Daily Press Briefing - November 21, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:16 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Just a short topper here about Afghanistan. I think you guys have all seen press reporting out of Kabul. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack this morning on a Shia mosque in Kabul – an attack that killed more than 30 innocent worshippers and wounded what looks to be more than 50 people. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and the friends, obviously, of all those killed, injured and affected by this attack. We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Afghanistan, and we remain firmly committed to helping build a secure, peaceful, and prosperous future in Afghanistan which is free of sectarian violence.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Right, thanks. So I’ll start with my daily post-election-until-January-21 question. I know you don’t – won’t speak for the transition team, but I just want to know: From the State Department’s point of view, is everything going the way it should?
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, in terms of making sure that they’ve got office spaces to work out of and that they were greeted on Friday, and we stand by today and the days coming to support them, yes, obviously. I won’t speak for them or their work plan, but as I understand it – I don’t know what their activities are specifically today, but as I understand it, they did intend to come into the building today to resume their work. But I don’t have --
QUESTION: All right. I’m just curious if you know of meetings beyond the standard, like – kind of like “How do you get in, where your office is, maybe a map”?
MR KIRBY: I – my understanding is that they were going to start to put those kinds of meetings on their schedule, but I don’t have visibility into --
QUESTION: No, I’m not asking for specifics, but just, I mean, are they beyond – or from the Department’s point of view, are they beyond the “Here’s a map of the” – “Here’s how you get to the cafeteria” kind of thing, or have they gotten into any kind of policy?
MR KIRBY: I won’t speak for them and their familiarity with where the cafeteria is. I will tell you that some of them – as I think you know – have worked in the State Department before, so I think they have a basic general lay-down of the building. But in terms of what they’re doing orientation-wise and how adjusted they are to the environment and their office spaces, I just don’t know.
QUESTION: All right. I want to go to --
QUESTION: Can I just quickly follow up? Is that a dedicated space for the transition team?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: Or are they – okay.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: -- the ceasefire that the Secretary had talked about after his meetings in Oman. And as you pointed – as you or he or someone in a statement pointed out, it had begun, but now it’s ended and it’s not going to be extended. And I’m just wondering: What’s – what happened here? Was it a failed attempt or is it something that you still think you can resuscitate?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s definitely something the Secretary is still pursuing. And I would tell you that he had a conversation this morning with the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia as well as Foreign Minister al-Jubeir about this issue. He has also spoken today with the UN Special Envoy Ahmed – excuse me, Ahmed about this. So he’s still working very hard to see a cessation of hostilities put in place and to remain in place so that we can get to a political outcome in Yemen.
Now, again, we’ve seen – we’ve certainly seen comments by at least one Saudi military official that the ceasefire had ended. I’ll let them speak for the degree to which they still believe that that’s the case. Clearly there have been – without question there’s been continued violence since – even since the inception of it over the weekend. There’s also no question about that. But from the Secretary’s perspective, he’s committed to trying to get a cessation of hostilities that can be sustained and maintained in Yemen so that humanitarian aid can get to people and that the political talks can resume.
QUESTION: Right. Well, is it your view that it ever got off the ground?
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, it was announced. And it was --
QUESTION: Well – (laughter) --
MR KIRBY: No, but I mean --
QUESTION: -- I can announce that the sun’s not going to rise in the morning and I would be wrong. But I can do that every day, but it --
MR KIRBY: Well, the difference is --
QUESTION: Just because you announce it doesn’t mean that it’s going to actually happen.
MR KIRBY: Well, the difference is nobody listens to you, Matt. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, that may very well be true, but --
MR KIRBY: But the – they did – no, they did – they did --
QUESTION: No one currently listens to them either. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: No, they did --
QUESTION: I mean, you just acknowledged that there were no – that there was still fighting.
MR KIRBY: They did not – come on, now. There was announcement of it starting, and yes, there were issues of violations or continued violence since the inception of it. There’s no doubt about that. But – well, all I can tell you is the Secretary remains committed to it and to looking for ways to get it enforced and sustainable long term in Yemen, or at least long enough that we can get humanitarian aid in and get the political talks back on track.
QUESTION: So you mentioned that the Secretary spoke with the Saudis regarding this. Has he actually spoken to the Yemeni Government about the cessation of hostilities?
MR KIRBY: I don’t believe the Secretary has had direct conversations with the Republic of Yemen Government. But he knows that the special envoy has and they talked a little bit about moving that forward, again, in their call this morning. I would note that as well, I mean, there was – and we talked about this last week – there was contact between Ambassador Tueller and Yemeni Government officials last week on this. So it’s not like there haven’t been contacts and connections and communication with the Yemeni Government. We realize they’re a stakeholder in this process and want to see them support this as well going forward.
QUESTION: But can you explain – I mean, he’s had direct contact with every other player in this conflict but not the Yemeni Government, it seems, at least recently. Can you explain?
