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Department Press Briefing – January 25, 2024 – United States Department of State

1:03 p.m. EST

MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. I have a bit of a backstop today, so I will be mindful of the time. But I have nothing off the top, so Matt, would you like to kick us off?

QUESTION: Oh, no – my gosh, I don’t really have anything that I think that you can – that you’ll have an answer, satisfactory or otherwise, to. So I’ll defer.

MR PATEL: Are you – are you sure?

QUESTION: Well, all right, all right, you want me to try? Okay. What do you have to say about – there are some indications that this Russian plane was actually brought down by a Ukrainian missile or rocket of some sort?

MR PATEL: So I have only seen the press reports about this, and I really have no updates beyond when we spoke about this yesterday. We’re continuing to work closely with our counterparts in the Ukrainian Government to discern facts. Our understanding is that President Zelenskyy has called for an international investigation into the crash and into the status of the Ukrainian prisoners of war. The challenge, Matt – and you alluded to this a little bit yesterday – is that with this transpiring in Russia, it makes it incredibly difficult to verify what exactly happened. As you know, Russia doesn’t allow free press or independent reporting, and therefore its claims on this are difficult to confirm.

So at this point we’re just continuing to stay in close touch with the Ukrainian Government to establish facts and ascertain what exactly happened.

QUESTION: Okay, so my original premise was correct.

MR PATEL: That wasn’t satisfactory for you?

QUESTION: You didn’t – (laughter) – you didn’t have —

MR PATEL: It felt very satisfactory. I’ve given you —

QUESTION: You didn’t have an answer. Okay.

MR PATEL: I’ve answered the question honestly.

QUESTION: All right. I’ll let it go to others now.

MR PATEL: Simon.

QUESTION: Since we’re expecting something from the International Court of Justice tomorrow, this is your last briefing, I presume, before then. I wonder, could you tell us whether – the U.S. has obviously said that the South African case against Israel is meritless, but you also said in your statements related to the case that the ICJ is an important judicial organ, plays a vital role in peaceful settlement of disputes. So ahead of this ruling, is there anything you would say regarding – if provisional measures are sort of advised by the court, should parties abide by them?

MR PATEL: I would not opine on anything like that given this is a legal process, and I’m not going to hypothesize or speculate on any kind of outcome. What I will just say again – and we spoke to this when the arguments are ongoing – is that the allegations that Israel is committing genocide we believe to be unfounded, but simultaneously, we will continue to make clear with our partners in Israel that they not only need to comply with international humanitarian law as it conducts this operation against Hamas, but they also have a moral and strategic imperative to take feasible steps, additional steps to prevent civilian harm, and that they also have a responsibility to investigate credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law when they arise.

But I’m not going to get ahead of the process on this.

QUESTION: Does following that, does following international humanitarian law extend to following international law when the one – well, one of the world’s courts that can enforce international law rules on something? Should countries be expected to follow that?

MR PATEL: I am just the – I have no way to ascertain or guess what the ruling might be, so I’m just going to refrain from commenting.

QUESTION: But no, no, like —

QUESTION: But that suggests that you’re waiting to see what the decision will be and then you then will decide whether you agree with the verdict or not, and if you don’t agree with it, then you’ll say no, it’s – but yeah. And in many other cases – particularly one that comes to mind is China and the Philippines in the South China Sea – you have called for the Chinese to respect those decisions. Are you saying now that you’re withholding judgment on whether countries should obey —

MR PATEL: Not at all. Not at all. Over the course of this —

QUESTION: — a verdict of the ICJ?

MR PATEL: Over the course of this, we have been pretty clear that it’s our expectations that all parties, including the Government of Israel, comply with international humanitarian law. I will note, though, that throughout all of this, Hamas certainly has not been. But what I am saying is I’m not going to opine on any forthcoming ruling on this, and I will reiterate again that at the crux of this when these arguments started the week before last, that was rooted in this notion that – these allegations that Israel is committing genocide, and I will say again that we find those allegations to be unfounded.

QUESTION: But I mean, in general, when a court is ruling on something, you can argue that you don’t agree with South Africa’s argument, but it sort of undermines the legitimacy of the whole system if the U.S. is not – is not saying ahead of time whether this ruling is meaningful or whether you would expect countries to follow it. And just to note, Hamas has said that they would follow – if the ICJ demanded a ceasefire, they would follow it, but I haven’t seen that statement from the Israelis.

