Daily Press Briefing - May 24, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
1:38 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department. I have nothing at the top for you today.
QUESTION: Can I (inaudible) follow-up on (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Can I just follow up with something on yesterday?
MR TONER: Guys, work it out amongst yourselves, guys.
QUESTION: Oh, easy, easy.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), buddy.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on yesterday?
QUESTION: I wasn’t even here last week, buddy.
MR TONER: You got it yesterday. I’m going to go to Brad today. Go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Two things – two things on --
QUESTION: All right. From Syria --
QUESTION: Two things on Egypt, please. One, the Egyptians are saying – some of them are saying that there was – it appears to have been an explosion that brought it down. Other Egyptian officials saying it’s too early to tell. Does the U.S. Government have a view on this?
MR TONER: Well, only to say that we’re still waiting for the investigation to run its course. We don’t have any – anything more to say about the possible cause of the accident.
QUESTION: And then second --
QUESTION: And then secondly --
MR TONER: Crash, rather.
QUESTION: -- has the Egyptian Government made – other than the deployment of the P-3 aircraft, has the Egyptian – have the Egyptian authorities made any other requests for assistance from the United States?
MR TONER: No. As you know, we have provided some aircraft – P-3 Orion aircraft to engage in search and rescue operations, but beyond that, no, not to this point.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Syria? Yesterday --
QUESTION: Actually, one more on Egypt if you don’t mind, Brad.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Yesterday you said the violence had continued to decline despite some violations to the cessation of hostilities. We’re now up to 161 dead, and these are just in the Islamic State attacks. There was violence in the Eastern Ghouta and in Daraya. There was also some violence in the north. That’s seems to belie your argument that the violence has declined. What does that say about the state of your cessation of hostilities, as you call it?
MR TONER: Well, I certainly wasn’t trying to give the impression yesterday that everything was hunky-dory within – in terms of the cessation of hostility.
MR TONER: To the contrary – no, but let me finish. To the contrary --
QUESTION: Well, I didn’t say that.
MR TONER: To the contrary – well, you said that – look, I mean --
QUESTION: You said that there was a decline in violence. That has nothing to do with hunky-dory.
MR TONER: I was speaking – first of all, I was speaking more broadly about since the cessation of hostilities came into effect in late February, we have seen a significant decline in violence. That said, as we’ve admitted or recognized over the past several weeks, there’s been a deterioration in different parts of Syria, most certainly around Damascus and some of the suburbs there, but certainly around Aleppo. Yesterday we did see these horrific attacks on the towns of Jabla and also on the port city of Tartus, and Daesh claimed responsibility for those. We condemned them strongly.
But let’s separate those attacks, if I can do so, to the broader issue of the cessation of hostilities and whether it’s holding or not around Syria. Look, it’s been significantly challenged. We’ve seen this over the past several weeks and even over the weekend. We saw, as you noted in your question, that there’s been continuing offensive attacks in and around Aleppo, Latakia, as well as in and around Damascus.
Secretary Kerry made this clear to – when he spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov, that they need to do their part. They agreed to the – in the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group meeting last week in Vienna, to recommit to the cessation of hostilities along with all the other members of the ISSG, and they need to exert influence on the regime to oblige.
QUESTION: So how – so how much has the violence gone down, according to this measure of significant that you keep (inaudible)?
MR TONER: Overall, look, I don’t know if I can put a percentage figure on it. I think at some point we were saying 70 to 80 percent, but that’s probably slid backwards.
QUESTION: That’s nationwide?
MR TONER: Nationwide, of course. And again, these are estimates and we acknowledge that.
QUESTION: Last week de Mistura estimated down 50 percent from before.
MR TONER: That’s probably somewhat accurate --
QUESTION: So the – so the trend is upwards.
MR TONER: -- given the fact there’s been backsliding on many parts of it, but --
QUESTION: So you accept that the trend is upwards? It dropped 90 percent after you declared the ceasefire; then you admitted that it only dropped 70 percent; and now you’re saying it’s only dropped 50 percent.
MR TONER: I guess, David – and again, if I’m not being clear – I mean, I acknowledge and everyone acknowledges the fact that the initial cessation of hostilities was moderately to fairly successful. Significant reduction allowed us to get humanitarian access to some of the besieged areas, but not all. But then we saw that deteriorate. Certainly, there were pockets of fighting. We had this reaffirmation that seemed to take hold in some parts. Then we had the ISSG meeting --
QUESTION: I’m quibbling with – I’d like to replace the “e” on deteriorate with an “ing.” It’s deteriorating.
MR TONER: Deteriorate --
QUESTION: It continues to deteriorate.
MR TONER: Sure. Look, I’m not – look --
QUESTION: That’s the only quibble --
MR TONER: Yes, okay.
QUESTION: -- is you’ve implied that it got a bit worse.
MR TONER: Fair enough. But let’s just look at what we’re – where we’re at and what we’re doing. So we saw over the weekend continued attacks by the regime, clear violations of the ceasefire, of the cessation of hostilities. The Secretary reached out to Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday. You saw that Russia did announce these days of silence now to try to, again, reinstate the ceasefire or the cessation where it’s most challenged and to get them to recommit.
