Daily Press Briefing - December 7, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:05 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the State Department. A few things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions.
First of all, a few words on the earthquake that hit northern Sumatra in Indonesia earlier today. We offer our deepest condolences to the families who lost their loved ones as well as to the communities who were affected by this terrible tragedy. While we’re still gathering information, we do remain in close contact with the U.S. mission in Indonesia to monitor the situation. We’re not currently aware of any U.S. citizen casualties. The U.S. mission is working to verify the welfare and whereabouts of all U.S. citizens registered in the area at the time of the earthquake, and we stand ready, of course, to provide any and all possible consular assistance should any of them be affected. We also – this is a good point to remind folks when U.S. citizens are traveling abroad to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at travel.state.gov.
Turning to Yemen. We are disappointed by the Republic of Yemen Government’s reaction to the UN-drafted roadmap. As we’ve stated, the roadmap is not and was never intended to be a final peace agreement. However, it does offer a solid framework for the government’s goal of ending the conflict and returning security and stability to Yemen, a goal that should be supported by all. It is important that all parties accept the roadmap as a basis for negotiations and that they move to negotiations immediately to secure a comprehensive peace agreement that ends the conflict and allows desperately needed humanitarian assistance to reach all Yemenis. And we call on the Yemeni Government to accept the roadmap. We recognize that the roadmap does contain difficult choices and underscore that compromises and concessions by all parties will be necessary to reach a durable political settlement. As you know, Secretary Kerry has been and does remain very much invested and engaged in efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement – a political solution, rather – under the UN auspices and to establish a durable cessation of hostilities that de-escalates and ultimately ends the conflict there.
A couple more things quickly. I just wanted to note that earlier today that Ambassador Sam Power and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski announced the launch of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium on the margins of the 2016 Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Paris, France. This initiative will advance a global cross-border approach to combatting corruption and will accelerate and scale the impact of civil-society-led interventions by bringing together investigative journalists who excel in uncovering corruption with the advocates who package and communicate information in ways essential to combat and deter corruption. The GACC will be an important mechanism for exposing and combating corruption around the world and will elevate the role of civil society in this vital work. The GACC will be led by major international civil society organizations, including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Transparency International.
And finally, just a quick update on the Secretary’s travel. Secretary Kerry attended the second day of the NATO foreign ministerial session, which focused earlier today – focused on Ukraine earlier today in Brussels, where NATO ministers – foreign ministers reaffirmed NATO’s support for Ukraine and its efforts to counter Russian aggression, as well as implement Minsk and pursue Kyiv’s reform agenda.
The Secretary also met with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, underscoring the United States’ continuing support for Ukraine, and expressed concern about recent increase in violence in eastern Ukraine due to ongoing Russian separatist attacks. The Secretary and Foreign Minister Klimkin agreed on the need to accelerate implementation of the Minsk agreements as the best way to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The Secretary also urged continued progress on reforms.
The Secretary met with the foreign ministers from the five states of the Central Asia – of Central Asia, rather, to discuss the status and future prospects for the C5+1 diplomatic platform as well as a broad range of regional challenges and opportunities, including economic connectivity, security, environment, climate change, and humanitarian issues.
And then I think shortly – in fact, I don’t know if he’s on schedule, but right now the Secretary is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. They expect to discuss the situation in Aleppo, including Russia’s continued support for the Syrian Government’s offensive on that city. The United States remains very committed to a de-escalation of the violence there as well as finding unhindered humanitarian access for the people of Aleppo.
And then finally, I think you saw earlier today that Secretary Kerry will next travel on to Paris, France from December 8th through the 11th to participate in a ministerial meeting hosted by French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault and co-organized by German and Qatari counterparts. The Secretary and his fellow ministers will discuss the situation in Syria. In a separate ceremony, Foreign Minister Ayrault will bestow France’s Legion of Honor upon Secretary Kerry.
That’s all I have. It’s a lot, but over to you, Matt – or Brad. I’m sorry.
MR TONER: I think it’s three days, but I think it’s going to be Thursday and Friday, is my understanding. I’m not sure what Saturday holds. But once we get a fuller schedule, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: So the meeting – you expect the meeting to start on Thursday?
MR TONER: I’m not sure. Let me get more specifics on that. I don’t have it.
QUESTION: Why for two days?
MR TONER: I apologize.
QUESTION: Why for two days? It’s always been for a couple hours.
MR TONER: Again, I don’t have the specifics of his schedule. I’m just saying he’s going there to receive the Legion d’Honneur and he’s also going to attend this meeting on Syria.
