Daily Press Briefing, August 26, 2015
Daily Press Briefing
August 26, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing
2:02 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Okay, good afternoon, everybody. Just one thing at the top here. The United States welcomes President Kiir’s decision today to choose peace and to sign the agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan, along with other parties who signed previously. These signatures represent the full and final approval of the agreement by the warring parties and their commitment. While we support the signing of the agreement, we do not recognize any separate reservations made about the agreement and expect all parties to abide by all elements of the final peace agreement.
Secretary Kerry, who as you know spoke with President Kiir last week to encourage his signature, commends all those who have committed themselves to peace. To end the fighting we call on all parties to adhere to the permanent ceasefire within the next 72 hours and begin the process of implementing this agreement. The United States stands ready to support the implementation of the agreement, to work with the men and women of South Sudan who are committed to peace, and to hold to account those who would undermine the agreement or violate the ceasefire.
We express our thanks to the leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and to our partners who have supported us in this process, to include the African Union, the UN, Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, China, and the UK, and Norway, and of course, the EU.
So with that, Matt.
QUESTION: Can I just – very briefly on this. The United States is not a guarantor – a signatory or a guarantor to this deal, is it, this agreement?
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: So what does it mean that you do not recognize any separate reservations?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think that refers to comments that President Kiir made after he signed.
QUESTION: I understand that. But if I’m him --
MR KIRBY: And the point --
QUESTION: -- and you guys aren’t a guarantor or a signatory, and you say you don’t recognize it --
MR KIRBY: Well, there’s --
QUESTION: I mean, my response would be, “So what?” I mean, it’s not up to you to recognize it or not recognize it. What implication does that mean – does that have, the fact that you who are not involved in this deal at all don’t recognize his reservations?
MR KIRBY: It means that we’re committed to the agreement as signed, and we expect everybody to abide by it and to effect the ceasefire. And it means that, as we said before, that through the UN there are options available to the international community, which we would support should any of the parties back out of the agreement that they signed.
QUESTION: So what it means – what you’re saying then is that should he act on these reservations that you say you don’t recognize, you would support at the UN the sanctions?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that one?
QUESTION: Wait one --
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: So – and that you – should these not have been dealt with during the negotiations or before?
MR KIRBY: Should not what have been dealt with?
QUESTION: Should the – his reservations about this peace deal have been dealt with before to make it more effective? I mean, if you’ve got one party who’s not happy about it, do you really believe that there can be peace?
MR KIRBY: He signed it. He signed it and he’s committed himself to it, and our expectation is he’s going to meet his commitments. Obviously, he made a personal decision to overcome his reservations and sign this agreement. Our expectation is he’s going to meet his end of it. And if he doesn’t, or if any party doesn’t for that matter – this isn’t just about President Kiir, although he’s the one who’s voiced the reservations – then there are options available through the UN that we will explore.
QUESTION: So if there are – if he’s still unhappy with it as it goes forward, it’s open to renegotiation?
MR KIRBY: Look, he can be unhappy about it as long as he abides by it. What matters is the actions, not the words. And we want to see, as I said in my opening statement, we want to see everybody effect the ceasefire and hold to what they agreed.
QUESTION: And you think this is a good agreement?
MR KIRBY: We – yes, we do, and we’ve supported this. Yeah, absolutely.
QUESTION: Do you have any leverage to stop the flow of arms into southern Sudan? Do you have any influence on the transfer of arms?
MR KIRBY: There are. I mean, without getting into specifics – I’m not an expert on the sanctions regime, but there are all kinds of options available to the international community, which could include sanctions.
QUESTION: Are you aware that Israel has been supplying a great deal of arms to southern Sudan – to the conflict?
MR KIRBY: Am I aware of what?
QUESTION: Are you aware of Israeli weapons supplies to the conflict?
MR KIRBY: No.
MR KIRBY: Samir.
QUESTION: Do you know if U.S. Envoy to Sudan Donald Booth attended the ceremony – the signing ceremony?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have details on that. I don’t believe he did.
QUESTION: He’s visiting Sudan.
MR KIRBY: He – but he was there, as you know, last week and came back. So --
QUESTION: He came back to Washington?
MR KIRBY: He came back, yeah, so I don’t believe – I don’t believe he did. But I tell you what; let me just check on that. I don’t have his travel schedule with me.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering, what can you tell us about the arrest or the capture of this Khobar Towers bombing suspect?
MR KIRBY: Well, we’ve seen the reports of it. I would refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia for any details or further information. But I think it’s – though I can’t comment on these reports specifically, I think it’s important to remember to remind people about this attack which killed 19 servicemen and one Saudi citizen, wounded 372 other people. And the United States continues to stand with the victims and families harmed by this attack, and we’re going to continue working with Saudi Arabia and the international community to bring to justice all the perpetrators of it. But I don’t have details on this particular – the reports of the arrest.
QUESTION: So you can’t even say whether you believe it to be – the reports are credible?
MR KIRBY: I cannot. I’d have to refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia.
QUESTION: You do have a vested – I mean, are you checking?
MR KIRBY: Well, obviously, we’re in touch with --
QUESTION: It’s just that – it’s just the fact that 19 servicemembers were killed, 372 people injured --
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: -- as you said. The United States Government has a vested interest in knowing whether a suspect in this has been arrested or is about to be brought to justice. And I find it extremely difficult to believe that you don’t have an answer to the question and you have to refer to the Saudis, especially since the foreign minister was just meeting with Secretary Kerry in Nantucket the other day and the king is apparently coming in September. So I --
MR KIRBY: As difficult as it may be, it has to remain my answer today that I’d refer you to the Saudis for a law enforcement question internal to them and to their processes.
