Department Press Briefing – February 16, 2021
12:53 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Great. Good afternoon. Just a couple things at the top.
The United States has partnered with the international community in endorsing the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. Yesterday, Secretary Blinken joined leaders from Canada and over 55 other nations in sending a message to governments that lock up other countries’ citizens for diplomatic gain: Using detention as leverage is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. This heinous practice must stop immediately.
As I previewed on Friday, I am happy to welcome U.S. Special Envoy to Yemeni – to Yemen Timothy Lenderking to the virtual podium today. U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking has been charged by President Biden with critical work of revitalizing our diplomatic efforts to bring peace and security to Yemen. He will work closely with Ambassador Henzel and his team at our embassy to Yemen, currently located in Riyadh. He’ll work with interagency colleagues here in Washington, with the Hill, with humanitarian partners, and with other regional and international partners to address the crisis and build support for a resolution. The U.S. special envoy brings immense regional and policy expertise to the table, and he has worked closely over the course of his diplomatic career with the United Nations, Gulf partners, and a range of partners in the region.
And so with that, I’ll turn it over to U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking for some remarks, and then he will have an opportunity to take your questions. So, please, Tim, over to you.
MR LENDERKING: Ned, thank you very much, and good afternoon, everyone. I’m sorry not to be able to join you in person today. I’m on quarantine, having just returned from international travel. I hope to be able to join you in person on another occasion soon.
Let me start by saying I am honored that the President and the Secretary have entrusted me to lead our diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, which is now in its sixth year. I look forward to working with our team at the embassy to Yemen led by Ambassador Chris Henzel, with Special Envoy from the United Nations Martin Griffiths, and the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, with our international partners, and with a range of stakeholders here at home. Together, we’ll pursue a dual-track approach to building international support to achieve a lasting political solution while bringing humanitarian relief to the Yemeni people.
The President and the Secretary have made very clear our commitment to prioritizing efforts to alleviating the worsening humanitarian crisis and to ensuring that humanitarian assistance and basic commodities reach the Yemeni people. To that end, I have met with my counterparts at USAID, including Acting Administrator Gloria Steele and her team, to discuss USAID’s critical humanitarian operations in Yemen. I’ve also spoken to senior UN leadership about the urgently growing needs in Yemen and our commitment to supporting the humanitarian response. I look forward to our continued coordination with our humanitarian assistance partners.
As the President and —
(Livestream is interrupted.)
MR PRICE: Well, why don’t we plan to move on, and we will hopefully come back to Special Envoy Lenderking.
QUESTION: All right, well I —
MR PRICE: So —
QUESTION: Well, I have a – I mean, I have a bunch of questions that might be appropriate for him.
MR PRICE: Well, of course. Let’s save Yemen for the special envoy.
QUESTION: Well, let me – well, let me start with a combination of Yemen, Iran, and Iraq. And that is, so today, the final revocation of the FTO for the Houthis came out. You also had last night or yesterday an attack in Erbil, both of which are blamed by many people, even if not you specifically yet, on Iranian-backed militia.
And so I’m wondering if you think that – or if you’re having any second thoughts. And I asked this again – I asked this before last week, but I just wonder, especially given your statement appealing for the Houthis not to continue attacks in Marib today, if you’re having any second thoughts about these un-designations.
MR PRICE: Well – and I hope we have an opportunity to hear from the special envoy himself.
QUESTION: Me too.
MR PRICE: But I will say we do not have second thoughts about the profound humanitarian implications that were at play when it came to the broad designation of Ansarallah. As we have mentioned before, the broad designation, which was finalized in the last hours of the last administration, was put forward in spite of fierce opposition from members of Congress, from humanitarian aid organization, from elements of the UN. And of course, we had great concerns with it.
Again, the Secretary, when he was asked from this podium a few weeks ago now what his priorities would be, he proactively raised this knowing that some 80 percent of Yemen’s civilian population lives under Houthi control in Yemen. And he also knew at the time and knows now that we can do two things at once: We can ensure that we are not worsening the humanitarian plight of Yemen’s civilian population while continuing to put pressure on the leaders of the Ansarallah or the Houthi movement.
