Daily Press Briefing
2:06 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: All right. Friday surprise. Welcome.
Hey, everybody. Welcome to the State Department. It is indeed a Friday, which is, all things considered, a good thing. Before I start, I do want to give a shout-out to someone who is leaving us today who has served a short time in the front office, and we didn’t drive him away, I can guarantee you, but he’s going back to the Motor City, to Detroit, and his family there. But Patrick Thelen, thanks so much for all you’ve done. And despite everything, he remains a Detroit Lions fan, and God bless him for that. (Laughter.) But we wish him all the best. He’s a great guy.
I don’t have anything at the top, so I will go right to your questions.
QUESTION: Again. Two days in a row with nothing at the top. Interesting.
MR TONER: You’ve exhausted us.
MR TONER: You’ve exhausted us.
MR TONER: Yeah, they —
QUESTION: So let’s start with Syria.
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: I’m sure you’re surprised.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: It’s now been two days since the Secretary in a phone call with Foreign Minister Lavrov told Russia that you would suspend bilateral engagement unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and return – restore the cessation of hostilities. Neither of those things have happened yet, have – that’s correct?
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: All right. So have you followed through, then? I know that they talked again.
MR TONER: They did speak earlier today, actually when the Secretary was en route back from Israel, and we are at the same place. We have not definitively closed that door. We have not definitively suspended our diplomatic relations regarding Syria with Russia. We’re on the verge because we have not yet seen them take the kind of actions that we’re looking to see them take, but we’re not there yet. And the conversation continues, but you know where we stand on this. I know that the Russians, as Arshad noted, have also been speaking to the media, but I think the Secretary has invested, as we all know here, a great amount of effort in a diplomatic process. There are other options that we’ve talked about here. Many of them are not very good, so before we definitively slam the door here, we want to make sure that we understand the stakes and that Russia understands the stakes, more importantly. So that’s —
QUESTION: You say that your position is clear, but I thought your position was clear two days ago that you were going to suspend this dialogue unless immediate action was taken. And it’s now been 48 hours and there hasn’t been any action. So I just – I – my —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I don’t know how you can say your position is clear, because it seems to be unclear, not – and not just to me but, presumably, also to the Russians. You made this threat, they didn’t do what you wanted them to do, and now you’re not following through on it.
MR TONER: Well – and I certainly don’t want to get into or divulge the content of our diplomatic discussions, but these are conversations on the phone.
MR TONER: And so I can’t say what the Russians may be offering to do or steps they may take or not take. Again, we’re just not there. We’re —
QUESTION: Are you suggesting – are you saying, then, not suggesting – are you saying that there is some sign, some indication from Russia that hope is not lost, that they’re willing to do something tangible in response to this ultimatum that was – seems to be a non-ultimatum that was delivered?
MR TONER: Well, again, I’ll leave it more or less what I just said, which is that we continue to have conversations with Russia with – between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov and they have – that insofar as we have not reached the point where we believe there’s no reason to continue.
QUESTION: I get that, but the Secretary himself and others —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — in this context and in the context of other negotiations or —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — has said that there’s no point in having talks for the sake of talks. And if —
MR TONER: Agree, and that has not changed. So I’m saying —
QUESTION: It hasn’t? But what are you doing right now —
MR TONER: I just don’t want to get into details of what – but I would say that we're not there yet. We may be in a matter of hours, in a matter of days, at that point, but we're not there yet. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that.
QUESTION: Or any less clearly.
QUESTION: Mark, yesterday —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Sorry, Matt.
QUESTION: No, I'm done.
QUESTION: Yesterday the Secretary said something to the effect that we don't want – we want to be pulling back from the process so that we’re not seen as complicit – I don’t think he used the world “complicit,” but something like that – in empowering the Russians to do what they’re doing. Isn’t that what is happening? I mean, they’re continuing to do what they’re doing.
MR TONER: Well, they are. And I think – so a couple of points to make there is – one is that we’re not blind to what is happening, and Secretary Kerry has clearly acknowledged that we’re outraged by what’s taking place right now with regard to Aleppo. And as he’s said many times, it’s egregious, it’s horrific, it’s in clear violation of international standards or norms – humanitarian norms and international law, and I think that at a certain point when you look at that, as we’ve been back and forth here on, it becomes futile to continue to believe in a diplomatic process.
That said, I just can’t definitively say we’re there at that point yet. We’re very close but we’re not there yet.
QUESTION: Mark, you said —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Just a few minutes ago on TV, you said that it’s hard to continue to believe in a diplomatic process. So if it’s hard, why are you still – why do you still believe in a diplomatic process?
MR TONER: Well – so, first of all, Secretary Kerry is in a sense duty-bound to pursue the diplomatic process to the fullest extent that’s possible, and we have not reached that threshold yet. Again, I don’t want to get into the conversations that are still ongoing, but we’ve seen enough that we don’t want to definitively close the door yet. That – as I said, that may change in the next – in the coming hours or days. I just don’t have a clear timeframe or time.
QUESTION: You’ve seen enough from Russia? I mean, that’s who you’re waiting on here.
MR TONER: We obviously haven’t closed the window, the door – whatever the metaphor you want to use here, but —
QUESTION: But you’ve seen enough from whom or from where? Because —
MR TONER: Oh, I would say that we’ve seen enough that – I can’t remember now what I just said, but that there’s enough there that we don’t want to walk away yet.
QUESTION: From the talks with Russia?
