12:42 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody.
QUESTION: Happy Friday.
MR RATHKE: Happy Friday to you as well. That’s right.
I just have one thing to mention at the start of the briefing. Secretary Kerry will be discharged from Massachusetts General Hospital this afternoon, and he will return to his home in Boston. That will happen a little bit later today, and on departure the Secretary will give a brief statement and take a couple of questions. We’ll be putting out a notice to the press with some of the details for those who will cover.
QUESTION: Will that include the time?
MR RATHKE: Yes, that’s right. I don’t have the time in front of me. It’ll be – it won’t be the next hour. It’ll be a little bit later in the afternoon.
QUESTION: What, when he gets discharged, or when you’ll put out the details?
MR RATHKE: No, we’ll put out the details – it may even happen while I’m at the podium.
MR RATHKE: We’re checking through those particulars.
QUESTION: Does – and when you say that he will return to his home in Boston, that means in the city, right? He’s not going out to Cape Cod or Nantucket or wherever; he’s going to his city home.
MR RATHKE: His home in Boston.
QUESTION: In the city of —
MR RATHKE: In Boston.
QUESTION: And that means that there’s still no – beyond going there, his schedule is still being decided?
MR RATHKE: I think he’ll have more to say about this.
QUESTION: He will have more to say about it?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t know how much detail he’ll get into, but he’ll speak to that this afternoon.
MR RATHKE: Matt, anything —
QUESTION: Well, this just popped up. North Korea has written to the UN Security Council and asked it to open an investigation into what it says are U.S. – targeting it with live anthrax. This clear – appears to have come from the Pentagon’s admission recently that some samples of live anthrax were mistakenly shipped to a variety of places, including bases in South Korea. One, are you aware —
MR RATHKE: I think a single base in South Korea.
QUESTION: Single – right, okay. So you are aware of this, the letter?
MR RATHKE: Well, yes. I can speak to the letter.
QUESTION: So, okay. So can you answer North Korea? Why are you targeting North Korea with live anthrax?
MR RATHKE: (Laughter.) That’s not what’s going on.
MR RATHKE: We have seen the letter which was submitted by the DPRK to the United Nations. The allegations are ridiculous. They don’t merit a response, other than to say we have been clear, as has the Department of Defense, about the circumstances that led to this inadvertent shipment. I think my colleagues across the river has spoken to that in some detail.
QUESTION: To the UN thing?
MR RATHKE: Not to the UN thing, but to the —
QUESTION: Okay. So —
MR RATHKE: — circumstances that surrounded the shipment.
QUESTION: Does this – does your response suggest that you will be not – you are not in favor of a Security Council investigation into this?
MR RATHKE: Again, the allegations are ridiculous. (Inaudible) —
QUESTION: You will vote no, or you will use your veto power to prevent —
MR RATHKE: I’m not sure that there’s something coming to a vote anyway. Again, we’ve been very clear about the circumstances that led to this.
MR RATHKE: And any suggestion otherwise is baseless.
All right. New topic?
QUESTION: Can we stay on the Secretary?
MR RATHKE: Please.
QUESTION: Do you have any phone calls, any conversations that he’s had with foreign officials or with members of his team in the past 24 hours?
MR RATHKE: He’s been having phone calls with members of his team. I don’t have specific ones to recount. He’s been in touch with people by email, by phone. I don’t have foreign leader calls to read out, but he’s been engaged with his team. As I mentioned yesterday, his chief of staff was up in Boston, so they were able to deal with several things direct face to face, and – but other than that, I don’t have particular details to read out.
QUESTION: Do you know whether he’s touched base with Under Secretary Sherman as the latest round of talks get underway in Vienna?
MR RATHKE: I don’t know if he’s spoken with her in Vienna. He has had a couple of conversations with her during the course of this week – with her, and also at least one call that was with the larger Iran team, including Under Secretary Sherman. So he’s remained engaged with them. But I don’t have specific details from the last 24 hours about a call.
