1:50 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Welcome back.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Welcome back and welcome to the State Department. Happy Wednesday. Just one thing fairly quickly at the top: the Maldives, the sentencing of Sheikh Imran. We are concerned that another Maldivian opposition leader has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term after a deeply flawed and – judicial process. Opposition leader Sheikh Imran was sentenced yesterday to 12 years in prison for speaking at an opposition rally. Imran is the third prominent politician to receive a lengthy sentence in just the past 12 months, and in each instance the government failed to provide an appropriate – or rather failed to provide appropriate procedural and substantive protections in accordance with Maldivian law and Maldives’ international obligations.
We renew our call for the Maldivian Government to end politically motivated trials and to take steps to restore confidence and a commitment to democracy and human rights including freedom of expression and the rule of law and judicial independence. That’s all I’ve got at the top.
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.
QUESTION: And then – I’m wondering if you can give us any more detail at all about this meeting that the Secretary had out in Hollywood with these film studio executives. He, in his tweet, said that he was there hearing perspectives and ideas on how to counter the Daesh narrative, and I’m just wondering if you can be more specific. I mean, is – was he asking their advice on how to do this, or was he suggesting things? I mean --
MR TONER: Sure. I think --
QUESTION: Does this – is he looking for the next Wolverine movie to be Wolverine vs. ISIS? What’s the --
MR TONER: I mean, kidding aside –
QUESTION: What was it? No, no, I’m not --
MR TONER: No, no, of course. I mean, look, he – it was – he had the chance to meet with a number of senior executives in the entertainment industry. I mean, these are the people, I think, widely recognized who are some of the best communicators out there, and they run a highly profitable industry that is expert at conveying messages to a worldwide audience. So I think he sought their – not I think – he sought their perspectives and input about how the United States and the rest of the coalition – the anti-Daesh coalition – can better counter the propaganda that’s being put forward by ISIL.
I mean, a lot of it was a discussion and a give-and-take on what’s – what they think works and what doesn’t work. And I can’t – I don’t want to get into the details because it was just an introductory meeting, but I think it’s – I think the Secretary felt it was worthwhile to have the opportunity to meet with these folks and get their input on what they think is an effective strategy.
QUESTION: Okay. So he was soliciting them on ideas about how to counter their messaging, not the other way around? He wasn’t saying, “Hey listen, we think it would be a great idea if you guys did X, X, and X to help in the --
MR TONER: No, no. I think – I mean, look, no, no. I think he was seeking their perspectives on our own efforts to counter Daesh and ISIL in terms of messaging.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, but you’re not planning on, like, outsourcing the whole CVE message to Hollywood film studios, are you?
MR TONER: No, no, gosh. But I think – I mean, it’s important that they’re part of this conversation. I mean, they’re – again, they have more so than diplomats and even public diplomacy professionals like myself. I freely admit that folks in Hollywood and Silicon Valley and – who are – who are really experts in conveying messages, whether it’s through film or through entertainment, are worthwhile to listen to and to seek – we should be seeking their advice on how we can do our job better.
QUESTION: Can you cite an example where actually Hollywood and the government were able to sort of coordinate together to have a powerful message or film done, I mean, in the past? Is there anything --
QUESTION: World War II.
QUESTION: World War II, okay.
MR TONER: John Huston.
QUESTION: Since World War II, I was going to say.
MR TONER: But no, that’s okay. I mean, it’s --
QUESTION: Since World War II. I mean, during the Vietnam War --
QUESTION: Vietnam, yes.
QUESTION: -- I mean, there was the Green Berets, for instance.
QUESTION: Top Gun.
QUESTION: Or Top Gun or something.
QUESTION: Top Gun?
QUESTION: But --
QUESTION: This is going – can we move on to something a little bit more --
MR TONER: No, I – no, no. Yeah, I mean --
QUESTION: Is he going to have more meetings with these people?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to say that yesterday they were inking deals on movies that will come out. All he was doing was he was taking advantage of the fact that he was there just outside of Hollywood in LA where the movie industry exists. He wanted to seek their input on how we can message better.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: I mean, these guys, as I said, are professional --
QUESTION: You did say it was an introductory meeting. So are --
MR TONER: It was an introductory meeting, exactly.
QUESTION: So are there – is this going to be --
MR TONER: I have nothing to announce, but I think – it was a first meeting. I think it would we --
QUESTION: So there will be a sequel?
MR TONER: -- we would like to see more.
QUESTION: Sequel. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I’ll give you that, yeah.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Today the Secretary said he was seeking serious, very serious discussions with China on the missile that was sent to the South China Sea. What did he mean by that, and when does he plan to have those serious discussions?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, you’re talking about – right, the --
QUESTION: The --
MR TONER: The commercial imagery seems to indicate that China has deployed a surface-to-air missile system.
