Daily Press Briefing - March 17, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:04 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have an opening statement today.
QUESTION: What? It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.
MR KIRBY: Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
QUESTION: You’re already making a statement with his tie. Look at him.
MR KIRBY: I thought I was making that pretty obvious.
QUESTION: I’m looking for the pint of Guinness up there. I don’t see it, though. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: I wish there was one.
QUESTION: I’ll bet. I’m going to defer to anyone who has questions about the genocide announcement, but I don’t have any.
MR KIRBY: Sure, sure. Well, look, I mean, heading into yesterday when we did say that, it was middle of the day yesterday, and that was our assessment yesterday afternoon, that we didn’t think we were going to make the legislated, mandated deadline of today. And we wanted to be open and frank and honest about that. So we came out and talked about it. In the – during the afternoon and into the evening hours, the staff kept working on this, and the Secretary kept working on this, and we were able to get to a point where the Secretary was comfortable making the announcement that he made today.
So, fortunately and happily, we were able to meet the deadline. But it was really just an honest effort to be open with you and with the American people about where we thought we were yesterday afternoon. So again, I’m glad we made it.
QUESTION: Were there – was there any interaction with members of Congress in the evening about – I mean, were they insisting on you meeting the deadline?
MR KIRBY: No, the pressure to keep working through and into the night on this was self-imposed. I mean, the Secretary really – he takes these deadlines seriously, obviously, having been a former senator himself, and he wanted to do everything we could to try to respect it and to try to make it on time, and we did. But no, there wasn’t – it wasn’t being spurred on by last-minute calls from members of Congress yesterday. He was – he didn’t need to be reminded that it was a real deadline and that we had an obligation to meet it.
QUESTION: So isn’t it ironic, then, that in your quest to be transparent you ended up being wrong?
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) It may be ironic, Matt. I’m afraid it’s not the first time, and it probably will not be the last time. But look, if we’re going to be wrong about something, that’s a pretty good thing to be wrong about.
QUESTION: Hey, Kirby, one thing. Yesterday we were told that the Secretary had asked for additional information. Did any additional information come in in the final 24 hours that allowed you to make the determination last night?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know that I would describe, like, fresh data and analysis coming in in the last 24 hours. But clearly there was more staff work that needed to be done and that he personally wanted to do for himself to be able to make the assessment that he made this morning. But I couldn’t sit here and tell you that fresh data came in in just the last few hours that sort of turned the tide or anything like that. I mean, we had been – and it’s important to note that – I mean, obviously we had a congressional deadline here, but we had been working on this for many months, and certainly even more aggressively now in the last month or so. So the work had already been proceeding. And in the last several weeks, I can tell you the Secretary did ask the staff for more information and for more analysis as we got closer to the deadline. But nothing in the last several hours --
MR KIRBY: -- that was new or fresh that sort of turned the tide.
QUESTION: And then one other thing. Can you address just squarely the practical implications of this determination on U.S. policy toward Islamic State?
MR KIRBY: Well, let me answer it this way. What this determination does is it helps us lay out for the sake of history what we all know and have seen this group do to innocent people in Iraq and in Syria. It also recognizes in a very overt way the suffering of so many of those individuals, and recognizes that. And number three, we hope that it will help galvanize communities here at home and abroad, as well as nongovernment organizations, the – galvanize the world, quite frankly, to help us all do more to defeat this group, as well as to help us continue to collect and analyze information about their atrocities. So that – those are real – three real practical results of this.
If you’re asking me, “Is it going to change the military strategy against Daesh,” I don’t foresee that. I would tell you that the President has already decided months ago and ordered the interagency to intensify our efforts against this group – not just militarily, but certainly the military line of effort is one of them, and we have done that. And I think you’re going to see that continue. That intensification is not over. So there’s been an intense effort here in just the last several months, separate and distinct from the work that got us to this determination today to go after this group with more energy and with more effort along all the lines of effort. So that – I don’t foresee an implication from this determination specifically to the strategy or policy about defeating and destroying this group.
And the other thing I would say is that back in August of 2014 when it was clear they were trying to basically exterminate all the Yezidi residents on Mount Sinjar, that’s when the air campaign started against them, August of 2014. And from about that time, we’ve just been acting as if these are acts of genocide, because clearly that was their intent. They stated it, and they were trying to enact it at Mount Sinjar. So we have, for all practical purposes, treated it as genocide from almost the beginning.
QUESTION: So what is intensifying, then? I’m sorry, you talked about an intensification that will occur further. What is going to be intensifying further?
MR KIRBY: Well, we’ve intensified – certainly intensified the pace and scope of airstrikes, and I’ll let the Pentagon talk about that. We’ve intensified our efforts to try to counter their messaging. And our Under Secretary here, Rick Stengel, for Public Diplomacy, he’s working with partners around the world to stand up counter-messaging centers. We have definitely put more pressure on their financial network and revenues. And I think in just – what, the last couple of months – Afghanistan now has joined the coalition. So there has been an intensification nationally and internationally against this group.
I also think, Arshad, that that – you’re going to see that continue. This is a group that is not the same as it was back in August of 2014. They don’t move the same. They don’t operate the same. They don’t communicate the same. They’re having trouble now recruiting and retaining foot soldiers. We’re seeing that over and over again. We talked about this the other day in terms of their increased use of child soldiers and trying to chase down defectors. So this is a group that’s very much under pressure, and we want to keep them under pressure. And in fact, we want to put more on them, and that’s why there’s these intensifications.