As I’ve said before – as you have heard me say, I think in a – in response to a couple of your questions, Matt – Houthi leaders remain designated under UN and U.S. auspices. I think if you read closely the Secretary’s statement on Friday regarding the revocation of this broad designation, he also made the point that we will continue to look for ways, and we are actively doing so, to increase the pressure on the Houthi leadership.
Let me just spend a moment on the attack in Erbil, because you raised it, and it’s worth reiterating here. As you heard from the Secretary last night, we are outraged by the attacks yesterday which harmed civilians, coalition forces, including an American service member.
The Secretary, as you know, last night spoke with Iraqi Kurdistan region’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. This morning, he spoke with Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. We’ll have a readout of that call today as well. Ensuring the safety of U.S. Government personnel and U.S. citizens and the security of our facilities is our highest priority. The Iraqi people have suffered for far too long from this kind of violence and this violation of their sovereignty.
Now, we are not going to get ahead of the investigation that is very much underway. We have been in close contact with Kurdish officials, with Iraqi officials, to determine who ultimately was responsible for that. We take it incredibly seriously. We are supporting our Iraqi partners in their efforts to investigate these attacks, whether they were conducted by Iran, whether they were conducted by Iranian-backed militia forces or elements of such forces; we’re not going to prejudge that.
But suffice to say two things: One, we will, in coordination with our Iraqi partners, reserve the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing; and we will do so in coordination with our Iraqi partners. As I said, this is a matter of Iraqi sovereignty. We are partners with the Iraqi people and the Iraqi Government and will respond with that partnership in mind.
QUESTION: Well, just in terms of – since the Secretary made the comments that you just said that he made, which he did, shortly after or a day after he was confirmed, have you – about that being his priority, to remove the Houthis from the FTO, and also to remove the leaders, the three leaders of the Houthis, from the terrorism designations while – you aren’t going to accept that, right? I just want to make sure before we go further.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: The three – the leaders of the Houthis who are still designated under the anti —
MR PRICE: UN and U.S. auspices, correct.
QUESTION: Right. But they were removed from the Treasury’s list, your list, the SGDT – SDGT list of terrorist leaders, correct?
MR PRICE: What we have said is that —
QUESTION: No, no, no, just —
MR PRICE: Houthi —
QUESTION: Did they get – did they get taken off that list or not?
MR PRICE: We removed, as you said, the designation of Ansarallah as a foreign terrorist organization under the INA —
QUESTION: The list of the leaders —
MR PRICE: — and as a specially designated global terrorist group pursuant to the Executive Order 13224 in this case. Now, when it comes – when it comes to the Houthi leadership, they remain sanctioned under UN —
QUESTION: Yeah. But were they taken off but —
MR PRICE: They remain sanctioned under UN and U.S. sanctions.
QUESTION: Were they taken off the – were they taken off the actual SGD – SDGT list?
MR PRICE: What we revoked was the designation of Ansarallah, the broad group.
QUESTION: Did you not also revoke the designation of the three leaders?
MR PRICE: They remain sanctioned under U.S. and UN auspices. I’m being very clear.
QUESTION: I understand that they remain sanctioned under other designations. But now, wait, has the situation gotten better or worse? Or has it gotten any better since you announced these moves? Or has it – because you’ve actually issued two, at least two, appeals to the Houthis not to continue with attacks against civilian targets —
MR PRICE: Matt, you seem to be attributing some sort of causal motive to what has happened in between the time of Friday and Monday. We have spoken out against —
QUESTION: Well, this goes back longer than that.
MR PRICE: — the Houthi offensive in Marib. You saw that today, in terms of a statement from us. I – again, and I said this before, the Houthis are under the false impression that this administration intends to let its leadership off the hook. They are sorely mistaken. As the Secretary said on Friday, we continue to look for ways to hold the Houthi leadership to account, and not only to not decrease the pressure that Houthi leadership is under, but to increase that pressure if their reprehensible behavior does not stop.
