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Military

Daily Press Briefing

John Kirby
Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
September 24, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing

SAUDI ARABIA
EGYPT
DRC
SYRIA/REGION
DPRK
ASIA REGION
CHINA

 

TRANSCRIPT:

1:16 p.m. EDT

MR KIRBY: Okay, I got a couple things at the top and then we'll get right after it. You may have seen my statement a little bit earlier, but I want to take this opportunity to again express our condolences for all those touched by the tragedy that took place in Mina, Saudi Arabia today during the Holy Hajj Pilgrimage, resulting in the death of, looks like, more than 700 people. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the deceased and the injured as well as to the people of Saudi Arabia and other countries whose citizens died or were wounded. At this time, during the blessed holiday of Eid al-Adha, the United States stands in support of Muslims around the world in the wake of this terrible tragedy.

To news coming out of Egypt yesterday, we welcome the pardons in Egypt, including for Sana Seif, Yara Sallam, Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohammed, as well as others. These pardons are a positive step for the freedoms of press and expression, which, as we have long maintained, are essential for a stable, prosperous, and democratic Egypt.

I also want to note that tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the suspension of exit permits for children adopted by foreign nationals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the DRC. Several hundred U.S. families have been affected by this exit permit ban. The welfare of children is among the department's top priorities. The DRC initially imposed the exit permit ban because of concerns with its own adoption process. We have repeatedly offered to work with DRC officials to address concerns with this process. It is time to allow these children who have legally completed adoptions under Congolese law to immediately join their families in the United States. They are living now in institutional conditions which potentially causes irreparable harm for them and their well-being.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: I'll pass.

MR KIRBY: Okay.

QUESTION: What happens if the DRC doesn't lift its exit ban on the visas? What remedies can the U.S. Government impose against the DRC because of this interference in the adoption process?

MR KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into speculating on what next steps may be, Ros. We're going to continue to actively encourage and to engage the DRC to lift the suspension so that these children can join their families. And I think that's the big thing we got to keep in mind. I mean, these kids, many of them, as I have come to understand it today, are between the ages of one and three; they're toddlers. And they're living in institutions, institutions which may not be providing the kind of nurturing and love and attention that they deserve, certainly since they now have legally adoptive families waiting for them. And so we're going to continue to engage and encourage the DRC to do the right thing here and let these children go home – go home to the families that they belong to.

QUESTION: Do you know whether Congolese officials are allowing these adoptive families to have any contact with the children at all? Are they allowed to go to the DRC to at least see them?

MR KIRBY: I don't know what kind of contact there is. I'd have to check on that. I'm not sure. But again, I don't want to water down our essential call here, which is for them to be allowed to leave the country and to go home with the families who have legally adopted them.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: Syria?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. The Secretary the other day said that he's confident that the mission – the Russian mission in Syria is really to fight ISIS. How did he conclude that?

MR KIRBY: I don't believe he said that, Said. He didn't say that he's confident that they're --

QUESTION: Well, he said that the mission – he understands that the mission – the Russian mission is to fight ISIS in Syria.

MR KIRBY: No, he didn't say that, Said.

QUESTION: Okay, then correct me.

MR KIRBY: He said he – obviously, this is what the Russians are saying their intent is. What he said was that if that's their intent, if their sole purpose is to fight ISIL, well, that's one thing, and that's a conversation that we'd be willing to have in terms of how they could perform a constructive role. But he also said that if the function is as it appears to be, to prop up the Assad regime, well, that's a whole different matter altogether, and we've talked about that.

QUESTION: So how will that impact whatever arrangements you might have with the Russians in Syria, if they are there only to prop up the regime?

MR KIRBY: Well, we don't have an arrangement with the Russians in Syria. They are not a member of the coalition, they are not conducting operations against ISIL, and there's no arrangement. I mean, this is a – they have had – hang on a second, guys. I see the hands going up. Just let me get through this.

So they have had a long security relationship with Syria. He noted that. And what we're seeing – so that's not new. What's new is the expansion of it and what appears to be an effort to continue to prop up the Assad regime, which we believe is completely at odds with actually trying to go after the extremist threat, particularly against ISIL, inside Syria.