QUESTION: So – and I’m sorry to ask this, but I just – I asked you what will intensify further, and you talked about what has intensified, the airstrikes which the Pentagon can talk about, Under Secretary Stengel’s effort to counter the message. But are you saying that all those things are now going to intensify or --
MR KIRBY: As a result of today’s determination?
MR KIRBY: No. But they’re going to intensify because the President said they are going to intensify.
QUESTION: Got it. Thanks.
MR KIRBY: So we are going to continue to keep the pressure up on them. But this – as the Secretary said, calling this what it is is important, and it’s important for other reasons as well.
QUESTION: Since Congress apparently thought it was so important to make a determination quickly, are you going to go and ask them now for more resources to help you process refugee applications since they’re obviously going too slowly?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, we – I’m not going to get ahead of discussions with members of Congress about this, the refugee program. What I will say is that we’re very much committed to the goals that the President has set out about – for the increase of the acceptance of refugees into the country to include 10,000 Syrians by the end of the year, and we’re working our way through that. We’re very much committed to that.
QUESTION: Right. But to be clear, they – if the Syrians are accepted at the current rate, you’re not going to make 10,000 this fiscal year. There will have to be --
MR KIRBY: Well, if you just --
QUESTION: -- some change in strategy or resources.
MR KIRBY: -- throw out the math, based on the past and it’s a linear process, I can’t argue with that. But it’s not a linear process. Each refugee is vetted individually, and yes, it takes some time.
QUESTION: But there could be a huge bubble of them around the corner.
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, I’m not going to – let’s wait and see how we’re doing towards the end of the year. We are committed to meeting the President’s goal, and we’re going to keep working at that. We also have a --
QUESTION: And you feel you can do that with your current level of resources on the issue?
MR KIRBY: We – there are already a lot of resources applied to this, and we’re in constant contact, obviously, with Congress about resource implications and needs. I’m not going to get ahead of that discussion right now. But there are a lot of resources already being applied to that effort as well as to the effort of defeating Daesh.
QUESTION: John, when you talk about --
QUESTION: John, in terms of needed implications, I just want to understand. Suppose you capture a group of ISIS combatants now. Are they going to be treated like, let’s say you did with the Taliban – enemy combatants – or are they going to be brought up before an international tribunal as --
MR KIRBY: Well, today’s determination is separate and distinct from what national or international legal vehicles might consider.
MR KIRBY: Your question – we’ve actually talked about this before in terms of these expeditionary operations, and I really want to defer to my Pentagon colleagues on this. The – as the Pentagon has said, that they’re not ruling out the notion that there may be captures of some of these fighters --
MR KIRBY: -- in the future as a result of some of these raids, which is, again, a representation of the intensification of the efforts against Daesh, but that there wouldn’t be a lengthy hold process here. We’re not going to be in the business of detainee operations inside Iraq or Syria against this group.
QUESTION: I guess my question is are they enemy combatants or war criminals and will they be charged --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to make a legal determination here today. The Secretary’s purpose was to affirmatively state the U.S. policy here, which is that these are acts of genocide. And again, I’d say that we have been long acting as if that were that case, based on the efforts that we have applied against this group, militarily and otherwise.
QUESTION: Can you help us --
QUESTION: If there’s going to be this effort to collect evidence --
MR KIRBY: Hang on. Don’t go to – is this the same topic?
QUESTION: Yeah, same topic.
MR KIRBY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you help us understand how he made the distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide? He referred to two groups – Sunnis, Kurds, and others he said are suffering from ethnic cleansing. I think people are just curious how he drew those distinctions.
MR KIRBY: It’s – well, first of all, we don’t use the phrase lightly – either phrase lightly. And he used them both because we feel both are true. If you just look at what they have done in various places against various ethnicities and religious groups, I think it’s – we believe it’s beyond dispute that the phrase applies. We said it because it’s true. And we didn’t use the phrase lightly.
QUESTION: Can you talk more about the need for all who are concerned about this situation to step up evidence collection of what ISIL is doing in Syria, in Iraq, in other places? Does the Administration have a vision for how this information can be used down the road for accountability’s sake? Is it trying to get an international war crimes tribunal? Is it trying to get some other sort of forum to hold those who, as Said said, could be captured – to hold them accountable for their crimes?
MR KIRBY: Again, certainly there are many national and international vehicles that could be applied with respect to accountability. The purpose for today was to affirmatively state what we believe to have been the case, what we believe to have been the purpose of their actions. And yes, we hope that in so doing, in stating this so overtly and so transparently, that it will help galvanize the international community to likewise intensify their efforts against this group. And it’s not about – I mean, already so many have done so. I mean, the coalition is now 66 strong. The Secretary talked about that. And the coalition has had success against this group and the success isn’t just militarily. So a lot of people are doing a lot of things. But we believed it was important, after the analysis, after the evidence, to call it like we see it. This wasn’t about – there are national and international legal institutions and vehicles that may be applied, not – by other nations too going forward.
The other thing I’d say is --
QUESTION: Is it prudent to gather this information?
MR KIRBY: I would say ask your common Daesh fighter on the ground if he doesn’t believe that the coalition is working to hold them to account. They are losing a lot of fighters every month. And they’re not just losing them to kinetic action, airstrikes, or operations by like say the Iraqi Security Forces on the ground. They’re losing them to defection. People are just up and quitting in increasing numbers. So I won’t get ahead of legal processes here. That’s not my point today. It’s not our place today. But I don't want you walking out of here thinking that somehow these – this group is not already being held to account for what it’s done and what it continues to be able to do to innocent people.
