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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action


Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 12, 2016


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TRANSCRIPT:

2:11 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. It is Friday, so I hope everyone has a good weekend. Just a few things at the top. First of all, I do want to welcome in the back – hey, guys – a group of students from Arizona State University Law School. Thanks for joining us today, guys.

So beginning first with South Sudan, the United States acknowledges President Salva Kiir’s appointment of Riek Machar as first vice president of Sudan – South Sudan, rather, as called for in the peace agreement signed by both parties last August. This move, while belated, is a necessary step forward in the implementation of the peace agreement. The U.S. Government urges both sides to quickly finalize the security arrangements necessary to facilitate Machar’s return to Juba and to form a transitional government of national unity, allowing South Sudan to return to a path towards peace and reconciliation.

A bit of good news on a Friday, at least for us here in the State Department, but I’m sure for many of you as well. We have confirmations to announce and to congratulate: first and foremost, Tom Shannon as under secretary of state for political affairs; we have Brian Egan, who was confirmed as legal advisor for the Department of State; John Estrada as ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, rather, excuse me; Azita Raji as ambassador to the United States to the Kingdom of Sweden; Samuel Heins as ambassador of the United States to Norway; and then David McKean as ambassador to Luxembourg. So congratulations to all of them, and just wonderful to see some of our best and brightest get confirmed into positions – senior positions within the department.

That’s it. Over to you.

QUESTION: Can we start with Syria?

MR TONER: I suspected that’s where we would start.

QUESTION: I wonder why.

MR TONER: No, of course.

QUESTION: You – or the Secretary yesterday announced an effort to achieve a cessation of hostilities with a target of one week. That’s not even as if the one week is fixed; it’s just your target. What makes you think that the Russians will cease bombing in a week or so, when they have been bombing quite steadily since September 30th?

MR TONER: Well, you’re absolutely right that it was agreed yesterday in Munich after a very long day that it would be a cessation of hostilities with the goal of implementation within a week’s time. There’s a task force that’s been set up to implement that agreement.

But you’re also absolutely right to highlight the fact that – and the Secretary in fact spoke to this – the agreement yesterday is important, but now we need to see action on the ground. And that includes Russia’s commitment through actions, concrete actions, to what it has already committed to in words over the past three months. It obviously was a signatory of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and repeatedly since then, they’ve committed to a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities, including the most latest yesterday.

So we need to see an end to the bombing. We need to see an end to the support for Assad that, frankly, is only exacerbating the situation on the ground. And if this – if we’re going to reach some kind of – and yesterday, as the Secretary and others made clear, is a pause in the fighting to get the political process back on track. We want to see a durable ceasefire implemented. But to even get to that first step, we need to see all sides – and that includes Russia, it includes Assad’s forces, it includes the opposition – to agree to stop the fighting, stop the bombing.

QUESTION: So Russia is continuing to bomb today.

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: And President Assad is quoted as saying that he will continue to fight on until he regains full control of the country. What does that say to you about the chances of achieving a cessation of hostilities in a week?

MR TONER: Well, again, we talked a little bit about this yesterday, I think. This behavior, while objectionable, is not abnormal. We’ve seen this before in the run-up to any kind of cessation of fighting, or however you want to term it, that forces on either side – in this case Assad’s regime – will try to exert influence, seize territory. Let’s give this task force a chance to implement this pause in the fighting, this cessation of hostilities. That task force has begun its job today.

What was agreed to yesterday in that room among all the stakeholders in that room was that they would exert what influence they had. And just – I know we often talk about Russia’s influence on Assad and the regime and Iran’s as well, who was also in the room. The Saudis are there, the Turks are there, others are there with influence on the opposition as well. All of the members of this International Syria Support Group need to put up and put into action what they’ve agreed to. And so everybody needs – in that room needs to say, okay, if there’s folks on the ground, if there’s parties or groups on the ground who are not signing up to the cessation of hostilities, they need to exert what influence they have on them.

When and if in a week’s time we get to that cessation of hostilities, we’ll know. And we’ve talked about this before. We know who is a party to that, who’s on the side of terror and who isn’t. And so in some ways it’s self-policing, and then we can see and assess where we need to continue to apply pressure.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Who’s on the – just a couple more.

MR TONER: Go ahead and finish. Yeah.

QUESTION: Who is on the task force?

MR TONER: The task force.

