Daily Press Briefing - December 15, 2016

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 15, 2016


2:48 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Okay. That was my opening statement. (Laughter.) I don’t think I have anything to top on that, so we’ll get right at it.

QUESTION: Could we follow on Aleppo, then?

MR KIRBY: Can you follow on Aleppo? Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah. He said that we want a united Syria; you want to go back to the Geneva – I assume that’s Geneva I point, back in --

MR KIRBY: When he’s talking about a Geneva is he’s talking about – because that’s where the first and second round --

QUESTION: The talks, right.

MR KIRBY: -- of talks that occurred.

QUESTION: I understand, but there are – there’s a Geneva understanding that was back in 2012, which stipulated certain points to get the process going. So I assume that he’s talking about that.


QUESTION: But what I wanted to ask you specifically is that if – if, let’s say, when you talk about a political process and a united Syria, if the regime chooses or Bashar al-Assad chooses to be a part of this process and run in a fair and transparent elections and so on, would he be allowed to? Because you guys have committed yourselves in the past to the fact that he lost his legitimacy to govern.

MR KIRBY: Yeah. Well, I think we still believe that, Said. And as we’ve said before, those are exactly the sorts of issues that need to be hammered out in political talks, is what this transition looks like and what an election looks like. And that’s why it’s so important to get the regime and the opposition together to talk.

QUESTION: So you – I understand, but I still --

MR KIRBY: We’re not going to go in – we’re not going into this proscriptively, Said, and laying out what it all has to look like before they’ve even had a chance to talk.

QUESTION: Because it is obvious that the regime – not necessarily Bashar al-Assad – but the regime itself represents a good portion of Syrian – of the Syrian people. I mean, there are minorities that look to them for leadership. There are – there’s a large portion of the Sunni population and many others, Christians and so on. So they would want that kind of political entity to represent them.

MR KIRBY: Well --

QUESTION: Would they be allowed? Should they be allowed as part of any political process that is fair and transparent?

MR KIRBY: Should who be allowed?

QUESTION: The regime, the Baathist regime of Syria.

MR KIRBY: There is – there’s no question that in political talks, should we get to that point, that the regime would be represented in that. And there’s – you can’t have political talks and – to lead to a solution without the regime being represented, as they were in the first two rounds. And you talked about a large part of the Syrian population that may be supportive of the regime. Let’s also talk about the much larger portion of the Syrian population that has been killed, injured, maimed, forced to flee their homes and businesses – in fact, forced to flee the country. Some 4.8, maybe more, million people have been sent into refuge outside Syria.

Now, one of the things that we have said throughout our discussions about what the transition process should look like and how elections ought to be held is that we believe it’s very, very important that the diaspora, those that have been flung outside the country because of the brutality of their own government, ought to have a chance to cast their ballot, to have a say, to let their voice be heard. So again, we’re not going into this proscriptively by detail. That’s the whole reason you want to have talks, okay?


QUESTION: John, I can’t help but feel like we’ve been here before. Do you have any reason to believe that as long as the words of the Secretary and the rest of the world fall on deaf ears in Damascus that there is anything in the dynamics on the ground that will make this any different than what we’ve heard weeks ago and months ago?

MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, I think we’re all mindful – and I think you could hear it in the Secretary today – we’re all mindful that we have said these things before. We have made these same arguments. We have urged the same sort of restraint and dignified approach on both the regime and its backers to little avail. We’re exceedingly frustrated by where we are. Nobody wants to see what we see coming out of Aleppo specifically.

But as to your exact question on what – can I predict a change? No. No, and I wouldn’t even attempt to. But this much is clear, Carol: If things don’t change, if we can’t get back to discussions in Geneva about a political transition, a peaceful transition to some sort of democratic government in Syria, then the war goes on. And sadly, regrettably, we might be up here talking about another community, another city, that’s facing slaughter. That means more extremists are going to be drawn to Syria. It means more refugees, more internally displaced people as well as refugees out the country, which will continue to strain the resources of countries like – nations like Turkey and Jordan and Europe. And it means that the opposition will continue to fight; the civil war will not end. And I can’t – it’s hard to imagine how that can be seen – that outcome – those outcomes, I should say – can be seen as in the interests of anyone, including Bashar al-Assad.