QUESTION: Well, can you confirm that? Are you confirming this?
MR TONER: Yes, I am confirming that commercial imagery appears to indicate that China has deployed a surface-to-air missile system on a disputed outpost in the South China Sea. If this is true, we believe this will raise tensions further in the region. As you know, that it was – there was a declaration in Sunnylands yesterday. President Obama and the other leaders of ASEAN countries confirmed that we do share a commitment to maintaining peace, security, and stability in the region, and that includes freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, as described in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
So back to your question about the Secretary’s remarks, I think he was simply stating that we’ve heard and he actually cited the example of President Xi, when he was here in the Rose Garden, said that China will not militarize the South China Sea. But there is increasing evidence that that’s not the case, that there has been an increase in militarization of one kind or another. And certainly, as I said, if these – if what we’ve seen of the commercial satellite imagery does bear out that there are surface-to-air missiles, that would be – we would consider – of serious concern.
I think – again, I don’t have anything to announce in terms of any meetings or any phone calls, except to say that he did promise that there would be conversations in the very near future, in the very near term, with China about this – about this development. And again, it simply comes back to the fact that it’s very important – and China knows this and has said that it is also committed to resolving these kinds of jurisdictional issues through diplomacy and by working with other countries and claimants in trying to resolve these differences. And frankly, militarization is counterproductive to that effort, obviously.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MR TONER: Let’s go to Syria.
QUESTION: No, one more on China.
QUESTION: Wait, wait --
MR TONER: Go ahead. Go ahead, Matt. Finish up.
QUESTION: Stay on – go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Is there a sense in this building that the – concerning the timing of this deployment from China, is there a sense in this building that this was done sort of as a rebuke to the ASEAN Summit or --
MR TONER: It’s a fair question, Pam. I’m not sure in terms of how long these missiles have been in place. Again, it’s – this is – we’re relying right now on what commercial imagery appears to indicate. I have no idea whether the timing is such that it happened in the last couple of days or was any way – that’s a question, frankly, for the Chinese to answer.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
QUESTION: Wait a second. You’re relying on commercial satellite imagery? Is that what the U.S. Government is relying on?
MR TONER: In this case what I’m talking out – when I’m talking about this instance --
QUESTION: On – you don’t have your own eyes on it? I mean, I realize you can’t talk about it, but --
MR TONER: We’re confirming – we’re confirming through our various other means and channels, yes.
QUESTION: So it’s not a question of if it’s true; it is a question of: the Chinese have done this, and now what are you going to do about it, if anything? It seemed from the Secretary’s remarks that the Administration is disappointed that, from your point of view, the Chinese aren’t living up to what President Xi said in the Rose Garden with President Obama. Is that correct? And then secondly, you’re – you note – you point out the Sunnylands statement. But China was – is not a signatory to that. So just – and – just because they’ve put these missiles there doesn’t necessarily mean that they are opposed to a diplomatic solution, does it? Or does it mean that in your estimation?
MR TONER: No. So I mean, what I think we’re saying is militarization of the islands, or of the South China Sea, rather, is obviously counterproductive to any kind of peaceful or diplomatic resolution to – among the various claimants.
MR TONER: So what we want to see is dispute settlement mechanisms put in place – and this has long been a discussion among the ASEAN nations – and we want to see vehicles for arbitration, so that these things can be discussed in diplomatic channels.
QUESTION: All right. And militarization would include what? Putting these missiles up there and sending ships or planes, naval – military ships or planes to the area? Because --
MR TONER: Again, some of the – yeah, some of the actions --
QUESTION: Okay. So my understanding is --
MR TONER: -- that we’ve seen China take in terms of --
QUESTION: Aren’t you guys doing that too?
MR TONER: No, but ours is different.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I --
MR TONER: No, I mean, it’s --
QUESTION: -- I mean, how is it --
MR TONER: And you’ve heard our explanation, obviously.
QUESTION: I mean, I know that you’re not planting missile silos on islands in the South China Sea, but you’re sending large naval vessels through and flying over with military planes, are you not?
MR TONER: Well, as --
QUESTION: That doesn’t count as militarization, right? Is that --
MR TONER: It does not. It counts as freedom of – it is basically freedom of navigation.
QUESTION: But anything the Chinese does are --
MR TONER: That’s not the same as building airstrips and putting surface-to-air missiles on these --
MR TONER: -- and actually building up some of these islands in order to support that kind of infrastructure.
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one was: Did the --
MR TONER: What’s Kirby – what’s Kirby’s line about not – freedom of navigation, not just for whales and --
QUESTION: Whales and seals or something like that.
