Daily Press Briefing - December 20, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:05 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Hey, everybody. How are you all doing today?
MR KIRBY: Okay, a few things at the top – first on Macedonia. We are concerned about heightened political tensions in Macedonia following the December 11th parliamentary elections, and we condemn the inflammatory rhetoric from some political leaders which gives license to attacks on democratic institutions and ambassadors accredited to Macedonia. We call on political leaders to stop unwarranted attacks, respect the democratic process, and allow the formation of a credible, stable government committed to the rule of law, accountability, and fundamental freedoms. The United States stands ready to assist such a government to achieve Macedonia’s longstanding goal of Euro-Atlantic integration.
On eastern Ukraine, the United States is deeply concerned with the recent spike of violence in eastern Ukraine. Over just the last two days, six Ukrainian service members have been killed and 33 wounded in a Russian separatist attempt to seize additional Ukrainian territory – the highest two-day casualty figure that we’ve seen since June of 2015. This is a clear violation of Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements. And once again, we call on Russia to exercise its considerable influence over the separatists to put a stop to the violence and to allow OSCE monitors full and unfettered access. We strongly support the Trilateral Contact Group’s efforts to negotiate a ceasefire recommitment that will allow Ukrainians on both sides of the line of contact, of course, to live more safe, more secure, and especially at this time of the holidays, we think a propitious time to try to seek that kind of a ceasefire.
On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States is greatly disappointed by President Kabila’s failure to organize elections and to state publicly that he will not run again or seek to change the constitution. We continue to believe that an inclusive political agreement is needed to stave off additional violence and instability. We urge both the government and the opposition to participate fully and in good faith with the DRC’s Conference of Catholic Bishops when discussions resume tomorrow. That’s the 21st. The United States condemns the violence that occurred in Kinshasa and other parts of the DRC last night, and again today. We appeal to all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from statements or actions that could incite further violence. President Kabila and leaders of government security forces must ensure that personnel under their command respect the rights of Congolese citizens to assemble peacefully and to express their opinions without fear of retaliation, retribution, or arbitrary arrest.
With that, Brad.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask firstly, given the variety of terror and other attacks in Germany and in the Middle East, do you have any information about any American citizens being affected in any of these?
MR KIRBY: Right now we know of no American citizens that were affected by the presumed terrorist attack in Berlin or by the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. We are – in the former case we’re, as you might expect, in constant touch with German authorities. So we’ll keep watching this, but we know of no Americans that were involved or injured or killed.
QUESTION: And do you believe that applies as well to – I didn’t ask yesterday, but I should have – Jordan and Yemen as well over the weekend?
MR KIRBY: Don’t have any specific information about Americans caught up in that attack either – I’m sorry, both, Yemen or Jordan. But again, we’re in touch and we’re monitoring as best we can.
QUESTION: And then I just wanted to ask about the Moscow talks on Syria today, whether you’ve been in touch with anyone – you, the State Department – and have any readout or assessment of what was agreed in this declaration.
MR KIRBY: Well, as you know, we weren’t a party to the talks, but Secretary Kerry did speak today to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, who were there. And they provided the Secretary a sense of how the discussions went. I think – if you haven’t seen it, we can make sure you get it – there was a joint statement issued by all three countries at the end of the discussion, and I think they did a press conference as well. And as I said yesterday, the Secretary certainly welcomes any effort to try to get a ceasefire in Syria that can actually have meaningful results, particularly for those people that remain in Aleppo, as well as the resumption of political talks. And when he talked to both foreign ministers, he again stressed the need to try to get those political talks back on track as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Is it your understanding that this declaration – I saw the talk about an expanded ceasefire – actually provides a pathway, a viable pathway toward the resumption of political talks?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s too soon to know right now, Brad. I mean, that’s obviously what we’d all like to see, that – a meaningful ceasefire expanded – I’m assuming, the way I read that, was geographically larger than just Aleppo. That’s the way I read it.
QUESTION: That’s how I read it, too.
MR KIRBY: And if that’s the case, and it can lead to a sense of calm enough in Syria that political talks can resume, then that would be great and that’s what we’d like to see. I just think, given that the meeting just broke up today and given the fact that we have seen repeated promises to appropriately influence the Assad regime in the right way on the cessations of hostilities and seen those fail, I think we all – we just – we really need to await and ascertain the results over the next coming days.
QUESTION: Can you clarify where Mr. Kerry’s initiative – where this leaves Mr. Kerry’s initiative? Is he sort of out of the picture now in terms of the – I know he’s talked to them, but he hasn’t – he’s not involved in the negotiations or the declaration or anything like that. So is he going to continue in some other way, or just stand back and see if they can get something done?
MR KIRBY: You know Secretary Kerry pretty well, Barbara. I think it’s safe to assume that he’s --
QUESTION: Well, it’s been him and Lavrov in the room until now, and now it’s not. So he doesn’t --
MR KIRBY: I think you can safely assume that he’s going to stay 100 percent engaged on this for the entire time that he’s got left in office. And --
QUESTION: They don’t seem to want him to be involved.
MR KIRBY: Well, they can speak for who they want involved or not. I mean, we recognize that we weren’t invited, that this was between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. I think the Secretary would be the first to tell you that if not having us in the room can lead to finally a cessation of hostilities that can actually matter over a period of time and over a greater geographical area than what we’ve seen in the past, that can actually get humanitarian aid to people and can resume political talks, the Secretary is perfectly fine with him not being in the room if that’s the result of this. But it doesn’t mean he’s going to disengage or that the International Syria Support Group goes away or the other multilateral efforts that the United States has been leading are going to stop.
