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Joint Press Briefing with Secretary Carter and Minister Ya'alon in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room

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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon
Oct. 28, 2015
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Hi, there. Oh, I forgot to ask which of us goes first.

STAFF: You do, sir.

SEC. CARTER: I do. I guess so, I'm the host here. Hello, everyone. Good afternoon, and thanks for joining us here, today.

I also very much want to thank my good friend Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli minister of defense, for this visit -- this very productive visit.

As all of you know, Minister Ya'alon hosted me in Israel, in July. It's my pleasure to welcome him back to the United States for two days of very productive meetings.

The Middle East is going through dramatic changes and experiencing generational crises that threaten Israel from every direction. And for Israel, the current regional situation presents daily threats to the state, its economy, and its democracy.

As we have since its founding, the United States stands with Israel, and we always will. Israel is a cornerstone of our strategy in the Middle East, and its security is a top priority for America, for our military, and for President Obama, and me, personally.

Minister Ya'alon, President Obama, and Prime Minister Netanyahu have all called the closest of the U.S.-Israel defense relationship unprecedented. And they're right.

This week, Minister Ya'alon and I have continued our work together to make it stronger, still.

Yesterday, we spoke to military students about that unprecedented cooperation, and just today, we explored additional ways we can expand our cooperation to include new domains of cyber, and advanced weapons technology.

This morning, we visited U.S. Cyber Command for a briefing and review of our work together in this challenging area. And we're also collaborating on the F-35, an aircraft that would benefit both of our nations, and in fact, we intended to be up at Pax River with the F-35 as you probably know, and the weather has made that not possible.

But the minister has visited F-35s before, as have I, and we'll do it on another occasion, and because it's next year that Israel will be our first and only friend in the region with the F-35 stealth fighter.

It's the future of fighter aircraft for the United States Air Force, and for Israel's air force.

The reason the F-35 is an example of successful U.S.-Israeli collaboration is, among other reasons, that it is an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, which provides the 365-degree heads-up display.

This groundbreaking technology is one result of the unprecedented closeness of our relationship and one more example of how our work together benefits the security of both our nations.

This has been a very productive visit. We discussed the situation in the Middle East, reaffirmed our commitment to working together personally and institutionally.

Even as the Middle East continues to present challenges, we continue to find new ways to assure Israel's security. We'll continue to do so.

Thank you.

Now I'd like to hand things over to my friend, Minister Ya'alon.

MINISTER OF DEFENSE MOSHE YA'ALON: Thank you, my dear friend, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Distinguished guests.

Over the past few days, I have had the pleasure of visiting the United States as your guest, Ash.

But I didn't need this time here to be reminded of the deep friendship between us, a friendship that –we hold, a special relationship unprecedented in scope between the United States and Israel, between the defense establishment of our two countries, between our armed forces and between our intelligence agencies.

I have said it a few times during this visit, and I'll say it again. Israel has no greater friend than the United States of America. United States is our strategic ally. Its contribution to us is a cornerstone of our national security.

We share democratic values and mutual interest, and there is not one difference of opinions that can undermine our strong relationship.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you again, Ash, for all that you do and for your admirable commitment to strengthening Israel's security.

I'd also like to ask you to convey my personal appreciation and that of the Israeli people to President Obama, who leads this policy and is deeply committed to Israel's security, and to the United States government and congress for their unparalleled cooperation and commitment to Israel.

During my visit here, we have discussed recent developments in the Middle East, and there are a lot of. These are especially turbulent years in our region, with states collapsed and being replaced by various entities, and terror organizations, many affiliated with global jihad and the Islamic State, one fighting against other, glorifying death and destruction and challenging the entire U.S.-led Western world.

Some of these terror entities are founded, armed and trained by Iran, who, despite the nuclear agreement, continues to view the America as a great Satan and Israel as a small one.

Iran extends its reach of terror to every part of the Middle East, Europe, America, the Far East -- in effect, to every place it can challenge the West and spread Islamic revolution.

Iran is invested in over its head in the fighting in Syria, and in defending the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. This is also likely to position Hezbollah operating under Iran's support and directive on our northeastern border, from where, in addition to Lebanon, it can conduct even more terror operations.

In general, I would say that Iran makes non-stop attempts at harming Israel and its citizens by means of terror along our borders, from north to south, and even of course, oceans.

Iran also challenges U.S. interests in the Middle East, both directly and by undermining (inaudible) western Sunni regimes in the region.

In recent weeks, Israel experienced a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, mostly steaming from harsh incitement against Israel, yet culturally resulting from efforts by Iran and its proxies to ignite the area and partially from the influence of Islamic jihad.

This terror targets not only Israel, but the entire U.S.-led Western world, and we are determined to combat it with resilience and determination. We will prevail. We have no other alternative; the free world has no other alternative but to prevail.

