Daily Press Briefing - April 7, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 7, 2016



TRANSCRIPT:

1:47 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Home opener today. Let’s get out of here quick.

MR TONER: Very good. All right, to the task at hand.

QUESTION: Is your book thicker today?

MR TONER: What’s that?

QUESTION: It’s thicker, the book. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: It’s all your questions, Said. They add to my burden in more ways than one.

QUESTION: So you call on both sides to show restraint. (Laughter.) There’s only a political solution to this.

MR TONER: Please.

No, seriously, welcome to the State Department. I do have one thing to state at the top of the briefing, and it is a serious issue: The United States strongly condemns the barbaric murder of Nazimuddin Samad, a law student who was apparently killed for speaking out against violent extremism in Bangladesh, and we offer our condolences to Mr. Samad’s family and our unwavering support to the Bangladeshi people in their struggle against violent extremism. Nazimuddin knew and Bangladesh’s history has shown that violence can – will not defeat Bangladesh’s proud tradition of free and independent discourse. So we stand with the Bangladeshi people in rejecting this vicious act and uniting to preserve a tolerant and inclusive society that protects freedom of expression. The United States will continue to support the Government of Bangladesh in its efforts to combat terrorism, counter violent extremism, and bring to justice those who commit such heinous acts.

Matt? Sorry.

QUESTION: Well, actually, let’s just start with that. This is not the first time this has happened in Bangladesh, and the authorities there in the past have attributed these murders to radical Islamists. Are you prepared to make the same connection here? You said “violent extremists,” but --

MR TONER: We don’t have – so we’ve seen no claim of responsibility yet for the attack. As you note, previous attacks of this nature have been claimed by al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent, but we just don’t have clarity on this right now.

QUESTION: And then related to that --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: -- a couple months ago, human rights advocates wrote a letter to Secretary Kerry that talked about this wave of killings and asked him to see if it was possible that – to give people who are threatened in this way refuge in the U.S. Do you know what the status of that is?

MR TONER: So I think you’re talking about humanitarian parole --

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: -- which is a DHS-run process. But my understanding is that for a select number of bloggers who continue to be under imminent danger, that that is one option that’s under consideration. I don’t know – I’ll have to see if that’s actually – if there are individuals who are taking advantage of that. I just don’t have clarity on it.

QUESTION: Well, are they able to take advantage of it, or is it just that it’s under consideration?

MR TONER: My understanding is that – I’ll get a little bit --

QUESTION: All right. Well, we can ask at – DHS runs this?

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: So State has nothing to do with it?

MR TONER: Well, we can probably get an update whether it’s actually been – it’s actually in train. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: Okay. I want to go to something that came up the other day, but – and – but now it’s taken on an added element, and that is this Panama papers leak. President Putin, you will have seen, said today that the leak of this, particularly the items that have to do with Russian nationals and Russia, are part of Western or U.S. plot or campaign to undermine Russia. What do you make of that?

MR TONER: Look, I mean, we’ve, I think, made pretty clear that we’re not going to talk about the content, obviously, of these confidential papers that were leaked. I just reject – I would reject the premise or the assertion that we’re in any way involved in the actual leak of these documents.

QUESTION: Okay. So it’s his accusation that the United States had anything to do with – or the assertion by him or by anyone that the U.S. Government had anything to do with this is – you say it’s – that’s completely wrong?

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: In a kind of unusual battle between the group that released this – or at least one of them – and WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks has pointed out that one of the groups that produced the story based on the Russia-related documents is funded by USAID.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: What’s the deal with that?

MR TONER: So this is – I think you’re referring to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: So they have received support from various donors, including the U.S. Government. They – this organization conducts investigative journalism, primarily, I think, in Europe. Obviously, these are the kind of organizations that USAID has and continues to fund, but not specifically for – to go after any particular government, but – or any particular individual, but simply to conduct what – and what we’re supporting here is the conduct of independent investigative journalism that we believe can shine a light on corruption, because, as the Secretary on down have said, corruption continues to have a corrosive effect on good governance around the world. So it’s part of our – a core tenet of our foreign policy that we support organizations that go after corruption.

