Daily Press Briefing - January 4, 2017

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 4, 2017


2:10 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Well, well, well, look who’s returned.

QUESTION: I have returned.

MR KIRBY: Daddy Lee. And how is the little one?

QUESTION: She’s great, thank you.

MR KIRBY: You getting any sleep?

QUESTION: Not a lot. (Laughter.) But more than my wife is. Not a lot.

MR KIRBY: Well, congratulations again.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR KIRBY: And it’s great to have you back.

QUESTION: Thanks. Happy New Year.

MR KIRBY: And to you.

Just one opening set of comments here on Libya. We note with deep concern today renewed fighting between Libyans in the central region of the country, fighting which we believe will only benefit Daesh and other violent extremists there. Obviously, we urge all parties to exercise some restraint here. The truth is that to date, Libyan forces have made progress against Daesh in Sirte and in eastern Libya, and that’s what makes this renewed fighting here of concern.

So we continue to encourage all parties to support the Government of National Accord – the GNA as it’s known – as it works to address the country’s critical challenges, to preserve its unity, and oversee a transition to a new government through peaceful elections that are stipulated in the Libyan Political Agreement, otherwise known as the LPA.

So obviously, we also urge all parties to renew efforts for national reconciliation through political dialogue, and we reiterate our strong support for the GNA and the LPA. This is, as we have said before, the time for all Libyans throughout the country to come together for the benefit of their nation and their fellow citizens.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: Right. So I don’t have a lot because I’m still trying to catch up on everything that I missed in December, which apparently was pretty much nothing, right? Nothing happened, no news?

MR KIRBY: It was very quiet. Do you want to rehash it all?

QUESTION: No. No, no, I don’t.

MR KIRBY: We could do a two- or three-hour briefing today.

QUESTION: I don’t. But I’m still trying to --

QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on Libya --


QUESTION: -- if you don’t have anything, Matt.

QUESTION: No, I don’t have anything.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. General Haftar said that he received a promise from Russia to receive arms from the Russians. Do you have anything on this?

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments, so I’m afraid I don’t have a reaction to them. I just haven’t seen that. But stepping back, as I said in my opening statement, we believe now is the time for all Libyans – all Libyans – to come together and to support the GNA, as the international community has done. That’s really where we want the focus to be. And so fighting each other in any part of the country is counterproductive to the larger effort of going after Daesh. But I don’t have any particular reaction or comment to those remarks because I haven’t seen them. Okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: That would be a breach of the embargo, though, if weapons were sent to Haftar?

MR KIRBY: Of course it would, right.


MR KIRBY: But I just haven’t seen the comments.


QUESTION: So can I ask you, just to follow up on I guess what was the main topic of discussion here yesterday, on North Korea?


QUESTION: Is there anything new to say about this apparent threat?

MR KIRBY: No, I don’t have anything to add from what we said yesterday. Look, I think you know these were comments he made in an annual New Year’s speech.


MR KIRBY: But as we’ve also said, we are forced by his actions in the past to take his rhetoric seriously, and we do. I wouldn’t discuss intelligence issues one way or the other in terms of what we – what assessment we might make of where he is on this particular issue, but obviously, it’s something we’re watching very closely.

QUESTION: All right. And then I just want to – I have one other thing that I – last month – or last year, the end of last year, did nothing to improve the relations between this Administration and the Israeli Government, in particular the prime minister of Israel. And in light of the fact that peace is not breaking out all over there, and in light of the tensions that do exist, is it safe to assume – with that backdrop, yesterday there was legislation introduced by three senators that would require the movement of the U.S. embassy currently in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and require the Administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Given your past – or this Administration’s past feelings, am I right in assuming that this current Administration would oppose that?

MR KIRBY: Yes, you are correct in assuming that.

QUESTION: Okay. But given the fact that this Administration is going to be out in two weeks, roughly two weeks, and that Congress will probably – if it does pass, it will be presented to a president, now president-elect who has said he’s in support of those things. And I’m wondering: Would the Administration be prepared to begin preparations to do such a thing if this legislation advances, or is that something that you guys want nothing to do with and you’ll just – it’ll be up to the incoming administration to proceed?

MR KIRBY: You mean if it passes before we’re out of office?

QUESTION: No, no, no. No, even if it looks like it’s going to go someplace, or if – and I don’t want to couch this as an “if,” but – because that’s hypothetical --

MR KIRBY: Right. No, I --

QUESTION: But should the incoming team say, “Hey, as part of the transition, we want to do this as quickly as possible, and to do that we need to get things going,” is this Administration prepared to help implement what the next administration says its policy will be with regard to the --

MR KIRBY: Right. The short answer is no, Matt. I mean, you have one president at a time and in our --

QUESTION: Right. But this is just planning.