MR TONER: What he said.
QUESTION: Is your --
QUESTION: But what about President Xi?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: You’re accusing him of – you’re accusing the Chinese of not living up to President Xi’s pledge, or whatever – however you want to --
MR TONER: If it in fact turns out and we can confirm through our own means that these are surface-to-air missiles, then, as I said, then that’s a step backwards.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria? A follow-up on --
QUESTION: Can I just ask – so you are – other than the commercial satellite imagery, you are pursuing your own other independent ways of verifying this?
MR TONER: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: Go to Syria?
QUESTION: A follow-up on that?
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s finish up with this. Sorry.
QUESTION: Sorry. Would you say that, I mean, given China’s own provocative actions in the South China Sea, that it’s no longer a reliable partner to address North Korean provocations?
MR TONER: No. I mean, we’ve talked a lot about the fact that we want to see China take a more proactive role in engaging with North Korea to try to get it to refrain from additional provocative actions and to pursue denuclearization on the peninsula. But that’s wholly unrelated to its actions in the South China Sea. But it does show the breadth and importance of our security dialogue with China. And we’re going to continue to press them where we can, hold them accountable where we feel they should be held accountable. And that goes to every issue, whether it’s human rights, whether it’s South China Sea, whether it’s DPRK.
And DPRK – now, they are in agreement that North Korea’s actions are a threat to the region’s security and stability. They agree with us on that. We want to see more stringent action taken to rein North Korea in. So we’re – that dialogue continues. And that was – when the Secretary was recently in Beijing, he – we had those discussions. Those discussions continue.
MR TONER: Sure, let’s stay with North Korea.
QUESTION: In the wake of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch and also nuclear tests, there’s a sanctions bill that is sitting on the President’s desk. Is it safe to say that a year later, strategic patience is not working?
MR TONER: I think, Lucas, we – I think North Korea has indicated through its recent actions an unwillingness to come back to negotiations, Six-Party Talks. There is a mechanism in place. We’ve said many, many times over the past years, though, we don’t want that to simply serve as a forum for talking for talk’s sake. When North Korea is serious about answering some of those questions about denuclearizing, then we’re ready to go back to that format. But I think – sorry, just to answer your question – I think there’s also a realization given the past actions, and these are being pursued not only bilaterally or unilaterally, rather, but also within the Security Council, of the need for additional actions on North Korea.
QUESTION: Do you think sending those F-22 fighter jets will help?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, those are – you’re talking about the F-22s to South Korea?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, that’s – part of that is reassurance to our strong allies and partners in the region that we take their concerns, their security concerns seriously.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- possible diplomatic developments that have – you have done or achieved over the past 48 hours, or, say, 24?
MR TONER: Right, a couple of things to mention, I think worth mentioning. So we can confirm that UN and humanitarian partner convoys comprising 100 trucks are en route from Damascus to five besieged areas in Syria, including the Idlib towns of al-Fua and Kefraya, and the Rif Damascus towns of al-Zabadani and Madaya and Moadamiya. Sorry, forgive me my pronunciation is incorrect there. Convoys – these convoys include lifesaving relief supplies for tens of thousands of besieged Syrians.
Now, this is great. This is a step forward. But I would be clear that this is just a first step in dealing with the significant problem of humanitarian assistance in these besieged areas, and frankly, it’s a problem that never should have happened. The Assad regime should have allowed this access long ago, and we’re still very concerned that the Syrian regime has thus far only agreed to what they call temporary access to these besieged communities. We obviously want to see permanent access.
QUESTION: So you don’t expect this to be a permanent thing. It’s probably a onetime thing, is that it?
MR TONER: Again, I think we’ll wait and see, but what we’ve heard from the regime thus far is that it’s kind of – they said “temporary.” They used that terminology.
MR TONER: And that’s obviously of concern to all members of the ISSG.
QUESTION: But if we see this as happening every other week or every week, or something like this, would that be a good gesture from the Syrian Government that can perhaps sort of legitimize its efforts --
MR TONER: Well, we’ve talked about that, and that’s --
QUESTION: -- in the political process?
MR TONER: Yeah, no, I mean, it’s a good question, Said. I mean, first of all, we’re hoping to build on this access. The UN will determine the priority for UN – its own deliveries. But this is a first initial step. We talked a lot about – especially with the Geneva talks, set to begin again next week, to reconvene next week, between the opposition and the regime. We’ve talked about having some kind of concrete progress to point to on the ground, whether it’s with regard to a cessation of hostilities or access to some of these besieged areas. So this would fall into that.