QUESTION: Do you believe that these leaked documents show corruption?

MR TONER: I think we’re still looking, frankly, at whether they show corruption. I realize it’s a several-day-old story now. We talked about the fact that Treasury OFAC would actually look into some of these allegations or some of the content of this, and that is their writ to do so. I don’t have anything to pronounce today, though.

QUESTION: All right. Because there was a USAID-funded organization that was involved, did you guys have any prior notice that this was coming?

MR TONER: Not to my knowledge, no. No. I just don’t --

QUESTION: I mean --

MR TONER: I personally, when I say “not to my knowledge,” I personally do not know.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, USAID --

MR TONER: And I’m not aware – so Matt, I’m not aware that we had any prior knowledge.

QUESTION: USAID has had – has given money for a --

MR TONER: No, no, I – yeah.

QUESTION: -- variety of things, some of which some people believe are kind of suspect, such as the whole Cuban Twitter – or whatever it was, the ZunZeo or – I can’t remember the name of it. But – so --

MR TONER: I – so --

QUESTION: And they knew that that was going on.

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: So I mean --

MR TONER: So again, to the extent of my knowledge and understanding of this incident or this issue, we had no prior knowledge. And in fact, we have no editorial control, certainly, over what this organization does or doesn’t do with the money that we give it or what it does in its – to conduct its investigative journalism.

QUESTION: But obviously you believe in the cause that it’s --

MR TONER: Of course, yes. Of course.

QUESTION: -- doing, and so you --

MR TONER: That’s why we support it.

QUESTION: -- give it – you believe that its work – that the work that it produces is --

MR TONER: Valuable.

QUESTION: -- valuable and fair and --

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: -- credible?

MR TONER: Yes. I mean, again, we just – but --

QUESTION: So in fact, then, in essence you would – you support the publication of this stuff, right?

MR TONER: Look, so this organization – and again, I would remind you that it was part of, I think, some 200 or so journalists --

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: -- and over 100 of the most well-known and respected media outlets around the world. So it was hardly this organization alone that brought this story to light.

QUESTION: Right, no, I understand that. But --

MR TONER: Without – and let’s also – a lot of professional organizations – AP included, Reuters included – covered the WikiLeaks and used what we deem classified material and covered their stories. So I mean, it’s not like – it’s not as though news organizations – credible, professional news organizations – have not mined quote-unquote “classified information” in the past.

QUESTION: Sure. I’m not trying to – I’m not in any way trying to question --

MR TONER: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: -- this organization’s credibility.

MR TONER: I understand. Okay.

QUESTION: I’m just trying to find out what the U.S. Government’s position is as it relates to that.

MR TONER: I’m just – sure. I’m just saying we have no editorial control over what --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: Over their reporting. They’re allowed to and permitted to cover --

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: -- whatever they want.

QUESTION: So you would say it’s not up to you to --

MR TONER: Right, correct. Thank you.

QUESTION: -- stand by or to --

MR TONER: Correct. That is correct.

QUESTION: -- not stand by their reporting?

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Okay. Last one on this. In the cases of WikiLeaks and the Snowden documents, the U.S. Government quite loudly talked about how these were – this was stolen, this material was stolen, and that you want to prosecute him. In fact, you – one – Bradley – or Chelsea Manning has been prosecuted and you have made no secret of the fact that you would like to see Mr. Snowden brought back and him to stand trial. In light of this, do you think that the hacking – which the law firm says that it was a victim of – is theft? Do you regard these documents as having been stolen?

