Daily Press Briefing - November 24, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing:
.2:17 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone.
MR TONER: Hello. Welcome to the State Department. Just a very brief statement announcing the travel of Secretary Kerry to France, Belgium, Kosovo, Serbia, Cyprus, and Greece. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Paris, France on November 30th to join President Obama for the opening of COP21 in Paris. He’ll then travel to Brussels, Belgium on December 1st to take part in the December NATO Foreign Ministerial Meeting as well as other associated meetings. On December 2nd, the Secretary will then travel to Pristina, Kosovo, where he will meet with senior government officials to discuss bilateral and regional issues. And then Secretary Kerry will travel onto Belgrade, Serbia to take part in the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3rd as well as meet with civil society representatives across the OSCE region.
On December 3rd, the Secretary will travel to Nicosia, Cyprus, where he will meet with senior Cyprus officials – Cypriot officials, rather – to discuss bilateral relations and regional issues. He’ll also meet with the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders to encourage continued progress on the UN-facilitated settlement talks. And finally, he’ll travel on to Athens, Greece on December 4th to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues with the Greek Government, including the migration and refugee crisis, as well as progress on economic reforms.
That’s all I have at the top. Matt.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you bring us up to speed on what the diplomatic efforts – the diplomatic efforts that you’re making to try to prevent this from escalating? And I’m talking about outside of the NATO meeting --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and outside of the President meeting the president of a country that isn’t – that didn’t have anything to do with this incident.
MR TONER: Okay. Well, as you correctly noted, the President said in his press availability with President Hollande just a little while ago, we’re still in the process of getting all the details of what happened. He actually alluded to the fact that he would likely be reaching out to President Erdogan in the next several days. But he did stress the fact that it’s important for Russia and Turkey to talk to find out what happened and also to take measures to de-escalate the situation. You heard similar stress on the de-escalation point from Secretary General of NATO just a little while ago after the NAC concluded.
Certainly, we’re in discussions or in conversations with both Russia and Turkey. I can’t tell you precisely at what level those discussions are going on, but we’re just trying to – again, at this early stage, just trying to figure out what happened, and again, with a clear emphasis on de-escalating and avoiding these kinds of situations going forward.
QUESTION: But there’s no contact that you’re aware of? It would seem to be in – well, maybe I’m wrong, but it would seem to be in the U.S. interest to prevent a shooting fight between your NATO ally, Turkey, and --
MR TONER: You’re correct.
QUESTION: -- Russia, right?
MR TONER: Look, everybody, as I’ve said multiple times, we’re still trying to get the details on what happened --
QUESTION: So you don’t know what happened?
MR TONER: We’re getting the details on what happened and looking for both sides to de-escalate the situation right now. Again, what’s important here is for us to gather all the facts, to get a clear understanding. And we just heard from Turkey at the NAC on what – on the series of events that led to the incident. But again, the emphasis we’d like to place is on de-escalation of tensions.
QUESTION: Do you know – do you accept the Turkish version as fact, as what happened?
MR TONER: Again, I think – look, Turkey is a NATO ally and, as such, the NAC was convened to discuss the situation of what happened. But what’s important – and the President spoke to this – is we need a de-escalation. But we also need Russia to recognize the fact that – and the President spoke to the ongoing problem with Russia – that it’s operating very close to Turkish border – Turkey’s border, rather, and have been going after and targeting the moderate Syrian opposition, and that those circumstances might have led to this kind of situation occurring.
QUESTION: Right. But the NATO secretary general came out after the NAC meeting and said that NATO stands in solidarity with its ally --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- Turkey. So that would seem to me to suggest that you accept the Turks’ version of events, right? Or are you looking – are you trying to reconcile that with some competing version of what happened? Are you in solidarity with Turkey simply because it’s an ally and you’re expected – NATO is expected to act in solidarity with it? Because I was a bit confused, because the first comment on the record out of the Pentagon this morning were that this is an issue between Russia and Turkey and not – and that does not seem to be the case now, if NATO is, in fact, standing in solidarity with the Turks.
MR TONER: Well, look, of course – and the President spoke to this as well – Turkey has a right to defend its territory, which includes its airspace. Again, even if this were a U.S. incident or any kind of incident like this, there’s going to be a process in play to determine exactly what happened, what occurred. And even if initial reports seem to indicate one thing or another, we’re still going to do a thorough investigation. That’s one of the things that’s ongoing right now.
QUESTION: Sir --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: But --
MR TONER: Well, wait a second. I’m going to finish answering his question, and then I’ll switch to you. So again, we don’t want to rush to judgment. We do stand by Turkey as a NATO ally.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. Government now know whether or not the Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace?
