Daily Press Briefing - December 28, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:11 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hi guys. Welcome to the State Department. Hope everyone had a somewhat restful and calm holiday weekend. A few things, actually, at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions.
First of all, many of you saw the Secretary’s statement out earlier today as well as a background call that we did, but I just wanted to reiterate that we welcome today’s announcement by the governments of Japan and the Republic of Korea that they have a reached an agreement regarding the very sensitive historical legacy issue of so-called comfort women.
The two governments made clear that by implementing this agreement they will, quote, “finally and irreversibly,” end quote, resolve this issue between the two governments. And we believe this agreement will promote healing and help improve relations between two of the United States’s most important allies. We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement, and we call on the international community to support it.
Also, of course, all of you have seen in the news today, but I wanted to note events in Ramadi and the fact that we commend, rather, the Government of Iraq and the brave Iraqi forces that have displayed such tremendous perseverance as well as courage in the fight to return Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, back to the Iraqi people. The coalition has supported this operation every step of the way with hundreds of airstrikes and through our train, advise, and assist program and has assisted Iraqi forces to effectively maneuver and counter ISIL’s maneuvers and tactics in this very complex environment.
While there’s still clearly a lot of work to be done to reclaim all of Ramadi – the remaining portions of Ramadi – and fully secure the city, and while these operations will take time, Iraqis’ forces gains in the city are dealing a significant blow to ISIL and exemplify the capability of Iraqi Security Forces and the effective coalition air power when working in conjunction with skilled partners on the ground. We think this is indicative of the – that the strategy we’re currently pursuing is having an effect. It is consistent with our national security interests. In order to address this problem over the long term, we need to build up the capacity of Iraqi forces who continue to battle to take back their country from the – from this barbaric organization.
And then finally, there have been a few reports about this is in the news, and we just issued a statement in the Secretary’s name, but I did want to speak about the – where we are on progress towards implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concerning Iran’s nuclear program.
As the Secretary made clear in his statement, Iran is taking steps – the steps it committed to take – to prove to the world its nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful. And while we’re not yet at implementation day, the steps already taken have made us and our allies safer in concrete and measurable ways. So one of the most important steps occurred earlier today when a ship departed Iran for Russia carrying over 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium materials. This shipment alone more than triples the previous – our previous two- to three-month estimated breakout time for Iran to acquire enough weapon-grade uranium for one weapon. So this is an important piece of the technical equation, as it ensures an eventual breakout time of at least one year by implementation day.
A number of countries made valuable contributions to this – these – making these shipments happen. And the Secretary spoke this morning with his Norwegian and Kazak counterparts to specifically thank them for their assistance.
Iran is also moving forward in removing much of its uranium enrichment infrastructure as well as removing and rendering inoperable the existing core of the Arak reactor. The IAEA will, of course, verify all of these steps and more, and the agency is continuing its own preparations to implement the extensive monitoring and verification regime of Iran’s entire nuclear program as specified in the JCPOA.
We’ll continue to consult closely with both the IAEA and other P5+1 partners as we move toward verification by the IAEA that Iran has met all of its key nuclear commitments. We remain fully committed and on track to implement or sanctions-related commitments provided under the – provided for under the JCPOA. Our team is working hard to be prepared for implementation day. When that day comes, the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions per the JCPOA will take effect. It is not the policy of the United States to prevent permissible business activities with Iran.
And finally, we will continue working to ensure that the full implementation of the JCPOA achieves exactly what we set out to do from the very beginning of these negotiations, which is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is and always remains exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Well, that was a long summary at the top, but over to you, Arshad.
QUESTION: I’d like to start with the final item, which is the Iran item.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, of course.
QUESTION: So – and this may be a technical thing that you can’t answer, but if you can, it would be great.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Why does the statement say “low-enriched uranium materials” rather than just “low-enriched uranium”?
MR TONER: Sure. Actually, I think I can at least attempt to answer this. So this – when we refer to it as material, it’s actually a combination of forms of low-enriched uranium materials. So it includes up to 5 percent enriched uranium and oxide forms, up to 20 percent enriched uranium scrap metal and partially fabricated fuel plates, and targets containing up to 20 percent enriched uranium. So that – that actually constitutes, I think, almost all of Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium.
QUESTION: And second, is it your belief – regardless of what the IAEA may or may not verify, is it the U.S. Government’s belief that with this shipment Iran is now below the 300-kilogram threshold?
MR TONER: Well, that’s the – I mean, that’s – yes. I mean, that is – so this would bring Iran closer to meeting its commitment to have no more than 300 kilograms, rather, of low-enriched uranium by implementation day. But your point notwithstanding, we will wait for the IAEA to actually verify that its stockpile is 300 kilograms or less.
QUESTION: Right. But you say this would bring it closer to meeting its commitment.
