2:36 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Just to start, I do want to give you a quick readout of a phone call that Secretary Kerry had a just a little bit ago with Foreign Minister Lavrov. In this call, which lasted a little bit more than 30 minutes, they talked about two things. They talked about Syria and they talked about Ukraine on Syria. The Secretary repeated our concerns about the preponderance of targets that are being struck by Russian military forces that are not ISIL-related. They also talked about the importance of moving forward on tactical discussions and dialogue towards the goal of de-confliction, again, to avoid mishaps and misunderstandings, particularly in the air. And the Secretary also talked about the importance of moving forward towards a political track in Syria, stressing once again that there’s not going to be a military solution to the civil war in Syria; that it can only be solved through a political solution, which means, as we’ve talked about, a transition to a government away from Assad and towards one that is responsive to the desperate needs of the Syrian people.
On Ukraine, the Secretary again raised the Minsk agreement and the importance of moving forward on full implementation of the Minsk agreement.
So with that, I’ll turn it over. Matt.
QUESTION: Well, since you started with the call, let’s start there. Did – well, there are officials at the Pentagon who are telling various news agencies that several – four of perhaps 26 cruise missiles that the Russians fired from the Caspian towards Syria actually landed in Iran. Are you guys confident enough about that to say it on the record?
MR KIRBY: No, I’m afraid – I mean, I’ve seen those reports but I’m not in a position to confirm them at this time.
QUESTION: All right. Do you know if discussion of such – the possibility of such a thing happening came up in the discussion between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov?
MR KIRBY: As I said, I won’t go into more detail than what I gave you in the readout, but as I said, they did talk about targeting and they – and the Secretary raised his concerns about the fact that the preponderance of the targets that they’re striking are not against ISIL.
QUESTION: Right, but something like this happening would not be technically part of de-confliction talks, would it?
MR KIRBY: You mean if it’s true that --
MR KIRBY: -- a couple of their cruise missiles landed in Iran? Again, I’m not going to get into greater detail on the call, but I think if something like that happened – again, I can’t confirm it, but I think it points all the more towards the need to have proper de-confliction procedures in place.
QUESTION: Okay. On the same subject but unrelated to the call, this morning Senator Corker suggested at the top of an unrelated – well, actually, it was related to the call, I guess, because it was about Ukraine. But Senator Corker suggested that Secretary Kerry is avoiding him and his committee and that the State Department was being not particularly honest and the reason why the Secretary can’t appear before the committee. Do you have any response to that?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure. The chairman had asked the Secretary in this most recent case to appear on a date where we were simply not going to be in the country for a long-planned conference – this was in Chile for the Our Ocean conference. And the State Department, realizing the importance of meeting the needs of the committee, offered in his absence the deputy secretary or Assistant Secretary Patterson, and the committee declined both of those potential witnesses. I would just add that the Secretary has appeared before committees in Congress almost 10 times this year alone, three before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He takes very seriously his responsibilities, as a former senator would, to the oversight prerogatives of the Senate, of Congress, and we’re going to continue to discuss and talk to the chairman about future – any and all future requests for his testimony.
QUESTION: So the request was for Monday?
MR KIRBY: It was for earlier this week. It was for while we were in – while we were on this trip, yeah. And that’s the only reason he didn’t and wasn’t able to appear, was because we were going to be out of the country for a conference that had been long planned.
QUESTION: Okay, well --
MR KIRBY: And as I said, offered two very senior diplomats who both are very knowledgeable on the issue of Syria to testify. But we’re going to stay in close contact with the chairman. Obviously, we understand his responsibilities as well. The Secretary takes that very seriously and we’ll continue to maintain that dialogue.
QUESTION: John, the issue on moving – the discussion on moving forward on a deal track. Was there any decision made on how they would move forward for the talks?
MR KIRBY: I don’t want to --
QUESTION: When would that take place?
MR KIRBY: I don’t want to get into more detail on the call than I gave at the top. But I would – I wouldn’t draw you to a conclusion that there were a lot of decisions reached in terms of the modalities of how we were going to move forward either on de-confliction or on the political track. I mean, both Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Secretary clearly understand, and it was with that understanding in that context that they had the discussions today, about the importance of moving forward on both. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say there were actual tactical-level decisions made during this phone call.
