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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Update on U.S. Foreign Policy

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Department Spokesperson

Washington, DC
March 7, 2016

1:00 P.M. EST


MR TONER:  Hello, everybody.


MR TONER:  Wow, what a packed room.  I’m sorry to keep you guys waiting.  Apologize.  Let me just play with my microphone a little bit here to so I don’t bang into it.  Yikes.  Is that okay?  Can everybody hear me? 


MR TONER:  Good.  All right, well, it’s exciting to be here.  I know Assistant Secretary Kirby has already been over here and briefed you all, but I just wanted to also come over, stop by and try to answer all your questions or any of your questions.  We have about 45 minutes.  So thanks to everyone for showing up and thanks so much to Orna [Blum] and the Foreign Press Center team for hosting me here today.  It’s a real pleasure to be here.

I just have one thing at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.  I did want to begin just by condemning the bombing in Al Hillah in Iraq that took place on March 6th and killed scores of Iraqis and wounded many more.  We extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of this barbaric attack claimed by Daesh.  The United States remains committed in its support to the Iraqi people and the unity of Iraq, and this attack underscores the need for all Iraqis to stand together to defeat their common enemy. 

That’s really all I have at the start, so I’ll take your questions.  You had your first hand up, so --

QUESTION:  Hi.  Weihua Chen with China Daily.

MR TONER:  Yeah, sure.

QUESTION:  Weihua Chen from China Daily.  I have a question about the visa change.  There was a 10-year visa extension between China and U.S. in 2014, and obviously the U.S. authority announced that Chinese tourists have to update their information online every two years starting this November.  So could you tell us what brought this change?  I mean, a lot of people in China interpret it as sort of a change of the – vis-a-vis the policy. 

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  And the second is could you talk about the U.S.-South Korea military drill?  I mean also the strike group obviously passing the seas near the – I mean, the South China Sea, and people seeing this as a show of force or flexing muscle contributing to the tension in the region.  You can blame North Korean for the tension, but is U.S. action also causing more tension?  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  Just if you could just quickly just mention one more time the visa change that you were referring to, the 10-year?

QUESTION:  Yeah, I think – sorry.  Actually, the Chinese foreign ministry actually talked about this yesterday.  I mean today Beijing’s time.

MR TONER:  Okay.

QUESTION:  And the U.S., I think Border Control, I think --

MR TONER:  Okay.

QUESTION:  The new requirements is Chinese tour who have this 10-year visa have to, starting this November, update their information online every two years.

MR TONER:  Okay.

QUESTION:  So otherwise they might be stopped at the border.  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Yeah.  So I would have to refer you to U.S. Border and Customs [U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)] for the details.  Even though it’s consular officials in the field who would implement those changes, it’s really up to Customs and Border to speak to this particular update. 

My sense or my guess is probably that it’s part of a broader effort to just keep that information updated for security reasons, not particular to China necessarily but more of a broader effort, an international effort.  We’ve had some other changes in the visa-free travel.  Obviously that doesn’t affect China, but again, those were spurred by concerns over added risks and security concerns for travel to the United States.

I think what’s critical is that we want to obviously be as responsive as we possibly can to the Chinese citizens who want to come and travel to the United States and make that travel as easy as possible for them to come visit our country, to travel.  Tourism is a big deal, and frankly, those kinds of exchanges between us and the Chinese people only strengthen the ties between our two countries.

Your second question?  I apologize.

QUESTION:  Oh, the South Korea military drill and the strike group passing South China Sea.  Thank you.  Is that causing sort of a spiral escalation?

MR TONER:  You mean regarding the South China Sea?

QUESTION:  Of course.

MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  In the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea.

MR TONER:  I mean, no.  I mean, these are all – and I would refer you, obviously, to the Department of Defense to give you specifics about this particular drill, but these are parts of routine – or these are part of a routine military exercise, the kind of exercises we conduct in the region all the time.  Again, we’re very clear about our justification for exercising freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea, and we’re going to continue to do so in accordance with international law.  But for specifics as to the actual exercises, these are longstanding, they’re long scheduled, and I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for more information about it. 

Please, you.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  Jennifer Chen with Shenzhen Media Group (SZMG), [China].  Three question.  First, is there any bilateral meeting between President Xi and President Obama in upcoming Nuclear Summit meeting?  What will be the possible agenda? 

Second, we know North Korea launched several short-range missile last Thursday, which took place one day after the UN Security Council approved new sanctions against it.  How does the U.S. assess the current situation of North Korea?

Third, we know U.S. and China have very – have differences on the deployment of THAAD  [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] system in South Korea, and in the system the AN/TPY-2 radar has ability to detect – take-off stage of intercontinental missile.  And once deployed, the ballistic missiles in eastern China and far eastern Russia can be directly detected.  What will be the response from U.S. regarding to the specific concern from China, and how about the discussion on the progress on the deployment of THAAD system in South Korea?  Thank you very much.