MR TONER: Right. But what’s also another factor as we look at this is if we do walk away from this diplomatic process, as frankly moribund as it is, what are the options? And the Secretary has spoken about this. Many of them are not good options. We’re continuing to have those conversations within the interagency, continuing to evaluate what we can do to alleviate the suffering in Syria, but the last thing we want to see, obviously, is any kind of escalation. If we do pronounce the diplomatic process dead, then what we don’t want to see is an escalation in the violence, and that could very well be the result.
QUESTION: Why did you make this threat if you don’t seem willing to carry it out? Doesn’t that —
MR TONER: Well, I don’t want to – again, we would not make such a statement if we weren’t willing to carry it out. And I also think that it is – we’ve talked about this before in other negotiations, that at some point you’ve got to be able to say, if this is in no one’s interest to continue this conversation, this dialogue, then it behooves us to walk away from it. But I think – I agree, this is on life support, but it’s not flatlined yet.
QUESTION: Mark, if at the moment the Syrian army is still making —
MR TONER: I don’t know. I’m trying —
QUESTION: Where have – when has the Administration actually carried out a threat to walk away?
MR TONER: Carried out a threat or —
QUESTION: Well, I mean – didn’t walk –
MR TONER: Yeah, I’m sorry.
MR TONER: We didn’t, but we became close at several occasions, as you know.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you didn’t do it. And you could argue, or I’m sure you – as you probably do, that you got what you say is a successful deal out of it by not walking away. But in terms of Syria, the Administration has twice said that it would do things if such and such happened or didn’t happen. And now – you know what I’m talking about.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: And you didn’t follow through. So I guess, why do you – why should the Russians or anyone else for that matter take it seriously?
MR TONER: Well, again, I can’t speak to whether they do or don’t take us seriously, but they should – because we are reaching that point.
QUESTION: Mark, if you break off —
MR TONER: Please. Sorry, Dave. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. If you break off the talks tomorrow, say, or —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — two days’ time because it’s not going anywhere, and then Mr. Lavrov calls you 24 hours later and say, “Oh, you were serious about that; well, let’s get the talks up on again then.”
MR TONER: I – again, that’s a —
QUESTION: It’s a hypothetical.
MR TONER: It’s a hypothetical.
QUESTION: But your threat is hypothetical for the moment.
MR TONER: It’s a hypothetical.
QUESTION: Your statement, sorry.
MR TONER: I would – with the caveat that at a certain point it becomes very difficult to believe that Russia is serious, or possibly worse, has any influence to dissuade the regime from continuing to carry out strikes. But I think if at any point in time we’re going to – if we believe that there’s a possibility for peace and a peaceful settlement of this, again, it would be bad if we didn’t pursue it.
QUESTION: Would you —
QUESTION: So you’d call off the talks if there’s no sign of the possibility of progress towards peaceful settlement, but if you call off the talks and then they ring you up and give you a sign, then you’ll put them on again.
MR TONER: Again, I —
QUESTION: So that nothing —
MR TONER: I don’t want to predict —
QUESTION: — changes.
MR TONER: No, I mean, I don’t want to predict – I mean, what I think we would – what I would say is what we’re talking about here is the end of this so-called Geneva agreement. But this process that was reached, or this agreement, rather, that was reached on September 10th after many months of, as you guys know, consultation and close work and the promise that that held in many respects, including the possibility of some Joint Implementation Center – all of that, I think, would be shelved.
QUESTION: So for the past three days you’ve had daily phone calls with Foreign Minister Lavrov. And for the past three days the Syrian army has made tactical advances around Aleppo. Will you be surprised if the day the Russian and Syrian forces get bogged down around Aleppo, then you get a more positive phone call?
MR TONER: Well, and perhaps that would mean that the regime and the Russians come to the conclusion that we’ve come to long ago, which is that there will be no military solution to the conflict in Syria.
QUESTION: If they seize Aleppo and then declare a ceasefire, will that be acceptable to you?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to – I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals.
QUESTION: Yeah, just a few questions, because Mr. Lavrov has done an interview with the BBC and I wanted to get —
MR TONER: That’s right, he did.
QUESTION: Yes, he did. So he denied using banned weapons in Syria and he denied targeting civilians. He said there wasn’t evidence for that. And your response, first of all, but also does that – does that kind of statement mean that you have any wiggle room left with these kinds of discussions you’re having?
MR TONER: So I mean, look, we have seen the regime, aided and abetted by Russian air power, carry out strikes against civilian targets. They may argue that they’re going after Nusrah and these are collateral damage. To a certain extent, that may be true, but there’s a way to do these kinds of strikes that limit that. But I think we’ve also just seen evidence of attacks on civilian infrastructure, and obviously on civilians, that are inexplicable in terms of trying to go after Nusrah. In terms of where that leaves us, I think, as I said, it’s difficult to continue to pursue a diplomatic process in the midst of so much carnage and so much evidence to the contrary. But – and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re looking for some kind of – against extraordinary action or extraordinary measures that at least give some sign that Russia and/or the regime are in any way interested in a credible cessation.
QUESTION: And he’s also – and he said this before, but he kind of spelled it out quite strongly in this interview – that the Russians are saying there’s more and more evidence to believe that the U.S. from the very start planned to protect al-Nusrah as a kind of Plan B against Assad.
MR TONER: Honestly, I saw those remarks. It left me shaking my head. I don’t know what he means by it. Well, I can conjecture what he means by it, but it’s absurd.
QUESTION: But do you think the fact that the U.S. hasn’t been able to separate the opposition from Nusrah, which is what the Russians keep saying – how much of a factor is that in the escalation?
