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Daily Press Briefing

Jeff Rathke
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 27, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing




1:02 p.m. EDT

MR. RATHKE: All right. Good afternoon, everybody. I have a few things for you at the top, so if you'll bear with me.

First of all, Secretary Kerry is in Lausanne today, where he continues to meet along with Energy Secretary Moniz, EU Political Director Helga Schmid, and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Dr. Salehi.

Second item: We welcome the decision of the prime minister of Israel to release withheld tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. This is an important step that will benefit the Palestinian people and help stabilize the situation in the West Bank. We hope that both sides will be able to build on this and work together to lower tensions and find a constructive path forward.

Nigeria: On the eve of the historic elections in Nigeria, the United States reiterates its support for credible electoral processes in Nigeria and renews its calls for all candidates, their supporters, and Nigerian citizens to reject election-related violence and refrain from activities that undermine the democratic process. In the latest example of our support, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield has traveled to Nigeria to lead our official diplomatic observation mission. We commend President Jonathan and General Buhari for their renewed pledge against violence and welcome their signing of a second peace accord ahead of the election.

The next item: Foreign fighter legislation. We applaud our European partners who are improving or introducing new laws to go after foreign fighters, including most recently Montenegro's criminal code amendments on March 18th, Kosovo's law signed on March 25th, and Spain's new reforms passed on March 26th. Also Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, Macedonia, Portugal, and Serbia – all in one breath – have also signed or implemented new foreign fighter legislation, and it is now illegal throughout the western Balkans, for example, to travel to fight in a foreign conflict or to recruit, organize, and finance the participation of citizens in foreign military formations. These efforts are an important contribution to our broader strategy to mitigate the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, as discussed in February at the ministerial here in Washington.

An internal update: On Wednesday of this week, Secretary Kerry sent a letter to State Department Inspector General Steve Linick requesting that he undertake a review of our efforts to date on improving records management, including the archiving of emails, as well as responding to FOIA and congressional inquiries. Secretary Kerry also asked that the IG make recommendations on how to improve our systems. The Secretary is committed to preserving a complete record of American foreign policy. Doing so is required, but it is also good government.

And in the letter, Secretary Kerry wrote that we must, "adapt our systems and policies to keep pace with changes in technology and the way our personnel work." He also noted that we are "focused on improving the way we search for and produce documents in response to requests, whether through the Freedom of Information Act, inquiries from Congress, or access to historians and researchers. We'll be sharing this letter with you later this afternoon. This is an important step in improving how we communicate at the department and in ensuring that we are preserving records, and we are committed to following through on this process.

And then finally, if I might, we have some guests here today. We are pleased to have with us in the briefing room today several Afghan Government spokesmen, including a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. They are in Washington for follow-on meetings after this week's successful visit of the Afghan president and CEO to the United States.

And lastly, we welcome as well three guests from the University of Kansas Law School who are here for the Thurgood Marshall Moot Court Competition: Alice Craig, Gretchen Rix, and Emily Barclay. So welcome. My apologies if I jumped the gun. I may have been – come out a little earlier than --

QUESTION: We didn't get the warning, but that's not your fault.

MR. RATHKE: Okay, so apologies for that. Anyway, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just on the--

MR. RATHKE: By the way, I spoke about these – I don't know if you heard the first two. One was about Israel tax revenues just in case you --

QUESTION: Okay, I'll check the transcript. We'll come back to that. Just on the last thing you raised before you welcomed the guests, the letter --


QUESTION: -- the letter that was sent to the IG, that didn't mention former Secretary Clinton particularly. So I mean, explain – will the IG – has the IG been instructed to actually look at how she handled records and archiving instructions?

MR. RATHKE: Well, as I said, we'll be releasing the full text of the letter later. We expect that the inspector general will take whatever actions they deem appropriate. This is focused, again, on our systems and policies that are in place and reviewing those in light of changing technology and improving our archiving.

QUESTION: But he's not --

MR. RATHKE: It's not --

QUESTION: He's not instructed --

MR. RATHKE: It's not specific.

QUESTION: He's not instructed to look at her particular case of records and management?

MR. RATHKE: Again, this is about the department's processes. It's not specific to that.

QUESTION: Okay. And do you have any plans to ask an inspector general to look at that?

MR. RATHKE: I don't have anything to announce about that.


MR. RATHKE: Again, we'll share the letter on this. You can see in more detail.

QUESTION: Any update on when those emails are going to be released?

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. I don't have an update on timing. The process is, as we've discussed, we have two tranches, if you will. The first are the documents, the emails that were released to the select committee, and so we're working through those. Those will be made public first on a publicly available website and then the 55,000 pages will be the second tranche, but I don't have an update on that.

QUESTION: Jeff, when was that letter sent by the Secretary to the IG?

MR. RATHKE: That letter was on Wednesday.

QUESTION: Wednesday. Thanks.


QUESTION: Can we change the subject back to Israel?

MR. RATHKE: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Obviously – I wasn't here, so you obviously welcomed that move.


QUESTION: Did Netanyahu actually call and advise the U.S. about that move or was it just made? And then how were you informed on that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, look, we've been in touch with all the parties. We've also been clear from this podium as well as elsewhere in urging the key stakeholders to take steps along these lines. So we've been discussing this with the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I'm not going to characterize those conversations further.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. view this as a kind of a way of rebuilding bridges between the two?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we certainly hope that both sides will be able to build on this and work together to lower tensions and find a constructive path forward. That's certainly our hope, and we think it's an important step that this will benefit the Palestinian people, it will help stabilize the situation in the West Bank, and therefore we welcome the decision that the prime minister made.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that this transfer will now continue in perpetuity, or this is a one-off transfer to ease the crisis?