MR KIRBY: Well, through his ambassador, he has, and that’s what ambassadors exist for. I don’t want to – I’m not trying to be cute here and say that he has some sort of personal problem having those discussions, but Ambassador Tueller did engage last week. The Secretary, as I said, just today – and we’re only halfway through the day – he’s had three conversations with officials about this. So I think it’s something he’s going to stay very, very focused on, he wants the ambassador to stay focused on, and we’re going to keep pursuing it. I wouldn’t rule out conversations going forward one way or the other.
MR KIRBY: The Secretary personally? Not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: Okay. And --
MR KIRBY: Wait, I think you had one more.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. And can you say who here at the State Department the transition team has been meeting with?
MR KIRBY: I know that they have – briefly on Friday had discussions with Under Secretary Kennedy, Counselor Kenney, because they were greeted by those two individuals when they arrived. And again, as for their meetings and discussions today, I just wouldn’t be in a position to speak to that. As I mentioned Friday – and I hope you don’t mind me reiterating it again – I’m not going to make it a habit of reading out their daily activities. That’s really for them to speak to. Who they meet with, what they discuss, how much they want to get into that with members of the media, that is for them to decide, not for us to do from this podium. So I’m not going to be providing an agenda of what they’re doing every day.
QUESTION: And then I have a Syria question which maybe we can get to.
MR KIRBY: Do you want to defer to Said to go first? Because I think he was Syria, is that right?
QUESTION: Sure, go ahead.
MR KIRBY: Look at that.
QUESTION: All right, so --
QUESTION: Please go ahead.
MR KIRBY: According to the aid agencies, yeah.
QUESTION: Right. So is there any renewed effort to get humanitarian aid in or air drops?
MR KIRBY: It’s not about a renewal effort, and it is something that we have been consistently focused on. And again, multilateral discussions continue in Geneva to try to get at a cessation of hostilities that can allow for that aid to get in. The humanitarian situation was something that the Secretary did raise in his pull-aside meeting with the foreign minister down in Lima – Foreign Minister Lavrov, excuse me, in Lima. They talked about that. So it’s something that we remain focused on, as does the international community. And it’s an abomination that no aid has gotten in to Aleppo now for well over – a month, I think, was the last time, while shelling and bombing not only continues but seems to be intensifying. So it’s of deep concern to us and I can assure you that the Secretary remains focused on that.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the Security Council session today, the UN Security Council. There was a session today in which Mr. O’Brien, the chief of the humanitarian, gave a very bleak picture about what’s going on, including the non-functioning hospitals and so on.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: But there was also a statement read or a naming of war criminals by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. Do you have any comment on that, like maybe 12 or 10 Syrian officers?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think Ambassador Power was eloquent enough. I don’t think I can improve upon her comments and the urgency with which she expressed them in terms of what’s being done in and around Aleppo. And it wasn’t just Aleppo. She talked about Syria writ large and who’s doing it, and the fact that these individuals and the Syrian regime will need to be held to account, and we’ve said that all along.
QUESTION: How would you do that? What would be the mechanism to bring these people to justice?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, Said, I’m not going to prognosticate here in terms of process. We’ve talked all along about the fact that there’s going to need to be efforts to properly investigate and to hold accountable those who have visited these atrocities on the Syrian people. But just to give you a sense of what we’ve done already to support investigations, we support UN and Syrian-led efforts to document human violations and abuses; we strongly support the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria via the UN Human Rights Council; we supported the Human Rights Council special session on Aleppo on the 21st of last month which called for a special investigation into the strikes in Aleppo and to name the perpetrators. We continue to co-sponsor the UN General Assembly Third Committee – and we talked a little bit about the Third Committee last week – and their resolution on the human rights situation in Syria. We’ve also supported the establishment of the OPCW-UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, which, again, Ambassador Power talked about last week and I think little bit today, which is seeking to identify those involved in certain chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
So we’re very much engaged on this. There are many vehicles here to look into, to analyze, and to lay bare for the world who’s responsible for these atrocities.
QUESTION: Okay. And I just wanted to ask you a question on what Mr. de Mistura suggested, that eastern Aleppo could form its own council, so to speak, and this council may be actually in place to coordinate the humanitarian – the receiving or – humanitarian supplies and so on. Is that an idea that you would support, local councils that would function as a government? The Syrians rejected it, but – the Syrian Government. Is that something that --
MR KIRBY: I think we’re still going through some of the details in the proposal. We’re aware of it. Obviously, we in general support – as we have supported the importance of local forces being the ones to go after Daesh inside Syria, we certainly would support effective governance at the local level in Syria. The details and the eaches of that, I think we need to continue to talk about and work out.
QUESTION: And my – I’m sorry, my final one is on what also Ms. Power said on the raids. There are something – I can’t remember the figure exactly, but about 120 air raids conducted by the Syrians and the Russians and so on. But again, she’s saying we have sources that give us this information, that they have eyewitnesses on the ground. Could you tell us who these eyewitnesses might be? Who are they?
