Daily Press Briefing - May 17, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:12 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Hello, everybody.
MR KIRBY: Okay, I got a couple of things here at the top I want to hit. First, on the attacks in Baghdad, I think it can go without saying that the United States strongly condemns the barbaric terrorist attacks in Iraq today that deliberately and specifically targeted civilians. Initial estimates right now project something over 70 people have been killed, many more injured, in what we now know are three separate attacks. Of course, we extend our deepest condolences, our thoughts, and sympathies to all those affected by this terrible violence.
These attacks are the latest reminder of the danger that this group continues to pose to all Iraqis and the importance of Iraqi leaders from all communities to continue to work together so that progress against Daesh can continue to be made. It’s a very serious threat still in the country. For our part, the United States and our coalition partners will continue to provide the training and support to the Iraqi Security Forces that they need so that they can continue to defend and to protect the Iraqi people.
I want to also add a note on the Trans Adriatic Pipeline project and note that the United States welcomes today’s groundbreaking of that pipeline project. TAP, as it’s known, is the final link in the Southern Corridor project, which will bring gas from Azerbaijan to other areas of Europe. As we’ve said before, we remain committed to energy diversification on the European continent, which will increase Europe’s energy security and advance regional stability and prosperity. And we look forward to watching this important project proceed, which will strengthen, we believe, the economies of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Greece, and Italy specifically.
And then finally, on Burma, I know you all have been tracking the news today out of the Treasury Department as today the government announced steps to support the success of Burma’s new democratic government, including the recalibration of sanctions on Burma. And we did this to demonstrate support for the new government’s democratic reforms and to promote broad-based, inclusive economic development. These steps are intended to support trade with Burma, facilitate the movement of goods within Burma, allow certain incidental transactions related to certain individuals residing in Burma – U.S. individuals residing in Burma, and to allow more – most transactions involving designated financial institutions in Burma. To incentivize further democratic reforms and to maintain pressure on targeted individuals and entities and the military, the basic sanctions architecture will remain in place.
And I know you’ve been following that. Of course, the Treasury Department is available to answer more specific questions about it, but I did want to make clear that here at the State Department, we welcome this recalibration of the sanctions regime.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: What did you achieve out of today’s ISSG in terms of halting the violence and further – furthering the effort to get a political solution?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think the Secretary addressed the progress that was made today in the press conference. And I think it was not insignificant that – and he said this himself – that with respect to the cessation of hostilities, all the members of the ISSG, which now includes four additional countries – all of them agreed to transform the cessation of hostilities to a true ceasefire nationwide and that can be enduring.
In keeping with that, they also agreed that if – two things. One, they provided a process by which systemic or persistent violations can be brought to the ISSG writ large, as a group, to adjudicate. And two, that those – that persistent violations would render the violator ineligible to be – to have the ceasefire applied to them. And I think that’s the first time that the ISSG was so specific in terms of repercussions that could accrue – or be applied to, is a better word to put it – to people that violate the cessation of hostilities.
So I think – did the meeting today stop all the violations? Well, of course, not. And we’re still concerned about violations that continue. But it did provide more clarity in terms of what we’re trying to get the cessation to be, nationwide and enduring; and two, provide some clarity and some accountability, quite frankly, for members of the ISSG on how they can deal with and hold accountable people that – I shouldn’t say people – groups that persistently violate.
QUESTION: Hasn’t it been clear since February the 27th that it was indeed your desire for the cessation of hostilities to be nationwide and enduring?
MR KIRBY: Yes, it has always been the case.
QUESTION: So did you really need clarity on that point?
MR KIRBY: Well, I would say that given the violations that we had seen over the last several weeks, and given the fairly time-limited and geographic – geography-limited nature of some of the understandings – not by all members but by some members – I think yes, it was important to have a broader, deeper discussion, to revisit the issue today of what the cessation really was intended to be back in the winter and what it needs to be going forward.
QUESTION: Can you envisage the United States or Russia actively targeting groups whom you believe are persistent violators of the ceasefire?
MR KIRBY: I don’t want to get into hypothesizing about specific military operations. I think you know that I’m reticent to do that. I would point you back to the language in the communique today, which makes it clear that those violators that persistently violate and that the ISSG determines has persistently violated will find themselves no longer a party to the cessation, and they do that at their own peril. Now, what exactly that means in terms of kinetic activity I’m really not at liberty to discuss.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, the reason I’m asking is that the utility of that threat or the threat of consequences or repercussions, to use your word, rests largely on the credibility of the threat. And if you’re not even willing to say that you could see this country or Russia directly going after the people you regard as responsible, I don’t see why they should take this – why should they take this threat of repercussion seriously?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think just by dint of the kinds of strikes that have been done in the past in Syria, what we’ve seen certainly by the regime and also by the Russian military in the past, should be enough all by itself to indicate to those who would consider being persistent violators of the risk they’re putting themselves and their forces under.
