Daily Press Briefing - December 8, 2016

Elizabeth Trudeau
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 8, 2016


2:02 p.m. EST

MS TRUDEAU: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. I have three things at the top, so just give me a minute and then we’ll get to your questions.

Today the Department of State is pleased to announce the six winners of the 2016 Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence, or ACE. This year there are four ACE categories: inclusive hiring practices, small or medium enterprises, sustainable oceans management, and transparent operations. We put out a media note on this earlier so you can take a look at that, but we offer our congratulations to the winners. Each of these companies is contributing to the growth and sustainable development of local economies in which they work.

Next, President Obama has designated Ambassador David Bruce Wharton as the acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, effective December 8th. As acting under secretary, Ambassador Wharton leads America’s public diplomacy outreach, which includes communications with international and domestic audiences, cultural programming, academic and professional exchanges, messaging to counterterrorism and violent extremism. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Ambassador Wharton began his diplomatic career in 1985. He served most recently as a principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs. He was also ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2012 to 2015. So our congratulations to Ambassador Wharton.

Next, a quick update on the Secretary’s travel. As you know, Secretary Kerry attended the OSCE foreign ministerial earlier today in Hamburg. I think you saw his remarks at that meeting. He emphasized the importance of the OSCE’s principles as well as the need for full implementation of the Minsk agreements as the only way forward for peace in Ukraine. Prior to the ministerial meeting, the Secretary also participated in a meeting with civil society activists from Europe and Central Asia, where he had a chance to express the United States enduring commitment to supporting the essential work of human rights defenders, lawyers, independent journalists, and other member of civil society.

And with that, we have Matt Pennington joining us. So we’ll turn it over to Matt.

QUESTION: All right, thanks. Can you tell us a bit about Secretary Kerry’s talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov?


QUESTION: And is there any agreement on rebels withdrawing from Aleppo? And are there going to be technical talks on this in Geneva at the weekend?

MS TRUDEAU: So there was a lot of news that happened right before I came out, so I have a few things to say on that. I think as you all know – and you saw our statement earlier – we’ve been working to de-escalate the violence. Our concern has been getting aid in and ensuring that people can stay in their homes. We are preparing to work on next steps. Secretary Kerry spoke by phone today with Foreign Minister Lavrov about this situation on the ground in Aleppo. They agreed to continue discussions about establishing a framework for a ceasefire that will allow the delivery of aid – of desperately needed humanitarian aid – as well as the safe departure of those who wish to leave the city.

As you’ve seen, Foreign Minister Lavrov did announce technical discussions in Geneva on Saturday. The specific nature of those talks, these follow-on discussions, are still being worked out. As these technical discussions are finalized I’ll have more to offer. It might be later today, it might be tomorrow.

QUESTION: Foreign Minister Lavrov also mentioned that there’d been some – that the Syrian army had suspended action to allow civilians to leave the city. Do you have any confirmation that that’s happened?

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah. I – separately we did see that. I have no confirmation of that. There was a – Foreign Minister Lavrov did say the Syrian regime had suspended their military operations in Aleppo. Obviously, we would support any decrease in the violence visited on the Syrian people. But for confirmation on that, we would refer you to Foreign Minister Lavrov to speak to or the Syrian regime themselves.

QUESTION: So how optimistic are you at this point that there is going to be some sort of agreement on a rebel withdrawal and improvement in the humanitarian conditions?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, what I would say is that we continue to look at the modalities and the granularities of these technical talks. We remain engaged. If we believe these technical talks will be useful, we will certainly move forward with them. There are still discussions that are happening now, and when I have an update I’ll certainly provide it.

QUESTION: When you say --

MS TRUDEAU: Hey, Yeganeh.

QUESTION: Hi. When you say withdrawal, would – that would include any civilians and also opposition forces?

MS TRUDEAU: It would be anyone who’s – who is interested in leaving. But our position all along has been that people shouldn’t have to leave their homes.

Hi, Felicia.

