Daily Press Briefing - February 16, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 16, 2016


.1:50 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Hey, guys. Happy Tuesday. I hope everyone made it in safely today. Welcome to the State Department. A couple of things at the top, and then I’ll move to your questions.

First of all, beginning in Uganda. The United States condemns yesterday’s elections-related violence in Uganda which claimed the life of at least one person, and we offer our condolences to the friends and families of that individual. We hope that such senseless death will not be part – or repeated rather – as Ugandans head to the polls on Thursday.

We are deeply concerned that the police detained opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye and tear-gassed some of his supporters. Such restrictions on public assembly, especially when applied disproportionately to one side contesting the elections, escalates tensions in an already heated electoral environment. So we urge all – we urge government authorities as well as all political parties and their supporters to refrain from further acts or rhetoric that may lead to more unrest or claim any more lives.

And then also on Libya. We welcome – the United States welcomes the February 14th announcement of the composition for a cabinet for the Government of National Accord. We urge all Libyans to continue moving forward with the implementation of the Libyan political agreement and the formation of the new government. Finalizing the cabinet of the Government of National Accord is an essential step towards providing the Libyan people the opportunity to rebuild their country and to counter the threat posed by Daesh or ISIL to their common future. We stand ready to provide full support to the Libyan people and the Government of National Accord as they continue the hard work of restoring unity and stability.

With that, Brad, over to you.

QUESTION: Great. I think we’ll get back to Libya.


QUESTION: But I wanted to ask first about Syria.


QUESTION: I think today is day five since your ceasefire that still hasn’t ceased any fire. But my understanding was today the task force on the ceasefire was supposed to meet. Can you confirm if they’ve met and what they accomplished or didn’t accomplish?

MR TONER: Sure. First of all, it’s cessation of hostilities – we talked a little bit about the terminology – versus a ceasefire. Obviously, we’re arguing a little bit of semantics here, but it’s a difference in terminology.

The cessation of hostilities working group is what you’re referring to. So obviously, last week in Munich, they agreed – ISSG, International Syria Support Group members agreed to establish a ceasefire task force under the auspices of the UN, and that’s going to be co-chaired by Russia and the United States and includes political-military officials with the participation of other members of the ISSG with influence on the armed groups, either opposition or regime forces, fighting on the ground.

So my understanding is they have yet to meet. Our team, obviously, is working to get this group together and started on its work as soon as we can, but we don’t have anything new to announce in terms of, like I said, this group actually meeting. Obviously, there’s an urgency here. We need to get this group together, but they’re still working through the various issues and challenges.

QUESTION: So last – I remember going into the Munich meeting, we were talking about the goal of an immediate ceasefire. And then after Munich, within one week the ceasefire or cessation of hostilities – however you want to call it – is that still on track if the group that’s supposed to make the logistics for it still hasn’t even met yet?

MR TONER: Well, again, so the group hasn’t met yet, but again, different parties have been already communicating on the ground. We’ve said – the Secretary has said it’s a very complex situation on the ground there. There’s a lot of different competing forces. We’ve seen that over the past few days. Obviously, the civilian casualties yesterday and the attacks on hospitals in and around Aleppo and Idlib – this is a unacceptable situation. You saw our statement yesterday condemning Russia for carrying out some of those air attacks, and we are adamant that we need to see some progress on cessation of hostilities in the coming days. I can’t say categorically that a week from last Thursday there must be a cessation of hostilities, but certainly, we’re going to expect that there is progress.

QUESTION: So do you know when they’re actually going to meet – this working group or task force or – I think you used both terms.

MR TONER: Yeah, working group, task force. But I don’t have – I believe tomorrow. I’ll double-check that.


MR TONER: There was, however, on the humanitarian access front – I’m sure you’ve seen some of the wire stories already, but Special Envoy de Mistura was in Syria – or is in Syria, actually – to press the Assad regime to allow the delivery of aid to – that it and Russia has said they would allow to some of these besieged areas. And again, he had a meeting earlier today with Foreign Minister Muallem and the – he announced that the Syrian Government would allow or would permit the humanitarian access to, I think, seven besieged areas beginning tomorrow. So --

QUESTION: How many have gotten aid so – I mean, there’s been so many announcements --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: -- and I want to know about actions.

MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. Yeah. No, I understand that.

QUESTION: It sounds like – I mean, there’s more and more announcements --

MR TONER: So there were – we talked a little bit about this on Friday. There were – there were some immediate deliveries last week. I’m just trying to double-check those.

QUESTION: It sounded like there was some difficulty on confirming whether the deliveries actually were delivered or not, correct?

MR TONER: You’re talking about the deliveries that were from last year? Yeah. I mean, there was a – so in – it was beginning this week by air to Deir al-Zor, also Foua, Kefraya and Damascus, Madaya, Mouadhimiyeh, and Kafr Batna. Those were all areas that were supposed to be getting humanitarian assistance. I’m not sure how much of those have actually received humanitarian assistance. I can also double-check that as well.

QUESTION: These are the regions in the south. Is there any village that you reached in the north part?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, ideally – look, we’re looking at all – all of the besieged – and that’s a UN term that’s used here – the besieged areas. We want to reach all of the besieged areas with humanitarian access or get humanitarian access to these areas for assistance as soon as possible. I’m not sure. Again, I’d have to look and see about the – whether any of the places in the south have been reached.



QUESTION: So five days later we have no ceasefire and we can’t confirm that any aid has actually reached anyone? Is that what we’re basically left with?

MR TONER: I believe humanitarian aid has reached some areas. We’re going to watch and see tomorrow whether the regime lives up to its word to de Mistura that other areas – this other seven areas – will start to be – to have the aid delivered to them.

QUESTION: Do you have any name for the name of the towns?

MR TONER: I don’t. This is really just coming out of Damascus as I walked out here.


QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, on this meeting that a high-level Turkish official called in Istanbul with the journalists, and he suggested that without any ground operation in Syria it is impossible to stop this war. And he urged the allies, including Washington – I mean U.S. – to join this ground operation plans. Do you have any reaction?

MR TONER: We’ve seen those remarks. We’ve not seen any evidence that Turkey is preparing any kind of ground offensives. I think he said it would have to be undertaken with the other members of the coalition. We’ve been very clear our intent within the coalition, our focus remains on equipping and training but also supporting with airstrikes and other assistance the groups who are already fighting effectively on the ground in northern Syria. We’re not going to --

QUESTION: Is it safe --

MR TONER: We’re not going to significantly change our footprint. There’s no plans to do that in the future.

QUESTION: So is it safe to assume that the ground operation is not on the table.

MR TONER: Is it safe to assume that?

QUESTION: The ground operation plan is not on the table.

MR TONER: Is not on the table? Look, I mean, we talk with our coalition partners all the time on a range of ways to intensify our efforts against Daesh in Syria as well as in Iraq. But there’s no – there’s no plans to put ground troops, at least on the part of the U.S., into Syria.

QUESTION: Just two more on --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- on this issue. Prime Minister Davutoglu also criticized U.S. for shying away to condemn the Russian airstrikes in Syria.

MR TONER: I’m sorry, who said this? He said we shied away?

QUESTION: Prime minister – yeah. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that U.S. is shying away to condemn Russian airstrikes in Syria against the civilians.

MR TONER: Well, I mean, my answer to that is we issued a statement very strongly condemning yesterday the airstrikes – and I mentioned them again – carried out in Aleppo and Idlib. And these were attacks that hit a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres‎ as well as a women and children’s hospital in Azaz city. We called them unacceptable attacks on civilian targets. So I don’t know how that constitutes shying away from calling out Russia for its actions.


QUESTION: The head of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian opposition said today that he felt – or they felt abandoned by the international community. Do you think that, given that statement and what’s happened over the last five days, that you’re still on track for the Syrian opposition and the regime to sit down together on the 25th?

