2:03 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Hello, everybody. Okay, just a couple of things at the top here. Hey, we have a new clock in here, huh? A bigger one. See that? A little easier for me to see all the way up here. Bigger numbers and everything. That’ll keep us all honest.
Well, look, as you saw in the Secretary’s statement today, the United States congratulates the people of Venezuela for making their choices heard in a peaceful and democratic way on election day. We urge Venezuelan electoral authorities to continue to tabulate and publish voting results in a timely and transparent fashion.
Venezuelan voters expressed their overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of their country. Dialogue among all parties in Venezuela is necessary to address the social and economic challenges facing the country, and the United States stands ready to support such a dialogue, together with others in the international community.
On Yemen, the United States welcomes the announcement by the United Nations special envoy for Yemen that all-party peace talks will begin December 15th in Switzerland. The crisis in Yemen must be solved through peaceful political means, and we’ve said this many times before. We urge all parties to attend the talks in good faith, and without preconditions. It is critical that parties return to the negotiating table as soon as possible to end the fighting and agree on a path forward that will end the suffering of the Yemeni people.
We support the special envoy’s call that the start of talks be accompanied by a ceasefire in order to bring immediate relief to the Yemeni people. And we continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, take all feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians, and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, including with respect to protecting medical personnel and facilities, and differentiating between civilian objects and military objectives.
We remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. We continue to urge all parties to allow for the unimpeded entry and delivery of critically needed relief items to the civilian population nationwide, to include food, medicine, and fuel.
With that, Brad.
QUESTION: Following up on Venezuela, how will the election change what the U.S. is doing with Venezuela? Are you going to be changing your off-and-on dialogue that you’ve had with Maduro’s government? Will you be able now to upgrade your outreach to the opposition – or to the opposition that will now be the majority, I should say?
MR KIRBY: I think it’s – the way I would put this, Brad, is I don’t – I think it’s too soon for us to say that there’s going to be major muscle movement changes here in the way we’re going to try to engage with Venezuela moving forward. In fact, what the results reinforce for us is the importance of continuing to have a dialogue with Venezuela, and to continue to try to get the relationship on a better path.
So I won’t and can’t at this time predict any changes as a result of it, except to say that it just reinforces the need on our part for the relationship to continue to grow and deepen.
QUESTION: You also said the U.S. stands ready to support a dialogue – internally, is the way I understood it, right?
MR KIRBY: Right, dialogue among all the parties in Venezuela.
QUESTION: How does it – what is the U.S. role in that? I mean you have a pretty poisonous relationship with one side. How do you then help facilitate a dialogue when you’re so clearly weighted to – or at least the perception is that you’re clearly weighted to the other side?
MR KIRBY: Well, the side that we’re on is the side of the Venezuelan people and to the region, and not – we don’t take sides politically in that regard. That said, we’re going to continue to work with the international community and the regional community to try to make sure that a dialogue among all parties in Venezuela continues, particularly along social and economic issues.
But this is a – this relationship, you’ve rightly pointed out, has had its – has had a rocky road, and we understand that. But again, what I would say is the election results prove to us that this is an – it’s an important relationship to continue to pursue, and we’re going to do that.
QUESTION: Sorry. Yeah, please go ahead.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you a very quick follow-up. Do you expect the party that lost to raise any kind of – maybe a fight or something like this, or do you expect them just to accept the results of –
MR KIRBY: I would note President Maduro himself --
QUESTION: Yeah, okay.
MR KIRBY: -- noted the victory of the other side. I mean, I – and we welcome that.
I think I’m not – I can’t speak for what people will or won’t do, and I won’t engage in hypotheticals. This was an important day for the Venezuelan people. Their voices were heard. Their president acknowledged it. And now, it’s important for everybody to move forward.
QUESTION: So –
QUESTION: One of the things that’s been kind of discussed as a possibility – although there seems to be some confusion – is whether a new government should push for Maduro’s ouster constitutionally. There are various mechanisms by which they could ask for him to leave, or to try to replace him. Do you think that’s something that would be a good idea; or do you think that, in the spirit of dialogue, the new government, however it’s constituted, should work with the president?
MR KIRBY: Well, I think I would just say that we believe it’s important that democratic institutions are – serve their appropriate and assigned roles. I don’t – what we want to see is the voice of the Venezuelan people respected and observed, going forward. We’re going to continue to engage to that end. I won’t speculate about individual decisions that have or have not been made by either side.
