Department Press Briefing - January 23, 2018
Index for Today's Briefing:
MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. Hi, Nazira, nice to see you. Hi, everyone, how are you today? I’d like to start out with a couple toppers to provide you. The first one – it’s the first time that we’ve been together since that horrific attack took place in Afghanistan just a few days ago, so I’d like to start out addressing that today.
The United States strongly condemns the attack on January 20th at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Violence like this has no place in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. We offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed and wish a speedy recovery to those who were wounded, including multiple U.S. citizens who were among the casualties. The protection of U.S. citizens is our highest priority. We’ve been providing assistance and notifying family members following that attack.
The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and remain firmly committed to supporting Afghan efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country.
In addition to that, I’d like to mention some travel that has taken place. Our USAID administrator – many of you have met Mark Green, former ambassador and former member of Congress – he visited Syria yesterday along with General Joe Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command. Administrator Green is the senior-most civilian official to have visited Syria since the crisis began. That’s significant. Remember just nine – just a few months ago, Raqqa was still under ISIS control. And now with the city liberated, we have State Department and USAID officials on the ground in northern Syria working alongside our Department of Defense colleagues to help people return home and get them back on their feet.
Administrator Green met with members of the teams and saw projects in the area that are helping to restore essential services for the people of Raqqa. Administrator Green also visited a camp for displaced persons, many of whom fled ISIS. The United States has now provided more than $875 million in nonlethal stabilization and humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people since the start of the crisis in 2011. As people return home to places like Raqqa and reopen shops and schools, we are starting to see real hope.
That’s one of the things that Administrator Green had spoken to me about earlier today – we spoke by phone, as he’s actually on his way to Davos, where he will talking with international partners about the humanitarian situation there. And he said as he looked around and saw just such extreme devastation and rubble everywhere, he also saw some glimmers of hope. He would see a woman at a very dusty doorstep, because there’s so much rubble around, sweeping that doorstep. Imagine that: Amid all the ruins, sweeping a doorstep, because, he tells me, she was on the verge of starting a business. So you look at that and you see that there’s hope there and resilience, certainly, in the Syrian people.
I look forward to reintroducing you all to Administrator Green when he comes back to the United States for hopefully a readout on that trip.
And then lastly, I’d like to talk a little bit about the Secretary’s travel in Europe and provide you with a quick update on that. He was in London yesterday, where he met with Prime Minister May, Foreign Secretary Johnson, and Britain’s national security advisor. I’m sure you saw his remarks as he spoke with Foreign Secretary Johnson. The Secretary reinforced the importance of our special relationship with the UK and continued to discuss ways to address flaws in the JCPOA, as well as other issues of mutual concern, including Syria, Libya, the DPRK, and also Ukraine.
Today, Secretary Tillerson is in Paris. He met with the foreign minister there and then attended a launch of an International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. At the conclusion of that chemical weapons event, Secretary Tillerson had the chance to speak with some press about an issue that I know is important to all of us. I’m sure you’ve seen the remarks by now about chemical weapons, but I’d like to just take a moment to reiterate some of the things that the Secretary had to say.
The recent attacks in East Ghouta in Syria raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime may be continuing its use of chemical weapons against its own people. Whoever conducted those attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria. There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitment to the United States as framework guarantor. It has betrayed the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118, and three times it has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to enforce the Joint Investigative Mechanism and continue the JIM’s mandate.
Russia’s failure to resolve chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into crisis its relevance to the resolution to stop the overall crisis. At a bare minimum, Russia must stop vetoing and at least abstain from future Security Council votes on this issue. We call on the community of responsible and civilized nations to put the use of chemical weapons to an end.
In the afternoon, the Secretary will meet with a small group of chiefs of mission in Western Europe and discuss U.S. policy priorities in the region. He will also round out of the day by attending a ministerial meeting on Syria and a quad meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
So a lot to start off our briefing with today, but I’d be happy to take your questions. Josh.
QUESTION: Just one on Afghanistan just to get that out of the way?
QUESTION: Yes. That’s where I was going to start anyway.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. There’s not a lot that I can say about this. There are multiple U.S. fatalities in the attack that took place in Afghanistan. Some of those family members are still being notified. So if I were to provide you the current numbers that we have, that could give indications away to families who perhaps have not been notified yet. I don’t want that to come from me.
