05/03/16 – Press Availability by Secretary Kerry

Secretary of State John F. Kerry

Special Briefing
John Kerry
Secretary of State 
Washington, DC
May 3, 2016


SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning, everybody.

QUESTION: Good morning? What?

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Yes?


QUESTION: Are you still on Geneva time?

SECRETARY KERRY: That too. In Geneva time, it’s good evening. Anyway.

So before we get started today, I want to just quickly say something about the situation in Syria. As you all know, yesterday I returned from Geneva, where I met with two key partners and with UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura about how we can reinvigorate the cessation of hostilities across Syria, and particularly in Aleppo. The area around Aleppo, Idlib province, Latakia, have suffered more violence than most areas during the entire course of the war, and particularly they have suffered an outbreak of intense violence, of breaches of the cessation of hostilities over the course of the last days, and that includes today’s attack on the al-Dabit hospital.

Yesterday, in Geneva, I condemned what we are convinced was the regime’s attack on the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo on April 27th in which certainly more than 27 people, including the last pediatrician, was killed and many others wounded. Today’s attack on a hospital appears to be rockets that have come from some area of opposition, and we are trying to determine precisely which. So the bottom line is there is no justification for this horrific violence that targets civilians or medical facilities or first responders no matter who it is, whether it’s a member of the opposition retaliating or the regime in its brutality against the civilians which has continued for five years.

We condemn any of these attacks, no matter who commits them, and we urge all of the parties to be responsible and to take immediate steps to halt the violence that is plaguing so much of the country. Now, I know this requires patience on one side or the other, because it’s very easy just to stand up and say, “Well, they did it. They attacked and now we have to go back.” And in the meantime, if that’s the lowest common denominator of action that leaders resort to, they’re not leading, and what they’re doing is they’re making innocent civilians the victims of those decisions.

The cessation of hostilities was put in place precisely to give the people on the ground, who are innocently caught between these warring factions, some breather, some ability to be able to be safe and work this out at the negotiating table, which is waiting for the parties to come back to it in order to resolve this issue. That is why we are working urgently right now to reaffirm the cessation of hostilities nationwide. Now, much of the nation remained quiet and has remained quiet even as these outbreaks have taken place. There was a huge distinction between the south and the north particularly, but there are areas where – even where it was bad a few days ago – we have made progress, particularly in Latakia and Eastern Ghouta, where there has been a meaningful decrease in violence since Saturday morning. And even right now at this moment, about half an hour from now, our teams will have another meeting at which they will try to finalize what we have worked on for the last 48 hours in order to try to bring this to a restoration of a full cessation.

Minister[1] de Mistura was in Moscow earlier. He and my counterpart and the co-chair of the ISSG and the co-chair of the task force, Sergey Lavrov, have made comments publicly, and Minister Lavrov made clear that he hopes, within hours, that we will be able to work this out as our teams on a military-to-military basis are working through the details that need to be implemented so that this can be restored. And we are particularly aiming to try to restore this in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where the violence has increased so significantly and is in danger – without a cessation reinstituted in danger of spiraling out of control.

Now, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I, yesterday, discussed the need to reaffirm the cessation in Aleppo as soon as possible. We are in agreement on that. And let me emphasize that today, Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated that there is no solution to this other than at the negotiating table. Our teams are engaged in these conversations so that we can try to establish a more sustainable mechanism than what was put in place previously.

Now, we know from the relative calm that was established after the cessation began in late February – and remember, the cessation which many people didn’t think could take hold at all has held from February – through February, late March, through March, into April, end of April, now into May. And it’s only in the last couple of weeks that it has become as frayed as it has, and hopefully it can be restored. And if you take the rate at which civilians have been killed when there is no violence, maybe 200 a day, work out the math. Over 60 days therefore literally thousands of lives have been saved and many people have received assistance who hadn’t previously.

We also know that all of us bear responsibility here. We have a responsibility – we, those who support the opposition, those who are the likeminded members of the International Syria Support Group – have an obligation to work with the opposition to keep the opposition from breaking the cessation or from engaging in any acts that put civilians at risk. Likewise, two parties – Iran and Russia – have a particular responsibility that they assumed at the same time that we assumed ours. We all signed the same agreement and we all supported the same UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide cessation of hostilities and it calls for a nationwide, full delivery of humanitarian assistance within all of Syria.

