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Critical Points from White House Press Briefing September 7, 2016
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Critical Points from White House Press Briefing September 7, 2016
Q What can you say about the likelihood of a Syrian ceasefire at this point? And you’ve heard the calls from Erdogan to establish a no-fly zone now that there’s been more progress in Jarabulus. Do you still feel the same way about a no-fly zone as you did before?
MR. RHODES: So, again, as it relates to the potential for a ceasefire, that continues to be a subject of discussion with the Russian government. After the discussion between President Putin and President Obama yesterday, we feel like we have now identified the remaining gaps in what have been very extensive and technical discussions over a number of weeks now. And Foreign Minister Lavrov was returning to Moscow; Secretary Kerry is staying in touch with him, and they plan to meet in the coming days to see if they can conclude an agreement, having now identified the remaining issues.
Our objectives for that agreement would include ensuring that there is a Cessation of Hostilities that allows for humanitarian assistance to get into people who are in need. We want to make sure that there’s space for the moderate opposition, and we also are open to working with Russia to focus on the threat from al Qaeda in Syria, al Nusra, as well as ISIL.
However, again, in order to achieve that cooperation, we do want to make sure that there is this period of calm and that there is this humanitarian access. So we'll be, again, following up in discussions between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I think we've made a lot of progress. But we're not going to take a deal that doesn’t meet our basic objectives. And I think we'll know very quickly whether or not we can close those remaining gaps.
And your other question was -- President Erdogan. Well, first of all, I think we very much welcome the progress that has been made in terms of clearing ISIL out from along the Turkish border. That's something that we've been focused on for a long time now in our discussions with Turkey. Our own operations in support of SDF opposition forces on the ground helped to clear Manbij, which was a key transit point for ISIL fighters into Turkey. And Turkey’s operations in Jarabulus and then further clearing operations on the border have made a significant amount of progress on what has been a key priority, which is making sure that you cut off that border area. Because, frankly, that's also where the flow of foreign fighters comes in and out of Syria, and so if we can seal that border using Turkish forces, opposition forces, with our logistical and air support, I think that would help us make a substantial gain against ISIL.
In terms of a no-fly zone, in terms of the dedication of U.S. military resources, we want to use those resources to go after ISIL, to go after al Nusra insofar as we see them affiliated with al Qaeda and engaged in external plotting. We do not think a no-fly zone would resolve the fundamental issues on the ground because there continues to be fighting on the ground. A no-fly zone would necessarily only be contained to one specific area, and we have problems and violence across the country.
However, if we are able to preserve the space along that Turkish border, you do have an area for greater security and you do prevent this flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria. So that's something -- an objective we shared with President Erdogan. We have not determined that a no-fly zone would be the best dedication of U.S. military resources.
MR. EARNEST: Ron.
Q Are you saying that in order to -- a more meaningful agreement on Syria, the two Presidents won’t be -- down the road, that something appropriate or (inaudible) be accomplished about that? And secondly, on the whole cyber issue thing, the President spoke about it generally -- about (inaudible) but how concerned is he about the Russians specifically trying to target -- to meddle in the U.S. election?
MR. RHODES: So, first of all, on Syria, we did not in any way have an expectation that the two presidents would conclude the agreement, because, frankly, the remaining issues are fairly technical, and they have to do with the manner in which an agreement would be implemented. And so we've had expert teams that have been negotiating this in Geneva in some detail, and Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been leading those discussions.
So the purpose of the meeting between the two presidents was to provide direction to those teams to indicate what were our respective priorities, and then to see whether they can get this done. And I do not think that the two presidents will need to meet on this again. Frankly, we would like to see this, if it can get done, happen quickly because of the enormous humanitarian needs in places like Aleppo. If it cannot get done, we won't sign on to a bad deal.
So I think we've been at this long enough to know what the outlines of an agreement could be, and we have to see in the coming days whether or not that can conclude, because there is an urgent humanitarian situation that needs to be dealt with. There is a terrorist threat that needs to be dealt with. And there also is the necessity of having space for a moderate opposition that can participate in the political process in Syria.