QUESTION: And has he been doing any outreach to members of Congress on fast-track trade authority? I know that he and Secretary Carter have written about the need for it. Has he been doing any lobbying, as it were, from Boston to particularly members of the House who are very split on the issue, it appears?
MR RATHKE: Well, the Secretary’s op-ed with Secretary Carter earlier this week certainly lays out his views, and the Secretary has spoken repeatedly. I don’t have calls to members of Congress to read out, so I don’t know for sure if he’s made any. I’m not aware of any. But again, he’s been in contact with – by email with people as well. So I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility he’s been in touch with them. But I don’t know exactly whom he’s been in every (inaudible) contact with over the last couple of days.
MR RATHKE: All right. Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: There is a report that the head of the Israeli national security is coming with a delegation on Monday here to discuss the developments with the negotiations – the Iran negotiations. Can you confirm that?
MR RATHKE: I’m not – I don’t have announcements about meetings to offer. I’d refer you to the Israeli authorities for the travel plans of their officials. I simply don’t have something in front of me now to confirm that. Of course, we have remained in touch with Israeli officials throughout the nuclear talks, and that’s been the case throughout, and it will continue. We’ve got a close security and bilateral relationship with Israel, including on the Iran talks. So that’s certainly been the past history, and we’ll continue that.
QUESTION: That’s an interesting (inaudible). You have a close relationship with Israel on a variety of matters, including the Iran talks? It doesn’t seem very close —
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve been –
QUESTION: — right now. It seems like —
MR RATHKE: We’ve remained in —
QUESTION: — you’re here and they’re here.
MR RATHKE: — regular contact and —
QUESTION: Yeah, but you don’t agree.
MR RATHKE: — share information with them. Excuse me?
QUESTION: You don’t agree on it, though, right?
MR RATHKE: Well, but we’ve – that doesn’t change the fact that we —
QUESTION: Fair enough.
MR RATHKE: — consult closely with them.
QUESTION: Can I stay on Israel for a second?
MR RATHKE: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you – you will probably have seen yesterday the Israeli military released its – the results of its investigation into the deaths of the four Palestinian children on the beach in Gaza during the war last year. I’m wondering, did they – the investigation determined that it was an accident – it was accidental, and that there is not going to be – there won’t be any charges brought. Do you have any response to that, reaction to that?
MR RATHKE: Well, this was a serious incident, and we are aware of the results of the investigation. We were in close contact with Israel throughout the investigation, and we will continue to remain in contact to further enhance the protection of civilian populations in times of conflict. But I don’t have a specific comment to offer on the investigation itself.
QUESTION: Can you – when you say we were in close contact with Israel throughout the investigation, does that mean you were in contact with them about the investigation?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, the end of that sentence, we’re in contact and remain in contact to enhance the protection of civilian populations in times of conflict. So that’s the topic of discussion. I don’t want to suggest that we were somehow consulting on the investigation. But we’ve – as we said at the time, we of course take issues of protection of civilians seriously. It’s part of our regular —
QUESTION: Well, I understand that, but I mean, are you satisfied? Is the Administration satisfied with the findings?
MR RATHKE: Again, I’m not going to offer a comment on the finding.
QUESTION: At the time of the attack, Jen, who was on the podium, said that it was horrifying. She said, “This tragedy makes clear that Israel must take very possible step to meet its standards for protecting civilians from being killed. We will continue to underscore that point to Israel.” Does that square – I mean, do you think that the finding of this investigation addresses your concerns that you raised at the time?
MR RATHKE: Well, we said at the time – and you’re right, Jen was at the podium – she said at the time that we were heartbroken by the death of innocent civilians, and we stressed throughout the conflict that Israel should take every possible step to meet its high standards for protecting civilians from being killed, and so we also said at the time and we continue to stand by our view that all parties need to take and needed to take all feasible precautions —
MR RATHKE: — to prevent civilian casualties. But I don’t have a specific comment to offer on the results of this investigation.
QUESTION: Well, okay, I’m not sure then – I mean, do you think that Israel is now doing what it – doing everything it can, recognizing that there isn’t currently an active incursion into Gaza or whatever. Are they doing – have they addressed your concerns?