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, it’s a fair question. I think – it is our goal to get them back to the negotiating table next week in Geneva. I think we’re cognizant of the fact that unless there is significant progress, or progress, to look at, whether it’s humanitarian access, whether it’s at least the beginnings of a cessation of hostilities on the ground, that’s going to be difficult. We have said all along that the opposition needs to go to Geneva without preconditions in order just to talk and begin those talks so that from that, they can build out demands that can be confidence-building measures. All of that is on the table. And so we strongly encourage them, but we also recognize that it’s a challenge for them to go back to the negotiating table unless we see some kind of progress on the ground.

Let’s give this humanitarian access a chance. De Mistura was, as I said, in Damascus today. He’s reported progress. He’s also said we need to see action on the ground tomorrow. Agree, Brad, questions are absolutely appropriate. We need to see all sides, and I’m not talking about just the regime and Russia’s support for the regime, but all sides to begin putting in place a cessation of their hostilities – stop carrying out attacks on the ground.

The working group is getting up and running. There’s – as I said, there’s challenges between the different parties and members of that working group or that task force, whatever you want to call it, trying to get the pieces in place for this cessation of hostilities. But they’re working on it. But we need to see – I agree we need to see progress.


QUESTION: Mark, you said – you condemned Russians’ attack on hospitals and you said it’s unacceptable. But France, UK, and Turkey said that these attacks constitute war crimes. I was wondering, what’s your position on that?

MR TONER: Look, I – and the Secretary was asked as much I think last week in an interview he did. I’ll just echo what he said, which is there’s a very precise legal definition of what constitutes war crimes. I’m not going to get into that from the podium. What I will say is it’s absolutely horrific what they’ve done and they need to stop.

QUESTION: So bombing the hospital is not part of the – that legal procedure or --

MR TONER: All I’m saying is --

QUESTION: I didn’t understand that part, sorry.

MR TONER: -- there is a legal definition, legal process in determining whether something is a war crime or not. I don’t have the legal expertise and nor have we done the legal legwork yet to determine whether it is a, quote/unquote, “war crime.” But that does not excuse it in any way and it does not diminish the horror of that attack yesterday.


QUESTION: Foreign Secretary Hammond said that those attacks needed to be investigated to determine if they are war crimes. Is that something that the U.S. stands behind, that they need to be investigated as war crimes?

MR TONER: I think we’d welcome any investigation into the attacks yesterday.

QUESTION: Are you certain that those were Russian strikes? Because Russia denies that those were Russian strikes.

MR TONER: I’m aware of those denials. Look, I mean, we’ve seen – whether, I mean, they were Russian aircraft that carried it out, these strikes, the Russians have provided or supplied the Syrian air force, but we’re pretty confident in our assessment that this was Russia that carried out these strikes.

QUESTION: Back on the --


QUESTION: -- ceasefire, one more before we leave Syria. You said the goal now was – or you need to see progress in the coming days, or a week from Thursday you want progress toward a cessation of hostilities. I believe last week you were talking about a cessation of hostilities. That seems to have been softened. And then you mentioned that you – there’s – although the working group hasn’t met, there’s discussions behind the scenes. Have those discussions produced that progress that’s good enough for you to say you can keep bombing, but we’re now going to want it in a week from next Thursday, or you’ve got two more weeks, or whatever?

MR TONER: No. I mean – sure. I mean, a couple of responses to that. So it’s a very complex situation, obviously, on the ground; we all recognize that. The week timeline is a target, if you will, but we’re going to continue to push for a cessation of hostilities. And while we’d like to see progress, I think until we actually see credible reports that fighting has stopped in certain areas are we going to feel satisfied that – that this effort has any purchase at all on the ground. So I’m not trying to excuse the delay in any way, shape or form. I think we’re going to continue to pursue aggressively the cessation of hostilities, but we also recognize we need – the parties involved need a little space in order to at least make the effort.

But as we also said last week and continue to say this week is it’s – to use a colloquial American English expression, it’s put up or shut up. I mean, it’s – Russia has pledged, has bought into the ISSG statement of last week that there should be a cessation of hostilities. They need to exert influence on the Syrian regime to make sure that happens.

