian Government. We are obviously consulting very closely with the Government of France going forward.

QUESTION: Have you been – has the United States been asked for any similar kind of support, military support?

MS. NULAND: We have not been asked by the Malians for direct support, no, not to my —

QUESTION: Have you been asked by the French?

MS. NULAND: Not to my knowledge. We are obviously in consultations with our ally. I don’t have anything to share at the moment with regard to that.

QUESTION: Would it be something that you would support? I mean, would the United States be willing? Because you have supported – said you’d support some kind of training, but would you be willing to actually go in and provide some kind of military force at this moment now, when the situation seems to be very urgent?

MS. NULAND: Again, the Government of Mali has asked for support from France. Our understanding is that France is going to move forward with that. I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what France might need or requests that haven’t yet come to us.

QUESTION: What is the – I’m sorry, on Mali. What is the fate of the multinational force as a result of last night’s meeting?

MS. NULAND: Well, as – I mean, our effort is still to work with ECOWAS to get them ready to deploy, but they have not been at the – at that moment where they’re ready to go yet, Said. They need training, they need – we need to agree on what the funding mechanism for this is. As you know, we’re still awaiting some clarity from ECOWAS and African Union about the rules of engagement, the concept of operation that they have in mind. But obviously, the Malian Government’s need is urgent right now, which is why France is responding.

QUESTION: Do you expect countries like Algeria to step forward and participate in actually fighting the al-Qaida types and so on instead of proudly supplying them with arms?

MS. NULAND: Well, ECOWAS is now working on who might be in this force. I’m not in a position to get ahead of that. Obviously, as you know, we’ve been in close contact – the Secretary was there in the fall – with the Government of Algeria on what it can do to put pressure on the different groups in the north from its side. Algeria itself has called for the – some of the northern groups to split from al-Qaida in the Maghreb, and we hope those calls will be heeded.


QUESTION: I just – some clarification. I didn’t – I don’t think I quite understood. The question of – has France asked you for any assistance to support their assistance to Mali?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything to report at the moment.

QUESTION: Can I go over a couple of points —

MS. NULAND: On Mali still?

QUESTION: — before we run out time?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: No? Moving on? Is that okay?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Mali?

MS. NULAND: Just quick, Scott, on Mali. Yeah.

QUESTION: One of the concerns that Secretary Clinton heard in Algeria was about French troops going to Mali. So have you – has there been conversation between the United States and the Algerians since the deployment of these French ground troops? It’s a concern of the Algerians.

MS. NULAND: I am not aware of any contact from this building with the Government of Algeria. I’m sure at the Embassy level we’re obviously evaluating things. I would assume that the French are also in contact with the Government of Algeria. But to remind that it’s the Government of Mali that has made this request because of their concerns that they are in extremis now.

QUESTION: One more on Mali. Sorry.

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The French are advising expatriates who have no urgent business in Mali to leave. Is there a similar warning being put out for the Americans? And what is your evaluation as regards the Embassy in Bamako?

MS. NULAND: Our Embassy remains open. We haven’t made any posture changes there. I think you know what we do have a security advisory out for Americans with regard to the north of Mali. I’m sure that we are looking at that again now.

QUESTION: All right. Firstly, is there any update on the adoptions issue with Russia? Were you able to get more information on what this means for families waiting to find out if they can adopt their children?

MS. NULAND: We are in discussions with the Russian Federation on this issue, but I don’t have anything further to report from what I said yesterday, that it is our hope that we can get as many of these pending cases cleared as possible.

QUESTION: So describe the discussions. Who is discussing this issue? Where?

QUESTION: And did it come up between Burns and Bogdanov?

MS. NULAND: I don’t think we had any bilateral discussion in the Burns-Bogdanov channel. Mr. Bogdanov, as you know, is their Middle East specialist. He’s not our interlocutor on bilateral things. My understanding is that there are some meetings here in Washington today. When I have more to report on how we’re doing, I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Okay. And then can I ask you about something I forgot to ask yesterday when we ran out of time? Do you have anything to say about the former Marine who, I think it’s now 500 days he’s been imprisoned in Iran?

