Department Press Briefing Index
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
2:28 p.m. EST
Briefer: Heather Nauert, Spokesperson
DPB # 5
(On The Record Unless Otherwise Noted)
2:28 p.m. EST
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.
QUESTION: Just one on Afghanistan just to get that out of the way?
QUESTION: Yes. That’s where I was going to start anyway.
QUESTION: Just can you tell us how many casualties, and can you distinguish American casualties? Can you distinguish it between fatalities and those injured?
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: 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: 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.
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.
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.