Daily Press Briefing - December 21, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing:
Daily Press Briefing
2:09 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: All right, Matt. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: No difficult questions today. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Does that mean that the force is with you today? The force is with you?
MR KIRBY: It’s going to be one way or the other. (Laughter.) Or you’re going to get it.
QUESTION: But the bad guys have the red ones.
MR KIRBY: What’s that?
QUESTION: The bad guys have the red ones. The blue ones are the good guys.
MR KIRBY: Exactly. (Laughter.)
All right, I don’t have any opening statement today so --
MR KIRBY: Other than intimidation. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Is that what that was? A plastic stick with a battery-operated light? Nice.
MR KIRBY: That is the most intimidating that I can be, I’m afraid. Since I’ve taken off my uniform, I don’t have much else. What’s up?
QUESTION: All right. Let’s start on a more serious note. I just wonder if this building has anything to say or can say anything about the attack in – excuse me, the attack in Afghanistan this morning? Or if you know anything about this American woman who was reported to have been killed in Kabul?
MR KIRBY: I assume that the attack you’re talking about is Bagram?
MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I’m going to refer you to our – to the Defense Department on that. I can confirm on the other death. I can confirm the death of a U.S. citizen, Lisa Akbari, on the 20th, yesterday, in Kabul. Certainly, we offer our condolences and thoughts and prayers to her family. And out of respect for the privacy of all those affected, including her family, I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to provide more details.
QUESTION: And when – that would be the circumstances of her death; is that right?
MR KIRBY: Right, yeah.
QUESTION: You won’t talk about that?
MR KIRBY: I can’t.
QUESTION: Is there any reason to believe that she was targeted, that there was some kind of a – that this was a terrorist incident or --
MR KIRBY: I --
QUESTION: -- is it possible that it was a crime, just a --
MR KIRBY: I think it’s just too soon to know right now. So I’m afraid I just don’t have more detail.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, now that you guys arrived at this agreement on Friday, practically, what is – what are the next steps? What will, let’s say, the Secretary of State be doing in terms of implementation? There’s a great deal of fogginess regarding how you would go about implementing any of the points in the agreement?
MR KIRBY: Well, there’s an awful lot moving forward here. So the big result of Friday was a UN Security Council resolution – you’ve seen that – that codifies the Vienna process, that bestows – I think is probably not a great verb – but puts on the UN a certain amount of leadership ability – leadership responsibility when it comes to being able to craft, monitor and implement a ceasefire as well as to take a leadership role in moving the political process forward.
Now, all that will still be done. If you look at the resolution, you’ll see that also that it, in addition to codifying the Vienna process, endorses the ISSG as the prime international body that will move the political process forward but under UN auspices and leadership.
So there’s an awful lot of work to be done. And the Secretary talked a little bit about this at the press conference Friday night. There is – we do need to make some progress now towards a ceasefire. A lot of work that still has to be done there. The high negotiating committee for the opposition group, their next job is to put together a negotiating team that can sit down with the regime, with the Syrian regime, as early as next month. And you saw the Secretary talked about more mid to late January now it looks like before we think we can get there.
And then, of course, there is still the task of narrowing the differences, which there remain differences. And we’ve talked about Assad and his future as one of the prime differences. But narrowing those differences inside the ISSG with respect to getting the political process more solidified, more detailed, getting the modalities of it down.
So I think you can expect to see Secretary Kerry stay very, very keenly engaged on this certainly over the next couple of weeks and well into January. And I think you can expect to see another ISSG meeting very soon after the new year.
QUESTION: Because the statements coming out of the opposition, almost all of them, basically are saying, well, this is not a good agreement. This is not good for us. I mean, that’s what they’re saying, whether it’s the extremists, which rejected it out of hand, or even those in the middle like the Free Syrian Army and so on and others, that are basically saying this really gives a great deal of leeway, gets Assad off the hook, all kinds of – they use all kinds of --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- things to describe the agreement, none of which really says – gives it a ringing endorsement.
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I’ve said before each of the opposition groups can speak for themselves, and they do, and that’s okay. But I would draw you back to a couple of weeks ago, in Riyadh, when 116 participants came together to come around and – to come around to put forward about a dozen negotiating principles that they all agreed to. Again, I understand there are still differences between the groups, and that there are still differences between some of those principles, such as the Assad piece, and the ISSG. There are still differences inside the ISSG with respect to Assad. So there’s a lot more work to be done, but we think it was noteworthy that that many participants of the opposition came together in the first place.
We were heartened to see the product that came out of Riyadh and continually – continue to be grateful to Saudi Arabia for hosting and leading that conference. But we recognize – and the Secretary talked about this too on Friday – we recognize there’s still a lot more work to be done. But that we were able to do all that – think about this – in just the last two and a half months: two meetings in Vienna, two tangible, practical, clear-eyed communiques coming out of Vienna; a UN Security Council resolution just last week that codifies that process and puts it all under UN auspices as well as trying to put forward a plan to get a ceasefire going; and a meeting in Riyadh with 116 participants to come together and have a collective set of unifying negotiating principles all is – that’s pretty dramatic in two and a half months.
