December 3, 2021

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Department Press Briefing – November 9, 2021

44 min read

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

2:15 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Good to see everyone. Happy Tuesday. Just a couple things at the top today, and then I look forward to taking your questions.

First, as you all know and as you had an opportunity to hear earlier today, Secretary Blinken will host a virtual COVID-19 Ministerial tomorrow starting at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Sorry for the early hour. The Secretary is convening his government counterparts along with leaders from – along with leaders from —

QUESTION: Sorry. Why not 6:00 a.m.?

MR PRICE: Well, today he had an engagement starting at 6:00 a.m., so we’re —

QUESTION: That’s why I said —

MR PRICE: Let me start that part over.

QUESTION: Sure.

MR PRICE: Tomorrow, as you all know, Secretary Blinken will host a virtual COVID-19 Ministerial starting at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. The Secretary is convening his government counterparts, along with leaders from regional and international organizations, to assess current COVID-19 response efforts and to build on the momentum generated by President Biden’s September COVID-19 Summit to end the pandemic and to build back better our global health security.

We are committed to working with other countries to end the COVID-19 pandemic and to strengthen global health security. This is the beginning of what we hope will be regular and expanded convenings. And we welcome efforts to ensure that foreign ministers routinely discuss global health security as a central part of foreign policy.

Finally, today I have the pleasure of welcoming Sara Minkara, whom President Biden appointed last month to be U.S. Special Advisor on International Disability Rights to the department as she officially assumes her duties today.

This appointment fulfills President Biden’s commitment to appoint a Special Advisor on International Disability Rights, and it reflects this administration’s commitment to advance the human rights of persons with disabilities at home and abroad.

Prior to joining the department, Special Advisor Minkara founded and served as CEO of Empowerment Through Integration, a nonprofit organization that provides social and life-skills development for children with disabilities.

As an internationally recognized champion for disability inclusion, leadership, individual empowerment, and social enterprise, Special Advisor Minkara has advised academics, governments, and policy groups on disability inclusion, adaptive leadership, and social entrepreneurship.

She has been recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Vital Voices “100 Women Using Their Power to Empower” program for her many valuable – invaluable – contributions to protecting and advancing the rights of persons with disabilities.

We look forward to working with Special Advisor Minkara as she leads department efforts that advance administration priorities to promote disability rights, equity, inclusion, and accessibility around the world.

With that, happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: And perhaps you can bring her down to —

MR PRICE: Happy to do so.

QUESTION: — once she’s settled in?

MR PRICE: Happy to do so.

QUESTION: Okay. A couple things, and the first one is just going to be – are you – so that the end of the – I see the clock is correct after I reset it.

MR PRICE: Thank you.

QUESTION: No one messed it – messed with it.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: The Egypt Strategic Dialogue finished today. The Secretary was supposed to speak at noon. It was closed, but I’m just wondering if – are you expecting anything out of that? A joint communiqué, a statement, a joint anything?

MR PRICE: We will. I do expect to have a joint statement emanating from the Strategic Dialogue. As you know, it spanned yesterday and concluded today. I think the joint statement will give you a good sense of the range of topics that were discussed.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just to move slightly to the south, can you update us on Ambassador Feltman’s meetings, travels and meetings? Do you still see the small window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ethiopia there? Will he go on to Sudan? And anything else you can think of on that.

MR PRICE: Sure. Let me offer some context at the top, and then happy to provide an update on Ambassador Feltman’s activities in the region.

So as you have heard us say, we remain fully engaged in efforts to move all sides in the conflict to an immediate cessation of hostilities. All those in need, regardless of ethnicity, should have immediate access to lifesaving humanitarian assistance. That is why we call for an immediate end to the human rights abuses and violations committed against civilians.

Our embassy in Addis, as you have heard us say, remains open under the leadership of our ambassador. Special Envoy Feltman, as I alluded to, remains in the region to further our diplomatic efforts. And we urge all parties to exercise restraint, to end hostilities, to respect human rights, to refrain from hostile rhetoric, and to protect civilians.

As you know, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield spoke to the situation in Ethiopia at a UN Security Council briefing on November 8th. We have been fully – working fully in tandem with the AU Special Representative Obasanjo, and we remain supportive – nothing but supportive – of his efforts to facilitate dialogue among the parties towards a cessation of hostilities.

The special envoy, Former President Obasanjo, has spoken to this window of opportunity that he believes, and in turn we believe, does exist and continues to exist. And we are fully in support of his efforts to achieve progress towards the cessation of hostilities and the provision of humanitarian access that is so desperately needed in Tigray and the surrounding regions.

When it comes to Ambassador Feltman, we discussed this yesterday, but he returned to Addis yesterday, November 8th, from Kenya, where he was. He is there. He continued our support of – and he was there to continue our support of AU Special Representative Obasanjo to urgently press the parties to de-escalate the conflict and to enter into negotiations towards a durable cessation of hostilities. He has continued to raise our concern about the risk of inter-communal violence, and this is also something that we spoke about yesterday. It’s of grave and important concern to us. And we do believe, as you’ve heard from the AU special envoy, that there is a window, a small opening, to work with the special envoy to further these efforts, these collective efforts, to peacefully resolve the conflict in Ethiopia.