MR. RATHKE: Well, as for the particulars of the arrangement and the modalities, we'd refer you to the parties concerned. It was the Prime Minister's decision. We'd let them speak for the specifics.

QUESTION: You, of course, want it to be in perpetuity, correct?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've said that having a functioning Palestinian authority in place is important. I'm not going to get into the particulars of this detail; but yes, of course, we consider the functioning of the Palestinian Authority to be important for stability in the West Bank.

QUESTION: Do you know how much was transferred?

MR. RATHKE: I don't have the amount. Again, we refer to the Israelis and Palestinians about the specifics.

QUESTION: So just coming back, you're not prepared to say who informed you if you were informed by – directly or if this is something you've seen from news reports?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've been engaging with the Israelis and Palestinians over the last few weeks on this issue. I think I'd leave it at that.

QUESTION: So are you responding to press reports, or do you know this happened?

MR. RATHKE: No, we certainly know it has happened and that's why we're welcoming the decision.

QUESTION: But how do you – and how do you know it was –

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've been – as I said, we've been in touch with the Israelis and Palestinians.

QUESTION: But it just happened today.

MR. RATHKE: That's right, and we've been in touch with them about it.



QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.


MR. RATHKE: Is this the same topic, Michel? Yeah?

QUESTION: Yeah. So can you --


QUESTION: (Inaudible) been in touch with them today, who made that communication?

MR. RATHKE: I don't have a – the specifics of exactly who communicated the decision to whom, but we've been talking to the Israelis and the Palestinians regularly about this.

QUESTION: Yeah, but – all right, fine. I mean, we're not interested in your regular – like we've known that you've talked to Israel and Palestine in the last years and decades. They just made an announcement. We want to know how you know about this. So if you had discussions today, that's interesting, not that you have –

MR. RATHKE: Right. And I think I've said –

QUESTION: -- diplomacy with these –

MR. RATHKE: -- we have had discussions with them today. Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, it took a long time. Go on.

MR. RATHKE: Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. French foreign minister has announced today from New York that France plans to start discussion with partners in the coming weeks on a United Nations Security Council resolution to lay out the parameters for ending the Middle East conflict. And he hoped that partners who were reluctant will not be reluctant anymore, referring to the United States. How will the U.S. deal with any plan regarding the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians and the Security Council? Will you be cooperating with friends and with others?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we're aware of the comments by Foreign Minister Fabius, but I'm not going to speculate about a hypothetical resolution or get ahead of decisions about what we might do at the Security Council.

QUESTION: But in principle, have you changed your stance toward any move at the Security Council?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think we've spoken quite a lot about that in here and elsewhere in recent days. I don't have anything new to add, and nor to speculate about a possible resolution that might be introduced.

QUESTION: Is there any discussion with the French foreign minister or with France in general about such a resolution?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we continue to talk to key stakeholders, including France, to find a way forward that advances our interest and the interests of others in a two-state solution. But I won't go beyond that.

QUESTION: And what about specifically on any resolution? Are you in discussion with --

MR. RATHKE: Again, I'm not going to speculate about a possible resolution.


MR. RATHKE: Just a moment. Same?

QUESTION: No. Can we go to Yemen --


QUESTION: -- before we go to Turkey? What can you tell us about the level of U.S. assistance at this point in the Saudi-led intervention? I know in the statement it talked about doing thing – has that actually begun, the things you spoke about yesterday?

MR. RATHKE: That has begun. For the details on that, my colleagues from the Defense Department will have more detail to offer. But yes, we are supporting the operations that Saudi Arabia is carrying out. I can – I think some of you may have seen or heard that Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, met today with Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson as part of our regular diplomatic discussions. They discussed, of course, Yemen and other political and security-related issues. I think some of you may have been out there or seen as the ambassador came in.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. supporting a ground invasion by the Arab countries?

MR. RATHKE: Well, there's been some speculation in some reports about that. I'm not going to speculate about what the Saudi-led coalition might do --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. RATHKE: -- but we've said that we don't want this to be an open-ended military campaign. The Saudis have said the same, I believe, and so we keep it – we're going to keep in close contact with Saudi Arabia and our GCC partners on those military actions.

QUESTION: I'll repeat my question since I didn't ask you to speculate on anything: Is the U.S. supporting a ground invasion of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I'm not going to comment on what their plans might be. We remain in close contact with the Saudis and our Gulf Cooperation Council partners. But I'm not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: I'm not asking – I'm asking on what the U.S. is doing.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. No, I understand. I understand your question.

QUESTION: Are you supporting that?

MR. RATHKE: And I've said I'm not going to comment on what their plans might be. I've said that we don't want this to be an open-ended military campaign.

QUESTION: Are you supporting them in – regardless of what they plan to do?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've – again, we've supported the steps that they have taken thus far, and our – we see this as an opportunity. The basis for our support is our support for the political process in Yemen. We see a return to the GCC initiative process, of course, with President Hadi as the legitimate president of Yemen, but also with Houthi participation as the goal. And so we see that as the outcome that we're striving for.

QUESTION: Are you --

MR. RATHKE: Same, on Yemen? Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Are you in contact with the Houthis?

MR. RATHKE: I think I spoke to this yesterday. I don't have any direct contacts to read out. In the past we've had ways of communicating, but I don't have any direct contacts to read out.

QUESTION: One more. The Yemenis are complaining that the strikes are targeting the harbors and civilian infrastructures. Do you have anything on this?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've always been clear that in every conflict, all sides should avoid civilian casualties. I don't – I'm not able to corroborate those reports that you've mentioned, but clearly, we think it's important to act in a targeted way in any kind of military conflict.

Jamie, did you have a question?