QUESTION: Okay. Just it’s a lot of time for --
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure that --
QUESTION: It seems to be a thin schedule.
MR TONER: I’m sure that his schedule will fill out accordingly.
QUESTION: All right. I don’t have any substantive questions.
MR TONER: Okay. Just – (laughter).
QUESTION: Mark, on the meeting with Lavrov, do you expect any agreement – any agreement on the passage of the rebels from eastern Aleppo to another area in Syria?
MR TONER: I mean, I don’t – I mean, look, I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of a meeting that’s just now taking place. Look, this is part of our ongoing efforts, as you all well know, to try to reach some kind of meeting of the minds with regard to at least a pause in the violence in Aleppo that can allow for humanitarian assistance to reach the population there, and also more broadly, an effort to get the political negotiations back on track. We’ve talked about this in great detail. This is on top of the efforts that have really been intensifying over the last several days, including the Secretary’s meeting with Lavrov last week in Rome, so this is ongoing.
QUESTION: So can you just clarify, are they speaking of – or is Secretary Kerry trying to – is he going there to speak about a ceasefire or – the Russians repeated their suggestion of getting the rebels out. Is that something that they’re going to be specifically discussing, is safe passage for all the rebels? Can you delve into that?
MR TONER: Right. Well, again, without wanting to talk about, or wanting to get into rather, the details of specifically the proposals that they’re discussing, it is about trying to find a way to, as I said, bring about a pause in the fighting. And we all know the elements involved in that, and certainly one of those is the opposition and finding a way for them to either get passage out of Aleppo or to find some way to at least bring about a pause in the fighting so that humanitarian assistance and medical assistance can get in to Aleppo.
There are various proposals being worked through, and I mean that sincerely that there’s not – there’s ideas on the table that are being discussed on how to get there. Those are still being worked out, so I don’t want to get ahead of that.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: When you say a pause --
MR TONER: No, no, we’ll stay on Syria and then we’ll get to you. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Yes. Do Syria. Syria --
QUESTION: Can we stay --
QUESTION: When you say --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: When you say a pause, well, the Syrian army with Russia’s help has reportedly retaken about 70 percent, the last time I saw, of eastern Aleppo. Would you like them to stop? Would you like them not to take the rest of the city?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think what our – and you saw, frankly, the statement that we released earlier today by Canada, France, the United States clearly, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom that talked about the dire situation in Aleppo, the fact that it’s being subjected to daily bombings and artillery attacks by the Syrian regime, supported by Russia. But we’re looking for an immediate cessation of hostilities there. Regardless of whether it’s 70 percent taken, 75 percent taken, 80 percent taken by the Syrian regime, we want to see an end to the violence.
QUESTION: You’ve been – this Administration has been very vocal about civilian suffering throughout the operations to retake eastern Aleppo. Other than civilians, what other concerns does the U.S. Government have as the Syrian army, with Russia’s help, are retaking eastern Aleppo, other than civilians?
MR TONER: Well, so first of all, just to also – just to answer your first question, the statement also said that they’re looking for Russia and the Syrian regime to comply with the four-point UN plan, and that spells out in a very detailed way what we’re looking for in terms of resolving the situation, especially in Aleppo. It’s first a medical evacuation of the sickest or most severely wounded from eastern Aleppo. We want to see an entry of medical supplies into Aleppo, access to medical supplies in order to treat those who can’t be evacuated. We want to see an entry of food supplies into the city since it’s now been several months since some parts of the city have had access to humanitarian convoys. And we want to see a rotation of doctors, medical personnel, who are able to be rotated into the city to provide medical care for many of those affected by the violence there.
Your question was about – your --
QUESTION: Other than civilians --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- what other concerns does the U.S. have?
MR TONER: Well, obviously, look, this is – we talked about this in great length in the last couple of days, and I understand why. But essentially, if – there can be no military resolution to the conflict in Syria. And even if the Syrian regime is able, with Russia’s help, to retake Aleppo, that doesn’t mean that the violence, the conflict is going to end. And so what we need and what’s at stake here is creating the conditions so that political negotiations can begin again in Geneva.
QUESTION: But do you agree that we need (inaudible) --
MR TONER: And you’re not going to – sure.
QUESTION: -- of eastern Aleppo might lead to peace in that city?