MR TONER: We just – I think – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off. I’m just saying that we’re waiting for the – we’ll wait for the IAEA to actually confirm that. That’s --
QUESTION: So you’re not going to opine on whether it is at or below 300 kilograms --
MR TONER: No. I mean, this would – were it in fact verified by the IAEA, I think it would bring them below the 300-kilogram threshold. But let’s wait and --
MR TONER: For that to --
QUESTION: And then one more thing: I’m perplexed by one – this – I’m asking this kind of on behalf of Matt.
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: There’s this sentence in the statement that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, which is that it is not the policy of the United States to prevent permissible business with Iran. I mean, if it’s permissible, why would it be your policy to prevent it?
MR TONER: I think – point taken. Look, I think it’s – that line – I was trying to address the fact that there was confusion, consternation expressed over the Visa Waiver Program legislation and whether that would affect allowable, permissible travel – business travel – to Iran because of the fact that – as was laid out in Secretary Kerry’s letter to Foreign Minister Zarif, that somehow that would dissuade businesspeople from Europe traveling to Iran if they would somehow not be able to have visa-free or visa waiver travel to the United States. Secretary Kerry was very clear in his letter saying that those recent changes in visa requirements will not in any way prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments. And I think I was – well not “I think.” I was just trying to reiterate that point.
QUESTION: Okay. So that was actually going to be the next thing that I was going to come to --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- because as you will have seen, the Iranian foreign ministry today has said that Iran will take reciprocal measures in response to any breach of the nuclear agreement. And Iran has said that it regards the law as – of contravening the agreement. So here are – so a couple questions. One --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- do you concur with the Iranian view that the new visa restrictions or limitations contravene the nuclear agreement?
MR TONER: We do not. As – again, as Secretary Kerry’s letter made clear – and it was publicly released last week – but that any recent changes in visa requirements will not prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments. We’ll implement the new legislation so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran, such as in those areas where sanctions will be lifted when Iran has meeted its JCPOA commitments.
QUESTION: My question in a way –
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- though, goes at kind of a separate issue --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- which is that it won’t keep you from keeping your commitments is one thing. But if the Iranians believe that you have breached or contravened the agreement, then maybe they won’t meet their commitments.
MR TONER: And that’s – I mean, look, Arshad, I’m aware and I figured that was going to be your follow-up question. We’ve expressed our conviction that this new law will not in any way prohibit us from fulfilling our commitments to the JCPOA. I can’t speak to what Iranians -- what Iranian politicians may be saying about this or not. I would just say the Secretary’s words and language stand that we have a number of potential tools to ensure this new legislation does not unduly interfere with JCPOA’s implementation or legitimate business travel. And we’ve talked a little bit about that before; I think John spoke to it last week. There’s not a bar to B-1/B-2 nonimmigrant visa travel. If it were to come to that, there’s also other tools or possibilities on the table that we can work around.
Thanks. Yeah, please, Said.
QUESTION: Can we move to Iraq? Can we go to Iraq?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Okay. First of all, can you confirm – on Iran?
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. Did you still have one? That’s fine. Let’s finish up with Iran, yeah.
QUESTION: Ultimately, of course, implementation day will be determined by when the IAEA verifies that Iran is in compliance. But with this development today, do world powers have a sense of or even sort of a rough outline on when implementation day may occur? Does this perhaps make it foreseeable in January or February as Iran has alluded to recently?
MR TONER: Sure. I’m – so I – obviously, by my lengthy readout at the top of the briefing, we do believe this is a significant step in that direction. I would hate to put a date certain on implementation day except to say that Arak still has a number of steps it needs to take. And I think I spoke to that about the Arak reactor site and some other steps it needs to take, obviously, to get to implementation day. But certainly the removal of nearly all of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, once it’s certainly confirmed by the IAEA, is a significant step. And certainly also because of what I just mentioned, which is that it – this action alone will increase Arak’s breakout time to achieve a nuclear weapon from what it currently – two to three months to a year or more. So it’s a significant step. I just – there’s other steps that need to be taken, certainly, but this is obviously a significant one.
MR TONER: We can go to Iraq.
QUESTION: Okay. First, can you confirm that Shishani, who was the field commander in Ramadi, was captured? Can you confirm that?
MR TONER: I cannot confirm that, no. I’ve seen those reports; I just don’t --
QUESTION: Okay. You’ve seen --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- you’ve seen those reports. Now, also we’re a bit confused on the exact status of Ramadi. The Government of Iraq has said that it has been totally liberated. Other reports say that there are still some in the surrounding areas --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and in fact, ISIS fighters have been able to flee north, which I cannot – I mean, I know the area.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So do you have any --
MR TONER: I don’t. I know Colonel Steve Warren, who’s in Baghdad, has given a little bit more operational details on this. But even he recognizes and has recognized – and we do as well – that as you clear a city – and certainly you know this, Said, from your experience in Iraq – it’s not – it takes a while to get there. You need to – obviously, there’s always pockets of resistance. There are areas that need to be cleared. The Iraqi national flag is once again flying over Ramadi. That’s a significant step forward, but there’s going to be still, as I said, pockets of resistance as Iraqi troops move to clean up the city and secure it.