QUESTION: So how is the de-conflicting – whatever de-conflicting protocol that you might have in place, how does that work out on this situation?

MR KIRBY: Well, we've said we're open to having what we describe as tactical, practical discussions on de-confliction with the Russians. And as I think you saw last week, the Secretary of Defense called his counterpart. I'd refer you to DOD to speak to any follow-on conversations that may or may not have happened. This is much more in the military lane than it is in our lane here at the State Department. But we are – but the Secretary continues to support having those discussions for de-confliction purposes.

Yes.

QUESTION: But you make a distinction between attacking ISIL and defending the Assad regime. Would attacking Jabhat al-Nusrah, an extremist group part of al-Qaida and recognized as such by the United States – would that be a problem for you?

MR KIRBY: If – you're asking if Russia were --

QUESTION: I mean, you've said you're prepared to have talks with them about attacking ISIL. What about attacking Jabhat al-Nusrah?

MR KIRBY: Look, I'm not going to get into hypothetical conversations that we could have with the Russians going forward. What we've said is if – that we would welcome a constructive role against ISIL, which is how they --

QUESTION: But that's hypothetical.

MR KIRBY: -- which is while they have couched what they're doing. And if that's the role they want to play – ISIL – we're – we would welcome a constructive role by them in that regard. But I'm not going to get into hypothesizing what if they were to strike al-Nusrah. Obviously --

QUESTION: But sometimes you use the language "ISIL and the extremist threat." I just want to know whether when you say "the extremist threat" that goes beyond ISIL.

MR KIRBY: All I can speak for is the coalition that we're a member of, and that coalition is designed principally to go after ISIL. Now, there have been – as you probably remember, there's been some activity against al-Nusrah in Syria but that is separate and distinct from the counter-ISIL campaign because there were – there was reliable information that there were attacks being plotted against Western targets, and we've been nothing but clear about the fact that we're going to go after terrorist networks wherever they are and whatever plotting they're doing. So that's separate and distinct from the counter-ISIL campaign.

Yeah, James.

QUESTION: Is the constellation of assets that we have observed the Russian Federation moving into place in Syria consistent with a Russian mission to combat ISIS?

MR KIRBY: Two thoughts there. One, obviously, that's a question probably better put to Moscow, but let me just put it this way. I mean, we continue to see a flow of military equipment and personnel, housing prefabricated, fighter and attack aircraft, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks, armored personnel carriers, support equipment for airfield operations. All of this has been out there and we've been seeing this continue to flow in.

Some of that I think you could reasonably argue could be effective against terrorists. Some of that is a little less clear. So I think we continue to have legitimate concerns and questions about Russia's overall intent here. It – not everything that we're seeing them bring in would one – would lead one to believe that it is solely designed to go after terrorist networks.

QUESTION: What do you have in mind?

MR KIRBY: Well, last time I looked ISIL is not flying any aircraft. So the fact that you have fighter aircraft, air-to-air capabilities, brings up a legitimate question. Because they don't have aircraft, the need to have surface-to-air missile capability is a little bit quizzical. So I mean, there's – I think there are legitimate questions that we continue to have about the kinds of capabilities we see flowing in there. And we're going to – as I'm sure won't surprise you, Secretary Kerry will continue to have the conversations he needs to have on the diplomatic side to try to get better clarity and better understanding.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: John, the Pentagon insists that the talks with – on – the mil-to-mil talks and the diplomatic talks have to go together. Is that how you see it?

MR KIRBY: I didn't see those comments. What do you mean by "together"?

QUESTION: Yeah, so that when you have the mil-to-mil talks – I mean, I can show you the quote if you --

MR KIRBY: No, I'm not – I'm not --

QUESTION: But is that how you see it, or how do you see the diplomatic track working with the military track, or is it completely separate?

MR KIRBY: I don't think anything with respect to what's going on in Syria can we – can you view that in a vacuum. The Secretary has a very close working relationship with Secretary Carter, obviously, and DOD and the State Department routinely work together in this coalition effort against ISIL and routinely converse and communicate when it comes to what's going on in Syria. So nobody's looking at this sort of in isolation. The Secretary will continue to have conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov and I fully expect that you'll see him sitting down with the foreign minister while we're up in New York this coming week on this issue – no doubt in my mind about that.

