Daily Press Briefing
December 11, 2015
Index for Today's BriefingSYRIA/REGION/RUSSIA ISIL/COUNTERTERRORISM INDIA NEPAL ISRAEL/PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES AFGHANISTAN LIBYA/ISIL YEMEN/SAUDI ARABIA
2:08 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. You can take that down now. I think you saw our announcement earlier today but I will repeat it. Secretary Kerry will attend a French-led ministerial meeting on Syria in Paris on the 14th of December.
The Secretary will then travel to Moscow where – on the 15th where he will meet with President Putin as well as, of course, Foreign Minister Lavrov. There they will discuss ongoing efforts to achieve a political transition in Syria and related efforts, of course, to degrade and destroy ISIL. The Secretary will also discuss Ukraine and stress the need for a full implementation of Minsk commitments. And with that, we’ll open it up.
QUESTION: Can we start with Syria? What is the purpose of this French-led ministerial on the 14th when you’re already hoping to have another meeting on the 18th? What’s the need for that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I would ask – I think it’s a French-led meeting, and so I would direct you to French authorities to speak to the specifics. But as you know, France has held multilateral meetings in the past on Syria and is an important player in trying to help keep the international community unified in moving forward with a political transition in Syria. So the Secretary is happy to be able to attend this session in Paris.
But I think broadly speaking – and again I’d refer you to French authorities for more specifics, but broadly speaking it’s yet another opportunity to keep the momentum going in the international community towards getting at a political transition there.
QUESTION: Do you know if the Russians or if Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will be there?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I have not seen the participation list, so I don’t know if he’ll be there, no.
QUESTION: One other one on Syria if I may. Russian President Putin today said that Russia supports the opposition Free Syrian Army, and he states that it has provided the FSA with air support, arms, ammunition in joint operations with Syrian Government troops. To your knowledge, is that accurate?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen those claims as well, Arshad. And we’ve – and actually in the past have spoken broadly to opposition groups without any specificity, and they tend to use that phrase, “Free Syrian Army,” to cover an umbrella of groups so it’s a little unclear.
What I can tell you is that it’s unclear to us also whether these claims of support to the FSA are true. So I’m not in a position to validate the comments except to say, as we’ve said in the past, the vast majority of air strikes conducted by Russian military aircrafts are against opposition groups to Assad and not aimed at ISIL. So --
QUESTION: Have you seen a change in that recently? I mean, I’m trying to figure out if maybe this has changed in the last few days or week or something, or has that consistently been what you’ve seen since --
MR KIRBY: I think it’s been pretty consistent. I mean, it changes from day to day in terms of their military activity, and I don’t keep a tally of what strikes they’re conducting. But by and large there’s been no major change in calculus from what we’ve seen them hit, and they are largely continuing to hit opposition groups.
QUESTION: Are you in position now to confirm firmly that the meeting in New York will take place, or you prefer to wait for the meetings in Moscow to happen?
MR KIRBY: The Secretary spoke to this today in Paris and said it’s still – it’s still his hope and expectation that we can have another meeting by the end of next week in New York – a meeting of the ISSG – but that the – that there are still some things that we need to make sure we get resolved before we can lock that in.
So I think it’s still very much the hope. And as we get closer I think we’ll have a better sense about whether or not it’s going to be able to happen.
QUESTION: And do you have time yesterday or today to read the agreement reaching in Riyadh yesterday and especially on the fate of President Assad because the opposition groups were apparently demanding that the Syrian president would leave just at the beginning of the political transition.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Yeah, no, I saw all the communique and I saw that line. I mean, obviously, we’re still working our way through the communique and all that it means. A couple of thoughts. One, it’s – and I want to stress this again, as I did yesterday – it’s not insignificant that this meeting occurred. And certainly when you look at the communique, it’s not insignificant that they were able to agree on a dozen very solid principles about going forward. And we certainly welcome the hard work and the seriousness, the sobriety with which they approached the task. And it’s evident when you read that communique that it was taken very, very seriously.
On that particular issue, they need to speak for themselves, as they have in this communique, about the political transition going forward. It certainly doesn’t come as a surprise that they would view – have – espouse that view about the future of Assad. What I would tell you is that there’s still a lot of work to be done. We – the whole reason that we wanted to get this meeting convened was so that the opposition could unify around some negotiating principles. That’s never been done before. And so they did. And they had a very clear statement about what they view Assad’s future in the transition ought to be.
And so now we move forward. And there’s still work to be done under UN auspices in keeping with the 2012 Geneva communique to try to get at a real political transition. There – this was a key step. There’s more key steps to come, and how it’s all going to end up in the end I just don’t think we know. It’s just too soon to say.