MR TONER:  Your first question was about a possible meeting between Obama and President Xi.  I just don’t have anything to announce, so it’s hard for me to – but, I mean, you know the – well, I mean, you know the agenda.  Yeah, I mean, that it’s in essence – I mean, we have a broad-ranging agenda with China.  The two leaders meet frequently, as they do at Secretary Kerry’s level with Foreign Minister Yi.  We discuss a broad range of security issues, economic issues; areas where we have concerns, including human rights; and other areas of – like cyber security.  We – I would say that our discourse, our dialogue with China is very robust and very frank and honest and candid, so we’re going to continue to have those discussions in that manner.  I think – but I can’t predict what might be on the agenda at the nuclear summit or whether that – indeed that meeting will actually take place.  I just don’t have that in front of me.

You had then asked about – your second question?

QUESTION:  How does the --

MR TONER:  Sorry.

QUESTION:  How does the U.S. assess the current situation of North Korea?  Because North Korea just launched several short-range missiles last Thursday.  And the third --

MR TONER:  Sure.  Well, I think, as you could tell from the passage of last week’s UN Security Council resolution – the hardest-hitting to date against North Korea – it’s not just the United States that’s concerned about North Korea’s destabilizing actions, it’s the entire international community.  And, in fact, China was among those who joined us in voting on this resolution.  I think there’s real concern, given North Korea’s recent actions in the peninsula that it continues to show a disregard for international concerns about its behavior.  It shows no willingness to come back to the table to talk about denuclearization.  And so it’s the goal of this UN Security Council resolution that was passed last week to apply increasing pressure on the elite within DPRK or North Korea in order to encourage them to come back to denuclearization talks via the Six-Party Talks.

We’re going to apply that pressure.  As we talked about when we passed this UN Security Council resolution, these are hard-hitting sanctions, but what really counts is the implementation of those sanctions.  We’ve seen that before, frankly, when we were – it helped bring Iran to the negotiating table; was just not only the sanctions themselves on paper, but the fact that they were implemented.  And we want to try to apply that same rigid standard to North Korea – again, with the aspiration of trying to get them back to talk about denuclearization.

And then your last question was on THAAD, right?

QUESTION:  Yeah, the THAAD system.  What is response from the United States about this specific concern about the AN/TPY-2 radar in the system, which can be detected the stage – take-off stage of intercontinental missile?  Once deployed, the ballistic missiles in east China and far east Russia can be directly detected.  And how about the progress on the discussion about deployment of THAAD system right now?

MR TONER:  I believe the consultations are still ongoing between us and the Republic of Korea.  We began – we made the decision to begin these consultations, obviously, in response to North Korea’s current actions, and that’s where the focus is on these discussions about THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.  Our focus is clearly on the threat posed by North Korea.  I’m not quite sure that – you raised a very technical question, so I’d have to refer you to the technical experts to really address that.  But these consultations, I think, are a sign of our ongoing iron-clad commitment to the Republic of Korea and security of the Korean Peninsula.


MR TONER:  What’s that?  Do we have a [question from] New York?  And then I’ll get back to you.  Hey, New York, do you want to go ahead?

QUESTION:  Yes.  Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, [via digital videoconference from the New York FPC].  Thank you very much for the briefing.  This is a question about Libya.  Yesterday, the Italian Prime Minister Renzi said that Italy will not participate in a military intervention in Libya unless there is a national unity government that requires it.  I would like to know whether the U.S. Government agree with this position.

MR TONER:  I apologize, we had a little bit of feedback, I think, so could you just repeat the first part of your question again.  I apologize.

QUESTION:  Yesterday, the Italian Prime Minister Renzi said that Italy will not participate in a military intervention in Libya unless there is a national unity government that requires it.  Does the U.S. Government agree with this position?

MR TONER:  Well, so – thank you, I heard the question clearly now.  I apologize.  So we are currently working with the Libyans and with the Italian Government in this effort to stand up, as you know, the Government of National Accord.  We want to support its return to the capital, Tripoli.  And then we want to focus – once this government gets up and running, we want to focus on building Libya’s response to the terrorist threat posed by ISIL or Daesh and help de-escalate the level of conflict in the country.

We also stand ready to provide humanitarian, economic, and security support to the new Libyan Government as well upon their request.  But in terms of your specific question about Italy’s role in, as you said, putting troops on the ground in – or Italy’s role in putting troops on the ground in Libya, look, I’m going to leave that to the Italian Government to speak to and the prime minister to discuss any questions about what their specific role might be in providing security support for Libya.  We, as I said, remain strong partners with Italy and we’ve had several conferences in Rome, in fact, with Foreign Minister Gentiloni, meeting with other European leaders, but also with Libyan political leaders themselves to try to get this political process on track.

So we clearly are working very closely in support of the formation of a Government of National Accord in Libya.  Specifically dealing with the security threat in Libya, again, we’ve been very clear.  We believe that getting a government in place, a national unity government – Government of National Accord rather – is absolutely critical in order to help Libya react or to respond to the threat, the increasing threat by Daesh within Libya itself.  That said, as you’ve seen, we’ve taken a number of strikes against Daesh leadership in Libya, and we’ve taken those measures because we will not hesitate, when we do have these kinds opportunities, to strike in support of – or to defend rather – U.S. national security interests in Libya. 

