2:18 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. I am sorry we are a little tardy today. We’ll try to avoid that as best as we can. I have a couple things off the top before I dive into your questions.
So first, yesterday, the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad opened a new state-of-the-art facility in the city’s bustling Financial District.
The move brings our government closer to U.S. companies that have invested billions of dollars in the India’s tech, defense, aerospace, and pharmaceutical sectors. Five of the highest valued companies in the world – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Meta – host their largest presence outside the United States in Hyderabad.
Our consulate in Hyderabad is a key to linking businesses and people from the United States and the Indian states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha. We continue to welcome Indian visitors, businesspeople, and students from those states, and this new facility puts us in a position to increase Mission India’s consular services in the future.
The new facility, with a project budget of $340 million, pays respect to the local landscape, and through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, we are working with local partners to preserve historic monuments. The new space will help consulate staff work with local journalists, it will increase reporting on climate change, and share information on educational opportunities. The new consulate in Hyderabad will also host countless visitors, as our militaries regularly team up for joint exercises based out of India’s Eastern Naval Command.
Put simply, this dynamic region plays a critical role in the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership, and our new consulate chancery in Hyderabad represents a tangible investment by the United States in the growing bilateral relationship.
I also wanted to offer an update on some of the earthquake efforts on behalf of Türkiye and northern Syria.
We support and applaud our international partners who raised $7.5 billion in earthquake assistance pledges for Türkiye and Syria at yesterday’s EU-hosted International Donors’ Conference in Brussels.
During this conference, the United States announced we are providing an additional $50 million in urgent humanitarian assistance to help earthquake-affected communities in Türkiye and Syria. This brings total U.S. humanitarian assistance to support the earthquake response to 235 million. With this additional humanitarian assistance, U.S. partners are expanding existing deliveries of food, relief items, shelter, safe water, sanitation, clothes items, and other things to reach millions impacted in Türkiye and Syria.
We are grateful for the successful efforts of the organizers of this meeting, which was co-hosted by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and by the Prime Minister of Sweden Ulf Kristersson, for the Swedish presidency of the European Council.
As Secretary Blinken said, the U.S. will remain committed to providing necessary assistance to those impacted by these earthquakes. The U.S. will continue to support those impacted in Türkiye and Syria, and we welcome and encourage continued support from our international partners in this time of great need.
And lastly, the United States is extremely troubled that the Israeli Knesset has passed legislation rescinding important parts of the 2005 disengagement law, including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank. At least one of these outposts in this area, Homesh, was built on private Palestinian land, which is illegal under Israeli law.
It is all the more concerning that such a significant piece of legislation passed with just 31 “yes” votes out of an assembly of 120 members. De-escalating and reducing violence are in all parties’ interests, including Israel’s. The U.S. strongly urges Israel to refrain from allowing the return of settlers to the area covered by the legislation, consistent with both former Prime Minister Sharon and the current Israeli Government’s commitment to the United States.
We have been clear that advancing settlements is an obstacle to peace and the achievement of a two-state solution. This certainly includes creating new settlements, building or legalizing outposts, or allowing building of any kind on private Palestinian land or deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities, all of which would be facilitated by this legal change.
The action also represents a clear contradiction of undertakings the Israeli Government made to the United States. Nearly 20 years ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on behalf of Israel affirmed in writing to George W. Bush that it committed to evacuate these settlements and outposts in the northern West Bank, in order to stabilize the situation and reduce frictions.
The amendments to the disengagement law are also inconsistent with Israel’s recent commitments to de-escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Just two days ago, Israel reaffirmed its “commitment to stop discussion of any new settlements for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.”
Coming at a time of heightened tensions, the legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative and counterproductive to efforts to restore some measures of calm as we head into the Ramadan, Passover, and the Easter holidays.
With that, Matt, happy to kick it off with you.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, that was quite a mouthful, wasn’t it?
MR PATEL: I know. Sometimes we have things to share.
QUESTION: Yeah. So I do want to – before I get back to that, let me just ask one real quick question about —
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: What’s your understanding of the status of detained American citizens in Saudi Arabia? Then I’ll go right to Israel.
MR PATEL: Sure. So Matt, the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens overseas is the – as you know, the highest priority of the Department of State. We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was released from prison in Saudi Arabia, and of course we welcome this news. But there’s a limit to any further detail that I’m able to get into, given privacy considerations.
QUESTION: So you can’t say at all whether it is correct that Mr. Almadi, whose son has talked publicly about his father being released —
MR PATEL: What I would say is that we’re aware of these reports and we welcome this news, but I’m not able to get into any further details.
QUESTION: Okay. Then on your opening statement about Israel and the Knesset law, I’m just wondering – those are strong words but are you going to do anything in response?