MR TONER: I don’t have that information. I can’t make that assessment from here.
QUESTION: You said --
QUESTION: And has the State Department reached out to – other than at the NAC, has the State Department reached out directly or Secretary Kerry reached out directly to his counterparts in Turkey or Russia about this?
MR TONER: Again, before coming down here I was unable – I mean, he’s been, obviously, on the ground in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Gaza today, so I haven’t been able to --
QUESTION: West Bank.
MR TONER: Ramallah – thank you – West Bank today. So I haven’t been able to confirm that.
QUESTION: You just --
QUESTION: Mark, just very quickly --
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: The fact that he –
MR TONER: Then I’ll go to you.
QUESTION: -- the President said he will reach out to President Erdogan. President Obama said he will reach out to President Erdogan over the next few days.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Did not mention Putin. That really puts you squarely on Turkey’s side, doesn’t it?
MR TONER: Again, we’ve been very clear, speaking more broadly about the situation in Syria – and in fact, we spoke about it at length, as you know, when Russia started carrying out airstrikes – that there needs to be de-confliction, operational de-conflicting of airstrikes. And the President spoke to this just a couple hours ago that when you’ve got a country like Russia operating on Turkey’s border going after moderate Syrian opposition that are carrying out strikes or taking the fight to ISIL, that creates a very complex and confusing state of affairs. And so it behooves both Turkey and Russia to try to de-conflict as to who’s flying where, when. But it also speaks to the confusion that’s created by Russia’s actions that it’s carrying out in Syria.
QUESTION: Do you think that the Turks may have been a bit overzealous in this case because --
MR TONER: I am not going to --
QUESTION: -- these airplanes go around, I mean, they say one kilometer. I mean, one kilometer, that’s like a nanosecond kind of a thing with these airplanes.
MR TONER: Again, Said, I am not going to make that determination at this point from this podium. Again, we stand by our NATO ally and its right to protect its sovereign airspace. We’re still gathering the facts, looking at this. The emphasis that we would like to place right now is on de-escalation from both sides. Turkey and Russia need to talk to each other going forward.
QUESTION: Mark, so --
QUESTION: And my last question on the pilots because – I’m sorry, there is one pilot that apparently is still alive and in the hands of the Syrian opposition maybe. I don’t know whether it’s the moderate opposition or not. Would you work with the Turks and work with other groups or perhaps the moderate opposition that you support to make sure that this pilot is not harmed and returned to Russia?
MR TONER: Well, Said, I’ve seen those reports. We can’t confirm them at this point. Certainly, we don’t want to see any combatants or pilots or whatever – whoever, rather, held against their will. So I don’t want to necessarily speak to something we’re not – we haven’t confirmed yet.
QUESTION: You just said --
QUESTION: Mark, so Turkey warned Russia twice before for previous incursions, and they shot down a Russian drone a few days ago also.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Did – was the United States not aware of Turkey’s rules of engagement to shoot down a Russian aircraft on the next incursion?
MR TONER: I’m unclear what you mean by “not aware” of the rules of engagement.
QUESTION: Was the U.S. aware or not aware of Turkey’s --
MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, Turkey is a sovereign nation that is – as we said, is – has the right to defend its airspace and its territory. When we – what we did very early on when Russia started launching airstrikes, realizing that we were operating in the same airspace – within Syria now I’m talking – we sought a de-confliction mechanism. That’s now operational. That’s something that other countries in the coalition who are carrying out actions in Syria, airstrikes in Syria, are certainly capable of doing as well. But again, we’re still trying to determine whether Syria’s airspace was indeed violated.
MR TONER: And if it was, that’s – that changes the parameters.
QUESTION: So what we’ve seen though is a kind of a progression along these – of these incursions and the Turkish reaction to it. There have been multiple summons of the Russian ambassador for each claimed incursion. Then there was this drone that was shot down. Now, Turkey is a NATO ally; presumably it’s talking to the United States about what its next steps are going to be if there’s another incursion. Did that happen? Was it – were the Americans aware that if there was another incursion that there could be an incident like this?
MR TONER: Well, I think --
QUESTION: I mean, is that something that was communicated to the United States?
MR TONER: Sure, so I’ll take – sure, let me try to answer that question. So first of all, yes, we’re in constant consultation with Turkey on the security of its borders as well as cooperating or collaborating with Turkey in carrying out support and airstrikes – support for those groups fighting ISIL and airstrikes to counter ISIL in northern Syria. We’ve been flying out of Incirlik for some time now and that cooperation, that collaboration, and those discussions regarding Turkey’s security obviously continue.
