Daily Press Briefing
2:03 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey.
MR TONER: I didn’t know you were here.
QUESTION: I barely have a voice after yesterday.
MR TONER: That’s not a terrible thing in my view. No, just kidding. Yes, I spent a lot of time yelling as well at the TV yesterday.
Anyway, welcome to the State Department Monday morning briefing – Monday morning – Monday afternoon briefing.
QUESTION: Feels like Monday morning to me.
MR TONER: Yes, it does. (Laughter.) Just a couple of things at the top, and then I’ll open it up to your questions.
First, I wanted to briefly talk a little bit about Secretary Kerry’s trip today to Colombia. He’s in Cartagena, Colombia, leading the United States delegation at the signing of the final peace accord between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, to end over 50 years of conflict – this hemisphere’s longest war. Our Peace Colombia strategy, announced by President Obama in February, will support implementation of the accord with a focus on its – on three pillars: first, security, including counternarcotics and re-integration of former fighters; second, expanding state presence in public institutions; and then thirdly, justice and other assistance for the victims of this conflict.
U.S. support for Colombia has been a bipartisan effort sustained across more than three presidential administrations, proving that a resilient long-term partnership with a committed nation does pay real dividends. So congratulations.
I also wanted to mention briefly the United States – this – hosting the 2016 Africa Growth and Opportunity Act Forum, so-called AGOA, for those of you into acronyms. This morning, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman welcomed more than 400 participants to the 2016 AGOA Forum. The annual AGOA Forum serves as the premier event that brings together African trade ministers with U.S. counterparts to discuss how we can work together to enhance our trade and investment relationship.
Earlier today, the State Department hosted the first AGOA dialogue on women and trade. The discussion explored how to realize the inclusion of women entrepreneurs in the political and economic sphere, as called for in the reauthorized AGOA. Now, there is a growing consensus in both Africa and the United States that open trade and international investment are among the fastest ways for Africa to boost its economic growth, spur development, and reduce poverty. Since 2000, AGOA has been the cornerstone of U.S. economic policy in Africa. And the recent 10-year extension of AGOA provides an important degree of predictability to investors and buyers who are looking to invest in or source from Africa, and will keep – and will help keep our trading relationship with sub-Saharan Africa on a positive track. However, it is also important for U.S. and African policymakers to begin drawing up a strategy appropriate for the next phase in our trading relationship.
That’s all I have. Matt, over to you.
QUESTION: Well, I wasn’t going to start with this, but what is the next phase in the —
MR TONER: Well, I think it’s under – it’s all under discussion, but I think looking at how to kind of take this – take the trade relationship to the next level, so supporting entrepreneurs but also strengthening those trading ties.
QUESTION: Right, but if it’s been extended for 10 years, then —
MR TONER: Well, I know. It’s a long-term strategy; I understand that. But —
QUESTION: All right. Okay. On the Secretary – I haven’t seen all of his comments that he made today, but I did see some brief ones about the situation in Syria. And I don’t – I apologize if I – if he said more and I missed it, but what is the status of your consultations with the Russians right now? Is that still happening? Has he spoken with Lavrov, or are the people meeting in Geneva still, or is it just – is it —
MR TONER: I don’t want to say it’s done, but there’s been nothing to report on, I think, since Friday. I’m just checking quickly, but I don’t believe he’s spoken with Foreign Minister Lavrov since Friday.
QUESTION: So what’s the status of the —
MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, you saw what the Secretary said. It’s hard to point to a cessation of hostilities, it’s hard to point to a diplomatic process when we’re in the midst of a pretty aggressive series of assaults on Aleppo. I don’t want to say we’ve thrown in the towel and I don’t think he would say that, but it’s hard – unless we see some gestures by Russia on behalf of the regime or the regime and Russia, significant gestures – and we talked about some of those in New York last week – we’re not – this isn’t – we don’t see this moving forward. But we’re still committed to pursuing this process. It’s just we’re not in a good place. I don’t know how to put it more frankly than that.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, clearly not.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, but according to you guys, you’re looking for gestures from them. But aren’t you seeing gestures from the Russians and from the Assad regime right now?
MR TONER: Well, arguably, yes. I mean, that’s true.
QUESTION: So —
MR TONER: I mean, I – what the Secretary said —
QUESTION: So why haven’t you —
MR TONER: — said it’s unacceptable. Well, Matt, I mean, this is – and I think the Secretary has talked about this, and certainly talked about it at the end of last week when it was clear that he and everyone was pretty frustrated by the lack of progress. But we’re still committed to pursuing a diplomatic process, because first of all, it’s really the only way out of – it’s the only viable way out of the mess that is Syria. But secondly, I mean, it’s – he put it as diplomatic – it would be diplomatic malpractice to not pursue this. That he’s – it’s incumbent on him as the Secretary of State to pursue this to the last possible measure, and we’re going to continue to do that.
QUESTION: But so you don’t think that the last possible measure has been reached now?
MR TONER: We don’t, but we’re getting close, and it’s – as I said, it’s hard, and as the Secretary said earlier today in Cartagena, that what’s happening in Aleppo is unacceptable, and it’s hard to talk about any kind of transition government or any kind of negotiating process when the moderate Syrian opposition and civilians in Aleppo are being bombed.
Clearly, the regime – and quite possibly Russia – believe that there is still a military solution here, and that’s difficult to – it’s difficult to pursue a diplomatic process when you’ve got that scenario.
QUESTION: The Secretary himself —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: — said in those comments to the reporters traveling with him that Syria and Russia appear to be pursuing a military solution and to be trying to take Aleppo and destroying it in the process. Is the United States willing to do anything to try to stop Syrian and Russian forces from taking Aleppo?
MR TONER: I’m not sure what you mean by “willing to do anything.”