This is all part of the nationwide cessation of hostilities, so I don’t want to give the impression that we’re somehow looking at different pockets and trying to just establish a cessation of hostility into certain parts of Syria. We want a nationwide cessation of hostilities. Are we there yet? We’re not. So we’re trying to apply pressure.
QUESTION: But it seems that when you want to install a nationwide cessation, the mechanism for that is you call for it. But when Russia wants to have a few days of silence here and there, they order it.
MR TONER: I’m not sure what you’re saying. Is --
QUESTION: They have a capability of telling the Assad regime, “Don’t fight for the next 36 hours in the following two suburbs,” and they seem to be able to deliver on that. And you call for a nationwide cessation and that’s crumbling.
MR TONER: Look, I’m not going to parse or even explain Russia’s actions. What I would conjecture is that they, as we do, recognize the deteriorating situation in parts of Syria, and I – and believe that partly these days of silence or the 72-hour period is an effort to tamp down on that violence and those violations. And look, this all hinges – and we’ve said this before – on Russia’s ability to exert that influence on Assad. If they choose not to or if they are unable to, this whole thing falls apart.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: It’s been three-plus months now --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- that you’ve been trying with these various cessation of hostilities mechanisms. And yesterday, for example, we could have easily seen, let’s say 200 dead – that’s probably underselling it by a lot. What does that say? Where are you? It’s three months and you can’t even – there’s a day when it’s as high as it’s just about ever been.
MR TONER: Well, Brad, again, no one was trying to --
QUESTION: That’s 70,000 extrapolated over a year.
MR TONER: No one said --
QUESTION: That’s a lot.
MR TONER: I understand that, Brad. And as imperfect as the cessation of hostilities is, it’s still better than what preceded it. We still have had some access to some of these besieged areas. We need more. I’m not going to get up here and say that this is perfect, that this is somehow leading us down the golden path to an end to the conflict there. This is a process. We’re working hard at it. We’re not ready to walk away from it, nor do we think either party should walk away from it, neither the opposition or the regime. But --
QUESTION: Where are we in the – in the process, we’re now back to --
MR TONER: So we’re --
QUESTION: -- trying to get a nationwide cessation of hostilities.
MR TONER: So our efforts continue to solidify and reinstate the cessation of hostilities, and with an eye towards getting the parties back to Geneva.
QUESTION: But this is what you thought you had in February and what you actually --
MR TONER: Well, we --
QUESTION: -- thought you had in – last autumn, if I’m not mistaken – November, sorry.
MR TONER: Right. But arguably, we did have one, and imperfect as it was – again, we can quibble over this – in February that lasted a good length of time, and then we saw backsliding, without a doubt.
QUESTION: So you’ve made no progress, then, since February. Is that --
MR TONER: In terms of?
QUESTION: Well, I don’t know – anything.
MR TONER: Well, we had the – I mean, I – I mean, look, I would – look, I would refer you to de Mistura to talk about the political process in Geneva. He says there was progress made, that they moved beyond just simply talking about the logistics into what – at least an agreement to talk about the issues behind it. Now, as he said, they – those proximity talks were – ended and now there’s an effort to get them back to Geneva. And frankly – and we’ve said this – the current environment on the ground with the cessation barely holding in some places doesn’t help that.
QUESTION: Mark, a chance to follow up – just to follow up on that one --
QUESTION: He said (inaudible) wouldn’t be credible if there’s no credible ceasefire.
MR TONER: Yeah, let Said. I’ll get to you, David.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that point --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Now, just to be clear --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: -- those areas that were affected yesterday are areas under the control of the regime, correct – in Tartus and Latakia and others, where we had almost 200 people killed, correct? But there seems to be less concern when the violence is inflected in these areas, as in other areas. Is there --
MR TONER: No, no, no. All I was doing was simply --
MR TONER: I mean, we all know there’s --
MR TONER: There – it’s a – in a very complex environment, there’s two elements to this. There’s a civil war – and that’s what we’re talking about with the cessation of hostilities – and then there’s Daesh --
MR TONER: -- and the attacks yesterday on Jabla, as you note, and Latakia – that was Daesh. Daesh has claimed responsibility for that, and we condemn that vehemently.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. But when something happens, let’s say, that comes from the regime area or friends of the regime and so on, no, you are very clear that you want some pressure put on.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: In this case, who do you call to put pressure on?
MR TONER: Well, we call on Russia.
QUESTION: Who – you call on – no, I’m not talking about --
MR TONER: I’m sorry – apologize.
QUESTION: I’m talking about – you call on Russia to pressure ISIS?
MR TONER: You mean – I apologize. I didn’t hear you correctly there.
MR TONER: You’re talking about with – among the opposition forces?
QUESTION: Who would you call on – where should the pressure apply in the case yesterday, let’s say – yesterday’s attacks in Latakia and Tartus? Where should the --
MR TONER: Well, that was Daesh, and we all recognize that’s a common enemy and a – as I said. But I think if you’re asking about when we see opposition elements engaged in violations – and I’m not saying – we see the vast number of violations on the part of the regime, but when we see the – we act accordingly. We do have a mechanism set up, and we – the United States, namely, but other members of the ISSG – do apply pressure, do communicate to the opposition on the ground, and convey to them that they need to abide by the cessation.