On cyber issues, the President spoke to this yesterday. I think, again, generally speaking, we have raised concerns with Russia, with China, about certain cyber activities that have targeted U.S. interests. The fact of the matter is, in this space we have our own significant offensive and defensive capabilities. And the reason he speaks about international rules and norms is precisely because we want to be able to hold nations to account when they are operating in an offensive manner against our infrastructure or, frankly, any other nation's infrastructure.
We're confident in our cybersecurity capabilities and our ability to secure our critical infrastructure, our election, as the President said yesterday. So I'm not going to get into the details of ongoing investigations that may be taking place about certain cyber intrusions.
Generally, we've also had concerns with some Russian actions in other parts of the world, where we've seen them seek to play a role in European politics, as well. So I think, in addition to the cyber issues, we do want to make sure that we and our democratic allies are standing up for the values that we believe in and pushing back against any efforts from Russia to seek to support -- again, I'm speaking in Europe now -- efforts to undermine European unity.
Q But about how many -- this investigation (inaudible). Is there a concern specifically about the U.S. election, based on (inaudible)?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I think we're always obviously focused on assuring that we have the ability to defend against cyber threats to all of our critical infrastructure and all major events. But again, as the President has said, I think we have great confidence in our electoral process and the integrity of our elections.
Q A couple questions. Just to be clear, the Philippine government I believe suggested that there would be some sort of rescheduling of this meeting. I know you mentioned that they'll probably have a chance, Obama and Duterte, to chat along the sidelines. But is there any date set for them to actually meet before President Obama leaves office, perhaps during UNGA? That's one.
And then on Syria, broadly speaking, what can the U.S. realistically do, not just on a Cessation of Hostilities, but more broadly to pressure Russia to stop propping up the Assad regime? What are the carrots and the sticks, if you look at it that way?
And then lastly, on Turkey, how concerned are you that any failure, if the U.S. doesn’t ultimately extradite Fethullah Gulen -- how concerned are you that that could irreparably harm the relationship with Turkey?
MR. RHODES: I think, look, it's an irritant on our relationship, there's no question about that. The fact of the matter is, though, we have a system in which the President could not simply choose to return Gulen. I do think it's important that we show that we take Turkey's concerns seriously, and that's why the Department of Justice has devoted a lot of resources to reviewing Turkish evidence and sitting down with their Turkish counterparts. And I think that the government of Turkey sees that we're taking this seriously. We're not ignoring their concerns, we're just saying you have to meet a legal threshold. And so we'll continue to have those discussions.
With respect to Russia, I think the principal point that we've always made to the Russians is, when you talk about incentives: They are not going to be able to achieve their own objectives unless they engage in the type of process that we're negotiating. There is not a military solution to pacify that entire country. There is not a circumstance in which they continue to support a regime that has been bombarding its own people that doesn’t lead to greater international isolation of not just the Assad regime, but ultimately Russia -- because those actions are opposed by many of the other countries in the region.
Russia would benefit from there being a political resolution inside of Syria that can end the violence. And the only way in which you are going to achieve that is if there is a moderate opposition that is able to come to the table. At the same time, Russia wants -- it says -- to go after al Qaeda and ISIL. Well, the best way to do that is to go after al Qaeda and ISIL, and not after opposition that is more moderate in orientation and that would be interested in coming into a political resolution. Ultimately, they'll have to make the determination. And I think we'll learn over the course of the coming discussions whether or not they indeed are serious about narrowing a focus to al Qaeda and ISIL. That's a proposition that's being tested in those discussions.
Full Briefing Here:
State Department Critical Statements:
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Welcome back.
MR TONER: Thanks, Matt.
QUESTION: I wanted to start with Syria --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- but since you brought – raised the Levada Center first, let me just – so is your issue with the designation of this specific group, or is it with the foreign agent law in particular?
MR TONER: Well, we’ve expressed our view and our concern at multiple levels about the foreign agent law, and I spoke to, a little bit at the end of – we’re obviously believe that the action taken against the Levada Center is unwarranted, given their function, but more broadly we’re concerned about the scope of a law that seems to put at risk NGOs and other democratically minded civic organizations within Russia.
QUESTION: So it’s both that --
MR TONER: It’s both.