QUESTION: They’re pursuing a military solution. Are you willing to do anything besides verbally asking them to stop, which doesn’t seem to have worked, to stop them?
MR TONER: Well, look, we’re committed to continuing to engage with Russia diplomatically, and we’re not going to walk away from that avenue. Again, the Secretary said it would be diplomatic malpractice to do so. As dark as it seems, frankly, it’s one of the few options that we have. I mean, if you’re asking about the legendary Plan B, I think that we’re not there yet and, frankly, we continue to have all of these discussions within the interagency about what other options we do have, and that conversation, that dialogue, continues. But we still believe that based on the agreement that we reached in Geneva with Russia, that that diplomatic process is still the best option we have.
QUESTION: But you haven’t suggested any willingness to do anything besides focus on a diplomatic option that clearly failed at least last week, in its latest iteration, not to mention all the previous ones – failed most recently. So I’m just asking —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — is there anything else that you’re willing to do beyond talking and pursuing a diplomatic option?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we can all extrapolate on what the other options are out there, but where we are at with our Syria policy right now is a diplomatic process and pursuing through the ISSG and through direct dialogue with Russia a way forward that tries to bring some credibility back to the process. You can’t have that, obviously, today with the firefighting or the assaults on Aleppo, but what the Secretary talked last week about in New York, which is, frankly, an extraordinary gesture on the part of Russia and Russia influencing the regime to, for example, ground these aircraft – in some ways, to jumpstart what would be a credible way forward for a cessation of hostilities.
Now, I’m not deluded – we’re not there. We’re not – we’re far from there. And it’s hard to keep that in perspective as we are presented with the facts on the ground today. But that is the option that we continue to pursue.
QUESTION: The – one more for me, if I may.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: The Secretary also said on Friday that he had had a brief – well, he didn’t say it was brief, but he said he had talked to Foreign Minister Lavrov and that they had made a little progress. Foreign Minister Lavrov was asked on Friday afternoon what that progress was, and he didn’t say there was no progress, but he said nothing to suggest that there was any progress. What was the progress that you made on Friday afternoon – on Friday morning, excuse me, when they spoke briefly, and why haven’t you had any conversation since then?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, I think we’re looking to see – I’m not sure specifically what he was alluding to by the progress. We talked about some of the – as I said, some of the measures we wanted to see Russia and the regime take, again, to restore credibility to this process. I also think that the ball is somewhat in Russia’s court now where we want to see some kind of action that we believe can prove that there’s still legitimacy to this process, and I think that’s what we’re – one of the reasons why we haven’t had continued conversations, because we haven’t seen that yet.
QUESTION: But the fact that today, Mr. Lavrov said that he did not consider the process dead – you don’t consider it dead. Isn’t that – doesn’t that suggest that —
MR TONER: And —
QUESTION: — we might have a meeting sometime soon, maybe today, maybe tomorrow —
MR TONER: Again, I – and I also have to say that the consensus in the – within the ISSG last Thursday was that while it was the grim reality on the ground, that everyone still around that room believed that the best way forward was this Geneva agreement. But clearly, it faces real challenges when we continue to see the kind of behavior by the regime. And again, I think it goes back to this – how do we restore some kind of credibility to the process? And we’ve talked about those, we continue to talk about those with Russia. If Russia wants to come back to us with serious proposals, of course we’ll listen to and consider those.
QUESTION: Now, from your point of view, and your allies’, of course, there are a number of elements that need to be put in place before we get this process going. Now, on the other side, they’re saying all you have to do is really basically separate the terrorists from the moderate opposition. Why is that so difficult? Why is that so undoable? I mean, if you can leverage your —
MR TONER: Sure. Well, yeah, and we’ve talked about that. It’s a valid question. I mean, we’re talked about that and that was one of the things that we accepted coming out of Geneva – incumbent on us to exert that kind of influence, to make sure that the moderate Syrian opposition clearly got that message: You’re either with the moderate forces who are part of the cessation of hostilities or you’re with Nusrah. I think what happens when you have the reality of Aleppo with renewed airstrikes, with renewed fighting, with a renewed government regime offensive on the ground, that – we’ve talked about this before – that that only drives the moderate opposition into the arms of Nusrah, and it only stokes that extremism.
QUESTION: A couple more. I’m —
MR TONER: Yeah, please. I’ll get to you in a second.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the moderate opposition is in any way intently or by happenstance is giving cover to the al-Nusrah? I mean, are they coordinating with them? Some of these moderate opposition, they – maybe they don’t want to separate.
MR TONER: I mean, and that’s ultimately – as I said, we —
QUESTION: What happens in this case?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, well, what happens – again, if we get a cessation of hostilities in place for seven days —
MR TONER: — and the regime would ground its air forces – and we talked about that; that was all part of the Geneva agreement – then at that point, you’re either with the moderate opposition or you’re part of Nusrah, and if you – you’re either signed up and you’ve removed and disengaged or you’re part of Nusrah. We’ve talked about that. That’s where, really, the way forward becomes concrete, which the moderate opposition would have to choose. At this point in time, we are not there.
QUESTION: Now, let me – just —
QUESTION: Hasn’t it all —
QUESTION: I’m sorry, just one last thing. I was with one of the most moderate elements of the Syrian opposition and he’s saying that it is natural for the opposition to regroup and rearm and reposition itself, so that should not be some sort of a condition placed by the Russians or the Syrians that they should not be doing that. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR TONER: So, two points to make. One is when you have the kind of intensive fighting that you have in Aleppo, when you have the constant airstrikes, the regime offensive, again, that only exacerbates this – what we’ve talked about, this kind of blend or mixed – intermixing of – the opposition is going to try to protect itself. And so it’s going to drive some of those forces – not all of them, but some of them – into the arms of the extremists.
