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1:38 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody.
MR KIRBY: Just a couple of program notes for you at the top. As you know, the Secretary is in Vienna today and they just not a little bit ago wrapped up the – a multilateral meeting of some 24 entities – 20 countries and four international organizations – on Libya. You probably saw the Secretary’s comments at the press avail after that. Following that, the Secretary met bilaterally with Foreign Minister Lavrov. That meeting, as I understand it, just wrapped up and I think our Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner, who is out on the road with the Secretary, will have a readout of that meeting. I do not have a readout of it. It literally just wrapped up. And then later today, the Secretary will meet with the presidents of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, where they will discuss, of course, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including confidence-building measures and the need to resume negotiations on a comprehensive settlement.
You may have also seen we just put out a note a little bit ago announcing that the Secretary will on the 18th, on Wednesday, make a short trip to Cairo where he’ll meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues. He’ll do that, again, Wednesday. Tomorrow, as you know, is the next iteration of the International Syria Support Group there in Vienna as well, so a busy few days early in the week for the Secretary.
Then I just want to make a comment on Yemen. We continue to believe that the success of the ongoing peace talks in Kuwait remain critical for achieving long-term peace, security, and stability in Yemen. And the United States commends the parties for their engagement in these talks and for the important steps that they’ve already taken. In particular, we welcome news that the delegations have agreed in principle to an exchange of half of all the prisoners and detainees held by both sides, and that this exchange would happen before or by the beginning of Ramadan, which is the first week of June. We continue to offer our full support to the efforts of the UN special envoy, of course, and as he himself has said, these talks are a historic opportunity. We echo his calls for all the parties to make the hard choices and compromise that will lead to a final agreement there in Yemen.
With that —
QUESTION: Can we start with Libya?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: As I – well, a simple question: Do you expect any imminent arms transfers to the Libyan Government?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know – and I don’t want to parse the word “imminent,” so I’m not sure what you mean in terms of imminent. But as the Secretary said himself, the embargo that’s in place does allow for the GNA to request exemptions, and that we would certainly consider and certainly look upon favorably on requests made by the Libyan Government, the GNA, in terms of material that they might need. As far as I know, there’s been no such request yet, so it’s difficult to say how quote-unquote “imminent” the provision of any arms or material or training might be. We just – this was just decided on now by the international community today that they would do this, that they would look favorably on this, and I think we just need to let the process take effect.
QUESTION: The reason I asked it is there’s been a bunch of reporting on this suggesting that the international community stands ready to do this, but that’s been the case, as you point out, for quite some time. And I realize “look favorably” is kind of a – one further step, but I thought it might be helpful for people to understand whether or not this was likely to happen anytime soon. I mean, as you point out, you haven’t actually gotten a request; and presumably, after you get a request, you’re going to have to study it very carefully, not just in terms of the armaments but also in terms of making sure that whoever gets them uses them responsibly. And —
MR KIRBY: And that it’s appropriately resourced, right? I mean, depending on what they ask for, the international community would have to, through the UN, decide how would – (a) does that request – can we grant it; (b) sort of how would we resource it, staff it, logistically provide for it. So there’s a lot of decisions that have to get made.
I don’t want to – however, in my reticence to describe the word “imminent,” I don’t want to indicate that the international community won’t take these requests seriously and move with as much alacrity as the system will permit them to move. But as the Secretary said himself, and as you noted I think in your last question there, there’s a balance to be achieved here, because we obviously need to make sure that whatever is provided is provided in such a way that it can’t end up in the wrong hands, which is the purpose for the embargo to begin with, which was in place since 2011.
QUESTION: It isn’t happening anytime soon, is it?
MR KIRBY: I just don’t know. I mean, it’s an extremely fair question, Arshad. I just don’t know the answer. I mean, we have to get a request. It has to be, as you said, carefully considered – I would agree with you on that – and then processed. But I just don’t know.
And when you – the real nub of your question isn’t so much the when, but when you said “it.” So what is it? And I think we have to work our way through that – what is the support that would be provided. And that has to start with a request from the GNA, which we just don’t have yet.
