Daily Press Briefing - December 9, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:08 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Hello, everybody. Good afternoon. I do not have an opening statement today, so we can get right after it.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Just because today we’ve learned more about the process of radicalization for the couple.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: And given that we’re here now, it’s two years since they were radicalized. Does the Department feel that it missed any warning signs in processing the visa?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s too soon to be able to answer that question right now, Brad. I mean, I’ve – you’ve seen those – the reports there about how long they may have been radicalized. Obviously, this is an ongoing investigation and we want to respect the investigative process. I don’t want to say anything or get ahead of the work that investigators have to do here. So it’s too soon to know what, if anything, might have been missed in the screening process.
But as I said yesterday, even absent this investigation we’re always looking to improve and to make things better. And the Secretary is committed to the review that the President has ordered of this program, and he’s made it clear to the Department that we’re going to participate in that review as robustly as we can. And as I said yesterday, if in the context or in the process of the review we find things that we can do, we’re not going to wait for the review to be complete before we make the changes.
So again, long answer. Too soon to know. But clearly we’re going to keep an open mind about the program going forward and make whatever changes we need to make.
QUESTION: As of this point there’s been no enhanced security features to the interview or to the process of approving visas?
MR KIRBY: No. No, there’s been no administrative changes to the program yet.
QUESTION: Isn’t it DHS that does the – that is among the agencies that do the vet for K-1 visas?
MR KIRBY: Yes. It’s a shared responsibility between DHS and the State Department. Typically, in a typical – in a normal case, the U.S. citizen will apply for the program for his or her fiance(e). And so DHS has some screening they have to do here on the U.S. side with the U.S. citizen in the relationship. And then our consular officers in the country – whatever country it may be – have responsibilities as well to include screening and interviewing the fiance(e). So there’s – it’s a – it’s a joint effort, which is why both our agencies are going to be working very hard on this review.
QUESTION: On your side, is it – are your employees more focused on establishing the bona fides of the relationship or also identifying potential terrorist or extremist tendencies?
MR KIRBY: It’s a shared responsibility about the relationship as far as I know, and I’m not an expert on this process. But as I understand it, the bona fides of the relationship, as you put it, is sort of a shared responsibility for both DHS and the State Department. So there’s a responsibility for the consular officers over there to – to try to establish with the fiance(e) the bona fides of the relationship.
And then there are security screenings that occur on both ends of this – both the U.S. side and the foreign side – and so, again, there’s a shared responsibility with – in that respect as well for the State Department with respect to the fiance(e) overseas where a proper amount of screening, to include fingerprinting and a face-to-face interview and background checks – we participate in that overseas as well.
QUESTION: Change topics? Syria?
QUESTION: No, no, but same --
QUESTION: On the same topic, please.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: Can we talk about the visa waivers program, which has been changed yesterday by the House? What would be the consequences for thousands of European businessmen, journalist, NGO workers who have been – who have been visiting Iraq, Syria, or Sudan since 2011?
MR KIRBY: Well, first of all I’d say we’re supportive of the bipartisan legislation that’s been proposed in the House of Representatives, and we hope the Congress moves swiftly to pass that legislation. In general – and we’ve said this before – we support working with Congress and supporting legislation that gives enhancements that the Department of Homeland Security announced in August giving that – giving those enhancements the force of law. We think that’s a good thing.
I think it’s a little too soon to know exactly what this is going to mean for businessmen in X number of countries. I think it’s important to understand that there’s a balance that is struck in this program. The – obviously you want a practical security value to the program that provides DHS operational flexibility to adapt to a very fluid threat environment. At the same time, the program has value in facilitating necessary and important business travel, as you suggested. So there’s a balance to be struck here. We want to see that balance continue. The Secretary was very clear early on when we started talking about this that he does support enhancements to the program and does want to continue to work with Congress on that.
I can’t give you a specific laundry list of items that will or won’t affect certain travel. We’re working our way through this with Congress and we’ll see where we end up. But in general, we do support this bipartisan legislation and we do want to see the enhancements that DHS has already announced back in August. We want to see those have the force of law.