QUESTION: I’ll go with my Yemeni question, given that we’re not quite sure —
MR PRICE: Let’s not give up entirely on today’s briefing. We’ll —
QUESTION: Well, I’ll put it out there for now.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: So in the statement that you put out from Mr. Blinken, you – it says, “The Houthis’ assault on Marib is the action of a group not committed to peace or to ending the war.” And I wondered if that is the case, how you move forward with the diplomacy you’ve been talking about. Is there a plan B?
MR PRICE: Understood.
QUESTION: I have a second question.
MR PRICE: Hope springs eternal from me that we’ll have the special envoy back with us, so let’s keep that question in reserve.
QUESTION: Okay. So in terms of Iraq, fair point that you’re investigating and you reserve the right to respond at a time and place and so on. But I just wondered, does this mean that you are no longer operating according to the standard that the Trump administration put down, which is that if a U.S. serviceperson is killed, there will be retaliation? Is that still part of your calculation, or is that —
MR PRICE: It would be premature to speak in specific terms about retaliation before we know precisely what happened. As I said before, there is an active, ongoing investigation that we’re in the midst of. We’ve been in close contact with our Kurdish partners, with our Iraqi partners. So before we speak to specific retaliation, it is natural, and I think it is patently obvious, that we would want to know exactly what happened. But as I also mentioned, we reserve the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing consistent with our partnership with the people and the government of Iraq.
QUESTION: On that Iraq attack, you talked about the investigation that Iraqi authorities are conducting. But do you have a separate investigation of your own, and do you have any clues? And what is your assessment that – who is behind it? I would like to continue – complete my question —
MR PRICE: So we are working in close partnership with Kurdish and Iraqi authorities. The United States, of course, brings our own – we bring our own resources to bear in terms of what may be in our holdings, including intelligence holdings. We will marry that with information that we develop in tandem with our partners. But again, we are in the early stages of this, and I wouldn’t want to get ahead or prejudge where that investigation may lead.
QUESTION: But there is a group in Iraq that took responsibility for that attack yesterday.
MR PRICE: We’ve seen that statement of – that claim of responsibility. But again, there’s an investigation and we don’t want to base our conclusions solely and exclusively on the claims of a particular group.
QUESTION: I have a couple question on Yemen —
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: — but I will wait. So I’ll ask you about Iraq. The initial investigation showed that the rockets that’s been used is Fajr-1, which is manufactured by the Iranians. And I know you’re just saying that you want to wait for the investigations, but do you see this as a test by the Iranians for this Biden administration to test your tolerance and patience of how you’re going to deal with them? Because everybody who knows Iraq knows that these groups cannot operate without a green light from Tehran.
MR PRICE: Well, I think the sad reality is that these kinds of rocket attacks have been more commonplace in recent years. With the implementation of the so-called maximum pressure strategy, a strategy that at the same time did not engage in – did not have accompanied – was not accompanied by diplomatic engagement of any sort with the Iranian Government, we have seen this spiral of attacks in recent months and beyond.
So, look, I wouldn’t want to get ahead of the motives, because again, we’re not going to get ahead of the perpetrator. Once we have identified a perpetrator, then it would be more appropriate to look into the motive. What I can say is that we are supporting the investigation into this. We will continue to work with our partners on the ground to develop those facts, and based on those facts, we’ll come to a conclusion.
QUESTION: He’s up now.
MR PRICE: Do we have the special envoy?
MR PRICE: Special Envoy, can you hear us?
MR LENDERKING: I can hear you loud and clear.
MR PRICE: All right. Okay, well, we’ve had a couple Yemen questions while —
QUESTION: And we’ve settled it all.
MR PRICE: — in the interim. That’s right, that’s right. So I wanted to reserve much of that for you. But let me turn it over to you, and my apologies for the technical snafu.
QUESTION: Can we go back to the —
MR LENDERKING: Well, thank you. Thanks very much, Ned, and good afternoon, everybody. I’m sorry that I couldn’t join you in person. I’m just back from international travel and I’m in quarantine, so I hope we’ll have a chance to join you in person on another occasion.
Let me just start by saying I’m honored that the President and the Secretary have entrusted me to lead our diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen, which is now in its sixth year. I look forward to working with our team at the U.S. Embassy to Yemen led by Ambassador Chris Henzel, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and with our international partners, and with a range of stakeholders here at home. I think together, we will pursue a dual-track approach to build international support to achieving a lasting political solution while bringing humanitarian relief to the Yemeni people.
