US State Dept Presser

State Dept Presser -May 4, 2023

13 Min
State Dept Presser -May 4, 2023

The State Department held a presser on May 14, 2023 with Principal Dy Spokesperson Vedant Patel fielding a wide range of questions. His Q-A on Afghanistan and B’desh is tweaked to appear up-front.

Some excerpts

QUESTION: Vedant. Counsellor Derek Chollet – I saw a tweet that he had a meeting with the Bangladesh authorities, and he expressed U.S. concern the upcoming free, fair election and the human rights. Would you please give us a more sense about this meeting, and the bilateral dialogue between the under – Deputy Secretary Nuland and the Bangladesh foreign secretary?

MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. So yesterday Counsellor Chollet met with Bangladesh’s Private Industry and Investment Advisor Salman Rahman to convey U.S. concerns regarding free and fair elections and human rights in Bangladesh. The counsellor reiterated that the U.S. relationship with Bangladesh is guided by our shared commitment to democracy and our shared work together for durable solutions for Rohingya.

I will also note that yesterday the U.S. and Bangladesh convened the ninth U.S.-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue here in D.C. Under Secretary Nuland and Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen co-chaired this meeting. Both sides reiterated their commitment to a growing partnership across a range of issues. These issues you’ve heard me talk about pretty frequently this week, issues like addressing the climate crisis, security collaboration, as well as deepening economic ties as well.

QUESTION: One more question. So recently, the inspector general of the U.S. for Afghanistan, or SIGAR, released a report and indicated that some of the U.S. aids went to the Taliban.

MR PATEL: That is absolutely not true.

QUESTION: And so John Sopko said himself at the Congress hearing that some of these aids went to the Taliban because there is no – any clear strategy to monitor those aids, and Taliban —

MR PATEL: I’m going to stop you right there. U.S. assistance in Afghanistan does not benefit the Taliban.

QUESTION: Do you have any concern that might?

MR PATEL: We are confident that U.S. assistance to Afghanistan does not benefit the Taliban. We continue to be the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, and we are very confident in the mechanisms that we have in place – working with the UN, working with other entities in the region – to ensure that the aid that we do provide does not in any way benefit the Taliban, and instead goes towards the people of Afghanistan, who our commitment to continues to endure.

Shannon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I just want to follow up on the question about the special inspector general for Afghanistan. And could you say a little bit more about how you’re confident that no aid dollars are benefiting the Taliban? Because even the UN has said they’ve seen an increase of Taliban interference in aid distribution, and I think they first said that about a year ago. So they’ve said it’s been increasing.

MR PATEL: Our colleagues that USAID and at the United Nations can speak specifically about the systems and modalities that are in place, but we are confident that U.S. assistance to Afghanistan does not benefit the Taliban. This is something the United States has been undertaking for a very long time, prior to the suspension of operations in Afghanistan. It’s something that we have deep expertise on. And it’s the reason why we’ve continued to persist as the leading humanitarian donor to the people of Afghanistan.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: After the Doha summit on Afghanistan, which hosted by the UN, Tom West, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, said that a political dialogue among Afghans is a – the central part of the solution. So which kind of dialogue exactly needed? Between whom? Would it mean between the Taliban and other parties? Who are they, the other parties? Would you please explain that?

MR PATEL: So what I will – to take a little bit of a step back, as you know, this meeting in Doha was convened for key international stakeholders to reinvigorate international engagement around objectives in Afghanistan and how to best support the Afghan people. And what Special Representative West was referring to was that there continue to persist a number of issues in Afghanistan that make – that the Afghan people – that makes life for the Afghan people challenging and difficult that need to be addressed prior to any kind of international engagement or recognition to take place as it relates to the Taliban.

Some examples of this is the continued presence of terrorist organizations, the lack of inclusivity, especially as it relates to human rights – specifically human rights and its impact on women and girls. Many of these areas have been undermined recently by decisions by the Taliban. And as the UN secretary-general has expressed, this meeting was about developing a common international approach to Afghanistan, about helping the people of Afghanistan. It is not about any kind of international recognition of the Taliban.

QUESTION: So the question is that the Taliban apparently are not ready to talk to anyone. They don’t believe, as people emphasized, in any dialogue with other parties like the oppositions groups who are living abroad. So if Taliban are not ready to talk and have a dialogue with their opponents, so which kind of dialogue special representative mean to?

