Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
March 8, 2017
2:19 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, guys. Happy Tuesday.
QUESTION: No, it’s not a happy Tuesday.
MR TONER: What he said. Happy Wednesday, guys. And I’m sorry I’m late. I realized it; I was waiting for one last bit of information that did not come, but I will do my best anyway. So, apologies at the top.
A couple things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions.
First of all, the United States strongly condemns today’s deadly attack on an Afghan National Army hospital in Kabul. Targeting a medical facility that provides care for the brave Afghans working to protect their fellow citizens has no possible justification. The Secretary extends the United States’s deepest heartfelt condolences to the family – families, friends, and colleagues of the victims of this senseless and cowardly act.
I would also note that the Secretary was focused on the safety and security of U.S. citizens who may have been affected, including our own personnel. I can confirm at this point that we have full chief-of-mission accountability following this attack.
QUESTION: That means they’re all safe too, though, right?
MR TONER: Correct.
I wanted to note as well that today, Assistant Secretary Brownfield is wrapping up a trip to two key Latin American partner nations – Guatemala and Colombia. In Guatemala, he focused on counternarcotics as well as corrections reform, a crucial piece of that country’s effort to reduce gang violence, taking part in the opening of a new prison, which will serve as a model for effective corrections moving forward. In Colombia, Assistant Secretary Brownfield also met with senior government officials to strategize on our joint counternarcotics approach in the face of worrying increases in Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production.
Then, also I wanted to note that this week at the State Department, PEPFAR is holding the third of three management meetings in order to plan its fiscal year operational plans, Fiscal Year 2017. These are annual work plans that guide PEPFAR’s efforts to save and improve the lives of men, women, and children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in high-burden countries. PEPFAR is driven by a commitment to excellence, achieving greater results and impact in a budget-neutral environment by using data, finding efficiencies, and leveraging partnerships. And along with an increased focus on transparency, PEPFAR’s approach makes it a cost-effective model for foreign assistance programs everywhere.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: He attended the ribbon-cutting for a prison? Is that what you said?
MR TONER: That’s correct, yes. It was the opening of a new prison. I don’t know if it was an actual ribbon-cutting, but it was an opening of a new prison.
QUESTION: In Latin —
MR TONER: In Guatemala.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have something to do with this prison?
MR TONER: So we’ve been working with Guatemalan authorities on judicial reforms, on police reforms, on security reforms built around counternarcotics —
QUESTION: So there’s a —
MR TONER: — but also to – sorry, just to – the other piece of this is that – is Guatemala’s plagued in particular by gang violence.
QUESTION: No, no.
MR TONER: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: I understand that, but I’m just – does the – did the U.S. help pay for it or —
MR TONER: I don’t know that we had – no, I don’t believe we had any – although I’ll double-check on that, I don’t believe we had any assistance to —
QUESTION: We’re not – he’s not going to get in the habit of going to prison openings around – okay.
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: All right. Listen, I had just a couple of things to —
MR TONER: Although if it —
MR TONER: — if it highlights the good work that Guatemala is doing in – with respect to prison reform, of course we will.
MR TONER: Sure.
MR TONER: Yes. At least I hope so. So as you noted yesterday, this was a last-minute action by the previous administration that remains under review and consideration. But your question specifically yesterday was, I think, the total amount? Or —
QUESTION: Well, it was both —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — whether the review is still —
MR TONER: It’s still ongoing.
QUESTION: Where is the money?
MR TONER: It’s still ongoing. So twenty – 220.3 million that was released was for West Bank programs such as water, infrastructure, education, renewable energy, civil society, municipal governance, and the rule of law, as well as Gaza recovery. And a smaller amount was to go directly to Israeli creditors of the Palestinian Authority as well as East Jerusalem hospitals. None of the funding was to go directly to the Palestinian Authority.
Whether this money has been released, it’s my understanding that the money – that the money has been released.
QUESTION: Okay. So the review was concluded and it determined that there was no —
MR TONER: I have here that it was – it remains under review, but I believe the money has been released so I don’t know —
QUESTION: Okay. Well, can you double-check on those?
MR TONER: I’ll double-check on it, Matt. Sure.