Again, I don’t want to try to get ahead of tactical decisions that haven’t been made yet. And obviously, the purpose for today’s discussion was to try to prevent that from ever happening, to make it clear that they do this at their own peril and that there’s going to be a limit to the international community’s patience for persistent and consistent violations of the cessation. But we have seen – we have seen times in the past when groups have put themselves at risk by some other activity, and if they need – I would find it surprising that they would need proof that that risk is real, given what we’ve seen happen in the past.
The other thing your question raises is the – and you may have seen it in the communique or in the Secretary’s discussion – is that we – and I’ve said it from the podium that we urge – we know there’s commingling happening, physical commingling. Some of that’s unavoidable, given the dynamic, fluid situations, and particularly in places like Aleppo. But the communique specifically calls attention to that and actively urges groups to avoid putting themselves in greater peril by putting themselves close to groups – in this case there’s still only two – that are not party to the cessation.
So again, I think today’s communique does provide more clarity, given what we’ve seen happen in the last several weeks, provides more clarity to the situation on the ground and to our expectations of all the parties who are actually on the ground and engaged.
QUESTION: Do you regard it as a setback that no date has yet been agreed for resumption of the Geneva talks?
MR KIRBY: Of the talks? No, I wouldn’t call it – I don’t think that anybody regards it as a setback, Arshad. You may have seen Special Envoy de Mistura’s comments after that. He recognizes that they need to resume the talks as soon as possible. But even in the lead-up to today’s meeting, we knew that there would be not – there would not be another set of talks until there was another ISSG meeting. So I think we all recognize that today’s meeting was an important step to getting to another round of talks. I don’t think that anybody – well, I shouldn’t say anybody. I can only speak for the Secretary. The Secretary didn’t go into the ISSG today with the expectation that he would come out with a date on the calendar that the talks would resume.
But the special envoy, Mr. de Mistura, also made clear that he’s mindful of the clock. Ramadan’s coming the first week of June. There is now – there’s a renewed sense of momentum here to try to get this ceasefire truly transformed and humanitarian access better delivered. So there is a sense of momentum coming of Vienna, and I think that Special Envoy de Mistura understands that sense of momentum and made it clear that he’s going to be working hard to try to get something on the calendar as soon as possible.
But no – and I know this is a long answer, but no, there was no expectation so that there’s no reason why the Secretary would feel disappointed that he’s coming out of Vienna without a specific date.
QUESTION: Just one more from me. Do you – the Secretary, in response to a question about how much leverage --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- he does or does not have said there’s leverage standing to the right of me, meaning Foreign Minister Lavrov.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: There’s leverage in Iran, which, of course, is a part of the ISSG. But do you see any --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- evidence whatsoever that Russia or Iran is interested in exercising such leverage as it has to stop the ceasefire violations?
MR KIRBY: The – I think the best thing for me to do would be to point you to what Foreign Minister Lavrov himself said today in answer to those questions about their vision for Syria and the goals they’re trying to achieve inside the ISSG. They made it very clear that the – that they continue to support the communiques – now we have four after today – and the UN Security Council resolution and that they continue to believe in a political transition that is determined by the Syrian people and a whole, unified, sectarian Syria. So when the Secretary says you have leverage right here in Foreign Minister Lavrov and in Russia, I think he has reason to believe that that leverage exists.
Now the question is --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) exercise it?
MR KIRBY: -- are they exercising it. And I think – I’ve said before that at times it hasn’t been clear either that the leverage is as significant as once thought or that they were willing to exercise it as much. We certainly hope that they do. We know they have leverage, as does Tehran. And we hope that that – that they use that leverage in a constructive way, in keeping with the UN Security Council resolution and the political process that the ISSG has agreed on. And all I can do is point you back to what Mr. Lavrov said today, which was that they had every intention of exercising that leverage and to participating constructively to trying to get the regime to do the right thing.
QUESTION: But what makes you think they’re going to do that today, after a fourth piece of paper, when they didn’t do it after three pieces of paper, all of which they signed up to?
MR KIRBY: Well, we have seen them exercise leverage in a constructive way, though, Arshad, in the past. I mean, you remember back when the cessation was first agreed to after Munich, we saw a dramatic decrease in attacks on civilians and on the opposition. Did we see a perfect end of the violence? No. But we did see a dramatic decrease in the violence, and we know that that had – that that was a direct result of influence by Moscow on the Assad regime. So we know that that influence is there.