MR PATEL: Well, there continue to be benefits about dialogue taking place between actors within civil society, within the Afghani people, but to be quite clear, we have repeatedly said that international recognition and legitimacy and support of the Taliban begins with their actions, and they must earn their legitimacy among the Afghan people first. And that starts with the actions that they take at home. We have already addressed some of the very glaring human rights issues that are of top of mind to the United States, and we’ll continue to address those in concert with our allies and partners.

I’ll also note that the United States continues to be the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, and we continue to work with a number of civil society actors and multilateral organizations to do so.

MR PATEL:  I have two brief things, and then we will dive right in to your questions today.

Since May 1st, Russia has launched more than 145 airstrikes across Ukraine. That means Russia has launched more than one missile, one drone, or bomb every hour, 24 hours a day for four straight days. While Ukraine puts its air defenses to good use, Russia’s cowardly attacks have still injured and killed more than a hundred innocent civilians across the country in the last three days alone, including at least five children.

The United States will never look away from what is happening in Ukraine and Russia’s brutal attacks on civilian infrastructure. Just yesterday, we announced another $300 million in security assistance for Ukraine – marking $35.8 billion to Ukraine since February 24th, 2022. We will continue to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression, and we recognize Ukraine’s incredibly courageous military forces and its citizens for their bravery and resilience.

Secondly, just an update on Sudan. On Sudan, we have successfully completed the U.S. Government-led operation involving three overland convoys to Port Sudan, including securing onward travel for participants in the convoy from Port Sudan. I can inform you the State Department, through a coordinated effort with the Department of Defense and allies and partners, successfully facilitated the departure from Sudan of over 2,000 individuals since the violence started, the majority of whom are U.S citizens, as well as U.S. lawful permanent residents, locally employed staff, immediate family members, and, of course, nationals from allied and partner countries.

We recognize the dedication and bravery of U.S. personnel, locally employed staff, and partner countries operating under difficult conditions and we will continue to provide information for U.S. citizens in Sudan, including departure options as available, as they come online. And we reiterate our warning to U.S. citizens to not travel to Sudan.

With that, Matt, go ahead.

QUESTION: Before going on, just on the Sudan thing, when you say you successfully completed the three convoys, that means that everyone who was in those convoys has now left Port Sudan and are in either Jeddah or someplace else?

MR PATEL: They have reached or are in transit, correct.

QUESTION: Okay. And there are no plans at the moment for anything – anymore, right?

MR PATEL: Yeah, I don’t have any additional convoy operations to announce. Of course, that will – we’ll continue to assess security situations, but our commitment to American citizens who remain endures. And American citizens who wish to leave, we continue to reiterate them to make the U.S. Government aware of their presence through the crisis intake form, and we’ll continue to provide appropriate guidance.

QUESTION:  Two quick things. The head of the rapid response force, Hemedti, was accusing Egypt of bombing his forces by using American-supplied airplanes and so on. Do you have any comment on that? Do you have —

MR PATEL: I don’t, Said. I’m not aware of these reports. What I will say, though, is that we continue to engage directly with General Burhan and General Hemedti through our channels about ensuring that a ceasefire is adhered to and extended and steps are taken to get us to a cessation of hostilities that allows for the free flow of humanitarian aid and humanitarian access.

QUESTION: Also, the White House said that they will impose some sanctions on both – I guess both sides. How would that work out? 

MR PATEL:  I’m not going to preview sanctions or any designations that we take. And let me use this opportunity to clarify the news around the executive order that was announced today. The President issued this new executive order to respond to the violence that began on April 15th. This EO authorizes targeted sanctions that promote accountability for individuals responsible for threatening the peace.

What I will note, Said, is that this action creates the authority to do so. It is not an announcement of any such designation. And we, of course, would not preview possible or pending sanction actions, but I assure you that we will use the new authority as appropriate to promote accountability for those engaged in such malign and violent conduct.

QUESTION: Follow-up on this, Vedant?

MR PATEL: Sure, please.

QUESTION: Just on that, it authorizes to target certain individuals. But State or the U.S. has been reluctant to sanction the generals on both sides. So is this a signal? At minimum, it’s a signal that it’s a shift in policy.