MR KIRBY: I know that. I know that. But we continue to believe – it’s our policy and it’s been – and it was policy of previous administrations as well – that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is not a good idea. It’s not constructive to the overall peace process. It could actually put some of our people, some of our troops, those that work at the embassy, in harm’s way, and needlessly so. So we don’t support that move. We stand by the policy that we’ve been supporting now. And if the next administration wants to move forward, that’s certainly their prerogative, but under President Obama – and he’s still President of the United States – we don’t support that. And we at the State Department here wouldn’t support efforts to move in that direction while we’re still in office.

QUESTION: Okay. So you wouldn’t – I just want to make sure then that should a request come in to say, as part of the transition, as part of planning for the smooth transition that everyone says they want, including the Secretary and the current President, that the department would not go ahead and --

MR KIRBY: We would not. That said, I don’t think that puts at risk a smooth transition. The transition is about giving them the context and information that they need to make their own decisions and not necessarily to --

QUESTION: So you’re saying you would argue against it?

MR KIRBY: -- move forward with decisions before they’re inaugurated.

QUESTION: Well, yeah, but you’re not moving forward. It’s just a preparation and planning thing because it’s probably not just as easy as taking a sign that says “Embassy” and putting it on the consulate in Jerusalem, right?

MR KIRBY: Correct, correct.

QUESTION: So there’s going to have to be some planning done. Anyway, I think you answered my question. But what --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, the answer is no.

QUESTION: What did you – what did you mean by “could put our troops,” some of our troops, “in harm’s way”?

MR KIRBY: I just meant you’ve got --

QUESTION: Marine guards?

MR KIRBY: You’ve got Marine embassy guards and --

QUESTION: How would moving them --

MR KIRBY: Because again, we think that – we think that putting it there in Jerusalem is not – it’s not constructive and conducive to the peace process, and because it could – a move like that could exacerbate tensions.

QUESTION: So – but – or do you think that they would be more at – in harm’s way in Jerusalem rather than in --

MR KIRBY: It could exacerbate tensions not just there but elsewhere in the region too, because it could exacerbate the tensions that already exist between Israelis and Palestinians.

QUESTION: So in other --

MR KIRBY: There and elsewhere in the region.

QUESTION: In Arab countries like in Jordan or Egypt or Saudi --

MR KIRBY: Perhaps.

QUESTION: -- you think that there --

MR KIRBY: Perhaps, perhaps. Correct.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

QUESTION: Could I follow up on that?


QUESTION: In your conversations with your allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so on, the Arab countries, have you been sort of warned or counseled against moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? And why is that --

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific warning, Said. This has been a longstanding policy even before this Administration.

QUESTION: Right. But it would be perceived – if such a move would take place, it would be perceived as a provocative action, you think?

MR KIRBY: Again, I think I’ve answered the question. It could potentially be provocative there and elsewhere in the region. And more importantly, we just don’t believe that it’s conducive to moving the peace process forward.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a couple more questions on – if we can stay on this issue very quickly. An Israeli court sentenced two 13-year-old boys to two years in prison. There was a stop-and-search, and they claimed that they found knives on them. Do you find this to be a bit severe to sentence two 13-year-olds that were 12 at the time when they were arrested?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have the details on this case.

QUESTION: Okay. Would that be – in fact, one of the boys has already spent more than a year in prison, so – but they are not going to count that as part of it.

MR KIRBY: I don’t have – I can’t comment on that case, Said. I simply don’t have any information.

QUESTION: Okay. And my last question – I don’t know if you’re aware, there is the Israeli soldier who was convicted of manslaughter, of killing a Palestinian after he was wounded last year. The person that took the video is claiming that he’s been threatened by the family and so on. Should the Israeli Government give the person who filmed the episode, Emad Abu-Shamsiyah – should they give him protection, do you think, seeing that the – if they don’t give him protection that his life would be in jeopardy? Because he claims that the family of the soldier broke into his house and they demanded that he go back to the court, that he go to the court and change his testimony.

MR KIRBY: Okay. I’m not aware that that occurred. And really, an issue like that is really one for Israeli authorities to speak to and to make decisions for, not for us.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Staying with Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has apparently told his diplomats that their focus in the next couple of weeks should be to do everything they can to prevent the substance of Mr. Kerry’s speech coming before the UN in a resolution form, and the fear apparently is that at this French conference it might be codified in some way that could then be presented to the UN not by the United States but perhaps by others. Would the U.S. – I know that Mr. Kerry has said there’s going to be no more UN activity, but would the U.S. rule out another abstention especially if it was his policies that was being voted on?

