Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
November 23, 2015
Index for Today's BriefingISIL BURUNDI ARGENTINA RUSSIA/IRAN SYRIA/ISIL SOUTH KOREA ISRAEL/PALESTINIANS IRAQ MALI NIGERIA TURKEY BURUNDI SAUDI ARABIA BELGIUM IRAN TERRORISM
2:09 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Chill in the air today. Anyway, happy Monday, everyone, on this, the last few days before Thanksgiving. Welcome to the State Department. A few things at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.
First of all, as many of you already know due to the Media Note that we put out just a little while ago, Vice President Biden today joined senior diplomatic representatives from many of the 65 members of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL at the State Department to review progress made and discuss where we can redouble and expand our efforts as a coalition. Coalition partners were clear that they stand in solidarity against the recent heinous attacks and in their commitment to work together in defeating ISIL.
Vice President Biden also reconfirmed the unwavering commitment of the United States to work with coalition partners to degrade and destroy this unprecedented terrorist threat. And Special President Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat – to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, in his remarks outlined the current state of the campaign to push back on ISIL in Iraq and Syria through a strategy of pressuring ISIL across multiple lines of effort. He, of course, spoke to many of you about this on Friday.
Moving along, I wanted to talk a little bit about the new sanctions against Burundi. This morning President Obama issued an executive order authorizing Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in consultation with Secretary Kerry to sanction individuals responsible for actions and/or policies that promote violence; threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burundi; or undermine the democratic processes or institutions there. Additional individuals can be added under this authority, and we’ll consider how to further use it to impose additional sanctions against those exacerbating the situation in Burundi as we go forward.
And then finally, I did want to just note, as many of you saw, Secretary Kerry issued a statement congratulating President-elect Marcio – Mauricio, excuse me, Macri of Argentina and look forward – looks forward to working closely with his new administration. We’re confident that the United States and Argentina will work closely to promote regional security and prosperity, and to enhance human development and human rights both within our hemisphere and across the globe.
Now your questions.
QUESTION: Can we start with --
MR TONE: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the meeting between Russian President Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei?
MR TONER: We can.
QUESTION: The supreme leader is quoted as saying, quote, “The Americans have a long-term plot and are trying to dominate Syria and then the whole region. This is a threat to all countries, especially Russia and Iran.” And again, quote, “The United States is trying to achieve its failed military objectives in Syria now through political means.” Do you have any comment on that? Are you trying to achieve domination of the Middle East?
MR TONER: Well, Arshad, I don’t have any specific comments to those remarks. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s somewhat of a continuation or a pattern that we’ve seen from the supreme leader in terms of bellicose rhetoric and over-the-top rhetoric about the United States and our intentions.
You know very well what we’re trying to accomplish in Syria and in the region writ large. And I would say we’re trying to find, especially in Syria, a peaceful resolution to that ongoing conflict there.
QUESTION: Two other just quick things, if I may, on Iran.
MR TONER: Sure, please.
QUESTION: One is there is yet another story about the S-300 sale by Russia to Iran, and it quotes a senior Iranian official as saying that Russia has started the process of the sale. And it’s not clear to me if that means delivery or not. Do you have any reason to believe that Russia has actually begun delivery of that system?
MR TONER: No. Arshad, I looked into that myself. I saw the reports and basically don’t have much to add. We’ve seen progress, as you said, reported about the delivery of these S-300 defensive missile systems. All I can say is we’ve made clear time and again our objections to any sale of the S-300 missile system to Iran. And the Secretary’s raised it privately with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well. So --
QUESTION: And then just one last one --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- for me on Iran. Is – we understand that Stephen Mull, who is the U.S. diplomat in charge of implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, is going to meet with Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Aragchi in Vienna tomorrow. What’s the – one, is that correct? Two, what’s the main purpose of that meeting?
MR TONER: You know what? I’ll have to take the question and find out. I’m not aware of that meeting.
QUESTION: Can we go back to your statement about the meeting the Vice President was having this morning? Is it fair to say that now there is a double line of efforts against ISIS – one a fight against the core of the group in Syria and Iraq, and another one against its network which is able to strike in Europe or in other countries?
MR TONER: I mean, yes. I mean, I think it is fair to say that we’ve got to be able to do both in order to confront the threat it poses. Certainly – and we’ve talked a lot about this over the past couple weeks, but we’ve made progress, some progress on reducing the territory that it controls within northern Syria as well as Iraq. We’ve seen some advances, but we acknowledge that it’s going to be a long struggle. And then we’ve also seen clearly that ISIL is carrying through on its intentions to carry out terror strikes in the heart of Europe. It’s threatened the United States. It’s threatened other places around the world.