MR PATEL: Matt, this is —
QUESTION: Or is it just something that you’re going to criticize verbally?
MR PATEL: Matt, this is – these are topics and issues that we raise directly with our Israeli counterparts. As I outlined in my topper, we did so as recently as over the course of the past two days, at the Aqaba meetings, as well as the meetings taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh. This is something we have raised consistently through channels in this building, through Ambassador Tom Nides. It’s something that President Biden had the opportunity to discuss with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It’s something the Secretary has raised as well, and this is something that we’re going to continue to remain deeply engaged and vocal about.
QUESTION: Okay. So the short answer is no, you’re not going to actually do anything, other than make statements like – critical statements from the podium? Is that —
MR PATEL: Matt —
QUESTION: Is that a fair assessment?
MR PATEL: Like I said, this is something that we’re going to – we continue to raise directly with our Israeli counterparts and remain engaged on. And it’s why, quite frankly, as an administration we continue to remain deeply committed to a negotiated, two-state solution.
QUESTION: Right. But you’re not actually going to do anything about it, other than say that you don’t like it. Is that correct?
MR PATEL: Matt, we continue to have a number of tools at our disposal to engage with our partners and to make our viewpoint quite clear.
QUESTION: So other than this one, you speaking from the podium right now, can you give us one or two examples of what those tools are?
MR PATEL: Matt, this is something that we raise directly. It’s something our allies and partners in the region also raise directly with Israel and other countries as well.
QUESTION: So just – are you on the same topic?
QUESTION: Same topic, yeah. Just one sec, one thing to clarify. You said that this was raised at the – in the Aqaba meeting but also like recently. I mean, what was the highest level of engagement from State Department to Israelis?
MR PATEL: Again, this is something that we raise regularly, the desire to take steps to calm tensions, especially as it relates to the growth and expansion of settlements and outposts. You’ve seen our Ambassador Tom Nides speak openly about his engagements on this subject with our Israeli partners. We’ve done so through Assistant Secretary Leaf and others. The Secretary had the opportunity to discuss this when he was in Jerusalem. And by “this” I mean specifically the – just the growth of outposts and settlements, not – I’m not talking about this legislation specifically.
MR PATEL: Right.
QUESTION: But does the Secretary now have any plans or any other high – any other plans for any other high-level engagement on this specifically on the settlements —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any calls to preview or to get ahead of. But again, this is something that we remain deeply engaged and in close contact on.
I’m going to go to Said, and then I can come back to you, Leon, since he’s had his hand up.
QUESTION: I just wanted to have a – try again what Matt just asked you. So aside from the really strong words – and they were – what can you do? I mean, how can you leverage your statement? How can the United States of America leverage its anger at this decision by the Israeli Knesset?
MR PATEL: Said, first what I would say broadly is that the comments from the United States, they’re not going into some sort of abyss or vacuum. When the United States speaks about something, countries around the world are listening. And when the United States is engaged on something and committed to something, I believe that the rest of the world is paying attention.
And as I have said, this is something specifically we have been very clear about, that the growth of settlements and outposts is inconsistent with our views on what steps are necessary to get us to a negotiated two-state solution in a peaceful way. I was just quite clear about that.
QUESTION: So countries around the world may be listening. Is Israel listening? Is the Government of Israel listening?
MR PATEL: Said, we engage with the Government of Israel quite regularly on a number of issues, including these ones.
QUESTION: Vedant, I mean, only yesterday Smotrich said there is no such thing as the Palestinians. I mean, he – and he said he wants this heard in the White House. He made sure to underscore the White House. He’s telling you that we’re not listening to you; we’re not taking anything that you might say into account. That’s what he is saying.
MR PATEL: Well, what I would say to that – Finance Minister Smotrich is not the only individual in the Israeli Government, but what I would say to his comments broadly, Said, since you’ve given me the opportunity, is the latest comments by Mr. Smotrich, which were delivered at a podium adorned with an inaccurate and provocative map, are offensive, they are deeply concerning, and, candidly, they’re dangerous. The Palestinians have a rich history and culture, and the United States greatly values our partnership with the Palestinian people. And as President Biden said last summer in Bethlehem, the U.S. remains committed to two states for two people, both of whom have deep ancient roots in the land, living side‑by‑side in peace and security.
We also affirmed that two states along the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps remain the best way to achieve equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom and democracy for Palestinians and Israelis alike. We underscore the importance of the U.S. strategic relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the second Arab state to take the courageous step of making peace with Israel. And we welcome Israel’s reaffirmation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.
QUESTION: Well, just if I may follow up, I mean, this person – this Israeli minister was here only ten days ago. Are you – is this administration willing to declare him a persona non grata, for instance?
