7 March 2016

Africa: Daily Press Briefing

document

Washington, DC — March 7, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing

IRAQ

TUNISIA

IRAN

IRAQ

NORTH KOREA

ISRAEL/PALESTINIANS

SYRIA

SOMALIA

AFGHANISTAN

INDIA/PAKISTAN

TURKEY

TRANSCRIPT:

2:16 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Hello.

MR KIRBY: Just got a couple things here at the top. On Iraq, the United States condemns the March 6th bombing at al-Hillah, Iraq, which has killed scores of Iraqis and wounded many more. We of course extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of this barbaric attack, which has been claimed by Daesh, and we remain committed in our support to the Iraqi people and to the unity of Iraq. This attack underscores the need for all Iraqis to stand together - to continue standing together - to defeat this common enemy, and it also underscores, I think, as I said, our commitment inside the coalition to defeat Daesh.

On Tunisia, we also strongly condemn today's terrorist attack in the town of Ben Guerdane, which killed at least 10 Tunisian security officials and five civilians. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the victims' families and we commend the swift and courageous response of Tunisian security forces to respond to the attack. We share Tunisians' concerns about extremist activity, whether the homegrown or external, and the threat that it poses to the country's stability and its prosperity. The United States remains committed to Tunisia's security and to our close partnership to meet common security challenges throughout the region, and we renew our offer of help to the Tunisian Government following, again, today's cowardly attack.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: I want to start with Iran. First, because I don't think you'll have an answer, I'll get this one over with quickly, and that is: Have you come to any conclusions about the election and what it means?

MR KIRBY: No.

QUESTION: I didn't think so. Will you ever come to any kind of conclusion about --

MR KIRBY: I think it's important to let the government in Tehran to speak to the results, and they haven't done that yet. As far as I know as of today, there's been no official government - U.S. - or not U.S., sorry - no official Iranian response or reaction or announcement regarding the results, and so I think it would follow that we would wait to see that before we would make comments.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: But --

QUESTION: So --

QUESTION: Sorry, Matt, but I think Rouhani made a statement.

MR KIRBY: I didn't see that, no.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: I think he's talked about it --

QUESTION: Well, I'll ask again tomorrow.

MR KIRBY: I think he - no, that's okay. I'm happy to keep --

QUESTION: It's kind of like the cameras on the Temple Mount.

MR KIRBY: Yeah. Keep it coming. I think he has spoken publicly. I don't think that they have an official government announcement about the election results. I think they're still being tallied, so we're going to hold - withhold comment until then.

QUESTION: So still on Iran, but unrelated to the election - or perhaps it might be related to the election. So this morning our time, the head of the IAEA, Mr. Amano, came out and said what certainly sounds like - appears to be - made a statement that says that the reports on Iran's nuclear program that the IAEA is now putting out are in fact less stringent and less detailed than the reports they had been putting out before the nuclear agreement. Is that okay with you guys? Because I thought that this - the reporting and the compliance and the inspections were unprecedented and were going to get to the very heart of what Iran was or wasn't doing, and it now appears as though the IAEA is reporting less information than it was before.

MR KIRBY: Well, first, I'm going to - we want to - the IAEA should be the one speaking - and they do this through their report, as you rightly noted - speaking to their evaluation of Iran's commitments, their meeting of the commitments under the JCPOA. So they - it's right for them to speak to that. What matters to us is that they are in fact meeting their commitments, and so I don't want to parse their assessment that information now is less detailed than it was before. I - they would have to speak to that. But as long as Iran continues to meet its commitments under the JCPOA - J-C-P-O-A - that's what matters, and that's what we want to see. And while I will let the IAEA speak to their reports, including this one, we've certainly seen no indication that they are not meeting their commitments under the JCPOA, and that's what matters most.

QUESTION: Well, is the director general - is Mr. Amano correct when he says that the new reporting requirements for the IAEA for Iran and its nuclear program are less stringent than the reporting requirements were prior to the nuclear deal?

MR KIRBY: I don't have any information on that one way or the other. And again, I would let Mr. Amano speak to --

QUESTION: Well, he said that.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Well, then I'm in no position --

QUESTION: So you're okay - you're okay with the IAEA now putting out less information about Iran's nuclear program than it did before the nuclear agreement?

MR KIRBY: These reports, as you know, they're - as far as I know, this one we're talking about, it's a private report to begin with. So I'm not going to speak to content. And --

QUESTION: Well, what does that matter?

MR KIRBY: I'm not going to speak to content. And you're asking me to grade the specificity of the report.

QUESTION: No, I'm not. I'm asking you if you're okay with the new - he outlined - he spelled out a situation where his organization is now required to report less information about Iran's program than it was before the nuclear deal. And I'm not asking you to give it a grade, I'm just asking you if that's okay with you guys.

MR KIRBY: What's okay with us, what matters to us, is that Iran complies with the deal. And as long as they're complying with the deal and the IAEA can verify their compliance, that's what matters, so --

QUESTION: Yeah, but if they're - if they're not reporting the same amount of detail, how can you be so sure that they are complying?

MR KIRBY: I think it would depend on the detail we're talking about, Matt, and I don't know what detail --

QUESTION: On advanced centrifuge numbers, on the mining --

MR KIRBY: I don't know what detail --

QUESTION: -- and milling of --

MR KIRBY: I do not know what detail we're talking about. I do not know what detail might have been - might now be not available as opposed to what was. So I'm not going to debate whether the reports are more detailed or less detailed. What I can tell you is that our focus is on making sure Iran meets its commitments, and we've seen no indication that they are not still meeting their commitments.

QUESTION: I understand, but the Administration's argument throughout the whole negotiation and then as the negotiation finished and - before implementation day was that the provisions of the agreement meant that it was going - there was going to be an unprecedented level of inspection and monitoring and reporting on the program. And it now appears as though - or it doesn't appear - Director General Amano said that the IAEA is now reporting less information than it did before. So I'm just wondering how - how can you - how do you square those two things?