QUESTION: But is there anything happening on the ground? Is there any reason to believe that this time might be different? Is this say nothing or forever hold your peace?

MR KIRBY: It’s not going to be forever hold your peace if we still don’t – if we don’t get to better outcomes. I think you know Secretary Kerry well enough that for every second that he’s in the chair, he’s going to be continuing to try to get a political transition in Syria on the way. There’s absolutely no question about that. But I mean, I think it – I think we just have to take this one day at a time.

Now, as – talking about this day, as he said to you, there has been some positive movement, and it would be remiss of us not to recognize the fact that there are buses that have moved into Aleppo to move people out. And indications are that the first to move out were those who were injured, hurt, sick, and not necessarily mobile, and they were monitored and escorted by Red Crescent personnel. So that’s not – that’s worth recognizing, that today we did see some people get out safely and securely. We need to see that continue.

More critically, what we need to see is a cessation of the violence in Aleppo, because as soon as this ceasefire was announced just, what, 48 hours ago, it was almost as immediately broken. So we’ve seen some positive steps today, and we’ll just have to stay at it.


MR KIRBY: Abigail.

QUESTION: -- following up on what you said, that there will be more cities where this happens, are there any plans underway for preventing this from happening in Idlib or wherever it is that the people who are being removed from east Aleppo are heading?

MR KIRBY: Well, if you mean that we’re engaging our partners and relevant parties to this conflict to try to forestall that kind of thing, yes, of course, we are. I can’t predict. I’m just saying that that’s the logical outcome because Aleppo’s not going to be the end. Even the dictator Assad said that, that the – that taking back Aleppo wasn’t going to end the war, except when he says it it has a much more – obviously a much more dark connotation there. I don’t know. But we – but what we do know is that unless we can get back to the table and try to get some sort of political transition in process to try to offer a way through to end the war diplomatically, it will continue. And since we believe that, you have to assume that it will continue on the streets of other cities, other towns, other communities. I just don’t know where or when that might be.




QUESTION: John, and the Secretary mentioned that everybody’s on board for negotiations except the regime – Assad regime – and you also now are saying the same thing. But who has approached the regime? Has – have you talked to Russians? Has this regime rejected an offer to be on board, or is it still up in the air? Have they been approached formally by – through Russia? Because --

MR KIRBY: Of course, they’ve been approached through Russia. We don’t have direct communications with the Assad regime --

QUESTION: Yeah. That’s – yeah.

MR KIRBY: -- but Russia does. They have the most influence on them. And yes, we have pressed upon them to press upon the Syrians to come back to the table to try to have some kind of meaningful political transition. And as the Secretary said, they have thus far not only proven unwilling to do that but proven all the more brutally willing to kill their own people.

QUESTION: John, do you have any direct communication with the groups left in the small part of Aleppo?

MR KIRBY: I don’t know what the status of direct communications are with the opposition fighters in Aleppo. I don’t think I have that clear a picture. We obviously have contacts with and communication with some opposition groups. There are other nations in the region that are in closer communication with yet other groups. I don’t know exactly how many or who the opposition are left in Aleppo, so it’d be difficult for me to answer that question.

QUESTION: So to clarify the position of U.S., the Secretary Kerry said that, “if Aleppo falls.” So do you believe that there is still an opportunity for the opposition groups to hold this small part --

MR KIRBY: It would be – he – the Secretary’s right. I mean, the – I think we don’t believe the entire city has fallen yet, but it is certainly on the brink of doing that. I mean, we’re realistic, we’re pragmatic about that. And that’s why, because we are where we are, that’s why we’ve been working to get civilians as well as opposition members out of there safely and securely. I can’t predict when that small enclave may or may not be taken or what that’s going to look like or how hard it’s going to be fought for, but by all – I mean, by just about any measure, Aleppo has almost completely been taken back.

QUESTION: But as far as I understand, the evacuation means the fall of Aleppo.

MR KIRBY: The what?

QUESTION: The evacuation of these fighters and the civilians in these small parts means --

MR KIRBY: I think we’re all facing the reality that that’s what’s going to happen.


