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Daily Press Briefing

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
September 22, 2015

Index for Today's Briefing




2:10 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Matt, I came in the traditional route. I didn't want to throw you off today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) None of this walking back from – walking in through the regular entrance. Anyway, welcome everybody to the State Department. Happy Tuesday.

Very quickly, just one thing I wanted to mention at the top and then I'll move to your questions. I did want to note that today marks the start of the trial of Nadiya Savchenko, who is the Ukrainian solider, and now member of Ukraine's parliament, who was kidnapped by Russian-backed separatists in June 2014, spirited across the border to Russia against her will, and then charged with murder. The United States remains deeply disturbed by the Russian Federation's decision to move forward with this baseless case. We believe the only true justice would be to dismiss the charges immediately and return Nadiya Savchenko to her Ukrainian home, which is a commitment that Russia made when it signed the Minsk agreements.

With that, I'll turn it over to your questions.

QUESTION: Well, wait a second. Just very briefly on that --


QUESTION: -- is that really – I didn't realize the Minsk commitments spoke of people by name.

MR TONER: It's the release of all Ukrainian hostages it is holding.


MR TONER: So Oleg Sentsov, Alexander Koichenko --

QUESTION: Correct me if I'm wrong, though. Does Russia regard her as a hostage or a prisoner who's on trial?

QUESTION: Prisoner of war.

MR TONER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Prisoner of war.

QUESTION: Russia regards her as a prisoner of war? What do --

MR TONER: I'm not sure what the Russians term her as. But I think it's considered that she's --

QUESTION: Well, is it your understanding that – is it your understanding that the Russians agree that she is covered under that part of the Minsk agreement?

MR TONER: So we've repeatedly called upon it, obviously, to treat her as --

QUESTION: I know you do.

MR TONER: -- treat her humanely and call for her release. I'm not sure what the Russians term her as, but I believe she's considered as one of these detainees caught up in the conflict.

QUESTION: By them?

MR TONER: By them, yeah.


MR TONER: My understanding.


MR TONER: If that's wrong, I'll --

QUESTION: All right. I want to go to something else.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: Last week – I believe it was Wednesday the 16th, but it may have been Tuesday or Thursday – but anyway, last week, Al- Hayat reported that General Allen was going to be stepping down. And at the time, officials around town were saying that he has not told anyone that formally or even informally, for that matter – I guess maybe informally, but that he hadn't informed people. Well, there's another report today, same thing, saying he's stepping down. So I'm just wondering, has something changed? Has he now informed people in this building, to whom he directly reports, that he is going to be leaving?

MR TONER: I can say that General Allen remains focused on his duties at the State Department, which is coordinating the coalition efforts against ISIL, and we don't have any personnel announcements to make regarding his future. He remains at work.

QUESTION: Okay. But the answer to my question – has he told people that he's going to be leaving?

MR TONER: Again, he's still in the job; he's focused on anti-ISIL coalition efforts. I'm just – I mean, you're asking me to confirm --

QUESTION: It's a simple yes-or-no question. I don't think it's --

MR TONER: And I think it is in the sense that you're asking me to say what internally may be going on. And I'm not going to speak to that. I'm just going to say that we have no personnel announcements to make.

QUESTION: Well, when does his term end?

MR TONER: Well, he's – he took the job originally for six months, and he's been continuing in his efforts. But I don't know when his exact tenure is over. I think it's ongoing.

QUESTION: Well, as of the 13th --

MR TONER: I mean, in other words, there's not a deadline to it, is what – my understanding.

QUESTION: He's been on the job for one year on the 13th of this month.

MR TONER: That's correct.

QUESTION: But so --

MR TONER: That's correct. Yeah. You're absolutely right.

QUESTION: Okay. So that would be like a year, right?

MR TONER: That's right.

QUESTION: Okay. Can we move on to something else?

MR TONER: We sure can. Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I ask a couple questions on the Palestinian-Israeli issue?


QUESTION: Tensions are rising. The Israelis, today, killed a woman under the pretext she was wielding a knife, but apparently there was no knife. There was a lot of videos that showed otherwise and so on. They also closed all doors and they closed the West Bank and Gaza completely because of Yom Kippur. Do you have any comments on that?