QUESTION: But it wouldn’t be – would it be correct to say that the U.S. Government’s view is that it is prudent to gather as much evidence as possible should there be some sort of forum down the road?
MR KIRBY: Certainly more information could assist the potential for those national or international legal vehicles. There’s – that – there’s no question about that. It could be valuable, which is, again, why we believe calling it genocide – and one of the outcomes I – in my answer to Arshad was one of the outcomes was we hope is that it does energize people to continue to try to contribute to the body of evidence that could be applied by some nations or international bodies. But I wouldn’t get ahead of – I wouldn’t prejudge any of that right now.
QUESTION: And my final question: It has been suggested before that what ISIL has been doing has, in fact, been genocide. In the run-up to the Secretary making his announcement this morning, was there any consideration about not calling this a genocide? Was there any argument within this building that either there’s not enough evidence or that the word shouldn’t be used in this particular case, that you have to have met a certain standard for calling a situation genocide?
MR KIRBY: I wouldn’t speak specifically to individual opinions expressed in a decision-making process like this. I can – I think you can understand why that wouldn’t be an appropriate place for me to go. What matters is the result and what the Secretary came up here and told you this morning about his judgment and the judgment supported by the body of work that was done by the staff here at the State Department. We stand behind it, and I think I’d leave it at that.
QUESTION: John, I have a couple of follow-ups. One is: You talked about the intensification of the air campaign. According to the figures in the air power summary figures of weapons released by month, the number of weapons dropped by ISIL has decreased every month since November, so four months in a row until February. November it was 3,227; now it’s 2,054, and it decreased in both December and January. So it is fair to say that the air campaign has indeed intensified if you’re dropping fewer weapons? I mean, maybe you’re dropping bigger ones; I don’t know. But these numbers would suggest that, in fact, the air campaign is decreasing, not increasing or intensifying.
MR KIRBY: I don’t – I haven’t seen the numbers there. You could consult the Pentagon for a qualitative assessment here. Maybe I was too specific; military operations against the group have intensified, to include Special Operations Forces that are operating inside Syria and efforts on the ground – increased efforts on the ground by Iraqi Security Forces, which are supported by the air. I don’t have a daily tally, and if the numbers have decreased, it could be that there are fewer targets because we have been so effective. But there has been an intensification of effort across the board against this group, and I expect that that will continue.
QUESTION: Okay. And one other one: In terms of what you hope may come out of this – I mean, the Secretary talked about the effort needed to make areas that are – become liberated places where groups that have been targeted by genocide – by ISIL for genocide – can perhaps go home and live in safety. What are you – tangibly, what are you hoping for? Are you hoping like the Norwegians or other countries kick in more money for that? Are you hoping that members of Congress will appropriate more money for efforts like that? I mean, is there a specific, tangible outcome that you have in terms of greater budgetary support, either from the U.S. Congress or from international players on this?
MR KIRBY: Well, we continue to be grateful for the support that we get from the Congress for the resources that we’re able to apply to this effort. I don’t have a specific ask here to offer in answer to your question. What we want – the real outcome – and you said it yourself – is that we want these people to be able to live safely in their homes and in their communities and to not fear the threat of extermination. As the Secretary said, for these groups, the threat of Daesh is actually existential. I mean, that’s what genocide means. And we want them to not have to live in that utter, abject fear of being exterminated.
What does that mean? That means that this group has got to be defeated. What does that mean? Well, that means certainly the military efforts, certainly financial efforts to go after their ability to resource themselves. But it also means good governance, and Prime Minister Abadi is taking positive steps in terms of reforming the Iraqi political system and being more inclusive and reaching out to various communities inside his own country. And, of course, good governance in Syria – and that’s why it’s so important for us to continue to pursue a political solution, so that in Syria a group like Daesh, which has taken advantage of ungoverned spaces because Assad has lost legitimacy over so much of his country. So if you have a political process in place to put a good government there that is responsive to the Syrian people, so that they don’t have to seek refuge outside, they can come home too.
So the idea is – the real outcome is that they can go home and live safely in their communities and have a governing structure over them, whether it’s in Iraq or in Syria, that’s responsible to their needs. But I don’t have a specific line item here to offer you in terms of that particular outcome.
QUESTION: No, no, and I don’t expect that. But I was wondering if you could at least say, yes, we think we need more resources domestically from Congress and internationally from others, including money, to do this.
MR KIRBY: Well, the issue of resources is one we always have with Congress. As I said, we’re grateful for the support that the Congress has given with respect to the counter-ISIL fight, and that’s a conversation that we routinely have with them going forward. I don’t have anything specific to read out to you today in terms of those discussions.
As for internationally, the President has said, the Secretary has said that obviously we want – we’re intensifying our efforts and we’d like to see everybody else do the same. And some countries are, some nation-states really are, and we’re grateful for that. It’s a coalition of the willing, which means every member of the coalition has to be willing to do what they can, where they can, and spend the resources that they can against this group.
QUESTION: Can we shift focus from --
QUESTION: Well, just one more on behalf of someone. Is it too early to take this question of ISIL and genocide to the Security Council?
MR KIRBY: I would tell you that we have routinely discussed Daesh and their atrocities and the fact that we are – we have been acting as if these are genocidal acts for a long time. We have had discussions inside the United Nations about this, and those discussions will continue. I can’t tell you today that there’s some new report or new – a new effort going forward administratively inside the Security Council. I’d refer you to New York for that. But this is a conversation we have had routinely inside the UN, and I fully expect that it’ll continue.