That’s one dynamic that’s a challenge here, to be frank. And certainly, as I said, they’re – they will seek to resupply and regroup. That’s also a natural occurrence. That doesn’t mean that – again, if we get a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities in place, that requires both sides – the regime and the moderate opposition – to not attack each other.
QUESTION: Before the intense strikes that you were talking about when Russia and the U.S. brokered the ceasefire deal, the second largest rebel group, which is Ahrar al-Sham, came out and very directly said that they’re not going to comply with the ceasefire nor are they going to separate themselves from al-Nusrah. That was before that. So other than calling on the rebels to separate themselves from terrorists, which hasn’t worked, apparently, what has the U.S. done to make that happen?
MR TONER: Well, again – and I’m not going to get into all the details of our diplomatic engagement with various groups within the moderate Syrian opposition, but we do, trust me, remain very engaged with them. And part of that was previewing with them and explaining to them aspects of and responsibilities on them within the Geneva agreement. And that was an outreach that we engaged in, really, slightly before we reached agreement, but then, of course, in the days and week or so that followed that.
MR TONER: And we’ve always – sorry, just to finish – and we’ve always owned that. I mean, we’ve always said it’s incumbent on us, just as it’s incumbent on Russia to exert influence on the regime also to abide by the cessation of hostilities. It’s just very difficult to even get to that point where you’ve got a seven-day – we couldn’t even get there. We couldn’t get seven days of reduced violence, so we couldn’t get to the next stage, as I talked about with Said, where you’ve self-identified if you’re a member of the moderate opposition. Either you’re disengaged with Nusrah or you’ve said, “I’m not going to abide by that,” in which case, again, you’ve self-identified. Does that make sense somewhat?
QUESTION: What – they rejected it right away. They didn’t even wait for a few days before —
MR TONER: Again, I’m not – I am aware of the statement, but I’m also aware that they make a lot of statements, but with the understanding that words are words but actions are actions. And just as we look at the regime to show by its actions that it’s serious, we look to the moderate opposition to show by its actions that it’s serious about a cessation of hostilities. But what – again, I’ll make the point that when you’ve got the kind of ongoing military strikes on Aleppo, that only exacerbates what’s already a complicated dynamic.
QUESTION: Something else. So Russia – the Russian foreign minister said while the U.S. is hitting ISIL, it spares al-Nusrah, even though it is al-Qaida. He said the U.S. is not hitting al-Nusrah —
MR TONER: I’m sorry, who said this? I apologize. I didn’t hear the first part.
QUESTION: The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
MR TONER: Okay, go ahead. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: He said the U.S. is not hitting al-Nusrah at all in Syria. Why is that?
MR TONER: I’m not aware. We’re carrying out strikes against ISIL continuously as part of the coalition. Where al-Nusrah sits somewhat would determine if we would be able to strike them or be in the airspace. I mean, that’s part of the de-confliction, frankly, that we’ve talked about before, where – and again, to refer back to Geneva, if we can get to a point where we’ve grounded the Syrian regime, whether we have seven days of reduced violence, then we can set up this Joint Implementation Center. And the whole idea behind that was, at that point, we would work with Russia to strategically target Nusrah. Now, we’re far from that right now.
QUESTION: So if this agreement fails, is the U.S. not going to target al-Qaida in Syria?
MR TONER: Oh, we’re – trust me, we’re going after – and we’re going after Nusrah in a very strategic way. We’re not just indiscriminately bombing where we believe Nusrah is and also striking civilian targets as well as moderate Syrian opposition. There is a way to do this. There’s a way to do this —
MR TONER: Just let me finish. There’s a way to do this – and we’ve shown this by taking out senior ISIL or Daesh leadership – there’s a way to do this very – and I would refer you to the Pentagon to talk more detail about this – that’s strategic, that’s pinpointed to destroy their leadership, to destroy their infrastructure, but not in a haphazard or in a heavy-handed way that puts at risk civilians and, frankly, the moderate Syrian opposition.
QUESTION: An al-Nusrah commander – I just have one more.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: An al-Nusrah commander told journalist Jurgen Todenhofer with German Focus magazine that the group received weapons from the U.S., including TOW anti-tank missiles. This al-Nusrah commander was quoted as saying, quote, “The missiles were handed over directly to us. Americans are on our side,” end quote.
MR TONER: Nusrah? That’s complete – I don’t even know.
QUESTION: How do you —
MR TONER: That’s complete poppycock, complete —
QUESTION: By who? By the journalist who is quoting this commander or by the commander?
MR TONER: By the commander, I would assume. I don’t want to challenge his journalistic integrity, but whatever he’s saying, no. We’ve absolutely not provided – I can’t say that as – vehemently enough, that we would never provide Nusrah with any kind of assistance whatsoever. We view them as a foreign terrorist organization, we view them as an affiliate of al-Qaida, and we’re going to seek their continued destruction.
QUESTION: Well, Mark, so —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: But how do you feel about al-Qaida thinking —
QUESTION: What exactly is poppycock?
MR TONER: (Laughter.) I was trying to think of a better word there, but I went for my British —
QUESTION: That may be the first time it’s come up in here —
MR TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: — come up. I just wanted to ask one thing.
MR TONER: I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: In one of your responses to Arshad —
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: — you resurrected the legendary Plan B —
MR TONER: I did.
QUESTION: — without prompting and you said we’re not there yet. Does this thing exist or is it a myth?
MR TONER: No. I mean, Matt, I raised that specter, if you will, because I think people are saying what next or what’s – what are you going to do. The Geneva agreement, the Geneva – the implementation of the Geneva agreement is failing, so what’s next? What do you have? What are you looking at? And what I wanted to make clear in my answer to Arshad was that we’re looking at and we continue to have discussions because there are other options out there, and I think we all know what those options are.
