Daily Press Briefing - December 29, 2015

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 29, 2015


2:17 p.m. EST

QUESTION: Long two minutes.

MR TONER: Forgive me, Brad.

QUESTION: Time truly is the fourth dimension gone. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: Welcome back, Brad. We missed you yesterday. Hey guys, happy Tuesday. Just a few things at the top, actually, just two things, I believe, and then I’ll get to your questions.

First, Cuba. The United – sorry. The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating physical condition of Vladimir Morera Bacallao, who has been on a hunger strike since October to protest his imprisonment for peacefully expressing political dissent. Mr. Morera Bacallao was one of 53 prisoners of concern released shortly after the December 2014 announcement of the President’s new policy direction on Cuba, but detained again in April 2015 for hanging a sign outside his home in protest of municipal elections. He’s now in the hospital, reportedly in very serious condition. The United States urgently calls on the Cuban Government to release Mr. Morera Bacallao.

The United States also strongly condemns today’s horrific terrorist attack in the city of Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan outside a regional government office. We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the families of the victims of today’s violence. The United States remains committed to the people of Pakistan and to the Pakistani Government’s efforts to fight terrorism. Such blatant disregard for human life is unacceptable and contrary to the aspirations of the Pakistani people for a secure and stable and prosperous nation.

QUESTION: Can I jump in for one quick thing, Brad?

MR TONER: Of course.


QUESTION: Can you spell the name of the Cuban gentleman, and can you say – you said he’s in a hospital. Is he in a prison hospital? Is he still detained, i.e. in some kind of --



MR TONER: Quick – so his name is Vladimir; Vladimir, V-l-a-d-i-m-i-r; Morera, M-o-r-e-r-a; Bacallao, B-a-c-a-l-l-a-o. He was detained again in April 2015 and then when he – I believe he began his hunger – well, not when he began his hunger strike, but when he was detained once again, and then began a hunger strike. And then I don’t know whether he’s in a prison hospital. I would imagine it is a prison hospital.

QUESTION: But as far as you know, he’s still detained?

MR TONER: That’s my understanding, yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

MR TONER: Yep. Brad.

QUESTION: Thanks. I have a bunch of questions about Syria, and if my colleagues indulge me, I promise not to ask another question this year. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: That’s a bold proclamation.

QUESTION: How about next year, too? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I think I can make good on this one. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: Sorry.

QUESTION: Firstly, just to go through it, just to ensure, you still have no final date set for the talks between the Syrian Government and the opposition or any agreement on the opposition delegation or the Jordanian terror list; is that correct?

MR TONER: Well, we did – so you’ve seen that UN Special Envoy de Mistura has announced plans for that process, a political process to begin on January 25th. Beyond that, I don’t know – we haven’t confirmed any date for additional meetings of the ISSG or of the – between the Syrian Government and the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: And the --

MR TONER: Sorry.

QUESTION: -- delegation is not finalized yet or announced?

MR TONER: The delegation’s not finalized that I --

QUESTION: And the terror list is still an ongoing process?

MR TONER: I believe so, yes. That’s correct.

QUESTION: Okay. And then I had some questions regarding – there was a report last week about growing civilian deaths linked to Russia’s air campaign.


QUESTION: And I know you briefly touched on this, but I guess needed time to study it. Do you have a comment now on that? And I think there was even a Human Rights Watch report before that.

MR TONER: Correct. Well, in short answer to your question, these reports of Russian attacks on Syrian civilians are extremely disturbing. As you mention, NGOs have reported that Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians, including first responders; hit medical facilities, schools, and markets; and led to the displacement of over 130,000 Syrians in October and the first half of November. Of course, we’re deeply, deeply concerned about these reports of high civilian casualties. In particular, we’ve seen a marked and troubling increase in reports of these civilian casualties since Russia commenced its air campaign there. We’ve consistently urged all sides of the conflict to take all feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harming civilians and comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. And that includes with respect to medical personnel and facilities.

We’re focused now on – as we just talked about – beginning a credible political process that can lead, finally, to an end to the violence in Syria and a new political path forward for the Syrian people. So what we need now are steps from all parties that build confidence in these efforts, and attacks on those most vulnerable and including attacks on those who could be part of this process – and we spoke to this yesterday – as well as attacks that, as I said, kill innocent civilians, undermine efforts to find a political resolution to which all ISSG members have committed themselves are counterproductive.

