Daily Press Briefing - December 6, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:11 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hey, folks. Sorry to be a little late. I apologize.
Well, you obviously just saw how Secretary Kerry spoke and addressed a lot of the issues probably foremost on your mind from Brussels, which is – he’s far better at this stuff than I am, so that’s all for the better. But as you know, or as I just noted rather, he is in Brussels. He’s there attending the – his final, as Secretary of State, NATO Foreign Ministerial, and he’s obviously discussing with allies and partners efforts to strengthen NATO’s security, protect stability beyond the alliance’s borders, as well as enhance NATO-EU cooperation. Also of note, while in Brussels, he met with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini also to discuss U.S.-EU cooperation.
I don’t have anything beyond that. So Matt – or Brad, over to you, sir.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: He said that he would prevent the next U.S. president from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal. Is that something in his capacity, according to your understanding of the agreement, that your – this Administration reached?
MR TONER: Well, so a couple things to say about that. One is I think it’s premature to judge what the next administration may or may not do with the Iran deal, the JCPOA. Second, we’re not going to respond to, as we often don’t respond to, all of the rhetoric, political rhetoric, coming out of Iran.
That said, as you heard Secretary Kerry just say in Brussels, and I can reiterate it, is what we do agree about, and that is not just us and Iran but it’s also the P5+1, is that the JCPOA has been effective. It has effectively cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, and because of their compliance they’ve had some relief on their sanctions. And thus far, all sides, all parties, have lived up to their commitments under the JCPOA and it’s working. So we think it’s a good deal. We’ve said that strongly both publicly and privately. We’re conveying that to the incoming administration.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I’m not asking you specifically about the merits of the agreement.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: I’m just asking you logistically, the agreement reached--
MR TONER: -- whether they can --
QUESTION: -- whether they can prevent the next – I think we had a long question and answer the first couple days.
MR TONER: Yeah, right.
QUESTION: And it seemed pretty clear then that the next president can leave the agreement if he wants because it’s not a formal treaty.
MR TONER: Of course, it’s not a formal treaty. But of course – and of course, no one else can prevent any other party to this agreement from walking away. The counterargument to that is: Why would anyone walk away, because it’s effective?
QUESTION: And then one other thing --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: -- that the Iranians have talked about, and that is their ability, if they perceive the U.S. or any other P5+1 party to be violating the deal, their ability to snap back parts of their nuclear program. Are you familiar with this in the agreement? Is this a part of the agreement that is there in the public version or in the – is there anywhere in the agreement, public or private, that gives Iran a snapback provision --
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: -- on its enrichment or any other part of its nuclear program?
MR TONER: The only snapback I’m aware of is, obviously, the snapback provision that allows us to put back in place, very quickly, nuclear-related sanctions. In terms of them being able to snap back, I mean, we’ve seen they’ve taken steps in accordance with the JCPOA. They’ve dismantled two-thirds of their centrifuges, installed centrifuge capacity. They’ve shipped out almost all of the enriched uranium that they had and reduced enriched uranium stockpile from 12,000 kilograms to no more than 300 kilograms, and they’ve poured concrete into the core of their heavy-water reactors. So they’ve taken – again, in accordance with their commitments to the JCPOA – concrete steps that would prohibit them from, quote/unquote, “snapping back.”
QUESTION: So all this is chest-pumping from Tehran about we could restart certain things within 24 hours, that to you is – they don’t have that right under the deal? And two, if they did that, they’d essentially be violating the deal?
MR TONER: Well, of course. Yes, yes. Any attempt to restart their program. But I think fundamentally – I don’t want to necessarily present this all as kind of us-versus-them rhetoric. I think broadly stating or stating the obvious here – and it’s not just the United States; it’s all members of the P5+1; it’s Iran – we’re all, I think, in agreement, rightly so, that this is working, that this has benefits for all the parties, and it’s in all of our interest to keep it in place.
QUESTION: But in the event –
MR TONER: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On Iran --
QUESTION: No, go ahead.
MR TONER: Iran then. Let’s finish with Iran, and then I’ll get to you, Said.
QUESTION: We’ll go to Iran.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: Oh, okay. Sorry.