MR KIRBY: Well, again - I'll try this again. Regardless of the report, and I'll let Mr. Amano speak to the specificity and the detail in his report. And if he's not happy with the specificity required - that's - there's venues and vehicles for him to take that up. But that - let's just assume that it's accurate, that the reporting requirements are somehow less specific than they used to be. That doesn't mean that the verification procedures in place are any less stringent now than they were before. We still have, to use your adjective, unprecedented access to knowledge and information about the nuclear program in Iran soup to nuts, mill to centrifuge. That hasn't changed. We still have, as a result of this deal, the ability for 24/7 monitoring. That hasn't changed.

QUESTION: I'll drop it after this, but it's not a question of whether or not he's happy or not with what his new instructions are. It's a question of whether he's right in saying that the instructions are different. He's going to do what he is told to do by the Board of Governors and by the people, the countries that make up the IAEA. And so I don't think it's a question of him being happy or unhappy about it. It's a question of whether or not the reporting requirements have changed and are now, as a result of that change, less stringent than they were before. That's the --

MR KIRBY: Okay. So you tried it again; let me try it again. I don't have specific information about whether reporting requirements have changed or not. Our concern, what really matters, is that they continue to comply with all the obligations, and we've seen no indication yet that they haven't fully complied with the requirements and commitments imposed upon them by this deal.

QUESTION: Can I follow up just exactly on that? It's not just a question of the change in the reporting requirements. I mean, you keep talking about unprecedented access, and so on. It's also a question of the ability of outsiders to gauge whether what you say is happening under the deal or you believe to be happening under the deal is actually happening. And if the IAEA is in fact releasing less information to the public, it is harder for the public and other interested parties to know if they're doing what you want them to do.

MR KIRBY: What's the question?

QUESTION: Why - well, there are two questions. I mean, the first one is Matt's: Have the reporting requirements changed? And you said you don't know. And the second question is: If the reporting requirements have changed and are indeed less - and indeed result in less information coming out, why is that a good thing?

MR KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not aware of reporting requirements that changed. We've said all along that this deal does provide unprecedented access and unprecedented international transparency into the program. Thus far we've seen no indications - none, zero - that they have not done anything except meet their obligations and commitments to the deal. So I'm not aware, again, of reporting requirements. I can assure you that to the degree - and this is not an unimportant thing to say - to the degree that we can be transparent in a public way about their commitments, we will be and we have been.

I think you also know that there are elements of this that aren't going to be talked about publicly. But again, I don't know of any specific changes in the reporting requirements. I'm happy to take that back and look at this. This is the first I heard of these comments. But I can assure you that the deal still ensures that Iran can never, never acquire nuclear weapons capability and that they have very stringent commitments that have been placed on them by this deal and thus far they're meeting those commitments.

QUESTION: Could I ask about Iran?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: But not on the IAEA.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wonder if you saw the report today in The New York Times about the United States holding secret talks before the invasion of Iraq discussing a possible breach of their airspace and so on and not to shoot it down, among other things, like the need to de-Baathify --

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and the need to bring in government - the expats to government and so on. Could you comment on that?

MR KIRBY: No.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: I've seen a press report based on some early excerpts of a book by Mr. Khalilzad, and I would let him speak to the accounts that he is writing about in his book. I have no information on that.

QUESTION: But him being the American ambassador to Iraq, he's not likely to sort of tailor the information that he's saying, is he?

MR KIRBY: Tailoring --

QUESTION: Is he likely to manipulate that information in one way or another?

MR KIRBY: The author?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR KIRBY: I don't know, Said. I don't know. I haven't read his book. And I think there's been a long, long journalistic history of the events that led to the Iraq War and then the Iraq War itself, and I think there's a huge body of information out there both through the efforts of you journalists and other authors as well. I think I would encourage you to consult that historical record for the events that led up to the decisions ultimately to the invasion of Iraq. I have no comment about this gentleman's book. I haven't read it. I've only seen one press article about it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, Janne.

QUESTION: Back to North Korea?

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: And the South Korean Government announced that their own sanctions against North Korea, but the United States imposed own sanctions, economic sanctions on the North Korea. What specific sanctions U.S. have currently imposed on North Korea?

MR KIRBY: I don't have a rundown of every - of all our unilateral sanctions. I think if you - I mean, I'm sure that that's information that's easily obtainable online. If not, we can try to help you. I just don't have the litany of U.S. unilateral sanctions, but obviously there are some in place. And as you know, now there's new UN-related sanctions on the North.

QUESTION: But except the UN, your own. I mean, talking about the U.S. own.

MR KIRBY: I know you're asking me about U.S. I do not have a list in front of me of all the unilateral sanctions that are in place on the North. I just don't have it.

QUESTION: A follow-up on North Korea?

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. As you know, joint military exercise has begun on 7th. As you know, it is the largest-scale exercise ever, and North Korea responds - responded very severely. And also it seems like China also doesn't like it. So I know it's a defensive and annual exercise for the United States, but what particular message is the U.S. Government and the Administration is sending to Asia and North Korea?

MR KIRBY: The same message that we've sent for - with these particular exercises for about four decades.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: We are a hundred percent committed to our alliance with the Republic of Korea and to security and stability on the Korean peninsula, period.

QUESTION: But --

QUESTION: Yesterday --

QUESTION: -- it's a biggest - larger scale, so what does it mean? Why?

MR KIRBY: I think I'll go back to what I said before. It means that we're a hundred percent committed to our alliance and security commitments on the peninsula, period. And I won't - I can let - DOD should speak to the size and scope of the exercise. If what you're trying to do is draw a line between recent provocations and the size of this exercise, again, you'd have to ask the Pentagon. I'm not aware of the planning evolutions that went into the force size levels for this. It's actually two exercises: It's Key Resolve and Foal Eagle which you know we conduct every year. I'd let DOD speak to the specifics of the size of them and how those decisions were made, but we've been doing them for 40 years because it's important for military forces to be ready, particularly in that part of the world, and ready across a broad spectrum of military capabilities. And as you know, these exercises, they test the alliance on many levels of military capabilities, and that's what it's designed to do.