MR PATEL: Said, I —
QUESTION: What measures can you take against such a statement?
MR PATEL: Said, I’m not here —
QUESTION: I am sure if somebody – if somebody denied the existence of another people elsewhere, you would take a very strong statement against such individual?
MR PATEL: Said, we’re taking a strong statement now, and I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what we would do if another government official in another country did something hypothetical. What I am here to tell you, as I just said a moment ago, is that we found those comments to not only be inaccurate but also deeply concerning and dangerous. So –
QUESTION: But the Knesset action ‑-
QUESTION: He simply does not care. He said that, I want this heard in the White House. He said that exactly. I mean, you have no response to him? You can’t say this person is not welcome in the United States?
MR PATEL: Again, I don’t have any designation or characterization to offer, Said. What I will just leave it at is that those comments were concerning, they were dangerous, and they were offensive.
QUESTION: But the Knesset vote is not a hypothetical. It’s happened. They clearly were acting at the behest of the government, of the prime minister, of the finance minister. How can they be held accountable? Where – to repeat what Matt and Said have been asking, where is the leverage? What is the discussion in this building about how to hold Israel accountable, keeping in mind that the U.S. has a vested interest in protecting it from a security standpoint? But how can this government allow Israel to undermine the goal of a two-state solution when things such as this have now happened?
MR PATEL: Well, first, you are absolutely right. Our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s security concerns are ironclad, but I will also note that we have, when we need to, very frank and honest conversations with our Israeli partners.
And there is no hypothetical about it. You’re right. This kind of legislation does undermine what we think could be required for a negotiated two-state solution. We have been clear that advancing settlements is an obstacle to peace and an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution and that certainly the – what this legislation would do would be create new settlements or buildings and legalize outposts. All of this would further incite tensions and put a negotiated two-state solution further away.
I’m not going to stand up here and offer a litany list of all the ways in which we can and hold our Israeli partners accountable, but – beyond to say that we raise these issues directly. We raise these issues regularly. We do it through this building. We do it through the President. We do it through Secretary Blinken. We do it through our ambassador. All of those ways are opportunities for us to engage on this issue, which is very, very important to us.
QUESTION: But the point is, even granted that the President had a discussion with the prime minister this past weekend, given that ten days ago the finance minster was in this country and no one in the U.S. Government made a point of meeting with him, not to mention all of the affinity groups that pointedly did not meet with Mr. Smotrich, it looks like it’s all talk.
What are the things that are being looked at? Could there be travel restrictions on those members of the Knesset who voted for this legislation? Could there be a restriction on funding provided to the Israeli Government that does not affect the security portfolio? Could there be anything done – does this mean that it makes it more likely that the Palestinian consulate is reopened in Jerusalem? What are the things that this government is prepared to do in order to send the message? Because clearly, all of the talk has not given what the U.S. would like to see change in the situation.
MR PATEL: There are a number of options that we continue to look at in which we can and do engage with our Israeli partners. I’m not going to get into previewing them, but what I will just say again and reiterate is that this is an issue that is of utmost concern to us and something that we have, quite directly and candidly, will continue to raise with our Israeli partners.
QUESTION: I mean, I’m not suggesting that the administration might want to consider the James Baker solution of ’91, but you have to get the government’s attention if you’re serious about trying to reach a solution that goes back to ’67 with the Green territory talks.
MR PATEL: We are serious about a solution and we have – this administration has taken a number of actions and the comments that we’ve offered have indicated how serious we are. And when either side has taken steps that we think put us further away, whether that be the Israelis or the Palestinians, we have been quite vocal about how those steps are unhelpful to getting us to what the United States views as our – as a goal.
As I just was at the beginning of this briefing, we have not parsed words when we have felt that certain actions take us away towards what we believe is the best solution for the Israeli and Palestinian people as well as the best solution that will offer a long-term stability, security, and peace for the region as well.
Leon and then I’ll get to the back of the room. Go ahead, Leon.
QUESTION: Yeah, I was going to ask on Israel, but my question has been answered, so I’m going to move on to another region. Is —
MR PATEL: Anything else on the region before we move on?
QUESTION: The —
MR PATEL: On Israel or —
QUESTION: No, no, no. The —
MR PATEL: No? Okay, then I will come back to you, Janne. Go ahead, Leon.
QUESTION: Okay. I was wondering, Vedant, if you have any information, detailed insight you could give us to the Secretary’s role in the liberation of – well, two hostages, one French, one American in Niger which were released yesterday. And since, of course, the Secretary was in the region in Niger just last week.
