Daily Press Briefing - December 12, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:11 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Mr. Klapper.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR KIRBY: Afternoon, it is. All right, a couple of things at the top here. I hope everybody had a good weekend.
First on the DRC, I think you may have seen this. The U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed targeted sanctions on two government officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior and Security Evariste Boshab and General Administrator of the National Intelligence Agency Kalev Mutondo. These designations are based on actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in the DRC.
Today’s action follows prior listings in June and September. The United States Government, of course, remains concerned about increasing repression by the DRC Government and security services including increased restrictions on the media and on exercising peaceful freedom of assembly. These are sanctions against individuals not against the Congolese people. That said, while the two individuals designated are government officials, we call on all Congolese, including the opposition, to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, violence, or actions inconsistent with democratic norms. And of course, we urge the government and the opposition to reach an agreement on a path forward for credible elections. For more detail on the actual sanctions, I’m going to refer you to my colleagues at the Treasury Department.
On the Secretary’s schedule today, I do want to provide a brief readout that he met today with Secretary General of the PLO Saed – Saeb, I’m sorry – Erekat and the chief of Palestinian general intelligence. The Secretary, Mr. Erekat, Mr. Faraj discussed regional challenges, including Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the need to fight violent extremism as well as constructive ideas for the way forward to support our shared goal of a two-state solution. The Secretary stressed the United States’ commitment to this issue and his concern over trends on the ground. They agreed on the importance of continuing to work with key partners to advance the prospects for peace while opposing all efforts that would undermine that goal.
For their part, Mr. Erekat and Mr. Faraj also reiterated President Abbas’s desire to continue to work constructively with the incoming administration.
With that, I’ll go to you, Brad.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: What is your take on the president-elect’s comments about the “one China” policy and making that potentially contingent on trade or other concessions from Beijing?
MR KIRBY: Here’s what I’d say, and I obviously can only speak for our Administration. But we remain firmly committed to our “one China” policy which, as you know, is based on the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relation Acts – sorry, the Taiwan Relations Act. This policy has supported our fundamental interest in peaceful and stable cross-strait relations through both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past 40 years. We do not believe that altering this approach is going to serve our fundamental interest in cross-strait peace and stability or strengthen our relations with the people of Taiwan or, frankly, improve our ability to shape China’s decisions going forward.
QUESTION: Have you had any interactions with your Chinese counterparts since this latest interview of the president-elect? I remember before you did but --
MR KIRBY: None that I’m aware of. None that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Okay. Are you --
MR KIRBY: And as I understand it, this – the interview took place just yesterday, so I’m not aware of any interaction.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. Are you aware of any – or let me put it this way: Are you concerned that these types of comments could have immediate effects on U.S.-Chinese cooperation on North Korea, on cyber, on some of the other things that you’ve strove so hard to improve cooperation on?
MR KIRBY: I mean, it’s difficult to – it’s difficult to know with any certainty, Brad. What I can tell you is that we’ve been clear, we will remain clear with Chinese leaders, as well as Taiwan, our commitment to this “one China” policy and our commitment, as I said, to better – I should say peaceful and stable cross-strait relations. And so I – I’ve seen no – I don’t think I have any reaction to read out as a result of the comments or certainly any tangible practical effect as a result of them. And for our part, we’re just going to stay focused on the policy that we’ve been pursuing and, as I said, has been pursued now for four-plus decades in terms of a “one China” policy. So I can’t obviously predict what the new administration will actually implement in terms of China policy. I can just tell you that we’re going to stay focused on pursuing the same agenda.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I just ask you then about the Chinese reaction? Some of it’s been quite virulent. Do you think the Chinese are overreacting with some of their reactions? For example, I think some state newspapers called the president-elect an ignorant child. Is that something you would take umbrage with or dispute? Your response?
MR KIRBY: I appreciate the question. I think I’m not in a position to characterize their reaction and their characterization of the comments made. I think you’re right; we’ve seen their public comments. I’ll let the Chinese speak for themselves in terms of the way they want to react to the interview. I would just tell you that, again, we’re focused on the “one China” policy that we’ve been pursuing, been pursued by administrations in both parties in the past. We – as I said, we believe any change to that is not going to serve our fundamental interest in cross-strait relations.