QUESTION: All right. And then somewhat related to this —
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: — the Secretary met today with Defense Minister Lieberman of Israel.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: Can you offer us any details of that meeting? Specifically, the Israeli officials are saying that Minister Lieberman asked Secretary Tillerson to review the U.S. role in the Human Rights Commission, the UN Human Rights Commission, as well as its funding of UNRWA, the Palestinian aid agency.
MR TONER: I —
QUESTION: Is that – is that correct? And whether or not you can say whether this was raised, is the administration reviewing those two things?
MR TONER: So I can confirm that he did meet earlier today with Minister of Defense for Israel Lieberman here at the department. It was a private meeting. Obviously, I was not actually in the meeting room, so I can’t give you a specific readout of the discussion, nor would I other than that, obviously, Secretary Tillerson reaffirmed our close and unshakable bond to Israel and the commitment to Israel’s security.
With respect to your question about the Human Rights Council —
QUESTION: Yeah, I know that came up yesterday.
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. It did, and our —
QUESTION: But other than – it’s in a different – it’s in a different context now and it’s also combined with UNRWA. So I’m wondering —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — is the administration reviewing its participation/funding for either of these organizations?
MR TONER: Well, with respect to the Human Rights Council, I think we talked about it yesterday. Our position has not changed.
QUESTION: I don’t recall you saying there was a review of your participation yesterday. That’s the question today. I know that you’re participating in it right now.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: It goes until March 24th or whatever it was that you said.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: But is there an active review of whether you’re going to remain in it? That’s the question. And is there – and secondly —
MR TONER: Is with respect to UNRWA.
QUESTION: — to UNRWA.
MR TONER: Well, let me start with UNRWA, and UNRWA is obviously something where we’ve had – we’ve been very vocal about our concerns given some of the allegations made about UNRWA – UNRWA’s, rather – some of UNRWA’s programs and how it’s spent or used some of its funding. I don’t know if I would categorize that as a review, but we certainly made those concerns clear to UNRWA’s leadership.
With respect to the Human Rights Council, I’m not aware of any review at this time.
MR TONER: We’re engaged. We’re there at the council meeting today and we’re going to remain focused on our agenda.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Yeah.
MR TONER: And then the last one is: Did you have an answer or do you have a reaction to this new Israeli law that would ban people who support BDS from entering the country?
MR TONER: I mean, look, Matt – and we’ve talked about this law even before it was actually voted on and passed. I refer you to Israel to talk about its law.
QUESTION: Yeah, but do you – you don’t have any concerns? Or is it – I mean, when – I remember asking during the last administration what your position was on this. I think that you had a bit of a firmer answer, but —
MR TONER: We said – right.
QUESTION: — at the same time pointing out that a sovereign country can decide who it wants to —
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I’m nodding in agreement with you.
QUESTION: — let into its country.
MR TONER: Look, our strong position – opposition to boycotts and sanctions on the state of Israel remains firmly in place and is well-known, but as a – and as a general principle, sorry, we value freedom of expression, even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views espoused. That said, as you’ve noted, that’s Israel’s sovereign decision to make.
QUESTION: All right. I will let someone else ask the North Korea questions.
MR TONER: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Can we stay on the same topic, please?
MR TONER: Okay, great.
MR TONER: And let’s – for folks who are new, but I actually see a lot of familiar faces today, just to – yesterday was a bit of a scrum, and I apologize for that, but we generally try to keep on topic, exhaust it, and then move to the next. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Mark.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: On the ban, the Israeli ban, it also – it includes the Palestinian Americans who go to their homes and grounds in the West Bank, not only in the Green Line where Israel is. So you don’t have a position on this? They are not going to Israel. And I can understand Israel exercising sovereignty over its territory, but these people are going to the West Bank, they’re including Palestinian Americans that regularly go there. So you don’t have a position on this if they are turned back from the airport?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think I’ve stated what our position would be on this, which is that while we oppose boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel, we also support firmly freedom of expression. That said, it’s – this is a sovereign decision for Israel to make regarding its borders. And we’ve been through this before, Said. I’m not trying to say – I’m happy to discuss it again —
QUESTION: Okay, I understand.
