Department Press Briefing
November 9, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing
VENEZUELA GREECE DEPARTMENT SAUDI ARABIA YEMEN/SAUDI ARABIA LEBANON/REGION SAUDI ARABIA IRAQ AFGHANISTAN TURKEY MIDDLE EAST PEACE DPRK/REGION SYRIA/IRAQ/IRAN
3:01 p.m. EST
MS NAUERT: Okay, good afternoon. Thanks, everybody, for coming today.
A couple announcements that I’d like to make at the top, and let’s start in Venezuela right now. The Maduro regime’s stranglehold on democracy tightens daily. Yesterday the illegitimate Constituent Assembly launched its newest tool to suppress freedom of expression in Venezuela, including for the press, with its passage of a new law designed to suppress dissenting voices. The regime put the law into effect immediately. As long as the Maduro regime conducts itself as a dictatorship, we will continue to bring the full weight of the American economic and diplomatic power to bear in support of the Venezuelan people. This is why the United States today announced targeted sanctions against Venezuelan Government officials involved in ongoing efforts to undermine democracy in Venezuela.
They have committed acts of fraud, censorship, and corruption designed to silence the opposition and secure victory for regime candidates. As a result of today’s actions, the assets of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them. The United States will maintain sanctions on designated Venezuelan Government officials until they break from Maduro’s dictatorial regime and support the restoration of democracy and constitutional order. We will continue to hold accountable those who seek to destroy Venezuela’s democracy and rob the Venezuelan people of the prosperous future that they deserve.
Something that happened in Greece today that concerned us tremendously, and that is Greece released a convicted terrorist from the group November 17. We would like to condemn the release of the convicted terrorist Dimitris Koufodinas, who was set loose on a two-day furlough from a Greek prison. He’s been convicted of multiple murders, including those of William Nordeen, a defense attache at the U.S. embassy, and also United States Air Force Sergeant Ronald Stewart. Our embassy in Athens has conveyed our serious concerns about this decision to the Government of Greece, and that is Dimitris Koufodinas. In the past when some of these November 17th people who have been convicted of murder have been let out on furlough in the past, they’ve disappeared, so we obviously have some concerns about that.
QUESTION: Just on that, your understanding is that it was just two days and then he’s supposed to report back?
MS NAUERT: That is our understanding; but based on previous experience, we’re concerned that he won’t return.
Next I’d like to mention an entrepreneurship program for some young people. We had the pleasure of hosting nearly 250 business and social entrepreneurs from 36 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean here at the State Department yesterday for the Closing Forum of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Professional Fellows Program, or YLAI. Over the past five weeks, the young entrepreneurs have been placed in American businesses and organizations in 24 cities across the country. They had a chance to see how we do business and share our own best practices, and they did with us as well. The results from that experience are new partnerships and networks that will serve to strengthen economic ties between our countries and exchange best practices for the benefit both of the fellows and their host organizations.
A couple examples I’d like to provide you. Dominican Republic’s Roniel Toribio has a maker’s space where he supplies everything from 3D printers to sewing machines for client use. Fuse Integration and FabLabs in San Diego hosted Roniel and helped him develop his project and process management skills.
Now, in keeping with the administration’s support of women entrepreneurs, 53 percent of this year’s YLAI fellows are women. In Uruguay, Veronica Rodriguez is developing a collaborative winery with the aim of producing exceptional wines. First Colony Winery in Charlottesville, Virginia hosted Veronica as she developed her skills and production processes and improved her business model. We expect that they’ll return home to their countries and be able to bring some of their newly learned knowledge back home.
And then finally, a lot of us aren’t going to be here tomorrow, right? Veterans Day. And so I just want to take a moment to recognize the veterans who serve in the State Department and those in the Armed Forces who protect our embassies in the U.S. Marine Corps overseas. The Department of State is proud to honor Veterans Day this year and the contribution of our military veterans, including nearly 7,000 veterans of the State Department’s workforce. Veterans serving at the State Department represent all military services and serve across the spectrum of our workforce, including the Civil Service and the Foreign Service around the world. We value the diversity of our veterans that they bring to the department, including their unique skillset, backgrounds, leadership, and esprit de corps.
This week the department held two events to honor our veterans, including the 15th Annual Roll Call, where we invited employee veterans and veteran supporters to state their military affiliation, whether it be their own military service or acknowledging military service in their families, and a Veterans Day commemoration event to highlight the theme of veteran resiliency. That’s where our Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan delivered remarks recognizing the countless contributions of our veterans and the valuable experience and expertise that they bring to the State Department.