QUESTION: That you have no interest in at all.
MR KIRBY: I didn’t say we didn’t have an interest in it. Of course, we have an interest in it.
QUESTION: Well, so --
MR KIRBY: As I said --
QUESTION: So are you asking them?
MR KIRBY: I can – look, it’s safe to assume --
QUESTION: I mean, the problem is that the answer that you’ve been given to give us suggests that you – oh, this is a Saudi thing and we have nothing to do with it.
MR KIRBY: Of course, we talk to Saudi officials about --
QUESTION: Okay. And what --
MR KIRBY: -- these kinds of issues. And I’m certain that we are having conversations about these reports with Saudi officials, but I’m not at liberty to go into more detail than that.
QUESTION: Would you request his extradition in the event that he was arrested?
MR KIRBY: Any extradition questions I think I’d have to refer you to the Justice Department for.
QUESTION: Okay. But would you – in the event that he is arrested, as alleged, would you trust the Saudi justice system to try him and render justice?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, we don’t even – I’m not even in a position to confirm the arrest, so I don’t know that it’s going to be valuable for me to get into speculative discussions about the justice processes there in Saudi Arabia. Again, I think the best place to deal with these questions are with the Saudi Government.
QUESTION: But you would like to see him tried in the United States --
MR KIRBY: We – as I said in my answer, we want to see all the perpetrators of this attack brought to justice.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Saudi Arabia?
QUESTION: Well, can we stay on this just for one second? Is it the United States – does the United States believe that Iran had anything to do with this attack?
MR KIRBY: I think we’ve spoken to this. Previous administrations have spoken about an alleged Iranian role in the attack on Khobar Towers, and there’s indictments going back to – I think it’s 2001 – which point to Iranian involvement. And again, for more detail on that I’d refer you to DOJ and the FBI.
QUESTION: Can we stay on – in Saudi Arabia related to that?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Saudi officials in Riyadh did announce this morning that King Salman will be in Washington on the 4th of September. Are you in position to confirm or to deny that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, if the Saudi Government announced it, I’m certainly not in any position to characterize it any other way. I haven’t seen the announcement; but if they’ve announced it, I’ll let them speak to the king’s travel.
QUESTION: New subject?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, planned to travel to New York shortly. She was supposed to take part in an Interparliamentary Union session there. She was also invited to take part in a meeting of women heads of national parliaments, as far as I understand. The way that her visa request was handled by the U.S. embassy in Moscow was condemned by your counterparts at the Russian foreign ministry some time ago. They said that what you did was essentially a violation of international norms, and limitations and constraints that you put on her visa were unacceptable. I was wondering if you have a comment to this comment.
MR KIRBY: I’d say three things. One, the United States remains committed to meeting our UN host duty obligations regarding the transit for officials on UN business. We don’t discuss – and I’m not going to start today – discuss the details of individual visa cases. Visa records are confidential under law. And then thirdly, it is a matter of public record that Ms. Matviyenko has been sanctioned by several countries due to her actions related to Ukraine, and she and other Russian officials are aware that she is subject to sanctions.
QUESTION: Change topic?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up. Sorry, can I follow up with it?
MR KIRBY: Sure. Who are you?
QUESTION: (Laughter.) It’s Michele way back here.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: The UN is coming up in – soon, the UN General Assembly, and obviously, Russia’s going to be bringing a lot of other officials. What kind of – when you say you have to facilitate travel to the UN, what kind of restrictions can be put in place on people that are on sanctions lists? I mean, how do you weigh those two issues?
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said at the outset, I mean, we take our obligations seriously in terms of UN business and being the host nation for the UN. And without getting into the laundry list, I mean, if travel is in relation to strictly UN business, we take – again, we take those responsibilities seriously. I can’t get into the specifics on this case.
QUESTION: But if people are on the sanctions list and they go to the UN, can they not stay in U.S.-owned hotels? I mean, are there – do U.S. businesses have to look out for this kind of thing?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know the – I just don’t know what restrictions are placed on people that are being sanctioned and yet confirmed to be on UN business and at the UN. I mean, I’ll have to see if I can find out and get back to you on that. I just don’t have a list of what restrictions there may be on them when they’re in the country.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Russia for a second one?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I wanted also to get back to the INF Treaty violations issue, the alleged violations by Russia. It’s being reported by the U.S. media, which quoted unnamed U.S. officials, that U.S. Government conceded that U.S. officials who went to Moscow to discuss this matter with their Russian counterparts never actually detailed those charges, never described what it was specifically that concerned you and that constituted the supposed violations of the INF Treaty by Russia. Is that correct?
MR KIRBY: We have provided information to Russia on its violation, and we’re confident that the Russian Government is aware of the sophisticated ground launch missile to which we’re referring to on this violation.
QUESTION: So you described those concerns in details --
MR KIRBY: We provided them the information that we had on their violation.
QUESTION: Can we go to Yemen?
MR KIRBY: Yemen.
QUESTION: Quick one on Yemen. It is – there are reports that the AQAP, the al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula, is closing in on – the fighters of al-Qaida are closing in on Aden. Now, that would make them harder to detect and attack and so on. And basically, your support of the Saudi initiative is allowing them to do that. Do you have any comment on this?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’d say a couple of things. I think the deputy interior minister of Yemen spoke to these media reports about Aden falling to AQAP and said they were inaccurate. It is, as we said quite a bit, Said, a fluid, dynamic situation there on the ground. Our understanding is that while those conditions in Aden are dangerous, we do not believe AQAP or elements connected to AQAP control the city or any of the neighborhoods. Again, but it remains volatile, it remains fluid; we’re constantly watching this.