MR TONER: I would say that’s a question for the Panamanian legal system or legal process to decide on. This happened in Panama. I don’t have enough – I don’t think we have enough details about --

QUESTION: Well, the firm is in Panama. I don’t know that --

MR TONER: Right --

QUESTION: Do you know that it happened in – I mean --

MR TONER: That’s a fair question. I don’t know whether we’ve made a determination whether we believe this was actually stolen or that it was criminal activity.

QUESTION: Well, they say that it was.

MR TONER: I understand that.

QUESTION: The law firm says that it was.

MR TONER: I understand that.

QUESTION: So --

MR TONER: And like I said, we’ve – what we’ve seen is that --

QUESTION: But you think that the law firm --

MR TONER: -- these documents were --

QUESTION: You called them confidential before --

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: -- so it’s not a – they’re – the law firm’s not a government. It doesn’t – it can’t classify things.

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: But if someone comes across hundreds of thousands of pages of confidential documents and publishes them, and they were clearly not meant to be seen by the public, you don’t think that that’s theft?

MR TONER: Again, I just --

QUESTION: I mean, the firm clearly didn’t want this stuff out there.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: They wouldn’t have given it out themselves.

MR TONER: Of course. And we have spoken in the past about the fact that every profession, including the legal profession, should have some degree of confidentiality. I just don’t – I can’t speak at this time whether we’re going to pronounce on whether this was theft or not.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: You’ve probably seen the Human Rights Watch report overnight, which said that the – they have evidence that U.S.-supplied bombs had killed 97 civilians and stuff in Yemen on March 15. Is it your understanding or have you got any independent verification that these were U.S. – that the investigation outcome is true?

MR TONER: So Lesley, we don’t. And the Secretary actually spoke to this in the press avail that he did recently in Bahrain. He was asked this very question.

QUESTION: Apologies.

MR TONER: No worries. So no clarity is what he said. We just don’t have the clarity right now what type of weapon may or may not have been used. But then, of course, he said very strongly that we need to see an end to all combat operations in Yemen. We need to see the continuation of the peace process and we need to see a ceasefire take place. But I just would say we obviously take these reports very seriously. Certainly we’ve spoken in the past and continue to speak out against civilian casualties. And we’ll just look into it. We just don’t have any more details here.

QUESTION: So is there going to be any investigation from your side?

MR TONER: I think we’re looking into it. I don’t know if – I don't know that I’d --

QUESTION: So you don’t know if that’s a formal investigation?

MR TONER: -- classify that as a formal investigation, but I’m certainly aware that we’re looking into the details.

QUESTION: Do you know, Mark --

MR TONER: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: -- if the type of bomb that was described by Human Rights Watch is a type or is --

MR TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: -- among the things that the State Department, in coordination with the Pentagon, actually gives – signs off on? So, no?

MR TONER: Yeah. I don't have that.

QUESTION: On that topic --

MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and other issues in the press conference. But on this very issue, I mean, most everybody thinks or suggests or knows that the Saudis use – almost 100 percent of their weapons are American weapons in this case. Why would you not conduct an investigation?

MR TONER: Well, again, we’re certainly concerned by any credible allegations of civilian deaths or attacks on civilians. Our understanding is that the coalition is going to conduct an investigation into the incident. We’ve encouraged them to do so in a prompt manner. We believe the need for an investigation – or there is a need for an investigation. I know that the Saudis have also formed a committee or announced the formation of a committee that will evaluate military targeting writ large that they say will ensure the protection of civilians and investigate these kinds of incidents. We’ve encouraged them to do so, to carry out an investigation. So we’ll wait and see the results of that investigation.

QUESTION: So you are fine with Saudi Arabia investigating itself in this case?

MR TONER: I think they have said they are going to do it. They’ve established this commission. We’ll wait and see what the results are.

QUESTION: Yeah. Also during the press conference --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the Secretary was almost or came across – I may be wrong – as noncommittal on the issue of human rights in Bahrain and other areas. Are you guys sort of trying to – whatever – repair damage maybe with the Saudis and the Gulf countries at the expense of human rights? Or perceived damage – I don’t know if they are damaging the relationship.