QUESTION: Are you not concerned - I mean, my colleague noted that the Chinese don't seem to be happy about it, and the Russian foreign ministry also issued a critical statement about it. Are you worried that in sending this signal that you're a hundred percent committed to your alliance with the ROK that you are having the perhaps unintended consequence of angering Russia and China, your partners on the Security Council and in the Six-Party Talks?

MR KIRBY: There's simply no reason for anybody to be angry or disconcerted about this exercise. They have been going on, as I said, for roughly 40 years, and they are designed to do what all military exercises are designed to do, which is sharpen and improve coordination and capabilities, and that's what they're going to do. So there's no reason for anybody to be disconcerted, alarmed, or upset about an exercise we've been conducting for, again, 40 years. And the Chinese military exercises their forces. The Russian military, last time I looked, conduct military exercises and training operations. That's what militaries do.

QUESTION: John.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment, reaction to the North's latest threat to launch "preemptive nuclear strikes of justice" on U.S. and South Korean targets?

MR KIRBY: We've seen --

QUESTION: Do you take this seriously --

MR KIRBY: We certainly do.

QUESTION: -- or is it just more bombast?

MR KIRBY: We certainly do take those kinds of threats seriously, as we have in the past. We've noted it. We do take those threats seriously and again call on Pyongyang to cease with the provocative rhetoric, cease with the threats, and quite frankly, more critically, cease the provocative behavior, the actual conduct that has led now to yet another round of international sanctions, the toughest that have been executed now in decades against Pyongyang.

The North has a choice. Kim Jong-un has a choice he can make which he clearly seems unwilling to make, which is to ratchet down the tension on the peninsula, to focus his resources and energy on the people of North Korea and on peace and security there in the region rather than trying to up the ante with these kinds of comments.

QUESTION: So you roundly criticized, condemned - whatever the term of art is - these provocative moves by the North Koreans. Can you not see at all the position from the North Korean point of view? I realize this is kind of an odd question, but that this military exercise - the biggest that there's been - is also a provocative move, at least to them?

MR KIRBY: There would be - there would not be as compelling a reason to prepare for alliance capabilities, to improve alliance capabilities, if Pyongyang wasn't so intent on raising the stakes on the peninsula and decreasing any level - sense of security or stability there.

QUESTION: But as you've said - but as you said, these exercises have been going on for 40 years.

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: Even 30 years ago, 20 years ago, there wasn't a nuclear capability that the North had. There weren't these --

MR KIRBY: And so as --

QUESTION: There weren't these satellite launches and you were still doing the exercises?

MR KIRBY: Sure. Sure. We --

QUESTION: So they're not a response to the latest provocations from the North?

MR KIRBY: That's exactly what I just said.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: They're not. That's why there should be no reason for people to be overly concerned about it. But there - but would we have to exercise so robustly military capabilities if the North wasn't also so committed to decreasing security and stability on the peninsula. You're asking me to get inside the head of Kim Jong-un. I am not surprised one bit --

QUESTION: Well --

MR KIRBY: Wait, wait a minute. I'm not surprised one bit that Pyongyang might not look favorably on these exercises. I think that's - that comes as a surprise to exactly no one. But we have an obligation - an obligation that is underscored and made all the more urgent on the peninsula by his own actions. And so it would be not only imprudent, it would be irresponsible for us not to continue to exercise the capabilities and try to improve and sharpen the coordination with our South Korean allies.

QUESTION: One more.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. want a collapse of Kim Jong-un's regime?

MR KIRBY: Look, we've been very clear, Janne, about what we want. We want peace and security on the peninsula. We want a return to the Six-Party Talks. We want complete, verifiable denuclearization on the peninsula. I mean, we've been very clear about what we want, and that hasn't changed.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Israel?

QUESTION: Actually, one more on North Korea real quick.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry. Just about the timing and not trying to get inside of a young dictator's head or anything. The announcement a few weeks ago of the formalization of talks towards deploying THAAD to South Korea, have the - those talks actually begun to take place yet between U.S. officials and South Korean officials? And when does --

MR KIRBY: The - I'll ask you to consult the Pentagon for more detail, but I can tell you that the joint working group, the ROK and U.S. Joint Working Group consultations on a possible THAAD deployment to the - to U.S. Forces Korea has begun. They met for the first time on the 4th of March. And the working group is headed by senior officials both from U.S. Forces Korea and the South Korean ministry of national defense, but I'd refer you to the Pentagon for more detail.

QUESTION: We might as well, since it was really probably a matter of hours before these statements from Pyongyang came with these new threats. Do you see any connection between these talks towards deploying THAAD and these threats from --

MR KIRBY: See, now you're trying to get me inside Kim Jong-un's head. Look, I don't know. You'd have to talk to Pyongyang about their timing here. It's --

QUESTION: But they didn't say anything specifically referencing these talks, right?

MR KIRBY: I don't - I don't know. I didn't see their - the full scope of their public comments. I saw the quote that Matt read in terms of the threat about the consequences, but I didn't read the whole statement, if there even was one. So I can't speak to the timing of this; they can speak to that. But again, these consultations were - we thought were important to begin having. Again, no decision has been made yet about the potential deployment of that system. These are just consultations and discussions right now to talk about their potential. Again, consultations that would otherwise not be necessary if the young dictator, as you describe him, was willing and able to take a more responsible path forward with the decisions he's making.

Yeah.

QUESTION: So Israel. It's well known that your policy on settlement activity is - and longstanding, decades old - that continued settlement activity is illegitimate. There seems to be a little bit of confusion in Israel in the political debate right now over to what extent that applies to existing settlement blocs that are building inward.

And so Yair Lapid said today that he could go tomorrow, if he were prime minister, to the Americans and he could propose, and the Americans are willing to accept, a settlement freeze outside of existing settlement blocs that are understood to be - would be in an agreement with mutually agreed land swaps, that the Americans would agree to that freeze outside of settlement blocs in exchange for continued building within settlement blocs. So can you clarify for the Israelis - Yair Lapid, this is also Herzog's - something that Herzog has proposed - to what extent does the policy of illegitimacy apply to building within settlement blocs?