MR TONER: I mean, so granted, up to the September 10th agreement in Geneva, we talked a lot about that comingling or whatever we – marbelization, whatever the term is – and it was a reality. We conceded that. And it was our challenge coming to the table, agreeing in Geneva – our challenge was to try as best we can to reach out to the moderate opposition and make clear to them that they needed to in order for this thing to work. And we did that. We did it with our special envoy, Michael Ratney, but we did it through the – also the other members of the ISSG, other membering – member governments to reach out to the groups that they had contacts with to sell the deal, if you could – if I could put it that way, to convince these groups that it was in their best interest to abide by it.
Did we – was – were we 100 percent effective? No. But were we effective? Yes, and there was several days of a significant reduction in violence. But what’s happened now with the hitting of the humanitarian convoy and with the subsequent siege on Aleppo, you’ve got a scenario now, a dynamic where, as these moderate opposition forces are under real and increasing pressure by the regime, that they’re driven more or less into the arms. They have to turn to Nusrah, fight side by side. So it just – it escalates and makes more confusing and more jumbled what is already a difficult situation.
QUESTION: Was – can I just ask one more question?
QUESTION: Could I – I’ve got one.
MR TONER: Please, yeah.
QUESTION: This will be very brief.
QUESTION: Yeah, sure.
MR TONER: Okay
QUESTION: Just before I get – you talked about how you don’t want to close the – slam the door shut right now. Why in your estimation would it be so difficult to reopen that door —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — and follow through on the threat and then – to stop it, and then see if that changes the situation? Why are you afraid, I guess, for lack of a better word —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — that the door would be so hard to reopen?
MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I think what we’re – and I tried to explain this. What we’re talking about, what was reached in Geneva – it’s not to say that it would be impossible to somehow recreate that in some fashion, but I think a couple of things is one, is we’d set that aside for now and just say, “Look, that did not work, that was a failed effort.” And then two, we would consider as we – if Russia did come back to us in a week or ten days or two weeks, it would factor into our consideration the fact that they failed so miserably to live up to any kind of deal that – an agreement that we reached. So again, it’s a matter of credibility.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR TONER: Please, sir.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can we move on to a different country?
QUESTION: I just —
MR TONER: Of course. Sorry, we’ll get there.
QUESTION: That’s okay.
QUESTION: So can you work with people – if Nusrah fighters are fighting side by side with fighters that you support, can you then work with the fighters that you support, or have they then become people who are providing material support —
MR TONER: It’s a fair question, yep.
QUESTION: — to terrorists and therefore you can’t —
MR TONER: That’s a fair – sure. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —
QUESTION: Oh, yeah.
MR TONER: I think that was part of – that was – so the part – one of the big pieces of this effort – I apologize, some water. One of the big pieces of this effort coming out of Geneva was to attempt to do that, was to say, look, guys, we’ll have a seven-day period of cessation of – of violence or a significant reduction in the level of violence. And at that point in time after seven days, the regime would ground its air forces, we would set up this JIC, Joint Implementation Center. And at that point, you’re either with us or against us – moderate – I’m talking about the moderate opposition. That would have been a clear line in the sand, if you will, or whatever that they were either with – still with Nusrah or not.
Again, we talked about this. It’s self-identifying, but it’s also – it would have been a clear starting point from that point on to say, “Okay, you’ve made your choice, I guess.”
QUESTION: Just – and Barbara, one other one, if I may. Just on – in the…
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: In that interview with the BBC, Foreign Secretary – Foreign Minister Lavrov said what the Russians have been saying for a number of days now, which is that accusing the United States of having failed to disentangle the Nusrah from the opposition that you support. Is it your view that the U.S. Government was obliged immediately upon declaration or implementation of the ceasefire on September the 20 – on – or the 12th that it was your immediate obligation to begin disentangling the two? Or rather, is it your view that that was a process that was going to start after a week of a ceasefire?
MR TONER: Yeah. So what I think was understood was while we wouldn’t, from 12:01, whatever it was, on the Eid that that seven-day period began, expect any kind of, like, all right, guys, we’re moving over to this section and we’re disentangling ourselves, that – over the course of that week, if we had gotten there. And we talked about that a lot is – during those initial days, is that we didn’t expect a clean break. We never did, I don’t think anybody did; I don’t think the Russians, the regime – but that we would work towards that over the course of a period of time, seven days or whatever, to expect to see that.
Once we felt that we were at that point, to the best of an agreed-upon ability to reach that point, then we would say, okay, we’re ready to move on to the next phase. At that point, as I said, then it’s – the moderate opposition who are integrated with al-Nusrah would have had a choice to make.
QUESTION: So in other words, are they making a fair point here —
MR TONER: So —
QUESTION: — the Russians? That they say you failed to do the disentangling?
MR TONER: No, because there wasn’t enough time. I mean, we did not have enough time to fully – sorry, I didn’t mean to talk over you.
QUESTION: No, no, go ahead.
MR TONER: We did not have enough time to fully implement the agreement. And I talked about this a short time ago, is what you had, starting last weekend with the barrage and the airstrikes on Aleppo – you’ve just, again, driven the opposition back into the – you’ve recreated what was there before, which is – that doesn’t make anything any easier – when these groups are under the gun, literally, by the regime and by Russian airstrikes. The enemy of my friend is my friend, it’s like – or my – sorry, the friend of my enemy is my – (laughter) – what is it, whatever the damn thing is. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
MR TONER: Enemy is my friend, yeah. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And so you’re going to have a dynamic where you’re driving them back into the arms of Nusrah.
QUESTION: And just to get back to my original question, can you continue to offer support to people that are fighting side by side with people you deem to be terrorists? I mean, if they’re fighting with them, they’re providing material support to them, right? So can you still provide assistance to the moderates, to the so-called moderates?
