Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – October 6, 2015

2:08 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. I don’t know, it’s very loud in here. (Laughter.) We have a rowdy bunch today. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Tuesday.

Just a couple of things briefly at the top: First, on Ukraine, the United States welcomes reports that Russia-backed separatists postponed another round of illegal elections in eastern Ukraine. People living in the separatist-controlled areas deserve to pick their local officials in elections that meet international standards, are compliant with Ukrainian law, and monitored by the OSCE as called for in the Minsk agreements.

We also note OSCE reports that Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists have begun to withdraw additional heavy weaponry – weapons, rather, from the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, as they agreed by – as agreed by the trilateral contact group of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. This will further support the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons and fighters from Ukraine as stipulated in the Minsk agreements. Much work clearly remains, but it is – and it is crucial that the OSCE be granted full access, including at the international border.

I also want to note that tomorrow, on October 7th, Secretary Kerry is going to host the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, at a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of a segment of the Berlin Wall that will be displayed in the U.S. Diplomacy Center – which is currently under construction – painted with depictions of the 1988-89 Peaceful Revolution protests. This unique segment of the wall features the signatures of the three “fathers of German unity” – that’s former President George W.H – H.W. Bush, rather – former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and 24 other diplomats, statesmen, and activists who played key roles in ending the Cold War and solidifying the transatlantic relationship.

And with that, Matt, any —

QUESTION: When and where is that?

MR TONER: I’m sorry. It’s tomorrow, October 7th, and —

QUESTION: All day or is there an hour attached to it?

MR TONER: (Laughter.) You’ve already stumped me, Matt.

QUESTION: And is it here?

MR TONER: Yeah, we’ll put out a media note on it.

QUESTION: Here in this building?

MR TONER: Yes, it is. It’s over – it’s going to be over at the unfinished diplomacy center, but I’m sure there’ll be some way to cover it in that building. It’s going to actually be a part of that display in the —

QUESTION: All right.

MR TONER: — in the diplomacy center, which is happening over – it’s that area of construction over there.

QUESTION: On 23rd Street – 1st Street?

MR TONER: Twenty – where am I? I’m turned around. Yes, you’re right.

QUESTION: It’s in this compound, all right.

MR TONER: In this building, correct, and I’ll get a time for you.

QUESTION: All right.

MR TONER: Fair enough.

QUESTION: Is the actual segment of the wall going – you said the center is still under construction, so is the —

MR TONER: Right. My understanding is that yes, it’s the actual —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: — the arrival of a segment of the Berlin Wall.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: So I think they’re going to – now, I could be totally wrong, but I think they’re actually going to put it in the building, so —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: I’ll go out on a limb on that one. Please go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: I just want to begin on Afghanistan —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Sure thing.

QUESTION: — given what was said up on the Hill this morning by the commander in Afghanistan and our exchange yesterday. I just wanted to give you the chance, the opportunity if you had one, to expand on your answers to me yesterday if you have anything to say, or if you want to stand pat where you were yesterday.

MR TONER: In terms of the investigation?

QUESTION: Well, no —

MR TONER: In terms of —

QUESTION: Well, in terms of – in terms of before and —

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: In terms of the comparison or – not – “comparison” is not the right word, but in terms of the idea that a somewhat similar incident of a nonmilitary target or a humanitarian target being struck by a military that you guys, before an investigation was completed, called it appalling and disgraceful. And yet in this case, you’re not prepared to say the same thing.

MR TONER: I think I am right where I was last – yesterday, which is that there’s several investigations underway. Let’s wait and see the conclusion of those investigations before we reach any determination, but obviously recognizing that this was a terrible tragedy.

QUESTION: Right. Well, I mean, in retrospect, does it make – do you think that it would make sense to wait until investigations are completed before making definitive statements about “disgraceful and appalling” or no?

