Department Press Briefing – March 28, 2023

Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:05 p.m. EDT

MR PATEL: Good afternoon. I have two very brief things off the top and then I’m happy to dive into your questions.

So first, today the United States took action in coordination with the United Kingdom to designate key individuals supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the production or export in Syria and Lebanon of a dangerous amphetamine-type stimulant known as Captagon.

The trade in Captagon is estimated to have become a billion-dollar illicit enterprise.

The U.S. designated six key individuals facilitating the production and export of illicit drugs in Syria and Lebanon, and two entities owned by one of those individuals.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family members and associates rely on the illicit drug trade to fund his regime’s violent oppression and commission of abuses against the Syrian people. The individuals and entities being designated today have enabled the Syrian regime to continue carrying out abuses against the Syrian people by providing funds to the regime derived from trade in illicit drugs.

Captagon trafficking by the Assad regime, Hizballah, and their affiliate poses a significant threat to stability, public health, and rule of law in the region.

These designations, some of which are being implemented pursuant to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, also highlight the important role of Lebanese drug traffickers – some of whom maintain ties to Hizballah – in facilitating the export of Captagon.

The United States will continue to coordinate with our allies and partners to target traffickers of illicit drugs and those who provide support to the Syrian regime’s vicious war.

Additionally, I want to also express my deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the tragic detention center fire in Ciudad Juárez last night. Our hearts go out to their loved ones, and our prayers are with those still fighting for their lives. This tragedy is a heartbreaking reminder of the risks migrants and refugees around the world face. Mexican authorities are investigating the cause of this tragedy, and we stand ready to provide any assistance they may request.

Matt, if you want to take us away?

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Happy Tuesday, I guess. Let me just start – and really briefly, if you could give – explain this in a nutshell. What exactly did you guys inform the Russians about information sharing under New START the other day?

MR PATEL: So Matt, under the New START Treaty, the U.S. and Russia, as you know, are obligated to exchange comprehensive databases twice a year. We offered to continue reciprocal implementation of this obligation. Unfortunately, Russia informed the U.S. that it will not engage in this data exchange due to its purported suspension of this treaty.

As we’ve said before, the suspension was legally invalid. Russia’s failure to exchange this data will therefore be a violation of the treaty, adding on to its existing violations of the New START Treaty and, as a result, lawful countermeasures intended to encourage Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. And the U.S. will likewise not provide its biannual data update to Russia.

QUESTION: Okay, and what’s the practical impact of this?

MR PATEL: Well, Matt, as you know, New START is an important treaty as it relates to arm control and maintaining strategic stability. This is something that the Secretary, the President, others have spoken to about the importance of this treaty. And Russia’s decision to not exchange in this – take part in this data exchange is another example of the dangerous and reckless actions it’s taking as it relates to its responsibilities to New START.

QUESTION: That’s fine, but what’s the practical impact?

MR PATEL: What do you mean, Matt?

QUESTION: What does it mean?

MR PATEL: The important piece, as you know, about New START, is the —

QUESTION: If you’re not – all right, let me make it maybe a little bit easier. What does it mean that neither side is going to exchange this data that they used to exchange on a twice-a-year basis?

MR PATEL: Matt, the important piece about New START is there is a verifiable aspect to this, which we have continued to offer reciprocal implementation of, of this obligation.

QUESTION: Okay, but what is the practical impact of it?

MR PATEL: I’m happy to —

QUESTION: Do it make you – does it make you less aware or them less aware of what’s going on? Because as I understand it, this is only the twice-a-year, the biannual compilation of data, and not like other stuff.

MR PATEL: Well, that is true. But broadly, it is a lack of an exchange of information that otherwise would have normally take place that allows a verifiable exchange of data and information that I think is at the key of the New START Treaty.

QUESTION: Well okay, but how is it verifiable?

MR PATEL: Because of the exchange of data, Matt. That’s – the exchange of data as well as —

QUESTION: Well, an exchange of data that does not mean verifiable. How —

MR PATEL: As well as the —

QUESTION: How is it verified?

MR PATEL: As well as the other piece of this, which is the in-person component, is another verifiable piece of New START. I’m happy to circle back with you if there’s —

QUESTION: Okay. And when did you guys tell the Russians this?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of any – I don’t have specific diplomatic engagements to offer, Matt, but it is something that we were made aware of recently. But I’m happy to check if we’ve got a more specific time.