MR PATEL: Hamas has also said that they would release hostages and they have not done so in that regard as well, Simon, so I sort of take issue with your question reflecting Hamas as some kind of fair or credible interlocutor or actor in this. Again, I will just say – and you’ve heard me say this before – our expectation is that Israel needs to and must comply with international humanitarian law, but I’m not going to get ahead of tomorrow’s or any expected ruling on this.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Thank you. Now, but of course, Hamas did release some hostages back in the last week of November, correct? They did release hostages?

MR PATEL: There has —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR PATEL: There have been releases of hostages previously, but there – they have not followed through on their broader commitment or claims that they would release hostages. There continue to be quite a number of individuals being held hostage, including Americans —

QUESTION: Right.

MR PATEL: — including Americans who continue to be unaccounted for, Said.

QUESTION: Right. And responding to Simon, you said that we know that Hamas committed all these atrocities and so on and crimes, which qualify as crime by the court, possibly. I don’t know; I’m not a legal expert. But let me ask you this. I mean, Hamas does not get $4 billion a year. There’s not a state – does not get endless political cover and protection and so on from the United States of America. So are you saying that Hamas – Israel should behave exactly like Hamas? Is that what you’re saying?

MR PATEL: That’s not at all what I’m saying. That is not what I said, Said.

QUESTION: That’s how it came across.

MR PATEL: And if I in earlier – I don’t think that’s how it came across. And earlier this week I was pretty clear that there is also no moral equivalency between the terrorist group Hamas and the Government of Israel, and that since October 7th we have not hesitated, we’ve not been – we’ve not been ambiguous. We have been very front and center about the fact that we expect Israel to comply with international humanitarian law. We believe that additional steps need to be taken to protect civilians and that that is a moral and strategic imperative as Israel continues to conduct this operation.

QUESTION: Well, it’s the 111th day of this war. There’s an untold amount of evidence that proves whatever case you want to prove, and so on. You believe that all along, all throughout these raids, these attacks by whatever weapons, Israel has abided by the laws of war that you subscribe to?

MR PATEL: I’m not a legal scholar either, Said, so I’m not going to opine on something like that from up here.

QUESTION: Right.

MR PATEL: On the – your comment about the duration of this, there is certainly a convergence between a lot of countries, including Israel, of wanting to see this conflict end as soon as possible. Hamas could lay down its arms. Hamas could stop co-locating itself with civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals and apartment buildings. That certainly could help bring a swifter conclusion to this conflict. But again, there is no moral equivalency, of course, between the terrorist group Hamas and the Government of Israel. And we will continue privately, publicly, diplomatically in every conversation that we have with the Israeli Government about the moral strategic imperative that they have to take additional steps to minimize civilian casualties as it continues to conduct this operation.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have a couple more questions. But conversely, Israel could also pull out its forces and stop bombing civilian areas, and that would end the war, wouldn’t it?

MR PATEL: We have been direct with them, with the Government of Israel, on their need to comply with international humanitarian law and on their need to take additional steps to minimize civilian casualties.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about the Palestinian American Tawfic Abdel Jabbar. There was a report in AP – lengthy – that shows that it was unprovoked, an unprovoked attack. He was riding a truck in a – in the finest of Louisiana tradition, he was driving a pickup truck, and then was shot. So do you have any comment on this report that is really quite detailed to what happened?

MR PATEL: I spoke a little bit about this yesterday, Said. Our understanding —

QUESTION: Because this report was just – this is something that just came out.

MR PATEL: I understand. It’s been communicated to us that the Israeli National Police will be undertaking an investigation into the circumstances around Mr. Jabbar’s death. As I said yesterday, our hope and expectation is that that investigation is conducted expeditiously, it’s conducted in a thorough way, and we are eager to hear the findings of that investigation. Till that time, I’m just not going to comment or opine on the circumstances around his incredibly tragic death. Meanwhile, we will continue to offer all appropriate consular services to his family through our embassy in Jerusalem, through the Office of Palestinian Affairs.