MR TONER: Point taken.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Or to even issue an apology. I mean, one of the things that I noticed in watching General Campbell, who Matt references, it just seems sort of terse and unapologetic. And you’re hanging it on these investigations, but I mean, the fact is the hospital was bombed. I mean, doesn’t that warrant sort of an outward apology and – yeah, we’ll figure out the facts later, but I mean, the facts are pretty indisputable at this point.

MR TONER: Again, having – and you know this better than I do, but there is the expression “fog of war,” and until we actually determine what happened and where, to whom and how that unrolled – the events unrolled and took place. I don’t want to make any pronouncements and certainly not my place to do so, but I think we all need to wait for the conclusions of this investigation. That said, in response to the first part of your question, I think U.S. officials have been pretty forthcoming in offering their condolences, clearly saying that this was a tragic accident, reaching out to, in fact, Medecins Sans Frontieres – I know Department of Defense officials did so, I know others did – to express their condolences, so —

QUESTION: An apology is —

MR TONER: Again, we’re looking at this incident —

QUESTION: But your leading opening – the option to say this was the right thing to do, you’re leaving open the possibility that this was, in fact, what was intended to be done.

MR TONER: I don’t think so. I think what we’re saying is an incident took place on Friday night that resulted in the deaths of civilians. Obviously, nobody, as I said yesterday, takes greater care, frankly, to avoid civilian casualties than the United States military. And also I don’t think any other country or military in the world goes to such great pains to investigate its actions and events that may cause and result in civilian casualties. The Secretary of Defense has called for a full, transparent investigation. That’s what we expect; we expect it to be quick and to get us the answers that everyone, frankly, is seeking, and then we’ll respond accordingly.

QUESTION: You mentioned the phrase “fog of war.” Would you agree that that applies equal to every – to all militaries or all combatants in situations – there are circumstances in which case fog of war is a real thing?

MR TONER: I mean, again, never having been in combat, yes —

QUESTION: It’s not just a U.S. – it’s not just a U.S. military problem or issue.

MR TONER: Yes, it is a – it is a —

QUESTION: It is a issue for all militaries.

MR TONER: No, it is a phenomenon that often happens, yes; I agree.

QUESTION: All right. Yesterday when you were asked about the investigation part of this or at least the independent investigation part of this, you said that you were pretty sure that the U.S. would oppose an attempt to refer this incident to the ICC. Is that —

MR TONER: I’ve actually not gotten any firmer response to you on – I’m pretty sure.

QUESTION: Okay, but it still – okay, but I think —

MR TONER: But I mean, I guess what my response would be is we’re investigating this. We’re going to own this however it turns out, whoever is at fault. We don’t think it needs to be referred to the ICC.

QUESTION: Okay. Your colleague at your – you don’t think it needs to be referred?

MR TONER: No. I – yeah.

QUESTION: Your colleague at the White House said the people would be held accountable if there is a need to hold people accountable. I mean, is it really still an open question that someone needs to be held accountable for this?

MR TONER: Again, I think what we’re talking – we just don’t have all the facts yet, so you’re asking me to respond to hypotheticals, and as we know, that’s always a difficult thing.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. But I mean, it’s not so hypothetical now that – because the commander has testified before Congress —

MR TONER: Absolutely. No, I mean —

QUESTION: — that this was done entirely within the chain of command of the United States, so —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — I mean, that’s not a hypothetical anymore.

MR TONER: No, but I’m saying in terms of – what I’m trying to convey here is we need all the answers and need to know what, where – if mistakes were made, where they were made, who should be held accountable. I don’t want to pronounce on anything before we have that kind of thorough information.

QUESTION: Well, except that I don’t think it’s a question anymore if mistakes were made. He said it was a mistake.

QUESTION: Right, but there’s a separate question of whether mistakes are actionable or prosecutable or deserving of —

MR TONER: Exactly, thank you. I mean, thank you. That’s exactly a valid point.

QUESTION: Okay. And then my last one – it’s just the same question I asked yesterday about whether there’s been State Department involvement and contact with the Afghans or MSF or —

MR TONER: There has been, obviously, between our embassy and the Afghan Government. Not higher than that is my understanding.