It was a clear and unequivocal message that Moscow sent to the Assad regime when President Putin made the decision to withdraw some – obviously not all, but some – of his military forces, largely in the form of aircraft, tactical aircraft, from Syria. And that clearly had an impact on the Assad regime. So we know that that leverage exists.
We also know that Russia has agreed to all the foundational elements of the political process enshrined in the Security Council Resolution 2254 in Syria. So they have agreed to the same consensus initiatives that the international community has. They have used that influence on Assad to effect constructive behavior in the past. So the short answer is yes, we – I think we have good reason to understand that they have and can use that influence in a positive way.
As I’ve – but again – and I don’t want to drag this on longer, but as I’ve also said from the podium, it at times – particularly in the more recent past, it hasn’t always been evident that they have been willing to use that influence in the most constructive way. We hope, coming out of Vienna today, that there will be a renewed push by all parties – by them, by Iran, and by other members of the ISSG who have influence on other parties in Syria to use that influence constructively.
QUESTION: Mark admitted from this podium a couple of weeks ago that there has been an intermingling, as he put it, of the so-called moderate opposition and extremist and terrorist elements in and around of Aleppo. Do you think it’s still the case? What is the U.S. Government estimation of the situation at this point? Because you promised to --
MR KIRBY: Well, I think --
QUESTION: -- send a signal to the opposition to stop doing that.
MR KIRBY: Right. So a couple of thoughts: I think clearly, Aleppo remains a fluid dynamic environment, and I’m certainly not in a position to rebut the notion that there remains, to use your phrase, an “intermingling problem.”
QUESTION: That was Mark’s.
MR KIRBY: Okay, to use Mark’s phrase, an “intermingling problem.” We certainly recognize that that’s still a concern. And that is why, if you look at the communique today, the ISSG specifically calls on those who are parties to the cessation to physically – and it says that – physically avoid proximity to groups that are not party to the cessation.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, let me go here, then I’ll come back to you.
MR KIRBY: It’s not Syria. Are we staying on Syria?
MR KIRBY: Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: John, you were talking about the message that Russia has sent to President Assad after – when they withdrew some of their troops in Syria. What was that message? And what changes did you see in Syria after this message?
MR KIRBY: I think it was – the message, we believe, was a clear frustration with the Assad regime’s continued violations of the founding elements of UNSCR 2254, and an aggression, certainly with respect to the opposition and to territory that was not in keeping with the direction that the international community wanted to go in in Syria. So I think it was a message of frustration. And as I’ve said in my answer to Arshad, we saw after that decision decreased activity by the Assad regime very tangibly. So we have seen evidence, we have seen it work when the Russians use the influence they have over Assad.
QUESTION: And my second question is: In a testimony in the Senate today, there was a question about Russia, if the – or the Russians, if they can or they want to exercise their leverage on the Syrian regime. Do you have any answer to this question: Do they want, or they want but they can’t?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think I kind of dealt with this in my questions – my answers to Arshad. I mean, look, first of all, your question is better put to officials in Moscow. I can’t predict what Russian leaders will or won’t do. I can only point you back to what Foreign Minister Lavrov said today about the seriousness with which Russia is taking the situation in Syria. Their commitment, again renewed today, to the founding elements of the UN Security Council resolution and to the now four communiques put out by the International Syria Support Group. I can only point you to what they have said verbally and what they have said in writing about their commitments going forward. But as to their future decisions they might make with respect to the leverage and the influence they have, I mean, that’s – that’s questions that are better put to officials in Moscow. We have seen when they use their influence, when they exercise that, we have seen that it does have an effect on Assad, unquestionably.
QUESTION: But do they what --
MR KIRBY: And we want them to continue to do that.
QUESTION: Do they do what they say, or --
MR KIRBY: Again, I can’t – and I’m not going to get into a day-by-day parceling out of every decision Moscow makes or doesn’t make. We have seen examples in the past where they use their influence where it can have a constructive effect, productive effect on the violence in Syria. We have seen the cessation work. We have also seen it fail in certain areas and over certain periods of time. What we want to see coming out of Vienna is that it becomes a true nationwide ceasefire, that it becomes enduring, that it’s not tied to the clock on the wall, and it’s not tied to a spot on a map, that all Syrians can live in peace.
We know – and Russia’s but one country in the ISSG – obviously an important one because they have unique influence over Assad. We know that when the members of the ISSG truly use the influence that they have – and we have some influence, too; not on Assad, of course, but on some of the groups on the ground – when that influence is being used, it can have a positive effect on the violence. And all we’re saying – and you can, again, look at the communique today – all anybody’s saying is we want to see that influence be continued to be exerted in the most constructive way possible.