QUESTION: So there was quite a bit in that --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- and I just wanted to – thank you for the response. I just wanted to --

MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: -- check a couple things. The – you mentioned that this could undermine the political process. Are you getting complaints from the opposition that are saying --


QUESTION: -- why should we join a political process that you and Russia are leading when Russia is essentially killing us?

MR TONER: So I mean, look, what we’ve seen – and this happened a few days ago when the leader of Jaysh al-Islam was killed. As I said yesterday, we have significant concerns about the group’s behavior on the battlefield. But that said, this group has supported a political process to end conflict – to end the conflict and fought against ISIL. So when we see these kinds of actions taken against their leadership, it is our hope that it does not send a discouraging message to other members of the Syrian opposition who have gone to Riyadh, who have expressed a willingness to take part in this process. But it certainly sends a counterproductive message.

QUESTION: Do you know if that strike on Jaysh, the one that killed Alloush – was that Russian-operated or Syrian-operated?

MR TONER: I don’t know that we’ve received absolute confirmation that it was either Syrian or Russian. But I can tell you that in his call yesterday to Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary Kerry did discuss these same concerns with him, and that – including the fact that Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians.

QUESTION: Hold on, hold on. Sorry.

MR TONER: Please. Yeah, that’s okay.

QUESTION: I just have one more.

MR TONER: Last – these are the last questions of 2015.

QUESTION: That was my caveat. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: Just didn’t say there were an hour of them. That’s okay.

QUESTION: Nobody agreed to it. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You did, you did.

QUESTION: He made a proffer and he didn’t respond.

MR TONER: No, please, continue, Brad.

QUESTION: We’ll not reopen the negotiation now.

MR TONER: In all seriousness. That’s right.

QUESTION: The reports also suggest that cluster munitions, unguided bombs being fired into civilian areas. Can you confirm such occurrences?

MR TONER: On – specifically speaking to cluster munitions, we have seen those reports, including other reports of other types of munitions used against civilians. Hold on just one second. No, I don’t have anything here that conclusively points to or conclusively speaks to the use of cluster munitions. We have expressed these concerns, though, about their use in the past.

QUESTION: And do you know if humanitarian aid groups are having trouble because of Russian attacks that are either indiscriminate or leave unexploded bomblets around?

MR TONER: Yes, that is something – and frankly, we’ve also expressed this – our concerns about this to the Russian Government that this – these indiscriminate attacks, as I talked about, on infrastructure, on medical facilities, on civilians, does hamper the efforts to get that humanitarian assistance to where it’s most needed. Absolutely.

QUESTION: And then just lastly, and this is lastly --

MR TONER: Yeah, okay.

QUESTION: Can you provide any more detail on the conversation the Secretary had with Foreign Minister Lavrov? Since you’ve raised a variety of concerns, was there a willingness to address these? Was there – did he reject that Russia has killed – we’ve heard public announcements that the Russians say they haven’t killed anybody, any civilians. So how – what was the tenor of the call, and what was the response?

MR TONER: Sure. So during his call, as I mentioned yesterday, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary Kerry did discuss our concerns about Russian airstrikes killing hundreds of civilians. He also highlighted our concern that the killing of Jaysh al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush – who, as I said, was a leader of a group that supported a political process to end the conflict – complicates our efforts to bring about a meaningful political negotiated settlement as well as a nationwide ceasefire.

I’m not going to attempt to characterize Foreign Minister Lavrov’s response, but that was certainly conveyed to him. As for the tenor or tone of the call, look, I mean, we’ve had frank and open exchanges in the past with Russia. That is the kind of relationship that the Secretary has with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We have at times in the past six months to a year seen Russia play a more positive or constructive role on the political side of resolving the Syrian conflict. We’d like to see that now manifested on the kinetic side, if you will.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: One more on this.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: You said that there has been a marked and troubling increase in civilian casualties in Syria since Russia began its airstrikes last year. Do you ascribe that marked and troubling increase specifically to the Russian airstrikes; in other words, that’s what you think is responsible for it; it’s not an increase in unrelated violence or activity that’s causing this?