QUESTION: Well, can you be a little bit more specific as to when?

MR PATEL: I don’t have a more specific time to offer, Matt. But —

QUESTION: So there wasn’t a specific meeting at which you told them this? Because —

MR PATEL: Again, I’m happy to see if we have additional information. But the bigger takeaway here is that we have offered continued reciprocal implementation of this obligation —

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I just wanted – the reason that I keep pressing this is that I’d like to know if this is something that is a new development, as has been reported, but – or if it’s something that you guys decided on almost a month ago when the Russians pulled, said they were suspending, and then Putin signed the law to —

MR PATEL: That was my – my understanding is that’s a – was a separate piece of this, that this, as it relates to this data exchange and Russia’s decision to not engage in this data exchange, that that is a new piece of this. But I’m happy to double-check.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: A follow-up on that?

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. Congressional leaders told the Congress – military leaders – my apologies – told the Congress that they had further interactions with Russia on this very topic yesterday. Are you aware of any meeting (inaudible) of the U.S.?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of any such meeting, Alex.

QUESTION: Is this the end of New START?

MR PATEL: Alex, I would reject the premise of your question because, as it relates to New START, we have been pretty clear from the get-go that we believe this treaty is an important, it’s a responsible one, and under international law the U.S. has a right to respond to breaches of the New START Treaty. And if you recall, the Secretary spoke quite clearly about how irresponsible Russia’s decision to withdraw from the treaty was when the Russian Federation announced that news, I believe a number of weeks ago, when we were on travel in Europe.

QUESTION: And what’s the next step from here? If you don’t share anything and if they don’t share anything with you, what’s the next step?

MR PATEL: Look, aside from the biannual data exchange, the U.S. continues to provide all required notifications under the New START Treaty, and we’re carefully assessing the national security impact of Russia’s failure to comply with its notifications and other treaty obligations.

Janne, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions for South Korea.

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: On anti-corruption, South Korea’s opposition leader is being investigated by prosecutor for extorting huge sums of money. What is the – your action given the State Department fight corruption worldwide?

MR PATEL: I’m not aware of those reports, Janne. I’d refer you to the Government of South Korea. This is an internal matter for them to speak to.

QUESTION: Because you – you never watched the news? Because he’s trying to go to prosecutor’s (inaudible) all the time?

MR PATEL: Again, I’d just refer you to the Government of South Korea to speak to this.

QUESTION: Okay, and one more on human rights issues. In the 2022 Human Rights Report, freedom of press in South Korea was mentioned. Is this something that happened under a certain president, or is it generally so?

MR PATEL: I will have to check on the specific language that was used in the Human Rights Reports, Janne. But obviously, what I would say is South Korea is an important partner in the region. They’re important to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And as it relates to press freedom, this is an issue we raise directly with countries around the world in our engagements with them.

Shaun, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: Sure. Could I go back to Russia-Ukraine a bit?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: I wonder if you had any reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s – I guess it’s a lack of a decision, but their stance today saying that they’ll consider it later (inaudible) be conditions on Russian and Belarusian athletes going to the Olympics in 2024.

MR PATEL: So, Shaun, we are continuing to consult with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and other likeminded nations as we review the IOC’s recommendations to international federations on the potential participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes. We continue to have serious concerns around the direct links between the Olympic and Paralympic athletes and the Russian and Belarusian militaries and national security agencies, as well as the IOC’s enforcement mechanisms, which were not outlined in the news that was shared today.

The Biden administration is also proud to – proud of its close partnership with Team USA, and we look forward to our collective work to use support for good in the United States and for – around the world. But I’d refer you to the USOPC for anything further on this.

QUESTION: Okay, so you won’t see it as a step forward or back in terms of your —

MR PATEL: Yeah, I don’t have any other – any other assessment to provide.

Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can I move to the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

MR PATEL: Anything else?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if you don’t mind.

QUESTION: No, please, go ahead.

MR PATEL: We’ll do one more and then we’ll go to Said. Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Media reports citing the State Department officials suggesting that the U.S. supports the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression against Ukraine. Could you please expand on that concept?

MR PATEL: Sure, Alex. The U.S. supports the development of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression against Ukraine in the form of an internationalized court that is rooted in Ukraine’s judicial system with international elements. We envision such a court having significant international support, particularly from our European partners, and ideally located in another country in Europe.