MR TONER: — but I’d refer you to them to justify —
QUESTION: But I think you —
MR TONER: But I’d refer you to them to rationalize and get perspective to why they passed this legislation.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Let me just move on. On Lieberman, then —
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, sure thing.
QUESTION: — today out of the meeting, Mr. Lieberman made a statement right before he left Tel Aviv yesterday or the day before saying that they have been warned by the United States not to annex the West Bank lest aid be cut off. Do you have any comment on that? Was that a topic that was discussed with Secretary Tillerson?
MR TONER: Again, I wasn’t in the meeting, but what I can say about that is President Trump’s, in fact, made clear that he’s committed to working with Israel and Palestinians on a comprehensive peace deal that will allow both sides to live in peace and security they deserve. The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward and that process is just getting started, but again, to quote the President, he’d like to see a level of reasonableness on the part of both parties with respect to the way forward. That’s – yeah.
QUESTION: And my last question, I promise, on this issue. Today being the International Women’s Day, there remains dozens of Palestinian women underage in Israeli prison that have been detained under administrative detention, which is internationally illegal and so on. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, Said, we’ve talked about this before as well. We respect Israel’s right to ensure the security of its people. We respect its judicial system. We respect the integrity of its democratic institutions. We’ve always said, though, that in taking actions, regardless of whether it’s out of security or whatever legal actions they take against Palestinians, that they do so always acting with restraint and with respect to the dignity of these individuals. I’m not particularly aware of the example that you brought up, but certainly, I think that would fall under that rubric.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The White House has made clear that they want to look at potential cuts to all foreign aid. Does that include money that the U.S. gives to Israel?
MR TONER: Not going to necessarily say this country or that country. I think what I said yesterday was that Secretary Tillerson, when he’s looking at – and I think at the start of a new administration, it’s appropriate time to do such a thing – but when he’s looking at how we’re spending assistance while seeing the value of that assistance, he’s assessing. He’s assessing which countries are receiving, how much assistance they’re receiving, and whether that’s appropriate. So I think that’s across the board. It applies to everyone at this point.
QUESTION: So the money that you give to Israel is under review right now?
MR TONER: I think it’s safe to say that he’s looking – we’re taking a universal look at how our assistance dollars are – this is American taxpayer dollars and we’re mindful of that.
QUESTION: And what’s the timeframe for that review?
MR TONER: A fair question. I mean, I think it’s in respect to the budget cycle, so we’re still in somewhat early days in the budget cycle, but it would be obviously in line with that because we’re looking at budget numbers.
QUESTION: But he hasn’t set his own two-week or whatever timeframe on it —
MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.
QUESTION: — or something like that? Okay.
MR TONER: Let’s – are we done with – where were we? Israel?
MR TONER: Yeah, we kind of morphed into budget, but go ahead – on still – can we move to Syria or you want to —
QUESTION: This is only loosely related to Israel, but —
MR TONER: Okay. Sure.
QUESTION: — it sort of follows a little bit.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So given the respect for sovereignty that you just espoused, does that mean you – does that translate into your having no issues with the Christian charity being booted out of India and Mercy Corps being deregistered in Turkey?
MR TONER: So you’re right, and you’re talking about two particular cases and I would like to address those. You’re talking about the closure of Compassion International in India. While I’d refer you to Compassion, the – Compassion International for specifics about this action, we of course are committed to the health and vibrancy of civil society, and we strongly advocate for a strong civil society and organizations that are working in that sphere around the world. I think, unfortunately, we’ve seen over the past couple of years a number of foreign-funded NGOs in India that have encountered significant challenges in continuing their operations. And we believe it’s imperative that all parties work transparently and cooperatively in a way that, obviously, respects India’s laws but also encourages a transparent process, and these are views that we’ve made clear to the Indian Government.