MR TONER: I think we would say that given the timing, given what we’ve seen through our own sources but obviously through many credible – the reporting of many credible NGOs on the ground, that to a significant extent this is due to Russian airstrikes.


MR TONER: Yeah, Said.

QUESTION: Just quickly follow up now. You’ve mentioned something like 130,000 civilians have been displaced. How did you arrive at these figures?

MR TONER: 130,000 displaced --

QUESTION: Yes, 130,000.

MR TONER: 130,000 Syrians in October and the first half of November. Again, much of it is through the reporting of credible --

QUESTION: Which area? Which area, which villages and towns and so on?

MR TONER: Sure. I don’t have a list of the villages.

QUESTION: Can you say --

MR TONER: Credible NGOs on the ground.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MR TONER: And I don’t have a – I would refer you to them, including, I think, Amnesty International just came out with a report.

QUESTION: On Zahran Alloush and Jaysh al-Islam, I mean --


QUESTION: -- their manifesto is not really that much different than many of the other extremist groups. I mean, it calls for an Islamic caliphate, it calls for Sharia law, it calls for basically non-inclusive kind of governing. So what makes them acceptable to you in any kind of negotiation?

MR TONER: Sure, and let me be clear. When I spoke about Alloush and Jaysh al-Islam, I did say that we do have significant concerns about their philosophy, their beliefs, and as well as their behavior on the battlefield. That said, they did travel to Saudi Arabia. They did participate in this process in good faith and did say – committed themselves to the political process. This is not an easy process overall, and that’s among all the stakeholders in the ISSG as they look at and vet these groups to decide who is a member of – who could be considered a member of the credible Syrian opposition and who cannot.

Part of that, though, I think has to – with the exception, and there are a few exceptions: al-Nusrah, al-Qaida; ISIL, obviously. But as we vet these groups, part of that has to be those who are willing to say we will no longer carry out violence, we will no longer carry out attacks, we will take part in this process, has to be one of the baselines that we judge these groups by.

QUESTION: Would you attribute that or should that be attributed to the fact that they have such a close relationship in terms of being financed, armed, and so on by the Saudi Government? Is that – would that be it? I mean, is that why, in your view, they have accepted to be part of that process?

MR TONER: I’m not going to speak on behalf of them – or on their behalf, rather. So I can’t speak to what their motivations might be. All we can judge is that – is them by – all we can judge them by is their behavior, and they did come to this process and take place in it – come to this meeting, rather.

QUESTION: Do you --

QUESTION: My last question on this --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- if I may. How do you expect these – I mean, there are dozens, literally, maybe hundreds, even, of these groups and so on. How do you expect them, at the end of the day, to be, let’s say, determined to be partners on this table? Who is going to determine that?

MR TONER: Sure. So I don’t want to get too far ahead of the process. I can assure you that these are all topics of conversation among the different members of the ISSG as we vet some of these groups, the different groups, the different governments or countries who are part – members of that group, that these opposition groups – that is part of the calculation, recognizing that it is a hard job. I don’t want to get into how they’re going to make the final determination on that. Part of it is creating these lists, talking through the pros and cons for each group. Some countries, some governments, some of these stakeholders feel very differently about certain groups on this list; so trying to build a consensus around that and then ultimately trying to put in place a ceasefire by which all members can be judged, including the regime, by their actions to uphold that ceasefire. So it’s a very complicated, very complex process.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Why would the Secretary raise his concerns about the killing of the Jaysh al-Islam leader with Foreign Minister Lavrov if you didn’t suspect that it was, in fact, a Russian airstrike that had killed him?

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: Let me ask more simply.


QUESTION: Do you suspect that it was a Russian airstrike that killed him?

MR TONER: Well, I said we – excuse me.

QUESTION: But you don’t have absolute certainty?

MR TONER: No, that’s okay. Yeah, we don’t have absolute certainty. So – but we do know that Russia has been supporting the regime through its military airstrikes, so regardless – whether it was the regime, whether it was Russia that carried out those airstrikes – Russia has helped enable the regime to carry out more aggressive airstrikes on some of these opposition groups.

And I think the Secretary was merely highlighting to Foreign Minister Lavrov the fact that we do have a political process – albeit a nascent one – underway, and we’re going to need these groups that have expressed a desire to participate in that process – offer them some kind of assurance that they’re not going to be targeted, continually targeted for coming to the table, for offering to be part of that process.