QUESTION: The cessation of hostilities, not the humanitarian --

MR TONER: A very good question. I’m not sure I have a breakdown of – let me check one second here.

QUESTION: Oh, I think the Secretary yesterday --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- said that he and Lavrov would co-chair it, correct?

MR TONER: That’s correct. Yeah – no, so it is. It’s – it’ll be co-chaired by the United States and Russia. Its mandate is obviously to delineate the territory held by Daesh as well as al-Nusrah and other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States Security Council, ensure effective communications on the ground by all parties, to promote compliance and de-escalate tensions, and then resolve any allegations of noncompliance, and then speaking to your question, refer any noncompliant behavior by any of the parties to the ISSG ministers for appropriate action, and that includes the exclusion of any such parties from arrangements – from the arrangements for the cessation of hostilities and, frankly, the protection that that arrangement would afford them.

So it is co-chaired by Russia and the United States and includes political and military officials with the participation of ISSG members with influence on the armed opposition groups or forces fighting in support of the Syrian Government. And the UN will serve as a secretariat of the ceasefire task force.

QUESTION: You said that that task group had begun work. Who met? Who’s leading the U.S. side? Who’s leading the Russian side? When did they meet, where? What did they achieve today?

MR TONER: Right. So they are – I don’t know if they’ve met yet today. I assume they have. I’ll see what I can get in terms of those details for you.

QUESTION: Mark --

QUESTION: You talk about exerting influence on the parties to try to --

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: -- one, get to the cessation of hostilities, and we assume then on to some effort to actually try to negotiate some sort of peace deal. Bashar al-Assad gave a televised interview to AFP today saying essentially that he thumbs his nose at 2254, that he is going to regain control of all of Syria; it may take a long time. What is the U.S.’s reaction to his comments? And does the question – does the U.S. question the Syrian Government – not just President Assad – do they question the Syrian Government’s commitment to try to negotiate an end to the civil war?

MR TONER: In response to your first question, look, I mean, he’s deluded if he thinks that there’s a military solution to the conflict in Syria. We’ve seen this wax and wane over now five years, but all we’re looking at if the Syrian regime continues the fighting is more bloodshed, more hardship, and frankly, a greater hardening of positions on either side. There is a process that we’re trying to put in place that offers a way out of that. The regime needs to understand that, whether it’s Assad or whether it’s those around him. And that is where, frankly, the power of the ISSG, that International Syrian Support Group, comes in to play that they can exert the guidance, the advice, the counsel, what have you, or influence on Assad, on his regime, to make the right choices. And by right choices I mean those choices that are in the best interests of what everyone in that room yesterday in Munich has espoused or has committed to, which is a Syria that is whole, secular, and at peace.

QUESTION: Given that he was so full-throated, though, in his conviction that he would regain control of all territory, have U.S. officials talked with Russian officials, with Iranian officials, with anyone who might have someone’s ear in Damascus? Because this does not seem as if he is actually operating in good faith.

MR TONER: I mean, yes, of course. And I mean, we have, as you can see through the multiple meetings and calls that Secretary Kerry has with Foreign Minister Lavrov, this is a constant refrain or a constant, rather, issue that we discuss with them. Again, it’s – and the Secretary was very clear about this. This agreement – the agreements reached yesterday both on humanitarian access as well as the cessation of hostilities are important. But the proof is in the pudding. We need to see action on the ground on the part of those parties, and that includes the regime. It includes the opposition. They need to stop the fighting, and then we can determine who is part of this process and who is not.

QUESTION: Would, for example, a cessation of the Russian airstrikes be an example of the kind of leverage that could be made upon Damascus?

MR TONER: One more time? I apologize. I just didn’t --

QUESTION: Normally, when we talk about leverage, there’s this assumption that one diplomat or one government official speaks to another and says, “Hey, cut that out. We’ll give you some sort of inducement to curb your behavior.” But given that the U.S. has been adamant that the Russian airstrikes have been almost 100 percent in the service of preserving the Assad government and not in terms of going after ISIL, would Russian airstrikes – would the cessation of those airstrikes be another way of pressuring Damascus to fall in line?

MR TONER: I mean, without indulging too much in hypotheticals, sure. Yes, absolutely. I mean, there’s no doubt that, as you pointed out, the majority of Russia’s airstrikes have been in support of the regime going against what it deems terrorist groups, which we all know as the Syrian opposition.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: Very few of them have actually been at the true terrorists, which are Daesh. And so we would welcome Russia’s turning its air power to the real enemy on the ground, which is Daesh, and it would be a strong signal to the regime as well, of course.