There have – almost from the outset of this entire process – been many conversations going on at once, and not all of them have we been a party to, even going back a year and a half, two years. So again, if the results announced – if the discussions that they had today in Moscow can lead to real, practical effects, that’s all to the good. That’s for the betterment of the Syrian people and regional stability, and we would welcome that.
QUESTION: Does it – did Mr. Kerry get a sense in his talks whether they plan to make this part of or liaise with the ISSG or with the UN, what Staffan de Mistura was talking about?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know – again, we weren’t there, so I don’t want to speak for the participants. I don’t – I didn’t get the impression from reading their joint statement that they saw this as something part and parcel to normal ISSG discussions, and the ISSG still exists. It’s been codified by a UN Security Council resolution.
But again, that doesn’t – nothing inside that resolution or inside that architecture precludes other multilateral efforts from happening, whether or not one particular nation is a part of it. We just have to – as I said to Brad, we just have to kind of see where this goes and where it leads. And if it can get us to a better outcome than the ISSG has been able to produce, that’s okay.
QUESTION: So Mr. Kerry doesn’t see it as a snub?
MR KIRBY: No, the Secretary doesn’t see this as a snub at all. He sees it as another multilateral effort to try to get a lasting peace in Syria, and he welcomes any progress towards that. And as I said, he spoke to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu right at the conclusion of it, so they provided him a readout of the discussion. They gave him a sense of what the tone and tenor was in the room, and he appreciated being able to get that insight. So I mean, there’s still – I mean, we’re still very much involved in the conversation trying to lead to the same – to the same end.
QUESTION: But is the U.S. not frustrated that it – especially with its NATO ally Turkey – that it appears to have been left out of this whole process?
MR KIRBY: Well --
QUESTION: And at least last week – I know you later said that the U.S. had been aware that this was going on, but it seemed as if on the specifics the U.S. wasn’t quite up to speed on what was happening between Turkey and Russia.
MR KIRBY: What we’re frustrated by, June, is the situation on the ground – that’s the most frustrating issue – and the fact that we still haven’t gotten humanitarian aid delivered to so many people in need, that there are still people in Aleppo who are trying to get out and can’t or don’t feel that they can do it safely, and that we still don’t have a resumption of political talks. That’s the frustration, not the degree to which two or three other nations are getting together without the United States at the table.
As I said, if you go back and look – I mean, obviously, this one came with a big joint statement and a press announcement. I get that. But there have – since the outset of international efforts to try to get a better outcome in Syria, there have been smaller multilateral gatherings at which the United States wasn’t represented. The two first rounds of political talks, proximity talks between the opposition and the regime, were led by Staffan de Mistura and the United States wasn’t there. When – back in December, a year ago – Saudi Arabia hosted the first opposition meeting to kind of – that was designed to get them centered around a core set of objectives and priorities, the United States – we had an observer there but we weren’t at the table there.
QUESTION: There was close coordination.
MR KIRBY: We certainly knew what was going on. And look, I mean, I don’t know the degree to which we were consulted in terms of the agenda for today. I don’t suspect that we were in any great detail. But the Secretary did get direct readouts from both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, so it’s not like it was done in secret. The Secretary doesn’t take it as a snub. Again, he welcomes any kind of effort, whether it’s bilateral or multilateral, that can get us to a better outcome.
QUESTION: More broadly, I mean, what would you say to criticism or analysis that would kind of show this as a marker of the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East appearing to decline and what that might mean for stability in the region or efforts to kind of bring about or protect U.S. interests, especially considering your close ally, Israel, is there as well?
MR KIRBY: I think there’s, obviously, two parts to that. First of all, there’s no diminution of U.S. leadership and influence in the Middle East, quite the contrary. I mean, we are as engaged as ever, if not more so, in Middle East affairs. And obviously, Syria is the most crucial, most urgent issue that we all face, without question. But the United States still remains very heavily engaged with our allies and partners and friends in the region on a range of concerns. And the U.S. still has a robust military presence there; the U.S. still has a robust diplomatic presence there. And we are very heavily involved in affairs in the Middle East, and I don't see that changing.
But to your first question about what does this mean in terms of the perceptions, I – we would obviously refute any notion that the fact that we weren’t at this one meeting is somehow a harbinger or a litmus test for U.S. influence and leadership there or anywhere else around the world. The notion out there that U.S. leadership and influence is waning is simply not supported – and I don’t just mean in the Middle East; I mean around the world – is simply not supported by the facts. We are, in fact, more engaged, more involved, and our leadership is more sought after now than ever before, all around the world.
Now, I recognize that, as we’ve gone through a very difficult election season here in the United States, that there has been a narrative out there, and some critics will say that others – other foreign leaders have doubted our commitments in certain respects. I can’t dispute that there have been some foreign leaders that have either privately or publicly expressed those concerns. But they’re not borne out by the simple basic facts of our engagement around the world.
QUESTION: So John, going forward on this very issue, I mean on the Aleppo, what are the practical steps that the U.S. will be taking in the next days, in the next week and so on, first to see that humanitarian aid gets in and, second, to move forward on whatever outcome as a result of the meetings between the Iranians and the Russians and the Turks and so on?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don't have specific agenda items to announce you to today in terms of activity, but we’re obviously going to say very engaged on this, from a diplomatic perspective, to continue to try to see a meaningful ceasefire in Aleppo and aid get in. Those are the two critical needs right now, because we still have people in Aleppo that can’t get out and those that are stuck can’t get the food, water, and medicine that they need. So we’re still going to stay very, very engaged on that.