QUESTION: So was his message to Foreign Minister Lavrov, “Please don’t you, Russia, kill these people, and can you please urge the Syrian Government not to kill these people”?

MR TONER: More or less, yes. I mean, I think that’s – I mean, yes. I mean, I think that we recognize their influence, obviously, and close relationship with the Assad regime, so yeah.

QUESTION: And I know you don’t want to characterize Foreign Minister Lavrov’s response, but have you gotten any traction with Russia from the notion that it is unhelpful to kill people who say they’re willing to come to the table?

MR TONER: Have we gotten any traction from them? I think, again, with the caveat that I don’t want to speak on behalf of Russia – it’s not my job or my role – but I think all members of the ISSG recognize fundamentally that that is – that has got to be a precondition for this whole process moving forward.

QUESTION: And lastly, does this not illustrate the intrinsic and significant challenge in determining who is in – as Brad alluded to, who is in the, quote, “terrorist group” category against which, if there ever is a ceasefire, military options – operations will continue? I mean, maybe the Russians and the Syrians think this person was a, quote, “terrorist,” and you guys say, “Well, but he’s willing to negotiate, so don’t kill him,” and they say, “Well, he’s a terrorist.” I mean, doesn’t this, in a nutshell, show how hard it is for you to make distinctions – for you to agree on distinctions with your partners in the ISSG?

MR TONER: So – a totally valid point and I tried to speak at least to this in my response to Said’s question, which is we recognize that this is a tremendous challenge. I mean, there are clearly some groups that are recognized by the majority – and again, al-Nusrah, ISIL, of course – as – who can never be, rather, members or a part of the Syrian opposition. But then there are a number of groups – one stakeholder country groups might feel that they’re – they can be part of the credible Syrian opposition; others may feel differently. That’s all part of this vetting process that we’re going through now, and it’s very difficult. And so when you have strikes like this, attacks like this against those opposition members or those leaders of those groups, it certainly complicates the situation.

QUESTION: I have an intervention --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- but I’ll phrase it as a rejoinder.

QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. (Laughter.) Wait a minute, wait a minute. You can’t – you know nobody accepted your deal --

MR TONER: I haven’t – let’s let Arshad finish it. I’ll go back to you.

QUESTION: -- and now you want to go back on it, but --

MR TONER: I’ll give you a do-over because I actually have something for you too as well, so --

QUESTION: For shame. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: There is a difference between Russia carrying out the strike and Syria carrying out the strike. I mean, you call Syria a state sponsor of terror, you accuse it of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in this war. And Russia is the country you have most worked with to invite people like Alloush or his group to the negotiating table. So the notion that regardless of who did it, it’s a problem, that – it seems, I think, to most people that it matters a lot who did it.

MR TONER: So – sure.

QUESTION: Because one’s at war and the other says it’s trying to facilitate a peace process with these guys.

MR TONER: So I think it speaks, Brad, to the broader point I’ve been trying to make in response to your question and others – is that on the political track, Russia has played a constructive role, but on the military track – and spoken to this about the large number of airstrikes against civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves, but also the fact that by enabling Assad and his regime to continue to carry out airstrikes, whether they – whether that was a – specifically a Russian airstrike or not, whether it was a Syrian airstrike, they have been actively involved in an intense air campaign over Syria since September 30th, so – by the way, you mentioned – I apologize.

You’d asked about confirming recent reports about cluster munitions, Russian cluster munitions in airstrikes. So we have seen a marked and troubling increase in reports of civilian casualties, as I talked about, since Russia commenced its air campaign there. We have consistently urged all sides of the conflict to take all feasible precautions to reduce risk of harm to civilians and comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, including with respect to protecting medical personnel and facilities. So without confirming that they’ve used cluster munitions in airstrikes – or cluster munitions, we would urge them not to.

QUESTION: Can we change topics?


MR TONER: Sure – oh, please, Pam, I’m sorry. I didn’t see your hand.

QUESTION: One more concerning the Kerry-Lavrov talk.


QUESTION: Did – what insight did the Secretary receive from Lavrov concerning the Syrian Government intentions for the Geneva talks? In particular, were there any indications on who would represent the government?