QUESTION: Mark, you keep saying --

QUESTION: Just --

MR TONER: Go ahead – go ahead, Ros, and then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Sorry, just one more, Said.

MR TONER: I apologize.

QUESTION: I was just curious. Because the Russians had been pushing for essentially three more weeks of airstrikes and the U.S. had been calling for just no more airstrikes --

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- how was it that everyone came to agree upon one week for the cessation of hostilities? Why not push harder and try to save some lives in the next few days?

MR TONER: Ros, I think the intent is – at least on our side was an immediate cessation of hostilities. I think, though, the reality of the situation is it’s going to take a couple of days or at least a week to work through the modalities and to try to implement this on the ground. I think everyone recognizes the challenges that are inherent to any kind of process like this. So if we can get there in a week, that would be I think a significant accomplishment.

QUESTION: What is meant by a cessation of hostilities?

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: You keep saying “cessation of hostilities.”

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, it’s --

QUESTION: Is it really a countrywide ceasefire?

MR TONER: No, I mean there are – it’s a fair question, and not the first time I’ve been asked that over the last 24 hours.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: I mean, a ceasefire I think – I mean, there are – obviously, it’s a distinction between terminology, but a ceasefire is more the end of a conflict in most people’s minds and judgment. That’s not where we are. We want to see a pause in the fighting so that this political process can actually get some traction, the one that was paused in Geneva a week ago. And then obviously our goal here is a durable and – a durable and whole ceasefire in Syria, obviously excluding Daesh and excluding al-Nusrah.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: But that’s our ultimate goal. But what was agreed to yesterday was just as close to an immediate possible cessation of hostilities.

QUESTION: So you partly answered my second question, which is that hostilities can’t continue against al-Nusrah, against Daesh, against groups that are deemed as terrorists by any number of forces, including the coalition that you lead, including what the Russians claim to target and so on. So that can’t go on. And second, it is a pause to allow humanitarian aid and so on to go through to besieged communities. Is that the purpose, just to pause that – a pause can --

MR TONER: That’s part of it. I mean, the extent where we say – I mean, we’ve all – we at the State Department and the U.S. Government but also around the world have watched in horror some of the images coming out of Syria the last few weeks, but certainly this week with Aleppo under siege. But Aleppo’s just one piece of it. I mean, there’s communities that are – that the UN requirements as besieged communities – Fua, Kefraya, Madaya – that are all places we talked about over the past weeks that are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. So yes, I mean, part of it is stop the fighting, although that will not – I want you to – I want to be clear these are concurrent processes. So we’re looking for immediate humanitarian access, and there’s a task force that’s looking at that and working on that as we move forward, again, beginning today. So there’s kind of two taskforces, one dealing with humanitarian assistance and access, and the other dealing with the cessation of hostilities.

What was your other part of your question? I apologize.

QUESTION: I want to move on to Assad. Can I ask you about Assad?

MR TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Because his claim or his vow today to continue fighting to control the whole country – you, until this moment, consider Syria to be whole. You have not recognized any other group as being sovereign in Syria. Therefore it really is what you have recognized, although you don’t have relations with them, is still this regime that is in power in Damascus. Am I wrong on this? Is it --

MR TONER: Well, I mean --

QUESTION: -- have you recognized any other power in Syria to be sovereign over any particular territory or groupings of territories and so on?

MR TONER: So you are right in the fact that – a couple of points. One is there’s agreement, uniform agreement among the members of the ISSG, this International Syria Support Group, that Daesh and al-Nusrah cannot be part of any --

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: -- they’re not part of any opposition, they are terrorist organizations. Russians agree on that, everyone agrees on that. They’re not part of any cessation of hostilities. In fact, they’re a separate piece of this and we’re focused on destroying them. But we are looking at – when we look at the conflict, when we look at a political process and putting it in place, we also recognize – and this was a major step in the creation of this stakeholders group – bring everybody who has a stake in what happens in Syria together in the same room. And that included Russia, that included Iran. It included the Saudis, it included multiple other countries – bring them together in the same room and try to talk through how to get a political transition.