QUESTION: Because there is a potential discrimination between, for example, a British journalist who has been working in Iraq or in Syria and the Spanish tourist who have never been to those countries and who would be able to come to the U.S. freely thanks to the ESTA program.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Well, let’s not get ahead of legislation that isn’t law yet. Again, there’s – I think everybody recognizes that given the fluid security environment that we’re in, enhancements to this program are probably a good idea. And taking a serious look at where else somebody has traveled, particularly in the very recent past, makes good sense. Now, how exactly that’s going to be parsed out and laid out, we just don’t know right now. I mean, I understand the hypothetical case that you’re providing.
What I can tell you is, without getting into specifics, that – we’re going to try to achieve, we need to try to achieve this very delicate balance of providing for the national security and making sure that, as a part of that, we’re mindful of who these individuals are. There’s already – and I think Brad asked a couple weeks ago about whether the Visa Waiver Program provides a free pass. And no, it doesn’t. There’s already a very stringent set of security screening procedures that are put in place for individuals who travel under the Visa Waiver Program. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect; it doesn’t mean that there can’t be enhancements; and certainly, taking a look at one’s recent travel makes sense. But exactly how that’s going to be fleshed out and the impacts specifically, it’s just too soon to tell.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the Europeans contemplating some restrictions on us traveling there? We have a free – visa-free travel to the Europe, but there’s already voices in the European parliament and the European Commission has started looking. If they are going to --
MR KIRBY: All I would say to that is that these are sovereign decisions that nations have to make. They have to – and we’re not the only nation in the world that suffers from terrorism. I mean, that’s pretty evident in the recent past here. And so just like we have to make these decisions to achieve this balance, we fully expect that other nations will do that as well. I won’t make comment about domestic decisions they’re making for their own security, but they obviously have to achieve that same balance, and we respect that.
MR KIRBY: Hmm?
MR KIRBY: Syria? Both you guys. You choose, whichever one want to go first.
QUESTION: No. No, go ahead, Said. Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Can we share? I just wanted --
MR KIRBY: What’s that? What did you say?
QUESTION: I just wanted to do very quickly, if you could update us on – if you know anything on the progress of the talks in Saudi Arabia and what comes next.
MR KIRBY: Well, I – you’re right that the conference is now into its first full day, and the initial reports that we’re getting back are that it’s off to a positive start, and that they’re beginning to make good – they’re beginning to make some progress. I won’t characterize it beyond that. I mean, it’s just the first full day. But we’re – again, we’re very encouraged by the meeting itself and we’re grateful to the Saudis for leading this.
As I said yesterday, a wide range of Syrian opposition leaders have gathered there to begin the – to begin these discussions. And it’s important to remember that, again, we’re encouraged that it seems to be off to a positive start, and that – to remember that it’s – that the goal here is to seek an established set of negotiating principles for – and to try to establish a negotiating team, quite frankly.
So again, off to a good start, and we’ll see where it goes.
QUESTION: Well, the reason that I asked is that it seems that the common theme among the opposition or the heads of the opposition is that Assad must go. I mean, it’s not real – the priority is not fighting ISIS, but rather to – regime change. Are those the same as your priorities?
MR KIRBY: Who said it’s about regime change?
QUESTION: Well – well they – I mean, they don’t say regime change, but they say it clearly – we – Assad must leave. And it seems like it is a precondition to going forward with any talks or any cooperation and so on. The emphases are on Assad’s departure and not on the fight against ISIS. That is the common theme or the common thread among the leaders of the opposition.
MR KIRBY: Well, I won’t speak for opposition groups. What we – so I’d put this in two buckets for you. First of all, the political discussions, the political transition that we’re trying to seek through diplomatic discussions in the Vienna process is to get to a government in Syria that doesn’t have Bashar al-Assad in power, right, and that is inclusive and representative and responsive to the needs of the Syrian people so that they can come home and have – can have a home, a safe and prosperous, secure home, a unified Syria. That’s the purpose of the Vienna process.