And then secondly, following up on what Arshad raised, were there any indications that there may be pushback from the Syrian Government on some of the members of the opposition group that might be part of these talks?

MR TONER: Sure. On the first part, I don’t have that. I didn’t get a full readout of the conversation. I don’t know whether that level of detail was discussed or whether that’s even been reached yet on who would represent the Syrian Government at the beginning of these talks.

To your second question, which was about --

QUESTION: Possible pushback from Syria for --

MR TONER: From Syria, I think that’s expected. And again, that’s where we rely on and that’s the whole – frankly, the whole idea behind this group of stakeholders, the International Syria Support Group, coming to the table, because there are countries – governments – in that group who can exert pressure, influence on the Syrian regime to get them to come to a common understanding of who the Syrian opposition is. Again, that’s all part of the hard work ahead of us.

Please, Said.

QUESTION: New topic?


QUESTION: Go to the Arab-Israeli – Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: Yeah. Yesterday I asked you about the – Israel’s plan --

MR TONER: You did.

QUESTION: -- for expansion of settlement. I wonder if you have any comment on that, considering that the plan will connect the settlements (inaudible) Ma’ale Adumim --

MR TONER: Right. You’re talking about – sure.

QUESTION: -- and would cut off and bisect --

MR TONER: So yes, I did do a little digging on this, and – that’s a bad pun in terms of settlement activity, but – sorry, it was not intentional. But you’re talking specifically about the Peace Now report --

QUESTION: Yes, the report by --

MR TONER: -- yes, regarding the Israeli Government’s plans for settlement expansion, including in E1, right? Our longstanding position on such actions is very clear. We view this kind of activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace, and our concerns specifically about the E1 site are well known. We strongly oppose any steps that pave the way for settlement construction in E1. Such steps we believe are fundamentally incompatible with a two-state solution and, frankly, call into question the Israeli Government’s commitment to peace.

QUESTION: Okay. Just to follow up on the same topic --


QUESTION: -- the Israeli Government also announced that it’s going to confiscate 500 dunams, which is roughly 150 acres, of land that are under the Palestinian Authority. It’s in two villages, one called --


QUESTION: -- Qusra and the other one called Jurish. Do you have the same thing? Would you urge the Israelis --

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: Because it’s a different area.

MR TONER: -- on that specific report, Said, I did check with our desk on this, and they were unaware of it. They’re looking into it, so I don’t have anything specific to address that report. I just don’t have any information on it or confirmation of it.

QUESTION: I have a couple more.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: One regarding the Secretary’s op-ed piece. I mean, he spoke about it.

MR TONER: Yeah, in the Boston Globe.

QUESTION: Right, in the Boston Globe, exactly. But he did not mention the Palestinian-Israeli issue. He did not talk about new talks or new – is 2015 the year that the United States has given up on the peace process altogether for the two-state solution?

MR TONER: Not at all, Said. And I think you as a reporter and writer understand that you can’t put everything in an op-ed. The Secretary was simply trying to lay out some of the important and significant issues that he wants to focus on in the next year, in the coming year. But I think you know the Secretary well enough to know that he remains and has made clear that he remains deeply committed to this issue and to advancing a two-state solution. He said as much in his speech at the Saban Forum earlier this month. We continue to believe that a two-state solution is absolutely vital, is critical, not only for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but for the long-term security of Israel as a viable – or democratic and Jewish state, rather.

QUESTION: I have two quick ones – oh, sorry.

QUESTION: So you think that the Secretary maintains at least the energy or the commitment to have something going maybe early in the next year or --

MR TONER: Look, I mean, I can’t lay out a timetable --

QUESTION: Are you expecting any kind of (inaudible)?

MR TONER: No, no, no, I understand what you’re asking me. I just – I can’t point to any specific timetable. I can just – all I can say is that this Secretary, other members of this Administration are going to continue to engage with the parties, encourage both of them to demonstrate through their policies and through their actions their commitment to a two-state solution; take steps that we can build from or build on and find a way towards a two-state solution. We’ll do whatever we can, obviously, to help them in that process.

QUESTION: The reason I ask is because --


QUESTION: -- the Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that he met with the Israelis in Amman and in Cairo, and he – basically calling on sort of – sorry, not – negotiations but not in secret, restarting the peace process under your auspices. Is this something that is likely to happen anytime soon?