The President and the Secretary have made very clear our commitment to prioritizing efforts to alleviate the worsening humanitarian crisis and to ensuring that humanitarian assistance and basic commodities reach the Yemeni people. To that end, I’ve met with my counterparts at USAID, including Acting Administrator Gloria Steele and her team, to discuss USAID’s critical humanitarian operation in Yemen. I’ve also spoken to senior UN leadership about the urgently growing needs in Yemen and our commitment to supporting the humanitarian response. I look forward to our continued coordination with our humanitarian assistance partners.
And as the President and Secretary have stated, we are also prioritizing diplomacy. We maintain that a political solution that brings the parties together is the only way to bring lasting peace to Yemen, and lasting relief to the people of Yemen. We’re working now to energize international diplomatic efforts with our Gulf partners, the United Nations, and others to create the right conditions for a ceasefire and to push the parties toward a negotiated settlement to end the war in Yemen. I’m firmly committed to working with partners on Capitol Hill and the interagency to ensure we bring a whole-of-government solution to this urgent problem set. Indeed, my very first calls were to key congressional leaders, and I look forward to continued engagement with the Hill.
As you know, I went immediately to Saudi Arabia last week. In Riyadh, I met with the Saudi leadership and with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. I met with the President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and Foreign Minister bin Mubarak. I also met with the head of King Salman Relief, Dr. Abdullah al-Rabeeah, to review efforts to provide urgent aid to Yemen. I met with the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, His Excellency Nayef al-Hajraf. And I also met with the P5 ambassadors in Riyadh. At the end of my trip, I think we all agreed that there is an urgent need to resolve the conflict, to coordinate closely on our humanitarian response efforts, and to maintain stability in the region.
MR. PRICE: Wonderful. Okay. The special envoy has kindly agreed to take a few questions. We’ll go here to – please.
MR LENDERKING: Can I say one more (inaudible) we go to questions? I wanted to make just one additional point, that while I was in Riyadh, the Houthis struck a civilian airliner at Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia, and these attacks against civilian infrastructure are not the actions of a group that claims it wants peace, and they must stop. Unless and until the Houthis change their reprehensible behavior, their leaders will remain under significant U.S. and international pressure. And I heard the question that Matt asked previously on this subject. We also urge the Houthis to halt their advance on Marib, which is a city home to about one million internally displaced persons in Yemen. In the last year alone, the surge in fighting in Marib caused over 100,000 Yemenis to flee their homes. The Houthis must truly commit to join this effort to finally ending the suffering and this war.
Ending this war through a lasting political solution is the only means to durably end the humanitarian crisis that is devastating the Yemeni people. And with that, Ned, I turn it back to you and happy to take a few questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. We’ll start right here.
QUESTION: Yeah, just – Barbara Usher from the BBC. Thank you for doing this. Just following up on a line – and you kind of repeated in the readout – that these actions, the assault on Marib and the attacks on the infrastructure show that it’s a group not committed to peace or ending the war. And yet you have been tasked with accelerating the diplomacy. So how does that work, if one side – if you believe or the actions of one side suggest they’re not interested in a solution? Do you have a plan B or do you have like a direct channel to the Houthis where you’re conveying these messages or getting some idea of why they’re carrying out this campaign?
MR LENDERKING: Thanks, Barbara. A couple of points I’d make at the top. The first is that the move on Marib is not a new development. It’s something that the Houthis have been eyeing intermittently over the last couple of years, but it’s clear that they’re making a push. And whether that’s to put themselves in a better position in advance of a negotiation or what exactly is the motive, I would let them comment on that.
We do have ways of getting messages to the Houthis, and we are using those channels very aggressively as we are engaging, as I mentioned, in person with the leaderships of the key countries involved. So I think our hope is that a combined effort, bringing in certain partners at certain times, backed with a strong – very strong American position, will essentially shake up the architecture and put us in a much better place to push for that negotiated settlement, which I think we all agree is the only way forward.
MR PRICE: Please.