On my way down here in the elevator there was a man who introduced himself to me, and he said he was a part of this Roll Call yesterday. And so I asked him which branch of the service he had served in. He said he was in the Air Force in 1967, I think to 1970. And I said, “What are you doing tomorrow on Veterans Day?” He said, “I’m working.” Somebody here has to keep the building in order. So, sir, thank you for your service. And to all our veterans who serve at the State Department here and around the world, we thank you for your service. We offer our heartfelt gratitude to the men and women who have served in our United States military and who continue that legacy of service today.
And with that I’d be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. Hi. Let’s start with the Middle East and things Saudi-related.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary had a chance to speak with any Saudi officials? And if he has, what is the message that the administration, through him at least, is trying to send to them?
MS NAUERT: The Secretary --
QUESTION: On the various situations that we have going on – the domestic situation in Saudi, the Yemen situation, and the Lebanon situation.
MS NAUERT: Understood. Let me start here. Secretary Tillerson spoke with Foreign Minister al-Jubeir yesterday. Let’s see – wait, no, I’m sorry. It was Tuesday. He spoke with him on Tuesday. I’m not going to be able to provide a whole lot about that conversation for you. I know that’ll be to the frustration of a lot of you in the room.
I can tell you part of the conversation included our recognition that Saudi Arabia is a strong partner of the United States. We continue to encourage the Government of Saudi Arabia to pursue prosecution of corruption in a fair and transparent manner. That’s something that we stress not only with Saudis but with other governments as well. In terms of whether – how these prosecutions may be going in the future, the Government of Saudi Arabia would have to address that.
As you know, Secretary Mattis spoke with his counterpart, the President spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia a few days ago, so we’re in constant communication with the government.
QUESTION: On Yemen?
MS NAUERT: In terms of Yemen, one of the issues that the Secretary has followed closely is the humanitarian situation in Yemen. We’ve seen tremendous food shortages in Yemen. We’ve talked about how this is really a man-made situation there. We’ve seen the cholera problem as well. The announcement that the ports were being closed down or limited in terms of some of the supplies is an area that’s of concern to us, because the Yemeni people are not the ones at fault for their situation. We would like to see food aid, medical equipment, and all of that be able to be brought into the ports. That is a key area where that – the supplies and the food aid are able to get in. We would like to see that open so that people are not suffering any more.
QUESTION: Well, is it fair to say that you have made that – or that the Secretary or others have made that clear to the Saudis?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think this is something – that’s a part of a series of ongoing conversations. We have often had conversations with people in the region in addition with the Saudis about our concerns about the humanitarian situation. The United States has contributed a lot of money to the humanitarian situation there, so we’d like to see that opened up so people can get their supplies.
QUESTION: But this isn’t --
QUESTION: Just to follow up on this point --
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on this point --
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: -- on Yemen.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, it’s not only the ports but also the airspace, the borders – the complete closure.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: So we can understand what you said clearly --
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I don’t know the percentages of what comes through in terms of the ports versus --
QUESTION: Okay. But you are calling on the Saudis to open the borders and open the ports so the Yemeni people can receive these humanitarian aid and so on?
MS NAUERT: We believe that there should be unimpeded access.
MS NAUERT: Unimpeded access for commercial and humanitarian goods to get into Yemen.
QUESTION: And you’d like to see this happen immediately?
MS NAUERT: That hasn’t changed. I mean, we called for that months ago, and we would call for that again today.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, do you --
MS NAUERT: Hi, Barbara.
QUESTION: Hi there. So do you support the call by the UN yesterday to open the borders immediately for humanitarian aid?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have the UN comments in front of me, so I’m not going to comment on those.
QUESTION: They called for the airspace and the ports to be opened immediately; otherwise there would be a famine greater than seen in many decades.
MS NAUERT: Look, that has been a concern of ours, that this could --
QUESTION: I’m just – do you support the call?
MS NAUERT: -- hold on – that this could develop into a famine. It’s close. There is tremendous food insecurity in Yemen right now. Some have said that this could be the top humanitarian disaster in the world. I don’t know that we’ve assessed that personally and can actually make that designation, but I have certainly heard that.
I think what you’re saying, that has come out of the UN, is consistent with our overall concerns, our overall concerns about getting humanitarian aid and also medical supplies into the people of Yemen.
Okay. Anybody else on Yemen?
QUESTION: On Lebanon.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Saudi --
MS NAUERT: Wait, hold on.
QUESTION: Staying on Saudi --
MS NAUERT: Yemen – okay. We’re done with Yemen.