So do we recognize the Syrian regime as the legitimate Government of Syria, to answer your question? We don’t believe it has any legitimacy, but others do. And so what we’ve been trying to do here is not let that difference of opinions be an impediment to moving a political process forward. And so while we – while again we’ve said very clearly we think Assad should leave yesterday, he’s not a legitimate leader for his – of his people. But again, there are others who feel differently. So what we’re trying to do here, again, is put into place a process that will lead to a transitional government, that will lead to a new constitution, and that will lead to – eventually – a government that is representative of all the Syrian people.

QUESTION: I’m not asking on the basis of --

MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, I know.

QUESTION: -- the moral issue.

MR TONER: No, it’s okay.

QUESTION: On the legal issue.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Now, you also said something – that you want Syria whole and secular. Now, all these groups really don’t claim to be secular. I mean, with the exception of maybe the Syrian Communist Party, nobody claims to be secular. In fact, they are all different shades of Islamists and with different shades of extremism right there. So who are you addressing or are you talking to when you say “secular”? I mean, are there any other secular forces other than --

MR TONER: What we’re – I mean, what we’re talking about is that no one, as you say, group or ethnicity should have complete control. It needs to be a representative government in place in Syria, one that can, as I said, represent the aspirations of all the Syrian people.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR TONER: Go ahead, Abby.

QUESTION: You were just talking about how the majority of targets that the Russians have been targeting have been – the terrorist groups they’ve been targeting are actually the Syrian opposition. And Lavrov was adamant last night that they maintain the right to continue to bomb terrorists. So I guess I’m confused about how that is an agreement to have a ceasefire, if he continues to say they are going to bomb terrorists and the definition doesn’t exist the same between the two sides.

MR TONER: It does. I mean, look – I mean, you are right. The Russians, throughout this, since their – I don’t want to say the beginning of their military involvement, because it’s always been there, but the increase in their military involvement and support of the Assad regime, they’ve always claimed that their – or they’ve always bought into the Assad regime’s interpretation of the terrorists, which include, as we – as I noted earlier, many of the opposition. We just disagree firmly on that, and Russia’s bombing of these groups – and frankly, it’s indiscriminate bombing writ large – needs to stop. It needs to end.

QUESTION: So as part of this task force, will the list of terrorist groups be further – be actually defined, the way that Jordan has been working on for a while? Or has there been progress on that?

MR TONER: Right. So – and frankly, I got a little bit more clarity on that. So actually, the determination by the ISSG is that the Jordan process, while helpful, it was decided that – among the various members that there was just too much disagreement over this list other than, as I said, al-Nusrah and Daesh, of course. And so that actually has been – that task, if you will, of delineating or deciding, rather, who are the terrorist groups has been handed over to the UN under UN auspices. So it’s really under their auspices now that such a list or such a group would be created.

QUESTION: One more.

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Within that task force, one of things that was talked about was the delineation of lines for the ceasefire. If the groups such as al-Nusrah and these other terrorist groups aren’t defined and they’re all sort of amongst each other, how do you draw the lines for where the ceasefire should stop?

MR TONER: So that’s actually – and I just briefly mentioned this earlier, but the new task force, their mandate will be to delineate the territory held by Daesh, held by al-Nusrah and other groups designated as terrorist groups, understanding that, as you rightly point out, there’s some mixture there. That’s part of the challenge here, but that’s one of the goals that they’re working towards over the next week or so.

QUESTION: Are they going to be doing that in consultation with the U.S.-led military coalition, which has been trying to do its own tracking of who holds which territory?

MR TONER: I don’t know. I would imagine there would be some collaboration there, but I don’t – I can’t say definitively whether that’s the case.

QUESTION: Mark?

MR TONER: Yeah. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: What makes you trust the Russians this time? I mean, they promised the same things in Vienna and in the Geneva I and II, and maybe now they’re interested to have a break, and a week later they will continue supporting Assad.

MR TONER: Well, it’s been our --

QUESTION: I mean --

MR TONER: No, I understand what you’re saying, and they’ve – as I mentioned before and others have said, they’ve said four or five times over the last few months they’re committed to a ceasefire, they’re committed to a political transition, and obviously we’re at the point now where we need to see through their actions whether they actually have bought into this process. It is our determination – and we’ve talked about this quite a bit – that they recognize there’s no military solution to what’s happening. They’re looking to shore up their interest in Syria. They’ve been long supportive of the Assad regime. They came in at a point where they wanted to help support him, or increase their support for him, to help – to help prevent the regime, frankly, from collapsing. They had clear national interests for doing so. But that they recognize, as do all members of this ISSG, that there’s no way that anyone’s going to run the table, so to speak, in Syria – no one’s going to win this thing militarily.