MR PRICE: Shaun, right behind you. We’ll come back.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: Hiba Nasr from Asharq News. You said – we saw the statement today on Marib, and you said, Mr. Lenderking, about the attack when – while you were in Riyadh. So what if this pressure didn’t work? What kind of pressure you want to put on the Houthis to bring them to the table? And are you willing to engage with the Iranian if this didn’t work?
MR LENDERKING: Thank you, Hiba. I mean, I think the main thing is that there are a number of actors who are committed to a peaceful resolution of the Yemen conflict who are all, frankly, appalled and very concerned by the fighting that’s going on in Marib. And I would point you to Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian coordinator. His statement even before ours, focusing strictly on the humanitarian implications – as I mentioned, the potential for more IDPs to either flee in or out of Marib is something that is going to push an already stretched humanitarian infrastructure beyond the breaking point. And so that’s part of the reason here. And obviously, this is the last stronghold of the Yemeni Government in northern Yemen, so the stakes are very high.
As for talking to the Iranians, I think I would leave that for others to discuss. I know that Martin Griffiths just returned from Tehran, and I was able to speak to him about his meetings there. And it’s no secret, I think, that the Iranians have played a very negative role in Yemen hitherto. I mean, both their training, their supplying, and their equipping the Houthis to conduct attacks against civilian targets in the kingdom and elsewhere in the Gulf have been particularly damaging. So there’s also opportunity, I think, for Iran to show its better – put its best foot forward in terms of supporting the kind of international response that we’re trying to engineer here to end this conflict.
MR PRICE: Shaun, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. Can I follow up? The President announced an end to offensive – support for offensive operations by the Saudis in Yemen. Could you follow up on what that means at this point? Are you still honoring contracts that have been there before if it’s armaments, et cetera? Is there still some defense relationship regarding Yemen with regard to Saudi Arabia?
MR LENDERKING: Many of the details are still being discussed right now as to how that all shakes out. The President made a firm commitment. We are abiding by that. At the same time, he and the Secretary have both made clear that we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice, so Saudi Arabia needs to have the ability to defend itself. The situation in Marib that we’re talking about is not that far from the Saudi border. That’s a concern. As I mentioned, I walked into my meeting with the foreign minister of Yemen last – sorry, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia last Wednesday, and had to spend the first 20 minutes talking about what could have happened had there been people on board that aircraft that was hit earlier in the day in Abha.
So what we’re seeing is a steady flow of attacks across the border, and that pertains to the question made earlier. This has been happening for some time, so I hesitate, as Ned did, to attribute this to actions that we have taken. This is a consistent pattern. What we’re trying to do is break this cycle.
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: Hi, Tim. It’s Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya. Good to see you virtually. Your stated goal is to end this war in Yemen. You have two sides. You have the coalition led by the Saudis, and they said they’re willing to negotiate, and you have the Houthis, who so far haven’t seen – haven’t given us any indication that they are willing to negotiate. And I’m not quite sure what leverage that you have on them. Some will say that the UN platform is not really the right one to go forward if you want to end this war. Looking at the track record of the UN failure, actually, in Syria and in Libya and elsewhere, do you think that it’s about time, if you really put this as a top priority of your foreign policy, to look at different avenue of how you’re going to end this war in Yemen?
MR LENDERKING: By no means have we given up on the UN track, and Martin Griffiths done a terrific job as – leading this effort. And my instructions are to work very closely with him, and that’s why the very first meeting that I had in Saudi Arabia last week was with him, and then we built out and worked – met also with the Saudi leaders. So I would not apply UN positions in other conflicts, whether Syria or Libya, to the Yemen case. The Yemen case is a particular one. It is full of challenges and pitfalls, I certainly agree, but I think what we’re trying to do is build the right combination of pressures, use the right kind of leverage.
And one thing that I’ve found in the reaction to our new, energized diplomacy: There is a profound desire around the region and inside Yemen to end this conflict. The refrains that I hear from people throughout the region is now is the time to end the conflict. There is strong desire to do it. So we need those stakeholders and those with a say in the issue to rally around and support our efforts.
MR PRICE: Take a couple final questions.