What was your next question? I’m sorry. It was about whether they had come up to – so there have been incidents. I don’t want to necessarily say it’s been building, but there have been previous incidents, you’re right – the incident with the drone and other incidents where there have been incursions. That is – again, those are violations or were violations of Turkey’s airspace. We haven’t determined exactly what happened in this situation, but as the President said, Turkey has a right to defend its territory and airspace.
And again, I just would – we all realize when you’re operating like that, and the President spoke to this, in a complex environment where you’ve got a coalition carrying out airstrikes – daily airstrikes against ISIL, and then you have a country like Russia that is carrying out airstrikes, operating close to the border that’s not a member of that coalition and is carrying out airstrikes against the moderate Syrian opposition, again, along the border of a NATO ally, then that creates a very complex and dangerous situation.
The President was also very clear in his press conference today we would welcome a constructive Russian role in countering ISIL if it decides that it wants to focus its efforts on destroying and degrading ISIL.
QUESTION: You’re saying Turkey has the right to defend itself; President Obama said the same thing. What defense are you talking about? Does anyone think Russia was going to attack Turkey?
MR TONER: Again, I mean, this is --
QUESTION: Do you think so?
MR TONER: Look, I don’t want to parse out this incident. I said very clearly that we don’t know all the facts yet, so for me to speak categorically about what happened is – frankly, would be irresponsible. We’re still gathering the facts of what happened. The NATO – or the NAC met in Brussels today. We’re still talking with Turkey. We’re still trying to determine the series of events that led to the incident earlier today. Let’s find out before we can make a determination – a definitive determination about what happened.
QUESTION: Well, even if you --
MR TONER: That said – let me finish. That said, we’re also very clear that any country, when its airspace is violated and its territory is violated, has the right to defend itself. That’s for that country to make that determination. I don’t know what happened, I’m not going to speak definitively as to what happened, but that’s the principle at play here.
QUESTION: Even if you accept the Turkish version that the plane traveled 1.3 miles inside Turkey and violated its airspace for 17 seconds – that’s according to Turkey – do you think shooting down the plane was the right thing to do?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to give you our assessment at this point. We’re still gathering the facts. What I think is important in the aftermath of this incident – and I’ve said it multiple times today already as the President obviously spoke to it – is de-escalation. We want to see Turkey and Russia talk to each other. We want to see, frankly, these kinds of incidents eliminated going forward.
QUESTION: Yes. In 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish plane that reportedly strayed into its territory. Prime Minister Erdogan then said, “A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.” Meanwhile, NATO has expressed its condemnation of Syria’s attack as well as strong support for Turkey. Do you see the inconsistency of NATO’s response on this?
MR TONER: As to what President Erdogan may have said after that incident, I would refer you to him. We had, again --
QUESTION: NATO’s condemnation of Syria’s attack --
MR TONER: -- again – hold on, hold on --
QUESTION: -- and the U.S. is part of NATO, so you --
MR TONER: -- hold on, hold on, hold on. What you’re talking about today – we said we’re still gathering the facts. We’re not ready to make a determination yet. We’ve – we know what Turkey says happened. If that’s indeed true, Turkey does – the President said this – have a right to defend its airspace. As others have mentioned, this is not the first such incident. It is part of what happens when you have another power operating on the border of a country, again, carrying out airstrikes that aren’t part of the broader coalition efforts to counter ISIL. But I’m not going to make a determination and I’m not going to talk about incidents that happened three or four years prior.
QUESTION: Just one more --
MR TONER: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- please, thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Turkoman forces in Syria said they killed the two Russian pilots as they descended in parachutes.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Turkoman forces are supported by Turkey and are fighting against the Syrian Government, they are part of the rebel force there. Do you consider these rebels to be a moderate force in Syria?
MR TONER: So a couple of thoughts, one – or a couple points: One is we’ve seen conflicting views, as I think Said just mentioned. We’ve also seen that one pilot may not have been killed. If these were – if these Turkoman were actually the – being attacked by these Russian strikes, they have every right to defend themselves. But that said, we don’t – that said, we don’t know --
QUESTION: And they have the right to shoot at the pilots in parachutes?
MR TONER: We don’t have a clear, clear understanding of everything that happened today, okay? I’ve said that and I can keep saying it all day. We’re still trying to determine what happened. It’s easy to rush to judgments and to make proclamations and declarations after an incident like this. You need to gather the facts, you need to be clear about what happened, what occurred, and again, with the emphasis – where the – where we want the emphasis to be is de-escalating and communications between Turkey and Russia going forward.
