Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – September 18, 2015

12:35 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Friday. I know, it’s always a good feeling to say that.

QUESTION: Very happy.

MR TONER: And I will do my best to answer your questions in the next 30 minutes or so, and then I’m – I apologize. Again, I have to run to something that I cannot miss. So several things at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.

Today, as you all know, Secretary Kerry was in London – or is in London, where he met with former Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this morning as well as UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed this afternoon. The Secretary and the UAE foreign minister discussed bilateral and regional issues of mutual concern, and the Secretary and foreign minister agreed on the need to continue working together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region as we begin to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They also discussed recent – excuse me – recent tensions in Jerusalem and spoke about the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, stressing the need for political solutions to those conflicts and continued international focus on humanitarian and refugee assistance.

Just moving along, and then I’ll get to your questions, I did want to note at the top – we’re obviously following reports of the armed attack at the air force base in Badaber this morning in Pakistan. The fact that this attack was apparently directed against people who were worshipping at a mosque and specifically targeting those families who – the families, rather, of Pakistani military is particularly reprehensible. We strongly condemn this attack and extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims. Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists, and the United States stands in solidarity with the people of Pakistan and all who fight terrorism.

I did also want to note – many of you may have seen on B-Net this morning – this morning the Department of State’s Bureau for Diplomatic Security dedicated the Diplomatic Security Memorial in a ceremony at the DS, Diplomatic Security Headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia, and Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken spoke at that ceremony. This memorial, while located in the lobby of DS’s headquarters, honors 137 employees, U.S. military personnel, and contractors, U.S. citizens and foreign nationals as well, who lost their lives in the line of duty while in service to the Department of State, to the U.S. Government, and certainly to the Department[1] of Diplomatic Security.

And moving abruptly but happily to a last remark, I just wanted to say we’re pleased to welcome a delegation of Algerian journalism students. Raise your hands. Are you back there? Yeah, you don’t have to raise your hands, that’s okay. That’s kind of a dweeby thing to ask. But pleased to welcome all of you to – students and reporters in the back of the – I know the transcribers are going to have a difficult time —

QUESTION: I didn’t realize that was in the diplomatic lexicon.

MR TONER: It is. We’re up to date. We’re hip and cool. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I don’t know if —

MR TONER: Is dweeby actually up to date? Sorry.

QUESTION: I don’t think so. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: I’m blowing this topper, I apologize. I start again. (Laughter.) I’m pleased to welcome the delegation of Algerian journalists and students who are in the back of the room visiting us today as part of their trip to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and that is a great institution, well respected. We hope you enjoyed your trip to Washington and have a good stay at the State Department.

And with that, I will answer – or attempt to answer – your questions.

QUESTION: Right. So let’s start with Syria and Russia and the Secretary’s comments this morning in London and also the Defense Secretary’s call to the Russian defense minister. I don’t expect you to talk about that call because it’s not for you to talk about the Pentagon, but I’m wondering: Does the mere fact that the Administration decided to – or does the fact that the Administration decided to accept the Russian offer for military-to-military talks on the situation in Syria and what they’re doing there, does that mean that the Administration has now essentially resigned itself to the fact that the Russians are going to do what the Russians are going to do in Syria?

MR TONER: Well, as you noted in your question, obviously, there was a lot activity this morning. You referred to Secretary Kerry’s remarks in London. Obviously, you also saw and probably got the readout that was issued – Secretary of Defense Carter spoke to his counterpoint – counterpart in the Russian Ministry of Defense.

I think what we’re talking about here is clearly building off of what the Secretary – what Secretary Kerry spoke about the other day – I think it was Tuesday – when he spoke about this dialogue, operational de-confliction, practical conversation or dialogue that we could have with the Russians to further the goals of our counter-ISIL operations – coalition, rather – and ensure the safe conduct of coalition operations. That’s what we’re talking about here. So we are moving forward, as you said in your question.

I don’t think it – I don’t know what the word you used – resigned ourselves to anything. I think we’re trying to seek out more information about what the Russians are doing, what their intentions are – and again, with the emphasis on at an operational level trying to de-conflict what may be happening on the ground to avoid any incidents.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: But to the layperson, I suspect that this looks like you have basically admitted that there’s nothing you can do to prevent the Russians from sending all this military stuff and potentially troops in for whatever reason it is, whether it is to fight ISIL or whether it’s to prop up Assad, and that the opening of this dialogue, I think, suggests to people that even if you’re not okay with it, there’s – you realize that there’s nothing you can do about it and so you’re going to therefore accept it and try to minimize any damage – or eliminate or minimize any damage it might cause.