QUESTION: Saudi, Lebanon, go ahead.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Go ahead. Hi.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Lebanon and Saudi. Did Secretary Tillerson spoke with the – his counterpart about the situation in Lebanon? The status of Prime Minister Hariri – have his – has he got assurances about he’s free to go back to Lebanon or not? And did you – do you plan to take some warnings to your U.S. citizens about going or staying in Lebanon, since Saudi Arabia asked them – their citizens to go back?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, let me take that last part first. I believe we have a Travel Warning – and I want to double-check this, but I believe we do have a Travel Warning that is in effect right now for Lebanon, as we do many countries around the world. Robert and Catherine, if you would be kind of enough – Frankie – to double-check on that one?
QUESTION: I think there was one issued in September. I don’t believe that it --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay, we’ll just double-check. I just want to make sure.
QUESTION: Okay. So there has been nothing new as of now?
MS NAUERT: I don’t believe there is anything new on that, but there are many countries that we have Travel Warnings for. So these guys are going to double-check on it while we continue our conversation, and I’ll get back to you on that before we go.
QUESTION: Yes --
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Wait, I didn’t finish answering the question.
QUESTION: The situation in Lebanon and --
MS NAUERT: The overall situation in Lebanon.
QUESTION: And the prime minister.
MS NAUERT: Okay. So I addressed the part of U.S. citizens who may be there. I want to mention that our charge d’affaires, who’s serving in Saudi Arabia – his name is Chris Henzel – he met with Prime Minister Hariri yesterday, so had a chance to speak with him. I cannot provide you with a readout of that conversation or any specifics of it, but we have seen him. In terms of the conditions of him being held or the conversations between Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister Hariri, I would have to refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia and also to Mr. Hariri’s office.
QUESTION: Sorry. You said the conditions of him being held. Is he in detention?
MS NAUERT: Well, I’m not going to put that word – I’m not going to associate that word with it. But where he is right now --
QUESTION: Where is he? Does he have a nice room at the Ritz Carlton? (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: I can’t – I don’t know personally where he is.
QUESTION: Or is he at another --
MS NAUERT: I’ve heard different reports; I can’t confirm where he is. But where he is right now --
QUESTION: Well, where did the charge meet him?
MS NAUERT: He met him – I don’t think I’m --
QUESTION: Don’t say he --
MS NAUERT: I don’t think I’m permitted to say that, but I will double-check on that.
Okay. Yeah, hold on.
QUESTION: So in your view, is he free to leave? Is he free to go back to Lebanon, submit his resignation?
MS NAUERT: For that – listen, I have not had a chance to talk to our charge about that meeting. A lot of this is going to be under sensitive, private, diplomatic conversations right now because it’s a sensitive time, as I’m sure you can understand. So they had a meeting. I can just confirm that meeting; I don’t have the details to provide you, and I will see if I can double-check and find out where exactly that may --
QUESTION: Do you see his --
QUESTION: But was it brought up in Secretary Tillerson conversation with his counterpart, Saudi counterpart?
MS NAUERT: The issue was brought up, yes.
QUESTION: Do you feel that – do you feel that --
MS NAUERT: Okay? But that’s all I have.
QUESTION: Heather, does the U.S. --
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: Do you feel that his resignation --
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Guys, guys, guys hold on.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. On Lebanon. Do you feel that his resignation and this heightened rhetoric may lead to a war, or is war inevitable against Hizballah and in Lebanon? And what would be the American advice in this --
MS NAUERT: Said, I’m not going to go there. These are all very sensitive matters, and we’re not going to get into hypotheticals at this time right now. Yeah, okay.
QUESTION: So what --
MS NAUERT: Did you have something on Lebanon?
QUESTION: Just quickly on that. Does the United States have a comment or support the decision to resign by the prime minister?
MS NAUERT: That is something – an internal matter that we wouldn’t comment on.
QUESTION: So you can’t comment on comments to Reuters by two cabinet members of Lebanon who say that Mr. Hariri is being held against his will?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to – look, I’ve not seen the comments on the part of those two Lebanese cabinet members. We have government officials from all around the world who are always giving press statements and quotes that we’re not necessarily going to comment on.
QUESTION: So stay – but staying on Lebanon, there is a Travel Warning. Do you know if there are any preparations to update it, to modify it, to issue a new one?
MS NAUERT: Not that I’m aware of, but I’m having my colleagues check on that. There is a Travel Warning. It has been in effect since February 2017.
QUESTION: Right. I understand that.