The other thing that I would say is that here at the department what we’re – in terms of transition, what we’re mostly focused on – actually, what we’re solely focused on is making sure that we can provide for a good, healthy transition here to the next administration, that they have the context, the information that they need to develop whatever policy agenda they’re going to pursue.
QUESTION: You know, and they also threatened --
QUESTION: So – and a follow-up?
QUESTION: They also threatened to arm U.S. adversaries and so on.
MR KIRBY: Who is “they”?
QUESTION: The Chinese. They said they can also arm groups who are --
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not --
QUESTION: -- who are adversarial to --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate --
QUESTION: -- to U.S. interests everywhere it --
MR KIRBY: I don’t find it useful to speculate and hypothesize about what’s coming down the road under the next administration. These are – these are serious matters and serious policy issues that they will need to work through. What we’re going to do is make sure that we’re poised and ready to provide them whatever context they need as they begin to make these decisions. But I want to be clear again that we have continued what has been a bipartisan approach for the past 40 years with respect to a “one China” policy, and we continue to believe – this Administration continues to believe – that this serves our interests, our national security interests, in the best possible way. The next administration, the president-elect will have to make these decisions for himself and for themselves. Again, we believe in the soundness of it and we will remain, again, poised and ready to provide them whatever context they need as they work their way through it. I just won’t – I just don’t find it useful to guess about implications one way or the other going forward, and I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t take it upon myself to characterize the Chinese reaction. I think it speaks for itself. You’ve seen their public comments. I think as Brad accurately said, they’re – they’re direct.
QUESTION: May I have a follow-up?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: So I just want to clarify. So is the transition team contact or reach out with you with regard to the policy guideline, or did you provide any information to the transition team?
MR KIRBY: Right. So they’re here. There is a transition team here at the State Department and we have been – there have been discussions between them and various officials here at the State Department. As I said earlier, and I’m going to stick to my pledge, I’m not going to do a daily readout here of who they’re talking to or what information they’re asking for or what they’re deciding to do with the information that they’re getting. That is for them to speak to. But they are here, they are working, and we are providing information to them as they see fi, as they deem appropriate.
QUESTION: As you mentioned, you’re --
MR KIRBY: We’ll stay on this just because I think this is relevant, and then we’ll go to Syria.
QUESTION: Well, you mentioned now your sole focus is on the peaceful transition. Do you lay out the consequences or repercussions of that comment mainly to the transition team or the team in New York?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to detail the – whatever conversations we’re having with the transition team. What I can tell you is that we have a lot of experienced diplomats here who have been engaged and involved in issues like this and others around the world. They stand ready. They have provided context on various issues, and I’m not going to detail the ones but they have provided some information and some briefing materials. It is for the president-elect and his team to decide how they want to develop their foreign policy priorities. That’s the way the system works, and we’re going to respect that here.
All I can say with certainty is that this Administration – President Obama and certainly Secretary Kerry – continues to abide by the “one China” policy that has been supported by administrations of both parties and has served our fundamental interests in the region well.
QUESTION: And President-elect Trump also, during the interview, he said he fully understand the “one China” policy. Do you believe he really understand it? And is it appropriate for him to make that comment?
MR KIRBY: Again, these are questions that you should be posing to the president-elect and his team. I’m not privy to the briefings they’re getting and to the information that they have available to them. And the president-elect made clear his level of comfort with the information, and he indicated some alternatives that he’s thinking about. I think it’s best for him and his team to speak to that, not for us.
QUESTION: Just a final one, sir. If he is trying to undo the longstanding policy this Administration and the previous administration pursued, you can’t do anything to prevent it?
MR KIRBY: These are decisions that he and his team have to make. What we will do is continue to implement the “one China” policy that this Administration continues to believe is in our best national security interest. Secondly, we will, as they deem appropriate and deem fit, provide them with whatever information they need as they start to develop their own foreign policy about this and places all over the world. As I said, we have a terrific corps of diplomats here at the State Department, people with long experience in that region and in other places around the world. They stand ready to provide the context and information as the new team wants. And what they do with that information and how much they make themselves available to it is really for them.
Our job is not to preclude or to try to enforce an approach to any particular issue around the world to the new team. They were elected by the American people. They will work through these issues in their own time and in their own way, and then when they’re ready to express what their policy’s going to be on this or any other issue, they’ll do that. The Secretary has been firm about where he wants the department to head, and that is to make sure that we are making ourselves available to them and to make this transition as seamless and as easy for them as possible, and that’s what our focus is on. Okay?