MR PATEL: Thanks. Yeah, thanks, Leon. So the U.S. is pleased to confirm the release of U.S. citizen Jeffery Woodke, who had been held hostage in West Africa for more than six years. This release is thanks to the extraordinary cooperation of the Government of Niger and the sustained efforts of countless organizations and individuals around the world. We want the American people to know that the U.S. Government has no higher priority than their safety and security, and the Biden administration will continue to work aggressively using a wide range of tools until all U.S. citizens being held hostage or wrongfully detained are brought home.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of sensitive diplomatic conversations, Leon, but at this point in this administration, it should be no surprise to you that in any country where U.S. nationals are being held hostage or wrongfully detained, we, the State Department, raise those cases at every opportunity. And as I said, this release is thanks to the extraordinary cooperation of the Government of Niger.
And you all had the opportunity to hear from Secretary Blinken yesterday from this very podium, and later in the day, we are able to share that he was able to speak to Mr. Woodke’s family and share in their excitement for his return. He also reiterated that the United States will continue to provide all appropriate assistance.
Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions on China and North Korea.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: First question in North Korea issues: The United Nations Security Council’s condemnation statement and adoption of sanctions against North Korea’s ballistic missile launch violations failed due to China and Russia’s use of their veto power. How does the U.S. respond to poor role of the UN Security Council?
MR PATEL: So first, Janne, let me say that the United States condemns the DPRK’s March 19th ballistic missile launch which came just three days after the DPRK’s most recent ICBM launch. This launch is in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and is the latest in a series of launches that pose a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and undermine regional security. And it’s particularly concerning that the DPRK categorized – characterized this launch as the simulated use of a tactical nuclear weapon.
As it relates to the UN Security Council, we continue to believe that all members of the Security Council have a role to play in holding the DPRK accountable, especially those that have influence over Pyongyang, and particularly that now is not the time to be using vetoes to cover up for the DPRK.
QUESTION: On China.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: China is secretly supplying weapons to Russia and ignoring North Korea’s series of missile provocations. Do you see any objection to China’s role as a peace mediator?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things to that, Janne. First, the – we encourage President Xi to advocate for the point that they outlined in their own 12-point plan, which is respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. We encourage President Xi to advocate for this point, which must include withdrawal of Russian forces from sovereign Ukrainian territory consistent with the UN Charter. I think it’s quite clear that the entire world would like to see this war end, especially the Ukrainians themselves who have put forward their own plan for a just peace which draws on these very UN principles that I just spoke about. And let’s remember this war could end today if Russia withdrew its troops from Ukraine.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Blinken is set to testify on the Hill tomorrow and Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul has put out, made public, another letter that he sent the Secretary, asking for the same documentation that he’s already previously asked for related to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I know that Ned last week said that the State Department is working to comply with providing that documentation in time for the House committee’s deadline of March 23rd, or by close of business tomorrow. Can you give us an update on whether the State Department will meet the expectations of the House committee, whether documentation will be provided, and if so, in what form?
MR PATEL: I will echo what Ned said, that we are and we intend to comply. The State Department is committed to working with all congressional committees with jurisdiction to appropriately accommodate their need for information and to help them conduct oversight for legislative purposes.
The department has provided more than 200 briefings to bipartisan members and staff on Afghanistan policy since the withdrawal of U.S. Afghanistan – U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Additionally, senior department representatives have appeared in public hearings and answered questions on Afghanistan policy. And the department has responded to numerous requests for information from members and their staffs related to Afghanistan policy.
As Chairman McCaul also has previously said, he and the Secretary have had a constructive discussion when the chairman visited the department earlier this year, and the Secretary reaffirmed his commitment to cooperate with the committee’s work. And we have since provided hundreds of pages of documents responsive to the chairman’s request regarding Afghanistan, and we will continue to do so.
We are working as expeditiously as possible to accommodate what was an extensive and detailed request, and our provision of information and documents to the committee will continue as we collect and process additional responsive records.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that?
MR PATEL: Alex.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant.
MR PATEL: Oh, Kylie had a follow-up, then I’ll come back to you, Alex.
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Kylie.
QUESTION: Just to be a little bit more specific, they’ve obviously requested a tremendous number of documents from this building. But there’s three sets of documents, or documents that they have said they prioritized or would like you to prioritize giving to them. One is the dissent cable that was written from diplomats last July, the second is the department’s Afghanistan withdrawal after-action report, and the third is multiple versions of the department’s emergency action plans for Kabul.
On those three specific things, can you give us an update as to if you think that those documents will be provided to the committee by the end of the day tomorrow?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into a tit-for-tat litany of the work that’s been ongoing. What I will just reiterate is that we have since provided hundreds of pages of documents responsive to the chairman’s request. We’re going to continue to do so. We’re working as expeditiously as we can. As you know, this whole process requires very intensive and detailed work processing and looking at records and figuring out what is responsive to the various requests. So I’m going to let that process continue to play out.