QUESTION: Not higher than the embassy?

MR TONER: I’m not sure about – our bureau, certainly. I don’t believe the Secretary’s actually reached out.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. offered sort of any financial compensation to the family’s victims, which can often precede an investigation?

MR TONER: Again, not that I’m aware of. I’m not sure that’s under consideration, but – aware of previous instances, but not in this case.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Georgia. I was wondering if you have any reaction about the latest developments in Georgia. It looks like government is openly attacking the largest private TV station, Rustavi 2, which assets and properties were frozen by court. There are clear evidences that government involved in that case. Thank you.

MR TONER: Sure. Well, I can say that we’re closely following the developments that you mentioned. I think we urge that any legal proceedings involving a media outlet, regardless of where but certainly in Georgia, be conducted at the highest standards of judicial due process and with respect for freedom of expression.

More broadly, over the past several years, the United States Government and the international community have praised Georgia’s free and pluralistic media environment which has been recognized internationally as a model for the region. So actions that give the appearance of constricting that environment, constricting media freedoms or compromising that media pluralism, are, frankly, disturbing, and especially in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. So we therefore, we do take it seriously and we’re watching it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Do you regard this incident as disturbing?

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR TONER: I said actions that give – and I – we would – that’s yes. I would equate the two.

Please.

QUESTION: On Turkey and Russia and Syria, actually, altogether.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) The whole region.

QUESTION: The whole region. It seems like there are new incursions right now to Turkish airspace. Incirlik was reported – one happened 3rd of October and it seems like there is, after Russians said this won’t happen again, apparently, October 5th there was another incursion by the Syrian Air Force. It seems like the tension is escalating. What’s your view on Russian – whole Russian-Turkish – and that whole situation right now?

MR TONER: Well, so so far you said “incursions.” I’m aware of one and then possibly a second incursion that I’m aware of. I don’t know if there’s been additional ones. Clearly, we spoke to this a little bit yesterday. It is concerning. This kind of behavior, intentional or un-intentional, is very risky. It puts lives at risk. And these kinds of actions are dangerous, provocative, and they can cause accidents and miscalculation. So we need to, again, follow up on these efforts to de-conflict, but certainly we would call on Russia to avoid any more incursions, any additional incursions, into Turkey’s airspace.

QUESTION: Have you had the chance to talk to Russians directly on these specific breaches?

MR TONER: I believe we have raised this incident directly with the Russian Government. I’ll check on that, but I think that’s the case.

QUESTION: Today, Turkish President Erdogan in Brussels, I believe, stated that the attack on Turkey means attack on NATO, and he was also telling Russians that they may lose Turkey. When you look it from the NATO perspective as a ally of Turkey, what would be the implication, possible implications of this Russians’ aggressive moves in Turkish border?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, we always look at Turkey through the perspective – I mean, obviously Turkey is a close ally and friend and partner. But we always look at it through the lens, and especially in security matters, of NATO. There were consultations. There was a NAC yesterday in Brussels to discuss these incursions. We take it very seriously, as does NATO, as do all NATO allies, and we’ll be watching it closely. And again, it’s why we’ve conveyed to Russia that these types of incursions need to stop.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Speaking about de-confliction, are you —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Are you aware of upcoming talks between the U.S. and Russia? The Russians have been saying, had said this morning that they have offered informal talks with the U.S. military.

MR TONER: I’ve seen those comments. And I don’t know if you’ve seen comments, but – from the Department of Defense, but they commented earlier today that they stand ready to meet again as soon as possible with Russia, but we just haven’t had that follow-up yet. So we’re certainly ready and prepared. I think we’ve seen over the last couple of days the danger that exists on the ground of accidents, of accident incursions, whatever you want to call them. So we need to absolutely engage with Russia on de-conflicting.

QUESTION: About the —

QUESTION: The danger? What – the dangers of accidents? I mean, there has not been any real fallout.