QUESTION: So this is related but it’s not about the genocide per se. You will have seen most likely that the Kurds or one group of Kurds has gone ahead and declared a federal enclave or state in northern Syria. Yesterday, Mark had said that the United States opposes unilateral declaration of a federal state or enclave like this, but that, should Syria in its political transition – should Syrians during their political transition decide that this is – that federalism or some kind of a federal system is the way that they want to govern themselves, that you wouldn’t have a problem with it. Is that still the case?
MR KIRBY: I won’t dispute the way Mark put it. I would, again, just reiterate we don’t recognize self-rule, self-autonomous zones inside Syria. We’re committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. At the same time, we’re focused on advancing this genuine political negotiated transition towards an inclusive government that’s able to serve all the interests of Syria.
Now, what that government looks like, how it functions, we don’t know that right now. And we do want the Syrians themselves to – the reason why these talks are important is so that they can begin to have those kinds of discussions and move forward. And when they get to a point where they feel they’ve got something, then we can have a conversation about what it looks like. But for right now, where we are today – I don’t want to predict what the future’s going to look like, but right now today, we do not support self-autonomous zones or self-rule in that regard.
QUESTION: So can you explain that? I mean, I had this question – I asked this question of Mark yesterday, but this seems to be completely contradictory to the way that you were approaching this in the early days of before ISIL, and its emergence may very well have changed your thinking on this, but the – one of the main thrusts of the U.S. policy at the beginning of the revolt was to encourage local municipalities and – to break away from the Assad regime and form their own administrations. Why has that changed?
MR KIRBY: I don’t – I think, to some degree, it’s not an apt comparison. And frankly, many of these groups and communities inside Syria didn’t need any prodding by anybody to want --
QUESTION: Yeah, but now you’re saying you’re --
MR KIRBY: -- to continue to rebel against the Assad regime.
QUESTION: But now you’re saying you’re opposed to it. I mean, who exactly --
MR KIRBY: Well, we’re opposed to --
QUESTION: -- who exactly are the Kurds in this area supposed to subject themselves to or allow themselves to be governed by right now? Assad?
MR KIRBY: Well, there isn’t – no, of course not, and there isn’t the --
QUESTION: So why shouldn’t they try to do it on their own?
MR KIRBY: Well, I appreciate the advice you’re trying to offer them.
QUESTION: No, I’m asking you why it is – clearly, there’s not a functioning central government for all of Syria right now. It’s split up. Why --
MR KIRBY: There is a central government that continues to --
QUESTION: Well, there’s one in --
MR KIRBY: -- that continues to brutalize their own people and --
QUESTION: Well, exactly, which you guys regard as illegitimate. And so clear – logically, you would not want that central government to be governing these areas. So their only other choice, if they don’t do it themselves, is ISIL --
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: -- is ISIS.
MR KIRBY: That is not true.
QUESTION: Well, then who exactly do they – should they report to?
MR KIRBY: The – well --
QUESTION: If I’m --
MR KIRBY: What we’re trying to get in place, as I said earlier, is good governance in Syria. I’m not going to dispute with you, I certainly would not disagree with you, that there’s not good – that there is no good governance in Syria. We concede that point, which is why the talks in Geneva are so important to try to get at a government that is responsible and responsive to the Syrian people. And we recognize that’s going to take some time. But again, the timeline is around 18 months.
QUESTION: But in the meantime, what are they supposed to do?
MR KIRBY: We want to see the political process move forward. We recognize that --
QUESTION: Well, that’s fine, but that’s going to take months and months.
MR KIRBY: We recognize that that --
QUESTION: Eighteen months. What do they do for the next 18 months?
MR KIRBY: -- that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there, Matt.
QUESTION: What do they do for the next 18 --
MR KIRBY: But in the meantime --
MR KIRBY: -- we do not believe the answer is self-autonomous rule in certain zones. We don’t think that’s the answer.
QUESTION: So they should let themselves be governed by Assad --
MR KIRBY: We think the answer is to be found – we think the answer --
QUESTION: -- or by the Islamic State?
MR KIRBY: Again, if you let me just finish --
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: -- we think the answer is to be found in the process that has been set forth in two Vienna communiques and the UN Security Council resolution.
QUESTION: But the problem is that that process is going to take a year and a half, minimum. That’s even – that’s if it works at all. So you’re telling these people in the meantime, “Sorry, you can’t form your own government because we don’t think it’s a good idea, but we don’t have any viable alternative, short of you allowing yourselves to be governed by Assad or you allowing yourselves to be governed by ISIS.”
MR KIRBY: Well, you could – there is no – I mean, Assad is not governing many of these areas as it is --
MR KIRBY: -- which is why a group like Daesh --
QUESTION: So they should just --
MR KIRBY: -- was able to come in --
QUESTION: Exactly. So you’re saying --
MR KIRBY: -- and try to establish their own territorial control.
QUESTION: So these places should just be, like, anarchic? Is that --
MR KIRBY: No, that’s not true, and I think that’s an unfair way of approaching this. Look, I recognize that it’s going to take some time – everybody does – but that’s the answer. That’s the long-term answer. Not an interim --
MR KIRBY: -- or even semi-permanent or permanent self-autonomous rule inside certain zones.
QUESTION: I understand what the long-term goal of everybody is here, but we have – you do understand that that is a long-term goal and one that can’t be achieved in the short and medium term, even if it is successful. So what do these people do in the short and medium term?
