Daily Press Briefing - February 10, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing:

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 10, 2016


.2:18 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Hey, guys. Sorry, apologies for the late start, guys. I apologize. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Wednesday, and over to your questions.

Brad, do you want to start? Nice sweater.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s cold in this room, so --

MR TONER: I’m sorry. We’ll work on that.

QUESTION: Yeah. It makes you look good on camera, though. (Laughter.)

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke about a concrete plan that he had presented for a ceasefire. Your briefing was pretty quickly after that. Now that 24 hours have passed, can you say whether you’ve reviewed it and whether you find the plan acceptable?

MR TONER: Well, granted it – that story did break, as you noted, right before the briefing yesterday, but John Kirby was pretty clear about saying that we’re not going to parse out or discuss the contents of any proposals or plans prior to the meeting tomorrow in Munich. That’s going to be an opportunity for us to really engage with the other members of the ISSG – the International Syria Support Group – to talk about, frankly, some of the urgent issues that we’re confronted with on Syria, namely a ceasefire as well as opening humanitarian access to some of these areas that have been suffering greatly due to regime and Russian-backed airstrikes.

QUESTION: No, I didn’t ask specifically about the details of the plan. I just asked if you agreed to the plan or if you find it helpful.

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: I mean, you’re criticizing Russia for a range of factors right now, and then they’re doing – they’ve made a proposal on one thing you say you want from them, and then you’re saying we’re not going to talk about that. So that’s a little confusing. Are you just eliminating the good here?

MR TONER: Not at all, Brad. I think what we’re trying to say here is, again, within 24 hours, all of the members of the ISSG are going to be meeting in Munich. It’s very clear what needs to get done. There needs to be action in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a move towards full and immediate humanitarian access and a full ceasefire. So it’s very clear what’s in front of us.

Again, there have been multiple conversations over the past week between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. They’ve been talking through some of these issues. Clearly, we’ve been expressing our concerns, frankly, about some of the actions in and around Aleppo and the continued siege of that town which has only complicated, to say the least, the situation on the ground in Syria and complicated efforts overall to get the talks between the party – UN-brokered talks between the opposition and the Syrian regime up and running again in Geneva. There’s a lot on the table. I just don’t want to get ahead of those discussions tomorrow --

QUESTION: All right --

MR TONER: -- other than to say it’s very clear – sorry, Brad, let me finish – other than to say that it’s very clear going into this meeting what the major challenges are and where we need to get by the end of tomorrow.

QUESTION: Just because you keep saying, “It’s very clear,” and one thing that hasn’t been clear, it seems, to most people, but – I don’t know if it’s clear to anyone – but are you trying to get a ceasefire before the talks start, or are the talks supposed to restart with the goal of getting a ceasefire, or both?

MR TONER: A fair question.

QUESTION: Or either?

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, well, look, we’ve said that we don’t want any preconditions to those talks going forward, moving forward. That was a topic of discussion last week. Obviously, the talks were – took a pause, as Staffan de Mistura put it. We want to get those talks back up and running.

At the same time, as the Secretary said multiple times in the past week, when the ISSG met last November, it was agreed that we needed a ceasefire put in place as soon as possible. That was part and parcel of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. So we need to pursue that. And given the facts on the ground of the increase in fighting over the past several days and the alarming number of refugees headed towards the border with Turkey and displaced people internally within Syria, it’s just an added sense of urgency to get that ceasefire in place.

QUESTION: So, wait. Just, just, just --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- I’m not sure I got it. The talks – you want the talks restarted to get the ceasefire, or you want a ceasefire first?

MR TONER: No, not at all. We want the talks – we want the talks to restart without preconditions. We said that very clearly – that that is an opportunity for the opposition, frankly, to hold the regime’s feet to the fire and to see if they are willing to – or serious about a political process that leads to a peaceful – peaceful political transition. That’s – so we’re not saying that that needs – there needs to be a ceasefire in place, but we need a ceasefire. We want a ceasefire as soon as possible.

QUESTION: So – okay.

MR KIRBY: So – yeah, please.

QUESTION: Okay. So when you stated your goals, you talked about immediate humanitarian access and a full ceasefire, but you didn’t say an immediate ceasefire. Is immediate what you’re looking for?

MR TONER: Sure. Yes, absolutely.

QUESTION: Okay. Second --

MR TONER: Thanks for correcting.

QUESTION: -- are you now – are you concerned at all that a ceasefire, even if it were immediate right now this moment, would occur at a time when the Assad government’s position on the ground has been so strengthened that they will be even harder to dislodge, that you would essentially be ratifying – you would be ceasing fire and ratifying their strengthening position?

MR TONER: A couple of thoughts on that. First of all, it’s not, as you know – length of time you’ve been covering these kinds of conflict – it’s not uncommon to see this kind of surge in the run-up to a ceasefire where various parties or various combatants try to make a land grab.