QUESTION: Is that – there is a Plan – there’s a Plan B?
MR TONER: There’s —
QUESTION: Is there a Plan C too?
MR TONER: There’s not a Plan B. What we – what I wanted to make clear was we still consider the Geneva agreement and implementing that and trying to push that diplomatic process as the best way forward.
QUESTION: Are you —
QUESTION: So can I —
MR TONER: Sorry, I’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: I just have a couple on this. So if there’s the period of reduced violence but then the moderate opposition doesn’t separate from al-Nusrah, would that mean that you would no longer consider them the moderate opposition, you would then bomb them?
MR TONER: I mean, we’ve talked about this before. I mean, the cessation of hostilities – it’s incumbent on all the parties to – themselves to adhere to it. And so after a certain period, if an opposition group refused to, again, disaffiliate or disconnect itself with al-Nusrah and we’re going after al-Nusrah —
QUESTION: Then they would —
MR TONER: Ipso facto or whatever.
QUESTION: Okay. So then —
MR TONER: I’m using Latin now, probably wrongly – incorrectly. (Laughter.) But you understand my point —
QUESTION: Oh, yeah, certainly.
MR TONER: — is at a certain point, you’re either with the moderate opposition or you’re with Nusrah.
QUESTION: Okay, and then the second one is just do you now believe, after what you’ve seen in the last week or so, that Russia does not have the influence to bring the Assad regime —
MR TONER: Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, it’s either one or the other. It’s either they’re choosing to continue to allow the regime to carry out military offensive or they’re unable to influence them from pursuing a military offensive.
As for the regime, I think Assad has spoken to this himself. I think he still believes that there’s a military solution to this conflict and, again, just as it’s incumbent on us to persuade the moderate opposition to abide by the ceasefire and to say that there’s only a political way forward, it’s incumbent on Russia to say the same thing to Assad’s regime or Assad’s cronies or his backers to say, “You’re not going to win this militarily.”
QUESTION: So – and then the last one is just —
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: — on the issue of Assad himself. I mean, the Administration has sort of walked back from its proclamation, I think in 2011, saying he had to go. Can you – would you consider a scenario now where Assad would stay on, not only during a transition period, but even afterwards?
MR TONER: What we’ve said, Nick, and just to clarify, is we believe Assad could never be the legitimate leader of Syria given what he has wrought against his own people, but that ultimately, that’s something for the Syrian people to work out through a political settlement – or political negotiation process, sorry, in Geneva. And what we’ve also said is we don’t believe that, if there is this political transition and democratic elections, it’s our opinion that Assad wouldn’t be elected and there would have to be some kind of transition. But I guess my point broadly speaking is it doesn’t mean that Assad would need to go – although, we’d like to see him go – tomorrow or the next day, but that as part of a political transition he could remain in power somewhat until there was a democratic election and then a transitional —
QUESTION: If there were a transition process and the result was, after an election, that he remained in power, would you guys —
MR TONER: Look, and ultimately, that’s a decision for the Syrian people. It’s difficult for us to imagine that that would ever be the case; that he would be democratically elected as Syria’s leader.
QUESTION: But you would be willing to see a transition whereby the end result was a democratic election —
MR TONER: Well, so this is —
QUESTION: — in which he was a candidate?
MR TONER: So this is – well, again, that’s part of the both sides, all the parties to work out in Geneva, and I don’t want to speak to that process or influence that process.
What we want to see is, though, a democratic process, a democratic transition. What we’ve talked about before, and this is something that, obviously, Russia has talked to before too is we don’t want to see a vacuum created. So how that transition looks in terms of certain institutions with – of the old regime staying in place or in some measure be able to provide security, services, that kind of thing is – does make some sense.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark?
MR TONER: Yes, please.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, I think the language you used to use – one formulation of it was that Assad has lost legitimacy —
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: — to lead Syria, right? But —
MR TONER: Yes. What did I just say? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But the President – no, it’s okay.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: But President Obama also said in August of 2011 quote, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” I mean, that’s not just he’s lost legitimacy —
MR TONER: Understood. No I —
QUESTION: — that’s he should – he needs to go.
MR TONER: I understand the evolution. But ultimately, again, this is – that’s a step that he’s not chose to make – chosen to make. And that’s also an action that’s the moderate opposition or the opposition’s been unable to make him make.
QUESTION: But is that still your view that he has to go, whether it’s of his own volition or of somebody else’s, or at the metaphorical point of some else’s bayonet?
MR TONER: So, again, I think that – I think what we would say is it’s our belief it’s that he’s lost all legitimacy. He should not be the leader of that country. How he goes through a transition, through a political transition, that’s up to the Syrian people to work out. But we still don’t believe he can be the legitimate leader of Syria.
QUESTION: So I don’t know if you saw the statement by Senators McCain and Graham earlier today, but in it they said, quote, “Diplomacy in the absence of leverage is a recipe for failure. At best, it offers the Obama Administration a fig leaf to cover the abject failure of its Syria policy and the fact that there is no Plan B. Putin and Assad will not do what we ask of them out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of concern for our interests, or the suffering of others. They must be compelled, and that requires power. Until the United States is willing to take steps to change the conditions on the ground in Syria, the war, the terror, the refugees, and the instability will all continue,” closed quote.
How do you answer that criticism?
MR TONER: Well, I’ll answer it in a few ways. First of all, and I would refer you to – it hasn’t been published yet, but the Secretary spoke a little bit to not that specific statement from Senator McCain but an earlier statement made by Senator McCain. First of all, if – and what the Secretary said, if Congress wants to give us other authorities or options, then Congress is able to do that and they do have a certain leverage themselves in this process. But I think, more broadly speaking, about why or how do we do this without any leverage, it is – first off, it behooves any country looking at the humanitarian catastrophe that exists today in Syria to do something to stop it, to end the fighting and allow people to live in peace.