And then look, we’ve talked about Saudi Arabia and their involvement in this before. I would remind you that the Yemeni Government invited Saudi participation in this, invited them, asked them to help, and that’s the character of their involvement is at the request of the Yemeni Government. And we continually talk to Saudi officials about their prosecution of those combat missions that they continue to conduct.
QUESTION: But apparently, these – AQAP is able to insinuate itself or penetrate groups that are directly supported by the Government of Saudi Arabia. You have any comment on that? Or do you tell the Saudis not to support groups where al-Qaida might be infiltrating?
MR KIRBY: I think the Saudi Government is well aware of our longstanding concerns about terrorist organizations, and with al-Qaida specifically. I mean, the United States has been clear and firm not just in word, but in action for the last near-15 years on al-Qaida and the spread of its ideology. Nothing’s going to change about that.
QUESTION: So can I – just on Yemen and on the al-Qaida claim in Aden, you’re saying that you do – you accept or you believe to be credible what the deputy interior minister – or the interior minister --
MR KIRBY: What I said was I wanted to point you to his comments. What I said was it remains a fluid, volatile, dynamic situation, and we’re going to continue to watch it.
QUESTION: But you – and to the best of your knowledge --
MR KIRBY: I am not in a position definitively to say that there’s no AQAP in Aden.
QUESTION: Right, right. This Yemeni official is located where?
MR KIRBY: I don't know. He’s the deputy interior minister. I don't know from what --
QUESTION: Is he in Aden?
MR KIRBY: I don't know where he is. I’m just pointing you to his comments.
QUESTION: Do you know – okay, well, I mean, I’m just curious if he – if you believe that he’s in a position to know.
MR KIRBY: I just was pointing you to his comments, Matt, and I would point you to my comment --
QUESTION: But it sounds --
MR KIRBY: -- which is it’s a fluid situation we’re continuing to monitor. We have no indication that would assert that AQAP is in control of Aden. We don’t believe that they are.
QUESTION: Look, well, I don’t think that’s what the reports say, that they’re in control. The reports have said – that I’ve seen, at least – say that they are controlling certain neighborhoods.
MR KIRBY: We don’t believe that they control the city or any neighborhoods.
QUESTION: Any neighborhood at all?
MR KIRBY: That’s what I said.
QUESTION: Okay. And that’s based on your own intel or that’s based on what the deputy interior minister --
MR KIRBY: As all --
QUESTION: -- who you don’t know where he is --
MR KIRBY: I did not – just to be clear, Matt, I simply pointed you to what he said. I didn’t say we were backing it up, and --
QUESTION: I know, but you’re --
MR KIRBY: -- wait a second now. And when we make assessments like that, as you well know, it comes from a variety of factors. I mean, those kinds of assessments are formed through a mosaic of inputs.
QUESTION: Well, when you’re – let’s just put it this way: When you’re asked about allegations that Russian troops are in Ukraine, you don’t cite the Russian officials as saying, “No, they’re not.” Do you get what I’m saying here? By repeating what this interior – deputy interior minister said, you’re suggesting that you believe it.
MR KIRBY: I was simply pointing you to what he said as a matter of fact.
QUESTION: I understand that. But --
MR KIRBY: I’m telling you what we believe based on our own assessments --
QUESTION: Based on your own assessments.
MR KIRBY: -- which is that they don’t control Aden or any neighborhoods --
QUESTION: In Aden.
MR KIRBY: -- in Aden.
QUESTION: Has there been a marked reduction in the targeting of AQAP elements in Yemen since, let’s say, the Saudi-led assault began?
MR KIRBY: Well, that’s a great question for DOD.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: This one’s on ISIS. Do you have any – can you confirm any additional information about reports that emerged earlier this week that ISIS executed nine men in Mosul who were reportedly charged with sodomy-related offenses?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, we’ve seen those reports. I mean, it’s difficult to confirm what they’re doing and when they do it. Certainly, we’ve seen those reports. They’re obviously deeply troubling, and, I mean, again, our record on – in fact, we talked about this, I think, earlier in the week, about the meeting that was held at the UN specifically to talk about ISIL and their persecution of people that are – either are or believed to be LGBT. So I can’t confirm those reports. Obviously, we’ve seen them and we’re deeply troubled by that. And if it’s true, it’s just another example of the barbarity of this group.
QUESTION: And one additional point that came out of that meeting on Monday in New York at the UN. Ambassador Power called upon Congress to increase the number of refugees allowed to resettle into the United States. There was just – there were statistics that indicated roughly 75 to 100 LGBT refugees had been allowed to resettle into the United States. Do you have any comment on Ambassador Power’s suggestion on --
MR KIRBY: Well, we certainly associate ourselves with her call and her concerns. I don’t have any updates for you in terms of numbers of that, but obviously, we fully support and associate ourselves with her comments.
QUESTION: And then one additional question to ask as well: There was an indictment in the stabbing of seven people in the Jerusalem Pride attack a few weeks ago. The person charged was indicted on murder and other charges. Any comment on that indictment?
MR KIRBY: No, I’m afraid I would be loath to talk – to comment on that judicial process.
QUESTION: Turkey? It was reported yesterday from U.S. ministry officials that the deal was finalized with Turkey about their contribution to the fight against ISIS.
MR KIRBY: Didn’t we talk about this yesterday?
QUESTION: Did you?
MR KIRBY: I thought we did.