Our Consular Affairs officers are trained in reaching out to family members. Unfortunately, as I learned today, they have that duty. And I say unfortunately just because that’s a tough duty for any American to have to share that news with another American.
I cannot provide you any additional details on this, but as soon as I can, I’d be more than happy to. But let me just go out by saying we offer our condolences on behalf of the victims in Afghanistan. There were victims from other countries as well, as many of you all are aware. We continue to stand by the Afghan people, and our hearts go out to Afghans, the other victims, and the American victims as well.
QUESTION: Heather, just to clarify.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. know how many fatalities they were, as opposed to injuries, and just isn’t able to say at this point, or is that still something that’s being determined?
MS NAUERT: We believe we know the number of U.S. fatalities. We just can’t say it because people are still being notified. Victims’ families are still being notified. I can confirm, however, that they were not U.S. Government officials. They were not working for the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: All right.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: One other thing, just on Afghanistan? Just --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you yet have any indication as to who was responsible for the attack and whether there was any link between whoever was responsible and Pakistan?
MS NAUERT: We have seen that the Taliban has claimed responsibility. We don’t have any proof of that yet. I can tell you that Afghanistan is investigating, and we will look forward to a full investigation that Afghanistan will hold.
Do you have something else on that?
QUESTION: Yeah. Not on that.
MS NAUERT: Okay, then hold on. We have an Afghan journalist back here, so let me take her question. And then, Josh, I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for that. As you mentioned about Afghanistan, last week Nikki Haley with the United Nation delegation were in Afghanistan, and she said U.S. foreign policy, it work in Afghanistan because we are getting – we are get close to peace in Afghanistan with the Taliban. And after one day or two days, the Taliban up and big attack in Afghanistan. Still we should be optimistic about that?
And the second question, last week he was ambassador in Kabul at a speech in Kabul, and some people criticized him and they said they didn’t like it. And they say it was – look like a presidential speech.
MS NAUERT: You are – you’re referring to our U.S. ambassador, Ambassador Bass --
QUESTION: Of course, yes.
MS NAUERT: -- who serves in Afghanistan. He had previously served in Turkey, so you all may recognize his name from talking about issues in Turkey.
Ambassador Bass spoke and he clearly laid out the U.S. perspective on the situation regarding one of the governors in Afghanistan. There’s a little bit – if you haven’t followed it, there’s a little bit of a strife there between the central government and this governor. Ambassador Bass had said that this is fundamentally an issue for Afghanistan to decide itself. This is not a place where we feel that we should weigh in with our point of view. This is an internal matter. It’s within the framework of the Afghan constitution and in accordance with the rule of law and the principle of equality before the law. We encourage all sides to come to a resolution.
And I’ll just leave it at that. Josh, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. Moving on to Turkey and Syria, the Secretary spoke briefly, it looks like on the sidelines of his meetings today with his counterpart from Turkey. Do you have any information about what happened in that meeting?
MS NAUERT: I can confirm that the Secretary and the foreign minister of Turkey spoke. I don’t have a readout, however, of that meeting. This would be one in a series of conversations that they have had in recent days. Over the weekend they spoke about the instability that is now taking place in northwestern Syria. They had a serious and frank conversation by phone about that over the weekend. And then they, prior to that, had spoken at the Vancouver ministerial about a week and a half ago or so, where they spoke about concerns related to this.
QUESTION: So for the last several days, you, the Secretary, others, have been calling on the Turks to show restraint and limit their operation in the Kurdish enclave. There’s been several days of fighting. Do you deem that Turkey, as of now, has been heeding that call to show restraint? I mean, they’re talking about expanding this to Manbij and other areas where there are Americans.
MS NAUERT: And we have very real concerns about that. The Secretary has been frank and has been clear, and I think that’s evident in the fact that he’s had three conversations with him – at least three conversations with him in addition to some of the activities that our embassies and so forth – not activities, negotiations and conversations that our embassy officials may be having as well.