MR TONER: No, I mean, I – I mean, frankly, he spoke a fair amount on human rights, I mean, certainly at the press availability that he did with the Bahraini foreign minister. And I know that he did also meet this afternoon in Bahrain with members of the opposition and civil society. It was a brief meeting but they did discuss – or provided an opportunity for him to hear their perspectives on the political situation in Bahrain and also hear from them directly about their views on human rights, on expression and dissent in the kingdom. And he spoke also in his press avail that – about some of the steps that Bahrain has made – and they have made some steps and we’ve talked about these before – but that more work needs to be done.

QUESTION: What are these steps? I mean, he talks about an inclusive --

MR TONER: Well, they established these --

QUESTION: -- power sharing, more liberalization. What are these --

MR TONER: Well, so I mean, there was a serious effort, we believe, by the Bahraini Government a few years back. There were a number of entities created with an ombudsman and with the goal of bringing people together. The opposition did boycott the previous election, but they did discuss today the upcoming election 2018 and the prospects for those elections and, frankly, some of the work that needs to be done over the next few months so that these are full, free, fair, and transparent elections. And I think that’s where the focus is right now.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: India-Pakistan?

MR TONER: Please. Sorry.

QUESTION: The Pakistanis have arrested what they say is an agent of India in Balochistan. They say that he was fomenting the insurgency that they have there. And since they protest this arrest, the Pakistani ambassador to Delhi has said that the talks between the two countries are frozen while this is being looked into, that there’s been a breakdown in the Pakistani-Indian rapprochement as a result of this. I don’t know if you have any information about the arrest itself, whether the U.S. is aware of that particular case, but also more broadly on the geopolitical implications if there is a – if there is --

MR TONER: I don’t have anything for – I am aware of the reports about the arrest. I don’t have anything – any details of the arrest. More directly to your question about the suspension of peace talks, the peace process, we believe and it’s been our longstanding position that India and Pakistan stand to benefit from the normalization of relations and practical cooperation, and we encourage them to do so, to engage in direct dialogue that’s aimed at reducing tensions between the two governments and two countries. And we strongly support those efforts, because we believe it, obviously, will lead to greater stability and peace in the region and is to the benefit of both countries.

Please, in the back. Do you want to --

QUESTION: To return to human rights – sorry.

MR TONER: That’s okay. No, that’s okay. We can go – I’ll go with you first and then to you.

QUESTION: Sure.

MR TONER: Please. Are you still on Pakistan or are you on a different --

QUESTION: I’m on human rights in the Gulf.

MR TONER: In the Gulf, okay. Do you want to go to Pakistan and we’ll finish that up? Apologize.

QUESTION: Sure. I’m on the Gulf. Yeah.

MR TONER: Yeah. Great. Thanks so much.

QUESTION: So for the last couple of days, the Panama papers hitting the headlines all around the world. We have seen the prime minister of Iceland already step down after the allegation of corruption. So the family of Pakistani Prime Minister Mr. Sharif was also involved in the offshore companies and the corruption, and there is immense pressure on him to resign. So, how United States watching this situation?

MR TONER: Look, I mean, there’s lots of churn, if I could put it that way, coming out of the leaking of these documents. We’ve not, frankly, commented on some of the allegations or some of the reporting that’s going on about this. We don’t necessarily want to comment on the findings. We don’t normally comment on the – what we consider to be leaked information.

I think globally speaking – and we talked about this – that if there is a perception of corruption then that is damaging, and that’s up to governments around the world to address if it affects them or speaks to their conduct. We can’t say categorically that corruption is taking place or that this is criminal – somehow criminal activity. We just don’t have that kind of clarity on this information. But we continue, through our own Department of Treasury, to look at the details of some of these findings in order to have a better sense of what might be happening in global markets and global financial system, to get a better understanding of whether corruption is taking place. But we just don’t have anything to pronounce on any of these findings thus far.