I think in general the same answer applies with respect to Mercy Corps, which was deregistered in Turkey, and we’re in contact with Mercy Corps both in Turkey and the United States. Mercy Corps is a valuable partner. It provides critical humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the region. And as all of us are aware, Turkey has seen an enormous influx of refugees from Syria, so this is an organization that directly assists those individuals and those families, and our embassy in Ankara continues to engage with Turkish officials on this matter. We’ve also informed the Government of Turkey of our concerns regarding Mercy Corps’ closure and the impact it’s going to have on their ability to provide, as I said, the critical humanitarian assistance that’s needed.
QUESTION: Do you question that they have the right to close them down?
MR TONER: Well again, look, how I would phrase that is just exactly how I put it with respect with India, that these are – we think that these are NGOs that are operating in what we’d like to see as a healthy civil society. These NGOs do valuable work overseas. Certainly, these countries and governments have their own reasons for the laws they pass, but we believe it should be transparent and clear why they’re shutting down these organizations.
QUESTION: Can we stay on India?
MR TONER: We can stay on India.
MR TONER: What’s that? I’m sorry, I —
QUESTION: Why they’re shutting down these organizations?
MR TONER: Well, again, with respect to the situation in India with Compassion —
QUESTION: So you wouldn’t have an issue with it —
MR TONER: What?
QUESTION: You wouldn’t have an issue with it if they explained it fully and —
MR TONER: So —
QUESTION: It sounds like you’re expressing great concern for Syrian refugees, which is one thing, but —
MR TONER: Well, we are and Mercy Corps is working in that sphere.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – right, right, but —
MR TONER: I think we’d like to see – sorry, Matt, just to continue, I think we’d like to see the rationale behind clearly explained because we believe that these – both these organizations are doing good work.
QUESTION: Okay. So my – my question was, then, you don’t believe that it has been clearly explained, the rationale —
MR TONER: Correct.
MR TONER: Yeah, sorry.
QUESTION: One follow-up and one question. The follow-up is that you just mentioned that over the years, few – last few years you have been talking to or reaching out to the Indian Government. Have the – have you got any reply back from the Indian Government about what is going on with these NGO closures?
MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to necessarily speak to the substance of our diplomatic conversations with India, but I think we’re concerned. I mean, when we see, like I said, a group like Compassion International, which we believe is working and doing important work in India and is closed down, that it’s a matter of concern, but certainly we’ll raise that with the Indian Government.
I mean, look, one of the good things about our strong bilateral relations with India is that we can talk about these kinds of issues.
QUESTION: And the question is about the Kansas governor has written a letter to the Indian prime minister, and he has expressed his condolences to them and talked about the death, but he also has said that Kansas is a hospitable, welcoming place for Indians. So anything from the U.S. Government or the State Department on this subject? Any way you are trying to help the widow settle back? Anything on this subject you have?
MR TONER: So with respect to the governor of Kansas’s letter, I’d have to, obviously, refer you to his office to speak to the substance of it. But certainly, I think we’ve spoken out both at the White House and I know Secretary Tillerson has made clear to his counterparts our condolences over these killings. They are, it’s important to note, still under investigation by local law enforcement and we’re waiting to see the results of those investigations. So I don’t really want to speak to what may or may not have been the motivation behind these killings, but certainly, we share in the sorrow of the families and loved ones of these victims.
QUESTION: Is there anywhere the —
MR TONER: With respect to the widow – I’m sorry – I just am not aware of that, so I’d have to take that question and see if we’re able to offer any assistance to her.
Yeah. Please, Barbara.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: It seems at this point there’s going to be a high level of continuity with Syria policy as regards counterterrorism – like, the fight against ISIS, obviously we’re still waiting for details on that – but what about policy on the political transition talks? Do we – is there one at this point in terms of how much the U.S. is going to be engaged? Because they were waiting in Geneva to try to find out about that. I know there was low – there was diplomatic representation, but in terms of the U.S. Government policy, what is going to be the approach going forward and what does it mean that the envoy for the Syria opposition has now also been given another big job as the envoy for Middle East peace, which suggests there might – we might be finding efficiencies there?
And then the question about the budget is: Just in terms of clarifying what you said yesterday, is it the feeling in this building that a cut to the budget of the size proposed would be a serious blow to American soft power that would be a threat to the country’s national security, which is how the critics, including former military officers and diplomats, have been describing it? Is that also the view in this building?