So while everybody recognizes there’s still more work to be done, while everybody recognizes that there are still differences that need to be resolved and compromises that need to be yet made, it’s beyond dispute and argument that we have made incredible progress in just the last two and a half months moving forward to try to get a political process going in Syria.
So the Secretary, while he is confident that progress will continue to be made and that momentum will continue to be had, he also recognizes that there’s still a lot of effort that needs to be expended.
QUESTION: On that point, as we progress towards hopefully a ceasefire, will that change the U.S.’s stance towards any of the moderate rebel groups that you’ve been arming and training up to now, if they try and stay on the outside of this process? And even if they do stay inside, will you be lessening military aid to these groups? Not the ones fighting ISIS, the ones fighting Assad.
MR KIRBY: I know of no changes to – respect to military assistance, and I would refer you to DOD to speak to that more specifically.
QUESTION: But in terms of your leverage on them, that’s one of the things --
MR KIRBY: But look, in terms of the ceasefire, it’s going to be pretty obvious who’s going to be a party to it and who isn’t. There’s still work to be done on the ceasefire – a lot of work – and we know that.
QUESTION: Will they receive new TOW missiles up until the date of the ceasefire?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to get into specific materiel issues. I mean, again, that’s really for the Defense Department to speak to. But we’ll know, as we start to craft now the parameters of a ceasefire, under UN auspices, that those kinds of parameters will be in there in terms of what parties to it need to abide by. And it’ll be fairly obvious as the UN process moves forward who’s going to be able to do that and who’s not. And obviously if there’s a group or an entity out there that has no intention of abiding by it, well, then they’re not going to abide by it. And then we’ll just have to – we’ll have to deal with that as it comes.
But the main task right now is to try to put the parameters together and, again, under UN auspices, and come up with a plan to get one initiated, implemented, and then monitored. And the UN does this around the world. They have history doing this, and the Secretary continues to believe that they’re the right --
QUESTION: Some of those (inaudible) around the world involve a UN peacekeeping force to monitor. Can you envisage your own blue helmets in between the lines?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s just too soon right now, Dave, to know what the monitoring regimen’s going to look like. But that’s one of the reasons why it was so important to get this resolution, to put it under UN auspices. That’s work that Staffan de Mistura is going to be doing, so I just don’t know the answer to that right now.
QUESTION: Okay. When you refer to differences on Assad within the ISSG, are you – I presume you’re referring to the Saudis, the Turks, and other Gulf states, and their position and the position of, say, Russia and Iran?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, more broadly speaking, yes. I mean, there are still differences among those nations about Assad’s future.
QUESTION: Would you say that the United States position is the same as the Saudi position?
MR KIRBY: Well, I won’t – I’m not going to be an expert on the Saudis’ position. What I can tell you is our position hasn’t changed, and we’ve talked about this.
QUESTION: Right, your position in terms of the group that met in Riyadh that came up with these unified principles. Your position is that the number one principle that they put out is a non-starter, correct?
MR KIRBY: Well, the Secretary spoke to that, that that was their – that was the opposition groups’ position. It’s not – it’s certainly not the United States position going into this. But again, we recognize there’s all manner of opinion here about Assad’s future, and that is still work that needs to be hashed out.
QUESTION: But in fact, the Administration’s position now is much closer to that of the Russian position than it is to the Saudi position. Is that right?
MR KIRBY: Again, I don’t – I’m not going to clarify what the Russians’ position are. I can just tell you ours, and ours hasn’t changed. As far back as a year and a half ago, the Secretary was saying that while Assad has lost legitimacy to govern, the manner in which --
QUESTION: You won’t demand that he leaves.
MR KIRBY: -- the manner of his departure needs to still be worked out.
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: The timing of it.
QUESTION: It’s also the “if” of it.
MR KIRBY: No, there’s been no change on the “if” of it. There’s no change on the “if” of it, Matt. He has lost legitimacy to govern. We need to get to a government away from him, away from Assad, and towards one that’s responsive to the Syrian people.
QUESTION: John, just a quick follow-up on this point. I mean, there is no mystery in the Saudi position. They – since day one, they wanted to topple Assad. They want him gone, and they poured last year alone like $700 million in arms and money and weapons and so on to the opposition.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: So they were actually quite sort of adamant about not even starting the talks with him being around. So are you saying that their position still remains as it was, or are they getting closer to your position? Or did they accept, let’s say, to have Assad in the process until such a time when we have an agreement on transition? What is their position?
MR KIRBY: Look, I cannot and will not speak for the Saudi Government. Yes, they have – there have been public pronouncements of where they are, and I would point you to what they’ve said about Assad’s future. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to characterize their position one way or another. That’s for them to speak to. I can only speak for what we believe and our policy.
QUESTION: But isn’t it – I mean, by now, doesn’t it seem like foolhardy or ill-advised to keep insisting that Assad must go, Assad must go, rather than sort of focusing on the primary fight, which is defeating ISIS?
