Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
April 27, 2017
1:42 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everyone. Happy Thursday.
QUESTION: Hello, Mark.
MR TONER: Hello. A couple things at the top, actually. First of all, tomorrow, at the UN – the Secretary’s traveling there. He’s going to chair a special meeting of the UN Security Council with foreign ministers on the denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. I’ll also just try to walk you through what we know about the Secretary’s schedule as of now. He’s going to take the opportunity to have bilateral meetings with some of his counterparts. As is always the case, the Secretary’s schedule is still evolving, but I can speak to some certainty as to the meetings that he will hold on the margins.
Prior to the Security Council meeting in the morning, Secretary Tillerson will meet with the Republic of Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The Secretary and his counterparts – this will be a trilateral meeting – the Secretary and his counterparts will focus on our joint response to North Korea.
At 10:00 a.m., as I noted, he will chair the Security Council ministerial session on the D.P.R.K. The Secretary and foreign ministers will discuss strengthening international resolve and actions to counter the threats that North Korea poses to international peace and security through its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.
Following the Security Council session, the Secretary will host a lunch for the foreign minister members of the Security Council and the foreign minister of the Republic of Korea.
Now, Secretary Tillerson will meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China on the margins of the UNSC special ministerial session, and that will also be focused on addressing North Korea’s continued threat to the region and other issues of bilateral and regional importance.
The Secretary will also discuss Chinese – Chinese, excuse me – China’s unique leverage over Kim Jong-un’s regime and ask Beijing to use their influence to convince or compel North Korea to rethink its strategic calculus. Secretary Tillerson will also note that the United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and remains open to negotiations towards that goal – while remaining prepared, of course, to defend ourselves and our allies.
Lastly, the Secretary – well, not lastly – the Secretary will then proceed to a meeting with the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Again, in addition to North Korea, they’ll also discuss Syria, Northern Ireland, and other regional and global issues of mutual concern.
Secretary Tillerson will also meet with the foreign minister of Kazakhstan to discuss Kazakhstan’s growing leadership in regional and global issues as well as nonproliferation. And then later in the afternoon, the Secretary will meet with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, where they’ll discuss the importance of continued strong U.S.-UN cooperation on the full range of critical international challenges.
So that’s just an update and gives you a sense of the schedule for the Secretary tomorrow.
I did want to note, as an important aside, I think, to this week, which has been very focused on North Korea’s continued provocative behavior in the region and the concerns over its nuclear program, but I also want to acknowledge another North Korea focus to this week, which is North Korea Freedom Week.
North Korea Freedom Week is an annual event held to promote the freedom, human rights, and dignity of the North Korean people. And it’s organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition, which is a nonpartisan coalition of NGOs and religious groups, and features events in DC highlighting the work of defector-led organizations and other NGOs working to shine a light on the situation of human rights in North Korea.
For more than 60 years, the North Korean regime’s – regime has reigned with tyranny, and its human rights record is, quite frankly, among the worst in the world. The North Korean regime denies nearly all the universal freedoms, including freedom of speech, press, religion, freedom of assembly and association, and systematically commits violations that include summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions, and forced infanticide. We remain gravely concerned and deeply troubled that the North Korean regime under Kim Jung-un prioritizes the advancements of its missiles and nuclear program at the expense of the well-being of its people.
And so to commemorate this day, the United States reaffirms our commitment to the North Korean people. We’re going to continue to press for accountability for those responsible for the ongoing gross human rights violations that have taken place there, and we’re also going to continue our efforts to increase the flow of independent information into, out of, and within this isolated state.
So a lot at the top, but one more thing. This is, believe it or not, my last briefing as deputy spokesman. It’s with mixed feelings that I reach this moment, because I’ve loved this job. Honestly, I was just telling a group of young kids who were brought in to Take Your Child to Work Day earlier today that, to me, this was the greatest honor that I could ever hope to have as a Foreign Service officer. I came out of journalism school into this gig, and I always thought this would be one of the greatest jobs to have within the Foreign Service. And I’ve enjoyed working with all of you over the years through good times and bad times and some really tough days at the podium, but I respect fundamentally with all of my heart the work that all of you do in carrying out your really important roles in our democracy, and I want you to know that.
I’m also very, very happy that I can pass the baton, the spokesperson baton – there is one, in fact – no – (laughter) – over to such a capable person as Heather Nauert, who is getting up to speed on all these issues but will be taking the podium and carrying on the daily press briefings and acting as the department spokesperson going forward. So anyway, just appreciate all the support that you’ve given me over the years.
