.2:12 p.m. EDT
MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR KIRBY: I just want to give you an update on the trip, more – I have a little bit more detail to provide. As you know, we are – the Secretary’s leaving this evening. The first stop is Berlin. And while in Berlin, he will meet bilaterally with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the ongoing violence in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, as well as regional security issues.
While in Berlin, he will also meet separately with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to discuss a range of global issues, including the situation in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank; the refugee and migration issues in Europe; and Iran.
The Secretary will then travel to Vienna, where he will meet with Turkish, Russian, and Saudi counterparts to discuss a range of global issues, including, of course, the ongoing situation in Syria. He will meet bilaterally in Vienna with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well. So there’ll be a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov and then what we’re calling a quad meeting – in other words, all four – the Secretary, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and their counterparts from Turkey and from Saudi Arabia.
Then we’re off to the region, with stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to also meet with regional leaders there to talk about a range of security issues in the region. So --
QUESTION: Can you say which days are for which?
MR KIRBY: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Can you say which days are for which cities, please?
MR KIRBY: Berlin tomorrow, Friday in Vienna, and then Jordan and Saudi Arabia through the weekend.
I also want to – hang on a second. I also want to provide a readout of his – the Secretary’s meeting with Prime Minister Sharif from Pakistan. They met this morning. The Secretary welcomed the prime minister back to Washington for his second visit since his election in 2013. The Secretary and the prime minister highlighted the multidimensional nature of the United States-Pakistan partnership and its importance for regional stability and security. Secretary Kerry thanked Prime Minister Sharif for Pakistan’s regional efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism, especially in bringing to justice al-Qaida leadership and disrupting terrorist plots. Secretary Kerry recognized Pakistan’s efforts and sacrifices in targeting extremists in Zarb-e-Azb and other operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the two leaders discussed the need for additional efforts to target all terrorists in its territory.
They discussed the recent announcement to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, noting that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is the surest way to end violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and in the region. The Secretary thanked Prime Minister Sharif for Pakistan’s continued facilitation of reconciliation discussions between the democratically elected Afghan Government and members of the Taliban. Both leaders agreed to build on the ongoing U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue to advance progress in these and other areas.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Let’s start with the trip and the first – the first issue to be dealt with on the trip, being the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We know what the Secretary wants to achieve, but can you offer any kind of specificity as to any suggestions or ideas or proposals that he might or that he is bringing to both Prime Minister Netanyahu and then to President Abbas about how actually to get there?
MR KIRBY: I think I’m going to let the discussions speak for themselves, Matt. And I’m not going to get ahead of specific agenda items. But as I said yesterday, the Secretary feels it’s important to go and to have these discussions, given the ongoing violence, to try to look for ways to end that violence and to restore calm, as well as to provide some political breathing space so that real, meaningful progress can be made towards an end to the violence. But I don’t want to get ahead of specific agenda items. The Secretary is committed to – obviously to making this trip, to having these discussions, and to work towards concrete ways to get at an end to this violence.
QUESTION: Well, is he going with anything?
MR KIRBY: Look, without getting into detail, I can assure you that the Secretary has been thinking a lot about this and intends to and wants to and fully expects to have meaningful discussions about ways in which – practical ways in which the violence can come to an end.
QUESTION: What do you mean by “political breathing space?”
MR KIRBY: Just enough of a sense of calm and some sense trying to arise at some level of agreement that can foster --
QUESTION: Do you --
MR KIRBY: -- more security and more stability.
QUESTION: I have one more and then I’ll stop. Just the – Prime Minister Netanyahu has been complaining vociferously about incitement coming from the Palestinian side, and the Secretary and you have all – as well as the President – have all talked about the need to stop incitement. In that context, I’m wondering if you saw Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments from last night about the Holocaust and about the grand mufti of Jerusalem and whether you think that that, as some Palestinians have suggested, amounts to incitement.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’m not going to get into specific characterizations. I’ve tried to avoid that recently. We’ve certainly seen and we’re aware of the prime minister’s statements. And as President Obama said, certainly Secretary Kerry has made clear, we want to stress publicly and privately the importance of preventing inflammatory rhetoric, accusations, or actions on both sides that can lead to violence.
QUESTION: Well, can I pick up on that?
QUESTION: Does this count? I mean, does this go – does that – does this enter that category?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to characterize each and every statement or action. I think we’ve been clear about what we want to see, which is moving away from rhetoric or actions that just encourage the violence. But I’m not going to get into characterizing each one.
QUESTION: Is it historically correct? Do you believe that --
MR KIRBY: I’m also not going to get into a historical debate about this. We’ve seen the press reports of his comments, and if you look at them they would connote that the scholarly evidence does not support that position.
QUESTION: Well, can I – may I?
MR KIRBY: Do I really have a choice? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Not really. When you say something like that, I mean, come on. You stand at this podium day after day and you talk about incitement and the Palestinians incite something, and then the prime minister says something that is not only obviously factually incorrect but just so exploitative in this environment, and you’re dancing around the fact that it was inappropriate without just kind of saying what you’re hinting at, that these were inflammatory remarks that only contribute to the type of destabilization that you’re asking.
MR KIRBY: Right. No, Elise, I mean, I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve been, I think, consistent and I’m going to stay consistent that we’re not going to get into a characterization of each and every incident and each and every word spoken. What we want to see and we want – I think what we want to do is for everybody to take a few steps back, and we want to see the inflammatory rhetoric, we want to see inflammatory actions, we want to see provocative movements, all that stuff stop so that there can be an end to the violence, so that there can be some political breathing space for some real solutions.