So that’s a very real threat. The Secretary has spoken to this many times. The President has spoken to it. So we’ve got to be vigilant in that regard and we’ve got to do more. We’re already – especially with Europe but all of our regional partners, we’re already, in terms of intel sharing, in terms of cooperation, security cooperation, working quite closely. But we’ve got to look at ways we can augment that effort. It’s hard and it requires kind of 24 – not kind of. It requires 24/7 vigilance and – in an attempt to disrupt these attacks before they take place. I mean, we saw inklings of this this weekend in Brussels, where they clearly were acting on intel.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: -- on this point?
MR TONER: Please. Okay, you want to stay on this? Sure. Did you have --
QUESTION: Yeah, on this very topic.
MR TONER: I’ll go to him and then to you.
QUESTION: On the – I mean, today the President said that he’s willing to basically lock hands with President Putin of Russia to fight ISIS. How will that translate practically on the ground, I mean, considering that maybe there is going to be some sort of special forces, American special forces sent into Syria? There is a lot of military activities by the Russians and so on. How will this work together?
MR TONER: Well, again, I wouldn’t – let’s not get too far out in front of ourselves here. The President has also been very clear that says – in saying that we would welcome a genuine effort by Russia to carry out its airstrikes against – primarily against ISIL targets. Thus far we’ve seen mixed results, and certainly even before the Paris bombings very little targeting of ISIL. We can – all that remains to be seen. But if – I think the first bridge to cross is: Is Russia on board in carrying out the preponderance if not all of its airstrikes against ISIL? Otherwise, if it’s just there to simply strengthen Assad’s hold on power, that’s not productive.
QUESTION: But the President --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: -- sort of made sure to mention that in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian airliner --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- and the Paris bombing, there seems to be – things have changed, that maybe even Russia’s behavior may have changed to warrant such a cooperation. Is that – is that what he means by --
MR TONER: Well, I mean, again, the last couple of weeks have made clear that – of ISIL’s intentions beyond the region carrying out terror, terrorist activity, terror strikes. Paris – again, we saw this weekend with the terror threat in Belgium raised to its highest level in Brussels in particular. These are very real concerns, and I think everyone has felt it, including Russia with the downing of that airliner in Egypt.
So we all agreed, and coming out of Vienna last time it was made clear once again – everyone agrees that ISIL is the ultimate enemy here, but you’ve also got to resolve the ongoing civil conflict carried out by Bashir al-Assad against his own people. That’s got to be a piece of this as well. But that said, everybody in – of the stakeholders that are – sat around that table in Vienna agree that ISIL has to be eliminated, destroyed --
QUESTION: And my last --
MR TONER: -- and degraded.
QUESTION: Yeah. My last question on this --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: I mean, seeing that they all agree that the ultimate enemy is ISIL and that it must be destroyed – not only depleted its forces – what would prevent, really, a – sort of the concerted kind of effort that ought to be there to defeat this enemy by the French, by the British, by the United States, and by the Russians in the --
MR TONER: You said what would be – I missed the part --
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, what would stop having some sort of a coherent, comprehensive plan by all these people --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- whether it’s intelligence sharing or even --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- or even military strikes against this enemy?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, look, Said, a lot of this is already happening. As we’ve said before and talked about last Friday, nearly two dozen nations right now are contributing in some way to the actual military campaign against ISIL. They’ve carried out more than 8,000 airstrikes. Fifteen countries have deployed personnel to help train and equip local forces in Iraq in particular. There’s 25 coalition partners who are helping to stabilize areas in Iraq that have been liberated from ISIL.
So this is – the coalition is a year old. Everyone recognizes that everyone in it needs to do more. We need to look at where we’ve been successful and to augment those efforts and accelerate what we’re doing, because the threat is real.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- on Syria, a news report said today that Turkey has started already to establish its security zone on the border with Syria through Syrian militias and with the help of the United States. What can you say about that?
MR TONER: I haven’t seen those reports, Michel. I’ll take a look at them. Look, we’re going to continue to cooperate with Turkey in that part, especially along its border there that’s still exposed to ISIL. It’s the last remaining piece of Turkey’s border that’s exposed in such a way, and obviously, Turkey has very real concerns about the security of its border. So we’re working with them very closely on how to address that. I don’t have anything specific in terms of operations, though, to talk about.
QUESTION: And regarding Secretary Kerry’s trip to UAE, he’s there to – in an effort to unite the Syrian opposition. How can UAE help in this regard, and how can Saudi Arabia do the same thing?
MR TONER: Well, it takes, I think, a number of different partners, regional partners, to use their influence to help identify and really cultivate these groups together into a cohesive Syrian opposition. Certainly, that was part of the discussion today. They also talked about other regional issues as well – not just Syria, but certainly, Syria was a major topic. There was the trilateral discussion as well – which you may be referring to with Saudis – as well.