Key to that process – now you come down a notch – is the ability to have the opposition groups unified around a set of negotiating principles so that they can have political discussions with the Assad regime, hopefully as early – hopefully as soon as early next year. That’s what the Saudis have shown some leadership here in terms of convening this conference and getting the groups together in a room to kind of help them unify themselves so that they can sit across the table from the Assad regime and have a meaningful discussion about what a transitional government to a government post-Assad will look like, and how that process is going to play out.
There’s a lot of work to get from where we are today, Said, to where that – to that end. This is an important first step in that process. It is no secret – and you know better than I do – that not all the opposition groups agree about exactly what the future of Syria should be. Not all of them agree necessarily – I mean, I think that was – they all oppose Assad, but they have different views about Assad’s future or his participation in or how relevant he would be to a transition process, which is why this meeting in Riyadh is so important, to get them to sit down and unify around a common set of principles. And so that’s what they’re – that’s what’s being done today.
Now, the counter-ISIL fight is a separate but related effort. Some of the opposition groups are very active against ISIL, and some are not. There is a 65-member coalition that’s fighting ISIL and will continue to fight ISIL going forward. So we have two tracks – counter-ISIL fight with 65 nations to include partners on the ground, and a political discussion, a diplomatic track that, again, is a very important step in Riyadh but that will continue along the Vienna guidelines going forward. Both of those are moving in tandem, and both of them are related. Because if you have a responsive, responsible, inclusive government in Syria, you can take away the breathing space that ISIL’s been able to get from Bashar al-Assad. If you can degrade and destroy ISIL, which is part of the coalition’s effort – and it’s not just military, but there’s – a large part of the lines of efforts are in a military lane – but if you can degrade and destroy them, then you are creating or helping to create breathing space for a transitional government to get up, get started, become viable. So they have – they do work in tandem. Okay?
QUESTION: My last on this one – I’m sorry, Michel – my last on this one: Today, Brett McGurk said that we are focused on closing this small area on the border between Turkey and Syria to prevent apparently the flow of oil and other --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- contraband and so on. Is it just on materiel and oil and so on, or is it – does it also include ensuring that no volunteers and fighters are going into Syria?
MR KIRBY: No volunteers --
QUESTION: No volunteers and recruits and --
MR KIRBY: No, no, it’s absolutely – look. I mean, we’ve talked about this 98-kilometer stretch
QUESTION: Right. Right.
MR KIRBY: -- which still needs to be closed off because it’s – because it provides avenues of sustenance for ISIL. Yes, they use it to – for smuggling purposes, particularly oil. They use it to – for access of foreign fighters back and forth, and other supplies. And so yeah, I mean, it’s kind of all of that. And that’s why we’re working with the Turks to see what we can do to help close that 98-kilometers stretch off. And again, I would point to what we said before. I mean, the Turkish Government realizes the importance of this stretch of ground as well, and we’re working hard with them to see what we can do to close it off. But it’s not just about oil. It’s about all the ways that ISIL can sustain itself inside Syria.
QUESTION: John, Russia has talked today about a trilateral meeting in Geneva on Friday – U.S., UN, and Russia – to discuss Syria. What’s the purpose of this meeting and who will represent the U.S.?
MR KIRBY: Well, Assistant Secretary Patterson will be in this meeting to discuss with the Russian officials and UN officials the continued progress towards moving forward on this political transition, this – the – specifically the – trying to get at the framework and the architecture for a ceasefire. But it’s all inside the Vienna process.
QUESTION: Any update on the ministerial meeting in New York on the 18th?
MR KIRBY: No, I don’t have any more schedule updates for you. It’s still the Secretary’s desire that there be a meeting in New York at the end of next week, and again, we’ll just have to see how things --
QUESTION: But UN – Russian Ambassador to the UN Churkin has said today that before a third meeting could be held, a list of terrorist organizations in Syria needed to be agreed on, along with a list of opposition groups to participate in talks with the Syrian Government. And he said we don’t think the situation is ready yet and they prefer to hold this meeting in Vienna instead of New York. Are you aware of that, and what do you think about it?
MR KIRBY: I’m aware of the comments. I don’t have anything to add. We – the Secretary was very clear that he believes it’s important to have another Vienna process meeting before the holidays, that we wanted to do this at the end of next week, and that – but that he also said that we need to take a look at what comes out of Riyadh here. And the meeting is still ongoing in Riyadh, and – I mean, today was the first full day, so we’re just going to have to see how that plays out, and then we’ll go from there.