MR KIRBY: Many of them have already been subsisting with their own civic institutions because they have --
QUESTION: Okay. So you just --
MR KIRBY: -- because they have to. That’s different than --
QUESTION: So you want them to continue to do that --
MR KIRBY: That’s different than stating --
QUESTION: Well, I don’t see an --
MR KIRBY: That’s different than stating, “This is a self-autonomous zone,” or, “This is a self-rule area,” and divorce yourself or themselves from the larger political process that we want to see occur inside Syria.
QUESTION: But the point is they haven’t divorced themselves – they haven’t divorced themselves. You guys have divorced them from the political process.
MR KIRBY: All I can – all I can --
QUESTION: You’re not allowing them at the table.
MR KIRBY: We don’t believe that that is the right answer --
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: -- for good governance inside Syria.
QUESTION: John – John --
QUESTION: Do you think if the Kurdish parties had been invited to Geneva --
QUESTION: -- this is a road --
QUESTION: -- they’d be more keen to wait?
MR KIRBY: They are being consulted throughout this process. We’ve talked about that, Dave.
QUESTION: But they’ve asked to be involved in the discussions.
MR KIRBY: I – Mr. de Mistura has determined the invitations, and we’re respecting that. They’re very much in line with the first round of talks. And as we said before, we can’t rule out the possibility of Kurdish representation going forward. That’s up to Mr. de Mistura to figure out. But in this very early fragile stage, we believe he’s got the right approach. And we are reaching out and they are being consulted. There’s no question about that.
QUESTION: But one of the reasons for the fragility is the people declaring self-autonomous zones, which you oppose. They might have been less likely to go it alone --
MR KIRBY: Well, I --
QUESTION: -- if they had felt involved in the process. Have you made representations --
MR KIRBY: They --
QUESTION: -- to de Mistura under that light?
MR KIRBY: They can speak to their motivations. We don’t support that as the way ahead. We support the political process that is in place and that – by the UN Security Council resolution. We think that’s the right answer. And again, they are given voice and they will continue to be given voice. But it’s really going to be up to the UN to determine how that’s done.
QUESTION: John – John, on the point that Matt was raising, it is actually – it’s called Rojava. It is composed of three districts. And it’s areas that the Syrian army has withdrawn a long time ago. So they do have in place a system, a system of governance and so on with the implicit agreement of the regime in effect. So you are saying that – go on until – you can do what you’re doing, which is really some sort of an autonomy, until such time when there is a resolution; is that what you’re saying?
MR KIRBY: No, I’m talking about communities that are taking care of each other in absence of any central or regional government structure. That’s going to happen, and there are some inherent benefits to that. That’s different than saying this zone, this area is now self-ruled or semi-autonomous. And we don’t support that approach.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me just ask you the question this way. Suppose – I mean, this is an area that does not have regime forces, that is probably surrounded or – at the border of ISIS or Daesh. Suppose they get besieged or they get assaulted and so on and they need your help separate from, let’s say, any kind of central funnel system and so on. Will you aid them as such? Will you aid them – will you aid the democratic union, which is the party that declared it in Hasakah?
MR KIRBY: We don’t support – I’ll say it again. We don’t support self-rule, self – semi-autonomous zones inside Syria. We just don’t. What we want to see is a unified, whole Syria that has in place a government that is not led by Bashar al-Assad, that is responsive to the Syrian people, whole, unified non-sectarian Syria. That’s the goal. And that’s not just our goal, it’s the goal that other nations in the ISSG have signed up to. I’m not going to talk about this hypothetical situation that you’re posing. I mean, we could go around and around on this all day long. And when you say “support,” I’m not sure what you mean.
QUESTION: Well, it --
MR KIRBY: But have we continued to support through coalition operations, fighters and groups inside Syria that have proven effective against Daesh? Absolutely. And as I’ve said before, that kind of support will continue. But we’re not in support of, we will not recognize these sort of self-rule, semi-autonomous zones.
QUESTION: Have U.S. officials talked to any of the people who are trying to set up this independent zone to --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of discussions. I can’t say whether they’ve happened or not.
QUESTION: So this declaration is not going to affect your support – the military support to PYD then?
MR KIRBY: As I think I made clear, that this assessment that the Secretary has made isn’t going to, by dint of it itself, affect the policy or the strategy that we’re pursuing against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We have, since August of 2014, basically acted as if this group had genocide on its mind. I mean, we, through the intervention that the U.S. military and coalition military aircraft did in Sinjar last – in the summer of ’14, we prevented what we really believed to be their pursuit of genocide against that group. Then there was the town of Amerli, also an example of what we believe was about to be genocide, and we helped stop it. So we have proven for quite some time here a perfect willingness to step in and do what we can to prevent acts of genocide.
So the question of well, this has no effect on it, I would push back and say, is it going to trigger something new? No. But it very much is part and parcel of the way we’ve been thinking about this conflict for nigh on more than a year.
Are we off this topic?
QUESTION: Can I ask one final one on this? And maybe I missed it, but Mark yesterday said that if it was the will of the Syrian people as negotiated by their representatives to have a federal system, that the United States could accept that if that was ultimately their chosen outcome. Is that still your policy?
MR KIRBY: I think we’d have to wait and see what the outcome of this transitional process is. I mean, I can’t predict what it’s going to look like. And when you say “federal,” you and I might think something different in “federal.” We’re not interested in self-rule, self-autonomous zones. That can be a completely different thing than a federal system. We have a federal system here in the United States I don’t think anybody would argue is about self-autonomy. So it would just depend. And I just – I think it would be a fruitless exercise right now at this early stage in the process to speculate about what it might look like.