I think that’s all part of, again, coming out of Vienna, trying to keep the momentum going, moving on what was agreed upon in Vienna, which is the timeline towards a political process. And a key part of that is identifying who among the Syrian opposition is representative of Syria, of Syria – of the Syrian opposition, rather.
QUESTION: And my last question --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. be represented in the Syrian coalition meeting in Saudi Arabia next month?
MR TONER: I didn’t hear the first part of your question. I apologize.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. send someone to represent it at this meeting?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t have anything to announce at this time. I’ll have to check on that.
QUESTION: Yeah, another one on Syria.
MR TONER: Let’s finish Syria first.
QUESTION: Could you imagine to have a unique, great coalition against ISIL, including the Russians? And is it something which will be discussed tomorrow between the French president and the U.S. president?
MR TONER: Well, Nicolas, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say, yes, we can imagine collaborating, cooperating with Russia beyond the kind of very barebones de-confliction mechanism that we have in place now. But we still need to see action on Russia’s part and confirm that its actions are directed against ISIL on the ground. But if Russia is serious about taking the fight to ISIL, then we can see a cooperative role for it.
QUESTION: On Syria as well?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There are indications now that ISIS seems to be dispersing some of its command and control structure outside of Raqqa in response to some of the air activity in recent weeks. Can you say anything about how this might be affecting the coalition’s efforts? Is this a good thing? Is this a positive development?
MR TONER: Sure. It’s always – as my colleague John Kirby is fond of saying, we’re not the best suited to give these kinds of operational assessments of what’s happening on the ground in northern Syria. Speaking broadly, it shows the effect that our airstrikes and the pressure that we’re putting on ISIL is having, but of course they’re going to try to adapt. They’re a very resilient enemy. We’ve said along that they’re – this is going to be a long struggle. We’ve got to continue to pursue them. And one of the keys to doing that, I think, is – as we’ve talked many times about – is really developing the capacity of these local forces who have been effective against ISIL thus far, whether it’s through supplies, whether it’s through training, whether it’s through close air support, whether it’s in cities or whether they’re dispersed, but how to bring the fight to them directly.
QUESTION: And then also, Secretary Kerry gave an interview this morning and he hinted that there is some additional actions that the U.S. has taken recently besides the addition of Special Forces in Syria that – kind of actions on the ground. Can you enlighten us a little bit about what he was talking about?
MR TONER: I’m not specifically sure what quote you’re --
QUESTION: What he said specifically was, “The President, even in the last weeks before Paris took place, made major decisions to put additional people on the ground – Special Forces – and took additional steps, some of which I can’t talk about online here, but he has already taken these steps.” What are those steps?
MR TONER: If he can’t talk about them, I certainly can’t talk about them.
QUESTION: Two questions on Syria? Two quick questions.
MR TONER: Please, and then I’ll get over to you. Yeah.
QUESTION: Russian air force has been striking the Turkmen positions and causing heavy casual --
MR TONER: Casualties, yeah. Casualties, yeah, that’s --
QUESTION: -- casualties in attack, yeah – Syria.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Turkey protested Russia for these attacks. Are these attacks concerning for the State Department?
MR TONER: I’ve not seen those reports specifically, so it’s hard for me to address their credibility. I just would have to look. We believe that the Turkmen – we’ve said that many times – are actually an effective fighting force, one of those local fighting forces that we’ve been trying to support in taking the fight to ISIL. I just don’t have any ground truth there. I apologize.
QUESTION: Did Secretary Kerry make any phone calls with Turkish Foreign Minister Sinirlioglu over the weekend about this issue?
MR TONER: He did speak with the Turkish foreign minister on Friday, but I don’t have any readout for you. I imagine they spoke broadly about efforts in Syria. I don’t know if they specifically talked about that.
QUESTION: Syria? Syria, ISIL?
MR TONER: Syria. Yeah, Syria.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The U.S. says Russia has not been focused on fighting ISIL. Russia says it has been focused on that, and one way to do that, Russia says, is by supporting the Syrian army. I understand that’s a difference in strategy, and former Director of the CIA Mike Morell said – suggested that the coalition should help the Syrian army with some temporary arrangement with President Assad. I wonder if there are people in the Administration now who suggest the same.
MR TONER: Those are – if there were, I wouldn’t share that kind of information or those kinds of discussions here in public. What I would say is that in general when it comes to Syria, when they do have high-level discussions, many different scenarios, many different options are put on the table. That’s the way these things work. But if you’re specifically talking about supporting the Assad regime – which, let’s be clear, has carried out a four-and-a-half-year brutal campaign against largely moderate Syrian opposition – and I said largely – it’s hard to see them as a credible player in confronting ISIL.