I think it’s important that the victory was noted by the president. I think, obviously, we want to see the results tabulated and published transparently, and for the government – for Venezuela to continue to move in a positive direction. And we want our relationship to move in that direction. But I wouldn’t speculate about individual decisions that parties might take going forward. What we want to see is democratic institutions preserved, the voice of the Venezuelan people respected. I think I’d leave it at that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: You – in the statement, as has been noted, you called for continued transparency and publication of the results going forward.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: Have you seen any signs thus far to suggest that that hasn’t happened or that that isn’t happening or that that won’t happen?
MR KIRBY: No, I can’t say that we’ve seen signs one way or the other just yet, Arshad. It’s a little too soon for that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Yes?
QUESTION: On the same subject, Venezuela. Just a quick one.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: What do you think is the larger message for the region of these elections, considering that also in Argentina a leftist party just lost the elections beforehand? Do you think this is a turn against the ALBA countries that have been very critical of the U.S.?
MR KIRBY: I don’t think we’re prepared to make a statement like that. Again, these elections just happened. As I said earlier, we’re glad to see that the Venezuelan people had a voice and expressed that voice through the ballot box. I think, as I said earlier, this is a – it’s a positive step for democracy there. And that’s how we’re viewing it, but I don’t know that we’re prepared at this point to make any grand statements about what it could portend or what messages it may have for the region writ large. I mean, this is obviously – this is about the Venezuelan people and about the future that they want and about the government that they deserve. And that’s what we’re focused on.
QUESTION: It’s not a trend toward the right? And I mean, what happened in Argentina, what is happening now? No movement back from these leftist policies?
MR KIRBY: Said, I just don’t think we’re at a stage now where we can sort of say there’s a trend here moving one way, left or right.
QUESTION: One additional question on Venezuela. One of the results that came out of yesterday’s elections was that a lawyer was the first transgender person ever elected to the Venezuela National Assembly. Have you seen that; and if so, any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t. No, I’m afraid I don’t have that level of detail. No.
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything to – schedule-wise to announce today with respect to the next round of Vienna talks. As you probably noted, the Secretary himself has spoken to the fact that we do expect there’ll be another gathering here before the holidays. And when we have more information about that, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Russian foreign minister has said today that the nations involved in the talks need to agree first on a list of terrorist groups in Syria and another list of opposition groups that could be part of political transition. Are you working on this list now, and do you have an agreement that you will discuss it in New York in case of --
MR KIRBY: Well, we’ve already been discussing it in Vienna, the idea of who the opposition is and what groups we know cannot be considered a part of that. I would just make a couple of points. I think you all know that in coming days the Saudis will convene a conference --
MR KIRBY: -- whereby they will start to try to get at a set of common principles around which opposition groups can unify as they begin to prepare for political discussions with the Assad regime, hopefully early next year. The Jordanians are also working very hard on a better, finer description of who is or is not going to be considered terrorist groups under this rubric going forward. That work continues.
And as I said, there’s going to be yet another Vienna process meeting here before the holidays, which I’m sure – the outcome of those discussions will be further reviewed, as well as additional framework issues going forward for the political transition. So there’s a lot of work this month being done, to be done, and we’ll get there. But I couldn’t sit here and tell you that as we stand here today that there’s a common set of parameters for all of those things right now. That’s what diplomats are going to be gathering this month to work their way through.
QUESTION: But it’s not confirmed that the meeting will be held in New York?
MR KIRBY: I’m not – I don’t have anything to confirm today. I can tell you there will be another Vienna process meeting. It will likely be in New York. It will be done before the holidays, but I don’t have any specifics to announce.
QUESTION: And about the opposition meeting in Saudi Arabia, will the U.S. be represented there by any official?
MR KIRBY: This is a Saudi-led conference. I’d refer you to the Saudi Government for participants. I can tell you our special envoy Michael Ratney will be in Riyadh during the timeframe, but I’d let the Saudis speak to specifics.
QUESTION: Can you --
QUESTION: He will be there to participate in the meeting?
MR KIRBY: I can tell you he’s going to be in Riyadh during the timeframe. I’ll let the Saudis speak to specifics.
QUESTION: Is it just --
QUESTION: I still want to make sure of one thing. You’re stating as an absolute certainty that there will be a gathering of the – a group that has been involved in the Vienna talks by the end of the year?
MR KIRBY: We do believe, yes, there will be one before the end of the year.
QUESTION: And do you expect that meeting to include representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian Government?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything specific to read out in terms of participation right now. Again, as we have more information going forward – and I don’t think it will be too much longer – we’ll be able to let you know.
QUESTION: John, could clarify the U.S. position on working with the Syrian army? There has been some statements that you could conceivably work with the Syrian army, regular armed forces in the fight against ISIS.
MR KIRBY: Statements by whom?