MR TONER: I'm not aware – you referred to the video; I'm not aware of that, I haven't seen that report so I can't really speak to that particular incident. But obviously, we remain, Said, deeply concerned by the ongoing violence and the escalating tensions, as you just said, surrounding – certainly surrounding Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif. We obviously condemn all acts of violence. We want to see tensions reduced. We want to see both sides – all sides, frankly – exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve unchanged the historic status quo.

QUESTION: Does that include – the non-changing of the status quo, does that include the names of the streets? Because the Israelis today gave Hebrew names to all the Arabic names in East Jerusalem. Do you have – are you aware of that or do you have any comment on that?

MR TONER: I'm not aware of that. I'd have to look into that.

QUESTION: But that would also be included in the non-change, right?

MR TONER: Again, that's where we've stood on this policy-wise. I don't know about specific name-changing that you mention, so I'd have to look into that.

QUESTION: Okay. I have just a couple more on the Palestinian issue.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: It's also reported that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, is going to – next Wednesday, when he speaks to the General Assembly, is going to absolve the PA from any commitments to the Oslo Accords or to any kind of security arrangements with Israel. Are you aware of that, or would you advise him against doing such a thing?

MR TONER: I'm not aware of that. Certainly, I don't want to – not for me to predict what he may or may not say when he speaks at the UN. Overall, we want to see, as I said, both sides show restraint, a calming in tensions, and both sides pursue actions that we, frankly, feel create a climate that can lead back towards some kind of negotiated settlement.

QUESTION: And finally, the Israelis also said that if they – if he does that, if he considers all agreements null and void, then they may not allow him back into Ramallah. Are you aware of that, or would you advise the Israelis against such a step?

MR TONER: Also not aware of that, but we'll look into all of these. But frankly, Said, speaking generally, our position hasn't changed on any of this. As I said, we want to see a reduction in tensions. We want to see actions by all sides to – that create the kind of confidence, create the kind of atmosphere where we can see a return to settlement talks.

QUESTION: Can we stay on roughly the same topic?

MR TONER: Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on a question that I asked and was answered in a TQ on UNRWA.

MR TONER: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: Have you heard back from UNRWA yet? Because there is more allegations today.

MR TONER: I don't; I'll look into it, Matt. I'll take the question. I apologize.

QUESTION: Okay. Because I'm curious to know if they have let you know – since you are such a major donor to them – if they have let you know at least what the status of the --

MR TONER: Yeah, that's --

QUESTION: -- ongoing investigation is, if there is one.

QUESTION: Yeah, it's a legitimate question. I'll find out.

QUESTION: And then there's another – and then another one, which is about comments that President Abbas made, apparently a day or so ago, about welcoming blood spilled in Jerusalem. Have you seen those? Do you know anything about that?

MR TONER: No, and again, I would just chalk that up to what I just said, which is those kinds of comments, in general, are not what we feel are conducive to creating the kind of climate we believe is – we want to see for a return to a negotiated settlement.

QUESTION: Okay. And in terms of this specific issue --


QUESTION: -- do you know yet what Secretary Kerry has planned for in terms of meetings next week, if – or is that just not set yet?

MR TONER: Not set yet. I mean, his schedule is still in flux. Certainly, broadly speaking, he'll talk about the Middle East and obviously seek to have as many meetings as he can on this issue as well as others. But I don't have anything to confirm at this point. We'll get into that as we get closer to the weekend.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry just – when he made his remarks after --


QUESTION: -- the Indian summit said that his understanding is that the Russian forces at Latakia, the new aircraft there appear to be postured for force protection for that base itself, but we've been hearing from independent experts that the nature of the planes that Pentagon officials say are there seem to be ground attack aircraft in large numbers. It would seem the – other experts are saying that they could be postured for offensive operations. I was wondering if you could talk just to the difference between the – or what Secretary Kerry seemed to be implying and what we're hearing from elsewhere.