MR TONER: No, but I mean, the fact that they went into Turkish airspaces.

QUESTION: You’re – but you’re – right. But you’re not aware of any actual —

MR TONER: Not yet, no.

QUESTION: — conflict?

QUESTION: Is it safe to say that they appear unwilling at this point to talk or —

MR TONER: I’m not sure. There was an initial round of conversations last week. Obviously, this is run out of the Department of Defense, so I would refer you to them. But —

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: But we did see comments out of the Department of Defense earlier today that they stand ready to have these follow-up conversations, they just haven’t —

QUESTION: Well, not that they stand ready. That they’re asking to —

MR TONER: That they’re welcome —

QUESTION: — to talk —

MR TONER: Exactly, yes.

QUESTION: — and they’re being ignored, right?

MR TONER: I don’t know – I wouldn’t – that’s something for the Russians to answer.

Please.

QUESTION: A follow-up, Mark.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was another media conference today between DOD and their Russian counterpart, I assume, between (inaudible) and his – or counterparts.

MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: So it’s a planned videoconference or —

MR TONER: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.

QUESTION: If there will be another video conference to discuss —

MR TONER: There was one last week, but there hasn’t been a follow-up.

QUESTION: Yeah, but there was – the first one was last week, and the follow-up?

MR TONER: There hasn’t been one. I said that’s – the Department of Defense stands ready; the Pentagon stands ready to have an – have additional follow-ups to that.

QUESTION: So U.S. is doing this video conference representing whole coalition, or by yourself only?

MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I think by ourselves, but also as a member of the coalition as well, de-conflicting airstrikes on the ground. We’re obviously the – one of the primary movers or actors in that, but we do that – we do so in consultation with all of our coalition partners.

QUESTION: So will you discuss also, for example, this Turkey and Russian escalation in this video conference as well?

MR TONER: Again, this is at a very practical level. In that kind of practical sense, the danger that such incursions present to Turkey might be raised. I can’t promise that. I’d have to really refer you to the Department of Defense on that. But these are very, very in the weeds kind of practical discussions about who’s flying where when so that we can avoid any tragic mistakes or accidents.

QUESTION: So in which platform – on which platform Russia and Turkey should solve this problem, you think? I mean, through this, for example, mechanism, or through NATO-Russian dialogue or through another mechanism, maybe bilateral relations? Which is the best way to solve this conflict —

MR TONER: Sure. Well, I certainly can’t speak for Turkey. Obviously – again, I can’t speak for what the Department of Defense, what the Pentagon is raising in these – well, they’ve only had one so far, but these video conferences, these calls, these de-confliction calls. So it’s hard for me to say that this would be the proper venue for them, but the idea behind these calls, idea behind this mechanism, is to do exactly that, is to avoid mistakes – whatever you want to call them – or intentional incursions, but just to make sure that we’re clear on who’s flying where when so that we can avoid accidents.

That may be one possible platform to do that in. I’m not discounting it. There may be a bilateral platform for Turkey to pursue with Russia as well.

QUESTION: So Turkey may be represented in the next phone call —

MR TONER: I just can’t promise that. I don’t know.

QUESTION: You think the incursions are intentional?

MR TONER: Again, we’ve – Russia has called them an accident. We don’t have – I mean, we’re not sure.

QUESTION: Are you still thinking to withdraw Patriots from Turkey in light of these new incursions?

MR TONER: I don’t have anything new for that – for you on that.

Please, Pam.

QUESTION: The Russian speaker of parliament has said that Russia would be willing to consider expanding airstrikes into Iraq. Has there been any diplomatic expressions of concern to Iraq about this possible expansion?

MR TONER: I mean, we’re always in conversations with Iraq about the security situation. What I can say is that Iraq certainly hasn’t asked for Russian airstrikes in its territory, so it’s kind of a moot point at this point. But I mean, we always are having conversations about the security situation within Iraq. That it came up in that framework, I don’t know.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. consider this move from Russia destabilizing?