But even if you don’t have those kinds of motives in your foreign policy, it is – there is a leverage in the fact that there will be no military solution to the fighting in Syria. And if we walk away from a diplomatic process, and the Secretary’s alluded to this before in his comments, this could go from very bad to much worse. And Russia is in a position now where they’re supporting the regime and that could expose them to a greater involvement and more of a burden sharing in order to prop up that regime if the fighting became worse.
QUESTION: But —
MR TONER: So I mean, there’s – I’m sorry, just to finish. So I mean, there’s – if you’re just looking at broad strategy with regard to Syria, there’s a logic that would compel Russia, I think, to pursue and enforce a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: And what if the Russians and the Iranians and Hizballah are all willing to invest more in Syria, certainly than the United States has thus far, that they – what if they are just going to pursue a military solution – so if they continue the bombardment of Aleppo, they can then retake Aleppo. As the Secretary said, that’s what they’re trying to do. It’s the largest or it was the largest city in the country. What is to stop the Syrian military with its external support from prosecuting and achieving a military solution and retaking big chunks, if not most or all of the country eventually —
MR TONER: Well, look, I’m —
QUESTION: — if you don’t do something other than pursue a diplomatic solution?
MR TONER: Well, look, I’m not a military expert. I’m a diplomat, and so I think Secretary Kerry is playing the hand he’s been dealt, and that is to pursue a diplomatic process to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict and a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria. I think that those who may be deluded into thinking there’s a military solution also have to realize, and we’ve alluded to this before, that there are those – and not the United States – but there are those who back various groups and opposition groups within Syria who also may seek to arm them. And again, what you have as a result is just an escalation in what is already horrific fighting. As I said, things could go from bad to much worse.
QUESTION: Mark, just —
MR TONER: I’ll get to you, I promise.
QUESTION: — you are aware that the portion of Aleppo that is under opposition control is actually the smaller portion of Aleppo. There is a larger segment of Aleppo that is under regime control where actually, as far as normal is concerned in that case, or can be considered —
MR TONER: But that they’re not —
QUESTION: I know, but —
MR TONER: Again, I —
QUESTION: — I mean, it’s life goes on and so on. So it’s not – it’s not all of Aleppo that is being bombarded.
MR TONER: Agree.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Do you rule out the possibility that U.S. allies are giving weapons to al-Nusrah?
MR TONER: I’m not going to – again, I think I’ll leave it where I left it with Arshad, which is that there are countries – and we’ve spoken about this before – who will also seek to support and back some of the opposition and may provide them with assistance. I mean, that’s – again, that’s not – I’m not speaking on behalf of the – I’m not saying the U.S. is going to do this, but that’s – that’s just looking at the scenario that exists in Syria if the regime does pursue a military strategy and if the ISSG falls apart. Then that’s – could happen. That’s a possible scenario.
QUESTION: And that’s bad? You don’t want that to happen?
MR TONER: We don’t want that to happen, no. I’m saying —
QUESTION: Well, if it happens —
QUESTION: So you would ask your colleagues not to? Sorry.
MR TONER: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: You would ask your allies who might be responsive to —
MR TONER: We – what we want to see happen – you’re asking me what’s – so first off – and I’m responding to a hypothetical, which is always dangerous. But what I want to – what I want to make clear is the stakes, which is why, in spite of the challenges, in spite of the lack of progress, we continue to pursue a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: Earlier in your response or non-response to the statement from Senators McCain and Graham, you suggested that Congress, if it so – if it deemed appropriate, could give you additional authorities and that – to act. I mean, are you saying that the Administration is constrained right now from doing it – from doing more in Syria because Congress won’t act? Because there was only one time that I remember specifically related to Syria that the Administration was going to go to Congress, and then – and that was when the red line was crossed and then the decision was made not to. And so —
MR TONER: So – sorry.
QUESTION: So I’m just curious what exactly is it, if anything, that you would like Congress to give you?
MR TONER: I’m simply saying that if Congress has criticism of our Syria policy —
QUESTION: It’s their fault?
MR TONER: Not at all. But they can —
QUESTION: But I mean – so you’re not suggesting that a lack of action by Congress —
MR TONER: No. I mean, they can —
QUESTION: — is responsible for where we are now? Is that what you’re saying?
MR TONER: Not at all. No.
QUESTION: But if Congress has – if you would finish the sentence.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: If Congress has criticism of your policy on Syria, they can?
MR TONER: I mean, they’re Congress. They can, again, push for a change in policy.
QUESTION: I think they are —
QUESTION: That’s what they’re – I think —
QUESTION: — doing that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, that statement would seem to be —
MR TONER: But it’s a statement. I mean, there’s other ways to do that. My point is, is that we within the interagency – and I’ll go back to what I said earlier – have these discussions all the time about different options. It’s part of what that process is. But we are where we are and we remain where we are.
QUESTION: Can we change the subject?
MR TONER: I’d love to.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the four Chinese individuals and one Chinese companies that was designated regarding facilitating money laundering for – on behalf of a North Korean company?
MR TONER: Sure, I have a little bit. This was obviously today. You’re talking about today the U.S. Department of Treasury added four Chinese nationals and one Chinese entity to their Specially Designated Nationals list for evading U.S. and UN sanctions with regard to – or imposed on North Korea. And I think it was Department of Justice that actually unveiled or unsealed the criminal complaint, so I would have to refer you for any detailed questions to the Department of Justice.
What I can say is it was necessary to take these actions to maintain the integrity of the sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations and by the United States. And the United States and the international community will not stand idly by while North Korea continues to flaunt – or flout, rather, its international obligations as outlined in numerous UN Security Council resolutions.