QUESTION: It’s just that last week you started talking before Munich about this would be a telling moment --


QUESTION: -- and this would be a test, and now --

MR TONER: It still – I mean --

QUESTION: -- nothing’s happened. So essentially, I mean --

MR TONER: I mean, you’re asking at what point do we fish or cut bait, to use another colloquial expression. At what point do we --

QUESTION: Has Thursday’s agreement achieved anything yet?

MR TONER: We do think it’s made progress on the humanitarian access front. There has been some humanitarian assistance delivered to these besieged areas. I don’t have a list in front of me, but I would refer you to the UN to really speak to that in detail. So we do think there has been progress on that front. We’re looking tomorrow, obviously, for more progress on that front.

In terms of the cessation of hostilities, we need to see a lot more.

QUESTION: Syria/Turkey, may I please?

MR TONER: Yeah. Syria/Turkey --


MR TONER: I’m sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Syria told the UN that Turkey hit Syrian army positions as well as Kurdish positions. Do you urge Turkey to stop targeting only the Kurds in Syria?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, one more time. You said Syrian – sorry, I apologize.

QUESTION: Syria told the UN that Turkey hit Syrian army positions as well as Kurdish positions in Syria.


QUESTION: Do you urge Turkey to stop targeting only the Kurds in Syria?

MR TONER: I’m not aware of those allegations, frankly. I am aware, as you mentioned, reports that they have struck YPG-affiliated forces outside of Afrin and Azaz, and we have actually said – first of all, we’ve been very clear that these moves by the YPG on the ground, we believe, are counterproductive and undermine our collective efforts in northern Syria to defeat ISIL. And I’ve talked about this before; we believe the YPG is an effective group fighting Daesh or ISIL on the ground. I just would have to look into your actual question, which is – I was not aware that they had hit Syrian positions in and around Aleppo. You said Aleppo?

QUESTION: What exactly is the U.S. urging Turkey to do?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, within – well, first of all, look, Turkey is a member of the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition and a valued member of that. We have seen in the past week or so – and we’ve talked about it a lot in this briefing room – their concerns about the YPG. So at the same time, we have urged the YPG to avoid moves that will heighten tensions with Turkey and with other Arab opposition forces in northern Syria, because we believe they’re counterproductive. And I’ve talked about some of these, which is they’ve taken additional territory outside of Afrin; they’ve attacked areas close to Azaz, including the Menagh airbase. We have been clear to them in our communications with them that this – these moves we consider to be counterproductive to the overall effort to defeat ISIL. But at the same time, we’ve also urged Turkey to cease any – its artillery fire across the border.

QUESTION: And no matter what the target – so is it no matter what the target is? Is it just – are you urging Turkey to stop hitting --

MR TONER: We’ve urged Turkey to --

QUESTION: -- Kurds in Syria or --

MR TONER: We’ve urged Turkey to cease its artillery fire over the border (inaudible).

QUESTION: Altogether, no matter what the target is?

MR TONER: Well, look, as – against Daesh, of course, would be fine.


QUESTION: Do you urge Turkey – the YPG on the ground to withdraw from the airbase?

MR TONER: To be --

QUESTION: Do you urge the YPG forces to withdraw from the airbase?

MR TONER: We’ve made it clear that we consider such moves to be counterproductive.

QUESTION: No, no. Avoid to it was something else, but they should withdraw from the airbase?

MR TONER: You’re talking about control from Menagh airbase.

QUESTION: YPG, I’m talking about – yes.

MR TONER: Again, we’ve said that their – these kind of moves undermine our collective efforts. We don’t think they’re helpful to the overall effort.

QUESTION: And did this move affect the cooperation between U.S. and YPG, especially on Manbij Gap? After this move of YPG, is there any change in the U.S.-YPG cooperation on the ground?

MR TONER: I think we continue to – not I think – we do continue to support YPG efforts that are focused on fighting and combating Daesh on the ground in northern Syria, and that’s where our support’s been focused, even before the events of the last couple weeks. We do view them as an effective fighting force, but we’ve also been clear that we don’t want to see them take actions or hold territory that is going to create tensions either with Turkey or with other groups in that area.

QUESTION: Just one more then to clarify.

MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: You didn’t support this YPG move in Azaz area, in Azaz corridor in Menagh airbase, as far as I understand, right?