QUESTION: And on the issue of more involvement by other countries in Syria, can you confirm – or I don’t know if you would – that the Saudis have sent in a squadron of fighter jets, F-16s, to the Incirlik Air Base, which is where you have – where the United States keeps its fighter jets on --
MR TONER: Well, I knew there was discussion in Brussels last week.
QUESTION: There’s also – uh-huh.
MR TONER: I can’t confirm that that’s actually taken place. I know there was discussion among defense ministers of the anti-Daesh coalition last week in Brussels that Saudi would be providing airstrikes or fighters to the coalition’s effort. I can’t confirm that that’s – that they’ve arrived in Incirlik. I just don’t know.
QUESTION: But they also say that they sent in a special unit, special forces unit that would allegedly work with American Special Forces units that are present in the same area. Is that something that you can comment on?
MR TONER: I can’t.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, are you saying that the Munich agreement did not call for a cessation of hostilities within a week of it being announced?
MR TONER: No, I think it did, yeah. I mean, I think --
QUESTION: Oh, it did? Okay.
MR TONER: Yeah. Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t --
QUESTION: But you seemed to be saying that it only called for progress – concrete progress on the ground to enable the peace talks to resume, or to start.
MR TONER: Yeah, right, and --
QUESTION: And you seem to be saying that it was an either --
MR TONER: Forgive me, Matt, if I – sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: You seemed to be saying it was an either/or proposition, that concrete progress could be either these aid convoys getting in, or it could be a cessation of hostilities agreement.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: But that’s just not the case. The Munich agreement calls for both of those things, not – it doesn’t make it an either-or proposition. And it also said that the aid to these seven communities should have been delivered last week, not today, Wednesday the – what is it, 18th, 17th? So I don’t understand.
MR TONER: So --
QUESTION: Are you – is the Administration – is the ISSG, which agreed to this Munich thing, backtracking on its commitments?
MR TONER: So there were, as you note, timelines discussed in Munich last week. And I didn’t want to convey that we’re somehow disregarding those. I think, though, and all I was trying to convey in answering Said’s question was the fact that we need to be able to show progress --
MR TONER: -- on both fronts, I think, going forward. And I think that that would be – that would help get the opposition back to Geneva, if they saw concrete action taken on the ground.
QUESTION: But it’s both, not either or.
MR TONER: No, no, both.
MR TONER: And just an update on the ceasefire task force: That is scheduled to meet February 19th in Geneva. That’ll be convened under UN auspices, co-chaired by the U.S. and by Russia, but open to all ISSG members. And that’s – recognizing that’s a week after the – this was announced in – or a week plus a day after it was announced in Munich --
QUESTION: Well, no, we’ll give you the – it was past midnight. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, so --
MR TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- we’ll give you till Friday.
MR TONER: No, I mean, we --
QUESTION: But you have until Friday to get the cessation --
MR TONER: Look, we recognize --
QUESTION: -- not just to have a meeting about it.
MR TONER: I understand that, and we recognize that you have to set deadlines. We’ve talked about this before – whether it’s in terms of Iran and the nuclear deal or whatever issue we’re working on, we have to set deadlines. Frankly, we would’ve liked this two months ago. We didn’t get there. We’re pushing now. We have – we’re pushing as fast as possible on this, recognizing that on both sides there have to be consultations on the ground before this group can come together and meet and seriously talk about a cessation of hostilities.
QUESTION: So the – you mentioned that the ceasefire task force is co-chaired by the U.S. and Russia. The language of the Munich agreement says, “and including political and military officials with participation of ISSG members.” So anyone who wants to – anyone who’s in the ISSG can have political and military officials at the task force meeting? Is that correct?
MR TONER: That is my understanding, yes.
QUESTION: So that includes Iran. So I don’t understand – for months and months and months, the Administration has said there’s no way it’s going to cooperate fully with Russia, let alone Iran, on any military component of what’s going on in Syria – I mean, over and over and over again. And the Russians were pushing, pushing, pushing. That’s what they wanted. They wanted maps to show where the rebels are that you support. You said – people claimed that that was disingenuous, that they only wanted another location so that they could go after them. But now, that’s one of the main things that this task force is tasked with doing, which is to draw up the – to delineate areas held by groups that are eligible and ineligible for the ceasefire. So I don’t understand how you’re going to sit down now militarily with the Russians and the Iranians – if the Iranians want to – and coordinate with them if you haven’t changed your position on whether – on cooperation with the Russians, let alone the Iranians.
MR TONER: So just to – and just to – clearly – so the U.S. delegation – and then I’ll answer your question – to this task force is going to be led by Rob Malley, who’s the special assistant to the President and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region. And the U.S. delegation will also include State Department officials.