So I don’t know if you need anything more.
QUESTION: One of the individual – she’s a chairwoman of the company Hongxiang – she was also detained last month and her company was also investigated by the Chinese authority. Do you welcome such Chinese investigations on this matter? And then could you tell us if there’s any information or intelligence sharing between Washington and Beijing regarding this case?
MR TONER: Well, we regularly consult with the Chinese Government on a wide range of issues, including these kinds of activities. And when action is consistent with our obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and our domestic sanctions laws, we do take action. We do cooperate. We coordinate on sanctions, other measures to counter North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, and we’re going to continue, obviously, to work with China and urge them to use their leverage – and they do have leverage over North Korea as their largest trading partner – to fully implement all the current UN Security Council – or, yeah, Security Council sanctions. All this, obviously, the broader aim here is to convince Kim Jong-un that really his only viable way forward is to pursue a path of denuclearization.
So this shows that we can work cooperatively with China where we both see it as in our interest to apply greater pressure on North Korea.
QUESTION: Do you welcome such a Chinese investigation on Dandong Hongxiang, the company, the Chinese company, DHIH?
MR TONER: So I don’t have all the details in front of me, Nike. I’d probably refer you to the Department of Justice to talk about specific actions against that company.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Asia?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: This happened last week, but amid all the maelstrom around UNGA in New York, where we were – I don’t think it’s been asked about or responded. And that’s Vietnam on Thursday, I believe, sentenced these two bloggers to prison. Do you have anything on that?
MR TONER: Let me check. Yes. We’re concerned by the September 20 conviction of land rights advocate Can Theu – Can Thi Theu – I apologize if I’ve mispronounced that – under Article 245 of Vietnam’s penal code. We’re also concerned by the September 22 decision by an appeals court to uphold the convictions of the bloggers you mentioned, Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, also under Article 2 – or rather, under Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code.
The use of criminal provisions by Vietnamese authorities to penalize individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression, which is provided by Vietnam’s constitution and also under Vietnam’s international obligations, is, as I said, troubling, and we call on the government to release these three individuals, as well as other prisoners of conscience, and allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their political views and assemble peacefully without fear of retribution.
QUESTION: Do you know if that message has been made directly to the Vietnamese, or is it just in this form?
MR TONER: So I can say we regularly raise these issues. I’ll have to take the question of whether we’ve raised these specific cases with the Vietnamese Government. We raise these issues regularly with Vietnam and President Obama did during his visit in May 2016. But I’ll have to check on whether he – we’ve raised these specific cases. My guess is that we probably have.
QUESTION: Staying in Asia.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: The Philippines’ President Duterte today said that he was going to visit Russia and China this year to chart an independent foreign policy and to, quote, “Open alliances,” close quote, with Russia and China. He also said that the Philippines was at, quote – was at the, quote, “Point of no return,” close quote, in its relations with the United States. Does that concern you at all given that the Philippines is a treaty ally?
MR TONER: Well, look, so a couple of thoughts here. One is: We’ve also, obviously, seen the reports regarding President Duterte’s statements. I guess I would refer you to his office —
QUESTION: For what you —
MR TONER: — for any comments. I think what I would say in terms of our reaction is that we continue to work closely with and focus on our relationship with the Philippines in the many areas of mutual interests, including counterterrorism and including working with development – economic development. And we continue to pursue those activities.
We’ve not been officially contacted by Philippine authorities regarding any of the things that President Duterte has said. With regard to them pursuing alliances or partnerships with China and Russia, they’re a sovereign nation and we’re certainly not going to hold them back from pursuing closer relations with either of those countries. And it’s not a zero-sum game. We believe that we can remain a close friend and partner with the Philippines. It’s one of our most enduring bilateral relationships within the Asia Pacific region and it’s been a cornerstone of stability for 70 years. And again, we’re going to keep up that cooperation until we hear otherwise.
QUESTION: Two things on this.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: One is: Our story says that he ruled out the Philippines participating in a maritime conflict if it was initiated by the United States despite the 1951 treaty. Is that what you expect of an ally?
MR TONER: Well, again, I haven’t seen those specific comments, so it’s hard for me to react to them. I guess I would say, arguing with the premise, is that the United States has a strong security presence in the Asia Pacific region, but we’re certainly not looking to start military action against anyone, so I’m unclear about what he’s referring to.
QUESTION: And one last thing. I mean, the president of the Philippines has in – has been reported, at least, to have sworn at the President. He has insulted your ambassador. He’s questioned the U.S.-Philippine alliance, which goes back, what, 65 years. He’s suggested that he wouldn’t come to your assistance in a military conflict if you started it. Is there nothing that he can say that will deflect you from your insistence that you’re going to keep on doing business as usual with the Philippines?
MR TONER: I did say a couple weeks ago, especially after his remarks with – or alleged remarks regarding President Obama, that words do matter. We’re not deaf; we do hear what he says. And yet, I would just say that our cooperation with the Philippine Government remains strong and unabated, so we continue to engage in close cooperation, as I said, on a number of areas of interest. And that cooperation continues, so I don’t know what to call it – a disconnect or what – but we continue to work with the Filipino Government.
QUESTION: Well, are you not at all concerned that his area of interest does not appear to be – does not appear to —
MR TONER: Well, I guess my point is —
QUESTION: I mean, your area —
MR TONER: No, but I guess my point is —
QUESTION: He doesn’t seem to have the same areas of interest as you do.
MR TONER: I guess my point is, again, he makes public statements. We’ve not, though, seen anything with regard to our relations with the Philippines, that would indicate a shift, if you will, or a turning away.
QUESTION: Can we stay in Asia? Do you have anything on Taiwan being boycotted from participating in the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is going to meet tomorrow in Montreal? I understand the State Department supports the meaningful participation of Taiwan in the ICAO.