QUESTION: Do you feel that the Syrian Government is within its rights and the Syrian army within their right to take action to defend these cities and so on from perpetrators?
MR TONER: Well, again, it’s unclear – no, not if they’re – I mean, if they’re – again, just to de-conflict, to use a loaded term here – but there’s obviously the Daesh element, Nusrah, and they have carried out strikes – some strikes against Daesh. We would argue that many of them are not really against Daesh but also – but actually targeting opposition groups, but be that as it may. But if you’re talking about attacks against opposition groups that have signed up to the cessation of hostilities, well no. I mean, that’s absolutely off the table.
David. I’m sorry, did you still have a question?
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: I mean, just on that one, would you like to see the HNC condemn these attacks by Daesh? It seems like they were pretty pleased that it was – the fight was going the other way for a change.
MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to speak on behalf of the HNC, certainly. We all, I think, recognize that Daesh is a common enemy. But we’ve talked about in previous – well, for example, previous gains that they’ve had in Palmyra, for example – the regime against Daesh. We’re certainly happy when Daesh is dislodged from any place, but it’s hardly a good replacement to have the regime move in given its track record against Syrian civilians.
QUESTION: But on the subject of taking ground off of Daesh, the Syrian Democratic Forces have announced an offensive north of Raqqa. We’ve got some details on that from the Pentagon, but on the diplomatic front, Sergey Lavrov has said that the Russians would like to coordinate with the U.S. coalition and the Kurds in this particular offensive. Is that something that the coalition would welcome and is that something that can be accommodated within current mechanisms?
MR TONER: I would just say that right now, first and foremost, we’re focused on engaging with Russia in terms of upholding and strengthening the cessation of hostilities, and we believe it’s important that Russia focus on ensuring that all parties live up to the commitments that they’ve made and that Russia uses its influence on the Assad regime to, again, to uphold the ceasefire.
QUESTION: But if Russian planes were to bomb ISIS positions in Raqqa, would that complicate things, or would that be a help?
MR TONER: Well, again, I’m just going to say what I just said, which is right now we believe it’s important to focus on upholding the cessation of hostilities in Raqqa. Now, you’re --
QUESTION: In Raqqa?
MR TONER: In – sorry, in – I apologize. In --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Raqqa.
MR TONER: In Aleppo. In Aleppo and in Damascus. What we’re discussing right now with Russia are proposals for a sustainable mechanism that helps support that and strengthen that cessation of hostilities.
Now, in response to your question about Raqqa, we do continue to work and support the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces to retake territory from Daesh and further isolate its transportation, communications, supply routes into Raqqa in order to really choke off their hold on that city.
QUESTION: Follow-up --
QUESTION: Following --
QUESTION: Follow-up to that?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Sorry, I know you had your hand raised.
QUESTION: Basically what – basically what you just said reminded me of an episode that Lavrov talked about to the press after the recent meetings in Vienna, I guess it was, where he said in the talks one of the participants said that they were basically reluctant to bomb the ISIS forces too much because of the fear that the Assad forces will take their positions. You just said the same thing. You just said that it’s not a good thing if we push out the bad guys if the government forces come in. So my question, like the question of Lavrov at that point, was: Where are the priorities?
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: And is this the reason why you don’t want to do joint work?
MR TONER: Andrei, Andrei --
MR TONER: I’m not going to – Andrei, let me say this: I’m not going to exult in the liberation of a city like Palmyra by a regime that has carried out unspeakable violence against its citizens for the past five years. If you want to go over and categorize and catalog all those unspeakable acts, I’m happy to do that. But let me finish. What I did say is that Daesh/ISIL is a common enemy.
MR TONER: We agree on that.
MR TONER: Why – so which is why we need a cessation of hostilities, a return to Geneva, so we can instate a political process that leads to free and fair elections and a transitional government in Syria so that we can all then focus on what the real common enemy is, which is Daesh.
QUESTION: But in essence, in essence, again, the question is whether you are willing to really fight the bad guys, the ISIS guys, if you have that fear that by fighting them, you help the Assad forces.
MR TONER: I --
QUESTION: So what are your priorities there?
MR TONER: Our priorities are twofold. First of all, to destroy and degrade Daesh, and we are leading a 66-member coalition to do just that, and we’re supporting Syrian Democratic Forces who are focused on taking the fight to Daesh in northern Syria, as well as our support for Iraqi armed forces who are trying to dislodge Daesh from Iraq. But the other thing is, the other priority is ending what has been a bloody civil war. And to do that, we have worked with Russia and a number of other countries who are stakeholders in Syria to put in place a cessation of hostilities and to jumpstart a political process whereby we believe it can lead to a political transition.
Look, we have, I think – sorry, but just to let me finish here. Let’s be clear: We have sat down with – and I’m not just pointing at Russia, but Iran, other members of the ISSG, a lot of varying views on what should happen in Syria, the future of Syria should be. But we’ve all agreed that we need to at least pursue a political transition there and peace.
QUESTION: Do you support the government forces when they fight ISIS?
