Daily Press Briefing - December 1, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 1, 2016


1:42 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department. First of all, I just want to briefly mention we have some interns in the back. Welcome to the State Department briefing. I hope it doesn’t get too ugly in here and shock you. Anyway, welcome, in any case.

QUESTION: I thought that was the transition team. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: Yeah. (Laughter.) And so a couple things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions. First of all, we send our warmest congratulations to Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn on his ascension to the throne today. We offer our best wishes to his majesty and all of the Thai people as he begins his reign as Rama X. His father, King Bhumibol, ruled the Kingdom of Thailand with vision and compassion for 70 years and was a great friend of the United States. The United States and Thailand enjoy a longstanding, strong, and multifaceted bilateral relationship, and we look forward to deepening that relationship and strengthening the bonds between our two countries and peoples going forward.

Also, just a brief mention. Obviously, as many of you, today is World’s AIDS – World AIDS Day, excuse me. And you saw probably the Secretary’s statement on this that was sent out earlier today. Just wanted to note a few things. Thanks to historic levels of investment by the American people through PEPFAR and strong bipartisan support, we are progressing towards the first AIDS-free generation in more than 30 years. PEPFAR is supporting nearly 11.5 million people on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, and that exceeds the bold target that was set by President Obama in 2016. And for the first time, we have clear evidence that the AIDS epidemic is becoming controlled and – in older adults and babies in three African countries where PEPFAR has invested substantially. But our work is obviously far from being done. Experts say there is a narrow window to change the course of the pandemic and ultimately end it by 2030.

On that, I will go – I guess I go to AP. I’m so confused. Reuters is new; they’re all new. But anyway, welcome.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Vivian Salama.

MR TONER: Hi Vivian.

QUESTION: So the White House suggested that State may have briefed President-elect Trump before his call to Pakistan to Nawaz Sharif, and we’re wondering if that was the case. And if so, what was discussed?

MR TONER: Not to my knowledge, no. We had no discussion with President-elect Trump prior to that call.

QUESTION: Have you had any discussion with him prior to any of his calls?

QUESTION: That was – yeah.

MR TONER: Not to my knowledge, no.

QUESTION: A question on North Korea.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: So the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said today that they view the new UN resolution that was passed on Wednesday as not blocking, quote, “normal trade” with North Korea. And they also said that they believe that they’ve enforced past UN resolutions – past sanctions on North Korea responsibly. What would be the U.S. view on that?

MR TONER: Well, I’m not sure what they mean or what the spokesperson meant by “normal trade.” I mean, the resolution that was adopted yesterday was very clear in the types of sanctions that it adopted or that it put in place, rather. And that was specifically aimed at targeting North Korea’s hard currency revenues. It imposed sanctions – or a cap, rather, on coal exports; also on the export of monuments, which I didn’t realize is a major, apparently, source of --

QUESTION: Source of income.

MR TONER: -- right, income for the regime there. But also on nonferrous metals – that’s copper, nickel, silver, and zinc. So again – I mean, in some case – or not in some cases, but in many cases sanctions are targeted. And in this case it’s the – they’re also very targeted. They’re targeted really at North Korea’s elite and the way that those elite make, frankly, their money. This is not aimed at the North Korean people, and in fact, what we’re trying to do here through these sanctions is focus on changing North Korea’s behavior. We don’t expect that, obviously, to change overnight. But clearly this is the world speaking in one voice about it concern over North Korea’s ongoing provocative actions.

Now, with regard to China, I don’t necessarily want to give it a report card. We’ve talked about China’s – given its – obviously, the fact that it’s a neighbor of North Korea’s, that it plays an outsized role in terms of the impact of these sanctions and – or rather, the impact that they can have in implementing this sanctions. And of course, all UN member-states are expected to implement sanctions resolutions in good faith. Implementation with regard to sanctions is almost everything. You can have the toughest sanctions in the world; if they’re not implemented correctly, then they’re meaningless. So we continue to work and talk to China about how to effectively – more effectively – implement those sanctions.