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to speak to hypotheticals. What we have said generally is that we would see a constructive role in Syria or against ISIL in Syria on the part of Russia, if they actually hit ISIL targets. To a large extent, we’ve not seen that thus far, so we feel like they’ve only ratcheted up the tension and the conflict so far with their airstrikes against moderate opposition forces. We don’t want to see that same formula certainly transferred to Iraq.

We’ve been pretty consistent about this. Where we want to see pressure applied is on ISIL, on I-S-I-L. That needs to be consistent. It needs – everybody needs to do more in that respect. We’re part of a 60-odd-member coalition doing exactly that, supporting these groups in northern Syria. If Russia wants to play in that sphere, again, we could see a role for it there. But we’ve not seen that thus far, and similarly in Iraq.

QUESTION: On Iraq?

MR TONER: Please, yes sir.

QUESTION: Yeah. There is a press report saying that the U.S. Government stopped its intelligence cooperation with the Iraqi military on al-Anbar in Iraq because after the Iraqi Government is coordinating security issues with the Russians in Syria. Is there any —

MR TONER: I’m sorry, where did you cite that report from? I didn’t hear the first part of it, sorry.

QUESTION: It’s a press report in the Al-Hayat newspaper, Arabic?

MR TONER: No, I don’t have anything for you on that. Sorry.

Please.

QUESTION: On Syria. Russian foreign minister has considered the FSA in Syria as an illusion. And he said that the Russians asked the U.S. to provide them with their positions, with FSA positions in Syria. What’s your comment, and will you be able to provide them these positions?

MR TONER: Well, I’m aware of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s comments. I would just say we continue to convey to Russia our deep concern about any Russian actions taken against moderate Syrian elements. These kinds of actions only risk, frankly, exacerbating the current situation, raising tensions in the conflict, and, frankly, radicalizing some of these moderate elements that we seek to support, and ultimately push any political transition further away. And it draws Russia further into a sectarian conflict. So all of these do not help us get to what we all at least profess to want to – the place where we want to get to, which is a peaceful political transition to a transitional government according to the Geneva communique.

We continue to talk to the Russians. I’m not aware of any recent phone calls between the Secretary and Lavrov, but we – there were multiple meetings last week to try to find a political way forward, a political path forward, and we continue to pursue those efforts.

QUESTION: And what about his statement that there is no FSA in Syria?

MR TONER: We disagree with that. I mean, we’ve been working with – I mean, the Free Syrian Army is – contains many moderate armed opposition forces throughout Syria. And these moderate armed opposition groups were initially formed to defend local governments – local communities, rather, from Assad’s brutal crackdown on civilians and peaceful protests. This was over four years ago. So the armed opposition, the moderate opposition, part of this rose up against that. So they do exist. I mean, it’s – we would reject that characterization.

QUESTION: May I ask – on Syria?

MR TONER: Please, in the back. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. So yesterday, you said, “We’ve seen no indication that they’re” – they, meaning the Russians – are “actually hitting ISIL targets.” One of the cities that Russia has targeted is Raqqa. Would you say that Raqqa is ISIL-free?

MR TONER: No. And in fact, I said – I think I said the preponderance of targets that they’ve hit —

QUESTION: Okay, let’s look at other cities. I heard that. What about Idlib? Is it ISIL-free? That’s another city that Russia has targeted.

MR TONER: Okay. Catch your breath. So what we’ve seen in the initial airstrikes that Russia carried out beginning last week were primarily targeting places where ISIL wasn’t ensconced, didn’t exist, didn’t have a presence – and frankly, it was where moderate Syrian opposition forces are generally located. So we were very clear, and we’ve been clear in our public comments as well as our private conveyances to the Russian Government – and I’ve said this multiple times; in fact, some of you are probably sick of hearing me say it: Russia can play a constructive role in this effort, but that doesn’t mean hitting moderate Syrian forces that are in opposition to Assad, who has carried out a brutal, brutal crackdown on his own people. And in fact, as I’ve said before, that so many people are probably tired of hearing me say it, he has killed more Syrian civilians than ISIL has, and believe me, that’s an achievement.