MR TONER: So I didn’t want to talk about – and for various reasons, I don’t want to necessarily get into details of who or among the moderate opposition we may be providing assistance to. I think that that’s all under consideration, that when we look at who we might provide assistance to among the moderate opposition. We’re constantly looking at the —
QUESTION: But is it a matter of law? Can you do that? I mean —
MR TONER: I don’t think we can. But I also think that we look and – look at a number of factors when we evaluate or look at how we provide assistance to these groups. That’s one of them, clearly. The other is their behavior, whether they’re guilty of committing human rights abuses or anything like that.
QUESTION: What – just a final question: And again, with the regards to the Russian suspicions, you haven’t really gone after Nusrah that much. Have you been holding back on going after Nusrah because they were mixed with the opposition? I mean, all we hear about is the strikes on ISIS.
MR TONER: Yeah, so —
QUESTION: We don’t hear about strikes on Nusrah.
MR TONER: So —
QUESTION: Sorry, let me – and then a second question to you before – the other one is you keep saying there’s no military solution. That’s what – so therefore you have to keep the diplomatic channel open. But we’re not actually talking about a military solution, are we? We’re talking about a credible threat of force to help a diplomatic solution. So then my second question would be: Is that under discussion? But anyway.
MR TONER: Without lending one option any more importance or significance than any other option; I would say all options are under discussion, in answer to your second question. In answer to your first question, which was, again, about?
QUESTION: We keep hearing about —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — striking ISIS, but never —
MR TONER: Oh.
QUESTION: — about striking Nusrah.
MR TONER: We did carry out strikes initially, back in 2014-2015, against Nusrah. But absolutely, you’re correct in that, as they became intermingled and as they became intermingled in civilian areas, we’ve always sought to limit the possibility of civilian casualties in any of our airstrikes.
And again, one of the things I’ve talked a little bit about this week is what – and what partly the promise that this Joint Implementation Center held was we wanted to work in a very strategic fashion about how to take out senior Nusrah leadership like we’ve done pretty effectively against ISIL. And that doesn’t include just laying waste to populated areas that may be under Nusrah’s control. That’s a very non-surgical way to do it.
QUESTION: Could I just ask a follow-up?
MR TONER: Of course. I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: You hit Nusrah – I believe you described it as al-Qaida – maybe in March —
MR TONER: Affiliate, yeah.
QUESTION: — or something or – it was earlier this year.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Since then, there hasn’t been any specific action against Nusrah, is that right? Military action.
MR TONER: No, but I’d have to double check.
MR TONER: I just can’t definitively say that. And I think because of that – that space is, one, occupied by regime and Russian air forces, but also because of the mix.
QUESTION: Given that you – you’ve described the JIC as something that would be – the Secretary has – it would be in U.S. interest anyways because you want to target Nusrah.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Why aren’t you attacking Nusrah anyhow if it’s in U.S. interest?
MR TONER: That’s what I was saying, is – but I – and I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear —
QUESTION: No, no. I understand what you’re saying, but how would that change by cooperating with Russia? You still wouldn’t attack civilian populations, buildings —
MR TONER: No, but I – but what we, again – and I’m – I would really encourage you to talk to someone at the Pentagon who can give you a much more detailed tactical view of this. But one of the premises behind this was that it would allow us to better share intelligence and information and really target, as I said, senior leaders among Nusrah, and go after them in a much more strategic fashion rather than, frankly, using dumb bombs and cluster bombs – or cluster munitions and that kind of thing where we’re just, again, laying waste to an areas versus going after a specific target or group of individuals.
QUESTION: If you had actionable intelligence against Nusrah senior leaders, as you describe them, would you —
MR TONER: Would we —
QUESTION: — be able to target them today or not? Because Aleppo and Idlib and a lot of these areas —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — are out of your – are they in the confliction zone?
MR TONER: I would – I don’t want to – so I would encourage you to talk to somebody —
MR TONER: — from the Department of Defense, whether we would be able to – through our de-confliction mechanism be able to target them.
MR TONER: Yep. Sorry, Samir and then —
QUESTION: Is the U.S. providing the Syrian opposition any —
MR TONER: Is who?
QUESTION: Is the U.S. —
MR TONER: Oh.
QUESTION: — providing the Syrian opposition any military help or any guidance to prevent the fall of East Aleppo to the Syrian and the Russians?
MR TONER: Well, look, we do provide them some support and some guidance. I don’t want to get into details and I don’t want to get into discussions of which groups among the moderate opposition that we support, but yes.
QUESTION: But you are providing?
MR TONER: We do provide assistance.
QUESTION: But did you increase it recently?
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. Did we what?
QUESTION: Did you increase it recently after —
MR TONER: I’m not sure.
QUESTION: — the offensive?
MR TONER: I’m not sure.
QUESTION: Just quickly, I mean – to circle about to what we were talking about at the beginning, what more would Russia need to do for you to move from the verge to actually closing the door on them? I mean, how —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: It seems like it’s gotten a lot worse in the last week.
MR TONER: Yes it has. I mean, that’s —
QUESTION: So —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — what more would need to happen?
MR TONER: Well, I think, again, to offer to – at the very least, to put in place or stop the siege, declare a —
QUESTION: No, I mean what more would need to happen for you guys —
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: — to actually walk away.
MR TONER: I apologize, okay. I get where you’re going now. Sorry. I mean, it’s hard for me to say that a particular action or another event would push us over the edge. All I can say, Nick, is that we’re very close.