MR TONER: We can go to Syria. Sure.

QUESTION: Apologies if you address that yesterday, because we were absent.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) You guys are really making me suffer for that offhanded comment. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Two European newspapers, the French Le Monde and the British Financial Times, have been reporting that there were secret talks between a Russian delegation and some Syrian rebels in Turkey, in Ankara. Are you aware of these talks? And do you think it’s a good thing?

MR TONER: Well, so we’ve seen these reports of talks taking place between Russia’s and Syrian rebels. I’m going to leave it for the parties involved to confirm these talks and whether they’re actually taking place. I would just say, in terms of our reaction, that we’d welcome any genuine effort to ease the suffering of the Syrian people, particularly in Aleppo, which has endured so much hardship in recent months. So I can’t speak to the content of these talks or the substance of these talks or even the reality of these talks, but again, we would welcome any effort to ease the suffering and to end the fighting.

For our part, the United States’ part, we obviously remain engaged with the Turks, the Russians, the Saudis, the Qataris, our European allies, and the opposition in Syria. I can confirm today that Secretary Kerry will meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Rome tomorrow. He’ll also meet with Special Envoy de Mistura tomorrow in Rome as well, and of course, with other multilateral partners in Europe, both tomorrow and obviously next week.

QUESTION: Zarif is also going to this Mediterranean meeting. Is he going to meet with Foreign Minister Zarif?

MR TONER: I’m not sure. I don’t have anything to confirm at this point.


QUESTION: On Syria. Turkey recently attacked Manbij and the Manbij Military Council. There were causalities, including an American. Has there been a U.S. response to that? And if it were to be repeated, would there be a U.S. response?

MR TONER: A response to --

QUESTION: The Turkish bombing --

MR TONER: To the Turkish assault on Manbij.


MR TONER: Okay. Just because you also mentioned the fact that it was an Amcit. I can speak to that as well, but I just wanted to make sure I was responding to the correct question.

With respect to Manbij – so Daesh is no longer in Manbij. That city has been liberated. So my first reaction is that we want to see the focus maintained on destroying and eliminating and driving out Daesh from where it still continues to – those cities it continues – and areas it continues to occupy, and those are the missions that we’re supporting actively.

I’ll also point out that we believe that all military activities in that very congested and complex battle space that is northern Syria need to be very closely coordinated. And that’s to avoid miscalculations; it’s to avoid the risk of hurting innocent civilians who are caught in the middle. It’s also – we don’t want to see any kind of escalation or any tensions between some of these parties that are fighting on the ground.

So we’re in contact with Turkey, as we’ve been all along, on the overall situation in northern Syria. And we’re working with them on ways to better coordinate activities on the ground in northern Syria and de-escalate tensions.

With regard to – you did mention an Amcit was killed. I think we’ve spoken to that. There was fighting in – well, fighting in Syria – that’s what I – it was the second part of your question. I don’t have any – I can’t give his name out. We don’t have a Privacy Act waiver. But obviously, we’ll offer whatever assistance we can. But it’s obviously very difficult to provide much support when someone is killed actively fighting on the ground in Syria.

QUESTION: Can you be more precise about where he was killed?

MR TONER: I don’t. I know that you mentioned near al-Bab. I don’t have any reason to doubt that, but I’m not sure where, to be honest.



QUESTION: Well, could I just – one more.

MR TONER: Of course. Yeah, go ahead. Please.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the Turkish response to the U.S. discussions about coordination, focusing on Daesh?

MR TONER: Well, again, it’s not a surprise or a revelation to anyone in this room that Turkey has concerns regarding some of the groups that are operating in northern Syria and the fact that they equate some of these groups – I’m talking about some of the Syrian Kurds – with the PKK. We’ve been very clear where we fall on this delineation. We obviously consider the PKK to be a foreign terrorist organization, but we don’t include in that designation those groups that are fighting in northern Syria who are Syrian Kurds who it also is important to note have been very effective against Daesh on the battlefield and who we’ve supported. We’ve also supported Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen, other groups actively fighting to remove Daesh from their strongholds in northern Syria. That’s where our focus remains going forward.