QUESTION: The --
QUESTION: John, on this issue, Secretary Kerry has said today that there are some questions and kinks to be resolved in the agreement. What is he talking about? What points specifically was he talking about?
MR KIRBY: I am not in a position to try to be any more specific than the Secretary was, and so I won’t do that. But the Secretary was speaking broadly about the fact that, as I said to Nicolas, we still have – there’s still some work to be done here in terms of the broader picture moving forward on a political transition, but also getting to another meeting of the ISSG. So there’s still work to be done. The Secretary also felt – and said so – that he felt comfortable that we – that he thought we’d be able to work our way through some of the issues that still remain. But I don’t want to get into detailing specifically what they are.
QUESTION: And two more on this too. Do you have any update on Geneva meeting that’s been held today between --
MR KIRBY: No. As a matter of fact, I asked that question right before coming out today. The meetings have just recently concluded. I have not been given a readout of how they went. So as soon as we get some more information and I’m in a position to provide it to you, I’ll do that.
QUESTION: At Paris meeting, do you know who will be participating or --
MR KIRBY: That was the same question Arshad asked. I don’t have a list of participants. I’d refer you to French authorities. This is their meeting; they’re leading it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: And I think it’s safe to assume that it’ll include many members of the international community that are involved in the Syria political process – again, in keeping with the Geneva communique. I don’t know exactly how many or who’s going to be there.
QUESTION: But John, the Secretary was specific this morning when he said we have two points of disagreement. He didn’t say we have general agreement; he didn’t say we didn’t have an agreement. So if you don’t want to talk about these two points, we assume that one of them is the fate of Assad since the communique was very clear to say it’s going to be the beginning of the transition, not the end of it. And it’s very important demand from the Russians for this meeting to take place, whether it’s New York or in Moscow, to agree on is basically that he will leave during a period agreed upon, six month or 18 month. So do we have a right to assume this is – one of the points is the fate of Assad?
MR KIRBY: You can assume whatever you want. I’m not going to go into any more detail than --
QUESTION: Just reading what you – what the Secretary said and what you said, I’m just wondering why you guys don’t want to – specifically to mention these two points.
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to go into any more detail than the Secretary himself did today. I think it’s, first, important to put this in perspective. This was a very significant gathering. And when you look at what came out of it, very sober, sincere principles arrived at by all of the participants. That’s not insignificant. That there may still be some issues that need to be resolved in the international community about the outcome of this conference also should come as a surprise to no one, since it’s never been done before, and to get the opposition groups to unify the way that they did.
So there’s still some work to be done. Again, I’m not going to go into any more detail. As I answered before, it’s the Secretary’s hope and expectation that we can have another meeting by the end of next week in New York with the ISSG to continue the momentum that’s been built up, but we’ll see how things go over the next few days.
QUESTION: So what – sorry, just what are you building your hope on? Is it the assumption, once again, that you can convince the Syrian opposition to allow Assad to stay during this transition period, or to change the Russian point of view? Because you lead in the efforts. I mean, obviously something has to change to be able to have the meeting.
MR KIRBY: There’s a lot of – there’s a lot of issues that still have to be resolved. And from the very beginning, there has been disparate views about the future of Assad. And that is not resolved today; it’s not going to get resolved tomorrow. And there’s still work that has to be done, which is why – that’s why the Secretary is hopeful that we can have another meeting of the ISSG moving forward, not to come to final conclusion on Assad but to keep the momentum going so that we can get to those answers.
I can appreciate that you see a statement like that, a declarative statement like that, and everybody wants an answer: Okay, what does that mean? Right now, where are we? And that’s just not the way this process has worked, and it’s not the way it’s going to work going forward.
QUESTION: No, we understand.
MR KIRBY: There’s still a lot of discussion and debate that has to occur.
What I think is also important to remember coming out of Vienna – both meetings – that everybody in the international community, and clearly the opposition, has centered around this idea, is everybody agrees that the future of Syria can’t include Bashar al-Assad. Everybody.
Now, the question of when does he go and how does he go and under what terms – all of that still has to be worked out, not just by the international community but by the opposition themselves and sitting across the table with Assad.
So again, I appreciate the drive to get answers today and clarity. We’d all like perfect clarity, but we all also realize that it’s not going to happen after one meeting. It’s going to take more and more discussion.
QUESTION: One last --
QUESTION: So who’s everybody? I’m sorry.