MR KIRBY: They’re tandem concerns. They’re related; they’re complementary, Said. It’s – from a military perspective, the focus in Syria is obviously on ISIL. The President’s made it clear there’s not going to be a military solution to the Syrian conflict. Secretary Kerry believes that firmly. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t pursue a political process to deal with the Assad regime and the political future of Syria. They are complementary and they are related. It’s going to be – it will be easier to get a sustainable defeat of ISIL if you have in Syria a government which, by virtue of its own atrocity, is not providing a magnet for terrorists. And a government that is responsive and representative to the Syrian people – that is a healthy antidote to the terrorism of groups like ISIL. Likewise, you’re not going to be able to get a sustainable, lasting defeat of ISIL if there isn’t a responsive government in place to fill in the void that ISIL’s trying to fill right now through their brutality.
So they’re related. They’re absolutely related efforts, and the Secretary’s talked about this dual track and we have to pursue both. That’s why we are very engaged on the coalition side against ISIL and we’re very engaged on the diplomatic front, as we were in New York on Friday through the ISSG. But they are absolutely related efforts.
QUESTION: I just want to make sure one – I understand one thing. Nothing has changed – you still believe that there is a military solution to the ISIL/ISIS part of it?
MR KIRBY: Yes. There is a military line of effort.
QUESTION: So when you say the Syrian conflict has to – you were talking about the – Assad?
MR KIRBY: I’m talking about the civil war, yeah. Thank you clarifying.
QUESTION: John, I’m sorry, just last – my last point. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that we are where we need to be, we finally are where we need to be on ISIS. Is that now everybody’s feeling in this building or across town and so on?
MR KIRBY: Well, I --
QUESTION: Do you feel that we are where we need to be in the fight against ISIS?
MR KIRBY: I would just point you back to how Secretary Kerry has talked about the fight against ISIL, as well as the President of the United States. I won’t address and speak to the comments made by people that are running for office here this year. But I can tell you that we’ve been very clear that in Iraq and in Syria ISIL has suffered some significant setbacks and they are nowhere near the organization they were a year and a half ago.
That doesn’t mean – and we’ve been openly and very candid about this, openly honest about it – that doesn’t mean that they don’t remain a threat. They do. They still have a presence in both countries. They still have territory that they are trying to govern in both countries. And they still try to metastasize outside Iraq and Syria. I think you probably heard comments made by Secretary Carter, who was visiting in the region not long ago – just the last few days – about ISIL’s aspirational efforts in Afghanistan. We’ve seen them try to get a toehold in North Africa. So this is a group that remains a threat, which is why the President has made a decision to intensify our efforts, particularly on the military line of effort, against ISIL.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
QUESTION: One more on Syria?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Is there State concern about the possible ramifications of yesterday’s airstrikes in Idlib, in that witnesses say these were Russian warplanes that carried out strikes that killed a significant number of civilians? If indeed Russia is responsible for these strikes, does this, in essence, muddy the waters as far as Russia’s involvement and efforts to move forward on the political track in Syria?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not – I don’t have a great amount of fidelity on the results of these strikes. I think I’d – just as before, I’d point you to officials in Moscow to speak to their military efforts. I don’t even speak to our military efforts.
That said, we continue to see the vast majority of Russian airstrike activity to be against opposition groups and not against ISIL. The Secretary spoke to that very candidly on Friday as well. That remains a concern for us. We would love to see Russia take a more constructive role against ISIL, but we’ve seen no change – major change in their calculus to do so.
We’ve also talked about from this podium our concerns about what a – what certainly appears to be a lack of precision in their strike activity and concerns that we have received from credible nongovernmental organizations in particular about the things that they’re hitting and, just as importantly, the things that they’re not hitting.
So I’ve seen press reports about this – not much more, Pam – but it doesn’t change our concerns in general about Russian military activity in Syria and the degree to which it is simply designed to bolster and prop up Assad rather than to go against terrorist organizations like ISIL.
QUESTION: I want to move on to Iran.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: This letter that Secretary Kerry sent to Foreign Minister Zarif, I guess over the weekend or Friday.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: So the Iranians are concerned, apparently, that the – that legislation on the Hill, particularly the visa waiver legislation, will – well, they’re not concerned. They say, one, that it violates the nuclear deal. I understand that’s not your position, but I’m wondering if you share the concern that the Iranians have expressed about the changes to the Visa Waiver Program in that it could affect or harm the ability of the Iranians to take advantage of the sanctions relief that they will be getting under the deal.
MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, the Secretary noted the concerns by Foreign Minister Zarif. You saw that he addressed that in his letter. You’re right, there’s no violation of the JCPOA or our commitments by dint of this new legislation. And the Secretary further made it clear that we’re going to implement this new legislation so as not to interfere with the legitimate business interests of Iran, such as in areas where the sanctions are going to be lifted when Iran has taken the key steps it needs to take to meet its own commitments under the JCPOA.
It – I just want to, however, pivot to another point here on the Visa Waiver Program. As we said before, we wanted to work with Congress, and we did, about getting this new legislation. And we – it is important to continue to look at the ways in which people come to the United States from all different walks of life to make sure that we are first and foremost looking after the security and safety of the American people.