QUESTION: Because that – I mean, that then – the question or —
MR TONER: I think it’s rather not a question of – I think it’s a question that – if the current pattern continues any longer and we don’t see any effort to in any way arrest that or stop that or improve that environment or climate or whatever around Aleppo, at some point we’ll say, “Okay,” and walk away.
QUESTION: So does the fact that you haven’t walked away given that it’s gotten so much worse. Can we read that as an indication that the U.S. and Russia are discussing something now that does provide hope that this thing can be salvaged?
MR TONER: I wouldn't use “hope.” I think we – that we haven’t closed the door, that we’re still – there’s still some sense that there are steps that could be taken, but I don’t want to even characterize it as hopeful.
QUESTION: Quick – Mark, one quick one.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Sorry, I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: There’s a (inaudible) report that said that Russia is moving more aircraft into Syria. Can you confirm that?
MR TONER: I can’t. I saw the same report and looking to clarify or get confirmation of it, but I wasn’t able to.
QUESTION: How close is Aleppo to falling?
MR TONER: Again, I’m – I don’t want to predict. I don’t want to – I just don’t have that kind of clarity and knowledge at that level, but we heard it here just a little while ago that there appears to be forces massing for some kind of assault on Aleppo. We’re watching it very closely but it’s hard to say. I mean, as you know, I mean, watching conflict zones around the world, it’s hard to say when and if a city or population center could fall. But given the uptick in violence, given the intensity of it, it’s hard – it’s – it could be soon.
QUESTION: Does the United States have a moral obligation to help the citizens of Aleppo?
MR TONER: That is a fair question to ask. I think that that is something that we have sought to do by pursuing so aggressively this diplomatic process. I think we’ve also sought to do so by pursuing and increasing even this past week our humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced by the fighting, but also those within Syria and trying to continue to get them some level or some measure of assistance despite the fighting.
These are tough options, as I said – and the Secretary has spoken about this – is there’s no good options. And when you look at what’s possible, it means – and these are all things we have to weigh – greater military involvement on behalf of the U.S. and putting American lives at risk, and that’s a – so you have to weigh all of those things, and I agree, it’s – as much of it – as much as it’s a moral outrage what’s going on there, that all has to be weighed.
QUESTION: Today marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria. How would you characterize the last year in Syria with this – these Russian strikes? And Russia’s goal was to prop up the Assad regime, and it appears that their goal has been reached, as they’ve been successful.
MR TONER: You’re right, it is a grim anniversary since – one year since they began supporting the Assad regime in earnest with airstrikes. It is hard not to assess that they have succeeded in bolstering the regime and that, at least at the purely tactical level or the short term, was – as a short-term goal, was clearly their intent. They’ve been clear about that. And one of their concerns was that if Assad fell, if the government fell, that there would be chaos and that would allow terrorist groups to consolidate.
Our argument has consistently been, while recognizing that we don’t want a vacuum, that there is a democratic – or – democratic – that there is a diplomatic way to get there: ceasefire, parties negotiate, work out a plan; we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, the government – certain government infrastructure remains, civilian infrastructure remains. There’s a way to get there without doing what they’re doing right now.
So if they succeeded in propping up and creating some kind of stalemate, okay, so be it. Then we were able to put a cessation of hostilities in and then create that negotiating process. But it becomes increasingly evident that they may have broader or greater aims than that.
QUESTION: I have a few questions on Iran, if you don’t mind.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. Iran, sure. Are we done with –
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up quickly on Syria first?
QUESTION: Oh, sure. Of course.
QUESTION: One more on Syria.
MR TONER: Okay, great.
QUESTION: If eastern Aleppo does fall, is that a defeat for U.S. policy given your response to —
MR TONER: I think it’s a defeat for the world in the sense that it’s just going to create a greater hardship for the Syrian people, it’s going to create more chaos within Syria and allow what are clearly terrorist groups with – like ISIL and Nusrah with aims to carry out terrorist attacks not only within Syria, but more broadly, to consolidate and to strengthen. So it’s a losing proposition no matter who you are.
QUESTION: And in your response to these questions earlier, you seemed to be suggesting that the increased mixing between al-Nusrah and the other opposition groups was an unfortunate side effect of Russia’s stance. Could it not be their goal?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I – that’s one person’s analysis. I can’t exclude that that’s not — well, I mean, I just – I —
QUESTION: If – it’s several people’s analysis, including several experts, but —
MR TONER: I mean, that’s something you’ll have to ask the Russians.
QUESTION: Whenever Plan B is mentioned, you say there’s no good options ,and military options, you don’t see a military solution. How many sanctions has the U.S. – has this Administration put on Russia as a result of a year of intervention that has killed, I don’t know —
MR TONER: Well, you’re right. Our sanctions – yeah —
QUESTION: When you say thousands of civilians —
MR TONER: I mean, that’s —
QUESTION: — how many sanctions has the U.S. Government levied?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, we have sanctions in place, but regarding their behavior and —
MR TONER: — and their actions in Ukraine – no, I was just about to say that —
MR TONER: — and I – another valid option, one that – one among many that we’re looking at, but I don’t have anything particularly to announce.
QUESTION: Why – in 2012, maybe even the end of 2011, the U.S. applied sanctions on various Iranian entities for supporting Syria. Given that Russia’s involvement has taken on a level, at least through air power, that far outstrips Iran, what made the Iranian support so heinous in the deaths they caused that it prompted a sanctions response?
MR TONER: Sanctions response.
QUESTION: And what makes the Russian one so blase or not so significant that it doesn’t get a sanctions response from the U.S.?