MR KIRBY: No. I’m – I don’t have a list of every eyewitness that provides information, and I’m not sure why that would be relevant. As I’ve said many times, it is – our knowledge of the situation is understandably imperfect. We don’t have U.S. troops in Aleppo right now. We don’t have the ability to have like a single source that’s just all-knowing and omniscient about what’s going on. That said, we have a variety of sources of information that gives us a good idea of the reality. Is it perfect? No. But it comes from reputable aid agencies, and we talked about this last week. It comes from individuals, clearly. It comes from groups that we are in contact with or our partners are in contact with. I mean, so there’s a variety of methods by which we get information. And of course, it’s not as if we don’t get any intelligence about the situation in Syria or in Aleppo, but I’m obviously not going to be at liberty to talk about that in any great detail. Our knowledge isn’t perfect, but it is certainly enough to provide us a good sense of the deplorable situation there.
And I would – look, I mean, you don’t even have to take my word for it. You can turn on television or get on the internet and you can see some pretty gripping, powerful images coming out of Aleppo through independent news reporting, and it’s enough to tell you right then and there the deplorable situation and the depredations that are continuing to be visited on the people of Syria.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I just clarify – early on in that answer you just said your knowledge of it was imperfect because, quote, “we don’t have U.S. troops in Aleppo right now.” Is there a plan – some kind of plan to put U.S. troops in Aleppo at some point?
MR KIRBY: You’re -- please do not --
QUESTION: No, I just want to make sure.
MR KIRBY: Please do not read into my – what I – I was simply stating the obvious there, but no.
QUESTION: Okay, but I mean, that’s why I don’t – well, yes, but when you – when you add “right now,” it could suggest to people – anyone --
MR KIRBY: They shouldn’t take that suggestion away from what I said.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Now that ISIS is being defeated and pushed back in the Mosul area, various local figures in those liberated areas are saying they don’t want to go back to the previous system which failed them so badly. For example, the priest at the St. George Church in Bashiqa said that he wants the town to remain under Kurdish authority. The Iraqi constitution calls for holding a referendum in disputed areas. Would that be an acceptable way to determine the political future of these areas that are now being liberated from ISIS?
MR KIRBY: Again, I would tell you our focus is on supporting the Government of Iraq as the government continues to prosecute the war against Daesh, whether it’s in Mosul or anywhere else. And decisions and discussions about liberated areas and how they’re going to be governed or how they’re going to be stabilized post-conflict – those are questions for the Government of Iraq to speak to, not us.
QUESTION: So if it decides to hold a referendum or if, in consultation with Erbil, Baghdad decides to hold referendums, that would be fine with you?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think – it’s, I think, already been acknowledged that the Government of Iraq in coordination with the Kurdistan Regional Government and the governor of Nineveh – that they are all actively planning for the post-Daesh governance in Nineveh province and Mosul specifically. And so I would refer you to them for how those discussions are going and what decisions they might or might not be making. It is not – this is – again, this is a decision for the – decisions for the Government of Iraq to make, not for the coalition to legislate to them.
QUESTION: John --
QUESTION: Would you expect those decisions to be made in consultation with the local people?
MR KIRBY: Well, I – they already are. I mean, you have the governor of Nineveh who’s involved in these discussions with both Baghdad and Erbil. So in that sense, it’s already happening at that level.
QUESTION: But say like – I mean, the governor of Nineveh is one person. If the people, say, of Bashiqa decide something, if the priest is expressing their wishes, that should be taken into account as well?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to wade into local Iraqi politics here from this podium. We all know – all of us – that post-governance issues have to be addressed. And as I said, we know that Baghdad and Erbil are already having those discussions. Even as the fighting continues in Mosul, they’re thinking beyond. We think that’s smart and we support that kind of dialogue. We support that kind of planning. What comes out of that – the decisions they make, the matrix, the framework, what it looks like, what it feels like – that’s really for Iraqi officials to determine and to speak to. What we support is that ongoing dialogue. And more critically, we support that kind of planning, that kind of forward thinking in terms of what happens when Mosul is liberated, which it will be.
QUESTION: Can we go to Turkey?
QUESTION: Can we stay in Syria --
QUESTION: Oh, sure. Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and go back to Syria? You said that the bombing has intensified in Aleppo and you are still meeting with the Russians and others in Geneva. What are you planning to do in the next 60 days? Doing the same thing that you’ve done and you’re doing now --
MR KIRBY: I think if you’re asking me --
QUESTION: -- regarding the situation in Aleppo?
MR KIRBY: Well, if you’re asking me are we going to stay focused on the challenges in Syria and on trying to end the civil war and on trying to get a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian aid deliveries, and political talks resumed, then yes. That is exactly what we will be focused on for the remainder of – certainly for the remainder of the Secretary’s tenure here at the State Department because we still believe that that’s the right forward. We still believe there’s not going to be anything better than a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
QUESTION: But if the bombing has intensified and there are --
MR KIRBY: Look, I’m not going – I --
QUESTION: -- more people killed in Aleppo --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals with you, Michel. Obviously we’re seeing --
QUESTION: They’re not – I’m --
MR KIRBY: We’re seeing what’s happening --
QUESTION: I’m stating facts, John.
MR KIRBY: You said “if it gets worse.”