But what we've also said is for purposes of de-confliction, we would support – the Secretary would support – tactical, practical-level discussions about de-confliction, which are probably best done by members of the military or in the Defense Department because we're talking about a limited discussion here of de-confliction. So when you get to that level – tactical – like we said, tactical discussions about de-confliction, that's obviously – those kinds of things are better done by the military. But it doesn't mean that the Secretary is simply going to cede all concern or interest in this from a diplomatic level. He's going to continue to speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov. He's going to continue to coordinate with Secretary Carter. I mean, it's all of one thing.

QUESTION: The way Pentagon officials characterized the two tracks of communication yesterday was that basically they would do it with the assent, as it were, of the State Department, that they weren't going to take the lead, that they would be taking this building's lead, taking the policy-makers' direction before having that kind of practical discussion. Is that a fair way of actually describing how these two tracks of communication are being carried out?

MR KIRBY: Well, obviously – obviously, Secretary Kerry supports these discussions for de-confliction purposes.

QUESTION: But they made it sound as if they would not have these discussions without basically clearing it with State first.

MR KIRBY: Well, I'd rather not get into --

QUESTION: I'm oversimplifying it, but that was – basically, they weren't going to act without your blessing.

MR KIRBY: Well, there's no blessing to give. I mean, it is – it's a position of the U.S. Government, not just of Secretary Kerry, that having these tactical discussions for de-confliction purposes is a good thing. So there's no blessing to give here. And without getting into the details of how interagency discussions or decisions are made, I can assure you that this is a – this idea of having these de-confliction discussions is something supported by the entire interagency – obviously by Secretary Kerry as well.

QUESTION: So are the de-confliction discussions not immediately more urgent given the situation on the ground? I mean, fine; as the Secretary works out – as the official said just before you that he wants to advance these talks, is the military situation just a little bit more pressing right now?

MR KIRBY: I think the way I'd put that, Lesley, is the entire situation in Syria is pressing right now. It is obviously made more complicated by the additional presence of these military capabilities by Russia. There's no doubt about it. But I don't know that I would characterize it in a – to say that, well, military de-confliction has to take a priority. It is a priority, but so too is – and we have to remember this is the larger issue inside Syria, the overall conflict, which the Secretary continues to believe is best solved with a political transition. And that's what he's going to be spending a lot of time on this week up in New York.

So it's not either/or. It's of – it's all of a part of the larger issue. So yes, the addition of these capabilities, the continued flow of them into Syria certainly bring that issue into relief for us and make it all the more important that de-confliction discussions happen. But I wouldn't characterize that as more pressing specifically than the tragedy that continues to unfold inside Syria.

QUESTION: John?

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Today, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that in order to deal with the crisis in Syria they're going to have to talk to many actors, including Assad. And I'm just wondering if the U.S. would be willing to engage with him diplomatically in order to facilitate a transition. I know you've said he's got to go, maybe not necessarily on day one. Are you willing to speak with him, engage with him in order to make that happen?

MR KIRBY: I'm not – let me put it this way: Our position on Assad hasn't changed. And we've been very clear, very consistent – the Secretary was just the other day. He needs to go, he needs to step aside. Nothing has changed about that. And what we want is a political transition away from him and towards a government that is responsive to the Syrian people.

How that process of transition unfolds, we don't know right now. And in fact, that's one of the things that the Secretary really wants to explore when he goes to the General Assembly this week. As Assistant Secretary Crocker mentioned, that's going to be a topic of discussions. What that looks like, who's talking to whom, and what kind of negotiations are possible or even probable – I couldn't answer that right now. But I do want to underscore nothing's changed about our view that he's lost legitimacy and we need a transition to a government that doesn't include Bashar al-Assad.

Yeah.

QUESTION: John, two questions on Syria – sorry. Given that the Assad regime's barrel bombs is one of the primary reasons many Syrians fled and made this huge number of refugees, some experts argue that this expected increased Russian airstrikes will even add more numbers of refugees. Are you worried about these kind of results?