QUESTION: Hello. So Jan Egeland said earlier today, I guess after Lavrov said that the Syrian army had stopped their offensive, that they had received authorization to get into eastern Aleppo. Do you have any – do you have any information on whether the UN will have access?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, we saw that announcement. We remain hopeful, is how I’d characterize it, that this new authorization would allow for this vital humanitarian aid to go in to the people of eastern Aleppo, but we’re realistic about the continued violence taking place and the difficulty for the UN in moving this aid forward.

QUESTION: And they haven’t had any access?

MS TRUDEAU: I’d refer you to the UN for details on that. It’s my understanding, though, that the people of Aleppo have not received an aid delivery since July.

Hi, Muhammed. Nice to see you.

QUESTION: Thank you. You said: We are preparing for our next step. Can you elaborate on --

MS TRUDEAU: That would be these technical discussions. That was what I meant.

QUESTION: Okay. And do you have any number of how many civilians are stuck right now in Aleppo?

MS TRUDEAU: No, that would be a question I think would best be directed at the UN. They would – because they would be the ones who would be governing that aid delivery, they would be the ones taking a look at that. I’d direct you there.

QUESTION: And do you also have any idea how many civilians have been killed so far in the last two weeks?

MS TRUDEAU: Again, that was – this is something I think probably the UN would be best to speak to. I would say in a situation like that, in a complex situation where we frankly don’t have people on the ground, it would be irresponsible for me to estimate.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: What’s the expectations from the Paris meeting on Saturday?

MS TRUDEAU: For the Syria – you’re talking about these technical discussions, or you’re talking about the ministerial meeting?

QUESTION: No, no, no. The --

MS TRUDEAU: I’m not going to get ahead of that. I think you saw that – from the statement earlier this week, as well as Secretary Kerry’s very clear position, that he will continue to press forward. We will continue to push for a cessation of hostilities. We will continue to push for the delivery of aid. We will continue to push for space so there can be some sort of political dialogue. We’re looking forward to those discussions. We’ll see where that goes.

Okay, thank you. Nike.

QUESTION: Right, Ghana?

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, let’s go to Ghana.

QUESTION: Do you have any update? It seems that the presidential – or the electoral commission is delaying to announce the official result.

MS TRUDEAU: Well, we understand that might be delayed because voting was postponed in Jaman North Constituency until today, I believe. And it’s my understanding – and again, I’m going to refer you to the Ghanaians; it’s their election, they’re the experts on it – is that they delay the results – or final results are expected 72 hours after the conclusion of voting. So that’s my understanding on that.

But just specifically on that, we’d note that Ghana has a long tradition of peaceful democratic elections, and we congratulate them on their sustained commitment to democracy.

This was the best briefing ever. You guys got anything else? Muhammed?

QUESTION: One more. Back to Syria. (Laughter.) Separate to Russia’s plan on suspending the violence in Aleppo, is there any specific plan that U.S. is planning to take in order to --

MS TRUDEAU: As I said at the top, we continue to have these technical discussions, or we are having discussions about the modalities of the technical discussions. As we have more clarity on that, I’ll certainly let you know. But at this, I’m not going to get into specifics.


MS TRUDEAU: Sure, no, of course.

QUESTION: It’s like a little bit jargony. I just – when you say the discussions about modalities, can you just lay out a little what that is?

MS TRUDEAU: So what we are anticipating doing as we continue to look to have the technical discussions that Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke about today is we’re looking for the details of structure, topics, who would participate. And we should have more on that soon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU: That’s great. Ma’am.

QUESTION: Nazira Azim Karimi, Ariana Television Network. As you know, a month ago ICC, International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, announced that they are going to start soon the case for the people who are involved regarding criminal cases, to work on them and bring them in to justice. Do you think that Afghan Government agreement is important, or just whatever they wanted to do it, they can do, or Afghanistan Government also should show their agreement?

MS TRUDEAU: So we spoke about this quite at length when this case came out. We spoke about the U.S. view, that we felt that, as the U.S. is not party to this, we did not feel that this was a step that we would do. In terms of the Afghan Government, I would ask you to direct your questions to the Afghan Government. That would be something for them to speak to.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Thanks. One more, Matt.