In addition to meeting with Mr. Obasanjo yesterday, former President Obasanjo I should say, the special envoy met today with the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen. And all the while we are working very closely with international partners on a bilateral and multilateral basis, as well as with action through, as I said before, the AU but also the UN, including with our engagement yesterday. This is something that we have been intensely focused on to try to take advantage of the opportunity that we have now, and we will continue to do so in support of President Obasanjo and his efforts.

QUESTION: Okay. And not to suggest that he doesn’t have enough on his plate already just with Ethiopia, but does he have plans to go to Sudan or even maybe Somalia on this current trip? Or do you expect him to stay in Addis?

MR PRICE: I expect he will stay in the region, but in terms of any follow-on travel, I just don’t have an update for you on that.

QUESTION: But he’s – okay. But he’s in —

MR PRICE: He’s in Ethiopia at the moment.

QUESTION: And is remaining there through tomorrow?

MR PRICE: He is remaining there at least through today, and we’ll keep you posted if he —

QUESTION: Well, today, it’s like – it’s late there.

MR PRICE: We will update you on subsequent – any subsequent travel.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Humeyra.

QUESTION: Ned, you guys have seen the reports about UN staff being detained in Ethiopia. Do you have a response to that? And have you been able to verify their ethnicity? That’s been reported that they’re all Tigrayans.

MR PRICE: Well, we have seen the reports, and they are – we find them concerning. We clearly condemned the previous expulsion of UN officials from Ethiopia. And if confirmed, we would similarly condemn arrests of UN staff members based on ethnicity.

We understand from reports, as you alluded to, that those arrested are Tigrayan. Ethiopian Government security forces – security force harassment and detention on the basis of ethnicity is completely unacceptable. We equally condemn revenge attacks by militants associated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF, and we call on all parties to cease such activities and respect human rights and the rule of law.

QUESTION: And on this window of the opening, can you talk a little bit about what kind of proposals are on the table, at least like give an approximate idea? You said that you’re fully – U.S. is fully in support of AU’s efforts. What exactly are those that you’re supporting? And he also gave a timeline yesterday that he said by the end of the week we should have an idea about, like, where we are with the humanitarian situation. Does that calendar, that timeline, sound realistic to the United States as well?

MR PRICE: Well, we think it’s a window of opportunity, and President Obasanjo has said as much as well. We know that these windows can be fleeting. That is why the United States and the AU as well are working as quickly as possible, in our case, to facilitate discussions, to lend our good offices, and to lend our support where we can.

As you mentioned, President Obasanjo and the AU is in many ways leading this effort. It is not for us to detail any proposals that President Obasanjo or the AU more broadly may have. We also know that – well, let me back up. We want these efforts to have the best prospects for success, and we know that oftentimes success is directly correlated to the lack of profile, of prominence of these efforts. And so we want to continue this quiet dialogue. We’ve been engaged in dialogue with Ethiopian Government officials, with the TPLF, with, of course, the AU, with other regional partners and regional bodies as well. So it’s not something we’re prepared to detail publicly at this moment, but it is something that we’re working on very concertedly with our partners.

QUESTION: And so Special Envoy Feltman, is he directly involved in – like, is the U.S. involved in the – to secure the release of these UN staff? Like, how forward-leaning are you guys in this?

MR PRICE: We will support in any way we can. We have made clear – we made clear when UN staff were expelled that we condemn those actions. These reports have just emerged within the past few hours, but the reports do tend to suggest an arrest based on ethnicity, and that is something that, if confirmed, we would strongly condemn. So whatever we can do to secure the release of these individuals we will be prepared to do.

Yes.

QUESTION: Staying on Ethiopia, has State enhanced the security at the U.S. embassy in the capital? And also, you mentioned yesterday that the State Department can provide a repatriation loan for U.S. citizens wanting to leave and has encouraged U.S. citizens to leave. Does the department have an idea on the number of U.S. citizens or LPRs in Ethiopia who currently want to leave?

MR PRICE: In terms of our embassy, as you know, we went to a status that we call ordered departure, a status through which we’re able to draw down some of our embassy personnel. The embassy does, however, remain open. We are prioritizing services to the American citizen community in Ethiopia because, as you alluded to, we have for several days now been urging American citizens in Ethiopia to avail themselves of the commercial options that remain available to leave Ethiopia.

The security situation is tenuous, and there is a window for Americans to depart via commercial airlines from the international airport in Addis Ababa. The embassy is keeping a close eye on availability of seats on these commercial flights. Over the past several days, there have been a dozen or more commercial flights with capacity, and we have been working to support the – those Americans who are in Ethiopia who wish to leave.