MS NAUERT: In terms of whether there is something else in the works --
MS NAUERT: -- that I don’t know. If there is something, we’ll bring it to you, okay?
QUESTION: And Heather, also on Lebanon, is – the French President Emmanuel Macron is traveling to meet with the Saudi crown prince. Is that something that the United States is coordinating with the French? Does the U.S. believe there needs to be greater international coordination with everything that’s happening within and surrounding?
MS NAUERT: That I’m not aware of.
QUESTION: Question on also --
QUESTION: More follow-up, also on Lebanon.
MS NAUERT: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. Government considering changing how it deals with the Lebanese Government, given that Mr. Hariri says that he was threatened by Hizballah and the government, and the Saudis have – no longer see the distinction between Hizballah and the rest of the government? Is there any discussion about whether the U.S. will change its stance to the Lebanese Government?
MS NAUERT: I don’t believe there is. I don’t believe there is.
QUESTION: No discussion?
MS NAUERT: Anything else on Lebanon?
QUESTION: Yeah. Me.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: One question, please.
MS NAUERT: Hi.
QUESTION: Heather, several country in the region, among them Kuwait, called their people to leave Lebanon, and that happened today after Saudi Arabia did so, the same. Speculation in the region that there is something coming up in terms of fighting war in Lebanon. Are you concerned – first, do you have any comment on that speedy development in calling other people to leave?
MS NAUERT: Sure. I – we would just say we’re monitoring the situation very closely. Our – we have a good relationship with Prime Minister Hariri, with the Government of Lebanon. As you all know, he was here earlier this year, where he met with the President, and Secretary Tillerson was a part of that. I do not anticipate that our relationship will change as a result. We’ve watched the news and seen the news that some countries are making the decision to encourage their citizens to leave the country. That is something that a country has the right to do. We often will do that with our citizens, whether it’s --
QUESTION: But are you concerned?
MS NAUERT: -- through travel alerts, travel warnings, or asking them to leave a country. Countries have the right to do that to protect their citizens, if that’s why they would choose to make that --
QUESTION: Yeah. But that concern you under the circumstances?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, look, we would call for no kind of escalation of any sort of threats or something in that arena. But we also recognize that a government has the right to communicate with its own citizens. That’s about sovereignty. They have a right to be able to suggest that their citizens leave if they do not feel that their citizens should be there.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Can I get a follow-up on the Secretary’s conversation with the Saudi foreign minister? Did they discuss the intelligence that they have showing that they believe the missile that was launched into Riyadh was an Iranian missile? Was the Secretary at all moved in his position as to still evaluating? Is there any progress on that?
MS NAUERT: I – that would be an intelligence matter, so we’re just not going to get into it, okay? I’m sorry.
Okay. Let’s move to another place.
QUESTION: One more Saudi question.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Can I do one more Saudi question?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. So last year, the U.S. started working with the minister of justice in Saudi Arabia, trying to kind of like basically revamp, transform their judicial system. Is that something that’s still going on now? Or has it been impacted by what’s happened recently?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, so some of the – some things that predate my time that are so into the nitty gritty, I’m just not aware of whether or not --
QUESTION: I guess there’s no reason it would have been curtailed though?
MS NAUERT: I can tell you this. Concerns about corruption in the Saudi Government, within members of the government, is not something that’s new. We have followed that closely. We continue to follow that matter, but in terms of whether or not that is still taking place, what you just mentioned, I’m not aware of it.
QUESTION: Can you look into it though?
MS NAUERT: Certainly.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
MS NAUERT: Okay, okay. Let’s move on. Laurie, let me guess: Iraq.
QUESTION: Oh, you got it. Yeah.
MS NAUERT: All right.
QUESTION: Last week, the Iraqi parliament approved in principle a law that would allow child marriages for girls as young as nine years old and that would impose Shiite jurisprudence on all Iraqis. Today, an MP in the Kurdistan region parliament rejected it, saying that it’s unenforceable in the Kurdistan region because the Kurdistan region has its own laws. What’s your comment on the Iraqi draft law?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So often we don’t comment on draft legislation; often we don’t comment on other country’s legislation. But we are completely against and oppose the idea of children marrying adults. And let’s remember, it was not that long ago that we called out the depravity of ISIS for taking child prisoners, child brides, and the sort. Some of this will be an internal Iraqi matter, but we remain firmly opposed to the idea that any adult would attempt to marry a child in that fashion. A child is a child.
QUESTION: Thank you. Iraq again? Iraq?