Matt, over to you.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. And before I start with my policy question, I just wanted to note the lack of children in the room today on the Take Your Work to – Take Your Kids to Work Day and recall how many years ago it was when you were sitting there with —
MR TONER: I told that story, actually. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: — with a bunch of kids in the audience and one of the main topics of the day being the antics or/ behavior of some Secret Service agents in Colombia and how delicately we danced around that topic.
MR TONER: Indeed, indeed. As we’re doing right now. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But that story also just – it brings to mind the fact that you have served in this position in PRS as spokesman on and off for many years. And I think on behalf of the press corps, I want to thank you for those years of service, particularly since January over the course of the last couple months when things have been, as they often are, in transitions, unsettled to say the least. And through it all, you’ve been incredibly professional and really just, I think, the model of the kind of career Foreign Service or Civil Service officer.
So on behalf of all of us and on behalf of the public, the American public, thank you. (Applause.)
MR TONER: Thanks, Matt. I really appreciate that. Thank you. (Applause.)
QUESTION: Good luck. And I am sure you’ll enjoy not having to be —
MR TONER: I’ll miss it in a couple weeks.
QUESTION: — attacked with questions for —
MR TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: May I say a word, Matt?
QUESTION: I want to thank you especially – I’ve known you for many, many years. I mean, I’ve attended briefings all the way back to Richard Boucher. You have been really solid and professional. I never once took your accommodating me for granted or indulging me all throughout. I really appreciate it. You have always been there for us. So Godspeed and good luck.
MR TONER: Thank you. All right, thanks. Enough of this sentimentality. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Rank sentimentality.
MR TONER: Yeah, there you go. Rank sentimentality.
QUESTION: So let’s go to the most unsentimental thing you can think of, North Korea.
MR TONER: Got it.
QUESTION: So after the briefing – (laughter) – that the secretaries and DNI – and that DNI gave yesterday to members of Congress, numerous people who were there came away not particularly impressed with the presentation and concerned that the briefers had not expressed or had put forward a new and – strategy, a coherent policy for dealing with it.
Can you explain, maybe in more detail than you have before, how exactly this administration’s policy is different than the previous one, other than just that you’re attaching a new priority to it?
MR TONER: Well, so you’re talking about the closed-door briefing. I mean, and starting with that, I think it’s an important point to make, is that essentially the entire government, U.S. Government, came together yesterday to talk about North Korea and the urgency of the situation there. And that speaks volumes about the focus of this new administration.
This is – so I have to start with the fact that there’s an urgency here that there wasn’t before, and I know I’ve said that before and that’s not new, but the fact that – and Secretary Tillerson’s spoken about this – the fact that North Korea’s carrying out tests that are clearly indicating its efforts to develop a ballistic missile technology that reaches potentially the U.S. territory, that’s a game-changer.
QUESTION: Okay. But that’s on their side.
MR TONER: Right. I understand. I think in terms of – but I wanted to frame it by saying that there is, I think, a new focus on the threat that North Korea poses. But I also think that this administration, certainly the Secretary, are looking at ways that we can imply – or apply, rather, increased pressure, and that this is a global effort this time. That’s always been not the sense – or not the case in the past.
So one of the things the Secretary is going to try to build through his meetings tomorrow and in New York is a sense that the global community as a whole needs to stand up to North Korea and needs to apply pressure on North Korea. Certainly, we’ve talked a lot about China’s role, significant role in that, and that’s a key aspect of this new strategy, is putting pressure on China, convincing China that it needs to do more, but this also needs to be a global effort.
And we saw this, frankly, with respect to putting pressure on Iran to – so it would come to the table about its nuclear program, that all of the talk about sanctions or even, indeed, sanctions implemented or, rather, all the talk about sanctions in the world isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s only when those sanctions are actually implemented, pressure is applied consistently.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, that sounds, then, as though the administration is going to take an approach very similar to the one that the Obama administration took with Iran in terms of sanctions, in terms of secondary sanctions, building them up.