QUESTION: Was the discussion about moving forward on those talks – would those talks be between the U.S. and a contact group and Russia, or would – is this include the UN?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t – again, I don’t have that level of detail. And what I would do, though, is point you back to last week when we were in New York – the General Assembly, obviously – and you know the Secretary had numerous meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov, numerous discussions – some in meetings, some on the phone – and then, of course, several meetings with our European and Arab allies and partners on this exact issue. The – there’s – and the Secretary I think was quite open about this towards the end of the week in public comments, that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to try to figure out and to come up with viable options on what a political transition will look like in and of itself and then over time. And I don’t think that we’re at the point now where we have hard and fast modalities for exactly what that would look like. So I just don’t think – to your question, I just don’t think we’re at that stage where we can lay out for you what the process will look like, who’s going to be at what table, and how long it’s going to take.
What the Secretary did come away from New York believing is that more and more now members of the international community, be they multilateral organizations or entities or individual countries, recognize that the status quo in Syria is simply not sustainable and is not going to get us anywhere towards ending this conflict, and that more and more are coming to believe that a political solution is the right answer. But political solutions are really tough. Not that military solutions aren’t as well, but political ones are especially tough, and there’s a lot more factors, a lot more nuance that has to be considered, and a lot more work that has to be done to try to get at that. And the Secretary is committed to working through that, and again, that was one of the reasons why he wanted to have another conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov today.
QUESTION: Just a few things. First, on the call, I know you’ve stated several times now that you’re reluctant to provide more specificity on the contents of the call. But can we safely infer from the fact that you said it related to two subjects, Syria and Ukraine, and that you went on to give us several sentences about Syria and one very brief sentence about Ukraine, that that reflects accurately the division of the call itself, that Ukraine really only formed a very small part of their 30-minute discussion?
MR KIRBY: No, I – look, I don’t want to break down the call, the 30 minutes into chunks on how much time they spent on either one of them. It’s safe to say that there’s few if any conversations that the Secretary has with his Russian counterpart where they don’t talk about Ukraine. Obviously, Syria was high on the list of agenda items for both men to speak about, but they did talk about Ukraine. And though I maybe didn’t have as many sentences on it in my readout, I wouldn’t infer from that that it was somehow less important or they didn’t have as much content to speak about.
Where we are in Ukraine is a very fragile ceasefire – there’s been some reports that it may have been violated, but up until very recently, certainly, has seemed to be holding – and some movement in the right direction on some issues towards Minsk. And I think both leaders agreed that that movement, that positive movement, is a good thing and both would like to see it continue.
QUESTION: To stay on Syria, though, as the Russian Federation was deploying ever greater assets into that theater, you were commenting on it with a fair amount of latitude from this podium. Are you able to confirm from the podium today that the Russian actions inside Syria have expanded from airstrikes to a ground offensive?
MR KIRBY: I’m not. Obviously, since yesterday we’ve become more certain of the cruise missiles that were launched – at least the fact that they were launched – and we’ve certainly seen reports of some ground activity. But I’m just not in a position to speak to that in any specificity. I’d refer you to the Defense Department for more on that.
QUESTION: Are you observing some kind of active collaboration between the Russian Federation’s military forces and forces of Hizballah?
MR KIRBY: I have not seen reporting to a degree of specificity where I would be able to confirm that.
QUESTION: Lastly, some have argued with respect to what Russia is doing in Syria now that what we really see here is Vladimir Putin asserting for Russia a right to unilateral military action in areas around the globe that the federation considers to be within its own sphere of influence, similar to the way, from the Russian perspective, the United States did across the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is that how you see his actions?
MR KIRBY: No. And I spoke to this yesterday. With respect to Syria I think what we’re seeing is a reaction, not some master strategy here, but rather a reaction to the increasing fragility of the Assad regime and their desire to secure or to bolster what they believe are their interests in Syria by adding capabilities on the ground and in the air --
QUESTION: And using them?
MR KIRBY: -- and then using them. Absolutely. But just if you look at how they’re using them, James, it – especially over time now that we’ve had opportunity to observe it, it’s becoming increasingly clear – I couldn’t say with certainty – as I said yesterday, there’s not a whole transparency here in terms of intent. But if you look at what they’re doing, what they’re hitting, where they’re operating, it certainly gives one the indication that they are, in fact, more focused on bolstering and supporting the Assad regime than they are about going after ISIL. And therefore, by dint of that, essentially prolonging a civil war in Syria, exacerbating the violence, and potentially leading to even increased numbers of refugees.