MR TONER: So with regarding – with regard to sanctions, as I said, we do have already pretty severe sanctions, again, directed at their behavior in Ukraine in place against Russia. So whenever you’re looking at whether to sanction more or to increase the pressure on the Russian economy, you weigh a number of options. Sanctions can be very effective. We’ve seen it in the case of Iran, especially with regard to the nuclear program. But we also want to weigh that with our ability to work effectively with Russia.
QUESTION: So —
MR TONER: We just haven’t reached that decision point yet, I guess, is my —
QUESTION: So it was the diplomatic track that remained open that kept sanctions out of play on Russia for all this death and destruction over the last several months?
MR TONER: Excuse me. That was one element of it, but —
QUESTION: And then, so what – if this – if these – if this engagement ends, what precludes the U.S. from then taking a sanctions response to Russia?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals about what we may or may not do except to say that there’s a number of options out there and we’ll continue to look at them all. They’re all being discussed and debated and considered, and sanctions are among them.
QUESTION: Questions on Iran Mark.
MR TONER: Yeah, of course.
QUESTION: On the subject of the Wall Street Journal story today —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — what impact did the analysts here at the State Department assess that the delisting of those two banks, which are so intimately tied to Iran’s ballistic missile program, would have on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles?
MR TONER: So first of all, the story you bring up, there’s – none of the facts of that story were particularly new, but what I can say is that we did, when we were looking at – so we had agreed to delist – or remove the designation, rather – Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List – SDN list – we had agreed to remove Bank Sepah from that list on implementation day as part of the JCPOA. Now, as part of that process, we looked at all the entities. We conducted a very thorough review, in essence updating what we knew about Bank Sepah, and whether they qualified. And it was our assessment that they did qualify. So —
QUESTION: And is that because they were no longer tied to the ballistic missile program?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly right, that they were no longer carrying out actions that we believed were linked to or linked them to the ballistic missile program. Now – so – and then, of course, there was the then subsequent delisting by the UN. But what’s important also to remember in any of this, whenever we’re talking about delisting someone from sanctions, that we always maintain the ability to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Bank Sepah or any other entity in Iran if we then consider their behavior is – or merits —
QUESTION: And did – does Secretary Kerry believe that unshackling the banks that have financed Iran’s ballistic missile program will somehow slow down the program?
MR TONER: That —
QUESTION: Did Secretary Kerry believe that removing the sanctions against these banks – did he believe that would slow down Iran’s nuclear ballistic missile program?
MR TONER: Not necessarily. I think this was part of, again, some of the things we looked at, in terms of the determinations that we made as part of the JCPOA – which entities needed to continue to be sanctioned. That’s something we do all the time, but certainly – within the framework of the JCPOA – we looked at. But we make no excuses for what was a very considered determination, with regard to Bank Sepah’s role in the ballistic program, but also that we continue to have concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program.
QUESTION: And —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: — Chairman Royce and others on Capitol Hill have complained that the briefings to congressional staff only occur after decisions are being made, not beforehand. Why is the Administration only briefing lawmakers after the fact?
MR TONER: I don’t have the specific timeline in front of me. I mean, I know that we made all the materials available to Congress for their consideration, so we weren’t trying to —
QUESTION: After the fact or before?
MR TONER: I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t have that in front of me. But we certainly try to be responsive and work with Congress and make them aware of what we’re – what actions we’re taking, especially with regard to Iran.
QUESTION: Are there any other parts of this nuclear agreement – implementation day – that we just don’t know about? I mean, there’s now three documents —
MR TONER: But that’s what I wanted to – sure.
QUESTION: — that are signed by Mr. McGurk.
MR TONER: Again – and one of the reasons – sorry, I didn’t mean to talk over you.
QUESTION: Is there a fourth document?
MR TONER: So one of the reasons I said that there’s nothing particularly new in this story is that this was all came out, and there’s even several articles written at the time that it happened. I think there was so much happening – we’ve talked about that quite a bit – in that very congested period of time around implementation day that I think elements were lost, and there wasn’t a recognition that – of all the pieces that were in play.
QUESTION: Was the delisting the two banks – was that more leverage to use against —
MR TONER: Not at all. Not at all. It was just a different – again, we’ve talked about this a lot, and that’s – what would I say, the – that it’s so much, whether it was the detainees being released, whether it was the Hague settlement being paid, whether it was the delisting of this bank – there was a lot that happened in a very short time span, but they were not linked.
QUESTION: Was this the sweetener to the deal?
MR TONER: Please?
QUESTION: Was this the sweetener to the deal, like —
MR TONER: Not at all. No.
QUESTION: — we’re very close to getting the prisoners released and —
MR TONER: No. Again, what it was – and we’ve said as much – is that we had a window, we had a moment, an opportunity to seal a number of different deals, if you will – to close a number of different outstanding issues with Iran, and we sought to do so.
QUESTION: And final question, just to go back to that first one.
MR TONER: Please, go ahead. Yeah.
QUESTION: Was there any kind of internal assessment done that told the Secretary and other top officials what delisting these banks would have on Iran’s ballistic missile program?
MR TONER: What – and I’m sorry, I just want to make sure I understand that —
QUESTION: Did analysts here at the State Department study what kind of – what would happen after this delisting occurred? Was there any kind of analytics done —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — to say what impact delisting these banks would have on Iran’s ballistic missile program.