QUESTION: Second, Pakistani security forces have launched their operation, the military operation in the province of Punjab, and they have arrested the top Taliban commanders and leaders of the extremist groups. So but they are not getting – according to the army, they are not getting support of the Punjab government due to the World Bank in southern Punjab.

MR TONER: You’re talking about the protests in Kashmir?

QUESTION: No, sir. Not Kashmir. It’s the southern Punjab, they recently started operation there. But they are not getting support of the Punjab government because they have big World Bank there. So I mean, are you in contact with the Pakistan on this?

MR TONER: I’m not aware of the incident. I’d have to look into it. I apologize. I just don’t have --

QUESTION: Sir, I have one more question.

MR TONER: Yeah. Sure, please.

QUESTION: The former prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir side has told the parliament in Pakistan that he informed the State Department that the Kashmiris are again crying for the jihad in Kashmir because of the Indian forces’ brutalities there. Is it a concern for the United States?

MR TONER: Well, and that’s – forgive me, I thought that’s what you were referring to in your last question. I’m aware of those allegations. Look, our policy regarding Kashmir has not changed. As we’ve long said, the pace, scope, and character of those discussions or any discussions on Kashmir must be for the two sides to determine. We support any and all positive steps that India and Pakistan can take to forge closer relations. Obviously, I talked about that in response to Dave’s question, but I think I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: One last question, please.

MR TONER: Sure, of course.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who was in the jail for the last many years on blasphemy laws. So the Ambassador Saperstein told a gathering here the United States is working closely with Pakistan for her release. Is there any update on that?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, one more time, the person you’re talking about?

QUESTION: Ambassador Saperstein, the religious freedom --

MR TONER: Oh, right. Yes. Well, I mean, our – you’re talking about remarks about Asia Bibi?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: Yeah, of course. I’d just say that our stance on religious freedom around the world is well documented, obviously, in our annual Religious Freedom and Human Rights Report. We oppose blasphemy laws throughout the world. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. It’s something we regard as a fundamental human right. And certainly, the work of Ambassador Saperstein is part of our regular engagement with the Government of Pakistan to advance this right.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: So --

MR TONER: Now we’re on – I apologize.

QUESTION: The Gulf. Yeah, the UAE.

MR TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: So there are these two Americans, Mohamed and Kamal al-Darat. They’ve been in jail in the UAE since August 2014, and Monday is their final court appearance. The charges against them were initially related to terror, and the UAE ambassador here, Yousef al-Otaiba, said they were thought to be linked to groups designated by the UAE and the U.S. Those charges have been dropped and the families are now worried that that shows they’re going to be convicted and sentenced on Monday. Does the change in charges raise any concerns about due process, which the UN has already said isn’t being provided to these Americans? And does it change the American approach from you guys to helping these families?

MR TONER: So we do understand that at a hearing held on March 21st that the prosecutor did amend the charges providing – from providing material support to terrorist groups to charges of supporting armed terrorist groups without permission from the UAE Government. And this charge – this change, rather, placed the case under a 2008 antiterrorism law instead of the 2014 law.

I’d say we’re concerned about several aspects of the al-Darats’ case – certainly allegations of mistreatment as well as their ongoing health issues, their lack of access to legal representation, as well as a lack of consular access certainly at the start of their detention. And we’ve raised all these issues with the UAE Government, and we continue to call for their – we continue to call for an expeditious resolution to this case via a fair and transparent legal process in accordance with local law.

QUESTION: Change topics?

MR TONER: Yeah – do you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: I just had a follow-up saying --

MR TONER: It’s okay, it’s okay.

QUESTION: -- “via a fair and transparent process” – would that mean you don’t consider the current process, which will conclude on Monday, a fair and transparent process?

MR TONER: I’d say we have concerns thus far, as I clear – outlined. And so what I think we want to see is a quick resolution to this case, and as I said, some – through a process that’s free and fair.