MR KIRBY: Nothing's changed about our position on settlement activity. We view it as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace, period.

QUESTION: So that doesn't clarify the question that is --

MR KIRBY: You're asking me to clarify what is somebody else's proposal about potential compromise on settlements, and I'm simply not going to do that. Our policy on settlements hasn't changed.

QUESTION: So there's no distinction between the --

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: -- two types of construction?

MR KIRBY: Settlement activity is illegitimate and --

QUESTION: All --

MR KIRBY: -- counterproductive to the cause of peace.

QUESTION: So all of it?

MR KIRBY: That is our policy. Our policy has not changed.

QUESTION: All of it.

QUESTION: I understand --

QUESTION: It doesn't matter if it's within an existing bloc and it's building inward or upward, or whether it's just an entirely new development?

MR KIRBY: Nothing's changed about our policy.

QUESTION: Again - and I do understand that, so pardon my repeating myself, but I think the confusion is that in - first of all, the Bush Administration did have a letter to the Sharon government which suggested that that sort of accommodation would be required anyway. And so while your settlement policy is longstanding and it is - it has crossed Democratic and Republican administrations, there seems to be some wiggle room, and obviously the President has said that natural growth and mutually agreed land swaps is something that he could tolerate. So again, when you say our policy is well known and longstanding and hasn't changed, are you saying that it applies - basically you're saying that we would not accept that proposal, right?

MR KIRBY: I'm saying there's nothing - nothing's changed about our policy on settlements. They are - they are illegitimate --

QUESTION: They - okay.

MR KIRBY: They are illegitimate and they're counterproductive to the cause of peace. You're asking me to speculate about some proposal that somebody might or might not have been floating, and I just simply won't - I won't get into that.

QUESTION: It's a little more official than that, because it has been made, and it actually has been entertained by two presidents now. So --

MR KIRBY: Nothing has changed about President Obama's policy on settlements, and I have nothing more to say than that.

QUESTION: But I remember distinctly that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it very clear that even natural growth is unacceptable. Were you aware of that?

MR KIRBY: I wasn't.

QUESTION: Okay. So that --

MR KIRBY: But again, our policy hasn't changed on settlements.

QUESTION: Yeah. Okay. So that is the policy.

MR KIRBY: I just don't think I can answer it any differently than that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Related to this, there's been another report about incitement from - emanating from within schools run by UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. Are you aware of this report?

MR KIRBY: No.

QUESTION: And if you're not, can you - could you ask someone to look into it and see if --

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- you guys have any --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, we'll go look at it. But we've talked about the - we've talked about this before, and our concerns with respect to that sort of rhetoric emanating from UNRWA. But I'll - we'll look into it. I had not seen that.

QUESTION: Go to Syria?

MR KIRBY: Pam.

QUESTION: Syria.

MR KIRBY: Syria. All right, I'll come back to you, Arshad.

QUESTION: A UN spokesman said today that de Mistura does plan to resume the political talks on the 9th, but the spokesman also said that because of logistical arrangements that some of the participants would not be arriving until the 12th or the 13th. Granted that these are proximity talks, but is there U.S. concern that the various entities arriving on different days might erode the serious nature of these talks?

MR KIRBY: The short answer is no. I mean, I'd let Mr. de Mistura speak to his process. He's the one that's pulling this next meeting together. And my understanding is it won't be completely unlike the last time, the first time that we tried these proximity talks, where not everybody showed up on the same day.

QUESTION: You mean that they never happened?

MR KIRBY: They started, and not everybody showed up on the same day. And that can be for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is just coordinating travel schedules. So again, I'd let him to speak to this. If that's how this plays out, that wouldn't be at all surprising to us. It certainly isn't disconcerting to us. What matters is that they do resume and we do get some dialogue going between the opposition and the regime.

Arshad.

QUESTION: Yeah. Mr. Riyad Hijab spoke to some reporters this morning and said that the Syrian - that his position is that Assad must leave Syria at the start of the transitional process. The Secretary last year said that he didn't have to go necessarily on day one or week one or month one.

MR KIRBY: He actually has been saying that for almost two years.

QUESTION: Yeah. Is that still your policy?

MR KIRBY: It is.

QUESTION: So you would reject Hijab's view --

MR KIRBY: It's not about --

QUESTION: -- that he should leave right away?

MR KIRBY: It's not about rejecting it. It's about respectful disagreement. And there have been, since the beginning of this process, respectful disagreements about many aspects of a political process - the future of Assad being probably the chief one, no question about that. You've covered this yourself. You realize that not all members of the ISSG still have the same view of what Assad's role would be in any kind of transition process. That's why - quite frankly, it's why it's so important to get these talks resumed and to get that dialogue going. But nothing's changed about our policy. He cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria, but the timing of his departure and whatever role he might play in the transition process is still yet to be determined.

I would add that - you didn't ask, but I'll mention that the Secretary did speak with Dr. Hijab yesterday by phone. It was a very good discussion, very positive in tone, and both men agreed that the cessation of hostilities in Syria largely continues to appear to be holding, and that that itself has been a positive development leading up to what we hope is another round of these proximity talks.

QUESTION: One other --

QUESTION: It's respectful disagreement at the moment, but if the opposition refuses to take part in the talks because of this sticking point, would that be something you'd regret then?

MR KIRBY: Regret what, that we didn't change our policy?

QUESTION: Well, you regret that their stance on --

MR KIRBY: I would - I would - well, again, I'd point to the fact that it appears as if they are planning to go to the next round of talks, and that's positive. And we want them to be able to have a chance to state their case. That they have a different view of Assad's future is not a surprise. It has long been that way, and we - while we respect their opinion and understand where they're coming from, we have a different view. But what really matters is that they are able to voice and express those views in a political process with the regime, and that's why these talks in these - next round in Geneva are so important. So we want them to have the chance to lay that out and to have that discussion.