MR TONER: Yes. It was made – the determination was made after a careful review of the activity of all the individuals and entities, including Bank Sepah, that would be removed from this list, SDN list that I talked about, Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, on implementation day. So this was not done in any way, shape, or form haphazardly or by impulse. This was a part of a very thorough review.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah. Please sir.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Recently, Duterte likened himself to Hitler and said that he’d be happy to slaughter the drug users and peddlers in his country. Has anyone from the State Department been in contact with the Philippines in regards to these comments?
MR TONER: I’m not aware. I don’t know what our bilateral mission, if they’ve been in contact with the Philippine Government. You’ve seen a number of – not the U.S. Government, but a number of voices comment on President Duterte’s remark – remarks. Look, what I would say to that is that America’s relationship, or partnership, with the Philippines is long and it’s been based on a mutual foundation of shared values, and that includes our shared belief in human rights and human dignity. And within that context, President Duterte’s comments are a significant departure from that tradition. And we find them troubling.
QUESTION: So obviously, he’s had some couple other spats —
MR TONER: Yes he has.
QUESTION: — especially with Obama and such. How much longer is the State Department going to let him go on these kind of, like, off-the-wall comments?
MR TONER: As I said previously, words matter, especially when they’re from leaders of sovereign nations, especially sovereign nations with whom we have a long and, as I said, valued relations with. But what I’ve also been clear about is from a government-to-government level, or at a government-to-government level, we continue to productively, constructively, closely cooperate with the Philippines on a number of issues. And our people-to-people ties remain strong, our security and military ties remain strong. Our economic ties remain strong. And so, while there is this – there is these remarks occasionally being made, at the working level our relationship remains very strong and very vital.
QUESTION: So you see no hindrance about these – like, there’s no – there’s no hindrance with the relationship after these comments?
MR TONER: Not that we’ve seen, no.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah. Dan.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) clarification —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Philippines security forces are acting on this kind of rhetoric, though. I mean, there have been reports of killings.
MR TONER: And —
QUESTION: Is there a point where you can’t work with the Philippines security forces?
MR TONER: No, I understand that. And where we’ve – we have been deeply concerned about reports of extrajudicial killings by or at the behest of the government authorities in the Philippines, and have called on and repeat our calls for thorough, transparent investigations into any credible report of extrajudicial killings.
QUESTION: Mark, I just – quickly on that. I mean, he’s basically calling for the death of 3 million people. Your response doesn’t really – I mean, you find it troubling. It seems more than troubling.
MR TONER: Well, again, I – I think that it’s – again, what I said before was that when we listen to these kinds of comments, it is concerning, especially by the – from the leader of a nation with whom we have such a long and valued relationship with, and one that is based on concern about human rights, democracy, all the values that we hold dear. And I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: Is there any concern that if you criticize him too strongly, despite these outrageous actions and comments, that you’d be driving him towards strong relations with China and Russia, which he has expressed interest in?
MR TONER: And I’m aware of those remarks, and we’ve been very clear, Secretary Kerry’s been very clear when he met with President Duterte, we’re not – this is not a zero-sum game for us. We’re not trying to dictate with whom the Philippines should have strong relations with. Our only concern is that we want to maintain our strong relationship with the Philippines. But again, I’ll stress that it has to be one that’s based on shared values, democratic values, respect for human rights, and words matter. I’ll say it again.
QUESTION: So you don’t think that you’re pulling any punches in his – in criticizing him?
MR TONER: I’ll leave it where I left it.
QUESTION: Mark —
MR TONER: Oh, sure. I’m sorry, and then you in the back.
MR TONER: But – I looked at her and then I promise I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: So Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fast-tracked the citizenship of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Is that something that you think would be possible for her to have done, either in her capacity as secretary of state, or after as a former secretary?
MR TONER: So the naturalization process, as you probably know, is handled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. So for any questions about any individual case like that, I’d have to refer you to them.
Please. Oh, you did – oh, I’m so sorry.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, okay. Okay, sorry.
MR TONER: No, I apologize. I’m —
QUESTION: So you refer the questions to them, but you – if – do you reject the statement that the secretary of state interfered with the immigration process in this case? Or are you just saying you have no comment on that?
MR TONER: I have no comment other than that it’s – we have no reason to believe in the veracity of that statement.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Have you got any assurance from either India or Pakistan regarding the situation on the Line of Control about what future course of action each of them might take?
MR TONER: Do we have any – I apologize, any clarity, you said?
QUESTION: Any assurance from either India or Pakistan on what future action they might plan on the LOC.
MR TONER: Well, I think John Kirby spoke a little bit about this. We’re continuing to follow the situation on the ground very closely. From our perspective, we urge calm and restraint by both sides. We understand that the Pakistani and Indian militaries have been in communication and we believe that continued communication between them is important to reduce tensions. I think we don’t – certainly don’t want to see any kind of escalation and any – and certainly any kind of break in that communication. We have repeatedly and consistently expressed our concerns regarding the danger that cross-border terrorism poses for the region, and that certainly includes the recent attacks – terrorist attacks in Uri. And we continue to urge actions to combat and de-escalate – and delegitimize, rather, terrorist groups like Lashkar-e Talaba – Tayyiba, rather – Haqqani Network, as well as Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Yes, sir, then I’ll go to you, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s from the same – I just have some – few clarification.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Did you have any pre-knowledge of this so-called Indian surgical strike on Pakistani soil?
MR TONER: No, I don’t have anything for you on that, sorry.
QUESTION: And it’s all based on an Indian statement that this happened, and the Pakistan says it didn’t happen and then it says two killed and they have arrested – so what – on what basis are you reacting? On the basis of the statement from India, on the basis of – do you have – I know you don’t talk about the intelligence matters.