QUESTION: Would you regard the commencement of a ground offensive in that theater by Russian Federation forces as a significant escalation of Russian activity?
MR KIRBY: I would – the way we would describe this is that the action taken – whether it’s on the ground, through the air, sea launched – against opposition groups in an effort to shore up one side of a very ugly civil war, the side being Assad, is obviously escalating the conflict and escalating the tension and increasing the chances for far greater violence in the future.
If, on the other hand, they intend to use ground capabilities, whatever they may be, to go after ISIL, well than that’s another matter. And again, that’s why I thought the Secretary believed it was important to have yet another conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov about this issue of de-confliction.
QUESTION: You seem to be giving them the benefit of the doubt, again – yet again – that they’ll be using their forces for what they’ve said they’re going to do with them, when time and time again they seem to not follow though. Why give them that credit this time?
MR KIRBY: I’m not giving them any credit, Justin, and I’m not giving them the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t answer – and I wouldn’t try to answer – a question about exactly what they may be doing on the ground. And I’m not in a position now to confirm ground activity by the Russian military. That’s something for them to speak to. So I wasn’t able to literally answer James’s question. But I put it in the frame of – and we’ve talked about this before – if their military activity in Syria could lead or would be part of a constructive role against ISIL, well that’s something that we would welcome and we would be able to have a conversation with them about that.
Thus far – and again, I mentioned this to James – if you just take a look at what we’ve seen them do, where they’re hitting, where they’re operating, it would not lead one to conclude that that is their goal. You would have to look at the evidence on the face of it and have to assume that what they are, in fact, trying to do is prop up the Assad regime. And all that’s going to do, as we’ve said, is make the conflict worse. And it’s certainly not going to get us any closer to a political solution inside Syria.
QUESTION: Hey, John --
QUESTION: Secretary Carter said that their actions had shattered the illusion that they were there for any reason other than to prop up Assad. He’s using slightly stronger language. Is there a difference in position between the Pentagon and State or just a difference in how you’re phrasing it?
MR KIRBY: No, I think it we see it exactly the same way as the Defense Department.
QUESTION: John --
MR KIRBY: I wouldn’t read anything into the use of adjectives or adverbs in that, no.
QUESTION: Since you dipped your toe into the ocean of analysis in response to James – one of James’s question – you said this is not a strategy; it’s a reaction to the increasing fragility of the Assad regime. Since you offered your expert analysis on that, I’m wondering to what do you attribute the increasing fragility of the Assad regime.
MR KIRBY: I think, Matt, you’ve seen it yourself over the last several months, the regime coming under increasing pressure by opposition groups, losing more what was once government-controlled territory to opposition groups. I think that’s plain.
QUESTION: Opposition groups to include ISIL or opposition groups that are the ones that you support?
MR KIRBY: I’m talking about the political opposition groups in general. On ISIL – and we’ve been, I think, very honest about the fact that in Syria they have continued to lose some territory and some influence, not that – not all of it, but they have continued to lose.
QUESTION: Right. But you would attribute the increasing fragility of the regime primarily to the success of the – of the moderate opposition that you support.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: Yeah? Well, the reason I ask that, that would seem to suggest – there was a report this morning about a meeting that was held yesterday with some – or a couple days ago with some Syrian American activists in which a special envoy was cited as saying that the reason the Russians went in is because the U.S. strategy, such as it is, was succeeding in Syria. And there was great pushback to that interpretation of his remarks from this building. And now you seem to have repeated it. So I just want to make sure is it the Administration’s position that its strategy was, in fact, working and that’s why Russia intervened?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to comment on press reports about comments that were made in a closed-door meeting.
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: I get – just give me a second here, Matt. I’m not going to comment on those press reports. What I said was – and I’ve said it as recently as yesterday – the strategy that we’re pursuing in Syria is against ISIL. And it’s not just a military strategy; it’s multiple lines of effort. But let’s just focus on the military for a second because that’s where I think you’re going on this. And as I said yesterday, at some length, the military strategy against ISIL is progressing. Is it perfect? No. Have we defeated this enemy? No. And yes, it’s going to be a long struggle. But they are under increasing pressure, and that pressure primarily is coming in the forms of military capabilities arrayed against them by a 60-plus nation coalition.