QUESTION: May I? When you go – I mean, you do say when there are Holocaust deniers and such, you’re quick to point out the inaccuracy of their statements. So I take it to mean that the reason that you’re not publicly criticizing it is because you think that this would just contribute to a bad climate of – what?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think I’m going to leave my answer the way it was. We’ve seen the press reports of the prime minister’s comments, and in those reports you can see for yourself the scholarly evidence obviously supports a different position. But again, what we – what needs to happen here and why the Secretary is going is to try to find ways – practical, tangible, concrete ways – to reduce the violence.
QUESTION: Two last quick ones. First of all, you just mentioned that he was going to Jordan to meet with leaders there. I assume you mean that he’s going to meet with President Abbas and King Abdullah.
MR KIRBY: He is expected to meet with – well, I should say planning to meet with President Abbas and the king, yes.
QUESTION: And then one last one. You talk about kind of you want to discuss practical ways and have a meaningful discussion. Do I take that to mean that you – while this is not obviously the beginning of a restarting of the peace process, do you consider this trip as kind of the beginning of a discussion where you see the Secretary might be traveling there a little bit more often to try and calm the situation? Like, it doesn’t seem like these two meetings in and of themselves are going to reach some kind of big agreement where things are going to be able to calm down.
MR KIRBY: Well, let’s not get ahead of meetings that haven’t happened yet and discussions that haven’t taken place. I think I’d just go back to my answer to Matt. I mean, the Secretary believes right now this is an important trip for him to make, these are important discussions for him to have given the spate of violence, and to try to work towards practical ways in which political breathing space can be had, that – to help end the violence. That’s really the focus here --
QUESTION: But do you see this – but do you see this as the beginning of a dialogue or do you – like, are you hoping for deliverables out of these particular meetings?
MR KIRBY: Again, I don’t want to get ahead of meetings that haven’t happened yet. I’d – I would say – I would characterize this as a continuation of a dialogue, Elise, that you know the Secretary continues have with leaders in the region, and to include Prime Minister Netanyahu.
QUESTION: John, let me just follow up on the issue that we began the discussion with. So you don’t find it outrageous that the prime minister of Israel is basically trying to say that the Holocaust was inspired by a Palestinian?
MR KIRBY: Said, I think I’ve answered the question.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, try again. Let’s see – because your answer was not very clear. You find – don’t you find this outrageous?
MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question, Said. We’ve seen the reporting on his comments and in those reports, yourself, you can see that the scholarly evidence doesn’t hold that same view.
QUESTION: Well, past evidence shows that when there’s that kind of rhetoric – I mean, we can go back all the way to 1995 when such rhetoric resulted in the assassination of the prime minister of Israel. I mean, not the same kind of rhetoric, but saying that the Israeli public or Israeli citizens are compromised by such efforts and so on led in fact – or inspired someone to assassinate the Israeli prime minister, for instance. So with this kind of rhetoric, what kind of atmosphere is the prime minister of Israel fomenting?
MR KIRBY: Well, I – again, I’m not going to characterize or – every term and every line uttered. What we’d like to see are steps being taken, whether they’re in word or in deed, to reduce the tensions, to try to restore some calm, and to end this terrible violence that’s going on. And that’s what the Secretary’s trying to do on this trip, that’s why he’s going, and that’s where his focus is.
QUESTION: But that’s not really – forgive me, but that’s not parsing every word or every incident and so on. This is the prime minister of Israel, with whom the Secretary of State will be meeting in a day or two. I mean, coming out to say something that is outrageous, to say – as Elise said – is not historically accurate and so on. So doesn’t that warrant some sort of a statement by you guys, in this case, by the Administration on such inflammatory rhetoric?
MR KIRBY: Again, Said, we’d made our desires plain and clear about what we want to see happen there in the region.
QUESTION: What about the point that what he said is basically wrong? Doesn’t the Administration have an obligation to call out an ally and say, “What you said is inaccurate”?
MR KIRBY: Roz, I’m going to say the same thing here. What we want to see if for calm to be restored, for any inflammatory rhetoric on any side to stop, because ultimately anything that encourages the violence to continue is unhelpful to the security environment there. The Secretary talked about this a little bit last night at the Foreign Policy dinner, about the desire by everybody here at the State Department for innocent men, women, and children to be able to walk the streets safely and to go about their lives normally, and that’s what we want to see here. But I’m simply not going to get into characterizing each and every line.
QUESTION: That’s right, but --
MR KIRBY: Again, the scholarly evidence and the press reporting itself speaks for what the position is with respect to the history of the Holocaust.
QUESTION: But when the German Government has to come out and say that what Netanyahu said was wrong; when the leadership of Yad Vashem has to come out and say that what he said was wrong; when the opposition leader, Mr. Herzog, comes out and says that what Mr. Netanyahu said was wrong; shouldn’t the U.S. at the very least challenge the accuracy of what Mr. Netanyahu said?
MR KIRBY: I think what we’re trying to do here is take a larger view. And rather than getting into commentary on every word uttered and every act taken –
QUESTION: Sorry, sorry.
MR KIRBY: That’s a really nice ring tone.
QUESTION: No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: We’re trying to get to a point – I mean, I think try – the Secretary wants to take a larger view here, and that is to get the violence to stop, get calm to be restored, and to try to find ways – concrete ways – that we can get to that outcome. And that’s what he’s focused on, and I think that’s the right – I think that is the right focus here.
QUESTION: John, how --
QUESTION: And I can appreciate that, but it’s one thing to say something that could be construed as being bigoted or prejudiced or racist. It’s another thing to say something that is a lie. Shouldn’t the U.S. say, “Mr. Prime Minister, what you said is wrong”?