MR TONER: We talked —
QUESTION: This administration has come out and said it thinks that the result of that – those – that pressure and the negotiations that followed failed, the result being the nuclear deal. So I’m not quite sure I —
MR TONER: Sure. It’s also —
QUESTION: Is what this administration is proposing to do something similar to what the last one did with Iran, but this one – but this in terms of North Korea, but the confusing —
MR TONER: Well, my comparison to Iran was simply to make the case that it took a very significant effort, and a unified effort, to put the pressure necessary, and that’s what I’m talking about with respect to North Korea, that this Secretary, this administration, wants to make this a global effort and really apply global pressure on North Korea. And we talked about the ways that that can be done, and that’s – the pressure points are economic, diplomatic, and military. And that’s going to – and they’re looking at all of those. They’re looking at implementing fully the sanctions that are in place, but also possibly new sanctions, and there are ways to approach that as well.
QUESTION: All right. I’ll stop after this.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So the idea of this strategy, whether or not it’s new or not I guess is arguable, but —
MR TONER: Well —
QUESTION: — the idea is to bring them, to force them, to push them to come back to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution —
MR TONER: Exact – look, I mean —
QUESTION: — and this administration is going to handle those negotiations, if and when they happen, in a way that is markedly different than the last administration handled the Iran deal negotiations? Is that the idea?
MR TONER: Well, look, what we want to see – what we want to see with North Korea is – I mean, of course, I don’t want to – we’re not even anywhere near them coming back to the negotiating table.
MR TONER: But you’re absolutely right, in the sense that we want a peaceful outcome here. What we want is a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s the goal here. There’s nothing – all the talk about regime change, all of that —
MR TONER: — that’s not on the table here. But —
QUESTION: All right. I really will stop after this.
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: So the Iran model is for the sanctions and not for the – not for the intended negotiations?
MR TONER: Yeah. What my – all I’m doing is using that as a comparison of a way to apply comprehensive pressure.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
QUESTION: So I have a couple of —
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Lesley, and I’ll get to you in a second.
QUESTION: Yeah, just what do you expect – what – I mean, sure, you’ve been giving the same message to China day after day, week after week. What do you expect the message tomorrow is going to be in the bilateral with Wang Yi?
MR TONER: Well, I think that – I mean, this is – there’s not going to be a markedly different message here. We’ve been working from literally almost day one with the Chinese, making clear to them our concerns about North Korea and the fact that we need to see them do more. And we talked about this yesterday – not in the coming years, not in – we need to see concrete action taken over the course of the short term, because this threat is only getting – is only increasing. And so we’ve already had productive discussions with China about possible steps and applying pressure, and those are going to continue tomorrow. But I think – and we talked a little bit about the optics yesterday, but tomorrow is going to send a clear message to North Korea that its behavior, its actions, are only isolating it further and further from the rest of the world.
QUESTION: Are you going to be outlining a strategy for possible next measures that the U.S. could seek from the Security Council?
MR TONER: I think that’s always going to be a part of – yeah. I mean, yes, I would say that – I mean, I can’t predict that anything concrete will come out of tomorrow’s session, but of course they’ll be talking about possible next steps.
MR TONER: Thanks, Lesley.
QUESTION: From Reuters, we —
MR TONER: Very sweet. Thank you.
QUESTION: — we’ve always enjoyed dealing with you, and thank you for taking us seriously.
MR TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: And most importantly, we think – thought that you acted very honorably in the last few months and —
MR TONER: Thank you.
QUESTION: — thank you very much.
MR TONER: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Since you guys are the president of the Security Council, have you invited the North Korean ambassador to this meeting tomorrow?
MR TONER: I do not know the answer to that. It’s a Security Council meeting.
QUESTION: But normally when the Security Council meeting is about a particular country that’s not on the council —
MR TONER: Yeah, I do not believe —
QUESTION: — their person is allowed to – or is invited.
MR TONER: I do not believe that’s the case. It’s a fair question. I’ll take it.
QUESTION: All right. Thanks.
QUESTION: Mark. Mark.
MR TONER: Please, Michele.
QUESTION: The Obama administration had this exact same message to China over the last at least year and a half, after various tests and provocations. So where do you think the difference is in China not over this amount of time seeing the urgency in quite the same way as the United States? Is it just trade based? Or what do you think they’re waiting for? Are they waiting for another nuclear test? Are they waiting for some bigger provocation? Or do they think that North Korea might move toward diplomacy? Can you kind of explain —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — how the administration sees China’s view?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, what we’ve said all along in – is that China, obviously, as a neighbor of North Korea, has a unique relationship with North Korea, and frankly, has tremendous economic leverage on North Korea. That said, we have seen China reluctant to fully implement existing UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea for a variety of reasons. And I don’t necessarily want to give that analysis from the podium. That’s really for them to speak to. But obviously they’re concerned because this is a neighbor; this is a country on their border, and that can have significant impact on the – on their own security.