QUESTION: John, on Secretary’s trip to Egypt, it would be the second meeting between the Secretary and the Egyptian president in less than a month. And Egyptian foreign minister was here on Friday too. What’s going on?
MR KIRBY: You’re – there’s —
QUESTION: Lots of meetings with the Egyptians —
MR KIRBY: There’s a lot going on, Michel. I mean, I’m not quite sure how to answer your question here.
QUESTION: Regarding Egypt only or Libya or Syria or peace process?
MR KIRBY: As I said, as I said at the top, I mean, they’re going to discuss a range of bilateral U.S. and Egypt issues as well as regional issues. And there’s plenty on that plate to talk about, and the Secretary himself has talked about the importance of Egypt in the region. He’s talked about the importance of our relationship with Egypt and looking for ways to keep that relationship vibrant and healthy. And we’ve also talked at length about the growing threat of terrorism that Egyptians are facing, as well as a spate of other political and economic and security challenges inside the country itself. So there’s an awful lot to discuss with Egyptian leaders, and I think the Secretary looks forward to continuing those kinds of – that kind of dialogue.
QUESTION: And any readout for the Secretary’s meeting with Sameh Shoukry on Friday? Did they discuss the human rights issue in Egypt?
MR KIRBY: They discussed a wide range of issues, as you might expect they would. There hasn’t been a meeting that we’ve had with Egyptian officials in many months where we did not raise our concerns over human rights, and the meeting last week with Foreign Minister Shoukry was no exception to that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: John, I’ve got a couple of Syria questions. Brett McGurk briefed reporters in Jordan on Sunday —
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: — and among other things he talked about the Iraqi military’s determination to take al-Rutba. We saw that operation begin this morning. I’m wondering —
MR KIRBY: To take what?
QUESTION: Ar Rutba. Could you just tell us a little bit about why the specific focus on that town?
MR KIRBY: I’m really reticent to get into tactical operational discussions. Those are better questions to put to the coalition, to Colonel Warren out there in Baghdad. But I did see Special Envoy McGurk’s comments from his press conference, and I think he made clear that the Iraqi Security Forces are making gains against Daesh inside the country, that taking back more and more ground and territory from Daesh is important. On the face of it, it’s important, obviously, to further degrade and defeat them and their capabilities. But it’s also important to counter this narrative they have of this so-called caliphate, so every town and village that Daesh holds is important on its own right simply because it’s being put under the jackboot of this terrorist group. But as for the specific, more operational considerations that were put into place, I’m just not at liberty to get into that.
QUESTION: Okay. He also spoke about the very good information that you guys are getting out of Mosul, from inside Mosul. And I realize this is a sensitive area, but I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about the kinds of information you’re getting or perhaps how you made these contacts or – and/or the value of this information to the operations that you’re conducting.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’m reticent to talk about intelligence matters from the podium. You know that, and I’m certainly not going to get into, again, specific, tactical military discussions here. I would just – I would just reiterate a couple of things. One, we are gaining a lot more information about this group. There’s a lot of ways in which that information is coming in, and I think you can understand why we wouldn’t want to talk publicly about that – those sources of information. But we are gaining a much better sense of clarity about how they operate, how they organize, how they fund themselves, how they manage their own resources. That’s valuable information and has helped us further shrink the territory they hold and further put them under pressure.
And we have been – the second point I’d make is that we have for some time now been conducting what we call shaping operations in and around Mosul. Everybody recognizes the importance of Mosul and taking it back. They know that – and by “they” I mean Daesh. They know how seriously the coalition, and of course, a major contributor to the coalition is Iraqi Security Forces – they know how important Mosul is. So yes, there’s information. As we have conducted shaping operations we’ve gained a better sense, a heightened sense of situational awareness about what’s going on in Mosul. And we obviously want to see that information continue to flow and continue to help inform what would be future operations there. But again, I’m just reticent to get into the details of what we’re learning and how we’re learning it.
QUESTION: Okay, my last Syria question. There was a report over the weekend —
MR KIRBY: These were all Iraq questions, by the way.
MR KIRBY: At least the first two have been.