MR TONER: Well, I do think you’re right in saying that we do see value in a dialogue to de-conflict. We’ve been very clear about that. If the Russians are going to be operating in that space – which is still unclear; we’re still trying to get more information about what their intentions are – then we need to know about it and we need to have a mechanism in place where we can discuss that. And as you rightly said, that would rest with the Pentagon.

More broadly, what’s frankly almost as urgent is the need for a political resolution. We’ve been very clear that we don’t by any stretch of the imagination accept Russia’s premise that somehow Assad can be a credible partner in fighting ISIL. We reject that, in fact. We’ve said that – many occasions from this podium. And so – but recognizing that we still need to talk about a process moving forward that reaches a political resolution to the situation in Syria, but one that ultimately doesn’t include Assad.

QUESTION: Right. But the fact that you’re talking to them about what they’re doing there suggests that – a capitulation to what they’re doing there, that even though you think it would be bad for them to prop up Assad, you’re going to live with it.

MR TONER: Well – yeah, but look – I mean, first of all, this is – what we’re talking about – Russian support for Assad, like Iran’s support for Assad – has been going on for years. We all know that. We’ve seen what we believe might be an uptick in that support —

QUESTION: Right, and that could threaten your very own operations there, and yet you’re —

MR TONER: Absolutely, and that’s why we need to —

QUESTION: And yet you’re willing to allow it to happen or you’re not going to do anything to stop it. You’re –

MR TONER: No, I hear you.

QUESTION: I’m not so much interested in what you would refer me to the Pentagon on in terms of operational de-confliction or whatever the – your term is here.

MR TONER: You’re speaking more —

QUESTION: I’m just thinking of the broader policy idea before the —

MR TONER: Have we accepted a de facto – I understand what you’re asking.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: And I would say we’re trying to get more information. We’re trying to get more clarity on what Russia’s intentions are, what they intend to do. And through this, we’re going to make clear our opposition to any idea or any effort to prop up Assad’s regime and to – because we believe that’s actually counterproductive to any peace process. That’s not going to go away, that side of it. If this does move forward, then we do need some kind of mechanism in place to de-conflict. I think that’s what we’re talking about here.

QUESTION: Did you learn anything new about what they intend to do based on Secretary Carter’s conversation this morning with the Russians?

MR TONER: I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I don’t want to read out his conversation. I think they put out something, actually.

QUESTION: Right. Does that conversation mark the beginning, in your mind, of the mil-to-mil talks? I mean, have they now begun based on that conversation?

MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t say that. I – and again, I’d hesitate to try to characterize the Secretary of Defense’s conversations. As I said, they issued a readout of that conversation. I think what we’re talking about, though, is frankly at a much more operational level, Justin —

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: — which is something – mechanism for de-confliction is one way to put it, whereby, as we say, we can avoid any mishaps or any kind of – any unintended consequences. But again, we’re trying to get greater clarity on what Russia’s role will look like in Syria, or what they’re looking to do.

Please. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, in April last year, the NATO foreign ministers broke off military-to-military conversations with Russia and protested their intervention in Ukraine. Now you’re putting it back on again after they intervened in Syria. Isn’t there a – does this abrogate that former NATO statement?

MR TONER: No, and thank you, actually. I appreciate you bringing that point up. So you’re right; the high-level military-to-military contact and cooperations with Russia that you note that we suspended in response to Russia’s illegal occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea still remains in effect, still remains on hold given Russia’s continued destabilizing actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. That’s not what we’re talking about here, because that’s high-level military-to-military contact. What we’re —

QUESTION: But what do you call it when the Secretary of Defense calls the Russian defense minister? That’s not high-level? That’s about as high as it goes in the military —

MR TONER: This is a mechanism that I’m referring to, not a conversation – a one-off conversation that he’s had with his Russian counterpart. Anyway —

QUESTION: So he hung up and he’s never going to call again. Is that what you’re saying?

MR TONER: (Laughter.) Look —

QUESTION: Never ever?