There should be no reason why this new legislation interferes with the legitimate business interests of Iran, and again, that was a point that the Secretary made.
QUESTION: But the – my question is: When you say that you’re going to implement the law in a way that it will not violate the JCPOA, does that mean you’re not going to implement it? Because --
MR KIRBY: No. It absolutely can be implemented.
QUESTION: How, I guess is the question. How is it that you can implement the law and what Congress intends in this bill, which would affect dual citizen – or people who have gone – people from Visa Waiver Program countries who have gone for legitimate business to Iran --
MR KIRBY: So --
QUESTION: And I mean, if in fact they are no longer eligible for the waiver after they’ve done that, how do you make the argument to the Iranians that that has not affected their ability to benefit from the sanctions relief, which is – which they are – which you say that they’re allowed to do under the terms of the – under the terms of the agreement?
MR KIRBY: Well, there’s two – a couple of things. First of all, the law does not create a bar to traveling to the United States or obtaining a B-1, B-2 non-immigrant visa – a business visa. And our consular sections are going to be equipped to handle any potential increase in visa demand though that side of it.
And number two, as the Secretary noted in his letter, we have a number of potential tools to ensure that the new legislation doesn’t unduly interfere with the implementation of the JCPOA or legitimate business travel. It includes waiver authority for DHS, but it would be, as I said right now, a little too early to say if and when that that authority might be used.
QUESTION: Right, but --
MR KIRBY: But there are a number of ways in which legitimate business travel to Iran can still occur.
QUESTION: Right, can still occur. But it will be significantly – I mean, all these people will have to get a visa, right? They will no longer be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, which adds how long? If you have to apply for a visa and under --
MR KIRBY: The average wait time, I’m told, for securing a visa appointment at all our Visa Waiver Program posts is less than 10 days.
QUESTION: Right, but that’s --
MR KIRBY: Although the majority have only a one- or two-day wait.
QUESTION: Right, but that’s just to get an appointment.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, securing a visa appointment. I mean, it’s --
QUESTION: Yeah. That doesn’t get you the – that doesn’t mean you get the visa in 10 days. That means that you get your – you have your interview, right?
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: And then there’s a process after that.
MR KIRBY: And many posts already have in place procedures for expediting appointments for business travelers, and that’s, as noted, on their websites. I mean, so --
QUESTION: Okay. But that still – that’s a difference of, say – let’s take that, the best-case scenario, 10 days, right? Or average, whatever it is, maybe not best case. That still means that someone who is affected by this and – is not able to hop on a plane and fly to JFK from wherever they are in Europe. They’re going to have to wait 10 days. A lot of business can’t wait 10 days. Is that --
MR KIRBY: Well, look, we have an obligation as well to look after the security and safety of the American people, and we’re going to obey the law. But there are still ways for legitimate business travel to occur with Iran. And just as importantly, we’re going to be – like we expect Iran, we will stay committed to our JCPOA commitments.
QUESTION: Okay. And just one other thing. Other legislation – can we expect the Administration to oppose other legislation that would impact the JCPOA?
MR KIRBY: I’m not in a position to know the answer to that. Obviously, we’re not going to – well, let me back up. Because I don’t know what hypotheticals we’d be talking about. But obviously --
QUESTION: I don’t know either, but there’s a move afoot on the Hill to do all sorts of things Iran-related. And if it’s the Administration’s position that as long as the Iranians uphold their end of the deal, you’re going to hold – uphold your end of the deal, that would suggest to me that anything that you see as compromising the JCPOA you would oppose on the Hill.
MR KIRBY: Let me put it on – a different spin on this. I’d say that we’re going to meet – we have every intention of meeting all our commitments under the JCPOA. I mean, and that’s not going to change. We will meet our JCPOA commitments.
QUESTION: Why was Iran included to begin with? I mean, could you remind us why it was included in this thing, in these countries, among this group of countries?
MR KIRBY: Why what?
QUESTION: Why was Iran included?
MR KIRBY: Because it’s a state sponsor of terrorism.
QUESTION: Okay. But it is not in any way connected to ISIS and what’s going on. I mean, we have not seen --
MR KIRBY: It’s a state sponsor of terrorism --
MR KIRBY: -- and it’s still on that list. And that’s why travel to Iran was included in this measure.
QUESTION: So you don’t believe that this is maybe a back way to sort of nip at the Iran deal or to scuttle the Iran deal?
MR KIRBY: No, no. We’ve talked about this in the past. The Iran deal was about preventing their pathway to a nuclear weapon, period. And we’ve said from the very beginning that we have in place and we will continue to have in place unilateral and multilateral measures to deal with the other destabilizing activities that Iran remains capable of doing and is still doing, and one of those is state sponsorship of terrorist organizations. So that’s the reason why it’s on there, and like I said, we’re not – we’ve said from the very beginning we’re not going to turn a blind eye to that.