QUESTION: Did Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov talk about the Syria meeting today?
MR KIRBY: They did have a conversation today over the phone. They did talk about the next step in the Vienna process to include the possibility of having another meeting here before the holidays.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to go to Moscow anytime soon?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything for – I don’t have anything specific to announce with respect to the Secretary’s schedule. I think you saw that he alluded to a potential trip to Moscow in the near future, potentially as soon as next week, but I don’t have any specifics to announce today.
QUESTION: On Syria too, Turkish prime minister has said today that Russia is trying to make ethnic cleansing in northern Latakia to force out all Turkmen and Sunni population who do not have good relations with the regime. Do you agree with the Turks --
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen the --
QUESTION: -- on the ethnic cleansing?
MR KIRBY: That’s the first I’ve seen of that comment, so I don’t – look, I think, without speaking to this – comments I haven’t seen – what we want has not changed. We want ISIL degraded and destroyed, which means that their safe haven, their means of sustenance, their ability to operate inside Syria – and Iraq, but we’re talking specifically Syria – needs to be taken away. If Russia wants to be a contributor to the counter-ISIL fight, then that’s a conversation we’re willing to have, continue to be willing to want to have with them.
They have proven helpful and cooperative on the diplomatic track, that dual track we talked about. As I said, the Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov just today about moving forward on the diplomatic track and the next set of meetings that need to occur. If they want to be helpful kinetically, militarily against ISIL, then, again, that’s a discussion we’re willing to have with them. But we – what needs – what we want as a leader in this coalition against ISIL is for as much unity of effort as possible against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria.
QUESTION: Great, but how have they been helpful on the diplomatic track? You’ve said that a number of times in briefings over the last several weeks, but could you give us just one example – a very clear one that we can use in our stories – about how they’ve been helpful?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. I think – look, it was – Russia was one of the first countries when we talk about the original four that sort of started sitting down and talking together about how to get at a diplomatic solution in Syria, and Russia was one of the first at the table: Russia, United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. And they have been able to help bring other parties to the table in Vienna. And I’m not going to get into every diplomatic discussion and every bit of nuance in the communiques that have been filed after the Vienna meetings. But I can assure you that the Russians have been integral to getting to those texts and to helping – to helping what is now 18 countries plus the Arab League and the EU together in the room and helping everybody unify around some core principles, such as ISIL’s got to go, such as it has to be a Syrian-led political transition process in Syria that gets to a pluralistic, non-sectarian unified Syria. All those central elements Russia has been very important in helping unify all the participants in that process. Okay?
Said, I already got you. Go ahead, Janne.
What’s that? Go ahead, Janne. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. On North Korea, the State Department announcing on yesterday the designation of North Korean strategic forces include the WMD and the ballistic missile programs. Is this U.S. individual additional sanctions against it or --
MR KIRBY: Is what?
QUESTION: Did this U.S. impose their individual additional sanctions?
MR KIRBY: As you rightly pointed out, we did announce yesterday the designation of the Strategic Rocket Force of the Korean People’s Army, pursuant to Executive Order 13382 for engaging in activities that have materially contributed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery. These actions are designed to respond to the DPRK’s ballistic missile launches in 2014 and to make it more difficult for the North to conduct similar launches in the future, as well as to maintain the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on individuals and entities that are linked to the North Korea Government’s weapons of mass destruction procurement network.
QUESTION: That’s not exceptional; UNSCR – Security Council resolution – they have other sanctions. Is this linkage you made with these sanction or individual sanctions?
MR KIRBY: I’m not – I’m not aware of linkage to any UN resolutions. I mean, this was a decision made by the United States in keeping with our President’s executive order.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: But certainly, that said, I mean, we continue to support UN Security Council resolutions against the north for similar activities, obviously. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Go ahead.
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: -- as early as next week?
