Daily Press Briefing - December 27, 2016

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 27, 2016


2:53 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Okay. I’m sorry, first of all, to be – not even a little late – quite late. I apologize. I can guarantee you it’s not because I was sleeping off my holiday feast. But let’s get started.

Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Just – I have one thing to announce at the top, and indeed, it’s been a question on quite a few of your minds over the past couple of days, but I can announce that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will deliver remarks on Middle East peace tomorrow morning, on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016 at the U.S. Department of State. In this speech, the Secretary will lay out a comprehensive vision for how he believes the conflict can be resolved in the Middle East. And all of his remarks, of course, will be open to the press and this event will be livestreamed at state.gov.

That’s all I have at the top, believe it or not, for being that late. Where are we starting? Lesley, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. So – and where is the speech going to take place? Do you have details?

MR TONER: We’ll get to that to you. We’re going to – we’ll put out a Notice to the Press. I just wanted simply to announce the speech would be tomorrow morning.

QUESTION: And I gather he’s going to talk about the UN resolution on --

MR TONER: He will touch on that. I – but I don't want to – so he will touch on that, certainly, but he’ll talk more broadly about, as I said, coming to the end of his term as Secretary of State – but indeed, this is an issue – Middle East peace – that he’s worked on for many, many years, so he’ll talk about his view, I think, on the way forward and where he sees it going.

QUESTION: Well, the tensions being --

MR TONER: Where to begin, right? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: I felt a little bit the same way. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, tensions have been increasing since the UN vote on Friday. I’m sure you’ve seen all the reports and heard a lot of the words. The Israeli officials are now being quoted as saying that they have evidence that they will lay out to the Trump administration of – in which the U.S., specifically Kerry, had discussions with the Palestinians before the vote, a few weeks before, during a visit to Washington where Saeb Erekat was around, and basically that he pushed them to go to Egypt and to move ahead with this resolution. That’s one of the things.


QUESTION: So the question is: Was the U.S. hiding behind this other group of countries to submit the resolution? Were those discussions ever taken place? Because the Israelis feel that they’ve got evidence that there was meddling by the Americans.

MR TONER: Excuse me. Forgive me. (Coughs.) I picked up a cold over the weekend too, unfortunately, so I apologize.

So you’re right. We’ve obviously seen the same reports, an amalgamation of different allegations that somehow this was U.S.-driven and precooked. What I’ll say – excuse me – (coughs) – is that we reject the notion that the United States was the driving force behind this resolution. That’s just not true. The United States did not draft this resolution, nor did it put it forward. It was drafted and initially introduced, as we all know, by Egypt, in coordination with the Palestinians and others. When it was clear that the Egyptians and the Palestinians would insist on bringing this resolution to a vote and that every other country on the council would, in fact, support it, we made clear to others, including those on the Security Council, that further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And that’s a standard practice on – with regard to resolutions at the Security Council. So there’s nothing new to this.

You look like you’re pouncing on me, but go ahead.

QUESTION: No, we just --

MR TONER: No, we’ll continue. I can continue, but if you have a – do you have a follow up?

QUESTION: No, no. Let’s just keep going with this.

MR TONER: Okay, sure. And this is a really important point. We also made clear at every conversation – in every conversation – that the President would make the final decision and that he would have to review the final text before making his final decision. So the idea that this was, again, precooked or that we had agreed upon the text weeks in advance is just not accurate. And in fact --

QUESTION: But we know that --

MR TONER: Go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: No, we know that the U.S. didn’t draft it or put it forward. But was the U.S. in any way coaxing on any – another group of countries to move ahead and go and move ahead with this resolution?

MR TONER: Well, again, these are – I mean, again, I think it’s important to have the proper context, in that all through the fall there was talk about – and we often got the question here and of course we replied that we’re never going to discuss hypotheticals in terms of what resolutions or what is circulating out there – but of course, there has been for some time in the fall talk about this resolution or that resolution with regard to the Middle East peace and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

So of course, in the – of course, in the course of those conversations, we’re always making clear what our parameters are, what our beliefs are, what our – what we need to see or what we – in order to even consider a resolution. That’s part of the give-and-take of the UN.

QUESTION: But surely these countries, before they would move ahead, would want to get the view of an influential member of the Security Council of the UN of who – of what their position would be on this.

MR TONER: Well, again, I think we – of course, as the draft or the text was circulated, we said to those on the Security Council that – what further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And in fact, we ended up abstaining because we didn’t feel it was balanced enough in the sense of it didn’t hit hard enough on the incitement-to-violence side of the coin.

Go ahead. You look perplexed. (Laughter.) Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: At what stage did you intervene to try and balance? Was it after Egypt said they’d withdraw it?

MR TONER: I think it was once – yeah, I mean, once – I mean, I don’t have a date certain. It was once the Egyptians and Palestinians made it clear that they were going to advance this text or bring this resolution to a vote and that, in fact, it would be supported by other countries.

QUESTION: Does that date predate Mr. Erekat’s visit to the State Department?

MR TONER: I don’t know the date of his visit. But again, I’m not – I’m not exactly – and I’m not necessarily excluding that when he did visit to the State Department that they didn’t discuss possible resolutions or anything like that in terms of draft language. But again, there was no – nothing precooked. There was nothing – this was not some move orchestrated by the United States.