QUESTION: Do you know where exactly those moderate Syrian opposition forces are?

MR TONER: Without revealing intelligence sources, we have a pretty good sense of it, yeah.

QUESTION: Can you share that information —

MR TONER: No.

QUESTION: — with Russia?

MR TONER: Oh.

QUESTION: Not with us. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: (Inaudible.) Again, we’ve been – we’ve had frank exchanges with Russia about all of these factors. And we’ll continue to discuss those with Russia.

QUESTION: Are – will you give their locations in order for them not to target them?

MR TONER: We’re confident that Russia knows what’s happening on the ground there.

QUESTION: What is – one more thing.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure thing. Please.

QUESTION: What sounds strange is that a month ago, the U.S. couldn’t find enough adequate moderate opposition forces to train and equip. And after the Russian airstrikes, all of a sudden we hear that there are so many of them, that we hear about the Free Syrian Army. We haven’t heard the words “Free Syrian Army” for months, and all of a sudden, they’re back. Why couldn’t you find them before?

MR TONER: That’s a mischaracterization. So we’re talking about, rather, two separate entities. The Free Syrian Army is a group of moderate Syrian opposition forces in combat with the Syrian regime, with Assad’s army, with Assad’s military. What we were trying to – our train and equip program in northern Syria where ISIL is ensconced was to try to find moderate elements in that area and train them up, give them the tools, the equipment they need. I think we’ve been very candid. It hasn’t panned out very well, but it’s a different element and we’re actually looking at that program and seeing how we can basically reinvigorate it, do it better.

But as we’ve also been clear, that train and equip program was only one small part of a much larger effort, which was providing air support and supplies and other support for those groups in northern Syria – Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen – who had been fighting pretty effectively against ISIL.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: Mark, as far as the U.S.-Indian relations are concerned, so much has happened in the last few weeks, or last month. Prime Minister Modi was in Silicon Valley, and of course, there’s U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue here at the State Department, and then, of course, all the leaders were at the United Nations, including Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, and of course, Secretary Kerry. There were two messages between the two largest democracies – or oldest or largest democracy, U.S. and India, one: Moving forward, U.S.-India relations as far as commerce and trade and defense and political and social and all kinds of things. But other side – there was another side of the two relations that where President Obama, including Secretary Kerry joint statement and Prime Minister Modi spoke about the terrorism against India, and including the Prime Minister Modi was talking very clearly to the businesses and Indian American community in the Silicon Valley that terrorism is terrorism. There’s no definition of terrorism good or bad. It’s all terrorism. And he was, of course, pointing out same thing at the United Nations and the joint statement here at the State Department that it must be stopped against India from the cloth bottom. Of course, he was pointing about Pakistan.

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: But he said the conflict is not the message or conflict is not the solution. But it must stop. So where do we go from here, as far as the relations between two countries?

And finally, yesterday also at the George Washington University Sigur International Center, the CEOs were there from India and America. They were talking about the same thing moving forward with the relations.

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR TONER: You’re talking about where we go in terms of terrorism. Well, obviously, it’s a shared concern not just between our country and India, rather. But obviously, for many countries in that region – President Obama’s stated – the Mumbai perpetrators financiers, sponsors must be held accountable for their crimes. We continue to follow the criminal proceedings closely and urge additional action to prevent such an attack from ever happening again and recognize that this was a terrible tragedy for India.

In general, we want to see better, stronger, closer counterterrorism cooperation not only between the U.S. and India but of all the countries in the region, including Pakistan. We all need to be on our guard. We all need to be vigilant. We all need to cooperate and share information and intelligence where we can do that in order to prevent future attacks. It’s not something we can let our guard down on.

QUESTION: And one more finally.