QUESTION: So Rouhani did also say today – and he’s repeated, I think, what Khamenei said previously – that extending the ISA is a violation of the nuclear deal, even if President Obama were to issue waivers to those sanctions. And he said that they’re going to consider some sort of response to what he called this violation. Have they complained through diplomatic channels officially to you all about extending the ISA?
MR TONER: I’m not aware – no – that they’ve stated their concerns through diplomatic channels. I don't believe so.
QUESTION: But you are aware that they – like they view the extension of the ISA as a violation?
MR TONER: And we obviously reject those views. We’ve been very clear that what we call a clean extension of the Iran Sanctions Act is entirely consistent with our commitments in the JCPOA. And in any case, Secretary Kerry would retain waiver authority and would continue to waive all of the nuclear-related sanctions, the relevant sanctions, authorized by the legislation. And that’s what we committed to do in the JCPOA, so that – we retain that capacity, I guess, is the point.
QUESTION: In the event that --
MR TONER: Yes, of course.
QUESTION: -- the new administration does actually absolve itself of the Iran deal and walks away from it, Iran conceivably has the same right to, let’s say, take commensurate steps, correct, and just say, okay, we’re off --
MR TONER: I mean, look, this agreement is only – you’re right in that --
QUESTION: I’m saying in principle --
MR TONER: Yeah, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Yes.
QUESTION: -- you say that they are within their right to say, okay, we are no longer – we no longer abide by that agreement, correct?
MR TONER: Right. I mean, of course. And that’s why – but what we’ve seen thus far is that it’s in everyone’s interest to keep it intact.
QUESTION: Right. And they have, as you stated --
MR TONER: And they have abided – I mean, we’ve had – we’ve talked about some of these reports, slight overages with heavy water. They’ve been addressed. But so far, they’ve been pretty consistent in addressing and complying with their commitments.
QUESTION: And just to follow up on Brad’s question --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- prevent, using the word “prevent,” the next administration – could he be possibly – I mean, I don’t want you to get into his head. Could he be possibly talking about the fact that there are other parties to this agreement and they can – together can keep that agreement going, even without the United States?
MR TONER: Well, yes, I mean in the sense that, again, this is – we’ve talked about this before. This is not an agreement – just a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States. There are other parties to this, parties who were, frankly, very pivotal in reaching this agreement, and their interests are at stake as well. So obviously, all that is being discussed, is being, obviously, evaluated by the incoming administration. Ultimately, it’s up for them – up to them to make their decisions. I know Secretary Kerry and President Obama, of course, but others are also doing their part to make sure that they have as good an awareness as they can have about the merits of this deal.
QUESTION: Different subject?
QUESTION: Different subject.
MR TONER: Different subject.
QUESTION: Not Iran.
MR TONER: Go ahead. And then we’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: It’s regarding Trump’s call with the Taiwan leader.
MR TONER: Okay.
MR TONER: You said – I apologize. You said who said this?
QUESTION: Josh Earnest.
MR TONER: Oh, Josh Earnest. Okay, sorry.
QUESTION: Of the White House. He said some of the progress that we have made in our relationship with China could be undermined by this issue flaring up, and I have a few questions that I hope will just add context. So in June, when President Obama met with Dalai Lama at the White House, China got angry and said the meeting undermined mutual trust and cooperation. Question: Should President Obama have done otherwise, given China’s views on the subject?
MR TONER: Again, I don't want to necessarily draw those parallels, because we don’t always agree and see eye-to-eye with China on every given issue. That’s, I think, something we’ve been very transparent about talking – or transparent about. And the Dalai Lama, as a major cultural figure and religious figure, is obviously one of those things we don’t see eye-to-eye about, and we’ve retained contact in his capacity as a major cultural and religious figure. We remain in contact with him.
MR TONER: But let me finish. But with respect to – and I would also say that we always, and we’re very clear about this as well, don’t see eye-to-eye with them on – often on cyber security, although we’ve taken steps to address that, and human rights. Where we have disagreements with China, as part of our relations with them, we’re able to discuss these things and lay them on the table.
With respect to Taiwan, we’ve been very clear and very forthright in stating what our policy is. And that policy was a major shift at the time, but it helped us get to a place where we are today with China, and we respect that policy and we’ve retained that policy.