And again, if – back to Brad’s line of questioning, if this troika arrangement, I think as they called it, can lead to that – to those outcomes, that’s all to the better. And if it can lead to those outcomes today or tomorrow, that would be terrific, and we’d love to see that.
QUESTION: Would that be just --
QUESTION: Can I just --
QUESTION: I have a couple of follow-ups. Will that – will your effort focus on humanitarian aid or is it to push forward the political agenda? Because I think you responded yesterday to the proposition that maybe talks will resume on February 8th, that de Mistura announced that talks may resume on February 8th.
QUESTION: So will you be – huh?
QUESTION: Is it – I thought that was --
MR KIRBY: He’s correcting your verb because the previous two versions did not end successfully. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: You said presume. I said talks would start. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: So --
QUESTION: Would resume, yeah, right. Would start, yeah.
MR KIRBY: -- but look, I mean, the – I don’t – not to sound glib, okay, but the answer to your question is yes. In other words, the Secretary would like to see – and we all would like to see, and I think even in the joint statement that you saw today, those three countries said they would like to see – a ceasefire immediately and the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid. I think we all would like to see that now. Also – and the Secretary spoke to this with you guys last week – we also want to see the political talks get on track as soon as possible, and as soon as possible is literally as soon as possible.
Now yesterday, we talked about the fact that Staffan de Mistura said he thinks he could maybe get them going early February, and I said that, obviously, we would look forward to that in hopes that it would succeed. I also saw in the joint statement today that Russia, Turkey, and Iran spoke about getting the political talks done in Kazakhstan, but there was no mention – I don't think; I don’t remember any mention – of a date. I think we’re less worried about location and more concerned about the fact that we get the opposition and the regime to sit down. And we obviously still, that said – still want this to be under the auspices of the UN. We still believe that that’s the right vehicle – Staffan de Mistura and his team – that they’re the right ones to guide these discussions.
QUESTION: Just can I – just to clarify my line of questioning earlier, Mr. Kerry has been working around the clock, around the globe for a year on this topic. He’s had more than 50 meetings with Mr. Lavrov about it. And now we’ve got a situation where his interlocutor, Russia, and his ally, Turkey, are saying, we want to – we don’t want you to be involved in trying to find a solution; we think we can do a better job. Does he not at least feel the U.S. is being sidelined, if not excluded, from what was something the U.S. was leading on?
MR KIRBY: We are not excluded. We are not being sidelined.
QUESTION: Well, a readout --
MR KIRBY: And we are ---
QUESTION: -- is quite different from his role before.
MR KIRBY: And we are still leading in this effort, Barbara. I can’t speak for the decisions of the leaders of those three countries who decided to sit down and have these discussions in Moscow, but we’re not going to turn up our nose to any effort to try to get to a better outcome in Syria. And if that effort, by design or by accident, isn’t going to include us, but it can lead to a better result, then obviously we would support that.
I just – I mean, I understand the basis of the question. As I looked at the joint statement, I saw a lot of similarities in the language there to the kinds of things that we, too, crafted time and time and time again. And that’s a key point here. It’s not like these same aspirations haven’t been voiced. In fact, if you look at that joint statement, it reads very similar – and maybe this is totally appropriate, it reads very similar to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which laid out the goals of a unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria. In fact, in one of the lines in this statement, it says very clearly there is no military solution and only and political one. Where have you seen that language before? So there’s a lot of borrowing in that joint statement from ideas that the United States has led and pushed from the outset. So again --
QUESTION: This is torture.
MR KIRBY: What? What is?
QUESTION: I think – I mean, the sense is that for a long time, you weren’t doing the military stuff, and your point was that you were leading on the diplomacy or on to the getting the political track, but now you’re not involved in the military, you’re not shaping the situation on the ground so much, and now you’re not even doing the talks. And I think that’s why the questions are: What are you actually leading on now? Not you laid the groundwork for some statement that may or may not have any reflection on reality in three hours.
MR KIRBY: Well, you just answered your own question, Brad. And we have to see --
QUESTION: So where’s the leadership now?
MR KIRBY: We have to see where this goes. The – well, okay, Brad. It’s a fair question, but the ISSG still exists; the UN Security Council resolution which codified the ISSG still exists; the multilateral format that the United States has tried to put together still exists, although we’re obviously not in active discussions in Geneva right now. U.S. support for Staffan de Mistura and his efforts still exist. Our bilateral and multilateral relationships with allies and partners in the region who also have control – or I shouldn’t say, “control,” that’s not fair – influence on opposition groups – that all still exists. We are still very actively engaged in this larger, broader effort as a – this umbrella effort.
Now, as a part of that, yes, three nations decided to get together in Moscow and talk about a way forward. We’re not going to turn up our nose at that. And if it can produce the results – the results that haven’t been achieved – then I think you and I can have a discussion about whether U.S. leadership mattered or not. But we have seen nothing but a joint statement so far, and we certainly haven’t seen any change on the ground in Syria or Aleppo. So I think it’s just back to my answer to you. I think it’s too soon to say whether this is going to be successful, and it’s way too soon to say that this has some sort of – makes some sort of broad statement about U.S. leadership.
QUESTION: That’s totally viable. And you’re right – this has not done anything on the ground, as of this point. But right now, what – the U.S. leadership isn’t taking a military dimension, isn’t taking really a political dimension, because there is no political discussion, and isn’t taking a diplomatic dimension. Right now, this leadership that you’re speaking of is all past tense. Is that not true?