QUESTION: We did and for a very long, extended period of time. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I wasn’t here. I’m so sorry, but can you tell us if there’s any disagreement now between the Turks and you on their contribution? (Laughter.) Okay, no --
MR KIRBY: I mean, what we could do is you could come up here and you could probably say exactly what I’m going to tell you: The Turks are a valued ally and a key partner in this fight, right. And we’ve reached agreement recently with the Turks so that we could use some of their airbases for missions against ISIL, and now they will be flying very soon. And I don’t know the – I don’t have an update on this of when, but they’ll be flying very soon inside the coalition air operations tasking order. That’s a big deal and we’re grateful to have them in the air with us soon.
We’re going to continue to talk to the Turks about this effort because it’s real to them. It’s not a – it’s not some theoretical exercise. They’ve got a border on both countries. They’ve got a foreign fighter problem they’re trying to deal with. They’re taking care of some 2 million Syrian refugees, and they’re hosting a train and equip site. They’re deeply involved. Does that mean that we’re going to agree on every single issue going forward? Probably not, but we don’t – but that’s the case with any friend and ally and partner, particularly in such a dynamic situation as this fight against ISIL. So we’re very grateful for the contributions that they continue to make and now will make in the future given their participation in airstrikes, and we’re going to continue to talk with them going forward to see if we can’t always try to improve that cooperation.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one more question about different topic? It’s also a little bit --
MR KIRBY: Is it also about Turkey?
QUESTION: A little bit – no, not Turkey, about – there were media report, including by the Financial Times, that Israel’s imports – three-fourth of its oil imports come from Iraqi Kurdistan. I know you have your own position on the sale of oil from Kurdistan and Iraq. Are you concerned about this or do you support the Israelis to buy oil from the Kurds?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen the report. I’m not going to be in a position to confirm it. I’d refer you to the parties involved in that. Our position remains unchanged, that Baghdad and Erbil should negotiate a workable agreement on oil exports and revenue sharing that’s acceptable to both sides.
QUESTION: Can we --
MR KIRBY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Israel?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. The Israeli President Rivlin the other day, meeting with settler leaders and so on – he told them that they have the right to settle anywhere on the West Bank, basically saying that the West Bank is theirs, calling it by its – Judea and Samaria and so on. I wonder if you have any comment on that.
MR KIRBY: The same comment that we always have when we talk about settlements. Our position has not changed.
QUESTION: Right, but you saw these reports?
MR KIRBY: I have only seen press reporting of it, Said, but I – again, our position on settlements has not changed.
QUESTION: But that would be contrary to your position, wouldn’t it?
MR KIRBY: If it’s true that this is what’s been said – I mean, again, I’ve seen press reports – then yes, it would be contrary to what our position is. Our position has not changed on settlements.
QUESTION: Can we go back to ISIS? There was a New York Times report today that there’s an inquiry weighing whether ISIS analysis was distorted. The focus of this piece was primarily DOD, but there are some quotes in here from John Allen, from his talk at the Aspen Forum, I believe. You yourself a couple days ago gave a pretty positive report of some of the progress that’s been made in the anti-ISIL fight in the last year, so I was wondering if there is consensus from your point of view that --
MR KIRBY: My report was not positive, it was factual. There’s a difference, and --
QUESTION: Well, I would ask it – I would ask it this way, then, which is: Is there consensus within the U.S. Government about how the fight against ISIL is going?
MR KIRBY: I think when – look, I can’t speak for every person in the government. But I do believe that, certainly between the State Department and DOD, that yes, there is a common view here of how we’re doing. Does it – I can’t go down to every little detail of it and say that there’s agreement – wide agreement – on every single aspect, but there certainly is agreement – interagency agreement – inside the U.S. Government on the validity of the strategy, the fact that the strategy is working, that it will take time and this is going to be a long, hard fight, which means there’s going to be moments when ISIL achieves success tactically, perhaps even operationally, but that ultimately this struggle will be won by the coalition.
And then the last point I’d say there’s certainly broad agreement on – well, two more. One, that we are making progress, and I have detailed that. I can detail more for you today if you want. But two, that it can’t just be about military action. And we’ve talked about the lines of effort. There are multiple lines of effort against ISIL. The military line of effort obviously gets the most ink because it’s the most dramatic and we understand that. It also has the most tactical effect on these guys on the ground, and obviously, that pressure is going to stay in place. But we’re – we’re still working to help dry up their finances. We’ve got more than 30 countries in the coalition are taking administrative and legal action to get at the foreign fighter problem, including the United States. And of course, there’s a wide, constant diplomatic activity amongst the coalition and other members of the international community to try to get at the ideology of this group, this extreme ideology which continues to fester and they use to continue to recruit young men to the fight.
So it’s a wide-ranging, comprehensive strategy. And yes, everybody agrees that it’s the right strategy. And yes, everybody agrees that it’s working. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be times where there are setbacks, and it doesn’t mean, and frankly, we wouldn’t want for there not to be differing opinions as we move forward. And so I’m not going to speak to whether the Pentagon IG is looking at this or not. That’s not my place. I’d refer you to DOD on that.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, and in fact, it would be news if it didn’t, if people didn’t have different ideas moving forward and if there weren’t some analysis on the intelligence side, that spoke to real issues that needed to be addressed. I mean, that’s how it works in this country and at the interagency level, and that’s how you want it to work. Because if you don’t allow inside – the execution of a strategy for people to express an alternate view, even if you don’t agree with it, then you might be missing out on opportunities to get at a very determined enemy.
QUESTION: So would you take issue then with the notion that that reflects a distorted analysis then?