QUESTION: Yeah, just – I think it was (inaudible) Egyptian media was reporting that President Hadi has arrived in Egypt for the Arab League summit. I just wanted to see if you have any update on U.S. understanding of where he's been over these last 24, 48 hours and whether there are any conversations you're able to read out which happened in the last --

MR. RATHKE: I haven't seen those reports about his arriving in Egypt, so I don't – I'm not – be able to confirm that. He was in Riyadh, as we understand, so – but again, I haven't seen that particular report.

QUESTION: Jeff, can I (inaudible) for a moment?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. RATHKE: Just a moment. Yeah, go ahead, Nicole.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up on Michel's question. You say you don't have any direct contacts to read out between this Department and the Houthis. That's not the same as not having any direct contact. Could you tell us whether you guys are in direct contact? I'm not asking you to read anything out.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Right, no, I understand. But I think also we talked about this yesterday. We haven't had any direct contact with the Houthis or with President Saleh. We've consistently called on them to return to peaceful dialogue and to return Yemen to a peaceful political transition. I think we spoke at some length yesterday about President Saleh as well.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Did U.S. request – did any Gulf countries requested for U.S. to make any military support for Yemen operation?

MR. RATHKE: Do you mean beyond what we've already announced? I'm not --

QUESTION: Yeah, any request for military support, U.S. military support in --

MR. RATHKE: Well, we put out a statement on this a couple of days ago which covers the areas that we're – in which we're supporting. We're providing support of a logistical nature --

QUESTION: Only logistical?

MR. RATHKE: -- intelligence support, and so forth. Intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, as well as advisory and logistical support.

QUESTION: No, I'm just asking – a military operation. Did you receive any request from any Gulf countries for military support, not logistic?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, our support is of the nature that I just outlined, so I don't have any further --

QUESTION: So no request you guys are --

MR. RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to speak to our diplomatic communications with them.

Pam, go ahead.

QUESTION: Has there been any direct contact with President Hadi within the past 24 hours, and if so, can you provide an update on his status and his intentions?

MR. RATHKE: Well, as for his status and intentions, would refer you to him. We have not been in touch with him today. So the last contact we had with him I believe was two days ago. That would have been – yeah, it was Wednesday that we were last in contact with him.

QUESTION: But when you talk about logistical support, what do you mean specifically?

MR. RATHKE: I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Pentagon to give more detail about what logistical support precisely.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: May I? Thank you. So in Iraq, the U.S. is fighting alongside Iran against ISIS. In Yemen, the U.S. is helping the Saudis bomb pro-Iran forces. Now former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine said, "Yes, it is messy, it is contradictory. That's foreign policy." Would you agree with that description?

MR. RATHKE: No, no. I think it's quite clear that in Yemen we're acting in support of the Saudi authorities with their coalition partners and they are responding to a request from President Hadi, who is the legitimate president of Yemen. So they, of course, are responding to a situation in which the military advance of the Houthis has caused – has been destabilizing and has also led to a situation where there is instability and the threat of chaos in Yemen, and that has – that is also a threat for the wider region. So it's in response to that that they've taken action. I think we – you weren't here yesterday, but we talked quite a bit about our support in Iraq to the Iraqi central government and their operations to retake Tikrit. So there's no contradiction between those at all.

Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Sure, thanks a lot. I have one on Yemen, one on Middle East process. On Yemen, has the U.S. had any contact with Jamal Benomar, the special advisor who's supposed to be mediating? And how do you think that the – what's the process from bombing to getting the Houthis back to the table? Is anyone actually reaching out to them?

And just on Middle East peace, I wanted to ask you: What is the status of Tony Blair as the Quartet representative? Does the U.S. think that he should continue in that role? Where do things stand with that?

MR. RATHKE: Right. I think the question of Tony Blair – I think we spoke to that last week, so I'd refer you back to that.


MR. RATHKE: On – I can check and see if we have any contact with Benomar. I don't have any information in front of me. It's possible we've been in contact; I'd just have to check.

QUESTION: But if you're calling for these – for talks to resume, what's the process? Is he still the sort of center point for that, or is there some other process? What should – what's the next step?

MR. RATHKE: Well, there are a variety of ways through which the Houthis and other groups in Yemen can convey their and express their readiness to return to a political process.

QUESTION: A couple more on Yemen.


QUESTION: Do you have any more to read out from Secretary Kerry's conversation with the Iranian foreign minister about Yemen yesterday?

MR. RATHKE: No, I don't have any additional detail to share. He – the Secretary raised it at – in one of their meetings yesterday. They had a couple of meetings. So the Secretary raised our concern but the discussion, of course, focused on the nuclear issue.

QUESTION: He raised our concern. What would our concern be in Yemen?

MR. RATHKE: Well, he raised Yemen. I think we've talked about what our concerns in Yemen are.

QUESTION: With this – okay. (Inaudible.)

MR. RATHKE: Again, I'm not trying to add anything to what I said yesterday. The Secretary raised Yemen in one of the conversations.

QUESTION: I got that. Can you just explain why there is no U.S. direct contact with the Houthis? Given that you're saying the Houthis would have a place at the table in any mediation effort, why would you not speak to them then?

MR. RATHKE: Well, it's a UN-led mediation effort, so that's I think the principal reason.


MR. RATHKE: So we're --

QUESTION: That doesn't preclude you from having a conversation or talking about things with people if the UN's involved, does it?

MR. RATHKE: No, it doesn't preclude it, but it also – but my point is that this is a UN-led dialogue process, so the dialogue process would be conducted through the UN special representative and their staff. I don't – we don't have any direct contact at this point with the Houthis.

QUESTION: Yeah, I'm asking you why you don't have any contact with them. I mean, there's UN-led processes all over the world and you speak to people involved in those processes. Why the decision not to make any direct contact with the Houthis?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've had ways of communicating with them in the past when necessary, but we haven't changed that and we haven't had any direct --

QUESTION: You're not answering the – you don't want – it's a secret reason why not? I mean, do you have a reason why not?