MR KIRBY: I would disagree. Certainly, we --
QUESTION: But what are you doing now to lead --
MR KIRBY: We are --
QUESTION: -- to change the situation on the ground?
MR KIRBY: We’re still very active on the diplomatic front, Brad. I mean, no, we weren’t present at these discussions in Moscow, but that doesn’t mean that American diplomacy is now void and invalid and not a part of the larger, broader effort. It’s not like we aren’t still engaged in trying to get a better outcome. The Secretary was in Riyadh over the weekend. Now, largely that was to talk about Yemen, but he certainly used that opportunity to talk to our partners in the region about Syria.
QUESTION: But doesn’t it say something that these three nations think they can get together and shape the situation on the ground without having you in the room? For many years, they would never even have thought that they could get some sort of broader arrangement or change of the situation on the ground without, one, having you in the talks or two, pretty much hope – piggybacking off you carrying the talks. Now they don’t even think they need you.
MR KIRBY: I don’t think that – I don’t think the Secretary got the sense in his discussions today that there – that they don’t feel like they need the United States. I think, certainly in the case of Turkey, they certainly appreciate the U.S. role here going forward. So I think, again, too soon to say what the results are here. I don’t think it’s – now’s the time to make broad pronouncements about U.S. influence one way or the other with respect to the agreement that was released today. It is right now just on paper. We need to see how it plays out.
But U.S. leadership on the diplomatic front, though we would be the first to admit have yet to see real success, it still exists, is still going to be the locus of our efforts, and we believe can still have a positive impact. And we’re going to stay engaged on this for the entire time that we’re still around.
QUESTION: John, on --
QUESTION: I have one last one, just on the political talks. You’ve put a lot of eggs into these talks happening, almost presenting it as kind of a – not a panacea, but this is the ultimate goal. But the talks in themselves – I mean, what would you hope to accomplish in political talks between a rebellion that’s essentially been ceding and ceding and ceding territory – getting crushed – and a government that is on the ascendency and backed by two powerful foreign militaries? It would seem unrealistic to think that this diplomatic whatever – political solution – would – that this country would will – this government would will itself or negotiate itself out of existence --
MR KIRBY: Sure. Sure.
QUESTION: -- just because they’re sitting in a room with the people they’ve been crushing.
MR KIRBY: I think we know – when – more than a year ago, when the Assad regime was very much under significant threat by the opposition and the opposition was clearly gaining a lot of ground on them, we got asked similar questions: Why would anybody sit down and talk when it’s going so lopsided? What’s in it for the regime to sit down when they – when they’re losing and what’s in it for the opposition to sit down when they’re winning? And then now we’re in a situation where, obviously, the Assad regime has gained ground. And you’re right. I mean, the opposition is under greater pressure now thanks to Russia’s military involvement, no question about it, and the same question, which is a fair one, is why – what would be the motivation now for either side to sit down when one is clearly having a weaker hand.
And the answer is that – well, there’s a couple of parts of it. One, the international community, including Russia, if you look at that joint statement today and the UN Security Council resolution that they also signed, wants to see a political solution and a transition there that expresses and represents the voice of the Syrian people. Foreign Minister Lavrov quotes the communiques all the time about that being the outcome.
Number two, if there aren’t political talks, if there isn’t a political transition devised and put into place, the war goes on, because while the opposition certainly doesn’t have the upper hand that it once had, they haven’t expressed a willingness to just give up and surrender. And so without the vehicle of sitting down with the regime and working through some political transition, they’ll continue to fight and this war won’t end. And one would hope – and I know hope isn’t obviously a great strategy, but certainly one would hope that the regime and its backers would also see that a continuation of the civil war, continued bloodletting is not in the long-term interest of the nation of Syria and certainly not the Syrian people.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up on a point that Lavrov said today. He basically criticized the United States and he said that you guys did not implement your part of an agreed-upon – or some agreements that you have reached together, that (inaudible) --
MR KIRBY: I saw those comments that said --
QUESTION: Can you comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Foreign Minister Lavrov has said that many, many times. We obviously took very seriously all our commitments to the communiques and to the resolution. The particular sticking point that he continues to raise is the separation of --
MR KIRBY: -- moderate opposition from al-Nusrah. We have talked about this ad nauseam. It is not as if we didn’t make every effort to try to convince opposition groups to remove themselves from areas where we knew al-Nusrah was, but we – you can’t account for every single nose and head, and some fighters decided for whatever purposes that they were going to either align themselves philosophically or even physically with al-Nusrah, or that they weren’t going to leave areas where al-Nusrah was present. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t work diligently at that.
But I don’t think it would be useful or constructive to get into a litany of who didn’t meet their commitments, because I think it’s pretty obvious to see, time and time and time again, that Russia did not meet their commitments with respect to using their influence – their considerable influence – on the Assad regime to stop the bombing, stop the gassing, allow aid to get in, and to help us create the conditions for political talks.
Now, if you read that joint statement today and if they’re able to meet everything they say that they’ll do, then so much the better, then maybe we can actually see results. But we have seen in the past where they have not met their own stated commitments. So I don’t think now is the time, while people are still dying in Aleppo, starving to death and still being bombed, now – I don’t think now is the time to point fingers back and forth across the diplomatic table about who did or who didn’t meet every one of their commitments. Now is the time to try to put what they’ve said they promised they would do and put it into action and see if we can stop the bloodshed. That’s what everybody needs to focus on right now.
