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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis En Route to Egypt

Press Operations

Dec. 1, 2017 PRINT | E-MAIL

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Are you ready to go?  And this first part will be on the record, OK? 

 

Basically, going to the Middle East, going to take stock of the security situation.  I'm also visiting some key security partners, or key security arenas out there.  In Egypt, I'll be meeting with President el-Sisi and Minister Sobhy.  He's the minister of defense, and has remained such through the last -- my entire -- excuse me -- tenure. 

 

I'm, obviously, representing America, that remains committed to our bilateral relationship, but also to express condolences for the number -- you know what happened in the Sinai, the murder of innocent people. 

 

No real surprise to anybody who deals with ISIS, that they would murder people in worship.  Normal kind of move for them, but they certainly -- it was tragic in the numbers, including children and women that were murdered. 

 

We appreciate Egypt's counterterrorism cooperation, I think you're all aware that it's grown over the last year, the last -- since I've been in, I've seen it grow.  And I think any kind of security buildup in Egypt, where -- over a third of the Arab people live is in Egypt.  It's good for the region as a whole. 

 

In Jordan, I'm gonna be participating in the Aqaba process.  Some of you know what that is, but basically, King Abdullah's leadership role in countering violent extremism.  And the area of concern is West Africa. 

 

There's more than just West African nations there, there's also nations that support them, such as the United States.  And, in our case, working by, with and through African and European partners, we hope to improve regional security, protecting our people and safeguard our economic interests.

 

I'm making my first trip to Pakistan as secretary of defense.  Not my first, obviously, in my life.  The U.S. remains committed to a pragmatic relationship that expands -- again, expands cooperation on shared interests while reinforcing President Trump's call for action against terrorist safe havens. 

 

And we'll discuss the South Asia strategy, or where -- I've already been to New Delhi, already been to Brussels, been to Afghanistan on this.  So it's a continued dialogue, in what our vision is for the Afghan peace process which, as you know, is based on four R's, and the objective 'R' is "reconciliation" and what role they're going to play in that.

 

I'll end the trip in Kuwait.  Our relationship there is really grounded in the 1991 war, the old Desert Shield, Desert Storm fight.  And our commitment to their security and the security of our partners in the gulf will remain a priority. 

 

We want to recognize Kuwait's -- what we call "outsized" contributions to regional stability.  They've hosted a number of our troops there, over many years since 1991, since Kuwait was liberated from Saddam Hussein. 

 

But they've also been excellent hosts for the commander of Joint Task Force Headquarters, that has contributed to the fight alongside the Iraqis, up in Iraq against ISIS.  They provide what I would call essential basing and access for our operations there. 

 

I'll also see them in the U.N. Security Council in January, and look forward to working together on shared security concerns, to include their efforts to try to heal the GCC -- or the Gulf Cooperation Council -- rift that's going on.  The emir has been just stalwart, in trying to bring the -- these countries back together.

 

So that's -- that's kind of a framework for the trip.  In some cases, we're coming in at odd hours.  We're only there for a few hours or something.  I realize that keeps you on the airplane -- I just heard that.  So I was happy, when I came in, that none of you were going to shoot me at first sight. (Laughter.)

 

That sounds like a violation of the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. 

 

But anyway, thanks again, always, for coming and telling the story. 

 

So let's have a couple of questions on the record, here.

 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you just talk to us a little bit about Niger and this new agreement for drone operations, or defensive at this point.  How big a threat do you see ISIS and other militant groups in that region?  And why do you think this is an important step?

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, let -- let me just talk about how we do this, and you've seen it in Iraq, by, with and through allies; in Syria, by, with and through allies; in the Philippines, the same; in Afghanistan, obviously; in Somalia.  So you see the -- the approach that we take. 

 

 And what you want to do is, you don't want to wait until countries are in extremis.  You want to go in, teach them how to handle this in advance.  Niger is simply one of many places.  We're not just us, we're -- we're the European Union.  In some cases, we're bilaterally -- France, for example, are working. 

 

All you're watching is this unfold based on the local conditions.  And we, again, don't wait until the local conditions are going south.  We try to work it in advance, so they're removing some of the fertile ground that would otherwise allow these folks to get in.  Plus, fertile or not, they'll come.  We've seen that in New York City, they'll come. 

 

So you've got to be working together.  There's no one nation that can make for its own security.  What we do is, we work with other nations that want to fight this.  And that's the D-ISIS coalition, that's over -- it's now 70 nations, we had another nation join, plus four international organizations.  This is all embedded in that approach.

 

Q:  Is there -- do you -- do you think it's important to get the authority to do offensive drone operations out of that base, at this point?

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, our job is to, basically, coach what we call "FID," foreign internal defense.  Coach them, so they know how to take care of their own country.

 

Q:  Could I ask about Syria very quickly?  What is the state of U.S. support -- military support -- for the Kurdish YPG?  Because...

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

 

Q: ... the Turkish president and President Trump did speak -- or it appears that there was an agreement...

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

 

Q:  ... to stop arming.  So what is the situation there?