MR KIRBY: What reflects a distorted analysis?
QUESTION: That the – some of the comments that have been made by officials in DOD and here at State.
MR KIRBY: No, I absolutely would refute that. I mean, let’s talk about General Allen for a second – a retired four-star Marine combat leader in Iraq and Afghanistan; led our – the NATO mission in Afghanistan before his retirement. Absolutely the right leader to come in and pull together this coalition and get it to where it is today. I mean, that’s General Allen at work.
I’ve served for General Allen myself for a short period of time, and I can tell you, you won’t find a more pragmatic, realistic, clear-eyed leader than General John Allen. And so when he says something like he said out in Aspen, that ISIS is losing, he meant it and he believed it and he had the facts to back it up. It doesn’t mean, as I said, that there’s not going to be times when ISIL is going to achieve success.
But as I, and what you characterized as my positive assessment the other day, but as we talked about that, 30 percent fewer territory in populated areas of Iraq than they had a year ago; hundreds – hundreds – of vehicles and tactical pieces of equipment destroyed, gone. And it’s not like they’ve got a supply chain where it’s just – they can just easily regenerate that kind of combat power. We’ve hit their ability to sell oil on the black market, and we’ve certainly gotten at their training facilities in Syria. And obviously, in towns and villages – we can talk about Kobani, Baiji, Tal Abyad – I mean, we could go on and on about places where they’ve seized and then lost control of. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to keep trying to get at it, but their great strategic successes that some people have ballyhooed about haven’t been very long-lived.
I’m – in all of that, and I’ll say it again as I said the other day, nobody’s underestimating the scope of the challenge here. I think I’ve been very clear-eyed about this from this podium and from my previous podium. This is going to take several years. This is a determined enemy. They adapt, and we have to adapt with them. They continue to be able to recruit; we understand that. And they obviously are continuing – are continuing to be able to sustain some of their forces in the field. But they’re under a lot of pressure. They’re not 10 feet tall, and eventually they will lose. I don’t consider that an overly positive or rosy assessment, I consider that based on facts as we see them.
QUESTION: I have a separate ISIS question, but if you want to continue on this --
QUESTION: No, go ahead – on Syria.
QUESTION: Yes. So my colleague, Barbara Starr, has some reporting today about a drone strike – a U.S. drone strike – against the British-born ISIS recruiter Junaid Hussain. I won’t ask you to comment on that strike, because obviously that’s a better question for DOD.
MR KIRBY: You used my exact words. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But this is a British citizen that we’re talking about. The UK is a partner in this coalition. Was there any kind of previous communication with the UK before this strike was undertaken? And then could you just kind of talk more broadly about this individual’s value as a target, because obviously he’s been involved in some pretty high-profile, I guess, plots.
MR KIRBY: I think you can understand why I’m going to demur on this one. I don’t have anything to speak to with respect to these rumors and I would refer you to DOD for information about that. And as for the equities of our ally the United Kingdom, again, I’d point you to them to speak to this. I honestly just don’t have any information, and even if I did, this wouldn’t be the forum in which to discuss that.
QUESTION: Staying on Syria, but on the political front. There’s a great deal of political maneuvering or diplomatic maneuvering in Moscow, Russia, where three Arab leaders are meeting with President Putin. Apparently, Syria is on top of the agenda. They’re focused on the Geneva I communique and how to push it forward. Are you in consultations with the Russians and the Arab leaders – the Egyptian leader, the Jordanian monarch, and the Emirate leader?
MR KIRBY: Well, have we not – have we been in communication with them about the challenges in Syria? Yes.
QUESTION: I mean – yeah.
MR KIRBY: With respect to this particular meeting --
QUESTION: This visit.
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific communications that we’ve had with those leaders with respect to this meeting in Moscow. This was at the invitation of President Putin; they’re there, they’re speaking about this. Look, if out of these discussions can – comes good solutions that might help us get to a UN-led political process for a transition in Syria, then that’s all to the good. But let’s see where it goes.
QUESTION: The thinking is that if there is some sort of a political or diplomatic momentum, then the fight against ISIS would be consolidated and so on. Do you agree with that thinking?
MR KIRBY: I’ve not heard that particular line of thinking, and I think it would be premature to speculate about where this might go. Remember, there are two separate things here, Said. There’s – obviously, we want to work towards a political transition in Syria. The fight in Syria right now – the fight in Syria is against ISIL by the coalition, and those are two distinct, separate issues.
QUESTION: But it’s the same issue as Assad is fighting – I mean, and the Russians are talking to Assad about – you might’ve seen the reports coming out today that Russia has boosted its support for the Syrian --
MR KIRBY: We’ve long said we’ve got concerns about Russia’s support to Assad that continues to prop his regime up and allow him to continue to brutalize his own people, and we’ve long said that Assad’s a real part of the problem here. His brutality, his loss of legitimacy to govern has only allowed ISIL to fester inside the country.
What I’m talking about is that we are trying to move forward on a political transition in Syria. That’s why Secretary Kerry met with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister al-Jubeir in Doha a few weeks ago, and they continued to discuss this issue when Foreign Minister al-Jubeir was in Nantucket earlier this week. Obviously, this was high on the agenda for the two men to talk about. But what’s going on from the coalition perspective in Syria is about going after ISIL.
QUESTION: Well, what did you make of President Assad’s comments – overnight broadcast saying that he’s open to the idea of a coalition against ISIS? I mean, the discussion – you talk about a political discussion; it seems to be more one along the lines of a military coalition going forward with the Russians, and that the Russians aren’t talking here about Assad leaving.