But let’s be very clear – and we’ve been, from the Secretary on down, very clear about the fact that there’s no military solution. So we would just like to disabuse the Syrian regime and, frankly, anyone who’s fighting on the ground in Syria of that premise that there is a military solution in Syria. What we have tried to put in place is a political process that will lead to a peaceful political transition. The Russians, other members of the ISSG signed on to that. They have said they’re committed to that process. So tomorrow’s meeting in that respect is a chance for all of the members of the ISSG to recommit themselves to that.

QUESTION: Right, but – sorry, I’ve got another one.

MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Forgive me. In the Secretary’s interview written up by David Ignatius of The Washington Post, he concedes that ripeness is all in diplomatic negotiations. And he – if you have a moment, as you have now, where one side is gaining ground literally, why should they be any more inclined to undertake a political negotiation whose very object – at least from your point of view, going back to Geneva I – is Assad’s departure from power through the mutual consent clause? So why do you think there is any reason that the Assad government will come back to the table when they’re winning on the ground?

MR TONER: I mean, again, it’s a valid point and one that we’ve been making that the situation on the ground in Aleppo – and let’s be very clear, the regime’s recent gains have been aided by Russian airstrikes. My answer is the same one I just gave, which is the Syrian regime cannot fool themselves into believing that they can ultimately win this conflict militarily. It won’t happen. And so what they’re looking at is exacerbating and continuing what has been a five-year conflict into the future. We don’t know how that’s going to end except that it’s going to lead to further displacement, more bloodshed, more humanitarian catastrophe.

So part of tomorrow’s effort really is to, again, revisit what the ISSG has agreed to in terms of a ceasefire and a political process, and then also for those members who have influence on the Assad regime – Iran, Russia – to exercise that influence and to persuade them that there is no military solution to this.

QUESTION: You asserted that it won’t happen – a military victory by the Assad government. Who’s going to stop them?

MR TONER: Well, again, we’re not --

QUESTION: They got the Russians and the Iranians on their side --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- so who’s going to – are you going to stop them or is somebody else going to stop them? Is the opposition going to stop them? I mean, if they’re gaining ground, who’s going to – who’s going to prevent a military victory?

MR TONER: Well, first of all, it’s unclear that they’re – I mean, obviously, Aleppo and the siege of Aleppo is of great concern, and largely because of the humanitarian catastrophe that’s ensued, and more refugees seeking asylum in Turkey and also within Syria. But as we’ve seen over the past five years, we’ve seen ebbs and flows. Granted, I understand what you’re saying with the Russians now backing them, that they – somehow that that’s the pivotal piece. We disagree. We don’t believe that they’ve – while they may momentarily have an upper hand, we don’t believe ultimately that they can win this militarily.

QUESTION: And then one more from me on this.


QUESTION: The Secretary, in the interview with Ignatius, talks about Plan B. And according to Ignatius, he wouldn’t go into what militarily that might entail, but is the Administration now considering a Plan B that would entail greater U.S. either military support for the opposition or military action by U.S. forces itself if diplomacy fails this week?

MR TONER: So all of you in this room and all of you who travel with the Secretary clearly know what plan A is, which is the ISSG, this political transition, this political process, and the talks in Geneva, and eventually a transition to a new government we believe that cannot include Assad, that can then transition and focus on destroying and defeating Daesh. That said, there are other options that we’re always looking at. I’m not going to talk to them today. I’m not going to speak to what they may entail. But of course we’re always looking at different options on how to approach this, given the extraordinary challenges and the extraordinary humanitarian catastrophe that’s taking place inside Syria.

QUESTION: Very last one for me on this.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

QUESTION: Even your friends --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Last one, I promise.

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Even your friends – Fabius, for example, today said that the Secretary is willing to go – that the President is not willing to go as far as the Secretary might be in terms of other options. So how do you address critics who would say yes, there are always options and you’ve looked at other options, and for five years you haven’t exercised them, and the one time you said you were going to bomb, you didn’t? So how do you address – how do you make credible the consideration of other options when you have pretty much chosen not to exercise non-diplomatic options for a long time now?

MR TONER: Well, again, the Secretary is focused on the diplomatic options, and he obviously, in his role as Secretary of State, provides counsel, advice to the President. This is obviously whole of government and an interagency and, frankly, an international effort to end the fighting in Syria. Right now our focus is on this process that we have in place. That’s where we’re putting all of our resources and all of our efforts into moving that forward.


MR TONER: Yeah, please, Michel.

QUESTION: -- you talked about plan A, but we didn’t hear anything from you about plan B.

MR TONER: I said I’m not going to talk about any options beyond what’s in front of us, which is the ISSG, the group of stakeholders that have agreed to and cemented what we’ve agreed to in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and then also the talks between parties in Geneva.


QUESTION: Mark, --

MR TONER: Go ahead, Michel. Or go --

QUESTION: You go ahead.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Could you tell us at least if – because yesterday the Secretary, or the day before yesterday, said that Munich will be the telling moment. So if diplomacy fails in Munich, if you cannot get any agreement with the Russians, could you tell us at least if this plan B, without getting into details, will be on?