QUESTION: Quick follow-up?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: You just said that you’re not going to read out any conversations that you may have had with the transition team. Have there been briefings – live briefings, not just paper? Has there been any conversations --
MR KIRBY: As I understand it, Brad, there has been both.
MR KIRBY: As I understand it, there have been active conversations as well as the provision of briefing material information. That’s my understanding.
QUESTION: So these would be conversations that transition members had with senior officials here, assistant secretary level of the – from --
MR KIRBY: I don’t want to get into the details, but I know that there have been conversations as well as informational material provided to them.
QUESTION: So – just so we’re clear, we mean kind of formal briefings where somebody comes in or officials here come in and they present, say, Syrian civil war, something like that, and they --
MR KIRBY: I don’t believe --
QUESTION: Or is it just on the phone, or just --
MR KIRBY: I think it’s been all manner of conversation. I don’t – I honestly don’t know the degree to which there have been formal presentations the way I think you and I would think about a formal presentation. I really don’t know. I do know that there have been conversations, like face-to-face meetings and discussions, as well as information provided for them to read and to peruse, again, at their request.
QUESTION: John, could --
MR KIRBY: Are we good on China?
QUESTION: On this topic?
MR KIRBY: No?
QUESTION: Yeah, could you just give us some insight into the challenges and dilemmas this situation creates for the State Department as you are going about your diplomatic missions when there is a president-elect already talking about something that may just be six weeks down the pike?
MR KIRBY: Challenges and dilemmas?
QUESTION: It’s got to be awkward.
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) Well, I mean, I think most of the foreign leaders that we deal with understand the way our transitions go, that for a period of about two months or so you’ve got a sitting administration that is still pursuing domestic and foreign agenda items and committed to them as well as an incoming administration that is forming itself, literally, in terms of resources and selection of individuals, as well as, at the same time, further developing the foreign policy or domestic policy agenda items of the president-elect, and they understand that.
And I was on the road with the Secretary, as you know, last week throughout Europe, and he’s very good about speaking to the foreign policy agenda and the things that we’re trying to get done in this Administration with the time that we have left and not speaking to whatever the incoming team might decide to do on you pick the issue.
Now, we are mindful that some foreign governments and some foreign leaders have already had initial conversations with the president-elect. That’s not unprecedented, that’s not a surprise, that’s – it’s not like it’s never been done before. That’s all part of a process of change. And as I said, the foreign governments and foreign leaders, certainly, that we’ve been dealing with directly now in the past five, six weeks, whatever it has been since the election, they understand that.
And so I don’t know, Carol, that there’s been huge obstacles or challenges as a result of this because this happens routinely in our democracy and they know that. And I can tell you that in the conversations that the Secretary had just over the last week – and I’m sure we’re going to get to Syria here in a second – they were tangible, practical decisions about what’s going on on those issues and not spent – there wasn’t a lot of time spent on speculating or hypothesizing about what the incoming administration might do.
In other words, this change, this transition, did not have a tangible, practical effect on the kinds of issues that we continue to have. It doesn’t mean that it’s not – I don’t want to, like – I’m not trying to dismiss it or say that it’s not obviously on the minds of so many people because they know there is a new team coming in. Of course it’s on their minds and – but they have a – they have had and can, at their discretion, have direct communications with the transition team if they so choose to talk about whatever their issues or concerns are.
What we’ve been focused on, truly, is on trying to continue to move our foreign policy agenda forward, to try to get a peace in Syria, to continue to maintain our commitments to the Iran deal, to try to improve and contribute to security and stability in the Asia Pacific region, to continue to move forward our implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. That’s what we’re focused on. That’s a long answer. It was a great question and I hope I provided enough context on there, but it was fair.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you bring us up to date on where things stand with the U.S.-Russia technical talks in Geneva?
MR KIRBY: As far as I know, our teams are still trying to work on the – trying to work this out. I think, as you know, over the weekend, representatives from the U.S., from Russia, United Nations, and other international organizations did meet to try to finalize an agreement, a cessation of hostilities, that would allow for the safe, voluntary departure of civilians and opposition members from east Aleppo, as well as – and this needs to continue to be pressed – the delivery of humanitarian aid, which is so desperately needed.