MR RATHKE: Well, we remain in contact with Israel about these issues. These – again, Israel has —
QUESTION: Does that mean that your concerns have not —
MR RATHKE: — high standards – Israel holds itself to high standards. We hold ourselves to high standards when it comes to protecting civilians in conflict. It’s an issue on which we remain in contact.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you believe that Israel has upheld its own high standards in this case?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, you’re asking me to comment on the outcome of the report, which I’ve said —
QUESTION: Yeah, I mean —
MR RATHKE: — I’m not going to offer a —
QUESTION: You comment on the outcome of lots of reports, though, lots – you comment on the outcomes of verdicts in trials and all that kind of thing. I’m just curious as to whether you – I mean, it’s very possible that the U.S. Government thinks that this was a – this investigation was perfectly adequate and covered all the bases. But it’s – given the harsh criticism that the Administration leveled at Israel during the conflict – and this wasn’t the only incident; there was the school incident as well, which you guys criticized pretty heavily – I mean, I just —
MR RATHKE: Well, Israel —
QUESTION: You raise these things but then you don’t follow – but then once an investigation is done, you can’t say whether, yes, we support – we think that the investigation that Israel did was adequate and good and it answers the questions, the concerns that we raised at the time? You can’t say that?
MR RATHKE: Well, look, Israel is a vibrant democracy. It has robust democratic institutions. But I’m not going to comment on —
QUESTION: All right.
MR RATHKE: — specific findings of this report.
MR RATHKE: Tejinder.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: This – is this department looking at India’s operations inside Myanmar to flesh out terrorists? And there was a subsequent response from Rathore in Pakistan. You know that these nuclear-powered neighbors have fought three wars. And yesterday, the Indian army says on Thursday there was an exchange of fire in the Poonch sector of Kashmir. So are you concerned? What is your reaction to what’s going on?
MR RATHKE: Well, the relationship between India and Pakistan is critical to advancing peace and stability in South Asia, so we welcome any steps India and Pakistan can take to reduce tensions and move toward resuming dialogue. We encourage India and Pakistan to take those kinds of steps, and we believe that India and Pakistan each have a mutual interest in addressing the threat posed by violent extremism and terrorism.
QUESTION: So do you support what India did in Myanmar, going in and taking out the terrorists? We have done that, too.
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have a comment on that specific operation. I think the point that you raised, and to which I responded, is we encourage India and Pakistan to take steps to reduce tensions and to move towards resuming talks.
QUESTION: And has the U.S. reached out officially to India or Pakistan to defuse the tension that are really rising at this moment?
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve encouraged a reduction of tensions on both sides at high levels, so that’s – it is something we’ve mentioned.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Pakistan?
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I just wanted – further to your – the statement that was put out about the Save the Children raid —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — is this the extent of your communication with the Pakistani Government about your concerns over this raid? Or do you know, can you say if this has been raised in Islamabad or here with Pakistani officials?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. I don’t have details about whether it’s been discussed in Islamabad, but it’s certainly a matter of concern to us. Save the Children is an international nongovernment organization. They do important work. So that’s the – of course, the reason for our statement.
MR RATHKE: Syria, yes.
QUESTION: A Turkish official speaking to Reuters on Tel Abyad clashes in Syria said yesterday that “a significant demographic change in taking place in the area. Arabs are being pushed away as Kurds flow in,” he said. Do you think Kurds are taking advantage of the situation to change demographics since you support Kurds from the air?
MR RATHKE: Well, there are reports. We are aware of those reports and we’re concerned by them, and we’re seeking more information about them. I’m not in a position to confirm the details of those assertions, but certainly, we’ve – we’re aware of this and we’re trying to obtain more information about what’s happening on the ground. And we have raised with the PYD our concerns about their human rights record, including intimidation of rival Kurdish political parties in the past. So those are concerns we’ve raised.
But you also – you mentioned the U.S. airstrikes and our support. Those – that has been – our airstrikes are focused on the fight against ISIL and not to any other purpose. So I want to make that aspect of it quite clear as well.