But I think very clearly where I do think we’re in complete lockstep with Italy is we do want to see that Government of National Accord in place, and then we want to work with that new government in order to get its capabilities up and running in order to confront the threat by Daesh because that is ultimately what we always seek.  It’s what we’re trying to do in Iraq.  It’s what we’re trying to do elsewhere.  We want to try to improve the capabilities of these governments themselves to deal with their own security threats within their borders. 

Let me go in the back.  Gentleman in the – actually, you, ma’am.  Why don’t you – yeah, please.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Manar Ghoneim, Middle East News Agency (MENA), Egypt.  Actually, I have two questions. First, Egypt yesterday announced that Muslim Brotherhood had a role in the assassination of Egypt’s general prosecutor.  So I’m just wondering what’s the U.S. reaction on this, especially that Secretary Kerry said at the House recently that some of Muslim Brotherhood members were engaging in terrorism or in violent actions in Egypt? 

Second question:  I am just wondering about how does the U.S. see the impact of Hizballah as a terrorist group in the region and in the Syrian crisis in particular, and especially in the Syrian peace talks?  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  First of all, you talked about the attack or the assassination of Egyptian public prosecutor Hisham Barakat.  Well, we obviously condemn his – this terrorist attack which killed public prosecutor Barakat.  We stand firmly with the Egyptian Government in its efforts to confront terrorism.  We have seen reports of arrests on suspicion of involvement in the attack.  We understand the facts are still being gathered, still emerging about these arrests.  I think we’re absolutely in agreement with the Egyptian Government: we want to see the perpetrators of this terrible attack brought to justice.  But I just don’t have any more details right now to confirm who might be behind the attack.

With regard to Hizballah, we did see last week that the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, designated Hizballah as a terrorist group.  We welcome that recognition, that designation by the GCC, and we’re going to continue to discuss with the GCC countries – all of the countries, frankly – on how law enforcement, sanctions, and other tools can be used to crack down on Hizballah’s ongoing terrorist operations and activities in the region. 

We, as you know, have long designated Hizballah as a terrorist – foreign terrorist organization – I think in 1997.  So we call on all countries to designate Hizballah as a terrorist organization.  In terms of Hizballah’s broader role in the region, it continues to be a problem.  It continues to carry out activities in the region, plays a destabilizing role in the region.  So we’re going to continue our efforts to restrict those activities as best as possible.  So – which really, as I said, helps reinforce the fact that we do have the – now the cooperation, or we hope to have the cooperation of the other GCC countries in helping to rein in Hizballah’s activities in the region.  We’re also, in our own part, we are focused on countering Hizballah’s activities.  We’ve sanctioned, I think, three individuals thus far this year and two companies that have been tied to Hizballah.  So I think I’ll stop there.

Please, ma’am.  Oh, sorry, I’m making it hard for the --

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  This is Eleni Argyri, ERT Greek Public TV.  Today there is in Brussels the EU summit for the refugees, and I’m sure that you have seen all these images with the thousands of refugees actually stranded in Greece because of the border restrictions.  And I was wondering if the U.S. is planning to do anything promptly to help Greece, because Greece is also facing the deadlock in the economic negotiations.  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  Well, we’re – excuse me – you’re talking about, obviously, the meetings in the EU today about the ongoing refugee crisis.  Look, we’ve talked a lot about this.  We understand Secretary Kerry has spoken to this many times, that Europe is facing an incredible challenge with the inflow of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East, obviously Syria being among the most serious.  And we know that the EU is trying to come up with a comprehensive plan to address some of these challenges.  We also, I think, recognize the role that countries like Greece and, frankly, Turkey – though not an EU member – and other countries bordering Syria itself, including Jordan and Lebanon, have done in absorbing an inordinate number of refugees and responding to this crisis in a welcoming and humanitarian way.  It is a tremendous sacrifice.  We recognize that.  As you know, I think now probably about a month or a month and a half ago, there was a humanitarian assistance conference that was held specific to Syria in London in which the United States offered, I think, some 600 and – 600 or so million dollars in additional lifesaving humanitarian assistance to Syria.  That’s in addition to, I think, almost more than $5 billion since the start of the crisis.  And that’s going to actually – the focus of that additional funding is really on the states like Jordan, like Lebanon who are absorbing a massive inflow of refugees coming out of Syria, fleeing the recent violence there. 

It is a difficult challenge.  Ultimately, I think we recognize that what we’re trying to achieve in Syria right now with the cessation of hostilities, with trying to get a political process in play that would lead to a transitional government, is the long-term solution to the crisis that is hitting Europe right now – and as you specifically state, Greece.  And that is creating an end to the conflict in Syria and creating the conditions on the ground in Syria whereby these refugees who have fled for their safety can come back home.  I mean, that’s ultimately the goal here. 

We’re trying to do more in the United States to accept more Syrian refugees.  We’ve upped our totals.  Our neighbor Canada has also done an amazing job in accepting more Syrian refugees.  But I think that only deals with the kind of short-term problem.  I think the long-term goal is in many ways much harder.  But we’ve got to get an end to the fighting in Syria, got to get a political transition in place, transitional government, peace on the ground, and then create the conditions whereby these refugees can come home.