That said, with respect to the Visa Waiver Program, there’s no intention to use that program to halt the legitimate business interests of Iran post implementation of the deal. This is about making sure that we meet our number one commitment, which is the safety and security of the American people, not that we try to undermine in any way our JCPOA commitments. As I told Matt, we’re 100 percent committed to that, as we expect Iran to be moving forward. And that was the purpose for the Secretary’s correspondence.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Last Friday, the President Obama made a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan on this issue again. And according to the readout, the U.S. side urged the Turkish side to withdraw all its forces from Iraq. Do you have any update on this? Is – the withdrawal is achieved over the weekend, according to your --
MR KIRBY: If what was achieved?
QUESTION: The withdrawal of the Turkish forces is achieved?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update on Turkish military movements. I think you should – I would refer you to the Turkish Government for specifics on that. What we have said is we’re encouraged by the dialogue between the two countries, and we’ve seen the reports of Turkey’s intent to withdraw. We welcome that, because the third point I’d say – we’ve always made this clear – is that whatever military activity is going on inside Iraq needs to be done with the approval of the sovereign Iraqi Government. And so our view is we want this worked out bilaterally between the two countries. We’re encouraged by the dialogue that they’ve had and the progress they seem to have made. But I can’t give you a up-to-date tick-tock on exactly where Turkish troops are right now. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the Iraqis brought this issue to UN Security Council also. It’s not anymore a bilateral issue. So as a chairman of the council – I mean this month, U.S. – what is the U.S. position on this issue? Is there any timeframe for the withdrawal, for example, or I mean – because the Iraqis are – I mean, it’s said that – Foreign Minister Jafari – they will carry on the process until the full withdrawal is achieved.
MR KIRBY: I understand. And they have every right to pursue their sovereign ends the way they believe they need to pursue them. Our view is that we would prefer to see this worked out bilaterally. It appears that that is what is happening, and we want to see that continue.
QUESTION: No. If there will be no withdrawal until a specific time, there will be a condemnation from the council, for example? Any specific --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate about an action the council hasn’t taken yet. And I don’t speak for the UN. I know we’re the president, but I speak for the State Department and for Secretary Kerry. Our view is we want this resolved bilaterally. They continue to have discussions and talk through this, and we think that’s the right approach. But as exactly where Turkish troops are right now, you’d have to talk to the Turkish Government.
QUESTION: Yeah. Last one on this. One of the arguments that the Turks raised on this issue: If the Turks will withdraw from the region, ISIL is – will be replacing the Turkish forces in the region. Is it a reasonable argument, do you think? I mean, can ISIS, for example, fulfill the gap in the region after the withdrawal?
MR KIRBY: As I understand it – and again, I’m not going to speak to Turkish military activities. But as I understand it, it’s a training presence that they have there. And I don’t know of any – of any training mission that ISIL’s taken on with respect to forces in northern Iraq, so I don’t see how you can compare the two. But again, you’d have to talk to Turkey about what they’re doing with their troops and on what timeframe.
We continue to want to see the sovereign integrity of Iraq respected and for military activity inside Iraq to be done with the full approval of the Abadi government, as ours is. And we want these two countries to work this out between themselves. Again, they appear to be doing that and we’re encouraged by that. Okay?
QUESTION: New subject?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, they – hang on, I gotta get back here to it. So they did have a conversation yesterday to discuss a range of global and bilateral issues. They discussed, obviously, progress on the JCPOA implementation. Certainly, they discussed the good work done on Friday at the UN when the foreign minister was there himself and sort of next steps going forward now in the political process. They discussed security in the South China Sea, and of course, in broad terms they discussed stability in the region.
QUESTION: Did they also discuss the landslide in Shenzhen?
MR KIRBY: That, as I understand it, happened after the discussion, so I don’t think that that was part of the discussion. But obviously, we’re watching these reports closely, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the landslide. But I don’t think that that was part of the discussion just because of timing. Okay?
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR KIRBY: What?
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: The Chinese issued a statement and it said to Secretary Kerry and Wang Yi, they discussed the U.S. two B-52 bomber went into South China Sea. So how did Secretary Kerry explain this incident?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to go into specific details. As I said, they did discuss tensions in the South China Sea across a whole range of issues, but I’m not going to go into any deeper detail.
QUESTION: And what’s the response to the Chinese side asked the U.S. to respect China’s core interest?
MR KIRBY: They routinely ask that. But the focus of our conversation with the Chinese is and will continue to be about reducing tensions, particularly in the South China Sea, and to express our continued concern over the militarization of manufactured land features. As for freedom of navigation, again, I’m not going to go into any more details with respect to the flight that you referred to, as I wouldn’t go into any more detail in terms of the conversation. But we’ve made clear our concerns about these features, and we’ve also made clear that with respect to international law we’ll fly, sail, and operate our military assets where we need to. Okay?
QUESTION: Do you know if the -- this apparent Chinese offer to host a Syria meeting came up?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know if that specific thing came up. We’ve just seen the press reports on that today.
QUESTION: And what do you think of it?
MR KIRBY: Well, we --
QUESTION: Is Beijing an appropriate venue?