So if you’re asking me can they, absolutely they can, because we’ve seen it in the past when they have. If you’re asking me will they, that’s a question you got to pose to leaders in Moscow. All I can do, again, is point you back to what Foreign Minister Lavrov himself said today about their – the seriousness with which they are taking the situation in Syria and their commitment – again, stated in writing and in word – to the communique that was signed today.
But the last thing I’ll say on this, Michel – and maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, and the Secretary has said many times – words on paper are important. They are commitments. But what matters more are deeds and actions and the actual exertion of the influence. And that’s what we’re going to be looking for from Russia, from Iran, and from every other entity, organization, and nation that was represented there today in Vienna, including ourselves. We’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard of compliance as well.
QUESTION: What about Iran? I mean, they continue to fight the war in Syria through their proxies and their military, and they are members of the ISSG.
MR KIRBY: That’s right.
QUESTION: I mean, how does this work?
MR KIRBY: That’s right. It’s the same. The same principle applies to Iran as applies to Russia or to any other nation. They have influence over Assad, you’re right; they do have – I mean, they do support proxy elements there in Syria. And our expectations are no different for Iran as they are from any other nation who has equities there in Syria – that they use that influence to back up and to support the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and to the now four communiques that lay out what the process needs to be to get to a political solution in Syria. Our expectations for Tehran are exactly the same.
QUESTION: So this statement about the consequences of not sticking to the cessation, of not observing the cessation, I’m having a hard time understanding which violators that statement refers to.
MR KIRBY: All violators.
QUESTION: So does that include – because people from the podium there have – you – (laughter) – have talked about violators including the Syrian Government, including the Iranians, Hizballah, the Russians. And I’m trying to understand, how are they going to – I mean, when you talk about violators, earlier today you were talking about – you were saying, well, if they’re violators, then they’ll be – we’ve seen what the Syrian air force and the Russian air force has done, and this is the kind of thing that they would face. So are you saying that the Iranians and the Syrians and the Russians are going to face the same kind of consequences?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate about specific consequences. But the short answer to your question is yes. If you look at the communique, it doesn’t delineate one violator from another. And again, this is about persistent violations. This is about systemic violations. This is about people that violate the cessation in a manner – in a consistent, persistent way. And it doesn’t delineate in there one from another. A violator of the cessation is a violator of the cessation, and if those violations persist, if they continue, and the ISSG has determined that they have done so in such a consistent, recalcitrant manner that they are no longer going to be considered a party to the cessation, then that’s the decision the ISSG will make. And then puts them at greater risk.
QUESTION: But the ISSG includes Iran and Russia, right?
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: And we’re expecting them to – the ISSG as a group, including Iran and Russia, to say possibly that Russia or Syria has been a persistent violator if that happens?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’m not going to hypothesize about future violations. Again, I’d point you back to the language today, that it doesn’t discriminate. It says all violations that are persistent in nature and that the ISSG determines should no longer – whoever that group is should no longer be allowed to consider themselves a party to the cessation by dint of their own actions against the cessation.
QUESTION: But hasn’t the problem been so far that the – members of the ISSG don’t agree on that? Why would they agree on that in the future?
MR KIRBY: Again, I’d point you to the communique today, which makes – which they’ve all signed up to. I mean, they did all agree. That language is not U.S. language or Saudi Arabia language or Qatar language or Russia language. It’s ISSG language. Everybody agreed to that – to taking that approach with respect to persistent violations going forward.
QUESTION: And is there a mechanism separate from the U.S.-Russian monitoring mechanism that’s part of this ISSG --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of a new mechanism created by this. There is, however, a robust task force that we have made more robust in recent days that the U.S. and Russia co-chairs. The cessation of hostilities task force will continue to do its work, in terms of trying to collate the information as best they can, analyze what’s going on, and then share that information broadly. That effort has already been boosted in terms of staffing and resourcing and effort, and I think that will continue. I’m not aware of any new mechanism created by this.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question on Saudi Arabia?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: So the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act passed the Senate, as you probably heard --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- and will go to the House and almost certainly pass there, and, in fact, may get two-thirds – enough – two-thirds support so that it would override a veto possibly. How much concern – I know the White House has expressed concern about the legal precedents and risks that this could entail for Americans overseas, but how much concern here in this building, particularly with regards to how this affects relations with Saudi Arabia?