QUESTION: Back to the diplomatic --
QUESTION: Has any --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: What – have you offered any suggestions for what could be done to de-escalate other than telling Russia that it should stop flying or join the coalition?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, again, I can’t speak to the – what’s been discussed or what may be discussed with Turkey and going forward. I mean, we established --
QUESTION: Well, would --
MR TONER: No, I’m just saying we established a de-confliction mechanism with Russia to avoid these kinds of incidents. That’s one --
QUESTION: All right. Well, I’m still not really sure I understand what de-confliction means, but in terms of de-escalation --
MR TONER: I mean --
QUESTION: -- which is what you’re asking for now --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Forget about the de-confliction part of it --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- the de-escalation part – what exactly would you like Turkey and Russia to do?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, if there was a clear violation of Turkey’s airspace, then Russia needs to, obviously, not do that in the future.
QUESTION: Apologize, what?
MR TONER: Not do that in the future, be aware of where it’s flying. But again, we haven’t – nobody’s made a concrete determination on that yet. But there’s a number of steps, again, and I would refer you to security experts --
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: -- and others who can talk to what ways you can de-conflict and --
MR TONER: -- de-escalate when you’ve got two forces operating in the same space.
QUESTION: And in reference – you said – or you don’t know what – obviously, you said several times you don’t know exactly what happened, but you made reference then that these Turkoman rebels, they have the right to defend themselves, yeah? I mean --
MR TONER: It’s unclear to me who was --
QUESTION: So that goes – that goes --
MR TONER: It’s unclear to me whether they were getting the strike – whether they were being struck or not.
QUESTION: Right. That right applies to everyone, does it not? Not just to the rebels who are supported by the West?
MR TONER: I’m not going to – I mean, what are you --
QUESTION: The right to – well, I’m just curious as to --
MR TONER: Where are you going with this?
QUESTION: I’m trying – I mean, do you think that everybody has the right to defend themselves?
MR TONER: We’ve said very clearly that people have the right to defend themselves.
QUESTION: Right? Including the Assad regime?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: No? They don’t have the right to defend themselves?
MR TONER: No. Look, there’s a clear – no, but I’m not going to accept your premise that I’m somehow giving Assad – Assad the right that --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, you were the one that raised it. You were the --
MR TONER: I mean, what Assad’s – wait, no, now that you’ve raised it --
QUESTION: I didn’t raise it, Mark. You raised it.
MR TONER: -- what Assad’s regime is doing is hardly self-defense. Meeting what were peaceful protests with four years of unmitigated terror and assault on his own people is hardly self-defense.
QUESTION: All right. Last one just on the diplomatic – again, on the diplomatic front. It used to be – is the Secretary at all thinking about going to Turkey? It used to be that when a secretary of state went to Greece, it was unheard of that they wouldn’t also go to Turkey.
MR TONER: I’m not – again, this was – this is the trip, this is the schedule. If we have anything more to announce, we’ll – we’ll announce it.
QUESTION: So Mark, you’re saying --
MR TONER: Sorry, finish.
QUESTION: -- what’s going on in Syria for the past four years has been really a peaceful protest? Is that what you’re saying, what we have now?
MR TONER: No, Said, but we all know the chain of events. I mean, if you want me to --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, let me ask you --
MR TONER: -- raise it once more, I’m happy to do so.
MR TONER: But everyone in this room knows what Assad has perpetrated against his people.
QUESTION: Should any thought be given to the fact that this airplane was shot over Turkey, yet the pilots apparently came down in Syrian territory? Should that be given some sort of scrutiny?
MR TONER: Again, I’m sure that folks are looking at all the different aspects of this.
QUESTION: Mark, there was another aircraft apparently shot down in Turkey today, a helicopter, and there’s --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- images of a – the Syrian rebel forces shooting – using a TOW missile, which appears to be a U.S.-supplied missile. Do – can you tell us what the relationship is between the United States and – if there’s a relationship between the United States and these – this group? I think it’s called the First Brigade or First Coastal Brigade.
MR TONER: These are – this --
QUESTION: That’s the Free Syrian Army, right?
MR TONER: This happened in northern Syria?
QUESTION: Yeah, in the same area where --
MR TONER: Frankly, I’ve only seen initial reports about that incident, where a helicopter was coming – I don’t have all the details yet, so --
QUESTION: But just – how do – in general, how do Syrian rebels get their hands on TOW missiles? Do you have any idea – U.S.-made TOW missiles?
MR TONER: Again, I mean, we have – I mean, there’s any number of ways. I mean, first of all, we have supplied some of the Syrian forces that are fighting ISIL in northern Syria. We’ve talked about that before. But there’s frankly many ways you can get – I mean, we’ve also been providing equipment and weaponry to Iraqi military as well. So I can’t speak to the specific incident.