MR TONER: Do we support --
QUESTION: In Syria?
MR TONER: Do we support Assad’s --
QUESTION: Do you support their efforts? Yes, efforts to fight ISIS.
MR TONER: I don’t know that we support them. No, we certainly don’t support them with airstrikes or any kind of support that you may be thinking of. Our only objection is that far too often we’ve seen the government claim to be hitting ISIS targets, and in fact, they’re hitting opposition groups who are part of the cessation of hostilities for strategic gain for – to hit their supply lines, whatever the rationale is behind it. But it still exists.
QUESTION: The Russians do support them. Is this the --
MR TONER: Andrei, I’ve given you a lot of questions.
MR TONER: Sorry. Thanks.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, I think in autumn of 2014, though it might have been last year, in congressional testimony was asked about your strategy. You were asked --
MR TONER: 2014? Or last year?
QUESTION: I think it was 2014. Yeah, and he said ISIS first – “ISIL first; that’s the strategy.”
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So in response to Andrei’s question, you just said we have two priorities; one is going after the Islamic State militant group, and the other is ending the civil war and working towards some kind of a transition. Secretary Kerry was very clear, though, that the strategy was ISIS first. Is that still the strategy?
MR TONER: Look, if you’re asking me to – what I would say in response to that is they’re both of a piece. And by that, I mean that we have significantly increased our effort to defeat, destroy Daesh over the past six months to a year, and that has yielded success. But Daesh is still very much a dangerous adversary.
But we also recognize – and I think we have recognized over the past year, and not just us, but others – again, these stakeholders in Syria – that unless we are able to find a solution, resolution to the civil war there, it’s going to remain a very murky and difficult environment, and an environment where Daesh will, frankly, find refuge and be able to find footholds and be more difficult to dislodge.
So what I mean is it’s hard to separate the two. We need both. And then on that day, if we can get resolution of the civil war, then we can focus on defeating a common enemy.
QUESTION: Okay. May I have just one follow-up on that?
MR TONER: Sure, of course. And then I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I mean, you didn’t say – you talked about a transitional governing authority. You didn’t explicitly say – restate your view that because such a transitional governing authority would be formed by mutual consent, if it ever is formed under the Geneva communique, that that, from your point of view, means that Assad would definitely go, something he’s not been willing to do so far. Some of President Obama’s former aides, including Phil Gordon, has been arguing in public that a better outcome might be to just accept that Assad stays, for the time being, and devolve power to the other regions of the country, many of which are no longer under his control anyway, and that the point there would just be to end the civil war, which is how you defined your second goal there. I mean, are you willing at all to consider the possibility of his staying in power, if that reduces bloodshed?
MR TONER: So our position and the position of the ISSG has always been to support the unity, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of Syria as a country with its borders and that remains the same. We also have – we the United States have said that we don’t believe that Assad can be a part of that future, given what he’s done. We also believe that any political process, any legitimate political process, we believe will answer that question. But we have agreed, as the United States, to not make that a hindrance to advancing peace talks and negotiations among – between the regime and the opposition.
QUESTION: That sounds like – I mean, I understand you’re not making a hindrance to the commencement of those talks, right?
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: But is it still your view that --
MR TONER: He cannot be a part of the future of – sorry. I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.
QUESTION: Yeah. That he cannot be a part of the future of Syria.
MR TONER: It’s our view, yes.
QUESTION: And are you willing to swallow that view if you can end the fighting?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: You said if Russia fails at exerting its influence on Assad, the whole thing falls apart. If the U.S. fails at exerting its influence on the opposition to get them to separate from al-Nusrah and the like, doesn’t it fall apart just as well?
MR TONER: We talked about that yesterday. It’s incumbent on us to do our part and other members of the ISSG, Saudis, Turks, others to exert influence, absolutely.
QUESTION: For weeks we’ve been hearing about this issue of --
MR TONER: But what we’ve seen – sorry, but let me just finish that by saying what we’ve seen over the weekend and frankly the past several weeks have been predominately violations on the part of the regime, so --
QUESTION: For weeks, on this issue of getting them to separate, the rebels to separate from terrorists, we’ve been hearing that it’s a challenge, that you’re working on it. What is the result of that effort?
MR TONER: Well, look, I think we’ve had – again, it’s not been a perfect track record. We have made, we believe – we’ve conveyed our concerns, certainly. And I think last week – apologize, I’m getting my timing – last week in Vienna, with the ISSG, what came out of that in the communique was a fairly strong statement saying that if you continue to violate the cessation of hostilities then the price you pay will be to no longer be a party to that cessation of hostilities. And I think that is realistically something we need to look at when we agreed to do it, in fact. So sorry, just to – so I can’t say that there’s been 100 percent compliance with that. Again, this is not an overnight thing and I think on both sides, to be honest. And so we continue to play – to talk to Russia and to try to exert the influence that we both respectively can on either side.
QUESTION: Yesterday, I asked a few questions that you said you would look into. First about the reported brief visit of an Ahrar al-Sham representative to Washington, D.C. Did his visit raise any red flags? Second, what does the U.S. think about this group Ahrar al-Sham, and why should they have the protection under the cessation of hostilities when, by many accounts, they don’t care much about that cessation of hostilities?