MS. NULAND: Are you talking about Amir Hekmati?

QUESTION: That’s right.

MS. NULAND: Right. We have serious concerns about the fate of two U.S. citizens detained in Iran, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini. Let me start with Mr. Abedini. He was arrested by Iranian officials more than three months ago on charges related to his religious beliefs. We understand that a hearing will be held soon, and we call on Iranian officials to respect Iran’s own laws and provide Mr. Abedini access to an attorney.

With regard to Mr. Hekmati, we are deeply concerned about him. As you say, Brad, he has now been detained by Iranian officials for 500 days. We call on Iranian authorities also to permit a visit by officials of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, our protecting power, both to Mr. Abedini and to Mr. Hekmati – Mr. Hekmati hasn’t been allowed visitors for some six months – to check on their welfare.

QUESTION: One more, please, on Russian adoptions.


QUESTION: We just had a couple on our air who were trying to adopt, and they said that they’re pretty confused about what’s going on. And they mentioned a call tonight that they’ll be on. Can you shed any light on that?

MS. NULAND: Well, as I said, our Consular Affairs department is – has been working hard to obtain as much information as we can from American citizens who had been at some stage of trying to adopt. They are offering to – a conference call with families who are at some stage this evening. If we have anything to share from that Monday, we will.

QUESTION: Can you – there is a discrepancy, I think, or something. The Russians are still saying 52 cases, they believe, were before the court. And you mentioned yesterday 950 individuals had contacted you at various stages of the proceedings.

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: Is there any feeling from the United States that perhaps the Russians are trying to downplay the number of cases stuck in the legal system like this?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, this is going to be part and parcel of the conversation that we need to have with the Russians going forward, and it’s going to be – it’s going to have to have a number of components, including – as in most countries, the procedures for adopting – for doing an international adoption include a number of stages. There’s the initial application, there is identification of the child, there is an application to court to proceed, there is the need for travel documents and final court approval.

So when we talk about some 500-1000 cases potentially, it could be anything from that first inkling and outreach by email to a Russian adoption agency all the way through those folks who were literally within days of having final approval and able to pick up a child. So we have to agree with Russia which of these cases are going to be allowed to proceed, and we will obviously be doing our utmost to clear as many of them as we can.

QUESTION: Now that the joint statement from the U.S. and Afghan presidents is out, can you give us a readout on the Secretary’s discussions with President Karzai yesterday?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think since we are now within minutes of President Obama and President Karzai going out to press, I’ll simply confirm that —

QUESTION: We’re not going to be able to report it in the meantime, so it’s just to kind of know before the weekend comes and then —

MS. NULAND: Right, but my —

QUESTION: — it disappears into never happening.

MS. NULAND: But again, as I said yesterday, the meetings that we had here, the meetings that were had with Secretary of Defense separately were all preparatory to the session that the President and President Karzai are going to have. So the final results are not going to be clear until the two presidents come out. But as I said yesterday, the full range of issues that we had anticipated did come up – discussion about the elections, discussion about the political reconciliation process, discussion about our economic relationship, discussion about the bilateral security agreement, and many of these things are bound up.

QUESTION: And what did you learn about reconciliation? You said yesterday you were waiting mostly to hear from him on where the efforts are going.

MS. NULAND: Again, I think given the fact that the conversation that the Secretary and the principals had was going to be continued by the presidents, I’m going to not get into any details there until we see what the ultimate results were at the presidential level.

QUESTION: Let’s go back to Russia for one second, just real quick. Is it clear to you that any of the cases will be allowed to go forward? Or is it – yesterday, you had said, I think, that it was you didn’t understand what the fact that the bilateral agreement expires in 2014 meant in terms of the law recently signed banning such adoptions. And so I want to make sure that, (a) you still aren’t clear on what it means, and (b) whether or not you think any cases will be allowed to go forward.