QUESTION: Could you be clear what you just said? I heard a double negative in there. You’re not precluding that they didn’t discuss it. Are you saying they – that when the Palestinians were here --

MR TONER: I don’t have a readout. Yeah, I don’t have a readout of that meeting in front of me. I just – but I said I can imagine that they talked about Middle East peace broadly and efforts to reinvigorate the process. I don’t know that they discussed the possible action at the UN. But of course, as we – as I said in answer to Lesley’s question, that was something that was in the mix for some months now in New York at the UN that there might be some action taken there.

QUESTION: And what about New Zealand, when the Secretary was there before Antarctica?


QUESTION: And also I believe he had a meeting here with Mr. Shoukry at some point in early December.

MR TONER: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Was the resolution discussed at either of those meetings with those diplomats?

MR TONER: Again, I can’t specifically say whether the resolution – but certainly, if a resolution or action at the UN was discussed, it wasn’t discussed in the level of detail where there was some final text. We always reserved the right with any text that was put forward, drafted and put forward, to veto it or to not take action or abstain, which is what we ended up doing.

QUESTION: But you advised them on how to put together a motion that the United States would feel comfortable abstaining or voting in favor of?

MR TONER: Well, I think what we said is – and this is not just unique to this process, but once a text, a draft text is to the point where it’s going to be put forward to a vote, of course we would provide input on what we believed were – was language that didn’t pass or didn’t allow us to vote for it or --

QUESTION: You see what I’m saying?


QUESTION: You didn’t just say bring whatever motion you like up and we’ll vote however we feel about it. You were encouraging them to bring forward a motion that you would feel comfortable not blocking.

MR TONER: Well, but we have to be really careful in how we’re talking about this because what the allegations --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: No, I know and I understand that. But no, no, but I’m saying that some of the allegations out there, frankly, are implying that this was somehow some – as I said, some orchestrated action by the U.S. to pass a resolution that was negative about settlement activity in Israel, and the fact is that that’s just not the case. Of course, we would always provide, when the final text was going up for a vote, our opinion on where the red lines were. But I think that – I think this is all a little bit of a sideshow, to be honest, that this was a resolution that we could not in good conscience veto because it condemns violence, it condemned incitement, it reiterates what has long been the overwhelming consensus international view on settlements, and it calls for the parties to take constructive steps to advance a two-state solution on the ground. There was nothing in there that would prompt us to veto that type of resolution.

QUESTION: But there was nothing in there --

MR TONER: And in fact --

QUESTION: -- because you told them not to put anything in there that would cause you to veto it.

MR TONER: But that – but again, not at all. And I said we did not take the lead in drafting this resolution. That was done by the Egyptians with the Palestinians. But again, in any kind of resolution process, of course there’s moments where – or I mean, it’s not like our views regarding settlements or regarding resolutions with respect to Israel aren’t well-known and well-vetted within the UN community. There’s been many times in the past where we’ve not – or we vetoed resolutions that we found to be biased towards Israel. But that’s another point here is that there’s nothing – the other canard in all of this is that this was somehow breaking with longstanding U.S. tradition in the UN Security Council, when we all know that every administration has vetoed – or rather has abstained or voted for similar resolutions.

QUESTION: But it’s true then that you had opportunities to ask them not to bring it forward at all and didn’t take them.

MR TONER: I’m not sure what you’re --

QUESTION: Well, instead of saying why not write the motion this way, you could have said please don’t bring a motion.

MR TONER: Well, again, I think when it was clear to us that they were going to bring it to a vote and that every other council – every other country on the council was going to support that resolution, that draft text --

QUESTION: When did it become clear to you that it would --

MR TONER: I don’t have a date certain for that.


MR TONER: I think it was last week or so.

QUESTION: Mark, give me just a follow-up, please, quickly.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: Now, you said that everything in the resolution really is consistent with your position, and in fact, it did include language that was very strong against incitement and violence and so on. So why did you vote against it? Why would you not --

MR TONER: Because --

QUESTION: I mean, not --

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. That’s okay.

QUESTION: Why did you abstain?

MR TONER: Yeah. So --

QUESTION: And why not vote for it?

MR TONER: No, no, it is – and I think others have spoken to this, but we believe that the resolution didn’t put sufficient emphasis on the violence and incitement and terrorism that is also eroding --

QUESTION: What would be – in this case, what kind of language? I mean --

MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to draft it off the top of my head, but we felt it wasn’t sufficiently strong.

QUESTION: But you must have very clear points at what these terms or these phrases would be exactly for you to vote for it, right? What are they? What are these points and phrases that would have made you vote for it?

MR TONER: Well, again, I think – and forgive me if I’m not specific enough, but I think our criticism in past draft resolutions has been that they are not – that they’re one-sided, that they unfairly target Israel. In this case, there was language in there regarding incitement and basically making the point that both sides need to do – to do more in order to create a climate conducive to what we believe is the way forward, which is direct negotiations. So what – it’s important to remember what this resolution is and what it isn’t.