MR. RATHKE: No, I don't have any further information to share about that.

QUESTION: And you just said that you've had ways to directly contact them in the past. Can you – do you know when the last time this direct --

MR. RATHKE: I didn't say "directly." I said – what I meant is we've had ways of communicating indirectly in the past.

QUESTION: Communicate indirectly, okay. And you won't – you can't say why?

MR. RATHKE: I'm not going to outline our --

QUESTION: There's no principle at stake here or anything U.S. foreign policy?

MR. RATHKE: I'm happy to check and see if there's more to say about that. I don't have a --

QUESTION: On Yemen --


QUESTION: -- too – from your talks with the Saudis, when do you think this military operation will achieve its goals?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the Saudis are in the lead. You can ask them. But they've said themselves, as I think I referred to, that they want to see this end quickly. But --

QUESTION: But how and what are the goals?

MR. RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: If you are supporting them now in this military operation, what goals do you want them to achieve?

MR. RATHKE: I think I spoke to our goals a couple of minutes ago, and that is that the basis for the United States is the political process and a return to that political process. So that's what we want to see is a return to the GCC initiative, which would include President Hadi as the legitimate president but in which the Houthis also would play a role.

QUESTION: That means the military operations will be there till the Houthis come back to the table?

MR. RATHKE: Well, this is a Saudi-led coalition, so about those details of when – how they see the operation proceeding, I'd refer you to the Saudis.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Staying with Secretary Kerry in Lausanne, I wanted to ask – I've heard about Foreign Minister Lavrov flying over on Sunday. I was hoping you could preview the bilateral meeting that supposedly is taking place between Kerry and Lavrov the very same day and tell us what the Secretary is planning to speak about with his Russian counterpart.

MR. RATHKE: Well, the talks in Lausanne are focused on the Iran nuclear issue. I don't have meetings to announce. The ministers who will be coming to Lausanne will be announcing their schedules as they make those plans, so I'll let them speak for themselves. And certainly, there will be a variety of bilateral and multilateral meetings that will happen as these talks proceed, but I don't have a schedule announcement to make about that.

QUESTION: And if I may stay with Russia for a second longer, there is another issue I wanted to ask you about. There is a peacekeeping – UN peacekeeping conference taking place in New York these days, yesterday and tomorrow. Chief of the Russian ground forces, Lieutenant General Oleg Salyukov, was planning to take part in that and speak at that conference. He wasn't granted visa on time – at least, that's what the Russians are saying. The Russian mission to the UN is accusing you of violating your obligations under the '47 – 1947 agreement on basement of the UN headquarters in New York. I was hoping to hear your response to that.

MR. RATHKE: I wasn't familiar with those reports or that allegation. We're happy to look into that and come back to you --

QUESTION: I really appreciate it.

MR. RATHKE: -- but I don't have anything on that.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just returning to Yemen for a second – you're calling for a return to peaceful dialogue; obviously that's the end state that the U.S. is stating right now. But at the same time, doesn't it seem that by supporting a Saudi bombing campaign that this is really counter to that direction that you're trying to go to? Does that not make an already desperate, impoverished population more hostile to U.S. interests?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, the situation in Yemen – the – what we've seen is the rapid advance of the Houthis into southern Yemen, a military takeover in Aden which forced President Hadi to flee. And so, in that situation, Saudi Arabia has explained the reasons for their decision to take military action in response to President Hadi's request. And so we certainly – the way we see the situation, the Houthis have had many opportunities. They signed the September 21st Peace and National Partnership Agreement along with a security annex which called for them to withdraw from government institutions, to remove checkpoints and armed groups from the capital, to return seized military equipment. And that's just one example of the stages where the Houthis have decided to continue an armed campaign and seize control of additional territory rather than abiding by the efforts that were made to try to keep the situation under control.

QUESTION: But how does the U.S. see itself returning diplomatically if it's currently supporting a campaign to target inside Yemen? How does it see that it's building a receptive situation for it to return?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think this is similar to the question that was asked earlier. We want to see a return to the dialogue process. The UN is in the lead, but --

QUESTION: But if you want to, it seems like the U.S. actions currently are counter to that desired goal.

MR. RATHKE: Well, I would say that the Houthis' actions have been, which came before the Saudi military actions, are the reason that we've got this unstable and chaotic situation in Yemen.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. understand perhaps maybe some of the reasons that the Houthis may feel unreasonable – perhaps the ongoing drone campaign inside Yemen, the ongoing shortage of electricity, food, water? I mean, what does the U.S. say to that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, there has been a GCC initiative and a UN-led process to address political issues in Yemen. The United States has supported it, the international community has supported it, the UN Security Council has supported it. So the way to address any concerns the Houthis may have is through that UN-led process, and it's that which they have spurned and they have taken continued military action, which has brought us to this point.

Yes, Lesley.

QUESTION: Going to back to Michel's question on – that the U.S. and the Saudis don't want this to be an open-ended conflict, is it the U.S. view that the situation needs to be stabilized in Yemen before there can be this political process – meaning military stabilized, before the political process can kick in too? I mean, how do you bring the Houthis to the negotiating table?

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, again, there is the GCC initiative and the UN-led process which we need to return to. I think at this point it's difficult to outline precisely exactly when that will happen, but that is our goal.

QUESTION: And do you have any further readout on the discussion between the Saudi ambassador and Patterson today?

MR. RATHKE: No, and the focus of the discuss was Yemen and our views on Yemen. I think we've been talking about, but I don't have more specifics from the meeting.



QUESTION: -- that you're talking about a GCC initiative, and this military intervention has been enshrined as a GCC intervention – Saudi-led.

MR. RATHKE: Well, Saudi-led; I would say the participation --

QUESTION: Saudi-led, but five of the six GCC countries signed on to it and it's got the imprimatur of a GCC operation now. So how do you reconcile a GCC military operation to support GCC talks. I mean, the Houthis don't have much at stake in that, do they?