MR TONER: No, look, I mean, as difficult as the last couple of weeks have been both in getting the two sides to talk in Geneva and also with the facts on the ground, the fighting on the ground, the renewed uptick in fighting on the ground of the past couple of weeks, we are still hopeful that the process that we have in place can work. And so I don’t think anybody is ready to throw in the towel or to, as you say, look at plan B or option B. I think we do have a process in place that can work. I’m not saying it doesn’t have its challenges and its hurdles and its tremendously complex problems, but I don’t want to say by the end of tomorrow, if we don’t have significant progress to report, that we’re suddenly going to move our direction.

QUESTION: You say nobody is thinking beyond plan A, but, I mean, there’s tens of thousands of people who are fleeing from Aleppo and the area going north.

MR TONER: By that, Brad – yeah, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: And what can you tell them besides, like, weird acronyms and SISG is going to reaffirm 2240’s – I mean, they don’t know what that means. That means nothing to them.

MR TONER: So it means – Brad, fair point. It means a ceasefire – immediate and credible ceasefire – and then humanitarian access to who – we recognize the tens of thousands of Syrians who are suffering starvation on the ground within Syria. And forgive me if I’m using acronyms or using terms of art. I’m not trying to. If I’m falling into diplo-speak, I correct myself. There are very real human stakes on the ground in Syria. All of us in the State Department, and no one more so than the Secretary, recognizes the stakes here. And all I mean by saying that we’re not – we’re putting all our efforts into plan A or option A is exactly that, is that we’re focused on tomorrow in Munich on trying to find solutions and to test – sorry – to test the resolve of others in that group to live up to the commitments that they made.

QUESTION: This test, I mean, it could go on forever. Why are these people who are dying of forced starvation, as you say, less worthy of immediate intervention than, say, Yezidis in Iraq? When you acted to save the lives of Yezidis, you said you had a moral imperative and it was a humanitarian crisis. But now with these, they have to wait a little bit longer because you want to test people’s resolve.

MR TONER: Well, it’s a good question to pose to the Russian Government, which is aiding the regime and carrying out airstrikes to support the siege of Aleppo. There are humanitarian organizations who are attempting to respond to that. That’s why we need humanitarian access to those areas that are affected. This is – you’re right. I mean, it’s a crisis. And we’re trying to get the kind of access to do – to provide assistance, immediate assistance. We recognize that --

QUESTION: But people are --

MR TONER: -- that there’s 250- to 300,000 people probably affected by this latest round of fighting who are in immediate need of immediate humanitarian assistance. And trust me when I say that we’re working round the clock to get that assistance to them, working through the UN and through other agencies on the ground.


MR TONER: Yeah, Michel.

QUESTION: The Syrian opposition is asking the U.S. for more commitment, less rhetorics, and more actions. And they’re asking for anti-aircraft missiles. Are you ready to deliver this kind of weapons to the opposition? And have you – what have you done for the opposition in the last few days to help the opposition in Syria?

MR TONER: So again, I preface what I’m about to say by saying that we recognize the dire needs, the dire straits of these Syrians on the ground in and around Aleppo, the refugees who’ve fled the fighting in Syria and sought refuge both within Syria but also in Turkey and Jordan and in Lebanon and elsewhere in Europe. The Secretary’s spoken to this at length, about the humanitarian catastrophe. We were in London last week, where we met and frankly pledged a significant sum of money to help alleviate the suffering of these people.

QUESTION: But they don’t need food at this time.

MR TONER: Sorry, just let me finish. No, I know. We have provided and continue to provide nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But ultimately, where we need to get back to are the talks in Geneva, and we need to move forward in that process. That’s, again, where we believe an ultimate solution can be found to this.

QUESTION: But they don’t need food at this time. They need anti-aircraft missiles. Are you ready, is the U.S. ready to deliver this kind of weapons to them?

MR TONER: Again, we provide nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. allow Saudi Arabia or Turkey to deliver this kind of weapons to the opposition?

MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to – I’m not going to discuss what we may – our discussions with – diplomatic discussions with either the Saudis or Turkey.

QUESTION: Is it an option?

MR TONER: Is it an option? What, to provide lethal aid? Again, we haven’t made that decision yet. I can’t speak to the Saudis or the Turks.

QUESTION: This is a follow-up to Michel’s question. The nonlethal assistance that you are providing to the opposition groups, it has been faded, by the way, or it’s – the flow --

MR TONER: Has been --

QUESTION: -- it – is there any decrease in the nonlethal assistance that you are providing to opposition groups in Syria?

MR TONER: Whether – your question is whether it’s been diminished by --


MR TONER: -- the fighting or whatever? I can’t speak to that. I know we’ve had trouble with getting humanitarian assistance in, obviously, but I can’t speak to whether the other --

QUESTION: No, after the situation at --

MR TONER: -- types of nonlethal assistance – I just, I don’t have --

QUESTION: And the second question. As an imminent step on these refugees fleeing from Aleppo to Turkey, do you think that Turkey should open the gates?