MR TONER: Starting with Syria, we did have representation I think throughout the duration of the talks in Geneva. We have had I think observer status at the talks in Astana because we’re not a party to those negotiations. Where we stand with respect to the political side or the ongoing civil war in Syria is that we still want to see and believe strongly that there is only a political solution to what’s happening there. There’s no military one. And we firmly support UN efforts to broker a political process – first of all, of course, a nationwide cessation of hostilities, ceasefire, but then also a political process going forward.
Of course, these talks are ongoing in Geneva. We remain engaged, as I said, with Michael Ratney and his team. With respect to whether he’s got too much on his plate, I can assure you he’s a very competent diplomat and can handle both portfolios.
QUESTION: But wait a second. He doesn’t have the special envoy for the Middle East portfolio. He’s a – he’s the DAS.
MR TONER: He’s the DAS, of course. Yeah.
QUESTION: This is not a replacement for Frank Lowenstein, is it?
MR TONER: Again, I think we’re looking at restructuring and whether there will be a replacement for —
QUESTION: Exactly. But the —
MR TONER: But no, he’s —
QUESTION: But that other job that he has is not the special envoy job.
MR TONER: Right, no. Exactly. Yes. Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I can clarify what – so —
QUESTION: And in fact, there was – there have been DASes with that portfolio —
MR TONER: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: — even when there was a special envoy.
MR TONER: Yes. So he is now both the special envoy for Syria and the Near East and – sorry, he’s both the special envoy for Syria and the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau’s deputy assistant secretary for the Levant and Israeli-Palestinian affairs.
QUESTION: Right. And there is no —
MR TONER: So that is not – correct, that is not —
QUESTION: — special envoy for —
MR TONER: That’s correct.
And then finally, on your – so with respect to Syria —
QUESTION: So your position in terms of wanting a political solution is the same, but in terms of the policy of how you’re going to engage in the future, is that – has that been sorted? Where are we?
MR TONER: Well, I think we’re still looking at the way forward and how we might change our approach, look at new ways. But the essential goal is the same, which is we need to see a political process that results in a political transition – a peaceful political transition in Syria. That remains the challenge and it’s a formidable one. And obviously, that needs to be preceded by some kind of nationwide or at least credible cessation of hostilities on the ground. We’ve been supportive of current efforts, even though we’re not involved, to obtain that kind of ceasefire on the ground. Currently that’s being worked through by Turkey and Russia in Astana. But we also – again, the basic precepts remain: We want to see access to communities that have been besieged so we can provide humanitarian assistance, we want to see a cessation of hostilities, and then we want to see a political process.
With respect to the budget – sorry, I’ll get to you, I apologize. Your question on the budget, Barbara, was – quickly.
MR TONER: Oh, right.
QUESTION: — and a national security threat?
MR TONER: Again, I think we’re looking – as I said yesterday, we’re still in early days with respect to the budget. I’m not going to speak to any figures that were out there with respect to the cuts that may or not be in play for the State Department, because all of that is being discussed right now as part of the budget process. I think what I said yesterday still holds, which is that Secretary Tillerson is resolved to ensure that this building, that its mission – missions, embassies and consulates overseas have the necessary resources to carry out their mission.
MR TONER: Syria, yeah, let’s go —
QUESTION: Follow-up —
MR TONER: Not on Syria? Syria.
QUESTION: Syria. Syria.
QUESTION: On Syria.
MR TONER: Yep.
MR TONER: Sure, I – sure, sure, sure and very quickly here. So what I meant by that was to say that we’ve always or we’ve long said there’s no military solution – look – to what’s happening in Syria. What we need is a – and the UN has broker – or has laid out what would be a political process that would lead to a peaceful political transition to a – hopefully a democratic government.
QUESTION: And does the new administration believe that Bashar Assad could play a role in that new government or —
MR TONER: Again, our policy with respect to President Assad has not really changed, and that is that we believe that this – his ultimate fate needs to be something that is worked through – that is resolved, rather – through this process and through this negotiations and through this transition.