QUESTION: One last point on this and I’ll end it. We understand all the details, and nobody expected an answer today, but my point is because you guys wanted to have this meeting in New York within two weeks, and you already – the Secretary had a plan to say that we’re going to have a meeting with the representation of the regime in January, and we’re going to call for many steps. So you already have a framework for the outline. Therefore --
MR KIRBY: Mm-hmm. And this meeting in Riyadh was a piece of that framework.
QUESTION: Sure, absolutely, and this is another piece of it. So my question to you is not – I’m talking about generality of when we are going to expect things, whether today or – because we have specific – are we talking about weeks, not months? This is – are you hopeful that within this frame of time that we are going to have this meeting in New York and we’re going to have to go ahead with that plan? Because anything goes wrong is going to be interpreted as a failure of the process. That’s --
MR KIRBY: Wow, okay, there’s a lot there. So the Secretary is still hopeful, as he said today, that we can move forward with a meeting in New York by the end of next week. But he also said there’s still some things we need to iron out before we can lock that in. So I can’t rule out the possibility that that meeting may not occur. If it doesn’t occur by the end of next week, that does not indicate a failure of the process. It’s not an indictment of the process. The process continues. And the meeting in Riyadh yesterday is a significant milestone moving forward in this process.
As for January, we’ve always said – and you can go back and look at the Vienna communique from November – that 1 January was a target date – a target date, not a deadline. And I’m not in a position to rule in or rule out that that date might change. It very well could. I’ve said so before. But having targets, having goals, having objectives, are important. They’re important forcing functions to continue the sense of momentum. And we have momentum here.
I – it’s – I find it a little interesting that after this very noteworthy meeting in Riyadh, 116 participants convened by the Saudis for the first time, to come out of a meeting like that over such a short span of time with a set of principles such as they did – a dozen – again, very sober, very serious proposals, that because there’s still an issue over Assad, people are looking at this and trying to poke holes in it and saying that it didn’t achieve what it was supposed to achieve. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t think it came as a surprise to anybody that the opposition groups would have a pretty stringent view of Assad’s future.
But again, I think you have to take a couple of steps back and read it. If you haven’t read the communique, I highly encourage you to do it. It’s --
QUESTION: But --
MR KIRBY: It’s a pretty serious document. And they are to be commended for that, and so are the Saudis for pulling that meeting together. It was not at all an insignificant milestone, and I use the word “milestone” literally – a milestone in this process. There are other milestones and many miles to go before we can get to a lasting, meaningful, sustainable political transition in Syria.
QUESTION: John, can you confirm or do you have any information on reports – by the way, I like your Navy thing, so we assume that you support Navy.
MR KIRBY: Beat Army.
MR KIRBY: Good.
QUESTION: So --
MR KIRBY: You’re on the right side.
QUESTION: Right, exactly. So there are reports that Iran is retreating from Syria. There has been a report – in fact, a report in Bloomberg that says that Iran is retreating, it’s pulling its forces, pulling whatever Revolutionary Guard personnel they had there. Do you have any information on that? Can you confirm?
MR KIRBY: I don’t. I’ve not seen that report.
QUESTION: And just a quick follow-up on Assad and so on: Now, you keep saying everybody wants Assad out. Who is everybody? And the Russians are – have a position that may be contrary to that. The Iranians do. Certainly the Syrian regime does. There are segments of Syrian society – huge segments of Syrian society – that actually look to Assad as their leader. So how are you going to break that stalemate?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know if I used the word “everyone,” but if I did, I was referring to – thank you – I was referring to the Vienna communique, okay. Every member of the ISSG that met in Vienna, as you – and you can go look at the communique. It says clearly that we have to transition to a government in Syria that is inclusive and representative of the Syrian people towards the end of a unified, whole, pluralistic Syria that can’t include Bashar al-Assad. So everybody in the ISSG has agreed to that fundamental principle. So when I said “everyone,” that’s what I mean.
Now, obviously, he has – I’m sure he has his pockets of supporters in Syria. I’m not denying that. And clearly, Bashar al-Assad may take issue with that fundamental principle, but that’s the fundamental principle moving forward in the international community, based on Geneva, based on Vienna, and obviously, based on Riyadh.
QUESTION: But is it wise, let’s say, for the Saudis to keep saying he either leaves or we will make him leave – I mean, using such language, that he will be forced to leave and so on? That, in fact, is contrary to your position, which says a political process. Because when you say with such affirmative tone that you either leave or we’re going to make you leave, implying that you’ll use force --
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I can’t speak for every --
QUESTION: Right, but --
MR KIRBY: -- opposition group --
QUESTION: But that’s your allies. I mean, they’re a part of this equation, right?