QUESTION: And lastly, I wanted to ask you about the hospital in Khan Younis. The Guardian is reporting that there are thousands trapped in the Gaza hospital in Khan Younis. I wonder if you have any update on that and if you can – if you’ll tell us what’s going on. What is the United States Government is doing to alleviate whatever is – this humungous suffering?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates, Said. But I would echo and reiterate the call that you have heard many in this administration make: that all parties to this conflict need to respect the protected status of facilities like hospitals, so as to better avoid impacting harm upon civilians who may be receiving treatment or humanitarian workers and health workers who may be providing care in these kinds on facilities.

Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah. I have —

QUESTION: I was going to follow on some of that.

QUESTION: Different topic.

MR PATEL: Slightly – okay. We’ll go to – go ahead. And I’ll pivot back.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow on some of Said’s line of questioning.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Because, I mean, just big picture, humanitarian aid is still at a trickle. You, yourself, have called that insufficient since at least October. Civilian causalities continue unabated. The destruction of civilian infrastructure continues unabated. So is it time for this administration to admit that the rhetoric – however direct, and candid, and oft-repeated as it is – isn’t having a material effect on Israeli behavior when it comes to this conflict? Is it time to reach for tools other than rhetoric declaring a moral and strategic imperative, that the Israelis are clearly not abiding by?

MR PATEL: I would wholeheartedly disagree with that assessment. On January 24th, 210 trucks with food, medicine, and other supplies entered the Gaza Strip.

QUESTION: Would you call —

MR PATEL: As of January 24th, more than 9,000 trucks with humanitarian aid have entered Gaza since October 21st. That is excluding fuel deliveries. That is certainly not sufficient; it is not enough. The people of Gaza need more, but I feel very confident in saying that were it not for direct engagement from this Secretary of State, from this government, from this President, from this making the delivery of humanitarian aid a priority, that that number would have been far less. And so there is a real, direct, tangible impact and real-life consequence to the work that we are doing, to the engagements that we are having in the region with the Government of Israel and others to push these priorities forward.

QUESTION: But there’s not been a meaningful increase in the number of trucks or in the flow of aid that’s been getting in since October.

MR PATEL: This is a process that we will continue to work towards.

QUESTION: For how long?

MR PATEL: It – we – as long as this conflict is happening, the delivery of humanitarian aid and doing so at a greater rate, at a higher clip, and increasing how much is going into Gaza will continue to be a priority.

QUESTION: What about on the other issues, on the civilian infrastructure, the civilian causalities? Does it not feel to the U.S. like it is pushing on a closed door when it comes to rhetoric that it’s employed?

MR PATEL: We have been direct in our conversations with the Government of Israel. When we have seen instances of actions that we believe are contradictory to the principles that we believe the region should be abiding by or are contradictory to the very clear principles the Secretary laid out in Tokyo in the fall – specifically when we see things like efforts around a buffer zone, or when we see efforts around the destruction of civilian infrastructure – we have raised those things publicly from up here. But we also have raised those privately in the around-the-clock, active conversations that we continue to have with our Israeli interlocutors, and we’ll continue to do so.

QUESTION: Let me ask it this way: Is the U.S. considering anything other than conversation as a tool to effect change in Israeli – in Israeli’s behavior in this conflict?

MR PATEL: I have no new policy or a new assessment to offer. But we’ll continue to have our conversations with the Israeli Government, and we’ll continue to work at this.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I ask on the hostages?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: There are reports now that a similar group that has met in the past is reconvening to discuss a potential new framework for a hostage release. Is there anything you can offer on that front?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates to offer on that line of work, Olivia. It continues to be a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work at it, in close coordination across the interagency, as well as with our partners in Israel. But I have no updates to offer on that.

Michel.

QUESTION: Okay. Does the U.S. believe that —

MR PATEL: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: — Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments with regard to the Qataris’ involvement in hostage negotiations set those efforts back?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any assessment to offer on those comments or some of the audio that’s been circulating. What I can just say – and I spoke a little bit about this yesterday – is that Qatar has been an integral, irreplaceable, key regional partner, not just as it relates to this current ongoing conflict, but other priorities that the United States has had in the region, and we’ll look forward to continuing to deepen our partnership with them and work with them on a number of key issues.

QUESTION: I have one on Iran, but glad to —

MR PATEL: Okay. Yeah. We’ll – I’ll come back to you. Anything else on this before – yours is slightly off topic, right, Michel?