Also, Jane's Intelligence Review says that Russians appear to be preparing to occupy two more bases just to the north of Latakia, the Istamo weapons storage complex and the Al-Sanobar military complex.

MR TONER: Right. I --

QUESTION: Any other military analysis that you can offer would be helpful.

MR TONER: That's right. Bring up the maps shortly. No, obviously I'm not going to parse the Secretary's words. I think what he was speaking to was that the level and type of materiel or equipment, including aircraft, that we've seen is talking about protection for their deployment at an air base. But certainly, what's in that air base and what their function is or what their goal is remains to be determined. So in a way, what we've seen – what the Secretary was saying is that we've seen a level that's commensurate with the type we'd see for force protection.

But that said, we have seen a considerable build up, and the Secretary spoke to that just shortly ago. And that is certainly of concern to us.


MR TONER: But as to the other – I'm sorry, just to finish – but as to the other areas or air bases that you cited, I don't have any more information to provide on that.

QUESTION: Okay. So he was just talking about the one at Latakia?

MR TONER: That's my understanding, yes.


QUESTION: So are you confirming or you don't know on the number of aircraft. Is it 28?

MR TONER: I don't, and I wouldn't necessarily confirm that. I'd refer you to the Pentagon on that.

Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: On Libya, the UN finalized the agreement and they presented it to the Libyan parties to form a unity government. Do you have any reaction to this development?

MR TONER: Well, I do. Obviously, it was a late – almost a last-minute development. But certainly, we welcome the completion of the final text of the proposed Libyan political agreement. And this comes after months of intensive negotiations that were brokered by UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General Bernardino Leon. This final document, we believe, represents, obviously, very intense efforts of all Libyan parties to reach a solution that's inclusive, durable, representative.

Now it's up to all these parties to approve the agreement so that a government of national unity can actually be formed and begin the hard work of restoring peace and security in Libya. So promising, certainly; still much – still a lot of hard work to be done. But this is something we've been calling for over many months. We want to see that – as I said, the government of national – accord to be formed. We believe it's in the – obviously, the long-term interests, rather, of Libyan people.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Please, go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Change topic? Saudi Arabia.

MR TONER: Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Saudi Arabia was named to head the Human Rights Council, and today I think they announced they are about to behead a 21-year-old Shia activist named Muhammed al-Nimr. Are you aware of that?

MR TONER: I'm not aware of the trial that you – or the verdict – death sentence.

QUESTION: Well, apparently, he was arrested when was 17-years-old and kept in juvenile detention, then moved on. And now, he's been scheduled to be executed.

MR TONER: Right. I mean, we've talked about our concerns about some of the capital punishment cases in Saudi Arabia in our Human Rights Report, but I don't have any more to add to it.

QUESTION: So you --

QUESTION: Well, how about a reaction to them heading the council?

MR TONER: Again, I don't have any comment, don't have any reaction to it. I mean, frankly, it's – we would welcome it. We're close allies. If we --

QUESTION: Do you think that they're an appropriate choice given – I mean, how many pages is – does Saudi Arabia get in the Human Rights Report annually?

MR TONER: I can't give that off the top of my head, Matt.

QUESTION: I can't either, but let's just say that there's a lot to write about Saudi Arabia and human rights in that report. I'm just wondering if you that it's appropriate for them to have a leadership position.

MR TONER: We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it's an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.

QUESTION: But you said that you welcome them in this position. Is it based on improved record? I mean, can you show or point to anything where there is a sort of stark improvement in their human rights record?

MR TONER: I mean, we have an ongoing discussion with them about all these human rights issues, like we do with every country. We make our concerns clear when we do have concerns, but that dialogue continues. But I don't have anything to point to in terms of progress.

QUESTION: Would you welcome as a – would you welcome a decision to commute the sentence of this young man?

MR TONER: Again, I'm not aware of the case, so it's hard for me to comment on it other than that we believe that any kind of verdict like that should come at the end of a legal process that is just and in accordance with international legal standards.

QUESTION: Change of subject?


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this American woman from Texas who's been suspected – is being investigated in China of spying?