MS. NULAND: As I said, we are just at the beginning of the consultations that we’re having with the Russians. We are hopeful, based on some of the more positive comments that we heard out of Russian officials yesterday and the day before, talking about some of these cases before the courts, that some will be able to go. But as I have been saying here, we have a broad range of families at various different points. We have to work through that.

QUESTION: So you still don’t know, bottom line?

MS. NULAND: We are really just at the beginning of the discussion with the Russians.

QUESTION: Pakistan?


QUESTION: Yesterday there was a massive attack in Quetta on which we had over 125 people were killed. I wonder what the United States reaction was. And also, it was an attack on Shiites, which I believe has been fairly unusual. Could you give any reaction as to whether there’s fears of a greater sectarian divide in the country?

MS. NULAND: As you may know, our Embassy in Islamabad put out a statement earlier today. We join Ambassador Richard Olson in offering the families of those killed in these brutal attacks in Quetta, in Swat, in Karachi – more than a hundred people dead over the last 24 hours – we offer those families our deepest condolences and wish the injured a speedy recovery. We obviously stand with the people of Pakistan in strongly condemning these senseless and inhumane acts, and more broadly, we remain concerned about extremist violence of any kind in Pakistan and remain committed to working with the Government of Pakistan to combat terror.


QUESTION: Do you have any reaction on France releasing Georges Ibrahim Abdallah?

MS. NULAND: We talked about this yesterday, I think, did we not?

QUESTION: You did not.

MS. NULAND: I thought we did. Did we not?

QUESTION: It was the Kurds (inaudible).


MS. NULAND: It was the Kurds, okay. So let me – maybe we ran out of time yesterday was what happened. I did have something on this yesterday, but I don’t know where it went. Let me get it for you afterwards. We did have a statement on it. I mean, obviously, we are concerned about this release. We don’t think he should be released, and we are continuing our consultations with the French Government about it.

QUESTION: Will you take any —

MS. NULAND: We have serious concerns that he could return to the battlefield, et cetera.


QUESTION: Do you have any – do you know why Iraq is closing its borders with Jordan, and they will close it on Sunday with Syria? They have major demonstrations today.

MS. NULAND: Yesterday – I don’t know what the status is today, Samir, but yesterday our understanding from the Government of Iraq was that this border closure and the closing of the road out to Jordan was temporary. It was based on some internal security concerns, that they were in consultations – the Iraqis were – with the Government of Jordan to try to work through the issues. But I don’t have an update today. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Still on Iraq?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Victoria, the schism within the Iraqi coalitions and political forces and so on is getting wider. And in fact, you talked about the Sunni/Shia divide in Pakistan. It’s also getting quite obvious in Iraq. Some people are calling for the government to dissolve. Some people are calling for the parliament to dissolve. Maliki’s saying that he’s collected 130 names from the parliament to call for a new elections or dissolve it and so on. Are these just parliamentarian machinations, or are the they the birth pangs of democracy, or are we seeing the country being split along sectarian lines?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve talked about this quite a bit over the last few weeks, if not even before Christmas. Obviously, we’re concerned about increased political tensions inside Iraq. We have continually met with people on all sides, calling on them to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful expression, to talk to each other, to engage in a broad national dialogue on the issues that divide them, and particularly that all parties ought to avoid any actions that subvert the rule of law or that provoke ethnic and sectarian tensions or risk undermining the significant progress that Iraq has made or the Iraqi constitution, which is obviously very carefully and delicately balanced. So we will continue the advocacy efforts in that direction that Ambassador Steve Beecroft makes every single day with Iraqis of all stripes.

And it looks like the President’s getting ready to go out, so we’ll finish this here on – off camera. Thanks so much, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:17 p.m.)