Politically, where we want to move in Syria is towards a transition. So we know there’s a lot of work to be done on that, that that’s more complicated. What we’re – what – as I said, if you take a look at the sum total of what Russia has done militarily in Syria, you can only conclude from that that they are trying to bolster the – and Assad regime that we know, frankly through press reporting of your own, is coming under increasing pressure and becoming increasingly fragile, and that that explains more what they’re doing and why they’re doing it right now rather than some grand strategy of their own. That’s the point I’m trying to make. And I’m – but I’m not going to get into speculation about what was said in a closed door meeting in press reports, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, forget about the meeting. You – but you believe the Assad regime is becoming increasingly fragile because of the success of the moderate opposition groups that you support. Correct?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s --
QUESTION: Or no?
MR KIRBY: I think press reporting alone would indicate that it’s becoming increasingly fragile --
MR KIRBY: -- in part because of pressure and gains that have been made by opposition groups, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. So if you say that, then why don’t you go – why don’t you take the step to say that our – the Administration’s strategy is working, was working in terms of as it relates to the Assad regime – perhaps not ISIL – but that’s why, given what you say is the Russians’ actual intent there, that’s why they intervened? Because your – because the Administration’s strategy is working.
MR KIRBY: Well, as I said --
QUESTION: It seems to me that --
MR KIRBY: The evidence would conclude that they are intervening because they are wanting to prop up Assad, who they believe and I think we all see is under increasing pressure. I’m not going to get into cause and effect here. The primary focus of the strategy in Syria is against ISIL.
QUESTION: One more on this?
MR KIRBY: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Is it possible to assess the efficacy of the Russian intervention so far? Do they seem to be executing their own defined missions well?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think you’d need to talk to them. I mean, we’re not in their planning loop. It’s not like they’re consulting with us as they --
QUESTION: I’m asking not about planning but about outcomes and what you’re able to observe. Are – do they seem to be advancing their own interests as you’re defining them, which is to prop up the Assad regime? Does that seem to be – what they’re doing – working in that respect?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to be capable of analyzing Russian effectiveness here in their campaign. As I said, we know where they’re hitting, and it’s not against ISIL predominantly. Yesterday I said better than 90 percent – we still believe that that’s true – of the targets are opposition groups. But are they hitting exactly what they’re aiming at? You’d have to talk to them. We can tell you is what they’re hitting, and based on the evidence of what they’re hitting, what the perceived, at least, intent is. But as I said also earlier to you James, there’s not a lot of transparency here. So I’m not the right guy to ask that question.
QUESTION: Maybe a different way to ask the question would be thusly: Is the opposition, that is apparently being targeted by the Russian Federation, suffering as a result of these operations?
MR KIRBY: It --
QUESTION: Has their position been damaged?
MR KIRBY: I think to the degree that they continue to be hit militarily, yes. That is – there – you can conclude that if the types of targets continue to be the types that they’ve been hitting so far that it will – over time it must, assuming these strikes are accurately being conducted, will have an effect of degrading the opposition. And again --
QUESTION: Can you see that already? Is that observable?
MR KIRBY: I’m not – I’m not going to get into intelligence estimates here and intelligence matters. I mean, but clearly if they continue to go after those types of targets, it will have a desultory effect on the opposition. And as we’ve said, that that’s not the answer to this civil war in Syria; that’s only going to prolong the conflict. It’s only going to attract extremism to Syria. And in fact, that’s – as we said before, it’s one of the reasons why ISIL has been allowed to fester and grow in that country.
QUESTION: John, if – given that – what’s happened with the – as you say, that the Russians are not attacking – are not targeting Islamic State but are targeting opposition groups, is there any plans to shore up the opposition groups?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think you heard the Secretary talk about this last week, and I know the President has addressed this, that we’re going to continue to look for options to intensify our efforts against ISIL and to continue to support those who are fighting ISIL inside the country. I’m not going to get into options here from this podium, either what they are or when or where they may be pursued. I’m just going to state again that everybody is focused on the continued danger ISIL poses inside Syria and Iraq and are going to continue to look for ways to improve our efforts against that group.
QUESTION: What about those groups that are fighting Assad?
MR KIRBY: Look, we have maintained, for quite some time now, support to opposition groups in various forms. And I think you can expect that that support will continue.
QUESTION: I don’t understand why, if you believe that it’s urgent that these discussions take place with the Russians, why no further dates are being set with the Russians on either de-confliction or more political – to inject more urgency into this whole crisis.