MR KIRBY: I don’t think it would be helpful for me to speculate one way or the other about potential future actions.

QUESTION: Can I just --


QUESTION: -- follow up on this? Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, no --

QUESTION: No, no, no, no, no, go ahead.

QUESTION: Mine’s a different thing.

QUESTION: No, I just wanted to follow up because I think I asked a little bit about this yesterday. But you are not ruling out if there is a conference in mid-month – mid-January there is a conference in Paris – you are not ruling out the participation of Secretary Kerry, are you?

MR KIRBY: I’m not – I don’t have anything on the Secretary’s schedule to speak to today.

QUESTION: You’re not ruling in or ruling out?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on his schedule to speak to today.

QUESTION: Thank you, David.

QUESTION: This is a procedural thing. I’ve never covered a transition before. Will the incoming Secretary of State be prepared by this department for his nomination hearings at the Senate?

MR KIRBY: We have – we continue to provide the transition team information and context at their request. As I said earlier, I’m not going to get into what that information is. But he is being prepared for his confirmation hearing by the transition team.



QUESTION: And that’s typically how it would work?

MR KIRBY: That’s my – I’ve never been through one of these here at the State Department, but in my past experience, yeah, that’s not unusual.


QUESTION: Assuming a new secretary is not confirmed by Inauguration Day, could you explain how the acting Secretary of State will be chosen? There’s speculation that Mr. Shannon – Under Secretary Shannon would step into that role as the two positions above him, I believe, are likely to be vacant at that time.

MR KIRBY: Look, the way – I mean, there’s a line of succession – Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, Under Secretary for Political Affairs – we can get all this to you, Steve. On Inauguration Day, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would be the most senior career officer in the line of succession. But ultimately, decisions about that, about if the secretary-designate is not confirmed – ultimately decisions about who would be acting would be really up to the transition team, to the new – at that point they would be the new administration.

QUESTION: They can appoint someone else outside of the line?

MR KIRBY: I’m being very precise here.


MR KIRBY: I’m telling you that the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would be the most senior career officer in the line of succession here in the building – will be on the 20th, but ultimately these kinds of decisions about acting, that’s – those are questions the new administration have to answer. Okay?


QUESTION: Turkey. Related to attack that happened over the weekend in Istanbul, President Obama ordered his team to provide necessary and appropriate assistance to Turkey with regard to this attack. Did Turkey ask for any assistance? If did, what kind of assistance did you provide?

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that there has been a request for specific investigative assistance.

QUESTION: Okay, one more question. Do you have any evaluation in terms of the suspect, whether he’s an ISIS militant or just a person radicalized by the ISIS propaganda?

MR KIRBY: I think that’s a question for Turkish authorities who are investigating this attack to work out, not for us.

QUESTION: Staying on Turkey?


QUESTION: So is it the position of the United States Government to support Turkey’s efforts to recapture al-Bab from ISIS?

MR KIRBY: I think my colleagues at the Pentagon have already talked about this. We have provided support to Turkey for operations to clear its border area of ISIL, and that includes some support for their efforts in and around al-Bab. There are ongoing discussions about support going forward that the military’s having with Turkey, and I’m not going to get ahead of that.

QUESTION: And the Turkish defense minister today, I believe, complained that the amount of support for a NATO ally was insufficient. Do – how do you – would you respond to those comments or, I mean, is – do you feel that that characterization is fair?

MR KIRBY: I don’t think it’s valuable for us to deliberate this in public. We have supported Turkish operations along their border. We have provided some support. With respect to al-Bab, again, the Pentagon has talked about that and there are ongoing discussions now about support going forward. And I think I’m going to leave it there.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Do you have any numbers on the support that you gave, like area strike or ground --

MR KIRBY: You can contact --

QUESTION: Can you give some numbers?

MR KIRBY: You can contact the Defense Department. I don’t do military operations anymore.


QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you if we can figure out who – which groups are you supporting now in Syria in the fight against ISIS? What – who are the groups, the moderate groups? Are you supporting, let’s say, the Free Syria Army? Are you supporting other groups and so on? Because --

MR KIRBY: Said, I don’t have – as I’ve said, we’ve talked about this many times. I don’t have an exhaustive list for you. We refer to the Syrian Democratic Forces writ large, and there are many parts to that – to them, and they have proven to be very capable fighters, and again, that’s the – that’s the entity through which – or that the coalition supports.

QUESTION: Because yesterday, apparently the Fateh al-Sham, who morphed from al-Nusrah, they were saying that --

MR KIRBY: They didn’t morph from al-Nusrah. They slapped a new name on.