We believe that the special tribunal should be rooted in Ukraine’s domestic judicial system as this will provide the clearest path to establishing a new tribunal and maximize our chances of achieving meaningful accountability.

QUESTION: Just one thing on that announcement.

MR PATEL: Sure, yeah.

QUESTION: So what’s the next step for you guys, like after this? How is this going to run in parallel with the ICC? Can you talk a little bit about, like, how will you contribute to this? And have you also conveyed this to the Ukrainian officials, and what have they said?

MR PATEL: We of course engage with our Ukrainian partners on a number of issues and have had conversations about this as well. To take a step back, Humeyra, a tribunal of this type would enable the prosecution of crimes of aggression, and it would complement the work that will be undertaken by the International Center for the Prosecution of Crimes of Aggression by ensuring that the information and evidence collected by the center can be effectively put towards accountability purposes.

I would also say broadly that the U.S. supports all international efforts to examine atrocities in Ukraine, including the investigation by the ICC and the reporting by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Obviously, the key aspect here is the piece about aggression, which is what would set this special tribunal apart.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on this, if you don’t mind.

MR PATEL: Alex, you’ve had a bunch of questions already.

Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: You’ve patiently had your hand up.

QUESTION: According to Haaretz, that Ben-Gvir, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security in Israel, only agreed to Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul delay in exchange for an Israeli national guard, in essence having his own militia. Do you have any assessment of that? I mean, how would you look at something like this?

MR PATEL: Said, I’ve seen those reports, and I would refer you to the Government of Israel to speak specifically about any next steps or engagements that are happening. What I would say broadly about the news yesterday about the – this issue having reached an agreement for – just to have further conversations about it is that we have long said that compromise is precisely what we have been calling for. And we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders and Israeli citizens to find a compromise. But I don’t have any assessment to offer on that specific report, Said.

QUESTION: But if this turns out to be true, it would be alarming, I mean, for someone to have, like, his own army, his own militia, probably largely composed of settlers. Right?

MR PATEL: Said, I’m just not going to categorize a hypothetical.

QUESTION: All right. Let me ask you about Hawara. The Israeli army continues to impose closures around Hawara in the northern occupied West Bank, and especially in the month of Ramadan. Do you have any comment on this?

MR PATEL: We have said a number of times we believe Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of prosperity, freedom, and security. And we remain deeply concerned by the sharp rise in violence in the West Bank and continue to urge parties to take immediate steps to prevent further loss of life.

QUESTION: And lastly, very quickly, last week Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland asked the Secretary of State during the hearing whether the United States would look weak for not acting on its own – on your statement, actually; he mentioned your statement – if they don’t really carry on or do something or leverage what you said that day, on last Tuesday.

MR PATEL: Was there a question at the end of that?

QUESTION: Yes, there is. I mean, do you think the United States looks weak by not doing anything to back up its statement that – that statement that you did?

QUESTION: And remember, Vedant, that your – and your job depends on the answer.

QUESTION: Exactly. (Laughter.) No.

QUESTION: And so when you say yes, yes, the Americans – the United States looks weak – (laughter) – you should say that.

QUESTION: No. That’s not – (laughter) – that’s not what I’m saying. I am repeating what the senator said.

MR PATEL: Said, what I am —

QUESTION: Do you think – okay, let me rephrase this.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I think the senator’s probably thrust behind what he asked: Does the United States look weak by not acting on its outrage or the statement or connections about —

MR PATEL: No, Said. I do not think – no, Said. The United States does not look weak. On this issue, which, as you know, is a very challenging and complicated issue, this administration, this President and this Secretary, have shown leadership. They have shown leadership in their engagement with our Israeli partners. They have shown leadership in their engagement with the Palestinian Authority. They have shown leadership in how we have constantly urged both sides to avoid steps that further incite tensions and take us further away from a two-state solution. And we have directly and candidly raised these issues in private, in public, through diplomatic channels, when we feel that steps are being taken by either side to take us away from what we view as our ultimate goal here.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. On the Ciudad Juárez tragedy, does the U.S. Government trust the safety of Mexican facilities to hold U.S.-bound migrants?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to offer an assessment of another government’s facility from here. As you so note, this was a facility that was within Mexico’s immigration system, so that is a question for the Mexican Government.