MR. RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: They're at war with all these countries that are running the initiative that you've talking about.

MR. RATHKE: Well, it's a GCC initiative, but there is a UN-led process. So it is Benomar who is the special representative who is in charge of the process. The initiative came about as a result of GCC proposals, but the process itself is a UN-led process.


QUESTION: But you shouldn't have a bigger say in this operation since you are supporting this military operation?

MR. RATHKE: Saudi Arabia is in the lead and they've assembled --

QUESTION: But you are supporting.

MR. RATHKE: -- the coalition and we are providing support, some particular support to them. But it's a Saudi-led operation.



MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Actually, could I just follow up on Michel and --


QUESTION: Of course, of course.

QUESTION: Apologies. But so you're just telling Saudi Arabia that you don't want it to be open-ended? There's no drawing of lines or deadlines? There's no --

MR. RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to characterize publicly the diplomatic discussions we've been having with Saudi Arabia about that.

QUESTION: I know. But it does sound like you're basically giving them a green light to go on for as long as they'd like.

MR. RATHKE: Well, no --

QUESTION: And as Brad point's out --

MR. RATHKE: -- I wouldn't take it that way. I've said that we --

QUESTION: How should we interpret that? You – telling them that you don't want it to be open-ended is very different from saying, "This can't go on very long. This can't go on for more than a week. This can't go on if you start destroying civilian infrastructure," which we already see happening.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: It's coming across as rather --

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've stressed the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, as we would in any military operation. We're also saying we don't want this to be an open-ended operation. I – we've been – I'm not going to characterize publicly further our diplomatic discussions with the Saudis about it.

QUESTION: Are you asking Saudi to make diplomatic outreaches, even in the course of this campaign? Or I mean, are you pushing them to do more than just not be open-ended?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I'll see if we have more to say from that, but --

QUESTION: You – has there ever been, in recent times, a military campaign that was open-ended? Has anybody gone in and said this war will go on forever potentially? No – I mean, the Saudis, by the very definition of this campaign, they want to restore the legitimate government. When they've restored it, it's done. So I mean, I don't understand that counsel.

MR. RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: I mean, isn't that obvious that there are no open-ended conflicts, are there?

QUESTION: It doesn't seem to mean much.

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, it's – the Saudis are in the lead in this operation. I'd refer you to them for questions about their plans.

QUESTION: But are you suggesting that they are considering this an open-ended conflict?

MR. RATHKE: No. I haven't said that.


MR. RATHKE: We – they've said they don't want it to be open-ended. We agree with that.


MR. RATHKE: I'm not putting a time – a specific timeline on it.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: But that's like your sole counsel? That what you're already saying you don't want to do, don't do, essentially?

MR. RATHKE: Well, no. It's – again, we've spoken about the civilian casualties, we've spoken about the goal that the United States has in Yemen, and I don't have anything further to add.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Turkish president yesterday talking about the Yemen – he was also talking about the Iranian influence in the region, and he was saying that basically Iran is replacing when the ISIS leaves. Does the U.S. Government also sees Iranian domination as a problem in the region?

MR. RATHKE: Are you speaking about Yemen or are you speaking more generally?

QUESTION: More generally right now, but it was basically – he was talking about Iranian influence in Yemen, and then talk about the regional term.

MR. RATHKE: Well, with – we've spoken quite a bit about the – our view of Iran's role in the region. We have concerns in a number of areas about Iran's role. We've also said that with respect to Yemen, we have concerns about Iranian support for the Houthis. So – but I'm not going to draw a sweeping conclusion of the sort that you posited.

Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: I got couple other questions. Yesterday, Director of the National Intelligence – on Wednesday, Mr. Clapper – at the House committee, he was saying that because of the different ways of approaching the Syrian crisis, there is a tension rising between Turkey and U.S. bilateral relations. Would you be able to comment on this? How this tension is arising at the moment?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I haven't seen those comments, so I'm not going to – I'm not sure that's what the Director of National Intelligence intended. We've been cooperating for months in the fight against ISIL with Turkey across all the lines of effort. That includes, on the one hand, trying to stop the flow of foreign fighters, includes on the financial side; also includes on the delegitimization of ISIL as well as on train and equip. So we have a productive relationship with Turkey in the fight against ISIL, and we expect it to continue.

QUESTION: There is a letter sent from Congressman Keating's office to Secretary Kerry, also joined by Ed Royce, Mr. Engel, the ranking members of the House Foreign Relations Committee. It is about establishing a platform. Have you seen the letter, first of all? Do you – establishing a platform between Turkey and U.S. regards to human rights problems and rule of law in Turkey. Have you seen that letter?

MR. RATHKE: Well, yes, we're aware of the letter, which I think is dated today --


QUESTION: -- from a – from several members of Congress.


MR. RATHKE: As we've – you've asked about other letters from Congress in recent days. And we've made clear, first, that we will, of course, be responding to the letter. But more generally, as we've said in the past, we remain concerned about freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly in Turkey and so we have raised those concerns in addition to questions about due process.

QUESTION: There is a specific resolution or – asking State Department establish this permanent platform between Turkey and U.S. Would you join or would you agree with this idea?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we just received the letter today.


MR. RATHKE: We're going to look at it and we will, of course, be responding to it.

QUESTION: And my final question: Have you seen the security bill that passed the Turkish parliament just yesterday? It is criticized by human rights groups across the world that it is very damaging to Turkish democracy, and it gives these new powers to police. Do you have a comment? Have you seen that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, we've – we're aware of the Turkish security legislation. We've – as we've said, we believe curbs on freedom of assembly weaken rather than strengthen democratic societies. And we share the concerns raised by civil society actors and others about Turkey's security legislation, that it would reduce space for diverse points of view. And we will continue to discuss with Turkish Government officials the importance of taking steps to safeguard due process as well as renew confidence that legal changes will not erode fundamental freedoms.