QUESTION: And just since March 21st --

MR TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: -- has the approach changed at all from your end, given that the charges changed?

MR TONER: I’m not sure. I mean, we continue to obviously follow the case very closely. Our personnel from the U.S. embassy, diplomats, attended the January 18th hearing, the February 15th hearing, February 29th hearing, as well as the March 21st hearing, and we’re going to continue to attend subsequent hearings. We’re going to continue to express our concerns about the case and our concerns for the welfare of the al-Darats to the government in UAE.

Please.

QUESTION: Syria? Syria?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Okay. First of all, has there been – have you had any more information since yesterday on what kind of missile was used --

MR TONER: I don’t.

QUESTION: -- to bring down the Syrian --

MR TONER: I apologize, I don’t. I don’t have any more information on it.

QUESTION: Okay. And second, do you have any comment on the kidnapping, or apparent kidnapping, of 300 Syrian workers today from the --

MR TONER: Yes, you’re talking about this --

QUESTION: Yes, right.

MR TONER: I don’t. I mean, we’re seeking more information.

QUESTION: From the cement factory.

MR TONER: No, I just found out before we walked out here. Can’t confirm. You’re talking about the reports that ISIL has or Daesh has --

QUESTION: Right, right. Kidnapped, like, 300 workers.

MR TONER: Yeah. No, as we – if we get an update on that, we’ll let you guys know, of course.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Sorry, who are you seeking this more information from?

MR TONER: We’re just trying to get more clarity on – not from Daesh, of course.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: But I mean, as – we just – we’ve seen reports. We just don’t have --

QUESTION: No, I wasn’t – but I mean, you don’t have any contact with the Syrian Government. They’re the ones who say that --

MR TONER: No. Fair point, fair point. We just had seen reports. We just don’t have – we don’t have any details.

QUESTION: Would you seek to have any clarification from the Syrian Government? I think they are working for a government-owned factory.

MR TONER: That’s – that’s, again, we’re operating on the same scant information as you all are on this. We just had seen reports. So if we get any more – any further depth or information, we’ll certainly share that with you.

QUESTION: Two on Syria.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: The rebel groups are claiming that they’ve cut a vital ISIS supply line from the Turkish border down into IS territory or Daesh territory in Syria. There seems to be a lot of different groups making advances in various parts against IS, and they may be beginning to collapse. Is there a concern that – is there a concern that if – obviously, you want to defeat Daesh, but is there a concern that Assad and the Russians might get to Raqqa before you? And is that – or would that be a bad thing?

MR TONER: Well, a couple of thoughts on that. One is, as you correctly note, part of the – sorry, I’m grasping for the word, but one of the results of the cessation of hostilities is that these groups, many of them have now – are able to focus on taking the fight to Daesh. And we’ve seen the same thing, as you said, on the part of the regime forces who certainly made advances on – and around Palmyra. And this is, I think, part and parcel of what we’ve seen in Iraq as well, which is that Daesh is under increasing pressure from all sides and from different components and different groups, different governments.

I mean, it is somewhat of a rare thing to have the kind of unity of purpose – that everyone recognizes how evil Daesh is, how destructive it is to the region and to the world, that you have such, as I said, a unity of purpose to go out and destroy and defeat Daesh on the ground.

As to those gains made by the regime with support of, obviously, Russian forces, we certainly looked at the liberation of Palmyra as a good thing. That city has suffered tremendously under ISIL – not only the people of Palmyra, of course, but also the destruction of a vast amount of its antiquities. But we also made clear at the time that it’s a bit of a – it’s a difficult thing for people to be liberated from Daesh, only to fall under the rule of a regime that has brutalized its own people. So it’s hardly a win-win situation, to be perfectly candid.