QUESTION: One more question. The Iraqi Central Bank has said that all Iraqi banks operating in the Kurdistan Region have to halt their operations. What is your comment? This seems like a form of economic warfare, like sanctions on Venezuela, which you just announced. So what is your comment on a decision like that?
MS NAUERT: I saw a report on that earlier today. We can’t confirm that report just yet, so at this point it’s simply a report. I’d have to refer you to the Kurdistan Regional Government and also the Iraqi Government on that. Sorry, I don’t have anything more for you on that.
QUESTION: Back on this child marriage thing.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you know, have your – has your opposition to this legislation been made clear to the Iraqi Government and parliament?
MS NAUERT: We have a lot of conversations with the Iraqi Government. I would imagine that our view on this is well known. I know our ambassador over there meets with them a lot. Our primary conversations taking place with Iraq right now concern the territorial integrity and democracy of Iraq. But whether or not this has been brought up, that I just don’t know. I know that this issue has come up in its parliament before and it’s had – it’s failed in the past. So I’m not going to speculate where this is going to go.
QUESTION: Iraq again?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.
QUESTION: What – hi. What is your position on the ongoing crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, now that Baghdad is still unwilling to sit with the KRG officials after they freeze the results of the elections and Barzani stepped down?
MS NAUERT: Well, I know they’ve been talking, so I’m not sure --
QUESTION: That was the --
MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that I --
QUESTION: -- their security --
MS NAUERT: -- would agree with the premise of your question. I know they’ve been talking. We certainly see dialogue as a good thing, a good thing to get Iraq sort of back together again and have a peaceful resolution and a peaceful situation so that we can go back – all of us, including the members of the coalition – to the fight against ISIS.
QUESTION: The talking is between the Peshmerga commanders and the Iraqi Security Forces. It’s not on the level of the two governments, between KRG and Baghdad.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t have anything for you on the particular militaries having conversations.
QUESTION: Are you doing any sort of mediations between Baghdad and Erbil in --
MS NAUERT: We’ve had a lot of conversations. I can refer you back to a lot of days of our press briefings here, where we’ve talked about and covered the conversations taking place between Erbil and Baghdad, and the U.S. worked to help support that. I know our Secretary Tillerson has had conversations in the past, with the Barzanis in the recent past, and also with Prime Minister Abadi. Our ambassador is doing that virtually every single day, if not every day, and there are lots of people who are engaged in this.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi, Nazira. How are you?
QUESTION: Hey, how are you? Yes, any comment about Brussels conference, and also NATO has plan to send --
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, the first part was what?
QUESTION: Brussels conference. We call Bruxelle. NATO conference. NATO has plan to sending 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you think that this amount is useful and solves the problem?
MS NAUERT: Well, I’m sorry I’m not going to have an answer for you on that, because when it comes to troop issues and bringing additional troops to Afghanistan, that would fall under the Department of Defense. Overall, we recognize that – and remain very concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan. We talked about this the other day, where two reporters – I don’t know if you knew them; let me express our condolences to you for that, because you are from Afghanistan, you are a reporter – two of those reporters who were killed working for the television station there in Afghanistan.
The security situation there is very, very challenging. We recognize that more needs to be done to help bring peace to Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs to be committed to a peaceful resolution, but in the long term, this government doesn’t believe that a military situation is what is going to resolve the peace issue there, and that’s going to have to be between the government and various negotiations and conversations.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. Okay. Hey, Cindy.
QUESTION: Hi. With Turkey’s prime minister here – and the White House put out a statement saying that Vice President Pence expressed concern about American prisoners in Turkey, and I know that the Turkish prime minister before had said about Turkish citizens here who are – there are court cases and things like that. Do you have any updates on the discussions and what came out of that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So first let me say the Vice President has done such a terrific job, and I mean that in the most respectful way, of highlighting some of the issues that are so important not just to Americans but to fundamental democracy, human rights, and also religious liberties. I know that the Vice President was pleased to have welcomed the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
I have a readout; many of you have seen it. If you will, just indulge me and I’m going to read it out for those folks overseas who may be reading a transcript later so that they have it, because they may not have access to what you have access to. So here we go:
At the White House today, Vice President Mike Pence met with the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to reaffirm the enduring strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey. The leaders expressed hope that their meeting would help usher in a new chapter in U.S.-Turkey relations and agreed on the need for constructive dialogue as friends and allies on bilateral challenges. They highlighted the United States’ and Turkey’s mutual interest in stability and security in the Middle East and agreed to further intergovernmental consultations toward that end.