Please, sir.

QUESTION:  Two questions, the first one regarding to Cuba.  Secretary Kerry has cancelled his visit to Cuba.  My name is Gustau Alegret – sorry – from NTN24 TV, [Colombia].

MR TONER:  No worries.

QUESTION:  Secretary Kerry has cancelled his trip to Cuba.  Is Obama or the Obama Administration expecting any sign regarding to respect of human rights from the Cuban Government before his trip to Cuba?  Is disappointing the Cuban attitude with this topic that has forced Secretary Kerry to cancel the trip? 

And the second question is regarding to the peace process, the Colombian peace process.  The signature of the peace process agreement has been delayed.  Is the U.S. disappointed?  Is the U.S. helping in order to speed this signature moment?  Any comments regarding to that?  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  First of all, on the upcoming travel, the President to Cuba – I mean, obviously, the White House is best positioned to speak to President Obama’s upcoming travel to Cuba.  That said – no, look, we’ve been very clear before and with the re-establishment – or prior to, rather – and with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba that we’re going to remain focused on human rights.  I think that, obviously, part of the sea change, if you will, in our approach to Cuba – excuse me – and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations was that recognition or was a recognition that 50 years of isolation wasn’t improving the situation.  And so we believe that through diplomatic engagement, and most importantly, engagement with the Cuban people themselves, we can help the Cuban people get greater access to information, economic opportunity – all of the things, frankly, that they’ve been isolated from for the past half a century.  So that’s been our focus.

That said, we recognize that human rights is an ongoing concern.  Human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor.  We never have said that they’re going to change overnight.  We remain particularly concerned about the government’s use of – or ongoing use of short-term detentions of peaceful activists, and we call on them to stop that.  We want to see them release all political prisoners and to allow independent evaluation of conditions in Cuba by international observers, to lift travel restrictions that remain on various groups in Cuba – of Cubans, rather – and to ratify international human rights instruments.  And we’re going to continue to raise these issues.  I don’t think anyone’s under any, as I said, any illusions that this is going to magically change overnight, but part of our justification for this or our rationale behind this diplomatic engagement is we feel that by having a direct communication with the Cuban Government we can help move this process along.

That said, we’re also going to – or the – the President, rather, is going to – and I believe the White House has spoken to this – is going to meet with civil society and dissidents when he’s in Cuba.  That’s going to be part of his agenda.  And as for Secretary Kerry, you mentioned – he is expected to travel with the President when he makes that trip to Cuba.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) has changed so far since you reopened the possibility to – restarted the diplomatic relations, so this is the same talking points that we have been hearing since the beginning.

MR TONER:  Right.

QUESTION:  Could you mention at least two or three things that has changed in Cuba thanks to this new era of relations between the U.S. and Cuba?

MR TONER:  Well, there have been – I mean, look, there have been changes.  There have been Cubans having greater access to private sector jobs.  I think the Secretary mentioned this when he was on the Hill a couple weeks ago.  But you’re not incorrect that the human rights situation there still remains challenging, to put it mildly.  We understand that, but as I said, part of the rationale to change our calculus regarding Cuba is having the willingness and the commitment to raise these issues frankly, candidly with the Cuban Government and try to force that change and try to get them to respond to our --

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

MR TONER:  Sorry.  Oh, I’m sorry.  I apologize.  Obviously, this is – with the recent visit of the president and all of the meetings and festivities surrounding his visit – as you know, we’re very committed to the Colombian peace process.  We remain committed to it.  I was unaware of this delay of the signature.  I can look into it and try to get you more details, but we obviously remain very committed to seeing this peace process carried out fully.

MR TONER:  Yeah, let’s do another [question from] New York and then I’ll get to you guys, I promise.  Please, New York.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Thank you for the opportunity.  My name is Aristo Dotse, Soccernet news report, Ghana.  The Obama Administration has decided to close down Guantanamo Bay.  Why is it that the U.S. are distributing some of the inmates to certain countries, countries that do not have the intelligence capacity, like Ghana?  In this case, two inmates were sent to Ghana and it’s been a big issue in the country.  Why is the U.S. distributing these inmates to some countries like Ghana?

And number two, is the U.S. going to be responsible for these inmates’ – their upkeep and everything when they are sent to these countries?  That’s it.

MR TONER:  Okay, great.  Thanks.  First of all, we work with a number of countries around the world as we’ve sought to accomplish, frankly, one of the core objectives of this Administration.  Once President Obama came into office, he said he wanted to close the Guantanamo detention center there because he felt like it was a – it had become an image of the United States that was, frankly, counterproductive to the kind of image we want to present around the world.

Part of that effort, and we have relied greatly on the – on countries like Ghana, but other countries around the world.  Albania is another leader in accepting some of these detainees.  We have managed to find homes for many of these detainees.

In terms of your specific questions about how these countries, these governments, these – or law enforcement within these governments, which I think is what you were asking about, are able to track these individuals, keep eyes and ears, if you will, on them – look, I mean, first of all, all of the individuals who are repatriated or sent to other countries overseas have gone through a very, very rigorous exercise, screening process, to – in order to be deemed fit to be able to – or fit for resettlement overseas.  And that screening process determines that these individuals are no longer the threat that they may have once posed as terrorists or would-be terrorists in the battlefield. 