QUESTION: You’ve never been to Texas or Alaska, have you? (Laughter.) Can I – so let me ask the same question I put to Mark, then. So the political transition in Geneva – the Syrians are free to come up with whatever kind of system they want. It’s up to them to decide. But the United States says they can’t have Assad as their leader, and they can’t have a federal system of any sort. How is that leaving it up to the Syrians to decide how they’re going to govern themselves?
MR KIRBY: More, Matt. More, Matt.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
MR KIRBY: Let’s take it piece by piece. Yes, it has to be a Syrian-led process and it has to be respectful of Syrian decisions and Syria negotiations, quite frankly.
QUESTION: Unless they decide something that you don’t like, right?
MR KIRBY: You --
QUESTION: I’ll stop now.
MR KIRBY: You can come up here and answer the question for yourself if you want, or I could try. All right?
QUESTION: Go ahead. I won’t --
MR KIRBY: But the process is also under UN auspices. It’s not like the international community is just going to walk away from this or not exercise our responsibility to consult with them as they work through this. But yes, in the main, these have – these decisions have to be made by – they have to reflect the will of the Syrian people. And right now, you’ve got two sides sitting down in Geneva, and I don’t think it’s going to shock you to realize that those two sides are still not in agreement about everything. That’s the purpose for negotiations.
QUESTION: Or anything.
MR KIRBY: So let’s not get ahead of --
MR KIRBY: -- these very early starts to negotiations. And again, “federalism” is an interesting word. It doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. And I haven’t seen anything coming out of Geneva that specifically tells me that some specific form of federalism is in the offing, so I think we need to let the process go forward. And as for Assad, it’s not just the United States that says Assad can’t be there anymore; the entire international community has said that.
MR KIRBY: That --
QUESTION: The Russians.
QUESTION: No, they haven’t.
QUESTION: Did the Russians say that?
MR KIRBY: The international community has asserted that what needs to happen is – I know – government of mutual consent. I know where you’re going to go with this.
QUESTION: The Iranians haven’t said that.
MR KIRBY: I know where you’re going to go with this.
QUESTION: Agree to disagree.
MR KIRBY: The large part of the international community believes that Assad has lost legitimacy and he can’t be there anymore. Nothing’s changed about our view of that.
QUESTION: Really? I’m looking at that map up there. I see China and Russia as a pretty huge part of – and including Iran – a pretty large part of Europe and Asia.
MR KIRBY: I think there’s probably a lot more that feel otherwise. I think there’s a lot more that feel otherwise.
QUESTION: All right. Well, whatever.
MR KIRBY: Let – I think we need to let the process go.
MR KIRBY: Nothing’s going to change about our view that Assad can’t be the part – the future of Syria. And there are millions, literally millions, of Syrians that feel the same way.
QUESTION: Thank you, John. On North Korea, what is the difference between a U.S. citizen or non-U.S. citizen illegally visit to North Korea? If any organizations or individuals, when entering the United States for the purpose of benefitting North Korea, does it require any actions?
MR KIRBY: I did not catch the first part of your question.
QUESTION: What is difference between a U.S. citizen and --
MR KIRBY: U.S. --
QUESTION: -- a non-U.S. citizens illegally visit to North Korea?
MR KIRBY: What is the difference between U.S. citizens --
QUESTION: Yes, mm-hmm. Non-U.S. --
MR KIRBY: -- and non-citizens visiting North Korea?
QUESTION: Yes, sir.
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I frankly don’t have – I mean, I’d have to see if we could look that one up for you. You’re asking me a very specific technical question that I’m afraid I’m not prepared for. I think Matt – Mark talked about this yesterday. Obviously, we highly discourage U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea for very obvious reasons, but I just don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that.
QUESTION: Okay. This is a national security issues. According to the United States law against the people threatening the U.S. security – I mean national security be denied ability to enter into the United States. Is this violations of U.S. law when you illegally visit to North Koreans who organize --
MR KIRBY: Is it a violation of law if you’re – if you travel to North Korea?
QUESTION: Yes, and then they come into the United States.
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an answer for you on that. You’re going to have to let me look that up.
QUESTION: Well, what --
MR KIRBY: I’m not a legal expert here. Again, we discourage travel to North Korea for obvious reasons, but you’re asking me a question I simply don’t – I’m not prepared to answer right now. I just don’t know. I don’t know.
MR KIRBY: I thought we were done with this topic?
QUESTION: Actually, not – on Syria, on the federalism, on that issue. So you would agree that federalism does not mean not whole, right? So you are not opposed to the concept of federalism. Is that correct?
MR KIRBY: As I said, I mean, look, I don’t want to dance on this anymore. I really don’t. I think I’ve answered this as clearly as I can. We’re fixated on this word “federalism” and I don’t know that all of us even have the same idea of what that means. And I’ve seen no --
QUESTION: May I ask, why do you oppose the idea of a federation in Syria?
MR KIRBY: -- I’ve seen nothing coming out of Geneva that says that that’s the outcome here. So let’s not get hung up on the word. Let’s focus instead on what really needs to happen, which is the cessation needs to be continued, humanitarian aid needs to keep getting to people, and these talks in Geneva need to move forward. And let’s see what they come out with. I mean, there’s a – as Matt pointed out, this is a long process. It is going to take some time, and we’re just at the very beginning of it, okay?