MR KIRBY: What the Secretary believes the U.S. should do is to look for ways to end the violence and to move forward, so that eventually we can make progress towards a two-state solution. That’s what the Secretary thinks the U.S. should be doing, and that’s why he’s making this trip.
QUESTION: Yeah, but --
QUESTION: Change of subject?
QUESTION: No, no, no, no, hold on.
QUESTION: The problem --
MR KIRBY: You said you were done with this.
QUESTION: No. Well, you opened the door. No one’s asking you to comment on every single comment that’s been made.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: No, we’re not – not every single one. We’re asking about one specific one, which you even yourself acknowledge is historically inaccurate.
MR KIRBY: What I said was the scholarly evidence takes a different view, a different position on that.
QUESTION: Okay, scholarly evidence takes a different view and --
MR KIRBY: And I said that.
QUESTION: So no one’s asking you about anything else. It’s not – you say, “I’m not going to comment on every single word that comes out” – we’re not.
MR KIRBY: No, but Matt, you can see where we’ll get into this day by day, and what I’m trying to do is tamp down your expectations for me to characterize each and every comment made, because there’s going to – there could very well be more coming from who knows who. So what I’m trying to do --
MR KIRBY: What I’m trying to do is stress where the Secretary’s head is, which is --
QUESTION: Well, my expectations can’t be tamped down much further than they already are, so --
MR KIRBY: Well, then --
QUESTION: -- I wish you luck with that.
MR KIRBY: Then I win, I guess.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Well, it’s not a question of winning or losing. It’s a question of whether you’re willing to stand up and take a stand, and it sounds like you’ll say that the scholarly evidence supports a different position, but you won’t say that you think that this was an unhelpful – these were unhelpful comments to make in the broader scheme of what’s going – the intense atmosphere and tensions that are – that exist there. Now, if you’re not willing to do that, I guess that you’re not. So – but I mean, I don’t think – but I don’t think it should go – be – I don’t think it should be glossed over or passed unnoticed that you’re not – that you’re refusing – that the Administration is refusing to take a critical position on this.
MR KIRBY: I can appreciate you’d like a different response, but I’m going to leave it how I left it.
QUESTION: I’d like a response, not a different one.
MR KIRBY: I’m going to leave it how I left it.
QUESTION: Minister Lavrov, when he was talking about the meeting in Vienna, said he’d also suggested a meeting of the Quartet. And you’re just confirming now that there’s going to be the four-way meeting with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Is there talk of a Quartet meeting in Vienna as well?
MR KIRBY: No. I think I’ve explained to you what the meetings are.
QUESTION: But can you confirm --
MR KIRBY: There may be some confusion on what --
QUESTION: -- that Minister Lavrov asked for that, or --
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware. You’d have to talk to the foreign minister about --
QUESTION: But we did. He said --
MR KIRBY: I got it, but I’m telling you --
MR KIRBY: -- what we’re planning and what our trip agenda looks like.
QUESTION: John, the Israeli army yesterday, in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, killed a number of Palestinians – one 15 years old, another 17 years old, and so on. Would you at least ask your allies, the Israelis, to exercise some restraint if they are not conducting themselves in an excessive, forceful kind of way? Would you ask them or request that they exercise restraint?
MR KIRBY: Said, just like we’ve been saying throughout this, we certainly are aware of those reports, and sadly there have been too many reports of violence. And the Secretary has been clear, as recently as just a day ago, that we want to see the violence end and that we condemn all acts of violence against – deliberate acts of violence against innocent men, women, and children, and we want to see it end. And again, that’s why he believes it’s so important to make this trip.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Hold on, wait, I’ve got one more question. It’s not – it’s Israel-Palestinians, but it’s not this. UNESCO --
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- vote today.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: What do you think of it?
MR KIRBY: So you know today at the executive board meeting of UNESCO, the United States voted no on a highly politicized resolution related to the Old City of Jerusalem and its sacred sites. That resolution originally proposed, as we talked about yesterday, asserting that the Western Wall should be considered an integral part of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. As a result of the constructive engagement of the United States, other member-states, and the director general, the most highly problematic language in that resolution was removed. So – and five other states, member-states, joined us in voting against the occupied Palestine item. Because this resolution was not adopted by consensus, the director general is not going to implement it.
QUESTION: Okay. Now, you had opposed the language on the Western Wall and got it removed, but it included – did include Rachel’s Tomb and one other site which I can’t remember off the top of my head but I have it in my email.
MR KIRBY: And we opposed – we voted no on the --
QUESTION: And the reason that you voted no is because why? Did you believe that this would add to the – inflame the situation?
MR KIRBY: We felt that they – both of them were highly politicized and one-sided.
QUESTION: Okay. And you can’t say that about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, though? You can talk about UNESCO – a vote at UNESCO that you think would inflame the situation, make tensions worse, exacerbate the problem, but you can’t – and that’s pretty specific, but you can’t say that about what the prime minister said?
MR KIRBY: I appreciate the comparison that you want to make here, Matt. I’ve answered the question about the prime minister’s comments and I’ve answered for our no-vote on both these resolutions.
QUESTION: So last one: Do you know if anyone has raised the prime minister’s comments with anyone in the Israeli Government? And does the Secretary intend to raise it with the prime minister himself?
MR KIRBY: I do not know if there’s been any specific raising of the comments, and I’m not going to get ahead of the Secretary’s discussions.
QUESTION: Can I ask on Syria or are we sticking on Israel?
MR KIRBY: Sure, go ahead.
MR KIRBY: It’s not surprising that Bashar al-Assad would travel to Moscow given the relationship that Syria has with Russia and given the recent military activities by Russia in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.