QUESTION: Can you explain more what you mean by PYD’s past intimidations?
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve raised concerns. There have been reports in the past about it, and we’ve raised our concerns with them in the past about these reports.
QUESTION: But it seems to me PYD is the most inclusive kind of entity within Syria, where you have Christians, non-Kurds, like all sort of parties represented in the contours they have established.
MR RATHKE: Well, again, there have been reports in the past and we’ve raised those with them. So I’m not going to comment on or compare it to any other —
QUESTION: Through which —
MR RATHKE: — organization inside Syria.
QUESTION: Through which channel you raised these concerns?
MR RATHKE: Well, as we’ve said in the past, we have had contact with them. I’m not going to specify the channel, but we have had both direct and indirect contacts in the past.
QUESTION: What reports are you referring to? You said there are reports of —
MR RATHKE: Well, there have been reports in the past. I’m not going to —
QUESTION: Not State Department reports?
MR RATHKE: No, no, no, no. I mean reports – public – reports in the media —
QUESTION: In the media. Okay.
MR RATHKE: — and of that – of that sort.
QUESTION: Can we go back to the Iran talks for a minute?
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: I just would like to have your take on the – some Russian officials who are quoted as saying from Vienna and from Moscow that they are extremely concerned because the talks are slowing down and even have stalled. I’d like to have your opinion on that.
MR RATHKE: Well, our Under Secretary Wendy Sherman is in Vienna meeting with her political director colleagues as part of the P5+1 talks. We remain of the view that it’s possible to reach – to conclude the talks by June 30th. That remains our focus. And so I don’t – that’s how we —
QUESTION: But do you agree with that assessment by —
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve always said —
QUESTION: I mean, the Russians don’t usually speak out like this. Their assessment is that these discussions have now virtually stalled.
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve said all along that we’re not going to negotiate in public and the details, I think as we talked about yesterday in a slightly different context, but the details in the negotiating room should stay in the negotiating room. So I’m not going to characterize the current state of the talks. Again, we remain of the view that the June – that June 30th is achievable, and that’s our focus to reach a joint comprehensive plan of action by that time.
QUESTION: But even without giving us any detail about the content of the talks, could you say that the talks are going well or are difficult or —
MR RATHKE: Well, I wouldn’t put a label on it of that sort. Of course, the – these are complicated talks and there are complicated issues that we have to work through at this stage. I think the U.S. has not made any secret of that. And – but we – it is still our belief that we can reach conclusion of the talks by the deadline.
Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Does your unwillingness to even characterize the – where the talks are and that they’re in a difficult phase with two and a half weeks left, does that extend to not commenting on the various reports that have come out this week and last about concessions that the P5+1 appear to be making to Iran in terms of both sanctions relief and on the PMD issue?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we spoke a bit to this yesterday. But on the PMD issue, we’re – we’ve seen reports that I think that you’re referring to. I think our position on this hasn’t changed. We’ve always made clear to the Iranians that they will have to reach agreement with the IAEA on providing the necessary access to address the concerns about the possible military dimensions of their program; and without that agreement, we will not be able to move forward with sanctions relief. That’s been our position throughout these negotiations.
QUESTION: Right. But that means – that suggests that the actual questions don’t have to be answered and the concerns resolved in order to get the deal, correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, the point —
QUESTION: They only have to agree to at some point, whatever that might be, but at some point after an agreement is reached to deal with this. Is that correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, the point is that Iran has to provide the necessary access to the IAEA for them to address these concerns.
QUESTION: Yeah. But does that have to happen to get to a deal, or can that happen after a deal?
MR RATHKE: Well, without agreement on the access, we will – and needed to resolve this, we won’t be able to reach —
QUESTION: I understand.
MR RATHKE: — to lift sanctions.