QUESTION: But you didn't used to have a disagreement with them on this.

MR KIRBY: What do you mean?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, it was the position of this Administration for several years that Assad had to go.

MR KIRBY: Oh, yeah. Well, okay. We've had this discussion before, Matt. But again, you can go back - I can't speak for the whole entire history here, but for almost two years now you can go back and look at Secretary Kerry's comments and has been consistent with what he is saying today about Assad's departure.

QUESTION: Can I ask if the problems that were revealed last week or uncovered with the hotline - the Syria ceasefire violation hotline at the State Department - have those been fixed now?

MR KIRBY: We have put in place additional measures and additional Arabic speakers of greater proficiency on the hotline. But I'd also - so yes, we took it seriously and took steps to address it by, again, putting Arabic speakers who were more proficient on the watch bill. But I think it's also important to remember that there - that is just one of many vehicles available. In fact, by and large --

QUESTION: I know, but I just wanted to --

MR KIRBY: By and large, most of the reported violations are coming in the way of text messages, not phone calls.

QUESTION: Right.

QUESTION: Can I ask --

QUESTION: Are all the people on the --

QUESTION: -- a quick follow-up on the ceasefire?

MR KIRBY: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Said.

QUESTION: Yeah. A quick follow-up. How do you assess - I mean, now it has gone into its ninth day the ceasefire.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: So first of all, is that a good sign? Is it likely in your opinion, I mean, in your assessment - obviously, you have means to assist the situation. Is it likely to stick more or is that going to - or is it - or is it outliving its lifespan?

MR KIRBY: I'm not - yeah, I'm not going to get into predicting. Obviously, that's what we want to happen.

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: We want to see reported violations down to zero. We want to see it last and be a permanent feature, obviously. There's no question that, again, through this weekend fewer and fewer Syrians have come under attack by their own government and there have been - there's been much less violence going the other way. So that's a good thing. And we're - we remain cautiously optimistic as we go forward here with respect to this being able to maintain and to stay - and to sustain itself.

But nobody's taking it for granted. We recognize that there's still an element of fragility to it. We see that there continue to be reported violations; we want them all looked into. And again, the right number for us is zero.

QUESTION: And according to New York Times, a high-level Administration official told them that the Syrians are preparing to attack certain hamlets and towns in the northern part, and that would actually - would bode very ill for the situation. Is that something that is imminent or --

MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn't - I saw the press report. I wouldn't speak to it with any specificity. I'm certainly not going to get into intelligence matters.

What I will say though is that we reiterate our call on all parties to observe the elements of the ceasefire - the cessation of hostilities, I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Mr. Hijab's comments?

MR KIRBY: Yes.

QUESTION: One other thing that he said was that Assad must go before international - must face international justice and must be held accountable for war crimes. Do you agree with that?

MR KIRBY: Well, the Secretary has already spoken to this. I mean, there is a - there is and there should be a legal process, an international process that takes a look at this. And if it's the determination of that process that he be held to account, then absolutely, we would support that. But right now, we're trying to get us - we're trying to get to a political solution in Syria that gets us to a government that isn't gassing and barrel bombing their own people.

QUESTION: So you wouldn't accept an outcome where some country might take him and put him in a villa and leave him there to live out his days and not face justice?

MR KIRBY: I'm not going to prejudge outcomes here. I think we're all - sadly all too aware of the violence that this man has visited upon his own people. Innocent men, women, and children have suffered. Two hundred fifty thousand is the estimate still of those killed. Millions and millions still seeking refuge outside the country. I mean, nobody is blind to what he's done with the consolidated power that he has accumulated for himself there in Damascus, but I'm not going to prejudge an outcome here at the end of it.

What I - what - where we are focused right now, the United States, is on getting the political process started, getting a transition in place, getting a constitution drafted, and elections hopefully in 18 months. That's the goal here. That's where our focus is.

QUESTION: So you can't rule out cutting a deal where he would get off scot-free?

MR KIRBY: I'm not ruling anything in or out here. And I have to take issue, I think, a little bit with the way you've characterized this, "cutting a deal that would get him off scot-free." What we're looking at is --

QUESTION: Negotiating an outcome under which he would not face a --

MR KIRBY: No, no, I am not - I am not going to --

QUESTION: -- he would not be held accountable for his --

MR KIRBY: I am just not going to prejudge - I'm not going to prejudge outcomes. But I think everybody in the entire world is aware of what this man has done to his own people, and there no doubt will be and should be an international process that takes a look at that and has to make determinations about what the proper courses of action are as a result. And we obviously would support that - support that process, but I'm not going to prejudge outcomes right now.

Again, we want - what we want is a future for Syria that doesn't have Assad at its head and a government that they - the Syrian people have had a voice in creating and installing there in Damascus, and a home - a unified, whole Syria that they can call home again and go back to.

QUESTION: Somalia?

QUESTION: Stay on Syria?

MR KIRBY: Syria. Then I'll go to you, Kim.

QUESTION: In the Secretary's testimony on the Hill, he mentioned a one- to two-month timeframe in which he thinks we're going to get a sense of whether or not the political process is serious. And he said we're going to know if there's stalling or --

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: I forget the exact word. But how does that timeline change if it's the - if it's Hijab and the High Negotiating Commission that does not show or walks out, or if at all? Does that change the calculus, or is he really thinking this is the two months that we're going to know?

MR KIRBY: What he said was he thinks we'll have a better sense about the viability of the political process that's been established through now three communiques and a UN Security Council resolution in about one to two months, and that's a range of time that we'll have a much better sense, we'll know more at the conclusion of that timeframe. We're obviously right in the middle of it right now.

So, again, I can't predict what things are going to look like six weeks from now, because I think he said it a couple of weeks ago. I just can't predict that. Obviously, I can tell you what certainly we want to see happen. And we want to see the talks in Geneva get started. We want to see them be productive. We want to see them actually lead to some commitments by all sides, but in particular, the regime and the opposition to move the political process forward in accordance with the Vienna communiques which laid out a very clear sort of timeline in terms of how to get there.