MR KIRBY: Again, I’d take a look at the communique that they delivered, where they talked about a commitment to implement the articles regarding the transitional period in Syria contained in the Geneva communique of 2012. They talked about the goal of a political settlement establishing a state based on the principle of citizenship. So even coming out of Riyadh, there’s clear support for a political transition here under UN auspices. It’s right there.
QUESTION: But just to be clear, the Geneva communique that it was alluding back to didn’t say Assad must go. It called for the creation of an executive authority by mutual consent, and it’s always been the U.S. position that “mutual consent” intrinsically meant that Assad could not play a role. But that’s not the way the Russians have necessarily interpreted it, and it’s conceivable that there could be mutual consent under which Assad did remain.
MR KIRBY: We’ve talked about this before, Arshad. I recognize – I still admit today that there are different views about the transition to a government away from Assad. I fully confess and admit that there are still different views about that in the international community, that not everybody sitting around that table in Vienna still completely agree on what that’s going to look like. That’s why it’s important to keep meeting. That’s why it’s important to keep having these discussions.
QUESTION: I get that. I was just raising the point because I don’t think it’s therefore fair to say that everybody agrees that Assad must go, because even everybody who signed up to the most recent Vienna communique doesn’t necessarily agree to it – agree to Assad’s departure.
MR KIRBY: I don’t think I share that view. I think it’s clear coming out of Vienna that everybody agreed to the fact that Bashar al-Assad can’t be the long-term future of Syria, that you have to have an inclusive, representative government. What – one that’s responsive to the Syrian people rather than barrel bombing them. What hasn’t been solidified is how you get there and what role Assad has is – in getting us there to that point as well.
QUESTION: But the only proof that you can adduce for your position that everybody agrees that Assad must go is the reference back to the earlier Geneva communique, correct?
MR KIRBY: That’s the basis for this entire discussion.
QUESTION: But that doesn’t say Assad must go. It calls for the creation of an executive authority by mutual consent.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’d point you to the two Vienna communiques as well, which offer a little bit more solidification on this. We’re dancing on heads – on pins here. The point is that there is broad international consensus that we need a unified, whole, pluralistic Syria. Even the Russians have signed up to that, and they have been supporters of this political process – I would say very helpful in the movement forward.
That’s one of the reasons why the Secretary is going to Moscow next week to continue these discussions. But the how is still uncertain and unclear, and that’s why it’s important to keep meeting.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: On this issue.
MR KIRBY: No, let me get him first.
QUESTION: Thanks. A technical question, John. So 34 people which will be – the secretary of this negotiation will pick the negotiation team. Should armed group will be represented in the negotiation team, given the fact that Assad regime refused to negotiate with armed groups?
MR KIRBY: That’s for the high negotiating committee to work out. And I think it would be premature and inappropriate for me to speculate from this podium on what that would look like.
QUESTION: Yeah – no. Do you have any position about the negotiation?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get ahead of decisions that the high negotiating committee themselves haven’t made and haven’t discussed.
QUESTION: And when we look at the communique, there is no one in the point emphasizing the secularists, secularism, for example, secular structure of the future Syria, which one of the point that you raised several times before when it comes to a possible solution in Syria. Is it a concern for you? I mean, of course, the venue is Riyadh and --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to parse everything that is or isn’t in the communique. They talked about pluralism in here. Again, this is – this is a representation of their views coming out of this day in Riyadh and the views that they are going to use as a foundation going forward in negotiations with the Assad regime. And that’s important that they had a voice and that they had an opportunity to lay these principles down. As the Secretary said, there’s some issues that we think still need to be resolved coming out of Riyadh. I’m not going to specify what those are. But there are still some things we’re looking at here going forward that we want to make sure are clarified.
QUESTION: And the last one. When you look at the participants in the conference, do you think – do you think that it is inclusive enough to stop the clashes in Syria? For example, okay, al-Nusrah was not a part of the negotiations; it’s an al-Qaida-affiliated group. But Ahrar al-Sham, for example, withdrawn from the conference in the middle of the meetings.
MR KIRBY: I think there’s still some clarity that needs to be struck there on those reports. It was an inclusive setting, 116 participants. And again, we were glad– we’re glad to see that.
QUESTION: On Syria too. President Assad has said today that the United States and Saudi Arabia wanted terrorist groups to join peace talks proposed by world powers, and that nobody in Syria would accept such talks. Maybe he meant the participation of Ahrar al-Sham in the negotiations. Do you have anything on this?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen his comments. I mean, I’d have – you can ask him what he meant with more specificity. We’re, again, grateful that the conference in Riyadh was held and that it was taken as seriously as it was. As I said before, there are still some issues that we think need to be resolved. I don’t think it should come as any shock to anybody that a guy who’s barrel bombing his own people would react to this session the way he’s done. But it doesn’t change anything about the international community’s commitment to moving forward on the framework, the political framework that was established in Vienna back in November. And as I’ve said before, we believe it’s important for nations who have influence over Bashar al-Assad – Russia in particular, but also Iran – to use that influence to move the process forward, the very process that they agreed to coming out of Vienna.