MR PATEL: I would disagree with your characterization, Leon. What this executive order does, in fact, is creates the authority to allow us to take action. And we have continued to look at this conflict from all angles and have taken appropriate steps as it relates to it. There is a lot of pieces to this. There is the safety and security of American citizens and our personnel aspect to this. You have seen us take immediate action as it relates to that. We also continue to insist, negotiate, be directly involved in aspects of ensuring that there is a ceasefire that can lead to a cessation of hostilities that we believe is necessary to get us back to what we believe is the will of the Sudanese people.

So I’m certainly not going to preview actions from here, Leon, and there has not been reluctance to do anything. We take this one step at a time, and we look at it from all angles, and we do so in close coordination with our allies and partners.

QUESTION: And on the creation of the mechanism to observe the ceasefire and the political process in Sudan, any updates too?

MR PATEL: So we continue to remain in close contact with Sudan’s military and civilian leaders to see if we can help them identify a path to this cessation of hostilities. That includes humanitarian arrangements, and we are engaged at the highest levels regularly, but I don’t have a specific update for you today.

Shannon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Do you have any updates on the U.S. assessment on who is – who was behind the drone – apparent drone attack at the Kremlin yesterday or plans to provide such an assessment in the near future?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any different assessment or update to offer from yesterday, Shannon. What I would say is that we’re still unable to confirm the authenticity of these reports, and so I don’t want to speculate what happened. But I spoke a little bit about this in my topper – I want to reiterate again that Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia started this war and could end this war at any point if it pulled its troops out of Ukraine, and we’ve been clear that we will continue to support Ukraine as it defends itself from Russian aggression.

Jackson, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. How would a default affect the U.S. ability to continue providing arms to Ukraine?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate on that, Jackson. That’s a topic that’s being discussed through Congress and other entities, and I’m not going to get into that here.

QUESTION: And Biden is expected to veto Congress’s effort to end the solar tariff moratorium. What steps is the administration taking to ensure Chinese products routed through Southeast Asia are not made with forced labor?

MR PATEL: Well, the – addressing the concern of forced labor, specifically in the Xinjiang region, continues to be of great importance to this administration. You’ve seen the Secretary speak to that. But beyond that, I’m not – I will let the White House speak to any potential action coming from the President.

You had your hand up. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Just getting back to the whatever exploded at the Kremlin this week.


QUESTION: Has the Russian Government, which has now accused the U.S. Government in public of orchestrating this, providing targeting information or some type of intelligence – has the Russian Government reached out to the State Department beyond these public accusations, and has there been a conversation about that at all with State?

MR PATEL: I certainly wouldn’t get into the specifics of any diplomatic engagements that we’ve had, including with a country like the Russian Federation. But to the crux of your question, the United States was not involved nor had a role in this at all. But again, I don’t want to speculate or offer that as confirmation of the authenticity to this. I’ll reiterate what the Secretary said yesterday, that any kind of messaging or comments from the Russian Federation should be taken with – I believe his words were a large shaker of salt.

Dylan, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: Yeah. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said in an interview —some comments that were published today – that in his view, the Chinese Government specifically is, quote, “not contributing” to the problem of fentanyl flowing into the United States. He deferred responsibility to the black-market actors and other actors like that, not the government specifically. Is that the administration’s view, that the Chinese Government’s not contributing directly to that problem?

MR PATEL: What – I’m not going to parse the ambassador’s words, Dylan, but what I will say is that we, including the Secretary, have been very clear that there is a concern of fentanyl precursors originating from the PRC and worsening the fentanyl crisis, not just in the United States but also in the Western Hemisphere. And this challenge of addressing fentanyl precursors and issues under the umbrella of global and public health broadly continue to be an area where we believe that there is opportunity for collaboration with the PRC, and it is an aspect of our relationship that the international community expects that we handle responsibly.

QUESTION: So that’s something you expect the government, the Chinese Government specifically, to play a bigger role in trying to – trying to solve?

MR PATEL: It is one of the many issues that we think that we have the potential to work collaboratively on with the PRC. Other issues you’ve seen us talk about in this space include addressing the climate crisis as well.