As you said as well, we are offering repatriation loans for Americans who may wish to leave but don’t have the upfront funds to pay for that. We are able to process U.S. passports and consular reports of birth abroad for those preparing to depart, and the embassy does remain able to provide these services. Of course, wherever the security situation is somewhat tenuous, we’re keeping – we keep a close eye on conditions. Should those conditions change, our – the status of our embassy will – could well change as well. But at this point, we understand that there is calm in and around Addis, and again, the commercial airport remains open with commercial flights available with excess capacity.

Barbara.

QUESTION: Can you say anything about whether there is any more interest in talking about negotiations or a ceasefire from either party in Ethiopia, since neither have publicly mentioned it or moved in that direction?

And I also have a question from one of my colleagues who isn’t here, but if you want to just do that first.

MR PRICE: Look, in terms of these negotiations, this is not something that we’re going to livecast. These are discussions that are being had between Ethiopian officials, government, TPLF, and associated forces, and the African Union. These are discussions that we’ve also had in private as well, not only with various Ethiopian elements but also with regional parties. But we are not going to speak to the positions of the various parties. We will leave it to them to characterize their positions.

Again, we are lending our support. We are lending our good offices. We are lending our diplomacy and the catalytic power that that entails to the efforts of the AU, President Obasanjo, and others with whom we’re working around the clock to try to facilitate a cessation of hostilities.

QUESTION: All right. And then I have a question for my colleague, who wasn’t able to be here, about Georgia, about Saakashvili and his transfer from prison cell to prison hospital against his will. He is alleging inhumane treatment, that he was dragged out, beaten, and humiliated verbally and physically. So the question is: What is the State Department response, especially in light of comments by the U.S. embassy and European politicians that Saakashvili’s treatment is a test for the Georgian Government?

MR PRICE: Well, we are closely following, as we have been since it occurred, the imprisonment and now the treatment of former President Saakashvili, including today’s statement from Georgia’s Public Defender’s Office that raises concerns about the conditions of Mr. Saakashvili’s imprisonment. In light of that statement today, we urge the Government of Georgia to immediately take steps to ensure that Mr. Saakashvili’s urgent mental health and medical needs are addressed. We continue to urge the Government of Georgia to treat Mr. Saakashvili fairly and with dignity in accordance with international standards and Georgian law. As we know, it is the responsibility of the Government of Georgia in this case to protect inmates from abuse, including mental abuse; to provide adequate medical care; and to protect their private health information in accordance with Georgian law.

Kylie.

QUESTION: Can I just circle back to Ethiopia really quickly? I’m just wondering – obviously the Biden administration has put resources into trying to get to some optimal solution there, but does the Biden administration view it as the U.S. having a responsibility to broker some sort of a peace agreement there? How do you view your involvement and the necessity of it here?

MR PRICE: Well, this is a civil war, and this is a conflict that predates this administration, but it is, as I alluded to yesterday, not in the DNA of this administration to stand on the sidelines with the knowledge that an engaged, active, energized United States has extraordinary and perhaps unparalleled catalytic ability to bring together various factions, to push for progress. This is what we have sought to do since the earliest days of this administration. We’ve sought to do this knowing that this is a conflict that has roots that go back well before November of last year and decades and much longer, actually, before that.

So we are clear-eyed about what is taking place, but we are also clear-eyed about what the United States and only the United States can bring to the table. And we have, as I said, brought to bear our good offices, our diplomacy, our personnel, various policy tools that we have put in play and that we have alluded to in an effort to, in the first instance, relieve the humanitarian suffering of the people of Tigray and surrounding regions and now to do all that we can to bring about a cessation of hostilities.

We know what it is that the United States – we know that we are in some ways extraordinary in what we can bring to the table, what we can do, but we also know that this is a conflict that has deep roots. And so we are quite clear-eyed about the challenge.

QUESTION: And just to be clear, if diplomacy doesn’t work here, what kinds of conversations are being had internally in the Biden administration about what more the U.S. would do – military, sanctions, and the like?

MR PRICE: Well, in many ways we know that diplomacy has to work, and we have heard from all sides that there’s a recognition that there needs to be a diplomatic offramp to this conflict. So there is not, in our minds, in our estimation, another way to end this conflict with any durability in any sustainable way. And for us, what we are seeking to support is a durable, sustainable, negotiated solution to this conflict that, first off, is predicated on a cessation of hostilities.

QUESTION: And can we go to Yemen?

QUESTION: Sorry. What are the extraordinary —

QUESTION: Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, I just want – what are these extraordinary ways that you bring to the table? I mean, anyone can send aid.

MR PRICE: Matt, I think it is —

QUESTION: Is it a – you’re not seriously considering some kind of military option —

MR PRICE: No, no, no, I did not mean to suggest that at all.