QUESTION: Hi, Tim. This is Humeyra from Reuters. Good to see you as well. Just to follow up on that, do you know if UN Envoy Martin Griffiths made any progress during his visit to Iran on Yemen? Like, what was – if there was any progress, what was it specifically? And would you expect any developments related to that trip before the Security Council meeting on Thursday?
MR LENDERKING: Well, I’d leave that to Martin himself to describe. He will be in the Security Council later this week and he’ll be able to talk about his latest views on the conflict. I would just go back to the point I made earlier: This is an opportunity for Iran to rally behind this effort and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Yemen.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question right there.
QUESTION: Hi. Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Can you elaborate a little bit more about what Iran putting its best foot forward on this issue looks like? Is it completely cutting off the Houthis? And are there any circumstances in which you would sit down directly with the Houthis in the near future?
MR LENDERKING: I think the main thing is to stop the support for lethal activity by the Houthis, because that is particularly troubling. Their ability to use sophisticated UAVs, missiles, and a variety of – they – planting mines to threaten the international waterways around Yemen and the coast of Oman, these are things that are really antithetical to the peace effort in Yemen. So – and if the Houthis want to state their goodwill, they’ll push away from Iran. That’s something that they have – they themselves have stated that they want to be seen as independent of Iran. This is a good opportunity for them to show that.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned, can I get one more very quick?
MR PRICE: Matt.
QUESTION: I haven’t gotten to ask him a question. Yes?
MR PRICE: A very quick final question.
QUESTION: Okay, very quick. Sorry, Tim. So you’re one of the people who’s been dealing with this region for many years. You’re one of the few in a senior position who’s been around for the previous administration and this administration. What’s different in the last month? And has it – and – other than the removal of the FTO designation – and has it made the situation better, worse? Is there no causal effect to it? Or are you more optimistic now than you were, say, three months ago?
MR LENDERKING: Well, thanks, Matt. I look at the fact that the administration is putting an emphasis on Yemen as something that is different. That’s not to say the previous administration did not, but I think elevating our posture, the manner and the frequency with which the President and the Secretary and Ned Price have spoken about Yemen and our determination, the absolute commitment to improving the lot of the Yemeni people – we’ll maintain our status as the largest donor to Yemen, something I think we should all be proud of, even though this war seems very far away. But I think that is a major change.
And I think, again, just looking at the reaction from around the world and especially from the region and inside Yemen, the new American energy here is being welcomed. And I think it gives us some momentum, and that’s what we want to capitalize on.
MR PRICE: Just to state the obvious, the fact that you’re able to ask and hear answers from the Special Presidential Envoy for Yemen I think speaks to the prioritization this administration has attached to this challenge, and with that, Special Envoy Lenderking, want to thank you very much for your time. Apologies again for the technological gremlins and we look forward to having you back another time.
MR LENDERKING: Thanks very much.
MR PRICE: Great.
QUESTION: Thanks, Tim.
MR PRICE: We have just a couple minutes left. I have a hard stop, unfortunately, but take a couple additional questions. Andrea.
QUESTION: Hi. Let me ask about Afghanistan and the Taliban and what you’re seeing on the ground in terms of the increased activity around Kandahar and elsewhere and how that affects your review – when you expect the review to be done regarding troop – the status of troops.
MR PRICE: Well, so absolutely, the level of violence in Afghanistan is unacceptably high. As we have said before, President Biden is committed to bringing a responsible end to the so-called forever wars, just as we plan to support ongoing – the ongoing peace process between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban.
Of course, there is this defense ministerial, this NATO defense ministerial this week. As we have said before, we’re in the process of reviewing the U.S.-Taliban agreement, taking a close look at the parties – the ability and the willingness of the parties to uphold the commitments that they have made. We don’t have anything to announce at this time, but obviously, consulting closely with our NATO partners and our NATO allies in this going forward will be a key part of that – that process, and I know that Secretary Austin looks forward to that.
QUESTION: At this stage, do you think they’re in compliance?