QUESTION: Okay. There was a report over the weekend about al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan sending senior officials, operatives, to Syria to work with al-Nusrah to try and establish an emirate. Just wondering how concerned the department is about that. And given that a lot of the U.S. and coalition focus seems to be on ISIS, could you give us a sense of how much you do focus on Nusrah?
MR KIRBY: A couple of things. And so al-Nusrah is an offshoot of al-Qaida, so for all intents and purposes, because of their connection with al-Qaida, there’s been an al-Qaida presence in Syria embodied by them because there is a relationship there. And again, without getting into intelligence matters, I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anybody that al-Qaida would, as al-Nusrah did and as Daesh has done, look to exploit the total lack of governance in areas inside Syria. So do we take it seriously? Absolutely.
As for the second question in terms of what we’re doing about it, I mean, again, I’d point you back to the Munich communique, which put the cessation of hostilities in place in the first place, and that – and that excluded al-Nusrah and Daesh from the cessation. More critically, what it really – what it did, if you look at the specific language, it excluded any group designated as a terrorist organization by the UN as party, and al-Nusrah and Daesh are obviously so designated. So is al-Qaida. So to the degree that al-Qaida proper decides to make a showing in Syria, they will, as al-Nusrah and as Daesh, become legitimate targets. And as we take them seriously elsewhere around the world, we will take them seriously if and when and to what degree they try to advance themselves in Syria. But again, let’s not throw – in this discussion about al-Qaida in Syria, let’s not overlook the very serious, very real, very tangible connection between al-Nusrah and al-Qaida. They are, in many ways, one and the same.
QUESTION: Has there been any success in getting the U.S.-approved rebels to separate from Nusrah?
MR KIRBY: I think those are discussions we continue to have. It obviously remains fluid and dynamic and that there is commingling. Some of it’s intentional; some of it’s not. It still remains an issue.
QUESTION: John –
QUESTION: Syria, on the same issue – same issue.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Last week you were asked about the attack on an Alawite village, al- Zahraa. You said you didn’t have specific information about who was responsible. The Ahrar al-Sham group admitted to participating in the attack. The group’s spokesman told Reuters, quote, “Civilians were not targeted. On the contrary, factions made great effort to spare civilians and deal with prisoners humanely,” end quote. RT went to the village and the residents there described a massacre where militants killed women and children and abducted dozens of people. Why does the U.S. insist that this group Ahrar al-Sham should not be blacklisted along with al-Nusrah?
MR KIRBY: We’re – as I said at the outset, out of Munich, the decision by the International Syria Support Group, of which Russia is a member, and a communique that Russia signed up to agreed – and this was more than 20 nations – agreed that the only groups that would not be party to the cessation of hostilities would be those designated as terrorist organizations by the UN. And of all the groups – no, let me finish before you interrupt me – all the groups – of the groups that are represented in Syria fighting, the two that meet that criteria – a criteria that was agreed to by everybody in the ISSG, not just the United States, ma’am – were al-Nusrah and Daesh.
QUESTION: Why did the U.S. fight their inclusion last week at the UN?
MR KIRBY: This was a decision made by the International Syria Support Group. Everybody agreed that al-Nusrah and Daesh, because they’re designated by the UN as foreign terrorist organizations, would not be party to the cessation. And so that’s where we are today.
QUESTION: The U.S. fights at the UN not to include this group in the —
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into internal deliberations one way or the other.
QUESTION: But why?
MR KIRBY: I’m telling you – look, you’re putting – I love how you do this, try to put everything on the United States. The International Syria Support Group is an international – it represents the international community. Iran is a member. Russia is a member. Saudi Arabia – I could go on and on and on. All of them collectively made this decision. And so your question should be posed to all the members of the ISSG. Bottom line is that even Russia agreed that the only groups that would not be party to the cessation are members designated by terrorist organizations of the UN. I’ve said that now three times in response to your follow-ups.
The only other thing I would say is regardless of who was responsible for this attack, there’s no excuse for killing innocent civilians, none whatsoever. The whole reason why we wanted the cessation of hostilities put in place was so that violence against innocent Syrian people would not occur. And sadly, it is still occurring and we’re working very hard – the Secretary has been working very hard to try to get it to be held more in place in more places in an enduring fashion. And one of the things I think you can – I can assure you will be a major topic of discussion tomorrow in Vienna is exactly that: How do we get the cessation of hostilities to be observed by everyone?