Russia has an ability to impact this. The United States has an ability to impact it, and we readily acknowledge that and we accept that responsibility. So we believe that this effort in the next hours and day are so is key to providing the ability of the parties to come back to Geneva and engage in the real meat of this possibility of any kind of political settlement, which is to discuss the transition, the transitional governing body as set out in the Geneva communique. And as we work to get the cessation back on track, we are also working to get the full humanitarian access – not just the cessation, but accompanied with full humanitarian access.

We know beyond a doubt that the Syrian regime continues to block food and medical supplies from getting to the people who are in desperate need and from – and that includes actually removing critical medicines and surgical supplies from those deliveries. So as a result, some of the areas of the Damascus suburbs have not received any supplies in years. That, I think, is unconscionable and it really has to stop.

So there’s a lot of work yet to do. We remain committed. I might just comment that the UN, in terms of this assistance – the UN, working very closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, has to date, since the February cessation began, has conducted 57 humanitarian assistance convoys. That’s since February 14th. That includes more than 700 trucks delivering lifesaving assistance to approximately 678,000 people in 23 hard-to-reach and besieged areas. Additionally, the UN World Food Program has conducted 18 airdrops that has delivered more than 284 metric tons of food assistance to approximately 100,200-some people in the besieged city of Deir al-Zor as of April 28th.

So even with this assistance there remain several hundred thousands of people in besieged areas who have not received assistance, according to the United Nations. And so more needs to be done and the humanitarian organizations need to be granted access.

So we remain committed, as I think I’ve made clear, in these next hours to trying to get the cessation of hostilities reinstated or reaffirmed where it has been kept up. We remain committed to getting access to the humanitarian relief to which the regime committed and which is required by the Security Council resolution. And of course we continue to remain committed to working towards a political transition away from Assad because only if you transition away can you actually end this war.

Now, on another important topic today, I just want to, if I can, take a moment. As I think many of you know – I hope you know – today is World Press Freedom Day, and while I hope and believe that we at the State Department honor and respect members of the press at all times, and certainly the freedom of the press, and we have a healthy dialogue – John Kirby stands up here every day, or someone from our public affairs department, and there’s a question-after-question engagement. But I wanted to take a moment today especially because it is World Press Freedom Day – I wanted to take a moment to pay special respect to what this really means and what this is all about.

It is no secret that we live in a turbulent era, and that the heart of a lot of that turbulence is a struggle that is waged over truth versus either outright lies or the obfuscation and denial of truth. And if you look behind the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ukraine, or the tensions on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea, or the terrorist propaganda that degrades our social media or the campaigns by civil society to confront high-level corruption in some places, you will see in all of those places and in all of those efforts a fundamental battle to define reality. And you will see efforts by some people to invent out of whole cloth or to obscure the truth, the facts – to cover up events that did happen and make up stories about things that didn’t. You’ll see ill-intentioned state and non-state actors alike trying to intimidate, coopt, sensor and silence those whose job it is to investigate and report the truth.

World Press Freedom Day is a day to reflect on the importance of this struggle and to reiterate as plainly as possible our determination to push back against the enemies and saboteurs of truth. There is a clear separation – we know – between the responsibilities of this department and those of a free and independent press, but there is not a scintilla of difference in our mutual support for the fundamental principle of press freedom or our understanding of the critical role that is played by journalists not only in democracies, but also in countries where civil and political rights are fragile, and in areas of conflict where the hazards of reporting are at their most extreme.

I will personally never forget when I was driving in Ukraine from the city to the airport, having a Ukrainian sitting with me in the car pointing out a point along the road where a journalist, a woman, had been dragged out of her car and nearly beaten to death. And there are many other places, as we know, where reporters have died in the effort to report the truth. I deeply admire the efforts made by the media, by the organizations and others, by individuals in the press, to protect journalists, to increase awareness of safety issues, and to call attention to abuses. And today, I want to reiterate that the State Department’s strong backing for those protective measures will continue and our ongoing commitment is to supplement them wherever we can.