QUESTION: Well, there was something attributed to the Secretary of State himself.
MR KIRBY: What the Secretary said was that the institutions of government obviously are something that we’re mindful of moving forward. Could there be a – could there be a time when there could be elements of the Syrian army preserved and focused against ISIL? I think possibly yes. But we’re not there. We’re not at that stage right now. What --
QUESTION: I think he means the ground force --
QUESTION: Ground force.
QUESTION: The comment about ground forces from when we were in Belgrade.
MR KIRBY: What the Secretary was referring to was nothing new with respect to that. Thanks for the clarification. The – we have long said that you got to have competent, capable partners on the ground to defeat ISIL militarily. Airstrikes are never going to be enough. We’ve been saying that since the beginning of the campaign last summer – a year ago summer. But those forces have got to be indigenous forces, and the Secretary reiterated that. They’re not going to be U.S. forces; they’ve got to be indigenous. They have to know the ground, the terrain, the culture. They got to know the groups. They’ve – they have to be able to sustain a defeat of ISIL. And the only way you can sustain a defeat is not just to clear but to hold territory once it’s been taken back from this group. That’s not going to be done and can’t be done with U.S. or Western forces. It has to be done indigenously.
QUESTION: Okay. So you talk about indigenous forces that know the terrain. I think that would qualify the Syrian army. They probably know the terrain as good as anyone. They have been in this fight for a very long time. And in view of the fact that no other Arab armies are stepping in to take the fight against ISIS --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- at home, why not at least for – in the short term to defeat ISIS since it is the primary --
MR KIRBY: Well, right now their commander-in-chief is who?
QUESTION: Yeah, but --
MR KIRBY: Bashar al-Assad.
MR KIRBY: So there’s not going to be any cooperation with the Assad regime --
QUESTION: But he’s not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
MR KIRBY: Said, they’re not – there’s not going to be any cooperation with the Assad regime on ISIL. He cannot be, nor can his forces be part of – as long as he’s in command of them, part of the coalition against ISIL. Now what the Secretary was referring to was going forward, when we have a political transition in place and when Assad is not in power – or at least not in control of his forces – could there be a role for the Syrian army with respect to going after ISIL? And the answer is yes, possibly. But we aren’t there yet. We’re not close to being there yet. Nothing has changed, though, aside from that discussion about our firm conviction that the only way a group like this – you can sustain a defeat is with capable, willing, effective partners on the ground – indigenous partners on the ground.
QUESTION: My last question on this: Will there be a point – perhaps retaking some of the territory lost to the opposition, like 50 percent of territory, 60 percent of territory – will that bring in – I mean a percentage of territory that the government forces control – will that bring these forces into some sort of a deal with you to go on and carry the fight against ISIS?
MR KIRBY: I know of no such deal that’s being purported based on percentage of terrorism – or percentage of territory, excuse me – taken or held.
QUESTION: Was Michael Ratney in Istanbul over the weekend?
MR KIRBY: I believe he was, yes.
QUESTION: Ratney had some meetings with Syrian opposition members, at least according to reports. Do you know whether any member or leader of Ahrar Al Sham joined his meetings?
MR KIRBY: I do not have a readout of all his meetings and who he met with.
QUESTION: Would you take the question, please?
MR KIRBY: I can ask.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. The Syrian Government has accused the U.S.-led coalition of bombing a Syrian army camp in the city of Deir al-Zour and killing three Syrian soldiers. A U.S. special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, said – he retweeted the military saying that no coalition airstrikes had taken place near that Syrian base. A senior U.S. military official told the AP that the U.S. is “certain” that it was a Russian airstrike. Can the public see any evidence of that certainty?
MR KIRBY: I would just point you to what DOD said. I – as you know very well, I stay away from talking about tactical and operational matters from this podium and I’d refer you to the Defense Department.
QUESTION: But are you aware of the incident? Are you aware of the incident? Because the U.S. special envoy – I mean, Brett McGurk is with the State Department and he has commented on this on his Twitter.
MR KIRBY: Yes, I’m aware of Brett McGurk and who he works for. (Laughter.) I’m also aware of the comments and I’m aware of this particular strike. I’m aware of all those things. What I’m saying to you is I’m not going to comment about operational matters from this podium. I would point you to the Defense Department, who obviously have been speaking pretty clearly on this.
QUESTION: Just to clarify. So you cannot confirm that Russia hit that Syrian army camp? Is that correct, you cannot confirm that?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to – I am not going to dispute what the Defense Department’s already said about that strike. What I can tell you from what I know is that was certainly not a U.S. strike. We weren’t even operating anywhere near that. But I understand what you’re trying to drag me into and I’m not going to do it. The Defense Department’s already spoken to this, Mr. McGurk’s already spoken to this, and I think I’m going to leave it there.