I mean, what it was was simply a recognition that the dynamics on the ground, in particular on the Israeli side with regard to the growth and increase in settlements, the marked increase in settlements, settlement activity, over the past years is making the viability of a two-state solution more and more impossible. It recognized that. It also noted, as I said, the fact that the Palestinian side also is partially to blame for incitement to violence for creating an atmosphere, again, not conducive to what we all agree needs to happen, which is direct negotiation. So this wasn’t in any way an attempt to prejudge or to promote a certain outcome in that negotiation. It was simply recognizing what we believe are dangerous trends.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about what – seeing how this resolution lacks sanctions, it lacks any kind of really a roadmap to implement it and so on. What should the steps – in your view, and I understand how this Administration is departing – on review – in your view, what steps can be taken to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the resolution is somehow --


QUESTION: -- implemented and translated into reality?

MR TONER: Well, I think that’s, frankly, something that Secretary Kerry will – hopefully will address and make clear in his speech tomorrow. I think he’s going to kind of take that – what we need to see in terms of next steps – in his speech tomorrow. This resolution – you’re right. It doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t have an impact in terms of sanctions or actions that would directly negatively affect Israel. I think what we’ve said is it’s a call to action. It’s a recognition that international opinion is noting the fact that Israeli settlement activity is an impediment to a negotiated two-state settlement.

QUESTION: Mark, (inaudible)?

MR TONER: That’s okay. We’ll go to Carol and then you, Michel. We’ve got time.

QUESTION: There was a – there’s a report in an Egyptian newspaper (inaudible), about the meeting between Secretary Kerry, Susan Rice, Saeb Erekat, and Faraj. And they’re reporting that Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice said that they were – the United States was ready to support a balanced resolution in the Security Council, and there also was some discussion about moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and that Saeb Erekat said if that happened that throughout the Arab world, Americans would be kicked out. Is – can you confirm or discuss whether this conversation, in fact, happened?

MR TONER: I apologize. I can’t, Carol. I just don’t know. I don’t have that level of detail. I just got a roadie note here, though. Sorry. (Laughter.)

But just an update, because I was deliberately vague because I did not have a readout – but in fact, we did not discuss any language or give any indication whatsoever about a U.S. position on a settlements UNSCR in either the meeting with Erekat or in New Zealand. So that just --

QUESTION: Let me just take you back to Thursday, because we had --

MR TONER: Correct the record there.

QUESTION: -- a great deal of discussion right after the Egyptians went through their drafts of a resolution. And I asked a question at the time whether you were disappointed, because that was the impression that you were giving. So were you glad to see that these four countries had the intention and then they actually, in fact, did submit the resolution once again? If – am I clear in what I’m saying?

MR TONER: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. You’re asking whether we, in essence --

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I mean, were you actually, because it seems like it’s the last – sort of the last effort or the last conceivable effort.

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, Said, I don’t want to attempt to characterize it. I think I’ll just leave it where I thought I put it, which is that there was nothing in this resolution that we could so profoundly disagree with that it would lead us to veto it. It was, in essence, a recognition that, as I said, that – a recognition of the trends that many on the Security Council and around the world have been concerned about regarding the viability of a two-state solution, and that is the marked increase in settlement activity. I mean, you and I, Lord knows, have discussed this in great detail. And you also know that our policy, our public statements about settlements are well known. And so there’s no surprise to the reason that we chose to abstain from this vote.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that one?

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: So what comments – what is your reaction to the news today that a – that a Jerusalem municipality is due to consider a request for construction of new homes – of settlements today?

MR TONER: I mean, I saw it. We obviously saw the reports of those actions. I’ll go back to what I just said, which is we would hope that the UN Security Council resolution that was passed on Friday would serve as a wakeup call, as a call to action, as an attempt to alert both sides, but certainly Israel, that its actions with regards to settlement activity are, as I said, are a detriment to moving forward with a – toward a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary, since the vote, spoken to anyone about that --

MR TONER: Hitting my --

QUESTION: -- prime minister – about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to it and his anger and his --

MR TONER: I apologize. What – you’re saying has he spoken with --

QUESTION: So has he spoken since the vote to Prime Minister Netanyahu?

MR TONER: He has not. No, not since the vote. No.

QUESTION: Not since the vote?



MR TONER: No, he spoke with him last on December 22nd.

QUESTION: And would you say this Administration is surprised by his – by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction of anger and towards the Administration?

MR TONER: I don't know if – I don't know if I’d term it “surprised.” I mean, certainly, they feel aggrieved – that’s apparent – by their reaction. But – and I would refer folks in this room who weren’t there to the Secretary’s remarks at the Saban Forum, where he talked in great detail and great personal experience about the fact that we have a relationship with Israel that is so strong and so close that sometimes we need to be able to tell them difficult things. And through our abstention on this resolution, we were conveying our concern about Israel’s future. We want to see Israel succeed and prosper as a Jewish and democratic state. And we believe that if the present settlement activity is allowed to continue and intensify, that it’s – it will render the possibility of a two-state solution, which we all agree is the ultimate goal here, an impossibility. And that was part of the message that we hope was conveyed.