MR KIRBY: I mean, I’m not sure I understand what the point is. I mean, I think we all recognize – nobody’s looking at what’s going on in Aleppo with rose-colored glasses here. I mean, the city is almost totally now been taken by the regime. I mean, we recognize that and they were – and the Assad regime was able to do that with the help of external actors, including Russia and Iran, and there’s no disputing that either. And sadly, hundreds of thousands of people have suffered, many of them innocent people – men, women, and children.

And that’s why, because of where we are with Aleppo, because the situation is so dire – and first of all, that’s one of the reasons why the Secretary came out to talk to you directly, because of the situation that we’re in right now and because of the need to try to save whatever lives are left in Aleppo that we can – that can be saved, and to allow the opposition to get out safely with their light weapons.

QUESTION: So the status of this enclave, is it – is there fighting going on now or are they being evacuated? Are they part of the cessation of hostilities or the ceasefire?

MR KIRBY: First of all, I don’t know --

QUESTION: Because I saw on some – footage of these trucks, convoys, going through areas that is under Syrian Government control and moving north towards the countryside and to Idlib. So --

MR KIRBY: I don’t know the status of fighting in this --


MR KIRBY: -- small area, but we have reason to believe that there could be opposition as well as innocent civilians there, and we’d like to get – we’d like to see that we could get those people out safely and securely. What the regime will do, I couldn’t possibly predict.

QUESTION: Because the implicit message – and when you say “if Aleppo falls,” the implicit message is that it may not, which means that these fighters will hang on or they will stay where they are, which is, I guess, in contradiction with the terms of the ceasefire as we understand it, right?

MR KIRBY: Look, again, Said, I don’t have perfect visibility into what – in what’s going on in this small area. I mean, Aleppo, for all intents and purposes, has been taken back by the regime. We recognize that. And our focus right now is more on trying to save the lives that yet can be saved and trying to get people out that can and will get out safely and securely to other locations, to aid and assistance – food, water, and medicine that is waiting for them.


QUESTION: I just want to follow on something the Secretary said. He said, “Hopefully people will put actions where the words have been.” We’ve heard a lot of words from him, a lot of indignation. Is the United States prepared to take action aside from calling for political talks to halt the violence in Aleppo?

MR KIRBY: What sort of action do you – are you referring to?

QUESTION: Be any action – is – that’s what I’m asking you. Is the U.S. prepared to take action beside – I mean, the Secretary said himself, “Hopefully people will put actions where the words have been.” What actions --

MR KIRBY: Well, he’s referring to – he’s referring to the actions and the responsibilities that are incumbent upon the regime, Russia, and Iran specifically. Those are the three parties here who have in the past said that they favored a peaceful solution, that they favor diplomacy, and have proven quite the contrary. Those are the individuals.


MR KIRBY: That’s where the – hang on a second. That’s where the responsibility lies. That’s where the failure of leadership is. Now, to your question, the – yes, the short is answer is yes, the United States will continue to act to do whatever we can to try to get a cessation of hostilities in Syria and get a return to political talks. And we’re going to do that through hopefully the support of the international community and continued diplomatic efforts.

Now, we’ve talked a lot – so I get – the implication in your question I understand very perfectly, the discussion of military options. And while discussions about options and alternatives always remains a live issue inside our government, we – those sorts of options have been carefully considered. They have been discussed thoroughly, and even at the request – or I’m sorry, at the advice and counsel of our nation’s top military leaders, it has been – the decision has been made that those are not options that will get us to the end we seek, either in terms of risk and resources and cost, but also to potential unintended outcomes and consequences in Syria that could actually be worse for the Syrian people. So it’s not like those things haven’t been thought about, and it’s not like they don’t continue to be thought about, but as the President said, there are no options that are better than a diplomatic one and one that involves getting the opposition and the regime to the table to try to talk about a political transition.

So I just want to be clear what – and I’m not – Nick, I’m not picking on you, but when you say “act,” we are acting. We have been acting. We have been leading. And the word “act” doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything other than diplomacy, although it can. So we are, we very much have taken a leadership role. It was Secretary Kerry who led the formation of the International Syria Support Group. It was the United States who led efforts inside the UN to get that Resolution 2254 into place. It was the United States which tried to work this out bilaterally with Russia, and then when that failed because Russia wouldn’t meet its commitments, it was the United States who fashioned together a smaller multilateral effort that we were talking about in recent weeks.

So we’re very much going to stay committed on this.