The Vice President also thanked the prime minister for Turkey’s contributions to global security in the fight to defeat ISIS, and he underscored the U.S. commitment to stand with Turkey against the PKK and other terrorist threats. The Vice President expressed deep concern over the arrests of American citizens, our Mission Turkey local staff who worked for our embassy there – or who still do work, journalists, and also members of civil society under the state of emergency, and urged transparency and due process in the resolution of their cases.
I was not in that meeting so I can’t provide you any more than this readout, but I do know the Vice President is very passionate about the cases of Americans who are being detained in Turkey. That would include Pastor Brunson; I know that’s an issue he’s brought up in the past. I don’t know whether or not that was brought up today. I certainly imagine it would have been, though.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything else on Turkey? Okay. Let’s move on.
QUESTION: Can we move on to the Palestinian-Israeli issue --
MS NAUERT: Sure.
QUESTION: -- for a little bit? The Israelis have closed many Palestinian media outlets, harassed journalists, arrested – took licenses and so on. I wonder if you have any comment, because you do consistently express your support for freedom of expression and you urge not to violate that freedom.
MS NAUERT: Well, thank you. Thank you for mentioning that. It’s an important thing to me and I think to all of you as well. We’re certainly aware of the reports and aware of what has taken place there. I’m going to have to refer you to the Government of Israel for specific questions about that.
But as an overall matter, as you referenced, we put out a statement the other day about protecting the rights of a free press and journalists. We believe that more voices rather than fewer voices contribute to the overall health of a society and a country, whether it’s a democracy or not. We prefer those voices being heard. But beyond that, I’d just have to refer you to the Government of Israel.
QUESTION: And I have one more question.
MS NAUERT: Certainly.
QUESTION: The Israeli Channel 10 said that former Secretary of State John Kerry has put the blame on the Israeli Government and on Prime Minister Netanyahu for not reaching a peace settlement with the Palestinians when he was secretary of state, that the Palestinians on their part tried all they could. And I wonder if you have any comment on that or whether the current Secretary Tillerson has spoken with his predecessor on this matter.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I’m not aware if Secretary Tillerson has spoken with former Secretary Kerry on this matter or any other matter for that matter. It is – Israeli-Palestinian peace is an extremely important issue to this President and to this administration. I know the President, through Mr. Kushner and also through Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, are trying to forge something there. They are flying over there a lot and having an awful lot of meetings to try to bring both sides to the table to try to forge for – forge ahead with some sort of peace agreement. Okay.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. So this current State Department does not have any comment on the conduct of the former State Department?
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) Look --
QUESTION: Or you won’t say?
MS NAUERT: It has bedeviled many secretaries of state – the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Lots of secretaries, lots of administrations have wanted to get this done and have not been able to do so. I know this President is very – is reinvigorated by the idea of trying to accomplish this in his administration. I know he’s optimistic. If he were not passionate about it, he would not have put his son-in-law and also Special Envoy Greenblatt in charge of this. They are spending a lot of time there.
I can just tell you that they are optimistic about the overall chances to get something resolved. It’s obviously a delicate matter. Both sides have to be willing to come to the table; both sides need to be willing to make some sacrifices. That’s what it’s like when you’re going through negotiations. So we remain hopeful, and we’ll keep working on it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay?
QUESTION: So this building and the Secretary is comfortable with the White House having delegated the entire effort --
MS NAUERT: No, they haven’t --
QUESTION: -- for Middle East peace --
MS NAUERT: They haven’t --
QUESTION: -- to the President’s son-in-law --
MS NAUERT: They haven’t – okay, I will say – I will say a couple things.
QUESTION: Well, I – that’s what you just said, right?
MS NAUERT: Well, the State Department – no, I said putting them on this matter. The State Department always backs people in their meetings. When we have members of Congress who are headed on a CODEL going to any given place, the State Department backs them on those meetings, meaning we brief them ahead of time, we attend those meetings, we debrief them, we’re engaged in every step of the way.
There are more than enough world events going around, there’s enough to share. I wish there weren’t enough to share. I wish it were something that we could – that we could accomplish right here in this building, but there’s a lot of stuff going on. So we’re happy to have other people help with the work. Okay?
QUESTION: Hey. So in recent days, several senior officials in Russia’s national security and military establishment have called for President Putin to order the reopening of military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. What do you think of that?
MS NAUERT: Who has called for this?
QUESTION: Several officials in Russia in – both in – senators and a couple of the defense ministry officials as well.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I – this is – I’m hearing this for the first time. I have not had a chance to ask any of our folks about that. It wouldn’t surprise me. I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Why wouldn’t it surprise you?