QUESTION: And --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Just one of those other questions is --
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: China hates seeing U.S. warships in South China Sea; they see that as destabilizing. I know that the U.S. has its reasons to be there, but would the U.S. change its policy because China finds it destabilizing?
MR TONER: So again, that is based on freedom of navigation and our belief that we should be able to sail or fly over international waters regardless of where they are. And every country should be able to do that. We’ve said oftentimes that we don’t have a dog in the fight over who has territorial rights with respect to the South China Sea. What we don’t want to see there is a further escalation. And we’ve seen a militarization of the South China Sea. That’s a bad thing. That’s a bad thing for the security of the region.
So what we’ve said all along is that we want to see dialogue. We don’t want to see militarization. We don’t want to see steps to further create construction or whatever or entities and building out of some of these islands. All that is contrary to what our goal is, which is a mechanism – a diplomatic mechanism by which countries can resolve peacefully.
QUESTION: So the U.S. would not change its policy regardless of how China sees it, correct?
MR TONER: With regard to the South China Sea, we would not change our policy. Our policy is what it is, which is freedom of navigation.
QUESTION: I guess my bottom line question is there were a bunch of things that irritated China. Did this Administration criticize Trump for taking that call because this particular issue is taboo?
MR TONER: I mean, this – taboo? Define taboo. It is a very hot-button issue for China, clearly.
QUESTION: I mean, there were other hot-button issues that the Administration --
MR TONER: Of course there are. And that’s not to say in any bilateral relations, whether it’s with China or with any country, that we don’t have disagreements. But with respect to Taiwan, we’ve been pursuing a very specific policy. And it’s not just Democrats versus Republicans. This is both administrations – or administrations of both parties who have pursued a consistent policy with regard to Taiwan, and our recognition or lack of recognition of Taiwan, and our relations with Taiwan. And that has not changed. And in diplomacy that matters. Consistency matters. Thanks.
QUESTION: On Japan?
MR TONER: Let me get Steve, and then I promise I’ll go to you.
QUESTION: The Cuban foreign ministry announced today that it’s moving forward with the United States on developing a road map deepening their detente. I’m just wondering what details you have on this for us and whether discussions with Cuba are being accelerated by both Havana and Washington before the new administration comes in place.
MR TONER: Yeah, so I don’t have a lot of details. I know that, as you noted, United States and Cuba are holding their fifth Bilateral Commission meeting. It’s in Havana. Wait, today’s not Wednesday. It’s tomorrow, I believe, and December 7th. And acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mari Carmen Aponte will lead the U.S. delegation. And obviously, our Charge d’Affaires in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary John Creamer will attend on behalf of the United States. So I don’t know – I don’t have a lot of details on what the deliverables will be coming out of that. We’ll certainly update as the meetings take place.
With regard to your last question: Is this an acceleration? Not at all. As I said, this is a long-scheduled meeting. I believe it might have been delayed somewhat because of the period of mourning after the death of Fidel Castro, but it was long-scheduled. As – yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you agree though with the characterization that this is drawing a road map deepening the detente between the U.S. and Cuba?
MR TONER: Well, I think it’s – in the sense that – yes, I mean, we’re talking about – it’s another opportunity to review progress, certainly, that we’ve been – that has been made since we made the decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and review progress on our engagement on a number of priorities. That includes, obviously, human rights, civil aviation, health, law enforcement, economic issues, claims, environmental protection, migration, educational, cultural exchanges, et cetera. So there’s a broad range of topics. Progress has not always been steady in all of them, but we certainly are striving to continue to make progress on all of them. And we’ll get – as I said, tomorrow I should have a better readout for you.
QUESTION: And some specifics on the --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- deliverables?
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll try.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry in his statement in Brussels seemed the blaming the opposition, the Syrian opposition, for not accepting the ceasefire that Iran and Russia agreed on during Vienna meeting two years ago. And he said that they kept fighting and that led to the situation in Aleppo.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you blame the opposition on this? Can you clarify this position to --
MR TONER: I think – well, look, we all heard what the Secretary said. The Secretary’s been intimately involved in efforts to bring about an end to the conflict in Syria. And I think what he was doing was important in that he was trying to provide some of the historical context – certainly we all get caught up in the day-to-day, and rightly so, urgency of the situation in Aleppo – who’s gaining ground, what’s happening there, the bombings, the civilian deaths, the suffering, the lack of humanitarian assistance. I think what was useful for the Secretary to do today is he walked us through why we – how we’ve gotten to where we are today. And that has certainly involved concessions on both sides, although we haven’t seen really any concessions on the part of the regime. But there’s been progress and there’s been steps backwards, and this has been a very difficult, to put it mildly, diplomatic process. But I think he was just trying to provide that kind of context.