However, rather than accepting the U.S. proposal for an immediate cessation, the Russians informed us that a cessation could not start for several days, meaning that the assault by the regime and its supporters on Aleppo would continue until any agreement would go into effect. Given the dire situation in Aleppo and the reports of continued attacks on civilians and infrastructure, this was just simply not acceptable. So we’re deeply frustrated, but we’re not surprised by this lack of Russian and regime commitment to what should be a humane solution to the current brutality. And we remain gravely worried for the safety and well-being of the people that are now remaining in east Aleppo.
QUESTION: So they – so the Russians wanted a delay of several days before the cessation of hostilities were to start; that was their – the condition? Is that what you said?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. They informed us that a ceasefire could not start for several days, meaning that this assault would just continue.
QUESTION: So that was on – during the weekend when they told you that. Have you noticed an uptick in the number of sorties they’re flying, the – a level of kind of advancement of the army in that time period?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m – I don’t have, like, sortie figures to read out. I wouldn’t have access to that information. That’s really something for the defense ministry in Moscow to speak to. We have seen continued violence, we have seen continued attacks, we’ve got indications of continued airstrikes. But I would not be in a position to quantify that. The violence has continued, though.
QUESTION: And --
QUESTION: Just a second. So you’re – the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, said that he – I think he – the way he phrased it was that the U.S. was at a dead end stance. He was saying that the U.S. was refusing to budge. What would be your response to that?
MR KIRBY: I think I’ve already responded in my – in how I characterized your first question. We remained open to having meaningful discussions in Geneva to get the cessation, to get the aid in, and frankly – and this shouldn’t be forgotten – to try to get the political talks back on track. They’re the ones that came in in the end game and said, “Well, no set new ceasefire is going to – can start for several days,” which means, basically, the siege goes on and Aleppo could fall in the meantime. And again, that’s – that condition was unacceptable to us. So I think while we would still like to get there, and the Secretary is never one to just throw his hands up, I think we’re certainly at an impasse right now.
QUESTION: The --
QUESTION: What’s the practical --
MR KIRBY: Hang on a second.
QUESTION: At this point, like, the Syrian army has almost overtaken all of east Aleppo. They’ve said that the announcement is fairly imminent. What is really left to even negotiate in Geneva if they’re about to take control of that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, what – exactly what we talked about. I mean, first of all, I’ve seen all kinds of conflicting press reports about how much of Aleppo has been taken back, and clearly, from just collecting all the various sources of information, we obviously know that the regime has a majority of the city. There’s no question about that. I couldn’t give you an exact percentage here, but in terms of what’s left to negotiate, it is exactly what we tried – what we were working on throughout the weekend, which was to get the bombs to stop so that people that wanted to leave, including opposition, could do so safely, as well as the parameters through which they could get out safely. I mean, many people were afraid to go, because to go would be to leave themselves vulnerable – in fact, perhaps more vulnerable to airstrikes and attacks by the regime. So that was all part of this discussion as well. Those were the things that we were trying to get set – was getting the ceasefire in place, getting the parameters for how it would be enforced and how people could get out safely and securely, as well as – at the same time you’re trying to work routes out, we wanted to be able to negotiate routes in for humanitarian aid and how it would get in, how it would get delivered. All that stuff was being discussed. Now, it was being discussed at a staff level – at a technical level, if you will. So those were the things that we were hoping to get nailed down in Geneva.
The other thing, and I foot-stomped it a few minutes ago, but I want to do it again, and – because the Secretary has – was clear in his discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov over the weekend, both on the phone and there in Hamburg face to face, that what we really need – that what we all need to stay focused on is the resumption of political talks, which obviously is elusive right now. He understands that, given where we are with Aleppo, but while the focus is rightly on trying to save lives in Aleppo and get food, water, and medicine in, it is all part and parcel of what should be a larger effort – an effort that the Russians said they supported through I don’t know how many communiques through the ISSG, which is getting the opposition and the regime to the table finally to start to have meaningful talks. That’s a very difficult place to be when you’re looking at what we’re looking at in Aleppo right now.
QUESTION: John, could I follow up on that?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Are you aware of the reports that allege that Palmyra was retaken by ISIS? You have --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I have seen --
MR KIRBY: -- press reports about it, Said. I’m not in a position to --
QUESTION: But you don’t have any information? Because the Russians are claiming the spokesman for the ministry of defense, Igor Konashenkov, said that the reason they were able to do it, because the alliance apparently stopped their bombardment of Raqqa. So thousands of fighters were able to make their way to Palmyra or Tadmor, so --
MR KIRBY: With the alliance? You mean the coalition?