QUESTION: Yeah. I want to ask about Iraq —

MR PATEL: Okay. I’ll come back to you. Ryan, you’ve had your hand up. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. I want to go back to the ICJ question. Setting aside opining on how the preliminary verdict might come out, would the U.S. at least commit to not vetoing enforcement of whatever the court rules, one way or the other?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to commit to any action from up here. That’s not how the policy works.

QUESTION: To pick up on Matt’s question from earlier, doesn’t that undermine the U.S. insistence that other countries ought to follow these court rulings? What does it leave of the kind of rules-based order if countries can pick and choose decisions?

MR PATEL: That’s certainly not what I was indicating. Again, I think we need to take a step back here, because a decision has not come down, and no one here knows – unless you can tell the future – what exactly that will be. I’m not going to commit any U.S. Government action from up here within the auspices of any body. What I can say is that we believe that the allegations that started this process, that Israel is committing genocide – we believe those to be unfounded. Simultaneously, though, we’ll continue to raise with our Israeli partners the moral and strategic imperative that they need to take additional steps to minimize deaths on civilians. But I’m not going to get into this process beyond that.

QUESTION: Last one. At the same time, there were images this week of Israeli protesters blocking aid coming into Gaza. To get that far into a military zone, there seemed to – there must be some kind of coordination with the military there. Did the U.S. raise with its Israeli partners this question of Israeli civilians protesting and blocking aid getting into Gaza?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of the specifics of those images, but what I will just say broadly, both as it relates to Rafah or Kerem Shalom, these are not crossings that the United States – they’re not our crossings. But we continue to be in close coordination with the Government of Israel, with the Government of Egypt, and other interlocutors on the appropriate entry of humanitarian aid as well as the safe departure of nationals who have a desire to leave Gaza. I have no doubt that had anything sort of propped up that made that delivery more laborious or more time-intensive, that we are having those conversations directly. But I just don’t have the specifics around that specific situation.

Go ahead, in the back. Yeah. Is it – sorry – is on this topic, or something else?

QUESTION: Different topic.

QUESTION: On Israel.

MR PATEL: Okay. Go ahead, Doc.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks, Vedant. According to a January 19th Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, 15 Jewish House Democrats have sent a letter to President Biden condemning Prime Minister Netanyahu for opposing a Palestinian Arab state. And my question to you is: Does such a letter harm or help Secretary Blinken’s diplomacy work in the Middle East? And why or why not? And then a follow-up.

MR PATEL: Congress is an important partner as it relates to a number of our foreign policy objectives, including happening in the Middle East region. As it relates to a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state, that is something this administration, this Secretary, this President have been quite vocal in their support about. We view it as the only solution that gets us out of this endless cycle of violence and puts us on a real, credible path to a more sustained peace and stability in the region.

QUESTION: In light of Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement in an Israeli Government press office news release January 21st of this year opposing a Palestinian state, has Secretary Blinken opened a meeting with and addressing evangelical Christian and orthodox Jewish leaders’ religious concerns about a Palestinian state?

MR PATEL: We meet with a number of interlocutors as it relates to any foreign policy issue, including members in the religious space, members of civil society. I don’t have any specific meetings to commit to or preview at this time, but non-government actors continue to be a key part of this continued and ongoing conversation.

Anything else on – I know there are people who have other topics. But anything else as it relates to Israel and Gaza before I move away?

QUESTION: Just one more comment about – there’s a Jewish scripture to all evangelical Christians and the Jewish leaders. It’s Joel 3:2. Were you familiar with that? And this has serious concerns for these Jewish and evangelical Christians, this religious scripture that really has a impact on what’s going on.

MR PATEL: I’m sure it – was – is there a question there, or are you just commenting?

QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted to know if you’d heard of that, that Jewish reference, Joel 3:2, and —

MR PATEL: I am not familiar with that specific one. But again, non-government actors, including those in civil society and the religious space, continue to be key parts of our ongoing conversation.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Shannon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: On Qatar’s role –

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: — in hostage negotiations. There’s – Secretary Blinken has said straight out that there can’t be business as normal with Hamas after this crisis is resolved. There’s been reports that Qatar might move away from having these ties to Hamas. But we’ve been, of course, in the middle of negotiations; there hasn’t been progress in – really in freeing hostages in about two months now. Is there a timeline for when those ties might be re-evaluated, or when the U.S. might call for Qatar to turn away from Hamas?