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: In the last many years, I have met many prime ministers and presidents —

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: — of course, from different countries, including from India and Pakistan. This time at the United Nations the problem was that India only was talking about 60 years forward, moving forward.

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: But Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was talking 60 years backward – backward. And it was also questioning the Pakistani press where he was criticized that why do you – why are you in the U.S. year after year after year and talking only about 60 years back. Let’s move forward like India is moving.

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: So where are we talking – where are we on these issues of moving forward and not going backward?

MR TONER: I’d just say we share your concern about the India-Pakistan relationship. It’s absolutely critical to achieving peace and stability in South Asia. Our relationship with India is strong, growing. As you said, we’re two of the world’s oldest democracies. As Obama – President Obama said, India has the potential to be one of the great global powers in the 21st century, so we want to see our cooperation deepen both economically, politically, and security – on security issues as well.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR TONER: Yeah. Please, sir.

QUESTION: I want to go back to Afghanistan for one second —

MR TONER: Yes, no worries.

QUESTION: — and then on to a different subject. Just on Kunduz, do you know if the – anyone in the State Department’s legal office or anything has been asked by the Pentagon to be involved, to play any role in the investigation into what happened?

MR TONER: No, but I can check on that.

QUESTION: And then the other thing is – on that is I just wonder if anyone in this building has noted the irony of the 1999 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize accusing the army commanded by the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize of war crimes.

MR TONER: I’m not sure what to do with that.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if it has been —

MR TONER: Noted?

QUESTION: If people have noted the irony of that. No? You don’t know?

MR TONER: I have not myself noted it, no.

QUESTION: All right. And then I wanted to go on to Israel.

MR TONER: Yes sir.

QUESTION: There are a flurry of reports there that said that your policy regarding settlements has changed or been altered in such a way so that – in that you have delivered some kind of an ultimatum to the Israeli Government that if they make any major announcements, that you will not veto a resolution – a UN resolution that would call – a Security Council resolution that would call them illegal. Is that correct?

MR TONER: I’m aware of those press reports, Matt. That report, I can say, is false. Our position on settlements is well known, hasn’t changed. We convey it regularly to the Israeli Government. And I know we don’t generally comment on private conversations, but I’d like to nip that story in the bud. We haven’t issued any kind of ultimatum on this.

QUESTION: Okay. And – so the position of the Administration remains that settlements are illegitimate. You think they’re unhelpful —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — and not constructive to whatever is left of the peace process, but also —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — you will still – or there has not been any kind of a decision made not to veto a resolution that would – a UN resolution on this – on this —

MR TONER: No, and I mean, there’s not even a resolution out there right now. So I mean, I don’t want to speak about something in the abstract.

Please.

QUESTION: Related to that, would you welcome the Israeli announcement of the lifting of the restriction from Muslim worship at al-Aqsa compound? Is it – I mean, does it fit into the return of the status quo you were calling for?

MR TONER: Without knowing all the details, it sounds in keeping with what we’ve been calling for, which is for both sides – all sides, frankly – to find a way to – back to full restoration of the status quo at the Temple Mount, al-Sharif – Haram al-Sharif. That’s – that sounds like a step in the right direction or in that direction.

Oh sure, Michel.

QUESTION: On Iran and Russia, Iran’s defense ministry has announced that Russia is going to deliver the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran under an agreement between the two countries. Are you aware of that, and what’s your comment?

MR TONER: I’m not. We’ve been – I’d have to get an update and see what – where we are with this. I can take the question. I mean, we’ve talked about this delivery system before and our concerns about it, but I’ll see if we have any additional comment on that.

QUESTION: Please, thank you.

MR TONER: Yeah. Sure, Pam.

QUESTION: An Islamic State-affiliated group has claimed responsibility for this attack in Yemen on the resort. Has there been any collaboration since the attack occurred between the U.S. and Saudi officials since then. And —

MR TONER: Sorry. I hit my mike.

QUESTION: And if so, is there consideration of perhaps a change in strategy to address this kind of threat?