QUESTION: And last one for me, John. On the list of terrorist groups that Jordan is working on, do you know when this list will be released or --
MR KIRBY: You have to talk to Jordanian authorities.
QUESTION: Can I change topics?
QUESTION: Mine is still Syria.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. Go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: There is an ABC report this morning that ISIS has obtained the equipment necessary to make authentic-looking Syrian passports. Is there any concern that ISIS fighters might be using these authentic-looking documents to get entry into the U.S.?
MR KIRBY: Well, we’ve seen the reports. Obviously, this is not something that we haven’t been aware of.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. Does that mean you have been aware that ISIS has obtained the ability to make authentic-looking Syrian passports?
MR KIRBY: We have been aware of reports, not just in the press, that they may have obtained this capability. Obviously, it’s something that we take seriously, of course. I don’t – I can’t get into too much detail here. I’d refer you to Customs and Border Protection for more comment about this, but it’s clearly – and the Department of Homeland Security. But it’s obviously something, clearly, that we’re mindful of.
QUESTION: Are consular officers trained in any kind of fraud detection when it comes to documents?
MR KIRBY: They are trained in document analysis, yes.
QUESTION: Can you say anything about the kind of training they get?
MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to go into any more detail. I think you can understand why I wouldn’t want to do that.
QUESTION: And is there going to be any effort in this building to review some of the visas that I guess have been issued over the course of the past 17 months to see whether any of these fraudulent documents may have already been used to get into the country?
MR KIRBY: I’d refer you to Homeland Security for that question.
QUESTION: When you say that --
MR KIRBY: That’s not a question for the State Department.
QUESTION: When you say that you’re aware of reports, and not just press reports, that they may have obtained the capability to create authentic-looking or perhaps authentic Syrian passports – I mean, for all I know, they’ve actually gotten the machines that make them – do you mean internal U.S. Government reports?
MR KIRBY: I mean information that doesn’t just come to us from the press.
QUESTION: If this document was actually made on a Syrian passport machine, is there even a way to detect that it’s fraudulent?
MR KIRBY: I’d have to refer you to Homeland Security. That’s really not an issue for the State Department to speak to. But obviously, we continue to take the safety and security of the American people very, very seriously, and there are many agencies working very, very hard to try to make sure that that’s the outcome, that the American people are as safe and as secure as possible. And I just am not at liberty to go into more detail than that.
QUESTION: New topic?
QUESTION: John, more on Syria. One – just one thing on ISIS issue again. OPCW issued a report two weeks ago regarding chemical weapon used in Syria, and the incident was happened – it happened between – as a result of the clash between FSA, the moderate groups, and ISIL. So do you have any conclusion about whether ISIS has a chemical weapon capability right now in Syria?
MR KIRBY: I do not talk about intelligence matters. You know that, Tolga. I don’t have anything additional to add other than this is something that we look at very, very seriously. Obviously, nobody wants to see this group get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, be they chemical or anything else. And it’s something that the entire U.S. Government takes very, very seriously and is looking at very closely. But I don’t have anything more specific than that today.
QUESTION: Thanks, John. Two questions. One, as far as U.S.-India counterterrorism is concerned, now Mr. David Headley, who is serving 35 years in jail in connection with 26/11 or 11/26/08 Mumbai terror attack, and he was seeking forgiveness from the Indian Government, and now he has one condition only – that he should get a no-objection certificate. And now, there is a trial going on in Mumbai courts against those terrorists who are – who were involved that time, and Indian Government now seeking that he – Mr. David Headley is willing to speak out where – who supported him, where he was trained, who trained him, who gave him the money. And now, the court had issued him a no-objection certificate in Mumbai.
My question is now that if the State Department or Secretary or anybody is aware of this, now he’s going to speak or he has already spoken today via video conference from Chicago jail to Mumbai court.
MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I don’t have anything for you on that, Goyal. That’s really not – again, that’s not an issue here for the State Department. We’ve long said just writ large that we want to see the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack brought to justice and obviously continue to want to do anything we can to support Indian authorities in that task. But I don’t have anything specific, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing court case like that anyway.