MR KIRBY: Well, we just came out of the UN General Assembly, Lesley. And as I read out to you guys then and then just a few minutes ago, there were a lot of discussions with the Russians and with our European and Arab allies and partners on this very issue. And that was just last week. So it’s Thursday today, and he’s had yet another call with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I don’t think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been diplomatic urgency on trying to move that ball forward. But as I also said, that’s a difficult ball to move downfield because the political issues are very complicated.
On the military side, I would point you to my colleagues at the Defense Department to speak to those tactical discussions that will be had in the future. That’s really not for me to say from here.
QUESTION: Following up on Lesley’s question, was there any – at the end of today’s talk between Kerry and Lavrov, did they agree on a timeframe to speak again? And also, who initiated the call today?
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that there was any scheduled set for another conversation. I think you know, Pam, he talks pretty frequently with Foreign Minister Lavrov and I suspect there’ll be another conversation in the not too distant future. I couldn’t tell you when that would be. And Secretary Kerry initiated the call.
QUESTION: John, there was an interesting point made in The Washington Post today. First, it said that U.S.-armed Syrian rebels are reportedly fighting government forces in the areas cleared by Russian airstrikes. But they mentioned that it’s part of the U.S.-Russia proxy war that Obama has vowed to avoid. Do you think the U.S. and Russia are engaged in a proxy war, and how does this reconcile?
MR KIRBY: I think the President spoke to this, and this – it’s not an outcome that anybody wants, a conflict with Russia over the future of Syria, whether it’s directly or indirectly. Nobody wants to see that, which is why the Secretary continues to try to pursue a political track and it’s why he maintains this dialogue with Foreign Minister Lavrov.
QUESTION: When you say earlier, “intensifying efforts,” does that include enhancing the – are you going to increase the arming of the Syrian rebels? Is the U.S. going to provide more arms?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals or speculate on what options may or may not be pursued. As I said, the President, the Secretary, everybody is very focused on a sense of urgency in Syria and on intensifying our efforts against ISIL. But I won’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet.
QUESTION: Same subject. There are reports that some of the Gulf countries – some of the Arab countries are now increasing their lethal support to the Syrian opposition groups. So is this kind of a new kind of proxy war if this happen? Are you concerned about such proxy war is happening, even if U.S. is not involved?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specific information about lethal assistance that is being provided directly by Gulf countries. I’d point you to those governments to speak to that. Again, I think everybody should just take a step back here and remember what needs to happen for the long-term stability of Syria and that’s a political transition here.
But obviously there remains a very significant threat inside Syria – not just the threat of Assad to his own people, though that is significant still. It’s the threat of ISIL, and that’s what this 60-member coalition is focused on.
QUESTION: And do you know more about the Russian incursions in this Turkish airspace that keeps happening? I think U.S. was supposed to talk to Russians about this recently.
MR KIRBY: We have – from the diplomatic side we’ve made our concerns known about those airspace violations, and we’ll continue should they continue. Again, all the more reason why there needs to be a better effort at de-confliction, and again, the Secretary raised the issue of de-confliction today. I can’t speak for the military and, again, what discussions they have or have not had on that particular issue.
MR KIRBY: My response to that would be the same as – it’s the same response I would give as I have given on North Korea. Look, the onus is on North Korea to come to the table and resume Six-Party Talks. They have not expressed a willingness to do that. We’re still committed to that framework and that process.
QUESTION: Also on North --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment about the upcoming celebration of the 70th founding that’s going to be happening on Saturday, the military parade?
MR KIRBY: In North Korea?
QUESTION: In North Korea.
MR KIRBY: No, I don’t.
QUESTION: Do you have any concerns about Chinese officials attending?
MR KIRBY: Those are sovereign decisions that countries have to make. What I would say is that China continues to have influence in North Korea, and as we have discussed with our Chinese counterparts in the past, I mean, we’d like to see them use that influence to a better end on the peninsula.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask – yesterday Hillary Clinton expressed her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, distancing herself from a central tenet of Administration policy that she helped craft while she was Secretary of State.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: I was wondering what the reaction was in the building to that.
MR KIRBY: We are focused on the work of diplomacy around the world right now, and not focused on the political campaign. And the candidates are obviously entitled to their opinions about a broad range of issues. The Secretary is very pleased by the agreement and to move forward with it, and as he’s said many times, this is going to strengthen our own economic security and deepen our strategic relationships in the Asia Pacific region. And so he’s focused on moving forward and getting this – and getting the agreement in force.