MS NAUERT: That’s just my personal opinion. I mean, that they would want to – well, that they would want to – I’m not going to speculate. Okay? I’ll leave it at that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On North Korea?
MS NAUERT: Sure.
QUESTION: There’s a report out today suggesting a diplomatic negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea, suggesting that there might be the opportunity for a dialogue if there is no military action taken within 60 days. Do you have any response to that report?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, so I certainly saw that report, some comments made by – allegedly made in an off-the-record session. We certainly hope that our people could have the freedom to speak in an off-the-record fashion, but I think overall, the President and the Secretary have been very clear about where we stand on the issue of North Korea. We support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We do not seek regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek the accelerated reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And we don’t seek an excuse to bring our people north of the 38th Parallel. Those things are all very clear.
In terms of talks, the President and the Secretary I think have been very clear on this matter that now is not the time for talks. At some point, if North Korea is showing that it is serious in its interest to denuclearize, perhaps we could look at doing that, but they’re still not showing any sign of seriousness on that matter.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
QUESTION: There hasn’t been any progress necessarily in that direction?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think there’s – I think there has been progress in terms of the sanctions. The Secretary spoke to this, I believe the President touched on this last night as well, that we’re starting to see the maximum pressure campaign work. We’re starting to see that sort of squeeze on the North Korean economy. Those things can take time. We just saw some additional sanctions announced on the part of the Republic of Korea and also Japan. We’re pleased with that. We continue to ask more countries to do more to try to choke off that money supply that goes to North Korea, so we’re hopeful that that will keep working. The President in his meetings with President Xi was given some assurances that they are adhering to UN Security Council resolutions and that they’ll fully implement them. So we expect them to adhere to that, we think that they have taken some positive steps in the right direction – China has – but of course, countries can always do more on that.
But in terms of your overall question about talks, we’re not there yet. Okay?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MS NAUERT: Hey.
QUESTION: In August, after a 25-day window where North Korea hadn’t fired any missiles, the Secretary said he was encouraged; he praised North Korea and he said it looked like they were showing restraint.
MS NAUERT: Right.
QUESTION: We’re now in a window of 56 days, I think it is --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- where they haven’t fired any ballistic missiles, conducted any nuclear test. Do you see that as a sign of restraint? Do you think that that’s a – there’s an opening in there?
MS NAUERT: Gosh, I’d go back to something I think of when I’m at home. When my son Peter doesn’t hit my son Gage, I don’t praise him for exercising restraint in not hitting his brother. Matt before gave the cookie jar example. This one is actually a better example. I’m not going to praise one for not hitting the other.
Look, we’ve got a long way to go on this. The Secretary has even said himself when he acknowledged that North Korea – and I don’t recall the exact word he used, but when he acknowledged that North Korea hadn’t shot off any missiles for a certain period of time, that he was perhaps being overly optimistic at the time. He’s acknowledged that publicly and certainly here at the department as well. We hope North Korea won’t do it. We hope they won’t take any escalatory actions. We would like to see more of a period of quiet. That’s all I’m going to have on that. We just – we hope that this will continue, that this period will continue.
QUESTION: Is there – previously he said we’ll know – we’ll see – we’ll know it when we see it.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is that – does that still stand, or is there a barometer of how long?
MS NAUERT: I think since we first talked about knowing it when we see it, North Korea has in the recent past taken more escalatory actions. So I think I’ll just go back to what we’ve said, and now is not the time to sit down and have talks. We’d like to at some point if the time is right, but the time’s not right yet.
QUESTION: When did Peter and Gage acquire nuclear weapons? (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: I feel like my kids have nuclear weapons, yes. I feel like they do sometimes.
QUESTION: Okay. Because perhaps this – I mean, has there been some escalation between the two kids that is --
MS NAUERT: Between the children?
QUESTION: -- that is somehow equivalent to what’s been going on between --
MS NAUERT: Matt, let me just say you are so lucky that you have a daughter, because we spend a lot of time in the emergency room. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: So maybe you should praise them for not hitting each other.
MS NAUERT: Maybe I should praise them. I’ve got the parenting thing all wrong. I’ll take my cues from North Korea. (Laughter.) Okay.
QUESTION: Syria. We haven’t talked about Syria for --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- for the --
MS NAUERT: By the way, they’re coming tonight. Anybody want to babysit? No? Said, you’re a grandfather. Come on.
QUESTION: I’d be a great grandpa.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: So anyway --
MS NAUERT: Sorry, guys. We can have fun here once in a while, right? Okay.