In terms of who might get to Raqqa first or who might liberate to Raqqa – or might liberate Raqqa first, we just don’t – it’s – we’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of hard fighting and – by all parties involved that lies ahead. We’re going to continue our pressure working with the coalition, working with the various groups that we’re working with on the ground in Syria as well as in Iraq to continue to squeeze Daesh as much as possible.

Please.

QUESTION: Is there value in working with the Russians and the regime?

MR TONER: Well, we have – we have talked about that and we have, in fact, said if Russia does want to play a constructive role in taking the fight against Daesh, that we would be willing to have that conversation. I know that --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: Well, I mean, I know that – and this was part of the conversation that they did have, in fact, in Moscow when the Secretary was there. Again, it’s – it is – at the same time as we appreciate any – as I said, any relief that can come to the Syrian people who have been brutalized by ISIL, we’re not convinced that the regime offers the ultimate solution – what the ultimate solution to the situation in Syria is: a transition government – a transitional government, rather, that is supported by all of the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Yesterday --

MR TONER: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: -- and this is moving on – yesterday, you said that you did not want to speak to the referendum in the Netherlands because the Dutch people have not spoken. Well, they have spoken, not a huge --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: -- not a huge – not a huge overwhelming of them.

MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t call it that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But enough – but enough to make the referendum valid and --

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: -- they pretty – they made their feelings quite clear. They don’t like the EU-Ukraine deal. So now that they have spoken, what do you have to say about it?

MR TONER: Well, we have seen news reports. We’ve seen the – that – about the nonbinding referendum. Look, clearly, we’re disappointed by the results, but we do respect the views of the Dutch people and we respect the Dutch political process. We understand there’s still a process in place – I’d refer you to the Dutch Government on – with regard to what next steps are imminent. We said before and we’ll say it again today: We believe this association agreement is in the best interests of Ukraine, the U.S., and the European Union, and we still stand by that.

QUESTION: You note that it’s a nonbinding vote --

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: -- but the Dutch prime minister has said that he doesn’t feel politically that he can ignore it.

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Would you urge the prime minister of Holland to ignore the will of his people?

MR TONER: There’s where I’m going to draw the line in stepping into what is an internal political process, and we respect that.

QUESTION: On Japan?

QUESTION: Well, no. Can I just do one more quick one?

MR TONER: Of course, Lesley. Always.

QUESTION: So the question here – yeah, since we raised it yesterday – so the question here is whether you think this in any way could have implications for Ukraine, who you are supporting --

MR TONER: Well, I don’t think we know yet. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Are you --

QUESTION: No, that’s it.

MR TONER: I don’t think we know yet, and I think President Poroshenko’s said that they’re going to continue to work towards an association agreement, take the steps they need to take in terms of reforms and other measures. We support them in those efforts. This was something that was agreed by all other members and ratified by all other members of the EU, so there is support for this. But --

QUESTION: But the question is --

MR TONER: Yeah. Please.

QUESTION: -- whether this would undermine anything that Poroshenko wants to do with having closer ties with Europe, and – which is really what started this entire thing, because --

MR TONER: It was.

QUESTION: -- they were looking for closer ties with the West, rather than looking towards Moscow, right?

MR TONER: Of course. And it’s our, I guess, hope that it doesn’t affect that process to continue closer ties to the West, closer ties with the EU. As we’ve long said, it’s not for us, it’s not for Russia, it’s not for anyone to decide which way or which path Ukraine wants to pursue, but it should have the right to its – the Ukrainian people should have the right to pursue closer ties with the West if it wants to and stronger economic ties and stronger democratic institutions. That’s its own right, sovereign right.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Excuse me --

MR TONER: Oh, you – I’m sorry. I apologize. You had a question.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you.

MR TONER: And then I’ll get to you. I apologize. Yeah.

QUESTION: Just on the Futenma air base.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Back in March, the Japanese Government had accepted a court-mediated settlement plan, which has further delayed the relocation process. I just wondered if you had any updates on the current status of the plan or if there are any alternative plans in place.