QUESTION: -- you have an issue with. Because, I mean, you don’t – do you take issue with the designation’s claim that they are – they would be, given their sources of funding, that they would be required under the law to be registered as a --
MR TONER: Well, no. I mean, I – look, I mean, it’s our understanding, first of all, that the Levada Center is, in fact, independent and it’s self-sufficient.
MR TONER: But I mean, we have worked with the Levada Center, as have other governments and organizations. It has an excellent reputation. We’re just worried about the – more broadly, the scope of a law that, again, appears to target many of these civic and NGO groups that, frankly, we believe are in the long-term interests of Russia’s democracy.
QUESTION: And I got – just to tie --
MR TONER: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: -- this up, then, in a bow.
MR TONER: Yeah, Matt.
QUESTION: I mean, you were – you expressed concerns about a similar law in Israel --
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: -- not so long ago. But both people in Israel and in Russia say – make the argument that these laws are very similar, if not identical, to FARA laws here in the U.S. You don’t agree with that?
MR TONER: We don’t. And again, we – our concern is based in part on the fact that what we’ve seen, and particularly Russia, as I just mentioned, which is it seems that many groups that we consider to be very worthwhile in terms of the work they’re doing on the ground in Russia to have been targeted.
QUESTION: So just to understand --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- your objection is not to the law itself, but to the fact that this law is being applied to this particular organization? I don’t understand.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: Didn’t he just answer that by saying both?
MR TONER: I did.
QUESTION: I’m trying to understand that.
MR TONER: So what our concerns are – and we’ve spoken, as Matt said, about similar laws elsewhere – is that they’re being used as a pretext or as a way to target NGOs – international NGOs, many of them, but nongovernmental organizations that are, in fact, playing what we believe to be a very constructive role in the civil society of many of these countries. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: So can we move to Syria, unless there’s more on --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: I just --
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Kind of a philosophical follow-up on that one.
MR TONER: I’m very jetlagged. I don’t know if I can get philosophical with you.
QUESTION: I can’t --
QUESTION: The (inaudible) answer.
MR TONER: No, go ahead. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Yes. Is there not a danger that you stand at the podium and defend Levada, that that will reinforce the Russian administration’s opposition to it?
MR TONER: Point taken, but I don’t think so. I mean, look, we, the United States, are adamant about belief in the integrity of civil society and the fact that it’s a cornerstone for any democracy. So – and you know where we stand on the value of democracy as a political system. And so we believe that it’s in Russia’s long-term interest, if it is trying to build a strong democracy, to support these kinds of organizations and the work that they do.
QUESTION: Do you believe Russia is trying to build a strong democracy?
MR TONER: Well, that’s for Russia for answer, but the Russian people, we believe, deserve one.
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: So what happened over the weekend? It seemed when --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- on Friday that things were looking up, that the deal might be within reach. And then all of the sudden – poof. What happened?
MR TONER: Well, so I’m not going to get into the details of what happened, except to say that we continue to have this discussion with Russia on how to put in place a stronger nationwide cessation of hostilities that will allow humanitarian aid to access all besieged areas and to get a political process back up and running in Geneva. These are all steps, as we all know in this room, that we believe we have to get to in order to get to what the common goal, at least what we believe the common goal to be, which is a political transition in Syria.
We continue to work at that with Russia. There were ongoing talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov in China over the weekend. But we’re not there yet. We’re not resolved. And I would just say that we continue to feel like we’re making progress and believe we’re making progress on some of the remaining issues, but we’re not going to settle. And we feel like, given – or we believe, rather, that given the importance of this arrangement that we’re seeking and the impact of this arrangement that we’re seeking, we believe it’s absolutely essential that we get a clear understanding of the way forward.
QUESTION: Sorry. You’re not going to settle for what?
MR TONER: We’re not going to settle for a less-than-ideal deal or –
MR TONER: What are you – what’s confusing --
QUESTION: People always settle for less than the ideal. It’s the risk of sacrificing the good for the perfect if the perfect is kind of – is impossible. So --
MR TONER: Well, I understand that. I mean, in any kind of diplomatic give-and-take, of course there’s --
QUESTION: Yeah, but the ideal – that ideal is perfection, right? So --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: But that doesn’t mean you settle for something that we don’t believe is going to get us to where we need to go.