QUESTION: Well, what —

MR PRICE: I’m – I am —

QUESTION: But, I mean, you said a couple times that, like – that you bring things to the table that nobody else can bring and you said that we are in some ways extraordinary in what we can bring to the table. So what is so extraordinary about —

MR PRICE: I think it is the fact that —

QUESTION: I mean, I know Jeff Feltman is an extraordinary guy, but what are the ways – what are the extraordinary ways —

MR PRICE: Matt, I think underlying the question that Kylie asked and underlying the question that I believe it was you asked yesterday – there is an assumption that the United States is going to be engaged in this, and I think there is some logic to that assumption, because the world often —

QUESTION: Okay. But what’s the —

MR PRICE: The world often looks to the United States for our leadership, for our energy, for our diplomacy, for our good offices, for the catalytic ability that we can bring to bear, that you don’t see other countries attempting to exercise.

QUESTION: And yet, when you’re asked about what kind of leadership you’re putting – what you’re putting through, you say, well, it’s all up to President – former President Obasanjo and we’re not going to talk about it, because apparently transparency is not good in this case. Right?

MR PRICE: I think —

QUESTION: I mean, I understand democracy goes – I mean, democracy – diplomacy is like mushrooms, right? It grows best in the dark. But still, I don’t understand what the extraordinary ways you are, other than having an envoy there – but other people have envoys there.

MR PRICE: Matt, I think the – I think there are many elements to many actors here that are looking to the United States that are —

QUESTION: Who?

MR PRICE: — that welcome our active diplomacy in this.

QUESTION: Is Prime Minister Abiy looking to the United States? Is the TPLF looking to the United States?

MR PRICE: As you know, Matt, as you know, our special –

QUESTION: I don’t know. Are they?

MR PRICE: As you know, our special envoy has met with the prime minister.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PRICE: We have engaged with the TPLF. We are engaged in this —

QUESTION: And has he?

MR PRICE: We are engaged in this diplomacy at the invitation and at the request of various actors here. So —

QUESTION: Are the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF?

MR PRICE: The fact that our special envoy has met with the prime minister –

QUESTION: All right. Okay.

MR PRICE: — suggests that that is a welcome engagement.

QUESTION: Has Ambassador Feltman met with representatives of the TPLF himself?

MR PRICE: We have engaged with the TPLF.

QUESTION: No – well, yes or no? Has Ambassador Feltman met – former President Obasanjo has, and he’s gone up there. Has Ambassador Feltman gone up there? Has he met with members of the TPLF?

MR PRICE: As you know, he’s been based in Addis, but we have engaged with the TPLF.

Yes, Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Change topics?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. The Israeli prime minister, Mr. Bennett, said yesterday that no negotiation to establish a terrorist state in Israel. So he’s basically saying no to the prospect of a Palestinian state – something that you’ve been calling all along. So what do you say to counter that? How would you, let’s say, emphasize your commitment to the two-state solution with Mr. Bennett?

MR PRICE: Look, I am not going to offer a direct response to the prime minister, but our position on the two-state solution is well known; it is as well known as it is clear. We believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, democratic Palestinian state. That is why we will continue to focus our efforts on an approach that is affirmative, an approach that is practical, an approach that seeks to improve the quality of life for Israelis and Palestinians alike, in the immediate term, and over the longer term to help keep the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution alive.

You’ve heard us say this before, but we believe that Israelis and Palestinians equally – deserve equal measures of safety, of security, of prosperity, of democracy, and of dignity. That’s really at the core of our approach.

QUESTION: Yes, but while that’s great – I mean, that – but in many ways it sounds like a euphemism for inaction. Because as we speak, as we speak, the daily assault on the Palestinians – not only uprooting trees, killing children, demolishing homes, poisoning water – I mean, you can go on – killing fishermen, restricting all – this goes on on a daily basis. This goes on on a daily basis. What actions are you willing to take so – or to impress upon the Israelis so they stop doing this thing, or minimize doing this thing, or just sort of pull back? Whether on NGOs that are defiant and designated as terrorist organizations and so on, whether it’s the NSO that Israel is probably pressing upon you to sort of not – to take it off your blacklist and so on while they are spying on Palestinians every day of their lives.

So I mean, what action will you ever take to show the Israelis that you are really serious in these statements that you say time and time again?

MR PRICE: Said, we’ve addressed many of the issues that you raised. What I would focus on are the tangible ways in which we have gone about seeking to improve the lives and the livelihoods of Israelis and Palestinians alike. When it comes to the Palestinian people, we have said – from the earliest days of this administration, spoken of our re-engagement with the Palestinian Authority, and in this case the Palestinian people. We’ve resumed assistance to the Palestinian people. We’ve provided over $400 million in economic, development, security, and humanitarian assistance. That includes $85 million in economic and development assistance, $40 million in security sector assistance, more than $20 million in food aid, in COVID-related humanitarian assistance, and $318 million to UNRWA.

So we have worked in tangible ways to bring about an improvement of lives and livelihoods, and that’s something that we’ll continue to work on. Even as we’re in a period now where we have long been clear that negotiations towards a two-state solution aren’t on the table at the moment, our charge now and our focus is improving a standard of living as we keep that possibility of a negotiated two-state solution alive.