But let me pivot and just say what we want to do, working with Russia, working with Iran, working with other stakeholders in the region, is put in place as quickly as possible this political process that moves us to a transitional government so that everyone can focus all of their efforts on defeating ISIL on the ground. Speaking broadly about – you mentioned that there’s a – it’s a difference of opinion. Yeah, it is. I mean, that’s an accurate assessment.
QUESTION: Is that question being discussed in any way?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you --
QUESTION: Is that option being discussed in any way, supporting the Syrian army in the fight against ISIL?
MR TONER: Not at this time.
QUESTION: One more. So as we know, President Obama has ordered an investigation into allegations that Pentagon reports on ISIL were altered to support the Administration’s policy. Could it be that the U.S. intelligence reports on what Russia has been doing in the fight against ISIL were also tainted by politics?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. All I can say is that we’re very transparent as a government, I think, in addressing questions about the accuracy of the intelligence that we’re getting. That’s standard. We all have inspector generals, including the State Department, who can look at some of these issues. That’s what they exist to do, and they run independently of the departments that they – over which they have purview. That’s part of their function, so they’ll look at all of these issues.
With regard to your question about whether that – whether that would also be true against intelligence or information assessments that we’ve had against Russia, I haven’t seen any of those allegations made.
QUESTION: Former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn, said that his agency’s intelligence on ISIL from three years ago was ignored by the Administration because it did not fit the narrative. Is the Administration selective when choosing what intelligence to go with and what intelligence to ignore?
MR TONER: Again, those are comments by one individual. I think there is a process under way to look at the credibility of those allegations, so I won’t speak to it any further from here.
QUESTION: What --
QUESTION: Why has the President launched this --
MR TONER: One last question, sure.
QUESTION: Just one, yes.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Why has the President launched this investigation? Can you clarify?
MR TONER: Because, again, that’s part of the normal process, to be perfectly honest. When there’s credible allegations or any allegations, there are mechanisms in place to look at those. Again, it’s part of the transparency of our government, and we’ve done that not just with regard to ISIL or, I mean, it’s – or necessarily the Department of Defense. It’s done in many agencies on many different issues.
QUESTION: Can you say a little bit more about why these allegations are credible? A little bit specific – more specifically about the allegations?
MR TONER: No, I mean, I’ll just say that, again, there’s a process underway to look at them. The President’s spoken to that. Let’s let that process take place and then see what comes. For me to talk about it now is inappropriate.
Please, who’s next?
QUESTION: On Syria.
MR TONER: Who’s – are we still on Syria, Iraq?
QUESTION: On Syria too.
MR TONER: I know you want to move. Do you want to move or to Syria?
QUESTION: Move to South Korea.
MR TONER: Okay, let’s stay – let’s finish that subject. You and then in the back.
QUESTION: On – also on Iraq.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Under Secretary Tony Blinken visited Erbil, I think, today.
MR TONER: He did.
QUESTION: Do you have any readout on that? And what exactly he’s trying to achieve in this visit?
MR TONER: I don’t. I tried to get a readout before coming out here and I just wasn’t able to.
QUESTION: The other thing is on the refugee program. I got some information from the Hill that you have a – several contractors to hire new people to help you, like increasing the manpower for the refugee program, because you increased the number of the people who are coming --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- to this country, especially the Syrians. So the assessment report, the company sent it to Congress that you have a lot of people – the contractors – they have no experience in the Middle East, they have no experience in the refugee program, and they are just fresh out of the college or somebody who had been trained for two or three weeks and you are sending to them, and that the concern on the Hill is that how can these people – can either assess that the refugees coming to United States are safe or even they might refuse them because of their lack experience or the fear that these people might not be safe to go to the United States?
MR TONER: So first of all, I’m not aware of the report you’re referring to, so I’d have to look at it and look what its findings are. We stand steadfastly behind the screening process that we have in place for incoming refugees – not just Syrians – but we’ve said many times in the past couple weeks Syrians are actually held to a higher standard. It’s a process that takes upwards of a year to even up to 18 months. It’s rigorous, it involves multiple agencies, and I know many of the people involved in this and they’re anything but fresh out of college.
Looking to augment the intake of these refugees – as we’ve said, at least 10,000 in the coming year – certainly, we’re going to have to ramp up our personnel in order to process these because it’s such a rigorous and long process to get these people processed and placed. But I can assure you that, as we’ve said many times, first and foremost is the – in our minds – or front and center in our minds, rather, as we look at this process is the security of the United States and of all Americans. And that will be front and center as we move forward in any kind of augmentation of our personnel and staff to – in order to accelerate our efforts.
QUESTION: But you can confirm that you have these inexperienced people going there, right? The contractors.