QUESTION: Which --
MR TONER: Which again is a nationwide cessation of hostilities, a clear understanding of who’s part of that cessation of hostilities --
QUESTION: Let me just make sure I understand right.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: From Geneva, where we all were last weekend or the weekend before last --
MR TONER: Weekend before.
QUESTION: -- until China, this weekend, you’re saying that there was progress made during that week? Because it sounded as is there – what progress that had been claimed to have been made in Geneva or at the time of the Geneva meeting was either eroded or if not wiped out completely.
MR TONER: I just – and again, I mean, it’s important to understand that this has been a discussion that we’ve been having over the course of several months now with Russia. We continue to make progress overall, but we’re not there yet. And I think that there’s still work to be done, and particularly about how we would go about implementing any agreement that we did reach. And I think that clearly what happened in China and Secretary Kerry’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov is – we weren’t quite to the finish line on this, so we need to go back and – to capitals and do more work. And hopefully we’ll reach an agreement, but no promises.
QUESTION: Well, that seemed to – and I’ll stop after this, but --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: With this going back to capitals thing, the capitals were all in Hangzhou.
MR TONER: No. But, Matt, what I’m talking about is there are --
QUESTION: So what’s the next – so what --
MR TONER: But to be clear --
QUESTION: So this is a long way of getting at: What’s the next step here?
MR TONER: No. To be clear, I understand your point about the capitals all being in Hangzhou. But some of these questions are at a very detailed tactical level. And that requires, frankly, some of the groups that have been working on this out of Geneva, many of them, but others who have a certain expertise to settle some of these remaining issues.
In terms of next steps, the President spoke to it yesterday. We’re going to – he said that Secretary Kerry is going to continue to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the expectation is that they’ll meet again very soon, but we don’t have a specific time or place to --
QUESTION: Are the technical teams meeting today anywhere, Geneva?
MR TONER: They are continuing to work, yes, out these – again, I mean that’s a given that coming out of the meetings over the weekend that these technical teams are looking at the remaining issues and trying to resolve them.
QUESTION: In Geneva?
MR TONER: And then we’re working – I believe in Geneva, yes.
QUESTION: When – so when you say they’re working --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- are they actually meeting or are they just working separately and not actually meeting?
MR TONER: I believe both, is what my understanding is.
QUESTION: And can you – when you said the expectation is that they will meet very soon – that is, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov – do you expect them to meet this week?
MR TONER: I just can’t say definitively. And I think part of that is just we’re waiting to hear back from some of the work that these technical groups are doing and we’re waiting to hear back from the Russians about where they are on their work, just to make sure that we’re at a place where it’s beneficial for foreign minister – for Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov to get together again.
QUESTION: Can you shed any light on what were the couple of sticking points?
MR TONER: I can’t, and I apologize for that, but we’ve been very disciplined, I think, about not oversharing the details about this arrangement that we’re pursuing with them for a lot of reasons, but these are delicate diplomatic conversations that we’re having and we believe at this point in time it’s best to keep those discussions in large part confidential.
Let me – but we all know – again, I mean, I’m not – I know I said this in response to Matt, but we know the – what the basic architecture is, which is how do we stop the fighting, how do we get back in place a cessation of hostilities that’s sustainable in what has become, as an understatement, a very complex battlespace. I mean, it’s – there’s different groups and factions fighting in and around Aleppo, including the regime and with Russia’s support. So it is extremely delicate, extremely sensitive, but we wouldn’t still be in this conversation if we didn’t think it was still worthwhile.
QUESTION: You said that you weren’t going to settle for anything less than an ideal outcome.
MR TONER: I --
QUESTION: Although it’s very hard to imagine what that would look like in Syria right now.