QUESTION: So the Israelis are saying --


QUESTION: -- apart of Prime Minister Netanyahu is that you cannot have a – that actually this resolution makes it more difficult for peace talks to take place, that they feel that the Israelis would not be seen fairly or treated fairly in those discussions. Would you agree with that?

MR TONER: I wouldn’t. I don't want to delve too deep into hypotheticals, but that’s between the parties. This isn’t something – and we’ve said this very clearly – that we want the UN in any way, shape, or form to decide the outcome of a negotiated settlement. That’s between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: And just a last question.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead and I’ll --

QUESTION: Just a last question on the – is Secretary Kerry or anyone from this Administration going to the Paris talks --

MR TONER: I don't have an answer for that.

QUESTION: -- on that?

MR TONER: Yeah. Not that --

QUESTION: Did you notify the Israelis ahead of time before you’d vote? And if so, can you tell us when and --

MR TONER: How we were going to vote?


MR TONER: I’ll take that question and see if I can get an answer for you.

QUESTION: Mark, Israel’s foreign minister has suspended all working ties with the countries that voted to pass the resolution, and it summoned the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Do you have any readout for that meeting? And what’s your reaction to --

MR TONER: I don't have a particular readout for that meeting. Obviously, you can guess the topic. Look, I don't want to overstate Israel’s reaction. I think that no one – and certainly not the United States, or the United States least of all – wants to see Israel isolated in any international forum. And so, of course, we’re concerned when we see Israel take actions that we fear will further isolate it – proactive steps that will isolate it within the international community. But it’s not for us to really speak any more to what Israel decides to do.

Again, our – we took the actions we took last week – the action we took last week, rather – in an effort to, along with the others who voted for the resolution – an effort to send a clear message about our concerns regarding settlement activity as an impediment to a negotiated peaceful settlement – no more, no less. We don’t want this to create a diplomatic firestorm, in fact just the opposite. What we want is – are actions that create a climate that is conducive to a return to direct negotiations.

QUESTION: And my --

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: -- my last question on this: And how do you think this resolution will help the two-state solution?

MR TONER: Well, again, I spoke about the fact that sometimes – to use a colloquial American expression – you have to call a spade a spade. And when we see activity or actions on the part of Israel or Palestine – or Palestinians rather in this case, with regard to incitement, we call it like we see it and we’ve done that in this case. It is, I think, important for us to have any credibility as a neutral hand, if you will, in any negotiations which we’ve offered to play going forward and we’ve played it in the past. You’ve got to be honest and we’re trying to be honest.

QUESTION: Mark, the --


QUESTION: Should we see tomorrow’s speech as the last word from the Obama Administration on this issue, a summary of where we are? Or is this the start of a three-and-a-half-week push to create a new framework for negotiations?

MR TONER: That’s a very good and a very fair question. I don’t want to predict anything and nor do I have anything to announce coming up. Certainly this Administration is going to continue to work until January 20th.

QUESTION: The morning of January 20th.

MR TONER: January (inaudible) 20th – important point. But I don’t want to lean into it that there’s going to be some kind of a push behind this. I think this is, again, his – Secretary Kerry sharing his vision for how we can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

QUESTION: I have just a couple more. Ben Rhodes noted in the press conference call that this Administration has been probably the friendliest of all administrations towards Israel --

MR TONER: Yeah, he did.

QUESTION: -- noting, like, they – most recently given them aid and to the tune of $40 billion and so on.

MR TONER: Yeah, the MOU.

QUESTION: Do you – are you disappointed in the kind of rhetoric that is being thrown at this Administration in its final days by the Israelis, by the Prime Minister of Israel, by others in this town who are friends of Israel, some even calling the President of the United States anti-Semitic and things like this?

MR TONER: Well, I mean --

QUESTION: How do you react to all this?

MR TONER: Yeah, Said – I mean, you have to be thick-skinned in this game we call diplomacy, as you know. So I don’t want to say that we’re upset over it, but the facts speak for themselves, as you noted. No administration, no American administration has arguably done more for Israel’s security. As you noted as well, just a couple months ago, we concluded a $38 billion MOU, which is the largest military assistance package in U.S. history, worked on Iron Dome to strengthen that.

We’ve done a lot of things, the Obama Administration, to strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties, which we – and of course, that’s on the security front, but we also – and this Secretary of State led a very hard-fought effort to get negotiations back on track early in this second term. And of course in the first Obama Administration – or term, we also had a pretty serious effort led by George Mitchell to get these negotiations back up and running.

So it’s not like we’ve been standing idly by the side and not caring about this issue or simply giving everyone a free pass – far from it. We have been and continue to be a staunch defender of Israel’s best interests and it’s in that spirit that we feel the resolution that was passed on Friday is in that same vein.

QUESTION: Another thick skin question.

MR TONER: Another what?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Thick skin question – the diplomacy.

MR TONER: Oh, thick skin. Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: President Erdogan accused today the coalition of supporting ISIS. Do you have any reaction?

QUESTION: Before we – do we have a time for the speech tomorrow?

MR TONER: I think it will be late morning; I don’t have a time specific. We’ll put that all in the notice to press. It’s a fair point. I deliberately fudged that because I don’t have a certain time. I wanted to announce his speech, but I don’t have it.