QUESTION: Related to Aleppo but a different dimension of it, Iraq --
QUESTION: This is --
QUESTION: This is Aleppo.
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: Different dimension.
MR KIRBY: I thought we were still on Aleppo. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Iraq’s foreign minister has said the Iraqi Shiite militias involved in fighting in Aleppo are not doing so – they don’t have the permission of the Iraqi Government, even though these same militias are now supposed to fall under the authority of Baghdad. Are you concerned that Iran is supporting some of these militias that are outside of Iraqi Government control for various purposes, including to bolster its influence in Iraq?
MR KIRBY: There’s a couple of things. I can’t confirm the veracity of the foreign minister’s comments in terms of the presence of Iraqi militia that – and to whom they pledge loyalty or fealty. So I’m not going to – I can’t address the specific comment that you’re citing there because I just am not in a position to confirm it.
That said, we know that there are Iranian-backed fighters in Syria. We’ve talked about that. And we’ve talked about the unhelpful role that they have been playing in supporting the Assad regime through advice, through some combat operations, certainly through arms and assistance. And we have said before we want the regime and its backers, which includes Iran, to stop that kind of activity and to try to get us to a point where we can achieve a meaningful ceasefire.
So I can’t, again, speak to the specifics of his charge, but we do know that Iran obviously has fighters in Syria that they’re supporting.
QUESTION: What – U.S. officials from the – President Obama on down, including yourself, have criticized Iran for its role in Aleppo and Syria generally. What most bothers you about what the Iranians are doing? Is it having these foreign – their bringing these Shiite fighters in from all – from around the world?
MR KIRBY: They – it’s the – it’s – well, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s the support that they’re giving to Assad, the – through various means to allow him to continue the depredations on his own people. And Hizballah, we know, is a presence there. Hizballah is a foreign terrorist organization. They have been involved. We know they’ve been involved in some of the atrocities, particularly in Aleppo. Okay?
QUESTION: Yeah. First of all, I didn’t expect you to brief because all morning I saw you – and I think I saw you on three – three airwaves.
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m all practiced up now. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s first class. I just have this – that the Secretary, when he was speaking from here, he said we are all on board, the international partners, for talks in Geneva, the only Syrian regime is not there. And today they are having talks in Moscow while the Syrian – Syrian regime is there. So it has something to do with the U.S. continuously saying that Assad has to go, Assad has to go, so Assad now doesn’t want U.S. in talks. Was it something like that? Is it a snub from – or is it something to do with the transition government?
MR KIRBY: I think – look, on the issue of snub, we’ve talked about this. I don’t want to revisit the same issue. I think we’ve exasperated that one – exhausted that one, excuse me – “exasperate” is probably my way of describing it. (Laughter.) Freudian slip, I’m sorry. I think we’ve exhausted that topic.
But look, I mean, I can’t speak for the meeting in Moscow and who was invited. I mean, that’s for those three countries to talk to. We know that Russia has the most influence – Iran too, but Russia the most influence on Assad. And they have a longstanding relationship with Syria that goes well back before this civil war began and I think it’s safe to assume that they want to continue to have a relationship and a presence in the Middle East through Syria going forward. Nothing has changed about our view that Assad doesn’t have the legitimacy to lead Syria, and I don’t think I need to prove that by looking at the last five years. I think you can do that for yourself.
What we have all said, the entire international community, is that there needs to be a political transition, one; two, that it needs to represent the voice of the Syrian people; and three, that what we – what that process needs to lead to is a pluralistic, non-sectarian, safe and secure and stable Syria, so that the millions of Syrians that have now fled the country can have a home to come back to. It’s one of the reasons why the United States insisted that as this political transition – whatever it looks like, that it at least includes the voice of the diaspora, those who have been forced out of the country. We think that’s important.
Now – and I’ve talked about this before – what that transition looks like, what role Assad has or doesn’t have through that, that is why – that’s for the opposition and the regime to work out under UN-led auspices. That’s why it’s so important to get these political talks back on track, so that the question of Assad can be dealt with and it can be dealt with by Syrians. That’s what matters. But nothing’s changed about our view – and it’s a policy view – that Assad has lost legitimacy to govern Syria.
QUESTION: In your third point, you mentioned about the sectarian violence. So you agree that it’s Shias and Sunnis that are fighting.
MR KIRBY: It’s --
QUESTION: So when you define Syrians, whom do you define? Sunni Syrians, Shia Syrians? Because it’s --
MR KIRBY: There are people of many --
QUESTION: It’s a complete mess there.
MR KIRBY: There are people of many faiths who live in Syria. There are Christians as well. But yes, I mean, I think the Secretary has talked about many wars inside the war in Syria, and sectarian tensions inside the Muslim faith between Shia and Sunni are obviously present there. There’s no question about that. But there’s tension between Kurds and Turks. There’s tensions between Russia and Turkey. There’s tensions between Arabs and non-Arabs. So there’s plenty of fault lines in Syria. It’s what makes this so complicated, and it’s because it’s so complicated that we continue to believe a political solution, a diplomatic one, is the right one.
Diplomatic solutions are hard to come by. They take time. They are complicated. But I think they’re reflective of the complicated nature of the war in Syria. Nothing is simple. Nothing is simple about what’s going on in Syria, and that is why we continue to believe in a political solution.
QUESTION: A question on Russia sanctions that came out today, if there’s nothing on Syria.
MR KIRBY: I think we’re still on Syria, right? Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Any concern our absence in these talks signals some sort of breakdown with our relationship with Turkey, and how would you characterize our relationship right now?