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: And is there any indication that YPG forces are cooperating with Russian air forces in (inaudible)?

MR TONER: No, we’ve seen no connection whatsoever.

QUESTION: Do you believe that Turkey’s actions lead to an escalation of the conflict? Over these past five days, they’ve been --

MR TONER: Sure. Again, I think that – and I was very clear in my remarks. The YPG needs to stop its own actions on the ground that we believe raises tensions. But we would also urge Turkey to, as I said, cease firing artillery across the border. We just think it escalates tensions in the region.

QUESTION: Do you – just one more on escalation.

MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead. Yeah. Finish up.

QUESTION: Are you worried that an escalation could bring NATO into a confrontation not only with the Syrian army but also with Russia?

MR TONER: No. Look, this is – obviously, Turkey is an ally, a NATO ally, and a strong partner in the coalition. But there’s been no NATO involvement and there’s no threat of invasion that would – I mean, NATO is a defensive organization. There’s no cause that we see of any concern that NATO would somehow become involved. But that removed – that element removed, it is a very complex, very volatile situation in northern Syria right now, continued regime offensive in and around Aleppo, backed by Russian airstrikes, a variety of different groups with competing interests fighting on the ground. We don’t need to add to that mix.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MR TONER: Yeah. Sure. Go ahead. Yeah. Sure, Brad.

QUESTION: Libya – you welcomed the cabinet.

MR TONER: I did.

QUESTION: We’ve heard for a while now that any further or any new U.S. action to stamp out the Islamic State in certain surrounding areas would be contingent on the formation of a government, of a national unity government. Now that you have at least a cabinet, should we expect U.S. action in Libya?

MR TONER: I don’t want to – I don’t have anything to announce on that front. I mean, look, we’ve been very clear that we do want to see a united government that can provide security for the Libyan people. That’s priority number one. We’ve also been clear that we’ll continue to counter terrorist plots and threats to the United States whenever necessary. In fact, we did carry out an airstrike not too long ago against an ISIL leader.

QUESTION: Three or four months ago, right?

MR TONER: Three or four – I thought it was sooner than that, but --


MR TONER: -- or more recent than that, rather, but I may be wrong. And we’re going to continue to – as those – we have those opportunities, we’re going to continue to carry out those kinds of strikes.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. see the Islamic State’s toehold in Libya as a threat to the American homeland?

MR TONER: I mean, yes, in the sense that any – I mean, we’ve seen ISIL’s efforts to, however you want to phrase it, metastasize or grow beyond its – the safe haven that it has that we’re trying to degrade, we’re putting pressure on, we’re squeezing it. And as that happens, and that process continues, we have seen an attempt to, through a variety of different means, but establish itself footholds in other places. And Libya, unfortunately, without a centralized government, without a unity government, is ripe territory for that kind of presence. And we view any expansion of Daesh or ISIL as a threat to the U.S. security, yes.

QUESTION: If you view – if we take that as a given that you view it as a threat to the homeland, why is the U.S. not taking any military action right now against the Islamic State in Libya?

MR TONER: Well, again, we are – I’m not going to – again, I don’t have anything to concrete announce today.

QUESTION: I’m not – yeah.

MR TONER: Okay. But --

QUESTION: I’m asking you why you’re not.

MR TONER: Right. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Why don’t you have something to announce?

MR TONER: Understood. I mean, I think we stand ready and – to support the Libyans in their effort to provide security. That’s the most important aspect of – provider of creating stability on the ground in Libya. We want to get this Government of National Accord, and our efforts certainly on the State Department have been focused on getting that stable political structure in place in Libya. But as I said, we’re looking at all options to counter ISIL wherever it is.

QUESTION: Yeah. It just seems to me that if you accept something as a threat to the American homeland, that would imply that you are actively fighting that threat, not waiting for a government to get on its feet one day potentially to deliver for you. And so I don’t quite understand what the response is that deals with that threat perception.

MR TONER: Right. So – and actually, I do have the – it’s – there was – the airstrike we carried out against Abu Nabil was on November 13th.