These sects on the ground require us to keep Israel's military strong, and maintain the Israel defense forces' ability to defend our nation against any enemy, any time, and any place, along our borders and far beyond.

This is a joint challenge to our nations, United States and Israel, and in our conversations here, we discuss further strengthening ties between our defense establishment, and the ways to aid the IDF in maintaining its strategic qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

In recent weeks, teams from the United States and Israel began discussing issues pertaining to strengthening the IDF. This matter was also discussed during my visit here, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also address this matter in his upcoming visit here as a guest of President Obama.

I must add, Ash, following conversations between us in recent days, that I am deeply grateful for your friendship, and for your commitment to enabling Israel to continue defending itself, and overcoming the many security challenges we face.

Thank you for your generous hospitality, Ash, and thank you for all you do for us.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you.

STAFF: We're taking more questions today, turning -- (inaudible) --.

STAFF: Bob.

Q: Hello, may I ask a question of each of you?

Mr. Ya'alon, on Syrian and the Russian air involvement there, what -- how do you perceive the Russian military objectives in Syria?

And with regard to your cooperation center -- command center, joint coordination center, whatever it is that you have established with the Russians, does this amount to coordination and cooperation with the Russians in Syria?

And may I ask Secretary Carter, also with regard to Syria -- there's been some talk about seeking European partners to help support, in some way, ground operations in Syria, the way the Americans have been.

Can you tell us about any conversations along those lines you have, and expectations you have?

MIN. YA'ALON: Our policy regarding Syria,is that we do not intervene. We do keep our well-known three red lines, not to allow any violation of our sovereignty, not to allow a delivery of advanced weapons to rogue elements in the region, as well as chemical weapons or agents to rogue elements in the region.

As far as we understand the Russian intervention, it was in order to support Assad. It's not in order to fight Daesh.

Looking to what has been done in the last couple of weeks, only 17 Daesh targets (sic: 17% of Daesh targets) has been targeted by Russian aircrafts -- fighters. Entire, targeted other opposition factions like the Free Syrian Army elements and Jabhat al-Nusra, who created a coalition to fight especially in this specific area in the northern part of Syria, calling Jaish al-Fatah.


We don't coordinate with Russia's air activities. They don't coordinate with our activities. What we did is taking safety measures, precautions to avoid any conflict between us and them.

We do not intervene in their activities, they don't intervene in our activities. We are free to operate in order to keep our interests, as I mentioned, the three red lines.

We are concentrating now on the north and western part of Syria, from Latakia to Idlib, Halab, or from Homs to Hamat. Halab ground operation led by the Syrian armed forces, with the participation of 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, about 800 Hezbollah activists, and with the air support of the Russians. That's it.

It's not going to conclude the civil war in Syria whatsoever. We can't see even any kind of political settlement. Using internal understanding, Daesh is not going to come to the table.

Their intention is to keep Bashar al-Assad, or his regime in power, maybe by having any kind of external political settlement -- calling the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other parties in the region to agree that Bashar al-Assad will survive to govern Syria.

SEC. CARTER: Bob, with respect to the Europeans, a couple of things. I don't have any specific conversations that we've had recently or that Moshe and I have had regarding European actions in Syria, which, I guess, was your question.

However, I mean, I will say this. It stands to reason that Europe -- both because of the refugee crisis it's experiencing and its fear of ISIL -- has a strong interest in whatever -- in the same kind of outcome that we want in Syria, which is a political transition and a defeat of ISIL there.

And so it would be my expectation that any future there that -- headed in either of those two directions, the Europeans would want to be a part of. They certainly have an interest in being part of it.

And there's one other thing that's very specific, but extremely important, and that is that Syria shares a long border with Turkey, which is a NATO member.

And we've made it clear, with respect to NATO's responsibilities for territorial defense under Article 5, we've made that clear to the Turks and the Europeans have made that clear to the Turks, is part of the arrangement that under (inaudible) NATO.

So that -- that much I --

Q: (off mic) about ground support operations? Sorry?

SEC. CARTER: No, I have not recently, no, talked to -- I've -- I was in Europe a few weeks ago, and we talked about the humanitarian crisis and counter-ISIL and so forth, so no. Nothing to report in that area.

Adam.

Q: Yeah, thank you very much.

Question for both of you. As you mentioned, the -- you have teams there now working on ways to -- as you said -- strengthen the IDF. I was hoping you could update us on ways that the U.S. could do that.

And -- another question. Obviously the United States and Israel are on opposite sides of the nuclear agreement, which is now taking effect. The U.S. is a party to it; Israel is opposed to it.

Given that, how do you propose working together on implementation? And is Israel concerned, that the U.S., because it is invested in this agreement, doesn't have an incentive to enforce the agreement as aggressively as Israel would like to see?

And to that same effect, is the U.S. concerned that Israel will maybe exaggerate violations, in order to try to provoke -- to try to force the U.S. to take action?