MR TONER: We believe that it’s only going to --
MR TONER: So we believe it – we believe that it’s only going to exacerbate the ongoing conflict, that the opposition is not going to lay down their arms but is going to continue fighting, and in fact, it can only – as we fear and have expressed our concerns about, that it could, as I said, only increase or escalate the conflict, not necessarily in Aleppo but elsewhere in the country.
QUESTION: Do you think the retaking --
MR TONER: So if our ultimate goal here --
QUESTION: Just one more.
MR TONER: Sorry, if our ultimate goal here is just to get back to a political track here, we don’t believe that the current trajectory is conducive to that.
QUESTION: Do you think the retaking of eastern --
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll get to you, Said. One more.
QUESTION: Do you think, though, the retaking of eastern Aleppo would be a defeat for al-Nusrah?
MR TONER: Look, we’re all about defeating al-Nusrah, and we agree on that. Russia and the United States are in agreement that Nusrah is a terrorist organization and needs to be dismantled and destroyed, much like Daesh does. But we have not seen that Russia’s focus has been on Nusrah; it’s been on helping the regime go after the moderate opposition in Aleppo, and that’s what we believe is taking place there. We were at a point, we had a deal on the table where we could have gotten to a place where we cooperated with Russia to take on Nusrah. We’re not there now, but we both agree that Nusrah is a threat.
QUESTION: So just to clarify --
QUESTION: -- you don’t think that it will defeat al-Nusrah?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) clarification of something that you just said – something that you just said --
MR TONER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: -- was that you the – said the opposition is not going to lay down its arms. That is not a call for the opposition not to disarm, is it?
MR TONER: No, not at all. No, no.
QUESTION: Okay, right. Yeah.
MR TONER: I’m just – again, and this is – I don’t want to – because sometimes, you’re right, sometimes that can be misinterpreted that I’m somehow giving a call to arms. I am not doing that.
QUESTION: No, no, I understand. Okay.
MR TONER: I am just giving what our analysis is, and it’s been consistent – is that there – the more you pursue a military solution, the more you risk exacerbating what is already a pretty darn complex conflict.
QUESTION: So at this point, this – the purpose of this letter --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- signed on by six leaders, what is the point of the letter at this point? I mean, is it to dissuade the Syrians from pushing forward or is it just to say like --
MR TONER: Well – sure. I think it partly was fueled by what happened in the UN Security Council two days ago --
MR TONER: -- where they did take up a resolution and it was vetoed, I think by China and by Russia, and you saw our explanation of vote as a result of that, or out – coming out from that. But it’s also to lay down a marker to express the international community’s growing concern and outrage over what’s happening in Syria, and to speak out against what’s happening there.
QUESTION: So Syrian television, whether you believe them or not, right – or other satellite stations are showing thousands of people, maybe hundreds of people going to western Aleppo, being greeted by the Syrian army, given help, and so on. In the event that they do – they sort of exercise their control over the whole city, would you be willing, as the United States, to aid – and humanitarian aid and to the delivery, although it is under Syrian control?
MR TONER: Well, look, we’ve been providing and we’re the leader in providing humanitarian assistance to Syria. If we can get access, if the UN – and the UN, as primarily the provider of this humanitarian assistance, we obviously give them a lot of money to do that. But they’re the ones who are most effective at it. They’ve got the infrastructure set up for that. If they can get access – excuse me – to regime-held areas of Syria and provide humanitarian assistance – our focus is on getting humanitarian assistance to many of these areas that have been besieged for months and even years. And we’re going to continue to do that regardless of who’s in control.
QUESTION: And regarding --
QUESTION: And my final question --
MR TONER: I’ll get to you, I promise I will.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- near Damascus. First of all, do you have any information on that?
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: And why do you think that --
MR TONER: I am aware of the reports. I’d have to refer you to the Israeli Government. I just don’t have any more details on it. I’ve seen the reports.
QUESTION: Do you feel that such a bombardment could exacerbate a very bad situation?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, again, until I learn a little bit more about what happened – we’ve obviously seen – Israel has taken these kind of measures before when they’ve been threatened or received incoming fire from parts of Syria. I just don’t have any more details to offer at this point.
QUESTION: They struck an air base next to Damascus.
MR TONER: Yeah, please, Brad. Still on Syria?
QUESTION: How do you know that the war is going to go on?