QUESTION: Because the Indian Government, including Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, and also defense minister who was here yesterday at the Pentagon – what they are saying is that he will be opening the Pandora of information, that it might be some kind of negotiation here with the – between the U.S. and India because of those terrorist activities going on against India.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, again, Goyal, I appreciate the great interest in this. Again, we share an interest in seeing the Mumbai attackers being brought to justice – a terrible, dastardly terrorist attack. But I – it would be completely inappropriate for me to comment specifically about that ongoing case.
QUESTION: And finally, on this question: Yesterday at the Pentagon, when the Secretary Ash Carter and the Indian defense minister met yesterday at the press conference – and what they were saying, that U.S., India, and of course the Pentagon and defense ministry in India – they are sharing information and intelligence now more than ever, ’08 and beyond. What do you have to say now as far as what role you think this department is playing in the share – intelligence sharing? And this is the – new information now has come out between the two countries.
MR KIRBY: Well, I won’t speak for the Defense Department and what they’re doing. Obviously, India is a very close friend and partner, and I think it’s self-evident in recent years that both our countries have fallen victim to terrorist attacks and continue to need to be on – to be vigilant about terrorism perpetrated against our citizens, and so it makes perfect sense that we would look for ways to cooperate more closely and to improve the flow of information between our two countries.
So I can’t speak for the Defense Department. As for the State Department, we have – we maintain good, strong relations with our counterparts in the Indian Government. I won’t speak about intelligence matters, but I can tell you that that relationship remains strong, remains vibrant, and the Secretary’s interest is very clear in making sure that the relationship continues to strengthen and grow going forward across a wide range of issues, not just security issues.
QUESTION: One more maybe on Nepal, quickly, please.
MR KIRBY: Okay. I don’t know if I have much on Nepal today.
QUESTION: As far as constitution is – yeah, as far as new government and the constitution – new constitution on Nepal is going, a lot of demonstrations are going on, including it was here in Washington and across the U.S. and across India and Nepal, because many people in the new government, they even don’t like this new government because it’s being influenced by – and the prime minister also of course affiliated with a communist government there. So --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I – you got me on that one. I don’t have a lot of information about protest activity. The only thing I would say is that – as we’ve said before in Nepal, that we want political protests to be peaceful. They should be allowed to happen as long as they’re peaceful, and freedom of expression, as you know, is a longstanding principle that we continue to abide by and urge others to do as well. But I don’t have any more detail on the specific protests you’re talking about. Again, I would just point back to what we’ve said in the past about Nepal.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: New topic? Palestinian-Israeli issue? A Palestinian American citizen has been held at the Ben Gurion Airport for the past 24 hours. His name is (inaudible). He’s 75 years old. He suffers from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. I wonder if you have any information on that, whether he tried to contact you or what’s going on.
MR KIRBY: I’m aware of reports that a U.S. citizen is being held at Ben Gurion. I don’t have additional information that I can provide at this time.
QUESTION: Will the United States make an effort to see if first of all, whether he is there; and second, whether he is actually in good health; and why he is being held?
MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is we take seriously our responsibilities to provide consular assistance to Americans overseas. I’m just afraid I’m not going to be able to go, for privacy purposes, more into this one.
QUESTION: But this is an issue that keeps happening time and time again, John – I mean, at the airport for U.S. citizens that go there for the first, probably second time and so on. They’re not residents of that area.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, and we’ve talked about this before as well, that we want equal treatment and freedom of travel for all U.S. citizens, regardless of their national origin or ethnicity. Nothing’s changed about that.
QUESTION: Second, the President – or some officials are saying that the President told – President Obama told President Rivlin the other day, on Wednesday, that if the stalemate continues, it’ll be difficult for the United States to continue to sort of stop efforts in the international arena, such as the UN and other places and so on. I believe that’s what he meant. Now, does that mean if this issue comes up for a vote, let’s say, at any time soon in the Security Council, or if there’s a new proposal like the one we had last year – does that mean that the United States will not veto this time around?
MR KIRBY: Well, firstly, I’d say I’m not going to comment on private conversations --
MR KIRBY: -- of President Obama.
MR KIRBY: Regarding action at the UN, more broadly, as we’ve said in the past, we’re going to carefully consider our future engagement at the UN on this issue and determine how to most effectively advance the objective we all share in achieving a negotiated two-state solution. Right now, as we’ve said repeatedly, we’re focused on encouraging affirmative steps by all sides to reduce the rhetoric, de-escalate the tension, and stop the violence.
QUESTION: But the violence is actually accelerating. I mean, today alone, three Palestinians were killed, maybe 100, 200 were wounded. The situation is really quite volatile. What are you doing to convince the Israelis to sort of not use excessive force, as we’ve discussed many times before? What are you doing to convince them not to do that?