MR KIRBY: Well, Turkey’s a NATO ally and a strong partner. They’re a member of the coalition to counter Daesh. We believe we have a vibrant, healthy relationship with Turkey. It doesn’t mean when I say that that we don’t still have issues of disagreement. It doesn’t mean that we don’t still have areas where there are tensions in the bilateral relationship with Turkey. But that the Secretary was able to pick up the phone today and talk to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu at the end of this meeting in Moscow, and that the foreign minister was as forthcoming as he was about the talks and what they decided and how they were going to move forward I think speaks to the health of that relationship and the strength and the depth of it.
Differences of opinion – that makes news, and I understand that. But Turkey is a valued member of the coalition to counter Daesh. They are still allowing coalition air forces to use Incirlik Air Base to conduct missions as appropriate. They are still hosting on their side of the border more than two million Syrian refugees and doing the best they can to provide those refugees with the food, water, medicine, and shelter that they need. And this is not – what’s going on in Syria is not some theoretical exercise for the Turks. It’s real and it’s right on their doorstep and they’re taking it seriously, and we appreciate that.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. The Turkish foreign ministry is saying that the foreign minister in his phone call today with Secretary Kerry said that Turkey and Russia knew that Gulenists were behind the assassination of the Russian ambassador. Do you have a readout on that particular aspect and what is the U.S. response to those --
MR KIRBY: We’ll be issuing a readout of the phone call a little bit more detailed later. I don’t have anything specific with respect to that issue. I will tell you, though, that the Secretary in his conversation with the foreign minister did raise his concerns about some of the rhetoric coming out of Turkey with respect to American involvement/support, tacit or otherwise, for this unspeakable assassination yesterday because of the presence of Mr. Gulen here in the United States. And it is a – it’s a ludicrous claim, absolutely false, there’s no basis of truth in it whatsoever, and the Secretary made that very clear in his discussions today with the foreign minister.
QUESTION: But what about the aspect of Gulen’s followers being involved in the assassination?
MR KIRBY: I think there’s an active investigation going on, Steve. And I’m not going to get ahead of that. I don’t know and I don’t think you know what the motivations were behind this individual. I mean, I saw just like you saw what he was shouting and screaming after he shot the ambassador, but we need the – we need to let the investigators do their job. That we need to let them – let the facts and the evidence take them where it is before we jump to conclusions. But any notion that the United States was in any way supportive of this or behind this or even indirectly involved is absolutely ridiculous.
We’ll go to you. You had Russian sanctions.
QUESTION: So the Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning a few additional Russian businessmen and also some Russian companies – Russian and, quote/unquote, “Crimean companies” – over Russia’s actions, the annexations of Crimea and the violence in Ukraine. The Russian deputy foreign minister has responded and said they were – these are ungrounded, hostile acts by a departing administration. Would you – first of all, what’s your response to his comments?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments. Obviously, if that’s what he said, we would strongly disagree and differ with that. This isn’t about – this decision by the Treasury Department had nothing to do with the time on the clock. It had everything to do with Russia’s activities in support for the separatists in Ukraine and for their occupation of Crimea. That’s what it had to do with. It had to do with Russia’s actions. It had to do with holding Russia accountable for what its – for its violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty. That’s what it had to do with. It had nothing to do with the calendar.
QUESTION: And then given that the incoming administration – both the president-elect has expressed willingness to improve relations with Russia, his nominee for U.S. secretary of state has opposed past sanctions on Russia over Crimea. What would you say would be the effectiveness of these actions given that it seems likely that they will be reversed under your successor?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how we can know that for sure, June. I mean, the next administration will obviously have to make their own decisions about this. We hope that they will come to see the wisdom in not conducting business as usual with Russia given their continued activities. As I said just in my opening statement, the recent violence here in eastern Ukraine just over the last couple of days, we would hope that they would see the wisdom in keeping these sanctions and this pressure on Russia, because we have seen it have an effect. But obviously, these are decisions they have to make and we also respect that process as well.
So I can’t speak for what they might or might not do; I can only speak for what we believe is the right thing to do. And you saw the Treasury’s decision today is an extension, a manifestation of that. But it’s not just us. I mean, the EU also just recently rolled over sanctions as well. It’s not just the United States here that views with alarm what Russia continues to do in Ukraine and in Crimea. So again, we – the only – the last thing I’d say is that we will share whatever context and whatever information the new administration – excuse me – might require with respect to those kinds of decisions going forward.
QUESTION: And then just one more follow-up on that. I know you haven’t seen these comments, but the Russian deputy foreign minister also said that Russia will expand its sanctions list against the United States and we, quote, “retain the right to choose the time, place, and form of our responsive actions in a way that suits us.” What would be your response to those sanctions and those – whatever measures that they might take in response to the United States?
MR KIRBY: Well, let’s see what they do. I mean, let’s see what they do. I mean, obviously as a sovereign country, they can enact unilateral sanctions if they so choose, but I think I’m not – I don’t think commenting now on speculative threats like that is really going to be very productive.
MR KIRBY: Wait, can we – are we done on Russia? No?