That said, what I think is significant from the last administration to this administration is North Korea has upped the ante, has increased its pace of missile testing, ballistic missile testing, nuclear testing, with the clear intent of pursuing either greater reach for its nuclear weapons or more nuclear weapons. And that’s, frankly, as I said before, a game changer that we need to address and we need to address with a sense of urgency that necessarily wasn’t there six months ago. And so that’s why there has been, frankly – I don’t want to say a single-minded, but a very clear focus of this administration on addressing the threat of North Korea. And I said this week speaks to that focus, given Monday’s meeting at the White House with the Security Council, given yesterday’s hearings, and given tomorrow’s meetings with Secretary Tillerson.
So there’s a clear focus here. I’m not saying we have all – necessarily all the pieces in place now, but we’re certainly looking to formulate a clear strategy that applies, as I said, uniform, global pressure on North Korea to address the international community’s concerns.
QUESTION: Is it safe to say, though, that given the way China has approached this, even though you have had some encouragement, is the word we use a lot, that they don’t see the threat being as urgent as the United States does even though it’s on their border?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think – while I’m hesitant to speak on behalf of the Chinese, I think there’s other concerns about – that internal upheaval within North Korea could impact China negatively. That said, having a rogue nation like North Korea continue to pursue nuclear weapons is having tremendous upheaval in the region, and potentially with far-reaching effects that affect the national security of the United States. So I guess our message to China is one that the time for strategic patience, for waiting North Korea out, for trying to gently nudge it back into talks has passed.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: — and then I’ll be quiet. But I was told by a senior administration official that the White House has submitted multiple names for basically every single open position at the State Department that is at a —
MR TONER: So personnel. Okay, sorry, we’re switching. Okay. That’s okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry.
MR TONER: That’s okay. Okay.
QUESTION: Is that all right? Okay.
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: So they’ve submitted all of these names and multiple choices and suggestions, but that it’s the State Department that is going slowly in acting on any of those suggestions, either vetting them, or deciding, or saying yes or no. So can you tell me why that is?
MR TONER: Well, look, I guess I would start with questioning the question, the premise of the question, and that is there’s – first of all, in every key State Department position, there are acting officials, many of them with a vast amount of experience, career diplomats who bring, as I said, tremendous professional – professionalism and professional experience to the jobs. So the idea that there are somehow empty chairs or empty desks at the State Department is just categorically false.
With respect to personnel and filling those positions, we are at work. We’re vetting people. It’s a process. It takes time, but this Secretary has been working to fill those slots. And as I said, it is a process, and one that requires the consent and advice of the Senate. But to suggest that we’re not moving on this is simply inaccurate.
QUESTION: Is there a reason why it seems to maybe be taking longer than the White House expected it to take?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. I mean, it’s always – look, it’s always – and you know this from having worked in this town. I mean, it always, with any transition, takes some time. Anyway, I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.
QUESTION: Mark, on North Korea, with this renewed sense or – sense of urgency on the issue, you said you want to see progress over the short term. What is progress? What is short-term? And how long is the United States willing to wait before it moves beyond this approach?
MR TONER: On your last question, I’m just not going to answer that because I’m not going to give some kind of timeline as to when we may take further action or unilateral action.
With respect to your previous questions, I mean look, ideally it would be North Korea coming forward and saying we want to deal proactively with our nuclear program, discuss denuclearization. We realize that that’s probably not in the immediate offing. What I think we’re looking in the near term is significant actions both by the global community, if I could use that term, but also significant – or specifically by China to put pressure on the regime. And we’ve talked about the different ways that can be done, but most significantly that’s economic pressure. This is not – and this isn’t —
QUESTION: Is that months? Is this —
MR TONER: I think we’re looking over the next – the coming months, yes. I think that’s accurate.
QUESTION: And also just on the policy of denuclearization, it’s been consistent from the United States, but just a question of – Secretary Tillerson was asked in Korea whether that also meant the United States ruling out whether the Republic of Korea or Japan would ever, for its defensive purposes, obtain nuclear weapon capability. And he said everything is on the table. Is that still the case?
MR TONER: Well, certainly the Secretary’s words stand, but I would also add that our goal, as I just said, is a peaceful resolution and a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And that remains our goal. How we get there is, we think, through applying consistent pressure, isolating North Korea, and forcing it to answer – come clean about its program and answer to the international community’s concerns. So we’re not there yet.