MR TONER: Well, I think Turkey first of all has been remarkably generous in responding to what is a terrific crisis with refugees pouring over the border into its sovereign territory. They’ve been accepting so far in dealing with some almost 3 million refugees who’ve come in from Syria and the challenge that that poses. So we’re – the United States appreciate Turkey’s support and hospitality to these refugees. I think I would refer you to the Turkish Government, but I think that we’ve – what we’ve heard from them is that they’ll continue to, as much as they’re able to, receive these refugees as they come to the border.

QUESTION: The United Nations, for example, called Turkey to open the gates. So is it a reasonable solution?

MR TONER: We would – again, we would hope that Turkey would continue to offer the same level of hospitality and support for these refugees, but we also recognize the extreme sacrifice that Turkey’s shown thus far.

QUESTION: And secondly, on this back and forth between President Erdogan and State Department. He said today U.S. is responsible for the bloodshed in Syria since you haven’t recognized PYD and the Kurdish forces in Syria. Any comment on this?

MR TONER: I’m not going to respond directly to it. We’ve been very clear we view the PKK as a terrorist organization, but we make a clear delineation between the PKK and the YPG. We believe the YPG is focused thus far on combatting Daesh in Syria and we’ve supported them in that effort.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about the rhetoric of President Erdogan on this issue?

MR TONER: Turkey is – has been a stalwart member of the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition, and we appreciate the role that they have played throughout, including allowing us to use the airbase in Incirlik, but also in the efforts that they’ve made to secure the 98-kilometer border with Syria and stem the flow --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: I know. I’m getting to it. But that said, they’re focused on the PKK and the continuing terrorist acts that they continue to carry out. I think our desire would be to see all sides to de-escalate both the rhetoric and these actions and return to a peace process.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that.


QUESTION: On that same point.

MR TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So President Erdogan has accused the U.S. of creating a, quote/unquote, “sea of blood” by supporting these Syrian Kurdish fighters. We hear the State Department say all the time how good of a partner and ally Turkey is, but is it something that you expect to hear from a good partner and ally?

MR TONER: I would just say that we, as partners and allies, we have in-depth, serious conversations and discussions with Turkish authorities, with Turkish leaders about all of these issues. We understand their concerns, the threat that they feel from the PKK, and frankly, from the YPG. We disagree on the YPG. We believe that they’re focused on fighting Daesh within Syria, and we’ve supported them in that effort. But we also understand Turkey’s concerns, again, about PKK terrorist activity. We’re going to continue to cooperate with them in combatting the PKK.

QUESTION: Just one more.

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: The U.S. relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Daesh, but Turkey says these Syrian Kurdish fighters themselves are terrorists. Would say that Turkey and the U.S. have different priorities?

MR TONER: Again, I think we just – we view the situation on the ground differently in that regard in the sense that we’ve been very clear that we view the PKK as a terrorist organization, but from what we’ve seen, the YPG on the ground has been an effective force along with Syrian Arab communities, Syrian Turkoman communities in fighting Daesh and in taking – retaking territory. And we’ve supported them in that sole – that effort, that unique effort.

QUESTION: You say you understand the Turkish concerns on YPG even if you don’t agree with them? What are their concerns about, what, ISIS people getting killed and al-Nusrah people getting killed? Is that their concern?

MR TONER: No, no. I mean, look, there’s a – they clearly make the link between the PKK and the YPG. We don’t. That’s all I’m saying.

QUESTION: But he – but the complaint was specifically about killings in Syria, wasn’t it? It was about --

MR TONER: I’m not – I wasn’t speaking directly to that comment. I was speaking to the broader question about how we view Turkey’s concerns about the YPG.

QUESTION: Is Turkey expressing concern to you about dead ISIS and al-Nusrah guys? Is that a --

MR TONER: I’m not sure what the exact quote is.

QUESTION: I’m asking you. I mean, since you’ve had all these in-depth conversations, is that a concern they’re expressing to you, there’s too many dead jihadis or something?

MR TONER: No, I mean, Turkey – look, I mean, Turkey – no, Turkey is – recognizes and is a committed member of the coalition to fight ISIL and Daesh in – ISIL/Daesh in Syria. I’m not sure what your question is.

QUESTION: Well, the question – it’s --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: He understands it. Okay, go on.

QUESTION: Yeah, because he said – Brad is trying to say that Erdogan directly accused U.S. for not recognizing YPG, which is causing a bloodshed in Syria. Do you believe that YPG is the cause, one of the reasons of the bloodshed in Syria?

MR TONER: Again, what I’ll say in response to that is what I said previously, which is the YPG has been an effective fighting force in going after Daesh. Let’s be very clear, and I don’t think there’s any disagreement on the fact that the preponderance of killing and death in Syria has been caused by both ISIL or Daesh and the Assad regime.