MR KIRBY: No, I don’t. I don’t have anything specific on that other than to say, absent reports of that, we continue to believe in Afghan-led reconciliation talks that the Afghan Government and President Ghani administer. So I don’t have anything new to point to in terms of these reports, but what we want to see is an Afghan-led reconciliation process that leads to a safer, more secure Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken is in Pakistan for the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting. What does the U.S. want to – particularly what kind of progress does the U.S. want to seek in terms of regional stability and stability in Afghanistan?
MR KIRBY: The same thing that we’ve always wanted to see in Afghanistan: a safe, secure, prosperous Afghanistan that can defend itself and its citizens. And these discussions in Islamabad are important to help us get to that end. We talked about this yesterday. That means that it’s an Afghanistan that cooperates and communicates and has relationships with its neighbors, to include Pakistan. And so again, that’s why this – these Heart of Asia talks are so important. And we’re grateful to Pakistan for hosting them in Islamabad.
We all recognize that there’s still a long way to go here. There has been great progress. President Ghani has put in place important reforms and has tried to administer a government that is inclusive and responsive and representative. And the Afghan National Security Forces have also come a long way to this goal of being able to defend their citizens and their own territory, their sovereignty. But we all recognize that Taliban remains a threat. You probably saw reports today about attacks on Kandahar, the airfield there. We’re grateful that there are no reports of casualties right now, but that’s another example that the Taliban, or at least elements of the Taliban, still remain committed to acts of terrorism. So we all recognize Afghanistan is still a dangerous place in some regards, which I think underscores, again, the importance of these discussions in Pakistan today.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. I would say today we express our deep condolences to the families of those who died or were injured in recent incidents in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The recent escalation of violence and the use of heavy weapons are unacceptable and we call for the sides to strictly adhere to the ceasefire regimen.
We also remind the sides that these attacks do not conform to the commitment by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully. Later this month the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs will hold the next presidential summit between the presidents. We call on the sides to take all steps to avoid violence and to improve the atmosphere for negotiations to take place in good faith at the summit.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that the tensions between Turkey and Russia may have contributed to the escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
MR KIRBY: We’re concerned about the escalation itself and not necessarily the source. Obviously, in both cases we want to see tensions de-escalated and for cool heads to prevail. But rather than do a cause and effect, let me just state we’re – as I said, we’re concerned about this violence and we are certainly – continue to monitor and watch the relations between Turkey and Russia, particularly over the shootdown a couple weeks ago. We want to see the tensions de-escalate.
Why are you smiling?
MR KIRBY: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: How do you view this rise of Pakistani military in the diplomatic activities? The Pakistani democratically elected leader comes, then the Pakistani general comes. And then now the Pakistani generals are talking to India and NSA directly. So do you see – do you approve of this Pakistani military’s diplomatic efforts to better relations --
MR KIRBY: Do I approve of Pakistani military leaders reaching out here --
QUESTION: Here, with India, with --
MR KIRBY: -- in the United States and India?
QUESTION: They are playing a diplomatic role in a – while there’s an elected government. There’s a foreign minister of the elected government, but the military is playing the role. So do you approve of it or do you – you have no comments?
MR KIRBY: What we approve of, what we want to see, is for – as I said yesterday, for India and Pakistan to bilaterally work out the issues between them and to continue to have a dialogue and to discuss and to reach diplomatic solutions to some of the thorny problems which the two countries still face. And we would leave it to those countries to determine who’s going to have what meeting and who’s going to sit in on what discussion. We want to see the discussions continue, so we’re encouraged by the recent dialogue between India and Pakistan. It’s exactly what we’ve been strongly trying to encourage.
And as for meetings that Pakistani generals have had here in the United States, that’s nothing new. I mean, I – they’ve been coming to visit counterparts here in the United States for quite some time, as do our military leaders go to Islamabad. The – our bilateral relations with Pakistan are important, and though – they’re going to continue to be important, not just with the military but with the elected officials as well.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: The question you were asked yesterday – sorry, I wasn’t here – but the question about the investigation into Ambassador Davies – do you have any response to that?
MR KIRBY: I’m sure that I do if I could just find it in here. Hang on. There’s a lot of tabs in this book.