QUESTION: Well, a second question, a clarification – a request for clarification. I don’t know if I heard you correctly, but did you say that the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez last night shows the risks of irregular migration? But weren’t precisely the migrants already under Mexican Government custody?

MR PATEL: What I said was that the risks – it shows the risks that migrants and refugees face broadly around the world. I’m not here to offer an assessment on where these migrants originated from or where they were going or what their status was or anything like that. What I would just say is that this is something that the Mexican Government is investigating. We are ready to support that effort should we be asked, and we are – stand ready to provide assistance.

QUESTION: But isn’t precisely your statement linking this to irregular migration instead, for example, to the safety and secureness of the facilities themselves?

MR PATEL: I am not – I’m not here to offer an assessment on the facilities of another government.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL: But broadly speaking, across this administration we have long talked about the risks that irregular migration poses. I am not speaking about this incident specifically, but broadly, those who chose to transit anywhere irregularly put themselves at risk.

QUESTION: Wow.

MR PATEL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Couple questions. Does the administration have any reaction to the riots in France?

MR PATEL: Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

QUESTION: In France, over the past several weeks, even today, escalating, there have been riots nationwide, including in Paris, of President Macron’s effort to increase – correct me if I’m wrong – the retirement age from 62 to 64. And there have just been – there have been fires in the streets. Does the U.S. have any response to all of that?

MR PATEL: Well, first what I would say broadly is that we, of course, respect the right for anybody to peacefully protest and peacefully express themselves, but it’s never appropriate to take violent actions. What I would say broadly, though, that this is a domestic French issue and I’m not going to weigh into that. But what I will say is that France is a vital partner and one of our oldest allies, and we place the highest value on our alliance with them. And we have a long, shared history of shared democratic values.

QUESTION: Not – not one of. Is.

MR PATEL: The – our oldest. That’s correct. That’s correct, Matt. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And a new report showed dozens of countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are battling to pay their debts and are relying on Beijing for additional emergency funds. Are you worried about Beijing’s growing influence and predatory lending practices in these countries?

0MR PATEL: What I would say broadly, and I spoke a little bit about this yesterday, is that our efforts in any part of the world are not about any one particular country. It is about what a partnership with the United States can look like and what a deepening partnership with the United States can benefit, not just the people of the United States but the people of that specific country as well.

As it relates to the Belt and Road Initiative, we have not parsed words that often these infrastructure projects saddle countries with bad debt; that the local workforce end up – do not end up reaping the economic benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative; that often these projects are undertaken without consideration of the environment or human rights. And as you so noted, that, again, sometimes these countries are saddled with debt that is difficult for them to pay off. So this is something we’ve spoken to before.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Goyal, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: I – let – I’m – I’ll work my way front. Let me go to Goyal and then I will come – I will come forward. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Vedant, sir, two questions on U.S.-India relations.

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: A few weeks ago I brought to this department’s attention that Indian American community in the U.S. are under fear from the few elements, or Khalistani elements, and especially in San Francisco. And after that, what happened two weeks ago? The Indian consulate in San Francisco was vandalized, and also one of the diplomats was beaten up. And now those elements are still sitting in front of the consulate and people cannot go and come out and go in for services like passport and visa and all those services, and they are under fear. And police have not done anything, and still no one was arrested, and still same people are sitting there who vandalized and all the – but also —

MR PATEL: I’m going to – I’m going to jump in, Goyal —

QUESTION: And one —

MR PATEL: — that the U.S. Government, we condemn the recent violent incidents that have taken place during protests at Indian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Look, we support the First Amendment rights of protesters, and we support engagement of free speech activities. However, violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of protest.

Consistent with our Vienna Convention obligations, the department is committed to taking all appropriate steps, including coordination with federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities, to protect the safety and security of these facilities and the diplomatic individuals who work within them as well.

QUESTION: And second, sir, in Washington, D.C., one of our reporters – Mr. Lalit Jha – among others, was attacked by these elements or this movement of people in Washington just over the weekend. And thanks to the Secret Service, he – his life was saved. And they were abusing the Indian ambassador and the Indian community, and he was – he had bruises and all that. So what I’m asking you now – this is ongoing on even here in Washington, D.C., at the Indian embassy, and Indian embassy issued a assault report and statement. I think you may have seen it. And I was also there among – abused and all that.

MR PATEL: So, look, attacks against journalists are never acceptable, and we condemn any incidents of violence against a member of the media just doing their job, and any act of violence or vandalism against a diplomatic facility as well.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: And finally, sir, just quickly —

MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room, Goyal.