MR TONER: (Laughter.) But just to finish my response, we want to see, as I said, a de-confliction mechanism put in place if Russia intends to move forward with some kind of new effort on the ground in Syria, again, at a much more operational level to de-conflict in that space.

Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Yeah, a follow-up on that: Would you say that the conversation, this dialogue would be limited to what you call operational de-confliction, or it will be – it will be a broader conversation?

MR TONER: I can’t get – I think I’d be speaking way out ahead of where we are in this process right now to even conjecture that far. I think I’ll stay where we were, which is a mechanism for de-confliction. But obviously, as I said – and the Secretary’s spoken to Lavrov a number of times over the past couple weeks – those conversations are going to continue as we move forward.

Please. You want to stay on Syria, Russia?

QUESTION: Yeah, on Syria. Mark, since you’ve seen that Russia is helping Assad – and I just confirmed clear – and then the other program that you were, like, hoping to do something for you in Syria was the train and equip program and basically, General Austin said that’s, like, almost failing. But the only force that you have – the YPG, the Turkoman, and the other Arabs that are fighting alongside YPG in Syria —

MR TONER: Right, right.

QUESTION: Are you also thinking of a broader sense of cooperation with these forces on the ground, not just the air campaign, supplying them with weapons and helping them with other means that – because Assad will be more powerful than it might have in some – maybe in the future have conflict with them also.

MR TONER: Right. Well, again, I think our support through air – mostly airstrikes is going to continue. We haven’t abandoned in any way our efforts to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces. That’s going to continue. Admittedly, it has not lived up to expectations. We need to do better, I think. The Pentagon’s been very frank in its own self-assessment that it needs to do a better job, that we need to do a better job collectively in vetting these forces and getting them out with the kind of support that they need to carry out anti-ISIL attacks and efforts.

Speaking more broadly, we’re going to continue to support those groups. I don’t want to attempt to conjecture about how that support may change in the coming months. Right now, we’re providing them with, as I said, better air support for any operations that carry out against ISIL via our base in Incirlik or the use of the base in Incirlik thanks to the Turkish Government. Turks are – and including the Turks, are flying these airstrikes. We’re going to continue those efforts and we’re going to look to strengthen overall our efforts going forward, but I don’t want to speak to any specific initiatives.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, but a couple weeks ago, I asked you about the other ways of supporting these forces, not just militarily, also humanitarian, and you said it is underway, like options underway to help those —

MR TONER: Well, we’re —

QUESTION: — and also General Allen with NBC, he also mentioned the same, they’re underway. What does that mean? That – does that mean any other – because I talked to some of the people on the ground in Kobani and they said it is almost impossible to get any support from Turkish side; it might be possible to get it from the Iraqi-Kurdistan border with them. Is there anything, any idea like —

MR TONER: No, it’s okay. I mean, it’s a fair question. I really think it’s a question that’s better suited to Department of Defense, the Pentagon, to answer some of those operational questions. I would just say largely – or globally that we’re looking at the whole situation, how we can improve our efforts. We obviously want to support these groups that are – have been very effective in taking the fight to ISIL, but I don’t want to speak to any specific details at this point.

Please, Michael.

QUESTION: Again on – going back to the —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — diplomatic strategy with Russia and Syria —

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: — kind of touching upon Matt’s question again. Senator Kerry said that —

QUESTION: Secretary.

QUESTION: — a solution cannot be achieved —

MR TONER: I think he’s referring to – are you referring to as a senator he said, or no?

QUESTION: No, Secretary Kerry.

MR TONER: Oh, Secretary Kerry. Okay. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, he said a political settlement cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad. Now, does that indicate from a diplomatic and I guess a military strategy that the urgency of ISIS – is the U.S. willing operationally to cooperate with Russia to defeat the immediate threat of ISIS regardless of Assad’s status? Not that you’d tolerate it; that it’s just —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — not tied, and – but you’re not compromising the principle of long term, he has to go. But in the near term, the military dialogue, would it focus on defeating ISIL immediately?

MR TONER: I don’t think there’s anything necessarily new in that comment. I mean, we’ve been clear all along what we want to see is a political process that leads to or results in an inclusive and representative government for the people of Syria. And we’ve always said that ultimately that cannot include Assad. So at the end of that process, we believe Assad can no longer – he’s no longer legitimate as a leader of Syria.

