State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 27, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 27, 2012.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Kofi Annan Proposal/ Friends of the Syrian People Meeting
    • Syrian Regime Attacks on Place of Worship
    • GSP Suspension
  • IRAQ
    • Arab Summit
  • MALI
    • Contacts/ Status of U.S. Assistance
    • Southern Kordofan Fighting/ Summit in Juba


1:02 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: All right, everybody. Happy Tuesday. I have nothing at the top, so let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what you think about the Syrians allegedly agreeing to Kofi Annan’s plan?

MS. NULAND: Well, we certainly view the fact that Kofi Annan reports that he’s had a positive response as an important step. But as with all things with the Assad regime, the proof will be in the actual action that he takes, and particularly, we will be looking for him to take immediate action to begin implementing the Annan proposal, starting with silencing his guns and allowing humanitarian aid to go in.

QUESTION: And do you have any confidence that he will do that?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, this needs to be implemented now, and that is what Kofi Annan and his team will be working on.

QUESTION: You’ve been calling for this to be implemented – I mean, just as – even as Annan arrived, and yet all during the whole – this whole process, the attack against the opposition has continued. Why would this be any different?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we have had concerns that all through this period, we’ve had continued violence. As Kofi Annan has now announced that he’s had a positive response, so presumably a positive response will lead to action; that’s what we will be looking for.

Still on Syria?

QUESTION: The Syrian opposition met today in Istanbul. Do you think they are going in the right direction, showing more (inaudible)?

MS. NULAND: Well, they are obviously working on trying to bring themselves together, as we’ve been talking about, with a concerted plan for how they would want to take a dialogue about transition forward. I think these meetings are ongoing, so we need to let them continue. And then we obviously will look forward to having a chance to talk to them on the margins of the Friends of the Syrian People meeting, which the Secretary will attend on Sunday.

Before we leave Syria, though, I do want to make a statement with regard to Syrian regime attacks on places of worship. This is something that has been a concern all the way through this conflict. As you know, last year we had video footage of the regime sending armor into portions of the Othman bin Afan mosque in Deir Ez Zor. Just over the past weekend, Syrian forces reportedly killed a civilian, Mahmud Ali Alu, who was peacefully worshipping in the mosque in Sermin in Syria. In addition, we had churches and mosques in Homs that were destroyed over the last couple of weeks. We had reports of a government sniper earlier this year killing a Greek Orthodox priest, Basilious Nasser, in Hama.

So clearly, the regime has been absolutely indiscriminate in its violence, particularly concerning, to us, going after worshippers regardless of affiliation while they are worshipping.


MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Syria?


QUESTION: Just – you talked about kind of talking with Kofi Annan and the SNC on this – on the margins of the Friends of Syria. I mean, shouldn’t they be an integral part of the Friends of Syria? I mean, what is your goal in terms of achieving at this conference? Is it something that the opposition comes out with in terms of crystallizing their vision for a post-Assad Syria? Or is it the international community mapping out how it sees it and getting the Syrian’s National Council to sign onto it?

MS. NULAND: Well, absolutely right. Last time at the Friends of the Syrian People meeting in Tunisia, the SNC did make a presentation on behalf of the opposition. I would expect that the same will happen at this meeting. What I was referring to was that the Secretary met with them on the margins as well, have a chance to exchange views. We haven’t set the schedule completely for Istanbul, but it’s possible that whether it’s the Secretary or whether it’s others in the delegation, we’ll be meeting with them, have been meeting with them.

So we’ll have a chance to get their sense of how this conference among them in Istanbul went. They are working on another presentation, as I understand it, for the Istanbul meeting, as one of the goals.

QUESTION: What would you consider a kind of successful outcome of the conference?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think we are still developing the agenda with our Turkish allies, so I don’t want to get ahead of that. But as you know, we’ve been working along three lines to increase the humanitarian support that is going to Syria: to prepare – not only to help those Syrians who have fled their country, but also to be able to get more assistance in, assuming we can implement the Annan plan; second, to increase the pressure that countries are putting on the Assad regime by increasing their sanctions, and they’re closing down their economic and other dealings with the regime; and then the third is, obviously, to work with the opposition to support their efforts to come together with a clear transition vision of their own.

We’ve seen some positive statements out of the conference talking about a Syria for all Syrians, a Syria that represents and protects the human rights of everyone. These are the kinds of things that we are looking for that the Secretary has been talking about in her meetings with them, that they’ve got to be reassuring, whether they are Sunni, Alawi, Kurds, Druze, Christians, women – that the Syria that they seek will be democratic and tolerant and respectful of the rights of all.

QUESTION: But don’t you think – just one more. I mean, but don’t you think, like at this point, that they should be a little bit beyond that? I mean, positive statements about these kind of issues, shouldn’t they be farther along in terms of fostering the kind of dialogue within Syria about that? Or kind of crystallizing a more specific, detailed plan for how they plan on achieving those kind of goals?