MR TONER: Again, it’s our assessment. I mean, one could argue that – the opposite, but there’s – there is this perception out there that Aleppo is the coin of the realm or whatever the expression is, and that if you take it, that you somehow – you’re going to have peace in the land. It’s our assessment that that’s not the case and --
QUESTION: Hasn’t – haven’t your assessments in Syria been consistently wrong throughout this entire conflict? I mean, you guys – I mean, the Secretary himself was among the people in Washington who thought Bashar Assad was a reformer. You thought his days were numbered after the conflict started. You didn’t see the Russian intervention coming. You didn’t see the growth of extremism in the ranks of the rebels. You called – the President called the ISIS a JV team and didn’t see that. I mean, you guys have been behind the curve on everything through five and a half years. And then why – and yet you’re so sure of yourself on this.
MR TONER: So Brad, the counterargument to that is – first of all, is – and I can go point by point, but what you’ve seen is an evolution of a conflict that, at every twist and turn, has only been exacerbated when it could have been resolved by Bashar al-Assad. And he has – the Secretary talked about this yesterday – he – his reaction to peaceful protests only made them more violent. The violence begat more violence and then you had Syrian opposition – legitimate opposition then taking up arms to defend itself against the Syrian regime’s crackdown.
He, as much as he has complained about or has argued that he’s only fighting terrorism, is the instigator of much of this terrorism that has installed itself in Syria. And with respect to Daesh, I would argue, initial assessments aside – and I think you could argue that everyone underestimated Daesh’s strength at the start – but I think a year and a half into our efforts to defeat and destroy Daesh, I think you can say that we’ve turned the tide against them. I’m not saying it’s over by any means.
But to get back to Syria, all I can do is say our assessment is that you need a pause in the fighting. If you get a pause in the fighting, it can reach – it can become a credible ceasefire. If it can become a credible ceasefire, then you can have enough calm for the opposition to say sure, we’ll go to Geneva and talk again. I mean, this has always been – again, it’s – it has always been contingent on the parties involved in creating the atmosphere or the environment needed for political negotiations. And time and time again – and while I can’t say the opposition hasn’t been guilty in some cases of violations of the cessation of hostilities, time and time again it’s been the regime with Russia’s help that has created the conditions that have led to these cessations falling apart and – sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the – while this conflict has escalated, especially in the last year or so, the situation on the ground has changed in that the regime and its backers have been on the offensive and they’re regaining more and more territory.
MR TONER: Which is --
QUESTION: They’re also limiting the conflict to smaller and smaller areas, populated areas in the country. So in a sense, at some point when there’s no areas left that are contested, the war ends. Whether people are content or not – that could be totally valid that people don’t like the situation, but if they eliminate the places where people are fighting, then the war is over and the result that you wanted didn’t happen.
MR TONER: Yeah, but it’s – again – I mean, look, we can argue this all afternoon. But it’s – you’re not – we don’t believe that current efforts to reach a military solution are going to be successful in Syria for a lot of different factors. And again, just to go back to your previous question, yeah, it’s been a very complex and ever-changing situation in Syria. But we’ve tried to adapt and respond to that changing environment, and one of the ways we did so was to create this group of stakeholders as a way to bring all sides, all parties, to the table so we could discuss a way forward. We did that. We found a way forward, but in executing that or implementing that we’ve been unsuccessful.
QUESTION: Regarding Aleppo --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- do you want to provide medical care to civilians only or to militant groups as well?
MR TONER: Well, I mean to civilians first and foremost, but to any wounded, yeah.
QUESTION: And a follow-up. Just the House passed a bill that gives the Administration the right to send controversial weapons – it’s called man-portable air defense systems – to militant groups in Syria. So what is your position on that? Do you support --
MR TONER: The House – the U.S. Congress --
MR TONER: -- passed a bill to send MANPADs?
QUESTION: Giving the right to the Administration to send these weapons to militant groups in Syria.
MR TONER: Well, I’m unaware that that legislation has passed. I mean, we’ve been very clear that we’re not going to provide lethal assistance to the opposition in Syria.
QUESTION: So do you oppose this --
MR TONER: But that doesn’t preclude – that doesn’t – well, that doesn’t mean that – and again, I’m not saying – let me preface my remarks by saying I’m not encouraging this, but Secretary Kerry and others have said there are other stakeholders in Syria who are willing to arm and continue to arm members of the opposition.
QUESTION: But do you oppose the – this, like, transferring and sending these kind of weapons to militant groups?
MR TONER: Well, again, it’s not something we’ve pursued. We’re seeking a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
QUESTION: And are you going to encourage different stakeholders as you talk to --
MR TONER: Again, certainly those are part of the reasons why we still continue to talk to – in a multilateral setting to many of the stakeholders and part of the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group, is to talk about those kinds of issues. And remember that group says they want a political solution and that’s their aim, but as Secretary Kerry has also talked about before, there are spoilers and I’m not talking about other stakeholders or other governments, but there are spoilers who are out there anytime there is a cessation of hostilities, anytime there’s political negotiations, who are seeking to undermine those. That’s the reality of the situation.