QUESTION: You talk about Syria.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Today the Syrian army has cleared the last – the last hurdle in the fight against ISIS in the Bukamal area, which is on the Iraqi-Syrian border. It’s Tal Afar on the Iraqi side; it’s the same town. So update us on your efforts and your activities. There’s also political engagement with Astana, and there is a prelude to Geneva, so just sort of --
MS NAUERT: Sort of overall? Overall where are we?
QUESTION: The overall situation, where we are.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Starting from today, let me just mention Brett McGurk is in the region. I don’t know if we have sent out any information from – on that. We have. Okay. So he is in Brussels today meeting with Secretary of Defense Secretary Mattis and their counterparts to talk about the overall global coalition’s contributions to the contributors in the D-ISIS coalition, which now is 73 governments and also various entities that take place in that.
So let me just give you a little bit of information on that meeting. That is taking place on the sidelines of a NATO meeting. Brett McGurk will brief defense leaders on the civilian lines of effort that are part of our overall campaign to defeat ISIS, including the post-liberation – pardon me – stabilization. We expect that he will return to Washington tomorrow.
So that – that’s a little bit of information to give you right now. Overall in the fight against ISIS, Raqqa has been the big campaign that we have been engaged in. Ninety percent, we assess, of the territory that ISIS held in Raqqa has now been – excuse me, pardon me. With Mosul plus Raqqa, combining Iraq and Syria, 90 percent of the territory that ISIS once held has now been liberated, which is a tremendous, tremendous feat. We still have a long way to go.
A lot of people have been asking questions about Secretary Tillerson and the President and whether or not they will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So let me just mention to you that if they were to – and we don’t have any meetings to announce, because that was not a part of the official schedule – an issue that we are interested in having conversations about is looking for new ceasefire zones.
I continue to go back to the success we’ve had, the coalition has had, with the ceasefire zone that’s held since July – a tremendous success. If we can get to another ceasefire zone, that helps get us closer to the Geneva process. We are not a party to the Astana process. We support the Geneva talks led by Staffan de Mistura. We believe that the Geneva process is the right way to go under the UN Security Council resolutions and that ultimately the people of Syria will decide who is going to lead that country. But go back to saying, once again – unfortunately, it’s a long way off, but we’re getting a little bit closer to that point. The fight is not over; the fight is still going to take quite a bit of time. Caution everybody on patience on that, but we’re plowing ahead with it.
QUESTION: Follow up?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. Said’s question about Albu Kamal, on the – on the Syrian side it was Syrian forces, the Syrian army. On the Iraqi side, because it was also liberated from the other side, it was Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, headed by Qais al-Khazali, who was in prison – I meant to ask about him last time. I apologize. You were right; I asked about the wrong person. He was imprisoned in Camp Cropper for killing Americans.
MS NAUERT: I know, I know. I know.
QUESTION: The House has legislation designating him and his organization as Iranians’ proxies and terrorist organizations. What is your comment about the involvement of such a group? It’s very prominent in the Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilization units. What is your comment about such a group doing such a thing, which is important to the Iranians in terms of creating that land bridge to the Mediterranean and to Lebanon?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. We certainly recognize the destabilizing influence of Iran. We recognize this, Israel recognizes this, Saudi Arabia recognizes it – a lot of countries do. And if you talk to some of our friends in the Middle East, they will be among our staunchest advocates in saying – in agreeing with the United States that Iran is a real problem and Iran brings with it – the government does – some pretty bad things to follow. Iraq has a – an agreement that militia units should serve under the prime minister, under the Iraqi central government. That is supposed to be the law. We certainly hope that Iraq would continue to maintain that.
QUESTION: Do you think it was in effect when Qais al-Khazali took Albu Kamal from the Iraqi side, that the prime minister was enforcing his writ?
MS NAUERT: I don’t want to comment on that. I mean, that would – some of that would just be in Department of Defense’s lane. Okay.
MS NAUERT: All right, guys. We’ve got to wrap it up.
QUESTION: Syria. What is your reaction to threats made by the regime, the Assad regime, to attack positions of U.S. partners, SDF?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. We are in Syria to go after ISIS. The United States supports the Syrian Democratic Forces as being a key unit or units that are battle-tested, comprised of locals – Arabs, Christian, Turkmen, all of that. We support the Syrian Democratic Forces, and they’ve done a tremendous job in liberating Raqqa. And that’s all I have for you on that.
Okay, folks. We’ve got to go. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:43 p.m.)
DPB # 63
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