QUESTION: Just generally, a policy question: Under what circumstances can the U.S. hit Syrian forces?
MR KIRBY: Under what circumstances can we hit Syrian forces?
QUESTION: Yeah. Are there such circumstances?
MR KIRBY: We’re not flying missions against Syrian forces, ma’am. We’re going – all coalition airstrikes – the thousands that we’ve conducted – have been against ISIL forces. That’s been the focus militarily.
QUESTION: And if --
MR KIRBY: The Commander-in-Chief has been exceedingly clear about what the military goals against ISIL – in Syria are, and they’re against ISIL.
QUESTION: And if Syrian forces attack U.S.-trained rebels in Syria, would the U.S. attack them?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. As much you’d like me to, I’m not going to talk to operational and certainly not hypothetical matters from this podium. We have long said that we know we have certain responsibilities to those we train and equip or assist that are in the field against ISIL, and we’ve proven time and time again that we’re willing to support them from the air when need be. Okay?
MR KIRBY: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Last night the President repeated that the United States is working with Turkey to seal its border. What is the latest situation in the region?
MR KIRBY: Well, that’s a pretty broad question. How much time have we got here?
Look, we’ve maintained a very constant dialogue with Turkey. Turkey is not just a NATO ally but a vital partner in the fight against ISIL, and we’re – they’ve already taken steps to deal with that stretch of the border that they know and they’ve admitted and they’ve talked about – that has proven a challenge for them, and we’re in constant discussions with them about how to help them – how to help us both; how to help the coalition deal with that stretch of border there.
I don’t have anything specific to read out to you today about specific measures. Again, I try to avoid operational matters here from this podium. But I can tell you everybody’s focused on that stretch of ground and on trying to seal it off as best we can, to include the Turks.
QUESTION: Could I do a follow-up --
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: -- to my colleague in the back’s question? Just because that DOD comment was anonymous and often we hear you say you will not comment on – or – it’s very rare to hear you reference us to an anonymous official, so can I just ask you: Is it the U.S. Government’s opinion or belief that this was indeed a Russian strike that hit in Deir al-Zour?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have – I don’t – I’m not going to confirm operational or tactical strikes. I just won’t do that. What I can tell you is DOD has already spoken to the strikes they did take in the Deir al-Zour province today. All were against oil heads and didn’t strike any vehicles or personnel targets in the area, and we have no indication that any Syrian soldiers were even near our strikes. DOD’s already said that publicly. So again, I’m – I don’t know how to be any more specific than that.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
QUESTION: Can I go back to Saudi Arabia?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, let’s go one more to Syria.
QUESTION: There are reports – credible reports indicate that Russian strikes by the Turkey border or whether in Aleppo increasingly targeting moderate Syrian opposition forces and fill the gap for ISIS to expand. Is this – can you confirm this assessment?
MR KIRBY: I think I’d point you to Moscow to talk about their airstrikes. What we’ve said repeatedly and continue to assert is that the bulk of their strikes are not being flown against ISIL and are in fact going against opposition groups, but I can’t – and I’m not going get into a daily sort of operational update on what they’re hitting and what they’re not hitting. That’s for them to speak to. But we have not seen a major shift in their – in the calculus of what they’re hitting and what they’re going after. The bulk continues to be against opposition groups.
QUESTION: I have one more. There was a briefing last Friday about the ISIL smuggling oil situation, and the official stated that there isn’t much or significant volume of the oil smuggled to Turkey and this is also the case for 2013 and ’14, whereas we have many statements, including from Secretary Kerry and other officials during these years suggesting that there is oil and that finances ISIL. So there’s a discussion whether seems to be the information or the statements in those years kind of not exactly align with last week’s briefing.
MR KIRBY: I’m not quite sure I completely understand your question, but I think I got it. So let me take a crack, and then if I don’t get it, you tell me.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR KIRBY: We know that oil smuggling remains a source of revenue for ISIL, no doubt about it. And we know that some of those smuggling routes run across that border with Turkey. That’s just a fact, and the Turks have talked about that too. Which is one of the reasons why we just talked about strikes that DOD spoke to yesterday against oil heads, I mean – which is why you start to see some of these strikes against the oil infrastructure that ISIL has or is trying to exploit. We know it’s a source of revenue from them. There’s other sources of revenue as well. I’ve talked about extortion, I’ve talked about infrastructure. I’ve talked about theft. And we’ve talked about the fact that they get resources from outside. But oil is one of them.