What I also think he was trying to say was we’re not done here. This is not over. And I know there’s a lot of speculation about the status of talks that Foreign Minister Lavrov alluded to yesterday. Secretary Kerry did not rule those out. We’re still working to finalize the details of those discussions. So there’s nothing to announce yet, but we’re still working at this. And as Secretary Kerry also said, looking beyond today, is he said this is not – even if Aleppo does fall – and we don’t know if it will or not – that this is not the end. This will not end the conflict there. And so we need to, as he pointed out and Brad mentioned yesterday that he said in Rome, we need to get back to political negotiation.
QUESTION: But in your opinion, do you think that the opposition bears a big responsibility for the situation in Aleppo now because they didn’t accept the ceasefire that Vienna communique called for?
MR TONER: I – again, I’m not going to say that they bear a significant responsibility. I think that they have fought hard, suffered greatly – I’m talking about the moderate Syrian opposition – on behalf of democratic – greater political and democratic freedom in Syria. That’s been a difficult fight, and they’ve borne enormous sacrifice to carry out that fight.
We’re – the United States, other members of the ISSG – are working to bring about a peaceful resolution there.
QUESTION: But you do agree – do you agree that the opposition, encouraged and financed and armed by many of your allies in the area, especially the Gulf countries --
MR TONER: I think – yeah.
QUESTION: -- actually were almost prevented from taking that step towards a ceasefire? You would agree with that?
MR TONER: Look, I mean – this is --
QUESTION: I mean (inaudible) historical perspective.
MR TONER: So yes, in – when – hopefully years from now when people write memoirs and write histories about this conflict, all of that can be taken into account. What I think is important is that this Secretary of State, this Administration has tried to build a process into what is, to put it mildly, an extremely complex situation where you’ve got different entities, different powers, regional powers, et cetera, stakeholders, trying to affect the outcome of this civil war. We brought all of these people together, all of these countries together, governments together, in an effort to try to forge a way forward. We’ve not been successful, but that’s not going to keep us from trying.
QUESTION: So you – do you accept --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- the premise of his question that the --
MR TONER: I can’t remember what the premise was.
QUESTION: -- Saudis or the Qataris or whoever – unknown, unsaid foreign entities prevented the opposition from adhering to a ceasefire?
MR TONER: No. Ultimately, the opposition has charted its own course, and I’ll leave them to characterize what that course is. But the Secretary has also spoken about the fact that one of the reasons we say there’s no military solution to Syria is that you do have different influencers out there on both sides – or on all sides trying to influence the outcome. And so as I said, even if Aleppo falls, it doesn’t necessarily predict that there’s going to be the end of fighting there.
QUESTION: And I have one more on Syria.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: It seemed like the Russian Government was upset that you and others in the international community weren’t sufficiently sad yesterday for the killing of the medics --
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, I think I responded – I think it was your question. We just didn’t have concrete details about the incident, but I strongly condemned the attack on a hospital facility.
QUESTION: Do you have concrete details today or --
MR TONER: I still don’t. I mean, I just am going off the news reports, to be honest.
QUESTION: You don’t want to express stronger contrition because the Russians feel you guys weren’t upset enough?
MR TONER: I condemned any – and I will do it again – we feel strongly that – and again, I said this yesterday when I was asked if it was the opposition, who it was – what I can say is we certainly had no responsibility in this action, and we strongly condemn any attack regardless of who the attacker is on any civilian infrastructure, any medical facility, any medical personnel.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: The talks – meetings were canceled, right? And what happened?
MR TONER: I don’t think they’ve – yeah --
QUESTION: I haven’t seen Secretary Kerry’s remarks, honestly, but --
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, he said – he – sure, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to talk over you. He spoke a little bit about this in Syria or --
QUESTION: In Brussels.