I’m sorry, your question was about --

QUESTION: President Erdogan’s remarks, yeah.

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, it’s ludicrous, to be honest. No basis for truth, as you can all imagine. I don’t think anyone could look at our actions on the ground leading the coalition in northern Syria, in Iraq and say anything other than that we’re 100 percent behind the defeat, destruction of Daesh, and even beyond Syria and Iraq, seeing its networks dismantled, destroyed around the region – or outside of the region around the world. I can give you a rundown on what we’re doing. You don’t need to hear it. You know what we’re doing in terms of the coalition, and in fact, we’re working constructively with Turkey to lead those efforts. And Turkey is playing a part and we have constant dialogue and discussion with Turkey about how we can better leverage both of our efforts.

QUESTION: Did you contact with the Turkish officials?

MR TONER: I don’t know – you mean regarding these remarks?

QUESTION: Regarding these remarks.

MR TONER: I don’t know. Honestly, I didn’t have time to check on it.


MR TONER: I’ll take – I’ll see if we’ve made contact.

QUESTION: So the point – yeah, the point is al-Bab. I mean, he’s criticizing coalition for not supporting the Turkish armed forces’ offensive in al-Bab. I mean, do you have any reason why the coalition is not support Turkey in this operation?

MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about al-Bab?


MR TONER: Yeah. Sorry, I’m hitting the mike. I apologize. I mean, a couple of things. First of all, we’re obviously in close contact and discussion, dialogue, near constant with the Turks about their efforts in northern Syria. They’ve been very efficient and very successful. We’re talking about them about how – we’re talking to them about how we can support them more closely. Brett McGurk is in contact with them. I don’t know when he was last in Turkey, but it was fairly recently.

We’re aware that it’s a tough fight that they’re facing, and that’s all being still discussed. We have provided support to Turkey for operations to clear its border of ISIL, and that support is ongoing. But as I said, they’re now driving on al-Bab. It’s a tough fight. We’re talking about – to them about how we can help them in their efforts. I don’t have anything to announce. I’d have to refer you to the Department of Defense to --

QUESTION: But would you advise them to hold back from al-Bab until you’re ready to help them? It seems that they’re going to fight --

MR TONER: That’s their – I mean, look, that’s – David, that’s – far be it for us to provide strategic military advice or tactical military advice to the Turks.

QUESTION: But you just said you’re members of the same coalition.

MR TONER: Well, I understand that. But I’m just saying, like, that we support their efforts. We have supported their efforts along the border to clear it of ISIL. We’re in dialogue with them about possible next steps we can take in terms of al-Bab. I mean, and we don’t – certainly don’t want to see them enter into al-Bab without sufficient support. But again, these are discussions we have on a daily basis with the Turks.

QUESTION: How many --

QUESTION: Doesn’t that relate to Turkey’s attacks on U.S. – the U.S. ally, the YPG, as in Manbij, and at that point there were all sorts of tensions developed between the United States and Turkey, and the U.S. military let it be known that Turkey had gone past what was authorized in al-Bab? But the core of it was Turkish attacks on the U.S. ally, the YPG, fighting in northern Syria and around Manbij and other areas. Wasn’t that the core of the problem?

MR TONER: Well, we have – you’re right in that Turkey has – and they’re partner forces, which is I think what you’re referring to – have made progress in securing the border and liberating large swaths of the area, a number of towns and villages. And as I said, they’re driving on al-Bab. We’re mindful, of course, of some of the tensions that exist obviously between these Turkish-supported forces and the YPG and other forces that we’ve been supporting in that area, and those are tensions – again, that’s the reason why we’re working closely, having these discussions, and trying to coordinate with them.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if you want U.S. support, you shouldn’t attack U.S. allies?

MR TONER: No, there’s no --

QUESTION: No lesson?

MR TONER: No. (Laughter.) Look, no, I don’t want to give that impression at all. Turkey is a NATO ally and a strong partner in the anti-Daesh coalition. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we’re trying to send a message.

QUESTION: Can we press you just a little bit on --

QUESTION: So the President himself (inaudible) then?

MR TONER: (Laughter.) I won’t touch that.

QUESTION: Could I just press you on what Erdogan said? I mean, he – he was very clear. He said U.S.-led coalition forces give support to terrorist groups including ISIS, including YPG, PYD. They were accusing --

MR TONER: Well, look, I mean --

QUESTION: Wait a minute. They

MR TONER: Okay. So let’s --

QUESTION: They were accusing us of supporting Daesh.

MR TONER: So let’s – let me address that.

QUESTION: I mean, he was very clear.

MR TONER: Sure. Let me address that. So we do provide tactical support to the Syrian Democratic Forces. There’s no surprise there. We’ve been very transparent about that. That’s to help us all achieve our shared goal of defeating Daesh. The Syrian Democratic Forces have, as we’ve said many times, proven to be a very capable force against Daesh, and our support for them – again, our tactical support for them will continue. As we’ve also said before, we’ve never provided weapons to the YPG. And we have provided equipment to vetted Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This equipment has – (cell phone rings). Someone’s waking up? This equipment has included ammunition and other tactical equipment to assist the coalition’s counter-ISIL operations. But let me be clear that we reject any group providing support to the PKK or enabling its terrorist campaign within Turkey.