Now, if you’re asking about the accusations that the Turkish Government is profiting off of ISIL oil, I think we dealt with that last week pretty definitively; and the answer is no, we’ve seen absolutely no indication of that. And we, I think, rebutted that claim quite effectively, and I have nothing new to add. We’ve not seen any collusion by the Turkish Government with ISIL for – in terms of oil smuggling or consumption, none at all. It’s just a baseless falsehood that was propagated about the Turkish Government.
But we all recognize that one of the ways they try to get money is through smuggling. And we’re all working very hard – one of the reasons, back to the answer I gave the gentleman back there. One of the reasons we’re all working very hard to see if we can’t seal off that section of border to limit their ability to gain revenue from that – from oil smuggling.
QUESTION: John, on --
QUESTION: Do you think this briefing or this statement that this smuggling of oil business between the ISIS and Turkey is not really significant, came too late, because this been a point of wide discussions in Turkey for two years, that whether these incoming different statements from U.S. side suggesting that there is smuggling of oil? So question is: Was it too late to make this clear, whereas the topic has been discussed for two years now?
MR KIRBY: I think we were responding to false allegations put out in particular by the Russian side. So I don’t know about – I don’t know how to answer your question whether it was too late or not; it was in response to a complete fabricated falsehood.
Again, Turkey is a vital ally, a NATO ally, and a vital partner in this fight, and we all recognize the challenges along that stretch of border and we’re working hard to shut it down. I don’t think anything was too late. I mean, I’ve been talking about, as part of my role here and in another building, about the sources of revenue that ISIL gets. We’ve been talking about this for more than a year. And it’s not been any secret that we know that part of the way they finance themselves is through smuggling oil, through oil infrastructure.
QUESTION: So why didn’t you start attacking oil convoys earlier if --
MR KIRBY: Well, yeah, that’s another thing that I find really strange, Arshad. Because – if I could, and I – again, I try to avoid the operational discussions. But just to answer your question, I remember distinctly over a year ago when I was instead of suit, I was in a uniform, speaking from a different podium, talking about – in fact, showing video and images of oil heads, collection points, and even some of the – now, they weren’t refineries, but they were crude refinery areas that coalition forces, air forces were hitting. So this is not – this is not something we just started to focus on. I remember distinctly briefing to it in my previous job.
QUESTION: I believe that. But my question – I mean, you talked about the revenues that IS gets from this, and you talked about the smuggling that goes across the border. And my question is why you didn’t hit the trucks, the convoys earlier. In fact, I’ve heard officials talk about the reasons for it, but I’m interested in your public reasoning for that. Because if you’re trying to choke off revenue, you don’t just necessarily hit one part of the supply chain; you maybe try to hit multiple parts of the supply chain.
MR KIRBY: I think I’d sort of give you a three-part answer. One, we’ve always – we have not – it’s not like we’ve never been focused on their oil revenue. It’s something that we have constantly focused on. So that’s one.
Number two, that when you do that – and I won’t get into specific targeting. I’ll leave that to my Defense Department colleagues to answer the more specific question you had about why now, why when. I can’t speak to that, nor would it be appropriate for me. But number two, when you do that, just like every other set of targets that you try to strike, you have to be mindful of collateral damage, you have to be mindful of the infrastructure you’re hitting and the degree to which it should be or should not be preserved for a future time. So there’s a lots – there’s lots of factors that go into deciding what you’re going to hit and when you’re going to hit it and how – frankly, how hard you’re going to hit it. And then I think the third piece that I would say to answer your question is this is a very dynamic, fluid situation. And the fact that a focus of targeting may be in one area geographically or functionally during a certain timeframe and then shift to something else later on, you can expect that because this is an adaptive enemy, he’s agile, and he’s very determined. We have to be agile and adaptive as well, and we are.
And so you’re going to see – look, when we first started flying airstrikes, what were we hitting? Convoys – right – vehicles, artillery positions, defensive positions, then they changed the way they operated. They’re more in the cities, they’re not out there as much, and so we changed and started hitting more urban targets that we could – that we knew we could be precise at, and now there’s a focus now on this oil smuggling. But they have adapted the way they operate, the way they finance themselves; we have to keep adapting as well. So it’s very fluid and I think your – I think it would be reasonable to expect that as we go forward in time you’ll see targeting by the coalition change as well.
QUESTION: John, one question about the – about Turkey and Iraq. So you’ve seen the recent tensions over the weekend between the Iraqi Government and the Turkish Government over the recent deployment of Turkish troops to northern Iraq. Do you have anything on that? Iraqi Government said this is a breach of our sovereignty.