MR TONER: No, no, that’s okay. I – let me – let me just go back to that. What I was trying to say, and I’m sorry if I didn’t convey that properly – what we’re looking for is not, obviously, the perfect, but we definitely want to make sure that we have a clear understanding on the way forward, how to implement this arrangement if we do come to agreement on it, what the clear steps are going forward to implement it, and to make sure that it’s in our interests and in the interests of the Syrian opposition as well as the Syrian people. And that’s a vital element too, is the fact that – I mean, we talk about it all the time, but the ongoing suffering of the Syrian people and the inability to get humanitarian assistance in to them is a key part of this.
QUESTION: So on – I realize you’re kind of backing away from the word “ideal,” and I understand that --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- but you emphasized right at the outset the desire to restore the cessation of hostilities. Are you willing to accept anything that doesn’t start with, as a principle, a nationwide cessation of hostilities? Are you willing to start with localized cessation of hostilities, for example, and hope that it builds, or do you really feel like if you’re not going to settle, you need to have an agreement on a nationwide cessation of hostilities?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fair question. What we need – and I’ll answer it somewhat vaguely and I apologize again for doing that, but I don’t want to get into the details of what we’re talking about with the Russians – but I think what we’re looking at is certainly a clear path forward to a nationwide cessation of hostilities. Now, whether that’s going to happen overnight or whether that’s going to happen over a period of days, that’s a question to be resolved.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: The UN Security Council voted for the --
MR TONER: I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: -- to endorse the cessation of hostilities on February 27th. So even if you do get a deal, it’s a step back from a cessation that was already declared and hailed.
MR TONER: Well, I mean, to some extent, we don’t argue that. I mean, we did have a cessation of hostilities in place that saved lives and that did bring a brief period of calm to Syria. We want to get back to that point, because that allowed us to do a lot of valuable things like get humanitarian assistance to those places that need it and it allowed us to get at least talks going in Geneva that have now since stalled for obvious reasons.
QUESTION: But if the stall continues, is there a point where there’s no point going on? Or the costs – diplomatic costs in keeping Russia’s profile so high outweigh the potential future benefits?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, I think that we’re obviously always trying to be clear-eyed in our assessment of the prospects of an agreement and a way forward that is in our interests but also in the interests of the region and in the interests of the Syrian people. We’ve talked before about what happens if this – we don’t get there in a political process, and frankly, it’s not – the prospects aren’t good. There’s – we’ve said all along there’s no military solution to this, and what – the last thing we want to see is Syria to slide into even more horrific warfare.
QUESTION: Mark, just so I understand.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: So what you’re – the deal you’re looking at now is a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to the besieged communities, no more than that? Because before the weekend, one expected that there – a grand deal – I mean, really ideal deal --
MR TONER: Well, we’ve – I mean, we’ve talked beyond – look, I mean --
QUESTION: -- was in the offing.
MR TONER: I can lay out all the elements that we’ve talked about, and we all, I think, have a grasp of what’s the ideal way forward: cessation of hostilities nationwide; talks to begin again in Geneva under the auspices of the UN and Staffan de Mistura; humanitarian assistance access to all besieged areas, administered by the UN; and then what we’ve talked about, if we get these steps along the way – we have talked about the possibility of working in some fashion with Russia to carry out strikes specifically targeting Nusrah and Daesh, who are – we have a common understanding who are the clear enemy that we share in Syria.
QUESTION: Okay. Now, two weeks from today, the debates at UNGA, the United Nations General Assembly, begin.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Do you expect to arrive at this deal together with the Russians by then? Do you expect that?
MR TONER: We’re working to make progress --
QUESTION: Taking into consideration the --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- the President’s statement and statements by --
MR TONER: I mean, I’m not going to predict because that’s a dangerous thing to do in foreign policy and diplomacy, but we’re working full-stop to try to get there.
QUESTION: Okay. I want to ask you about the two airplanes today, P8-A – American airplanes – Poseidon, that were over a Russian base in Syria. Can you confirm that?
MR TONER: I cannot. I’d have to refer you to the Department of Defense. First time I’m hearing about it.
QUESTION: Okay. And my final question.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: You said that Nusrah and ISIS are still the fair game, but they’ve changed their name since then and you have been accused time and again that ever since they changed names, you have not targeted them.
MR TONER: We’ve been accused of that? I would argue just the opposite.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Well, the Russians are saying that --
MR TONER: I would say just the opposite. Sure.