MR TONER: So three or four months ago. I mean, we said we’re not going to hesitate to take actions or carry out operations when we see – in coordination, obviously, with local partners – when we see the opportunity to do so. The long-term, I guess, goal here though is to build up the capacity of the Libyans – not to ask them to somehow take this burden from us or take on this challenge. We recognize that’s going to be a process. But we also want to build the capacity, just like we would elsewhere in the world, of the sovereign nation’s government to carry out its own security.


QUESTION: Different subject?


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the brief detainment of Washington Post journalist by the Israeli Government following their investigation into violence at Damascus Gate?

MR TONER: You’re talking about – I mean, I don’t know much. You’re talking about – I mean, we’re aware – you’re talking about William Booth, right? Who is a Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief?


MR TONER: Yeah, he was briefly detained. We welcome his release. We also welcome the Israeli Government’s expression of regret for the episode. Beyond that, I would just say we’re obviously very concerned any time a journalist is detained, but especially a U.S. journalist.

Please, sir.



QUESTION: I have a question about the recent decision by the Kurdistan region’s President Barzani that the region is going to hold a referendum by November 2016. What is the U.S. Government position on that?

MR TONER: You’re talking about a referendum for Kurdish independence?

QUESTION: Yeah, self-determination.

MR TONER: Yeah. No, I mean, we’ve been very clear, and our policy remains unchanged. We support an Iraq that is unified, federal, pluralistic, and democratic.

QUESTION: Yeah, but I think we’re all aware of that. That’s not something new. But this is, like, new development. This is, like, almost happening. There is a specific date for that. And I think everybody – everybody knows that what the result of that referendum would be.

MR TONER: I mean, we – look, I mean, the Kurdistan region has been under tremendous pressure, both economically but certainly from the presence of ISIL or Daesh. We recognize that that has put pressure on the local government, but that doesn’t – and frankly, we’ve been working diligently through Iraqi command and control to provide them with the necessary tools and assistance that they need to fight Daesh. But that doesn’t change our overall policy that we believe it’s in Iraq’s best interest that it remain unified and democratic.

QUESTION: Have you tried to talk to the Kurdish leaders, like, maybe to convince them to be patient and --

MR TONER: I mean, they’re – certainly, we engage with Kurdish authorities all the time and they’re very aware of our feelings about this and our policy about this.

QUESTION: One more question, sorry.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure, go ahead. No worries.

QUESTION: What do think this would have – like, do you think this would have any impact on the war against ISIS given the fact that the Kurdish Peshmerga are, like, the most, like, influential force on the ground?

MR TONER: I don’t like to address hypotheticals. We’re aware of this referendum. Our position is that we think that Iraq should remain unified in the face of the threat from Daesh – Daesh, rather. We believe the new Iraqi Government has made an effort and has made progress in unifying the country and creating a more pluralistic society. Obviously, those efforts need to continue – excuse me. And as you point out, the Kurds have been – Kurdish forces have been extremely effective and brave against Daesh in every effort that they’ve encountered them, and we hope that that cooperation can continue. And our support for them will continue.

Please, Nike.

QUESTION: Yeah. Can I change the subject to Ukraine?

MR TONER: Sure, okay.

QUESTION: So Ukraine president has called on the resignation of prime minister and also the prosecutor general, who have been criticized of getting in the way of fighting corruption. First, I would like to get your stand on this development. Do you think it’s a good move toward reforms?

MR TONER: You’re talking about the resignation of the prosecutor general?

QUESTION: And the prime minister. The prime minister and the prosecutor general.

MR TONER: Prosecutor general. I’m not aware of the prime minister’s resignation.

QUESTION: Called – they called – he called on the resignation.

MR TONER: Oh, okay. I’m sorry. I just – I just would comment on the prosecutor general. The announcement to replace him, we believe, is a signal of Ukraine’s seriousness about its reform process. It’s important to restore the confidence of the Ukrainian people in their justice system, but clearly, there’s an immense amount of work yet to be done in countering corruption, including in the prosecutorial service.

Overall, we recognize that, as I said, there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re watching developments in Ukraine’s parliament very closely. I don’t want to speculate too much on other potential outcomes, but we strongly urge all of Ukraine’s political parties to put the needs of their country first.