MR PATEL: These are decisions for our Qatari partners to make. The Secretary was clear, and we continue to echo that, that it can no longer be business as usual with Hamas. And when we look at what our hopes and desires are for the region, it cannot be a return to status quo, which means Hamas can no longer be using Gaza as a launching pad for terrorist attacks onto Israel.

As it relates to the specific relationships, countries will need to make their own determinations. But again, Qatar has played an immense role in the continued efforts to release hostages. Beyond that, they continue to be a key regional partner on a number of key areas, and we’ll look forward to working closely with them as it relates to our – some of our shared objectives in the region, and as it relates to this specific conflict.

Go ahead. Yeah, you.

QUESTION: According to the report by Wall Street Journal, the U.S. warned about the recent attack in Iran and shared information with Iranian Government. Does this imply intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and IRGC?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any comment or any public assessment to offer on that time. Again, we – based on all the information that was available, we do believe that that terrorist attack in Kerman was a terrorist attack. It had all the hallmarks of a ISIS attack, and we reiterate our sympathy for the victims and their loved ones.

QUESTION: Second question. The Taliban regime continue to take foreign national as a hostages, and use them as a diplomatic pawn to lobby for their recognition. This includes from a U.S. hostages as well. What’s the U.S. – United States is doing to release hostages taken by the Taliban and deter Taliban from this action?

MR PATEL: We have no greater priority than the safety and security of American citizens, especially those who are wrongfully detained and held hostage. And so that work continues to be ongoing through our special envoy for hostage affairs, as well as other work throughout the interagency.

But I want to take this opportunity to remind people tuning in that, again, our Travel Advisory for Afghanistan continues to be at a Level 4, which is Do Not Travel. Those travel advisories are important, they are serious, and Americans should review them before they travel to any particular destination around the planet.

Michel.

QUESTION: I was just going to follow on the Iran question.

MR PATEL: Sure. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Okay, Michel? I’m sorry, because I’ve interrupted you twice now.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, no, no. No problem.

MR PATEL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: You’re – so you’re not confirming that that warning was in fact issued, right?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any comment or public assessment to offer on some of the reporting that’s been out there. I just again, though, want to use the opportunity to reiterate the U.S. Government’s sympathy to the victims and their loved ones and that this attack, as I said, has all the hallmarks of an ISIS attack.

QUESTION: Okay. Bit of an impasse – I mean, our understanding is this was triggered by a sort of duty-to-warn policy. I was just curious whether there was any indication that there was also an effort to foster a diplomatic opening in a time with – of heightened tension with Iran.

MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to offer – to offer any other public assessment or comment (inaudible). If – yesterday, though, I spoke quite eloquently, I think, about our continued adversarial relationship with Iran and the number of issues that we continue to have as it relates to some of their undertakings both on its own people but also some of their malign and destabilizing activities in the region. So I would not interpret any kind of change in policy based on anything out there.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Michel.

QUESTION: Respect for Michel.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that?

MR PATEL: I’m going to go Michel because we – I promise I’ll get to you —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL: Okay. Do you want – is it okay, Michel, if I go to Guita?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL: Okay.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. (Laughter.)

MR PATEL: Everyone, Michel is incredibly polite. That is how you all should act in – when you’re jumping all over one another.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR PATEL: Guita, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: So we understand that the message to Iran was sent privately, quote/unquote “privately.” Is —

MR PATEL: I have – I have no – I have nothing to offer on this, Guita.

QUESTION: Was it sent directly or via third party?

MR PATEL: I have no public comment or assessments to share. I, again, will just reiterate our sympathies for the victims of this terrorist attack and that, as always, we condemn these kinds of terrorist attacks that have direct impact on civilians and other unintended consequences.

Michel.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL: No. (Laughter.) Please go ahead.

QUESTION: On U.S. military presence in Iraq.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: A senior U.S. official said today that, “Seven years after our collective territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, we see a need to transition to a normal bilateral security cooperation relationship,” unquote. How do you describe a normal security cooperation relationship? What are the qualification of such a relationship? Does it include U.S. military presence in Iraq?