MR KIRBY: Said, we have been crystal clear --
MR KIRBY: -- privately and publicly with leaders on all sides of this issue. And the Secretary, as you know, was just in the region conveying the same simple message that I just conveyed: that we want everybody to take steps back, to take affirmative steps to reduce the tension and restore calm and stop the senseless violence – the killing of innocent people. And I don’t think the Secretary could have been more clear about the stakes involved here than he was last Saturday at the Saban Forum when he spoke so eloquently about what’s really at stake here in the future and the possibilities that we should all be seeking, and have said publicly – everybody has said that they want to see a two-state solution.
So that’s really still our goal, and I think you can expect to see Secretary Kerry stay very actively engaged and involved in trying to help bring that about.
QUESTION: But you know, John – and this is my last point on this – we keep discussing this excessive use of force. I mean, yesterday the Israeli president at Brookings talked about the need to – for Israel to treat all its citizens equally, and he talked about bringing the tribes together and so on, and he talked about how citizens of Jerusalem should be treated equally. Yet we see hugely different, divergent attitudes by the Israeli forces – security forces in dealing with the Israelis and dealing with the Palestinians, on one hand, where a heavy hand is used almost without limit against the Palestinians.
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I don’t think I can state it any differently than I’ve stated it before: We want the violence to stop and we want leadership on both sides of this issue to do what they can to help restore calm and to de-escalate the tension. And I’m not – as I said before, I’m just not going to get into characterizing each incident and each word that’s uttered. But I think we’ve been exceedingly clear about what we want to see happen, and the Secretary has personally engaged and will continue to engage leadership on both sides to see that happen.
I mean, this Secretary of State is absolutely committed to trying to see if we can get progress towards a negotiated two-state solution, and he recognizes that an obstacle to doing that is this continued senseless violence. And what we want to see is we want to see that violence stop.
QUESTION: Two quick questions. One on Kabul: Do you have anything on the attack on the Spanish embassy?
MR KIRBY: I don’t. As you know, that – it’s just very recently happened, and obviously we’re certainly aware of it and monitoring it as closely as we can. I’d refer you to Spanish authorities for more details about the attack since it was on their compound. But what I can tell you is that we’re going to stay in close touch with our commanders there on the ground and with our embassy personnel as well, and watch this closely. I mean, obviously, nobody wants to see violence of this sort in Kabul. It does underscore the fact that Afghanistan still remains a dangerous place and also underscores the urgency and the need for there to be continued support for President Ghani as he and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah work towards an Afghan-led reconciliation process.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that this attack might affect ongoing – the preparation for the resumption of peace talks?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s too soon to know the answer to that. What I can tell you coming out of the Heart of Asia Summit in Islamabad where everybody recommitted themselves to an Afghan-led reconciliation process, I think it’s – our view is that that momentum is still going to move forward. That’s certainly our expectation anyway that that one attack would not and should not alter that momentum or dissuade people from continuing to try to achieve it.
So, again, I think it’s too soon to know. This just happened today. But in the past, I’ve never seen a single attack in Afghanistan have any practical effect on stemming that desire and that goal to get to a reconciliation process, again, that’s Afghan-led.
QUESTION: Another question on Cuba. Do you have anything –
QUESTION: Can we stay on Afghanistan for one sec? To your – sorry. Just to your knowledge, were any Americans – because this was in a diplomatic area – any Americans hurt or involved?
MR KIRBY: The latest report that I got – and again it’s still a recent incident, but the latest report that I got before coming out here is that all of – all the chief of mission personnel were accounted for safe and secure.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: I know of no U.S. casualties at this time.
QUESTION: Any change to the security posture of the compound?
MR KIRBY: They – without getting into details, they obviously took necessary security precautions. The report that I got is, again, that everybody is safe and secure. And there may be an impact to embassy operations temporarily, but, again, I don’t want to get ahead of things right now.
QUESTION: On Cuba? Do you have any –
MR KIRBY: Who wants Libya? You?
QUESTION: Libya, yeah.
MR KIRBY: Libya? Sure.
QUESTION: How does the political turmoil in Libya affect security situation there?
MR KIRBY: Well, broadly speaking, I think there is a connection between political stability and security, and we remain concerned about what’s going on in Libya. It’s one of the reasons why the Secretary is heading to Rome, to have a discussion with the international community about events in Libya and our desire to see that there is a UN-led political process that works its way through to try to get at a – at a government of national accord.
QUESTION: How does the U.S. assess ISIL’s threat in Libya?
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: How does the U.S. assess the threat from ISIL in Libya?