MR KIRBY: We would welcome any constructive efforts to continue to move the political process forward. We’ve just seen press reports on this, and I’m not in a position to confirm whether or not it’s actually true. So it wouldn’t be – I wouldn’t – I think it’s too soon to characterize it or to make a judgment about it.
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen reports of a potential agreement between Israel and Turkey to restore diplomatic relations. We would welcome this step in improving relations between two of our key allies in the region, and I’d refer you to officials in Israel and Turkey for more detail about it.
QUESTION: On Turkey-Russia question over Syria, it looks like the President Putin continues to issue threats to Turkey, latest is Russia banned Turkish jets within Syrian airspace. What’s your view? It has been a month since the Turks shot down the Russian jets. Do you think steps need to be taken or de-escalation? Do you have any comments?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those latest remarks. What I would tell you is our position hasn’t changed since the shoot-down that we want to see the tensions reduced, obviously. And we – while certainly – like I said, we respect Turkey’s right to protect its airspace. We want to see the tensions there nonetheless brought down between Turkey and Russia and would, as we said before, urge both sides to work on de-confliction measures.
QUESTION: On the northern Syria again, these 98 kilometers that has been talk about between the Jarabulus and the Afrin, do you – it looks like the Russians are now helping Syrian Kurds. There are reports that Syrian Kurds may take – start launch assault on ISIS place, or the other Syrian opposition groups. Do you have any update on that particular area?
MR KIRBY: No. I would point you to Russian officials to talk to what they’re doing militarily inside Syria. As I said earlier, we continue to see the bulk of their military activity be against opposition groups and not against ISIL. But in terms of whatever support they claim they’re giving to Syrian Kurds, I think they would have to speak to that.
QUESTION: Do you have any issue with Syrian Kurds taking over that particular area instead of other Syrian opposition groups?
MR KIRBY: Instead of other Syrian opposition groups?
QUESTION: Yes, or Turkey’s --
MR KIRBY: For us, the cooperation that we are giving to Syrian groups, be they Turkoman, Christian, Arab, or Kurds, is about continuing to degrade and destroy ISIL. It’s ISIL’s control over areas that we’re focused on. And we want Syria – this is why there’s a political process going on – we want all of Syria – a unified, whole Syria – to be governed by a legitimate and a responsive and responsible government in Damascus. And that’s not the case right now. That’s why the Secretary is so focused on this diplomatic front. But our focus in terms of territory governance, it’s to take it away from ISIL and then work politically to get a government in Damascus that can adequately, sufficiently govern it for all Syrians. Okay?
QUESTION: So Syrian Kurds can take over that place? You wouldn’t have any issue with that?
MR KIRBY: I didn’t say that at all, sir. I said our focus is on taking away the area and the territory that ISIL has inside Syria so that, as the political process moves forward, you have a government in Damascus that can govern and legislate for a whole, unified Syria in Damascus.
QUESTION: On Turkey this time. Turkey’s own southeast Kurdish region have been – have seen increasing – the situation is escalating within Turkey’s own southeast region, with the Kurdish region, such as Cizre or other places under the curfew. Do you have – or do you monitor the situation?
MR KIRBY: The curfew?
QUESTION: Yes. Several towns under curfew right now.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. We’ve seen those reports. What I would say is we hope to see a renewed commitment to the political process by the Turkish Government and the PKK to bring about a just and sustainable peace for all Turkish citizens. While we understand Turkey needs to take security measures, it should also take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and to act consistently with its legal obligations. And I’d refer you to Turkish authorities for more details about it.
QUESTION: And the press freedom issue in Turkey, it looks like over three dozen or about three dozen journalists are still detained. And it looks like especially in Kurdish areas, many of the Kurdish journalists recently have been detained. The – one of the Vice reporters have been in jail over, I think, about three months, over three months. Editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily and other newspapers’ journalists are still in jail. Have you had a chance to talk to Turkish Government recently? Are you --
MR KIRBY: We routinely – we routinely express our concerns about freedom of expression and protection of journalism in Turkey, as I’ve said many, many times. We look to the Government of Turkey to ensure that law enforcement and judicial authorities act in accordance with international legal standards, including full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Iraq just for a second?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Yesterday the – or in fact, early this morning the chief of staff of the Iraqi army, Othman al-Ghanami, said that they are preparing – it’s imminent, that the liberation of Ramadi was imminent. He advised people to leave and so on. The Iraqi Air Force is dropping leaflets for people to leave and so on. Do you know anything about this? Are we about to see a movement towards liberating Ramadi? And is the – are the United States Special Forces involved in that in any way?
MR KIRBY: Well, you know how fond I am of talking about military activities. I would just tell you that as we understand it, Iraqi Security Forces are making progress with respect to Ramadi. And I know that my colleagues at the Defense Department can speak to more detail about our assistance in that effort, but we do believe that they’re making progress. I’d be loath to go into any more detail than that, and certainly I won’t speak to the presence of special operations forces one way or the other. That would be out of the purview for me to speak to.
QUESTION: But since they were deployed really after Ramadi, is it logical to expect that U.S. forces will be involved --
MR KIRBY: Again, that’s a --
QUESTION: -- at least in giving advice and leadership?