QUESTION: Can you tell us where – the whereabouts of Mr. Hady Amr? Is he still perhaps working behind the scene, working from the building? I mean, he’s just simply not on the radar screen anymore. Is he still envoying?

MR PRICE: I have had a number of conversations with DAS Amr in the past few days alone. I can tell you he is very much engaged in diplomacy. He is in constant contact with Israeli officials, with Palestinian officials, with regional officials. He and others in this building are very much working towards the objectives that I just set out.

Shaun.

QUESTION: Can we return to Africa for a minute?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Sudan. The government – there’s a court order in Sudan about internet access or the restoration of it. Do you see any progress on that front?

And if I could also ask something separate about Sudan, there’s talk I think the French were leading a – talking about reversing the decision on debt relief for Sudan in light of the coup. Is that something that the United States would support?

MR PRICE: When it comes to internet access, we have consistently urged the military to put an end to the internet shutdown as well as the state of emergency and to in tandem release all of those civilian leaders and protest organizers detained since the takeover on October 25th. We believe that internet access, free flow of information is part and parcel of any and every society, and that includes in Sudan, where the Sudanese people have very clearly demonstrated by peacefully taking to the streets their aspirations for not only democracy and human rights but some of these very tools that have been denied to them by the military in recent days.

On your question on loans and lending and international financial assistance, we have made clear since October 25th that there would be tangible costs – and there have been tangible costs – for the military if it doesn’t reverse course and reinstate the civilian-led transitional government, as well as releasing those that it has detained. We’ve spoken of our suspension of $700 million in emergency support funding that previously would’ve gone to support the transition. We have also made clear that we are – that the Sudanese military’s actions put at risk billions of dollars from the international community. More than $4 billion in international assistance from bilateral partners and international financial institutions and at least 19 billion in debt relief is at risk because of these actions. So there is quite a lot for the military to lose should it not reverse course.

I will hasten to add at the same time that what is not at stake is our humanitarian assistance to the people of Sudan. Even as we continue to enact ways and look at ways to hold military leaders responsible for their takeover, for their anti-democratic actions, we’ll continue to support the people of Sudan with humanitarian assistance. That is completely separate from this.

Yes, (inaudible).

QUESTION: The Chinese Communist Party issued a directive last week urging people to go out and stock up on food. It led to some chaos around the country, stockpiling. Just wondered if the State Department had seen those reports, if it was concerned about food shortages in China, and if it could say anything else.

MR PRICE: I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a comment on them. I would need to refer you to the PRC for comment or explanation or their rationale of this. We do know that the PRC has enacted fairly strict measures when it comes to its attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19. President Xi Jinping for his part has not traveled outside the country for the better part of two years, since early 2020, and the PRC writ large is taking fairly drastic action. But again, I don’t have a specific response. I’d need to refer you to authorities in Beijing.

QUESTION: Will China be at the ministerial – take part in the ministerial on COVID tomorrow? Have they been invited?

MR PRICE: We will have more on participants for you tomorrow. What I can say is that those countries that will be represented will entail a cross-section of the global community and there will be geographic diversity represented in those countries and institutions in attendance.

Yes.

QUESTION: And can I ask one more about Paul Whelan?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: His lawyer says that the U.S. is no longer negotiating for his release. Have you any comments on Paul Whelan and also on other Americans held in Russia?

MR PRICE: Securing the release of Americans who are unjustly detained in Russia – that includes, of course, Paul Whelan; that includes Trevor Reed – remains an absolute priority for this administration. We have raised the case of Paul Whelan and others at the very highest levels. When President Biden had an opportunity to meet with President Putin in Geneva over the summer, this was a topic of discussion; in many of Secretary Blinken’s conversations with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, we have also raised these discussions. But I can tell you that we are continuing to press this issue with the utmost priority. We’re doing it at the working level and we’re doing it at the most – at the highest levels possible.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking my question. My name is Ryo Nakamura with Japan’s Nikkei Asia. I want to start with questions about U.S.-Japan relations. When Secretary Blinken visited Tokyo in March, the U.S. and Japan agreed to have another 2+2 meeting within this year; then there are just less than two months to go. Are you still looking at having a 2+2 meeting with Japan later this year?

MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have any meetings to announce at this time. But obviously, the 2+2 format, which we conducted both in Japan and the Republic of Korea, is a highly effective and productive one, bringing to bear much of the breadth of our relationship with the Government of Japan, with the people of Japan. As you know, it was the first stop on Secretary Blinken’s first overseas trip as Secretary of State, which I think underscores the priority we attach to our alliance with Japan. And so I am certain that we’ll have an opportunity for additional engagements, including in the 2+2 format, going forward. I just don’t have any specifics to announce.

QUESTION: Okay. A quick follow-up on that. Japan’s Kishida administration with – will revise the national security strategy starting this month. Do you expect Japan to play much bigger role diplomatically and militarily in addressing the pacing challenges of China in the Indo-Pacific region?