QUESTION: But given the timing, what’s happening on the ground, a major regime offensive that’s underway, it’s interesting to show up in what seems to be a visit that surprised many watchers here. Did the Secretary have any heads-up that this was going to be happening?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into the level of information that the Secretary gets about these kinds of things. I would just tell you that it’s not surprising that Assad would make that kind of a trip and have those discussions in Moscow.
QUESTION: Well, given that the Secretary has plans to meet with Mr. Putin’s chief diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, this week, how do you reconcile what seems to be two concepts that are at odds here – which is an endorsement of Assad and his leadership by welcoming him to Moscow, and the idea that these talks with Lavrov are about a political transition in Syria away from Assad? Is that still the understanding for the meeting this week with Lavrov?
MR KIRBY: Yes, the focus of the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov bilaterally and then multilaterally obviously is towards getting at a political transition in Syria. And not everybody agrees on what that should look like. We talked about this a little bit yesterday. There’s a lot that still needs to be done in terms of the modalities of what a transition would look like, how long would it take, and how would it be implemented. There’s still a lot of spadework to do, and I don’t think that these meetings this week are going to be anywhere near the end of those kinds of discussions.
Now, I’m not so sure that I would agree with you, Margaret, that his trip to Moscow is somehow contrary or at odds with this. I mean, Moscow and Damascus have a relationship, have had one. Obviously now, Russian military aircraft and military forces are increasing their support in tangible ways to the Assad regime. So that they continue to do that remains just as much an issue of concern for us as it was before his visit to Moscow. And I think you can expect that Secretary Kerry will once again reiterate our deep concern about the continued military support for the Assad regime. Because in our view there’s not going to be a military solution to the civil war, and that any attempt to find one – certainly one that props up Assad – is only going to prolong it and make the threat of extremism deeper in Syria.
So I don’t think, as I said – there’s no surprise here that Putin and Assad would meet and discuss given the history that they have. What we want to do is focus on trying to get at real possibilities here for a political transition. We recognize – the Secretary’s a pragmatist here. I mean, he recognizes that that’s more difficult to do when the Assad regime feels more emboldened and more empowered by the extra support that they get from Russian – from the Russian military.
QUESTION: John --
QUESTION: So is – the premise, though, for this conversation about political transition – the question of Assad is a central one in terms of how long he stays. Is the Secretary walking into that meeting with a specific timeline in his head?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t want to get into the specifics before a meeting has happened. What I would do is I’d point you to what the Secretary said before, which is we want to see a transition to a government away from Assad, obviously, and towards one that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people that’s pluralistic, that’s inclusive. And he recognizes that, again, not everybody shares that view. What he has said is whether Assad goes on day one or month one or month eight, whatever it is, it’s clear that he has no longer got the legitimacy to govern and needs to go, and a more responsive government needs to come in.
Again, I’m not going to get into the specifics. I think it’s the specifics, it’s the modalities, it’s how do you implement a political transition that gets you to that outcome that there’s still a lot of spadework to do. And as I said, I think these meetings this week, while important and significant, are not going to be the end of the kinds of discussions bilaterally with the Russians and multilaterally with other partners that are going to take place. Even at the UN General Assembly a couple of weeks ago in New York, the Secretary hosted three such multilateral meetings and met bilaterally with Foreign Minister Lavrov a number of times in just the span of one week. These meetings this week are a continuation of that, and I suspect you’re going to see more.
QUESTION: It’s coming after --
QUESTION: Does that mean that eight months – Assad has eight months, or did you just make that up out of the --
MR KIRBY: I was speaking hypothetically.
QUESTION: Is the premise still Geneva III? Is it too soon to talk about that? I mean, is that the template for this conversation – a Geneva process still?
MR KIRBY: I don’t think we’re at that point now where we can define what the template’s going to look like going forward.
QUESTION: John, is the visit coming a day after the signing of the memo of understanding – does it have anything to do with it?
MR KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: The fact that maybe the Americans said that you do have clear skies to do that?
MR KIRBY: No. No, I would disabuse you of any connection or link between the MOU signed by the Pentagon and the Russian military with these meetings.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you --
QUESTION: Were you briefed on the flight path?
MR KIRBY: Were we what?
QUESTION: Were you briefed on the flight path to Moscow? Did you know the route he took?
MR KIRBY: Who?
MR KIRBY: No, not that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Do you know what kind of airplane he was transported by?
MR KIRBY: No, and I don’t know what food he had to eat on the plane either.
QUESTION: Let me ask you about the content of his meeting that – he was saying that he’s willing to move on, he’s sort of agreeable to a transition if the other groups of the opposition – militant groups and so on – sort of stop fighting. Is that something that you would also agree to?
MR KIRBY: What we want to see is a government that doesn’t have Bashar al-Assad at its head. How we get there, the – we don’t know right now, and again, that’s why the Secretary’s having these meetings. And I’m not going to get ahead of modalities that haven’t been established and agreed upon.
QUESTION: Sorry. One last – does there have to be total calm or nonfighting, so to speak, a non-fighting environment, for the transition to take place?
MR KIRBY: Certainly, certainly --
QUESTION: No hostilities?
MR KIRBY: Certainly, a situation where there’s no hostilities would – could in certain circumstances engender a better chance at a real political transition, but I don’t want to get into hypotheticals or speculation at this point. Obviously, we certainly would – and we’ve said this repeatedly – want to see the violence against the innocent Syrian people by the regime stop. I mean, the barrel bombing and the other atrocities that the Assad regime continues to visit on their own people needs to stop. And a situation where there’s no violence – certainly, that could be helpful, but again, we’re not there yet.
QUESTION: John, on this issue, how do you assess the Russian prime minister’s statement on Syria? He said that Russia defends its national interests in Syria, not certain people, and that Bashar al-Assad staying in power is not matter of principle for Moscow.