MR TONER: Right and that is – so we do remain committed to supporting Taiwan’s meaningful participation, as you put it, in the ICAO. Aviation safety, security, and efficiency are clearly matters of global importance, and all interested stakeholders should and can play a positive role in ensuring that standards and regulations are met around the world. But, speaking to your question, in keeping with our “one China” policy, we support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations that do not require statehood. Now, in organizations that require statehood for membership, such as the ICAO, the United States supports Taiwan’s meaningful participation.
QUESTION: But they were being boycotted from even be – participate as observer. Do you have anything on that?
MR TONER: Again, I just – that our position is that we do support their meaningful participation.
QUESTION: Secretary —
MR TONER: That would speak to their – our – where we stand on their involvement.
QUESTION: Secretary of State was required to develop a strategy to help Taiwan become observer for ICAO by a public law, which was signed three years ago. My question for you is: Is there such strategy and how do you help facilitate the meaningful participation?
MR TONER: Well, again, I – we work, obviously, closely with Taiwan in helping them to pursue this – as I said, the meaningful participation. We support their membership and all international organizations that don’t require statehood. But this is about our “one China” policy and – with regard to that, so I would just say our strategy is we want to see improvement in cross-strait relationships and we want to – we’ve seen improvement, rather. And we want to see that continue – that trend. And as much as we can, we’re going to continue to promote Taiwan’s meaningful participation in organizations such as ICAO, but I don’t know. I can’t give you a ten-point strategy, except that we support their meaningful participation.
QUESTION: Could I go to the Palestinian issue?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: And I also have a question on Jordan even before I get into the Palestinian issue.
MR TONER: Yep, okay. Go ahead, sure.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, a Jordanian writer – a Christian Jordanian writer was shot dead by an extremist Muslim. Now, Jordan has been one of your allies. It has been spared this kind of violence in the past. Are you concerned that it may be headed towards a very difficult path in the future?
MR TONER: Well, certainly we join the Government of Jordan in condemning what was a very ugly crime. We extend our condolences to Nahed Hattar’s family and his loved ones. We’ve seen and welcome, of course, statements by the Government of Jordan that this crime will be fully investigated and the perpetrator, or perpetrators, will be brought to justice. Goes without saying, we condemn any kind of attempt to use violence to limit or suppress freedom of speech or expression that might differ from one’s own belief. In terms of whether we see this as a trend, I don’t think we’re – we can assess that at this point. Let’s let the investigation play itself out and see who’s behind it, but obviously, a very tragic circumstance.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that this killing in the name of defaming the prophet is cyclical? I mean, like, it happens every two or three years, I mean – and so on.
MR TONER: Said, I just don’t have the analytics or the background to really make that kind of assessment. We do see it periodically. Again, any time where we see, whether it’s religion – politically based or religiously based, any kind of effort or – to squelch freedom of expression, and especially in a case like this, to do so violently, we condemn it.
QUESTION: Do you hold your allies, whether in Saudi Arabia or in the Gulf state or in Jordan, in the Islamic world and so on, do you hold them – are they shirking their responsibilities in not coming out and speaking against this kind of thing?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, we – this is an issue we raise regularly with – in – you mentioned Saudi Arabia, but with other countries, other governments in the region. We recognize that —
QUESTION: Well, I mentioned Saudi Arabia (inaudible) Islamic (inaudible).
MR TONER: No, no, of course. I understand, but I’m just saying that while we certainly have and pursue strategic interests with, for example, members of the GCC, but other countries and governments in the region, that doesn’t mean we don’t raise these kinds of issues – human rights issues, freedom of expression, and push for greater democratic reforms.
QUESTION: Just —
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry, you —
QUESTION: I’ll go – I’ll go after.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Finish. No, no, go ahead.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask on the Palestinian issue after you —
MR TONER: Doesn’t matter, I just – I didn’t realize I cut you off there.
MR TONER: Go ahead, Tejinder. We’ll get to you and then I’ll get back to Said.
MR TONER: So with regard to that, and I know we’ve spoken about this before, we’ve already invested, trust me, considerable resources in trying to move through all the FOIA and deal with and respond to all the FOIA requests that we have regarding Secretary Clinton’s emails. And as you know well, that we were able to go through the 55,000 that she presented to us. We’ve also said that our resources are rather stretched. We continue to work through these emails, those that we’ve received now from the FBI. We’re going to be as responsive as we can as quickly as we can, but there is a process we need to conduct in order to fully vet these emails during the interagency to make sure if there need to be any redactions or upgrades.
So that’s what’s driving our timeline.
QUESTION: I was asking because there were reports that the – out of these 5,600, some of them are duplicates and you – the department has said that you can do, say, 1,000 emails by Election Day. So it seem there are reports that you are putting some resources from other – diverting them into it to release more.
MR TONER: Well, this is something, again, that we’ve got – we’ve been working quite hard at this, getting through – and I said we were able to get through the 55,000, post them all publicly. Obviously, some were redacted, some were upgraded classification. But we’re working as diligently as we can. I think you’re referring to the – though, the – that we came out on Friday and said that we were able to at least conduct an initial review of these FBI —
QUESTION: FBI —
MR TONER: Yeah. And out of the, I think, 14.9 thousand – is that right? yes – documents, we’ve been able to establish less than half – some 5,600 – were work-related. And we’re now processing them through the FOIA process. But that doesn’t mean we can just simply post them or share them through the FOIA process tomorrow or the next day. We still got to go through and share them with the interagency, but also evaluate them with their own people to make sure, again, that we redact where necessary or we upgrade the classification where necessary.
QUESTION: And the second subject was on the —
QUESTION: Can I ask more on this?