But without getting into too many specifics in a public setting, we obviously always try to monitor all of these detainees as they resettle abroad – monitor their progress.  Obviously, we want to see them resettle successfully, but we work with those governments generous enough to host them in order to ensure that their security concerns are addressed.  And again, we’re extremely grateful to countries like Ghana and, as I said, many other countries around the world who have helped us or are helping us achieve, as I said, our goal of closing down Guantanamo.

Appreciate it.

How about you, sir, in the middle?  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Bricio Segovia, RT [Russia Today TV] – Spanish.  Okay, I would like to go back to Syria.

MR TONER:  Sure.  I don’t think we’ve been in Syria --

QUESTION:  Well, you mentioned.

MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  So we keep hearing that the political solution is the only solution available for Syria, right.  You just mentioned this a few minutes ago again.

MR TONER:  Right.

QUESTION:  But, however, the future of President al-Assad is a point that parties seem to disagree and not in a flexible way.  Do – can we really find common ground or middle ground in this issue to reach a political solution?  Is that a viable option?

And my second question is:  Would the U.S. allow Assad to have any role in the 18-month transitional period playing out in the UN roadmap?

MR TONER:  So it’s a very good question, and you’re right to have said that there is no consensus on Assad’s future, and that’s been clear from the start.  So taking a step back and how we are where we’re at today or how we got to where we’re at today with regard to Syria, it’s important, I think, to recognize that wherever you as a government stood on Assad’s future – and there are differing opinions within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – you know our opinion, the U.S. Government’s opinion, that he cannot be a part of Syria’s future, but there are differing opinions within that group – that the decision was made that we could no longer simply let that be the brick wall, if you will, that kept us from going any further down a political transition, down a ceasefire, down direct negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime.  So it was agreed that that will ultimately be addressed, but we needed to take steps along the way to create the conditions for a political transition, with the understanding and the hopes that Assad’s future will be resolved as part of that political process.

Now, we’ve already, I think, seen that this is going to ultimately – again, this is – none of this is certain, and we recognize it’s a very complex situation on the ground in Syria, but we have managed to accomplish some progress.  There is a cessation of hostilities that, frankly, many didn’t believe was going to be possible three weeks ago given the level of fighting around Aleppo.  Is it perfect?  No, not at all.  Are there still violations?  Every day there’s a group – there’s a task force monitoring those violations.  We get reports.  But the level of violence has dropped significantly.

What’s that allowed us to do?  Well, it’s allowed us to get humanitarian aid to more parts of the country – the UN, frankly, but other NGOs working on the ground – to get to some of these cities that have been cut off or some of which have been cut off for years to humanitarian access.  That’s a really significant and measurable accomplishment thus far.  We want to see that regularized, we want to see it normalize, we want to see it continue. 

The next big piece, to speak to your question, is, okay, now we got to get – we had those abbreviated talks that began in Geneva a few weeks ago under what de Mistura, Staffan de Mistura – proximity talks is the word I was looking for – between the High Negotiating Council, the HNC of the Syrian opposition, and the regime.  We want to see that begin again, hopefully in the coming week or weeks. 

As we get, we believe, a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities more firmly in place, we’re hoping that the opposition will come back to the negotiating table.  And then again, the idea there is to begin – very tentatively, but to gather steam and to create a political process by which we can get elections in place.  We, the United States, believe that if that – if there are credible elections held, that Assad won’t be part of any future government of Syria. 

As to his role in the transition, which was a specific part of your question, I can’t really speak to that now.  I feel like that’s a hypothetical, and it’s so many hurdles down the track, if you will, that if we get to that, we’ll – we will be in good position to help resolve it because I think there will be a cooperative spirit at that point.

QUESTION:  Wanted to see how flexible --

MR TONER:  Absolutely.  I think it’s – it shows our flexibility to say that we did not let our feeling that Assad had to go stop us from taking part in a process that’s leading to a political transition, that’s leading to a cessation of hostilities.  So we recognize that, and you can see that within the ISSG itself.  You’ve got – we’re working with Russia, where we don’t agree on every aspect but we are working together with them; Iran; Saudi Arabia; Turkey.  There’s a lot of differing opinions in that room, in those meetings.  But the fact that they’re – all those stakeholders are willing to sit in the same room and discuss this together, it’s an accomplishment in itself.

I’m going to go way in the back.  You sir, with the glasses on and the green shirt.  Yeah, that’s it.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Mounzer Sleiman with Al Mayadeen TV, [Lebanon].  Can you give us some details about the two airport that United States is helping to put together to – for operation in northern Syria that been reported?  And what kind of function those two airports will be for?

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  And Ambassador McGurk talked about starting the liberation of Mosul.  But there is any time limitation of when that will end and how it start?  And there is any restriction on any party, like the Popular Mobilization, to participate in the battlefield?