MR TONER: I do. You're talking about --

QUESTION: Sandy Phan-Gillis.

MR TONER: -- Sandy Phan-Gillis. Yes. Well, she's currently, as you noted, being detained by the ministry of state security in Nanning, Guangxi in southern China. The U.S. consulate in Guangzhou has been providing consular assistance to her since her arrest on March 20th. We, obviously, are monitoring this case very closely. We've been to visit her six times since her arrest, and we've raised her case with Chinese Government officials on multiple occasions at a very senior level. And in fact, my colleague at the White House just said that the White House had also raised it with the Chinese foreign ministry and have not received what we believe to be an adequate response about the charges against her.

So we're closely monitoring her situation. We're obviously closely monitoring her health in particular. We've raised issues regarding her health with Chinese authorities when appropriate to make sure she's receiving necessary care.


QUESTION: Do you have any comment on reports that she was moved from house arrest into a detention center just a few days before President Xi's visit to the United States?

MR TONER: No, actually. I'd actually asked the same question. My understanding is that she was always held in that center, but it was – it's called house arrest, but she's with Chinese officials. But I wasn't aware that that was a recent move. So obviously, we have concerns about really the case in general and the fact that she's being held, and we're looking for, frankly, the reasons why.


QUESTION: A couple on Japan, please?


QUESTION: Japan – their new security bill. Is that going to change your relationship with Japan, and if so, can you talk about how and how it might impact your interactions with the Japanese Government?

MR TONER: Well, first of all – I mean, let's start with the obvious. I mean, Japan has demonstrated over the last 70 years that it has an abiding commitment to peace, democracy, and the rule of law. We would welcome or we do welcome Japan's ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional security as well as international security issues and activities. So we believe this new security legislation and the recently revised guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation certainly support that.

QUESTION: Slightly different topic.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The foreign minister recently visited Moscow, and there's talk – or reports, at least – of President Putin visiting Japan sometime early next year. Do you – is that consistent with what you said before about this – now not being the time for business as usual with Russia?

MR TONER: Sure. I don't – I'm not aware of those reports, so I don't know what this visit or travel is about. I don't know the reasons behind it. Yeah – I mean, we've been very clear in saying that we don't believe that it's time for business as usual with Russia given their behavior in eastern Ukraine, where they still have not met all of their Minsk agreement commitments. That said, as we've said before too, there are issues on which we need to cooperate and work with Russia on, and we do so. So it's about certain – to a certain extent compartmentalizing: obviously disagreeing strongly where we disagree strongly and maintaining that posture; but also, where we do have to seek their cooperation, we do so and discuss things.

Is that it?

QUESTION: Can I back to Syria for a minute?

MR TONER: Please, Said. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. Today, I think, the envoy – the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced the formation of four working groups and so on. Is the United States going to be involved at any level with these things – at the technical level or any --

MR TONER: In the working groups?

QUESTION: Working groups, yeah. The working groups that were announced like a month and a half ago.

MR TONER: Sure, sure, and I remember the – right, when he spoke to, I guess, the UN Security Council about that. We've supported this process going forward. I don't know what our particular role is within these working groups. Obviously, as you just saw from the Secretary's remarks, we are very seized with pursuing a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, and I think we're pursuing that goal through a variety of methods. But certainly, we support de Mistura's work in that regard.

QUESTION: Seeing how these working groups must include all Syrians and including all the different opposition groups and so on, is Ambassador Ratney working with the opposition to sort of maybe convince them, cajole them into joining these working groups? Is it safe to assume that you are trying to make a case for that?

MR TONER: Sure. Certainly, Michael Ratney is – has been on the road quite a bit, obviously, working with or talking to many of the parties who are involved in Syria, but certainly working with de Mistura closely. We're supportive of de Mistura's plan. We obviously – I don't – I can't speak to what our exact role is in terms of the working groups, in answer to your question – response to your question. But we're obviously seeking and will seek in New York next week to pursue the potential for moving the peace process forward. And we're open to, frankly, creative ways to do that.

Is that it, guys?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:32 p.m.)

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