MR TONER: In Brussels, sorry. He spoke a little bit about the situation in Syria, I apologize.
QUESTION: That was seven years ago.
MR TONER: Talks haven’t been canceled. We never were in a position to confirm that these talks were taking place this week. There are – first of all, I think it’s a bad idea to try to negotiate these things in public, so I’m going to be circumspect in what I say, but we are following up on recent talks last week and before last week, trying to work out a way to resolve the fighting in Aleppo – a cessation of hostilities, a pause in the fighting – excuse me – and we’re still pursuing those. We’re just not in a position yet where it makes sense for us to meet. That’s all it is.
QUESTION: And just --
MR TONER: So nothing was canceled or anything. It was just --
QUESTION: With regard to the proposal, the reported proposal – so Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “The thing that the Americans offered on paper and what we backed is now somehow not okay for them. It’s difficult to understand who makes decisions there but apparently, there are plenty of those who want to undermine the authority and practical steps by John Kerry,” end quote. What is your take on this?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to wade into that. I’m not going to talk about what may or may not be discussed or what may or may not be on the table. All I will say is that we continue to work through, both on our end as well as with Russia, on practical steps we can take to bring about a calm in the fighting.
QUESTION: One more on Syria?
QUESTION: But why wouldn’t you --
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
MR TONER: Why wouldn’t I what? Talk about --
QUESTION: What is the status of those talks? Why were the meetings, as I understand the meetings – certain meetings that were --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- due to happen this week were canceled? What happened?
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, again, we’re just not – without getting too much into the details and/or the substance, we’re just not at a point yet where we can say that getting together to have these talks would be constructive. When we get there, we’ll do it. And I’m not trying to be – I’m not trying to be mysterious. I’m just saying I’m not going to get into the substance of our diplomatic discussions, what’s on the table, except to say that we’re looking at practical ways to bring about a pause in the fighting. And that involves, as you can imagine, the regime, it involves the opposition, so it’s a mixed bag. We need to make sure that we’re in a position to talk constructively when we do meet.
QUESTION: Can I just ask --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: In the last several days, we’ve been talking about a lot of back-and-forth between the U.S. and Russia.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is the bilateral, no bilateral talks – did that just go out the window, or is this bilateral in the frame of multilateral but for bilateral – I mean, explain it. I mean, it sounds likes that’s gone.
MR TONER: No, I mean – look, I – Brad, I – it’s a fair question, I think, but I don’t want to get into --
MR TONER: (Laughter.) I don’t want to – I just – I don’t want to get hung up in bilateral versus multilateral. We are actually still continuing to talk to other key parties, other regional parties. Those meetings, those consultations, those conversations are ongoing. That said – and, frankly, at the time we did it, that if there is a real opportunity here for us to make progress, we said that we would restart those bilateral talks. I don’t want to say we’re there yet, but we never ruled it out completely.
What’s most important is --
QUESTION: You are – so you are having the --
MR TONER: We are – of course we’re having bilateral conversations with Lavrov. I mean, we did – with Russia, rather. I mean, he met with Lavrov in Rome last week. We – they’ve talked on the phone several times, so --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) tomorrow?
MR TONER: I’m not sure I can confirm that. I don’t – it’s not confirmed yet. I mean, they’re going to be, I think, at the OSCE, but I’m not sure that they’re going to have a bilat.
QUESTION: The Secretary is --
QUESTION: But what was it that led you to decide, oh, this bilateral freeze, it’s not – it doesn’t advance our interests or whatever? Or did it just – did you just naturally slip back into the diplomatic --
MR TONER: No, no, I don’t think it was that, actually. I think it was more – look, at the time, it was coming out of UNGA and the failed agreement from – of Lausanne. And I think at the time, the Secretary – and I’m paraphrasing here, but – said until we see some kind of credible steps by Russia to re-instill confidence that there could be a ceasefire, then it’s not worth pursuing a bilateral option and we would consult multilaterally.
So we did that. Again, that generated ideas. Those consultations continue. But we’re just not there yet, and so we – but we did start again reaching out to Russia because, let’s be honest, they’re an integral stakeholder.