QUESTION: Now, on the role of U.S. advisors --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- military advisors. Were they involved in any way in operational activities or actions --
MR TONER: Sure. Just to – I mean, I can give you some --
MR TONER: -- numbers. Seventeen members of the coalition joined the U.S. in deploying military personnel to assist the Iraqi Government in training, along with advise and assist missions. Twelve coalition members have conducted over 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq, including over 630 alone in support of the Ramadi operation. Nineteen coalition members provided – supported – supporting aircraft, including transport, surveillance, and aerial refuelers. So there was a lot of support, a lot of active air support provided to the Iraqi troops who retook the city. But your specific question was --
QUESTION: My specific question is on the ground forces, the U.S. Special Forces that are --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- with the Iraqis. Were they involved in any way in combat? Did they call in, let’s say, airstrikes and so on?
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I’d really leave that for the Pentagon to talk about what their operational role was.
QUESTION: But it would be expected that they in fact called in precise or precision bombardments and so on from the ground?
MR TONER: Well, generally speaking, that’s what we’ve talked about, and some of these forces on the ground who can actually bring in close air support. But I don’t want to necessarily speak to what their role might have been. I think it’s better addressed by the Pentagon.
QUESTION: Japan and South Korea.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Iraq?
MR TONER: Yeah, we’ll stay with Iraq, and then we’ll --
MR TONER: Sure, it’s okay.
QUESTION: Iraqi parliament secretary and defense committee chairman said that U.S. has landed airborne troops to a county near Kirkuk over the weekend. I was wondering if you can confirm this or deny it.
MR TONER: You said U.S. airborne troops?
QUESTION: Are landed in Iraq, Kirkuk. That’s what he said over the weekend.
MR TONER: No, I have no – I haven’t even seen those reports. I apologize. I don’t have anything for you on that.
Pam, is this still Iraq?
QUESTION: Yes, staying with – on Ramadi.
MR TONER: Okay. No, I’m sorry, Pam.
MR TONER: It’s okay.
QUESTION: Staying with Ramadi. A couple of questions, actually.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: The first one looking a little ways down the road to what would be the next step. Are there initial plans that are ready to be put in place for the stabilization and reconstruction of Ramadi? And if not, could Iraqis hold Ramadi without such a plan?
MR TONER: Well, I do – yes. I mean, I think – obviously, whenever we talk about liberating cities or territory from ISIL, the next step is obviously recreating stability there so that people can come back – those refugees, those people who have been displaced by the fighting with ISIL, can return home. So that’s obviously going to be a major initiative going forward. I’m just looking to see if I have any specific numbers on that. But I know we are giving the Iraqi Government some funding to help assist with those stability operations.
As I said, that’s – that’s always the one-two punch, if you will. I mean, once you retake this territory, you’ve got to get stability returned. You’ve got to get an interim government or a government up and functioning. You’ve got to get services restored. Otherwise, as you point out, people who’ve been displaced or, frankly, people who have been affected by the fighting cannot return to their normal lives, businesses can’t return, the economy can’t return. So you need to – absolutely, you need to get those basic services returned and stability provided.
QUESTION: And then one more on the same topic.
MR TONER: Yeah, sorry.
QUESTION: What about the reconciliation talks that involve the Sunnis? How important are those talks to help stabilize the region? And then what’s the status of those?
MR TONER: I don’t have a status report. Obviously, we’ve talked a little bit about them before; they are important. I’ll see if I can get an update for you on those talks, though.
QUESTION: If you are an Iraqi Sunni in Anbar province, which has been the site of extreme violence over the last dozen years, why should you have any confidence that a Shia-dominated Iraqi federal government will protect you and create a stable environment in which for you to live?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, I think, look, this is something Prime Minister Abadi has spoken to, has spoken about numerous times in his own agenda, to include Anbari leaders in the decision-making process for the plan to liberate Ramadi, and the governor of Anbar was also – played an important role in recruiting Sunni volunteers, boosting police training, coordinating military operations, et cetera. But it’s absolutely important – as I said, Prime Minister has spoken to this – is this needs to be an inclusive governmental approach. And now is the time where the proof is in the pudding, so he needs to – the Iraqi Government, Iraqi armed forces need to show that they’re actually committed to that process.
And let’s let this move forward. Certainly, the last week has brought significant gains in returning seized territory back to the Iraqi people. But as I said to – in response to Pam, now the second part of this very hard process comes into play, which is creating an environment where all people can return to their homes.
QUESTION: And can you take the question of what funding you may be providing?
MR TONER: I will. I have it somewhere in this immense book, and I’m sorry.