QUESTION: When you say that your position hasn’t really changed, but the previous administration’s position was that he must go. Is it the same now? Is it the same —
MR TONER: But I qualified it by saying that also – that we’re looking at as – again, as I said, made clear on a wide spectrum of issues, new approaches, new ideas, new ways of looking at. But I said the basic precepts remain the same, which is that we’ve still got a very complicated situation, a conflict on the ground in Syria, and we’re looking at ways that we can effectively resolve it, put a durable ceasefire in place, and then move towards political negotiations. We’re still supportive of the UN process that’s leading that effort.
QUESTION: So are you no longer meeting at all?
QUESTION: Dealing with President Assad —
QUESTION: Michel. No, I said and we’ve said this before, Said. We’ve said that President Assad – we, the United States, believe he’s – that he’s not valid as the president of Syria, but —
QUESTION: No, you – no, you stated that his days were numbered —
MR TONER: But, but – no, but look, we’ve – this has evolved. And that is and our current position is that the fate of President Assad is something that needs to be worked out by the parties through political negotiations.
MR TONER: I do, hold on one second, please.
QUESTION: And I have a follow-up too, please.
MR TONER: Got to wade through my – I do have something on that. Just give me a moment. So with respect to the meetings in Turkey is what you’re referring to, right, Michel?
MR TONER: Yeah. So first off, the meeting was an effort to more effectively communicate operational intent while seeking new concepts for de-confliction. So what we mentioned before and mentioned yesterday, really the focus was on de-confliction. With respect to Manbij, which I thought you asked about – if you didn’t, then I’ll offer it up – they did discuss Manbij, but only in the context of the larger fight against ISIS in the region. They also discussed other terrorist organizations that are active including PKK, al-Qaida, al-Nusrah Front as part of the regional security picture.
QUESTION: Mark, on Syria —
QUESTION: Have you reached an agreement – Mark, one more on this. Have you reached an agreement with Turkey regarding the support that the U.S. provides to the – to YPG, and are you now on the same page or not?
MR TONER: Well, again, I would say, with respect to the YPG, we’ve always long supported the YPG within the context of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces that are operating in northern Syria. They’ve been very effective – we’ve talked about this many times – in removing ISIS from the battlefield, dislodging them, and ultimately destroying them. I think they’ve liberated some 6,000 kilometers and more than 100 villages from ISIS around Raqqa since the operation began on November 4th. We’re also obviously mindful of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG and we respectfully disagree with them linking the YPG with the PKK. And let’s be very clear that, with respect to the PKK, we still view them as a terrorist organization.
QUESTION: Mark, just on (inaudible) —
MR TONER: Let’s – are we – let’s finish Syria and then a few more questions, guys. Got to keep —
QUESTION: Syria —
QUESTION: So just specifically on the meeting in Antalya and I suppose also the meetings underway in Kazakhstan, this was a tripartite meeting – Russia, Turkey, the U.S. Now, on the counterterror mission in Syria, previously Turkey has been described as being a member of the U.S. coalition. Now, this is a three-way meeting; the optics were all three equal parties and it’s been discussed as a three-way meeting. Do you still regard Turkey as being part of your anti-ISIS coalition, or is it a —
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: — separate player in that organization?
MR TONER: No, no, not at all, and I just want to emphasize that it’s a very complicated – I mean, the best way to describe this is it’s a – this battle space is, as we all know from countless conversations in this room, is extremely complex. And so the focus – my understanding – the focus of this meeting was, again, to strengthen the de-confliction mechanisms that we have already in place to ensure the safety and well-being of our various forces who are operating on the ground in Syria.
QUESTION: But there are British, Australian, French forces involved, and they were represented at that meeting by —
MR TONER: Correct. Correct, but —
QUESTION: — the U.S. chief of staff. The Turkey – Turkish forces were represented by their own chief of staff.
MR TONER: But Turkish forces are – I’d have to check, but I think Turkish forces are present on the battlefield in a way that is more significant than many of these others.
QUESTION: Syria (inaudible) —
MR TONER: Let’s finish up with Syria and – what – do you —
QUESTION: Can I (inaudible) North Korea?
MR TONER: Yeah, are we ready to move to North Korea? We haven’t gotten there yet.