Those are the two questions.

STAFF: Okay, you may go first.

SEC. CARTER: Okay. Well, with respect to defense cooperation, Adam, we -- I'll give you a couple of examples that were examples that we discussed just in the last 48 hours.

One is cyber -- that's why we're up at CYBERCOM today; that is an area where we share interests, which -- where we have a very intimate relationship, and a trusted relationship, and have for years.

And I'll say from the U.S. point of view, truly is a two-way street, because Israel is extremely capable in this area.

We believe we're extremely capable, too, but this is a rapidly moving field, so it's good for both of us to be in touch, and we were discussing precisely that, this morning.

We also planned, as I indicated, to go out and look at the F-35. But that's illustrative of two other things that we do together; first is in advanced technology systems, like the F-35. Those are made available to Israel to an extent that is not the case with other partners in that region.

And it also -- I mentioned the heads-up display illustrates our technology cooperation, which is very deep and broad, also, and has the same kind of foundation as the -- as the cyber one, namely, one of mutual benefit, great trust, and technological depth.

With respect to the nuclear deal, a couple of things, Adam. One is that the -- the United States and certainly, this department, and I emphasize this when I was in Israel several months ago, and have said it repeatedly. Our responsibilities, in view of the Iran nuclear deal, which is a good deal because it removes one critical source of uncertainty and risk.

But it does not remove all sources of uncertainty and risk associated with Iran, and therefore, our responsibilities with respect to Iran's malign influence, as I call it, in the region -- which includes, and some of that affects Israel as well, that is unchanged.

Our commitment to our allies, unchanged. Commitments to other friends in the Gulf, unchanged. Commitment to freedom of navigation, unchanged.

Commitment to preserve the free -- the military option, if -- to get to the last part of your question -- the agreement is not implemented. We have -- part of the insurance policy on that is, in addition to rigorous verification, which I think Israel is interested in, but no more than the United States is interested in.

We're both interested in making sure that the agreement is verified, and that's a strong interest that we both have.

But I'm under instructions from President Obama to make sure that the military option remains intact, and I worked very hard on that, and we brief our Israeli colleagues on that from time to time, as we have for quite a long time.

Moshe?

MIN. YA'ALON: The Iranian deal is given. The disputes are over. Now we have to look to the future.

Assuming that the deal is going to be implemented strictly by Iran, within 15 years, which is not so long time, we will be again dealing with a potential nuclear military -- nuclear -- in Iran. We should be ready.

And meanwhile, we have already an old regime, which is not going to change its way, ideology, whatsoever. They still keep America as a great Satan and Israel as a minor Satan that should be wiped off the map.

They are invested in boxes to harm us, to attack us, to challenge us. It's not going to be changed in the coming future. The only change might be a negative one, to be a more confident regime with more money, after the sanctions are lift, which might manufacture more weapons using the defense industry, delivering weapons to the (inaudible).

Maybe acquiring weapons like the S-300 from Russia -- some more weapons and systems -- and going on with their activities in the region to undermine (inaudible) Western regime. Yemen is an example. It might be Saudi Arabia, Bahrain.

The ambition to gain hegemony is still there, and their hegemony (inaudible) in Iraq has a specific role in Syria, in Lebanon, vis-a-vis Hezbollah. We are losing now in Yemen because of the Sunni Arab coalition fighting them, but they were there, and they are there with the Houthis.

And of course, the terror infrastructure in five continents. So we both -- United States and Israel -- have to look at it now, for the near future and for the longer, to be ready to meet the changes.

SEC. CARTER: Carla.

Q: (inaudible) -- specific equipment that you would seek? I mean, you know, in the past, there's been a request for Ospreys, for example, which Israel said it didn't have the funds to -- to purchase a year ago.

Are -- are -- are there specific capabilities that you are seeking as a hedge against Iran cheating and you needing to have a military option that's -- that's viable?

MIN. YA'ALON: Of course there are specific capabilities, but I'm not going to talk about it here.

SEC. CARTER: Carla.

Q: I have a question for both of you. Thank you so much. To you, Mr. Secretary, Colonel Steve Warren told us today that this is combat, that the U.S. soldier in Iraq died --

SEC. CARTER: Joshua Wheeler.

Q: -- in combat. Just -- Joshua Wheeler, yes. And I was just hoping you could set the record straight as a member of the administration, to say the United States -- are -- are you -- the U.S. troops in combat, as Colonel Warren said today? Our boots on the ground, even though they're limited boots on the ground -- are they boots on the ground?

And then, for you, on the war against the Islamic State, how threatened does Israel feel? Is this a lingering threat? Do you have -- feel that they could breach your borders? And what's -- extra security measures are you doing along the border with Syria?