MR PRICE: Well, Japan, as a treaty ally, plays an indispensable role in the maintenance, protection, and defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific. This is something that we have discussed with our Japanese partners, our Japanese allies on a bilateral basis, but we’ve also worked with them multilaterally, including in the context of the Quad, where Japan is one of the members. Japan plays an important role in upholding the values that we share with our Quad partners and in pursuing many of the common interests – security interests, economic interests, political interests, and, of course, the people-to-people ties that bind the United States and Japan.

QUESTION: Just the last question about different topic. The U.S. congressional delegation reportedly arrived in Taipei earlier today. Could you confirm the report?

MR PRICE: I will refer you to that congressional delegation. As you know, delegations from our Congress often do travel overseas. But we’ll leave it to them to characterize their trip.

QUESTION: Well, wait, you said “the delegation.” So there is one?

MR PRICE: I will leave —

QUESTION: Is there a delegation that we can be referred to?

MR PRICE: I would refer you to Congress.

QUESTION: So if there was – so you won’t even confirm that there is actually a group of – a CODEL in Taipei?

MR PRICE: It is not our practice to confirm congressional delegations or to speak to them.

QUESTION: Well, but you – but you referred us to “the delegation.”

MR PRICE: I would – I would refer you —

QUESTION: But now you’re saying that maybe there is no delegation. It might just be an ethereal kind of —

MR PRICE: The question was about a congressional delegation in Taiwan. That’s not for us to speak to.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Syria?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Quick question. Today the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Do you have any comment on that?

MR PRICE: Well, we are concerned by reports of this meeting and the signal it sends.  As we’ve said before, this administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or to rehabilitate —

QUESTION: Right.

MR PRICE: — Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator. We urge states in the region to carefully consider the atrocities that this regime, that Bashar al-Assad himself has perpetrated on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime’s ongoing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security. This is an issue that we often do have opportunity to discuss with our close partners in the region, including with our Emirati partners, and we’ve made very clear where we stand on this.

QUESTION: So are you at odds with them? Because this seems to be the track most Arab countries are taking. Egypt is doing the same thing, reaching out and so on. Saudi Arabia probably behind the scenes are doing it, Kuwait – some – most of your allies in the region are headed in that direction, maybe with the exception of Qatar.

MR PRICE: As I often do, I will leave it to our partners, I will leave it to our allies to characterize their position on Syria, their position on the Assad regime. When it comes to our position on the Assad regime, look, we will not normalize or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor do we support other countries normalizing or upgrading their relations, given the atrocities that this regime has inflicted on its own people, on the Syrian people.

We believe – and this I am confident that we share with many of our partners – that stability in Syria and the greater region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians, and we’re committed to working with allies, we’re committed to working with partners, and the UN toward the achievement of a durable political solution.

QUESTION: So if your allies decide that getting Syria back into the Arab fold is in their interest, you’re not going to take them to the woodshed, are you? I mean, are you going to be at odds with them and express that and perhaps – I don’t know what action you would take to dissuade them from doing that. But it seems the direction they will take.

MR PRICE: We will do whatever is most productive towards this cause of a political settlement. Look, when it comes to Syria, we have focused on several objectives, and we have done so in close cooperation and coordination with our partners. One is expanding humanitarian access. That is of the utmost priority to us. It is also something that the Assad regime has sought to counteract and to limit at every turn. We’ve sought to sustain the U.S. and the coalition effort against ISIS, against al-Qaida and terrorist groups in Syria. We have signaled our collective demand for accountability from the Assad regime and for the preservation of international norms, such as the promotion of human rights and nonproliferation, including through the imposition of targeted sanctions. And we have sought to sustain the local ceasefires in place across the country.

So we’re continuing to assess how best to advance the prospects for a political settlement as outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and we’ll continue to consult closely with our allies and partners knowing that they too have a very important role as we seek to bring this about.

Humeyra.

QUESTION: So Ned, have you guys then conveyed to UAE your discontent about this meeting?

MR PRICE: We have an opportunity to speak with our Gulf partners on a number of occasions. As you know, Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to see his Emirati counterpart when we were last in Europe and the United Kingdom. We have with all of our close partners the ability to have frank and candid conversations, and I can assure you that we will avail ourselves of those opportunities when we need to.

QUESTION: And in that candid conversation, did the UAE foreign minister give him a heads up about this meeting?

MR PRICE: I don’t want to further characterize the meeting publicly. I will say that we were not taken by surprise.

QUESTION: Right. There is a suggestion, though, that this is all – United States is giving a veiled green light. What would you say to that? Because while you guys say you don’t normalize any efforts to rehabilitate Assad, are you thinking about taking any punitive action for those who are rehabilitating Assad?

MR PRICE: I don’t know how anyone could take my comments, could hear my comments, and interpret any sort of green light or even a yellow light. We will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, whom we have characterized as a brutal dictator. When it comes to our approach, we will do what is in the best interests of bringing about a political settlement in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

QUESTION: Okay, my last one, though. Does the United States still want Assad gone?