QUESTION: Syria (inaudible) —
MR TONER: Quickly Syria, and then I want to get to North Korea.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: I realize this is probably better addressed to the Pentagon, but still: Do you think it’s a one-off event or the chiefs plan to meet again? Is this some kind of regular dialogue now, trilateral form?
MR TONER: I can say that the meeting – the purpose behind it was to enhance senior-level communications and improve operational, as I said, de-confliction. I can’t speak to whether they’ll be in ongoing meetings. I can’t rule it out, either.
QUESTION: Syria —
MR TONER: Let’s switch to DPRK, guys. Got to keep it moving.
MR TONER: Good question. So just to unpack it – and everyone knows, I think, what you’re talking about with respect to the public remarks of the Chinese foreign minister – look, we remain open to dialogue with North Korea with the aim of returning to credible and authentic negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But – and I’ll be very clear about this – the onus is on North Korea to take meaningful actions toward denuclearization and refrain from provocations. So to be very clear here, our joint military exercises are transparent, they’re defense-oriented, and have been carried out regularly and openly under the Combined Forces Command for going on 40 years. And they’re designed to increase readiness and defend the Republic of Korea, protect the region, maintain stability in the Korean Peninsula, and they’re also a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the alliance.
In contrast to this, North Korea has in 2006 alone – ’16, rather, alone – carried out two nuclear tests and 24 ballistic middle – ballistic missile tests, all in violation of international law.
QUESTION: So the U.S. believes it’s – the onus is on the North Koreans to act first and won’t give any concession unless the North Koreans do?
MR TONER: What I want to make clear is that this is apples and oranges. This is not – what we’re doing in terms of our defense cooperation with South Korea is in no way comparable to the blatant disregard that North Korea has shown with respect to international law and international concerns repeatedly about its nuclear weapons program. And – excuse me – and frankly, the world needs to understand this isn’t about the U.S. and North Korea. I mean, the world – certainly the region, but the world is threatened by nuclear Korea – North Korea’s, rather, actions, and every nation needs to look at how we can better respond.
QUESTION: Is North Korea capable of credible and authentic, do you believe, the current Government of North Korea?
MR TONER: We haven’t seen it thus far.
QUESTION: Can we follow-up on —
QUESTION: So we heard that —
MR TONER: Michelle. Is this still on DPRK?
QUESTION: Yeah, it is. Thank you.
MR TONER: Great. Okay.
QUESTION: So Ambassador Haley said today —
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: — that we’re not dealing with a rational person here. Is it the U.S.’s position that Kim Jong-un is not sane, or not rational? Or are those things two different states of being?
MR TONER: I think the point she was making – and I hesitate to speak for her, but she did speak very articulately in – coming out of a UN Security Council consultations earlier today on DPRK. I think the point there is that North Korea’s behavior has not been rational, and efforts up ‘til today – whether it’s Six-Party Talks, whether it’s sanctions – all of the efforts that we have taken thus far to attempt to persuade North Korea to, again, engage in meaningful negotiations, have fallen short, to be honest. So we need to look at new ways to convince them, to persuade them that it’s in their interest.
QUESTION: So what do you make of China’s suggestion on throwing something out there and then saying that this seems to be heading for some kind of a collision?
MR TONER: Well, look – a couple of things. One is China is obviously concerned about the threat that nuclear – that North Korea’s nuclear program poses to the region. That’s legitimate; we all share that concern. I think we all share concern over North Korea’s actions. I think we differ somewhat in our approach. But I also think that’s going to be, obviously, front and center on Secretary Tillerson’s trip to the region next week. It’s going to be an opportunity for him to sit with his counterparts in China, in Korea, and in Japan, and talk through what our options are and new ways to look at resolving the situation.
QUESTION: Can I follow-up on North Korea?
MR TONER: Let’s stay on North Korea, and I promise I’ll get to you. Last couple questions back here, and then I really do need to run.
QUESTION: You said at the start that the U.S. is willing to consider dialogue with the North. Does that mean you’d be willing to consider one-on-one, government-to-government talks with North Korea?
MR TONER: I don’t want to —
QUESTION: And just – is the idea of —
MR TONER: Yeah. Nick – yeah.