QUESTION: One more on Syria. I promise it’s not about federalism. So President Putin said today that if necessary, Russia can build up its contingent in Syria again within hours. Yesterday, when asked if this could be a possibility in the future, Mr. Toner said that he wasn’t aware of that. You guys weren’t aware either of the pullout of troops. What is happening here? I mean, is there a lack of communication between the U.S. and Russia when you guys were supposed to be cooperating?
MR KIRBY: The – far as I know, Russian military activity hasn’t been coordinated with U.S. since the very beginning.
QUESTION: No, but I mean, in Syria you – both parts actually said that you were sharing information or you were cooperating in the fight against ISIL or Daesh.
MR KIRBY: There was – yeah. You’re – let me tell you, you’re apples and I’m oranges here, man. I’m telling you, there’s been – there has been scant information going --
QUESTION: “You’re apples and I’m oranges.” That’s the phrase you were – (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: No, it wasn’t exactly the phrase I was looking for. But I do appreciate you chiming in. It’s always welcome.
And I won’t speak for Pentagon equities here, but just to make the point, the U.S. military officials and some Russian military officials have shared some information in order to de-conflict operations so that incidents did not occur and to preserve safety of flight. And there has been some sharing of information, no question about that. But that’s about the limit of it. I mean, if your question means that we should know or that the Russians should be telling us on any given day exactly what they’re moving out or what they’re moving in or where they’re moving to, I can tell you that that level of information is not part of that equation and it’s not happening. And I don’t even speak for U.S. military movements; I’m certainly not going to begin to speak for Russian military movements.
Now, President Putin made an announcement, and it’s up to him to characterize what that means and on what time scale and what scope. We have seen some aircraft in small numbers leave Syria, but I can’t tell you exactly how many, and I wouldn’t. And I can’t tell you whether this is some sort of rotational thing. Maybe they were just due to go home, or they needed maintenance, or whether this is part of his withdrawal. As we have said before, the – if he’s going to do as he said in terms of a significant withdrawal of military forces, then that could be a positive thing with respect to moving forward on the political process. But we’ll have to wait and see. It’s just too soon.
QUESTION: Would you welcome the Russian troops again into Syria if that were the case?
MR KIRBY: I won’t – I can’t speak to hypothetical situations I don’t even know will happen. The Russians have had a military interest and a presence in Syria for a long, long time. I don’t think anybody expects that that’s going to go away. And I think they’ve said very publicly they intend to maintain at least two bases that I’ve heard them speak to. And that’s an interest that they have had for a while, and they’ve obviously made clear that they want to perpetuate that. That they have a military presence in Syria doesn’t have to be a negative thing for the future of Syria. If that military presence is, as we’ve said before, is directed against Daesh, and if the Russians continue to play the role that they have played – quite frankly, a very helpful role in the political process, trying to get a political solution going.
But I can’t – I can’t answer your specific hypothetical. You’re asking me to characterize good or bad, and the answer is, as much as you’ll hate it, is it would depend. And we’d have to get to that point and then we can have that discussion about what they’re doing. As we’ve long said of our own military footprint in various places, it’s not just the size of the footprint that matters, although size does have an effect on outcomes. It’s also what that footprint’s doing, how – what military missions are they accomplishing. And again, we just have to wait and see.
I can tell you, as I – what we said, militarily, if they want to devote all their energies to going after Daesh, well, we would welcome that. We would think that would be helpful. But again, we have to wait and see.
QUESTION: Let me ask one last question. What is the level of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia at this point?
MR KIRBY: Militarily, I think I’d point you to my Pentagon colleagues. I simply don’t have a very specific knowledge about that. As I understand it, it’s limited to a rudimentary sharing of information for safety of flight and for preservation of the cessation of hostilities. There is – there are discussions, obviously, inside the task force. We’re co-chairs with the Russians on the cessation. So there is some sharing of information to make sure that the cessation is still being implemented, and it is. But beyond that, I’m afraid I don’t have much detail. I mean, I’d really refer you over to the Pentagon on that.
QUESTION: Do you have any update on the alleged American being held by the Kurds – the Peshmerga --
MR KIRBY: I do not. I don’t have an update on that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead. On Ukraine?
QUESTION: New subject? Yes.
Yesterday Mr. Toner commented on Victoria Nuland’s testimony on Ukraine in Congress and said, “It is incumbent on the Ukrainian Government to also enact political, economic reforms as part of its efforts to fully implement Minsk. So there is obligations, responsibilities on both sides, on all sides, but that’s the way to sanctions relief,” end of quote. It’s been more than a year now since Minsk agreement ceasefire has largely been holding, and eastern Ukraine has been waiting for Kyiv to deliver that ultimate political resolution to this conflict, which would be constitutional reform, decentralization, local elections, all of which Kyiv agreed to but more than a year later has not delivered. So sanctions against Russia are now tied to what Kyiv may or may not do. Do you think it’s fair?
MR KIRBY: The sanctions against Russia are going to continue as long as they continue to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine and until Minsk is implemented. That’s not going to change. So you’re asking me is it fair; it’s not about fair or not. It’s about keeping those sanctions in place and keeping that pressure on until Russia is in full compliance with its obligations. And we’ve long said --
QUESTION: Only Russia?
MR KIRBY: We’ve long said that we believe that Ukraine still has work to do on the political reform front, and I can assure you that we continue to press that case at every opportunity.