QUESTION: So the last one: So in that sense, do you believe that – I was talking about the rhetoric of Erdogan, which is blaming U.S. for this bloodshed in Syria. Do you believe that this rhetoric of President Erdogan is hurting the bilateral relations between U.S. and Turkey?

MR TONER: And I – in response I would just say that we continue to discuss and hear Turkey’s concerns regarding the situation in Syria. They are a committed partner in the coalition to defeat Daesh. Every member of the coalition has a specific role to play. Turkey’s been a valued member of that coalition, and I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: I don’t understand what – you’re hearing Turkey’s concerns about Syria, and those clearly include YPG. We don’t understand if you agree eye to eye that ISIL is terrible and you need to combat it. What are their concerns about – what – why are you listening to this? What is it they’re telling you? It doesn’t make any sense. If you put all your statements together, it sounds like --

MR TONER: Again, I’m – I don’t – no, no, that’s not true, Brad. But I don’t want to project --

QUESTION: Well, no, then explain it to me.

MR TONER: I don’t want to project onto what President Erdogan’s comments were any interpretation whatsoever. I would refer to President Erdogan to explain what he meant by his remarks.

That said, more broadly speaking, the Turks have expressed in the past – Turkish authorities, the Turkish Government has expressed concerns about the YPD and their connection with the PKK. We don’t make that connection, period.

QUESTION: Mark, what does it mean for the U.S. Department of State that most of the U.S. allies are criticizing the Administration’s policy toward Syria? Saudi Arabia, France, and Turkey.

MR TONER: I mean, there is real and valid concern about the situation on the ground in Syria, and a variety of countries and governments share those concerns. Where the rubber meets the road, or whatever expression you want to use, is tomorrow within Munich, where there’s an opportunity for all these stakeholders to come together and work together to reach two achievable goals, which is a ceasefire and humanitarian access. That can be done. That’s achievable. So criticisms aside, recognition that there’s an urgency aside, concern over the situation aside, that meeting tomorrow will be an opportunity for all of these stakeholders to come together and talk about ways we can get to those two goals.


QUESTION: Just to follow up, Mark, Turkish President Erdogan for the – for three days now, foreign minister – also today Prime Minister Davutoglu has stated the same thing. They are saying that U.S. – asking your Administration which side are you on. Are you on the side of the YPG and Turkey? And clearly it seems Turkey thinks that you cannot support both YPG and Turkey. If this was said once, this has been said for the last three, four days now.

MR TONER: My response would be, and I believe the Turkish Government knows this, is that our commitment to the U.S.-Turkey partnership and alliance, we take that very seriously and we’re in constant communication with the Turkish Government to address any concerns they may have. They’re a critical partner in the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition, and we coordinate closely with them across a variety of fronts and all lines of effort, and we’re going to continue those discussions moving forward, but I think no one should question our commitment to our alliance with Turkey.


QUESTION: I have a couple more.

QUESTION: Sorry, please.

MR TONER: That’s okay. I’ll get to you, Michael.

QUESTION: No, no, let him finish.

QUESTION: Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu today said that Turkey planned to care for the new wave of refugees at the camps on the Syrian side of the border because the camps on the Turkey side filled right now. Do you have any comments or any view on this particular plan?

MR TONER: I don’t. I’m not aware of those comments, so I don’t want to address them without having a bit more granularity on what was said.

QUESTION: You mentioned Turkey and PKK conflict, and I think you called de-escalation. The situation has been going on for months now and hundreds of civilians killed in the Turkey southeast. Do you have any updates on the Turkey southeast region?

MR TONER: Well, we have expressed our concern about the violence in southeast Turkey which we believe has undermined all that was achieved during the peace process that was launched I think about three years ago. What we want to see is a resumed political process, because we believe that offers the best hope for civil rights – greater civil rights, rather – for security and prosperity for all the citizens of Turkey. So I think we would call on all responsible parties to seek an immediate return to the negotiating table.


MR TONER: And let me to add to that – I apologize – we also call for the PKK to immediately cease its campaign of violence, which has also – well, which has exacerbated the situation greatly. We’ve said before many times that Turkish authorities have the responsibility to respond to these PKK attacks, but ultimately, our hope, desire here is to see a de-escalation and a return to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: Going back to the topic that there is no link between the PYD and the PKK, again, today President Erdogan said, “We have written proof.” He said, “We tell the Americans it is a terror group.” Have you seen any kind of documents from the Turkey side linking PYD to PKK?

MR TONER: I personally have not. I don’t know that they’ve shared that information with our diplomats in Ankara. We have – again, we have almost constant discussion, contact, exchange with the Turkish Government. We would welcome any new information that they might bring, but we’ve been very clear that we believe the PKK is a terrorist group; YPG is not.

QUESTION: Your coalition jets and air force still continue to support YPG groups in northern Syria and Iraq, just to clarify.