QUESTION: Would you condemn the use of those missiles against, let’s say, a Russian helicopter, as may have been the case here?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to --
QUESTION: Would you condemn it if --
MR TONER: I mean, look, this is a very complex environment, as we’ve said many times. And it’s made even more complex by the fact that Russia is now, in support of Assad’s regime, carrying out airstrikes it says are counter-ISIL but in many cases are directed at moderate Syrian opposition forces. And so this only increases the urgency that everyone feels now to get the political process underway that will resolve that aspect of this conflict, that will lead to a political transition so that everyone – moderate Syrian opposition, the Syrian people, Russia, the rest of the 65-member coalition – can then focus their efforts where they need to be focused, which is on destroying ISIL.
QUESTION: Mark, Mark.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: You sound like you are not sure what happened exactly in the Turkish border. But the NATO secretary general said that the allied assessment that we have are consistent with the information we have from Turkey. So United States is part of NATO, and NATO says that Turkish story is the truth. So how come you are not sure exactly what happened in there and --
MR TONER: Well, first of all, I’m sitting – standing up in front of you; I’m not sitting in a NAC in Brussels right now. So I don’t know what was read out to the – by the Turks to the assembled members of NATO. So for you to give me real-time questions of what the secretary general may or may not be saying --
QUESTION: It has been for a while --
MR TONER: -- coming out of that is a little bit --
QUESTION: It has been for a while, like, maybe more than --
MR TONER: -- disingenuous.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Mark, on this issue, Turkey is a member of the international coalition against ISIS. And you talked about the mechanism, the de-confliction mechanism that you have with Russia. Does this mechanism apply only to the U.S., or to the all members of the coalition?
MR TONER: I’d refer you to DOD for the specifics. My understanding is it only applies to – between the U.S. and Russia.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: In other words, it doesn’t apply to Turkey, even though they have flown some raids?
MR TONER: That’s my understanding.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Can I just --
MR TONER: Yep. Go ahead, then I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: -- I’ve got one more. There’s been a lot of criticism, and not just in Russia, over the course of the past – well, since – for a while, but also ramping up since this incident happened, of concern about the – Turkey and its support for rebels who may or may not have sympathy or ties with ISIS. Does the United States share these concerns?
MR TONER: Sorry, ramping up of concern over --
QUESTION: There’s been a lot of criticism --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- in Russia and elsewhere for a while now --
MR TONER: So – yeah, okay. Sorry, I just – go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: -- more so today than in the past, about Turkey --
MR TONER: So a couple --
QUESTION: -- kind of playing a double game here. Does the United States share those concerns?
MR TONER: That Turkey is playing a double game in supporting – I’m sorry, I thought you meant – I apologize; I thought you were talking about groups within Syria among the opposition.
QUESTION: Yes, that Turkey is supporting groups among Syria who may or may not be clean, as it were.
MR TONER: Well, again, I would just – what I would refer you to or talk about is this is the work that remains in front of us in terms of the Vienna group that met last week and now is working towards December meetings and determining who among the Syrian opposition is, however you want to put it – good, clean, representative of the Syrian people – and identifying those members of the Syrian opposition who we believe --
QUESTION: Right, I --
MR TONER: -- are affiliated with ISIL or whatever going forward.
QUESTION: Yeah, I get that. But is there concern in the U.S. Government that Turkey might be supporting groups that it shouldn’t be?
MR TONER: Not to our awareness, I think, that we would consider them supporting groups that were – that we counter – that we believe are pro-ISIL, no.
QUESTION: Does that apply to any – are there – I mean, there have been concerns expressed, for example, about groups that, say, the Saudis support. So you’re saying that that kind of concern doesn’t exist as it relates to Turkey?
MR TONER: Again, I mean, for Turkey, countering ISIL is really – I mean, it’s not too far a stretch to say it’s an existential threat for them. I mean, they’ve got ISIL operating on their border. So we believe Turkey’s a genuine partner in destroying ISIL.
QUESTION: So one of the responses that President Putin had to this incident was to say that Turkey – I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it – that they’ve stabbed them in the back and that they’re terrorist – I think he said terrorist accomplices or something like that. What’s the – I mean, those are really strong words to be said by Russia against – about a NATO ally. What’s the – I guess what’s the State Department response to that, I mean, and – I mean, starting from a factual standpoint?
MR TONER: I’m not sure what you mean, “from a factual standpoint.”
QUESTION: Well, he’s saying that they’re terrorist accomplices, that they’re supporting groups that are terrorists.
MR TONER: Well, I think I just tried to answer that to Matt, I mean – in response to Matt’s question, rather. We’ve been working closely with Turkey for the past year, really augmenting our efforts. And, of course, the big step in – forward in that respect was – or in that regard was operating out of Incirlik in order to bring close support for those groups that are fighting effectively against ISIL in northern Syria. I don’t want to get too far into what we may or may not be discussing with regard to Turkey’s future role, but we continue to look at ways we can augment our efforts with Turkey as a partner.