QUESTION: Right, the coalition. I’m sorry. The coalition --
MR KIRBY: All right. Well, look, there’s a – so there’s a --
QUESTION: I meant to say the coalition. I’m sorry.
MR KIRBY: There’s a lot there. First, I can’t confirm the press reports about the degree to which the so-called Islamic State is or is not in possession of Palmyra. I’ve seen reporting that says that the attacks are ongoing; I’ve seen reporting that it’s been complete. I don’t know.
Secondly, the isolation operations in and around Raqqa continue. I would refer you to my Defense Department colleagues to speak to that with greater clarity. But nobody has lost focus on continuing to pursue this goal of liberating Raqqa, and everything I’ve seen this morning is that the isolation operations continue. So claims that we somehow stopped supporting SDF forces in terms of trying to further isolate Raqqa is just not true.
QUESTION: So are you worried about this apparent hydraulic effect, that it could happen; they could leave Mosul and go elsewhere in Iraq or in Syria; they could leave Raqqa and go elsewhere in Syria?
MR KIRBY: Daesh?
QUESTION: Daesh, yes. Because the numbers you speak --
MR KIRBY: I’ve never heard it referred to as a hydraulic effect.
QUESTION: I mean, that when you press --
QUESTION: It’s a fluid situation.
MR KIRBY: A fluid situation.
QUESTION: It’s a fluid situation.
MR KIRBY: Now I get it.
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, you --
MR KIRBY: All right. No, no, I was a --
QUESTION: You press here, it goes there.
MR KIRBY: I was a history major.
QUESTION: You know what I’m saying.
MR KIRBY: So look, I mean --
QUESTION: I mean, we’re talking about like 4,000 and maybe hundreds of vehicles and so forth.
MR KIRBY: We – I mean, throughout this entire military campaign – and I don’t want to revisit the history here, but we’ve been mindful that as they get pressured and pushed, they go elsewhere. I mean, that’s not something we haven’t seen before. When they do and when they are vulnerable in doing it, we try to take as much advantage of that as possible.
I don’t know, Said, whether – as we continue to work with forces on the ground in Syria in isolating Raqqa, where they will go. But we’re obviously mindful that some of them – many of them – may choose to leave. We saw that in the run-up to Mosul. We saw Daesh fighters decide on their own to leave, even against the orders of some of their leaders who were trying to get them to stay. And some of the hardliners will stay, no doubt about that. I don’t know what that mix is going to look like and I can’t possibly predict where they’ll go, but we have seen in the past where they have sought refuge elsewhere.
What I will tell you is this: As we have done elsewhere in Iraq and in other places in Syria, the coalition will stay focused on eliminating them as a threat and degrading and defeating their capabilities. The Pentagon had some numbers out there yesterday quoted to an anonymous military official. I’m not in a position to confirm, but we know for sure that tens of thousands of their fighters have been eliminated. We know for sure that hundreds of their leaders have been killed and taken off the battlefield. We know that we have dried up their revenue sources. We know they’re having trouble recruiting. We know they’re having trouble retaining. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t still a threat. It doesn’t mean that they still don’t have fighters who are willing to succumb to this pernicious narrative of theirs – this ideology – but we will stay focused on it.
And the other thing I’d say is whether Palmyra has been attacked or not, whether it has been taken or not – let’s just assume that it has been – it would be the first thing geographically that they have been able to reacquire – or acquire, period – since May of 2015. So I mean, again, I don’t know if it’s true that they’re doing it, but this is a group that is very much in trouble, and they know it.
QUESTION: A follow-up to that? A follow-up on that?
QUESTION: So you said it’s possible that some of these fighters came from Mosul or from --
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I can’t rule it out, Brad.
MR KIRBY: We knew that some would leave Mosul; but as I said, where they went and what they – and what they did, I just don’t think we know that.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
QUESTION: And then since you brought up the numbers about the tens of thousands who have been eliminated from the battlefield, I think – I don’t know when the last estimate was of ISIS fighters, but at one time for a while it was 25,000. And now we’ve got more dead than were alive back then – than ever existed. So how did that happen?