MR PATEL: Certainly, Michel. So to take a step back in case folks are not tracking what your question is about, the United States and the Government of Iraq will start working group-level meetings of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission in the coming days. This initiates a process the two sides committed to during the U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue that we hosted here in Washington in August. And the commencement of this HMC process reflects the deep U.S. commitment to regional stability and Iraqi sovereignty. Michel, some of the specific questions you asked are very good ones, and they are exactly why an agency process is necessary. We’re in – I’m going to let that process play out as we continue to have these conversations with our Iraqi partners, but they continue to be rooted in a number of areas, including our ability to continue our work to counter ISIS, the capabilities of Iraqi security forces, what kind of posture and things like that are needed. And, of course, my colleagues at the Pentagon would be happy to talk about some of this in greater detail.

QUESTION: And on Syria, is there any internal discussion regarding the future of the U.S. presence there? And is there a plan for a U.S. military withdrawal from there?

MR PATEL: The continued degradation of ISIS will continue to be a key priority for this administration. And, of course, the SDF continue to be a key partner in that line of effort. I have no new policy updates to announce. This will continue to be a commitment of ours.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Goyal, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Two quick questions. One is on U.S.-India relations as always. Tomorrow, India will be celebrating the Republic Day of India, 73rd. And many of the parts have been taken from the U.S. Constitution into the Indian constitution – all those freedom, every – all – almost every freedom in India – Indian constitution guarantees for every Indian citizen there. So any message from the Secretary and also where do we stand today as the – India celebrates the constitution, freedom?

MR PATEL: Well, thanks for your – thanks for your question, Goyal. First, to take a step back, I would just note that – would wish a happy Indian Republic Day to anybody tuning in. Look, I spoke a little bit about this yesterday: India is a country – it is a key strategic partner of the United States and one that we look forward to closening our collaboration in a number of key areas on. And this is – was quite indicative in – during Prime Minister Modi’s state visit here to the United States this past summer. So this is an area we’ll continue to work on in close coordination with our Indian partners.

QUESTION: And second, sir, if I may go, in recent days there was a tension between Pakistan and Iran. This was like the first time ever something like this – military or missile exchanges between the two countries. Where the U.S. stands, sir, what is the future of these two countries? Both are Islamic or same principles and both have bloats in their countries.

MR PATEL: So Matt spoke a little bit about this a couple of weeks ago. We will let Pakistan speak to its own military operations. Broadly, though, we of course are concerned about escalating tensions in the region, particularly as Iran continues its destabilizing and provocative actions. And we’ll continue to remain in close touch with Pakistani counterparts, and we’ll continue to monitor the region closely.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR PATEL: Alex, had your hand up patiently.

QUESTION: Couple of questions on Ukraine.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: Can you speak to how much the delay on the Hill has been impacting so far the humanitarian assistance that you guys have been trying to deliver? Given the fact that USAID is not working alone, it’s working with local partners, are you working with them, reaching out to them, asking them not to cut off? And what does it look like on your end?

MR PATEL: Alex, the Secretary was very clear about this. There is no magic pot of money, and our expectation and our hope is that Congress is able to move as swiftly and expeditiously as possible so we can continue fulfilling our commitment to support our Ukrainian partners throughout this. That of course means in the security space, it means economically, it means in the humanitarian area as well, and while I don’t have any specific metrics to offer you, there are – there will be real, legitimate, tangible impacts if we’re not able to get this done. And ultimately the Ukrainian people and their efforts to fight against Russian aggression will be what suffers.

QUESTION: I mean, the point I’m trying to make is that even if the funding will be back one day, infrastructure resources might not be if they cut off their operations. So are you working with them? How are you conveying that message – the humanitarian angle?

MR PATEL: There, of course, are potential risk of downstream impacts, especially when it comes to NGO and humanitarian and implementing partners. Our colleagues at USAID may be happy to walk through some of those specific mechanics, but Alex, rest assured we are taking this very seriously and working with Congress around the clock to try to get this across the finish line.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. And back to Matt’s question on the plane crash, I’m so sorry for beating a dead horse.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: But what do you know so far beyond —

MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to get into right now, Alex, beyond what we’ve seen in the public reporting, and I’m not at a – in a place to speak to anything else at this point.

QUESTION: I was hoping you could also speak to the Russian line of narrative which blames the U.S., Western weapons, the seizing the momentum, this tragedy. What is your response?