MS. NULAND: Well, I don’t think they or we have made any secret of the fact that it has been difficult for them to come together. Some of these – the issues that they face, obviously, within Syria are a direct result of the regime’s violence, that the regime is making it as difficult as possible for them to communicate with each other, for them to come together, is following them and persecuting them and cutting off their communications with each other, so that hasn’t made it any easier.

But it’s also the case that, as Assistant Secretary Feltman likes to say, this is a country that has been in a political coma for 42 years. So these groups are, for the first time, coming together and trying to work together. Many of them don’t know each other. They’re having to build trust, they’re having to build common ground. So it’s not surprising that it’s taking time. But this is a process that we need to continue to support and buttress, and the Friends of the Syrian People format is another way to do that.

QUESTION: In these series of presentations that they are making to the Friends of Syria meeting, is the goal or expectation that at some point, either – probably unlikely it would be this current upcoming meeting, but at some future meeting – they will present a sufficient plan which will then allow the Friends of Syria to say, okay, you guys are a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, or some other form of quasi-recognition that gives them a status that they don’t have now?

MS. NULAND: Well, you know that we took another step at the last meeting in terms of seeing the SNC as a leading representative of the Syrians.


MS. NULAND: There are also many groups inside Syria, so we want to be respectful of the process that they are all working through – the groups inside, the groups outside – to try to come together. So we are continuing to talk to them about how their own unity is evolving and doing what we can to support them.

QUESTION: But once that unity is achieved, then there would be an additional sort of recognition that would sort of confer upon them the same status that the Libyan TNC got eventually?

MS. NULAND: Again, in Libya, it was – they were further along at the stage that we made that step than we see now. We have a number of different groups. Some of those groups are working well together and some of them have yet to cohere. So as you said, there are a number of additional diplomatic steps we can take at an appropriate time.


QUESTION: Yeah. According to today report, parts of the opposition declined to attend the meeting in Istanbul. Does the Secretary still intend to meet those opposition, or decline to participate in Istanbul meeting?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, as I said to Elise, our schedule in Istanbul hasn’t been completely set, so whether she’ll have her own meeting or whether it’ll be members of the team who meet and exactly who they meet with hasn’t been determined yet. I think we want to see the results of this conference. Some of our people have been talking to the groups over the last week, so we’ll see where all of that goes before making some decisions.


QUESTION: President Assad has made a visit today to Baba Amr saying that the situation there would be better than it was. How do you view this visit?

MS. NULAND: Well, it’s obviously important that he see with his own eyes the destruction that his forces have wrought. What’s even more important is that he allow humanitarian aid to get in to help the poor suffering people there. So one can only hope that he will be moved by what he sees to allow humanitarian assistance not only into Baba Amr, but into all parts of Syria that have been decimated by his forces.

QUESTION: But he said that he was there to kind of help boost up the people that are protecting the homeland; i.e. the soldiers that were responsible for the destruction. So do you get the sense that he was moved from that?

MS. NULAND: Again, we’ll just have to see what happens here. But there aren’t any – there are precious few actual residents of Baba Amr still there for him to see, so – all right? Moving on?

QUESTION: Can I ask – yesterday, there was a letter from the President to the Congress mentioning that the Argentina will lost many benefits in the trade relationship with the United States, especially in the preferred system, and he mentioned in the letter that Argentina was not acting in good faith.

So my question is: How is the relation with Argentina in this moment? How – considering what the press is saying that this is a huge action or sanction against Argentina, how can you evaluate the relation between both countries considering this decision taken by the President?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we maintain a strong bilateral relationship with Argentina. We have had ongoing disputes on these issues. These are not new issues. They’ve been going on for a long time. They’ve been a matter of arbitration for a long time. So the White House’s decision yesterday to suspend Argentina particularly from GSP should not have come as much of a surprise. It was based on a finding that they were not in compliance with the GSP eligibility criteria set by the Congress.

So the President, frankly, didn’t have a lot of choice in this case. We had tried to work through it and we are still open to working through it, but frankly, they’ve got to come forward and pay the subject awards if they want to work through it.

QUESTION: But if you consider the relations from 1 to 10 in this moment —

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to give this relationship a grade. We have a lot of interests in common. We do a huge amount of business together. This is a serious bump in the road and we had no choice but to take action.


QUESTION: On the Arab Summit, what are your expectations from this summit that will be held in Baghdad?

MS. NULAND: Well, the Arab Summit has just begun in Baghdad. Let me first say that Iraq should be quite proud of its accomplishments in recent years. This is the first time in two decades that regional leaders are returning to Baghdad to attend an Arab Summit. And it’s obviously a critical Arab Summit with regard to Syria and a number of other very important regional issues in determining the direction that they’re all going to take together. So we strongly support this meeting going forward, and we look forward to seeing most of the participants and representatives of most of those participating governments either in our – on our upcoming trip to Riyadh or when we are in Istanbul, or both.