MR KIRBY: Is not a matter of principle?
MR KIRBY: Look, I haven’t seen those comments. I would just tell you that our position hasn’t changed one whit here that if Russia wants to have a constructive role against ISIL, if they want to play that role, then that’s a discussion we’re willing to have, and there could be space for that. But if, on the other hand, as we’ve seen through the vast majority of their military operations, that they are there to prop Assad up – to embolden him, to empower him, to allow him to remain in power – well, that’s a different matter altogether. And it’s not going to get us any closer to what really needs to happen in Syria, which is a political transition.
QUESTION: Do you read any changes or any change in Russia’s statement or position towards Assad in this statement?
MR KIRBY: We – well, you read it yourself. I haven’t seen it, but they talk about preserving their interests by preserving the current regime, is the way I read that, but maybe I’m wrong. I would just tell you that we are judging – and I said this before – we’re judging Russia by their actions in Syria, not by their words.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: One more for me, please: Are you aware of the news reports that said that Russia has lost 26 soldiers in Syria so far?
MR KIRBY: I’ve seen those reports. I’m in no position to independently verify or confirm that.
QUESTION: But John, can I just ask, do you think that the visit takes you further or – closer or further away from a political transition?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know that I’m in a position to characterize that, Matt, because we weren’t in the room. What I would just say is, again, not surprising that a visit like that took place; not surprising that there were discussions. This is a – these are two countries that have had a relationship, and as we’ve said before, Russia has interests in Syria – certainly military interests in Syria. So I don’t think we’re at a point now where I can call it one way or the other, closer or farther away.
QUESTION: But even if you don’t know what was said – you weren’t in the room – the mere fact of the visit has to mean something to people in this building.
MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, we took note of it. But again, I don’t think there was great surprise by it. We’re going to judge Russia by its actions in Syria, not by the words and not by discussions that, again, we weren’t a party to.
QUESTION: Well, this is an action, though. I mean, they invited and hosted a guy who’s – you think is unfit to lead his country. So you say you’re going to judge Russia by its actions in Syria – well, I mean, this might technically not have been inside Syria, but it certainly involves Syria, so judge it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And it’s his first trip outside the country since 2011.
MR KIRBY: Yes, it has been his first trip --
QUESTION: It’s an action, right? And you say you’re going to judge them by their actions, so I’m just asking you to --
MR KIRBY: I just --
QUESTION: I’m just asking you to follow through on your pledge to judge them by their actions.
MR KIRBY: I think it’s just too soon to know whether – to your original question of whether it takes us closer or farther away. What I can tell you is the Secretary’s focused on getting to a political transition as soon as possible.
QUESTION: You said a Putin-Assad meeting is not a surprise, but is there concern about the timing of the meeting? Is there a sense in this building that it might have been an effort to get ahead of the U.S. efforts this week to look at what can be done in the situation in Syria with its allies?
MR KIRBY: I have no idea what the motivation was for the timing. I mean, you’d have to talk to Mr. Assad or Mr. Putin for how they arranged this and why they did. What I can tell you is, regardless of the visit, nothing’s going to change about what we’re focused on, which is two things: going after ISIL inside Syria and inside Iraq, and trying to get at a political track – a political solution – here in Syria. And again, we strongly believe there’s not going to be a military solution to that conflict.
QUESTION: Do you believe this type of meeting with Russia is destabilizing to those efforts?
MR KIRBY: I think I’d go back to what I said to Matt. I mean, it’s too soon to know. I mean, we weren’t a party to the meeting, and the leaders that had the meeting will have to speak for themselves about what they talked about and what the significance of it was. Not surprising to us that the meeting occurred, and nothing’s changed about what we’re focused on inside Syria, which is a political transition to a government away from Assad.
QUESTION: John, so I’ll assume the U.S. was not briefed on what happened in the meeting, even with the Kerry-Lavrov phone call today?
MR KIRBY: They did speak this morning. It was a brief discussion. It was mostly focused on the upcoming meetings in Europe, and it was a very practical discussion about the meeting itself and there wasn’t a lot of content discussed.
QUESTION: So nothing about what happened in Moscow?
MR KIRBY: Well, I didn’t say that. I mean, I think Foreign Minister Lavrov did raise the issue of Assad’s visit. But again, the focus of the discussion, which was very short, less than 10 minutes, was really on the modalities of the meetings that are going to happen in Europe. I mean, it’s – as we talked about even yesterday when I couldn’t give you a lot of details, the trip was – is – continues to refine itself, and there’s lots of people’s schedules that have to be arranged to make these meetings happen. And so that was really the focus of the call this morning.
QUESTION: Beyond the meeting, was there – is there a discussion about, I mean, beyond even Syria, I mean, Russia’s planned intentions on Iraq and what’s going on over there? And are you looking at this meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov for some kind of assurances that even as what’s going on in Syria – that Russia is not going to start undertaking airstrikes in Iraq now?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think Prime Minister Abadi has spoken to this already in terms of whatever participation Russia might have. He’s made it clear that he would want it to be an integral part of and integrated with the coalition and nothing unilateral or even bilateral between Iraq and Russia. So I think I’d point you back to what Prime Minister Abadi said. As I said earlier, the phone call this morning was really a very short call and it was mostly about setting up the logistics of the meetings that are going to occur later this week.
QUESTION: John, so you said that the visit wasn’t surprising for you – President Assad’s visit to Moscow. Were you aware of this visit before it happened?
MR KIRBY: I think I’m going to leave it where I left it with Margaret. I’m not going to talk about how we get information here and where it comes from. I will just tell you that the meeting that Assad had in Moscow is not surprising to us.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to be meeting with a member of the Syrian – a representative of the Syrian opposition during this trip?