MR PRICE: Well, again, the levels of violence are unacceptably high, but I would not want to get ahead of that evaluation. I would not want to get ahead of what that means in terms of the policy process as we look forward to May. But clearly, the consultations with our NATO allies, with other partners who have a stake in Afghanistan, they’re critical elements here and we’ll be undertaking them with great care going forward.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask a question for my VOA colleague who couldn’t make it in person on Kosovo. So the – Albin Kurti of the Self-Determination party who won has said that negotiations with Serbia will not be his top priority. Just if you could have a reaction to the elections and that statement, especially given that President Biden had urged both sides to reach a comprehensive solution on – based on mutual recognition.
MR PRICE: Well, I think in the first instance, we congratulate the people of Kosovo on their successful parliamentary elections. We look forward to working with the government, once formed, on priority issues to advance peace, justice, and prosperity in Kosovo and the broader region.
When it comes to the dialogue with Serbia, the United States strongly supports the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia aimed at a comprehensive normalization agreement which should be centered on mutual recognition. We will encourage the new government, once formed, to prioritize those negotiations.
QUESTION: Does that include any support for the previous administration’s attempts to bring about a better relationship between Serbia and Kosovo?
MR PRICE: Absolutely. The efforts on the part of the previous administration to, just as we are seeking to do, bring about normalization between Kosovo and Serbia is something we would support, as we’re doing now here.
QUESTION: I have one on Burma too, but I can wait.
MR PRICE: Shaun.
QUESTION: Just on Egypt?
MR PRICE: Mm-hmm, yes.
QUESTION: Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American human rights activist, he has reported that relatives in Cairo that – have had their homes raided. The Biden administration has talked about having a new relationship with Sisi. Is this of concern with you? Has this been raised?
MR PRICE: Well, we are aware of and we’re actually looking into reports of the detention of family members of human rights activist and American citizen Mohamed Soltan. We have and we continue to engage the Egyptian Government on human rights concerns and we take seriously all allegations of arbitrary arrest or detention, as we’ve said in other contexts. We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe. That includes with our close security partners. That includes with Egypt. So we’re looking into these reports.
A final question or two? I haven’t gone to the back there.
QUESTION: On the declaration that you signed yesterday with likeminded countries, one of the things it doesn’t do is name and shame countries that engage in this behavior. Are there countries of particular concern for you and your likeminded partners on this issue?
MR PRICE: Well, we have obviously spoken out, including in recent days, against countries that have engaged in this arbitrary detention of foreign nationals. As the Secretary said in his statement, human beings should not be used as geopolitical pawns. That applies across the board. We have spoken of cases where Americans and other foreign nationals are being detained unjustly for political motives. I think we all know what those cases are, but this was a broad statement by more than 55 countries to underline that broad principle because it is something that not only this administration and this country believes in deeply, but so many of our likeminded partners and allies do as well.
QUESTION: Just one follow-up on that. Paul Whelan’s lawyer said yesterday that there are talks between the U.S. and Russia for a sort of swap of prisoners. Can you confirm whether or not that’s true —
MR PRICE: We —
QUESTION: — and if you would support a prisoner swap?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to go into that from here. I think what we can say broadly is that the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of our highest priorities, as I’ve already said. Russian authorities convicted Paul Whelan in a closed and secret trial, depriving him of a key protection, and that’s transparency. His trial was a mockery of justice. Russian authorities didn’t provide evidence and didn’t allow for Mr. Whelan to produce witnesses in his own defense. He’s now serving this 16-year sentence in a Russian labor camp. We remain concerned for his well-being and his safety and will continue to speak on Mr. Whelan’s behalf until the Russian Government finally does the right thing and sends Mr. Whelan home to his family here in the United States.
QUESTION: Follow-up on Russia?
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Michel and then to you, Andrea.
QUESTION: Yeah. Why didn’t the U.S. attend the Astana process, and how do you view this process?
MR PRICE: On the Astana process and Syria more broadly, we’ll – I’ll see if we can get you an answer on our posture there. Thanks.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Navalny, on trial again and what he calls it, a mockery. Anything further, since Putin seems to be ignoring the American and Western protestations?
MR PRICE: Well, it’s not just the Americans. It is a broad coalition of likeminded allies and partners who have spoken out. I’ve mentioned this before, but on one of the first days of this administration the G7 came out with a very strong statement in support of Mr. Whelan, but also in support of human rights and condemning the abuses of human rights that we’ve seen on the part of the Russian Government.