MR PATEL: Well, the – can certainly say that the United States was not involved in this in any way, but as I said in speaking to Matt, the problem here is that this crash occurred in Russia, and that makes it difficult to independently verify some of these things. So we’re going to continue to work in close coordination with our Ukrainian partners as they work to ascertain the facts.

QUESTION: Which also reminds me of Kakhovka Dam destruction. You have never punished Russia for that, for their action. Why?

MR PATEL: Alex, I think that over the totality of this – of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, we have taken a number of steps to continue to hold the Russian Federation accountable for its aggressive and unjust behavior.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, last question on this line, if I —

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Any response to Lavrov? He used the podium in the U.S. this week to blame the West for so-called staging – for staging Bucha. How did you process that?

MR PATEL: The notion that the West would stage things like Russian shelling on – the West would stage the sheer amount of civilian destruction that the Russian Federation has unleashed on Ukraine is just preposterous.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Like to turn your attention to Nigeria, if I could, please. Multiple religious freedom advocates are demanding Nigeria be designated a Country of Particular Concern by the State Department. Right now it’s not on that list. They cite thousands of Christians killed over the years, including 200 this past Christmas. Simple question: Why is Nigeria not a Country of Particular Concern according to the State Department?

MR PATEL: I don’t have specifics on the report to get into in front of me right now, but again, I spoke to this a little bit yesterday. As it works in our assessment, our belief was that it had not exceeded a certain threshold, but I’m happy to check with the team if we’ve got additional metrics that we can offer you in how that conclusion was made.

QUESTION: Does the State – if I may follow up, just one question, does the State Department believe Christians are being persecuted in Nigeria?

MR PATEL: We are paying attention and assessing the religious freedom circumstances in countries around the world, including, of course, Nigeria, and that work will continue.

Jalil.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Vedant. (Inaudible) question. Since last few months, I have heard you and Matt say several times that you want to see free – and you urge Pakistan to have free elections and fair elections, but I have not heard you condemn a single thing. I mean, the election is less than two weeks away. Even today, one of the most well respected politician, Javed Hashmi, was arrested. I mean, forget about Imran Khan and all his people – like he is completely put to the wall. There is one guy who is even called ladla now, like a spoiled son. He’s become so popular that – and I personally for the last 25 years have published hundreds of corruption stories. Not once you guys have condemned the sort of elections that are taking place in Pakistan. You just keep on urging them to have a fair election. But you don’t see what’s going on over there?

MR PATEL: Jalil, let me say a couple things. First, Pakistan’s future leadership is for the Pakistani people to decide. Our interest continues to be in the democratic process. We also have not been ambiguous about how we feel very strongly that a free and independent media are vital institutions that undergird healthy democracies by ensuring that an electorate can make informed decisions and hold the government to account. We believe journalists play a critical role in covering fair and transparent elections.

We also continue to be concerned by any report that may be out there of restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association and the press. That would be – those kinds of things, we believe, are at odds with Pakistani authorities’ self-stated goal of a fully fair and transparent election.

QUESTION: Tomorrow the Iranian foreign minister is coming to Pakistan. He does not visit many countries where they’re an ally of the U.S., very strong. Pakistan being an ally, what’s the kind of message you would like Pakistan to give to Iran in this current scenario in the Middle East and all these things happening? Any message you would like to see Pakistan give them?

MR PATEL: That is, of course, for Pakistani authorities and their foreign affairs officials to determine. But should any country around the world be interested in continuing to call on Iran to cease its malign and destabilizing activities, its activities that particularly in the Red Sea are making international waterways and legitimate commerce unsafe, we’d welcome any country continuing to press Iran to curb its support for those kinds of actions.

QUESTION: Just a last one, just a last one. Last one, last one, please. Today, Pakistani foreign secretary announced the third incidence of the same kind. Pakistan foreign secretary has accused India of transnational killings after Canada and the U.S. Does the State Department think it’s – I don’t think it’s the Indian Government policies. Is this something to do with Prime Minister Modi directly, or what’s going on, these transnational killings?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of this specific report and I would let our – the Government of Pakistan and the Government of India speak more about this.

Ryan, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: I had a Pakistan follow-up.

MR PATEL: Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: In September, the State Department announced that when it came to Bangladesh, quote, “Individuals undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh” would face – would face sanctions and visa restrictions. You – to his point, you haven’t made those same declarations when it comes to Pakistan. Why is there a difference in how the two countries are being treated?