Turkey does have concerns about the PKK and how they overlap with some of these groups in northern Syria. They’ve been very clear about that, and we’ve made an effort to listen to their concerns and take them into – and take them into consideration. Moving forward, we’re going to continue to collaborate with Turkey as, as I said, as a NATO ally and close partner.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I have a couple more on this.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Both the Turkish prime --
MR TONER: Let’s move quickly. I’ve got about 10 minutes. I apologize.
QUESTION: Both the Turkish prime minister and the president talk about these Turkoman --
QUESTION: A lot more to come.
MR TONER: There is.
QUESTION: -- Turkoman opposition groups in northern Syria that have been bombed by the Russia. Would you be able to confirm that? Is this your information, that the Turkoman groups in northern Syria being bombed by Russia actively in recent days and weeks?
MR TONER: I’ve seen also those reports. I cannot confirm them.
QUESTION: About the no-fly zone discussions after this incident happened today, do you think that they should take a look again about these discussions, as the President Erdogan stated today?
MR TONER: We’ve been clear where we stand on a no-fly zone. I don’t know if that’s under any kind of new consideration. I don’t have anything to add.
MR TONER: Please. Goyal, quickly.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Thanks.
QUESTION: As far as – two questions, actually, before my question on Nepal and --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and Bangladesh.
MR TONER: Goyal, I’m really pressed for time. I apologize.
QUESTION: On ISIL – quickly on ISIL.
MR TONER: Okay. Very, very --
QUESTION: As far as ISIL is concerned, 64 nations are working to destroy ISIL. By now, do anybody know that – who is training them and where, and who is supplying them arms, and who is buying their stolen oil?
MR TONER: Who’s this, ISIL?
MR TONER: All good questions. A variety of folks are providing them with arms. I don’t want to get into the details from the podium, but they’ve obviously found a black market or have a black market network setup where – through which they’re able to sell some of their oil. We’ve talked even the fact that the Assad regime is one of their buyers.
It’s a very fluid situation, as we all know. There’s a lot of weapons in that part of the world. One of the focuses of the anti-ISIL coalition has been on disrupting those networks and disrupting those supply lines, whether it’s for weapons, but also for the flow of foreign fighters.
QUESTION: Can we go to Tunisia?
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s – are we done with this? Kind of – just want to hit on some other stuff.
QUESTION: Just quick --
QUESTION: The Secretary’s meeting today, please.
MR TONER: What was your last question? Please. I’m trying to do this quickly, guys.
QUESTION: That’s going to be read out.
QUESTION: Both president at the White House in a press conference said that they will destroy the ISILs. What – do they have any – do you know any – how they will find out who is supplying – arms is the major thing now, to training arms and the – buying – the financing. How do you – where do you go to find this out?
MR TONER: Well, again, we try to disrupt the networks. We try to seal off the borders and the flow of the – of arms, and we try to stem the flow of foreign fighters.
MR TONER: Go ahead, Matt.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The – one, do you – can you get your reaction to the attack that happened there and the imposition of a state of emergency?
MR TONER: Well, obviously we strongly condemn the attack. I think we’re still in a place where we’re waiting to see what exactly took place. I don’t have a lot of details to provide, but clearly, we strongly condemn the attack.
QUESTION: All right. When we were there in Tunis not so long ago, the Secretary made mention of the fact that there was going to be a military team heading out there roughly around this time.
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Do you know if that team was there?
MR TONER: I will take the question --
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: -- and see what I can provide for you.
QUESTION: Mark, Mark --
QUESTION: One more on China?
QUESTION: Can we --
MR TONER: Let’s do China.
MR TONER: Oh, Burundi. I’m sorry, I apologize.
MR TONER: Sorry, I heard you – somebody said China.
QUESTION: Right. Burundi. Do you have anything about --
MR TONER: I do, yeah. Thank you for asking again. So we can confirm that the Government of Burundi has suspended the activities and frozen the accounts of multiple local civil society organizations in what is a clear step backwards for – in pursuit of peace and dialogue in Burundi. We want to see an open, unfettered, and comprehensive political dialogue take place there in which all voices are heard. That remains the only credible route towards stability and an effort to achieve consensus and forge a peaceful path forward for the Burundian people. As the crisis there deepens, it’s – and media outlets, of course, continue to be shuttered, repression of the – of civil society is the exact opposite of what needs to happen.
QUESTION: Is there any discussion from the building for the U.S. to take another look at its partnership with the Burundi Government?