QUESTION: No, no, no, don’t worry. But the related question to that is that the U.S. Government has spent quite a lot of money in Iraq over quite a long period of time to try to promote stability. Whatever those numbers are, I suspect they will be significantly lower than the amounts that were spent in the early 2000s. Why should anyone believe that U.S. money will be decisive or significant or even influential at all in the current circumstance, when the money spent in the past didn’t necessarily maintain stability?
MR TONER: Well – sure, sure. I mean, a couple of thoughts on that, Arshad. I mean, I – without having the figure, exact figure in front of me, this has been an iterative process, and in many respects – certainly on our part, learning how to effectively work with local governments, local leadership, to bring back stability to create security and a secure environment for the local populations; but also on the part of the Iraqi Government. It’s a different Iraqi Government now, one that has pledged to be more inclusive, more diverse, and more democratic, and more mindful of making or creating a country that – in which all of its citizens can live in peace and security.
So part of that is – it’s a critical mindset to achieve. Going forward, we’ll certainly – as I said, the proof is in the pudding, but what we’ve seen thus far on the part of Prime Minister Abadi and his government has been a real effort to change the paradigm.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- could I just follow up on something that --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- Pam raised? On the issue of the displaced refugees – I mean, it’s upward of 200,000 people --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- fled Ramadi. Now, you said something that I’m not clear on. You said that we need to have an interim government in place --
MR TONER: I meant – I simply meant, like, authorities, local authorities return. My apologies.
QUESTION: But the governor --
MR TONER: I misspoke.
QUESTION: -- the governor council is there. You guys have worked very well with them in the past.
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: They are in place, so that --
MR TONER: Yeah, there’s a local government.
QUESTION: So how can they facilitate because --
MR TONER: I’m talking about – sorry, just to elaborate.
MR TONER: Thank you for calling me out on that. What I’m talking about is for territory that has been liberated, territory that was under ISIL control, it’s important – and this is not just true for Iraq, it’s true in any situation, similar situation where you’ve got a void. You need to get basic services returned, local government reestablished so that there is a safe and secure environment for people to return to. That’s simply the point I was making.
QUESTION: Are we likely to see a direct U.S. effort to bringing the people back? So there is not much – not a lot of goodwill between the population --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and the central government. Will the United States – because it has worked in the past with these tribes, with the leaders of these tribes and so on – will you work directly to bring the people back?
MR TONER: I am hesitant to speak directly to that. I don’t know if there’s a direct role. I’m sure that we’re advising and assisting, wherever feasible and possible, the Iraqi Government in how to do that. But as I said, this is an Iraqi Government that’s been very clear that its – that it wants to create a more inclusive environment, and so we’ll certainly help how we can for it to achieve that.
Please. Are we now in south --
QUESTION: South --
QUESTION: Yeah, the comfort women issue.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: As you mentioned, Japan and South Korea just have reached agreement over comfort women issue.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Japanese Government will give about U.S. $8.3 million to fund who those suffered during Second World War. But it seems some people, some victims are not satisfied with that. Comfort woman called Lee Yong-soo requested Japan’s damages for war crime rather than conciliatory compensation. So how does the United States make sure that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-wing politicians and advisors will not damage the agreement by provocative statements in future?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, these are issues – and as I said at the top of the briefing, we certainly applaud the efforts of both governments to reach this agreement. It was not an easy thing to achieve and took, as I said, courage, hard work, perseverance on both sides to come to an agreement. I’m aware, as we all are, that there are continued grievances, people who feel aggrieved, even with this agreement. That’s really for the Government of South Korea working with its own citizens, those affected by these events, to work with them to address their concerns. And certainly on the same – in answer to your question, in response to your question, it’s incumbent on the Government of Japan to sell this agreement or to convince the Japanese people that this agreement in is in the best interests of Japan.
QUESTION: So historians’ estimate is up to 200,000 comfort women during Second World War. They are not only from South Korea but also from maybe China, Philippines, other countries around the world. So do you think Japan should have the same kind of attitude towards them or kind of same kind of apology to these other countries’ comfort women?
MR TONER: Sure. Again, that’s – this is an important agreement, a significant step forward in addressing some of these, as I said, very sensitive historical issues. We’ve stated many times – the United States – that the trafficking of women for sexual purposes by the Japanese military during World War II was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. We do believe this agreement today will help promote healing and help improve relations certainly between Japan and the Republic of Korea, and we believe that that will help address again some of these ongoing --
MR TONER: I’m just saying, let me finish. So that’s going to help – I apologize. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, but I’m just trying to finish my answer, which is: Does this agreement answer all of the remaining grievances? No. In the region? No. It’s an important step forward, though, and it’s an important step forward by Japan.
QUESTION: So what other things Japan should do next, you mean, to --
MR TONER: I’m not going to --
MR TONER: -- attempt to tell Japan or the Japanese Government what it should do next. It’s an important agreement today. It’s a step forward. It’s up to Japan to address the way forward from here.