QUESTION: But it’s worse now.
MR KIRBY: I can’t predict what the future is going to be. Obviously, I said it’s – I acknowledged that it’s getting worse. I’ve been acknowledging it every day for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been talking – standing up here and talking about the intensification of the bombing and the shelling in Aleppo and the lack of humanitarian aid and the continued death and maiming and injury of innocent people. I mean, we’ve been nothing but candid about that not just here publicly but privately as well with others that are involved here, and we’re going to stay at it. That’s why the Secretary believes and continues to believe that discussions, multilateral discussions in Geneva, are still worth it, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. If he didn’t believe that it still had merit and that it was still important, we’d pull up stakes and we’d leave. And we’re not. We’re still there having these discussions and we’ll see where it goes.
But if you’re suggesting – and I’m not saying you are, but if you’re suggesting in your question that there’s not a sense of urgency, that we’re not deeply concerned, that we’re not trying as hard as we can to get the violence to stop or at least to be reduced, then again, that just flies in the face of the actual daily constant pressure and engagement that the Secretary is leading on behalf of the United States Government.
QUESTION: I meant to ask about the purpose of the meetings in Geneva since you haven’t made any progress through these talks.
MR KIRBY: Well, first of all, I would dispute the notion that there’s been no progress made. That we’re not detailing it and giving a rundown every day shouldn’t tell you that there’s no progress being made. Obviously, we haven’t reached full agreement, or if we did, we’d be talking about it. But it’s just like in any other negotiation; until everything is agreed upon, nothing is agreed upon. Of course, there’s been progress made. And again, if there hasn’t – if there wasn’t any progress, if there wasn’t any move forward, if there wasn’t any hope or expectation that we could get there, we wouldn’t be still at it, we wouldn’t still be engaged. But --
QUESTION: We haven’t seen anything on the ground.
MR KIRBY: What do you mean, you haven’t seen anything on it now?
QUESTION: Well, you say that there’s been progress made. Of course, there’s progress made, is what you said, and if there hadn’t been progress made then we wouldn’t still be talking.
MR KIRBY: That’s right.
QUESTION: The problem with that is, is that there’s absolutely no sign, no tangible indication, of any progress being made. So I mean --
MR KIRBY: I am not – and I said at the beginning, guys, that we weren’t going to read out every single day, that we weren’t going to talk about the negotiations that were going on in a multilateral setting. I understand that because you haven’t seen anything or heard anything, I understand where the perception is coming from. I can just tell you that we continue to be hard at work at this, that we wouldn’t be engaged in this if we didn’t think that there was a chance of success.
I will also tell you, just to be clear, that the Secretary is looking at this through a pretty pragmatic vision here. He understands that we have tried and failed before, and he’s made no promises that this is going – that this new approach in this multilateral setting is going to work. He was honest about that even back in Lausanne when it got kicked off. But I can tell you that he still believes the work is worth doing; that while we aren’t announcing it for everybody and putting out a press release, there has been progress in these talks; and if it achieves – if we culminate in some kind of a negotiation and a deal that can get us to a cessation of hostilities and meaningful delivery of humanitarian aid and a potential resumption of political talks, then we’ll come out and we’ll detail that for you. But we’re just not there yet.
QUESTION: Well, it’s not – it’s just – it’s not just that there is no sign of any tangible progress. It’s that the situation has not remained static, as you kind of just said. It’s not static at all.
MR KIRBY: I have been --
QUESTION: It’s gotten worse.
MR KIRBY: I have been nothing but honest about that. And do --
QUESTION: But – but – don’t you see though in the absence of any sign in – from Geneva of what this progress is that you keep talking about, if the situation in Aleppo or other places were the same as it was, as they were, then that might be a little bit easier to believe. But the fact of the matter is that while you claim that there’s progress being made in Geneva, although incomplete, the situation hasn’t gotten – hasn’t remained static. It’s gotten worse. So --
MR KIRBY: Well, Matt, I never said that it’s remained static. I don’t think I said that once. I’ve been nothing – again – but clear about the deterioration of conditions in Aleppo. That the conditions are deteriorating – and I’m not walking away from that – but that is serious and obviously it gives us all a sense of urgency. And you saw Ambassador Power’s comments today. Clearly, we’re all focused on that and it’s outrageous. That doesn’t mean though that separate and distinct – that the talks in Geneva haven’t achieved some progress. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not even promising that we’re going to get there. I’m just saying that the Secretary believes it’s work worth doing and we’re going to keep at it. And it doesn’t mean we’re going to keep at it forever. But we wouldn’t be --
QUESTION: John --
MR KIRBY: Excuse me. We wouldn’t be still engaged in these discussions if we didn’t think that there was value in it.
QUESTION: Let’s also consider the fact though that when President Obama met very briefly with President Putin on Saturday that President Putin told him we can’t get anywhere on Ukraine but we can try to do something about Syria. Does the U.S. believe that Russia, which has the influence on the Assad government, can actually stop the shelling of Aleppo, or was Putin simply saying what he needed to say knowing that the cameras were there recording their discussion?