MR KIRBY: Because they’ve been able to – because they have – we’ve talked about this openly. Because we know that they have been able to continue to recruit. They have been able to replenish their manpower.
QUESTION: So they – so if – okay. So --
MR KIRBY: But I’m not confirming the number that was put out by an anonymous --
QUESTION: It just seemed – okay. And then I had one other numbers. It was also – since you’re not going to say how much percentage you think of Aleppo has been retaken --
MR KIRBY: I just don’t know.
QUESTION: The Russians are talking about 98 percent just of east Aleppo, which is only a part of Aleppo, so we’re talking like 99.5 percent or something of the city, which --
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen the reports, Brad, but I’m not in a position to confirm it. As I said, we’re certainly – I think our assessment is that the majority – that the regime has taken the majority of Aleppo. I mean, that’s obvious. But I am – I don’t have the dexterity to give you a percentage figure or neighborhood by neighborhood.
QUESTION: Right. There was also a figure I think that came – that had been mentioned at this podium maybe a couple times – definitely the UN, as well – about 350,000 people that were in east Aleppo trapped at one time. That number – I just wanted to know, because – if there’s been any accounting of what happened to all those people. There were some people that we know went on the road. I heard about 10,000 about a week or two ago and – but there’s a huge amount of number that just seems to have vanished into the ether here. Do we know what’s going on with these estimates?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an exact figure for you --
MR KIRBY: -- in terms of who’s left or who has departed. It’s very difficult to know with certainty.
QUESTION: Follow-up on Palmyra. I mean, the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shia militia which Iran is very much involved with, was given the role of being a blocking force in the west regarding just that scenario of people – of ISIS fighters fleeing Mosul. Since the Russians have good relations with Iran, it seems that that is something that they were in a position to affect and influence through their Iranian friends.
MR KIRBY: Is that a question?
QUESTION: I – do you have a comment on that? The Russians – I mean, maybe the Russians are exaggerating this?
MR KIRBY: Talk to the Russians. I mean, look, I’m not – I can’t put myself in their head in terms of what they’re thinking about in terms of support to or for Shia militia. We’re going to – all I can do is tell you what the coalition is going to stay focused on and that’s on degrading and defeating this group.
And I can’t – I don’t know the degree to which they’ve reacquired Palmyra. I don’t even – I can’t even tell you the degree to which I – that we know that they’re trying to. But this is a group that is very much on the defensive – very much on the defensive – and we’re going to keep them there.
QUESTION: But it sounds like the Russia allies, the Syrians, may have lost Palmyra. There’s some – there’s certainly some problem there, because the Russians themselves are reporting attacks on Palmyra. But rather than accept that this is their problem, perhaps caused by the weakness of their Syrian ally, they blame the United States and say it should have stopped forces – ISIS fighters leaving Mosul, when in fact it was a militia that was supported by Iran, which is their ally, which was given the job of blocking the flight of fighters from --
MR KIRBY: If you’re asking me to join in with you in pushing back on the idea that we are responsible for any fall of Palmyra, you got me there and I agree with you.
QUESTION: Okay, that’s – yes. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: And that’s what you’re asking?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Okay. We’re finally on the same page.
QUESTION: A short follow-up on Palmyra. Did you communicate with the Russian officials about the situation in Palmyra maybe? Any --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any --
QUESTION: -- intelligence sharing --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any such communications. There hasn’t been. With respect to the fight against Daesh, again, I’d point you to my Defense Department colleagues. There hasn’t been that kind of communication and coordination. Not because, oh by the way, we weren’t willing to do it. If you might recall a couple of months ago, we had an agreement that was working towards what would have been known as a joint implementation center that would have allowed us an opportunity to coordinate, communicate in the counter-Daesh fight. And we weren’t able to establish it because the Russians weren’t willing to meet their commitments.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that Russians don’t want to communicate on these issues?
MR KIRBY: I’m saying that we had an opportunity a couple months ago to better coordinate and communicate with respect to counter-Daesh operations. We couldn’t get there because the Russians wouldn’t meet their commitments. I’m not – I don’t believe there has been any communication with Russia with respect to what’s going on in Palmyra – counter-Daesh. I certainly encourage you to talk to my colleagues at the Pentagon, but I’d be very surprised if there was – if there’s been any.
QUESTION: Can I change topics?