QUESTION: And just – I assume, then, that the department is prepared to have to deal with subpoenas if those documents aren’t provided to the —
MR PATEL: We – at any turn, this department is always going to intend to comply with the law.
Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. A couple questions, but let me just follow up with China first.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Let me get your sense on today’s second days of meeting between President Xi and Putin. Other than just lavish display of solidarity and friendship we have seen, what do you think China’s president is really after in Russia?
MR PATEL: Alex, that’s a question for President Xi. I’m not going to speculate there. You should reach out to his spokesperson.
QUESTION: Sure. You probably have seen – you probably have seen Russian officials today said that they are planning to put together a UN Security Council meeting, informal meeting, on, quote/unquote, “the truth about Ukrainian children being transferred to Russia.” Let me get your reaction to that, and also to the fact that a man who is wanted by ICC for war crimes is going to actually lead the world’s most important security body as of next week.
MR PATEL: Alex, we know the truth about what’s happening to Ukrainian children. Our colleagues at Yale University and the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations have shown immense leadership in unearthing the horrific truths of what is happening to Ukrainian children. We are seeing numerous reports, have seen numerous reports, of children being separated from their families, being sent to facilities all across Russia, some that are closer to the United States when it comes to mileage as opposed to Ukraine; Russian – Ukrainian children being forced to be adopted by Russian families. We know what’s happening to Ukrainian children. We don’t need the Russian Federation to tell us.
QUESTION: And the second part of my question —
MR PATEL: Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: — was about Putin, the fact that Putin is going to lead that world’s most important body. Do you have any problems with —
MR PATEL: He’s going to lead what?
QUESTION: The UN Security Council as of next week.
MR PATEL: I think what I would say, Alex, again is that we have been quite consistent in any multilateral setting, whether it be the G20 or even now the UN Security Council, that as it relates to Russia, it cannot be business as usual. And quite candidly, Alex, we know that the countries that make up the UN membership agree. As recently as just a number of weeks ago, you saw more than 140 countries speak in unison about how the Russian Federation needed to respect territorial integrity, respect sovereignty, and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
QUESTION: Thank you. May I also ask about —
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room a little, Alex.
Nike, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on the China-Russia joint statement, could you provide a general assessment – U.S. assessment? Do you see anything new there? And I know you do not comment on intelligence matters, but do you have anything to share on if the U.S. has any indication that Russia, President Putin, has asked Xi Jinping to provide lethal weapons during the visit? Thank you.
MR PATEL: Like I – like you so aptly pointed out, I’m not going to – that’s a better question for them. I don’t have any information to offer on that. But broadly – and this is something that the Secretary has spoken about quite consistently going back to on the margins of the Munich Security Conference – any steps being taken by China to provide lethal aid to Russia would be deeply problematic and of great concern to the United States. It’s something that we are paying very close attention to and will take appropriate action, as needed, should a certain line be crossed.
As it relates to the joint statement, though, Nike, on Ukraine, the two sides said that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed and international law must be respected. Well, following the UN Charter would mean that Russia withdrawing from the territory of another UN member-state it has invaded. The UN Charter enshrines the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine. And if China wants to play a constructive role in this conflict, then it should press Russia to remove its forces from Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
As I have said on a number of various intervals, this war could end today if Russia were to choose to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
QUESTION: On a related subject, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Kyiv, and as we see the foreign news, President Zelenskyy said that he would attend the G7 summit later. Do you have anything on the timing and the implication of Kishida’s visit to Ukraine?
MR PATEL: On any of the scheduling of the G7, that’s – I would refer you to our Japanese partners. Obviously, they are the G7 – they have the G7 presidency this year, so I will let them speak to and announce any schedule. But broadly speaking, we strongly support Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to make this historic visit to Ukraine in support of the Ukrainian people and in support of the UN Charter and the universal values that it enshrines.
Michel, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have a couple —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — of questions, please. First, do you have any comments on the warm reception for the Syrian president in the UAE?
MR PATEL: Well, Michel, we have remained focused on helping the Syrian people, who continue to suffer through more than 12 years of wars and atrocities at the hands of Assad, and now a devastating earthquake. Our stance against normalization remains unchanged. We will not normalize with the Assad regime, nor will we encourage others, absent authentic and enduring progress towards a political resolution in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We have been clear about this, and we have been quite clear about this with our partners as well.
QUESTION: Did you ask formally or directly your partners and allies not to normalize with the regime?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into the specifics of our diplomatic engagements, Michel. But we continue to urge anybody engaging with Damascus to consider sincerely and thoroughly how their engagements can help provide for Syrians in need, no matter where they live.