MR KIRBY: I can’t speak for President Putin, or his motivations, or where his head is on that. You know I won’t do that. But --
QUESTION: Does the U.S. believe that he can be – that he can actually make the shelling stop?
MR KIRBY: We have seen in the past, when the Russians have proven willing and able to use their considerable influence on Assad to reduce the violence in Syria, that it can be done. So if you’re asking me --
QUESTION: What is the --
MR KIRBY: -- can it be done? Can the Russians use that influence in a productive, positive way? Absolutely they can. The question is: Will they? And to date, we have not only seen indications that they aren’t, but that they have, in fact, permitted even more violence and even more atrocity, particularly inside Aleppo. And when I talked about this last week about the hospitals in – again, I’m not an expert on the order of battle here, so I’m not saying whose airplanes it is that are dropping the bombs. The bombs continue to drop. And now we saw at least press reporting over the weekend of renewed use of chlorine. It doesn’t matter, essentially, whether it’s an aircraft with Syrian markings or Russian markings; the Russians – and we’ve said this for now many months – they bear the responsibility for the influence that they have over the Assad regime and for themselves having committed to cessations of hostilities in the past and reductions of violence. And again, when they want to use that influence, we have seen in the past where it can have an effect.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. prepared to do? What is this Administration prepared to do to induce Moscow to use its influence – simply waiting for it to see the goodness in stopping the shelling of Aleppo, seeing the goodness in persuading Assad that this is only harming his reputation not just now, but for historical purposes? What is the U.S. prepared to do to make Russia use its leverage? Simply waiting for it to do the right thing does not seem to have worked.
MR KIRBY: Nobody is waiting, Ros. Nobody is waiting. And I think you’ve covered Secretary Kerry long enough to know that that’s not his manner of diplomacy. He doesn’t wait. He has been very actively engaged in this effort – in fact, to the criticism of some that he is – that he’s been too willing to engage.
But there’s no waiting here, and there’s no naivete or innocent belief in the goodness of Russian intentions. Quite the contrary. The reason why – back to my answer to Michel – that we are still engaged in Geneva, even if not despite the intensification of violence in Aleppo, is because the Secretary shares a very keen sense of urgency about what’s going on – obviously in Aleppo, but in Syria writ large – and that there’s only going to be a political solution to this and that, therefore, if the – if only a political solution is possible, then only through negotiation and diplomacy are you going to be able to achieve the desired result.
I can’t speak for Russian intentions and motivations. They can do that. I can only tell you that for as long as he’s Secretary of State, I can assure you he will continue to work hard at this problem.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary spoken with Foreign Minister Lavrov since he returned from Peru?
MR KIRBY: Not – I mean, let me – before I answer that, let me just check.
QUESTION: I mean, I would think that in light of the president’s meeting on Saturday, that it might have behooved both parties to chat with each other.
MR KIRBY: I don’t know that they’ve spoken since his – they did meet bilaterally and then I think they had one phone call – I think we talked about that here.
MR KIRBY: And I don’t – and that was a few days ago and not – I don’t see – the last conversation I see with Foreign Minister Lavrov was on Friday.
QUESTION: You alluded, in your answer there, to criticism from some that the Secretary has been too willing to engage.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Presumably you reject that criticism, correct?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: So I mean, that suggests that you still think that this is the right path, but I guess that’s kind of stating the obvious, because you’ve just been saying that over and over again. But the criticism that he has been too willing to engage is wrong according to you, and yet there hasn’t been any significant reduction in the violence and things have gotten worse. I mean, can you square those?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure. I mean, that we haven’t achieved the ultimate result we want doesn’t mean that engagement’s the problem. I mean, if you’re not going to engage, if you’re just going to shut down and walk away, well, you can be sure --
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: -- that the situation’s not going to get any better.
QUESTION: There was a time not so long ago --
MR KIRBY: And he has been --
QUESTION: -- that you (inaudible) shut down.
MR KIRBY: He has been willing to walk away from the table when we couldn’t get there, and I’m not saying that he won’t now. I’m just saying that you can’t but look at some of the imagery just over the weekend and this morning of Aleppo and not be moved to want to continue to work at this problem. And he will.
QUESTION: Is it fair to assume – on progress. Is it fair to assume that the progress made is the kind of progress that is not – that cannot be measured on a day-to-day basis but basically intended for a long-term political solution?
MR KIRBY: The progress made in these --
QUESTION: The progress made – you cited progress made in Geneva. Is it fair to assume or to describe this progress made is not the kind of progress that you would see on a day-to-day basis but rather maybe over the long term?
MR KIRBY: Well it’s --
QUESTION: Is it intended for a political solution for the long term?
MR KIRBY: Again – well, let me – the answer – it’s a difficult answer to provide here because the focus of the multilateral talks in Geneva are really about a cessation of hostilities which, if can be sustained and maintained and enforced and result in a meaningful reduction of the violence such as we saw back in February of this year, then you can get the two sides back to the table or at least into proximity talks as they’ve done before. And we just – we haven’t been able to get there. You can’t bring the opposition to the table when they continue to be bombed and they’re seeing innocent civilians treated the way they’ve been.