QUESTION: I – but I just wanted to – what were the concrete steps, then, that they showed that led you to restart having this bilateral --
MR TONER: Yeah. So again, I don’t want to – I mean, I think --
QUESTION: -- (inaudible) multiple bilateral talks?
MR TONER: Look, I think that, again, I don’t want to get into what’s on the table, under discussion to end the fighting or at least pause the fighting in Aleppo.
QUESTION: I’m not asking about ideas.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m asking about concrete steps, not concrete ideals or ideas.
MR TONER: Ideas, yeah.
QUESTION: Concrete steps --
MR TONER: Well, to be honest, I mean --
QUESTION: I read that as actions.
MR TONER: Yeah. To be honest – I mean, to be honest, we’re still talking about some of the concrete steps they could take. I mean, there’s not been a lot of concrete steps, except for – I mean, they’re really – the fighting’s only intensified.
QUESTION: But you do understand that --
MR TONER: I understand --
QUESTION: -- the credibility of making threats and making policy where you say we’re not going to talk to you unless you do something, and then they do nothing and then you start talking to them anyways – it undermines your ability to, one, hold that as leverage over them; and, two, drive any concessions out of them, because you always seem to go back to them in the same format, more or less.
MR TONER: Well, look, again, we are pursuing multilateral discussions as well as – as well in this process. As to whether we’re back in the bilateral mode with Russia, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. We’re still obviously going to talk to them, but the agreement that was reached in Lausanne is not being implemented, and that’s what we walked away from.
QUESTION: Mark, do you feel that the Russians are buying time? (Inaudible.)
MR TONER: Unclear to me. Unclear to us, frankly. I mean, we just can’t speak on their behalf. We don’t know what their motivation is.
QUESTION: After four years of experience
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- of talks with the Russians, you don’t have this feeling yet?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, there are very clear differences in perception about what is happening in Aleppo, and others have articulated that far more expertly than I have. But fundamentally, it comes down to perceptions about Nusrah and the moderate opposition’s involvement and connection, and I think that until it can be – they can be convinced – the Russians can be convinced – that we can separate Nusrah from the equation and go after Nusrah, we’re not going to get there. We have contended that moderate opposition can be separated. They need – we need time and space to do that. We’ve never quite gotten that time and space to do it. So I mean, these are just – I’m just giving you a – our arguments.
QUESTION: But you didn’t give me a good answer if you have the feeling that the Russians are buying time.
MR TONER: Again, I can’t speak on behalf on Russia. I think that --
QUESTION: On your behalf.
MR TONER: I think --
QUESTION: You don’t have --
MR TONER: So what my answer was – I thought it was actually quite a good one, if I do say so myself. (Laughter.) No, I said that – is that it is a – it is a – there are different perceptions about what is happening in Aleppo. I’m not discounting what their perception is of what is happening in Aleppo. What I am – or what we do find objectionable is their approach, and that is to carry out airstrikes, bombardment of Aleppo, indiscriminate attacks on Aleppo that hurt civilian populations. That we do take objection to or take --
QUESTION: Why you’re still talking to them? (Inaudible.)
MR TONER: Well, again, I just said – I just said to Brad they are a pivotal stakeholder. I mean, I think anyone looking at Syria would recognize that, is that we need Russia’s involvement and cooperation to bring about any kind of ceasefire.
QUESTION: What about the --
QUESTION: You said – on the issue of separation, you said that you agreed that Nusrah should be separated from the other opposition groups and so on.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Have you submitted names and locations of these moderate opposition --
MR TONER: So all of that --
QUESTION: Because the Russians have claimed --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- all along that you have never done that.
MR TONER: Again, these were technical talks in groups meeting – both sides meeting in Geneva. And my understanding is that they did get quite specific about where these groups – but again, there was disagreement. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s not unexpected.
QUESTION: I guess I’m just sort of – I have a fundamental question, which is, like, what is the leverage that the U.S. brings to bear when it comes to discussing with the Russians, trying to get them to stop bombing Aleppo? It seems like it – that – you say that there’s no --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- military solution, there’s only a political solution. But that military presence has given them more leverage in trying to get the political solution that they want. So what exactly is your argument? I think, like, I find it a little bit hard to fathom, like, what those discussions are like, and maybe other people do as well.