MR TONER: Partnership with the Burundian Government? Well, you know we just imposed yesterday targeted sanctions on four individuals. I don’t have anything new to announce in that regard, but we’ll continue to look at our relationship as we move forward if the Burundian Government continues to act in a way that doesn’t reconcile the situation or lessen the current tensions.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the – today it just come out – Iranian foreign minister is saying that expect the nuclear deal to be implemented in early January.
MR TONER: Expects a --
QUESTION: Implementation day to be next January.
MR TONER: No, I don’t have anything. I mean, I just – we’re very clear on the fact that Iran knows the steps it needs to take to get to implementation day. We expect it to comply fully with those steps according to the JCPOA.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Iran.
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.
QUESTION: Did Ambassador Mull meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi --
MR TONER: Yes, thank you for – yeah, so --
QUESTION: -- and do you have a readout?
MR TONER: Yeah, so just doing the forensics on this, we did put out a travel note on Friday that he was going to be in Vienna for meetings with other participants to the JCPOA as well as the IAEA. And these meetings were for the purpose of tracking the progress towards full implementation of the JCPOA. So he did meet; we can confirm that, along with, obviously, the other P5+1 participants. He did meet with Iran. I don’t have any further readouts, but --
QUESTION: You can’t say --
MR TONER: -- it was obviously talked about, the implementation process.
QUESTION: You can’t say if it was Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi?
MR TONER: I believe that’s correct, yes.
QUESTION: And lastly, do you have any reason to believe that the implementation of the nuclear deal is either on track or not on track?
MR TONER: At this point, no, I don’t have any assessment. I mean, I think we continue to make progress towards – as we – as I just said, towards implementation day, and the Iranians know what steps they need to take going forward.
MR TONER: Sure. Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He talked about Israel’s right to defend itself. He talked about terrorism and all these things. Did not mention settlements, did not talk about the occupation. Has there been any change in the U.S. policy towards settlements?
MR TONER: Well, I’m glad you brought up that issue.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Let me just ask this question in a way that you can respond to it.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Okay.
QUESTION: The Israelis – an Israeli official after the meeting said that the prime minister had made it clear – well, first of all, does the United States want the Government of Israel to issue building permits for Palestinian projects? And then part of that is that the Israeli official says that in response to that request – I don’t know if it’s being made or not – but in response, the prime minister, quote, “made clear that if the international community expects building permits for the Palestinians, Israel expects recognition for building in existing settlement – in the blocs,” referring to existing settlement blocs.
One, is that an accurate representation? Did the prime minister ask the Secretary to recognize existing settlements and new construction in them in return for this step of approving building permits for the Palestinians? And if he did, what was the response? Is the U.S. going to change its position on settlements?
MR TONER: Thank you. Well, as you can probably understand, I’m not going to get into the contents or the details of what are private diplomatic conversations. But as to those comments and those reports, I can be very clear that we’re not changing – again, we’re not changing – the decades-old U.S. policy regarding settlements. Every U.S. administration since 1967, Democrat and Republican alike, has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines, and this Administration’s been no different and will be no different. The U.S. Government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and by extension does not pursue policies that would legitimize them. And administrations of both parties have long recognized that settlement activity and efforts to change the facts on the ground undermine the goal of a two-state solution.
QUESTION: So that sounds like that’s a big no.
MR TONER: That’s a big no.
QUESTION: Does that mean that you do not --
MR TONER: Regarding your question about whether we’re considering changing our policy on settlements.
QUESTION: Right. Are you suggesting to the Israelis that one way to ease the tensions might be to allow – to approve building permits for the Palestinians?
MR TONER: I would just – again, we’ve been very clear not to get into specifics of some of the confidence-building measures or some of the efforts that we want to see, affirmative actions that we want to see both sides take. But we’ve been very clear that we want to see tensions de-escalated. And we’ve suggested some of the steps that Israel might take, but I’m not going to confirm that that was one of them.
MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s – like two more questions. Go ahead, please, China.
QUESTION: Chinese foreign ministry just said today that China will build additional facilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea for civilian purposes. Do you have any comment on this announcement?
MR TONER: Sorry. Your – the first part. I just missed the first part of your question. I apologize, sir.
QUESTION: Chinese foreign ministry said today China will build additional facilities on reclaimed islands in South China Sea for civilian purposes. Do you have any comment?
MR TONER: Our policy regarding the building up of anything on or the construction of anything on the South China Sea hasn’t changed. We encourage all claimant states regarding the South China Sea to take concrete steps to reduce tensions, and we want to see a reciprocal halt among claimants to any land reclamation, any new construction, and further militarization of outposts along the South China Sea.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: In the back, yeah.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- be concerned as we go away for the holidays?