QUESTION: Was there any disappointment in the building, given that she chose to basically throw this agreement under the bus even though she hasn’t read the whole text yet?
MR KIRBY: Again, we’re not going to concern ourselves with campaign rhetoric and campaign positions that are being taken by the candidates. They’re all entitled to their opinions. What we’re focused on is on doing the work of diplomacy every day here at the State Department around the world. And as I said, the Secretary is focused on getting this agreement in force because he believes – and it’s the government’s position – that it’s a good thing for America, it’s a good thing for our economy, and it’s a good thing for our relationships in that part of the world.
QUESTION: Last one on this. Do you think her opposition, given her central role in pushing for this agreement, makes it harder to get the agreement through Congress?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate about what any one position for or against it is going to do. The Secretary is committed, as I said, again, to seeing it come into force, and he is ready, willing, and able to engage members of Congress about it and to address whatever concerns they might raise about it. But he’s very – he welcomes the news. He’s very glad that it was approved and wants to move forward on it.
QUESTION: No, wait, wait. Hold on. Just one more thing. Since you don’t speak for Secretary Clinton but you do speak for Secretary Kerry, do you think that in late January 2017 he’ll still support the TPP?
MR KIRBY: I have – so I’m being asked now about future opinions?
MR KIRBY: Interesting. I mean – well, I think the Secretary has been exceedingly clear, and you don’t have to look any further than the statement that he put out the other day about the deal. I think his opinions are clear, concise, and very well known, and I do not expect that they will change.
QUESTION: One question about Iraq. Yesterday a senior Iraqi security official told reporters that advanced intelligence equipment had arrived for joint operations from – that’s shared by Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. And he said – I would like to quote him, because he said something that seems very interesting. He said, “As a superpower Russia is playing an essential role in world politics today, and this will decide the outcome of the war in favor of Syria and Iraq.” Aren’t you concerned about this level of cooperation between Iraq and Russia? Isn’t, really, Iraq part of the Russian alliance as well as your alliance?
MR KIRBY: Isn’t Iraq part of?
QUESTION: The Russian alliance in this war, the Russia-Iran-Syria – whatever you --
MR KIRBY: Here’s what I’d say. I haven’t seen those comments, so rather than address the opinion expressed here – because I had not seen that – here’s how I would speak to this: Number one, Iraq is a sovereign country, and I know some people don’t like to continue to think of it that way because we had such a long presence in Iraq, but it’s a sovereign nation. And as a sovereign nation, it has every right and responsibility to have relationships with neighbors and even countries that aren’t neighbors.
And Prime Minister Abadi has reached out in the region and beyond, as you would expect him to do. He has a very serious threat inside his country – ISIL – that he is trying to grapple with at the same he’s trying to make important political and economic reforms in his country. So number one, it’s a sovereign country and they have the right to reach out and have relationships.
Number two, a relationship with Russia is not new for Iraq. They’ve had a long security relationship with Russia, to include the provisions of arms material, equipment, military capabilities, as well as some measure of information sharing – call it intel, call it information, but there’s been a relationship in the past. And that he would continue to try to improve his information-sharing capability inside his country when he’s facing such a dire threat, I think, is for him to speak to. But it’s not completely out of the realm of what you would consider normal for a leader in his position.
QUESTION: So it doesn’t concern the United States at all, this level of cooperation between Russia and Iraq?
MR KIRBY: This – there has been cooperation between Iraq and Russia in the past militarily and from a defense perspective.
QUESTION: This new level.
MR KIRBY: You’re calling it a new level. I’m not qualified to describe it as a new level because this is an issue for Iraq to speak to. They have had a relationship with Russia. It’s reasonable to suspect and to expect that they will continue to have a relationship with Russia going forward. Again, they’ve got a significant threat in their country.
What we’re doing – and I can only speak for what we’re doing – we continue to support the Government of Iraq as they continue to fight ISIL. And our support does include information sharing and our support does include advisors and trainers on the ground to try to improve their battlefield competence. And our support does include actual kinetic airstrikes on the air as well as other nations in a coalition, and Prime Minister Abadi himself – just as recently, I think, as a week ago – talked about Russia and that if Russia wants to play a constructive role in his country that he would want it integrated with that coalition effort.