MR KIRBY: We know that ISIL has tried to metastasize itself in areas outside Iraq and Syria, that Libya is one of those places. We’ve been tracking this for quite some time that they have tried to establish a foothold. I’m not in a position to give you an estimate of numbers, but we know they’re there and, obviously, we’re very mindful of the threat that they continue to pose in the region.
QUESTION: Well, last month the U.S. carried out the first air strike against ISIL in Libya. Do you see an expansion of U.S. anti-ISIL operations in Libya?
MR KIRBY: Without prognosticating future operations, which I’m loathe to do particularly from this podium – I wouldn’t get into that – I can tell you that we have and will continue to strike at terrorists wherever and whenever we can.
QUESTION: What is your assessment? Did the security situation in Libya get better or worse after the intervention in 2011?
MR KIRBY: After the intervention in 2011? I think we’ve all seen that Libya has struggled since 2011. But what I can tell you is there is concerted effort by the United States and by many in the international community – and we’re grateful to Italy for hosting this – for hosting this conference early next week. There’s a concerted effort by the international community to do what they can, to do what we must, to try to get at better security and stability there in Libya.
QUESTION: Just – is it correct that you can’t assess whether it got better or worse security-wise in Libya since 2011?
MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is it – the situation in Libya remains fluid and it remains dynamic, and we know that groups like ISIL try to use ungoverned spaces there, as they have in Syria, to try to propagate their own twisted form of ideology and violence. What I can tell you is that the international community is working very, very hard to try to get at better governance in Libya, because we all understand what the stakes are.
QUESTION: John, on Libya?
QUESTION: Do you think on Libya that this competition between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar supporting different groups has exacerbated the violence, made the situation worse, disallowed any political solution from happening? What is your comment on that, considering that both are your allies?
MR KIRBY: Well, look. Again, it’s a fluid situation. What we want is a government of national accord in place to partner with to best address the country’s critical humanitarian, economic, and terrorism and security-related challenges. Again, that’s why it’s important that we continue to move forward. That’s why it’s important that we have this meeting in Rome. There are many players here, international players. And what we want to see is that everybody involved move forward with that goal in mind. Okay?
QUESTION: And Libya --
MR KIRBY: I’ve got time for just one more.
QUESTION: Yes, Libya. Libya’s factions today agreed to December 16 as a date to – as a target date for signing a United Nations-backed national unity government agreement. How do you view this step?
MR KIRBY: The December 16th --
QUESTION: Yeah. They will sign on it on Monday – Wednesday.
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on that specifically, Michel. You’re going to have to let me take that question for you. I just don’t have anything specific.
QUESTION: Just one more? Do you have anything on the Amnesty International report regarding the bombing of schools by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?
MR KIRBY: So what I will tell you is we’ve seen the report, aware of the report, and we’re reviewing it. Not in a position right now to confirm any specific details. As you know, Arshad, we take all accounts and allegations and claims of civilian deaths and casualties very, very seriously. We have consistently urged all sides of the conflict in Yemen to take all feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, which includes respect to minimizing harm to civilians and differentiating between civilian objects and military objectives.
We’ve also reinforced to members of the coalition in Yemen the need to avoid civilian casualties and the importance of precise targeting. We’ve encouraged them all to investigate any credible accounts of civilian casualties resulting from coalition strikes; to provide a timely, thorough, and objective accounting of the facts; and if appropriate, to address any factors that led them in order to prevent recurrence.
So again, back to my original – well, not my original. This is the first question on Yemen. But the same concept applies here. There’s an urgent need for a political solution to this crisis as well, and we urge all parties to move forward in that regard. On December 15th – I think I found my notes – we do know that next week peace talks are going to begin the 15th in Switzerland. We want all parties to attend without preconditions.
And I think that addressed the question; didn’t it, Michel?
QUESTION: Could I ask one more about this?
MR KIRBY: Is that --
QUESTION: Will anybody from the U.S. --
QUESTION: I was talking about Libya, not --
MR KIRBY: Libya?
MR KIRBY: Okay. I was (inaudible) December 15th.
QUESTION: I was asking about Libya.
QUESTION: Can we stick with Yemen for just a second?
MR KIRBY: I got confused. I got confused. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just to your knowledge, has any member of the Saudi-led coalition investigated specific instances of alleged harm to civilians and issued a report about them?
MR KIRBY: I have seen no investigations. We’ve urged all parties to investigate any credible reports of civilian deaths. But I’d have – you’d have to – I’d refer you to Saudi authorities for any investigations that they may have done and what the results were. I’m not privy to that information.
QUESTION: One more --
MR KIRBY: Okay, thanks everybody. Have a great weekend. Beat Army.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:59 p.m.)
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