MR KIRBY: That’s a question for the Defense Department, Said. I simply won’t talk about tactical military issues.
QUESTION: How about diplomats? Will they be involved?
MR KIRBY: Hmm?
MR KIRBY: Diplomats. (Laughter.) As I understand it, the fight for Ramadi is very much a military effort right now and therefore --
QUESTION: Gotcha. Not even with a lightsaber? (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Ma’am.
QUESTION: Are there any updates from State concerning the detention of Vietnamese human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai? And also, has there been any communication between State officials and your counterparts in Vietnam concerning his detention?
MR KIRBY: We are deeply concerned by the arrest of human rights advocate Nguyen Van Dai under national security-related Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code. We urge Vietnam to ensure its laws and actions are consistent with its international obligations and commitments, and we call on the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience – I was right in the middle – all prisoners of conscience and allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their political views without fear of retribution. And I won’t get into the specifics of our diplomatic discussions, but obviously, we routinely raise our concerns in general but also specifically in this case as well.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, Goyal.
QUESTION: Another topic. Two questions. I need your comments as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned, I think there is a shift in the policy between the two countries. One, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma was in Pakistan, and now Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Pakistan next month; but at the same time, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif directed his government that nobody will speak any negative or hateful comments against India and – because they were making comments about destroying India, using nuclear weapons and all that, just like Iran was using against Israel. Any comments on this new policy from the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself that not to use any hateful comments against India anymore?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments, Goyal. So I’d – I don’t know that I’d be qualified to speak to it. Look, every leader of – every political leader has responsibilities now, I mean, especially ones that are dealing here with sensitive relations. You have a responsibility to preserve security and stability at the same time, as we just talked about with respect to Turkey and with respect to Vietnam. You also have a responsibility, we believe, to preserve freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
So without talking specifically to these comments which I haven’t seen, I would just say we continue to welcome efforts by India and Pakistan to work bilaterally to solve these very difficult, complicated issues. And so that they have started to do that and appear to be genuinely interested in fostering greater understanding between the two countries, that’s welcome. And we continue to encourage that. But as I said, there’s always a balance to be struck here. And without having more detail about his comments or the context in which they were made, I’d really be loath to go further than that.
QUESTION: And second, it’s important – I also need comments and important to bring to your attention that at least one of the Pakistani was in San Bernardino, California from Pakistan, one of the attackers. But now for the first time, Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousufzai, she opened her silent because now she’s 18. She’s – I believe that’s what the news reports said that she said in an interview that when she was three and other children in Pakistan from three and beyond, they’re radicalized by the terrorists because at least 269 schools in Pakistan, three universities, and two science colleges are owned and operated by the (inaudible) and also Hafiz Saeed and other terrorists in Pakistan. What comments you have? Because this must be in the knowledge of – and they’re all registered schools in Pakistan, by the Pakistan Government.
MR KIRBY: I just don’t have any --
QUESTION: They teach – I’m sorry to interrupt you – and she said in an interview, television interview, that it’s all hateful studies in their curriculum and all the issues they have in the schools. And if they don’t mark “yes,” then they will be punished or they will be failed.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I haven’t seen her interview, Goyal. So I can’t speak to those specific allegations. As I said, we want both countries to work through the tensions themselves. There are legitimate terrorism concerns and threats and challenges in that part of the world. And as I’ve said before, we want everybody to contribute – because everybody can be a victim – Pakistan no less – of terrorism – and certainly India. So it’s important that both sides work together to communicate, coordinate, cooperate as much as they can against this common threat.
As for those specific allegations against educational institutions, I just don’t have anything on that. I haven’t seen her interview, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment specifically on that.
QUESTION: Are you going to talk this to the Pakistani official or seek this, that if these things are existing there, to teach it --
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, this was an interview – I haven’t read – I’m in no position to talk to the veracity of these claims. We’ve been crystal clear for well over a decade now, working in a – bilaterally with Pakistan, about our concerns about terrorism in the region, to include the safe havens that we know terrorist organizations have along that spine between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So look, this is a relationship that remains vital to us. We don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see eye to eye on the threat of terrorism since so many Pakistani citizens and Pakistani soldiers have fallen victim to it.
So look, I just – I appreciate that she gave this interview. I have not read it. I don’t know anything about the specifics of her allegations. But you don’t need to look very far or very hard than every day’s headlines, whether it’s in this country or many other countries around the world, to see that terrorism remains a real and challenging threat that it behooves everybody to try to get their hands around.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR KIRBY: Okay. Yeah.
MR KIRBY: I don’t – you should ask my colleagues at the Pentagon.
QUESTION: So diplomatically speaking, does the United States owe China an explanation of this incident, given the fact that you think the United States can exercise freedom of navigation in South China Sea?
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, I wasn’t talking about that flight. I just – more broadly, we have an obligation to conduct safe freedom of navigation operations, and we will. I’m not saying that that had – that that was the purpose of this operation or not. I think the Pentagon has already spoken to this and I would refer you to them to speak to it further. It’s a military matter.