QUESTION: Mark, on the issue of weapons: Your government had refrained from supplying those kinds of weapons – lethal weapons – lest it fall in the wrong hands. I mean, that is the policy all along. MANPADS and Stingers and so on.
MR TONER: Exactly, yeah. I mean, that’s why – yeah. I thought it said that. Yeah.
QUESTION: So – okay. All right.
MR TONER: Okay. Sorry.
MR TONER: Sorry, yes.
QUESTION: News reports said that the U.S. was in discussion with the Syrian opposition inside the Aleppo about leaving the city, and opposition has refused to leave. Can you confirm these reports?
MR TONER: Well, we have been in contact, as we’ve been throughout, with members or – of the Syrian opposition, leaders in the Syrian opposition – moderate opposition – and those contacts continue. I’m not going to try to characterize their position, which I think is also changing given the situation that they’re in. Excuse me. Obviously, we’re looking for any credible effort, and I said this about the other day when there were reports of talks between – taking place in Ankara between the Russians and opposition groups. We’re in support of any effort that would – any genuine effort that would ease the suffering in Aleppo and help bring humanitarian assistance to the population there. We remain in constant contact with the opposition in Aleppo, but I’ll leave it for them to speak about what their position is.
QUESTION: And do you think that the U.S. still have any leverage with the opposition in Syria?
MR TONER: I mean, look – I mean, I think the Syrian opposition – moderate opposition – is assessing the situation, which is indeed dire, and making their own decisions. We have relationships with the opposition – I don’t know if it’s leverage per se, but it’s – we have relations with them. And as such, we will give them advice and council on what we believe they should do next.
QUESTION: But you had leverage before.
MR TONER: Well, again, this is – I mean, these are ultimately decisions that these groups – and this holds true with Russia and the regime – any cessation of hostilities, any de-escalation of violence does hinge on the ability for those outside stakeholders to exert influence or leverage, whatever you want to call it, on the actors on the ground.
QUESTION: I have two more questions.
MR TONER: Cool, go ahead.
QUESTION: How do you feel that the U.S. is not invited to the meetings between the Russians and the Syrian opposition in Ankara?
MR TONER: Again, I think I answered that. We’re very much engaged with the Turks, with the Russians, with the Saudis, with the Qataris, with our European allies. Obviously, they’re going to meet in Paris the next couple of days. All – there’s talks, discussions going on at many different levels. Let’s put it that way.
QUESTION: But all these groups were supported by the U.S.
MR TONER: Well, again, we’re still in touch with these groups. And again, we don’t feel hurt, because if there are genuine efforts to resolve the fighting in Aleppo, we’re supportive of those efforts.
QUESTION: Mark, you said you’re advising these militant groups. What’s your advice right now to them?
MR TONER: To get back to – and again, this is very difficult for them to do, and I’ve talked about this. It’s very hard to have these opposition groups agree to go back to the negotiating table in Geneva when they’re under daily bombardment. But if we can get a cessation, if we can get a pause, if there can be an opportunity to build some confidence between the two – or the opposing sides, then we feel we can get a political process back up in Geneva. But we’ve got to get there. So --
QUESTION: And are you asking them to not --
MR TONER: And that’s --
QUESTION: -- to not fight? I mean, given the fact that they’re being attacked, are you asking them not to fight?
MR TONER: No, of course, and they’re defending themselves. I mean, obviously – I mean, that’s – no. We’re not – but what we’re trying to say is – we’re trying to get – I mean, this is – this requires the buy-in of the moderate opposition. We understand Nusrah is a different element altogether, but the moderate opposition has to buy in to any de-escalation in violence, any pause in violence. They have to also agree not to fight. But we’re not there yet, and obviously, when they’re under daily bombardment, when they’re under siege, it’s hard to get there.
QUESTION: How often is the U.S. in touch with them?
MR TONER: I don’t have a – I mean, a fairly consistent – I don’t know if it’s daily, hourly. I’ll have to look into that.
QUESTION: Would you say like at least daily, or --
MR TONER: Depends, I think, but yeah, I’d say at least daily.
QUESTION: Mark, sorry, but the opposition formed a new army. It’s called the Army of Aleppo. Basically, they dissolved their separate names and they – this – they --
MR TONER: I’m aware.