MR TONER: Well, we are – and you’re speaking about the attack this morning in Aden. We are aware of reports of these attacks on several locations, including the Al Qasr Hotel, where members of the Yemeni Government are staying. Obviously, we strongly condemn this attack. We understand the Yemeni Government has indicated that no senior government officials were injured or killed in the attack. We have seen various reports of numbers of individuals wounded or killed, and we continue to gather information on that.

You said that ISIL has claimed responsibility. We’ve seen different claims of responsibility, so it’s too early. We can’t confirm who may have been the author of that attack.

I think our solution or our, rather, policy towards Yemen is the same, which is that we believe any solution must be a political solution and that there’s an urgent need to return to the negotiating table. We continue to support the United Nations-led political transition and the UN special envoy, and, I think, underscore – we would underscore the urgency of seeking a durable solution to the crisis through a peaceful political process. We’ve – our support for Saudis has been limited, I think, to logistical and intelligence support. But beyond that, we are very concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis on the ground in Yemen, which is why, as – again, we need this political solution; we need an end to the fighting so we can get that system – or that assistance, rather, to where it’s urgently needed.

Please.

QUESTION: Mark, Turkish Cypriot foreign minister is in town. Will you have any meeting with her, or —

MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, but I can check on that.

Please.

QUESTION: Mark, one —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Yeah.

QUESTION: — quick question on Egypt and Syria. Egypt has supported the Russian airstrikes on Syria. Are you aware of that, and what’s your comment?

MR TONER: I haven’t seen those remarks by Egyptian officials, so I’d have to look at them. I mean, it’s unclear to me whether they’re, again, supporting the idea of Russian airstrikes against ISIL, which we said we would also support that in some fashion, whether – if it could be done in a collaborative manner. But so far we’ve seen mixed reports. We’ve seen attacks on moderate Syrian opposition. So I – just out of context, I don’t know. I can’t speak to that, but —

QUESTION: I just want to go —

QUESTION: Can you take the question, please?

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I have a brief one on your opening on Ukraine.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: On the local elections, you’re not opposed – I just want to make sure I understand this. You’re not opposed to them having the elections in general, are you?

MR TONER: No, they just have to be done – it’s spelled out in the Minsk agreements, but they have to be done compliant with Ukrainian law and then also monitored so it can be free and fair.

QUESTION: And then it was – and it was your position that there was no way that that could happen in the timespan that they were – had originally envisaged?

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Just —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: Going back to your statement where you said, “We’ve seen no indication that they’re actually hitting ISIL targets” – that – there’s so much certainty in that statement. How do you know that?

MR TONER: Well, again, I was just frankly echoing what our military colleagues have said. And I have no doubt that they have a very clear perspective on what’s being hit and what’s not being hit in terms of northern Syria and in the areas where these Russian air attacks are taking place.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Refrain, Matt. Please.

QUESTION: Do they present evidence to what they’re saying?

MR TONER: What’s that?

QUESTION: Do they present evidence? Have you heard them – can you give us —

MR TONER: No. I think that we’ve – we were concerned from the outset that these airstrikes are being carried out against moderate Syrian opposition – the very opposition that we’ve been supporting, who have been waging now a four-year valiant fight against Assad. And again, let’s widen the lens here. Let’s get back to where we find agreement with Russia on several areas when it comes to Syria. We agree ISIL needs to be defeated, needs to be destroyed; it’s a threat to the region, it’s a threat to Russia, it’s a threat to the United States, it’s a threat to the West.

Second, there needs to be a political solution – a political resolution, rather – to the conflict in Syria. And in that regard we have found Russia’s actions thus far in carrying out airstrikes – I don’t know if exclusively they’ve hit moderate Syrian opposition, but certainly a good number of them have struck moderate opposition forces. And we find that is counterproductive to where – to our ultimate end goal here, or end state, which is a political process according to the Geneva communique.

Is that it, guys?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:41 p.m.)

DPB #164