QUESTION: Different --
MR KIRBY: No, apparently you’re not allowed to. (Laughter.) Who else is on this?
QUESTION: John, on Syria too. News reports said today that the Russians and the Syrian regime have used chemical weapons on the civilians in Hama. Are you aware of these reports?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen that particular report, but – and I – so I don’t have anything for you on that. We have seen in the past where the regime has used chlorine as a weapon. We know chlorine is an industrial agent, not a chemical weapon, but if it’s used in that way, obviously that’s a violation. But I’m not aware of this particular report.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Steve, did you have something on this?
QUESTION: Different subject. What --
QUESTION: Just wanted to ask you why you’re being so hesitant to acknowledge there’s a – you keep saying you don’t know if there’s an attack at all on Palmyra. Do you have – we – does the United States Government have no visibility on this part of Syria, or --
MR KIRBY: Our ability – Brad, I mean, I think you know. I mean, our ability to know hour-by-hour operations there in Syria in particular is very, very limited. So at 2:45 – because I checked on this --
MR KIRBY: -- honestly, I checked on this before I came out here. I figured you guys were going to pound me up on it. I just can’t say with any certainty. We’ve seen reporting --
MR KIRBY: -- that Palmyra is or has been under attack by Daesh. I just am not in a position to confirm the veracity of those reports. If we get to a place where we have a better sense of it, then we’ll certainly have – there’s no – I mean, the only thing precluding me from acknowledging it is that we just don’t have enough information to confirm it. It’s not reticence to do so.
MR KIRBY: Does that --
QUESTION: It just – it’s not that it just happened today. I mean, it’s been going on for a couple days now.
MR KIRBY: I understand. I understand. I – if I had better information, believe me, I’d give it to you. But I’m not going to stand up here and make it up either.
QUESTION: It’s about the – it’s like the only town in that hundreds-of-miles area of Syria.
QUESTION: It’d be nice to know if --
QUESTION: If there’s – if it’s – if there’s an attack going on by the – by Daesh, you would hope that --
QUESTION: Is it possible the American intelligence just missed this?
MR KIRBY: Look, guys, if I have better information, I’ll let you know. I mean, we --
MR KIRBY: -- again, we – we’re aware of reporting that Palmyra could be under some kind of an attack by Daesh. We’ll have to – as we get more information, I’ll let you know. I just --
QUESTION: If you need more intelligence, I can send you the latest one. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: I’ll – yeah, I’ll – we’ll have you come on up and give us a briefing.
QUESTION: All right, all right.
MR KIRBY: I – we’ll – look, as we get better information, I’ll give it to you. There’s not – my reticence is simply that I want to be accurate, not that I’m trying to hide something here.
MR KIRBY: That is different.
QUESTION: Yes, it is. Still inconclusive about the results, but wondered if we could get a comment about the process from the U.S. perspective and whether it’s a – seen as a positive step towards solving this two-year political crisis there.
MR KIRBY: So I’ll say this: We commend the citizens of Macedonia who exercised their right to vote in the 11 December parliamentary elections. We also welcome OSCE and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human – I’m sorry, Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR. We welcome their preliminary conclusions that the elections were competitive and that fundamental freedoms were generally respected. The turnout was high, the elections proceeded in a calm and orderly manner with a few cases of procedural irregularities. We echo those two organizations’ concerns about the administrative preparations for the elections, and we urge the next government to continue to work to build capacity within the state electoral commission and to resolve the structural and legal issues with voter registers.
These elections, we believe, are an important first step to move Macedonia out of its political crisis. We encourage the parties who form the new government to work constructively with the opposition to enact reforms that will further the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, particularly with regard to rule of law. And I can assure the people of Macedonia that as they pursue this effort, they will find the United States a partner in it.
MR KIRBY: Is he allowed to? (Laughter.) All right.
QUESTION: Am I allowed to? Okay.
QUESTION: Very quickly. First of all, did the Palestinians submit, like, a plan or proposal that they want to take to the United Nations during their meeting with Secretary Kerry? Is it something that you can share with us?
MR KIRBY: I’ve – I – as I said in my --
MR KIRBY: -- my readout of the discussion, they certainly did touch on the viability of a two-state solution, but I’m not going to go into more detail than that.
QUESTION: Would that be something that the United States would actually support if they went to the United Nations, in view of the latest developments on --
MR KIRBY: Nothing’s changed about our view on that, Said. We’ve talked about that before.