MR KIRBY: There’s no plans to do that.
QUESTION: So why is that? I mean, if the Russian president is meeting with the president of Syria, why wouldn’t --
MR KIRBY: Well, we have had dialogue with the SOC and I suspect that dialogue will continue. There’s simply no plans to do that on this trip. What we have said, though, coming out of Doha a couple of months ago, there’s certainly a general understanding that at some point in the process of working out the modalities toward a political transition there has to be a focus on the opposition and on what role – appropriate role – they can take towards effecting that transition. The focus on these meetings this week are with those other countries I talked about – Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
And as I said earlier in this briefing, the discussions this week should not be viewed as a culmination; it’s a continuation. The Secretary is going to continue to engage, and I would expect you’re going to see more discussions, more meetings, and more opportunities to discuss and to try to get at the modalities of a political transition over time.
QUESTION: Doesn’t --
MR KIRBY: It’s a difficult – it’s a difficult outcome to achieve because not everybody has the same view, clearly. And so trying to arrive at a common view for what a transition should and could look like is going to take some time and it’s going to take a lot of different efforts with different groups over that period of time.
QUESTION: Doesn’t it strike you as odd, John --
QUESTION: Well, but don’t you think you should be having a discussion about the modalities of what a Syrian transition should look like with actual Syrians?
MR KIRBY: We have --
QUESTION: I mean, your discussions for the last – within these multilateral formats within the last year or so have had very little involvement of the actual Syrian opposition themselves.
MR KIRBY: There have been – there has been dialogue --
QUESTION: I’m not saying that there has been dialogue, but --
MR KIRBY: -- with the Syrian opposition.
QUESTION: But how can you be getting together with a bunch of foreign ministers to talk about a political transition in Syria like in a total vacuum of any discussions with part of that group on – with the Syrians themselves? Is that because you still don’t have any idea of who would fit into a political transition?
MR KIRBY: I think there – again, there have been discussions with the opposition. There will continue to be those discussions over time and at the appropriate – at the appropriate time. I think you can expect to see exactly that. But – and we’ve acknowledged – again, all the way back to the Doha meeting, we’ve acknowledged that there’s going to have to be a role there. But the Secretary’s focus on this trip is to meet with those foreign ministers.
QUESTION: Well, when is the appropriate moment to bring Syrians in on the future – on deciding what the future of their country --
MR KIRBY: It’s not like they haven’t been – your question presumes that there’s been no discussion with them about this and that’s not true; there has been. And there will continue to be. And the fact that he’s not meeting with the Syrian opposition on this trip shouldn’t be meant to connote that there is any exclusivity here. A lot – there is going to be a time and a place, and the Secretary’s talked about this, for discussions with Iran about this.
QUESTION: Wait a minute --
MR KIRBY: When we get to the appropriate time and place, we’ll get there.
QUESTION: You’re misunderstanding. This is not intended as a criticism particularly of the United States or the Secretary. But it does certainly seem when you have big power, regional powers – Russia, the United States, Saudi, and Turkey – sitting around deciding about how Syria is going to have a political transition – I mean, it kind of smacks of – it’s like a Congress of Berlin dividing up – a bunch of Europeans dividing up Africa. It does seem odd, or can you understand why Syrians themselves might be a little suspicious of – about four foreigners getting together to decide what the fate of their country is going to be?
MR KIRBY: That’s not the purpose of the meeting this week, to sit there and decide the future of Syria. It’s to try to get at some tangible modalities for what a political transition can look like. And the Secretary has observed that over time, there will need to be discussions with other partners as well. I mean, as I said to Margaret, this is not a culmination; it’s a continuation. You’re going to see continued multilateral discussions. And there has been discussions with the opposition; there will continue to be.
QUESTION: Will Ambassador Michael Ratney attend the meeting? Will Ambassador Michael Ratney attend the meeting?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you, Said. I believe that he’ll be represented, but you’ll have to let me get back to you on that.
QUESTION: John, can I just ask, broadly speaking – I mean, you’ve said that this Assad visit isn’t surprising given Russia’s involvement. But this is his first trip outside the country since 2011, I believe. So the fact that he felt comfortable enough to do that or was able to do that is notable. What does that say to you, that his first stop was Moscow, not Tehran? Does that have any significance in terms of underscoring, as some would say, that Russia has only increased its weight at the negotiating table through its military actions?
MR KIRBY: Well, I would let Mr. Assad speak for his travel habits and why he elected to go to Moscow on his first trip out of his country in so long.
QUESTION: You don’t see that as significant?
MR KIRBY: I didn’t say that I didn’t. What I said is I’d let Mr. Assad speak for his travel habits. What I said, though, earlier was it’s not surprising to us, given the weight of and the scope of the support that he is getting from the Russian military of late, which is, again, not insignificant. So again, I’m only speculating there. I don’t know why he went there. But if you just look at practically what’s happening on the ground in his country, it’s certainly Russia that has lent a not insignificant amount of military support to him and to his regime.
QUESTION: But John, do you find the --
QUESTION: Would you have liked to see him stay there? Would you have liked to see him stay in Moscow?
MR KIRBY: What we want to see is a political transition to an inclusive government in Syria.
QUESTION: But that’s not --
QUESTION: But John, do you – John, do you find the fact that Assad is – and Putin just met the day before, two days before Kerry’s meeting with Lavrov on Syria, do you find that significant, and also, given that they certainly discussed a political transition? So do you expect Lavrov to come to Vienna with some kind of proposal or with some idea of what Assad can or would do?