QUESTION: Sorry. Thank you.

MR PATEL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I just wonder if you have update on Secretary Rick Waters’ trip to China last week.

MR PATEL: Yeah, thank you so much for your question. DAS Waters met with working-level counterparts and U.S. Government colleagues in an official capacity. He visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing as part of his trip, and I don’t have really anything additional to offer at the moment.

QUESTION: Just specifically, what is the purpose of this trip given he was the highest-level official from this building visiting China after December? Is it – is there anything related to prepare for Secretary Blinken’s trip to China or the two presidents’ call, potential phone call?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any call to preview or anything like that. As it relates to the Secretary’s trip, we have long said that the trip is postponed and will be rescheduled at a date when conditions allow.

The important thing to remember here – and I think this is a key piece of DAS Waters’ trip – is we have long said that we believe it is important to maintain lines of communication with the PRC. The Secretary has reiterated that in his engagements with his counterparts as well, and so we’ll continue to do that through appropriate levels also.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I want to —

QUESTION: But wait, you can’t offer a single topic that they mentioned? What did they talk about, the weather?

QUESTION: Or balloons?

QUESTION: No, forget about balloons. What did they – I mean, he didn’t go there just to say hey, great to see you. He obviously had some kind of message that he was carrying. Can you give us an idea of any topic, not specifics?

MR PATEL: He also partake – partook in some think tank activities as well. However, beyond any engagements that he had with the PRC counterparts, I’m just not going to get into the specifics of those engagements.

QUESTION: So the trip was basically meaningless, then?

MR PATEL: That is not what I said, Matt. I said it was a working-level discussion with his counterparts and U.S. Government colleagues.

QUESTION: Well, it is what you’re saying, because – what – about what? Did they talk about Ukraine? Did they talk about Russia?

MR PATEL: About a wide range of issues that we have as it relates to our bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: Did they talk about the South China Sea? Did they talk about —

MR PATEL: Again, I’m not going to get into specifics of diplomatic engagements, Matt.

QUESTION: So they basically talked about the weather, right?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into the specifics of diplomatic engagements, Matt. I appreciate you asking.

QUESTION: I’m not even asking for the specifics. I just – I mean, he didn’t go there just to, like, shoot the whatever you want to —

MR PATEL: Shoot the what?

QUESTION: Yeah, you know what I’m saying. He didn’t go there just to do that. He obviously had – there was something that he went there to talk about and something that the Chinese had to say to him.

MR PATEL: Matt, we – as it relates – as it relates to the PRC, we have long said that we believe it is important to maintain open lines of communication. We also have a number of issues to – that we have with them as it relates to our bilateral relationship. A number of those issues you have seen myself, the Secretary, others talk about.

QUESTION: Okay, so did he raise any of those?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into specifics about his diplomatic engagements. This is all heard – stuff that you’ve heard me say before, but broadly, I will reiterate that this is – this was a working-level visit with his counterparts as well as USG officials also.

QUESTION: If you can’t get into the topics, are you able to characterize how it went? Was it fruitful, constructive, not good?

MR PATEL: It was a working-level meeting, Humeyra, in which they talked about a number of issues and he had the opportunity to meet with his counterparts as well as U.S. Government officials.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: The Summit for Democracy that you’re hosting – there’s a big challenge of disinformation that’s impacting democracies. What is the strategy of the U.S. Government? Are you going to do anything specific in collaboration with your other democratic partners to combat disinformation which is specifically emanating from China, Russia, and it impacts democracies across the globe?

MR PATEL: Of course. Combating disinformation is, of course, something that the bureau that we all live under within Global Public Affairs as well as the GEC – it’s something that they are quite focused on, and we have a number of lines of effort to ensure that we have pieces in places to push back on disinformation regardless of where it might be originating from.

QUESTION: Vedant, one more?

MR PATEL: I’ve called on you, Janne. Go ahead, Elizabeth. You had your hand open. No, no, no, I’m going – okay, go ahead. I’ll come to you, Elizabeth, after. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, thank you.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: North Korea fired an SRBM, short-range ballistic missile – nuclear aerial explosion test yesterday. What is the State Department position on this?