You are right in that in the past few months, we have been hesitant to cooperate more robustly on airstrikes and targeting of some of these groups with Russia because we hadn’t seen – and we’ve talked about this a lot – that it was really even targeting Daesh or ISIL in its airstrikes. I would just say the frame’s a little different here in the sense that we’re – and, I mean, there needs to be, I think, coordination among all the members of the ISSG on the ground if we’re going to get to a credible cessation of hostilities and eventually a ceasefire, because one of the things that also came out of Munich was it’s going to be incumbent on not just Russia, not just Iran and their influence on the regime, but various other members of the ISSG to exert influence where we see whatever backsliding or forces, whether it’s the regime or members of the opposition, who are reluctant to join the ceasefire. Once we get a ceasefire in place, we can then attempt to police that or it will be self-policing, and we’ve talked a little bit about that before. But I think at some level, you’re going to have to – we’re going to have to do that and have that kind of coordination and awareness on both sides.
QUESTION: Okay. But that means that the Administration has decided that it is now comfortable coordinating military operations with Iran, a country the Administration believes is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism; which supports Hizballah, which is active on the battlefield and which is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. So I don’t get how you guys can do that – can agree to coordinating military operations with Iran, and then by extension Hizballah, by – legally. How do you do that? These are state – a state sponsor of terrorism in your estimation and a foreign terrorist organization. How does that work?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we – when we created this International Syria Support Group, we made the decision that it needed to be open to all “stakeholders” in Syria, and so that included Iran. That was a major step not just on our part but on the part of others in the ISSG to include them in that process, fully recognizing that if we don’t get their buy-in, we’re never going to get a credible ceasefire. We’re just not. I mean, as you point out, they do have boots on the ground through various forms.
I’m not going to speak to your other question, which is how do we legally do that. I mean, I think the ISSG in and of itself is going to – again, the various members are going to exert influence where they can on the forces on the ground to enact that ceasefire. I can’t get into too much detail about the mechanisms or the modalities or whatever of the ceasefire, cessation of hostilities.
I think I’ll just stop there.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Turkey.
QUESTION: There seems – there was a explosion in Ankara.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Killed over 20. Do you have any initial comments for that?
MR TONER: Well, obviously, we express our sincere condolences to the dead and injured. This is obviously also still preliminary news or preliminary facts coming in about the extent, and I don’t think we have a – any claim of responsibility yet, but we’ve seen these reports. The embassy is working to determine if any U.S. citizens were involved, and we stand by to provide any and all consular assistance. The U.S. embassy also issued an emergency warden message to U.S. citizens, urging them to avoid the area and to monitor local news for updates.
At this point, I would just say we refer you to Turkish authorities for more details.
QUESTION: Yesterday Turkish President Erdogan directly mentioned you, so I’m going to let you respond to --
MR TONER: What did he – did he directly?
QUESTION: Yes, yes. Spokesman of the --
MR TONER: Somehow I missed that.
QUESTION: -- U.S. He --
MR TONER: It didn’t come up in my Google – sorry – alert. Sorry.
QUESTION: He said that here is the spokesman remarks from yesterday telling you that – you said we’re going to continue to help YPG but also YPG is making things difficult, as you were talking about Menagh airbase yesterday.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: There are a lot of accusations yesterday. It was pretty long, longer than usual, Erdogan remarks on U.S. He said that weapons given to PYD turning against our security officials. He said that this is blindless – blind U.S. policies, blind to say that PYD and PKK has no links. Yeah. Do you have any response?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: On this, too, Mark --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, sure.
QUESTION: He said that he’s having difficulty understanding why U.S. cannot call Syrian Kurdish PYD a terrorist organization, and he added that ignoring link between PYD and PKK is a hostile attitude against Turkey.
MR TONER: Is a what attitude?
QUESTION: Hostile. Hostile attitude.
MR TONER: Hostile attitude? Not at all. First off, I respectfully acknowledge President Erdogan’s remarks. As many of you in this room know, we just have a difference of opinion here about the role of the YPG and its links to PKK, who we fully admit is a foreign terrorist organization and support Turkey’s efforts to combat the PKK.
That said, I was very clear yesterday and I can reiterate what I said yesterday, which is that we are aware that YPG forces have attempted to take and recently taken additional territory outside of Afrin and including areas close to Azaz, which includes, as you mentioned, Menagh airbase. And we called these moves, both publicly but also privately in our conversations with the YPG leadership, counterproductive, and said that they undermine our collective, cooperative efforts to degrade and defeat Daesh. And so we have reached out to the YPG leadership to urge that it refrain from further escalating tensions in the region.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: May I follow up?
MR TONER: Let him finish. Sorry, I’ll get to you, Michael.
QUESTION: The same subject – he also says that many of the weapons turning up against our security officials in Turkey. This is pretty heavy accusations.