QUESTION: So an – so if Iran agrees to give access to the sites that the IAEA wants but doesn’t actually – but hasn’t actually given the access by June 30th, that’s still okay? Is that correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, there I think we’re getting into details that I will leave in the negotiating room. I think I’m – what I’m trying to convey, though, is that our position on the possible military dimensions issue and the necessity of Iran working with the IAEA – that position remains the same. It hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: Is it correct that there is a difference between me, if I’m Iran, saying to you, “Okay, you can have access in 50 years” and me as Iran saying, “Okay, come on in now and give – and ask all the questions you want and we’ll address your concerns.” There’s a difference between those two, correct?
MR RATHKE: But the distinction you’re trying to say is 50 years versus zero? (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Well, I mean, when does Iran have to give the access?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, those are details that —
QUESTION: Well, they shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t – I didn’t —
MR RATHKE: — are in the negotiating room, and I’m not going to speak to those kinds of details.
QUESTION: Well – but they shouldn’t be up for negotiation, because the whole idea in the JPOA was that Iran would resolve these issues in order to get to the – in order to get to a comprehensive deal. And now you’re saying they don’t have to resolve them at all, all they have to do is say, “Okay, at some point in the future – and we don’t know when that might be – that we’ll give access.”
MR RATHKE: No —
QUESTION: And giving access doesn’t mean that your – that the IAEA or yours – your concerns have been resolved or addressed.
MR RATHKE: Our position on this hasn’t changed, Matt, and you can go back and look at what we’ve said at the time. But our position remains that it’s about the access that the IAEA needs to address our concerns, and that’s been our —
QUESTION: No, but that’s not what it was at the beginning. At the beginning of this it was they have to resolve the PMD issue to the satisfaction of the IAEA or there isn’t going to be a deal.
MR RATHKE: And again, I’m saying there’s not a difference.
QUESTION: Well, that’s a big difference between that and saying that they just have to agree to at some point down in the road give access and not even resolve the concerns.
MR RATHKE: Again, the —
QUESTION: There is a difference there. I mean, am I wrong?
MR RATHKE: Well —
MR RATHKE: Look, the focus is on addressing these concerns, and that’s one of the issues that we’re dealing with in the negotiating room.
QUESTION: So would the IAEA first have to resolve this – well, would the deal have to include that the IAEA has resolved this already before you sign it? I mean, because —
MR RATHKE: Again —
QUESTION: — if you sign the deal without that being resolved, isn’t just something left open?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I’d go back to what I said initially in response to Matt’s question, that it has consistently been our position that Iran has to reach agreement with the IAEA to provide the necessary access to address the concerns about the possible military dimensions of their program. That’s been our position throughout the negotiations, and without that agreement, we’ll not be able to move forward with sanctions relief. And the discussions in the room I will leave in the room, but that’s been our position, and that’s – and it remains.
QUESTION: So it has never been the U.S. position that Iran must resolve the PMD concerns to get to an agreement? That’s never been a condition?
MR RATHKE: Look, if we want to go back and look at what was said at the time – again, our position on this —
QUESTION: I wish this wasn’t – I mean, I —
MR RATHKE: — remains the same.
QUESTION: I mean, it doesn’t remain the same, Jeff. You – it’s changed. I mean, Secretary Kerry even said that it had – they had to be resolved in order for there to be a deal.
MR RATHKE: You’re trying to draw a distinction between the words “address” and “resolve,” and —
QUESTION: No, I – you’re lowering it. You’re lowering the bar even further, from “address” to just agree to give access to, which means – I mean, if they give access —
MR RATHKE: No, I said the word “address,” Matt, so —
QUESTION: If they give access and the IAEA – your version now says that if they give access, the IAEA goes in and finds some huge secret bomb-making thing, that’s okay, that you’ve then – they’ve given access and that’s all right.
MR RATHKE: No, Matt, you – I think you were listening to what I said, but I said that —
QUESTION: I was.
MR RATHKE: — Iran has to provide the necessary access to address the concerns about the possible military dimensions of their program.
QUESTION: But what if the concerns aren’t addressed? What if the access that they give doesn’t address the concerns? You’ve already got the deal; they’re already getting sanctions relief. Or are you saying that if the concerns aren’t addressed at some point down the road, then they’re not going to get the sanctions relief that they would’ve gotten for that —
MR RATHKE: I’ve laid out our position clearly, Matt. It hasn’t changed. And we’ll move on.