And so they recognize that the more they continue to support this regime, it only increases extremism, it only increases the bloodshed, and frankly, it puts them in a position where many of these opposition groups – and we’ve talked about this before – will view them as the enemy and will take action accordingly.

QUESTION: Mark, I want to follow up on the meeting with the Saudis, the Secretary of Defense and so on.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Now, there was an article today in The Washington Post where it quotes Senator Corker and Senator Ben Cardin. Both are saying that they have doubts of – or the – in Saudi sincerity or living up to its commitments. Do you have any doubt that the --

MR TONER: As part of the – as part of --

QUESTION: As part of the coalition – they said that they want to increase their participation in the aerial bombardment as members of the coalition. They talked about sending ground forces if need be and so on. But today, what’s coming from the Senate – the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – is exactly the opposite. They say that the meeting with Jubeir last week did not convince them in any way that the Saudis are serious or sincere about these commitments.

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) they suspect that the – and that the senators suspect that the Saudis want the U.S. essentially to do the heavy lift for them.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, look – I mean, it’s okay – so, obviously, respect the senators’ counsel and opinion. I think Secretary Carter spoke about his meeting when he was in Brussels, and this was a meeting of defense ministers – the first of its kind of defense ministers who are part of the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition. He spoke, I think, pretty forcefully about the strong support that Saudi is offering to the coalition, while making the point that Saudi needs to do more, UAE needs to do more. UAE actually came in with contribution or a pledge for – to bring – put troops on the ground, but that everybody needs to do more. We need to do more. Everybody needs to amplify to increase their efforts to destroy Daesh. And we have made advances, but we need to apply more pressure on them.

Saudi’s been – Saudi Arabia has been an important partner, both as a member of the ISSG but also as part of the anti-Daesh, anti-ISIL coalition. We welcome their support. They’re looking to do more. We’re in discussions with how best they can support our efforts going forward. I know they’ve offered to bring more planes to carry out more airstrikes. That certainly is welcome as well.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Mark, yesterday, Steve Warren from Pentagon --

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: -- clashed with the Russian defense ministry over who is bombing where in Syria. I was wondering if there is any diplomatic engagement regarding that Twitter fight.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) Twitter fight, yes. No, there’s been no diplomatic engagement. We were very forceful, and Steve was very forceful in saying that there were no air – U.S. airstrikes in and around Aleppo, contrary to some of the claims made by Russian defense ministry officials. We stand by that and there’s been no other --

QUESTION: And by the way, did you guys confirm that’s official Russian defense ministry account of that?

MR TONER: You’re saying as part of the Twitter --

QUESTION: The Twitter account.

MR TONER: I don’t know.

QUESTION: No?

MR TONER: I don’t know. Please, in the back, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Sir, this is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: So first --

MR TONER: Are we okay? Are we done? I apologize. We usually kill topics, so to speak – finish – walk – finish with a topic before we move on.

QUESTION: All right, sir. Finish it.

MR TONER: That’s okay. Are we done with Syria or are we --

QUESTION: I have one more question on Syria.

MR TONER: So let’s finish up with Syria and I’ll get to you, sir.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: You said you wanted – the position of the U.S. is Assad is out yesterday, correct? You want him out yesterday, you just want him out?

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I was exaggerating, but yes, yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know, I know. I know you exaggerated --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- but the point is you want him out as soon as possible.

MR TONER: Exactly.

QUESTION: Who takes over if he decides tomorrow to just flee the country?

MR TONER: Well, again, there’s – it’s – again, part of this political process that we’ve been talking about, is that you would need to have some kind of transitional government, and that’s why we need the regime and the opposition members – the HNC – to meet in Geneva to begin those talks. They were begun a week or so ago and then put on pause because of the increased fighting on the ground or – in and around Aleppo. So we need those talks to continue. We need them to reach an agreement about a transitional government to move towards amending the constitution and then free and fair elections, but recognizing that you do need some of the governmental institutions to be preserved, as you say, in part of any stable transition.

QUESTION: So if that’s the case and there’s all these disparate groups, are you --

MR TONER: But that doesn’t – but that doesn’t – sorry, just to finish my answer --

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MR TONER: I mean, Assad doesn’t need to be a part of that, but --

QUESTION: Could this become another Libya, in your eyes, where you have all these different groups that are fighting over who gets to be the group? Are you worried about that at all?