QUESTION: Yeah. So that includes Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, Fateh al-Sham, everybody almost – ISIS and so on. So --
MR TONER: Well, again, it goes back to what --
QUESTION: Yeah, I know. So they – how are they defending themselves?
MR TONER: Yeah. So it goes back to what I – sorry, go ahead. I didn’t mean to talk over you.
QUESTION: No, no, go ahead.
MR TONER: I said it goes back to what I said before to Brad, which is when you’ve – you – when you – and I’m talking about the Syrian regime here – when you create the conditions that you have today in Aleppo, you create and breed the very type of extremism that you claim to be defeating. Good?
In the back. Want to go to a different subject? Can we – I think we’ve exhausted Syria, honestly.
QUESTION: I have one more on Syria. After the statement that the six leaders have issued today, President Assad just announced that he decided to liberate the whole country. Any reaction to that?
MR TONER: I don’t, and I’m not going to respond to whatever President Assad says.
QUESTION: Different subject.
MR TONER: Waste of my time.
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s go to – yeah, and then --
QUESTION: Okay. Quick one on the announcement today by the Trump transition team that Iowa Governor Branstad is being chosen as the ambassador to China. He’s someone who has apparently known Xi Jinping for many, many years. In light of other developments in recent days on the U.S.-China relationship, does the State Department gauge this as a positive development?
MR TONER: So look, I mean, I guess I would have to say this is obviously something that the transition team would have to speak to. It’s – I’d refer you to them. There’s – they’re obviously in the process of looking at the relations and – to some of the key countries and governments around the world, and that’s part of the transition process. But as to their intentions or as to their goals, I’d have to refer you to them.
MR TONER: Iraq. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Just one question. Can I please read a news report --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- and wonder if you can comment on this.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Airstrikes on an Islamic State-held town near Iraq’s western border --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, he coughed and I just missed it. I apologize.
QUESTION: Sure, sure, sure. So the report says airstrikes on an ISIL-held town near Iraq’s western border with Syria killed dozens of people on Wednesday, including many women and children, two parliamentarians and local hospital sources said – they said the airstrikes hit a busy market in the town of Qaim in Iraq’s Anbar province. Anbar lawmaker Ahmed al-Salmani and hospital sources said 55 civilians were killed. Can you comment on this?
MR TONER: I cannot. It’s the first time I’m hearing of it, so we’ll look into it. Is there any greater clarity on who was behind the airstrikes or – okay. Okay.
QUESTION: I would ask you if you --
MR TONER: Yeah. I’ll look into it. This is the first time I heard about it.
QUESTION: Also Iraq.
MR TONER: Let’s stay on Iraq, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk was recently in Erbil. Can you give us a readout of his meetings there?
MR TONER: I can, and I would – I’ll preface this: I have a very short readout – actually not all that short – but we’ll also put out a media note giving even more detail. But yes, he was – you’re talking about Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk. He’s returning to Washington this afternoon, but he was in Iraq for eight days. He was in Baghdad, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Mosul – and at the Mosul front in Khazir in Iraq. He was also in Ankara, Turkey. And the focus of the visit was to further accelerate the campaign against Daesh, with emphasis on ensuring the stability or the restoration of stability in some of the liberated areas in Iraq. And in Baghdad he met with President Masum, he met with Prime Minister al-Abadi, he met with the speaker, as well as other senior political and security officials. And in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, Brett met with President – IKR President Barzani, he met with Prime Minister Barzani as well, Vice President Rasul, as well as PUK politburo member Herro Talabani. He also traveled to the eastern access of the Mosul offensive to meet with members of the Kurdish Peshmerga, as well as the Iraqi army, and reviewed the progress in the advance toward Mosul. Also while in the North, he met with the governor of Nineveh province, Nofal Agoob, to review stabilization and humanitarian programs for liberated neighborhoods. And then he also, of course, as I mentioned, traveled to Ankara for meetings with senior officials in the ministry of foreign affairs in the presidential palace.
So as I said, we’ll put out even a more detailed readout in probably a few minutes after the briefing.
QUESTION: Would you – thank you. Look forward to that. Would you know if he was satisfied with the progress that’s being made in Mosul? Because there are some reports that the army is moving slowly.