So that's what we want to see. I think the Secretary would tell you that he still believes that his estimate was accurate. Within one to two months or so we should have a better sense of the viability of that process. All right?

Yeah, Kim.

QUESTION: The Pentagon today announced that U.S. war planes and unmanned aerial vehicles hit the Raso Camp in Somalia, a Shabaab camp, in defense of AMISOM and U.S. forces, killing up to 200 people - up to 200 fighters. Did this action get coordinated in advance with the Somali Government? Did Mogadishu?

MR KIRBY: I'd have to refer you to the Pentagon for specifics about the execution of it. I don't have anything to add right now in terms of notifications.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I understand the question. I just don't have anything to add to it.

QUESTION: The Afghan Taliban over the weekend backed out of this planned round of peace talks with the Afghan Government with a statement saying that they reject the process. Today, in the last couple of hours, the deputy foreign minister of the Afghan Government said that Kabul still wants to hold the talks. Do you echo that sentiment from the government in Kabul, and do you have any comment in general on the viability of this process at this point?

MR KIRBY: Well, first, yes, obviously we completely associate ourselves with what President Ghani said. We join him in calling for the Taliban to participate in these talks with the Government of Afghanistan. And as we've said before, they have a choice: Rather that continuing to fight their fellow Afghans and destabilizing their country, they should engage in a peace process and ultimately become a legitimate part of the political system of a sovereign, united Afghanistan. So nothing's changed about that.

Now, you're asking me to be predictive again, and I can't. I think if they're willing to sit down at the table and to have a meaningful conversation with President Ghani and other leaders in the Afghan Government towards a legitimate peace process, then yes, I think we would say the prospects are fair for that kind of an outcome. But if they're not going to prove willing to do that, then obviously it becomes exceedingly difficult to reach that outcome. But that's the goal that we want to see, and we know it's the goal that President Ghani wants to see. More critically, it's the outcome that the Afghan people want.

QUESTION: The top advisor to the Sharif government on foreign policy was here for the strategic dialogues between the U.S. and Pakistan last week, and he did a little round table with reporters, I think on Thursday. And he said that the hopes - the stakes were really high around this round of talks and that if they didn't work out, the chance for significantly increased violence and insurgency this summer would go up. Do you share that assessment?

MR KIRBY: We certainly share his assessment that the - that there is and should be a sense of urgency around getting these talks up and running and, in this case, resumed. And I don't think we would disagree either with his assessment that in the spring and the summer months - again, if there's no peace process in place and the Taliban's not willing to come to the table and talk about reconciliation - that we would have to prepare ourselves and we would - and the Afghan Security Forces would have to prepare themselves for the potential for increased violence in the spring and summer months. It is the so-called fighting season, and we've seen this before when the weather warms up.

So again, I want to stress that's not what we want to see. What we want to see is what President Ghani wants to see, which is the talks resume and some sort of reconciliation process be moved forward. But again, it would be irresponsible if we didn't - all of us - think about the potential negative consequences of not being able to have these talks in place. So in general, I would say we share the same view that there is and should be a real sense of importance and urgency surrounding these opportunities that we have before us right now - right now - to get at a real and lasting peace inside Afghanistan.

QUESTION: And a follow-up on Afghanistan?

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you consider the Taliban statement as a setback to the peace process that U.S. has --

MR KIRBY: Well, it's certainly not moving the peace process forward, is it? I mean, I'm not going to characterize it one way or another with an adjective, but it's certainly not moving things forward that they're not willing to resume these talks.

QUESTION: And at the Republican debate, presidential debate last week, a major candidate said that U.S. needs to stay in Afghanistan, and the reasons he gave was because Pakistan has a nuclear weapon and U.S. needs to secure that. Is that a reason you think is a valid reason for U.S. to stay in Afghanistan?

MR KIRBY: I'm not going to comment or react to comments that are made on the campaign trail. What I can tell you is our policies and our views with respect to Afghanistan. I've already talked a little bit about the peace process and reconciliation, and the President and Secretary Kerry remain committed to seeing an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process succeed. It's what we all want.

On the other hand, we also have an obligation to protect the American people, and so there is a limited counterterrorism mission that our troops are conducting in Afghanistan that remains valid today. I'm not going to predict what that's going to look like. The President has already agreed to extend the 9,800 troops out a little longer. Only the Commander-in-Chief can make a final decision about what troop levels and mission assignments are going forward, and I won't get ahead of anything with respect to his decision space on that.

And then as for Pakistan, we've long talked about the fact that we want to see Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to work together to address the very real threat that emanates from the border region between those two countries. And there has been some coordination. There has been some integration of effort. Can more be done? Absolutely more can be done, but President Ghani has reached out, the prime minister has reached out, and they're - we're encouraged by that.

QUESTION: India?

QUESTION: But my question was more towards the nuclear weapons of Pakistan. Secretary himself raised this issue of --

MR KIRBY: I - we have said before that we believe that the Government of Pakistan can and does provide the necessary security that they need to for that arsenal.

QUESTION: But the Secretary has asked Pakistan to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons during his - last week's strategic dialogue. Did Pakistan was - was Pakistan willing to listen to this?

MR KIRBY: You're going to have to the folks in Islamabad about that.

QUESTION: What's the feedback?

MR KIRBY: You're --

QUESTION: That was one of the topics of discussion, the five topics of discussion.

MR KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about the details of discussions. Again, you can talk to folks in Islamabad.

QUESTION: India?

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: India?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: Okay.

QUESTION: So the Modi-led Government of India has denied a visa last week to U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and in their statement they say that they had the support of U.S. State Department and the embassy. So what is your reaction to that?