QUESTION: On Iran —
QUESTION: Well, I’m very confused, because it does seem – the goalposts seem to be moving.
MR RATHKE: No, the goalposts haven’t moved.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: On Iran again, the leader of one of the Kurdish parties of Iran, Mustafa Hijri, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, he’s in town in Washington for several weeks. So he’s been trying to reach you guys at the State Department and at Pentagon, anyone in Administration; nobody wants to talk to them. And his assessment is – he talks to me – that is because of the nuclear deal, you don’t want to talk to the – any oppositions to scare Iranian. What’s your response for that?
MR RATHKE: I’m not aware of the visit of his delegation, so I don’t have a response to that allegation.
QUESTION: But you ready to talk to their people —
MR RATHKE: Look, I’m not going to make commitments here to meetings at the podium. So I’m not aware of the visit you’re referring to, so I don’t have a comment on it.
Go ahead, David.
QUESTION: Speaking of meetings, do you have a readout of the meeting between General Fan and Deputy Secretary Blinken?
MR RATHKE: Yes. Yes, I do. Deputy Secretary Blinken met today with the Chinese Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Fan Changlong, and they discussed U.S.-China relations, including upcoming bilateral engagements; in particular, the Strategic Security Dialogue for which Deputy Secretary Blinken is the U.S. lead. This visit was in keeping with our efforts to maintain regular senior-level communication between our two governments. And General Fan had some meetings, I believe, at the Pentagon as well as over at the White House, and I think they’ve put out readouts of those discussions as well.
QUESTION: Was land reclamation discussed?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have further details to share from the meetings, so I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Yes, to go back to Matt’s question about the Pakistan. There’s a – in the statement you were criticizing Pakistan and then U.S. saying that we share the Government of Pakistan’s goal of promoting a blah, blah, blah. And the – what – the whole thing is a little bit of criticism, but what are you doing? Are you stopping any aid? Are you – there’s any – there’s no teeth in this statement, just words (inaudible). What do you say to that?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think the statement is pretty clear about our concerns and why we consider the work of Save the Children and other international charitable organizations to be important. And I think the statement also makes a connection that the Government of Pakistan itself has a goal of promoting economic development and democracy and security. And it – the statement makes clear that our support for Pakistan’s goals involves, in many instances, working through international nongovernmental organizations who implement projects in a variety of sectors, so I think that that’s clear in the statement.
QUESTION: Yeah. And going back to a few weeks, months ago, the India had some things with these NGOs, blacklisting them and all. And this – from this podium I was told that yes, we are reaching out to – did anything happen on that, or it just got buried? Did you get any reply? Did this get any kind of solution to what India has been doing?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have an update to offer on it. Again, we expressed our concerns and we’ve raised those with the Indian authorities. I don’t have an update to offer here.
MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: I want to go back to Iran and this whole PMD thing. All right. In April, the Secretary was on PBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff and she asked him:
“The IAEA has said for a long time that it wants Iran to disclose past PMDs. Iran is increasingly looking like it’s not prepared to do this. Is the U.S. prepared to accept that?”
Secretary Kerry: “No. They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.”
Woodruff: “Because it’s not there right now.”
Kerry: “It will be done.”
Woodruff: “So that information will be released before June 30th. It will be available.”
Secretary Kerry: “It will be part of the final – of a final agreement. It has to be.”
Now you’re saying that all they have to do is to agree to provide access at some date in the future to address them? That certainly is —
MR RATHKE: No.
QUESTION: That’s a walk-back.
MR RATHKE: Matt, no. Our position —
QUESTION: Or am I completely misunderstanding what the Secretary said?
MR RATHKE: Our position remains – our position remains as Secretary Kerry outlined it. That – and as you quoted from the Secretary’s —
QUESTION: He said there in response to a question, does Iran have to disclose its PMDs – in other words, do they have to address the concerns or resolve the concerns – and he said yes, before June 30th. Was he wrong?