QUESTION: I have some Turkey questions, but I guess you’ll return to that?
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, I’ll come back to that. Please, Nick.
QUESTION: North Korea?
MR TONER: North Korea or —
QUESTION: North Korea, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, North Korea to follow up on something that the Secretary said in Seoul. He was asked about the possibility of negotiations, and he said they can only be achieved by denuclearizing —
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: — giving up their weapons of mass destruction. Today, in your remarks, you said the U.S. remains open to negotiations full stop.
MR TONER: And by that I meant – look, I mean, we’ve always said this, and forgive me if I didn’t add that. But we’ve always said that the only way back to the table is if North Korea is willing to talk about denuclearization, significantly taking steps to denuclearize, and I think that’s what the Secretary is making clear. We’re all for negotiations, but it has to be clear; the intent has to be clear. We’re not looking for, as we’ve said previously, talk for talk’s sake.
QUESTION: And, I mean, because the impression is that there is a shift in tone here. I mean, he was very tough in Tokyo and Seoul describing the threat —
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: — as imminent, and then —
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: — describing the route to negotiations in this way. And then yesterday’s statement was much more restrained. Your remarks today also seem more restrained. Is there a shift in tone in the U.S. position?
MR TONER: I don’t think so. I think what’s – look, the key element to this, as I said, is that North Korea has to be willing, if it’s going to return to the negotiating table, willing to discuss steps it can take to denuclearize. We don’t want, frankly, more time-wasting talks that don’t end in any concrete steps.
QUESTION: North Korea.
MR TONER: In the back, Janne.
QUESTION: Thank you. Do you have a schedule to three-party foreign minister talks?
MR TONER: Yes, I think I had mentioned that at the top. I don’t know if you were here.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, (inaudible).
MR TONER: You’re talking about with South Korea and with Japan?
QUESTION: South Korea, Japan, and —
MR TONER: Yeah, there is going to be a trilateral tomorrow on the margins of the meetings in New York.
QUESTION: Okay, one more on – currently, there is no diplomatic relationship between U.S. and North Korea. So you said that the United States pressure to North Korea with strongly economically and diplomatically, but the mostly economical pressure right now. What is the specifically, what diplomatic action you taking?
MR TONER: I mean, what we’ve talked about, and I don’t want to go too far into this, but talking about working with other international organizations. And granted North Korea’s presence on the international stage is somewhat limited to begin with, but talking about steps that the international community can take to further isolate North Korea, look at its membership in international organizations – multilateral organizations – but also, for countries where there is a diplomatic presence, to look at the value of that diplomatic presence and whether North Korea merits it.
QUESTION: Does it —
QUESTION: Mark – Mark —
MR TONER: Let’s go ahead – let’s —
QUESTION: On North Korea?
MR TONER: One more on North Korea and then I’ve got to move around, because I do have to leave.
QUESTION: Does the United —
MR TONER: I’ll go to you next, I promise.
QUESTION: Very quickly, does the United States sense any departure of China’s position in terms of the negotiation modality?
MR TONER: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: The reason I ask is because the proposed three-party talk and then five-party talk is actually without the participation of North Korea. Given that they do not insist the regime from Pyongyang need to be on the table, is that a departure of their position?
MR TONER: Given that – what was your last —
QUESTION: Given – well, it used to be that China would insist that the North Korea delegation need to be on the negotiation table for them to restart a talk, and – but now this three-party talk and five-party talk is without the attendance or participation from North Korea.
MR TONER: No, these are – yeah, and these are mechanisms intended to —
MR TONER: Again, these would not necessarily include North Korea because these are, frankly, efforts to coordinate regional approach to the problem of North Korea. So North Korea wouldn’t necessarily be – wouldn’t in any way be a part of these discussions.
With respect to China, I think the President has spoken to the fact that he’s seen, at least in his conversations with President Xi, a more – at least a willingness to look at a more constructive approach.
QUESTION: Can we ask on Syria?
QUESTION: I’m asking, do you sense there – if there is a departure of their position regarding the new negotiation mechanism?
MR TONER: Ah. I’d have to refer you to them for that. Sorry.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yes. Early this morning, the Israelis struck a position close to the Damascus International Airport. I wonder if you have any comment on that. And there was apparently a drone that was shot down by the Israelis over the Golan Heights, so – and then I have a follow-up on this question.
MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the strikes, Israeli strikes, I’d have to refer you to the Israelis on the reported strikes. As you know, Hizballah is a foreign terrorist organization whose forces have helped enable the regime – the Syrian regime – to perpetuate its brutality against the Syrian people and also to incite instability in the region. I would say that by carrying out these – its activities in Syria, Hizballah is violating its commitment to the Baabda Declaration, as well as the Lebanese disassociation policy from the Syrian conflict.
QUESTION: But you know Hizballah is positioned in Lebanon, in south Lebanon. They struck Syria. So what is —
MR TONER: Again, I’d have to refer you to the Israelis to speak on the —
QUESTION: Okay. Are you concerned that this may be —
MR TONER: — intent of their strikes.
QUESTION: — exacerbating the situation, with so many people involved in conflict and war and so on? And every day brings in one more entity that —
MR TONER: I mean, this isn’t – look, I mean, again, Israel has its own security concerns, and legitimate security concerns, so in no way, shape, or form would I suggest that this is only complicating the situation. I think they’re justified in taking actions when they see a specific security threat.
QUESTION: Mark, are you saying that you know that whatever it was that got hit at the Damascus airport was a Hizballah target?
MR TONER: I’m conjecturing.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Because you seem to – I mean, as far as I know, the Israelis haven’t commented about this, and the Syrians —
MR TONER: That’s why I’m referring you to them.
QUESTION: — Syrians haven’t said specifically if it was, so do you know that it was?
MR TONER: No. I’m conjecturing.
QUESTION: No? Okay.
QUESTION: Just —
QUESTION: Could – let me do a follow-up. Also, the Russians seems to have reduced their air force capability in Syria by half. They reduced it by half. Do you have any comment on that? Is that an indication to you that the Russians may be scaling back their involvement in Syria —
MR TONER: We’d welcome that.
QUESTION: — maybe scaling back their support to Assad? I know you said you —
MR TONER: I haven’t seen – honestly, I haven’t seen the numbers or the – we’d – it’s something we’d have to look at. We’ve seen before where President Putin has said they’re scaling back and indeed they’re not.
QUESTION: So —
MR TONER: So it’s hard to say at this point. I don’t think we’ve got an assessment that they’re significantly scaling back. I’d have to look into it.
QUESTION: Could this, in your view, be like a rotation of forces or not a real reduction?
MR TONER: Again, I think we have to wait and see with respect to Russia. They’ve said things in the past about scaling back their presence in Syria, only to find out that they’re moving pieces around the chessboard and not really significantly changing their force posture.
QUESTION: Syria. Syria.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Mark, yesterday you clearly talked about the Turkish airstrikes and that you are concerned, and then later you said that Turkey should not and cannot carry out airstrikes without proper coordination with the coalition. So it seems that they don’t do the airstrikes, but they do the ground attacks. It happened yesterday and this morning also in certain places, northern Syria.
As a result of that, the Kurds in Syria, they are asking for a no-fly zone and the leader of the PYD, the Kurdish major political party there, Salih Muslim, he said if the United States continue to silent and not doing anything, we will halt the operation toward liberating Raqqa.
MR TONER: All I’m going to say on that, in addition to what I’ve said over the past couple days, is we’ve made very clear to the Turkish Government at very high levels our deep concern about the actions that they took the other day. Not only were they not fully coordinated – or not coordinated within the coalition, but they put, frankly, U.S. soldiers at risk who were operating in that area, but also resulted in the deaths of, for example, Iraqi Peshmerga, who were fighting on the ground.
We’re going to continue to press the case with Turkey going forward that all of the forces fighting ISIS in that region need to focus on the goal of fighting ISIS. And we understand Turkey’s concerns about YPG; we disagree, but we’re making very clear to them that they need to fully coordinate with us and other coalition members going forward. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: Yeah, just one quick follow-up on that. Couple times you mentioned the – or that the Peshmerga were killed in Iraq as a result of the Turkish airstrike, but 20 YPG members were killed also in Syria.
MR TONER: Correct, correct.
QUESTION: But this has not been mentioned. Okay, what level —
MR TONER: I wasn’t intentionally leaving them off. I apologize.
QUESTION: Okay, so what – at what level you’ve talked to the Turks? At the level of the Secretary of State or – who talked to them, what level? Just embassy to embassy, what was the level of talks?
MR TONER: Higher than that. I’m not going to get into details.
QUESTION: Real quick on Turkey. Do you know if the Secretary is planning to meet with President Erdogan next month when he visits the United States or if the President will?