We understand that as these areas are liberated there needs to be some governing body or some controlling body in these towns. Manbij is no exception. Our thinking on this or our priority on this is that forces that hold the ground that’s been taken back from ISIL should reflect local populations. And when the – when the situation is stabilized, it’s essential that local population is there to rebuild and resettle and restore local control.

That’s always been our operating principle as these areas become liberated, and that’s going to be that going forward. And these are the – sorry, just to finish, conclude my lengthy response. When we talk to the Turkish authorities or Turkish military, and we do frequently, we make all these points. And we’re working through all these with them in what is, as I said, is a very complex battle space with lots of competing interests.

QUESTION: Then it seems that what – that is what the SDF is doing. It’s allying itself with local forces.

MR TONER: Largely, what we’ve seen, yes, that they have – that they have – as they have liberated areas, we’ve seen local forces come in. And that’s – as I said, that’s the ideal, in our view, situation.

QUESTION: And the Turkish allies seem to be – outside of the – outside of the immediate region tend to be Islamic in their – Islamist in their orientation and not of the area, that Turkey’s allies are failing in that regard.

MR TONER: Well, look, I’m not going to – again, there are multiple ethnic groups and – fighting in northern Syria. I’m not going to necessarily say one should be in one place or in the other. Well, in some regard I would say that. Certainly, we’ve talked about the YPG and the fact that we – that it had to live up to its commitments on where it was – with regard to west of the Euphrates and east of the Euphrates. We believe it’s fulfilled that commitment. But I’m not going to comment on the composition of Turkish-supported forces. I’ll just again reiterate what I just said, which is that we believe these cities, as they’re liberated, should be controlled by local forces that reflect the population of the city.

Please. Yeah, Steve.


MR TONER: Sorry, Egypt, yes. I apologize.

QUESTION: The Secretary in the building yesterday had a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart.


QUESTION: I’m wondering if this new anti-NGO law was raised and what was the response from the foreign minister.

MR TONER: Sure. So it did come up. Obviously, they talked about a range of issues given the breadth of the relationship, the U.S.E-Egyptian relationship, regional and obviously domestic or bilateral. But he also raised our deep concern about the law on civil associations and foundations, which was approved by the Egyptian parliament on November 29th, which we contend will impose severe restrictions on civil society and may, in fact, impede international assistance, including U.S. assistance, to Egypt.

And obviously, the Secretary underscored, which we do all the time not just with Egypt but in this case as well, our belief that a vibrant civil society is essential to promote good governance and political development and prosperity. And again, that’s not just with respect to Egypt but certainly applies in this case. And he also reiterated our support and our commitment to a stable and prosperous and secure future for Egypt.

QUESTION: Did – any reaction?

MR TONER: I don’t want to attempt to characterize his reaction. They’re aware of our concerns about this law.

QUESTION: Ukraine?

MR TONER: We can go to Ukraine.

QUESTION: Could you please comment on the statement of member of Ukrainian parliament Oleksandr Onyshchenko that he contacted the U.S. Government and provided the U.S. Government audio records which could be in evidences of violation of the Ukrainian laws by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko? He also stated that he had a meeting scheduled on November 29th with a representative of the U.S. Government.

MR TONER: So thank you. I’ve seen – we’ve seen those reports as well. I’m going to have to refer you to the Department of Justice for comment on this matter. I just don’t have anything to add.

QUESTION: But could you please confirm that this meeting actually took place?

MR TONER: I can’t. I apologize for that. I just don’t have a general awareness of it. I’ve seen the reports. It would be a Department of Justice issue to respond to, so I’ll have to refer you to them. Apologize.