MR TONER: Sure. I – and I apologize, because I don’t have, for your first answer, except that he – I do know this individual certainly did not have meetings that I’m aware of at the – with the State Department. I can’t speak to whether we were aware or not aware of his visit or entry into the country. I just don’t have that information.
Look, I mean, we talked a little bit about this yesterday, but Ahrar al-Sham is not a designated foreign terrorist organization. And as we talked about, it is part of this vetted group of opposition forces that are part of the HNC, High Negotiating Council. That was a process mostly led by Saudi Arabia but with the consent of other members of the ISSG, and that includes Russia, but also the United States, Turkey, others. Our expectation of them, though, is the same expectation we have for everybody who is party to the cessation, which is that they will abide by it and they will comply with the cessation and not engage in violations.
You talked about the attack, and I think we did condemn that. I apologize; I was on the – on a trip with Secretary Kerry, but I know that John Kirby spoke out against the attack last week. We have serious concerns about that kind of violence.
QUESTION: You said --
QUESTION: Can I ask you about the CENTCOM --
MR TONER: One more question and then I’ll switch. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- CENTCOM commander --
QUESTION: -- that there was an agreement --
MR TONER: One more question, then I’ll go to you, I promise.
QUESTION: You said there was an agreement in the ISSG but Russia tried to change that designation at the UN and the U.S. along with --
MR TONER: Russia has tried to --
QUESTION: Yeah, block it.
MR TONER: That is correct, they have tried to.
MR TONER: And our response is that --
MR TONER: -- we believe that that kind of action at this point in time would have a damaging effect on the cessation, as well as on the whole political process. We agreed that this group would be a part of the HNC, with the expectation that they will not commit violations of the cessation and that they will not carry out brutal attacks. We’re aware of last week’s attacks. Frankly, we’ve seen similar attacks on the part of the regime. We need to end the brutality across the board.
QUESTION: Is this a yellow card?
QUESTION: Did you know that --
QUESTION: How many times – how many villages do they have to massacre before they become bad guys?
MR TONER: Look, we have – we’ve spoken out about this attack last week. I’m not going to get into soccer references.
QUESTION: But you said your expectation – they wouldn’t, but they did.
MR TONER: I understand that.
QUESTION: So you now expect they won’t again?
MR TONER: First of all, no, we’re not giving them a yellow card. Second of all, they, like any member of the Syrian opposition who is part of the HNC and part of the cessation of hostilities, has to abide by it.
QUESTION: Sorry, I just --
QUESTION: Did you know that one of --
QUESTION: Can I just ask you about the CENTCOM commander?
QUESTION: If you could indulge me before you go to him.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: It’s just on – it’s a follow-up on her.
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Just – maybe you don’t know, but if you do know and you could indulge me, what goes into a Saudi vetting process when it comes to Ahrar al-Sham?
MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, this is --
QUESTION: I mean --
MR TONER: No, but – I mean, I don’t want to – and this is – they took the lead on this, but it’s not as though this was done in a vacuum.
QUESTION: But what does that mean? What did they vet them for?
MR TONER: Well, I just mean that they – this was a part of the process of --
QUESTION: Basically they’re not al-Qaida?
MR TONER: -- setting up these political negotiations or a political process in Geneva, and they went through the various groups, and this was a joint process. But frankly, there were strong feelings, not just between the United States and Russia but on the part of many members of the ISSG – this group bad, this group not bad.
QUESTION: What was the – what were they good at?
MR TONER: I don’t have the – I’m sorry, I just don’t have the criteria.
QUESTION: What conditions did they – you don’t know?
MR TONER: I mean, I don’t have the criteria, other than to say that – other than the fact that --
QUESTION: They’re not on your terrorist list?
MR TONER: -- they were believed to be a part of the viable Syrian opposition and that they wanted or had exhibited a desire to play a positive, constructive role to resolving the conflict.
QUESTION: Did you know that one of the – did you know that --
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about CENTCOM Commander --
MR TONER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: -- Joseph Votel’s visit to Syria. He met with the YPG --
MR TONER: Yep. Yeah, no, it’s been out in the media.
QUESTION: -- and so on. Is there any kind of – should we draw any connections between, let’s say, the timing of the attacks that is now being conducted in Ain Issa, which is like 60 miles --
MR TONER: Oh, I wouldn’t – I mean, I – look, I mean, this was just a --
QUESTION: -- from Raqqa and his visit?
MR TONER: I think it was a --
MR TONER: -- base-touching, if you will, for – we’ve done this in the past, a chance for senior U.S. leadership to talk to some of the groups that we’ve been supporting on the ground, to hear directly from them the types of assistance they’re looking for, the types of challenges they’re facing, and also, to some extent, talk strategy.
QUESTION: Yeah. On the point of assistance, they requested armored vehicles, they requested mortars, they requested surface-to-surface missiles and so on. Is the United States likely to supply them with these kind of weapons?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to – there’s – we’ve been supporting these groups on the ground mostly through intelligence and through air support, but through other various means. But I don’t have any more details or any more significant announcements to make in that regard.