MR RATHKE: He said yes, that’s part – that would have to be part of the – part of a deal. And that’s —
QUESTION: And now you’re saying it doesn’t have to be part of the deal?
MR RATHKE: No. No, I’m not saying it’s part of the deal, Matt. You’re trying to draw distinctions here where there aren’t distinction. What Secretary Kerry said in that interview —
QUESTION: There is —
MR RATHKE: — is consistent with our policy as —
QUESTION: There is no distinction between them having to open up and address these —
MR RATHKE: No. See, here you’re – you’re offering your interpretation of what these words might mean. What the Secretary said in that interview, what I’ve said and what our position has been throughout these talks is entirely consistent.
Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Well, I —
QUESTION: Any reaction to the deadly attack against members of the Druze community in Syria?
MR RATHKE: We condemn the Nusrah Front’s attack on June 10th against a Druze village in Idlib where reportedly 20 people were killed. And contrary to Nusrah leader Julani’s recent claim that Nusrah would not harm religious minorities, this terrorist group has shown once again that it continues to commit a range of crimes against the Syrian people and it’s at odds with the Syrians’ desire for a safe and prosperous Syria.
QUESTION: Continue Iraq?
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, just on the – like the consideration of adding more bases and troops to Iraq. So if this becomes a reality and you’ll reoccupy the bases that you used to —
MR RATHKE: Well, wait, I think it important to make clear here that there is no contemplation of U.S. bases. The U.S. train and advise and assist program in support of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Security Forces are located on Iraqi bases where we have a presence that is necessary to carry out that mission. But these are Iraqi bases.
QUESTION: But didn’t General Dempsey say that those bases will be used by the United States? He called them the “lily-pad” bases.
MR RATHKE: Well, I think what the chairman said is consistent with the strategy the President has laid out, and that strategy is if there is a request from the Iraqi – if there’s a request from the Iraqi Government and the President’s military advisors recommend additional venues to further train, advise – to further the train, advise, and assist mission, then the U.S. Government would consider that. And I think that’s been clear.
QUESTION: So while we’re seeing this kind of incremental increase in the number of troops and bases in Iraq, they are being used by —
MR RATHKE: But, no, no. Again, you’re using this word “bases,” and I want to be really clear about that word, because what we’re talking about are – is U.S. support at Iraqi bases —
QUESTION: Okay. Iraqi bases.
MR RATHKE: — where we are carrying out a train, advise, and assist mission.
QUESTION: But you’re using them.
MR RATHKE: Well, but not exclusively. For example, at Taqaddum where the 450 or so additional U.S. personnel will be located, that is the Iraqi operations headquarters. So these are in no way U.S. bases. These are Iraqi bases where the U.S. is carrying out our mission to support the Iraqi Security Forces.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, with this gradual increase in the number of troops, why shouldn’t Americans or Iraqis be worried that the United States will actually commit itself to a long war – slide itself into a long and bloody war that it used to fight for, like eight years?
MR RATHKE: Well, the mission I think is quite clear. We are on the one hand carrying out airstrikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces under Iraqi command and control to push ISIS out of Iraq. And on the other hand, we have a train, advise, and assist mission which is in support of Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Security Forces, and that is our mission. That mission is not changing. The ways in which we’re carrying out that mission have just been revised to include additional personnel carrying out the train, advise, and assist mission. But you’re —
MR RATHKE: — presupposing a completely different mission, and that’s not the mission that the United States has in Iraq.
QUESTION: And you’re saying this is not a change in strategy. This is just completing the —
MR RATHKE: No, as I think people have – as I think several U.S. Government officials have said in the course of this week, the strategy remains the same; of course, we’re always looking at ways to better execute the strategy. And in response to a very specific request from Prime Minister Abadi for additional support in advising and assisting Iraqi Security Forces and supporting their integration with the Sunni militias in Anbar, the United States has decided to commit additional personnel to that effort. So – but I think that’s —
QUESTION: Just —
MR RATHKE: — that’s been quite clear.