Those are decisions that Iraq and Russia have to make. What we’re focused on is our leadership in the coalition that exists now and is operating now inside Iraq and in – and over the skies of Syria.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: So this joint operations room doesn’t just include a bilateral Iraqi-Russian relationship; Syria is in that room as well. It seems to be part of this effort to shore up Damascus as much as to fight ISIL inside Iraq.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’m not going to speak to the details of this joint operations center that we’re not a part of. What I --
QUESTION: But you said that you have no concerns or the same level of --
MR KIRBY: I didn’t say I had – no, wait a minute --
QUESTION: -- the same level of concerns as have existed the – you said there’s an existing relationship between Iraq and Russia. This is --
MR KIRBY: Iraq has to manage – Iraq has to manage its relationships.
QUESTION: But this existing relationship with Iraq and Russia now also includes Iran and Syria.
MR KIRBY: As I said before, Prime Minister Abadi has, and I think you would expect him to continue to reach out to neighbors – particularly neighbors, but even other nations that are not close geographic neighbors to him. And Syria’s a neighbor, Iran is a neighbor. Iran has interests in Iraq. And our message to all those countries that are involved or want to play a role inside Iraq, whether they’re next door or somewhere else, the message is the same: If you’re going to act unilaterally or bilaterally and not part of a coalition – the coalition – then we want you to do it in a way that doesn’t further inflame sectarian tensions and make the situation worse inside Iraq. And I have said that numerous times from this podium and other podiums, specifically with respect to Iran.
But ultimately, who Iraq has relationships with and how those relationships are managed is up for the Iraqi people to determine and for Prime Minister Abadi to execute.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: As you know from our correspondence, Fox News has been examining a key sanctions relief provision that is tucked away in one of the annexes to the JCPOA. And we have discovered that even some lawyers inside the Obama Administration have concluded that this provision is unlawful because it conflicts with existing U.S. statutes. In specific, the passage provides that if Iran meets its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States Government will license the foreign subsidiaries of U.S. parent firms to do business in Iran.
The problem, it seems to me, is that in August 2012, President Obama himself signed into law the Iran Threat Reduction Act, Section 218 of which mandated the closure of what is known as the foreign subsidiary loophole. Moreover, another section of that 2012 law that the President signed, Section 605, mandated that that foreign subsidiary loophole could not be opened up until the President himself had certified to the Congress that Iran has been removed from the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. As you also know, federal law holds that existing U.S. statute trumps in force of law any executive agreement like this, moreover one such as the Iran nuclear deal which has not even received a symbolic vote of approval from the Congress.
So I just wonder: Where did Secretary Kerry, when he negotiated the Iran deal, think he was deriving the legal authority to reopen, to promise to reopen the foreign subsidiary loophole when President Obama’s own law had explicitly closed it?
MR KIRBY: James, under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the President has broad authorities which have been delegated to the Secretary of the Treasury to license activities under our various sanctions regimes, and the Iran sanctions program is no different. Congress expressly provided for the use of this licensing authority with respect to the Threat Reduction Act, Section 218, that you cited. And I’m going to refer you to the Treasury Department for more details of this specific provision.
And I can tell you, however, that we are confident – the Secretary is confident – that the Administration has the authority to follow through on this commitment.
QUESTION: You referenced what the lawyers IEEPA, I-E-E-P-A --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- which was a law signed by President Carter in 1977 that does grant the President the authority to license even prohibited conduct. But the reference to IEEPA that is contained in the 2012 law that the President – that President Obama signed, this specific section you’re citing, grants the President the use of IEEPA authority in order to, quote-unquote, “carry out” the 2012 law. As we’ve established here, the 2012 law explicitly closed the foreign subsidiary loophole. I don’t think anywhere in the congressional record there is any indication that any lawmaker has ever intended that the President should cite the section of his own law in order to undermine it and reopen this loophole rather than, quote-unquote, “carry out” what it was expressly mandating him to do, which was the closure of the loophole. You follow me?
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I know you do.
MR KIRBY: I do, actually, because I’ve had to do a little study on this one. What – I will just tell you that, as I said earlier, we – the President has these broad authorities. The Secretary and we are comfortable that the Administration has these authorities, and I would refer you to the Department of Treasury for more details.
QUESTION: Was any effort made during the period when the deal was being crafted and negotiated by lawyers in this building to examine the lawfulness of the specific passage I’m talking about?