MR TONER: Sure. Again, I’ll leave it for the readout. Of course, “satisfied” is a relative term. I think, obviously, we’ll only be satisfied when Mosul is completely liberated and we’re able to get in and help stabilize it. But I think we’re – we believe that progress – slow and steady progress is taking place. We said from the very start of this operation – this Iraqi-led operation – that this was going to be a long struggle. This is one of Daesh’s strongholds and they were going to fight to retain it. And that’s been the case. We have made slow and steady progress, Iraqi forces have made slow and steady progress, but we’re not there yet.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Amnesty International just published a report on Turkey’s forced dislocation of some half million people in the Kurdish region of the country, and suggested there was in fact a premeditated plan of population transfer. What is your comment on that and the report generally?
MR TONER: We’ve seen this report from Amnesty International. We’ve expressed our grave concern regarding the violence in southeast Turkey and we would urge the PKK to lay down its arms so that Turks forced from their homes to flee the violence can safely return home. We’ve said repeatedly we stand by Turkey in the fight against terror in all of its forms, and that includes against the PKK. And as Turkey’s friend and ally, we urge the Government of Turkey to ensure the – that the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms are protected.
QUESTION: You – so you dispute Amnesty’s suggestion that there’s a plan of forced dislocation? You don’t think that’s going on?
MR TONER: What I said was that this is – that many of the Turks forced to flee their homes have done so as a result of PKK violence.
QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?
MR TONER: Let’s go to Michael and I’ll get to you, I promise.
QUESTION: On Turkey. Mark, did you see these reports that the son-in-law of President Erdogan has ties with ISIS operations smuggling oil into Turkey?
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean look, we’ve – first of all, WikiLeaks – we don’t touch WikiLeaks, we don’t touch the --
QUESTION: Besides from WikiLeaks --
MR TONER: No, but aside from that --
QUESTION: Aside from WikiLeaks --
MR TONER: -- these are allegations we’ve heard before.
MR TONER: We’ve been very strenuous in saying that while we cannot rule out any illegal smuggling of oil – ISIL-refined or ISIL – ISIL-owned oil across the border from Turkey, because those routes – smuggling routes have been in existence, as we’ve said before, for centuries. Turkey has taken steps to seal up, close off its borders with Syria and that’s had an effect on this trade. But we’ve seen nothing to lead us to believe that there’s any kind of government involvement in this trade.
QUESTION: I have some questions on Cyprus if they finish with --
MR TONER: Let’s go Middle East and then we’ll come back to you for Cyprus.
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I have just one very quickly. President Hollande invited both Abbas and Netanyahu to meet in Paris on the side of the – a conference on the 21st of December. Do you have any comment on that? Do you have a --
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: -- any position? Will the United States attend --
MR TONER: Well, we haven’t made any final decision on whether we’ll attend or not. And our understanding at this point is that a final date hasn’t been set. So it’s partly once that date has been set, we’ll look at the Secretary’s schedule to see and that, of course, will be factored into our decision. We are also waiting to hear more from the French about the agenda and what they believe can be achieved through this conference. But of course, we maintain an open mind with respect to any effort to bring about or create the conditions where the parties can come back to the negotiating table. And we want to ensure that we do whatever is constructive. So we’re waiting to hear more details.
QUESTION: Let me ask you about the – I don’t know if you’re aware, there is a village right next to Ramallah, Deir Nidham, that has been besieged and turned into a prison ever since the fires broke out, although the local police and the local authorities are saying there is nothing to suggest that it was arson. But the Israeli army --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- has besieged it, deprived people from leaving and so on.
MR TONER: Yeah. We’re aware of the reports and we’ve said this many times – while we understand that Israel needs to protect its citizens and take measures to do so, we expect that any measures Israel takes minimizes the impact on Palestinian civilians going about their daily lives.
QUESTION: But the fire that basically put this village under siege is basically – broke out in a settlement on – an illegal settlement on Palestinian land and so on.
MR TONER: Yeah. No, we’re – again, we’re aware of all the reports surrounding this. And again, our emphasis is on when Israel does take these kinds of measures that they do so in a way that’s respectful, that people need to live their daily lives.
In the back, please.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And he met Tony Blinken, the under secretary of state, a couple of days ago.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: So do you have any readout of what was the topic of the discussion?
MR TONER: Well, he did meet, as you noted, with Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatema – Fatemi, excuse me, on December 5th, and they discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues, including regional stability and counterterrorism cooperation.
QUESTION: Sir, in Heart of Asia conference in India, the Prime Minister Modi and Afghan Premier Ashraf Ghani lash out at Pakistan on terrorism. Even Mr. Ghani suggest that – suggest Pakistan to spend $500 million to curb terrorism rather giving aid to Afghanistan. Sir, it clearly indicates the tensions and mistrust between the regional partners. (Inaudible) it concerns you?