MR TONER: I don’t. That’s – it has to be – I’m sorry, you said the Secretary? I apologize, I heard, “the President.”
QUESTION: The Secretary. I mean, I know the President is probably a question for the White House, but is the Secretary planning —
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. I can’t – I just don’t have the details yet that far ahead.
QUESTION: And at – does the United States plan to follow up on any concerns following the Turkish referendum earlier this month?
MR TONER: I mean, I think that’s part of an ongoing discussion that we’re having with Turkey – part of our bilateral relationship. We’re constantly talking about these kinds of issues, especially in the wake of the coup attempt last summer, that there were – while there was justification for the Turkish Government to crack down on the potential – or the – and seek out the coup plotters, it was also a question of whether they were overreaching and that that was having an effect on or – yeah, if it was having an effect on the – Turkey’s democracy, and that’s an ongoing discussion. We’re going to continue to raise our concerns on an ongoing basis with Turkey about the quality of its democracy.
QUESTION: And with jailed journalists and with jailed political opponents?
MR TONER: Yeah, all of that, yes, I agree. Yeah.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Aren’t we understating what Turkey did in striking the YPG on Tuesday morning? That was an attack on the YPG headquarters of the – their command, was an assassination attempt. And they can’t possibly give the U.S. detailed information about that in advance because, of course, the U.S. is going to do something about it; either stop it or warn the YPG. So how could we expect Turkey, if that’s the intent, to inform the United States?
MR TONER: Well, look, I’m not going to speak to Turkey’s intent, but this is an extremely complex battle space. There are multiple operators, not just Turkish and Kurdish Forces on the ground there. As I said, the lack of coordination put even U.S. soldiers at risk, so first of all, there’s that coordination piece, and lack of coordination, and lack of sufficient notification that they were going to carry out these strikes. We’ve made that clear. We understand, as I said, Turkey’s perspective on this is different from ours, but that’s not going to make us shy away from saying that these kinds of attacks and the ways and approaches to the attack were – are unacceptable if you’re going to operate within a coalition.
QUESTION: Okay. I guess I’d try to suggest it’s more a political problem than a technical problem, but let me move on.
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure. Okay. I have time for maybe one or two questions.
QUESTION: To the PKK – does it have foreign support or state – is the PKK a state-supported organization? There are reports – many reports that Iran, for example, is supporting the PKK.
MR TONER: I don’t have any information to provide on that. Sorry.
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. Okay. I apologize.
QUESTION: Will the Secretary be discussing Iran at all in New York and also over the next week?
MR TONER: I can’t rule out that it won’t come up in some of his bilaterals. I don’t think it’s going to be – clearly, it’s not going to be a focus of the UN Security Council meeting. But whether it comes up in his separate bilats – I wouldn’t rule it out.
QUESTION: Can you say – tell us if over the next three and a half weeks, during the election campaign up to the presidential election, will the administration be changing its public posture in any way, not discussing it too much, so as not to have an impact on the elections?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, obviously this is a domestic political process within Iran. I would say that —
QUESTION: Come on, Mark. Go out on a limb. It’s your last day. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I got to get my bearings again. No, I would just say there is a comprehensive review, as we all know, underway now. And until that review is completed, until we have a direction, a clear direction, on where we want to go with Iran, we’re going to continue on the path that we’ve been, which is making sure that they adhere to the nuclear agreement commitments that they’ve made.
But I think going forward, once this review is completed, you could see a change in direction. I think this administration is concerned that Iran is – as I said, its bad behavior in the region has not changed, even though we have the nuclear agreement in place. And so we need to look at ways that we can limit the influence of Iran in the region and limit the influence of its bad behavior.
MR TONER: Please.
MR TONER: Yes. Yes, thank you.
QUESTION: Overnight, the foreign minister said they would – Venezuela’s going to withdraw from the OAS. The OAS has been a mechanism in which the U.S. has had influence, some influence, over the Maduro government, or at least it can say what it wants. Is this a concern? Do you believe this is – the U.S. until now – well, has always said that it doesn’t want the – Venezuela to leave the OAS. So how much of a concern is this? And do you know if that letter actually has been delivered?
MR TONER: I don’t know about the letter’s delivery. What I can say though – and I’m speaking procedurally or from a process viewpoint – is that the foreign minister’s statement yesterday has no real practical or immediate effect, because withdrawing from the OAS I think requires up to two years in terms of process. In this case, I think it would conclude after President Maduro’s term would expire, and thus a decision could only be made final by his successor. In the meantime, Venezuela would remain a full member of the OAS and required to fulfill all of its obligations as a member-state. And that begins with, obviously, respect for democratic norms and practices.