MR TONER: I don’t believe I have any – you’re talking about – I’m sorry – the settlement?

QUESTION: Right, the Okinawa – the Futenma air base.

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean – no, I mean, we don’t have any kind of update on the ongoing legal process. Obviously, we remain committed to the plan to construct Futenma, the replacement facility there, and we continue to believe that it’s the only plan that really adequately addresses the operational, political, financial, strategic concerns and – but I would refer you to the Government of Japan to really speak to that process.

QUESTION: To follow up on that --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- is the Futenma issue going to be something that Secretary Kerry discusses with prime minister – or Foreign Minister Kishida on his trip to Japan?

MR TONER: I just can’t predict what they might discuss in a bilateral setting. I can imagine it could come up. I just – it’s hard for me to say that today when it’s several days away.

QUESTION: Sure.

MR TONER: But we’ll give you a readout, obviously.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Please, sir.

QUESTION: Excuse me. I haven’t seen it --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is Secretary Kerry extending his visit to Baghdad and Erbil tomorrow?

MR TONER: I don’t have anything to announce on that.

QUESTION: Okay. And one more question on President Erdogan. I really don’t know if you’ve answered this one too. President Erdogan said that the Kurds – not the Kurds – the supporters of quote-unquote “terrorists” – PKK terrorists – should be stripped of citizenship. Do you have a statement on that?

MR TONER: Well, I guess I’d refer you to the Government of Turkey for questions regarding President Erdogan’s remarks. I guess – well, we would say that in any constitutional democracy, it’s important that questions of citizenship be addressed within a legal framework that upholds rule of law and ensures due process.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Yes, Said.

QUESTION: Can I – couple questions on the Palestinian-Israeli issue very quickly?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you if you have any comment or reaction to some reports that say that Abbas is fixing to meet with French President Hollande and Russian President Putin to see if they can get the process moving forward, the French suggestion or the --

MR TONER: This French proposal.

QUESTION: The French proposal. I wonder if you have any comment on that.

MR TONER: I don’t specifically in terms of potential meetings between President Abbas and the French. I know this was something that Foreign Minister Ayrault did raise with Secretary Kerry. It’s a clear focus for the French Government. We have since then had initial discussions with them about this initiative, look forward to further engagement on it. We share the same goal, as do many others, but that’s to find a constructive way forward in terms of advancing our – as I said, our goal of a two-state solution. But as to specific meetings between the French and Abbas, I just don’t have any details.

QUESTION: Now, in the past, you dismissed out of hand any kind of international effort to deal with this issue, opting for direct negotiations. Is that still your position, or would you support an international effort of any kind?

MR TONER: I just don’t think we’re there yet in terms of any concrete path towards direct negotiations. As you correctly state, we have always supported direct negotiations. But there’s still some spadework to be done in order to create the kind of conditions that would lead to direct negotiations. How that spadework’s done – preliminary work is done – I think is open for discussion.

QUESTION: And finally, Abbas called on the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to sort of have a mutual and an immediate kind of end to a mutual incitement and so on. Is that something that you support? Do you hold them both at the same level of being guilty of incitements and so on?

MR TONER: Well, I’ll just answer it this way, which is that there needs to be a general de-escalation – not an escalation – of rhetoric by either side in order to frankly end the violence. That said, we strongly support Israel’s right to self-defense in the wake of violent attacks against its citizens. But we would – I say – welcome any kind of efforts to de-escalate tensions overall.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you – this is related – are you aware of complaints from Christian groups of – about the destruction of a Byzantine-era Christian church? It was uncovered by construction workers in Gaza. And if you’re not --

MR TONER: I’m not, quite honestly.

QUESTION: If you’re not, if you would just look into it.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Is this something that the – that you guys take an interest in, that – the issue, and whether or not --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- it’s problematic, whether it was intentional or an accident?

MR TONER: I’ll take a look at it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Yeah, we’ll take a look at it.

Great. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)