QUESTION: -- ever since they became Fateh al-Sham, that you guys have ceased targeting them.
MR TONER: Have ceased targeting them? No, I would argue just the opposite. We’ve spoken from this podium. I’ve said – look, they may try to rebrand themselves, but we still view them as the same.
QUESTION: Mark, on Syria?
MR TONER: Are we – stay on Syria?
MR TONER: Okay. I’m sorry – Michel, and then I’ll get to you, I promise.
QUESTION: A couple of questions.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Foreign minister – Saudi foreign minister has said today that Syria ceasefire deal could be agreed within 24 hours. Do you share the same statement?
MR TONER: Again, I just don’t want to be overly optimistic. We’re working to get there with them.
QUESTION: Second thing: There is a meeting in London tomorrow for Friends of Syria --
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: -- foreign ministers. Will the Secretary participate at this meeting?
MR TONER: I’m not sure what his involvement will be. I mean, he’s certainly not – doesn’t plan to be there in person, but he --
QUESTION: Who will be there?
MR TONER: -- but he may join in some fashion. Who will be there? I think Michael Ratney will be there.
QUESTION: He may join in some – you mean like video?
MR TONER: I think so, but it’s not confirmed. I just understand that’s what may happen.
QUESTION: And my third question is: News reports coming from Syria saying that the government dropped suspected chlorine bombs Tuesday on a crowded neighborhood in Aleppo. Do you have anything on this? Can you confirm?
MR TONER: No. I mean, we’re – obviously we’ve seen the reports, Michel. It’s terrible. We condemn these kinds of attacks. We’re looking into it, investigating the incident, but I can’t confirm who was behind it. Obviously, we’ve seen the government, the regime carry out these kind of attacks before. It just speaks to the horror of what’s continuing to happen there.
QUESTION: Will there be any consequences?
MR TONER: Well, again, we’re looking into it and trying to assess who’s responsible.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Over the weekend, I believe Ambassador McGurk was again in Kobani and some reports also say he visited Qamishli as well. Is there any way you can tell us how were the meetings and the reason of the meeting?
MR TONER: Sure. I don’t want to give you a travel log, but very quickly: So he went to Germany, he went to Syria, and also went to Turkey – broadly to speak about our efforts to defeat ISIL; specifically, the focus of the trip was on disrupting and destroying ISIL’s external operations and its networks. But obviously, given the timing, it was also an opportunity for him to – both in Turkey, as well as in Syria – to talk to our partners on the ground who are carrying out attacks and assaults on Daesh or ISIL on the ground.
In Turkey – or rather in Germany, he did meet with senior German officials. He also met with Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock to talk about ways we can collaborate better – again, talking about ISIL’s external networks, ways we can collaborate better with Interpol in detecting the movement of foreign fighters.
In Syria, he met with a diverse group of Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF leaders; talked about the – and frankly welcomed the recent liberation of Manbij from ISIL. He also ensured ongoing U.S. support for the SDF in their fight against ISIL and he also emphasized the need for strict adherence to prior commitments made by the SDF. But in all of his meetings he encouraged unity of effort and de-confliction.
In Turkey he met with Senior Turkish officials to discuss U.S. support for ongoing efforts to clear the border region between Syria and Turkey. And they also discussed and welcomed progress to date in that regard, and then talked about – a little about the planning for the Mosul campaign, for the campaign to eventually, to liberate Mosul in Iraq, and more broadly about closer cooperation with Turkey on anti-ISIL.
QUESTION: President Erdogan, after the G20 meeting, said that since the Syrian Kurdish force left Manbij now that Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army’s forces can go and get into Manbij. Is this your understanding? Do you think these Turkey-backed FSA forces now may proceed to go in Manbij?
MR TONER: Well, look, I – I mean, to your first question, we do believe that Kurdish elements within the SDF that took part in the Manbij operation have lived up to their commitments and have moved back to the east of the Euphrates River. Speaking more broadly about who should be in Manbij – look, what we’ve talked about all along here is the fact that, as quickly as possible, we want local authorities and local government to re-establish control of these cities and towns that are liberated from ISIL, because the ultimate goal here is to get the people who have been displaced, or the people who are there and living under ISIL’s terror, back up and running as a functioning city.