MR KIRBY: Well, I’ll let the Russians characterize where they are on Assad. Our position hasn’t changed. He’s lost legitimacy to govern, and what needs to happen is a political process there for a new government in Syria that’s responsive to the Syrian people.
And Lesley, I want to also be very clear, and Secretary Kerry’s made this clear: What we’re – there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict in Syria, separate and distinct from the fight against ISIL. I’m talking about the future of Syria now and for the Syrian people. We’ve long said there’s not going to be a military solution to that, whether it’s U.S. or anybody else’s military, that this is – this has got to be done politically. That’s hard. Not that military solutions aren’t hard as well, but that’s going to take time and it’s going to take a lot of dialogue inside the international community, which is why Secretary Kerry hosted that trilateral meeting in Doha and wants to continue to see these discussions move forward.
QUESTION: So what is Michael Ratney going to be talking to in Moscow, Geneva, and Riyadh this weekend?
MR KIRBY: I had that here somewhere. He is going – you’re right – he’s going to Moscow, Geneva, and Riyadh. He’ll be --
QUESTION: I mean, if this not about --
MR KIRBY: He’ll be meeting with leaders there to talk about this exact idea, Secretary – he’s going to be representing Secretary Kerry to talk specifically about options that we, the international community, could make, certainly in this trilateral group of U.S., Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to try to come up with options for some sort of political process – a political process that we know is going to have to include opposition groups – and try to work through what that means and what that’s going to look like.
QUESTION: But John, it looks like – I mean, my – I’m trying to get my head around this. It looks like the discussion is a different one that the Russians are talking about. They’re talking about a military coalition, including Assad, against ISIS, that this is not – I mean, while at the same time, they’re going to also discuss that he leaves?
MR KIRBY: Again, I’m not going to speak for the Russians, but I’ll state it again as clearly as I can: There’s not going to be a military solution to this. That is the United States Government’s position, that is Secretary Kerry’s position, and it’s got to be done politically. And again, the Secretary wants to continue to explore options with the Russians and with Saudi Arabia on what those political options might look like.
And look, again, I can’t speak for what the Russians are saying on any given day, but – and we talk about Russia a lot, about the areas in which we disagree and the problems that we have. But this is one area where we think there could be room for cooperation with Russia on. And again, the Secretary wants to continue to explore that, and that’s why Mr. Ratney is heading over there. We’ll see where it goes. I mean, I think everybody recognizes this is going to be – it’s a long road.
QUESTION: Can you discuss the specific proposals that the U.S. is making on this?
MR KIRBY: I don’t think there are right now specific proposals. I think these talks are very nascent, they’re very much in the – at the beginning. I don’t think we’re at the point now where we’ve got a list of specific proposals. But that we are having this dialogue and discussion, especially with Russia, with whom we have many disagreements, I think that’s encouraging. We just need to see where it goes.
QUESTION: But John, do you accept what Putin said today? He called for an international coalition that includes the Assad regime to fight ISIL.
MR KIRBY: I’ve – we’ve made our position very clear.
QUESTION: So you’re --
MR KIRBY: I think my answer to Lesley sums up exactly where we are, which is that it hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: So you reject Assad’s regime?
MR KIRBY: We have long said that Assad has no future in Syria. He has lost legitimacy to govern, there’s not going to be a military solution to this; it has to be political.
QUESTION: And partner – and to fight ISIL? Do you accept Assad regime as a partner and to fight ISIL?
MR KIRBY: No, we don’t. We absolutely do not accept them as a partner in the fight against ISIL, and we have not, not since the beginning of this.
QUESTION: John, but you repeat it constantly that you want to maintain the Syrian state and its institution, including the army, conceivably. And so this army will have a role to play against ISIS or – and the likes in the future, couldn’t it?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know, Said. I mean, let’s not get the cart before the horse here.
QUESTION: But you – I understand, but --
MR KIRBY: We need a political transition, we need a government that’s responsive to the Syrian people before we start talking about what institutions will be in place going forward and who’s going to lead them.
QUESTION: But on principle, you don’t want to see happen to Syria, let’s say the dissolving of the army, such as what happened in Iraq, do you?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, again, I’m not going to get into speculation about what the institutional framework will look like here. We’re at the very beginning of trying to get, in an international community approach here, to a political transition, and we need to take this step by step.
QUESTION: U.S.-trained Syrian rebel group Division 30 released a statement yesterday and said that Assad regime’s air force attacked them in northeastern Aleppo. U.S. decided to protect these forces against the attacks, and do you have any reaction to this attack against this group?
MR KIRBY: I’ve not seen the report that you’re citing, and I don’t have any information on this alleged attack, so I’d be – it would be inappropriate for me to comment. I’d refer you to DOD for operational analysis in near-real time here.
What we have said is – and DOD has said – that as we get these Syrian fighters back into the fight after they’ve gone through the train, there’s an – we know there’s going to be an obligation to help protect and defend them. And how that’s done is up to DOD and the coalition to determine. I just don’t have anything more on this now.
QUESTION: But how long it will take these talks about Syria? I mean, who is hampering the convening of another Geneva or who’s – what’s the impediment? Who is blocking it?
MR KIRBY: Your question presupposes that there is an impediment or that there’s somebody slow-walking this. I think, as I said, these talks – at least the trilateral talks that Secretary Kerry has started – are just now starting. And we obviously want to see them as – we want to have the – the process that is supported is the UN process, in keeping with Geneva. I’m not aware that anybody is impairing it or slowing it. It’s a – this is a difficult situation and everybody understands that it’s going to take some time.