QUESTION: South Korea.


QUESTION: There’s going to be an impeachment vote, by the sounds of it, on Friday against President Park. Could you say a little bit about how this political uncertainty has impacted the alliance relations between the U.S. and South Korea?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, we’ve spoken about this before. Our alliance with the Republic of Korea remains strong. This is an internal matter for the people of Korea. We would point you to the Korean Government to speak to this. But our relationship with the Korean Government is strong, is deep, is solid. We don’t see any impact.

QUESTION: And has the embassy had any – or has the U.S. Government had any direct contact with President Park in the last – well, this month?

MS TRUDEAU: I would have nothing to read out on that.


QUESTION: Just to follow up on that question, do you see any impact on discussions on North Korea or on the trilateral talks that are scheduled for later this month?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Well, I think our position, as you know, on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is well-known. I’m not going to get ahead of any talks, but our position hasn’t changed on that.

Okay. Hi.

QUESTION: On Turkey?

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: Thank you. Yesterday, Mark was asked about a report, Amnesty report, and there were some remarks. I just want – first want to ask you have some disagreement over the Amnesty report, I think. Where does the U.S. Government get their facts when it comes to Turkey southeast?

MS TRUDEAU: Their facts in terms of what?

QUESTION: There are some disagreements – for example, enforced dislocation of the Turkey’s Kurds. And Mark stated that there is no enforced dislocation. There are dozens of witnesses spoke to Amnesty report. I am curious, where does the U.S. Government get their facts that there is no enforced dislocation?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Well, I think you’re conflating a couple of different things, so I’m going to let certainly Amnesty speak to their own report and I’ll let the Turkish Government speak to their own assessment on the facts. We’ve been very clear about our concern over the fate of the residents of Sur and other cities in Turkey’s southeast whose lives have been profoundly affected by the violence between the PKK and Turkish security forces. We note again, as we’ve said several times, the PKK is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. We call, again, for the PKK to lay down its arms, and we ask the Turkish Government to respond in ways that reinforce the rule of law and they also respect fundamental freedoms.

QUESTION: So I got this statement. The question is – was yesterday, to repeat the question – what is your understanding whether there is an enforced dislocation of Turkey’s Kurds? Or do you disagree this --

MS TRUDEAU: No, as I said, the question is the impact on the residents of the area. I’m not going to call out any particular group, but we have been very clear about our concern on all residents of that area because of this fighting. I’m not going to characterize it. I’d let Amnesty speak to their own report, Ilhan.


QUESTION: Sorry for being late.

MS TRUDEAU: It’s always nice to see you, though.

QUESTION: So this claim by the Russians that the Syrian army stopped operation in Aleppo, you probably already addressed that.


QUESTION: But how – yeah. I mean, how is it impacting what’s going on in --

MS TRUDEAU: I mean, I think you’ve seen this claim is about two hours old.


MS TRUDEAU: One, we can’t confirm it. Two, I’m not going to characterize it.

QUESTION: Okay. But that – well, that, in your view or your understanding, does it call for the departure or – of the fighters from the – whatever remains of eastern Aleppo?

MS TRUDEAU: I would let Foreign Minister Lavrov’s team speak directly to his statement. It would certainly not be for me to speak for the foreign minister. As we’ve said, I’m not in a position to confirm that. We’ve seen these reports as well. We would welcome anything that improves the lives of the Syrian people who have been bombarded in the city for weeks on end.

QUESTION: So are we likely to see in the next couple days some sort of an agreement --

MS TRUDEAU: I’m not – as I said, we’re taking a look at getting to a point where we can have these technical talks. As soon as I have something to share, I certainly will.

QUESTION: Okay. And my last question --

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: -- is: Will the United States consider arming the rebels once again or at least the moderate opposition, as you call them?

MS TRUDEAU: No. We’ve had this conversation on it.


MS TRUDEAU: Our position has not changed.