MR KIRBY: Well, I think what I would say is – obviously, we’ve seen the comments. What we’re heartened to see is that there’s dialogue now between the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Government over this particular issue, and we’ve seen comments coming out of the Turkish side that they’re re-evaluating now and that they will continue to work with the Iraqi Government, and that’s the right answer.
QUESTION: You’ve previously stated that foreign troops, including U.S. troops, sent to Iraq should be in, quote, unquote, “coordination with the Iraqi Government” wherever they’re sent, whether it’s to the north.
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: Do you stand by those comments now when the Turks have sent those troops and clearly without the consent or the approval or knowledge --
MR KIRBY: Absolutely. Nothing’s changed – nothing’s changed about our view. And we’ve been saying this from the very beginning, that any effort militarily to go after ISIL inside Iraq needs to be done in full coordination, consultation, and with the permission of the Iraqi Government --
QUESTION: So is – are you concerned about that, the Turks have not even informed the Iraqi Government, according to the Iraqi official, about it?
MR KIRBY: What – you’re asking me about the past. Let me talk about the present, which is that --
QUESTION: The present.
MR KIRBY: -- the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Government are speaking about this very issue, and that’s what we think is important – that that kind of dialogue, that kind of consultation continue and happen, and it’s happening and so we’re heartened by that.
QUESTION: John, but the Iraqi foreign – Iraqi prime minister has said today that Turkey must withdraw its troops from Iraq within 24 hours to avoid the matter being reviewed by the UN Security Council. It looks like they will be going to the Security Council to raise this matter.
MR KIRBY: Again, I’d refer you to the Iraqi Government and the Turkish Government to speak about this. They are in dialogue, they’re in communication, and that’s the right answer here.
QUESTION: Just one more question, sorry.
QUESTION: Were you aware that the Turks were sending those troops?
MR KIRBY: I’m – I’d point you to the Defense Department. I don’t have any independent information that we were advised by that.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
QUESTION: John, can we go back to the meeting in Saudi?
QUESTION: No, no. Can I ask last question? Did United States actively encourage the parties to talk? Like, did you have – I mean, not you, of course, but any American official try to reach a Turkish --
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specific diplomatic discussions to read out to you, but obviously, we always encourage the nations that are participating in the coalition efforts against ISIL to continue a dialogue in consultation with the Iraqi Government as we do, and we want everybody to do that. I can’t read out specific conversations that might or might not have happened, but as I said, we’re encouraged that this dialogue is happening, and our expectation is that it’ll get resolved and it’ll get resolved diplomatically, the way it should.
QUESTION: Yes, going back to --
QUESTION: One more --
MR KIRBY: No, no, no, no, no. Let me go to her.
QUESTION: But --
MR KIRBY: No, let me go to her, and I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: I just want to clarify some points on the meeting in Saudi Arabia. In particular, what is the United States providing Saudi Arabia – what kind of input is U.S. providing on groups like should or should not be included in the talks?
MR KIRBY: This is a Saudi-led meeting and I’m going to let the Saudi Government speak to how they’re going to run it. What we’ve said, what the Secretary has said is that we have, and we’ve made very clear, that we wanted this first meeting to be as inclusive as possible. It’s the beginning of a process here to try to get the opposition unified around a set of common principles. And so our view is the best way to accomplish that rudimentary and fundamental goal at the outset is to be as inclusive as possible, and that’s – and we’ve made that very clear. The Secretary has been, I think, very specific about that.
QUESTION: Do you expect this week’s meeting will reach any consensus on the makeup of the opposition groups?
MR KIRBY: This isn’t – I think it’s important to understand what this is and what it isn’t. And it isn’t about deciding the makeup of the opposition groups. I mean, they pretty much know who they are. This is about getting as inclusive a group as possible at the table to start to unify them around some common, specifically, negotiating principles that then can be applied later in a diplomatic political discussion with the Assad regime, which we hope will occur early next year. That’s what this is about.
And this is the first time, so we’re grateful that the Saudi Government has taken this leadership role on and is willing to do this. Again, I’ll let them speak, as we should, to how they’re going to run this meeting. That would be inappropriate for me to speak to. But it’s important that everybody understand what this is. This isn’t about who’s on a list and who’s not on a list. This is about trying to get opposition groups in a broad way arraigned around – arranged around a set of common principles.
QUESTION: But there’s nothing for five years now.
MR KIRBY: And this – so this is a first step in this process. Again, it’s a very important first step. There is going to be, no doubt, more discussions going forward, and so I wouldn’t begin to be able to speculate to you what’s going to be the end result and what they’re – and how far they’re going to get. I mean, we’re glad to see this process start, and again, we’re grateful for Saudi leadership.
QUESTION: The first time? This has been – there’s been countless exercises along these lines.