So that’s not – it’s not a departure from what we’ve long said about this. A political resolution is absolutely critical to one piece of this puzzle that is Syria or conflict that is Syria. The other really important goal here, though, is defeating ISIL. And obviously, we’ve said we would welcome a constructive Russian role in that. But we’ve also said we believe firmly that any effort to strengthen Assad will only prolong the conflict. And so we don’t want to see him get any more support, any beefing up of his forces that have carried out strikes on civilians, barrel bombings, et cetera. We believe that’s counterproductive to our overall aims there.

QUESTION: Mark, are you —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — welcoming calling Russia to join the coalition to fight ISIS, the international coalition?

MR TONER: I’ll leave it where I said, was we would welcome a constructive role for Russia.

QUESTION: And —

QUESTION: Can you give us any kind of an idea about what a constructive role might be?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, first of all, they could end their support for Assad and his regime, but —

QUESTION: Well, that ain’t happening. (Laughter.) And you’ve basically just said that you’re prepared to allow it to continue as long as it doesn’t mess up anything that the coalition —

MR TONER: No, I think – again, I think I’ll just stay where I’ve been, which is that this is a very complex situation on the ground in Syria, but ultimately if Russia’s intention is to bolster Assad’s presence, that’s not —

QUESTION: Right, but —

MR TONER: — productive to the long-term solution of the process. Sorry, just let me finish. But we – but again, we just are clear about that if Russia does want to somehow involve itself in counter-ISIL efforts, that’s something we could look at. I can’t specify what those may look like because we haven’t had those conversations with them.

QUESTION: Right. But you say that we would welcome a constructive Russian role, and the only example of a constructive role that you have offered is for them to do nothing and to stay out.

MR TONER: Well, no. I – again, we haven’t —

QUESTION: That’s —

MR TONER: — had those conversations with Russia specifically about what they —

QUESTION: So that’s what this – so your understanding of the conversations now that are going to happen going forward are that they’re going to be looking at a constructive Russian role?

MR TONER: That’s – again, I’m not going to characterize what those —

QUESTION: Sorry.

MR TONER: — (inaudible). That’s okay.

Michel, please.

QUESTION: The Russians have made clear, Mark, that the Syrian regime is the only force on the ground able to fight ISIS. That means they will support the regime to fight ISIS. And how do you see this statement?

MR TONER: I mean, Michel, you’ve been in this room a long time. You’ve been here since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. This is a regime that’s – and I quoted the statistic, last month a Syrian human rights group came out and said of the thousands of Syrian civilians that were killed last month alone, the vast majority were killed by the Syrian regime, by Assad’s forces. He barrel-bombs his own civilians. He has created the climate that exists in Syria today where we find groups like ISIL and other terrorist groups able to operate freely.

So I mean, there cannot be a role for him to play in this – in a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

QUESTION: And last question for me on this.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: News reports said today that the Administration is considering stopping the train and equip program and considering at the same time creating buffer zones or safe zones in Syria.

MR TONER: I don’t have any announcements or any, frankly, any inkling on that. That’s nothing I’ve heard.

QUESTION: Mark, can we change the subject, please, because there’s little time here?

MR TONER: Yeah, please, because we’re getting – please.

QUESTION: Yeah. Because we do a lot on Syria.

MR TONER: One more on Syria and then we’ll switch. Okay, I promise. Yeah, quick. Quickly. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: The same story —

QUESTION: You said the purpose of the military-to-military talks is to establish mechanism to de-conflict any incidents. Is this to conflict any incident while the Russians are supporting Assad?

MR TONER: Well, again, part of it is understanding what the Russians’ intentions are on very operational terms, what may be going on on the ground, and understanding those and having communications between so we can de-conflict. What they may look like, what their intentions are, what kind of operations, I mean, we just don’t – we’re still seeking clarity on all that stuff, so I don’t want to – yeah.

QUESTION: But they said publicly that they want to support the Assad regime.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Did they imply any new position that they —

MR TONER: I don’t have more to add to that, sorry.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I ask you to comment on the case of Hamid Ghassemi, the American-Iranian citizen from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who is now being detained in Iran? Do you have any idea why he’s being detained and have you had any conversations on his behalf?

QUESTION: Let’s see if you can answer that without using the words, “privacy” and “act.”

MR TONER: Well, that’s a hard thing to do.