What I would say is we’re aware of reports. The U.S. Government has the utmost respect for the Thai monarchy. Ambassador Davies reiterated longstanding U.S. policy on the issue of freedom of expression.
QUESTION: Is it your – I believe the Thai authorities have said that no charges would be brought to him because he has immunity, but is that your understanding as well?
MR KIRBY: I would refer you to Thai authorities for – regarding this matter.
QUESTION: Can I have a couple questions about the Palestinian-Israeli issue? Today there was an article written by Israeli President Rivlin in The Washington Post talking about what Israel must do to sort of to pave the road towards peace and so on. I wonder if you saw it. He talks about the exchange of teachers and so on, maybe alleviating some of the hardships on the Palestinians, maybe look after the neglect of the Arab part of Jerusalem and so on. But he also ends by saying – basically expressing sorrow that he cannot bequeath the coming generations a peace that will endure, but he – they can bequeath some accomplishments and so on. Is that a – sort of – are you disappointed that we talk about coming generations, maybe – could you – another, like, 10, 20, 30 years and so on – is that your reading of what he is saying?
MR KIRBY: What I would say is – I mean, even we’ve talked about the need for peace and security for coming generations and for the young children of the area right now that are seeing this violence. That’s no way for these youngsters to grow up. So I think we would share the president’s view that we want peace and security in coming generations. But also – and as the Secretary made very clear on Saturday – just – we talk about coming years, but even over the past several months, we’ve been encouraging all parties to take affirmative steps to reduce the tensions and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. And again, as the Secretary said over the weekend, we hope both sides are going to make the choices that will advance the prospects for a lasting peace. We recognize how hard this is, but that’s our goal and that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: Because today marks the 27th anniversary of the first Palestinian intifada, and basically here we are, like third intifada later and so on, and they still endure under occupation and so on. There seems to be no end in sight for that occupation. So 22 years after negotiations began and so on, you as the broker of these negotiations really have not offered the Palestinians anything tangible in terms of ending the occupation, have they?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think I’d rebut a little bit the idea that we’re the broker of negotiations. But what we want is – what we want is for both sides to work this out, to reduce the violence, and to take positive, affirmative steps to get to a two-state solution. That’s what both of them have said they want to see, and so what we want to see is them take the steps necessary to get there.
QUESTION: And one more – or maybe two more. Yesterday an Israeli court sentenced a Palestinian legislator woman – who’s really quite been a vocal voice on behalf of women’s rights, against extremism, a very progressive person – Khalida Jarrar for 15 months in prison under some sort of really made-up kind of charges of incitement and so on because she refused to leave her home in Ramallah and so on. Is that something that bothers you or disturbs you, that Israel can go and maybe in the middle of the night take someone and put them in prison for sort of trumped-up charges?
MR KIRBY: I would refer you to Israeli authorities on this.
QUESTION: Yes. In regards to the number of Japanese former military officials that are facing charges for leaking sensitive military information to the Russian embassy, have you been able to confirm if there have been any U.S. military – sensitive U.S. military information, or are you in contact with Japanese officials to --
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything for you on that. I’d refer you to the Defense Department.
Yeah, in the back.
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry, I did not hear the first part of your question.
QUESTION: Would you agree that President Obama’s initial plan not to put U.S. boots on the ground to fight ISIL has changed?
MR KIRBY: Would I agree that his original decision not to put U.S. boots on the ground to fight ISIL has changed?
QUESTION: That’s correct.
MR KIRBY: What’s happened is the – so first of all, let me back up. There’s – the President has been clear from the very beginning as Commander-in-Chief that we’re not going to fight a large, sustained combat counter-insurgency effort in Iraq or in Syria against ISIL. He never said there was never going to be U.S. boots on the ground. And a matter of fact, there’s more than 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now in a training, advising, and assisting capacity. The additional Special Operations Forces that the Secretary of Defense has talked about and which Secretary Kerry fully supports, which will be operating – there’ll be a small expeditionary force that they’ve already – that the Defense Department has already talked about in Iraq, and then there will be some – there are some small number in Syria as we speak – are largely an extension of that same mission: train, advise, and assist.