MR TONER: I cannot confirm, no. I would – again, without having seen the report, I’m disinclined to push back on any of its findings, so I simply would say we stand by the rigor of our screening process.
In the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. There was an interview with the Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani in a French newspaper recently – last week, actually. He said that he’s willing to offer his Peshmerga forces to help in the liberation of Raqqa, and the foreign minister of France welcomed those comments. Do you also welcome the participation of the Peshmerga in the would-be liberation of Raqqa?
MR TONER: A couple of points. I have not seen the interview, so – but as we saw just in the past couple of weeks, in Sinjar, the Peshmerga have been highly effective. They’re strong fighters, a very effective fighting force. We’ve been, obviously, providing them with close air support as we’ve been doing all along, and we’ve been continuing to supply them, equip them as they carry out these – their efforts against ISIL under the command and control of the Iraqi military, of the Iraqi Government, so that’s always been our premise here. All of our efforts in Iraq are designed to build the capacity of Iraqis – Iraq’s security forces to defend themselves and defend their territory. And so any kind of decision like that would have to be done with the consent of the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: Are you generally okay with the Iraqi Kurdish forces to go to Syria, like they went to Kobani, to help retake Raqqa from ISIS?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to deal with hypotheticals. But the Peshmerga are indeed effective partners.
Are we switching? If we’re switching, I have to go to – are you – you still on Syria, or --
QUESTION: Yeah. I want to stick to the plenary meeting. May I?
MR TONER: On Syria?
QUESTION: The plenary meeting, yeah.
MR TONER: Okay. Wait --
QUESTION: It’s South Korea --
MR TONER: South Korea? Okay.
QUESTION: Yes. On the passing of the --
MR TONER: I’m not sure where – I didn’t understand what you – the plenary --
QUESTION: The plenary – the meeting that was held this morning.
MR TONER: Oh, okay. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Should I --
MR TONER: Wasn’t sure what you were referring to. I apologize.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry. So --
MR TONER: I’ll get to you. I swear, I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: -- was Vice President Biden there the whole time? And how long was the meeting?
MR TONER: I don’t know if he was there the whole time. I think he gave remarks and – but in fact, he issued a – or they will issue a readout from the Vice President’s office. And this was --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) different from the readout you guys put out?
MR TONER: Well, not all that much different, but obviously, hitting on the same points. But there was a number of countries – I think the foreign ministers of Bahrain and senior diplomats from France, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, and Turkey also talked about their own efforts involved – their own involvement in the coalition as well as their efforts and operations in Iraq, as well as enhancing humanitarian aid and increasing the information sharing among coalition members. So it was a long discussion. There were a lot of interlocutors, is my point here. I’m not sure how much of that the vice president was able to stay for, but he was certainly there for a good length of time.
QUESTION: One more thing. I’m curious if there were any countries --
MR TONER: Excuse me.
QUESTION: -- of the coalition who were asking the United States for more help on the ground, to have more troops on the ground. Was that a discussion that was held?
MR TONER: I don’t want to get into the details. It was a private diplomatic discussion, so – I’ve given you a readout, but I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty.
Now your turn.
MR TONER: You look grumpy now.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. On the --
MR TONER: I just – we need to exhaust a topic; that’s all.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s a easy one. (Laughter.) On the passing of former South Korean President Kim Young-sam. Can you comment on this?
MR TONER: Well, we all obviously heard the news yesterday. And you saw that the White House put out a statement, certainly conveying the heartfelt condolences of the – of all Americans to the people of the Republic of Korea for the passing of former President Kim Young-sam. As this statement noted, President Kim led the Korean people through one of the most challenging periods of transition to democracy as well as set a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power in South Korea. So we certainly mourn his loss – or mourn his death, rather.
QUESTION: Will State Department send someone at funeral ceremony to --
MR TONER: Yes. I don’t have anything – obviously, you’re talking about the delegation that would attend a funeral. I just don’t have anything to announce right now. Once we do have that delegation, we’ll let you know, or the White House will.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Go to the Secretary’s trip?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: As Secretary Kerry gets ready to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders tomorrow, what is he bringing with him? What does he – what does he hope to achieve? I mean, seeing how volatile the situation is – it’s probably been the worst since he was there last, during the summer of 2014.
MR TONER: Right. Right. And there were just recently – even violence today. The Secretary actually spoke to this in a roundtable earlier he did with journalists in the UAE. And he said it best: We’ve got to keep trying. We’ve got to keep sitting down at the table with all sides to get some concrete steps in place to try to calm things down and to try to reverse this kind of ongoing cycle of violence and reduce the rhetoric, as we’ve talked about many times. But we still need to see – and this isn’t something we can from one day to the next change. But we’ve got to see efforts on both sides to reduce tension.