QUESTION: I have a question about Turkey and Greece.


QUESTION: The threats against Greece by the Turks, it’s an everyday thing, as you know. Today the foreign minister of Turkey referred to the Greek island of Imia as Turkish soil. And as you know, Imia belonged to Greece. What is your reaction? And please tell me if you are planning to raise this issue to the Turkish Government.

MR TONER: Well, first of all, my reaction is going to sound very similar to what my reaction was the other day. And that’s not to be glib about your question, but the U.S. is firmly supportive – firmly supports, rather, the sovereignty of both Greece and Turkey. And I – as to these comments, I’ll have to again refer you to the Government of Turkey to explain where they’re coming from. Turkey and Greece, as you well know, have long-established diplomatic channels for addressing Aegean issues. And we encourage Turkey and Greece, as NATO allies, to work together to maintain good relations and good neighborly relations and to foster peace and security in the Aegean. It’s obviously in the interest of the entire region for that to happen.

Your last question was?

QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, I mean, don’t you think it’s time for you to ask --

MR TONER: Well, you asked whether we had raised this with the – yeah.

QUESTION: Mr. Erdogan to stop threatening Greece? I mean, you have to take a position in it.

MR TONER: So, well, I just did. But with respect to whether we have raised this directly with President Erdogan, I cannot confirm that or whether we’ve raised it with any of our counterparts in Turkey. I can try to get an answer for you on that.

QUESTION: I have another question.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: I saw a report in Newsweek magazine --


QUESTION: -- and I will quote exact – exact --


QUESTION: They say that “There is no longer any doubt that Turkey conducts operations in the United States against Turks and Kurds with whom Erdogan disagrees.” I want to know if you have any reaction on this. I wanted to know if you are worried with all of these illegal activities – Prime Minister Erdogan – in the United States.

MR TONER: I’ve not even seen that report. You said it’s from Newsweek?

QUESTION: From Newsweek, yes.

MR TONER: I’d have to look into them.

QUESTION: Please, can you take this question?

MR TONER: I can. I can certainly look into it and see if we have any response to it. Obviously, we would be concerned about any illegal activities and not just connected with any foreign official, but any foreign – or any foreign government. But at this point I have nothing to – I cannot confirm those allegations.


QUESTION: Mark, a quick question on Gambia.


QUESTION: That country is holding a presidential election, but internet and international phone calls are restricted, so my question for you is: How concerned are – is the United States about those restrictions? And then after the president is saying that he can rule a billion year, how concerned is the U.S. at – regarding the transparency of the --

MR TONER: Sure. So you’re obviously talking about the presidential elections in The Gambia. I’ll make a few observations about the elections and what we observed, because we did – our embassy there participated in a joint election observation effort that fielded, I think, some 15 informal observer teams to polling stations throughout The Gambia.

So a few things: one is that we noted and reported high voter turnout and generally peaceful conditions. There was a high security presence at the voting stations that we observed. We are concerned and remain concerned, however, about some of the substantial issues that you mentioned in the lead-up to the election. And that includes the arrest of opposition supporters and, as you just noted, the disruption or blockage of internet, SMS, phone, and social media. Also there were allegations of voter intimidation and – intimidation and the arrests of some journalists.

So we understand that the Gambian Independent Electoral Commission is slated to announce the results tomorrow on December 2nd and we’ll certainly look forward to those results. So again, we saw some very positive things in terms of voter turnout and the calm atmosphere in which the elections took place; those are all positives. But again, in the run-up to the election, we did have some concerns about undue pressure, intimidation, and as I mentioned, the disruption of internet services, phone services, et cetera that may have disrupted the flow of information to voters.

QUESTION: Yesterday, you were asked about a Maryland, U.S. --

MR TONER: I was.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on that case?

MR TONER: I sure do. Hold on. Let me get that for you.