So the focus in Geneva through these multilateral discussions is really much more about getting a cessation of hostilities in place so that you can build the confidence and create the conditions for political talks to resume. And again, we wouldn’t be involved in these discussions if we didn’t think that they – if they didn’t have merit.
QUESTION: One last question on Syria, John, too. Turkey bombed west of Manbij today and Sheikh Nasr, who were – Manbij military council took over from ISIS. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen specific reports of that bombing. Let – all I’ll say, Michel, is that we – as we’ve said before, we want to see all the military activities be coordinated and be designed and be productive in terms of helping us go after Daesh. That’s the main effort.
QUESTION: Since he brought up Turkey, can I ask one question about President Erdogan? He told 60 Minutes last night some of the same accusations he made after the attempted coup in July: one, that he believes that the U.S. was behind the coup; and two, that the U.S. is dragging its feet on the extradition of Fetullah Gulen. Do you want to comment?
MR KIRBY: Well, on the Gulen thing I would say that’s really a matter for the Justice Department, and I’m not going to talk about that process. Our position has always been that we want to have a fact-based discussion about that, and I won’t get ahead of whatever discussions the Justice Department is having. You need to talk to them.
On the other point, that’s – I watched the interview, or at least most of it. That is not my takeaway from what he said in terms of – he said that he can’t deny – believe that – he can’t deny that certainly many Turkish people are left with that impression that the United States was somehow behind it. And I would just take the opportunity, as we’ve done so many times in the past, to completely refute that, that the United States had absolutely nothing to do with this, and we continue to support the democratically-elected Government of Turkey.
QUESTION: Can you go a little bit further on that? Why do you think many Turks were left with the impression that the United States was involved in it?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know.
QUESTION: Can you say if you agree that --
QUESTION: People got – you and your colleagues went on at length at the time of all the sentiment saying that this was coming from Turkish media.
MR KIRBY: Well, I think many members of the Turkish media didn’t do anything to stop that impression from growing. But you’re – I can’t – I wouldn’t even begin to try to --
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: -- to speak for the minds of many Turkish citizens and where they might be getting that idea or the depth to which they believe it. All I can do is, again, assert that it’s a ludicrous claim that the United States had anything at all to do with it.
QUESTION: Thank you, Assistant John Kirby. On North Korea, recently North Korean ambassador to Geneva, Switzerland, So Se Pyong, said that North Korea want to withdraw U.S. troops in South Korea and normalize relations with the United States. What is the U.S. position on this?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments. Our position on peninsula security hasn’t changed one bit. We have long said we’re ready to resume talks through the Six-Party process and we have to see that – a genuine desire, a willingness of the regime to do that. And to date, we have not seen that.
QUESTION: So U.S. have any reason to conversation with the North Korea for future incoming administration?
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry, I don’t quite --
QUESTION: Do you have any plan to conversation with the North Korea incoming --
MR KIRBY: As I said, we believe that the proper vehicle for discussions about peninsular security is through the Six-Party process and that it has to be preceded with an understanding of a complete, verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula. The North has proven unwilling to engage in that kind of conversation and that kind of commitment. So the onus is on them.
On troop presence – again, I don’t want to step on my Pentagon colleagues, but just to restate what I think should be obvious to all – we have significant alliance commitments to the Republic of Korea, which includes a force presence of American troops in the – in South Korea, and I see nothing that abrogates that or changes that going forward. We take seriously our alliance commitments to South Korea.
QUESTION: Trump, president-elected, he appointed a national security advisor, Mike Flynn. He has background with defense intelligence stuff. Do you think next coming – I mean, Trump administration will be more aggressively approaching the North Korea issues or --
MR KIRBY: I don’t know.
MR KIRBY: I can’t speak for the president-elect or whatever foreign policies that he’s going to pursue going forward. I think it goes without saying that anybody, regardless of political persuasion, looks at the situation on the Korean peninsula can see that the DPRK remains a significant threat not just to the peninsula but to the region, and is trying to become through their constant pursuit of nuclear capabilities a threat, in fact, to people around the world. And it’s a threat that needs to be taken seriously, but exactly how the next administration will define that is really for them to speak to.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: I’m just going to refrain from commenting on whatever foreign policy priorities the president-elect will establish. Again, that’s for him and his team to speak to.
QUESTION: Well, how about – how about this? What lessons would you hope that a political newcomer might take from this Administration and its experiences with Moscow and Putin going forward?
MR KIRBY: Well, all I would say to that – first of all, it is not our place to provide a lecture to the incoming administration one way or the other. Again, they will have their teams out and about. They will absorb information. They will learn. We will provide whatever context they need and they require, and then they will make decisions about their foreign policy agenda going forward. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not for us to try to dictate to them how they should think about this or that problem.