MR KIRBY: We certainly note that the meeting happened this week. But I – again, I would let Russian authorities and Mr. Assad speak for the timing of his travel. Again, that it happened is not surprising to us and it isn’t going to change the focus of what the Secretary is trying to get out of these meetings, which is progress towards the possibilities of a political transition. What Mr. Lavrov is going to bring to Vienna is up to him and to his government to speak to. What the Secretary wants to try to get out of these meetings is a continuation of these discussions and to try to arrive at real possibilities for what a political transition can look like.
QUESTION: But the U.S. has always said you’re not really sure what their motive is here, and that if he’s just met with Assad and would have discussed very – I mean, our story says that Putin told Assad he hoped progress on military front would be followed by moves towards a political transition – solution in Syria. It was discussed. So wouldn’t you find it strange that Mr. Lavrov would not come to Vienna with some kind of idea of how a political transition could work?
MR KIRBY: Well, we certainly look forward to hearing what Mr. Lavrov has to say in the meetings, and we certainly look forward to useful, productive input towards getting at a political transition, and we have to have these discussions to know what that input’s going to be and to get a better sense of how useful it might be. I won’t get ahead of meetings that haven’t happened yet. But to what you said earlier, our view is you don’t get to a political transition in a civil war like this by the military activities that have been taken, by trying to find a military solution for it. Our view hasn’t changed, which is different from that view, which is that that view is, well, military activities can lead towards a political solution. We reject that notion. That is not at all how the United States looks at this. We believe there’s no military solution to the civil war in Syria, that it has to be solved through a political solution.
QUESTION: Well, there may not be a military solution to the conflict, but certainly Russia’s military action in Syria has given it some kind of political advantage in terms of determining what the political outcome is going to be.
MR KIRBY: I don’t think that – I don’t know that I would agree with you, Elise.
MR KIRBY: And I wouldn’t say that we’re in a position or anybody is in a position to make that call right now. These discussions still have to happen. There’s going to be more. It is clear – no secret, no surprise – that the Russian view of Assad’s future is not the same as ours. So we have to – and we’ve talked about this. It’s important to have these discussions and to try to arrive at some common sense here.
QUESTION: I understand. But how are you supposed to kind of move the Russians? With your vicious rhetoric? I mean, they are dominating the air – the skies in Syria. They have expanded their presence on the ground. And more and more, the international community seems to be, if not kind of agreeing with their position that Assad needs to stay, is reluctantly acknowledging that the Russians have a plan and that’s basically how it’s going to go.
MR KIRBY: Well, there’s a lot there. First of all, they’re not dominating the skies over Syria. The coalition has been continuing strikes against ISIL, particularly in the north of Syria, unimpeded and without interference from the Russians. That’s one of the reasons why the Pentagon signed this MOU was to make sure that safe, professional airmanship could continue to occur. So they’re not dominating the skies. Where they’re hitting by and large are those areas largely regime – still regime-controlled but contested, and they continue to hit – the vast majority of their targets continue to be opposition groups and not ISIL.
QUESTION: So how can --
MR KIRBY: They have had little to no effect on --
QUESTION: Okay, but --
MR KIRBY: -- on ISIL. And this idea that they have a plan and we don’t, again, is simply not borne out by the facts. I’ve talked about this before. What we believe you’re seeing here is Russia being reactive to the increasing fragility, what was the increasing fragility, of the Assad regime. Now, obviously, they’re trying to turn that around by continuing to embolden him against his --
QUESTION: Right. So they’re strengthening him on the ground, they’re weakening the opposition with airstrikes. How does that not affect the political balance on the ground and, in fact, affect, as Secretary Kerry has repeatedly said since taking office, affect Assad’s calculus as to the strength of his future in Syria?
MR KIRBY: I said our concern from the very beginning was that this would potentially embolden Assad and to preserve his ability to hang on to power longer, at the expense of the opposition and at the expense of innocent Syrian people.
MR KIRBY: So we’re – we recognize that their activities to date have not been helpful towards trying to get at a political transition, to a political solution, which we believe is essential, and the Secretary continues to believe is worth pursuing with the Russians.
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: Change subject?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Another subject. As far as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington is concerned, it’s at a critical time of his administration’s or regime’s domestic problems are on the rise, and ISIL and also al-Qaida and Talibans are also active in his country and recognize that. But now, new allies coming that the military’s involvement is more than in the past but during his coup at that time. My question is now: How safe are – as far as nuclear, so Pakistans are concerned, and also his administration?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, we recognize the challenges in that part of the world, and the Secretary was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the prime minister today. There’s a lot to talk about and it remains an important relationship. And there is much that Pakistan has done and can continue to do to help us get at the counterterrorism challenge there in the region. And we’re going to continue to hold regular discussions with Pakistan on a range of issues to include nuclear security. And Pakistan, I would note, is engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues. I’d also note that they have a professional and dedicated security force that understands the importance of nuclear security.
So just like in so many bilateral relationships, there’s a range of levels here that we’re going to – that we engage on and we’ll continue to do so.
QUESTION: The Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meeting with Kerry today – the Pakistani official handout said that Nawaz Sharif had informed Kerry about Indian involvement in destabilization of the tribal areas of Pakistan and in Balochistan. Is it correct that this – could you confirm that if this discussion was held or no?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into the specifics of the discussion. I would just tell you that we believe – continue to believe that India and Pakistan stand to benefit from practical cooperation, and we encourage both India and Pakistan to engage in direct dialogue aimed at reducing tensions. The normalization of relations between Pakistan and India is vital to both countries and to the region, and steps that initiate closer regional trade and energy ties we believe will create jobs, lower inflation, and increase energy supply.