QUESTION: But does this move concern you? I mean, this has been one way that the region has been able to extend a message to the Maduro government.
MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to – I guess my point is, yes, it does concern us, because we believe that the OAS as a body can have, we believe, a constructive influence on Venezuela, on Maduro, on the Venezuelan Government, in urging it to respect its own constitution and fulfill its democratic commitments to its people. That includes free elections, respect for the independence of the national assembly, and freedom of all – for all of the Venezuelan political prisoners. But that said, this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. So we still believe that influence can be applied.
QUESTION: Do you – just for the record —
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: — has this – has the Secretary or anyone other as a State Department official been in touch with the government of Maduro in the last – certainly since the last violence has flared?
MR TONER: Yes, but I’m not sure at what level, so I’ll have to take that question.
QUESTION: Mark —
MR TONER: Guys, two more questions.
QUESTION: So wait, wait. I just want to —
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: — make sure I understand what the U.S. position on Vexit is here. Is it – are you calling on them to – are you calling on – do you want the foreign minister to rescind his comments? Would you like the government not to follow up on them with a formal Vexit letter to the OAS?
MR TONER: You love that Vexit.
QUESTION: I just came up with it. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I know. You’re proud of yourself
QUESTION: Thirty seconds ago.
MR TONER: I guess – look, I mean, I guess the overarching point to make here is that it doesn’t change the reality. They’re still – they can’t – even – it’s going to take two years for them to walk out. That’s going to extend past Maduro’s term anyway. It’s going to be a —
QUESTION: Right, but not beyond —
MR TONER: — decision for his successors to make. That said, of course we want to see them remain in the OAS.
QUESTION: Okay. So you would like them —
MR TONER: But only if they’re – but only if they comply to the OAS standards.
QUESTION: So if they don’t comply to OAS standards but stay in the OAS —
MR TONER: That’s a problem.
QUESTION: — then you don’t – but then you wouldn’t have an issue. It would be more like don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Is that right?
MR TONER: I think —
QUESTION: You only want them to stay if they’re going to do what —
MR TONER: If they’re going to comply – yeah, exactly.
MR TONER: Meet the standards.
QUESTION: Mark, really quick.
MR TONER: Really quickly.
MR TONER: Wow. (Laughter.) That is a really loaded question, actually. I’m glad no one else asked me that, but – next question. Look, there have been very difficult days here, and Matt remembers – a few others do – when I came into this job, I can remember – I mean, it was when the Arab Spring was first coming into fruition. We had an earthquake in Japan that was threatening to become a nuclear meltdown. The world was in crisis. It remains in crisis, and that’s just a reality of the world we live in today. There’s all kinds of difficult issues that we deal with.
I think that there’s always going to be the desire for, as we say, do-overs, and I’m not going to speak to any specific issue. But I can always say that the people in this building, including the Secretary and on down, are always trying. They’re out there, engaged and trying to make the world a better place, and that’s a point of pride.
So please, last question.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: The Israeli press —
MR TONER: How fitting that I end on that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Exactly. Yeah. The Israeli press is claiming that the President will make a visit on the 22nd of May. We don’t whether it happens or not, but as a prelude to the – such a visit, if it occurs, will the Secretary go there on a visit? Or even independent of that, would he go anytime soon or does he plan to go anytime soon to the region?
MR TONER: It’s kind of an odd way to end my time at the podium, but I have nothing to announce on that. (Laughter.) All right, guys. Take care, man. Thank you guys so much.
MS STEVENSON: Wait, wait. Before Mark goes – so my name is Susan Stevenson. I’m the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Public Affairs. Some of you when we had his farewell saw me do this, but I’m going to do it again at the podium. So I’m going to give Mark a mock-up of a portrait – his official portrait – that I’m pleased to say is going to hang in the second floor corridor, because Mark Toner has been at this podium for almost five years.
MR TONER: Thank you.
MS STEVENSON: He will be only the second acting spokesperson to have his portrait.
MR TONER: Thank you.
MS STEVENSON: So thank you for everything. (Applause.)
MR TONER: Thanks so much. I’ll turn this to the side, but thanks. Thank you, everybody, and I’m going to run out.
QUESTION: What a long, strange trip it’s been.
MR TONER: Take care. I was going to quote that, but it’s too easy. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:30 p.m.)
DPB # 25