As I’ve – as you know, we are looking very closely together with our allies, including our European allies, at Russia’s actions in the context of Mr. Navalny, including its arrest and detention of thousands of those who – of those Russians who bravely took to the streets. We’re doing that in tandem with a review that the Director of National Intelligence is undertaking regarding the various malign activities that we have seen emanate from or be attributed to Russia over the past several years. That includes electoral interference. It includes SolarWinds. It includes the use of a chemical weapon on Mr. Navalny, among other issues.
So this administration has been clear that we will stand up for human rights. We will push back on those countries that threaten our interests, that threaten universal values. And I think we’ll have more to say on that in the coming days.
QUESTION: The —
MR PRICE: Matt, you’ve asked a lot. We’ll need to —
QUESTION: I just have a —
QUESTION: Well, you —
MR PRICE: Nadia, go ahead.
MR PRICE: I don’t have any announcements to make at this time. But when we do and if we do, we’ll be sure to let you know.
QUESTION: Can I ask you if you have – if you include Julian Assange in the statement that Conor asked about?
MR PRICE: I know the Department of Justice is in an ongoing —
QUESTION: So you – you’d – so no, you don’t? You don’t believe that he —
MR PRICE: I would refer you to the Department of Justice to comment on Mr. Assange’s case.
QUESTION: All right. Second, on Burma. And yes, I do ask a lot of questions, but that’s —
MR PRICE: But we want to make sure it’s equitable within the briefing room and that it’s not just a conversation between the two of us.
QUESTION: Well, and that’s fine. Does anyone else have a Burma question?
QUESTION: I have another one.
MR PRICE: So it sounds like there is —
MR PRICE: So —
QUESTION: Go. Go, go.
QUESTION: Just your response on what’s been happening on the ground – the latest increasing tensions, security forces opening fire, police filed a second charge against Suu Kyi. And also, we’ve asked you about China’s role, and it wasn’t – your answer wasn’t clear. But like, Chinese ambassador to Myanmar said China wasn’t informed ahead of time about the coup and that the situation in Myanmar was not something China wanted to see. But I mean, is the U.S. – what is your assessment about how China is involved, whether or not it is involved?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: And if you discussed this.
MR PRICE: Well, you mentioned the additional charges against Aung San Suu Kyi.
MR PRICE: I think it’s fair to say that we are disturbed by reports that the military has charged State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with additional criminal acts. As we have before, we call on the Burmese military to immediately release all unjustly detained civilian and political leaders, journalists and human rights activists and other members of civil society, as well as to restore the democratically elected government.
As the President has said, the military seizure of power is a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law. We have been heartened that so many of our likeminded partners and allies around the world have joined us in condemning this anti-democratic action, this coup.
When it comes to China, we have been clear that we would like to see China play a constructive role in this. And that is a message that we have sent both publicly and privately to Beijing, and it’s a message that we’ll continue to send until China is clear in its condemnation of this coup.
So with that, I’ll plan to see you all tomorrow. Very much appreciate it.
QUESTION: Can I just – so over the weekend you went to – you know what? You can be as annoyed as you want —
MR PRICE: Matt, I —
QUESTION: — but these are questions that should be answered. We’re very grateful that you’re going back to briefings like this.
MR PRICE: I —
QUESTION: But you went – over the weekend, you went to authorized departure at your embassy in Rangoon, correct?
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Yeah? So you want to say anything more about that, or more about what – the review post the President’s comments at the Pentagon at the end of the week on – in terms of the review?
MR PRICE: So —
QUESTION: Are you happy with the safety and security of your people?
MR PRICE: As we have said before, even in this briefing, that the safety and security of our people and U.S. citizens overseas – it’s a top priority for us. That’s why, on February 14th, the department authorized voluntary departure – or authorized departure, as you put it – of family members and non-emergency U.S. Government employees in Burma. It gives our employees and their family members the option to depart if they wish. It’s a status that will be reviewed every 30 days. But of course, as we do this, we’re continuing to assess the security situation; and if additional action is warranted, we will take it.
Thank you very much, everyone. We will see you tomorrow.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:38 p.m.)