MR TONER: I mean, I hate to draw comparisons like that. What I would say is we have worked with the opposition, various members of the opposition, over many years now, to try to support them in coalescing around a certain – or a group of leaders. That’s important for any kind of serious, credible opposition to emerge. And that work continues. That’s part of the support that we’ve tried to provide them over the years.

QUESTION: And I just have one final question, sorry.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: And so if you look back through history real quick, there’s always been some sort of unifying leader, someone you can all walk around to – the Washington, Nobunagas, people like that. Who is that leader in Syria? Or are you just hoping that somebody emerges eventually and --

MR TONER: There are, and I don’t want to – I certainly don’t want to offer names, but there are those among the opposition with experience, with the temperament, that they can emerge as credible leaders of that – of the opposition, and frankly, have already. But again, I think our effort needs to be – needs to continue, rather, working with the HNC, with this group of opposition that was put together by the Saudis and the regime in Geneva that can reach this kind of transitional government. That’s really important.

Please, sir, in the back. Are we done or do you have one more Syria? It’s okay.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary had any interaction with the HNC or the Syrian opposition since the announcement last night? Any phone calls or --

MR TONER: A fair question. I believe so. He also did a – he did a – an interview a little while ago with Orient TV, which is a Syrian TV station. I don’t know that he’s been there. I know Michael Ratney is with the party. So I can imagine he has had discussions with them, but I have nothing to read out.

Now to Pakistan.

QUESTION: Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The first is about Afghanistan. Recently, more than $2.5 billion have been sought for the Afghanistan. It really shows the U.S. commitment for the stable and secure Afghanistan. But if we see the recent DOD reports, I mean, they expect a big battle ahead, a big fight between the Afghan forces and Taliban. According to DOD officials, they are expecting a big fight ahead. So if it really happens, will U.S. send its troops to help Afghan force, or will you just assist or train?

MR TONER: Well, you’re right. I mean, our mission has remained the same in sense of we’re training, advising, assisting our Afghan counterparts, and not participating in ground combat operations. I don’t want to talk about possible deployments or operations, but that’s always been – or not always, but obviously – but since the past year or so, it’s been our – where our focus has been is building the capability, the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces to carry out the fight against Taliban.

And the other aspect of this, which is equally important, is we’ve been very clear that we support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. That’s, frankly, the surest way to end the ongoing violence.

QUESTION: Sir, do you consider the Afghan Taliban as terrorists?

MR TONER: Do I --

QUESTION: Do you consider Afghan Taliban as terrorists?

MR TONER: I’m not sure what group you’re talking about. I apologize, sir.

QUESTION: Taliban.

QUESTION: Taliban, sir.

MR TONER: Oh, the --

QUESTION: The Taliban in Afghanistan.

MR TONER: The Taliban in Afghanistan as terrorists?

QUESTION: Do you consider them as terrorists?

MR TONER: I think so, yes.

QUESTION: Can we change topics?

MR TONER: Yes, please.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: He’s asking about Afghan Taliban.

MR TONER: Sorry, you haven’t – Afghan --

QUESTION: He’s asking about Taliban Afghanistan, not the TTP.

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I think we --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure of the specific group, but we consider the Afghan – the Taliban – we’ve been very clear about what the Taliban need to do if they want to be part of any peace process. We welcome their participation in any peace process. They have a choice: They can continue fighting their fellow Afghans, destabilizing their country, or they can engage in the political process and accept the invitation to join this peace process and become part of the political – of the legitimate political system. But they need to end carrying out attacks, support the constitution – we’ve been very clear about what they need to do to be part of that process.

QUESTION: But I think in the past you have resisted yourself from designating Taliban as a terrorist organization.

QUESTION: It’s not an FTO, but --

MR TONER: I don’t believe it is.

QUESTION: It’s not an FTO?

MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to – look --

QUESTION: That’s what his question was.

MR TONER: I didn’t – sorry, sir, I didn’t really understand your question. I apologize. But whatever the heck we call them, it doesn’t matter. Really – I mean, it doesn’t. I mean, they’re the Taliban. I mean, they’ve been combatants with the Afghan – legitimate Afghan Government for many, many years. We want to see peace talks emerge between them and the Afghan – and it’s an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process. We believe it’s the surest way to bring peace.