QUESTION: Or Daesh. Because he’s saying that you guys gave support to Daesh.

MR TONER: Daesh – I said that from the outright. That’s just ludicrous. I don’t know where that comes from.

QUESTION: Two more questions. Two --

QUESTION: Okay, is it about Turkey?

QUESTION: Yes. Same subject. Thank you, Mark. Today there are some reports that Russia in these – gave some air support around al-Bab. Do you have any information on that?

MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t have any information on that. I mean, I’ll look into it, but obviously the Russians and Turks have been talking, talking about coordination, but I don’t have anything to confirm.

QUESTION: In the past, very recent past, you defined these Turkey moves around al-Bab as uncoordinated and not constructive. Do you still see al-Bab offense as uncoordinated and not constructive, or what’s your view on it?

MR TONER: No, I’d say now we’re in regular discussions with Turkey on the operations around al-Bab. We want to help it defeat Daesh. I think there was a recent visit by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – excuse me – Dunford, who met with Turkish chief of staff – or chief of defense, excuse me. And as I said, Special Envoy McGurk, Brett McGurk, also visited Ankara before the holidays to talk about the overall campaign to defeat Daesh. So I can’t – I don’t want to discuss ongoing operations, but we’re obviously coordinating with them.


QUESTION: One more talking point, that on Turkey pro-government made very awful news and cited that the President-elect Trump stated that the President Obama and his Administration founded ISIS and supported ISIS, so that the Turkey now repeating this. What’s your respond to this allegation?

MR TONER: I don’t know where those claims are coming from. Maybe some comments from the campaign. I honestly don’t know what they’re referring to. I don’t think President-elect Trump has ever made that allegation. And as I said, if he did, it was probably from a long time ago, and I don’t think he’s made it again. But again, I can’t speak for the president-elect’s team.


QUESTION: The final question.

MR TONER: I’ll get to you next. I promise.

QUESTION: Turkey, Iran, and Russia are going to convene these new Syria talks in Astana, Kazakhstan --


QUESTION: -- early 2017. Have you been invited?

MR TONER: I don’t believe so.

QUESTION: And how do you view those talks?

MR TONER: So I mean, we talked a little bit about this before when they were first announced. Look, we’re not against any effort to coordinate more closely on the multiple conflicts taking place in Syria – and by multiple conflicts I mean obviously destroying and disabling Daesh but also the civil war and of course the terrible fighting around Aleppo over the past few weeks – as long as it produces results. We talk frequently with the Turks. We talk frequently with the Russians. We’ve also long said that in order to reach some kind of resolution to the conflict in Syria, all the stakeholders need to agree and need to talk to each other. So the fact that Turkey and Russia are holding these kinds of talks is not necessarily something we would disapprove of.

QUESTION: But the U.S. won’t be on the table and --

MR TONER: I understand that. But as I said, we’re obviously talking closely with and communicating frequently with both Russia and with Turkey.

QUESTION: And in this regard, Mark --

MR TONER: I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- Russia’s foreign ministry has said today that Minister Lavrov has discussed a peace plan for Syria with Secretary Kerry today. Do you have any readout for this phone call?

MR TONER: No, they did speak earlier today. I didn’t get a full readout from that conversation. I’m not sure that – frankly, that they discussed Syria, so I’m not sure if it was today or a previous conversation.

QUESTION: That what they said, that they discussed --

QUESTION: That’s what they said then.

MR TONER: That’s what he said?

QUESTION: -- a peace plan for Syria.

MR TONER: I – honestly, I got a very partial readout. I apologize, but I don’t believe Syria was mentioned. If that’s incorrect, I’ll raise it or I’ll --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: Was it about Syria?

MR TONER: I think they talked about Libya.


QUESTION: About Libya? Because this – the ministry had also said that Lavrov informed Kerry that a U.S. decision to ease some restrictions on arming Syrian rebels may lead to more casualties. They’ve also said that it could open the way for the delivery of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

MR TONER: Yeah, this is – I mean, look, this is something that was in the – I think the consent was or the language was in the National Defense Authorization bill that they’ve been – is this what we’re – they’re referring to? I believe so.


QUESTION: That’s right, yeah.

MR TONER: We’ve been very clear. I can --

QUESTION: I’ve heard of that (inaudible).

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I – I mean, my point is this is not a new allegation that we’ve seen from them, and the fact is is that we’re not providing any kind of MANPADS or anything to the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: And they consider this as a hostile act, as the foreign ministry – Russian foreign ministry has said.

MR TONER: Right, but again, we’ve seen this before – this language before, or this kind of rhetoric. I mean, our position on MANPADS has not changed. We’re – we would have a very deep concern about that type of weaponry getting into Syria.

QUESTION: Can we move to Asia?

QUESTION: No. Well, PKK question – on the PKK. There have been repeated stories over the past month in the Iraqi and Kurdish media that Baghdad is paying the PKK in the Sinjar area to train local fighters, the Sinjar Resistance Units. Today, it’s reported that Baghdad and Ankara are discussing that and Baghdad has agreed to stop paying them and help get the PKK out of Sinjar if Turkey withdraws from Bashiq. Since you’ve said and KGR officials have also said the PKK shouldn’t be in Sinjar, have you pressed Baghdad to stop paying those salaries or providing any support to the PKK?