QUESTION: Okay. Because the fighting’s still ongoing in the countryside, in Homs, in Hama, in Latakia, I mean, in many places outside --

MS TRUDEAU: No, and we’ve been very clear: Even if Aleppo falls, certainly the war is not over.


MS TRUDEAU: But our position has not changed on that.

Okay. Laurie.

QUESTION: Hi. Do you have a readout on the meeting that Special Envoy Brett McGurk had with the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council this morning?

MS TRUDEAU: Actually, this was sort of a follow-on meeting to the meetings that the special presidential envoy had in Iraq, so it continued those conversations. I would point you to the incredibly extensive media note that we put out yesterday from his meetings in Iraq.

QUESTION: So there wasn’t anything different?

MS TRUDEAU: No. It was a continuation of those.

QUESTION: Okay. I have two more questions.


QUESTION: The – Masrour Barzani, the chancellor, of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, just gave a talk at the Wilson Center, and he said – he remarked that before there was ISIS there was al-Qaida in Iraq, and after ISIS there’s likely to be something else unless we get this right. What he said was that the root cause of this radicalism was a political failure in Iraq. What would be your comment on that observation? Would you tend to agree or you think it’s not --

MS TRUDEAU: I wouldn’t speak to the chancellor’s remarks. That would be for him to explain that. I would say that we continue to stand with the people of Iraq. We have been very supportive of the reforms that this government has continued to advance through their legislative process. We believe in a democratic, unified Iraq. We think that’s the future of the country.

I’d also note, though, too, that they have made enormous gains fighting Daesh. We never said that this would be an easy fight, but we are really seeing progress on the ground.

QUESTION: Because something else not only he, but others – many others have said is there’s been so much bloodshed and it’s still very immediate in people’s minds, in their hearts, that it’s impossible for people to go back to what existed before because they don’t trust – one element doesn’t trust another. Is that something you – you’re – a perspective you’re sympathetic to?

MS TRUDEAU: I think we’re sympathetic to the idea that the people of Iraq have certainly suffered. They’ve suffered under Daesh. They suffered under the range of violent extremism within their own country. However, we have faith in the people of Iraq. We continue to believe that they’re making significant progress.

QUESTION: Okay. My second question then involves the remarks of Henri Barkey, who was – who worked in this building --


QUESTION: -- under the – in the Clinton years, so – and he made the observation that countries like Turkey and Jordan, which are hosting millions of refugees from this ISIS crisis, their burden is recognized and they get the kind of support that comes with recognition of the burden of caring for these refugees. But the Kurdistan Region hosts 1.8 million – it shelters 1.8 million people and doesn’t – Barkey made this observation – and doesn’t receive the same kind of recognition nor the same kind of support, and the chancellor agreed. He suggested the issue was that these were technically internally displaced persons. And he emphasized that they really did need more help to – for the humanitarian needs of these people, particularly with the winter now upon us. And I wondered if you had any plans to increase your support for the IDPs in – that the Kurdistan Region is sheltering or to mobilize international support for that humanitarian need.

MS TRUDEAU: Well, I’ve got nothing to announce as of right now, and I would let Mr. Barkey, as a private citizen speak, for himself, of course. We’re very cognizant of the impact that internally displaced people and those fleeing violence have in Iraq. We’re very cognizant of the need for aid. The United States continues to supply aid to the Government of Iraq and will continue to look to meet needs as they emerge.


QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that issue.


QUESTION: I mean, you talked about the Iraqi people suffering from al-Qaida and ISIS and they – but they also suffered in the war and occupation and so on, and what was missing – I mean, I remember being there for so long – what was missing is national reconciliation. What is missing today in this dialogue is national reconciliation. After all, the current prime minister is of the same party as the former prime minister. What is being done? What is the United States and – or your Administration in its final weeks doing to sort of reignite a path for national reconciliation?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, I think we have seen progress. We have seen important steps taken on reform. We have seen efforts made across sectarian lines. We’re not saying the work is done. I don’t think for any of us in any of the countries, including my own, work is ever done on this. But we do recognize when progress has been made, Said.