QUESTION: So that --


QUESTION: -- legislation just passed, and that was the comment of yours before the legislation passed, I think. Now that it's passed, and how do you see from yesterday to today the change in the democratic standards in Turkey?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to comment in that way. What I've said is our point of view on the situation in Turkey and on this legislation, and we will continue to discuss with Turkish officials the importance of safeguarding due process.

Brad, did you have a question? Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, just staying in Europe --


QUESTION: -- have you had any conversations, the United States and Italy, regarding the looming decision in the Amanda Knox trial?

MR. RATHKE: Not that I'm aware of. There is an Italian legal process underway, so that's where the situation resides.

QUESTION: Would any – has there been any discussion regarding extradition if that were demanded by the Italians?

MR. RATHKE: No, we haven't had any discussions of that kind.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Nigeria elections.


QUESTION: It's tomorrow. We know that the assistant secretary's – Thomas-Greenfield's going to or left for Nigeria.

MR. RATHKE: Right.

QUESTION: There's been a lot of warnings for calm, including from President Obama. What is your – what is her role going to be in the election? Is she going to be prepared to make a judgment if it was free, fair, and that everything remains calm?

There's also discussions that she's going to meet some high-level officials. Do we know who those are?

MR. RATHKE: Right. So I think you may have missed this bit at the start, so I'll just mention it --

QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry.

MR. RATHKE: No, no, no, I didn't get into all those details, so I'll come to that.

QUESTION: Oh, good. All right.

MR. RATHKE: Let me just say we certainly commend President Jonathan and General Buhari for their renewed pledges against violence. They also signed a peace accord ahead of the election, which we also welcome. You're familiar with President Obama's message from earlier in the week, of course.

Now with respect to Assistant Secretary Thomas-Greenfield, her visit is a show of our direct support for a credible and peaceful electoral process in Nigeria. We've been calling on all candidates to reject violence and refrain from activities. This is also something that we've done in the past. Previous assistant secretaries – her predecessor in particular, Johnnie Carson, led an official observation delegation to Nigeria in 2011. And in this case, the assistant secretary has been accredited as an official election observer by the Government of Nigeria.

Now it's not the United States alone that is observing the elections. Also the European Union, the African Union, ECOWAS, and the Commonwealth, as well as some other international observation teams are there. I don't have more detail about where specifically she will be, but they're there to observe. And so we'll let the elections proceed, and they, along with the other international presence, will be observing.

QUESTION: And is her discussions with officials going to include Goodluck Jonathan, or --


QUESTION: Is it going to be with election officials? It wasn't clear.

MR. RATHKE: Well – right, I understand the question. We will check and see if we have more on her schedule. I'm not aware of meetings with senior politicians, but we'll check and come back to you if there are any.


MR. RATHKE: Same topic?

QUESTION: No, Syria.


QUESTION: Different topic.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Pam, I don't think you've had one yet, so why don't we go there and come back forward? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Cuba. There're reports that next week there's going to be a human rights dialogue meeting between the U.S. and Cuba led by Under Secretary Malinowski. Can you provide details on that? And also, are there going to be any public events related to this?

MR. RATHKE: Right. So there will be a planning meeting with the Cuban Government next week – that'll be on March 31st – taking place here in Washington. And the purpose of that meeting is to discuss the structure and the methodology of future human rights talks. On the United States side, the leader will be Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, and we'll wait to see the outcome of those talks. I'm not aware of a media component to them. We can check and let you know if there's any --

QUESTION: Is it (inaudible) or is it --

MR. RATHKE: March 31st.

QUESTION: Just – okay.

MR. RATHKE: March 31st. Again, these are – this is a planning meeting to discuss the structure of future human rights talks.

QUESTION: What does that – I mean – sorry, I didn't get a PhD in literary – what does "methodology of talks" mean? Can you break that down into something I understand, at least?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I – the way this – the way I would take it is this is a meeting to discuss how we're going to structure what we're going to talk about in our human rights dialogue. So it is getting the human rights dialogue underway.

QUESTION: So what does "structure" mean? Like what the --

MR. RATHKE: I imagine that would be the composition of delegations and topics to discuss.

QUESTION: Who's going to be there and what they're going to talk about?

MR. RATHKE: I would imagine. I'm happy to see if there's something additional.


QUESTION: And so --

MR. RATHKE: But this is – the human rights dialogue has been one of the areas that we've agreed with Cuba that we will be discussing, so this is getting that process moving. We had the discussions about information technology and communications, which happened this week. So this is another element in moving forward our dialogue with Cuba.

QUESTION: I was going to say, how does this fit into restoring of diplomatic ties? Is it somehow tied to that? Can you really have that discussion before there's even a deal?

MR. RATHKE: Well, yes, we can.

QUESTION: A deal, yeah.

MR. RATHKE: And so this is all part of the same policy. But the question of reestablishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies is moving in parallel with these other dialogues. So we've had the dialogue on internet and communications. We have the human rights dialogue. But we've also had one – we've had migration talks. So these are all components in our policy as we move forward, but they don't depend on the conclusion of the talks on reestablishing relations or reopening embassies.

QUESTION: And is the meeting here at State?

MR. RATHKE: It's in Washington. I'll have to check and see if it's at State. I don't know that detail.

QUESTION: What is the – is there any update on removing Cuba from the terrorism list?

MR. RATHKE: I don't have any update on the deadline. Again, we're – there's a six-month process that the President announced. We're working on that. I don't have a new deadline.

Yes. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you clarify something on that? The plan, at least as you announced it a bit earlier, was to have the embassies reopen before the next Summit of the Americas.