MR TONER: So I – excuse me, I apologize – (coughing) – I don’t want to speak necessarily to the direct allegations that they’re somehow – they’re paying these groups. We believe that the PKK, which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, should have no role in Sinjar. We regard their presence there as a major obstacle to reconciliation, as well as to refugee return, to the return of internally displaced people. And we urge all groups active in Sinjar to facilitate political reconciliation so that these IDPs, these internally displaced people, can return and that the communities that they were driven from can begin to rebuild. And we urge continued close cooperation between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to defeat Daesh and to resolve any other outstanding issues between them.

In terms of whether Baghdad supports the PKK – I mean, that’s something – that’s a question you’d have to ask the Government of Iraq. We believe that the government shares our concern over restoring stability in Sinjar and oppose the PKK presence there.


MR TONER: Let’s go to Asia. Let’s finish up and --

QUESTION: Mark, just – yeah --

MR TONER: Okay, one more, and then we’re going back to this patient crew back here.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you. About these remarks blaming U.S. for supporting ISIS, this debate has started --

MR TONER: Oh, okay. Sorry.

QUESTION: -- has started two weeks ago, if you remember. And the Turkish foreign ministry official talked to the Turkish press and he said that U.S. also accused Turkey in the past for supporting ISIS, and then they give some documentations and it’s turned out that those documentation are false, and then Secretary Kerry apologized to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu personally.

MR TONER: Does this have something to do with the ISIL oil --

QUESTION: Oil smuggling, yeah.

MR TONER: Yeah. In fact – and again, I’m an aging man who doesn’t have quite the memory that he used to have, but I felt like we pretty strongly pushed back on the notion that was repeated by some journalists who aren’t here today that this was somehow some conspiracy that involved the highest levels of the Turkish Government, who were buying ISIL oil. And in fact, we had a senior State Department official who is very expert in energy and oil reserves and how this would work and be smuggled come down and basically sit down with some of you in this room, I know, and basically picked that argument apart about how it would make no economic sense. And in fact, most of the oil that ISIL was able to draw from the ground was sold to third parties immediately, and was kept mostly within Syria. And we were pretty adamant about pushing back against the notion that there was some – as I said, somehow that the Turkish Government was aiding and abetting ISIL in selling off the oil that it was extracting from Syrian wells that it had captured. To the contrary, we said that, again, most of the oil that they pull out of the ground immediately goes into the trucks of smugglers who then oftentimes would sell it back to the Syrian Government or the Syrian regime.

So I don’t know where that --

QUESTION: The thing is, this debate that you – this – the questions coming from the journalists who are trying to understand what’s going on happened after the Russian jet incident at the end of 2015. But this official is referring to a conversation between the two leaders – to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and Secretary Kerry at the end of 2014. Because Secretary Kerry gave a testimony in the U.S. Senate and he said that U.S. – ISIS is selling its oil to some neighboring countries to Syria and one of them is Turkey. And then, Cavusoglu asked an explanation from the Secretary Kerry regarding to the Turkish press, and the Secretary Kerry gave some documentations based on these allegations. And then Turkish intelligence looked at this documentations and they turn out it’s something else, not an ISIS facility or oil facility, but totally different – something total different. And then Secretary Kerry apologized for this.

MR TONER: Well, I’m not aware of that – that he apologized in any way, shape, or form. What I can say is that this is something that we’ve looked at in great detail and I think while we’ve said that you can never say 100 percent that no oil is being smuggled across the border of Syria and Turkey, certainly not in the last several years, certainly not in the last probably – these are centuries-old smuggling routes that are hard to simply shut down completely. But the allegations at the time were that this was somehow condoned or even involved the complicity of the Turkish Government, and I don’t think – across the board we were always --

QUESTION: But there is no apology?

MR TONER: I don’t know. I’m unaware of one if there was.


MR TONER: Yeah. You, sir, in the middle.


QUESTION: Yeah, I’m just going to ask in a moment President Obama and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are going to attend event at the Arizona memorial. So Abe said that he will not offer apology and the Japanese officials quoted him saying he believed Obama did not offer apology at Hiroshima, so it’s okay for him not to apologize at Pearl Harbor. So the question is how do the U.S. think it’s appropriate, not appropriate to compare these two? And is the U.S. still expecting apology to Pearl Harbor attack from future Japanese leader or are you actually just put an end to this part of history, as Abe said?

MR TONER: Well, what we’ve long said about these types of – or these events that took place is that since the end of World War II, the U.S. and Japan have forged a very strong alliance and partnership that has, frankly, brought a measure of peace, stability, and prosperity to the Pacific region that’s never been known before. We have built out of the ashes of that terrible conflict a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship and it’s in that spirit that, whether it was the President’s visit to Hiroshima or whether it was – whether it’s Prime Minister Abe’s visit today to the site of Pearl Harbor and the site of the Arizona – the USS Arizona, that we do so in a spirit of looking forward with a mind on what happened, certainly. We remember what happened, but we want to look forward in this relationship and we want to build on this relationship. We want to make it stronger, partly out of – frankly, out of the memory of those who died in that conflict.