So I think that shows the level of concern. This area that we’re talking about, Afrin, was relatively stable given that it was Syria, but it was relatively stable, and now we’re seeing it not in that – in that situation. So we’re tremendously concerned about the situation. We call on all parties to remain focused. The reason that the United States is in Syria is to focus on the fight against ISIS. And when you take your eye off ISIS, when you take your eye off that and potentially divert other resources, troops, and all of that to fighting the Kurds, that is a huge problem. You take the fight off of ISIS, and that is exactly why we are there, and that’s one of the things that the Secretary and others with the State Department have highlighted to Turkish officials.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up on this?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: You said that Mr. Green was in Syria, correct? Mister --
MS NAUERT: Yes, Administrator Mark Green was in Syria. Yes.
QUESTION: Administrator Mark Green was in Syria. Does he get a visa to go into Syria?
MS NAUERT: I – I don’t know the answer to that. He went in with the U.S. military, with the head of Central Command. So I’m not --
QUESTION: What do you call – what do you call that area that the United States controls in Syria?
MS NAUERT: He was in Raqqa, and I know he went to Raqqa because that was one of the twin capitals of ISIS, that ISIS had overtaken – if I may finish here – and talk about why Raqqa is so important.
So as one of the twin capitals for ISIS, it was a huge achievement on the part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, but also the 73-member coalition, to go in, kick out those ISIS members, and start to allow people to come home. People – and when I say “allow,” enable them to come home because the security situation is improving. It’s still a pretty rough situation because they don’t have all the electricity, they don’t have all the water that people would certainly like to have. It’s a tough situation there, but we’re optimistic as things start to get better. Whether or not he required a visa, that I just don’t know.
QUESTION: My question was actually --
MS NAUERT: But if I can go back to something for one second --
MS NAUERT: -- because I want to make this clear, and I see some of our Turkish friends in the background, as we were talking about Turkey: As much as we are concerned about destabilizing activities in northwestern Syria, I want to make this clear as well, that Turkey is an important NATO ally. And as an important NATO ally, we understand – fully understand – Turkey’s concerns about different terrorist organizations. We understand their concerns about the PKK. So we’re having conversations with the Turkish Government about addressing those concerns, but also trying to bring stability and encourage them to de-escalate tensions in that part. So --
QUESTION: Right. My question is just a follow-up.
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: How does the United States distribute its aid? How does it work? Which organizations it works with? Because, obviously, you don’t deal with the Syrian Government.
MS NAUERT: Right.
QUESTION: So how do you – how do you do – logistically, how do you mete it out?
MS NAUERT: Well, we – I recall recently that we – actually it wasn’t that recent. It was maybe two months ago or so. We briefed in great detail about the efforts in Raqqa, and I don’t have all the specifics in front of me right now, but if I can check my notes for you and get back with you on that. I can also put you in touch with our USAID officials who can talk more specifically about how aid distribute – is distributed.
But we do have some of our State Department colleagues who are on the ground who are helping with this. We’re training local organizations and locals to do very important tasks such as helping them to get the electricity back on. We are engaged with that as well. There are a lot of NGOs that we’ll also work with to bring in aid and food supplies.
In terms of naming the specific groups, I think that is something that we would probably be hesitant to do because I think we would not want to make them a target. But if there’s any additional information that I can give you on that, I’d certainly be happy to. Okay?
Anything else on Syria or Turkey?
QUESTION: Syria – on Syria --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Whoa, okay. Hold on. Go right ahead. Hi, Conor.
QUESTION: Just a question about – so in all your statements you’ve called for restraint on both sides between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria. But these are northern Kurds that have fought with U.S. forces; as you said, have helped to expel ISIS from Raqqa and other cities. Do they have a right to defend themselves given that this is a Turkish campaign into an area that they had?
MS NAUERT: I think let me go back. Obviously this is a tense situation, so I want to go back and illustrate this and highlight this once again: We are calling on the Turks to de-escalate the situation. We are calling for not an increase in violence; we’re calling for a decrease in violence and that’s something that is extremely important to us.
QUESTION: But just – sorry.
QUESTION: Thoughts --
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: But given the fact that this is a Turkish campaign and a new – these are troops that the U.S. has fought with. A lot of people have been criticizing the administration for not supporting them enough given how much they have fought and died for the U.S. and the U.S. campaign against ISIS.
MS NAUERT: Look, I can tell you that the forces that Turkey claims it’s fighting – let me back up. I just want to – I want to be clear: further de-escalation of violence, and I want to leave it at that. Okay.