QUESTION: UAE president has said that it’s time for Syria to return to Arab fold. Do you support Syria’s return to the Arab League?
MR PATEL: Again, I think I was quite clear: We will not normalize with the Assad regime nor will we encourage others, absent authentic and enduring progress, for them to normalize their relations with Syria, either.
QUESTION: And my final question on this.
QUESTION: Wait, wait, on this, on Syria, I just want to know: Is it still the administration’s or the U.S. position that Assad’s days are numbered?
MR PATEL: That Assad what?
QUESTION: His days are numbered?
MR PATEL: I’m not here to announce or make new policy, Matt.
QUESTION: Oh, I know, I just am wondering. I mean, it was about a decade or a little over a decade ago that the former president of the United States said – or a former president of the United States said his days were numbered, something that was repeated over and over and over again, and here we are now, 10 years later or even more —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — and he’s still there and he’s visiting one of your good friends.
MR PATEL: Again, Matt, I don’t have a new U.S. policy to announce beyond what I said our – that our hope is for an authentic and enduring progress toward a political solution that is in line with the will of the Syrian people.
Back to you, Michel.
QUESTION: And my final – my final question on this.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you considering to apply the Caesar Act against the countries who normalize with the Syrian regime?
MR PATEL: Michel, I’m not going to preview or get ahead of any actions. I think what I will just say again and reiterate is that we remain committed to assisting the Syrian people by working with international partners to deliver lifesaving assistance. But broadly, as it relates to normalization, we will not normalize with the Assad regime, nor will we encourage others absent authentic and enduring progress as well.
Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you, Vedant. Jack Richman with The Epoch Times.
MR PATEL: Great.
QUESTION: John Kirby stated yesterday that Secretary Yellen and Secretary Raimondo may potentially visit China. Do you have any information regarding the objectives of this visit?
MR PATEL: I will let the Secretaries of Commerce and Treasury speak to their own travel. Specifically as it relates to Secretary Blinken, though, as he has said quite openly before, we will reschedule our visit to the PRC when conditions allow. I don’t have any updates on when or what that could look like, but it’s a line of effort we’re continuing to pursue.
QUESTION: And does the department have any reaction to Putin and Xi’s pledge to deepen their strategic relations today?
MR PATEL: Well, I think I just answered a number of questions about President Putin and President Xi’s meeting.
QUESTION: Okay, and then one final one on – on Ukraine. Poland and Slovakia pledged fighter jets for Ukraine. Does this change the U.S. position on providing jets for the war? What are the factors preventing the U.S. from providing the jets?
MR PATEL: It does not change our position, and the Secretary had an opportunity to speak to this a little bit in Niamey during his press conference, but the transfer of military equipment is a sovereign decision for a country to make in a manner consistent with its international obligations. Poland and Slovakia have both been providing a significant amount of security assistance to Ukraine, as have more than 50 nations around the world alongside of the United States.
You’ve heard the President and leaders of the Pentagon be quite clear F-16s are not something we are considering right now. We have been focused on sending Ukraine what they need to succeed in each phase of this war, as we have consistently done so since even before February of last year. Right now our focus is on air defense capabilities and weapons and equipment they need to retake the ground.
QUESTION: Yesterday, Japanese and Indian prime minister met in New Delhi and agreed to maintain the rule-based international order. So are you welcoming this meeting as a partner of Pacific Quad?
And one more is the Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi has been criticized by some media outlet when he was absent in the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting because of a domestic cabinet session.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things. On your second question, I will let Foreign Minister Hayashi and his team speak to his own schedule, but what I can say is that Secretary Blinken enjoyed being with Foreign Minister Hayashi the very next day, in which they were able to sit together on a panel for the Quad during the Raisina Dialogue. They also had the opportunity to have a great bilateral engagement on the margins of the Raisina Dialogue as well, and we continue to view Japan as an important and critical partner when it comes to not just only our priorities in the Indo-Pacific but in the world broadly.
And to your first question, I will let, of course, New Delhi and Tokyo speak to their own engagements, but of course members of the Quad engaging in their own bilateral engagements is a good and welcome thing. But I will let them speak to that.
Go ahead, then I’ll come back to you. Sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador criticized earlier today the – your Human Rights Report, and he called the State Department a liar. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PATEL: Well, what I would say is that the United States has worked for decades to strengthen and – respect for human rights, and this commitment reflects core American values and internationally recognized human rights enshrined in documents such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a report that we have released regularly on an annual basis, and it is about recognizing and promoting the human rights and the foundations of freedom and justice and worldwide peace.
QUESTION: It was pretty much the same question, but I mean, do you actually have a response to him calling you guys liars? And they also say U.S. believes it’s the government of the world. Those are, like, pretty strong words. Do you have a response to that?