MR TONER: Well look, I mean, a couple of answers to that. One is we at the State Department are pursuing – as is our mandate – a diplomatic track. And that’s our goal here, our priority. And we’ve laid out through intense negotiations a way to do that. But you are correct that we haven’t had a lot of leverage. Part of our argument, if you will, has been that if we’re all likeminded in the sense that we all want to bring about a political solution to the situation in Syria, then we should be able to get it done, and we all would use whatever leverage we had. The leverage that we bring to the table is over some of the moderate Syrian opposition groups. Other members of the ISSG also have leverage over some of those groups. The Russians have leverage over the Syrian regime. So the idea, the concept here, the working concept, was that if we all applied that leverage, we could create a cessation of hostilities and get a political track up and running. We --
QUESTION: The Russians are approaching this in good faith?
MR TONER: Again, we’ve been round and round on this issue. I think what I can concretely say is that we strongly object to how they have carried out airstrikes on civilian populations. Whether they say they were intended or not, they were indiscriminate attacks that killed civilians. And in fact, those attacks were part of or contributed to a breakdown in the cessation of hostilities.
Now, they’ll argue that the moderate opposition was – or the opposition and Nusrah were simply using those pauses to resupply and rearm. Again, it’s a matter of – and we were talking about – I was just talking about this with Brad – we’ve got to get back to a place where both sides trust each other enough that we can get a seven-day, a ten-day pause, get the folks back to Geneva on both sides, so they can begin negotiations. We just haven’t been able to get there.
QUESTION: Change topics?
MR TONER: Of course, yeah.
QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian --
MR TONER: I thought it was going to be up and down today. I thought the Secretary had done all this. But okay, go ahead. I’m sorry, I’m just kidding.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: I know – I wonder if you have any more to add to what you said yesterday about the --
MR TONER: I do.
QUESTION: -- the measure in the Knesset --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- and so on, so go --
MR TONER: So we’re very concerned about the advancement of this legislation, which, as you know, would allow the legalization of Israeli – forgive me – about the advancement of this legislation that would allow for the legalization of Israeli outposts located in private Palestinian land.
Enacting this law would be profoundly damaging to the prospects for a two-state solution. And we’ve also been troubled by comments that we’ve heard by some political figures in Israel that this would be the first step in annexing parts of the West Bank. And again, it all goes back to what Secretary Kerry was discussing at the Saban Forum the other day, which is the more you create the realities on the ground that would prohibit a two-state solution, then the harder it’s going to be to get to that two-state solution.
QUESTION: Well, people say forget the two-state solution, because they are really afraid that their land is literally being taken from underneath their feet, including people in my neighborhood, my village (inaudible) and so on. Because there’s a great deal of movement, there is leveling of land --
MR TONER: Yeah. No, I --
QUESTION: -- the demolition of homes. I mean, there are multiple things that are happening at the same time. And it’s quite scary, because people feel in this transition there is – it’s a free-for-all for the Israeli settlements program. So – what are we --
MR TONER: Well, we’ve said that – I mean, this is a – this legislation, if it is enacted, would be a dramatic advancement of the settlement enterprise, which is already, as we’ve said, greatly endangering the prospects for a two-state solution. But I also – as you note, it’s changing the reality on the ground, and we’re deeply concerned about it. We’re conveying those concerns. The legislation’s not yet passed into law. We hope that it does not become law, but we certainly hope that changes or modifications can be made to it.
QUESTION: Could I --
QUESTION: The Israelis denied --
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Are we on the same topic? No, I just want --
QUESTION: No, I’m going --
QUESTION: The Israelis denied entry to a prominent theologian, Ms. Isabel Phiri – she is an assistant secretary general of the World Council on – of Churches in Geneva and so on – on the pretext that she supports BDS, boycott and divestment of Israeli –
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- although she got a legal visa before she landed there, in Tel Aviv. Does that concern you in any way, that this could be used to prevent people that are coming to show solidarity or support to end the occupation?
MR TONER: So we went round and round on this a couple of weeks ago. We obviously strongly oppose boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel. That’s well known. But as I said a couple weeks ago, and I’ll say it again, we don’t believe that people who are coming into a country to peacefully protest or to express their disagreement with a given government’s policy on any given issue should be prohibited from entry. That said, Israel is a sovereign nation; it has its own right to control its borders. But as a general principle, we value freedom of expression.