As I speak, the United States and USAID have important programs that support independent media efforts in more than 30 countries. Through our SAFE Initiative, we have provided digital and physical security training to more than 750 journalists worldwide and we are increasing our funding to $2.5 million this year so we can train even more. We are launching a program to provide reporters in Southeast Asia with tools and technologies that will allow them to work safely even in places where they are likely to face intimidation and violence. And we also promote dialogue between American and international journalists through tech camps, workshops, and other exchanges and fellowships. And you may, I hope, be made more confident by the notion that we absolutely intend to continue to speak out regularly, publicly, and behind the scenes to defend the rights of the press both generically and with respect to individuals who have been threatened, abducted, or unjustly imprisoned or detained. And this applies not only to print reporters, but to broadcasters, bloggers, photographers, cartoonists, and other media workers as well.

As a lot of you know, in January I had the pleasure and the privilege to welcoming Jason Rezaian home after 545 days of captivity. And it struck me in listening to him as he talked to me personally about that ordeal how simply straightforward his agenda was and is and remains. Jason did not go to Iran to advance an ideology or to make a political point. He actually went there to explain to his own country what life was really like in the country of his ancestry. And he wanted to replace misconceptions with accurate perceptions. That is all – but that is everything.

Every journalist is unique, but in the basic desire to report the facts in all their color and in all their depth, Jason was simply trying to do what reporters are supposed to do. Governments who crack down on that may seek to convey strength, but what they actually convey is a deeply rooted kind of insecurity and weakness.

On World Press Freedom Day, we want to be clear here from the podium of the State Department of the United States of America, that no government, whatever its pretentions or whatever its accomplishments, can fairly claim respect if its citizens are not allowed to say what they believe or denied the right to learn about events and decisions that affect their lives. And I repeat, a country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about, nothing to teach, and no way to fulfill its potential.

To those who try to coerce or imprison reporters, we will always say loudly and clearly that committing journalism, reporting on the truth, is not a crime. It is a badge of honor, and today we salute all near and far who proudly wear that badge.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Nadiya (inaudible) with —

MR KIRBY: Sorry —

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, I don’t know. I’m sorry, I’m not – (laughter).


MR KIRBY: We only got time for a couple of questions today. The Secretary’s got a very full agenda this afternoon. So we’re going to start with Matt.

QUESTION: Thanks. Mr. Secretary, thank you for those comments on press freedom. I wanted to ask you a little bit about Syria and the situation involving this meeting that you’re talking about coming up in 30 minutes or whatever it is. Is it your expectation that something is going to be finalized, will be finalized at this meeting? Or is – are there sticking points that still remain? If there are, what are those sticking points?

And then secondly, if in the event that something is achieved in terms of the cessation in or around Aleppo, nationwide, what is the next step? When do you expect the proximity talks to resume?

SECRETARY KERRY: Matt, our hope is, obviously, that there is not a sticking point. Our hope is that the teams have been able to work out whatever questions were raised at the earlier session they had today. And our hope is that they’re able to come to an agreement and that we can move forward on the agreement. If that doesn’t happen in the next hours, I’m still confident that we will find a way to be able to work through. If it isn’t in the next hours, as I say, it’ll be in the next day or so. But we want this sooner rather than later. We’re trying to work this out so we can get it done now. That’s what we want. And my hope is that the teams have been able to resolve at the technical, military, expert level the ways to work through certain real questions.

For instance, I mean, everybody knows that Jabhat al-Nusrah is not included on the list of people exempt. They are a terrorist organization. And obviously, because they’re in close proximity to some other people who may have signed up to this agreement, there is obviously a great deal of tension over the question of: Are they separate enough to be able to attack? Have they somehow co-mingled? Are they fair game? And those are the kinds of things that have to be worked out so there’s no misunderstanding that then invites somebody to self-help their own interpretation. We want to avoid self-help. We want to have a clarity here so that we are able to separate people and be able to be reaching agreement as to who is doing what, where, when, and how. Now, if that can be done, we have a better chance of holding on to the cessation of hostilities, and obviously, we’re working very hard at trying to achieve that clarity. It is very difficult in a few places because we don’t control the terrorists. They can obviously move and make their own decision to try to use other people as a human shield and that’s where it gets particularly complicated.

So we’re working through this. I must say there’s been a very real spirit of cooperative effort at the table. People have been working seriously and professionally in an effort to try to resolve these complicated challenges.

With respect to the second part of the question, you’d have to ask for the specific date from Envoy de Mistura, but I know that his hope – I mean, obviously, you have to have this take hold a bit, people have to have confidence that it’s real. It’ll take a couple days to get the delivery of goods. But our hope is that people could begin to come back in the near term within a week or so, something – I can’t tell you exactly – and within not too long, we expect to be scheduling a ISSG meeting in order to talk through this new process and make sure that everybody is on the same page and understands where we’re going.