MR KIRBY: That’s Afghanistan, that’s not Russia. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yesterday, you said the action of China seizing the United States’ UUV was against the international law. Actually, Pentagon actually said the same thing today. Can you specify exactly what international law were you referring to? Because some experts of UUV – this new technology actually falls under – it’s in a grey area under international law, so --
MR KIRBY: No. No. Sorry, got to stop you there. Not a grey area. It belonged to the United States Navy. It was doing oceanographic research in international waters in the vicinity of a U.S. Navy research ship to which it belonged. That – no grey area here. It was a violation of international law. Now, I’m not a lawyer, so if you need me to go look and find the statute for you, I’m happy to take that back and do that --
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MR KIRBY: -- but there’s no grey area. It was our property, it was in international waters, there was no reason to grab it, and it was doing nothing more than oceanographic research, all in keeping with the international norms and laws. So I’m sorry, there was absolutely no grey area whatsoever. This was a flagrant violation of international law, they had no right to take that UUV, and we’re glad, obviously, that we have it back.
QUESTION: But either – neither UNCLUS or Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation actually applied for this vehicle, because it’s not U.S. Navy ship. It’s unmanned vehicle.
And another point is China is not arguing that the activity of the U.S. Navy ship was conducting any unlawful activity in international water. Their argument is first of all, this is an unidentified vehicle, so they conducted verification and identification, so --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I saw the claim that they were just looking after safety of navigation. First of all, it was identified. It’s – I think it says U.S. Navy right on the side of it. I can check, but I’m pretty sure it does. But there’s no dispute about who it belonged to, and while it might not be manned, it was being operated remotely by U.S. Naval personnel and research scientists on the Bowditch, the ship that – from which it was operating.
So look, I think this a – while this might be an interesting discussion to have, it’s kind of a waste of your time and mine, okay? The UUV belonged to the United States Navy, it was operating in international waters in accordance with international law, it was doing research – valuable scientific research – there was no threat to navigation, it was never just off on its own. I mean, it wasn’t like they weren’t monitoring what it was doing, right? It wasn’t – it didn’t decide to just go rogue and cause a – and become a problem for navigation. So this is an academic exercise that’s going to be fruitless for both you and me. It belongs to the United States and we’re glad we have it back, it should never have been taken in the first place, end of story.
QUESTION: But the easy – (laughter) – but the easy question was, even you found a wallet on the street, you need to verify who this belongs to instead of giving to whoever claimed to have it.
MR KIRBY: I think it was pretty obvious as they scooped in to take it who it belonged to. Again, I’d refer you to my Defense Department colleagues, but I’m pretty sure the way it went down was the Navy immediately notified them that that was our UUV and they needed to return it. I don’t think there was any doubt.
QUESTION: But they didn’t verify it. That’s the – the question is --
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: Why they don’t have the rights to verify it?
MR KIRBY: I really think we’ve stretched this conversation farther than it should go, because your line of questioning is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion here. There was no doubt about ownership, there was no doubt about international law, who violated it and who didn’t, and it was a flagrant violation for the Chinese to do. There’s no grey area here, there’s no if or then. They were wrong and they shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.
QUESTION: Did you have any --
QUESTION: Can we stay in the region?
QUESTION: Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Just one --
QUESTION: Can I go to Japan?
QUESTION: No, just one second, Brad. Do you have any fallout – diplomatic fallout – from the incoming president-elect saying that “keep the drone” to China? Like, and then you are asking – the Defense Department is asking to return it. There is a – did you hear anything or did the Chinese smile and say, look, your president-elect is saying keep it?
MR KIRBY: No, look, Ambassador Baucus was personally involved --
QUESTION: Yeah, okay.
MR KIRBY: -- in getting the UUV returned into our custody, which as I said, as I think we all know happened this morning, that’s – those are the conversations that happened. Those are the conversations that mattered. Those are the conversations that led to the return of the UUV. I’m not going to speak for the president-elect or his team, or their views of this incident, or how they saw it transpire. That’s for them to speak to. I can only speak for the United States Government. And as I said, our property, we wanted it back, we got it back. And I think that completes the story.
MR KIRBY: So we welcome the decision by the Japanese supreme court. The United States and Japan remain committed, as you know, to the plan to reconstruct the Futenma replacement facility at the Camp Schwab Henoko area and adjacent waters. For further information on the court’s decision, obviously I’m going to refer you to the Government of Japan.
QUESTION: The defense minister --
MR KIRBY: Why did I think there was going to be a follow-up?
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Sorry. The defense minister said that as soon as the cancelation is revoked by the governor that construction will begin. Have you been in touch with your colleagues?
MR KIRBY: I would refer you to my Defense Department colleagues. I don’t have the schedule of construction here to speak to, one way or the other. Obviously, we still believe in moving the project forward.
QUESTION: Iran, real quick.
MR KIRBY: Are we on the Pacific region still? No? Okay.
QUESTION: There was some report – I think Tasnim had something about Iran introducing advanced centrifuges. For the wonky ones among us, I think it was IR8s they spoke about, which is prohibited in the deal. Is that your understanding of what happened, or do you think President Rouhani and some others are just puffing some steam here?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I – I’ll leave characterization of their comments to others. If you’re talking about – are you talking about this report that they could bust through a limit of low-enriched uranium?
QUESTION: No, I’m talking about reference to advanced centrifuges being introduced. If you don’t have that one, we can talk about it later.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, let me take that one. I don’t think I’ve seen that.
QUESTION: And then, since you mentioned the other one, do you have concerns about – I should have asked yesterday – about Iran going through its 300-kilogram uranium cap?
MR KIRBY: So we take all of their commitments to the JCPOA seriously, and we want them to take all their commitments seriously. The IAEA continues to report that Iran’s meeting its nuclear commitments and remains below its enriched uranium limit. We believe that they’re taking the appropriate actions to keep it – to implement that in the right way. The director general of the agency said, during his trip to Iran just this past weekend – I’m quoting here: that we are satisfied with the implementation of the agreement and we hope that this process will continue. So we greatly appreciate the continued efforts of the IAEA to verify their compliance. And again, we’re going to continue to meet our commitments and expect them to meet theirs.