QUESTION: But why don’t you designate them as FTO? Why --

MR TONER: Because FTOs – and we’ve talked about this many times. There’s – it’s a legal process. I don’t have the parameters in front of me, but it is a legal process by which you designate an organization – any organization – as a foreign terrorist organization. But I don’t have the specifics in front of me about the Taliban. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: So – but for all purposes, you consider them as a terrorist outfit, right?

MR TONER: Look, the Taliban – again, I mean, I feel like this is a somewhat ridiculous conversation to have. The Taliban have been at the root of the conflict in Afghanistan. They were offering al-Qaida safe haven there. This is the same al-Qaida that carried out the 9/11 attacks. This is not a group that is in the long-term interests – or has the long-term interests of the Afghan people in its – at its – in its heart or in its philosophy or in its goals or ideals. I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can we move very quickly to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Today there was a meeting of the Quartet and a statement was issued. Does that mean that the Quartet we thought was like in deep freeze is being revived and is – that it’ll have a role any time in the near future?

MR TONER: Have we ever said it was in a deep freeze?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, practically. Let’s put it this way.

MR TONER: Look, I think it was an opportunity to – for the Secretary to meet with his Quartet principals and really assess the current situation on the ground. And in fact, one of the do-outs, if you will, from this meeting was they’re going to prepare a report on the situation on the ground, and that’ll include recommendations that can help inform international discussions about the best way to advance a two-state solution. So – and I think I said this yesterday to you – we haven’t taken our eyes off that ball, which is the ultimate prize, if you will, or goal here is a two-state solution. We believe it’s in the long-term interests of both the Palestinians as well as Israel.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. So are we likely to see, let’s say, the Quartet meet anytime soon in the region, let’s say, maybe directly with the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis (inaudible)?

MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t know in terms of preparing the report what meetings they may have to hold. That’s best directed to the other members of the Quartet. I don’t have any specifics.

QUESTION: And finally, I have a question about a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, how journalists covering the West Bank and Israel are being harassed by the Israeli authorities, and in fact, they have targeted, like, CBS and many other major American news organizations. Are you aware of that? Are you talking to the Israelis about that?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, I think we always talk to the Israelis about those kinds of issues. You know where we stand on freedom of the press. It’s a fundamental democratic right, and so we would urge that journalists be respected, that they be protected in carrying out their professional duties.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: On North Korea.

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: So North Korea just announced that it would halt any further investigation into the abduction of Japanese citizens in response to Japanese sanctions. Do you have any comment on this announcement?

MR TONER: I think I do, if I can dig it out here. Good lord. Okay. Wow, all that work for this. We are aware of the reports and refer you to the Government of Japan for comment. Sorry about that.

QUESTION: It’s also – I saw the readout with the meeting between Secretary Kerry and his Chinese counterpart in Munich, where he urged Beijing to use their leverage on Pyongyang --

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: -- to take more substantive action, substantive action. Was there any – can you characterize the response from China? Do you expect any type of specific action?

MR TONER: I mean, I wouldn’t do that. As you can tell from most of our readouts, we give our point of view, what we asserted, but we never try to characterize whoever – whatever government official we’re meeting with or their views or positions. That’s up to them.

We did have – and the Secretary, when he was recently in Beijing, had very good discussions. The Chinese know where we stand on wanting to do more to exert pressure, influence on North Korea, especially given its recent actions, provocative actions on the peninsula. We need to do more; we all need to do more collectively to apply pressure. And China, obviously, historically has a measure of influence on North Korea. We’d like to see it do more to exert that influence.

QUESTION: Did you talk about – did the Secretary talk about any specific action that the Chinese can take? Or is there anything that you’re expecting that the Chinese take (inaudible)?

MR TONER: I don’t want to get into too much of the substance of the discussions.

Abby, did you – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Will you be putting any further action on North Korea?

MR TONER: I didn’t hear what you --

QUESTION: Will the U.S. be putting any further action on North Korea (inaudible)?

MR TONER: Well, we’re working this, obviously, very hard in the UN Security Council, and that work continues. And then you saw the Senate passed legislation yesterday with much tougher sanctions against North Korea. So we are – sorry, Abby, and then I’ll get back to you.

QUESTION: This is Cuba.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you confirm reports that the U.S. is restoring flights between the U.S. and Cuba – 110 commercial flights daily – next week?