MR KIRBY: The next question, final one today, will be Elise.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, these negotiations, although you say they’re in good spirit, are between the U.S. and the Russians, and it’s – the regime is only adhering to the cessation of hostilities in areas that it’s been holding it, and a lot of experts and diplomats on the ground feel that there’s a clear strategy, even if the regime were to accept Aleppo, to encircle Aleppo, consolidate its hold on the north, so that it can avoid a political transition. And it’s pretty clear from today that the opposition is tired of a one-side truce.

So I’m wondering, at what point do you call a spade a spade? You’ve talked about a plan B. Is it time to increase pressure for Russia and the —

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, as I said, Elise —

QUESTION: — regime on the battlefield? And what good is all of your ceasefire mechanisms to monitor violations if there are absolutely no consequences for these violations, which there don’t seem to be?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Elise, the simple reality is what I just described – that in much of the country, there is a clarity which exists with respect to the separation, and the ceasefire has been real. Ask the people in those areas, go talk to them – people who today are sitting out in cafes, people —

QUESTION: But areas the regime’s already holding, though. They’re bombing civilians in —

SECRETARY KERRY: No, they’re in other areas also where the regime isn’t holding, where there are – but there’s also a large part of the country, as we know, that is being held by ISIL, by Daesh. And there, we are consistently ourselves continuing to prosecute the war against Daesh, but in the northwest part, it is more complicated. We understand that. But the line that they’re trying to draw now would prohibit any kind of incursion into Aleppo. It will not allow Aleppo to fall. It will not allow this to be prosecuted and continued. And very, very clearly, unequivocally, if Assad does not adhere to this, there will clearly be repercussions, and one of them may be the total destruction of the ceasefire and they go back to war. I don’t think that Russia —


SECRETARY KERRY: — wants that, I don’t think that Assad is going to benefit from that, but there may be even other repercussions that are being discussed, but that is for the future to determine. Right now, we are working hard to try to get this in place in a way that protects the integrity of Aleppo and it doesn’t allow one person – now, let me be clear about something else.

If Assad’s strategy is to somehow think he’s going to just carve out Aleppo and carve out a section of the country, I got news for you and for him: This war doesn’t end. It is simply physically impossible for Assad to just carve out an area and pretend that he’s somehow going to make it safe while the underlying issues are unresolved in this war. And as long as Assad is there, the opposition is not going to stop fighting him, one way or the other.

And so it will continue and there will be no long-term security and peace for Syria. It’s just not going to happen. And we have said that clearly to the Russians, clearly to the Iranians, and others have said it – not just us. The Saudis have said it, the Qataris have said it, the Turks have said it, the other participants in this endeavor, all of them – France, Germany, Britain, everybody at the table has said you can’t end this as long as Assad continues, because Assad cannot reunite the country. It’s that simple. Having gassed his people, barrel-bombed his people, dropped bombs on hospitals, driven 12 million people out of their homes, tortured people, starved people – what kind of legitimacy should somebody who’s committed these kinds of atrocities suddenly claim to run the country? It’s pretty hard for anybody to understand how you make peace out of that record of chaos and depravity.

So that’s the choice, and Russia and Iran are going to have to recognize – as they have, I think, in the political process they’ve adopted – that they have embraced a transition, a transitional governing body. That is clearly what Geneva says, that is clearly what the 2254 resolution says, and if they’re not prepared to follow up on it, and quickly, this will not hold.

QUESTION: Will you increase support to the opposition?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’ve said that before, I have said it to President Putin, I’ve said it to others: It will not hold unless there is a bona fide effort to put in place a transition. And we are getting into the period, folks – Minister Lavrov and I stood up in Moscow, and we said that the target date for the transition to – is the 1st of August. So we’re now coming up to May. So either something happens in these next few months or they are asking for a very different track.

Thank you all. Appreciate it.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question about freedom – (inaudible), about press freedom, about press freedom.

QUESTION: Sir, an American was killed in Iraq today. Can you talk about Baghdad and the crisis there?

SECRETARY KERRY: John is going to be – I’ve got to go; I’ve got to meet with my boss. Sorry.