MR PATEL: We have never been ones to indicate that we are the government of the world or some kind of edict like that. Specifically as it relates to Mexico, though, the reported involvement of members of Mexican police, military, and other government institutions in serious acts of corruption and unlawful, arbitrary killings remain a serious challenge for Mexico, and that’s why they were highlighted in our report.
But also broadly, as it relates to the United States, we have never been one to try and imply we don’t have our own challenges domestically. This Secretary has spoken to this quite candidly before, and as he likes to say, we do not sweep these issues under the rug. We talk about them openly. We engage on these issues.
And the Human Rights Report – another thing important to remember is that it is something that’s mandated by Congress. We of course don’t critique and look at ourselves through the auspices of this report specifically, but we do do that broadly and we do that in other multilateral settings, and we take part in forums as it relates to human rights in the United States as well.
Nick, go ahead.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the Team Cuba catcher defecting to the United States after his team was eliminated in the World Baseball Classic. Are you familiar with that story? You have any comment on it?
MR PATEL: I am not familiar with that, Nick. I’m going to have to check on that and get back to you. I haven’t seen that reporting.
Go ahead in the back, Mikhail.
QUESTION: Thank you. Are you satisfied with results of the negotiations between Türkiye, Finland, and Sweden? The reason I’m asking you is because you said many times from the podium that you wanted both countries to join NATO.
QUESTION: Well, Mikhail, as we said last week, we welcome President Erdogan’s announcement that he will send Finland’s NATO accession protocols to the Turkish parliament, and we look forward to the prompt, positive conclusion of that process. We also encourage Türkiye to quickly ratify Sweden’s accession protocols as well.
Our belief continues to be – as robustly as when this process started – that Sweden and Finland are both strong, capable partners that share NATO’s values and will strengthen the Alliance and contribute to European security. The U.S. believes that both countries should become members of NATO as soon as possible
QUESTION: So you are not – you are not agree with the actions by Mr. Erdogan, who is stopping the Sweden to join the NATO, as I understand?
MR PATEL: We remain fully committed to Finland and Sweden’s accession. The strength of that support can be clear in our own Senate overwhelming bipartisan vote, as well as the swiftness of President Biden signing those protocols, as well as the Department of State accepting them as well. This is something that we are deeply, deeply committed to.
Go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I’d like to follow up on Japanese prime minister visit to Ukraine, which started just after Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s meeting with Putin in Russia. During Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Ukraine, what kind of message and support does the U.S. hope Japan to offer?
Also, did the U.S. offer any help for Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Ukraine to be safe?
MR PATEL: I’m not aware of any engagements like that. But what I will say broadly and reiterate again is that we strongly support Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to make this historic visit to Ukraine. Japan has been an incredible partner in holding the Russian Federation accountable, in supporting our Ukrainian partners. They have done so since this conflict started, and I know that they will continue to do so, especially this year as they are going to take the presidency of the G7. And the G7 body as a whole has also played an incredible role in not just supporting our Ukrainian partners but holding the Russian Federation accountable.
QUESTION: If we could go back to Saudi Arabia —
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Are there currently any cases of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in the kingdom?
MR PATEL: It is not my understanding that there are, that there are any wrongfully detained cases in the kingdom right now.
QUESTION: And then can you provide any update on the handful of Americans that are under a travel ban in the kingdom? Has the administration made any progress in seeking their release?
MR PATEL: So broadly speaking, we have no higher priority than the well-being and fair treatment of all U.S. nationals detained overseas. Our consular officers overseas seek to ensure that U.S. nationals who are detained are receiving humane treatment and that all fair trial guarantees are respected.
And as we would with any country, we continue to push for regular and consistent consular access. But I don’t have any specifics on specific cases to offer.
QUESTION: Well, can you speak to the broad issue of the travel bans themselves? Do you think they’re okay, if that’s the law of the country? Or do you think that foreign countries should not be allowed to ban an American citizen, even if they are a dual national, from leaving that country?
MR PATEL: Matt, of course each country is going to have its own sovereign laws, and each case is different, so I’m not going to speak about this in a broad brushstroke.
QUESTION: So you don’t have any – there’s nothing in your guidance about the travel ban issue in Saudi Arabia specifically, even if it doesn’t discuss specifics —
MR PATEL: What I would say is that the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens overseas is the highest priority —
QUESTION: Yeah, you’ve said that’s now four times, but —
MR PATEL: — and we continue for – for American citizens who are placed under – who are detained or are placed under travel bans, we continue to engage directly with them through our consular officers to try and find ways to rectify those circumstances if we can and ensure that U.S. detained nationals are receiving humane treatment and that all relevant fair trial guarantees are respected.
Final question, we’ll go to Alex and Nike and then we’ll wrap.