MR KIRBY: This is the first time in the Vienna process to try to get the opposition together around a common set of negotiating principles to then – that would set the framework for negotiations with the Assad regime.
QUESTION: So it’s the first time post this latest Vienna doc?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: But weren’t you doing this – you, European allies, your Arab allies – doing this since, what, early 2012?
MR KIRBY: There’s been plenty of efforts to try to --
QUESTION: Shouldn’t they have been ready for this?
MR KIRBY: There’s been plenty of efforts to communicate and talk with the opposition groups, and as you know, Brad, has proven exceedingly challenging because they are so – many of them are very disparate in their views and have different agendas. And so coming out of Vienna, this is the first time that the international community, to the degree that it did in Vienna, agreed that there needs to be some unifying principles to lay down a basis for negotiating with the Assad regime going forward. I mean, we’ve never been at this stage before.
QUESTION: John, if the success of this meeting Saudi Arabia is organizing is the success, the condition on having the big meeting on Syria before the end of the year, is it a condition?
MR KIRBY: No, it’s not.
QUESTION: Just to be clear --
MR KIRBY: Not at all.
QUESTION: And just to be clear, John – sorry, Turkish – your position on Turkish deployment. So since you want forces sent to Iraq to be able to be done in coordination with the Iraqi Government, are you saying the Turks should have done this in coordination with the Iraqi Government? Are you saying that? This is your position on this.
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to – I know, I can appreciate, what you’re trying to get me to say here. What I’m going to tell you is that nothing is changed about our position that military efforts inside Iraq need to be coordinated and -- with the Iraqi Government. And Iraq is a sovereign nation.
QUESTION: Whether including this --
MR KIRBY: Hang on a second. Iraq is a sovereign nation. And they get to ultimately decide who’s operating inside their country. That’s the way it works, and that’s how we’ve been operating. And I’m not going to speak to the specifics of this particular deployment; that’s for the Turkish Government to speak to. What I can tell you is we’re glad to see that the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Government are talking about this and working their way through it. That’s important.
And the Turks have already acknowledged that they’re going to reassess this deployment. And – go ahead.
QUESTION: Please. So to me, you are either not sure that the Iraqi Government are telling the truth that they had no knowledge about this or they are not approving of it, or your statement that forces should be set in coordination with the Iraqi Government does not stand now in regard to the Turks? If it’s stands, why didn’t you --
MR KIRBY: I think you should be asking these questions of the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Government. We’re glad to see that they’re talking about this and that there’s an effort now to work it through through dialogue and communication. That’s the important thing.
QUESTION: Can I change topics, please?
QUESTION: Can I ask my question on this, on Turkey?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Go ahead, and then we’ll to you, Said.
QUESTION: Is --
MR KIRBY: It’s all right. Hey, look, we’ll get to everybody. According to that clock, I still --
MR KIRBY: -- according to that clock, I still got 20 minutes to go. So plenty of time.
QUESTION: Is the Turkish force’s presence in Iraq a part of the coalition efforts to fight ISIL?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to – look, I don’t even like characterizing U.S. military operations. I’m not going to begin to characterize Turkish military operations. You should – this is – those are questions that should be posed to the Turkish Government as to who they deployed and what they deployed it for. Turkey is a part of the coalition against ISIL, but this specific deployment which we know has caused concern by Prime Minister Abadi is something for the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Government to speak to.
You guys are missing the larger point. And I know you want to get down into the details about who told who what and how many boots are on this piece of ground or not. What’s important is that the two governments are now talking about this, and there’s a very real possibility that it’s going to get resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, and that’s the right answer.
QUESTION: So better to ask forgiveness than permission? Is that the essential message?
MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question 10 times.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the speech that Secretary Kerry gave at the Saban Center. He basically conveyed a message that the Palestinian Authority is about to collapse. Can you clarify his statement?
MR KIRBY: I don’t believe he suggested that the Palestinian Authority is about to collapse.
QUESTION: Well, he said that – so you could you clarify what he meant by “we cannot” – he warned against the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, right? Basically giving a sense of urgency --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to – look, the Secretary’s speech was --
QUESTION: Okay. All right.
MR KIRBY: -- well crafted, and I’m not going to get into parsing out every line.
QUESTION: Well, I understand – okay.
MR KIRBY: What he said was we still believe in the importance of a two-state solution and that we want to see efforts by both sides to continue to work towards that.
QUESTION: Well, it’s engendered a great deal of criticism from Israel. But let me ask you a couple of other things that he said. He was critical of Israel, he was critical of the settlement issues and policies and so on, but he also talked about – he called on the Palestinians to stop inciting. Can you give us an example of what – what is he talking about? Is it the – Abbas, for instance, who’s been inciting? What has he been saying? Is it his advisors that have been inciting? What have they been saying? Is there anything in particular that you want the Palestinians to stop saying?
