Daily Press Briefing - December 15, 2015

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 15, 2015


3:00 p.m. EST

QUESTION: Full house today.

MR KIRBY: Yeah. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It’s the short days.

MR KIRBY: Oh, is that the reason why? Yeah, boy, I almost outnumber you guys.

Okay, just to begin on South Sudan. On this second anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict in South Sudan, the U.S. Agency for International Development has announced an additional $173 million in lifesaving emergency food assistance in South Sudan. This new assistance will provide more than 85,000 tons of emergency food assistance and will serve nearly 2.5 million South Sudanese facing severe, life-threatening hunger, as well as refugees in South Sudan. With this contribution, the American people will have provided nearly $1.5 billion since the outbreak of the crisis back in December of 2013, reaching approximately 1.3 million people every month with much-needed food, water, health care, shelter, and other essential support. Today’s anniversary and the need for yet more assistance for millions of hungry people stand as stark testimony to the importance of implementing the agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan and bringing an end to this man-made crisis.

And with that, we’ll go to questions. Arshad.

QUESTION: Can we – let’s start with Syria and the meeting on Friday. So from the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s news conference, it’s clear that the meeting will indeed take place on Friday. Can you let us know whether you expect it to be one meeting, a series of meetings; whether there are going to be bilats Thursday night or Friday morning; sort of how things are going to unfold?

MR KIRBY: The agenda for the meetings on Friday is still taking shape, but in general, I think you can expect that this will flow much like meetings have had – have gone in Vienna. So I certainly would expect that the Secretary would take full advantage of the gathering to conduct bilateral discussions as he sees fit or as some of our partners in the process see fit of their desire to see the Secretary. So I would expect some bilateral meetings on the side.

I also expect that the bulk of the morning on Friday will be spent in the ISSG format, such as in Vienna, with the same 20 participants that were there. As you know, that’s 18 countries plus the Arab League and the EU as well. So I would expect the same group, same sort of format – again, with bilateral discussions as needed, and then there will likely be some meetings at the UN in some format. I think that’s all still being worked out, with the goal, as I think Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke to, the goal of trying to arrive at a resolution that sort of embodies and codifies the Vienna process so that it’s enshrined in a resolution. But that side of the effort, that part of the day is still shaping up. And I think as we get closer to the end of the week, we’ll be able to give you more detail.

QUESTION: What is the utility of a Security Council resolution essentially endorsing the Vienna work?

MR KIRBY: Because it codifies it under UN auspices. I mean, if you look back at the 2012 Geneva communique, that was all done under UN auspices. And it was no accident that at the second meeting of the ISSG, the – actually, the – both meetings in Vienna the UN was represented, but in the second one in particular, UN auspices and a UN-led process was approved and endorsed by everybody that participated. And I think the Secretary as well – and I know other foreign ministers feel the same way, but certainly the Secretary feels that keeping this under UN auspices is the right approach.

QUESTION: Other than getting kind of a UN stamp of approval, can you help us understand what is the utility of these meetings beyond the – keeping the momentum going? I mean, tangibly, other than getting a UN stamp of approval and having another meeting itself, how do you see this actually advancing the process of getting the parties into talks by January 1, as was the goal originally set?

MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, I think the best way to – I mean, the proof’s in the pudding, I think, in terms of answering your question. The meeting in Riyadh, which produced results in terms of getting the opposition unified around some core principles – that was an outgrowth of the Vienna discussions. The work that Jordan is doing right now to coordinate a process by which groups that will be held to that process will be further identified – that’s an outgrowth of discussions that were had in Vienna. The framework for getting – having the opposition groups sit down with the Assad regime perhaps as early as – or the target date as early as – is early next year. All that was an outgrowth. So it’s – it – when I say build momentum, I’m not just tossing a philosophical phrase out there. There really has been tangible, practical momentum created by these multilateral sessions, at least the two in Vienna, and actually going back to Doha when the germs of some of these ideas were really sort of laid down.

So the Secretary believes two things. One, there is a sense of momentum, a sense of urgency that the international community is rallying around and that we need to continue to move forward; but number two, that these meetings are producing actual results. It is – I guess it’s easy to look at the communique and say, “Okay, I’ve seen a communique. I’ve seen these before.” But when you think about the extraordinary amount of material in these last two communiques and that you had nations who have hitherto been almost diametrically opposed on certain issues be able to still sign up to some core fundamental principles about moving forward in Syria, that’s not insignificant. And that only comes from the hard work of diplomacy face to face, bilaterally, multilaterally. And that can only be achieved when you get people together in the same room.

QUESTION: One last one for me. Do you fully expect – I mean, it’s implicit in your saying you expect it to be in the ISSG format of 18+2, but do you fully expect the Iranians to attend?