QUESTION: Seeing that maybe restarting the talks is a tall order at this time, does he have any kind of concrete suggestions – perhaps lowering the number of checkpoints, or allowing more entry of Palestinian workers, or something like this? Does he have real, tangible things that he’s going to present to the Israelis and to the Palestinians in order to get some sort of – or to defuse the tensions?
MR TONER: Sure. I think – I mean, again, as he said, we do have ideas. Some of those ideas coming out of the previous trip to Jordan and to – and meetings about putting cameras up and being able to provide that kind of transparency or surveillance – but there’s other concrete measures that can be taken. I’m not going to necessarily preview them right now. But I think that’s part of the impetus for this trip, is just to not lose any momentum in trying to get down – or continue to talk about steps that I said both sides can take to end the violence.
QUESTION: What kind of steps? I mean, I’m sorry, but I just --
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: -- wonder --
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: -- what kind of steps can both sides take? I mean, you want the Palestinians to --
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: -- let’s say, tone down the rhetoric, if there is any --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- and the Israelis to stop building settlements? That kind of thing?
MR TONER: Right. I mean, that’s exactly right. I mean, those are again – again, we’ve made no link between settlements and the violence. You know what our policy is regarding settlements.
QUESTION: You don’t believe there is a link between settlements and the violence?
MR TONER: Let me continue. But what we need to see is a focused and concentrated effort on both sides on reducing the level of rhetoric and, again, finding steps that can build confidence, that can reduce tensions, and as I said, end this cycle of day-to-day daily violence that’s ongoing that’s really in no one’s interest and only serve to perpetuate the tensions. I’m not going to get into specifics. That’s for him to discuss on the ground with Palestinian leaders as well as with Israeli authorities.
QUESTION: And lastly, what do you expect Mahmoud Abbas to do in, let’s say, the Jerusalem larger area because he does not exercise any control over it? Most of the flashpoints in Area C, which really he does not control either – in fact, the Israelis just keep going into an area that he should exercise sovereignty over, which is Area A. So what do you expect him to do to basically lower the level of violence?
MR TONER: Your essential question is you – you’re saying, do we believe he has control over the – over the --
QUESTION: Right, right. I mean, he does not exercise any authority or control over the Jerusalem area.
MR TONER: Well, he is the – he represents the Palestinian leadership. We do believe he still has influence and authority, and we want to see him take concrete steps to reduce the tensions. But – yeah, please.
QUESTION: On Iraq. Mark, I don’t know if you are aware there are units of the Turkish army inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Since ‘90s it has been there. So there were some rumors that these units were mobilized last week toward Mosul and Tal Afar and Sinjar, other area, and there were kind of fear because in Sinjar you have Peshmerga and you have YPG and other forces, and they have sensitivity with the Turkish army. In any case of scenario that’s true, would you – do you think this is a good idea for the Turkish army, not the Turkish air power, to participate on like ground forces to retake Mosul or to participate in taking Tal Afar and other areas?
MR TONER: Well, you brought up – you had an important qualifier, if this were true. We’ve seen no – nothing to corroborate those reports. In fact, I haven’t seen those reports. Thus far we haven’t seen any willingness for Turkey to actually put troops on the ground in Iraq. And so it’s hard for me to –
QUESTION: You don’t think it’s a good idea to do that?
MR TONER: I’m not going to say it’s a good or bad idea. I’m just going to say they haven’t – that would be – anything that they would offer would have to be with the acceptance of the Iraqi Government, so I’d refer you to the Iraqi Government for their thoughts on that.
MR TONER: Please, yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you go to Mali?
MR TONER: Yeah. I’ll get to you next.
QUESTION: On Friday, the State Department was still looking into accounting for American citizens who may have been in the hotel at the time of the attack. Can you now say that beyond the one American death that we’re aware of that there were no other American casualties or injuries?
MR TONER: So thank you for your question. Yeah, obviously, as many of you saw on Friday, we did confirm the death of an American citizen, Anita Datar, who was killed in the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. And obviously, we express our deepest condolences to her family and her friends; and obviously, we’re also providing all possible consular assistance to them. We can also confirm that all embassy or chief-of-mission personnel who were at the hotel at the time of the attack are accounted for.
Just to clarify, when we use that term of art, “chief-of-mission personnel,” there was some confusion on Friday. I know from several people who came up to me after and thought that that meant that the chief of mission – the ambassador – was at the hotel. That’s not what we’re saying at all. It just means under the authority of the chief of mission. So just to clarify that for you.
But any of them – all chief-of-mission personnel who were at the hotel have been accounted for. And we’re not aware of any U.S. citizens who were injured, but around a dozen U.S. citizens, including some chief-of-mission personnel, were rescued from the hotel. And our embassy there is providing consular assistance to them.