MR KIRBY: Well, let me just first we continue to have concerns with the bill. And --
QUESTION: So the changes haven’t --
MR KIRBY: They have not assuaged our concerns about the broader issue here with respect to national immunity. So we still have, as I said, concerns about the potential unintended consequences that are represented in this bill. And as my colleague at the White House said, we’re going to continue to work with members of Congress to do the best we can to have those concerns addressed. So we’re going to continue to express those, and we welcome opportunities to engage with the Congress in that discussion as the bill continues to go forward. And there are steps to be had yet.
As for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, it goes without saying that our relationship is very close and we have benefited from Saudi Arabia’s leadership and constructive efforts with respect specifically to what’s going on in Syria. They are a member of the ISSG; they were there – represented there in Vienna. And it was the Saudis, as you might recall, who hosted the meeting in Riyadh in December that led to the first sort of coalescing of the opposition. So they have been a key member of this effort from the very beginning. They are also a key partner in the fight against terrorism in the region writ large, and I see nothing that will prevent us from continuing to broaden and deepen that relationship, which is so vital not just in the region, but around the world.
QUESTION: Do --
MR KIRBY: And again – and we’ve made clear our opposition to this bill.
QUESTION: Is this something the Saudis regularly raise with you when Mr. Kerry sees them?
MR KIRBY: I think I’d be hard pressed to say that this particular issue is raised each and every time there’s a conversation with Saudi leaders, as you might expect, given the press of issues going on in the region. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov speak very, very frequently. Has this come up in the past in those conversations? Absolutely it has. And the foreign minister has made clear his government’s opposition to the bill on – from their perspective. So it has been discussed. I suspect as it goes forward, I can’t rule out that it would continue to come up as an agenda item in those conversations, in those bilateral discussions. But is it dominating every discussion; is it looming over every single issue that the Secretary and the foreign minister or the Secretary and foreign leaders in Saudi Arabia talk about? No. No.
QUESTION: John, I think you said Foreign Minister Lavrov instead of Foreign Minister Jubeir.
QUESTION: Oh, yeah, you did. Yeah, you did.
MR KIRBY: Jubeir. I’m sorry. Sorry. Foreign Minister Jubeir. Thank you. I apologize.
QUESTION: Well, did – did --
MR KIRBY: We’ll correct that for the transcript.
QUESTION: Since you mentioned the conversation between Secretary Kerry and Saudi officials, was this topic a matter of discussion during the last visit of Secretary Kerry to Jeddah?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know that this particular issue came up, Nic. The discussion in Jeddah was really focused more on regional security and stability issues. I’m not aware that this particular issue came up. Again, we have made very clear our opposition to the bill. The Secretary has testified to that. And as I said in my previous answer, we’re going to continue to look for opportunities to discuss this with members of Congress.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yesterday, apparently you have been listened by the French president, because after your statement the French decided to postpone their meeting scheduled later this month in Paris. So one, do you have a date – I mean, did you offer a new date to the French to organize this meeting? Or do you think that your message has been heard by the French that you are not really excited by the prospect of having a meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Paris?
MR KIRBY: We – I have nothing to announce today in terms of timing. As I said yesterday, we continue to engage in conversations with the French about a date that might work better for the Secretary to attend. I’m not aware that such a date has been arrived at, so I don't have anything specific to announce on the schedule. But as the Secretary said when we were in Paris just last week, that we welcome all manner of discussion and all constructive ideas that can help lead us to better prospects for a two-state solution.
QUESTION: But given the fact that the Israelis are opposed to this conference, given the fact that the U.S. has always led the international effort on the conflict, are you – I mean, do you think that it’s a good idea that the French and the Europeans organize this kind of conference?
MR KIRBY: Again, I think the Secretary made clear that we welcome – we’re not going to turn up our nose at any opportunity to have a constructive dialogue and to perhaps come up with ideas and solutions to get us to a two-state solution. I mean, it’s that important. It’s that important to us. It’s that important to the region, certainly to many other nations around the world. And so we welcome a good, meaningful, constructive dialogue to help us work through this problem and to try to help us come up with better solutions. I don't know how else to put it. I mean, we’re interested in continuing to talk to the French about their proposals and their ideas. And as I said, when we have a better sense of what the timing could be in terms of the Secretary’s participation, we’ll certainly make that known.
QUESTION: And is Secretary Kerry still hopeful to try to restart a direct dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians before he leaves office?
MR KIRBY: I would just say that I don’t think you’re going to see the Secretary – the Secretary’s interest or energy diminished at all for as long as he is Secretary of State with respect to trying to get to a two-state solution.
QUESTION: John, on this, do you feel that he U.S. bears responsibility for delaying or rescheduling this conference or this meeting?