Great. Matt.

QUESTION: One last one on Asia.


QUESTION: The Philippine Government said today that it was highly unlikely that it would allow the United States to use its country as a base for freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. I wondered if you had any response to that.

MS TRUDEAU: No, I – one, I haven’t seen the comment, so I couldn’t speak specifically to that, but our opinion, our view, our adherence to freedom of navigation is well known. We will fly, we will sail anywhere within international waters, and we will continue that.

Thank you, guys. Oh, wait, no, Said.

QUESTION: Sorry --

MS TRUDEAU: No, I’m always happy to talk to you.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions on --

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: -- the Palestinian-Israeli issue. First of all, what is your reaction to the passage of the first step of the annexation or the legitimization?

MS TRUDEAU: Now, we have spoken about this several times --

QUESTION: Right, right.

MS TRUDEAU: -- over the last couple days. As we said --

QUESTION: And new measures were taken yesterday and early today, so --

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah. It’s – I would just reiterate what we have said before: We’re deeply concerned.


MS TRUDEAU: We view this as a way that is paving for the unprecedented legalization of these outposts deep in the West Bank. Thousands of settlement housing units – these are illegal under Israeli law. We believe this would be profoundly damaging to prospects for a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Now, also, let me just follow up on the issue --

MS TRUDEAU: Of course.

QUESTION: -- of the Palestinian delegation coming to town next week.

MS TRUDEAU: Sure, the – yes.

QUESTION: Okay. So if you have any information to – more information to share with us on that.

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah, thank you. This is a question on the Palestinian dialogue I think you asked yesterday.

QUESTION: Right, right, okay.

MS TRUDEAU: So the State Department is hosting a political dialogue, so it’s one of a series that we do with the Palestinians. It’s led by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Stu Jones. The dialogue will take place December 12th. The discussion, this particular one, will touch on a number of issues of mutual interest. This includes civil society, travel issues, countering violent extremism. As I mentioned, we have a series of these dialogues. We’ve recently held a dialogue on educational issues which I think we talked about with Samir maybe a couple weeks ago. We’ve also held one on economic issues. This has been in the works for several months and we look forward to it.

QUESTION: So – but you know that the top negotiator is coming and the – another – the adviser to Abbas is coming and so on. So it seems very political – the delegation itself is quite political. Are they not going to discuss issues or initiative that the Administration might be taking in its final weeks --

MS TRUDEAU: As this has --

QUESTION: -- on the peace process?

MS TRUDEAU: So Middle East peace is not on the agenda for this particular dialogue.

QUESTION: Right, but one would expect that this issue would come up, right?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, not for – in this dialogue, it’s certainly not on the agenda. This is very much focused, as I mentioned, on civil society issues, violent extremism.

QUESTION: And finally, have you developed a position on the peace conference in Paris or at least (inaudible)?

MS TRUDEAU: I have no update from what Mark said yesterday on that. We continue to look at it and we’re in touch with the French.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU: Michael.

QUESTION: You don’t have answer, you told me, but it’s – I saw yesterday and today that you have 10 readouts about the meetings that the Secretary had in Brussels. And you don’t have one about the meeting between the Secretary and Mr. Cavusoglu?

MS TRUDEAU: Well, what I could say is --


MS TRUDEAU: -- the Secretary enjoyed his meeting with the Turkish foreign minister. They discussed a range of issues of bilateral importance.


MS TRUDEAU: This was on the margins of NATO, talked about the alliance.

QUESTION: But according to the Turks, they discussed Cyprus, and Cyprus, as you know, is a very --

MS TRUDEAU: I have no details to read out on that, Michael.

QUESTION: Is it possible to ask how that --

MS TRUDEAU: I did and I just --

QUESTION: We have this --

MS TRUDEAU: -- have nothing to offer on that.

QUESTION: And also if you can find out if the Secretary met with the Greek foreign minister. I asked --

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Yes, I have no meeting to read out on that either.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:25 p.m.)