QUESTION: Right, they just slapped – okay.

MR KIRBY: So let’s – yeah.

QUESTION: All right, so they’re – they just put on a new name – and they claimed that they lost 25 fighters as the result of an air raid, but they’re saying that it was the U.S.-led coalition that conducted that air raid. Are you aware of that claim?

MR KIRBY: Yeah, we talked about it yesterday and I pointed you to the Defense Department.

QUESTION: Any more – any more information on that?

MR KIRBY: I don’t, no.


QUESTION: Did you also yesterday talk about – I haven’t read the entire transcript from yesterday. My apologies. It is scintillating reading, however, I can assure you. Did you talk about the – what seems to be violations or beginning of the end of this truce that was negotiated?

MR KIRBY: We did talk about it. I don’t have any updates from yesterday. It does – as it was yesterday, it appears to be breaking down in areas.

QUESTION: And this is not a surprise to you, or it is?

MR KIRBY: Well, as I said yesterday, we wanted to see it succeed. But sadly, we’ve also seen this exact thing happen before many, many times – even ceasefires or cessations of hostilities that we had nothing to do with announcing, they quickly break down, because as we’ve seen in the last 24 to 36 hours, the regime takes advantage of the – of whatever lull in the fighting there is to continue to pound the opposition, and that’s what we’re seeing again happen here.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on what Staffan de Mistura said, that he will not attend the Astana negotiations and he would wait --

MR KIRBY: No, those are decisions that --

QUESTION: -- he would wait for Geneva?

MR KIRBY: Well, those are certainly his decisions.


MR KIRBY: I would tell you that from our perspective, we continue to support his efforts, which is sanctioned by the UN, to lead the political process forward. He is the designated representative of the United Nations to move the political talks forward, and if he has decided that he’s not going to attend, then that’s certainly within his – it’s in the scope of his responsibilities to do so. We – our support for him and his efforts have not changed.

QUESTION: Any phone call between Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov?

MR KIRBY: Nope, I don’t have any more discussions to read out.

QUESTION: And for clarification too, is the U.S. delegation still in Geneva or Geneva process and the delegation is --

MR KIRBY: In terms of – in terms of a dialogue and process of moving forward on a cessation of hostilities in Geneva, no. Do we have personnel that work in and out of Geneva? Yes, but nobody is working on this issue from a U.S. team perspective in Geneva.


QUESTION: The Turkish prime minister is expected to visit Baghdad to mend ties with the Abadi government. Do you support that move?

MR KIRBY: Do I support him traveling?

QUESTION: To Baghdad. It’s a rare visit by the Turkish prime minister to Iraq. He’s trying to mend ties with --

MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t comment one way or another about the travel of a foreign leader to a neighboring nation. Turkey’s a part of the coalition to counter Daesh, and so it wouldn’t – it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the prime minister may want to go to Iraq to have discussions about that fight. And as we’ve said long – many, many times, that we’ve encouraged bilateral dialogue and discussion between Turkey and Iraq on a whole range of regional issues. So there’s no concern here, but it’s not for us to comment or approve or disapprove one way or the other.

QUESTION: Can I ask one more question about Iraq?

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.


MR KIRBY: I think the silence gives you the go-ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. (Laughter.) So in Mosul, reportedly, the coalition has destroyed almost all the bridges inside the city of Mosul. So this has raised a concern for the – that might restrict freedom of movement for civilians, especially those who wish to escape ISIS. Do you share that concern or --

MR KIRBY: We have long had concerns about the humanitarian efforts that were going to be required as the Mosul campaign started, and those are – those – we’ve been long in discussions with the Iraqi Government about how to deal with that, and we talked about this at length yesterday in the briefing. I’ll point you back to the transcript in terms of what we’ve done on the humanitarian front. I would remind you – and again, I’m not going to get into a lengthy dissertation here on the military operation itself – but those bridges were avenues of resupply and resourcing by Daesh and so were, in fact, legitimate military targets. That they might impede the movement of internally displaced people is certainly beyond doubt, of course. But we have and have for many months factored in trying to support internally displaced people as best as possible.

And the other thing I’d tell you is that – and one of the reasons why the campaign to Mosul took as long as it did and was carefully thought through was because they were also – there was also a lot of planning, remains a lot of planning on post-campaign stabilization and rebuilding the infrastructure. So there is a lot of effort on that. It’s not as if people aren’t thinking about not just bridges, but other civilian infrastructure – schools, hospitals, housing, all of that stuff has to be considered and is being considered by the Iraqi Government as it moves forward, okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:33 p.m.)

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