MR KIRBY: Without hypothesizing about Russian military operations, we will always be and have always been concerned about the kind of violence that produces these floods of refugees, which is why the $4.5 billion in financial contributions that were given to this effort are to support refugees that are there still in the region, because we know eventually they'd like to go home and they can't go home right now. The country's not secure, not stable. We understand that.

Russia's not a part of the coalition, so I can't speak to how they would or wouldn't conduct operations. That's for them to speak to. What I can tell you is that as part of our coalition operations inside Syria, which obviously exist in the form of airstrikes only, that we are as precise and as careful as we can be, so that we avoid civilian casualties and any collateral damage, so that we don't do any more damage to the country of Syria than needs to be done and certainly not as much as ISIL is doing inside the country. But I wouldn't speculate as to how the Russians – should they begin kinetic operations against ISIL, how they would conduct them.

QUESTION: Turkish president today stated – on the way back from Moscow, meeting after President Putin – that Assad can be part of the transition, which is very new approach of the – coming from Turkey. Is it something you see in line with the U.S. position?

MR KIRBY: Well, I think I'd answer it the same way I just did. I mean, we want to see a political transition to a government that doesn't include Bashar al-Assad. How we get there, what that looks like, whether he goes on day one or, as the Secretary said, month one, we don't know. And that's why these – that's why moving forward with these discussions, particularly next week in New York City, is so important.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) follow-up. How do you explain the Russian role to impact the balance of forces on the ground? I mean, how do you see, let's say, two weeks from now or a month from now, how is it likely to, let's say, either diminish the ISIS or this – or the other groups and so on and prop up Assad? I mean, is it going to shift, hydraulic effect kind of a thing?

MR KIRBY: Difficult to know because two weeks from now who knows how much more they will have flown in. More critically, Said, it's not just what you have on the ground, it's what you're doing with it. And so it's impossible for me to predict what it's going to look like two weeks from now.

Footprint is one thing, whether it's a light footprint or a heavy footprint in the military – in military lexicon. But more critical than footprint is what you're doing, exactly what kind of operations you're conducting. And again, we have legitimate questions and concerns about the capabilities that they have added to their presence there in Syria, and we're going to continue to press those concerns.

James.

QUESTION: Two questions. Thanks. Is it still the governing belief of the Secretary and his team, as he said here at the State Department earlier this week, that the assets configured by the Russian Federation in Syria today are consistent with a mission of force protection?

MR KIRBY: The Secretary was referring to an early assessment of capabilities as they float in, and certainly that – those assertions were made by the Russians themselves. I think the way I would put it to you, James, is we continue to see capabilities flow in and they add to our concerns and our questions about intent.

QUESTION: Did this fairly sizable commitment and movement of resources and assets by the Russians Federation into Syria take the United States Government by surprise?

MR KIRBY: Well, two things. We've – they have a long relationship with Syria, a security and a military presence. So not a surprise to us that they have continued to reinforce themselves there. I mean, we've talked about this for the last couple of years even in my previous job about reinforcements and resupply and that kind of thing that they've been doing for their military assets there.

And we don't – the second thought – the second point is you know we don't talk about intelligence issues here from the podium, and sort of what we know and how we know it. But I could tell you that we've been watching this very, very closely, monitoring it very closely, and we have not been ignorant of what the Russians have been doing.

QUESTION: I'll take a different stab at it simply so that you're spared any pressure from this side of the podium to try to talk about intelligence matters from that side of the podium.

MR KIRBY: I greatly appreciate it.

QUESTION: But – although I also welcome you to do so. There are certain kinds of events which, on their face, indicate themselves as intelligence failures – the attacks of September 11 would be one such obvious instance, and we can work backwards from there. Was this an intelligence failure on the part of the United States Government with respect to failing to anticipate this rather sizable build up in Syria by the Russian Federation?

MR KIRBY: No, I wouldn't describe it that way at all. Look, it's not like they picked up the phone and said, "Hey, we're doing to do this." So there was no advance notification, if that's what you're asking. And I don't think there was any expectation that there would have been that kind of thing.