MR KIRBY: I don’t want to get into specific participation. Each nation should speak for themselves as to whether they’re going to come and participate. But it is – as I said in the outset, it’s our expectation that this will be held at the same level with the same participants as before. But each nation, I wouldn’t speak for their travel plans. They need to talk to that.


QUESTION: John, can I ask about the Secretary’s comments just now out of Moscow?


QUESTION: He said that the U.S. and Russia found common ground on Syria. I’m just wondering if any of that common ground is new. Because it sounds like the areas – the things upon which they agree still stand, but I didn’t hear any new developments in terms of gaps closing.

MR KIRBY: Sure. I’m really not going to go further than the Secretary did. I think even he was careful not to get ahead of things. So I think I would just leave it at what he said. And obviously, I wasn’t in the meeting, so I couldn’t speak authoritatively to the specifics of what they discussed. But I think I would just leave it at what he said, which is that there has been some common ground achieved in these discussions, and that’s important for moving forward.

QUESTION: Should we expect announcements or some sort of developments on Friday?

MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get ahead of Friday --

QUESTION: I got to ask.

MR KIRBY: -- or any announcements or agenda. It was a fair question but I’m not going to get ahead of the process.


QUESTION: But could you tell us if you expect to achieve more than what has been achieved in November in Vienna, this comprehensive statement you had on the ceasefire, on the elections, on the constitution?

MR KIRBY: Well, again, I won’t get ahead of a meeting that hasn’t happened, Nick. I think we need to let it – have the meeting, and then obviously there’ll be a chance after the day is over to read that out to the press and to the public, and we’ll do that. I simply won’t get ahead of what decisions may or may not be reached.

It’s clear to me from watching the last two meetings in Vienna that these are working meetings. I mean, the ministers at the table are talking about meaningful, tangible things. There are very frank, candid discussions where disagreements still linger, and there is a very concerted effort – I’ve seen it now twice – to come to resolution on some things, which has led in both cases to very specific and I think pragmatic, tangible communiques. I think – without previewing any decisions or specifics going forward to Friday, I think you can expect that same level of activity and energy and detail that will be applied when they sit around the table later this week. And I – and that there is now talk and consideration and effort towards a UN resolution – I think that alone speaks for itself in terms of what they’re trying to drive at here on Friday.

QUESTION: Related to that, what do you think of this new coalition of so-called Muslim countries announced by Saudi Arabia? Was it expected from the U.S. Government? Does it fit into what you were calling for, more involvement of Arab countries --

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: -- against ISIL?

MR KIRBY: I think we need to learn a little bit more about the specifics here on this announcement. But it certainly is in line with what we have long been saying and urging countries in the region to do, which is to coalesce around the need to deal with the terrorist threat there in the region. So I think, again, we need to learn a little bit more. We certainly saw the reports.

We welcome, as we have welcomed, any intensification of the effort against ISIL in the region, as well as against other terrorist networks. So any effort to increase pressure on those networks is a welcome effort. But again, I think we just need to learn a little bit more. I would only point you to what the deputy crown prince himself said, which is that they’re not ruling anything in or out at this point in terms of what it could mean and that there’s every expectation and anticipation by this coalition to work with neighbors and partners in the region in ways that collectively they think is most appropriate to go after terrorist threats.

QUESTION: It should be – it will be a parallel coalition, or you are calling for coordination with your own international coalition?

MR KIRBY: They are already – so two things here. Those nations are already part of the 65-plus-nation coalition against ISIL. This is something separate and distinct that they have done themselves and have arranged for themselves, and they should speak for that effort, but they are already part of the coalition countering ISIL in the region.

Yeah, Janne.

QUESTION: John – thank you very much, John. Do you have a – any significant of resumption of Six-Party Talk or any gesture from North Korea is attending Six-Party Talks within this --

MR KIRBY: I’ve seen no indication that the DPRK has changed its calculus with respect to Six-Party Talks. As we’ve long said, we – we’re willing to resume that process, but the onus is on the North to prove its willingness, and we’ve seen no indication of that willingness.

QUESTION: Since last agreement was 2009 – since after, we don’t have anything happens.

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: So why this happen so long, and --

MR KIRBY: Well, I think you need to ask Kim Jong-un that question. We’ve long said, again, that we’re willing to resume that process. But the onus is on the North, and there’s been no indication. In fact, if you look at the provocative behavior even in the recent few months, it certainly wouldn’t appear that they are at all prepared to do that, to – prepared to resume that process.

QUESTION: But you still talked with the – your counterpart, the United Nations North Korean counterpart in UN. You still unofficially --

MR KIRBY: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Did you contact with the North Korean delegations regularly with the United Nations in New York – North Korean delegations?