Michel, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, the U.S. talks with Syria. Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. made it clear to the Syrian regime that the release of Austin Tice will help Syria normalize its relations with the Arab world and the international community. Is that accurate?

MR PATEL: You heard me say this – you heard me address both of these issues pretty clearly yesterday, Michel, and so will reiterate them both.

First, the U.S. does not support normalization with the Syrian regime, nor do we support other countries, including our partners and allies, partaking in normalization either.

Separately, on Austin Tice, we continue to engage on this around the clock and do everything we can to bring Austin home and to ensure that he gets home safely. That is a line of effort we’re continuing to pursue. You saw the President and the Secretary speak about this passionately over the weekend.

QUESTION: But does the release of Austin Tice help the Syrian regime to normalize its relations with international community?

MR PATEL: Michel, we are talking about a very horrific, wrongful detention of an American citizen who has been locked up now for more than 10 years. This is not about our policy as it relates to Damascus or the Syrian regime. This is about doing whatever we can to ensure that we can get Austin home.

Aside from that though, I would reiterate what I have said, that there – we continue to not support normalization with Syria, nor do we support the normalization of Syria from our allied – allies and partners. And that will continue to be the case as we continue to pursue these lines of effort to bring Austin Tice home.

 Elizabeth, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: Yeah, I wanted to follow up on Raisi’s meeting with Assad. Iran has said it will cooperate with Syria on reconstruction, and it seems they’ve signed some agreements to that effect. How concerned is the U.S. by this furthering of economic relations between the two countries, and will there be an effort to further crack down on any Iran-Syria business?

MR PATEL: Let me take the second part of your question first. We have not ever gotten into a habit of previewing actions or the levers that this government can pull from here, but we continue to have the tools at our disposal to hold both the Iranian regime and the Syrian regime accountable. That being said, of course the deepening of relationships between these two entities would be incredibly concerning and troublesome to the United States. These are two regimes that have a track record of egregious abuses of human rights, that have track records of malign influence in the region, that have track records of taking destabilizing action in the region through the arming of terrorist groups and otherwise. And so the deepening of these relations is not just something that the United States has great concern about, but it’s something that our allies and partners have great concern about, too. And we’ll continue to coordinate closely with them on this.

QUESTION: Thanks. On the Ukraine aid package, the Ukrainian Government has made no secret of the fact they’d like to be provided with cluster munitions or so-called dual-purpose conventional munitions. Is that something that you’re ruling out providing in future packages, or is that still something that’s under consideration?

MR PATEL: What I am just going to say is that at every iteration of this conflict, as the conflict has shifted and taken its various formulations since this began in February of 2022, we have adjusted and made changes to our security assistance as appropriate, as determined by our assessments of their needs on the battlefield. Obviously, our colleagues at the Pentagon can speak more specifically to that. Secretary Austin is running an amazing and intensive process through the Ramstein group to ensure that our Ukrainian partners have the systems that they need. And so we will continue to do that, but I’m not going to preview or get ahead of anything here.

Jackson, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Is the administration in contact with the Kremlin about the alleged drone attack yesterday, and what, if any, steps —

MR PATEL: I think your colleague behind you asked that question already.

QUESTION: But I’m talking about if you’re specifically —

MR PATEL: That’s —

QUESTION: — if you’re specifically in contact with the Kremlin.

MR PATEL: That’s the exact question he asked.

QUESTION: Okay. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has warned that China’s updated counter-espionage law, quote, “dramatically increases the uncertainties and risks of doing business,” end quote, in the country. Does the administration share these concerns about the law? Does it have advice for U.S. businesses operating in China?

MR PATEL: We wouldn’t get into offering specific business advice for the private sector from up here. But what I can say is that we are closely monitoring the passage of the PRC’s new counter-espionage law, which, as written, will greatly expand the scope of what is considered as espionage activities. That’s of course incredibly concerning to us, and we continue to press the PRC to allow foreign individuals – whether they be journalists, NGOs, individuals who work in civil society, scholars, researchers, and including those who work in private businesses – to operate in a safe and open working environment free of harassment and free of intimidation. The U.S. will continue to speak out for the human rights and the rule of law and promote accountability for the PRC’s government response activities.

Alright. Thanks, everybody. Seems like no other questions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:00 p.m.)