QUESTION: That's why we have intelligence services.

MR KIRBY: But I can tell you that we'd been – all I can say is we've been monitoring the situation very closely, not ignorant of what has been added to the presence and how it has been added to the presence. So --

QUESTION: So this was not an intelligence failure?

MR KIRBY: I would not describe it that way, no. What does remain – remains unclear, is the overall intent, and I think we still have legitimate questions about that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Sunday coming ahead of the President's meeting with Vladimir Putin during UNGA?

MR KIRBY: I'm going to refer you to the White House for meetings that the President is having. You're going to get, if you haven't gotten it already --

QUESTION: We have.

QUESTION: Yeah, we have.

MR KIRBY: -- his schedule.

QUESTION: Well --

MR KIRBY: So I can't – won't speak to the President's schedule. You've got the Secretary's, so you know what he's doing and when he's doing it.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask the more precise question: Is the Secretary's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov intended to lay the groundwork for the discussion between the two presidents?

MR KIRBY: The Secretary's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov is just another in a continuation of the kind of dialogue and communication that they have, and I suspect they'll talk about a lot of issues, and foremost among them will be what's going on in Syria. But I'm not – again, I'm not going to preview what the President may or may not be doing and when he's doing it.

QUESTION: What would it take to – for the U.S. to feel comfortable that it knows exactly what it is the Russians are doing with their military inside Syria? What proof is the U.S. looking for?

MR KIRBY: It's not like we're laying out a laundry list of proof that we're looking for, Ros. I mean, we see what they're doing, you guys see what they're doing. I mean, you don't have to look any further than the web to see the imagery that's out there.

QUESTION: Right, but the question of intent hasn't been answered. So how would the U.S. feel comfortable knowing that that's been answered?

MR KIRBY: That's why the Secretary is going to continue to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov and we're going to continue to try to have those conversations, to get at those answers. I also think, and the Secretary said this, actions speak louder than words. And so he's not taking at face value the words either. And as I answered to James, when you look at some of the capabilities that's going in there, it doesn't exactly meet or match the words. And so what we're going to be looking at and trying to do is close that gap as much as possible.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Just – you said first and foremost they're going to be talking about Syria. So where on the list of agenda topics does Ukraine/Crimea fit?

MR KIRBY: Very high. Very high. I mean --

QUESTION: Above --

MR KIRBY: Matt, I'm not going to prioritize them.

QUESTION: Well, just --

MR KIRBY: But obviously, Syria is a – is very much on the Secretary's mind, as is Ukraine. And there's – in fact, I don't know of a conversation that he's had with Foreign Minister Lavrov where they don't address what's going on in Ukraine. It will absolutely be on the agenda and it'll be high up there.

Yes.

QUESTION: John, back to Merkel's comments really quick. The U.S. position is obviously pretty – you stated it pretty clearly. Local media called it an about-face. Are you concerned about a shift in attitude or policy among the leaders in Europe or – including Germany?

MR KIRBY: About-face on what?

QUESTION: On talking to Assad. I'm sorry. The Merkel's comments about talking to Assad.

MR KIRBY: Oh, I'm sorry. I missed that part.

QUESTION: Some onlookers called it an about-face for Germany to consider this now. And are you worried that you're --

MR KIRBY: Well, I certainly won't speak for another foreign leader in what they would assert or say. That's not my place. The way I think I'd put this to you is we were just in Germany over the weekend, where he had very – a very productive discussion with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Steinmeier. And that's where he met with the refugees, obviously. And then we preceded that with a stop in London, where he met with the foreign secretary – Foreign Secretary Hammond. Obviously, Syria was a major topic of discussion, and I think it's safe to say the Secretary came away from those two meetings in particular with a strong sense of unity by our European allies and partners about the need for a political transition in Syria to a government that is responsive to the Syrian people and does not include Bashar al-Assad. So just based on what happened last weekend and the discussions he had, I can tell you he's very comfortable that our European allies and our friends there share the same ultimate goal here.