MR KIRBY: These are decisions that the – this is a French initiative and decisions that the French are making with respect to timing and organization of it. We’re certainly grateful that they were willing to take into account the Secretary’s scheduling issues. And again, when we have a better sense of timing, we’ll have more to announce on that.
Are we staying on this? Any more on this issue?
QUESTION: Change of subject.
MR KIRBY: Okay, go ahead.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- what is the U.S. position on the talks that’s going on between Government of Afghanistan and Hezb-e-Islami of Afghanistan faction by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? Is the U.S. also involved in the peace talks?
MR KIRBY: Well, as we’ve said all along, that we support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process for a negotiated solution – sorry, resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. All relevant groups, including Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, should be a part of such a political dialogue so that Afghans can talk directly to other Afghans about the future of their country. So in this regard, we would welcome political negotiations that have been taking place. Among the Afghan Government, the Afghan High Peace Council, and the representatives of HIG – otherwise that’s the – an acronym for that group – we’re going to continue to seek reconciliation conditions, including that any reconciled group must end the violence – these are end conditions, not preconditions – that any reconciled group must end violence, break associations with international terrorism, and accept Afghanistan’s constitution, as we’ve said many times, which includes the protections for women and for minorities.
So we don’t have preconditions going into this, but this is an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process.
QUESTION: And was the U.S. involved in these peace talks in any way, even as a observer?
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any participation by the United States in this. Obviously, we’re watching this and we’re interested in it and we’ll continue to monitor it, but this is at its core, and we believe needs to remain, an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process.
QUESTION: And do you also have any idea where is the peace talks with Taliban? What’s the status of that?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update for you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m sure you saw that former Ambassador Ryan Crocker published an op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday opposing efforts to limit the number of special immigrant visas for Afghan citizens. Do you agree with Ambassador Crocker’s position?
MR KIRBY: Well, we have seen the ambassador’s opinion piece, and we note that he urged Congress to approve the additional visa slots that we had asked for, so in that regard, we certainly welcome his support for the additional visas that we would like to see get approved.
QUESTION: And then --
QUESTION: How many – sorry.
QUESTION: Are you aware that officials in the U.S. embassy in Kabul were among those who raised concerns about the structure of this visa program?
MR KIRBY: No, I’ve not seen reports about that.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on this.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: How many (inaudible) visas you have asked for the Congress?
MR KIRBY: It’s an additional 3,000.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. But back to your – I haven’t seen those reports, but I do want to underscore how important we believe our obligations are here at the State Department and inside the United States Government to continue to look after those who so carefully and skillfully looked after us both in the military and in the diplomatic corps. We know we have an obligation to them, and that’s why we’re going to continue to work with Congress to see if we can’t get more opportunities for them to avail themselves of this program.
MR KIRBY: I came to you before; I’ll come back.
QUESTION: A new topic?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: CSIS yesterday released a bunch of photos on satellite image showing that Vietnam has been constructing on 10 islands and reefs in South China Sea for the past two years. Do you have a response to that? And can you confirm that the U.S. has asked Vietnam to halt those constructions, but Vietnam has rejected?
MR KIRBY: What I would say is that publicly and in private discussions we’ve consistently called on all claimants, including Vietnam, to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and new militarization of disputed features. So this is something that we have made clear to all claimants.
QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel recently just visited Vietnam. Has this – the South China Sea issues – been brought up?
MR KIRBY: Has – in his meetings --
QUESTION: In his meeting with Vietnamese official during his --
MR KIRBY: I don’t have a specific readout of his discussion. I’d refer you to our East Asia Pacific Bureau, which we could probably get you a better sense. So I can’t answer the question specifically. That said, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if issues of what’s going on in South China Sea come up. They always do when we’re talking to our friends, allies, and partners in the region.
QUESTION: But obviously, Vietnam hasn’t answered your call to halt the construction, so will the United States, to further bring pressure --
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to get ahead of speculative or hypothetical actions one way or another, or decisions that we might make or the Vietnamese might make. We’ve made clear what our expectations are for all claimants and what our – more broadly, what our expectations are for security and stability in the region, and how best we think that that can be pursued.
I’ve already got you. Way in the back there.
QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to get back to yesterday’s meeting in Vienna, where the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair country high-ranking representative, including Secretary of State John Kerry, met the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: John, according to your information, was there any progress made over there regarding the initiative that actually comes from the United States to install --
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, look --
QUESTION: -- special equipment and to investigate the violations that may occur in Karabakh?