QUESTION: Can we stay with Raqqa? First of all --
MR TONER: On Raqqa? Sure.
QUESTION: -- going back to what David raised earlier concerning the Lavrov offer for Russia to coordinate – help the U.S. with coordinating and the Kurds in correlating to liberate Raqqa, I’m a little – first of all, is there a discussion underway between Russia and the U.S. on this? Has Lavrov made this comment directly to U.S. officials, first of all?
MR TONER: It has been discussed, yes.
MR TONER: You’re talking about in terms of --
MR TONER: -- joint operations against ISIL?
MR TONER: That’s what you’re --
QUESTION: Yes, for Raqqa.
MR TONER: Specifically in terms of Raqqa, I’m not sure.
QUESTION: What would be the hesitation? If this is an offer of additional assistance, possibly firepower, to help liberate Raqqa, what would be the U.S. hesitation in taking advantage of this?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think our focus right now with Russia within the ISSG is to bring about a credible restoration of the cessation of hostilities. We recognize that that is the more, frankly, immediate concern. We believe that with our support for the Syrian Democratic Forces that we can effectively put pressure on Raqqa acting within the coalition.
QUESTION: And also --
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll get to you, Lucas.
QUESTION: -- separately Lavrov said today that the United States and Russia have agreed to shift from an information exchange to coordinated efforts in the fight against terrorism in Russia. Can you confirm that?
MR TONER: In Russia? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the last part.
QUESTION: In Russia.
MR TONER: I’ve seen the remarks. I’ve not seen the reference to “in Russia.” I’d have to take a look at that. I mean look, what we’ve tried to do and we’ve talked about over the past several weeks is really coordinate more closely within the task force to get a better sense on the ground and be able to move more nimbly when we do see violations occur to address those violations. We’re going to continue to bolster those efforts.
Please. Oh, Lucas, yeah.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: A U.S. official was quoted as saying, “All signs continue to point to terrorism.” Is that a view that the State Department holds?
MR TONER: It’s not an official view. I don’t know who said that or whether it was on the record or not. I mean, we’re just not there yet. In any – and you’ve covered these kinds of things before – it’s somewhat frustrating that we don’t have immediate answers. Certainly, I know probably the Egyptian Government feels that same way as well as other governments affected by this disaster. But we need to let the investigation run its course before we go about making any claims.
QUESTION: Has terrorism been ruled out or a mechanical failure ruled out?
MR TONER: I don’t think anything’s been ruled out at this point, Lucas.
QUESTION: Could you say that one more time?
MR TONER: What’s that?
QUESTION: Could you say that one more time?
MR TONER: I said I don’t think anything’s been ruled out at this point, Lucas.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: There’s some reports that he ventured into Iran. I was wondering if the State Department had any contacts with Iranian officials or brought this up, and is that report a concern to the State Department, to Secretary Kerry?
MR TONER: We’ve seen those reports, and that’s about all the clarity we have on it. We’ve also seen reports he was carrying a fake Pakistani passport. Our major concern is that a major threat to our military on the ground in Afghanistan has been removed from the battlefield.
QUESTION: So there’s no concern that he was in Iran at all?
MR TONER: We just don’t have any clarity on that, Lucas.
QUESTION: Gotcha. And one final question. Senators Kirk and Lankford are introducing an amendment to the NDA that will cut aid to foreign nations who lose track of terrorists that have been formerly held in Guantanamo. Does the State Department support that amendment? And if not, why?
MR TONER: I’ll have to take a look at it. First time I’m hearing about it. So as with any proposed legislation or amendment, we’ll take a good look at it and we want to work constructively with Congress.
QUESTION: But in general, if a country does lose track of some of these Gitmo transfers, would the State Department --
MR TONER: In general – generally speaking – when we do such a transfer of Gitmo detainees it’s done with the expectation that, first of all, that – let’s be clear that these – many of these – all of these individuals have been vetted. We believe they no longer pose a threat. But there’s also always a mechanism, for lack of a better term, built in that we can keep track of these individuals.
QUESTION: What do you tell critics who think that some of these individuals have not been fully vetted or, if they have been vetted, they’ve been told that they’re going to rejoin the fight and we won’t know for months and months if they do go back to terrorism? What do you tell to – how about Americans out there that are concerned that these dangerous terrorists you’re going to let out of Guantanamo could potentially rejoin the fight?
MR TONER: Well, what I would say is this. One is we believe that and this President believes that closing down Guantanamo facility, detention facility, is in the national security interests of the United States, first and foremost.
Second, I would say that – and I’ve seen this firsthand – that the vetting process and how we look at these individuals and whether they can – they meet the criteria for release is very stringent.
And then thirdly, just as I said, when we work with these governments to do these kinds of transfers, we do that – we do so not just with the expectation but with the knowledge that they’re going to be able to keep track of these individuals.
Now, is any of this 100-percent foolproof? Certainly not. But – but that’s our process.
Please, in the back, sir.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Sir, I have a few more questions for you.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Sir, this is not the first time that the enemies of Afghans and Americans were found or having safe havens in the territory of Pakistan. First is OBL, then Mullah Omar, now Mullah Mansour. So, sir, what is the level of trust between the two parties – I mean with Pakistan and U.S. now?