MR KIRBY: The Secretary did not say that the Palestinian leadership is engaged in incitement. He stressed the importance of doing everything possible to combat it. He also called on President Abbas to condemn Palestinian attacks against Israelis, which we’ve done repeatedly.
MR KIRBY: And he also made clear that President Abbas himself has long been committed to nonviolence.
QUESTION: Now let me also ask you about an investigative support that just came out in Haaretz just as we were coming in. I don’t know if you saw it. But it says that over the past five years, there’s been $220 million in tax-exempt money that have gone from this country to the settlements, basically to fund different programs and so on in the settlements. Would you – what is your assessment of that? Or how do you react to something like this? Or would you – because it is against your policy.
MR KIRBY: Certainly we’re aware of those reports, Said. These donors are private citizens. This Administration, like every administration before it since 1967, views settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. The United States Government does not support any activity that would indicate otherwise.
I do want to address one other thing, though, since you mentioned the Saban speech.
MR KIRBY: And this is on the issue of corruption.
MR KIRBY: The Secretary did not intend to suggest that President Abbas or the PA was engaged in corruption or to make any new statement on that issue. He was reiterating a basic point that we have long made about the importance of transparency and accountability, which is a principle that President Abbas himself has embraced.
MR KIRBY: The United States remains committed to continuing to help the Palestinian Authority develop its institutions and continue to work closely with the Palestinian Authority to improve rule of law, enhance transparency, combat corruption, and strengthen protections for human rights, and acknowledge the progress that has been made to date on these and other institution-building efforts.
QUESTION: So you think that the Palestinian Authority has been transparent as you would want it to be?
MR KIRBY: As I said in what I just talked about, we want to work with them to continue to enhance transparency. Okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: On Japan. In terms of the expedited return of land in Okinawa that was announced on Friday, can you speak to the timing of the decision and sort of what went into the decision-making? Was it --
MR KIRBY: Well --
QUESTION: -- sorry.
MR KIRBY: We believe that this will mutually – sorry – the early land returns announced by both the United States and Japan on the 4th of December will advance the mutually agreed process of the consolidation of U.S. forces on Okinawa. And it will allow local authorities to begin construction on new transportation infrastructure projects beneficial to the people of Okinawa. These early returns are also going to be a tangible demonstration of the cooperative approach that characterizes our alliance relationship. It builds on, and this is an important point, upon the 2013 Okinawa consolidation plan and other bilateral agreements which help to reduce the impact of our military presence in Okinawa while also ensuring our capability to fulfill our security treaty commitments. As I understand it, this was an opportunity that was taken advantage of.
QUESTION: Was there any consideration given, in light of the opposition, to the Futenma relocation facility to make this decision or even the upcoming mayoral election in Ginowan?
MR KIRBY: If you’re asking if the timing of this was politically motivated in any way, no, absolutely not. It’s very much in keeping with the agreements that we’ve already had in place with the Japanese Government and we’re going to continue to move forward in that regard.
QUESTION: Can we expect additional expedited land returns, or --
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything – I don’t know that I would say “expedited,” first of all. It was an early land return, not an expedited land return, and I don’t have anything in the future to read out or to announce to you today.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: May I? Do you have anything on tomorrow’s working group meeting in Havana on the U.S. property claims? Is that the first kind – meeting of this kind since the efforts for normalization?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, the U.S. and Cuba will hold their first government-to-government claims discussion in Havana tomorrow. The U.S. delegation will be led by Mary McLeod, acting legal advisor for the State Department. This initial meeting will allow the two sides to exchange information on a wide variety of claims. This includes claims by – of U.S. nationals that were certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, claims related to unsatisfied U.S. court judgments against Cuba, and claims of the United States Government. The Government of Cuba has also raised claims against the United States related to the embargo. The meeting is a first step in what we expect to be a long and complex process, but the United States views the resolution of outstanding claims as a top priority for normalization.
Okay, I think that’s about it for today. Did you have one more?
QUESTION: Yeah, just real quick. I wanted to ask about the Dominican Republic. The cardinal of Santo Domingo yesterday reportedly used an anti-gay slur to describe the gay U.S. ambassador to the country. Have you seen that report, and any comment?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t, but if it’s true, obviously we would strongly take issue with that. That kind of rhetoric is not helpful to anybody. But again, I haven’t seen it, so I’m not in a position to confirm it.
All right. Thank you everybody.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:50 p.m.)