MR TONER: Thanks for raising that. Geez, I can’t believe we haven’t gotten to that yet.
QUESTION: And this alert is rather broad and vague as well.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Will it turn into white noise for the average American?
MR TONER: Well, it certainly didn’t turn into white noise when it was released last night. And we did release it last evening, given that this is a week where many Americans are going to be traveling, clearly domestically but also overseas. This was an effort to alert U.S. citizens to the possible risk of travel because of increased terrorist threats. This was based on, obviously, the reality of a series of attacks in Beirut, in Paris, in Mali, and then the threat – very real threat in Brussels that led to the shutdown of the city.
This Travel Alert – and we do them periodically – is an effort when we see this kind of information out there and we believe that there’s a credible and consistent threat, it’s our responsibility to inform the American public that this threat exists. What this is not saying is don’t travel. We want Americans to travel domestically, overseas. We want them to do business overseas. We don’t want them to restrict their travel or their movements. But given the heightened security concerns, we do want American travelers to be very prudent and very vigilant. And so there’s a number of steps that they can take to do so, one of which is following – via the travel.state.gov website – alerts, information updates that come up or that are updated all the time. And the other thing – and we say it often but we can’t say it often enough – is Americans need to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and that allows us to reach out to them overseas directly.
But we’re talking about a significant number of Americans who travel and live abroad. I think there is roughly 8.7 million AmCits, American citizens – sorry, shorthand – who are overseas at any given time these days, and about 80 million Americans who travel abroad annually. So it’s incumbent on the State Department to alert them when we do have credible information.
QUESTION: Is there, like, any specific --
QUESTION: Can you explain why --
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- what the difference is between the Worldwide Caution that has been out and in place basically --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- since 9/11 --
MR TONER: Sure. Okay, right.
QUESTION: -- and this alert?
MR TONER: A very good question. And you’re right, and even I can get confused about this.
QUESTION: And --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And explain exactly how the advice that has been offered to Americans going abroad for more – for a decade now, explain how that’s different in the alert than it is in the Worldwide Caution.
MR TONER: Sure. Okay. Well, first off, an alert --
QUESTION: Can you?
MR TONER: Let me make an effort.
MR TONER: An alert, a Worldwide Travel Alert, is time bound, first of all. So I think this one is for 90 days and provides more specific information about current risk of travel, obviously, in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. The Worldwide Caution provides information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests around the world. And the last – the Worldwide Caution – the last one was updated, I think, in 2015 in July. But an alert is time bound --
QUESTION: That one --
MR TONER: What’s that? So an alert is time bound --
QUESTION: That was July, a couple months ago.
MR TONER: Yeah. July, yeah. You’re right, sorry. An alert is time bound. It’s not necessarily weaker or stronger than a caution would be, but it’s designed to provide – when we have specific information regarding current risks of travel, we try to put that out.
QUESTION: Yeah. But the advice is exactly the same as it was before, correct? The only thing that this did was to update – to add in the attacks that happened in Mali and in Paris and the other places it mentioned, correct?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, that’s what – I mean, look, I mean, part of it --
QUESTION: I’m not saying that it was irresponsible to do it.
MR TONER: No, no, no, no. But part of the purpose is -- right.
QUESTION: I’m just saying that --
MR TONER: No, no, agree. Yeah. Part of the purpose is --
QUESTION: -- throughout and what you’re advising Americans to do today is exactly the same thing you were advising Americans to do 12, 10 years ago.
MR TONER: Essentially, yes, in terms of being vigilant, being prudent.
QUESTION: Right. There’s no different advice --
MR TONER: What to avoid overseas.
QUESTION: There’s no different advice in the alert than there is in the Worldwide Caution that has been in existence for years and years, correct?
MR TONER: So generally – right.
MR TONER: Generally, the advice we provide – again, for a travel alert – is general good practices.
QUESTION: Yeah. But there’s nothing new in it.
QUESTION: He’s acknowledging that.
MR TONER: No, no. I agree. Yeah, I agree, that. I acknowledge that.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. Fine.
MR TONER: I’m just saying that it’s in reaction to – so a lot of this information – you’re right – is if you’re a seasoned traveler, you know this stuff. But it’s incumbent on us, in order to protect American citizens, which is our highest responsibility, is to put this information out when it’s --
QUESTION: Mark, I get it.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: What I’m trying to say, the threat that exists today is the same as the threat that existed three weeks ago, and so there isn’t anything different than – that you’re advising American citizens to do now in the wake of Paris and other – and these other attacks than what you were advising them to do before. People get very spun up about this, and if you look at --
MR TONER: Right. I – okay. Yeah, I see your point. Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thank you.
MR TONER: Great. That’s it, guys. Sorry.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:02 p.m.)