MR TONER: Well, we have conveyed to the Pakistani Government and authorities before that they need to pursue actively terrorist organizations that are using their soil, their territory to find refuge. We’ve also said before that Pakistan is a country that unfortunately knows the effects of terrorism, the tragedy of terrorism. It’s suffered multiple terrorist attacks, mass casualty terrorist attacks, so it understands the stakes here. But we’re going to continue to work with the Pakistani authorities and a full-faith effort both to give them the tools they need and the capabilities they need to confront this threat. And we’re going to also continue to, as we share intelligence and other information with them, to point out we believe that terrorists are finding safe haven.
QUESTION: Sir, but – I understand your answer, but the Pakistani interior minister said that U.S. informed Pakistan after seven hours of the drone strike. So it means you have no trust on Pakistan regarding the counterterrorism operations there.
MR TONER: I’m not going to get into the operational details of the strike against Mansour except to say that these are very narrow windows in any case, and it’s not just with friends and allies or partners or whoever, but in any of these instances, it’s absolutely vital to keep operational security.
QUESTION: Sir, when now Mullah Mansour is dead, the most discussed Haqqani Network could succeed the top slot in the Taliban. I’m talking about Sirajuddin Haqqani. He’s also a designated terrorist. So what kind of expectations you have from Haqqanis if they get elected as the Taliban chief for the recon process, the Afghan peace process?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, we do – as you correctly note, we do consider the Haqqani Network to be an integral part of Taliban operations and among its most deadly elements. We’re not going to comment on any changes in the Taliban’s leadership structure, except to say that we’ve long called on the Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, to join a reconciliation process, and we’ve said this many times. And frankly, one of the reasons, except – beyond the fact that he was planning on carrying out attacks against our personnel as well as Afghan security personnel, is that Mansour represented an effort to rekindle the war, rekindle the conflict, re-stoke the violence in Afghanistan, and was not interested in pursuing peace. We believe that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process is the way ultimately to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: But if Haqqani comes into power – I mean, if they become the Taliban chief, will you welcome their dialogue with the Afghan Government? I mean, if they do, it means that they’re – all sins will be forgiven?
MR TONER: Sure, I would just say that the Taliban should clearly understand that the path it should pursue is one towards peaceful reconciliation.
You had a question there, sir?
QUESTION: Yes, Mark, can I follow up?
MR TONER: Sure, Lalit, then I’ll get to you. Do you have a question on this as well?
QUESTION: It’s on Brazil. Somebody else should go --
MR TONER: Okay. Let’s wait there and we’ll go back.
QUESTION: So a follow-up on his question. Do you trust Pakistan when it comes to war against terrorism?
MR TONER: Do I what? I’m so sorry.
QUESTION: Do you trust Pakistan when it comes to war against terrorism?
MR TONER: I think that we have been very clear-eyed and very clear in our interaction with Pakistan where we’ve believed that they need to do more to root out terrorists, as I said, who find safe haven on some of their territory, and we’re going to continue to do that. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: But is it fair to say, given that you didn’t inform Pakistan before the attack, that you do not trust them on these sensitive issues?
MR TONER: Again, I think what I said just now holds, which is that operational security trumps a need to inform other governments.
QUESTION: Sir, what is your assessment on the relations of Pakistan and Haqqani Network? I mean, these relations are one of the reason blocking U.S. military aid to Pakistan.
MR TONER: What are our – you said what is our --
QUESTION: Sir, what is your assessment about the relations of Pakistan and Haqqani Network?
MR TONER: Well, as – again, we’ve consistently expressed our concern to the highest levels of the Government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups, and that includes the Haqqani Network.
QUESTION: Yes. This week’s – Brazil’s largest newspaper reported on leaked conversations between a senator who led the impeachment charge against the former President Rousseff, who now is in the government himself as the planning minister, and a former oil magnate. The two of them discussed that if they impeach Rousseff, they would end anticorruption investigations into many of their friends and allies, that they had support from the military and from the judiciary. In light of these revelations, isn’t it time to start considering what happened to Brazil may be a bloodless coup or a soft coup?
MR TONER: Look, we’ve said multiple times that we believe that Brazil’s democratic processes and democratic institutions are stable enough, strong enough so that it can weather this political crisis. I’m not going to speak to internal Brazilian politics beyond that.
QUESTION: Well, it’s interesting – the new government has cut off all the anticorruption investigations against the new people who have joined the government. They’ve started exploring selling off state assets, they’re talking about changing Brazilian foreign policy, they’ve brought in an all-male cabinet, people close to business and industry and people who are hostile to a lot of the previous government’s priorities, and none of this was done with the popular vote. The Brazilian public had no input whatsoever, and so was that really a democratic process? Does the U.S. consider that a democratic process?
MR TONER: Again, I – what you’re talking about are all internal changes within the Brazilian Government. I’d refer you them to speak to --
QUESTION: But certainly --
MR TONER: -- to speak to the strength of their processes.
QUESTION: But certainly you talk about the processes of all sorts of countries.