So yeah, you mentioned – you’re referring to Fanta Jawara, yes, who was, as I mentioned yesterday – this is an American citizen who was found guilty of multiple charges, including unlawful assembly and inciting violence, on July 20th, 2016, and she was sentenced at that time to three years in prison. So we call on the government of The Gambia to immediately release all political prisoners, and that includes Ms. Jawara and the 29 other individuals who were sentenced in July as well, as all the protesters arrested during the April and May demonstrations. These prisoners, we believe, must be treated humanely and given timely access to medical care, but as I said, we call for their immediate release. And we continue – we have had some consular access, but we continue to request periodic consular access to Ms. Jawara with the Gambian Government. So I was asked I think yesterday what our feeling was about Ms. Jawara’s sentencing, and as I said, our call is – our response is that we call for her immediate release.

QUESTION: So does that mean that because you call the release of her – does that say the U.S. think the charges are not lawful?

MR TONER: Well, again, we’ve raised our concerns, and I think our concerns were focused primarily on the harsh sentences that were handed out for individuals whose only crime was peacefully protesting. So a three-year or even more sentence for, again, peaceful political protests is what we found to be objectionable.

Thanks. Yes.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the proposed fix by Senator – Senators McCain and Graham for the JASTA legislation they spoke about yesterday?

MR TONER: Yeah. So we are aware of the proposal to amend, as you said, Justice Against Sponsors of Terror Act, which is JASTA – known by its acronym. So it’s pending legislation; I’m not in a position where I can comment on the details of that proposal. In general, I can say that the Department of State continues to be interested in working with Congress to modify legislation – the – sorry – the legislation, JASTA, in a way that respects and honors the needs of victims of 9/11 without eroding the sovereign immunity principle that obviously concerns national – U.S. national security interests, because it protects the United States and our personnel overseas. And as we’ve said before, the United States has really the most to lose from the erosion of sovereign immunity given our extensive activities overseas. So we’re going to continue to work with Congress to see if it’s possible to craft changes that would mitigate the potential harm to U.S. interests.

So I’ll leave it there. Again, I can’t get into the specifics of what they’re proposing. As the legislation – if the legislation gets passed, then at that point we’ll be able to comment on it. But we are engaged on it.


QUESTION: Back to Africa. The chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress opposition group in Ethiopia has been arrested. Gudina is well known, I think, in this building; has had meetings here and on Capitol Hill in the past; allegedly has met with or communicated with banned terrorist organizations.


QUESTION: Any information on that?

MR TONER: Yeah, we do, actually. We’re obviously aware that, as you noted, Oromo Federal Congress chairman Dr. Merera Gudina has been detained by the Ethiopian Government. We’re concerned about this report. We strongly encourage the government to make public any charges it has brought against Dr. Merera. If true, this arrest is yet another example of increasing restrictions on independent voices in Ethiopia and, frankly, further reinforces our view that Ethiopia’s declared state of emergency is perhaps being used to silence dissent and deny the constitutionally protected rights of Ethiopia’s citizens. And that’s contrary, I would say, to the promises of political reform made by the Ethiopian Government when the state of emergency was announced, so we’re watching it very closely.


QUESTION: Brett McGurk is in Baghdad, as you know.

MR TONER: He is.

QUESTION: Do you have a readout on his meetings there?

MR TONER: I don’t have a readout yet. I think he just arrived. Let me see real quick – yeah, he just arrived in Baghdad today, so he’s going to have a week on consultations on – specifically focused on the Mosul operations, but also, of course, our longer-term efforts to support stabilization efforts in the wake after – of ISIL’s defeat. So no readout at this point; I think he just hit the ground and we’ll update as necessary.

QUESTION: Will he also be – planning to go to Erbil?

MR TONER: I don’t have anything to announce. He goes to Iraq. He always tries to include Erbil in his itinerary, but I don’t have anything to confirm at this point.

Is that it, guys? Thank you. Great.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:10 p.m.)