QUESTION: Yeah. I’ll go back to north Syria. So the Russian and YPG forces are still targeting Azaz and Turkish authorities concerned about new wave of refugees might go to Turkey as a – if Azaz will fall. I was wondering if you share Turkey’s concern about new refugee crisis --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: -- and if you have contacted with the YPG regarding this concern.

MR TONER: Well, I think, again, that’s part of – and I was trying to allude to, at least, in my response to – earlier, but that’s a part of the equation, is that these increased refugee flows, prompted largely by regime attacks on Aleppo – in and around Aleppo – have added to this volatile mix on the ground, have added to Turkey’s burden in responding to this influx of refugees. We spoke last week and continue to praise Turkey for its generosity in accepting so many of these refugees. We hope that it continues to keep its border open and accept incoming refugees, but you’re absolutely right; it’s a concern.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the bill to change the name of the street by the Chinese embassy in Washington?

MR TONER: I do. Need to find it.

You’re talking about – yeah, the renaming of the street. Well, we continue to impress upon China the imperative of respecting human rights and releasing Liu Xiaobo as well as other political prisoners, obviously. We do that on a continual basis. But we do not believe Senator Cruz’s tactic to rename a street in Washington, D.C., is a very effective way to achieve either goal. We view this kind of legislative action as something that only complicates our efforts, so we oppose this approach. It’s our desire to work more productively and cooperatively with Congress on ways to address our shared goal of improving human rights in China.

QUESTION: So if I read you right, that’s the Administration essentially saying the President will veto this?

MR TONER: I think the White House has indicated that, yes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Do you have any more information about the Americans who were released in Iraq today? Specifically, was the U.S. involved in the investigation? Who were they?

MR TONER: I don’t, and I – and you heard my sigh when I – as you asked me that question, because I understand there’s a lot of interest in this story. First of all, we welcome the release of these individuals. I mean, it’s a huge relief; it’s a good news story. These folks are now on their way home, which is where they should be headed. I don’t – because of the Privacy Act restrictions – none of them signed a Privacy Act waiver, and I know that infuriates all of you. It infuriates me as someone who wants to convey information and talk about the work that was done behind the scenes, but I cannot. All I can say is that we are appreciative of and grateful for the Iraqi Government’s efforts to obtain the release of these individuals, but for any details, I’d have to refer you to them to speak to that.

QUESTION: Did Iran help at all, since it was brought up by the Secretary?

MR TONER: I know. I’m aware that he raised that and he acknowledged that. I just don’t have any more detail to offer. Sorry.

QUESTION: And can you – will you be able to say at one point who you believed was holding them, since there was, I think --


QUESTION: -- public --

MR TONER: Speculation --

QUESTION: -- obfuscation of what the Iraqi police itself said were the prime suspects?

MR TONER: Again, I mean, the Iraqi Government is under no Privacy Act restrictions.


QUESTION: Mark, I have a question about – concerning the refugee crisis in Europe.


QUESTION: And please don’t take it that it’s against a certain country, okay?

MR TONER: Okay. (Laughter.)


MR TONER: I would never do that for you, Michael.

QUESTION: I will ask the same question for Greece.

MR TONER: Sure, that’s okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Last week I asked you a few questions; now, this time, I have numbers.


QUESTION: According to official numbers from the government, 816,752 refugees sent to Greece from Turkey from January 1st of 2015 till December 21st. The smugglers went back and forth from Turkey to Greece 17,000 times. Also, these refugees bought from Turkish stores more than a half a million life jackets. These are real numbers that I’m telling you --


QUESTION: -- from the Government of Greece. Do you consider – my first question is this: Do you consider the smuggling of these poor people as a crime?

MR TONER: You said your – I’m sorry, the last part of your question – do you consider the --

QUESTION: I’m asking you if you consider --

MR TONER: What – yeah, please.

QUESTION: -- the smuggling --

MR TONER: Smuggling.

QUESTION: -- of these refugees, the Syrian refugees, as a crime. The – what is the position of the American Government?