SEC. CARTER: So -- so, Carla, I said this earlier this week, and I certainly said it to Sergeant Wheeler's family over the weekend. Of course he died in combat. That's what happened.

And there are American troops in combat everyday. Air crews are flying over -- there's always the possibility of, for example, a search and rescue mission having to be conducted as a consequence of those operations. There's the possibility, if another operation like the one that -- in which he heroically gave his life, occurs.

And an action like that is required, or -- on his part, really, admirably conducted by -- and of course that's combat.

I think to the extent there's a distinction, turning around the word combat. It's not between a particular operation, but between the mission, the overall mission.

And the overall mission of the U.S. forces in Iraq is to enable, by equipping, training, advising, and assisting, capable and motivated local forces. And rather than to substitute for them, as a matter of a combat mission.

That's the whole -- that's a strategic point, it's not a linguistic point. It's the strategic point, because we know from experience, that that's the only way to make defeat of ISIL stick, is to have the involvement of local forces, who can take and hold territory -- and we're prepared to help them.

And when we do that, does that involve combat operating? Well, in the case of daily aircraft, it clearly does.

And if -- as to whether there are boots on the ground, there are clear -- there are boots in Baghdad, there are boots in Taqaddum, and so forth.

But -- so -- I really think the issue isn't -- as opposed -- the word is applied to a particular mission or event, but to the overall mission and the strategy. And I think that's where the words have meaning.

And I'm sorry, was there a second part here? I'm sorry, to the minister.

MIN. YA'ALON: So far, ISIL or Daesh as we call it in the region. . They do not challenge us directly.

And we watch them very carefully in Syria. We have Daesh elements in the Gaza Strip. We have the Daesh county in Sinai, in Egypt.

The strategy, is first of all, to deal with -- (inaudible) -- and we (inaudible) to desert. Nevertheless, they do not challenge us so far, because they believe that by open -- opening any front with us, they might be harmed significantly. They understand it.

So, they are deterred; they avoid any friction with us.

And from Syria, as an example, the few terror attacks that we absorbed in the last two years were perpetrated by Iranian-backed proxies, whether -- (inaudible) -- to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, recently. And they caused the red line that I was speaking about, so they, of course, threatened by us.

So far, so good. But our main worry, regarding the situation in Syria as an example, is Iranian Revolutionary Guard-backed factions, proxies, trying to open or to renew a terror front against us from the Golan Heights. They're the main worry so far.

SEC. CARTER: Kristina, you're the last one.

Q: Thank you. Wasn't expecting it, but --

SEC. CARTER: Well -- (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: There’s an eager customer over there too, but we need to let the minister get on his way.

Q: Is there a risk, with more combat operations in Iraq and perhaps boots on the ground in Syria -- is there a risk of -- of mission creep, to -- to critics who might say that there -- there could be?

SEC. CARTER: I think we're pretty clear on the basis of the experience that we have gleaned in Iraq, and also Afghanistan, that making the defeat of a radical movement permanent, or -- to make it stick, is the word I used. Make it lasting -- requires that the people who live there be able to field forces that can take ground and hold ground.

So that's an essential strategic ingredient, and our role can be one of promoting that strategy by enabling them, but it can't substitute for them. That's the basic point of our strategy as it applies to Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan.

Q: May I have the last question?

SEC. CARTER: How can I turn you down? You've been -- (Laughter.)

Q: Yeah, my question is to Minister Ya'alon. Besides your policy that you do not intervene in Syria, are you concerned about the collapse of the Syrian institution?

And also, would you believe that any political solution in Syria should include Assad? And my last question is, do you believe that the Syrian war has weakened the Hezbollah in Lebanon?

MIN. YA'ALON: There are many implications regarding the civil war in Syria. On top of them, I believe, 300,000 casualties. Ten to 11 million Syrian refugees, many of them in the country, part of them outside the country, fleeing now to Europe.

This is a tragedy. I can't see, in the near future -- I would say, unfortunately -- a political settlement to put an end to this civil war. I can't see it.

Otherwise we will have a more powerful -- Sunni, let's say, relatively moderate -- element playing a more significant role. The choice of today is to have the Shia axis with Bashar al-Assad -- led actually by Iran, supported now by Russia -- in the one hand, and Daesh on the other hand. Their choice.

So it's a long way, unfortunately, which will make the situation unstable. Anyhow, it's going to be the characteristic of the Middle East for the years to come, chronic instability -- not just in Syria -- for a very, very long period of time. And I'm not sure for how long.

That's what I can say about it.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: Well, on that -- on -- I think, on that note, that's an augur of continued U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation, and the need therefore, and in that connection, I want to thank you once again, my friend --

MIN. YA'ALON: And we are not going to be unemployed.

SEC. CARTER: No, that's what I -- that's what I'm saying. Doesn't look that way, does it?

Thank you all for coming. Really appreciate it.

MIN. YA'ALON: Thank you.