QUESTION: But do you think the past has been settled? Obviously, a year ago, 200 Western historian, many Americans – including, like, Ezra Vogel from Harvard – asked the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to face squarely about history, especially the atrocities in Asia. I mean, so this obviously – and the Chinese foreign minister spokesman also said if Japan does not have a peaceful – peace reconciliation with the China and other victimized country in Asia, Japan can never leave this part of history behind. So what’s your thought on that?

MR TONER: Well, again, we always --

QUESTION: Are we putting a period on that or not?

MR TONER: I mean, we always call for – and it’s not with just respect to Japan, but any country – that we always call for – an historical accounting of past events is always important to moving beyond those events. But look, again, I think the strength of the U.S.-Japanese relationship speaks for itself. We are honored to have the prime minister visit the site of Pearl Harbor, and I’ll leave it there.

Please. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. China has sent their first aircraft carrier toward to the South China Sea (inaudible). Are you aware of that? Do you have any comment on that?

MR TONER: We are aware of this – China’s, as you said, first aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. I don’t have any particular comment. As we often say, we recognize the rights of – and freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries in accordance with international law. As former Admiral Kirby will say, whales and icebergs – or not just for – what’s his thing? Not just for whales and icebergs. Anyway, sorry. I’m blowing it.

QUESTION: Freedom of navigation is not just for --

QUESTION: But this --

MR TONER: Not just for – freedom of navigation is not – thanks, man.

QUESTION: And – but this --

QUESTION: But do you --

MR TONER: Freedom – I want to say it for the record: Freedom of navigation is not just for whales and icebergs. Otherwise I’ll have an email from him later. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Okay. And this operation is close to the Japan and Taiwan. Do you – is it good timing for operation for the freedom of navigation from your perspective? Do you have any concern for the peace and stability in the region?

MR TONER: Well, look, I – again, I don’t – I don’t believe that this was – this was in international waters, and again, as we often make the case with our own naval vessels sailing – in all seriousness, sailing in those same waters, that it’s freedom of navigation, that they – if they are in international waters, they have the right to sail there. And so this – if it holds true for the United States, it should hold true for China, it should hold true for other countries as well.

That it? Last question.

QUESTION: The 2017 national authorization act actually highlight U.S. military exchange with Taiwan. Could you shed some light why this is so this time given the timing? Is that there is more tension between the mainland across strait and Taiwan?

MR TONER: (Coughs.) Excuse me. I’m not sure – what was the first part of your question?

QUESTION: So, obviously, the National Defense Authorization Act this year for 2017 highlights the military exchanges between Taiwan and the U.S. So why you think this is a highlight this time given the tension across the strait?

MR TONER: Well, I don’t know that there’s a – I mean, we’re not seeking to highlight tensions and cross-strait tensions. Our policy with regard to Taiwan is exactly the same, hasn’t changed. We believe in a “one China” policy. There’s been no change to that policy. I don’t have any particular details to add to your question, though, except that we obviously have a strong security relationship with Taiwan.

QUESTION: Mark, can I just have a last question on --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Just go back to the – Secretary Kerry’s speech tomorrow. What does he hope to achieve through this speech? Is it just things that he felt he hasn’t had time to say or, I mean, is he hoping that it would be picked up and taken forward through – into a Trump administration, which is unlikely?

MR TONER: Well, I think that’s always – I mean, that’s always the hope. I think – look, I think he feels it’s his duty in his waning weeks and days as Secretary of State to lay out what he believes is a way towards a peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East. And as we’ve said about other proposals, it’s always important to try to keep the process moving forward, to lay out constructive visions for the future, but also to underscore the fact that we haven’t given up on this and we don’t want the Palestinians or the Israelis to give up on this either.

QUESTION: And lastly – Mark, last one. Can you take this apology question? I mean, can you collect by --

MR TONER: Yeah, sure. I’ll get back to you if we have anything to say about it.

Your last one on South Sudan.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. So the other resolution last week was an arms embargo on South Sudan at the UN.

MR TONER: Yep, yep.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if you can give some insight as to why the U.S. wasn’t able to convince any other Security Council members to vote in favor of it, especially Japan which has peacekeeping operations there. And I guess more broadly, how does that vote reflect on the international community and the Security Council as a whole?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, we did strongly support a Security Council resolution to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan as well as additional targeted sanctions on those who have engaged in actions or policies that threaten the peace, the security, the stability of South Sudan. Obviously, there’s very credible reports of growing violence, refugee outflows of South Sudan, and I think just rising concern over the situation there.

I think that, unfortunately, certain members of the council made the decision to protect some of the parties to the conflict and send a message that they support the status quo in South Sudan. What we don’t want is that the results of this vote be misinterpreted by the perpetrators of violence in South Sudan. We’re going to continue – we, the United States – to be watching their actions closely. We’ll continue to work and demand their accountability. We’re going to work to stop the flow of weapons, and we’re going to work to help prevent violence against civilians there.

Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:50 p.m.)

DPB # 219