MR TONER: I mean, yes. I mean, targeted airstrikes in support of a variety of different groups including the YPG, but also as I said earlier, Syrian Arabs and – as well as Turkoman.

QUESTION: Finally, UN just released report on Syrian regime’s activities against its detainees, how it exterminates for years now, and according to this UN report it is a state policy, including security institutions’ policy. After seeing this report, do you still think that the Assad regime institutions should be supported even if there is a transition from Assad to new government in the future?

MR TONER: Well, I’m aware of the report. Obviously, given the systematic abuse that the regime has carried out against the Syrian people, there needs to be some measure of accountability, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of a transitional government, a peaceful process that leads to a transitional government that includes – that it – that – sorry, that maintains some of the institutions of state that currently exist in Syria but that also create a government that is responsive to the Syrian people’s aspirations.

Please, Michael.

QUESTION: Mark, do you accept his accusation that you are responsible for this sea of blood?

MR TONER: No, and I’ve tried to answer this. If I --

QUESTION: Yes, I know, but he --

MR TONER: I mean, I – no. I mean, look – I mean, again, there’s, first of all, too much blood being shed in Syria, but the main perpetrators are Daesh and the Assad regime.

QUESTION: I have another question, if I may.

MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.

QUESTION: Mrs. Merkel and the prime minister of Turkey are asking NATO to use its monitoring mechanism on the Aegean Sea and the borders between Turkey and Syria. According to them, the two countries are to make the plea for assistance at the meeting of NATO defense minister tomorrow in Brussels. My question is this: What is your position on this, Mark? Do you think it’s a good idea?

MR TONER: I’m aware of the proposal. I just would refer you to NATO headquarters to talk to it – or speak to it, rather. And I don’t want to certainly get ahead of some of the discussions that are going to take place in Brussels tomorrow, so --

QUESTION: You have a position as I understand, and you are going to express it tomorrow, correct?

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: And another question: Are you planning to send troops in the Aegean Sea --


QUESTION: -- to help with the refugee crisis?

MR TONER: Nothing to announce, certainly, that I’m aware of.

Please. I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Mark, it was in another meeting, but there was a HDP delegation in town, and yesterday they met with (inaudible) in this building. Do you --


QUESTION: The HDP, the party – Turkish political party.

MR TONER: Okay. Right, right.

QUESTION: Do you have any readout for this meeting?

MR TONER: I don’t. I’ll take the question and see if I have anything to read out.

Yeah, please. And then I swear I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: And would you say Turkey’s just as helpful against Daesh as the Kurdish fighters in Syria are?

MR TONER: I mean, that’s a really difficult assessment to make, and – but I mean, not that – whether Turkey is more helpful than the YPG, but just to give a grade to all the members of the coalition and all the various groups fighting on the ground in Syria against Daesh, I’ll just say that NATO – Turkey’s a NATO ally, a strong partner within the anti-Daesh coalition, and that we appreciate their support.

QUESTION: Just one more, so sorry.

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: So Kurdish fighters – Turkey thinks that they’re terrorists and obviously wants somebody to attack them, and Daesh is attacking them. Do you think Turkey is, in good faith – would be fighting Daesh if (inaudible) --

MR TONER: No. And I don’t want to create – again, and I would push back on that assertion. Turkey recognizes that Daesh is a real threat, frankly, to the region and to Turkey itself and they’re a committed member of the anti-Daesh coalition. That said, they also face a threat from PKK, which is a terrorist group carrying out attacks within Turkey, and that plays into their view, I’ll say, of the YPG.

Please, Nike, and then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: May I ask a question? On Mexico, El Chapo --

QUESTION: Can we stay with Syria?

MR TONER: Sure, sure.

QUESTION: Oh, sure.

MR TONER: Let’s finish on Syria. Please.

QUESTION: There have been published reports and we’ve also had diplomats tell us that the Russians are interested in talking about a ceasefire maybe in March. March 1 is one date that’s been publicly floated. Are you open to a ceasefire in March?

Well, actually, first, have they floated that idea to you? And then second, are you open to it?

MR TONER: I don’t know that they’ve floated a specific date of a ceasefire, a date certain like that. I just don’t know. But I think our preference would be for an immediate ceasefire.

QUESTION: And then one other one: Yesterday, Kirby was quite explicit in suggesting that the idea of a buffer zone inside Syria was not at the top of the agenda.

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Is that still your position?

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, look, I mean – and I think John also pointed out that we look at all possible options to help ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Syria, which includes looking at a safe zone or buffer zone or whatever you want to call it. But we’ve also been clear of the challenges that are inherent to any option, which is it would be a magnet for civilians which would perhaps put them at risk without a large capable force there to protect them on the ground. It would remain – such a zone would remain vulnerable to attack.

QUESTION: Then it wouldn’t be a safe zone.

MR TONER: Then it wouldn’t be a safe zone, exactly.

QUESTION: So the point is if you get a safe zone, it wouldn’t be vulnerable to attack, which would make it safe.