MR TONER:  So – (coughing) – forgive me, getting over a cold.  So in your first question was about this – these reports about building two airfields.  I can say that there’s nothing to those reports.  I’d refer you to the Department of Defense, who can much more categorically say that there’s nothing to those reports.  But I can tell you there’s nothing to those reports.  I don’t know where they came from, I don’t know what they were based on, but there’s no plans to build airfields or air bases or whatever in northern Iraq – I’m sorry, northern Syria, rather.  I apologize.  Thank you for catching me.

We continue to operate out of Incirlik and other air bases in the region, carry out airstrikes in support of those forces that are fighting Daesh very effectively in northeastern Syria, and it’s a mixed number of groups who are fighting on the ground, but we’re not talking about creating air bases in northern Syria.  So I just want to push back on that very clearly.

In terms of Mosul – so I’m not going to – when Mosul or any operation to retake Mosul is – begins, that’s really for the Government of Iraq to speak to.  Because it’s going to be – and we’ve been very clear about this all along – this needs to be an Iraqi-led and coalition-supported effort or operation.  So I’d refer you to our Department of Defense to speak to how that coordination might work, but we’ve been very clear that we support an Iraqi-led operation.  This is, again, what I spoke to earlier in the briefing.  Our goal in training and equipping these forces, the Iraqi military and those groups who are fighting with the Iraqi military under its command and control, is to help build their capacity, keep – build their capabilities in order to provide security in order to defeat Daesh within its country.  We’ve worked with various groups on the ground, various local forces, as you mentioned, and we’re going to continue to do that under the auspices of Iraqi – the Iraqi military and the Iraqi Government and under their command and control.  That’s always been our effort here.  We recognize, as you note, that some of these forces on the ground can be – some of these local forces or local militias – can be quite effective.  But we want to make sure that they’re under Iraqi command and control.  And we also want to make sure that, again, they have the capabilities that they’re working within a broader effort.

Just one last word on Mosul, though, is while there hasn’t been an operation to retake Mosul, I would just say that there’s what they call – so-called shaping operations that have begun to help prepare for any future offensive to retake the city.  But I’m not going to speak to really the details of those because it’s not really my place in the Department of State.

Please.  You have one follow-up quickly.

QUESTION:  This year would be --

MR TONER:  Again, I don’t want to give --

QUESTION:  You did not put any specific date for the end of the operation --

MR TONER:  No, and I don’t want to because, again, this is – sorry.

QUESTION:  -- but there is speculation that the Obama Administration would like this to occur before the end of his term.

MR TONER:  Well, I mean, clearly, not just the Obama Administration but I think many members, or every member of the anti-Daesh coalition, the Iraqi people themselves, the Iraqi Government want to see Mosul retaken yesterday.  I mean, everybody wants to see Daesh driven from Iraq, driven from Syria as quickly as possible, as soon as possible.  Everyone recognizes what a toxic or venomous influence they’re having on the region, a region already plagued by too much violence.  And so with that understanding, there’s also the understanding, as you prepare for complex offensive operations, you need to, as we say in English, have your ducks in a row.  You need to make sure you’ve got all the support there, all the supplies, all the training, everything.  And so that’s really – I think speaks to what the Iraqi military is trying to do now, which is make sure they’ve got all of the pieces in place before they would mount any offensive.  But I would refer you to them to speak to that.

You, ma’am.  Right there, yeah.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Silvia Ayuso from El Pais newspaper, [Spain].  It’s actually a follow-up on Cuba. 

MR TONER:  Okay.

QUESTION:  Almost a year – it’s been almost a year since the U.S. and Cuba started this – they set the guidelines for this differentiated dialogue on human rights.  The Cubans wanted to make it in a different set than the rest of the bilateral conversations.  Is – since then, we’ve heard nothing on that.  So would Secretary Kerry’s visit with President Obama be the moment where the U.S. might consider reopening that dialogue?  And if not, when would that be?  Is there a deadline set for this concrete dialogue? 

And also on the Secretary’s trip to Cuba, if he finally goes with President Obama, would he consider meeting – is he planning to meet with the Colombian negotiating parties in Havana, even the guerillas from the FARC?  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Right.  Excuse me, sorry.  I don’t want to get into too much detail about what may or may take place on the trip.  As I said, it’s the – it’s really the White House that should speak to what the trip will look like, what the schedule will entail.  I can’t speak to, for example, your second question – whether there’ll be any specific meetings related to Colombia, the peace process there, while he’s on the ground – which I think was your question.

QUESTION:  But Secretary Kerry might --

MR TONER:  Right.  Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) on the Secretary Kerry’s agenda in Cuba, while in Cuba.

MR TONER:  Yeah, I just don’t have that kind of clarity right now on his agenda.  It’s still a couple weeks away. 

Your second – or your first question, rather, was about – were you talking about the bilateral commission on human rights?  I mean, I know that they’re going to continue – we, the United States, and Cuba are going to continue to work through that bilateral commission not just to address human rights but also economic, cultural, social areas, outstanding U.S. claims, and the return of fugitives.  So there is that mechanism in place and we’re going to continue to work to try to develop that, but I’m not --

QUESTION:  Have you even started?  Because you just set the guidelines a year ago, in March 31st --

MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  -- it was that they came here and you set the guidelines for the Cubans.  It was the first meeting.  The State Department specifically said --

MR TONER:  Right.