QUESTION: Ukraine too has obligations under this agreement. So according to the State Department, the sanctions relief depends on the full implementation of the Minsk agreement, so if Kyiv is not doing its part and Minsk agreements are not fully implemented, do you punish Russia? Is that --
MR KIRBY: The costs of sanctions that are being applied to Russia are specifically tied to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and Russia is not in full compliance of the Minsk agreement. And as Assistant Secretary Nuland said, that we’re going to keep those sanctions in place until they are.
Now, we believe that the Government of Ukraine can carry out the reforms and implement Minsk, and we recognize it’s not fully implemented. It’s the joint responsibility of Ukraine’s president, prime minister, and all those in government and in parliament to put aside their differences and deliver on the reforms that Ukrainians themselves demand. And we believe they will do so, and we will continue to monitor this and press that case as aggressively as we have.
QUESTION: The fact is – may I just – one more. The fact is that the ceasefire had been holding, but now, as Secretary – under – Assistant Secretary Nuland said, “But today, things are heating up again.” Are you surprised that things are heating up again, considering Kyiv has not delivered on the key political solution that would --
MR KIRBY: It’s not about surprise. It’s not about surprise.
QUESTION: -- that Ukraine needs to finally settle this conflict?
MR KIRBY: It’s not about surprise. We’re certainly not happy to see this. It – sadly, it’s not the first time that we have seen Minsk not be fully implemented and violations occur. And again, nothing’s changed about what we want to see happen or the case that we’re going to continue to press on political reforms in Ukraine, which we believe they can do, or on Russia’s obligations to meet their obligations under Minsk as well. We’re going to continue to press those cases as we have in the past.
QUESTION: But do you agree that --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, one more. One more. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you agree that Kyiv has not delivered that --
MR KIRBY: Ma’am, I’ve gone through this with you a couple of times now.
QUESTION: -- key political solution?
MR KIRBY: We’re going to go – we’re going to move on now, because I have answered this question now I think three times.
QUESTION: Thank you. The question is: As Secretary said, there’s a genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. He did not specify which Christian ethnic groups particularly. Could you please be more specific on that?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to be more specific, because he wasn’t more specific and there’s not a need to be more specific. We have seen various Christian communities suffer violent atrocities at the hands of Daesh.
QUESTION: Which various – when you say “various,” what do you mean?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to be more specific because there’s no need to be more specific. We have made the determination that Christian groups, Shia groups, certainly Yezidis have been victims of genocidal acts – genocide – by Daesh. And that’s as specific as we need to be in this case.
QUESTION: The Congress passed a resolution unanimously which specifies Armenian and Assyrian ethnic groups. Would you agree with that? Is your position in line with the Congress’s position?
MR KIRBY: I think I’m going to leave it where the Secretary left it today, and I think that’s the appropriate level.
QUESTION: I’ve got a couple of extremely brief ones. One is: You’ve seen that the Germans have closed their embassy and consulate in Turkey today. Do you have – is the U.S. aware of the – of the threat that caused them to do that and are you planning to take similar measures? That’s the first one.
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen the reports. I can’t speak for their reasons to do it. Ours remains open. Obviously, security is something we’re constantly monitoring, evaluating, and if we have a decision to announce, we will.
QUESTION: Secondly, have – can you say whether or not the Secretary has received a letter on Honduras that was sent and the murders of these activists – was sent, I believe, yesterday or the day before, asking for the U.S. to support independent investigation into --
MR KIRBY: We continue to call upon the Honduran Government to conduct a prompt, through, and transparent investigation.
QUESTION: Right. But you’re stopping short of calling for an independent investigation. I just wonder, do you know if he’s got the letter? It’s --
MR KIRBY: We – I know we’re in receipt of the letter.
QUESTION: And then the last one – and this may be the first time that you’ve been asked about this, but are you familiar, are you aware of the big fight that’s going on right now between Morocco and Ban Ki-moon over Western Sahara, the status of Western Sahara?
MR KIRBY: Over Western Sahara?
QUESTION: Have you ever been asked about Western Sahara? Is this the – this is your maiden --
MR KIRBY: Might be. Hang on a second. I might actually have something on that.
QUESTION: You’ve been carrying a pound of paperwork about Western Sahara for weeks? (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: It’s entirely possible that (inaudible).
QUESTION: So my question is, one, about this – this presumes --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, take your time, because it’s going to take me a while to find it.
QUESTION: All right. This presumes that you’re aware of this spat that’s going on right now. So – and if you are, I’m wondering if the United States takes a position on this or takes a side, if you side with Ban Ki-moon, or if you side with the Government of Morocco.
MR KIRBY: Matt, I know I’ve got it here somewhere, but rather than hold everybody up --
QUESTION: All right. You can send it to me, then.
MR KIRBY: -- let me get back to you on that. All right.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On Yemen, then? The – we asked Mark a couple of days ago about the airstrike on the market. And at the time he said he was aware of reports but couldn’t go very far in talking about them. Since then, the UN has said the death total has risen considerably; they’re talking about large numbers of civilians. They’re demanding an explanation. Obviously, the Secretary was in Saudi Arabia recently. The President’s going soon. Have you had any communications with Saudi Arabia about the airstrike and --
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen the reports. Obviously, concerned by any military activity in Syria that could or has caused --
MR KIRBY: -- civilian – I’m sorry – in Yemen – thank you for correcting me – that may have caused civilian causalities or damage to civilian infrastructure. We are in routine touch with leaders of the Saudi-led coalition on matters like this. I don’t have anything specific for this particular strike, but obviously, any loss of civilian life is a serious issue that we will continue to raise with the Saudi-led coalition there. But I just don’t have additional details right now.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:59 p.m.)