MR TONER: I mean, we have high-level engagement, as you can imagine, with both governments, and our assessment is based on that.
QUESTION: So you confirm it happened?
MR TONER: It’s not for me to confirm it happened. It’s for the governments themselves to speak to their roles.
QUESTION: Okay. And then there was calls between Secretary Kerry and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
MR TONER: There was —
QUESTION: And —
MR TONER: — a few days ago.
QUESTION: — what – yeah, what was – was there a suggestion from Secretary to Indian minister to cool down the – the whatever was going on at the UNGA and take it easy before this happened?
MR TONER: I’ll have to see if I can get you a readout of that call, but again, it’s part of our – we’re very concerned about the situation there. We don’t want to see it escalate any further. And as part of that concern, the Secretary is certainly engaged and talking to Indian leadership – senior Indian leadership.
QUESTION: Just the last one.
QUESTION: Can I have —
QUESTION: Just the last one. Pakistan has reacted, saying that if India does it again, they will react. And then they also talked about using nukes. Like, they don’t have a no-first-use policy, like India has declared a no-first-use. So do you – according to – as you have high-level connections and the intelligence reports, which you do not talk from the podium —
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: — do you expect further trouble?
MR TONER: I mean, in terms – so just to answer your question about some of the rhetoric from the Pakistani Government and the possibility of using nukes or nuclear weapons, I would just say nuclear-capable states have a very clear responsibility to exercise restraint regarding nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. And that’s my message publicly and that’s certainly our message directly to the Pakistani authorities.
QUESTION: So after your call for restrain and calm, the signals that you get from India and Pakistan – are they reassuring for you?
MR TONER: I don’t have a real readout. I mean, I think we’re just still following the situation on the ground very closely.
QUESTION: Yeah. Today New York Times published an article based on leaked audio of Secretary Clinton’s fundraiser in which she is heard as saying – expressing concerns about the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons, and she also talks about a nuclear suicide bomber kind of thing. Do you agree with her assessment? Do you have concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear security?
MR TONER: Well, I think I just attempted to speak to that concern about some of the rhetoric, as I said, we’ve seen coming out of Pakistan, regarding its nuclear weapons or – with regard to – I haven’t seen her remarks, honestly. I just haven’t seen them, so I can’t speak to them. Sorry.
QUESTION: The rhetoric or the statement has come from none other than the defense minister himself. And in this month twice in interviews, he has said use (inaudible).
MR TONER: But I – sorry. I don’t mean to talk over you, but I just said obviously we believe that nuclear-capable states have a very clear responsibility to use nuclear weapons responsibly.
QUESTION: To not use them.
MR TONER: Well, to not use them, exactly. But also to refrain from rhetoric – did I say use —
QUESTION: Use them responsibly. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Well, this is what happens when you keep me up here for 90-plus minutes.
MR TONER: Yeah. To not use nuclear weapons. And with that, I’m going to cut you all off. I want to go to —
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Nabeel Rajab. I think he has a court date next week. What does the U.S. expect, and will any American officials be present? Bahrain, sorry.
MR TONER: Yeah, Bahrain. Sorry, of course. Well, you know our concerns. We’ve been quite vocal about this individual and his case. I can’t say that we’ll – whether we’ll be actually in attendance, but I can imagine we will. Certainly, we’re following the trial closely.
What was your last – what was the other part of the question?
QUESTION: What you expect in this hearing. Do you expect due process to be with – I mean —
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, of course, we want to see —
QUESTION: Do you expect him to be released —
MR TONER: I mean —
QUESTION: — given that you don’t think the charges —
MR TONER: Precisely, and that we’ve said that before. But we certainly at the very least want to see a transparent trial for him.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Appeal court confirmed a 16-year sentence. Your views?
MR TONER: Yes. Share them shortly. I know that my views are in here somewhere.
MR TONER: (Laughter.) I know, but I really want to get them —
MR TONER: I really want to get the flavor of it for you. No, just one second. I apologize. We’re deeply troubled by reports that Iranian courts have upheld the 16-year prison sentence of Iranian journalist and human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi. No one should be jailed for peaceful civic activism. We are further concerned about reports that Mohammadi’s health is rapidly deteriorating while in prison, and that she’s been cut off from communicating with her two young children. Given these circumstances, the imposition of this prison sentence is particularly harsh and unjustified, and we call on the Government of Iran to provide Mohammadi with adequate medical care and to release her on humanitarian grounds.
QUESTION: And just one more on Iran. Is there anything more that needs to come out about implementation day? Are there any other documents or new (inaudible)?
MR TONER: I thought I answered this. No. I mean, look, again, we understand that a lot happened in a very condensed time period. We tried to be as forthcoming during that time period about all the different elements that came together. Understand the level of interest in this historic agreement, but we – I can’t say that there is anything new or more to come out on what we agreed on.
QUESTION: And finally, are Aleppo’s days numbered?
MR TONER: Again, I think that – I spoke about this before, I’m not a military tactician. I think that Aleppo is under tremendous pressure. We’re watching it closely. What we really want to see there is an end to this inhumane besiegement of the city.
MR TONER: Yes. Hold on. I’m not sure I have much to offer, but I know this is – I apologize, one second. So as you note, there were the deaths of two U.S. citizens in the Seychelles last week. It goes without saying that we extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of these individuals and are certainly in the course or in the process of providing all appropriate consular assistance. For questions about – which is I think where you’re going with this – about the circumstances of their death and the investigation into their deaths, I’d have to refer you to local authorities. And out of respect for the family during what is clearly a difficult time, I don’t have anything else to add.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yep. Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)
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