QUESTION:  -- it was just setting the agenda, the guidelines, a way forward.

MR TONER:  Yeah, no, I’m aware of what you’re talking about.  I just don’t have an update for you.  I mean, I’m aware – I’m sorry, I don’t know.  I can try to get you more information for you.

QUESTION:  Mark, just a comment on Taliban [Wajid Ali Jafri, Geo TV, Pakistan].

MR TONER:  What’s that?

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  Thank you.  (Laughter.)  The Taliban have refused to take part in the talks, so --

MR TONER:  You’re talking about peace talks?

QUESTION:  Yes, the peace talks.  And what is the U.S. strategy now?  And how do you see Pakistan’s role in that, in bringing them – trying to bring them back?

QUESTION:  I have a follow-up with this.  (Inaudible.) 

MR TONER:  Sure.  How are we on time?

MODERATOR:  We have a few minutes.

QUESTION:  Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.

MR TONER:  Hey, how are you?

QUESTION:  I’m good, sir.  I’m good.  So foreign – the Pakistani foreign advisor was in town a couple of weeks ago and he told a gathering here that the Taliban leaders and their families right now are living in Pakistan.  So now when Taliban refused to participate in the peace talks, what type of help you are seeking from Pakistan now when the Taliban leaders are living in Pakistan with their families?  I mean, it’s very important information they revealed here.  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  First of all, with regard to the peace talks, I mean, I think you know where we stand on that.  We obviously support the peace talks.  We support the Government of Afghanistan’s efforts to engage directly in a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban.  We have long believed that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process and reconciliation process is the shortest way to end the violence and ensure lasting stability in the region. 

So we believe that the Taliban have a choice – and that’s in answer to your question, sir.  They can continue fighting their fellow Afghans, they can continue the cycle of violence that has plagued that country for so many decades and continue to destabilize the country, or they can engage in a peace process and ultimately – with the ultimate possibility rather – of becoming part, a legitimate part of the political system of a sovereign, united Afghanistan. 

So we’re working closely with all the members of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, to try to facilitate the resumption of a peace process – of a dialogue, rather, toward a political settlement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.

Again, I think the ultimate goal here and outcome is a political settlement that ends the violence and creates a durable peace in Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  But --  

MR TONER:  But just – but it’s very clear that we need to say – the important point to make here is that any – we are willing to accept a political resolution to the conflict between the Afghan Government and the Taliban so long as the outcome of any kind of process like that ensures that the Taliban and any other opposition – armed opposition group ends its – renounces violence, breaks any association with international terrorism, and accepts Afghanistan’s constitution, including its protections for women and for minorities.  So these, I think, are what we call the end conditions, what we want to see come out of this, but we certainly want to see this peace process, reconciliation talks move forward.  We believe Pakistan can play and has played a helpful role in that. 

We understand – I think somebody, I think it was you, sir, asked about the presence of Taliban – some Taliban forces in Pakistan.  We have very serious talks with Pakistan, Pakistani Government.  They face a very serious threat from terrorism within their own borders.  As we’ve long said, no one suffers more from terrorist attacks than the people of Pakistan.  So we’re committed to helping them take that fight against the – or to the terrorists who are in their country, within Pakistan’s borders.  But again, ultimately, we believe a reconciliation process between the Afghan Government -- 

QUESTION:  One question. [Wajid Ali Jafri, Geo TV, Pakistan].

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  Do you think – is there a strategy?  Because they’re not taking part anymore, so --

MRM TONER:  Well, again, I mean I think the strategy is, again, working through this quadrilateral group.  We’re going to see if we can’t get them to reconsider.  I mean, ultimately, you’re right.  I mean, the strategy is – it’s a decision that the Taliban have to make.  Our longer-term strategy – we continue to have U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, rather, helping to build the capability of Afghan’s own security forces to continue to fight and protect the Afghan people from the Taliban.  We’re going to continue those operations.  The only solution for the Taliban – peaceful solution is for them to embrace a reconciliation process.

QUESTION:  Mark, can I --

QUESTION:  Taiwan question?

MR TONER:  After that, one more.  I’ll take two more questions.  You, sir, in the middle there with the – you, you.  Yes.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  With glasses.

QUESTION:  It’s me.

MR TONER:  And then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Iaroslov Dovgopol, Ukraine Foreign News Agency, Ukraine.  So I actually have two question.  The first one is about Nadiya Savchenko.  A Russian court continues to illegally detain her, and we know she is a parliamentary of Ukrainian parliament.  She is a delegate of parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe.  Now she is in a hunger strike.  So the State Department has previously called on Russia to release her, but there is no reaction from the Russian side.  Are you going to press Russia to release Ms. Savchenko, and what policy tools could be employed for this process by the United States?

And the second question is about the Minsk agreement.  What is the U.S. Government’s position regarding the implementation of the Minsk II?  Do you agree that the elections on Donbas should be held after the Ukrainian side gain the full control over all of its territory?  Thank you.