QUESTION: Also, any discussion with regard to the nuclear? Has he set any other demands made by the U.S. with regard to the nuclear safety?
MR KIRBY: I read out the meeting at the top of the briefing and I’m going to leave my comments to that. I’ve already addressed the nuclear security issue, and our recognition that the Pakistanis have a professional force engaged on that and they remain engaged with the international community on nuclear security. We believe that they believe in the importance of nuclear security issues.
QUESTION: Following up, in your opening remarks, you said the two leaders discussed the need to take additional measures. What are these additional measures needs to be taken and against whom?
MR KIRBY: I won’t get into specifics, but obviously it remains a significant challenge, counterterrorism, and it’s something that we continue to want to partner with Pakistan on.
QUESTION: The Pakistani handout also refers about them submitting to U.S. three dossiers on India’s role in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan. Have you received those dossiers – three documents from Pakistanis?
MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that we have.
QUESTION: Can you take this question – confirm it or deny it?
MR KIRBY: I will take the question. I don’t know how much detail we’re going to be able to get into.
QUESTION: Just say yes or no. Have you received those documents from Pakistan or no?
MR KIRBY: I said I’ll take the question.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: You probably saw today that South African police fired stun grenades at students protesting against higher tuition. Do you think that was excessive force for what were the circumstances on the ground?
MR KIRBY: We’ve seen the reports; obviously, concerned by them. We’re looking into it and monitoring it closely. Obviously, our position writ large around the world in terms of the right of peaceful protest remains the same.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Africa?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Concerning Burundi, there’s been ongoing violence since the controversial third-term election of the president. The AU, of course, has been calling for inclusive dialogue between the government and the opposition groups. Is there anything you can do as far as the U.S. effort is concerned?
MR KIRBY: Well, we welcome the African Union’s decision announced over the weekend to expend the monitoring – their monitoring of human rights and the security situation in Burundi. Obviously, we remain deeply concerned by the human rights abuses and the violence that’s ongoing. I’d also note that the AU announced an investigation of ongoing human rights violations, sanctions for those whose actions and statements contribute to the violence, and its preparedness to intervene in Burundi if needed to prevent widespread violence. These are all welcome developments. We share the AU’s conviction that the peaceful way forward for Burundi must start with the convening of an inclusive regionally mediated dialogue consistent with the Arusha Agreement to take place outside of Burundi. And we stand ready to support the AU’s leadership and its efforts to convene such a dialogue.
Okay, I got time for just one more. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The supreme leader of Iran endorsed the nuclear deal, but with caveats. He said that any new sanctions on – regarding terrorism or human rights he would consider – would be considered a breach of the JPOA. And I was wondering if the United States agrees, and can the United States, the UN, or the EU apply any new sanctions for terrorism or human rights violations during the duration of this deal?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, I’m – we’re aware of this – of these statements. We’re not going to react and we never – and we haven’t. I’m not going to start reacting to all the public statements here made by various Iranian leaders.
What I would tell you is it’s very clearly spelled out in the JCPOA what Iran’s commitments are. They don’t get sanctions relief until we get to implementation day, and you don’t get to implementation day until you – until they meet all of their commitments, and there are a lot of them to make. And again, we’re going to – as we’ve said all along, we’re going to judge Iran by its actions and its commitments to meeting those obligations, and I think that’s where I’d leave it.
As for sanctions, as long as Iran continues to meet commitments under the JCPOA, we’re not going to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions lifted under the JPOA. And as we have also been exceedingly clear publicly and privately with Iran, we’re going to continue to take the actions that we feel is necessary to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities, to block their support for terrorism, and to call attention to their human rights record.
QUESTION: But do you expect, like – as part of his statement, he said that – the supreme leader said that he would accept the deal, but any sanctions against Iran, even, as you say, on terrorism or human rights, would be a violation of – he would not abide by the nuclear deal. Do you think that’s just rhetoric or do you really anticipate that if you felt compelled to impose new sanctions against Iran for non-nuclear-related behavior that they would pull out of the JCPOA?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to – I can’t predict what they --
QUESTION: Well, he said that he would.
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I’m not going to comment on – and we haven’t – I’m not going to start commenting on their public statements. It’s very clearly spelled out in the JCPOA what they’re responsible for doing to get to implementation day to see any sanctions relief. They have to meet those obligations.
QUESTION: We’re not talking about --
MR KIRBY: Yes, we are. We’re really talking about brass tacks here, which is what they have to do. They know what they have to do. If they don’t do it, then they don’t get to implementation day and they don’t get the sanctions relief.
QUESTION: But if they get to implementation day and you launch sanctions against them for terrorism or human rights or anything not nuclear --
MR KIRBY: We have said all along that we --
QUESTION: Well, he said that he’s going to pull out.
MR KIRBY: All I can tell you is what we have said and what we maintain we’ll do, and that is to continue – we – there is – there are unilateral sanctions in place to counter Iran’s malicious activities and support for terrorism --
MR KIRBY: -- and we have those tools at our disposal. I’m not going to speculate about --
QUESTION: Well, it sounds like there are misinterpretations of – it sounds like --
MR KIRBY: I can’t speak for whether there’s a misinterpretation on their side. I can tell you that it’s very clearly spelled out what the expectations are and what their commitments are.
QUESTION: So it sounds like as if Iran is conditionally accepting the JCPOA.
MR KIRBY: Iran signed up to this deal just like everybody else, and our expectation is they’re going to meet their commitments.
QUESTION: Are you planning to take this missile issue – there’s plans now to take it up within the UN Security Council.
MR KIRBY: I think Ambassador Power already talked about the steps that we’re ready to take inside the UN.
Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Appreciate it.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:12 p.m.)