QUESTION: John --
MR KIRBY: But on your other one, I thought that’s what you were going to ask me about, so let me --
QUESTION: We can follow that.
MR KIRBY: -- take that. Because I wasn’t thinking for that one.
QUESTION: I had a couple questions about the video released today by the Haqqani Network of an American in Pakistan, citizen – or sorry – an American and Canadian citizen being held. Have you seen the video? And is there any comment on the imagery that is portrayed there?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. So we certainly have seen this video that was just recently posted of U.S. hostage Caitlan Coleman and her family. We obviously remain, as we have been, gravely concerned about the family’s welfare. Our thoughts are, of course, with her, her family, and her friends. We again reiterate our call for this family to be released. The threat to harm this innocent family violates all humanitarian and religious standards – this – the threat to harm her.
The other thing I can tell you is that we regularly engage with all relevant governments at the highest levels to emphasize our commitment to seeing our citizens returned safely to their families, including this one. And the U.S. Government has remained in regular contact with Caitlan’s parents.
QUESTION: Do you have --
QUESTION: The U.S. citizen in that video asked for President Obama to make a deal with her captors to get them released. I mean, what would the U.S. Government say to that?
MR KIRBY: I would say, look, we never stop working through diplomatic channels to secure the release of Americans that are being wrongly held by groups overseas. I mean, that’s always a focus. I’m not going to get into – I think it would be inappropriate for me to talk about the details of those efforts, what that looks like and feels like. But I can tell you that we’ve not stopped focusing on this particular case and we’re not going to stop focusing on this. We want to see her returned home safely to her family. But I simply can’t talk to the details of that.
QUESTION: And one more follow-up. The video itself shows a pretty disturbing image of their two children sitting on their lap as they’re speaking. Do you have any response to the use of these two children as props --
MR KIRBY: It’s reprehensible. I mean, it’s obviously reprehensible to hold them in the first place. I mean, so just let’s put that aside. They need – as I said, they need to be released, period. But to include children in the video is specifically despicable to do. So again, we want to see them all home, we want to see them all safely returned, and I can assure you that this Administration will continue to work very, very hard to see that outcome.
QUESTION: About Afghanistan, although last week, you comment about Vice President of Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostam’s case, what do you think if Afghan Government is not able to follow up this case fairly and clearly? U.S. will show some reaction? Because this is very hot topic in Afghanistan.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, I would – I think, as you probably saw, President Ghani has called for an investigation into this, and we support him in that effort. We certainly welcome the release of Mr. Ishchi. We’re obviously deeply disturbed by his unlawful detention and reported mistreatment by Vice President Dostam. President Ghani said they’re going to investigate, as I said. We support that. We look forward to seeing that investigation proceed. We look forward to seeing the results of that investigation.
I mean, broadly speaking – and we’ve said this before – a strong independent justice system is the cornerstone of every stable society. And so we stand with the Afghan people as they work towards a stable, peaceful, prosperous future in which human rights are respected, and that rule of law is upheld. So let’s see where the investigation takes us. But obviously, the reports coming out about his unlawful detention and treatment are deeply, deeply disturbing, and I think President Ghani found them also deeply disturbing.
QUESTION: Can I squeeze in one on the Palestinian-Israeli issue?
MR KIRBY: Yes, Said.
QUESTION: The Palestinian Authority claimed that they did not receive any direct aid from you in 2016, that you gave $337 million to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinians. Could you comment on that?
MR KIRBY: So in just 2016 alone --
QUESTION: Right, 2016.
MR KIRBY: No, I know that. I know --
MR KIRBY: This is my answer back to you, so --
QUESTION: Right, okay. No, sorry.
MR KIRBY: Let me – I’ll do it another way.
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: This year alone --
QUESTION: This year alone.
MR KIRBY: -- the United States provided nearly $300 million in aid and assistance to the Palestinians, including $75 million in debt relief. Now, it doesn’t go directly to the Palestinian Authority --
MR KIRBY: -- but it does go to benefit the Palestinians. We’re going to continue to provide support for them and we are in active discussions with the Congress, of course, in terms of funding going forward. But in just this last year alone, like I said, nearly $300 million was provided in aid and assistance.
QUESTION: There’s a great deal of fear and trepidation on the potential ambassador nominee to Israel by the president-elect, because of his position on Jerusalem, his position on settlements, and so on. You have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to comment about individuals that the president-elect is or may be designating for various positions in his administration. Those are his decisions. We respect that. And there’s a process of confirmation that each of these individuals or most of them will have to go through and we respect that process as well, I mean, so the positions that these individuals take are really for the president and his team – president-elect, I’m sorry, and his team to speak to.
Nothing has changed about our views here in terms of the tensions in the region and our policies with respect to Israel, so, I mean, all that we’ve said about the viability and the belief in a two-state solution remain, about the – about our concerns over Jerusalem, all that remains. Our deep concern over settlement and settlement activity also remain, but I can’t speak for what policy decisions with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian tensions are going to be taken by the next administration.
QUESTION: Would you counsel against any departure from long-held practices regarding --
MR KIRBY: I think we’re going to leave – I think we’re going to leave our counsel and advice to the transition team private and between us and the transition team.
Thanks, everybody. Have a great day.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:03 p.m.)
DPB # 216