MR TONER: I don’t have any confirmation of that process for you.


QUESTION: Just two quick things.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: One, I know you said that the delegation for the January the 25th talks in Geneva, if they indeed happen, has not yet been determined --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- the U.S. delegation. But can you rule out that Secretary Kerry would take part in that? I mean, is this meant to be sort of a working-level thing or --

MR TONER: No, but this is a UN – a fair question. We just – I don’t have any details, first of all, on who’s going to be attending that or at what level. And I think that’s – frankly, that’s something that Special Envoy de Mistura is – and his team are going to determine and are in the process of determining. I mean, it is – this is a UN-led meeting and process, so we’re going to look to them to speak to who’s going to participate in that meeting.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just one other quick one.


QUESTION: A senior Russian official at the Russian foreign ministry is quoted as saying that Russia is ready to, quote, “show flexibility,” closed quote, on the possibility of easing UN Security Council sanctions on the Taliban. Is that a good idea, from the U.S. point of view, and are you open to easing such sanctions on the Taliban in the context of some kind of a peace agreement?

MR TONER: Well, I think the United States clearly continues to support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process as the surest way to end the violence – ongoing violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region. And as we’ve said many times, we welcome talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. But until such time as the Taliban demonstrate a serious commitment to the reconciliation process, we’re going to continue to support international sanctions against them.

QUESTION: So it’s conceivable to you that all they have to do is demonstrate a serious commitment to the reconciliation process; that you might then cease to support the international sanctions?

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to get too far into the hypothetical. There have been peace talks announced. You probably saw that. These are all positive steps, but they haven’t gotten really into the substance of any discussions. And this has been a process, frankly, that’s moved in fits and starts, which is partly understandable, but I think we need to see a credible process moving forward before we consider that.

QUESTION: But why wouldn’t you adopt the position that the sanctions should stay on until the Taliban has changed its spots entirely – reached a peace agreement, renounced attacks on the United States, renounced support for groups like al-Qaida? I mean, the reason the sanctions are there, right, was after 9/11, so --

MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, I said a serious commitment to the reconciliation process. I think some of the steps you just outlined would exhibit a serious commitment. This is something we’re not going to just lift sanctions based on a good, constructive first meeting or anything like that. I mean, I think we would need to see positive steps taken by the Taliban that show they’re serious about peace.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Please, sir.

QUESTION: I have a few questions about Poland.

MR TONER: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: There is a new government in Warsaw.

MR TONER: Hey Marcin, how are you?

QUESTION: Hey, how are you? (Laughter.)


QUESTION: So there is a new government in Warsaw and we have seen some considerable changes in Poland recently. So what is the State Department’s assessment of the current developments in Poland? And could you also comment on this new law which has been signed by the president of Poland?


QUESTION: It’s a law about the constitution court.

MR TONER: Yeah. Aware of the law. Look, I think – Marcin, I think a system of checks and balances and judicial independence are crucial elements of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. The United States cares deeply about Poland, which is a fellow democracy and a valued NATO ally. And I think when we see these kinds of actions, it’s through that lens that we follow them, these kinds of developments, with great interest. We remain confident about the strength of Poland’s democracy and the ability of the Polish people to address these issues in accordance with the democratic norms and the rule of law in Poland.

QUESTION: Are you at all worried by those changes?

MR TONER: Again, I think that we recognize, as do many in Poland – and again, this is a fellow democracy and a NATO ally – that any democracy needs strong systems of checks and balances, needs judicial independence. These are critical, crucial elements of a constitutional democracy and establishing rule of law. So I mean, I think in that light we would – we’re going to watch these developments closely. That’s – I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: Okay. Are you at all talking with the government in Poland?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: The reason I’m asking about this --


QUESTION: -- is an editorial that was in The Washington Post a few days ago --


QUESTION: -- and just let me quote a piece of it: “The Obama Administration should influence the government’s course and it should talk to leaders in Warsaw.” So are you planning trying to influence backchannel --


QUESTION: -- what’s – what are your actions here?

MR TONER: Sure. It’s a legitimate question. Obviously, we have a very close relationship with Poland. We have frank and candid exchanges with them on a variety of issues. But this is one of them. We have raised questions with the government about legislative actions that – with regard to the constitutional tribunal. And we’re going to continue to have these discussions with them. That’s part of our relationship with Poland; that’s part of our friendship between two democracies who frankly care deeply about the character of their democratic governments.