MR PRICE: There has been no change in our position. Bashar al-Assad certainly —

QUESTION: His days are numbered.

MR PRICE: — certainly has not done anything that would rehabilitate his image, that would suggest that he or the regime is changing its ways. But we are focused on those areas that I outlined before on humanitarian access, on the fight against these terrorist groups, on accountability from the Assad regime, including through the imposition of sanctions – and we just impose another round of sanctions in July – and, of course, keeping in place these local ceasefires that have at least suspended the violence throughout parts of Syria.

QUESTION: Right. But if you guys want him gone, and if more and more regional allies are recognizing him and doing more business with him, isn’t that going to be much more difficult for him to be gone if you don’t do anything actively to prevent the rehabilitation?

MR PRICE: We are making very clear where we stand. We are taking targeted action, including through the use of Caesar and other sanctions authorities, against those responsible for some of these egregious abuses of human rights in Syria. We are continuing to coordinate closely with our allies and partners, including in furtherance of the goals laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Yes.

QUESTION: If I could follow up on that, when can we expect the administration to conclude its internal policy review on Syria? I think the common criticism has been the lack of that policy review has signaled a hands-off approach to Syria.

MR PRICE: Well, I would take issue with that characterization, you’re probably not surprised to hear me say, because we have been very clear about where we are expending our efforts and what we think is most important in terms of our engagement with Syria, and it’s really these four lines of effort. And these are four lines of effort that not only have the United States Government working to fulfill them and to enact them, but also have broad and deep support from our closest partners in the region.

There is broad and deep consensus that there needs to be expanded humanitarian access. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and collective efforts to take on al-Qaida remain active and engaged against those target sets in Syria. We have signaled the prioritization we attach to accountability for the human rights abuses, and much of the world too has not only voiced its outrage over what the Assad regime has perpetrated against its own people, but using their own domestic authorities have acted similarly as well; and then, of course, the local ceasefires that have at least diminished the violence in parts of Syria. We have sought to uphold and protect them, working, again, in close coordination with many of our regional partners.

Kylie.

QUESTION: Can we just circle back to Yemen and reports of Yemenis who work for the U.S. being detained by Houthi rebels? Do you have any update on that?

MR PRICE: What I can say at this point is that we are extremely concerned by reports of detentions of some of our local Yemeni employees in Sanaa, and we call for their immediate release. We have been unceasing in our behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to secure their release. We’ve seen some progress and we’re continuing to work this critical issue. The majority of those who have been detained are no longer in custody. We are committed to ensuring the safety of those who serve the U.S. Government overseas, and that is why we are so actively engaged on this matter, including through our international partners.

QUESTION: And do you know how many in total were detained and why?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any update I’m in a position to relay at this time. But again, the majority of them have been released, and when we have more details to share, we will.

Yes, Lara.

QUESTION: Just very quickly, do you have any update on the drone strike against the Iraqi prime minister? And I’m sorry if I missed this, but is the United States assisting at all in that investigation?

MR PRICE: This is an Iraqi investigation. We are deferring to the course of that investigation. We have been in close contact with our Iraqi partners. As you know, Secretary Blinken had an opportunity on Sunday to speak to Prime Minister Kadhimi. The Secretary today spoke with President Salih of Iraq as well, again, to underscore our commitment to the Government of Iraq, to the people of Iraq, and to note that we recognize this attack against the prime minister himself as being representative of an attack against the Iraqi state, an attack against the Iraqi security forces. So we’ve been very clear that any support or assistance that Iraqi authorities need we will stand ready to provide as appropriate. I’m not aware that we’ve received any such specific requests just yet, but certainly stand ready and stand ready to continue to support our Iraqi partners.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thanks. A couple quick ones on Ukraine. Can the State Department give any insight into whether or not U.S. warnings from CIA Director Bill Burns about Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s border has been heeded by Moscow? And also, France’s Foreign Ministry said today that Russia refused to accept a ministerial meeting with France, Ukraine, and Germany to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine. I know that the State Department’s already expressed their concern about the buildup last week. Does this department have any insight as to why Russia is now refusing that ministerial meeting with European allies?

MR PRICE: Well, you referenced the concern we’ve expressed to the military buildup, and we are in fact concerned with the public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine. It’s not for us to speak to Russian intentions, but we are monitoring the situation very closely, as we always do, and we’ll continue to consult with our allies and partners on this issue. As you know, the Secretary will have an opportunity to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart tomorrow. We will have a strategic dialogue with Ukraine here at the department tomorrow. It was last week that the Secretary and President Biden had an opportunity to consult with President Zelenskyy, and you referenced the high-level visit from CIA Director Burns to Moscow.