MR TONER: We’ve also been clear that we have not provided weaponry to the YPG.
QUESTION: Just wanted to just follow up on your message yesterday also. You stressed Turkey needs to stop attacking the Kurds in Syria.
MR TONER: I did. I did.
QUESTION: And today he said --
MR TONER: Just wanted to relieve you all of my – further going into my talking points, but you’re absolutely right, I did say that.
QUESTION: Well, he also said that he’s going to continue the shelling. Is he not listening? Has he responded to the U.S. on this? Has he rejected your call to stop?
MR TONER: I don’t believe so. I mean, we have very frank and productive exchanges with Turkey, with the Turkish Government. They are a NATO ally and partner in countering Daesh in the region. We’ve expressed our views, made it clear that just as the YPG, as I said, is – its actions are very counterproductive, but we’ve also told the – or conveyed to the Turkish Government that it should cease its artillery fire across the border.
QUESTION: But wouldn’t you say they’re ignoring these – they’re ignoring your demands?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t – I wouldn’t say it that way, and I would also say that we’ve not seen any recent artillery fire over the last 24 hours or so.
QUESTION: He said he’s going to continue it too.
MR TONER: I’m aware of that, but --
QUESTION: And one – one more question.
MR TONER: Sorry. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is there an obstacle with – because of these heightened tensions – with arming both sides, with the U.S. providing arms to both sides of this, Turkey and – as you mentioned some of the complications – Turkey and the Kurds in Syria?
MR TONER: Sure. Turkey – first of all, and I – if I didn’t express this clearly, we’ve never provided, as I said, weaponry or arms to the YPG. We’ve supported them through a variety of means, including airstrikes and other --
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, let’s say “military support” maybe is a better word.
MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, I think – also without getting into too much operational detail, which, frankly, is better directed to the DOD – the YPG groups that we’re supporting – there are various parts of the YPG on the ground in Syria, and the one – the groups that we’re supporting are actually not the same groups. Obviously, they’re part of the same organization, but not these ones who are taking territory in and around Aleppo. And so the groups that we’ve been supporting through airstrikes, through various means, have actually continued to effectively fight ISIL on the ground in northern Syria.
QUESTION: But isn’t Turkey shelling them?
MR TONER: I’m not aware that they’re – no. My understanding, of course – and again, I defer to my Department of Defense colleagues, but my understanding is that the shelling of YPG positions is directed at those groups in and around Afrin and Azaz.
QUESTION: On this, Mark, please.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: We couldn’t understand – the U.S. has supported or has been supporting the PYD and YPG, and these groups – reports coming from – news reports coming from Aleppo saying that these groups are also supported by Russia and the Syrian regime, and these groups are fighting with FSA, who are supported by the U.S. And both of them are using American arms. Can you explain this for us, please?
MR TONER: That was a really – and I acknowledge it’s a complex situation, but one more time. You’re saying that – whether they’re cooperating with and being provided weaponry from Russia and the regime? We’ve not seen any indication of that. I don’t know – I won’t speak to any other country’s engagement with local groups in Syria, but we have been very clear in our message to the YPG that taking additional territory around Azaz – Afrin and Azaz are heightening tensions with Turkey.
QUESTION: But all the news reports coming from there said yesterday and today and before that --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- that Russia and the Syrian regime are coordinating with the – with YPG in this area.
MR TONER: That they’re coordinating with them on the ground?
MR TONER: Again, we’ve seen no evidence other than that these different groups may be taking advantage of the situation. And we talked about this over the last couple of days that it’s not uncommon to see this kind of – however you want to term it – land grab or whatever in the run-up to a ceasefire.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Mark, but these – the YPG has been seen driving in American-made vehicles and armored personnel – even a tank at one point.
QUESTION: How did they get it?
MR TONER: I mean --
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Matt raises a valid point and that is there is --
QUESTION: Point taken. Yeah.
MR TONER: -- there is – the reality of the situation in both Syria and Iraq is that equipment and various weaponry, while given to the quote-unquote “good guys,” somehow sometime ends up in the hands of the quote-unquote “bad guys.”
QUESTION: I have on this, Mark. Can you tell us, who is your biggest ally in the area against the jihadists? This is a question. It’s not a question to whom you are giving arms; the question who is fighting with you against the jihadists?