QUESTION: Okay. And the last --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- question. Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper that you know very well --

MR TONER: Of course, very good.

QUESTION: -- suggests that President Obama is delaying his meeting with the president of Poland, and also that it is not set for 100 percent that the 2016 NATO summit will take place in Warsaw as it was planned, that it may be moved to another country because of the developments in Poland.

MR TONER: I’ll take your second question first. NATO decided at the Wales summit, as you know, that its next summit would be held in Poland in 2016, and that decision stands. That was a NATO decision taken by consensus, as you know. And so I’d refer you to NATO for any further details. But as far as we are concerned, that decision would stand.

In terms of President Obama’s schedule and his intent to meet with the new Polish president, I can’t speak to his schedule. I would disregard any kind of allegations that he’s somehow avoiding a meeting. Again, Poland is a valued friend, ally. We have a close relationship with Poland and the Polish people. We are concerned – we care deeply about the character, the quality of Poland’s democracy. And this is a conversation that we feel we can have with the Polish people, with the Polish Government, and we’re going to continue to have it and raise our concerns.

Thanks. Please.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: I have two questions – monitoring communications and Turkey.

MR TONER: Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: Mark, I am wondering whether the United States changed its attitudes on surveillance of its allies or monitoring its allies. Because – I am asking this because there are allegations as – there are allegations – after the surveillance of the Angela Merkel’s phone by the United States intelligence service, the United States Administration stated that U.S. will still conclude its – those surveillance activities against NATO allies. However, there are claims that Turkey and President Erdogan are exceptions on this case because of the reason to get able to follow the radical groups in Syria.

So my first question is: United States change its attitude on surveillance of its allies? And second is: What is your consideration of those allegations on Turkey? Turkey is a NATO ally, so Turkey an exception for those surveillance activities?

MR TONER: First of all, that’s a very loaded question. Look, first of all, in response to have we changed our surveillance techniques or approach to surveillance, President Obama has spoken to this multiple occasions since some of the revelations out of Edward Snowden’s criminal actions, and I think spoken to – about how we’re going to conduct ourselves very frankly and very openly. And I’m not going to attempt to parse that or change that. That still stands.

In terms of your specific allegations about President Erdogan, I’ve never heard of such allegations. I won’t speak to beyond that what our intelligence activities may be. I’m not speaking in respect to Turkey certainly, but in general. Turkey is a valued NATO ally. It is a member of the anti-ISIL coalition, and we’re working in close – or working closely with Turkey in driving ISIL from Syria and from Iraq. We value their input, their participation in the anti-ISIL coalition, and we have, again, a very close relationship with them. We share information with them, so there’s no reason to believe that we would ever conduct ourselves in that way.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: By the way, today Saudi Arabia and Turkey announced a new strategic partnership.

MR TONER: I saw that.

QUESTION: And they – do you have any comment on that? Do you see this as part of the larger, the broader coalition? Are you working together?

MR TONER: I mean, we’ve seen in several occasions --

QUESTION: Or did that come as a surprise to you?

MR TONER: No, I mean, I’ve seen the reports. I don’t have much more detail behind them. Look, I mean, this is – I would view it just judging by the initial reports as a positive thing.

Please, in the back.

QUESTION: About Japan and South Korea.


QUESTION: The agreement resolving the comfort women issue. The Korean Government, based on that agreement, started to consult with activists and advocacy group to lower the tension and calm the rhetoric and try to find a way to move forward. When it comes to United States, there are relevant groups trying to build stature in United States public places or lobby to the legislature to adopt condemning resolution to Japan, or et cetera. So does your government have any role to play or consideration to that?

MR TONER: Role to play regarding some of these groups --

QUESTION: Inside United States.

MR TONER: -- inside the United States. I would just say that everyone will make their own judgments about this agreement. But I do hope – we do hope as the United States that others, including here in the U.S., will support this agreement and its full implementation as we do. We believe it’s an important gesture that will promote healing and reconciliation, and the support of civil society for this settlement will be crucial to its success in the end.

Okay. That it, guys? Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: The last of Brad in 2015.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:59 p.m.)