MR TONER: Sure. Let’s finish emails, then I’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: Oh, yeah. Okay.
MR TONER: Thanks.
QUESTION: So Politico is also reporting that there had been a court hearing today suggesting that State might dedicate more resources to disclosing some of these emails prior to Election Day under sort of an agreement mandated by a judge overseeing some of the Vice News reporter, Jason Leopold’s, FOIA requests. Is that something – has your thinking changed in line – following that hearing today?
MR TONER: Yeah, I’m not aware of that. But what we’ve talked about before is we have already taken on additional personnel or shifted personnel and resources in order to adequately respond to the incredible increase in FOIA requests over the past couple years. But what you’re saying is that this would be in response to or by Election Day?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that. I’ll have to —
QUESTION: I mean, not fully, but partially. And that there would be a shift in resources —
MR TONER: Well —
QUESTION: — as a result of discussion – a hearing today.
MR TONER: Yeah. I’ll have to look into – I mean, again, I – I think I’ll stay where I just was, which is that we’re not being driven by Election Day as a deadline, but we’re working to be as responsive as we can as we go through these emails to post them or to share them through the FOIA process. If that’s changed, I’ll get back to you guys.
QUESTION: The other question is – the other subject was on the – you saw – heard last week in the UNGA and India talking about Balochistan, Pakistan, talking about Kashmir. And there’s a heightened tension, as you can see, on the ground there. But – so are you worried, or is this just words and like there won’t be – what is your assessment of it?
MR TONER: So I think – seen the rhetoric, heard the rhetoric. I think our longstanding position is that we believe India and Pakistan really stand to benefit from the normalization of relations between them and practical cooperation between them, and we encourage both India and Pakistan to pursue and engage in direct dialogue that is aimed at reducing tensions.
QUESTION: And is there a kind of – like, what do you say about the – there is a U.S.-India joint military exercise that has been going on? There’s one, first time in history Russians are having a military exercise with Pakistan. So do you have any comments on that?
MR TONER: Well, if the insinuation is that there’s some kind of tit-for-tat or Great Game being played out here, that’s not at all the case. Look, we’ve long said with regard to Pakistan, with regard to India, with regard to the region, there’s no zero-sum game here. We are pursuing very close relations with India. We have a deep and broad bilateral relationship and multilateral relationship, but – or work our multilateral issues with India. They are the world’s largest democracy and we share, I think, a very similar vision of the world. And we obviously have very close trade and economic ties with India, and also that extends to security cooperation.
Similarly, with Pakistan, we want to see Pakistan better able to respond to the threat that terrorism poses both domestically for Pakistan but also the fact that there are terrorist groups on – that seek refuge or asylum or shelter in Pakistan’s territory that —
QUESTION: And just a quick last one on that, that there is a petition being signed by Indian Americans here to the White House asking to declare Pakistan a state sponsor – sponsor or state – state terrorism kind of thing. So do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Well, look, that’s a very specific process and determination that involves a legal process and assessment. Our focus with Pakistan is to enhance their capability, as I just said, to deal with a terrorist threat on their soil. They’re fighting a serious and sustained campaign against violent extremism. We do believe that they’re making progress, that they’re taking steps to counter terrorist violence, but at the same time we’ve been very clear that they need to target all militant groups, including those that target Pakistan’s neighbors, and close all safe havens.
I think I’ll leave it there. A couple more questions, guys. It’s – yeah.
QUESTION: A couple just very quick ones, just very quick.
MR TONER: Please, and then I’ll get back to you and we’ll end it on Israel, I promise.
QUESTION: Yeah. So Oman has ordered the permanent closure of a newspaper, which had reported on corruption – alleged corruption or corruption by the Omani judiciary. And witnesses at the court say that the editor-in-chief and another person were jailed for three years and fined for this, and a third journalist who was jailed for a year. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: We’re concerned – you’re talking about the Omani court decision regarding the indefinite closure of Al Zaman?
MR TONER: Yeah. And also the sentencing of three of its staff, including the editor-in-chief. We’re very concerned. We have conveyed that concern. I can confirm the ambassador’s engaged the Omani Government at a senior level to express our concern. I can also say that embassy staff attended today’s hearing. Why are we concerned? Because we support freedom of expression and maintain that societies are strengthened when their citizens are able to voice their opinion.
QUESTION: Do you have who the ambassador (inaudible)?
MR TONER: I don’t have that, no. I don’t have who. I’ll just say senior levels.
QUESTION: And then one other quick one for me if I may.
MR TONER: Please, sir, yes.
QUESTION: Iran’s supreme leader is reported by Iranian state-owned media as having told former President Ahmadinejad not to run again for president. From your point of view, is this a good thing because you guys did not have the best of relations with Ahmadinejad, or is this a bad thing because the supreme leader shouldn’t be telling people who can and can’t run?
MR TONER: I’m just not going to attempt to – well, I’m not going to comment on internal Iranian politics except to say that we’d like to see political reform, democratic reform in Iran, greater democratic reform in Iran. But with regard to who should run in their next presidential campaign, I’m not going to go there.
QUESTION: Can I ask a quick question on the Palestinian-Israeli issue? According to Al Haaretz, the Secretary of State last Monday in a closed meeting – he said that Israel and the Palestinians are for a binational state. And then he said, quote, “Either we mean it and we act on it, or we should shut up.” He’s talking about the creation of a Palestinian state. My question to you is: First of all, what does that mean? And does it mean that maybe the Secretary of State has something to offer in the next few months and so on?
MR TONER: I – look —
MR TONER: I’ll let his remarks speak for themselves. We continue to call on both sides to demonstrate through actions and through policies that they’re genuinely committed to a two-state solution. But the remarks are available on our website.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:09 p.m.)
DPB # 163
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