QUESTION: But Secretary Kerry did explain.
MR KIRBY: What?
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry did explain to the Chinese counterpart.
MR KIRBY: I said they talked about security in the South China Sea, and I said earlier I’m not going to go into any more detail than that.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the elections in Spain yesterday. I wanted to know if the U.S. is concerned that the lack of a clear government majority can endanger the political stability or the economic recovery of Spain. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: What I would say is we congratulate the people of Spain on their participation in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The – we look forward to working with the newly elected parliament and with the future government. Spain, as you know, is an important NATO ally and a close friend, and I’m not going to speculate on what the future government is going to look like or lead like, and I’d simply refer you to Spain for further questions about that.
Okay, I got time for one more. Yeah.
QUESTION: Two more, please. I have two questions.
MR KIRBY: No, one more.
QUESTION: So there was a meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Bern, Switzerland last Saturday. They discussed a peace resolution for Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I was wondering if you have any comment on this.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. We think that the summit offered the presidents an important opportunity to meet face to face for the first time in over a year and to clarify their positions. The presidents themselves recognized that the situation on the ground has deteriorated and expressed concern about civilian casualties caused by the use of heavy weapons. At their request, the Minsk Group co-chairs will continue to work on proposals to reduce the risk of violence. The co-chairs are also prepared to support a meeting of the presidents next year to continue their discussions on a settlement.
As a co-chair country, the United States remains firmly committed to mediating a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
QUESTION: And do you continue to support its new initiative to locate gun detectors and sensors along the contact line between the militaries of Armenia – Armenia and Azerbaijan militaries? So --
MR KIRBY: Do we continue to support what?
QUESTION: There is a new initiative to locate gun detectors and sensors between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the contact line so each time violence takes place, the mediators will be able to conduct an investigation. So we know that the Department of State supports actually the initiative – we have learned this from your previous statements – as well as Russia and France also support it, and the Armenian side. But we haven’t heard much from Azeris. I think the last time when the OSCE Minsk Group called Azeris to embrace this initiative was about six months ago, and again, there is no support coming from Azerbaijan. I was wondering if you work with the Azerbaijani Government in order to get their support and make this project happen. Thanks.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, we support proposals to reduce the risk of violence along the line of contact. Our Minsk Group co-chair, Ambassador Warlick, together with his Russian and French counterparts, continue to discuss these – all these measures with both sides. Another way to reduce tensions, we believe, is to increase people-to-people contacts, especially among the communities of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians and Azerbaijanis live side by side for – lived side by side for generations, and we believe that for peace to come, they will need to trust each other once again. So --
QUESTION: But do you call the Government of Azerbaijan to support this?
MR KIRBY: I don’t – I won’t get into the specifics of diplomatic discussions. I think we’ve been very clear about where we are through the Minsk group in what we want to see. We want to see proposals put forward that all sides can implement to foster peace and better security. Okay?
QUESTION: I’ve got two brief ones, extremely brief ones. One, did you – were you able to get any kind of reaction to the Palestinian president’s announcement that they’re – he’s going to – that the Palestinian Authority passports will soon say “State of Palestine” on them?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, um --
QUESTION: Is that something that’s acceptable to the United – or would the U.S. accept that as a valid travel document?
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen the comments. I’m not able to confirm the validity of it one way or the other. As I understand, this was just announced, so we’re looking into it. As you know, we don’t recognize the Palestinian’s state.
QUESTION: So that would mean that you – for travel to the United States, a passport that said “State of Palestine” on it would not be acceptable?
MR KIRBY: Well, we don’t recognize the Palestinian state, so --
QUESTION: Right, but I’m just – but I mean right now the Palestinian Authority passports are accepted or they’re okay. I mean you’ll – I mean, Palestinians come here all the time, right?
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: But if they had one that said “State of Palestine” on it, would – that would still be okay, or not?
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, it just got announced. We’re looking into it. We --
QUESTION: Right. And then –
MR KIRBY: -- as a matter of policy we don’t recognize the Palestinian – the state of Palestine.
QUESTION: And then last week I asked you if you had any update on the installation of the cameras in Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Did you get an answer on that? Do you know how far along this process is?
MR KIRBY: The cameras have not been installed. We continue to look to both sides to work this out. We still believe that they could be enormously helpful in terms of transparency and accountability, but they have not been installed.
QUESTION: Do you – I mean have they offered any explanation as – I mean, this was a signature part of what the Secretary was trying to do in terms of reducing the tensions, and that was over a month ago, and they’re still not up.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I --
QUESTION: So what’s the issue?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have --
QUESTION: Are you trying to do anything to clear it up?
MR KIRBY: Well, we continue to encourage this, obviously. You’re right, we would still like to see them installed because we believe that they could be a boost to transparency and potential – potentially to contribute to lower tensions. So we continue to discuss this with both sides.
QUESTION: When you say “both sides” in this context, you mean Israel and Jordan or Israel and Palestine?
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry, all sides.
QUESTION: All sides?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: But yes, in particular, since it was an arrangement between Jordan and Israel, those two. Yeah, thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:03 p.m.)