QUESTION: Related question to that.
QUESTION: But is the FSA – is the FSA --
QUESTION: Related question to that, please. These Turkey-backed forces in Syria are saying that for any safe zone, not only does the United States and Russia need to have an agreement, but also Turkey. How much of a complicating factor is that going to be?
MR TONER: Steve, I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have much to say about them, except that Turkey is always a part of the conversation. Of course they are. They’re part of the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group. As I said – just said, Brett McGurk was just there consulting with them on operations. So nothing is going to be done without Turkey’s awareness and consent.
QUESTION: But the Turks seem to have their own set of rebels, the FSA, which they’ve brought into Manbij, and they want to say that these are representing the local people. How do you decide who’s representing the local people?
MR TONER: Well, we have a sense of who’s representative of the local people. I mean some of these – and we’ve talked about this quite a bit as these operations have continued through northern Syria, that local fighting forces have been frankly some of the most effective groups to fight and take on and defeat ISIL. It’s Syrian Arabs in some cases; it’s Syrian Kurds in other cases. What we have always stressed, though, is that no one should try to use this as a pretext for holding and gaining territory; that we need to get local forces, local populations – or rather, local governance back up in place in these places that are liberated so that those who have been displaced by the fighting, or those who live in those cities through the fighting, can get back up and resume their normal lives.
QUESTION: It seems that the Manbij - -
MR TONER: But there’s – but there’s always – sorry, I didn’t mean to – but I mean, the President spoke about this the other day at the G20. It is a complex, to say the least, array of forces that are fighting in northern Syria. Different groups are in common cause, if you will, to defeat ISIL and dislodge them and destroy them. We recognize that. We’re working with those groups, but it is a difficult process to manage going forward. But that’s what we’re aiming to do, is how do we harness the efforts of these groups in common cause. And that to some extent also includes Turkey and its efforts to clear its border. We’ve got to all work, and we talked about this – sorry, just to finish, (inaudible) – talked about this last week when there was reports of conflict between Turkish forces and some of the Syrian Kurds, that we need to de-conflict, we need – there needs to be an awareness within that space of who is where and that, again, prior commitments need to be honored.
QUESTION: Correct me if I misunderstand, but it seems what happened – because since last week, U.S. officials, yourself and the Pentagon, both been saying the SDF left Manbij as promised and there was this military council established. It seems that the Turkish Government did not like the idea of having a – an element in Manbij running the place that was sympathetic to the SDF, so it pushed them out and came in with its own set of rebels. Is that a reasonable understanding of things?
MR TONER: Look, I would just leave it at the fact that the goal of the Manbij operation was to expel ISIL and to return the city to the control and the governance of the local population. That is what we’re working towards.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: -- news coming out of Ankara says that there is a delegation from the Justice and Development Party coming over to Washington to talk or discuss the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Are you aware of that?
MR TONER: First time I’m hearing about it, so if we get any details of it --
QUESTION: They’re en route.
MR TONER: Yeah. I just don’t – I don’t have a reaction. I’ll look at the reports and see if we have anything to get back to you.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject, please?
QUESTION: Can I finish Turkey?
MR TONER: We’ll finish Turkey/Syria – it’s kind of – and then I swear I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Thank you. President Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that there were two meetings between President Erdogan and President Obama at the G20. Do you have any readout about the second meeting spokesman talking about?
MR TONER: I do not. I’m aware of the – obviously the meeting that they had yesterday, but we in fact had already gone wheels up. We’d already left before that meeting ever – while that meeting was starting, so I don’t have any readout. It might have been a pull-aside, what they call a pull-aside. They may have briefly met. I just – I would refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: Final question on Turkey: Both the Vice President Biden – his visit to Ankara two weeks ago, and a couple days ago President Obama – when they met with President Erdogan, they did not talk about the journalists that – in jail that you have been telling from this podium that you really care deeply about, and many other human right abuses. I was wondering what the Turkish people should understand that both the Vice President and President Obama not mentioning any of these human rights problems in Turkey when they meet with President Erdogan.