MR KIRBY: Do we consult with North --

QUESTION: Yeah. You’re officially contact with the North Korean delegations --

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specific readouts to give you in terms of consultations. Again, we’ve made it clear where we are and what we’re willing to do, as well as the international community. But again, the onus is on the North, and they’ve not proven a willingness to do that, so --



QUESTION: Yesterday I asked about why the U.S. has not shared information it had about ISIL’s oil routes with the UN. You said you would check. Any update?

MR KIRBY: I might. I need reading glasses even for this big font, apparently, so we’re going to have to make the text bigger, I think. (Laughter.) Let’s see, I think I have it here somewhere. It’s not there. It’s not there.

Okay. So your question was – I think it was are we pressuring Turkey to report the --


MR KIRBY: -- to report ISIL smuggling? Is that --

QUESTION: To – actually, that would be another question that I would ask, but --

MR KIRBY: I’m so glad I looked it up. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: -- I asked why the U.S has not shared --

MR KIRBY: All right. So let me – I’m going to go through this since it’s fairly legalistic. So you’re just going to have to bear with me, okay?

The United States supported the adoption of UNSCR 2199 – this is back in February of this year – which included a range of tools, including sanctions and other binding measures to degrade ISIL’s ability to carry out brutal terrorist attacks. The resolution focuses extensively on ISIL’s raising of funds through oil smuggling, looting of antiquities, kidnapping for ransom, donations, and other illicit activities. And we’ve talked about that widely, that they get many sources of revenue. The resolution also reaffirms existing prohibitions on supplying ISIL with arms and related material.

The resolution calls on states to report to the Security Council’s 1267, 1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee any interdictions in their territory of oil, oil products, modular refineries, and related material. It does not require states to report more generally on ISIL’s oil trade. So it requires them to report on interdictions but not more generally on the oil trade itself.

However, upon request by the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee’s monitoring team – its expert group – the United States has provided information on ISIL’s financing for its reports and briefings to the sanctions committee and Security Council. We’ve done that on our own. We intend to continue to provide the monitoring team with high-quality information as appropriate. The monitoring team is able to gather and assess information from all states and a variety of other sources, and we continue to encourage everyone to support its work.

As we said before – and I think this is important – we reject the premise that the Turkish Government is in league with ISIL to smuggle oil. We have seen no evidence to support such an accusation. Moreover, Turkey is taking steps to improve the security of its borders with Syria in cooperation with the – with its international partners, and those efforts are going to continue to increase in the coming weeks and months.


QUESTION: Has the United States provided information on ISIL oil routes that Mr. Szubin of the U.S. Treasury has spoken to? And he was saying that ISIL – part of ISIL’s oil goes to the Syrian Government and some of it crosses the border into Turkey. Did that --

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specifics with respect to what information has been transmitted. As I said, we’ve taken the liberty on our own and own initiative to provide the monitoring team high-quality information as appropriate on ISIL’s ability to finance itself in all ways. So we’ve taken that initiative on our own. I don’t have any specifics to read out with you with respect to what information -- and frankly, I don't know that it would be appropriate for me to get into that from a public podium.

But I think, again, it’s important that this resolution doesn’t require states to report more generally on ISIL’s oil trade. It only requires them to report on the interdiction of oil or oil products.

QUESTION: Well, the – point 14 in that resolution says it calls upon member-states to improve international, regional and sub-regional cooperation, including through increased sharing of information for the purpose of identifying smuggling routes used by ISIL and ANF.

MR KIRBY: We share a great deal of information about what we know and what we’ve come to learn about ISIL’s ability to finance itself with our partners in the coalition. But as I think I’ve made clear many times from this podium, I’m not going to get into operational matters, nor am I going to talk about intelligence matters. But of course we take seriously our commitments not just under the UN, but as a leader of this coalition, to share information as appropriate. We all know that oil smuggling is one source of revenue for ISIL – one, not the only one – one. And I can assure you that writ large, we do what we can to share information as appropriate with partners in the coalition.

QUESTION: John, did the Secretary bring this issue up in Moscow and ask the Russians to do something about Syrian purchases of ISIL oil? Is there anything you can share with us on that?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any more specific readout of the discussions than what you saw the Secretary himself read it out when he went --


MR KIRBY: -- to the podium afterward. I just don’t have any more detail than that.

Yeah. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Australia’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea?


QUESTION: Presuming --

MR KIRBY: I would refer you to the Australians to speak about their freedom of navigation operations.

QUESTION: Okay. But in general, I’m assuming that you would support it given your stance on it?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any information on it. I mean, as you’ve heard me say many times, the freedom of navigation is a principle that every sovereign nation must protect and needs to protect and needs to respect, quite frankly. And I would leave it to sovereign nations with sovereign navies to speak to whatever freedom of navigation operations they’re conducting.