MR TONER: But Brad, my – so my point is that it would require a large capable force on the ground to defend those civilians, and that obviously poses a logistical challenge. And the resources necessary to protect or patrol a zone – and we’ve talked about this many times – would likely divert resources from our counter-ISIL efforts.

QUESTION: When the U.S. provided air cover and patrolled a no-fly zone over the Kurdish north in Iraq in the years between the two Iraq wars, how many American troops were on the ground in Iraq? None.

MR TONER: None, yeah. But --

QUESTION: So why does it – why do you – why can’t you create a safe zone without a sizable force on the ground now?

MR TONER: Again, I will leave it to experts at the Department of Defense to talk about the logistical challenges of creating a safe zone, but that’s a legitimate concern, Brad. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Saudi plan --

QUESTION: One more from me, if I --

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: -- if I may, just – and I’ll close out.

MR TONER: No, no worries.

QUESTION: Is – the Russians have also floated, we are told, the idea of a sort of Arab or regional peacekeeping force. You’ll recall, I think, in 2012, five nations contributed to such a force in Syria but it fell apart – to monitor a ceasefire, essentially. Are you open to or enthusiastic about such a proposal or such an idea? And at this stage of the game, three years later, more can you – can you see any of those countries actually committing troops into this circumstance to try to patrol a ceasefire?

MR TONER: Patrol a ceasefire --


MR TONER: -- versus --


MR TONER: -- countering Daesh, okay. We’ve talked about, in terms of our counter-ISIL efforts, having a contingent of Arab troops from the region participate in those efforts. I think, again, without – I don’t want to get ahead of tomorrow’s discussions, and I know that’s a standard spokesperson response, but it’s legitimate in this case. I think we’re open to having a serious discussion that looks at all the options to a credible ceasefire and how to maintain that credible ceasefire tomorrow in Munich.

QUESTION: To include an Arab force?

MR TONER: Again, I think we’re – to look at --


MR TONER: -- any and all options (inaudible) there.

QUESTION: And this – and sorry, this ceasefire would not include the coalition campaign against Daesh, correct?

MR TONER: One more time.

QUESTION: If there is a ceasefire, it would not include what the coalition --

MR TONER: Correct, yeah.

QUESTION: -- is doing in Syria?

MR TONER: No, no. Daesh would never be a part of any ceasefire.

QUESTION: Do you think --

MR TONER: And there is, I can say, unanimous agreement on that.

QUESTION: Do you think Saudi plan to send troops for this specific safe zone plans in northern Syria makes sense for the U.S. Government?

MR TONER: To contribute the --


MR TONER: Saudi?


MR TONER: We’re aware of the Saudi offer. We’ve spoken to it already. Again, I think we are – I’ll just leave it where I – what I said before – where I – I’ll leave it with what I said before, which is that there are significant challenges to maintaining a safe zone that, Brad’s objections aside, involve a force on the ground that can protect – as well as in the air – that can protect the civilians, and that’s a strong consideration if we want to move forward with that effort whether it’s Saudi troops, whether it’s whoever’s troops on the ground.

Please, Nike.

QUESTION: Yes. Mexico --

MR TONER: Mexico.

QUESTION: -- the drug lord El Chapo, his lawyer is in town. Is there any meeting between his lawyer and officials from this building to discuss his case?

MR TONER: Not with this building, not with the people in this building that I’m aware of. Nike, I’m going to have to refer you to the Department of Justice for any questions on this matter. As a matter of longstanding policy we don’t discuss extradition matters.

QUESTION: But his case was discussed last month when Secretary Kerry met with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada.

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: And U.S. expressed welcome Mexico is willing to extradite him. Could you give us an idea for, like, where you are in this case, and what is your position?

MR TONER: Sure. And you’re absolutely correct that there has been comments made, both from the Mexican Government saying that they would hope to extradite him to the United States. I’m just not in a position now to talk about where we’re at in that process or to give any more details at this time.


QUESTION: Ukraine.

MR TONER: Ukraine.


MR TONER: I’m so sorry, Catherine, I’ll get to you. I apologize.


QUESTION: Today, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde expressed – talked about the situation in Ukraine and its ability to implement further a program supported by the IMF. As we know, the U.S. Administration has been supported this program from very beginning. So do you have any comment on that?

MR TONER: To be honest, I’m not aware of her remarks. I’d have to look at them more closely. Broadly speaking, you’re right; we have been supportive of Ukraine’s efforts to get its economic or financial house in order, which includes dealing with corruption issues, among other real and serious economic concerns. And we remain committed to supporting however we can Ukraine’s efforts to deal with what is a very serious economic situation and recognize that that’s critical to its long-term stability. But I haven’t seen her specific remarks, so I’m hesitant to provide more comment than that.

Please, Catherine.

QUESTION: Thank you. It’s on the emails.