QUESTION: So during this process, American – the United States made some pressure on Japanese Government to, I mean, make this happen, right? So --
MR TONER: So very clear on that point, this was a process that was initiated, led by the two governments. The United States has been very clear all along, remains clear, that we supported this process. And that support was conveyed at a variety of levels, from Secretary of State Kerry, from the President, on down to lower levels of our government. But certainly, it was a consistent message that we believe this was a worthwhile process to pursue and one that would ultimately help alleviate tension and create a better environment in the future between, as I said, two of our most important allies.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Yes. So in terms of selling the deal, it seems pretty significant that the victims themselves have already – some of the victims, at least, have come out and spoken against the deal. Isn’t it a concern that the two governments are not including the actual victims in these negotiations or these discussions?
MR TONER: Again, I think it’s for the governments – and these are two democracies – it’s for them to address, as we would here in the United States in a similar situation attempt to address the concerns of our own citizens and hear their concerns and listen to them and try to respond to them. That’s part of the democratic process. So I’m not going to speak on behalf of the Japanese or the Korean Government in terms of what they need to do to address their own citizens’ concerns on both sides of this issue. And I’m aware that this is, as I said, a very sensitive historical issue and that this agreement will not necessarily answer or appease everyone’s concerns going forward; but that said, we do support this agreement as a way forward to heal this wound.
QUESTION: Can I follow up more?
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: On the same day, Japanese first lady actually just visited Yasukuni Shrine. First of all, do you have any comment on that? And isn’t that ironic to you that on one hand Japan is apologizing; on the other hand, the first lady just visited the Yasukuni Shrine. Do you doubt Japan’s sincerity on their apology?
MR TONER: We have no reason to doubt – we’ve no reason to doubt Japan’s sincerity, rather, and I don’t have any information about her visit to the shrine, but we don’t believe it in any way pertains to or affects their sincerity regarding this agreement.
QUESTION: And also I know the senior official mentioned in the conference call --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- I wonder if you can address that how important this resolution in terms of the U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy.
MR TONER: Well, as I said, this was a source of ongoing tension, to put it mildly, between two of our most important allies in the region. So in that respect, we do believe it’s a significant step forward in a process to heal some of those wounds from the past. So in that regard, yes, we do think it’s important. As I said, Japan and the Republic of Korea are stalwart allies, economic partners, so anything that moves them closer we believe benefits the region and certainly the U.S.
MR TONER: Let’s finish up.
QUESTION: Can I get a couple for Japan?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. So on --
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: Related to that, on – within the United States over the years, activists have pushed for building monuments and pushing for legislation in local politics. And now with this agreement in place, does the Administration – how – what is the Administration’s position on this politicizing of this comfort women issue within the United States?
MR TONER: Within the United States? Again, this is a – as I said, a very painful historical issue. I spoke to that; the Secretary spoke to it in his statement – sensitive historical legacy issues. And so there’s going to be difficult emotions, hard feelings. By no means are we trying to say that this agreement is going to convince everyone as of tomorrow that all is – that we’ve moved on or moved past this. And certainly it’s the rights – as I said before talking about Japanese and Korean democracies, that it’s the right of citizens to express their concerns, their grievances, and to ask their government to address them. That’s part of the process. So I’m not going to say we’re going to disregard in any way or take those concerns, ongoing concerns lightly. But we do believe this is a significant step forward to address some of those concerns.
QUESTION: And – well, the statement that Secretary Kerry released earlier --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- talked about calling on the international community to support this agreement.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does that extend to citizens within the United States – those activists in Korean American communities as well – to support this agreement?
MR TONER: We would hope that citizens – that all people feel that this is an agreement that – as I said, that moves forward, that is forward-looking, that can help, as I said, resolve what has been a painful historical legacy.
QUESTION: Also on that, within the agreement it mentioned that both countries would not use the issue – bring them up in international fora, including the UN. Do you think that that would include bringing up the issue as a teachable moment in history, learning from this mistake in the past? Would that – would this issue just be off limits for discussion in the future?
MR TONER: Again, that’s really for the two governments to speak to who signed the agreement.
QUESTION: But, I mean, the U.S. brings up, for example, the Holocaust or the --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- or the Rwandan genocide as examples in history that we can learn from. Do you think the U.S. would use the comfort women issue as an example in history in which we can address future sexual violence during war?
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, it’s a fair question. I don’t want to hypothesize or speak to hypotheticals. Again, I think that we hope this agreement will serve as a demonstration of the fact that two countries can put painful historical legacies in the past and move forward.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, one of the strongest Syrian rebel leaders, Zahran Alloush, got killed.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Apparently, he was one of those who signed the Riyadh agreement just a few weeks ago. How do you view this attack by the Assad regime or the Russian – Russians?
MR TONER: Yeah. You’re talking about Zahran Alloush, right? Yes. Well, first of all, the United States provides no support to Jaysh al-Islam, and we have significant concerns about the group’s behavior on the battlefield. That said, Jaysh al-Islam has supported a political process to end the conflict and has fought against ISIL. They were also a participant in the Riyadh conference, as you mentioned, of the Syrian opposition which has been a key step forward in efforts to work toward a resumption of negotiations and a political path to end the conflict.