We’re still in the process of and making every effort to account for any remaining or other U.S. citizens who happened to be in the city of Bamako. We talk about this a lot, but we don’t require U.S. citizens abroad to register, so it’s a bit of a long process to try to account for them and make sure that they’re taken care of and in good shape.
QUESTION: Are you aware of any that are unaccounted for?
MR TONER: I just don’t think we have a solid – no, I see your question. No, but we’re just in the process of trying to account for --
QUESTION: And just one other one, just so there’s perfect clarity. Can you explain what – who are the people that fall under the chief of mission’s authority?
MR TONER: Sure. That would be embassy staff, USAID, U.S. Agency for International Development personnel. Any other U.S. Government agencies that were operating in the country – I don’t have a list in front of me but who are under – would be under the authority of the chief of mission.
QUESTION: And then also, has the U.S. been involved at all in ascertaining the credibility of some of these claims of responsibility that have been coming out?
MR TONER: No, we’ve seen the African jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida, I think al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility. We’ve seen other groups claim responsibility. We just want to let the investigation run its course.
QUESTION: Do you know exactly how the U.S. citizens has been killed? Was it during – I mean, she has been killed by the hostage takers or during the assault by the Malian special forces?
MR TONER: Yeah. I don’t have specifics on her – the cause of death.
MR TONER: Let’s --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Have you seen reports that there were 21 young college students arrested in Delta State for same-sex sexual acts? Have you seen those reports? And if so, any comment on that?
MR TONER: So we’ve seen reports. We’ve looked into them. We just haven’t gotten any – any credible reports back or other – or we haven’t been able to confirm their credibility or their veracity. We’re looking into it. We obviously take LGBT issues very seriously, and it’s something we raise consistently with the Nigerian Government. But in terms of this specific case, we just don’t have any more details.
QUESTION: This is the latest in a long series of incidents that have come out of Nigeria over the last year, and especially with the new president, Buhari, who took office a few months ago. Have you – has the State Department had any specific conversations with his administration over this issue of this – these crackdowns?
MR TONER: We do raise LGBTI issues in our meetings with Nigerian authorities. I don’t know at what level. I don’t know if it’s reached the president’s ears. But certainly, it’s a matter of discussion in our meetings with them.
MR TONER: Turkey.
QUESTION: USA Today last Friday reported that Pennsylvania-based Turkish Iman Fethula Gulen-led Gulen movement has made hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth improper donations to members of Congress and political candidates. American newspapers previously reported that Gulen movement organized congressional trips for members of Congress to an unregistered Istanbul-based nongovernmental organization. Trips were secretly funded. There are also at least 1,000 arrest warrants pending for Imam Gulen in Turkey.
In the light of these reports, what is the State Department’s view on Gulen movement?
MR TONER: On the Gulen movement? I’d have to look into these reports and these allegations. I haven’t seen them myself. I’d have to get back to you on that.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Thanks for the readout of Burundi. Another related issue is the Burundi Government has suspended the license for 10 NGO organization for allegedly the role of playing a failed coup attempt. Do you want to address that?
MR TONER: I don’t. I mean, I don’t have any information. I’m aware of the reports, but I don’t have any further information on whether they’re actually credible or not. Sorry.
QUESTION: Can I – can I squeeze in --
QUESTION: On Burundi also?
MR TONER: I’ll see if I have anything for you. I just don’t.
QUESTION: -- a question on Saudi Arabia?
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Okay. Are you following up on the sentence to death of a Palestinian poet allegedly for apostasy? And have you spoken to the Saudis on this issue?
MR TONER: John spoke to this on Friday, but we – we don’t have specific details. We can confirm reports or we’ve seen reports about the case. We strongly oppose any laws that restrict the exercise of freedom of expression and religion, and we’d urge all countries to uphold those rights in practice. These are, in fact, universal rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So in terms of raising it and at what level with the Saudis, I’m just not sure. We do raise consistently human rights concerns with the Saudis. I don’t know if this particular case has been raised with them.
QUESTION: Yeah, on this particular case, is it being raised outside the podium?
MR TONER: I didn’t hear what you said.
QUESTION: Outside of what you just said, is it being raised at any other level? Like this very case --
MR TONER: I don’t know.
QUESTION: -- has it been discussed?
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean – I --
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t know at what level it’s been raised. As I said, we do raise human rights concerns with the Saudis consistently. I just don’t know if this particular case.
QUESTION: On Belgium?
MR TONER: In Belgium? Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. What’s the status of U.S. embassy in Brussels given that Belgium raised terror alert to the highest level?
MR TONER: Sorry – what was your question again? About the --
QUESTION: What is the status of U.S. embassy given that --
MR TONER: Okay, thank you. Sorry.
QUESTION: -- Belgium raised the terror alert to the highest level?