QUESTION: We understand at least a dozen email accounts were handling the highly classified information that is now being withheld in the 22 top secret emails. And among those accounts were Mrs. Clinton, her closest aides, as well as Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy. Is a damage assessment being done?

MR TONER: Is a damage assessment being done on the --

QUESTION: Spillage.

MR TONER: -- on the spillage?


MR TONER: I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about this in the past couple weeks. Our focus within the State Department remains on the FOIA process that’s in front of us, some 55,000 pages of Secretary Clinton’s emails that we’re working diligently under court order to make public. And as we do make those emails public, we’ve got to keep in mind concerns about confidentiality or upgrades that need to be taken in terms of the sensitivity of the material in them. And we’ve done that. To your broader question as what is doing – being done to, as you say, spillage or whatever, I can’t speak to those efforts today. I know that we’re aware, obviously, of those concerns. We are taking steps, but I don’t have any more details to provide.

QUESTION: But you accept that more than a dozen accounts with access to that information is a very serious matter?

MR TONER: That over – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Over a dozen accounts --


QUESTION: -- had access to the intelligence that is now being withheld in full. And you accept that is a very serious matter?

MR TONER: Of course. We take these matters very seriously. We’ve said that throughout this process. Our focus, as I said, is on releasing all of these emails that are releasable and meeting our deadlines of the end of this month, and we’re working diligently to do so. But taking every effort along the way to upgrade information and – as necessary, or redact information as necessary before it goes public. As to your broader question about concerns of spillage or leakage, obviously those are concerns we take seriously. And going forward we’ll take steps to address those concerns.


QUESTION: Yeah, just a follow-up, please. Patrick Kennedy was recently on the Hill testifying in front of the select committee, and he told members that he knew about the email server really from the get-go but he did not understand the scope of its use. He thought it was clearly just for personal use with her family. But that is really undercut by his email traffic, which shows that he was using that account for government business. So how do you reconcile those two?

MR TONER: Sure. I mean, Catherine, normally I wouldn’t address or read out what was a private interview between Under Secretary Kennedy and members of the Benghazi committee, but on your specific claim that he knew about Secretary Clinton’s private server, that’s not correct. And that was made clear in his comments to the Benghazi committee. What he said he was aware of is that she was interested in setting up a private computer in the department so that she could email back and forth with her family during the work day. And as we’ve said previously, no such computer was ever set up.

QUESTION: And just – you may have to take this question.


QUESTION: Was Patrick Kennedy her records officer?

MR TONER: That’s a good question. Yeah.

QUESTION: Records officer is the – yeah, the – yeah, if you could find out.


QUESTION: Because the records officer is the person responsible for the records, the human resources, but more specifically, signs the non-disclosure agreements for classified and TS/SCI compartmented information.

MR TONER: Right. I’m not sure in this case who would have been her records officer --

QUESTION: I believe it was Patrick.

MR TONER: -- or whether there was – right.

QUESTION: Yeah, if you can check. We understand it was Patrick Kennedy.

MR TONER: Okay, we’ll get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up to that?


QUESTION: And I take your point that you wouldn’t normally read out what you say was a private interview --


QUESTION: -- between a congressional committee and an administration official, but you said that in response to the question about whether or not Kennedy was aware of Secretary Clinton’s use of a private server from the get-go, you said that’s not correct.

MR TONER: Right, so – yeah, sorry.

QUESTION: And that – so here’s my question.


QUESTION: Under Secretary Kennedy is responsible for both streams of the department that would be in charge of the Secretary’s communications – the one that actually does the communications and the emails, all of which fall under his purview, and then DS, Diplomatic Security, which also fall – which also report in to him. How could he not be aware that the secretary was using a private email server for all her work email communications? How could he not know if he is responsible both for DS and for the people who do the technical and computer stuff at State?

MR TONER: So again, what I was trying to make clear there was that he was not – his knowledge about her wanting to set up a private computer within the department, not at her residence, so that she could email her family, that’s what he was speaking to about in his interview. And again, as I said, no such computer was ever set up. Your broader question – again, he’s spoken to it before, or we’ve spoken to it before, that he did not have knowledge of the computer server that she had set up, the personal email or computer server. She set it up at her residence. Again, that’s not really our focus here. I would just return to the fact that our focus is on releasing the FOIA.

QUESTION: Forgive me for asking.

MR TONER: That’s okay.

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up here?


QUESTION: Why wouldn’t it be of interest to him that the secretary of state or any other State Department official might set up a private server at their home to conduct their official communications?

MR TONER: By the way --

QUESTION: You’re saying he didn’t know that.

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: And I’m asking, well, how could he not know that? I mean, why – and why – wouldn’t you want him to know that?

MR TONER: Well, again, I – I mean, you’re asking me to speak to or do forensics on this that, frankly, I’m not able to do from this podium right now. What his knowledge or what his awareness at the time, other than what he has said already or what we have said already, which is that he was not aware of that – of her having a private server at her home.

All right, guys? On that note --

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:14 p.m.)

DPB #23