MR TONER: Well, I would want the Turkish people to understand that we don’t shy away from talking about human rights concerns and the protection of journalists. As you know and as you mentioned, I speak about it often from this podium. We do it on a bilateral – through our bilateral relations with our ambassador there, Ambassador John Bass. We raise these issues consistently and often when we do have concerns, and we have had concerns about the treatment of some journalists in Turkey.
QUESTION: But if you have concerns, why would President Erdogan not talk about this when he meets with the President? Doesn’t it give the impression that you don’t really care about it, although you have been saying that you care about it?
MR TONER: Not at all. And again, I’m not going to speak to – it’s really for the White House to speak to what the President discussed with President Erdogan – President Obama has discussed with President Erdogan. But there should be no impression taken that we somehow don’t take these issues seriously.
You had your – and then I’ll --
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. As you mentioned, so many people has been killed in Afghanistan this two, three days. It’s really, really tragic and very bad, and Afghan people has a high expectation from the U.S., and they wants the U.S. bring more pressure to Pakistan to change their policy towards Afghanistan.
Number two, UN General Assembly is very close. Do you think that U.S. has any roles to Afghanistan or Pakistan policy to take an action against Pakistan?
MR TONER: Well – and I would point you to his remarks – Secretary Kerry spoke to this during his trip to the region, to his trip to Bangladesh and India last week, that we have had very frank conversations with Pakistan’s leadership and military leadership about the need to focus more efforts on those terrorist groups – all the terrorist groups, rather – that are operating from within Pakistani soil – or territory, rather. We continue to have that discussion with them. We have seen some efforts to make progress in that regard. We’re going to continue to have those conversations with them as we move forward. And it’s in Pakistan’s interest, it’s in Afghanistan’s interest to go after these terrorist groups, to root them out, and to destroy them. The ultimate goal is we want to see peace and stability in the region, and so that’s going to involve efforts on Pakistan’s part, as well as the ability of Afghanistan and the Afghan Government to provide the stability and security to its own people. And that’s what our efforts are focused on.
QUESTION: And the UN, do you think --
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry, yes. Look, absolutely, it’ll be a topic of discussion in terms of what’s going on, the continued insecurity that plagues Afghanistan. As yesterday’s terrible attacks showed, we still have to work to go after those entities on the ground – Taliban and other – and root them out if they’re going to continue to carry out these kinds of attacks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can I follow again?
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: The former U.S. ambassador to the UN and Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said that – has recently said that since Pakistan is not taking enough action against these terrorist network at this time, that the U.S. should consider taking some kind of sanctions against Pakistan. What is the State Department view? Is that an option for the State Department?
MR TONER: I don’t think we’re even at that point. I mean, we continue to have, as I said, conversations with the highest level of the Government of Pakistan. And our basic point in all of these conversations is that Pakistan must target all militant groups, including those that target Pakistan’s neighbors, and eliminate all safe havens. And that’s what I was trying to convey to you, as well.
What we’ve received in terms of response from Pakistanis – from Pakistan authorities is that they’ve assured us of their intentions to do so. We have been encouraged by some of the steps they’ve taken, some of their recent counterterrorism operations along the border of the Afghan – Afghanistan. And we’re going to continue to work with them to increase those efforts and apply more pressure on these groups.
But the suggestion of any kind of sanctions, we’re not there.
QUESTION: I have one more question on Afghanistan.
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: About the Loya Jirga, you know when it was – it was due to Secretary Kerry that President Ghani and CEO Abdullah had an agreement on a unity government.
MR TONER: That’s right.
QUESTION: And as part of this agreement, within two years, they used – there should have been a Loya Jirga to approve that agreement between the two. That hasn’t happened yet. What is Secretary Kerry’s view on it?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, we continue – there’s been challenges, obviously, to the new government. We continue to work closely. We believe in the current power-sharing arrangement that exists in Afghanistan. I don’t have a specific comment on the delay in having a Loya Jirga, except to say that we continue to support the Afghan Government as it seeks to both enact certain reforms – economic and other reforms, but also to increase the capability of the security forces.