QUESTION: Today --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about Russia? Tillerson had some pretty harsh comments for Russia today in regard to the Syrian chlorine attack. And so I’m just wondering what the U.S. wants Russia to do after this specific attack.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, backing up, you may remember back in I believe it was 2013 that Russia basically accepted responsibility. They pressed for and negotiated an agreement with the Framework for the Elimination of Chemical Weapons in Syria. That was a diplomatic understanding of sorts in which the United States and Russia required a verifiable destruction of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile. So Russia owns that. That was back in 2013.
Since that time, we’ve seen at least four chemical attacks take place. There have been different mechanisms that have existed. OPCW is one of them. That is the organization that determines what was used: was it a chlorine attack, was it a sarin gas attack. That organization still exists.
And then in addition to that, there was the Joint Investigative Mechanism at the United Nations – the JIM, as we call it. The JIM then would assign responsibility for who performed that attack. We have seen Russia step in the way of the Joint Investigative Mechanism on three occasions – on three occasions. They owned this back in 2013 when they said that they would take responsibility for helping Syria negotiate the framework for chemical weapons. And then we’ve seen Russia back away from that and try to subvert these efforts, to try to thwart these efforts.
And so one of the things that is important about Secretary Tillerson being in Paris today is having 26 or so countries come together and say, we want to find a mechanism where we can figure this out, where we can come together and we can call upon countries to not use chemical weapons to attack their own people. So that’s what the Secretary was speaking to today.
QUESTION: And one second question: What’s the difference between the attacks that we saw in East Ghouta and the chemical attacks that we saw at the beginning of last year? Why did the U.S. choose to react with strong military action then and Tillerson is using his words now?
MS NAUERT: Well, different tools for different times. So we remain very serious about this. Ambassador Haley has been extremely engaged on this matter at the United Nations. At 3 o’clock today, I know she has a meeting in which she is addressing this as well. This is something that Secretary Tillerson takes seriously, as does this administration. I was on the White – on the phone with the White House earlier today in which they were asking me a lot of questions about this and were expressing their grave concern. So we’re engaged now and we were engaged a year ago and that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: Is there any consideration for military strikes this time around?
MS NAUERT: Look, I would never get into something like that. I don’t – go ahead.
QUESTION: On Turkey and Syria.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Today, Turkey shelled Kurdish-controlled areas along the border far to the east, including Qamishli. Do you regard that as consistent with your calls for restraint?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, I’m sorry. I don’t have any information on that particular – on what you’re alleging took place.
QUESTION: There has --
QUESTION: Well, the --
MS NAUERT: Okay? So I don’t want to comment on them because I just don’t have any information on it. I have not seen any of the reports.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then, a follow-up question: The Russians have blamed you for the Turkish attacks, saying you provided weapons to the YPG. How do you view those Russian statements, particularly given what you have said now about Russia’s turning a blind eye to Syria’s use of CW, chemical weapons in – on its own people?
MS NAUERT: I think statements like that are not only unhelpful, but that is propaganda. I think they would like to drive a wedge between two NATO allies, between the United States and Turkey, and I think that is something that’s not going to happen. They’re not going to succeed on that. And they would probably like us to leave altogether. Okay.
Nick, go ahead.
QUESTION: One last one on --
QUESTION: Kind of related: Russian news is reporting that bilateral meetings with Under Secretary Shannon that were supposed to take place this month will now not take place until at least March. Is that accurate?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that. I didn’t have a meeting schedule about Under Secretary Shannon allegedly meeting with the Russians anyway, so I can’t confirm that. Okay.
QUESTION: On --
MS NAUERT: Hi, Carol.
QUESTION: On Russia, Secretary Tillerson also today called on Russia to not veto, or at least abstain, at the Security Council if any resolutions come up regarding chemical weapons in Syria. Has he discussed that privately with the Russians, and what kind of – has the United States ever suggested publicly that another one of the permanent members not exercise their veto on principle?
MS NAUERT: I think we have those types of conversations all the time. I’ve seen Secretary Tillerson and I’ve heard him interact with his Russian counterparts and he’s a tough negotiator. I do not have knowledge of this – of a particular conversation. I know he spoke with Lavrov over the phone over the weekend, but I can just tell you that he’s tough and firm and it wouldn’t surprise me if those conversations took place. Okay.