So the strike on Alloush and others in Jaysh al-Islam and other opposition groups do, in fact, complicate efforts to bring about meaningful political negotiations and a nationwide ceasefire. We need progress on both these efforts in the coming weeks.
QUESTION: On Syria, too? Oh, I’m sorry.
MR TONER: Sure thing. Arshad, and then over to you, Mike.
QUESTION: If you’re the leader of a militant group that has, as you pointed out, supported a political process, fought ISIL, and taken part in the Riyadh talks, which are explicitly designed to bring about a dialogue between opposition groups and rebel forces that are willing to do so and that you approve of and the Syrian Government, and then somebody – whether it’s the Syrian Government or the Russians or somebody else – then kills the leader of one of these groups, why should anybody in any of those groups think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to engage in such a process? Why shouldn’t they just fight it out on the ground?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, I think we would agree that it doesn’t send the most constructive message to carry out a strike like that. And as I said, it complicates those efforts. It is our hope that these strikes don’t reverse any progress that we’ve made, and we’ll certainly continue to encourage the opposition to fully participate in this process. We support Staffan de Mistura’s timetable, and I think he has a target date of January 25th to begin the next – or the process, the political process. So my answer to you is I hope it does not. We would hope it does not discourage these people from participating in the process, because we need to begin efforts right away to reach an agreement that leads to a genuine political transition.
And just as an addendum to that, I would say that this has been a brutal fight over the past now almost five years that has not brought any kind of peace or stability or resolution or way forward. So I think everyone recognizes and certainly those who are immersed in this fight would recognize that there’s no military solution to this conflict. Does that involve taking risks? Certainly, but we believe a political process is the only way to move forward.
QUESTION: And have you conveyed either directly to the Russians or directly or indirectly to the Syrian Government essentially what you just --
MR TONER: Our concerns?
QUESTION: Your concerns about this particular strike and the possibility that other strikes could derail the political process?
MR TONER: Sure. Arshad, I don’t have a concrete answer. I know that there have been conversations had; I just don’t know that that was specifically brought up in that direct way. I’ll try to get you an answer for that.
MR TONER: Yeah, Michael.
QUESTION: Reuters reported today based on a number of – several U.S. officials that three months into the campaign, Russia’s involvement has helped stabilize Assad, has made him in – has put him in a position safer than he was three months ago. Is that what you’re seeing? Do you feel that Assad has been more stabilized by Russian involvement?
MR TONER: Sure. Michael, in – I’m always wary of affirming or disputing anonymous or unnamed sources from the U.S. Government. I don’t know who those people are; I don’t know what their assessments are. I wouldn’t say anything differently than we said a week or a month ago, which is that Russia has by its actions put itself in a very precarious place in terms of supporting a government that has brutalized its own people, its own citizens that represents a minority of the population. And we would hope – and certainly it’s something we’ve been working, and in some respects working constructively with Russia, to put in place a political process that can address that core issue so that we can all turn our attention to fighting ISIL and so that we can bring some measure of stability and peace back to Syria.
QUESTION: But from your vantage point --
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Michael. Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: From your vantage point, do you see signs that there’s more stability there, that he’s stronger – the Syrian Government over the past – as opposed to three months ago?
MR TONER: Sure. I think that – I mean, look, Russia has – Russia’s presence – and we’ve been very clear about this. We – do we believe Russia can play a constructive role in Syria? Yes. Do we believe that its operations or strikes up till now have done that? It’s arguable that it has done that. And we’ve said that because it’s been hitting some of these Syrian opposition groups that have been fighting Assad. It’s been carrying out strikes against these moderate Syrian opposition. It may well be hitting ISIL targets. That may be the case, but this is a very complex environment.
And what we need, as we’ve talked about a lot here, is we need a two-pronged effort: One is to bring a political resolution to the conflict between Assad’s regime and the moderate Syrian opposition; and then the other is to address ISIL and its actions and pursuit of territory and territorial gains in Syria. So we’ve got to do one to address the other. We’re working on a process going forward. And as I said, Russia has played a helpful role in that process.
QUESTION: Mark, you were saying that --
MR TONER: Yes. Sorry, I’m very congested. I apologize. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: When you refer to Assad, you say he represents a minority. You’re not suggesting that that minority ought not be represented, are you?
MR TONER: No, no, certainly not. I’m just saying – I apologize, but what we said and the Secretary has --
QUESTION: Yeah. I just want to understand you clearly.