MR TONER: Well, Michael, my answer to that is I’m not going to give a grade to any one group or any one member of the coalition. What I’m going to say is that every member of the coalition fulfills a various role. And as you know, this coalition involves various lines of effort, and we focus a lot in this room, in this briefing room on the kinetic part, the military part, and that’s important. And we’ve talked very clearly about the fact that not just the YPG, not just the Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arab groups and other groups including the Turkmen in northern Syria have been effective in taking the fight to ISIL. And in – as part of our strategy – and you know this has evolved over many months – we recognize that it’s better to provide support to these groups. It’s a more effective use, frankly, of our efforts to provide support to these groups who are already showing success in destroying Daesh on the ground and taking back territory from Daesh. I don’t want to in any way undermine or under – what’s the word I’m looking for – I don’t want to in any way say or convey that any other member of this anti-Daesh coalition is not doing enough or not fulfilling an important role. There’s lots of different roles within that coalition, but we fully recognize, and ourselves included, we all need to do more.
QUESTION: Mark, you said you have seen no indication that YPG is supported by any other country. The Syrian’s Government’s envoy to UN, Bashar Jaafari said yesterday that this – I’m quoting exactly his words – “The Syrian Kurds supported by the American Administration are also supported by the Syrian Government.” Just for your information, that’s what he said.
MR TONER: Okay, thanks.
QUESTION: So – yeah. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: No comment.
QUESTION: So do you still say that they are not supported by any other country?
MR TONER: Guys, I – respectfully, I know there’s a lot of interest in – but let’s – can we take one more question --
QUESTION: Just to clarify something --
QUESTION: Different subject.
MR TONER: No, no, no, just a – okay.
QUESTION: Just to clarify something, you said that the Turkish artillery shelling has stopped. Since when?
MR TONER: We’ve heard – I’ve seen reports that it stopped, but I can’t speak to when it happened.
QUESTION: Are you in contact with the Turkish official to stop this artillery shelling?
MR TONER: Are we what? I apologize.
QUESTION: Are you in contact with the Turkish officials to --
MR TONER: Well, of course we’re in contact with Turkish officials. You mean to stop them? I mean, we’ve urged them –
QUESTION: No, to urge them.
MR TONER: Yes, we’ve conveyed our --
QUESTION: So can you confirm that at least --
QUESTION: Did the Vice President call the prime minister and say that?
MR TONER: Yes, he did. Thank you. Yes, and Vice President Biden – he’s referring to Vice President Biden’s call. And we talk at a number of levels, as you know, every day with Turkish authorities.
QUESTION: If – I mean, since you’re in contact with the Turkish officials, are you – do you have any knowledge about when this artillery shelling has stopped?
MR TONER: I don’t have a date certain or a time certain. I’m just aware that it --
QUESTION: Since last day?
MR TONER: I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay, the last one. Are you mediating with – between the YPG forces and U.S.-backed forces on the ground in Mari line especially, because there is a negotiation between YPG and U.S.-backed forces in – on the ground to take over Mari. Are you mediating between them?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to the details of that. I just don’t have that kind of level of detail. Sorry.
QUESTION: Different subject.
QUESTION: No, no, no, one more, please, on Syria, please, Mark.
MR TONER: I just said – I just said, Michel.
MR TONER: Let’s move along.
QUESTION: No, no --
MR TONER: If we have time at the end because I actually have to --
QUESTION: On no-fly zone, Chancellor Merkel has said today that --
MR TONER: I’m aware of her remarks, and I’ll – I don’t mean to cut you off, but I’m aware of her remarks. Our position on no-fly zones remains the same, Michel.
QUESTION: The OPCW had a report out a few days ago, or sorry, there were reports that the OPCW had confirmed that mustard gas was being used by ISIS in Iraq. I was wondering if you had any comment on that, but also if there was any indication as to whether you felt it was being made by them or had been procured from the Syrian Government.
MR TONER: Hold on one second, I do have something on that. I apologize. So we believe that the Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, or Daesh, was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in Marea in August 21st, 2015, largely based on photographic evidence as well as Syrian opposition’s description of the event. We also believe, based on the available information, that Daesh, or ISIL, was likely responsible for some of the alleged attacks using sulfur mustard in Iraq.
I’m sorry, (inaudible). Did you have another question or --
QUESTION: Mine’s --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- weapons in Iraq. There’s a Reuters story that a – some radioactive material was stolen from a U.S. oil firm in Iraq, something the size of a laptop computer, that there are fears could be used to make a dirty bomb or something that is dangerous. Are these real fears? Do you know about this stolen material? And is it actually something to be concerned about?
MR TONER: Well, we’re aware of the reports that there may be a lost – may be lost or missing radioactive source in Iraq. We’ve not seen any indication the material in question has been acquired by Daesh or any other terrorist groups in the region. But obviously, we continue to take these reports very seriously and we continue to monitor the situation.
QUESTION: Do you have reason to believe that it’s dangerous material? Could it be used to create a dangerous weapon?
MR TONER: Yeah, right. So based on the information provided, we can’t speculate on the suitability of the materials for use in, as you say, a dirty bomb or a radiological dispersal device.