MR KIRBY: So a couple of things here. I mean, I’ll give you a little bit of thoughts here, but I encourage you to go on our website and look at the joint statement that everybody issued at the end. I mean, that makes it very clear what was discussed and the constructive attitude and demeanor of all the participants in this meeting. Both presidents committed themselves to respect the ceasefire, to put in place important confidence-building measures, and to begin negotiations next month that can lead to a comprehensive settlement. They demonstrated what we believe to be political will to move beyond the status quo and to take steps that can benefit all the people in the region. And so as the Secretary made clear, the United States, for our part, will stand ready to assist them in that regard whatever they – in whatever way they can.
So look, it was a positive meeting and a step in the right direction. And now everybody has to do the hard work of implementing the things that they committed to.
QUESTION: John, according to various sources – and I have Stratfor’s article in front of me – Armenia and Karabakh have been open to the idea of installing these gun detectors. Russia too has been receptive. Azerbaijan, though, has flatly rejected it, end of quote. Would you elaborate on this?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen that article so I’m not going to respond to everything you’re seeing there. I simply would point you back to the joint statement that was issued yesterday in which both presidents acknowledged a commitment to the ceasefire and to moving the process forward and to starting to have more discussions next month, which we think is a positive development.
QUESTION: According to best of your information, has Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to this initiative prior to Vienna meeting?
MR KIRBY: I can – sir, I can only point you back to what was discussed yesterday and the commitment that both presidents made. And I think that really speaks for itself.
MR KIRBY: Iraq? Sure.
QUESTION: In the wake of another bloody day of carnage in Baghdad, is the attack by ISIS a sign that the terror group is not as close to being wiped out, despite claims by members of the Administration saying that ISIS is shrinking?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s – I’m not sure what you mean by shrinking, but – so let me just --
QUESTION: Or making --
MR KIRBY: Let me try to dissect this because it’s a great question. There’s no question, no doubt at all, by almost any measure, that this group is under increasing pressure and has been forced increasingly on the defensive. They haven’t – they haven’t grabbed any new ground or acquired new territory of any significance since May, since almost a – well, yeah, a year ago, May of last year. They are having trouble recruiting. They’re having trouble retaining. And we’re learning more and more from defectors about their dissatisfaction in the ranks. And it’s becoming – they are resulting to more extortion, for instance, in order not just to try to make up the revenues they’re losing, but to exert the influence over local populations that they are now starting to lose. They have definitely lost, by some accounts, a third, if not more, of their revenues from – simply from things like oil. So this is a group that’s very much under pressure. And we are – as we look at them, we’re not – you’re not seeing them operate, communicate, resource themselves at all like they were even six, eight months ago. So there’s no question that this group is under more pressure.
One thing we have seen – and again, this isn’t about – this isn’t a subject of analysis; it’s true – one thing we’ve seen, as they have continued to come under more and more pressure, they continue to resort to tactics like we’re seeing in Baghdad and elsewhere, even in places in Europe – more targeted, more individualistic terrorist violence, whether it’s vehicle-borne explosive devices or suicide bombings. And so we are seeing them resort more and more on those kinds of tactics where they can, in their view, achieve some matter of success and particularly get attention for their efforts through these very dramatic, very violent acts.
That said – and I really want to underscore this, because I said this at the outset – they still remain a dangerous group. Nobody’s turning a blind eye to their capabilities. Nobody’s walking away from the fact that the pressure has to continue to be applied. There has been success by the coalition, but that is not – it’s not to be taken lightly and it’s certainly not to be considered foregone if we don’t keep it up. We have now 66 nations in the coalition, now that Afghanistan has joined, and the work against this group exists on many lines of effort, not just military. And I can assure you that, for our part, the United States is going to continue to keep the pressure up on them, because they have proven resilience in the past.
So we are seeing them weaker. We are seeing them use more traditional terror tactics to strike out, in part because they’re weaker. They can’t operate the same way. They don’t have the same quasi-military capabilities that they once had. But it doesn’t mean that they aren’t still dangerous.
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- if the aid convoys continue to be blocked? How is that going to work and who’s going to conduct them and provide security?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think – again, I’d point you back to the communique. It said very clearly that if, by the 1st of June, we haven’t seen an improvement in – a significant improvement in humanitarian access, the World Food Program would be enlisted to conduct more airdrops. They have done airdrops in the past. This is not a new thing for the World Food Program. They’ve done it successfully in the past in Syria, so we know they can do it in the future. And again, the communique said that the members of the ISSG would work together and in unison to help create the conditions for which – or under which those airdrops can be successful.
QUESTION: So who’s going to provide the security for those airdrops?