QUESTION: So how long do you think – how long it will take you?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know.
QUESTION: Another years? I mean --
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I mean, I couldn’t possibly predict that here today. What I could tell you is that the Secretary is very focused on this moving forward and wants to work very hard to get to some political options here, and we’re going to keep working at this.
QUESTION: Okay, I’ve got two questions, sir. One of them is related to – yesterday the State Department has – the U.S. has declared Haqqani as a global terrorist, and yesterday also the CENTCOM chief had a meeting with the Pakistani army chief in Islamabad. So I want to know one of the reason why the Haqqani has taken – it has taken so long to declare him a global terrorist, whereas we have been hearing about their activities since a long time that they are involved in terrorist activities.
And my second question is a little bit different but similar to that region, is that since the U.S. drawdown, the terrorist activities have increased in that region. And last 16 years, I have also been writing a lot about the drug trade in Afghanistan as the main support for these terrorist organizations. So why doesn’t the U.S. use the new techniques of spraying – spraying the poppy crop, putting the spray through the planes to destroy these crops or at least these terrorists don’t get this huge funding, no?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, on Haqqani, as far back as August of 2014, our Rewards for Justice Program announced a reward up to $5 million for information about Aziz Haqqani. Nobody has lost sight of this man’s terrorist activity, so I think it’s safe to say the United States Government has long been clear about our concerns about the Haqqani Network and about their activities in the region.
We also have been working closely with authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan for many, many years about helping get at the terrorism threat that they both share – that we all share, particularly in that border region – and mindful as well that the Taliban profits from – continues to profit from the opium trade. And there are efforts inside – I know Afghanistan for sure – to try to get at stemming the flow of that financing. But I don’t have a prescription here for you on what the best way is forward with that right now. This is an issue – drying up this financial capability of theirs is something that we’re – that we remain focused on, and we’re going to keep talking to leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan about that.
QUESTION: But that is for sure, but – that drugs are basically the main finance of terrorists in that region, right? The U.S. – I mean, this is – I’m seeing in the U.S. Government like websites and stuff that the Taliban’s biggest earning is through drugs trade. So why can’t in all these years, I mean, since I’ve been reporting from that region, and all these years the opium trade has gone up since last 16 years and it has not gone down. That’s a very --
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t have a lot of data in front of me here about the opium trade. We’re all well aware that the Taliban has used it to finance itself. It’s also a source of stability and income for poor farmers who are basically forced in many times to grow it for the Taliban. So it’s not just as simple as an eradication program. You have to be able to work on supplementing it for something else, and we have worked with Afghan authorities for many years about trying to find other crops that farmers can grow to make a good living, and there’s been some success in that.
Is it total and complete? No, it’s not. We all recognize that. This is a tough problem to get at. But to simply work towards some eradication program to burn ‘em to the ground, while that may have an immediate effect it doesn’t necessarily do anything for long-term stability and security for Afghan farmers.
So if you’re looking for a prescription from me today, I can’t give it to you. But I can tell you that the United States has and will continue to remain focused on trying to work towards a more secure, more stable, more prosperous Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Can we go to Iran?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. So it’s getting to be kind of a weekly exercise in first the Administration comes out and promotes a letter by a certain number of former or current officials, and then the opponents of the Iran deal come out with a larger number. First it was the retired admirals and generals, three dozen or so supporting the deal. Now today there’s 195, almost 200 opposing the deal. The same thing happened with the rabbis. The Administration put out a thing from, I think, 120 rabbis and then the opponents of the deal had 300 rabbis sign.
So I mean, it’s gotten – I’m trying to – who – why is it that your lower – that the Administration’s lower numbers of these groups of people should be believed and the greater numbers in the opposing – in the letters opposing the deal shouldn’t be believed?
MR KIRBY: It’s not that – it’s not about the numbers, Matt. And whether --
QUESTION: It’s not?
MR KIRBY: And whether or not numbers of people in support are higher than numbers of analysts or critics in opposition. It’s not about the numbers. It is, however, about the facts and the merits of the deal. And so what I’d like to do is turn your question around a little bit and say it’s – what makes it – what makes the arguments for the deal more convincing than the arguments against the deal.
QUESTION: But you can do that and you’ve been doing it. I mean, everyone has been trying to do that on both sides --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- since the beginning.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: But my point is that you have – why shouldn’t 195 retired admirals and generals be more persuasive than 36 or three dozen, the some-odd three dozen that you got? You’re a retired admiral. I presume you would have signed the pro letter given your current position. So why – but, so if that’s the case – maybe it’s not the case. Is it?
MR KIRBY: I’m very much in support of the deal. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. So if that – so why should – but why is it the letter that you would have signed, why should that have more weight than the letter than more than three times of your former colleagues has – have signed?
MR KIRBY: It’s not about the numbers of who supports it. And to pick a hundred of this type of person versus 50 of this person – it doesn’t – that’s not the relevant metric here. So let me just --
QUESTION: Well, then, but then --
MR KIRBY: Let me just --
QUESTION: If that isn’t then, why promote it? Why put it out? Why even put it out there in the first place? The Administration has been putting out these letters.
MR KIRBY: You said yourself the opponents of the deal have their supporters, and they’re putting them out there. Why wouldn’t we also point to those who are in favor of the deal and who they are and their expertise?
QUESTION: So the people that you got to sign your letter are more expert and are better qualified to comment on this than the much larger number that the opponents have gotten?