QUESTION: What – you say you’re not aware of any indication that it’s been acquired by Daesh or any other terrorist group.
MR TONER: I said we’ve not seen any indication the material has been acquired by ISIL.
QUESTION: We’ve not seen any indication. Well, would you? I mean, so do you have – you’re basically saying you don’t know where it is.
MR TONER: Again, I’m going to leave it where I’ve said – what I just said, with what I just said, rather. We’re aware of reports that this radioactive source has gone lost or missing. We just – and we’ve not seen any indications that it’s been acquired by any terrorist group.
QUESTION: Well, what does that – I mean --
QUESTION: The report was that it was stolen. The first report was that it was stolen. So – which is different than missing. And --
MR TONER: Agree.
QUESTION: And your comment would suggest that maybe you believe they just lost it rather than it was stolen. Is that what you are saying?
MR TONER: I’m going to refer you to the Iraqi Government for --
QUESTION: What kind of sign would you – what kind of indication, an explosion? Would that indicate that – I don’t get – I don’t get what that means.
MR TONER: I mean, it’s a valid question.
QUESTION: Would you see – would you see – what kind of indication would you have that they have it?
MR TONER: Well, I mean --
QUESTION: If they’re trying to keep it secret, then --
MR TONER: Granted, but you – there’s ways to – as we’ve talked about many times --
QUESTION: All right. Well, speaking of concerns --
MR TONER: -- there’s ways to trace radioactive material.
QUESTION: Fair enough. Speaking of concerns, yesterday you said you were – you didn’t have any – you didn’t know of any concern about the possible sale of Sukhoi, advanced Sukhois to Iran by Russia. I’m wondering if you guys have decided whether or not this possibility is of concern.
And then related to that, both the Russians and the Iranians are saying that the S-300 missile system delivery will begin tomorrow. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Just on the S-300, we’ve made clear our objections to any sale of the S-300 missile to Iran for quite a few years now. Secretary Kerry has raised it with Lavrov, Foreign Minister Lavrov, multiple occasions. We’ve long objected to the sale – of the sale – we’ve long objected to the sale to Iran of such sophisticated defense capabilities. We’re going to continue to monitor it.
I don’t have any about the Sukhoi. I’ll take that question.
QUESTION: Would that violate the UN – that sale, the Sukhois, or T-90 tanks?
MR TONER: I don’t know. I don’t have that in front of me. I mean, if obviously – and I said this yesterday – is we would look at not only this particular sale but any specific transactions that we had concerns about. We would both look at how we would respond both within our own unilateral abilities to impose sanctions, which we still retain, or also we would make sure that they don’t violate any UN Security Council resolutions.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Whether it’s Syria, North Korea and launching a ballistic missile into space, or now China putting surface-to-air missiles on one of its islands, is it safe to say that the --
MR TONER: Is it safe? No. (Laughter.) Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is strategic patience still a swing thought of this Administration’s foreign policy?
MR TONER: That’s a really big-picture foreign policy concept for me to tackle from this podium today. And I also don’t think that strategic patience necessarily applies to every given crisis in the world. It is a valid approach in some cases. But certainly – and the President and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense have all been very clear that we always reserve the right, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s whoever – when they flout international law, when they go against UN Security Council resolutions, that we will take action when – as needed.
QUESTION: But is it working?
MR TONER: Is what working? Strategic patience?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t – I’m not going to attempt to --
QUESTION: Answer. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: That’s right. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Mark, a quick question --
MR TONER: I think – look, it’s, I mean, a valid question. But I think what we’re looking at in terms of in any given – whether it’s Syria, whether it’s North Korea, we want to see de-escalation, we want to see political processes put in place, we want to see diplomatic processes put in place that can help resolve these tensions.
MR TONER: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: -- on the Palestinian-Israeli issue very quickly.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: First of all, is the Secretary of State meeting Palestinian President Abbas in Amman anytime soon?
MR TONER: No, nothing to announce yet on that. Sorry.
QUESTION: Okay. And second, do you have any comment on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rejecting out of hand the French proposal?
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: The French proposed an international --
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, we --
QUESTION: -- conference, and he rejected it out of hand.
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, we – I’m aware of the remarks.
QUESTION: Do you agree with what he says?
MR TONER: I mean, we’re – we’re looking at the French plans, studying the proposal. We look forward to engaging with the French and other parties, frankly, to better understand what their proposal entails. But I can only speak for --
QUESTION: Right. Did they share it with you?
MR TONER: What’s that?
QUESTION: The French – did the French share it with you?
MR TONER: We have been in touch with the French, and we have shared their proposal.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 2.39 p.m.)