MR KIRBY: Your question presumes that there has to be a measure of security for each and every airdrop. There have been successful airdrops in the past that didn’t require, quote/unquote, “physical security” accompanying them. And I wouldn’t get into speculating about military operations one way or the other in the future. What, again, I would point you to is the language in the communique, which says the members of the ISSG will work together to create the conditions so that those airdrops can be successful. But they have – again, it’s not like it hasn’t happened in the past. WFP have done this in the past and done it successfully.
Gordon, way in the back there.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Two quick --
QUESTION: Oh --
MR KIRBY: No, not you, Goyal. Gordon. (Laughter.) I’ll come to you. I’ll get to you.
MR KIRBY: I’m going to a former Pentagon colleague.
QUESTION: -- put your answer about Iraq in the context of the Abadi government and talk for a minute about the – your current assessment of the government and how – if these sustained casualties the ISF are taking undermine its popular support and undermine its ability to kind of manage this – what seems like maybe a new phase by ISIS in Iraq.
MR KIRBY: I don’t think we’ve seen any indication thus far that casualties incurred by Iraqi Security Forces are undermining popular support for the effort against Daesh. This is a very real, substantial threat to the Iraqi people that the Abadi government is taking seriously, and frankly, the Iraqi people are taking seriously. And that’s why our advise and assist mission is so important there. So I’ve seen no indications that there is an erosion necessarily of public support for the mission in light of the casualties taken by Iraqi Security Forces. I think the Iraqis know all too well and too sadly that the fight against Daesh is a dangerous, lethal fight, and that their forces are going to come under fire and face – and be put in harm’s way.
I would tell you that we continue to see Iraqi Security Forces fight bravely. We are going to continue to stay committed to making sure that they have the competence and the capabilities they need to continue to do so. They have had recent successes – you’ve covered this well yourself – recent successes, particularly out in Anbar. And it’s our expectations that those successes will continue – with coalition support, no question about it.
But the last thing I’ll say is that we continue to support Prime Minister Abadi in his reform efforts, in his efforts to form a unity government to move the country forward, and to continue – and he has stayed committed to this – to continue to properly resource, to properly lead, and to properly man and staff Iraqi Security Forces that can remain competent and capable to the threat.
Goyal. I’ll come back to you, Arshad; you’ve been very patient. Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: Two quick questions, one on India. As far as Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit is concerned, are there any discussions going on between the U.S. and India what will happen during his visit? And also, how this – his visit will be different than he made several in the past?
MR KIRBY: Well, Goyal, I’m not going to speak to the specific agenda or schedule for a foreign leader. That’s really for Prime Minister Modi and his staff to speak to. I’ll just say again, like we said before, this is a very special relationship. It’s one that we – excuse me – that we’re very committed to, and we look forward to continuing to work with Prime Minister Modi on all the different areas in which the United States and India will and must work together.
MR KIRBY: I addressed this --
QUESTION: -- how much trust do you think the Secretary has in this new government, and what --
MR KIRBY: Well --
QUESTION: -- as far as sanctions and others are going to --
MR KIRBY: Well, I addressed this at the top. Obviously, we’re very supportive of the decisions made by the Treasury Department with – in terms of recalibrating these sanctions. It’s an indication of how far Burma has come. It’s also a frank assessment that they still have progress that they need to make. The Secretary looks forward to visiting in the next few days. We’ve talked about that. So he looks forward to having direct conversations with leaders there about the situation in Burma and where things are going. We look forward – we look very much forward to that.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR KIRBY: Arshad.
QUESTION: One on Chile. And I apologize; you may not have seen this. I only saw it a couple of minutes before the briefing began. The Chilean supreme court has asked the United States to extradite three Pinochet-era – three people who worked for Pinochet’s security services and who were accused of having killed a UN diplomat in 1976. Do you have any comment on their request for extradition?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen that report. But as a matter of course, and I think you know, we don’t discuss the specifics of extradition cases.
QUESTION: Not far from Chile – Venezuela. What’s your take on the political crisis, which is deepening in Venezuela? And you may have seen that, but President Maduro accused the U.S. military to have sent an aircraft last week over Venezuela.
MR KIRBY: Well, I think I’ll let the military speak to the second part of your question. I don’t have any information on that. But just broadly speaking, I would note that we continue to stand with the international community in expressing our concerns about the difficult conditions the Venezuelan people are experiencing, including worsening shortages of food, medicine, electricity, and basic consumer goods. We believe the solution to these challenges are – is going to require the inclusion of all interested parties, and now, we believe, is the time for leaders to listen to diverse Venezuelan voices and to work together peacefully to find solutions.
The last thing I’ll add is that we continue to call for respect for the will of the people, the rule of law, the separation of powers within the government, and the democratic process there.
I’ve got time for just one more. Do we have one? Okay. Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:08 p.m.)