QUESTION: Okay. I really have just a couple more. First of all, this meeting, it’s called the strategic discussions, is that something that has been in the planning for a while, like --
MR KIRBY: Now you’re talking about the --
QUESTION: Yeah, there were two types of meetings, but the same delegation --
MR KIRBY: There was the --
QUESTION: Yeah, right. Because --
MR KIRBY: Mr. Erekat and Mr. Faraj that met with --
QUESTION: Met with the Secretary, but then there’s --
MR KIRBY: -- the Secretary, and I read that out.
MR KIRBY: I think as you know, the State Department is today hosting a political dialogue --
MR KIRBY: -- with the Palestinians, which is being led by Stu Jones, who is our --
MR KIRBY: -- principal deputy assistant secretary for the NEA Bureau. That discussion will also touch on a number of regional and other issues of mutual interest, including civil society, travel issues, countering violent extremism. We have dialogues with the Palestinians on a range of issues, including an education dialogue, an economic dialogue. This one has been long planned, and this has in fact been in the works, as I understand it, for several months now. It’s all part of these routine dialogues that we have.
QUESTION: And my last one. Yesterday, on a 60 Minutes program that aired yesterday, the Israeli prime minister said that it was the Palestinian’s lack of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and it’s not the settlements that were the major obstacle to peace and to achieving the two-state solution. Was that an issue that was discussed during Erekat and Secretary Kerry’s meeting?
MR KIRBY: I’ve read that conversation out as deeply as I’m going to.
QUESTION: Was there any Israeli delegation last week in Washington in this regard to – they’ve talked to any --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any. We’ll take the question and get back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: About what?
QUESTION: Futenma. Futenma relocation issue.
MR KIRBY: Okinawa.
QUESTION: Japanese supreme court will not hold a hearing to review a lower court ruling that backed the central government’s move to relocate the Futenma Air Base within Okinawa, making it certain that Okinawa prefecture will lose its case, sources said Monday. So I would like to have a comment. And also, do you think the construction work of the new air base in Henoko will be making progress, or do you think the U.S. Government understanding Futenma relocation issue will be (inaudible) settlement?
MR KIRBY: Well, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? (Laughter.) Look, I’m going to – what I’m going to do is take your question and have our East Asia Pacific Bureau take a look at it more deeply. I’m not aware of the comments and the decisions that you’ve discussed here.
What I will tell you broadly is that’s nothing’s changed about our importance of moving forward on a replacement facility; nothing’s changed about our commitment in working with the government in Tokyo to that end and to continue to take all manner of steps to strengthen and bolster our alliance commitments with the Government of Japan. So nothing’s changed in our regard in terms of the importance of the replacement facility. But on your specifics, let us take a look at that and get back to you, because I just wasn’t aware of those comments.
QUESTION: I have a different question but in the same region.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen reports of that, yes. And I think both governments have spoken to this. And look, I mean, I – we’re not going to broker this incident. We’re aware both governments have been in touch with one another, and I think we think that’s the right way forward.
QUESTION: Did you have any concern about it, or did you raise your concern with -
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any diplomatic conversations we’ve had – that we have had with either government on that incident. Again, we know they’ve both spoken to it. We think it’s appropriate for both those governments to deal with it.
QUESTION: Same country, different topic.
MR KIRBY: Okay. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Were you concerned that Trump’s recent statement on China will undermine efforts that the Obama Administration has been made on the U.S.-China relations?
MR KIRBY: I think we dealt with this earlier in the briefing. So – and I’m not trying to be flippant, but I would kind of – I’d refer you back to the early part of the transcript on this briefing. We dealt with that question quite a bit.
QUESTION: Besides providing information to Trump’s transition team, did the State Department ever provide any suggestions or concerns to Trump team --
MR KIRBY: Again, ma’am, I think we dealt with that earlier. So right at the top of the briefing in the transcript you’ll see that these guys pounded on me pretty hard on this. And all I would tell you is we continue to stand ready to provide them information and context so that they can make foreign policy decisions that they know they need to make. And just to reiterate, we continue – this Administration, President Obama, Secretary Kerry continues to abide by the “one China” policy, which, to remind, nearly four decades’ worth of administrations in the United States, Democratic and Republican, have honored.
Okay, thanks everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:57 p.m.)
DPB # 211