MR KIRBY: We're aware that visas were not issued by the Indian embassy to members of the United States Commission of International Religions Freedom commissioners who were planning to travel to India on the 4th of March, and we're disappointed by this news. We are supportive of the commission and the important role they play in reviewing facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom around the world. As President Obama himself noted during his visit last year, we support the Government of India's commitments - commitment to promoting religious freedom and diversity. And his message during his trip to India was clear and it remains true: "Our nations are stronger when" - and I'm quoting now the President - "every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination," end quote.

QUESTION: So have you reached out to your counterparts in Delhi on this?

MR KIRBY: As you know, we don't talk about the details of diplomatic conversations, but I can tell you we've - remain engaged in a number of discussions with the Indian Government about this and other issues with respect to religious freedom. It's not a topic of conversation we don't have, and it's not a topic of conversation that we're afraid to have with our Indian counterparts.

QUESTION: A follow-up on India itself?

QUESTION: Mark?

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, one more.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. What is your assessment of the things that you said right now about religious freedom in India, or how do you see it?

MR KIRBY: I don't have a broad-brush statement here to read to you about an assessment on religious freedom.

QUESTION: Are you okay with the status right now? Are you concerned? How do you see it?

MR KIRBY: We - I think I'd go back to what I said about what - quoting the President. We think every society is made stronger when people are free to worship or not worship at all, and that would apply in India as it does anywhere else around the world. I don't have a formal policy statement with respect to the state of religious freedom in India right now. As I said, we're disappointed by this decision.

QUESTION: And why you are disappointed? This is for the - not for the first time that India has denied these visas. It has been going on for the last seven years, and this is the first time you are saying you are disappointed.

MR KIRBY: I'm not aware that - it's the first - it's certainly the first time I'm saying it, because I've never said it before. I'm not aware of the frequency with which visa denials for this commission --

QUESTION: It's every year, every year the same process.

MR KIRBY: I'm not aware of that. That something like that happens before doesn't mean that it's - that we're any less disappointed when it happens again. I mean, the question seems to presuppose that because it's happened before, we should just not comment on it and we should just be okay with it, and we're not.

QUESTION: No, no, I was saying that previous years you were not disappointed, and this year you are disappointed. So I was looking to the reasons for why you are disappointed this year. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I think in my answer I made it very clear why we were disappointed. We support the work of the commission. More critically, we support the idea behind the commission, which is about religious freedom, the freedom to worship or to not worship, and that's a central, underpinning principle and tenet here.

QUESTION: But the Indian Government says that the USCIRF has no locus standing on commenting on India's religious freedom because Indian constitution itself guarantees that.

MR KIRBY: I'm not sure I understand your question.

QUESTION: The Indian Government in a statement said that the USCIRF doesn't have locus standing on commenting on India's religious freedom because India's constitution itself guarantees religious freedom to Indian citizens.

MR KIRBY: Well, as we've said around - in other places around the world, we want issues like that that are enshrined in a constitution to be upheld, to be observed. And again, we support the work of the commission and what they stand for, and I don't know how else I can say it. We remain disappointed by the news.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: John, I don't understand what - you said that you were in contact with the Indian Government about this issue and other issues, but did you specifically make representations to the Indian Government about your appealing for them to grant the visas or expressing directly your disappointment when they did not do so?

MR KIRBY: I won't speak to the specifics of private conversations we've had, but I just said it here from the podium what our views are and I just very publicly talked about our disappointment in it. So I think just if nothing else, by virtue of what I've just said here, I've expressed the concern of the United States with respect to this particular decision.

QUESTION: John --

QUESTION: Any comments on another issue on a visa between the U.S. and India as far as H-1B visas are concerned? A feud is going on between the two countries.

MR KIRBY: I don't have anything on that.

QUESTION: And --

QUESTION: John, is it still - is it still the Administration or the United States position that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy?

MR KIRBY: Is it still the feeling of the United States Government?

QUESTION: Yeah. That hasn't changed, right?

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: Okay. It's still --

MR KIRBY: I'm kind of wondering where this is going.

QUESTION: It's still - I know. Well, you won't. You'll know in a second. It is still a criteria or a requirement that members of NATO are democracies; is it not?

MR KIRBY: I'm not aware of any change to that.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: So given those two positions have not changed - stances, I'm wondering what you can - what you make of the seizure of Turkey's largest newspaper, opposition newspaper --

MR KIRBY: I talked about this --

QUESTION: -- and what you have to say about the status of democracy there.

MR KIRBY: I talked about this quite a bit on Friday. I'd refer you to the transcript back then rather than have me go through all the same points.

QUESTION: Okay. Are you --

MR KIRBY: I was very clear about our concern about the move to trusteeship over this - over Zaman, which is what I think you're talking about.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: And the court case that led to that decision for trusteeship. We were very, very explicit on that. And as I said Friday and I'll say it again today, Turkey's democracy still matters to us and we want to see - for the sake of the Turkish people, we want to see the Turkish Government continue to live up to the values enshrined in its own constitution - its own constitution, not just ours - about press freedom.

QUESTION: So where I'm also going with this is there was over the weekend a lot of very harsh criticism lobbed at the ambassador.

MR KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about that?

MR KIRBY: I would - I saw that criticism. And let me just state unequivocally that - well, a couple of things. First of all, the President and the Secretary have and have had the utmost faith, trust, and confidence in Ambassador Bass and the work that he's doing out there, and he has the full support - the full support - of Secretary Kerry as he continues to engage the Turkish Government with respect to this particular issue - well, all issues, but this one in particular that you're asking about.

Number two, I would say that the Turkish people have no better friend than the one they have in John Bass. He really cares about Turkey and Turkey's success and their future and the Turkish people. And that's why he speaks out on issues like this when it's important to do so. And again, I would just reiterate he continues to have the full support and confidence of Secretary Kerry and the President.

QUESTION: So what do you make of this very harsh and vitriolic criticism?

MR KIRBY: Well, it's unwarranted. It's certainly undeserved. And it is at the very least incredibly unfortunate given the fact that the ambassador is so dedicated to furthering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

QUESTION: And I wasn't here on Friday, but did you speak then, when talking about the seizure of the - the takeover of the newspaper, about what this tells you about the state of democracy in Turkey? Did you speak to that? You say that it still matters and you still care about it.