 

SEC. MATTIS:  As you've observed in Syria, the enemy is collapsing.  In many cases, faster than many people in the media forecasted.  You know, I always stayed away from timelines for this very reason.  It's usually slower or faster than any timeline. 

 

At this point, you also noted that a Marine, or U.S. Marine artillery unit is coming out.  Again, working by, with and through our allies, you know that it was the SDF that did the fighting.  That fighting is now dropping off, in terms of the need for offensive capability. 

 

Consistent with that, we're changing the composition of our forces to something that supports the diplomats and the Geneva process.  In that regard, you saw that Da Nang statement by President Trump and President Putin, and it said that we are going to go to the U.N.-brokered approach, that there is no military.  So we're going to go to a diplomatic solution. 

 

Astana has not been productive.  A lot of effort went into it.  Nothing much has come out of it.  Now, it is going into Geneva with Staffan de Mistura's effort leading it for the United Nations.  And so what we're doing is, we're changing our stance right now, to support the diplomats. 

 

In other words, we're going from a military-led effort, there, to achieve a diplomatic -- set the conditions for achieving a diplomatic solution to a diplomatically-led effort, now, in Geneva, a Geneva process that's gaining traction, starting to gain traction.  And so the troops are changing their stance as a result. 

 

That includes with our allies, who are now changing their stance as they come to the limits of where they're going.  You've seen the Euphrates river valley be the demarcation line between the regime forces and the forces that we are supporting to defeat ISIS. 

 

Q:  What does that specifically mean, in terms of arming the YPG?  Will you continue arming...

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  The -- the YPG is armed, and as the coalition stops offensive ops, then, obviously, you don't need that, you need security -- you need police forces.  That's local forces.  That's people who make certain that ISIS doesn't come back.

 

Q:  So, in short, you will stop arming the YPG? 

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  We are -- we're going to go exactly along the lines of what the president announced.

 

Q:  On Pakistan, General Nicholson said, recently, that nothing has changed with Pakistan, in regards to the new South Asia strategy.  Were there some steps that you are looking for Pakistan to do, to help with Afghanistan...

 

SEC. MATTIS:  In Afghanistan, we have heard from Pakistan leaders that they do not support terrorism.  So I expect to see that sort of action reflected in their policies.  They have said that they do not support havens for any terrorists, and Pakistan has taken significant casualties -- both innocent people and their army -- significant casualties from them.  So we expect them to act in their own best interest, and in support of peace and regional stability. 

 

Q:  Are we seeing more ISIS go into the Sinai?  Are we seeing more ISIS go into the Sinai and establish themselves there?  Is that a place we need to keep an eye on, in addition to Africa?

 

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I don't know if I want to speak in numbers.  There's certainly an uptick in activity in the Sinai, and I just -- I just don't want to speculate on the numbers themselves, and we are working closely with Egypt on how they can best defeat this common threat. 

 

Certainly, in -- across Africa, we see increased concern about this.  I spoke, yesterday, with Prime Minister al-Sarraj of Libya, where we're promoting unity of Libya, and how we put together a Friends of Libya effort that supports them in denying Libya as a direction they can go to.

 

So your question points to the fact that you can't simply move them out of one area and not help the other areas around it.  And we are doing that right now.  But, again, by, with and through allies, not just the countries on the ground.  The European Union's been a big help, the whole Defeat ISIS collaboration effort, 70 countries working together; plus you've got the Arab League, you've got the European Union and NATO. 

 

This all contributes to the -- what I'd call the "network" that works against them, to deny them that opportunity to move more strongly into Africa. 

 

Q: So on Pakistan -- on Pakistan, this has been going on a decade.  You've been trying to get -- you -- the United States has been trying to get more cooperation into FATA on the borders.  What leverage do you have, 10 years into this, to force compliance? 

 

SEC. MATTIS:  What was the last one?

 

 Q:  What -- what leverage do you have?  You've cut off, like, $600 million to their coalition support fund in the last two years.  You've got another $400 million being reviewed.  What leverage do you have to compel them to act beyond what they’ve already done? 

 

SEC. MATTIS:  Tony, as I said earlier, they -- they have had many of their innocent people killed.  They've had many of their soldiers killed and wounded.  And the bottom line is that Pakistan has to act in its own best interest.  They know this.  In many cases, they are.  But what we're looking for is to broaden the common ground and make certain that no terrorist organization is seen as able to operate from a haven there.

 

There's plenty of things our two countries do together, there's plenty of things the international community and many other nations do with them.  And remember that 39 nations have their troops on the ground in Afghanistan, fighting this enemy.  And those are 39 very important nations.  If you look at their -- their roles on the world stage, their economies, their military capabilities.

 

So we're looking to make common cause with them.  There's plenty of -- of collaborative areas, right now, still in effect.  There's been some areas that have -- we have lost over the years, because of -- of disagreements about what we need to do.  So this is an effort by the new -- by the American administration, to go in and set the conditions for future collaboration that leads to reconciliation in Afghanistan and a denial of safe havens for any terrorist group that would attack anyone in the region or elsewhere in the world, which a number of countries have suffered from.

 

Let's -- let's go to off the record, now, OK?  Because I really do have to leave here in just a couple of minutes.