QUESTION: Do you think this particular group cares much about the cessation of hostilities?
MR KIRBY: What we care about is the cessation of hostilities. And every member of the ISSG cares about the cessation of hostilities. And what we’ve said all along is we want all those who have influence over groups in Syria to use that influence in an appropriate manner to get them to abide by the cessation. So look –
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have influence over this Ahrar al-Sham group?
MR KIRBY: — nobody’s turning a blind eye to what happened and, as I said last week, that those kinds of attacks are inexcusable.
QUESTION: What does the U.S. do to address what happened last week in al-Zahraa?
MR KIRBY: We are working with all the members of the ISSG, which, as I said, includes Russia —
QUESTION: Is the U.S. in touch with this group, Ahrar al-Sham?
MR KIRBY: We are working with all members of the ISSG to use the appropriate amount of influence that they have – some of that influence is influence we have – over groups in Syria to get everybody to abide by the cessation. Attacks against innocent civilians are absolutely inexcusable no matter who they’re from.
QUESTION: John, Mr. Riyad Hijab has said today that the opposition has received promises from the West to receive sophisticated weapons. Any update on this?
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry, on the —
QUESTION: They will receive – the Syrian opposition will receive sophisticated weapons from the West or from the support – the Syrian Support Group.
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments and I don’t have an update on – in terms of assistance provided – specific direct assistance provided to Syrian opposition groups. I just haven’t seen those comments.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, Nic, go ahead. We’ll go back to you, Nike.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the possibility Secretary Kerry would participate to the meeting the French want to organize later this month on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update. Obviously, we remain interested in – as the Secretary said, in advancing a two-state solution and to listening to ideas on how to do that. We’ve made it clear that the May 30th date originally proposed by the French was – would not work for the Secretary and for his schedule, but there’s been no decision made yet about an alternative date that might work or his possible attendance.
QUESTION: Yeah, because the presence of Secretary Kerry is so critical that the French foreign minister, who was in Israel over the weekend, he said that he is ready to postpone the meeting to accommodate Secretary’s schedule. So is it just a question of schedule or is it also matter of principle?
MR KIRBY: As I said, the 30th won’t work and we’ve made that clear. And I think we’re in discussions right now with the French about any possible alternative date that might better work for the Secretary. I just don’t have anything further to go on today in terms of a decision one way or another, either by the French to come up with a new date or whether that would work for the Secretary.
QUESTION: Does the 30th not work because the Secretary is going to be traveling somewhere else that day, or does it not work because it’s Memorial Day and he doesn’t wish to travel on a federal holiday?
MR KIRBY: I think there were a number of factors that led into our view that the 30th of May wasn’t going to work for the Secretary and some of that has to do with his travel schedule as well. I think you know how jammed he’s going to be for the rest of the month of May. But again, we’re in discussions with the French over this. I just don’t have any decisions to announce today in terms of his participation.
QUESTION: Just one more. Can I – does the U.S. (inaudible) —
MR KIRBY: No. No, no, no, no. Nike.
QUESTION: John, as you mentioned on top of the briefing, Secretary Kerry is going to meet with the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: What’s – what are the expectations of that meetings?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think one of the things they want to definitely discuss – the Secretary definitely wants to discuss is how we can better lower the tensions there, de-escalate the violence that has sadly continued. There was a 1994 ceasefire put in place that obviously is not being adhered to. And so the fragility of the security situation there is something of deep concern to the Secretary, and he wants to explore ways in which we can ratchet down that tension.
QUESTION: By exploring ways, are you saying that the United States is taking a more active role in facilitating the negotiation process of the peace there?
MR KIRBY: We’ve always been interested in seeing a peaceful solution there. That’s not new. This isn’t about arbitration or mediation, but it’s important to us to see the tension de-escalate, to see the violence stop, to see the ceasefire observed, and to see the parties start to work towards some – to see the parties work towards a better outcome through political dialogue and discussion, and that’s really what he wants to help foster.