MR PATEL: We don’t believe that there is a difference, Ryan. We just would not preview —

QUESTION: So if there are – if there are individuals who interfere with the elections there —

MR PATEL: I’m not going to preview – I’m not – each country is different and I’m not going to preview actions from up here. But again, we want to see free and fair elections around the world, including in Bangladesh, and of course, including in Pakistan as well. And when we see things that are at odds at our view for the region and things that are at odd for Pakistani authorities’ stated intent, we’ll continue to address them, as I have up here.

QUESTION: So based on what you —

MR PATEL: But beyond that, I’m not going to preview any actions.

QUESTION: But based on what you just said, should Pakistani officials be concerned that they might be subject to visa restrictions?

MR PATEL: I am just not going to preview any actions from up here.

Go ahead, yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. The administration has expressed support for the sale of F-35 jets to Greece, and we know that unlike the case of Türkiye, the Congress is fully on board and wants to move quickly with that sale. Can you explain us why we have experienced such delay and why you have not yet sent the formal notification to Congress?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to comment on – on sales that have not been formally notified to Congress yet.

Ksenija, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. You urged the Government of Kosovo to revisit the decision to suspend Serbian dinar on February 1st. You said, I quote, “We are concerned that the regulation adopted on December 27 will negatively impact the ethnic Serb community in Kosovo.” What gives you confidence that Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti even consider and take your position seriously?

MR PATEL: Can you repeat your question, Ksenija? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: What gives you confidence that Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti is going to take your position seriously?

MR PATEL: Well, we believe, Ksenija, that constructive engagement and sincere and good-faith efforts by both Kosovo and Serbia will bring lasting benefits for its citizens, including economic growth, and ensure long-term regional stability. And we want to see progress on implementation of past dialogue agreements. We also believe that this is in the best interest for all impacted parties.

Guita, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Vedant, I don’t know if you’ve seen this Bloomberg report that Iran is sending combat drones to the Sudan. Given the situation in that country, it’s providing it to the Sudanese army, not the RSF. Is that a matter of concern to the U.S.?

MR PATEL: I’ve not seen that. I’ve not seen that report, Guita. But certainly, Iran trying to take its destabilizing actions to other parts of the world and trying to influence and get involved in other regional conflicts would, of course, be of great concern to us. But I’ve not seen that reporting.

All right, thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Wait, wait, I wanted to ask this yesterday but I didn’t because there were so many people waiting.

MR PATEL: Ah, I’m on —

QUESTION: And it is certainly a last and least question.

MR PATEL: Okay.

QUESTION: But what is it that prompted the U.S. Embassy in London to tweet about or to put out a statement about this tea controversy?

MR PATEL: You’ve never – you’ve never felt the need to tweet something fun, Matt? Because if you look through your social media, I’ve noticed a lot of —

QUESTION: No, not – not – not recently.

MR PATEL: I’ve noticed a lot of Buffalo Bills content, a lot of hippo content. So it seems like —

QUESTION: But not for – not for some time. And in fact, the Bills content is now gone until next season at least.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: But no, I’m just curious. With all that’s going on in the world, why did —

MR PATEL: I have —

QUESTION: Why did someone feel compelled to weigh in on something which is actually kind of factually inaccurate because —

MR PATEL: Is this a Boston Tea Party joke?

QUESTION: — the U.S. has a – the U.S. has a – yeah, a long history —

MR PATEL: Good one.

QUESTION: — of mixing salt water with British tea. (Laughter.)

MR PATEL: There is never – of course, everyone can appreciate some light-hearted humor about your —

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PATEL: — caffeinated beverage of choice. I personally have no opinion on whether people should put salt in their tea or not. To each their own is what I say.

QUESTION: Well, okay. But I’m just wondering why someone – is there – is there an official State Department position on the —

MR PATEL: There is not an official State Department position, Matt.

QUESTION: Or is a —

MR PATEL: But as you know, many around the world look to social media as an avenue to engage with the American Government, engage with the embassy, and I have no doubt that our colleagues at Mission London thought —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR PATEL: — this was a unique opportunity to engage with the British public about something – something charming.

QUESTION: Okay. And did – did they judge it a success?

MR PATEL: I think so. I think so. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes? Okay. All right.

MR PATEL: All right. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:48 p.m.)

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