QUESTION: She’s coming in the spirit of the season and so on, to meet with --
MR TONER: Again, I just --
QUESTION: -- Palestinian churches in the West Bank.
MR TONER: Well again, I – we would – anyone traveling on a valid visa – but again, this is – it is ultimately – I mean, we went round and round on this. I’m not – I’m just saying what our position is, in terms of the right for people to freely express their opinions. But ultimately this is – it’s Israel’s right to determine who enters its territory.
MR TONER: Please. I’ll get back.
QUESTION: I just had a question on your answer on outposts. You used the expression, private – on “private Palestinian land,” and I just wanted to ask you: Is that – are you saying land – private land that belongs to Palestinian individuals or private land of the – of a state of Palestine or a Palestinian state?
MR TONER: No, the former. Yeah.
QUESTION: That it’s --
MR TONER: The Palestinians --
QUESTION: Palestinian private land --
MR TONER: -- who own the land.
QUESTION: -- belonging to Palestinians.
MR TONER: Yes, yes. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. All right.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. participate in the international conference that Paris called for in –on 20 – on the 21st of December?
MR TONER: I don’t think we’ve determined whether we’re – I think we’re trying to get more information about it. I don’t think we’ve reached a determination of whether we’ll attend or not.
QUESTION: Let me just add one more question.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I met today with this Palestinian teacher. She won the best teacher award in the world and she’s in town. She actually has a very creative program --
MR TONER: Did she really win the best teacher of the – in the world award? Is that right?
QUESTION: In the world. Yeah, she --
QUESTION: She gets a mug. It says “World’s -- ” (Laughter.)
QUESTION: She has – oh, yeah, she did. Last year --
MR TONER: No, that’s amazing, actually.
QUESTION: -- it was an American teacher, this year it’s a Palestinian teacher.
MR TONER: World’s Greatest – well, okay.
QUESTION: And she has a creative program where she teaches kids to reject violence and so on and all these things. But – and she said – she told me that at one point you guys talked – or the State Department, someone, wanted to invite her over, and then – and they – like they did not disinvite her, but they stopped the process. Are you aware of that? Would you like to see someone like this come and visit with people and --
MR TONER: I apologize. So we’re talking about a different person now. This is not the individual that was just denied entry.
QUESTION: No, no. She was not – she’s here, actually.
MR TONER: She’s here.
QUESTION: She was not denied --
MR TONER: I’m not aware of this case, so we’ll look into it. I promise.
Please, in the back.
QUESTION: Mark, with regard to Samantha Power’s recent statement --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- in which she said that genocide denial against the Armenian people takes place, I would like to ask the question but from the following perspective. For eight years, the Administration has used all possible synonyms or euphemism of the genocide term that one can find in vocabulary, except from using the genocide term. Now the final – we are in the final days of the Administration. I would like to clear this topic again. Can you please tell why the genocide term was not used for this period of time?
MR TONER: So first of all, your – first part of your question I think referred to a speech or remarks that Ambassador Powers gave in – Power gave in the context of honoring Elie Wiesel’s lifelong efforts to raise awareness about the Holocaust and to convince others to stand up in the face of these kinds of injustices and mass atrocities. And they certainly didn’t – her remarks didn’t reflect any kind of shift in the Administration’s policy.
In answer to your question, look, this President, this Administration, as have past administrations, have repeatedly mourned and acknowledged that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. And we’ve also called for a full and frank acknowledgement of the facts of what happened around those deaths. And that remains our policy. I don’t want to get into terminology or how we referred to it. We acknowledged that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred, as I said, and we want to see a full historical accounting of those events.
QUESTION: Is it relations with Turkey that stops this – has stopped this Administration and all other administrations from saying the word “genocide”?
MR TONER: Again – again, I’ve said what our policy is, how we regard it. We acknowledge the tremendous loss of life and suffering of the Armenian people.
QUESTION: One of the former administrations, Reagan’s Administration has called the massacre as genocide – President Reagan, not the candidate. I was wondering if you are aware of this – of that --
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that.
Okay. Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:55 p.m.)