For our part, again, I don’t want to get into operational stuff here from the podium, but we’ve talked about in the past our Navy has conducted freedom of navigation ops all around the world. And I think you can expect, for us, for that to continue. But I wouldn’t speak for Australia. I wouldn’t do that. But every nation has that – when it comes to international waters and freedom of navigation, every nation has that right and responsibility.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question --

MR KIRBY: Oh, this is – I thought this was going to be a short one today.

QUESTION: Sorry, I --

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m so sorry. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: Thought I was done.

QUESTION: I’ll make it an easy one for you to shut down. (Laughter.) I just want to go back to this resolution. It’s – it requires countries to report on interdictions. Why didn’t it require them to report on any aspects of trade? Wouldn’t that be much more useful?

MR KIRBY: No – it says – I mean, this specific one that we’re talking about --


MR KIRBY: -- calls on states to report to the Security Council’s Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee any interdictions in their territory – in their territory --


MR KIRBY: -- of oil, oil products, modular refineries, and related material. So it’s two things there, interdictions of it, not the mere presence of it or knowledge of it in general – although that can be – but the – it’s specifically required to interdictions of – in – and then the second point is in their territory, in the nation’s territory of oil, oil products, modular refineries, and related material. And I --

QUESTION: But the --

MR KIRBY: And why it was written that way, I can’t speak to that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question.

QUESTION: But the resolution --

MR KIRBY: I mean, you’d have to go to the UN on that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question.

MR KIRBY: I can’t tell you why it was written that way.

QUESTION: But the resolution also has another point which says, and I just quoted it, “Calls upon member-states to improve international, regional, and sub-regional cooperation including through increased sharing of information for the purpose of identifying smuggling routes used by ISIL and ANF and other terrorist groups.”

MR KIRBY: And I told you we take our responsibilities --

QUESTION: How do you --

MR KIRBY: -- under that resolution and in the international community writ large to share information. But if you’re asking me to specifically get up here and tell you about the intelligence matter that we’re providing and who it’s going to and what it’s saying, I’m simply not going to do that and you know that I won’t do that.

QUESTION: As I – I understood – as I understood, you said the resolution does not call on member-states to share information, but this provision seems to be speaking to the opposite, doesn’t it?

MR KIRBY: What I said was, and I’ll read it again, it does not – the resolution does not require states to report more generally on ISIL’s oil trade in more broad terms, and there’s no requirement to do that. That doesn’t mean that --

QUESTION: I did not say “required,” I said “called on.”

MR KIRBY: I think – look, I’m – I don’t have all the documents in front of me, but it seems to me like you’re conflating two things: one, which is a requirement in the resolution to do certain things and no requirement to do others; and a general statement about encouraging and urging the sharing of information. Those two are not opposed. Again, I don’t have the language – I don’t have the benefit of the language in front of me the way you do. But as you are reading it back to me, I don’t see that those two things are opposed at all. In fact, they can be mutually reinforcing to one another.

I’m not clear about what – the point you’re trying to make except maybe you – you’re kind of getting around a point here that the United States isn’t meeting our obligations. And if that’s the point that – buried in the question – forgive me I’m wrong, but if that’s the point you’re trying to make, I absolutely fundamentally reject it. The United States is following the resolution and, more broadly, as a leader of the coalition, sharing information as appropriate with our partners in this effort. But if you’re asking me to lay all that out for you here at the podium, it would be completely inappropriate and I won’t do it.

QUESTION: John, can I follow up on another thing you said? You were very careful about your language when you said that the U.S. sees no link between oil smuggling and the Government of Turkey. Do you have any concerns about Turkish leaders or their families and having connections to or --

MR KIRBY: As I’ve said, we --

QUESTION: -- money – earning money from --

MR KIRBY: -- reject the premise that the Turkish Government is in league or any way involved with ISIL to smuggle oil. There’s absolutely no evidence to support that accusation. None.

QUESTION: The government or individual members of --

MR KIRBY: I can’t say it any more. I mean, a government is made up of individuals, isn’t it?


MR KIRBY: So we’ve seen no indication that there’s any evidence to this false accusation.

QUESTION: How about family members of people in the government?

MR KIRBY: I’ve said it as clearly as I can. Yeah.

QUESTION: John, about this question is you may answer or not answer it. But my question is: How many North Korean defectors currently remain in United States?

MR KIRBY: I have no idea.

QUESTION: Can you search that?

MR KIRBY: I’ll do the best I can, Janne.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you very much.

MR KIRBY: All right. Thanks everybody. Have a good day.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:26 p.m.)

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