MR TONER: So the U.S. embassy – sorry – is obviously – given events over this past weekend, it did issue several security messages over the weekend urging U.S. citizens in Brussels to shelter in place or remain at home. The November 22nd security message from the U.S. embassy spoke of local closures scheduled for November 23rd, and the U.S. embassy itself – as you know, that’s only one part of the bilateral embassy. There’s obviously our mission to NATO as well as our mission to the EU – but the U.S. embassy offered only emergency consular services today.
We’re going to continue to provide updated security information to U.S. citizens as soon as it becomes available. We’re doing that via Facebook, Twitter. We also strongly encourage – it’s okay – we also strongly encourage U.S. citizens who are traveling or residing abroad in Belgium to enroll their travel plans using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan. That allows us to update everyone in real time.
The tri-mission – so again, those three different missions in Brussels: NATO, EU, as well as the bilat – are currently working with reduced staff, so nonessential consular services have been postponed and the embassy is in the process of notifying applicants who have appointments tomorrow whether those will be postponed. As to when I came out here, we still don’t know about tomorrow, what the decision will be, so that’s about it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: No, wait.
MR TONER: Oh, sure. Please, you and then Matt.
QUESTION: Mark, a group of Republican lawmakers have written a letter to Secretary Kerry expressing concern about the implementation of the JCPOA, and they are saying that it could conflict with existing federal law regarding commercial activity with Iran. Have you seen this letter, and does the State Department have any reaction?
MR TONER: I haven’t seen the letter, and I frankly haven’t heard about the letter. Certainly, as with any congressional letter, we’ll obviously respond to it as quickly as we can. So I don’t know what’s – what it specifically alleges in terms of --
QUESTION: They’re saying – they’re expressing concern that the implementation of the JCPOA conflicts with existing federal law regarding commercial activity with Iran, and then they cite some examples.
MR TONER: Sure. I’d have to – again, I’d have to look at it. In terms of just – I mean, what I can generally talk to you about in terms of U.S. companies’ involvement – prior to implementation day, non-U.S. companies and individuals would not be subject to sanction solely on the basis of engaging in conversations or exploratory discussions regarding any potential business opportunities, but that’s non-U.S. companies. So I don’t know if they’re specifically speaking about U.S. companies.
More generally speaking, it’s not in our – it’s not our policy to stand in the way of any legitimate business activities, and we view the JCPOA as designed to expand the – the scope, rather, of permissible business activity through sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s full compliance with the requirements of the JCPOA, so – please.
QUESTION: Can I ask about one more piece of congressional correspondence, which is this letter from Senator Grassley to Secretary Kerry, asking for an explanation about a – the handling of a 2011 sex solicitation case involving a U.S. ambassador? Do you have any response to that letter?
MR TONER: I’m aware of the case. I think we just got the letter today, so we’ll respond, and we’ll let you know what we respond with.
QUESTION: Sorry I was late.
MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. No worries.
QUESTION: And I understand that you talked briefly or you were asked about this latest – these latest attacks in Israel – in the West Bank in Israel.
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I essentially was – the Secretary spoke to it in his roundtable.
QUESTION: Right, and I don’t want to ask --
MR TONER: Yeah, it’s okay.
QUESTION: -- specifically about these attacks, but I – it has come to the notice of some people that both the – when the President and the Vice President spoke about American victims of terrorism last week, they mentioned the Americans who died in Mali and in Paris, but didn’t mention the American who died in the West Bank. And I’m not asking you to – the White House is the place to ask about why that happened or why they said what they said, but I’m just wondering, in the Administration, more broadly, does it regard these acts – all of these acts as terrorism? And if so, does it have – do you have a different – are there different kind – does the Administration believe there are different kinds of terrorism?
MR TONER: No, I don’t think so. You’re speaking about the death of Ezra Schwartz, and John spoke about it from the podium on Friday. And I know the – Secretary Kerry did reach out to his family personally today. Look, I mean --
QUESTION: So you believe that – so the Administration believes that the attacks that killed --
MR TONER: I don’t want to – also want to parse out the --
QUESTION: -- all three of these people are the same? There’s no difference between one terrorist attack and another attack?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to necessarily parse out the word – the definition of terrorism, but we – yes, I think we would view them as terrorist attacks.
QUESTION: Okay. All of them, and the same – there are none that are any less bad than others?
MR TONER: Again, if you’re speaking about the attack that took his life in Israel as well as in – the attacks ISIL carried out in Paris and – as well as the one – the terrorist attacks in Mali --
QUESTION: In Mali. You see them as the same?
MR TONER: I think – yes.
QUESTION: I mean, not – obviously, they’re not the same, but --
MR TONER: Right, right. I mean, the circumstances are different, but yes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:58 p.m.)
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