QUESTION: Just one more. Will any of these new troops go to Kurdistan, or just to the center of Iraq?
MR RATHKE: Well, we have existing efforts in Kurdistan at the joint operations center where they work closely with their Kurdish colleagues.
QUESTION: The new forces, in other words.
MR RATHKE: And so the new – but the additional forces are focused on the Taqaddum base. My colleagues from the Department of Defense have offered more detail about that, but I don’t want to – I don’t – I take a certain suggestion from your question that we’re not doing things with Kurdish forces, and nothing could be further from the truth. Our partnership in the Kurdistan region, with the Kurdish forces, has been an important part from the very start of our train, advise, and assist mission and that continues.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On Iraq?
MR RATHKE: Just one – Matt, you had —
QUESTION: I was going to say, “Thank you, have a good weekend,” but —
MR RATHKE: Oh. Okay. We’ll do two quick ones and then we’ll go – we’ll start with Mary Alice who has not asked a question yet today.
QUESTION: That’s right. U.S. military-military – U.S. and Russia military maneuvers over the Baltics. Just a quick question here. There are reports now that a Russian fighter jet flew within 10 feet of an Air Force reconnaissance aircraft on May 30th over the Baltic Sea. Has there been any diplomatic discussion about these encounters, which seem to be increasing in frequency and in proximity?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would refer you first and foremost to my colleagues at the Pentagon for the details of the incident and how they have addressed them. There have – when we have seen unsafe incidents, we have raised them, but I’ll let my colleagues from the Pentagon speak to that more directly.
QUESTION: So diplomatically, you have – have you just – through diplomatic channels, have you had a discussion with Russia about these kinds of encounters that seem to be happening more often over the Baltics?
MR RATHKE: Again, I’m not going to get into more detail about the channels through which these contacts occur —
MR RATHKE: — but certainly, when there are unsafe incidents, we certainly address them.
Go ahead, Tejinder.
QUESTION: A quick one on – the Swiss authorities are doing all this investigation. And how far the U.S. is involved in it – the Iran negotiations, those computers (inaudible) and all the investigation? Is the U.S. part of the investigation, or you’re letting the Swiss do it?
MR RATHKE: I’d refer you to the Swiss authorities for details of a Swiss investigation.
QUESTION: On Iraq. President Obama – in a G7 meeting summit, he was criticizing the Iraqi Government by not committed to all – like, he said we don’t have a complete strategy because of the lack of the commitments by the other side, which he was referring to the Iraqi Government. And yesterday I had an interview with Salim al-Jabouri, speaker of the Iraqi parliament. He was also criticizing the United States – not exactly the United States, but the coalition – that the slow procedure of arming and equipping the Iraqi forces and the Shia militias and also the Sunni tribes. So, I mean, what are these commitments United States want to the Iraqi Government to make in order to make the strategy to complete?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think Prime Minister Abadi and his council of ministers have a five-point strategy that they approved back on May 19th, and that includes, among other things, increasing recruitment into the Iraqi armed forces; expediting the training and equipping of Sunni militias; and a number of other steps. And we support that five-point plan that – that’s the Iraqi Government’s plan; it’s Prime Minister Abadi’s plan. And so we’re working to support it, including by expanding our train, advise, and assist mission to the Taqaddum base. And so that’s the way we see that we can best support Iraq’s goals.
That’s what we’ve talked about quite extensively with Prime Minister Abadi. He was here in Washington just last month – no, two months ago – and he and President Obama met during the G7 as well. So we are committed to doing our part. Iraq has set goals for itself, and you can look at their five-point plan for more details on that and the specific steps that Iraqi authorities will take to implement it.
QUESTION: To your knowledge, how much of this five-point plan’s been implemented?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’d refer you back to the Iraqi authorities for that.
QUESTION: Because President Obama was criticizing that; that’s not a complete —
MR RATHKE: Again, the Iraqi Government has a plan. We’re supporting that plan and we’ll let them speak to the steps they’ve taken.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Thanks very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:22 p.m.)