MR TONER:  (Coughing.)  Excuse me.  Your first question was about Nadiya Savchenko.  As you know, the United States has been deeply concerned about the health and welfare of Nadiya Savchenko for many – her many months of detention, captivity, and now again with her recent decision to again go on a hunger strike to protest her detention.  We remain deeply disturbed by the Russian Federation’s decision to move forward with what we have always believed to be a baseless case, and believe the only true justice would be to dismiss the charges against Nadiya Savchenko and return her immediately to her homeland, Ukraine, which is – in answer to your second question – which is a commitment Russia made when it signed the Minsk agreements. 

So we call on Russia to honor its commitments and release all of the Ukrainian hostages it is holding.  That includes Oleg Sentsov; it includes Oleksandr Kolchenko and Gennady Afanasiev, and I apologize if I didn’t pronounce that name correctly.

I don’t want to talk about what possible actions we might take.  Our sanctions on Russia remain in place.  The ones – most recent ones are contingent on full implementation of the Minsk agreements, so until we get to that point in time, we’re not in a position to lift those sanctions.

With regard to your question about the timing or sequencing in terms of elections, I don’t – excuse me – I don’t want to really get into addressing any kind of sequencing.  I think what we want to see, obviously, is a full implementation of Minsk, but the most immediate pieces of that are a durable, credible ceasefire.  We’ve seen repeated violations of the ceasefire by separatists – Russian-backed separatists – over the past months.  We want to see an actual ceasefire take place, then we want to see access for OSCE monitors who can then monitor that ceasefire to ensure that it stays in place.  They still don’t have full access, and that remains a significant challenge.  And then, as you said, lastly, the re-establishment of Ukraine’s rightful international border.  We obviously, though, want to see all of – all aspects of Minsk ultimately implemented, but I would say those are the priorities, if you will.

We also want to see Ukraine and the Ukrainian Government move ahead – continue to move ahead – on the difficult political and economic reforms it’s undertaking.  So there’s a lot to be done.  There’s a lot on the agenda in order to get to a place where we can say that Minsk is fully implemented, but we need to see more progress.

I think one more question.  I’ll do Taiwan.  He’s very insistent.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mark.  John Zang with CTI TV of Taiwan.  President Ma is about to transit Houston and Los Angeles on his way to and from Central America.  My question is:  Are there any issues that the U.S. would like to talk to him about, either over the phone or in person?  There has been a rumor saying that he is not able to come to the East Coast, like New York, as he usually does because the U.S. was not happy with his recent trip to the Taiping Island in the South China Sea.  Is there any truth to that at all?  Thank you

MR TONER:  Look, let me just start broadly and then I’ll try to narrow it down to your specific question.  We abide by the “one China” policy.  That remains unchanged, obviously, based on the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.  We have a deep and abiding interest in cross-strait stability, and we encourage both sides to exercise flexibility and restraint.  And I think we encourage authorities in both Beijing and Taiwan – or Taipei rather, excuse me – to continue their constructive dialogue on a basis of dignity, of respect, in order to establish a basis for continued peace and stability in the cross-strait region.

Specifically I don’t have anything to announce in terms of – I know you’re talking about the layover of the president.  I don’t have anything to announce in terms of who he might speak with in the U.S. Government.  I just don’t have that information in front of me.  You mentioned his trip earlier this year.  I would just refer you to remarks we made at the time expressing, I think, our concern about those actions.  But we want to obviously remain in dialogue with Taiwan.  It’s a strong partner.  And while I don’t have anything to announce, I also can’t say that we won’t be speaking to the president when he transits.

I’m over my time limit here.  I’m so sorry, guys.  I’m sorry.  You, sir – I actually picked you earlier.  You’re the last question – with the beard.


MR TONER:  No, this gentleman right here.  (Laughter.)  I can’t say no.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Lauri Tankler with the Estonian Public Broadcasting TV.  Secretary Kerry is scheduled to meet the Estonian foreign minister tomorrow, and I can predict that one of the things that they’re going to be discussing, that the Estonian foreign minister is going to be asking, is whether the U.S. is going to back a more permanent bases or some more permanent bases in NATO ally countries who are bordering Russia right now.  And there are think tanks that are urging the U.S. to do the same. 

And my question is:  Has this question – have you guys evolved on this question from a as-long- as-it’s-needed to a more permanent way of actually dealing with the NATO bases or the U.S. Army bases in Europe?

MR TONER:  Sure.  First of all, we’re looking forward to the foreign minister’s visit tomorrow.  Always a good opportunity for the Secretary to have the chance to talk about important security issues in the region with such a strong ally as Estonia.

In terms of decisions about permanent basing, we’re always talking about efforts to increase our reassurance to our NATO allies but also our presence in the region in order to be able to respond to – quickly to any crises that might occur.  That was – that’s been the rationale behind the European Reassurance Initiative that we have been pursuing.  I don’t have anything more to say about any kind of permanent basing, except to say that we remain committed to ensuring that we can protect our NATO allies in the region and that we have the resources and tools on the ground necessary to and able to respond as we need to in the case of any threat that might emerge.

But I’ll leave it there, all right?   Thank you so much, everyone.  I really enjoyed it.

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

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