MR KIRBY: Let me put it --
QUESTION: It’s a serious question. I just --
MR KIRBY: I didn’t say it wasn’t a serious question. I just want to answer it. So there’s going to be – we know there’s going to be and there has been different voices here and different opinions. And Secretary Kerry’s not afraid of that. He has and has always maintained an attitude of openness to people who disagree with him on any matter, but certainly this one too. But he was in the room. He helped negotiate this. And he believes – and you’re going to hear from him soon – that the deal based on its merits – if you read it and you examine it factually, it is a good deal. It will get us an Iran that is not possessive of nuclear weapons capability and has commitments in perpetuity under the Additional Protocol so that we can ensure we know what Iran’s up to.
If you examine the deal on its merits, you – the Secretary believes you will see readily that it supports our national security interests and those of our allies and partners. It doesn’t mean that – and I’m not --
QUESTION: I get that, and I’ve heard and I understand the points that you’re trying to make. What I’m getting at is, though, that you’re right – Secretary Kerry was in the room. But the three dozen generals who – and retired admirals weren’t in the room, and why isn’t what they are saying in their letters a simple regurgitation of the talking points about the deal that the White House has said? And why isn’t the statement by 195 retired just not simply a regurgitation of the talking points of the opponents? And if that is all that they are, why bother to even have them? Why bother to put them out there?
MR KIRBY: I don’t – I can’t speak for every single person that signed a letter on either side of it, but I think it would be doing all of them a disservice to say that they were simply regurgitating talking points. I think all of them in their own right are men and women of experience and leadership and prominence. Many of them served the country in uniform and out, and the Secretary respects that. He simply disagrees with the arguments of those who are opponents to the deal, and he has made his case for the deal very stridently and very publicly and he will continue to do so. It’s – but there’s no disrespect in pushing back and – about the opponents.
QUESTION: No – okay. So would your suggestion be that the general public in making up their mind, or members of Congress, who will actually have a vote on this, should pay no attention to letters on both – on either side?
MR KIRBY: No, no, and the Secretary’s never said that. He wants the American people to be able to make an informed, educated decision about their views on the deal --
MR KIRBY: -- as well as members of Congress, and he understands that in order to do that, they have to hear both sides. This is a democracy. That’s the way it works.
QUESTION: Okay. But that suggests, then, that you don’t think that these 195 retired admirals and generals who have come out opposed to it or saying that Congress should vote against it have made an informed and wise decision.
MR KIRBY: I believe that they are as convinced that they are right as the proponents of the deal are as convinced they are right. And it is the Secretary of State’s view that this deal is and should be supported --
MR KIRBY: -- that it is in the national security interest. And while he respects the opposing views of others and welcomes people to consult those views, he simply disagrees with them --
MR KIRBY: -- that they are not accurate.
QUESTION: Right. So the Administration’s position, then, is, in the long base – that this is not based on trust, but now you’re saying it’s, well, “Trust our judgment because it is better than these other people’s.”
MR KIRBY: Read the deal for yourself --
QUESTION: I have. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: -- and – well, that’s my message to all, not just to you. Read the deal for yourself.
QUESTION: And I don’t have a position on the deal.
MR KIRBY: We believe that the facts of the deal speak for itself.
QUESTION: I’m just trying – okay. And that people who are supporting it have come to a wiser and more reasoned decision than those who oppose it.
MR KIRBY: We welcome the support of those who support the deal.
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up quickly on the Iran deal? Today there was an op-ed written by former envoy Dennis Ross and former General David Petraeus. Basically, they’re saying – they’re claiming to be undecided and they’re saying that if we – you were to give Israel these massive bunker buster bombs and so on, that it would help persuade those undecided to go ahead and support the deal. Do you have – have you seen the op-ed and do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Yes, I have seen it. I have read it. We welcome the confirmation by Mr. Ross and General Petraeus that the deal does leave us better off – they said so themselves – by ensuring that all the pathways to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon have been – are blocked. And these are authors which we recognize, to Matt’s interrogation of me, that they are intimately familiar with the challenges posed by Iran’s behavior. And it’s good to see that they agree that if Congress blocks the deal, there’s not going to be an opportunity to negotiate a better one. But the answer is in – we believe the answer is in the deal being implemented because it does cut off all those pathways.
And there is one point to clarify in the op-ed. Iran’s nuclear program is not going to be treated just like the nuclear programs of countries like Japan and the Netherlands after 15 years. As we’ve said, and the Secretary’s made clear, there’s additional measures in this deal that last for 20, 25 years, as well as commitments such as the permanent conversion of the Arak reactor and shipping out all the spent fuel. Those last forever, not to mention the Additional Protocols, which I mentioned to Matt, in terms of inspection and monitoring, which Iran has signed up to.
The other thing is, look on page one of the deal. It’s like the second paragraph of the executive summary, where Iran commits itself to never pursuing nuclear weapons capability. It’s in the first page of the deal.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. What’s your take, John, on the Iran foreign ministry, who urged the U.S. this morning in Tehran to release 19 Iranians --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I’ve seen --
QUESTION: -- jailed in the U.S. for sanctions-related offenses?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen that report, Nicolas. I’m going to have to refer you to the Department of Justice for those kinds of matters.
QUESTION: And can you update us on the Americans jailed in Iran?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specific update. I mean, if you’re asking about their condition, obviously, they’re still there, and we continue to call for their immediate release. They need to be reunited with their families. It’s long past time for all of them. And at every opportunity, when we get the opportunity, we raise their situations with Iranian authorities. But I don’t have a specific update for you. This is – the process – the processes under which they’re being held are not exactly transparent for us to exactly know.
Okay. Thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:00 p.m.)
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