As we’ve made clear in the past, any escalatory or aggressive action would be of great concern to the United States, and so that’s why we’ll continue to support de-escalation in the region and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is what President Biden and Secretary Blinken made clear to President Zelenskyy at – during their meetings on the margins of COP26. They were unambiguous that our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. We stand with Ukraine, we stand with Kyiv, and condemn all Russian aggression against Ukraine in all forms. We’ll have an opportunity to do that again in person tomorrow during the course of this strategic dialogue.

QUESTION: Could I – what do you mean it’s not for you to speak to Russian intentions when you just – basically you said that they were being aggressive toward —

MR PRICE: That’s a descriptor rather than a characterization of any intent.

QUESTION: When you speak to Russian intentions or Chinese – you speak to a lot of people’s intentions all the time.

MR PRICE: We speak to their actions and we speak of our response to certain actions.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR PRICE: We’re concerned to – by these —

QUESTION: So you don’t think that the Chinese are putting any pressure – they don’t have any pressure they’re putting on Taiwan, or you don’t think that Russia is putting any pressure on Ukraine or Georgia?

MR PRICE: We – what we’re speaking to in this case are the reports of unusual Russian military activities near Ukraine. It’s not for us to say – to speak to underlying intentions.

QUESTION: Can I just – can I just get your “no comment” or your “I’ll defer to the Department of Justice” on this situation with this American guy who was apparently trying to – I guess “defect” is the wrong word, but apparently trying to become Belarusian.

MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen Belarusian state media reporting about this individual, Evan Neumann. Due to U.S. privacy laws, we’re limited in what we can say about individual U.S. citizens. And you’re right; we will refer you to the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: A quick Iran question?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: The Israeli chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, said that Israel is accelerating operational preparedness to possible – for a possible strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and so on. Are such statements – can this – a statement like this complicate your effort to go back to the Vienna negotiation? How does that impact it?

MR PRICE: We have been sincere and steadfast in our belief, in our statements, that we – in our confidence that a mutual return to compliance remains the most effective means by which to permanently and verifiably ensure that Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon. We believe that a diplomatic outcome, a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, is in America’s national interests, but it’s also in the interests of our partners and allies in the region to see to it that Iran is never in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon. That is why we continue to seek constructive engagement in Vienna, including when the talks resume later this month.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thanks. Is there any more you can share on the human rights focused meeting that you referenced yesterday with the Egyptians? Did they make any commitments regarding the concerns that Secretary Blinken raised?

MR PRICE: Well, we will have a joint statement emanating from the two-day Strategic Dialogue, but there was a session on human rights. It was one of the first sessions of the Strategic Dialogue. It was constructive. It focused on human rights and fundamental freedoms, including civil and political rights; freedom of expression; fighting racism; women’s empowerment; economic, social, and cultural rights.

As we’ve said before, we welcomed Egypt’s national human rights strategy and its plans to advance human rights in the country in cooperation with civil society. The Egyptians have welcomed our election on the Human Rights Council. We will continue in every engagement to raise and to discuss these important issues of human rights with our Egyptian partners, knowing just how important they are.

QUESTION: Did you bring up specific cases?

MR PRICE: Again, we have made very clear with our Egyptian partners the steps that Egypt would need to take in order to enjoy the full benefit of the assistance that has not been provided to date. So the Egyptians are – have those full details that we have provided to them in some – in some detail.

QUESTION: Why are those details, why are those steps that you want Egypt to take, are private? If they’re private, how will they be held accountable?

MR PRICE: Our goal in all of this is to see improvement on specific cases and on specific issues. All of our tactics are calibrated towards that overarching goal. If we feel that it would be more productive to take a different approach, more productive in the case of a particular individual, in the case of a particular issue, we would take a different approach. But we’ve determined that these tactics are most appropriate to further the objectives that we have set out. And just because they are not known publicly, they, of course, are known to us. They are known to the Egyptians. So the question of accountability is one that we can determine.

QUESTION: Was there a timeframe that was given to them for when you want this improvement to take place?

MR PRICE: There have been specific discussions on all of these fronts with our Egyptian partners.

Shaun.

QUESTION: A separate question on Pakistan. The Pakistanis, I believe it was yesterday, announced the start of dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, which, of course, has links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Does the United States have any comment on the diplomacy there? I believe it’s still – the Pakistani Taliban is still considered a terrorist movement here.

MR PRICE: If we have a specific reaction on the Pakistani dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, we’ll, of course, let you know. But we have been in regular contact with the Pakistani leadership regarding the question of Afghanistan, regarding our approach to Afghanistan and the approach that we have seen expressed by the international community. We’ve had an occasion to speak to our engagement with Pakistan on this challenge before.

We have heard both publicly and privately from our Pakistani counterparts that they too have an interest in seeing to it that the gains, including among Afghanistan’s minorities, including among its women and girls, over the past 20 years not be squandered. And so there is quite a bit of alignment of interest when it comes to Afghanistan, and we’re continuing to have those conversations. Tom West, our new special representative for Afghanistan, will be in a position to continue some of these discussions in the days ahead.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)

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