So no – the short answer is no. I know this is a long answer, but the short answer to it is --

QUESTION: Were you surprised by her comments today that – Chancellor Merkel – that she wants to talk to Assad, or she thinks it's a good idea?

MR KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not going to characterize what a foreign leader said. I mean, I can just tell you that we're comfortable – confident, even – that our European allies and partners share the same ultimate goal here in terms of what needs to happen inside Syria.

Yeah.

QUESTION: But I thought you didn't know what happens. You've been saying over and over again there's got to be a transition, but you don't know how that's going to go.

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: So if you don't know how it's going to go, how can you agree with your friends about it? All of you --

MR KIRBY: I said we are comfortable and confident that they share the ultimate – the same ultimate goal in Syria. What that transition looks like --

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: -- is still a matter of discussion. I've said that repeatedly.

QUESTION: So the – a bunch of top European foreign ministers are getting together, I believe in Paris this afternoon or later today, to try and plot some kind of strategy forward. Is this – presumably, you would welcome this and the Europeans would come up with some idea that they could present to you. Is that correct? Are you aware of this meeting that's going on?

MR KIRBY: Yes, I'm aware of the meeting, and certainly, we welcome discussions amongst our European allies.

QUESTION: And do you expect that they will be bringing to New York with them some kind of a strategy?

MR KIRBY: I'll let them speak for whatever outcome that they're driving for in this meeting. But obviously, again, coming off the last weekend, the Secretary is comfortable that our allies and partners share the same ultimate goal in Syria.

QUESTION: Which is a new --

MR KIRBY: Which is a political solution driven by a transition to a government that's responsive to the Syrian people.

QUESTION: That doesn't have Assad in it?

MR KIRBY: That --

QUESTION: That part of it, the no-Assad part, is still your understanding of where your European allies are?

MR KIRBY: Yes, yes. Now again, how that transition is executed and implemented, Matt, that's all the kinds of – that's – I think that's really the grist, and that's what they want to talk about.

QUESTION: I guess the reason why there's so many questions about this is that that has been your ultimate goal for almost five years now, and it strikes many as a bit unusual that you haven't had a strategy for five years to get to the goal.

MR KIRBY: I don't --

QUESTION: Or that the strategy that was adopted initially didn't work.

MR KIRBY: That it's been a goal for a long time doesn't mean it's not still a worthy goal. That it's been a goal for a long time and hard to reach I think speaks to the complicated nature of the conflict in Syria and the pragmatic sense that we have here of how difficult this is. Just because – we talk about strategy as if it's – sometimes we talk about it as if it's like playing a game of chess, and a game of chess can be over in 10 minutes or it can be over in 10 hours. And it's hard stuff. It's hard stuff to do. And it's really hard to do in a place like Syria, and it's really hard to do in a place like Syria when you have such an international – an interest internationally by so many other nations.

So I take the point that it hasn't been easily arrived at, but I know of very few strategies in the real sense of what the word "strategy" means that are quickly won and easily won.

QUESTION: You say that Mr. Hammond and Steinmeier are still on the same page. Was the purpose of the visit to make sure they're still on the same page? Was there some concern that they were shifting?

MR KIRBY: No. No, no, no. We went to Germany predominantly to address the refugee issue. And as you know, the Secretary, while he was there, announced new goals for refugee resettlement here in the United States. But he was also very keen to speak to refugees themselves from Syria, so that was obviously the highlight of the stop in Berlin. But you don't go visit a partner without sitting down and talking to them, as he routinely does with Foreign Minister Steinmeier. So they had a wide-ranging discussion over the course of about an hour, and it wasn't all just about Syria, but obviously, that was a key topic on the agenda. This wasn't about reassuring them or us, because he speaks to Foreign Minister Steinmeier quite a bit. This was really predominantly about trying to get at the refugee crisis in particular.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MR KIRBY: I don't know. Can we?

QUESTION: Can I just --

QUESTION: One last question on Syria?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: Just to follow --

MR KIRBY: Sorry. You asked, though. You did ask. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: To follow up Matt's question, over the last four years you stated that the situation in Syria is complicated. Do you think that U.S. policy on Syria made it many times even more complicated, whether it's different approaches, change in policies, or some of the shortcomings in your policies?