QUESTION: So just a quick follow-up on that.


QUESTION: I mean, you – he compared it – from the podium, he compared Aleppo to Srebrenica. You have a member of – Samantha Power literally wrote the book on the responsibility to protect. Does the U.S. believe it has a responsibility to protect people in Aleppo?

MR KIRBY: We absolutely believe we have a responsibility to try to protect the innocent from slaughter, absolutely we do. And we have been acting on that responsibility for now, what, more than eight – five years, but more specifically for the last 18 months to two years to try to get a peaceful solution to the conflict. Coming from my background and then coming here, diplomacy is action. Diplomacy is leadership. Diplomacy is a choice, and it is often a more painstaking choice. It is often a slower choice. And as I’ve witnessed myself from being in these discussions, it is a – it can be in many ways a much more challenging choice to make. But it is a choice, and it is action, and it does connote leadership. And the United States has been leading in this – very much leading in this effort.

Now, Nick, to be honest and fair, and I think you can hear it in Secretary Kerry’s voice, nobody’s happy. Thus far, diplomacy hasn’t gotten us where we want it to go. We recognize that this diplomatic approach has fallen short of the outcomes that we want it to achieve, that we seek. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t still be pursued. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still lead, and act, and discuss, and debate, and try to get better outcomes, better decisions, better changes in the calculus of some of the parties in terms of the way forward. Because as I said – I think it was to Carol – it’s difficult to see that the alternative – which is the inability to make the right decisions by Russia, Iran, and the regime – is in their actual long-term security interests. Because what happens is the war just continues, and the bloodshed continues to happen, and extremists continue to be drawn in.

Just this past week, Palmyra was retaken by the Islamic State, a city that had – to great ballyhoo had been liberated back by the regime with Russia’s help, and they lost it. And I think that says something about their, quote/unquote, “stated commitment to defeat terrorists” on their own soil.

So again, we believe that through our diplomatic leadership, we are acting on behalf of the Syrian people and that we do shoulder and take that responsibility very seriously. But the other thing that I can – and I know I’m rambling here, but I want to get to the core of your question. The other thing that Ambassador Power said clearly was it’s up to the international community as well to continue to shoulder and bear that responsibility. It doesn’t – I’m not at all shrugging off U.S. leadership or our role. We very much are aware of our responsibility here too to continue to lead these efforts. But so too, as the Secretary said, do we need the international community on board as well.


QUESTION: John, when the Secretary spoke with Foreign Minister Zarif regarding the Iran Sanctions Act, surely they must have talked about Aleppo. Can you tell us what was said and if there was any attempt to somehow leverage them, to pressure --

MR KIRBY: I’m really not – I’m not in a – I’m not at liberty to read out specific discussions with Foreign Minister Zarif right now. Obviously, the Iran Sanctions Act and the extension was the core topic.

QUESTION: Is it a proper analogy to make with – between Aleppo and Srebrenica? Is it – I mean, how do you make that analogy? What is the yardstick?

MR KIRBY: I think – look, Said, I think it’s an obvious analogy to make given the level of slaughter that we’ve seen and the brutal, indiscriminate manner in which innocent people have been in some cases executed right in the streets. No historical analogy is perfect, but I think I can definitely see – and I was alive and remember that, those events as well – there are parallels in terms of the brutality of one group to another and with – along and with sectarian lines and sectarian influences.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Different subject. This is regards the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. Senior Kurdish officials, including the KRG prime minister today, have complained about the continued PKK presence in Sinjar. They say that the PKK is blocking the Yezidis from returning to their homes and rebuilding their communities. What’s your view of that situation?

MR KIRBY: Well, I haven’t seen those remarks, so it would be difficult to provide a specific comment on it. What I can tell you is – and I think you know – I mean, we continue to believe that the PKK, which is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, should have no role in Sinjar, and we regard their presence there as a major obstacle to a reconciliation and to the return of internally displaced people. We urge all groups, including the KRG, to facilitate political reconciliation so that these internally displaced people can return and the traumatized communities in that region can rebuild. We also urge continued close cooperation between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to defeat Daesh and to resolve any other outstanding issues between them.

QUESTION: So if I have represented his comments correctly, then you’re essentially in agreement with him?