MR TONER: Look, we’ve seen President Ghani’s remarks at the Heart of Asia conference. I’d refer you to the Government of Afghanistan regarding those remarks. For our part, we have consistently expressed our concerns to the highest level – levels of the Government of Pakistan about their continued tolerance for Afghan Taliban groups such as the Haqqani Network operating from Pakistan soil. And we continue to encourage the Government of Pakistan to – and Afghanistan, rather – both governments to cooperate in their counterterrorism operations and efforts because that’s only going to contribute to regional stability.
QUESTION: Sir, I was hoping that you were going to talk about the plane crash in Pakistan and today’s (inaudible).
MR TONER: I will, I apologize. Yeah, no, thank you for bringing that up. Obviously, we’ve been following reports of that crash of a Pakistan International Airlines flight, which was, I believe, a domestic flight en route from Chitral to Islamabad. Obviously, our condolences to the victims of that plane crash. We have offered assistance – any assistance we can offer to the Pakistani Government, and our embassy in Islamabad is in contact with the government, again, to see if we can help with rescue or recovery operations. Thank you for bringing that up; I appreciate it.
QUESTION: Back to the Middle East, back to the Middle East. Haaretz is reporting a Palestinian delegation is going to travel to the United States next week for meetings with State Department officials, and may meet with the Trump transition team. This – the newspaper says it has learned this information. Do you have anything on this?
MR TONER: No. Nothing to confirm at this point, so I’ll let you know if that changes.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you get back tomorrow?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll get to you. You had a question. Are we still on – what are we on?
QUESTION: The lady’s first.
QUESTION: It’s a totally separate --
MR TONER: They’re both separate, so --
QUESTION: You first.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MR TONER: You’re a gentleman. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry of late has seemed more optimistic about the future of the Paris Agreement under the next administration. I was wondering if that assessment had changed at all with today’s appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the head of the EPA, who has been fairly open about his opposition to Obama’s climate change policies.
MR TONER: I think that Secretary Kerry’s been very measured in his assessment of what the next administration may or may not do with regard to the climate agreement. I think where he has been very vocal is that the international community, the global community, is going to keep moving forward with climate change. And you’ve seen this expressed from governments throughout the world and across the range of developed countries to developing countries that they’re not going to back out of or walk away from the Paris Agreement. And so that gives us confidence that, as this new administration transitions into power, that they’ll also see the merits of the direction in which we’re moving, the world is moving.
And Secretary Kerry has also been clear that it’s only partly about a change in public policy. It’s mostly about the signal that that change sends to the private sector and civil society. And that change has already taken place and that switch has already turned, where you have companies coming in and saying they want to see the Paris Agreement remain in place because they’re already moving away from fossil fuels into new types of eco-friendly energy sources. And so in a way, that shift’s already taken place, that train’s left the station, but again, I don’t want to speak on behalf of the incoming administration. What I will say is that we believe that it’s in the United States’ interest to move forward.
QUESTION: Can I do one more along those lines?
MR TONER: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Has there been any change in the status as to whether or not the president-elect has received briefings from the State Department regarding --
MR TONER: To my understanding, he has not yet. And that – so no change.
QUESTION: Mark, according to the Turkish press, the Secretary met yesterday with the foreign minister of Turkey. I wanted to know if you have any readout. Also, I saw pictures in the Turkish press that Mrs. Nuland met with Turkish Cypriot leader – if you have any readout of this --
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: -- and if he is going to meet with the Greek foreign minister.
MR TONER: Sure. He did meet yesterday, I believe, with the Turkish foreign minister. We were trying to get a readout before this meeting – before this meeting – before this briefing, excuse me, and have not. I can imagine primarily it was focused on Syria, efforts to defeat Daesh, but as to the other parts of that meeting, wait and see. When we get more information about it, we’ll certainly share.
QUESTION: Well, dare I say that they talk about Cyprus and how the United States --
MR TONER: I can’t rule it out. I just don’t know. I just haven’t been able to confirm that.
QUESTION: Yeah. But did the Secretary start any effort on Cyprus?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, we’re always supportive of the UN process to resolve the situation on Cyprus, and it’s always a topic – or frequently a topic when we meet with Turkish Government officials or, obviously, Cypriot Government officials. With regard to whether he’s going to meet with the Greek foreign minister, I can’t confirm that.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you check for me?
MR TONER: Yeah, I can.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MR TONER: Thanks, yeah. Is that it, guys? Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:52 p.m.)