MR. RATHKE: No, that's – that was not the plan. But go ahead. What's your question?

QUESTION: Okay, my question was – and I would appreciate if you can clarify that --

QUESTION: Your stated it on the record.

QUESTION: Does that mean – is restoring bilateral diplomatic relations means only that – reopening the embassies? Or does that entail anything more than that?

MR. RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: It's pretty technical. I apologize.

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think Assistant Secretary Jacobson has talked about the details, but we're going to reestablish diplomatic relations. This is – this goes hand in hand with reopening embassies. Of course, reestablishing diplomatic relations is more than simply having an embassy; it is an ability for us to engage with the Cuban people and we've been talking with Cuba about reaching an understanding that allows that to go forward.


MR. RATHKE: Yes, Michel.

QUESTION: Sorry, I just have one more on that.


QUESTION: Is there a new date for the fully-fledged negotiations?

MR. RATHKE: No, we don't have a new date to announce today.

Yes, Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. In an interview with CBS, President Assad said that he would be open to a dialogue with the United States but that it must be based on mutual respect. Are you ready or are you open to a such dialogue with President Assad?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think we should be clear. As the President has said, as Secretary Kerry has said, Assad has lost his legitimacy. I think the brutality of his regime toward the Syrian people, which has aided and abetted the rise of violent extremists such as ISIL, is clear. And we've said for a long time that Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands cannot be part of a political solution. President Assad could stop the conflict in Syria right now by demonstrating a willingness for his regime to engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition that would lead to a genuine political solution, consistent with the Geneva communique. He has the ability to stop the torture, the systematic murder, sexual violence, detainment, barrel bombings, airstrikes, and chlorine attacks. He could stop rejecting the calls of his people for reform and freedom and dignity. So I think that it's quite clear what needs to happen for progress in Syria.

QUESTION: How can we translate that, that you're not open for such dialogue or you are open?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we've said that we need to get back to the negotiations consistent with the Geneva communique. But I think it's important to respond to the suggestion from President Assad that somehow he's not responsible for the situation when, in fact, the situation in Syria stems precisely from his actions and his choices.

QUESTION: Assad can --

QUESTION: But it's getting confusing on this because he was answering a question regarding Secretary Kerry's comment on the dialogue with the Syrian regime and President Assad. And that's why he said that he's open to a dialogue with the United States.

MR. RATHKE: Right. Well --

QUESTION: Are you ready for a dialogue with him or not?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, as we talked about last week, there is a need to return to a diplomatic solution consistent with the Geneva communique principles. Of course, there would be a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be part of that process, but we've seen no indication of any readiness on the part of the regime to engage consistent with those principles.

QUESTION: He's insisting on mutual respect. Do you respect President Assad?

MR. RATHKE: Well, again, I think our views on President Assad are pretty clear. And there is a path that he could take forward consistent with the Geneva communique principles, and that's what's needed. And I don't think there was anything in that interview that indicated acceptance of the Geneva communique principles.


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) statement in that comment? Sorry. And maybe it's just old boilerplate, but is – do you really believe that Assad can stop this conflict right now? I mean, if he were to, whatever, disband his army or whatever, how would that solve the Islamic State?

MR. RATHKE: Well --

QUESTION: The conflict's moved beyond just him at this point. Is that not true?

MR. RATHKE: Well, certainly the conflict has become worse because of Assad, but it is in President Assad's hands to move forward if he wants to, and there's no indication that he desires a meaningful dialogue with the opposition that would lead to a genuine political solution.

QUESTION: That's true, but do you believe it's in his capacity to end the conflict right now with everyone, including the Islamic State?

MR. RATHKE: Well, I think his role is the essential part of the rise of the Islamic State, and as well as the repression of the Syrian population.

Yes, Nicole.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if he says I'm no longer going to launch any military operations, how would that uproot the Islamic State from the areas that it controls at this point?

MR. RATHKE: Well, look, that's --

QUESTION: I mean, you said he has the power to end this conflict right now, and that's why I ask.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm, right. The conflict stopping – that is, there's military violence and then there is ending the conflict. I'm not suggesting that within 24 hours upon his word everything would be fine in Syria, but his role is fundamental to the situation that has arisen in Syria. And so therefore he has the ability to make decisions that would return to a political dialogue process. Would that resolve – would that erase the difficulties in Syria overnight? Of course not. But it would be – it is essential for moving forward.


QUESTION: I just wanted to ask about Tikrit --


QUESTION: -- and whether you have any comment in general, especially about the militias putting down their arms, but also if you have any contacts between the Department and Iraqi officials to read out about what's going on there.

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Your first question, you were – can you be more specific? You said about militias? What particular --

QUESTION: I apologize for not being here yesterday.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. No, but --

QUESTION: I don't know if you commented on some militias who have stopped fighting basically to protest U.S. involvement, U.S. --

MR. RATHKE: Okay, all right. So maybe take the second one first. The United States is taking action in support of the Iraqi central government in their operations to retake Tikrit. And so we are destroying ISIL strongholds through precision strikes – again, taking every step to protect innocent Iraqis and minimize damage to infrastructure. And we are coordinating with the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces through our joint operations center.

I don't have new meetings to read out from our announcement of our actions in support of the Iraqi operations. But we remain in close contact with President Hadi and the command of the Iraqi Security Forces and we will continue to do so because --



MR. RATHKE: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Abadi. Hadi, the --

MR. RATHKE: Oh, I'm sorry. President – we've talked so much about Yemen today. Yes, sorry. Prime Minister Abadi and the leadership of the Iraqi Security Forces. We consider it important that this be in support of Iraqi Security Forces and forces acting under Iraqi command and control.