MR TONER: We believe that it does have a strong enough democracy, strong enough institutions, to navigate this crisis.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MR TONER: Yeah. Please.
MR TONER: We can do Myanmar.
QUESTION: Okay. So there are reports that a Myanmar poet, who was sentenced to six months in jail for defaming the former president – well, forgive me. The court sentenced him to six months in jail on Tuesday, but because he’s already spent six months in jail, he’s now being released. Do you have concerns about this, particularly given the change that has occurred in Myanmar that old laws, including the telecommunications law, are being used to stifle dissent?
MR TONER: Well, the new government in Burma has stated its commitment to improving respect for freedom of expression. We remain committed to supporting it to make further progress on this, as well as other human rights issues. The Secretary – and I don’t know if the transcript’s out yet, but spoke to this – the broader effort, if you will. He was speaking in reference to Vietnam earlier today, but also extended it to Burma, to Cuba, and other places, and made the point that we have seen progress.
Have we seen enough progress in terms of human rights? Not at all. And we recognize that this is going to be a process. Respect for and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms are absolutely critical components of a vibrant democracy. We all understand that. But it’s still a work in progress in Burma, certainly, and in other countries of the region and around the world. But in terms of human rights, in terms of issues of prisoners of conscience, we’re going to continue to raise those with the Government of Burma on a regular basis.
QUESTION: I got two more quick ones, if that’s okay.
MR TONER: Yeah. Please. Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: One is you’ll have seen, I’m sure, the reports that Ahmad Jannati, a 90-year-old anti-Western cleric, has been chosen as the head of Iran’s new Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of selecting the new or whomever will be the next supreme leader. Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? And does this suggest that Iran may be moving toward a more pro-Western, more open-toward-the-West stance?
QUESTION: Or do you have faith in Iran’s internal democratic procedures? (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Let me see if I have anything pithy to say about that.
QUESTION: And do you regard Iran as an ally in the fight against terrorism? (Laughter.)
MR TONER: You’re talking about – yeah, no. Have at it, guys. (Laughter.) We follow domestic events in Iran closely, as you know, but we don’t have any comment at this point on the outcome of the leadership elections of the Assembly of Experts.
QUESTION: Okay. Then last one for me is --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: They’re still in the process of doing this. And as I understand it, banks are barred from – Western banks or EU and U.S. banks are barred from helping them to issue this bond, but that Western investors are not necessarily barred from owning the bonds, if they want to buy them. Do you have any – and it appears that the bond issue has been oversubscribed. Would you warn investors in general, even if there’s no explicit prohibition, against buying dollar-denominated Russian bonds?
MR TONER: Well, in answer to that – and I’m – I appreciate the qualification that you put on the end of your question, which is that we’re not – we’re not able to specifically bar them, but we do continue to be clear in our engagement – engagements with U.S. companies that we believe there are risks, both economic risks and reputational risks, associated with business with – doing business with Russia and a return to what we call business as usual with Russia. I mean, I’d refer you – the specific questions about the bond issuance to Treasury, of course. But through our combined sanctions, reduced diplomatic engagement, we are sending a clear signal to Russia and its leadership that it must comply with its Minsk commitments and end its occupation of Crimea.
QUESTION: I’m perplexed by one thing.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: You said “reduced diplomatic engagement,” but it seems like the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov are on the phone, like, once a week at least.
MR TONER: Well, we’ve talked about this before, and that’s a valid point. We have – it’s a valid point. We have assessed that where we can work constructively with Russia, we will do so, and that involves Syria, frankly, when the magnitude of the crisis and the issue merits it and also where we can find common ground with them. But there should never be any mistake that we disagree with them in their actions in Ukraine.
QUESTION: You said there are --
QUESTION: Mark, could I --
QUESTION: -- economic and reputational risks. You’re not aware of any legal risks, or should we refer to Treasury to find out?
MR TONER: I’d refer to Treasury for the exact precision on that. I don’t believe there are.
QUESTION: A very quick question --
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: You know both Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam espouse exactly the same dogma as Jabhat al-Nusrah and others. They are anti-Western, they are anti-liberal, they are anti-democratic. They want to establish a very draconian caliphate and so on. What qualifies them as part of the moderate opposition?
MR TONER: As I said, I don’t have the specific scorecard in front of me. This was – but it was a process that was – the process of choosing the HNC was something that was agreed upon by all the parties of the ISSG with the understanding that no one’s given a free pass, and I accept that.
Please, last question, and then I – yeah, last question.
QUESTION: I want to follow up on Said’s question.
MR TONER: No, let me go in the back.
QUESTION: Did you know that one of the founders of --
MR TONER: I’ve answered many of your questions and I have to run. Please, in the back.
QUESTION: Question on Taiwan. Taiwanese Government just announced the new representative to the United States. His name is Stanley Kao. But in the official appointment order, Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen called him ambassador. So given there is no official tie between the United States and Taiwan based on “one China” policy, can Taiwan have ambassador to the United States, or it has to be representative?
MR TONER: So in answer to your question I’m going to say that we look forward to welcoming Mr. Kao to the United States, and we congratulate him on serving as the new head of Taipei Economic Cultural Representative Office in the United States. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)
DPB # 89