That said, I can only go back to what President Obama and Secretary Kerry have talked about in terms of our relationship with Russia, which is complicated. There are issues where we have been able to reach an accord, that we have been able to cooperate with and work positively to better outcomes with Russia. The Iran deal is one of them. And up until recently, at least for some parts of this year, we had hoped that Syria could be one of them in terms of Russian leadership inside the International Syria Support Group and support through various communiques to cessations of hostilities and political processes.
Obviously, we’re in a more difficult position right now with Russia with respect to Syria. We certainly have differences over Ukraine. And we won’t and haven’t recognized the illegal annexation of Crimea. There are significant challenges that we face with Russia in cyberspace and we’ve been very open about that as well. So it’s a complicated relationship, but it is a relationship nonetheless. And the degree to which or how the incoming administration will look at that is, again, up to them to decide. But relations with Russia remain critical and in some cases very, very challenging.
QUESTION: One more quick question. So the U.S. Navy apparently late last week assisted a disabled Iranian fishing boat in the Persian Gulf. I was just wondering, can you talk to – is it a, as far as U.S. policy, a requirement to help those in distress on the high seas?
MR KIRBY: Well, it’s not a foreign policy requirement. It is, however, a common practice of all seagoing nations that you help mariners in distress. And as I understand it, this was a destroyer, the USS Nitze, and the Navy routinely comes to the aid of – our Navy routinely comes to the aid of mariners in distress at sea wherever they are around the world. I think in the Persian Gulf, they’ve done more than 30 or so of these types of assistance operations in just the last several years. And I’ve been given to understand that almost half of them have been for Iranian sailors. In this case, I think they were fishermen, but this is a common, time-honored humanitarian practice of mariners at sea. It’s not just the U.S. Navy that does it. Other navies do it. In fact, other civilian seagoing mariners do it. The sea is an unforgiving environment and the situation can change in a nanosecond at sea. And so when you come across somebody in distress or in trouble at sea, you – whoever you are – have an obligation to reach out and to help them and that’s what our Navy did in this case.
QUESTION: Even though that doesn’t seem that reciprocal on their end, I mean, given their capture of our sailors?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I – there is – again, this is a time-honored practice and custom at sea. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it myself. And it’s something that all mariners need to take seriously, should take seriously. I can tell you that our U.S. Navy certainly does and they’ve proven that over and over again not just in the area of the Persian Gulf, but around the world.
QUESTION: Can we go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue very quickly?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. According to Haaretz, Jerusalem’s zoning board is set to discuss a plan on Wednesday, the day after tomorrow, to build 500 homes in Ramat Shlomo. Now, this plan was approved two years ago, but the Israelis held back on implementing due to U.S. pressure. You have any comment on that? Will you do the same thing? Will you call on the Israelis not to do it?
MR KIRBY: No, I would tell you we are deeply concerned by the reports today that a Jerusalem municipal committee does intend to advance this new plan for, I think, 500 housing units – additional housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem. Again, I would remind that our policy on settlements is very clear and it’s been very consistent. We strongly oppose Israeli settlement activity which is steadily and systematically accelerating and is corrosive to a two-state solution. And as the Quartet report itself highlighted, continued settlement activity risks entrenching a one-state reality and raises serious questions about Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
QUESTION: Well, there seems to be in the same report – in the same Haaretz report, they’re talking about different groups saying that now these frozen – quote/unquote, “frozen settlements,” it’s time for – to thaw these frozen settlements in anticipation for the coming administration. Would you advise them against that?
MR KIRBY: Again, I think it’s – you know what our policy is on settlements.
QUESTION: And very quickly, the – in the Hebron area, the Israeli forces delivered something like 20 demolition notices in a small village (inaudible) in the southern West Bank. Do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: We’re obviously concerned about the acceleration of demolitions and evictions that have been undertaken by Israeli authorities in several locations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem which have left many Palestinians homeless.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you aware that in a U.S. Government bid from this August, the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has required new security cameras be purchased only from a Chinese surveillance device-maker for the embassy’s security network?
MR KIRBY: No, I haven’t seen that report.
QUESTION: Can you take the question?
MR KIRBY: I’ll take it gladly. I’ve not heard of that.
QUESTION: No, no, wait, I got a couple (inaudible) very quick. One, back to Russia just for a second, but for – an issue for the existing Administration: The new missiles going into Kaliningrad, do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. So while we understand that Russia has the right to exercise its conventional and[i] nuclear forces on its own territory, the deployment of Iskander and S-400 missiles to Kaliningrad is destabilizing to European security. Russia has made threats to move Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad now for the past decade in response to a variety of developments in Europe, none of which demand such a military response. We also call upon Russia to refrain from words or deeds that are inconsistent with the goal of promoting security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region.
QUESTION: This – I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing. Maybe we are. Maybe I misread the story. But this is not the Iskander missiles; this is something else. But fair enough if that’s --
MR KIRBY: Sorry. Did I give you an answer to a question you didn’t ask? It was a great answer, though. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It wouldn't be the first time.
MR KIRBY: I think you should use it.
QUESTION: It’s a great question.
MR KIRBY: I think you should use it. It’s a terrific answer.