MR KIRBY: Well, as I said --

QUESTION: But do you see this as an erosion?

MR KIRBY: I'm not ready to say that we've got some sort of trend analysis here. But - but --

QUESTION: Really?

QUESTION: How is it not an erosion?

QUESTION: Has the trend - the trend --

QUESTION: You talked about the trend on Friday.

MR KIRBY: I know. See, when I --

QUESTION: Only the --

MR KIRBY: When I say "but," that means I have more to say in my sentence --

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR KIRBY: -- and you just have to let me finish it. But we do continue to be concerned about these ongoing reports. And I mean, I'm - obviously, the trend is not in a positive direction in terms of press freedoms in Turkey. And that is worrisome, and that's why we continue to talk about this.

QUESTION: One of the things you said on Friday was that the administrative takeover shouldn't lead to any newsroom changes. Obviously, in the edition of Zaman that's come out since then, you're very prominent on the front page. Oh, that's an old picture. But - you look very young. Obviously, there has been a change in newsroom policy, so the - I mean, the trend since your Friday, it's been downhill since then.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, yeah, as I said, I mean, we are certainly worried about where things are going with respect to press freedoms in Turkey.

QUESTION: Are you also worried that Turkey is not paying any attention to your worries?

MR KIRBY: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Are you also worried that Turkey is not paying attention to your worries?

QUESTION: Well, they're paying attention (inaudible). (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: What I would --

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: But they're rejecting your worries.

MR KIRBY: Well, clearly they continue to make decisions - regardless of our pleas and the pleas of others in the international community, they continue to make decisions that are in - that contradict directly democratic principles that are enshrined in their own constitution, and press freedom is one of them. And they continue to ignore their own obligations - again, under their own constitution. So if you're asking me, does that concern us, does that worry us, the answer is absolutely yes. And that is why Ambassador Bass has been vocal about it and honest about it and candid about it, as he should be, with Turkish leaders. And I think we'll - we will continue to be so.

As I said, yes, Turkey is a NATO ally, and Turkey is a key partner and a friend on many levels and on many issues, not the least of which is the fight against Daesh in Syria in particular. And we're not going to see eye to eye with them on everything. We clearly don't agree with the decisions that they've been making with respect to press freedoms. And we believe it's important, particularly with one's friends, to be able to state honestly and baldly our concerns.

QUESTION: But with all friends there's a point where the friendship's over, and an alliance of democracies is only an alliance of democracies if the members --

MR KIRBY: I don't think that's - I don't think that's in anybody's interests; certainly not - it's not in our --

QUESTION: But is it --

MR KIRBY: -- interests, it's not in Turkey's interests, and that's not what we want to see as an outcome. What we want to see --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) --

MR KIRBY: What Ambassador Bass wants to see is Turkey succeed and Turkey live up to those democratic principles. I mean, this isn't about - this isn't about picking on them over one issue that we don't like. Yeah, we don't like it when newspapers are shut down or reporters are muzzled or trusteeships are established which change clearly what will be or what could be the editorial content of what should be an independent journalist - arm of journalism in Turkey. But that doesn't mean that it has to tear asunder an entire bilateral relationship, nor do we think it will. And though we absolutely don't agree with what's going on there with respect to press freedoms, we still are able and want to be able to continue to have conversations with the Turks not just about this, but about a whole range of other issues.

QUESTION: And you don't regard the latest in the long series of troubling attacks on the press - I may not have gotten the phrasing exactly right, but steps against the press that took place on Friday in the takeover of Zaman - as constituting an erosion of democracy in Turkey?

MR KIRBY: Let me put it this way, Arshad: As I said, it is a trend that is going in the wrong direction, no doubt about that. I mean, how many times do I get up here and have to say the same thing about press freedoms in Turkey? So it's certainly not going in the right direction. But what I would say is the trend as it is now, the actions as they are being taken, are doing nothing to contribute to free, democratic principles in Turkey - the same free, democratic principles that, as I said before, are enshrined in their constitution. None of this is contributing to that goal.

QUESTION: But that does not --

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Follow-up on same issue. Thank you. First, would you - after a couple of days later, would you condemn this act of the government taking over the paper? And second, would you call on Turkish Government to return the newspaper to the journalists?

MR KIRBY: I said it last week; I'll say it again. We remain deeply troubled by the government's use of appointed trustees to shut down or interfere with the editorial operations of media outlets that are critical of the government. Court-ordered supervision of a media company's finances and operations should not prompt changes to the newsroom or editorial policy, and we call, as we've called on before, the Turkish Government to ensure the full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law. In a democratic society, critical opinion should be encouraged, not silenced. We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values, as I said, enshrined in their own constitution, which includes freedom of speech, assembly, and of course, the press.

QUESTION: If the government has not returned, like the other groups that you mentioned on Friday - basically, they run the media groups to the ground and shut down - would you consider taking actions such as Magnitsky Act, like against Russia, seizure of these media groups being run by other pro-government journalists? And actually a year or later, even U.S. Government forgets about it and the officials go on and give interviews, as we have seen from the current U.S. ambassador in Ankara recently, last year. So my question again: Would you consider taking action that kind of sanctions against those who involved with this seizure of the media groups?

MR KIRBY: I won't get ahead of decisions that haven't been made one way or the other with respect to that. I just won't get ahead of it.

Yeah.

QUESTION: John, there are - have been reports that Mrs. Toria Nuland is going to Greece this week. Actually, they say that she's going to northern Greece, where many refugees are. What is the purpose of the visit, if she's going?

MR KIRBY: I don't have any travel by Assistant Secretary Nuland to talk about today.

QUESTION: Can you take the question, maybe?

MR KIRBY: No, I'm not going to take the question, because as you know, when our assistant secretaries travel, at the appropriate time we make an announcement and a media note will go out, and you'll know with the rest of the world. I just don't have any travel for her to speak to right now.

I already got you, Goyal.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: I think that's it for today. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:20 p.m.)

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