QUESTION: Hi. Russian media is reporting that Russia’s trying to organize some sort of meeting in Sochi next week about ending the conflict in Syria. Is that something that someone in this building will be participating in? Can you talk about the U.S. participation in that?
MS NAUERT: Well, before we get to the idea of Sochi, let’s talk about the Geneva process, and the Geneva process is the gold standard, really. I mean, it’s something that so many countries have signed on to – their support for the Geneva process. And by the way, Russia has said that it would help bring the Syrian regime to the table to have conversations in Geneva – well actually this time, they’re – it’s the Geneva process but this time the meetings are actually taking place in Vienna, Austria. So we still call it the Geneva process but this next meeting happens to be taking place in Vienna. That is something that we firmly support. That supports a mechanism to eventually realize a political solution for the Syrian people. So we stand firmly behind that one. Okay?
QUESTION: But does that negate the usefulness of having a P5 --
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Does that then – you do not want to participate in a P5 meeting on this?
MS NAUERT: Look --
QUESTION: I mean, couldn’t that have been at the same time or in parallel?
MS NAUERT: You’re referring – what you had asked me about was Sochi and possible meetings in Sochi. We support the Geneva process. Again, the Geneva process is the gold standard. Staffan de Mistura has stood firmly behind this for six-plus years now, and we see that as the best way to get a solid and credible solution and a political solution for the Syrian people.
QUESTION: I completely understand that, but does that mean you’re not going to be participating in (inaudible)?
MS NAUERT: I don’t – I don’t have any meeting participation or any travel to read out for you on that. Okay? Okay.
QUESTION: Can I move on very quickly?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, sure. Let’s move on to something.
MS NAUERT: Oh wait, hold on. Hi.
QUESTION: One more. The Secretary called yesterday’s attack in Eastern Ghouta an apparent chlorine gas attack. I was wondering if you have any evidence that you can share on how you came to the conclusion of chlorine gas. And do you have any information on who was responsible for the attack at this point?
MS NAUERT: I am not going to discuss intelligence matters, so let me leave it at that. Okay? Okay. Anything else on Syria?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Can I ask on Syria?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So in a recent statement, you stated that you would like to see it limited in – in scope and duration. What do you mean by the limited scope and duration? Can you clarify on that?
MS NAUERT: Regarding what?
QUESTION: The – this – the Turkish attacks, sorry, on Syria.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And also, Turkish Government or Turkish president is vowing to take the fight to other areas of, like, Manbij and along the border. How serious do you take those comments?
And last thing – the Turkish foreign minister said that they do not see any way of cooperating with U.S. with YPG being in the picture. Do you see any other way to cooperate with Turkey?
MS NAUERT: Look, I can tell you we are very concerned about the situation in northwestern Syria. This is at the top of the Secretary’s radar right now, in addition to many other people here at the State Department and in the U.S. Government as well. We do not want to see any kind of escalation. I highlighted this before that that – that area was relatively stable for Syria. And now civilians are faced with “Do we have to flee? Are we safe? Is something going to happen to us?”
We don’t want that kind of situation for Syria. We would like for people to be able to stay in their homes and return to their homes in Syria, and this, what is taking place with Turkey right now, defeats that. However, we do understand that Turkey, as a valuable NATO ally, has concerns about the PKK, and we’re looking for ways to work with Syria to support them on – or excuse me, with Turkey to support them on that. Okay?
QUESTION: But the SDF is not PKK, and --
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to get into – understood. Understood. Ilhan, hi.
QUESTION: Thank you. Two quick questions: One is that Turkey claims that Turkish forces also fighting against ISIS in this Afrin area. Do you have the same assessment? Do you see ISIS elements in that area?
MS NAUERT: No, we don’t. We do not see ISIS in that area.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And yesterday, Secretary Tillerson stated that U.S. is in discussions with Turks and some of the forces on the ground so they can work together to create the security zone that Turkey is talking about. Can you little bit expand on that?
MS NAUERT: Here’s what I can tell you: The Secretary addressed that yesterday. I’m going to just refer you back to the Secretary’s comments on that matter.