MR TONER: Sure. Look, I mean, first off, these are sovereign borders, sovereign countries. And as much as we’ve recognized the tremendous burden especially Greece is under with the influx of refugees coming from Syria, we also recognize that these countries need to protect their borders. We only ask that there be some measure of dignity afforded to these refugees – many of whom, as you well know, are fleeing violence, have suffered greatly at the hands of not only those fighting within Syria and elsewhere but also at the hands of these smugglers, so-called smugglers.

I mean, look, we don’t ever condone the traffic – illegal traffic of humans. That’s something we, in fact, condemn. What I just would say is it is a challenge not just for Greece and Turkey, both of whom are besieged by this influx of refugees, but for many other countries in Europe. And so what we have talked about in terms of the EU is that there needs to be – or we would urge or recommend a concerted, coordinated effort to deal with the refugee crisis so you don’t have these kinds of illegal actions being taken.

QUESTION: Mark, I have another question.


QUESTION: I understand that you asked Turkey to stop them, the smugglers. I know it is a fact. Can you tell us today or maybe tomorrow what was the answer by Turkey?

MR TONER: Well, I’m sure we have raised any concerns, legitimate concerns we might have with Turkey regarding this. But Michael, I would never divulge the contents of those kinds of diplomatic discussions.


QUESTION: I have a couple.


QUESTION: The Secretary recently, in the last few months, visited President Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan.


QUESTION: He is now – they’re amending the constitution in Turkmenistan so that he can be president for life, it looks like. Do you have a comment on that?

MR TONER: Well, there was that trip through many of the Central Asian countries that Secretary Kerry took in the fall. And among our messages to not just the Government of Turkmenistan but other governments in the region was the need to put in place the kind of political reform and economic reform that would lead to greater engagement and greater connectivity to the West.

And another key element, if you will, of our message was that it’s not a zero-sum game: It’s not a matter of having a relationship with Russia; it’s not a matter of having a relationship with other power players in the region. We’re not looking for that. But if you want greater engagement with the West, with America, or with other countries in the region, then you need to build those ties. And one of the ways you do that is by addressing concerns over your political system and over – and creating the kind of economic reforms or economic climate, if you will, that attracts investment. And as we all know, part of that hinges on the political climate of any given country. So we would urge that Turkmenistan consider the importance of democratic reform, political reforms, as it makes decisions going forward.

QUESTION: And then I have a separate one.

MR TONER: Yeah, Brad.

QUESTION: Just wanted to get it in there.

MR TONER: Yeah. It’s okay.

QUESTION: On Iran. And I don’t know if you have a response to this. But there’s been a lot of reports about Iran purchasing Sukhois from Russia. Other reports – I think in Fars there was a report about an $8 billion military spending spree by Iran. My understanding in the JCPOA was that the United States could seek to block purchases of weaponry that would fall under the conventional weapons ban. Do you plan to block the purchase of the Sukhois and other advanced weaponry?

MR TONER: I’d just say we’re aware of ongoing discussions between Russia and Iran about possible purchases of military equipment. If we do have concerns about any specific transactions, we will express those concerns through the appropriate channels, whether it’s bilaterally with Russia or at the UN if we believe any specific transaction would violate UN – current UN Security Council resolutions.

QUESTION: But as of right now, buying the Sukhois hasn’t raised that alarm?

MR TONER: I’d have to get more granularity on that specific thing, and I’ll try to do that.


QUESTION: I’m sure you’ll probably say something similar as to the American citizens in Iraq, but do you have any further information about the four journalists who were detained in Bahrain and released?

MR TONER: Sure, I --

QUESTION: I know that there was a statement put out by their lawyer, so it seems like they might be open for information being shared.

MR TONER: Unfortunately, no, unless they’ve signed on the dotted line. Look, we all obviously watched those reports over the weekend of the U.S. journalists who were detained in Bahrain. They were subsequently released, as we all know. We obviously take the – our obligation to assist any U.S. citizens abroad seriously. We were permitted consular access to them. I believe we did visit them while in detention, but I don’t have any other comments I can give at this time.

Is that it? Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)

DPB # 26