QUESTION: And Tikrit --

MR. RATHKE: Now with respect to the other question. Now, there have been reports of some militias expressing unhappiness that the Iraqi Government and the United States are cooperating. We talked a little bit yesterday about the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, which the Iraqi Government has organized – into which the Iraqi Government has organized volunteers. These volunteers, both Shia and Sunni, who have been called on to help protect Iraq's sovereignty – I think it's important to distinguish between those forces broadly, which are composed mainly of Iraqi nationalists who have volunteered, and some elements within those forces such as Khattab Hizballah, and Asaib al-Haq, which are more problematic because they don't answer to an Iraqi chain of command. So those – some forces have been expressing their concerns. We've said all along that Iraqi forces, as the prime minister and as Ayatollah Sistani have called for, that they should work under a unified Iraqi command.

QUESTION: Pardon me. On Syria, on Syria --

QUESTION: Well, keeping the --

MR. RATHKE: Wait just a moment. We're talking – we'll – one more about Tikrit and then we'll come back.

QUESTION: I don't know if you already spoke about this, but do you think that reportedly Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani's presence in Tikrit and in that operation is helpful or hurtful for the Tikrit issue?

MR. RATHKE: I don't have any update on him in particular. We are coordinating with the Iraqi central government and with the Iraqi Security Forces. That's whom we're working with.

QUESTION: So you couldn't confirm that he is in Tikrit, around Tikrit? There are many pictures are coming out of --

MR. RATHKE: I'm not – I'm not commenting on his whereabouts. I'm not in a position to comment on his whereabouts.

QUESTION: You said – you said Assad can stop the conflict right now. Those were your words.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Really? With ISIS and all, can he?

MR. RATHKE: Again, I think you may have heard my discussion with Brad about the same topic.

QUESTION: But the way you explained it was different from what you said. And the word "right now" means right now, right? Or what else does it mean?

MR. RATHKE: I think we've talked about this in quite a bit of detail.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: But let's – one more question. Even if he leaves office, do you think the conflict is going to stop in Syria?

MR. RATHKE: Look, what I've said is that there needs to be a political dialogue process consistent with the Geneva principles. That's what the international community supports and that's precisely what President Assad has refused to engage in.


QUESTION: Did the conflict in Libya stop when --

MR. RATHKE: I'm sorry, we're going to move on. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. It's something a little different. I wanted to ask you about in Maldives the former defense minister has just been sentenced to 11 years. And I know the State Department has expressed some concern about former President Nasheed's trial. There's also a situation in which migrant workers there are being told if they demonstrate about their rights they'll be deported. So I'm wondering, is the State Department monitoring this? Do you have any comment on developments in the Maldives?

MR. RATHKE: Certainly, we are. I don't have a comment in front of me. We're happy to look into that and come back to you. Jamie.

QUESTION: Just circling back to Turkey real quickly, there were Turkish media reports that Turkish and American officials had come to some sort of agreement to allow armed drones to be based at Incirlik to be used against the Islamic State. Do you have anything on those reports?

MR. RATHKE: I'm not going to comment on any operational issues from here.

QUESTION: Can I have one more Turkey?

MR. RATHKE: Just a moment. No, just a moment. Your colleague here hasn't had a question today.

QUESTION: On Somalia?


QUESTION: Do you have any response to reports of an al-Shabaab attack on a hotel in Mogadishu?

MR. RATHKE: Right. We're aware of reports of an attack today carried out by al-Shabaab on a hotel. We strongly condemn this terrorist attack. We extend our condolences to the family and loved ones of those who may be affected. We continue to support the Somali people and their government. I don't have further updates beyond that.

QUESTION: Just yesterday, Turkish foreign minister said that there's a delay on the U.S. side about the train and equip program. Do you have an update on that?

MR. RATHKE: Well, the timing of the – it's a DOD program, so any questions about the timing of that program I would refer you to my colleagues at the Pentagon. But my understanding of the foreign minister's comments, he referred to it as minor and said that everything is fine politically and technically from Turkey's perspective. So I think for the details on that I'd refer you over to the Pentagon.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, a quick one on Japan. Do you have a readout of the meeting between Deputy Secretary Blinken and Japanese LDP Vice President Komura from this morning?

MR. RATHKE: Yes. Yes, I do. Deputy Secretary Blinken met with the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party Vice President Masahiko Komura on March 27th. They discussed the full range of bilateral, regional, and global issues that reflect the strong partnership that we have between the United States and Japan. So that was the meeting that happened this morning with the Deputy Secretary.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: I have a question on China.

MR. RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Brad.

QUESTION: There was a nongovernmental organization's headquarters --

MR. RATHKE: Oh, right.

QUESTION: -- I think it's Yinren or – I don't – excuse the pronunciation.

MR. RATHKE: Right. We are concerned about reports that Chinese authorities have raided the offices of the Beijing Yirenping Center. The Yirenping Center is a human rights NGO that fights discrimination against people with HIV, hepatitis, and physical disabilities. They are an important civil society organization in China that gives a voice to marginalized groups, and we remain concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in China, including the numerous arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances of human rights activists and others who peacefully question official policies and actions.

QUESTION: I think one of the things that members of this organization wanted to do was stick stickers on buses as part of an anti-sexual harassment campaign.

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is that something you would think – you would see as particularly subversive or criminal in nature?

MR. RATHKE: I don't know the details of how they carried out their campaigns, but again, we see them as an important organization that plays an important role.

QUESTION: I have one last one –

MR. RATHKE: Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: -- on – and this you might not know. Did the Secretary get in touch with Senator Harry Reid since his announcement that he'll be retiring in a couple years, being that they worked closely together for so many years?

MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. I understand – yeah, I understand the question. I think that announcement was – came out just this morning, so I'll check and see if –


MR. RATHKE: -- they've been in touch and we'll come back to you.


MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:02 p.m.)

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