QUESTION: Thanks so much, Vedant. On Armenia-Azerbaijan.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: I was hoping you would help us better understand the first line in your readout of the Secretary’s calls with both Yerevan and Baku. You said he called them to offer continued U.S. assistance in facilitating peace discussions. I was – I thought that’s what you guys were doing. You had last week a senior advisor in the region was engaging with the sides. Why would the Secretary make that call to ask for U.S. – facilitation —
MR PATEL: He was offering his continued support on the U.S.’s assistance in these engagements, which as you know, Alex – you’ve watched this issue quite closely – is something that we have remained quite committed on. Obviously through Secretary Blinken’s commitment to this issue, when Ambassador Reeker was leading this portfolio through his work, and now through the work of Lou Bono as well.
QUESTION: And there’s one line I did note at this time on the call to Azerbaijan, which was about human rights. Yesterday, which was discussed in this room, you guys mentioned that you are raising all those cases. Did the Secretary raise human rights issues?
MR PATEL: I don’t have specifics to get into about the diplomatic engagements, Alex, beyond what was in the readout. But of course, human rights is something that we raise regularly with all our partners, including those in the South Caucasus.
QUESTION: Would you be surprised if he didn’t?
MR PATEL: Alex, again, I’m just not going to get into his specific diplomatic engagements.
Nike and then we’ll wrap.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Taiwan. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen with stopover New York and California before heading to Central America, do you have anything on that? Given that they are presidents and all democratically elected Taiwan presidents have transited through the United States during their terms, should it be a pretext for any military escalation in the Taiwan Strait? And do you know if anyone from this building planned to meet or to talk to her, physically or virtually. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things, Nike. This transit is consistent, as you so said, with longstanding U.S. practice, the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan, and U.S. policy, which remains unchanged. Transits are taken out of consideration for safety and comfort and convenience and dignity of the passenger and are in – consistent with our “one China” policy, which also remains unchanged. Transits are private and official – and unofficial. And every Taiwan president has transits in the United States.
President Tsai has transited the United States six times since taking office in 2016, and high-level officials have typically met with members of Congress, which is a separate and co-equal branch of government, and engage in other public and private activities during those transits.
QUESTION: Anyone from the building is going to meet with him during —
MR PATEL: Again, this transit is private and unofficial, so as of right now I am not aware of any plans for any meetings with the department.
QUESTION: Vedant, Vedant.
QUESTION: Vedant, sorry, but could I just ask you about the convenience part of this?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Right. Transits are done – or approved based on the – for the safety, comfort, convenience, and dignity of the passenger. How exactly is it convenient to fly from Taipei to Guatemala through New York?
MR PATEL: Matt, I’m not going to try and pretend that I understand flight patterns or anything like that.
QUESTION: I just looked up – I looked up the flight plans. It is about a 15-hour flight from Taipei to New York City. It is only an 11-hour flight from Taipei to Los Angeles. So in other words, this is not particularly convenient for her to fly through New York to get to Guatemala and Belize.
MR PATEL: Again, Matt, this transit is consistent with longstanding U.S. practice. And they are, indeed, taken out of consideration for the safety, comfort, and convenience, and dignity of the passenger as well.
Final question, Said.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about Iraq, since nobody has.
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I mean, yesterday marked the 20th anniversary since the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces. And I wonder if this administration or this Department of State reassess this whole episode and – or this whole tragedy. It’s the – close to 4,600 American troops died there; maybe upward of 300,000 Iraqis. I know; I worked at the UN. We counted in Iraq those figures and so on. The country is still broken. It is dysfunctional. There is more influence by Iran than at any other time. I wonder if you guys sort of take a pause and take a look at this whole thing, and how do you assess it?
MR PATEL: Said, our administration, our intention is – as it relates to our relationship with Iraq is forward-looking. Currently, Said – and I’m sure you’re familiar with this – 50 percent of Iraq’s population is 20 years old, and so much of our work is concentrated on them and looking forward. Our attention is on expanding the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement beyond security to a 360-degree relationship that delivers results for the Iraqi people.
We have been through much in the past 20 years – conflict and rebuilding, the fight to defeat ISIS and terrorism, the COVID-19 pandemic, a global financial crisis, climate change challenges, water scarcity. Twenty years in, the U.S. and Iraq continue to build on our strategic partnership. This means we’re growing areas of cooperation to include all facets of our bilateral relationship.
Secretary Blinken had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Sudani on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, and we agree on the need to ensure an enduring defeat to ISIS, establish Iraq’s energy independence, support the growth of the private sector, improve public services, in addition expand educational and cultural programming. Our ultimate goal is to strengthen Iraqi stability, security, and sovereignty.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)
 Half of Iraq’s population is under 20 years old. ↑