MR PATEL: So you have seen us speak about this quite regularly in that we continue to feel that these actions, these provocative actions being taken by the DPRK, are destabilizing, they are unsafe, and they put the broader region at risk. And as it relates to the DPRK, our goal continues to be the same, which is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We have also made clear that we are open to meeting with the DPRK without preconditions, but of course, the DPRK has yet to reciprocate.

Elizabeth, go ahead.

QUESTION: How do the Captagon sanctions today fit into the administration’s wider strategy in Syria and preventing the normalization of Assad?

MR PATEL: Sure. So broadly, on normalization, our stance against normalization remains unchanged. We will not normalize with the Assad regime, nor would we encourage others, absent an authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution, to do so.

What I will say broadly is that today’s actions are a reflection of a deep interagency approach across multiple fronts to address the Captagon trade, and specifically the Caesar Act is a valuable tool. It’s a tool that we have at our disposal to hold the Assad regime accountable. But of course, it’s not the only tool that we have, and you’ve seen us take additional actions over the course of this administration as well.

QUESTION: Two quick follow-ups, if I may. Because you mentioned the interagency approach, do you have an update on the status of the interagency strategy on Captagon that was required by the NDAA?

MR PATEL: I don’t, but I’m happy to check and see if we’ve got an update for you.

QUESTION: Okay, and then just one more.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I think today – well, today’s designations mark the first use of the Caesar Act by this administration. Is there a reason why the administration waited two years to use this sanctions rule?

MR PATEL: This is of course a process that is intensive and that we want to make sure that we get right. The administration has worked actively to identify persons who are subject to designation under the Caesar Act. And as you just heard me say, it is a valuable tool, it’s an important tool, but it’s not the only tool that we have available to hold the Assad regime accountable. There are several executive orders that give Treasury and State sanction authorities to target those who are complicit in corruption, complicit in human rights abuses, those who are complicit in support for terrorism and other malign actions in Syria as well.

QUESTION: Vedant, excuse me, a quick follow-up.

MR PATEL: Go ahead.

QUESTION: At the top, were you accusing Bashar al-Assad himself of being responsible for the manufacture and trafficking of Captagon? Is that what —

MR PATEL: What I will —

QUESTION: Is that what this is all about?

MR PATEL: What I will say, Said, is that we know that the Assad regime has its hands in a number of malign destabilizing activities, and this is just yet another example of that.

Go ahead, Shaun.

QUESTION: Can we go to Africa?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: Kenya. I wanted to ask about the – there’s been some political protests there – opposition protests (inaudible).

MR PATEL: Yeah. Yeah, you asked about this yesterday. Broadly, Shaun, the U.S. regrets the loss of life and damage to property in recent protests in Kenya. And we encourage political leaders, protesters, and all parties to refrain from violence and rhetoric that could incite violence. And we call on government security forces to act with restraint while protecting public safety and property. The rights to freedoms of expression and association and the right to peaceful assembly are core tenets to democracy, as we’ve said previously.

QUESTION: Could I just pursue that last part, peaceful assembly?

MR PATEL: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is that criticism of the ban on opposition protests?

MR PATEL: Look, Shaun, we encourage political leaders, protesters, and all parties to refrain from violence and rhetoric that could incite violence. And we call on government security forces to act with restraint while protecting public safety and property.

QUESTION: Sure. Could I just do one more on Africa?

MR PATEL: Yes, please.

QUESTION: I know the Secretary issued a statement on Friday, but I guess we didn’t talk about yesterday – Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: First of all, can you confirm – I guess, maybe you can’t – but that he’s in Qatar now? And could you say a little bit broadly what it means for the relationship with Rwanda? Do you see it as the Rwandans say that this is a reset in the sense of having better relations with them?

MR PATEL: I will say a couple of things about that, Shaun. I will – obviously there’s a limit to what I’m going to get into out of respect to Mr. Rusesabagina’s privacy, but I can confirm that he did touch down in in Doha yesterday and of course will continue on to the United States. But again, I’m going to, out of respect for his privacy, not offer anything further.

Broadly, this process largely began with – well, I won’t say began, but Secretary Blinken’s trip in August, which many of you were on, played a key role in eventually resolving this case. And it was an example of cooperation between partners to resolve an issue that both governments had prioritized.

Okay. Mikhail, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Do you have any comment on the new approach – of course, a positive approach – between Türkiye and Greece? And as I understand, it started after the visit of the secretary of state, who played, of course, a role on this.