MR TONER: No, no, no. I’m saying that we need an inclusive --
MR TONER: What he has – and others have spoken about this as well – is that the preponderance of his actions, brutality – whatever you call it – against his own citizens have been --
QUESTION: I understand fully, but you have many minorities that actually look to Assad --
MR TONER: Of course. Of course, and we’ve been --
QUESTION: -- as their representative, many Christians and --
MR TONER: Of course. And we have been very clear – well, wait a second. So I want to be very clear that we don’t believe that President Assad is a legitimate leader for the kind of Syria that we support, that Russia says it supports, that the other members of the ISSG support, and that other Syrians say they support, which is an inclusive, sovereign, nonsectarian country.
QUESTION: Mark, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that Russia and U.S. have a common understanding on groups which should be considered as terrorist ones in the Middle East.
MR TONER: Russia and the United States?
QUESTION: The United States has a common understanding on groups which should be considered as terrorist ones in the Middle East. I was wondering if you guys have any list together with Russia’s, who are terrorists and who are not, fighting in Syria? And considering that Russia is targeting some of the groups in Syria which --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the United States --
MR TONER: Well, I --
QUESTION: -- refers as a moderate opposition.
MR TONER: So without seeing the direct quote, what I believe he is trying to say or what he may be pointing to is the fact that we do agree on some groups that we believe are not part of in any way, shape, or form Syria’s political future, namely al-Nusrah as well as ISIL. There are a lot of other groups out there – we acknowledge that – that not just us and Russia disagree on, but other members of the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group, disagree on. That’s part of this process. Is it easy? No. It’s very difficult. Where these – where we come down on these groups, how we get there, how do we get to a common collective of, quote/unquote, “moderate” Syrian opposition who can then take part in this political process that leads towards a transition – that’s all part of the hard work in front of us. We do have agreement on some of these. We don’t have agreement on others.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: There are reports arguing that Russia is cooperating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia foreign ministry spokeswoman said that the contact between Moscow and the Afghan Taliban only involves intelligence sharing and information exchange regarding the fight against ISIL. So I was wondering how do you see this Taliban and Russia relations.
MR TONER: Sure. Well, I’d refer you to the Russian Government. Russia and other regional actors all have a shared interest in supporting continued security and increased stability in Afghanistan. We certainly hope we can find ways to work with Russia to promote Afghanistan’s security and stability, but I don’t have a specific comment to those reports.
QUESTION: On China?
MR TONER: Let’s stay with Syria.
QUESTION: Syria’s foreign minister said his government is ready to take part in the UN-led talks on a political transition. Has the U.S. received word on who will represent the Syrian Government? And then secondly, is it your understanding that the ISSG will be present for those talks in Geneva, or will it be just the government, the opposition, and the UN?
MR TONER: All very good questions. On the first part, no, we don’t – I don’t believe we know who the Syrian Government is proposing take part in those talks. On the second part, I frankly don’t have the answer. I’ll have to – and you’re talking about the de Mistura talks?
QUESTION: Right, uh-huh.
MR TONER: That is a UN-led process, so I’m not certain that any of the ISSG would – any members of the ISSG would be there. I’d have to – I’ll have to get clarity on that.
QUESTION: A final one on Syria. Just a couple questions ago, Mark, you talk about how the peace and stability has not come to Syria, whereas today apparently there is a blog post on State Department by John Kirby – it has been discussed on the social media all day. And one of the pivotal moments of 2015 is, Kirby states, “bringing peace, security to Syria.”
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Could you expand on that? Is --
MR TONER: Sure. Well, first of all, I’m very happy that you read John Kirby’s blog posts. That’s encouraging.
No, look, the operative word there is bringing, not brought, so we’re bringing peace and security to Syria. I think that is a truthful claim. There has been significant process, we believe, in the past year on both fronts.
QUESTION: Process or progress?
MR TONER: What’s that?
QUESTION: Process or progress?
MR TONER: I think both.
MR TONER: I mean, I think – I think progress on a process. I don’t think anyone would say that we are there across the finish line, and if that was conveyed in any way, that’s a mistaken impression. But three months ago the Syrian opposition was not unified around a common set of negotiating principles. Now they are. Three months ago, the international community was not unified around a common understanding of what a successful political process or transition could look like. Now they are. And three months ago, there was no UN Security Council resolution, or consensus rather, on Syria, much less a mandate to create, implement, and monitor a ceasefire. And now there is. We would cite all of those as progress. We’re not there yet. We recognize that. But we do believe through a lot of hard diplomatic spadework that we have made progress.
MR TONER: Are we done with Syria?
QUESTION: If we’re done with Syria.
MR TONER: Okay, go ahead. Yeah, let’s do that --
QUESTION: Very quickly.
MR TONER: -- and then I’ll get to you. Sorry.
QUESTION: Today --
MR TONER: No, no, that’s okay. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: The Israeli --
MR TONER: I’m sorry. What were you asking me about? I apologize.