MS NAUERT: Certainly. Okay. We’ll move on to that then.
QUESTION: Last week, Secretary Tillerson and the State Department suggested that it will take a number of years for the U.S. embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Then yesterday, Vice President Pence said it will be done before the end of 2019, then the State Department issued a statement confirming that. So what has changed from last week to this week to expedite the process of moving the embassy?
MS NAUERT: I don’t think anything’s really been done to expedite the process. The administration and the President were all clear when this was initially announced that we would assess the situation, and that an embassy would eventually be moved to Jerusalem. The Secretary has not made any final decisions on the location or on the timing of this move, but we certainly watched as the Vice President was able to make the announcement yesterday in Israel that the administration will advance its plans to open the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and will open the embassy before the end of the next – of next year.
MS NAUERT: Now, with all that in mind, the Secretary has certainly a lot of work ahead of him in terms of determining what needs to be done to manage our locations and all that. Those specific – that sort of granular detail, we have not come to any kind of determination on just yet.
QUESTION: But you are committed to moving the embassy before the end of 2019?
MS NAUERT: That is – that is what the Vice President announced and that’s what we’ll be doing.
QUESTION: And a --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, has been rallying the Europeans. He met with the European Union foreign minister and so on yesterday, and he’s urging them to recognize the state of Palestine and east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. He also said that any negotiations that involves the United States of America must be done like through the Quartet, the forum, or something like this where the U.S. is involved with other powers, rather than on its own as has done in the past so many years or quarter of a century. Do you have any response to that?
MS NAUERT: I would just say that the United States feels that it can have these conversations with both Israel and the Palestinians. We are committed to the peace process. That’s something that’s important to the President, to Mr. Kushner, to Jason Greenblatt, our special representative, and to our ambassador and Secretary Tillerson as well, and Ambassador Haley. So we’ll be working to try to get both parties to the table. Right now, we understand that tensions are high, but we’ll be working to get both parties to the table to have peace talks.
QUESTION: Do you believe – do you feel that the Vice President reassured your ally, Jordan, that the follow-up of, let’s say, the UNRWA aid cutoff or the move of the embassy, or are they like worlds apart?
MS NAUERT: I don’t want to speculate on how the Jordanians viewed that meeting or viewed their conversations with the Vice President. I can tell you that the Jordanian foreign minister was here about a week ago, less than a week ago, and he had a very good meeting with Secretary Tillerson. Okay?
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Vice President Pence told my colleague traveling with him in Jerusalem that the United States will – that the timing of when the United States puts forth its peace plan is contingent on the Palestinians’ willingness to resume negotiations. Why is that? Why – why don’t you just put your plan out there and see if anybody is willing to take it up?
MS NAUERT: Well --
QUESTION: Why should you necessarily have it be contingent on the Palestinians, which could mean maybe you’ll never put it forward?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think both parties have to be willing to work things out. It’s like with any relationship, you both have to be willing to give. We’ve always said that this would be a difficult negotiation; it wouldn’t be easy for either side, that both sides would have to be willing to commit to sit down and give a little and work out the situation. So I don’t think it’s for us to say that one has to sit down. They have to be willing to do it themselves.
QUESTION: But why not – but why not be willing to share your ideas so that to the extent that they have merit, they can be taken up or not be taken up by the parties? I mean, if you’re going to wait for the parties to assert a willingness to sit down and talk, you could be waiting for a long time.
MS NAUERT: Well, perhaps some of those conversations are taking place right now. I’m not the lead negotiator, as you well know, on Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We have a lot of people who are over there, who’ve spent a lot of time on this and are dedicated to this. I would imagine that as a part of their conversations, they’re giving suggestions and exchanging ideas. Okay? Let’s move on to some – another region of the world. Where do we want to go?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.
MS NAUERT: Tell me where you’re from again, miss.
QUESTION: Al Jazeera. Bisan from Al Jazeera.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Nice to see you again.
QUESTION: So a quick question about Egypt. I don’t know if you heard the reports today about the arrest of former General Sami Anan, who was running for the upcoming presidential elections. Do you have any comment about that? And I mean, how does the U.S. actually view such arrests, especially with this and what happened with Ahmed Shafiq before him and how this affects the electoral process in Egypt? And is this something that you have brought up in conversations with Egyptian counterparts?