MR KIRBY: No, I don't. I don't accept that premise at all. I mean, it is a very difficult situation. What's making it – what makes Syria difficult is Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad has created the conditions where refugees are fleeing his country by the millions. He's created the conditions for a group like ISIL to fester and to grow inside his own territory – and other extremist groups, for that matter. He's the one wrecking his country. And when you have a country that is in the dire straits that Syria is because of him, it automatically makes for a complex policy approach and one that cannot be pursued lightly or in a cavalier fashion. And we haven't.

Everybody recognizes that the situation in Syria remains dire. Everybody is focused, certainly here in the United States in the U.S. Government is focused on trying to get to this political transition. And everybody realizes that that's going to be tough to do, because it's not just the United States who has interests in seeing a stable, secure, whole, pluralistic Syria. Syria's neighbors want to see that, and even, frankly, the Russians, who have said that they want to see that. Now, it's how you get at that. It's how you go about producing that outcome. As I said to Matt, we're comfortable that our allies and partners and even those who aren't our allies and partners – many of them have that shared same goal. But how do you get there? And recognizing that it – it is going to take a multilateral approach to get there.

Frankly, that's one of the reasons why the Secretary in Doha met with both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister al-Jubeir from Saudi Arabia in Doha, to have sort of a trilateral approach at this. I mean, he recognizes the difficulty here. But what's made it complicated is not U.S. policy. What's made it complicated – and hard – and dangerous – is Bashar al-Assad.

QUESTION: I've got one follow-up on that.

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: You just told us that it was Bashar al-Assad who created the conditions that have enabled an organization like ISIS to occupy the space that it now does. And by making that assertion, it seems to me you have placed yourself at odds with President Obama, who has suggested that ISIS's current prominence is a byproduct of the Iraq War. And so I just want to give you an opportunity to clarify what you're saying – (laughter) – and whether you believe it is Bashar al-Assad that has nurtured the growth of ISIS, or whether it was George Bush and Dick Cheney.

MR KIRBY: We've long said that ISIL's growth is a function – at least in Syria; and I've said this many, many times; Secretary Kerry's said this many times – is a function of the conditions that Bashar al-Assad has established inside his country. And I'm not going to get into a political debate about the war in Iraq and what led to this.

What I have said before – and I think you challenged me in my prior job on this, but – is that one thing that did not help the situation in Iraq was the degree to which Prime Minister Maliki let his military go – not properly resourced, not properly led. And so when ISIL stormed across that border into Mosul, the door was partially open because Iraq had not invested in the capabilities that they were left with in 2011 when we walked – when we left Iraq. We left an Iraqi Security Force that was competent and capable to the threat at the time.

Now, the threat changed. ISIL is not al-Qaida in Iraq. They are a different animal. And as we noted over a year ago, they behaved almost like a quasi – in a quasi-military fashion. But so, too, did the Iraqi Security Forces change in their capabilities and competence.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. On North --

MR KIRBY: I'm afraid I'm getting the hook here.

QUESTION: Thank you, John. On North Korea, special envoy for the North Korea nuclear policy, Ambassador Sung Kim, said that the United States willing to talk to the North Korea in anywhere and anytime. Is there any preconditions for the direct talk with North Korea or Six-Party Talk --

MR KIRBY: Nothing's changed, Janne, about our view here. The onus is on North Korea to return to the Six-Party process, and they haven't done that.

QUESTION: Real quick follow-up on that? And that is actually what I came to talk about, believe it or not, today. Whatever became of the pivot to Asia? Is that still happening, the pivot? Is the pivot complete?

MR KIRBY: We don't call it "the pivot." We call it "the rebalance." And the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region is very much alive and it exists on many levels. And I think you're going to see that reflected in the discussions with President Xi here tomorrow. The military continues to add resources and capabilities and deepen partnerships in the Asia Pacific region. There are economic – we had the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the Chinese here a month or so ago, and a wide-ranging discussion on economic progress that can be made in that bilateral relationship. The Secretary was out in the Asia Pacific just recently, meeting in Kuala Lumpur with ASEAN nations, very productive discussions. So absolutely we are committed to this rebalance to the Asia Pacific.