QUESTION: What a surprise.

MR TONER: Let me see what I do have on that. I’m afraid it’s going to be insufficient. Yeah. It’s Matt’s favorite line – due to privacy considerations, we can’t comment on this case. But we’ll see what we can get for you. I just don’t have anything more than that at this point. I apologize.

QUESTION: A quick one on Pakistan, the terrorist attack.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: In view of this, what happened today —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — do you think things are getting out of control in Pakistan as far as terrorism is concerned?

MR TONER: I mean, as I was remarking earlier, no country suffers more at the hands of terrorists and extremists than Pakistan. I mean, sadly, today’s attack is horrible, reprehensible, but it’s not new. So we support Pakistan’s continued struggle against these extremist forces, but I don’t know that this is a particularly uptick in those kinds of activities. I think it’s just an ongoing struggle for the Pakistani people.

Please. Yes, please.

QUESTION: Mark, since last time I asked this question about eight or nine days ago, the Turkish press, press freedom in Turkey, we have seen some further crackdowns on Turkey. There’s a journalist yesterday sentenced to six-year jail time for insulting president. The biggest newspaper of Turkey or most influential newspaper of Turkey now under investigation for terror propaganda. There are – every day there are new journalist, without exaggeration, being investigated and sued. My questions is to you that – do you think the Turkish press is going too far criticizing the Turkish Government and this may be – what’s your sense, assessment? Is this the Turkish press should be careful about their editorial?

MR TONER: Look, you’re never going to hear from this government or this podium any attempt to stifle or to suggest censorship on the part of any media anywhere. Obviously, we promote a free and independent media, as you can see from all the many people and different voices and perspectives in this room right now. That’s what we espouse as a pillar of any good, functioning, vibrant democracy. And so we are concerned by the increasing number of investigations into media outlets regarding – or for criticism of the government and for accusations of disseminating terrorist propaganda. And frankly, we’re also concerned about, I would say, the aggressive use of judiciary inquiries to curb free speech in Turkey.

I would note that our ambassador there, John Bass, was actually – recently visited Hurriyet, the offices, and made some of these very same points about the need for a free and vibrant media and to protect that media. As you’ve heard before from myself and from others, the quality of Turkey’s democracy matters to us, and we expect the Turkish authorities to uphold Turkey’s core values, democratic foundations, and universally recognized fundamental freedoms.

QUESTION: Final one. When you talk to Turkish Government on these issues, which is increasing every single day, what kind of – can you tell us what the —

MR TONER: What kind of response?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: I just can’t give that. I mean, we convey our concerns, but it’s – we often – or not often. We rarely every characterize what we hear back in response. That’s not our place to do so.

Did you —

QUESTION: I was going to say “thank you.”

MR TONER: Oh. Thank you. Thank you for trying. Very quickly, the last couple of questions, guys.

QUESTION: What’s the status of the U.S. diplomatic staff in Burkina Faso, and are you prepared to say what happened there this week was indeed a coup?

MR TONER: No update on any of the – on the situation that we – from where it was yesterday. I believe it was relatively calm overnight. We’re obviously still looking at this. We haven’t changed our assessment from yesterday. I don’t want to speak to the security posture of the embassy – we don’t like to do that – but obviously, we’re watching the situation very closely and taking all steps to ensure that all Americans in Burkina Faso are aware of the changing situation and kept abreast of that and taking appropriate security measures.

QUESTION: Can you say if they’re being asked to move out, or —

MR TONER: I don’t have an update at this point from yesterday. I’ll check on that.

QUESTION: Turkey?

MR TONER: Yeah, please, one last.

QUESTION: Yeah. Will you welcome the PKK’s call for bilateral ceasefire ahead of the elections? They called for bilateral ceasefire and having a third party, including —

MR TONER: You’re asking —

QUESTION: The PKK asked —

MR TONER: Has called for a bilateral ceasefire?

QUESTION: Yeah, with Turkish Government, with both sides committed to the ceasefire, not only the PKK, which in the past that happened.

MR TONER: Our stance on that – PKK is a foreign terrorist organization. That’s how we view it. We want to see them cease their violent attacks on Turkish authorities, Turkish people. When we get past that, when – we urge restraint on all sides, obviously, but we obviously want to see ultimately a place – get to a place where a credible peace or reconciliation process can take place.

Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:02 p.m.)