MR TONER: What I can say is on Tuesday, February 16th, the United States and Cuba are expected to formally sign an arrangement which was reached in December 2015 that provides for the reestablishment of scheduled air services between the United States and Cuba. And this new arrangement will facilitate visits for travelers that fall under one of 12 categories authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control. And it also represents a major step forward in President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba. And --

QUESTION: But it doesn’t mean that the flights actually start on Tuesday?

MR TONER: No, no, no, no, I don’t believe so.

QUESTION: This is just the formal signature of what you already announced in December –

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: What about the number of flights and so on that Abby mentioned – 110? Is that – do you have anything to say on that?

MR TONER: I’ll just stop where --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: I don’t want to get ahead of the announcement.

Please.

QUESTION: About the latest batch of Hillary Clinton emails --

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: -- that are going to be released this weekend. Out of the 550 emails, does the State Department expect to find any more that will be labeled Top Secret in this latest batch?

MR TONER: I don’t have any preview to offer you or details about what this batch may hold. We’ve been very clear all along in this process, as we review these emails, we’ll upgrade them as is seen necessary, and we’ll continue to do that. But I don’t have anything to preview, sorry.

QUESTION: Do you even know how many emails will be marked classified?

MR TONER: I don’t at this point. We’ll give you – and --

QUESTION: Because usually you kind of --

MR TONER: Absolutely, and we do. And obviously, it’s tomorrow, and so we’re still working diligently on this. So we’ll be able to let all or many of you know what time we expect that release to take place, and then we’ll also issue whatever more information or characterization that we can provide at that time.

In the back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about Pakistan.

MR TONER: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. Sir, Washington is hosting a nuclear summit next month, and the Pakistani prime minister is going to attend the event. Sir, it is widely reported in Pakistan and international media that U.S. has some concerns about the tactical nuclear weapons of Pakistan, the tiny nuclear weapons. I mean, what concerns those are? I mean, are you feared about the security, or are you feared that Pakistan going to bomb India with that?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, frankly, we’re concerned both about the security of those nuclear weapons, and that’s been a common refrain, if you will, in our discussions with Pakistan; but we’re also concerned, clearly, about tensions between India and Pakistan in the region, and we want to see a dialogue between those two countries, clearly, to help alleviate some of those tensions.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: I have just a small one.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was a report suggesting or quoting a U.S. diplomat as suggesting that human rights issue – that countries aren’t going to be singled out for human rights issues at the U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands. I know this is a White House thing and therefore it’s kind of difficult for you to address, but is that right or doesn’t the President reserve the right to discuss any issues, including human rights issues, in his bilateral meetings on the sidelines at Sunnylands?

MR TONER: Arshad, I’m going to – I just haven’t seen the comments so it’s hard for me to – I’ll – I agree with you. I’m not sure whether he meant specifically among the group where, as you note, human rights are often discussed. But you’re specifically referring to kind of calling out individual countries on certain human rights? Is that what the assertion was?

QUESTION: The assertion was that they wouldn’t be raised.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: And nobody would be called out --

MR TONER: Yeah. Well, I --

QUESTION: -- if I understand it correctly.

MR TONER: Yeah. I don’t have clarity on that. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: No worries, thanks.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Mark, I asked this yesterday as well. I was wondering if you have any readout regarding two newspapers were attacked yesterday in Turkey.

MR TONER: I think I do. You’re talking about the attacks yesterday on Yeni Safak and Yeni Akit?

QUESTION: That’s right.

MR TONER: Yeah, okay. Violence against journalists is always unacceptable. We said before free and fair – a free and diverse press, rather, is an essential component of a democratic society. And we defend the right of Yeni Safak and Yeni Akit to print and report without fear of reprisal, which is the right of every journalist. We urge Turkish authorities to investigate thoroughly this incident and to prosecute the perpetrators in accordance with Turkish law.

QUESTION: One more, back to the Clinton emails.

MR TONER: I thought I was free.

QUESTION: Sorry.

MR TONER: That’s okay. It’s all right, I’m just joking.

QUESTION: Can you say if you will withheld – withhold any in full out of this batch?

MR TONER: I just don’t have – again, I just – we’re still working our way through this batch, and nothing to preview at this point. I promise we’ll give you what information we can. And realize that – recognize this is an inconvenience for us, but we’re working full-stop on getting the rest of these emails out, but we also realize it’s an inconvenience for all of you on a long weekend, so apologies for that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thank you, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:57 p.m.)



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