MR KIRBY: I couldn’t tell you. I mean, I couldn’t do forensics on discussions that may or may not have happened with legal staff. I would just again point you back to the authorities that we know the Executive Branch has in this regard, and the Secretary’s comfort level with those authorities.
QUESTION: So it’s the position of the Obama Administration that by reopening the very loophole that the 2012 law mandated that the President shut down, he is somehow carrying out that law from 2012?
MR KIRBY: Again, I’m going to point you to the Department of Treasury on this. As I said at the outset, the President has these broad authorities, and the Secretary – we’re comfortable that those authorities are in place.
QUESTION: I am not expecting much of an answer from this, but I’m going to ask it anyway. You are aware, no doubt, that a former employee of the U.S. consulate in Milan was detained in Portugal. What can you tell us about that?
MR KIRBY: We’re aware of those reports and we’re looking into the incident.
QUESTION: I’m sorry? (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: It was so fast you missed it?
QUESTION: So quiet. I think you tried to get – you tried to get away without saying any – it was that you were just moving your lips and nothing was coming out. I couldn’t hear you. Seriously, what did you say?
MR KIRBY: Oftentimes when I look at you, Matt – (laughter) – I’m moving my lips and not necessarily saying exactly what I want to say.
QUESTION: No, seriously, I just couldn’t hear you. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Now I can’t deliver this line without – we’re aware of the reports and we’re looking into the incident.
QUESTION: Okay. Nothing else?
MR KIRBY: Nothing else.
QUESTION: I mean, you don’t know if there’s been any --
MR KIRBY: Nothing else is going to come out of my lips on this one.
QUESTION: Okay. Well --
MR KIRBY: Yeah. I’ve got time for just --
QUESTION: Whether they move or not. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Whether they move or not, James. I’ve got time for just a couple more. I already got you. Let me go back to this gentleman here.
QUESTION: Turkey. Turkey – different subject.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, okay. Let me go back – let me get to this gentleman first since I already got you, and then we’ll come back. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I tried asking this a couple weeks ago. I wanted to try again, if that’s okay with you.
MR KIRBY: And did I not give you a satisfactory answer?
QUESTION: Not really. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Well, let’s try again.
QUESTION: A couple weeks ago the Japanese foreign minister visited Moscow, and now other Japanese ministry of foreign affairs officials are visiting to talk about disputed territories. And to me, given what Russia has been doing in the Ukraine and Syria, and what you said about now not being the time for business as usual with Russia, it seems like that you would have opposition to that. But I just thought I would ask for your reaction.
MR KIRBY: Again, we still maintain that, broadly speaking, it’s not time for business as usual with Russia on Ukraine. And back to what I – answering James’ question earlier about the phone call, I mean, Ukraine obviously still remains front and center in our minds. We know that Syria is grabbing the headlines and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean we’ve turned a blind eye to Ukraine and to what Russia continues to do there. Although, as I said, there seems to be some efforts in the right direction here on Minsk by both sides, and we want to encourage that. But as for the specifics of the discussions that you’re speaking about, I mean, I would let Japanese authorities speak to that. These are obviously sovereign discussions that they’re having. We’ve made our broad position known with respect to, quote/unquote, “business as usual” with Russia, but I would point you to the Japanese Government for more detail about those discussions.
QUESTION: So you have no problem with it?
MR KIRBY: I’m simply – I think I’ve answered the question. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you. There are three weeks left in Turkey for next election – repeat elections. And only within 24 hours, if I try to count here how many cracks down on Turkish press happen, I think it would take a lot of time. My question is whether you have any issue or you are concerned that this coming election within just three weeks may not be as transparent or under the regular, normal circumstances because of the opposition maybe is under this huge crackdown.
MR KIRBY: As I’ve said before, we’ve seen reports of the ban particularly on some media, some TV channels. As I said before, we’re concerned by the increasing number of investigations into media outlets for criticism of the government and for accusations of allegedly disseminating terrorist propaganda. We’re also concerned by the aggressive use of judicial inquiries to curb free speech.
We call on Turkey, as we have in the past, to respect the media freedoms and due process protections that are enshrined in the Turkish constitution itself. And obviously, we want to see free, fair, credible elections there. We want to see the voice of everybody in Turkey involved in shaping their own future. That’s important to us. And more critically, we believe it’s important for the Turkish people.
QUESTION: It’s fair to say you are concerned, then, about --
MR KIRBY: I just said we remain concerned by these reports.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:25 p.m.)
DPB # 166