MR PATEL: Well, Mikhail, this is something that, of course, you saw the Secretary speak to when he had the opportunity to be both in Ankara and Athens as well. And we have long said that as it relates to disputes between our NATO Allies, Türkiye and Greece, that these issues be resolved peacefully, that these issues be resolved through diplomatic dialogue and in line, of course, with the UN Charter. So that continues to be the case.

QUESTION: Can I ask – I asked you yesterday about this new position of Türkiye on Sweden and NATO, and you gave me the general answer, but I wanted to ask you the question again if –hoping for to have a specific answer. Mr. Kalin, who is also the spokesman for Mr. Erdogan, is saying that Türkiye is not going to approve Sweden membership if they don’t get the F-16. And are you going to accept this new position by Türkiye?

MR PATEL: So again, you saw me speak to this yesterday. We believe that both Sweden and Finland should be in NATO, and they should be in NATO as soon as possible. Both are strong, capable partners, and they share NATO’s values, and them joining the Alliance will not only strengthen the Alliance itself but also contribute to European security. We support and welcome President Erdogan’s announcement that he will send the protocols for Finland to Turkish parliament soon, and we look forward to that process concluding. And we also encourage our Turkish allies to quickly ratify Sweden’s accession protocols as well. Again, Sweden and Finland joining NATO will not only strengthen the Alliance, but it will also contribute to European security as well.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. I have two questions. On human rights, in light of Democracy Summit, I want to draw your attention to the initiative you guys announced in January, Without Just Cause Campaign. First and last time I heard about that publicly was in this room when it was announced. Can you fill us in where exactly that mission has been done – has done to get those individuals, 60 individuals featuring Kara-Murza from Russia, Elchin Mammad from Azerbaijan, and others out of jail?

MR PATEL: Alex, I will have to check in on the specifics of that announcement. But I will say broadly, though, human rights is an issue that this department and this Secretary raises regularly with our allies and partners, as well as with countries where we perhaps might have differing views on some of these issues. And that’s why you saw the Secretary come here to this podium to release the Human Rights Report. It’s why you see him taking such an active role in the Summit for Democracy because, again, we believe that democracies and the strength of democracies are a key tenet of human rights as well.

QUESTION: Excellent. And back to special tribunal question, just to clarify, based on your response to Humeyra, as I understand it correctly, this is going to – this initiative will walk shoulder to shoulder to another initiative that ICC has put together, it’s not necessarily going to be part the ICC initiative.

MR PATEL: I would not – I would not view it as an alternative or a replacement. What this is is another mechanism in which we support all international efforts to examine atrocities.

QUESTION: Will the administration support the idea of trying Putin in part of special tribunal you guys are —

MR PATEL: The important thing to remember here, Alex, is that it is clear that what Ukraine and other champions of accountability want is a – fair and effective prosecutions. And we believe that an internationalized court with broad internationalized support is the most likely and most effective pathway to achieving that shared goal. But I’m not going to speculate or get into hypotheticals about potential actions that it might take.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Robinson from INL is traveling to Mexico to talk about fentanyl. Are there specific asks for the Mexican Government by Secretary Robinson that he’s going to present?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific asks. Obviously, one, as it relates to countering fentanyl and countering fentanyl precursors, Mexico and the Government of Mexico is a key and important partner. This is something that is a priority for the Secretary as well. And so I know the assistant secretary looks forward to robust discussions on that.

QUESTION: How does it affect that the President of Mexico doesn’t recognize that fentanyl is produced in Mexico?

MR PATEL: Again, that’s a question for the Government of Mexico. I’m – what I would say is that this is an important priority for the Secretary. You’ve heard him talk about it. And I know that Assistant Secretary Robinson looks forward to continuing to have these engagements as well.

Goyal, last question.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, sir.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I just wanted to say that Mr. Lalit Jha, who is your senior correspondent for Press Trust of India, he’s just shaken up, really. Any message for him from the Secretary, and also for the Indian or other press who are covering and doing their jobs?

MR PATEL: What I would say, Lalit, is – or, sorry, what I would say, Goyal, is what I just said a few moments ago, is that of course any violence against members of the media or journalists who are simply doing their job is unacceptable. I’ve had the opportunity to know Lalit for a number of years now, and I’m glad that he is doing well and largely doing a lot better. So –

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MR PATEL: Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:46 p.m.)

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