QUESTION: Well, can you just tell me what your response --
MR KIRBY: What was the question? Did I screw it up?
QUESTION: No, no, I think you got – well, I don’t know.
MR KIRBY: Maybe you asked the wrong question. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I am accused of that very often. Anyway, I’ll just assume that – I’m not going to assume it. I’m going to – this is your answer – your stock answer to the introduction of any kind of missile by Russia into --
MR KIRBY: Well, again, this was referring to reports that we’ve seen these Iskanders and S-400s.
QUESTION: In the last day or so?
MR KIRBY: Well, that they’ve made announcements in the last day or so that they’re moving them.
QUESTION: All right. Yes.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. All right, then we are talking about the same thing. Maybe I – and then just on Iran really briefly, you may have seen a report in the Journal this morning about the Administration considering new, kind of last-minute – not concessions but easing more sanctions and granting more licenses to U.S. companies to do business in Iran. Is that something that you guys are interested in doing to kind of shore up or harden, cement the Iran deal before the end of the Administration?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything to read out in terms of future decisions, Matt. Obviously, we’re going to stay committed to meeting our JCPOA commitments and obviously continue to believe that the Iran deal is the right thing for the country and for our interests. But I don’t have any additional decisions to read out or discuss.
QUESTION: Okay. And then I know that we’ve gone over this before and I don’t want to get bogged down on it today, but – and maybe it’s something to revisit at some point. But you will have noted probably that today the Iranians announced that they had shipped their or are shipping their excess heavy water to Oman. Do you know, one – for sale, to put on the market. Do you know who is going to buy this?
MR KIRBY: I do not.
QUESTION: Is it correct still that the United States will not be a purchaser of it after that first – that’s still the --
MR KIRBY: I wouldn’t – yeah, I would not expect the U.S. Government to purchase any Iranian heavy water in the near future.
QUESTION: All right. And now – and I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds on this, but the case has been made by some that this is not an actual – that the overproduction of heavy water beyond the agreed 130 is not a violation of the JCPOA. Is it the Administration’s position that it is or is it – maybe if you don’t want to use the word “violation,” is it compliant with the – is it producing more than 130? Is that in compliance or not in compliance with the JCPOA as you guys understand it?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I think we talked about this. The IAEA, and we agree with them, that they did exceed --
MR KIRBY: -- this 130-metric ton heavy water limit. They – not by much. And I’m not --
MR KIRBY: I’m not getting into a binary discussion here. We recognize and we agree with the IAEA that they exceeded that limit, but they informed the IAEA of their plan to address it. They are now addressing it.
MR KIRBY: And so our focus is on making sure that Iran stays in compliance and keeps its commitments. I’m – as I wouldn't do last week, I’m not going to go beyond the IAEA language here.
QUESTION: I get it. Right, I understand it. The reason why there seems to be confusion about this or at least there is confusion about it is because the JCPOA itself says that it sets this limit that you say has been exceeded, but then says that --
MR KIRBY: Because it estimates – estimates --
QUESTION: Estimate --
MR KIRBY: -- that 130 metric tons is about the right amount.
QUESTION: Exactly, but – right, right. So that’s – but that’s the limit. And you just said in your first answer that they exceeded that limit.
MR KIRBY: The IAEA said that they exceeded and we agree with them.
QUESTION: Well, right. Okay, so – right. Okay, so the IAEA said they exceeded the limit. But the way it’s written into the agreement, the very fact of exceeding this or being noncompliant, you make – the argument can be made that they are actually in compliance, that noncompliance equals compliance once they ship it out.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, once – if you’ve exceeded it and you get it out, then that is being compliant with the JCPOA commitments.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re giving them the --
MR KIRBY: I mean, but I’m --
QUESTION: But can you not see that there is another way to look at this --
MR KIRBY: I understand the word game.
QUESTION: -- in that they violate or they are not in compliance --
MR KIRBY: No, I get it. I get it.
QUESTION: -- with the agreement, and yet, they are in compliance of the agreement at the same time? It just – it’s bizarre.
MR KIRBY: But again, let’s not – so look, I mean, I understand – and you’re right to be – to continue to push on this, Matt. I don’t take issue with that. But I do think it’s important, aside from the rhetoric about in compliance, out of compliance, violation, or not, that we remember that the system worked in the sense that we found it and they’re addressing it. And we’re going to continue to move forward. That’s the most important part here.
QUESTION: I get that. But the fact of the matter is if non-compliance results in potential monetary gain for them because they put it on the market and sell it --
MR KIRBY: I don’t think anybody --
QUESTION: -- that, to a lot of people – a lot, not just the hardcore critics of the regime – looks like it gives them an incentive to overproduce, to be not – to exceed the limit and therefore be not in compliance.
MR KIRBY: That is not the intent of that provision in the JCPOA, and --
QUESTION: Well, that may not be the intent, but that’s --
MR KIRBY: -- while I understand the critics’ view of that --
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: -- there’s absolutely not going to be any slackening of international pressure or by the agency to keep them inside their limits.
MR KIRBY: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)