MS NAUERT: We are watching the situation very closely. We are certainly aware of his detention. We are following these reports. We know he’s spent considerable time in the United States, so we’re certainly familiar with him. We support a timely and credible electoral process and believe it needs to include the opportunity for citizens to participate freely in Egyptian elections. We believe that that should include addressing restrictions on freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and also expression.
QUESTION: Is this something you bring up or discuss with the Egyptians – I mean, at this point?
MS NAUERT: We – those types of things we typically will bring up at all levels of conversation between our government and the Egyptian Government. If I have anything more for you on that, I’ll let you know. Okay?
QUESTION: You don’t have any concerns about it that you can voice? I mean, it’s all very well to talk about how you’re in favor of free and fair elections and the right to peaceful assembly and so on, but do you feel like this man has been detained justly?
MS NAUERT: I think that – I’m not aware of the specifics of his detainment. But I think when you see candidates who are detained, that is an area that would certainly be of concern to the United States.
QUESTION: But you do expect Egypt to conduct a fair and transparent election.
MS NAUERT: We want a timely and credible election process.
QUESTION: Not a fixed process.
MS NAUERT: Of course not. We support free and fair elections.
Okay. Janne, hi.
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. On North Korea, this morning, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that all kind of options on the table regarding North Korean nuclear issues. And also, recently Secretary Tillerson mentioned about trigger options – t-r-i-g-g-e-r – and he said that if diplomatic pressure to North Korea fails, a military option is possible. When is the U.S. red line for using these options?
MS NAUERT: Diplomacy is always our preferred approach, and I’ve been saying this here since day one, since we came up with – the administration came up with – the maximum pressure campaign. That started very early on in the administration, one year ago. That was the pressure campaign, and that is something that we’ve pushed ahead with for the past year.
Diplomacy is our preferred approach. Even when you speak with or listen to our military officials at the highest level – Secretary Mattis and others – they will say that diplomacy is the preferred approach. Pardon me. You ask about the director’s comments earlier today, and I think that that just underscores that he shares, as does the rest of the world, concern about North Korea’s – about North Korea’s efforts and intentions to try to develop a ballistic missile program, that they – we are concerned. We remain very concerned about that, and that is why we continue with the diplomatic pressure campaign.
QUESTION: Also, director said about the North Korea develop nuclear weapons not only for their self-defense but using for other ways. So what – if necessary, United States will be a possibility to preemptive strikes?
MS NAUERT: Janne, I’m not going to go there. We are moving ahead with our diplomatic efforts. We will continue in those diplomatic efforts. They are tireless efforts. We keep pushing ahead with that, but we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed stated. We remain firm in our opposition of that. We will never allow them to gain the legitimate – the international legitimacy that they seek to have by defining themselves as that kind of state.
QUESTION: Do you think optimistic for the talks with the North Korea, U.S. talks with North Korea?
MS NAUERT: Are we optimistic about it? Well, I think we addressed this a couple years – excuse me, a couple weeks ago, when we said it’s certainly a fine thing that North Korea and South Korea are having conversations about the Olympics. Okay?
QUESTION: But that’s two different, because --
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Conversation with the South and North, that’s two different. But North Korea only want to talk with South Korea with the dialogue, but not dialogue with United States.
MS NAUERT: No, they are showing no indication – North Korea – that they’re willing to sit down and have talks. At some point, if they’re showing an indication and a willingness that they’re willing to denuclearize, we may be able to sit down and have a conversation with them. We are not at that point just yet.
MS NAUERT: Miss, there. Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m with the Spanish newswire EFE. I want to know if you have any comments on today’s announcement. Venezuela said that they’re going to hold the presidential election before May this year. Do you have any comments on that? Thank you.
MS NAUERT: I think that’s the illegitimate constituent assembly that said that it wants to hold elections. We support a real, full, and fair election system there and not the illegitimate constituent assembly that was put together by Maduro and the Maduro regime. Okay?
QUESTION: Heather, Maduro was also saying --
MS NAUERT: Yeah?
QUESTION: Can we go back to North Korea?
QUESTION: -- he’d like to run for – he’s interested in running for another six-year term.
MS NAUERT: Oh, is he? Okay.