QUESTION: The Israeli group Peace Now issued a report saying that the Israeli Government is basically giving permits to about 50,000 new housing units. He’s saying that – they’re saying that eight of these – 8,000 of these homes will be built in E1 area, others in
Givat Zeev and so on. They are quite detailed, and in fact, they are calling on the U.S. Government to pressure or do whatever it can to have --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- Mr. Netanyahu rescind his decision. Can you share with us --
MR TONER: I’m not – I apologize, Said. I’m not aware of the specific allegations or reports that this NGO is making. Our – certainly our position or policy on settlements hasn’t changed, but I’ll have to look more specifically at some of these claims.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, look into it. I’ll ask you tomorrow.
MR TONER: Absolutely, thanks. Sorry. Please, sir.
MR TONER: Cuba. Sure.
QUESTION: Could you just talk about your ambitions for the coming year, and is it an aspiration that before he leaves office the President will visit Cuba as a great sort of symbolic moment? Is that something you’re working towards?
MR TONER: I would certainly – look, I mean, Cuba was another – the restoration of our diplomatic relations with Cuba was a very significant event of 2015. Recognizing, of course, that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the human rights front, on multiple fronts, to build that relation – strengthen that relationship, but we recognize, as I said, and the President and the Secretary spoke to this, that after 50 years of a certain policy of isolation that that was getting us nowhere. But there is a lot of work to be done. As to the President’s travel plans, I would never speak or attempt to speak on behalf of his travel plans.
But as I said, there needs to be a lot – there still needs to be – or there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Others have spoken to this in the last – I guess it was the one-year anniversary, I guess, of this announcement of the change in policy. But there have been, as I said, significant – there has been significant process. Just looking here on December 16th, of course, we had the United States and Cuba reach a bilateral agreement to establish scheduled air services between the United States and Cuba.
One of the things we were very clear about when we did announce this reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reason why we were doing it was to establish that people-to-people contact with the Cubans and through that we feel that we can make great strides and by getting them greater access to information and greater access to – well, information, business, all of that stuff. We do want to see the embargo lifted. We’ve been very clear about that. That rests with Congress to do. But it’s going to take some time, I guess is my short answer, not-so-short answer.
MR TONER: China.
QUESTION: Do you have any comments on the Chinese anti-terrorism law which just passed yesterday?
MR TONER: Sure, right. Well, first off, we do condemn, of course, all forms of terrorism regardless of the political or other goals professed by their perpetrators. However, the United States remains concerned that the broad, vaguely phrased provisions and definitions in this law – speaking about the counterterrorism law – could lead to greater restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion within China. So we’re continuing to examine the final text of the law, and we’ll continue to make our concerns known to the Chinese Government.
QUESTION: The Chinese foreign ministry was saying this legislation was wrote out in accordance with the needs of reality and also the latest situation. So if the goal of this law is to make China safer, less – no mass shooting, less terrorism inspired attacking China, isn’t that something that the United States should at least pay respect?
MR TONER: Well, I said, I mean, we obviously condemn all forms of terrorism. We recognize, as we do, governments throughout the world wrestle with how to confront the challenge of terrorism while at the same time maintaining democratic norms and freedoms of their people. That is an essential struggle inherent, I think, to confronting terrorism.
But as I said, we are concerned when we believe certain laws overreach and could lead – again, could lead to greater restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. So that’s our concern. And we’ll continue to – this is a conversation we obviously, as you all know, have with China, and we’ll continue to have that.
QUESTION: And do you still have the previous concern, which is focused on the backdoor access to foreign internet company and phone companies’ data? Because that item was written in the draft but left out in the final version.
MR TONER: It was left out in the final version.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: I’m aware of that. I don’t – I haven’t – as I said, we’re still looking through the law, and certainly that was a concern. Any access – again, this is, as I said before, a struggle that many countries around the world face in confronting terrorism. How do you balance privacy, freedom of expression, all those elements, with the need to provide national security and protect your people? And that is something that we hope that China also struggles and seeks to try to address as it moves forward with this law, implementation of this law.
QUESTION: Well, isn’t the U.S. Government also doing the same thing? Because China argues that when China started (inaudible) – the U.S. – similar legislation, and the U.S. Government actually also has backdoor access to your companies. So isn’t the U.S. holding a double standard on this issue?
MR TONER: Sure. Again, I’d have to – I’d have to look at what the final law reads and look at our own laws, but I think I tried to address that at least in – by saying that this is a dynamic that we see many countries facing, but all countries need to do the utmost to ensure that their citizens, while protected, still are allowed to freely express themselves, have access to information, et cetera.
Yeah, can we – one more question, Pam, and then --
MR TONER: Well, we think today’s reopening of this dialogue, regionally mediated dialogue between parties to the Burundi crisis, is an important yet preliminary step towards putting Burundi back on the road to peace. I think it’s imperative that all Burundians renounce violence and intimidation and support peaceful, productive engagement and dialogue as a key to reestablishing in Burundi an atmosphere of openness and trust. We certainly appreciate the efforts of the Government of Uganda as well as President Museveni in hosting today’s session in Entebbe. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:11 p.m.)
DPB # 213