QUESTION: And any update on Assistant Secretary Feltman’s meetings with the Arab officials?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything. I think he flew yesterday and just got started today, so let us look to get you an update tomorrow on his meetings. He was – I know that he was in Yemen today, I believe, and had meetings. Let’s see what I have there. Let’s see, he had meetings today, I believe, with President Hadi in Yemen. But I don’t have a readout yet, so let me get you something on that.


QUESTION: Excuse me. On Mali, do you have any new contacts there, maybe with President Touré?

MS. NULAND: I do not have anything on contacts with President Touré, but obviously the ECOWAS meeting that is ongoing now in Abidjan, they had – did some other issues. They’ve now just turned their attention to Mali and they’ve gotten – they’re getting a report now. We have had at least one, if not two, contacts with the captain Sanogu, and our basic message to him is unchanged: It’s not too late to undo this, to allow the country to return to civilian rule and to deal with the government and the grievances that you have in a peaceful, calm manner through dialogue, and that every day that you spend trying to run the country is a day that you are not spending keeping Mali safe and secure from the threats that it faces, particularly AQIM and the Tuaregs.

QUESTION: Can I – on the aid question?


QUESTION: So I got the answer, but it didn’t tell me – it wasn’t really the answer to the question, which was —


QUESTION: The question wasn’t how much aid —

MS. NULAND: Do we give.

QUESTION: — do you give —


QUESTION: Although that is interesting in itself.


QUESTION: But how much is being withheld.

MS. NULAND: Well, Matt, it turns out that this has been a little bit more complicated to unwind than we anticipated, so it’s going to take us a little bit more time to be able to give you a precise number with regard to what we’re suspending. And this goes to the issue of the fact that we don’t suspend humanitarian assistance, whether it’s food assistance or some of the medical assistance, so we have to differentiate and pull some of those programs out – what you define as humanitarian and what you define actually as institution building. And then we have some programs that are regional in scope, so some of the money goes to Mali but some goes to the region as a whole, so we’re also unwinding that. So unfortunately, I’m going to beg for your patience on exactly how much money is going to be affected here.

QUESTION: Well, is it still about what you said it was going to be yesterday?

MS. NULAND: I hope so. I hope so, otherwise I’m a liar.

QUESTION: You hope you know something you don’t know? (Laughter.)

Well, can we just – if we look at the 2011, it was 138 million which was – of which 71 million was development assistance, 56 global health programs, 10 million in Food for Peace, and 600,000 in Foreign Military Financing and IMET.

MS. NULAND: Well, certainly FMF —

QUESTION: So out of that, the IMET and the FMF would be gone, right?

MS. NULAND: Certainly. Right.

QUESTION: Would the 56 million in global health be gone?

MS. NULAND: Again, this is a question, as I mentioned, between what’s —

QUESTION: But this is 2011 so —

MS. NULAND: Right. So it’s approximately the same levels for 2012. We’re still working through some of the 2011 money. We’re into some of the 2012. So when you look at global health, how much of that is institution building through the government, which would be suspended; how much of it is urgent humanitarian health needs, which would not be suspended; so this is why it’s taking us a little bit of time to unwind this.


MS. NULAND: Okay. Scott.

QUESTION: A second day of airstrikes on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. I know that the Administration has spoken in the past about the need for Sudan to allow humanitarian access to Kordofan. This seems to be an escalation, especially along the border.

MS. NULAND: Absolutely an escalation. I think you’ll have some – at least one statement from the Administration a little bit later in the day expressing our concern and alarm. But just to say it here, we are greatly alarmed by the recent fighting in Southern Kordofan and particularly along this undemarcated border between Sudan and South Sudan. We are urging both parties to cease all military activity along the border, because it is a flash point and it could become even more dangerous and escalate out of control.

It’s particularly important to get this under control now, because I think you know that the parties are scheduled to have a summit in Juba on April 3rd under the auspices of the Joint Political Security Mechanism and the Abyei Joint Operations Committee to actually get some agreements done. These are agreements that the people of both sides need, so we’ve got to get the fighting ended.

QUESTION: I think President Bashir said he’s not going to be attending that summit —

MS. NULAND: Well —

QUESTION: — that he’s canceled the trip due to the fighting. Does the U.S. have any initiatives up its sleeve to try to prod this thing along? I mean, is Ambassador Lyman going back? Are you – what can be done, practically speaking, to get them to pull back?

MS. NULAND: Well, Ambassador Lyman and Assistant Secretary Carson are in touch with all sides and are doing what they can. There is some question about travel in the coming days. Stand by for that.

Okay. Thank you, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:22 p.m.)