QUESTION: Do you guys have any thoughts about whether that would be a good thing for Venezuela?
MS NAUERT: That is news to me. I don’t think so. I don’t think that that’s a good idea. Certainly the people would have to decide – of Venezuela – and not be pushed into voting for candidates. We saw that last time when there were these illegitimate elections, where they would push people to vote for certain candidates. We see that --
QUESTION: Isn’t that called campaigning, though?
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) No, no. This was --
QUESTION: What’s the difference?
MS NAUERT: This was done in a very difficult fashion, and you all recall that very well. Very different from what takes place in the United States and free and fair countries. You’ve seen that country where the humanitarian situation is approaching dire, where people aren’t able to get the food and the medicine that they want and need. You see where people have to cross the border in order to go to Colombia to get their groceries because they can’t get their groceries in their own country, and then they return off the border – across the border so they can go to bed at night. The situation there is dire. It’s something that we have watched here very closely. If there are going to be elections in Venezuela, we would like to see the resumption of free and fair elections and democracy, not the way that – not the road that Venezuela has gone down. And we’re going to have to wrap it up.
QUESTION: May I ask you a question on the – on Rohingya refugees?
QUESTION: North Korea?
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Yesterday, the Bangladesh Government has entered into talks or negotiations with the Myanmar Government, to basically return back, like, two million refugees without involving UNHCR, the United Nations. And they then --
MS NAUERT: You said “without,” correct?
QUESTION: Without, yes. So do you have – are you in talks with anyone on this issue? Are you following up what is going on with this story, because there is a real fear that these people may be forced out into a very untenable situation?
MS NAUERT: Of course. I completely understand that. You’re talking about a negotiation between Bangladesh and Burma --
MS NAUERT: -- to push the Rohingya refugees – nearly 800,000 of them – who went or were forced into Bangladesh just since August alone, an unimaginable number of people to be forced into refugee camps. This is something that I have exchanged emails with, with our ambassadors both in Bangladesh and in Burma, and it’s something I can tell you everyone here at the State Department who is involved in this area, in that region, and in humanitarian crises is engaged with and involved with to the greatest extent.
We understand that that agreement that you’re speaking about was delayed. We certainly think that that’s a good idea. When the Rohingya are to go home, it needs to not only be safe, it needs to be done on a voluntary fashion and it needs to be done in a dignified fashion. People can’t be forced to go home when they don’t feel like they are safe. Let me just remind folks that it was just August that there were attacks taking place and even some since then.
So it’s all very fresh in the minds of people there. And when I spent the short period of time with some of the refugees in Bangladesh, they’re showing no interest at this point in going home. I think everybody wants to return home in the long haul, but they want to be able to return home when it’s safe to do so.
We would encourage the governments of Bangladesh and also Burma to work and include UNHCR. That is something that’s really important. They have done a very good job. We remain concerned by the lack of humanitarian access provided to UNHCR and other UN organizations to respond to the crisis. We encourage Burma – and I want to be clear about saying this – and Bangladesh to continue working together in cooperation with UNHCR and other relevant international organizations to ensure the safety and security of those who want to turn to their place of origin voluntarily, safely, and in a dignified fashion.
And I’m going to have to wrap it up, guys.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Sure.
QUESTION: There’s reports that the U.S. embassy was shut down because of protests there yesterday. Do you have any comment on that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I can confirm that our employees were allowed to go home early today – or excuse me, early yesterday. There were a couple different protests taking place in the city, in Port-au-Prince. And as a result of that, because there were people surrounding the embassy and in that area – and I don’t know the geography of it, but from what I was told by our experts who were talking to some of our folks there, because there was people surrounding them, we told our embassy employees that they could go home. And so we had them do that.
QUESTION: But that was voluntary? They weren’t told to go home?
MS NAUERT: I believe that – I believe that that was voluntary. I can double-check, though, for you on that. Okay.
MS NAUERT: No, this was yesterday. Today we’re fully open. Right, Robert? Confirm that we’re fully open, operational, normal plan. Right? Okay. All right.
QUESTION: So they weren’t furloughed; they were just told it was okay to go home? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thanks, Heather.
MS NAUERT: Robert, can you – (laughter) – can you expand on that? Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:09 p.m.)