MR KIRBY: I think I’m going to let my statement stand the way it was. I haven’t seen the – I haven’t seen those comments. I was simply stating to you what our policy is with respect to the PKK and Sinjar.


QUESTION: Earlier today there was a report released by the International Crisis Group indicating that Rohingya from Saudi Arabia are directing an insurgency in Rakhine state in Burma, Myanmar. We got a statement earlier today from this building referring us to that report, not taking any contention with the conclusions of Burmese intelligence services also telling the VOA Burmese service that this concurs with their intelligence. I wonder if you could elaborate on the reaction to this. And also if this is happening – being directed out of Saudi Arabia, do the Saudis bear some responsibility in looking into this?

MR KIRBY: Sure. What I can tell you is we’re aware of the report and we’re actually reviewing it right now, so it would be inappropriate and premature for us to make any judgments or statements about individual findings. In general, obviously, we work routinely every day with allies and partners and friends all over the world to counter violent extremism. And the threat of violent extremism, wherever it is and it’s in many places, is something all of us, all governments, can and should pay attention to trying to combat. But again, I’m not in a position right now to make any comment on specific findings in the report.


QUESTION: John, as a follow-up to Sinjar question, there is a group – you mentioned about the PKK presence there. There is a group which is using the name of “Sinjar Protection Units” in Sinjar. I mean, they are affiliated with PKK, but there is also another group like PYD. So you see for example PYD and PKK two separate groups, but in Sinjar, you say – you see – is it same organization? You call them PKK instead of “Sinjar Protection Units?”

MR KIRBY: What I said was we continue to hold the PKK as a terrorist organization and they shouldn’t have any role in Sinjar. And that’s our point. And our assessment of the PKK hasn’t changed, and I have no updates to give you in terms of our view of the PYD as a separate entity.

QUESTION: No, the thing is they are using the name of “Sinjar Protection Units” instead of PKK. They have own flags, they have own – I mean, the organizational chart, et cetera, differently from PKK.

MR KIRBY: What’s your question?

QUESTION: So you see them as PKK instead of “Sinjar Protection Units?”

MR KIRBY: As I said, the PKK is a terrorist organization. We don’t believe they should have any role in Sinjar. I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments or analysis about how they may be organizing themselves or branding themselves.

QUESTION: So just trying to understand the two different approach --

MR KIRBY: I know.

QUESTION: -- for Syria and Iraq.

MR KIRBY: I know. I think I’ve answered the question. Let’s take a couple more.

QUESTION: Can we stay in the Middle East?

MR KIRBY: Let me get one in the back here and then I’ll come to you, and you’ll be the last question, okay?

QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Very good.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I was going to ask about Japan, the Abe-Putin meeting in Yamaguchi. They agreed to start 2+2 talks with their foreign and defense ministers, and they agreed to talk about some economic cooperation between the Kuril/Northern islands. Do you have any reaction to the meetings? Are you worried that this can erode the G-7 sort of front against Russia?

MR KIRBY: Well, as I said yesterday, sovereign nation -states determine their sovereign foreign policy agenda and their schedules and their visits, and we’re not in a position to pass judgement on this meeting or the contents of it. I think it’s for the leaders of those nations to characterize what they discussed and the tone, tenor, and whatever decisions or joint priorities may have come out of that. We believe it’s important for nations – certainly Pacific nations, and both of them are – to have meaningful dialogue and discussion and improved bilateral relations. All that is to the betterment of the safety and security, stability of the region. But I’ll leave it to those foreign leaders to characterize their discussions.


QUESTION: I have a very quick question on a Palestinian issue. A couple days ago I asked you about two hospitals that were on the verge of closing down, because the PA is not paying up its obligation to these hospitals to the tone of about $15 million. I wonder if you have any comment or any information on that.

MR KIRBY: We are concerned about the situation with the al-Mutala and al-Maqasid hospitals.


MR KIRBY: In Fiscal Year 2015, the United States contributed $35 million towards East Jerusalem hospitals, and we plan to continue providing support subject, of course, to available funding. And I just don’t have an exact amount at this time.

QUESTION: Do you believe that PA is sort of shirking its responsibilities toward these hospitals?

MR KIRBY: Well, I think I’m going to leave my statement as it is.

Thanks, everybody. Have a great afternoon.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:17 p.m.)