Now, that said, the Defense Department – and I don’t want to speak to military matters too much, but the Defense Department has said that there will be a component of their job, these Special Operations Forces, that would include conducting raids and assisting indigenous partners in combat that they are conducting against ISIL. So it’s very much consistent with the original mission set given to U.S. troops that have been assisting indigenous partners against ISIL. But nothing has changed about the Commander-in-Chief’s very clear direction that this isn’t going to be a long, sustained U.S. ground operation or effort against ISIL.
QUESTION: Do you think that the 3,500 troops and more on their way is not a big ground operation? Do you --
MR KIRBY: It’s not when you consider the scale of the kind of force presence that we had in Iraq up until 2011 and what we had in Afghanistan – certainly nowhere near what we have in Afghanistan now, which is just under 10,000. So it’s not on that scale, and that’s the scale that we’re measuring it against.
Again, I really don’t want to talk about military matters, but nobody’s underestimating that 3,000 is still 3,000, and that U.S. troops are in – are doing important work against a very – assisting others against a very dangerous enemy. We’re all mindful of that. And not to mention that you have pilots and air crew that are also flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria. I think everybody understands that – the importance of that. But it’s nowhere near the scale in terms of the troops that we have seen in the last 14 years in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s much smaller than that, and I think it – as we used to say, it’s not just how many you have; it’s what they’re doing. And it’s very clear that the mission for our troops against ISIL is the same mission it’s always been, which is to help degrade and destroy this organization by helping build the capacity of indigenous partners on the ground, both Iraq – both in Iraq and in Syria. Okay?
QUESTION: But it’s also clear that those are boots on the ground, right, right now?
MR KIRBY: I’m not disputing that there are U.S. troops on the ground. But nobody ever said there – nobody said there wouldn’t ever be. What was made clear was that the mission wouldn’t be a large, sustained ground combat operation against ISIL, and we aren’t doing that. That is – nothing has changed about that, not one bit.
QUESTION: John, I just wanted to – if you could clarify the use of the term “expeditionary” force. It’s a mouthful. Can --
MR KIRBY: Expeditionary.
QUESTION: Expeditionary --
MR KIRBY: Just say it slow. It just rolls right off.
QUESTION: Is it – I mean I – “expeditionary.”
MR KIRBY: There you go.
QUESTION: Okay. So is it intended to expedite – I mean, is that – what is it going to do?
MR KIRBY: No, “expeditionary” --
QUESTION: I mean, as a military man, explain to us the difference --
MR KIRBY: “Expeditionary” means that the mission or that – and the units applied to a mission are being deployed someplace other than where they’re based for usually a limited amount of time and for a very discrete mission set.
QUESTION: So it is mobility, right?
MR KIRBY: It – part of being expeditionary is being agile, it’s being flexible, it’s being mobile. Absolutely, yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. So they could strike, let’s say, here one day, then move another 400 miles and strike?
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, it’s about being mobile, yes. It is. But, I mean, I wouldn’t get into specific operational parameters.
QUESTION: And so how come this was never used before? This is the first time this phrase is being used --
QUESTION: Since the Spanish-American --
QUESTION: If all it means is that they’re being sent other than where they’re based, then presumably all troops that are sent elsewhere --
MR KIRBY: Well, you’d have to --
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) It’s been used for decades.
QUESTION: It was used by --
QUESTION: The Allied Expeditionary Force that went to – that fought in World War I. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: I don’t think I – I don’t think I need to be here anymore.
QUESTION: You’ve got to say – you’ve got to – (laughter) --
MR KIRBY: I defer to Arshad, who’s absolutely correct. (Laughter.) No, he’s right.
QUESTION: Someone with more knowledge --
MR KIRBY: It’s not a new phrase, it’s not a new term, and I would point you to the Defense Department for more details about that.
QUESTION: I have a last question on Yemen. Yemen’s President Hadi has asked the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to begin a seven-day ceasefire starting December 15. You are a part of the coalition. Will you support this ceasefire?
MR KIRBY: We welcome the reports of this proposal, and obviously we have to see how this plays out. But we welcome the reports of the proposal.
QUESTION: Good. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Mm-hmm. Okay. Is that it, everybody? Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:50 p.m.)