QUESTION: You can understand that – just in this briefing alone it's been dominated by discussion of Syria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and so you could understand, perhaps, how Americans looking at our government and where its focus seems to be would not identify that as Asia – that we are still primarily focused on the Middle East.

MR KIRBY: I was just answering the questions you guys threw at me. You guys are the ones who wanted to talk about Syria.

QUESTION: That's a function of current events, though.

MR KIRBY: Well – look, I mean, I recognize that Syria is a newsworthy item, and I fully expected when I got up here today to be talking about Syria. It doesn't mean that we aren't eager to also talk about the rebalance. But the daily --

QUESTION: India is in Asia, too.

MR KIRBY: -- the – (laughter) – and we had a meeting this week with the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue with India. Look, my job is to answer your questions, and that's what I've been trying to do today, and the predominance of your interest today has been on Syria. And I think if the American people look at this press briefing today and see that I'm talking a lot about Syria and where we're trying to go, that's also a healthy thing, though, James, because the situation in Syria is dire; it is dangerous. But it doesn't mean that the United States is turning away from our other security commitments elsewhere in the world. And we have significant – five of our seven treaty alliances, five of seven, are in the Pacific region, and we take those alliance commitments very, very seriously.

That's why this visit of President Xi is so important and why Secretary Kerry, the entire U.S. Government, want – is eager for this and wants to make it successful. This is an important relationship, the one between – bilateral between the U.S. and China, but we have so many other significant relationships and commitments in the Pacific region. Nothing has changed about that at all. One shouldn't take away the amount of time I've devoted to Syria today to indicate any recalcitrance on our part with respect to rebalance. It really has been more about what's on your minds.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the Middle East --

QUESTION: Can we stay with this topic for a minute?

MR KIRBY: Huh?

QUESTION: Can we stay with this topic for a minute?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: You mentioned President Xi's visit. This, of course, is coming at a time when the OPM has revealed that the data breach is more extensive than originally thought, at least in terms of the number of fingerprint records that were stolen. China, of course, has been suspected of being behind some of this. How does this revelation complicate U.S. relations with China? And then secondly, where is the U.S. consideration of possible punitive measures, such as sanctions against China, at this point?

MR KIRBY: Well, Pam, I'm – I've seen the press reporting on this about additional theft of government employees' fingerprints. I'm going to have to refer you to OPM for that. That's not something that I can talk to you here.

Just two other points, though, to try to address your follow-ons: One is cyber security is – and I suspect will remain – top on the list of agenda items that we're going to continue to talk about with the Chinese, and I have every expectation that it'll come up in the context of President Xi's visit. We continue to have serious concerns about Chinese practices in the cyber realm, and that's not – that's probably not going to be abated anytime soon. I'm not going to speak to, again, the specifics with respect to the OPM breach. As I understand it, it's still under investigation.

But the relationship with China is important, and we want to see the peaceful rise of a productive, constructive China. Nothing's changed about that. Obviously, there's areas where we don't agree and we don't see eye to eye on, and we're going to continue to be just as forthright and candid about those as we have been. Likewise, there are areas where we already are cooperating with China – on climate change, on maritime security in some aspects, on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. There are plenty of areas where we can cooperate too.

QUESTION: Where does the South China Sea issue play into that? You mentioned maritime security.

MR KIRBY: Well, again, we've been very clear about our position with respect to these claims in the South China Sea. We don't take a position on claims. We do take a position on any unilateral attempts of changing the status quo. We want to see these claims resolved in accordance with international norms. And we've also said that it's unhelpful, we think, to the security and stability of the region for that status quo to be changed again in an overt manner, whether it's through reclamation or militarization of reclaimed land.

So again, I think you're going to – what's happening in the South China Sea will also be on the topic of agenda items – so it will be on the agenda items for this meeting, as it always is when we talk to our Chinese counterparts.

Listen, guys, I've got to go unfortunately, but I appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: And we'll see you probably in New York City because I don't think we're briefing tomorrow. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:01 p.m.)



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