QUESTION: — suspending these drills something that’s on the table?
MR TONER: Sorry, is the idea of suspending – I think at this point, again, we don’t see it as a viable deal in the sense of it’s not – it’s not a fair trade for us to suspend what our defense-oriented exercises, based in large part – well, fully on the threat that North Korea poses to the peninsula.
QUESTION: And on the dialogue?
MR TONER: On the dialogue – I think, look, we’re open to – and I don’t want to get into discussing possible formats, because we’re so far away from that right now. What we’re saying is if North Korea were to signal that it was capable of and ready for these kinds of negotiations, then that’s something we would consider. But we’re not there.
QUESTION: It’s always a hypothetical (inaudible) raised.
MR TONER: Go ahead, Tamar.
QUESTION: The – can you confirm the authenticity of the video by the son by the Kim Jong-nam —
MR TONER: We’re aware of the video, but we can’t confirm its authenticity at this point in time.
QUESTION: The group who helps to release the video says that countries, including United States, China, Netherlands help to provide the emergency humanitarian assistance to the son. Can you —
MR TONER: I wouldn’t speak to that in any case. Thanks.
MR TONER: Let’s do a couple Russia questions. Are we done with North Korea?
QUESTION: North Korea.
MR TONER: Okay. North Korea there, and then I’ll take last one on – and then Russia.
QUESTION: The Chinese —
MR TONER: So boom, boom, boom. Please.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. The Chinese foreign minister, yesterday he still complained that that’s the wrong choice for – to deploy the THAAD in the South Korea. So from your point of view, is it the wrong choice?
MR TONER: Again, I think we – sorry, I don’t mean to talk over you. Again, we were – I made very clear yesterday, the reason we’re undertaking the deployment of THAAD, with the consent of the Republic of Korea, is out of our concern that North Korea’s nuclear program poses for the peninsula. It is clearly not aimed at, in any way, shape, or form, China. It is a defensive system. We’ve made that very clear, and we’ll continue to make that clear with China going forward.
QUESTION: Could I follow up?
QUESTION: Yeah, on —
MR TONER: We’re switching the subject to, I assume, Syria or —
QUESTION: Yes, Syria. You’ve – a delegation of the Kurdish National Council of Syria was in Washington last week and met with State Department officials, including Brett McGurk. Do you have a readout on that meeting?
MR TONER: Not sure that I do. I’ll take that and get back to you, okay? We’ll get that, definitely.
QUESTION: Okay, could I –
MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead. One more.
QUESTION: I was going to ask about the PKK in Sinjar then. There’s been clashes between —
MR TONER: We believe – our position on PKK in Sinjar remains the same. We don’t believe they should be there.
One more on Russia.
QUESTION: We now know that Russia has deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit of the intent of the arms control treaty. Does the State Department have a reaction to that and has Tillerson reached out to Lavrov to talk about it? And I have a follow-up.
MR TONER: Sure. So the United States obviously takes clear – takes seriously, rather, its international commitments and arms control obligations. And I think what you’re referring to is something we detailed most recently in the 2016 Compliance Report, which is that we believe Russian Federation – the Russian Federation remains in violation of its INF – Intermediate Nuclear Forces – Treaty obligations not to possess, produce, or flight test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to five – 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.
I’m not going to comment beyond that because it gets into intelligence matters, but we do believe they’re in violation.
QUESTION: And has the Secretary reached out to anyone?
MR TONER: We have conveyed that. I’m not sure that the Secretary himself has conveyed that, but they’re quite clear that – of our concerns.
QUESTION: Just because in his confirmation hearing, Tillerson referred to having an open dialogue, frank dialogue with Russia. So how is he following through on that —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — if we’re not seeing reaction from him on a provocative (inaudible)?
MR TONER: Well, again, I – I was – I am not aware that it came up just in the bilat he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov specifically. I can’t speak beyond that whether it’s come up, but I do know that it has been conveyed by other means, by other officials.
QUESTION: Mark, sorry.
MR TONER: That’s it, guys. Sorry, that’s it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Thanks, guys.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:01 p.m.)