QUESTION: John, do you have —
QUESTION: When is the last time Secretary Kerry met with both presidents and for the peace process?
MR KIRBY: Met with them face to face? I don’t know. We’d have to take that question and get back to you. I think I read out phone calls that he had done – he’s done in just the last couple of weeks, but in terms of a face-to-face meeting, I just don’t have that data in front of me.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow on that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah —
QUESTION: I think you addressed this a few weeks ago, but does – have you taken a position on why – whether one or the other side was more responsible for the flare-up that happened last month in Nagorno-Karabakh?
MR KIRBY: I think what – I think what I’d say is my answer to Nike, that we’ve seen the violence increase, we’ve seen the tensions increase, and our job here is to try to help find ways going forward to get that tension to decrease. And that’s why he wants to meet with the leaders of both countries.
QUESTION: On Japan. The governor of Okinawa is currently in town. Is anybody from the State Department planning on meeting with him?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have a schedule update for you on that.
QUESTION: He’s apparently discussing alternative plans to the Futenma relocation facility. Is – are you guys done exploring options given your —
MR KIRBY: Nothing’s changed about our position on the Futenma replacement facility. We still believe that that’s the right approach going forward. We’re going to continue to work with the Japanese Government to that end. So there’s no change to our view in terms of the importance of the replacement facility. And again, I just don’t have any specifics with respect to his schedule, but we’ll take that question too and get back to you.
In the back there.
QUESTION: South Africa. The Sunday Times is reporting a former U.S. vice consul and possible CIA officer has admitted that he was the one who tipped off the government in – the apartheid-era government to arrest Nelson Mandela. It’s going to be in a new documentary. Do you have a response to this admission and are you concerned that this could impact relationships with Pretoria?
MR KIRBY: Well, our relationship with the government in Pretoria is very strong and we look forward to continuing to enjoy that close relationship going forward. I’ve seen the press reports on this. I don’t have anything to comment on one way or the other.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: You guys issued a very – an unusually detailed and blunt travel warning for North Korea.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: What prompted that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think, first of all, it’s a – it was done in routine fashion in terms of procedure. It’s time to do – well, you know we do these every six months. And oh, by the way, what you’re going to see now going forward is them being done every 90 days. There’s now legislation that – I’m sorry, policy that requires we’re going to do – every 90 days now you’re going to see updates on DPRK. And I think that that – that makes a lot of sense because of the increase in tensions that we’re seeing there on the peninsula and because of the provocative activity by the regime there. I mean, just – I want to just check. I want to just check one thing. I said “policy,” but I was right the first time – legislation. The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 stipulates that the State Department update the travel warning for North Korea every 90 days, so it’s law. I wanted to correct myself on that.
QUESTION: Is there any other country that —
MR KIRBY: So – not that I’m aware of. I’m not – I don’t know how – I don’t know of any other nation that we’re required to do it every 90 days. But so you’re going to start seeing these every three months. That’s point one.
Point two, yes, it is more detailed in some ways in terms of laying out what we’ve – the kinds of – and it’s not an exhaustive list, by the way, but it is an – a list of examples of activities for which we have seen foreigners be given unduly harsh sentences.
So yes, it was a little bit more specific and a little bit more blunt in some ways, but again, I think that’s reflective of the increased tensions that we’re seeing there on the peninsula and certainly the way – the manner in which the regime has acted out against foreigners on travel to North Korea.
So we take our responsibilities very seriously to travelers so that we give them as much information as we can before they travel, before they go overseas, and this is, I think, very much in keeping with our responsibilities to do that. But the frequency will – I just want to make sure you all are aware – the frequency will now be every 90 days instead of six months.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Okay, thanks, everybody.
QUESTION: One —
MR KIRBY: Whoa, I have one more.
QUESTION: Iran has begun a new crackdown on social media by arresting people, women, who were modeling clothing on photo-sharing websites. Do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen those reports about this social media crackdown. As we’ve said before, we support freedom of expression and freedom of information all around the world. If these reports are true, we would certainly be concerned about such a crackdown and we’d call on Iranian authorities to respect the rights of its citizens to freely express themselves both on and offline. But right now we just have press reports about it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:08 p.m.)