Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Votel in the Pentagon Briefing Room

General Joseph L. Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command


PRESS SECRETARY PETER COOK:  Morning, everyone.

Pleased to welcome General Votel from Central Command here to share with you his thoughts about what's going on within his combatant command.  Lots of issues, of course, to talk about.

And without any further ado, we'll let General Votel begin.  And do have to keep an eye on the clock because he does have other meetings here -- (inaudible).

GENERAL JOSEPH L. VOTEL:  Thanks -- thanks, Peter.  Appreciate it.  And for all of you, it's good to -- good to be here this morning.  I appreciate the opportunity to come and talk with you and provide you an update on U.S. military activities in the Central Command area of responsibility, and particularly as they related to the ongoing fight in Iraq and Syria against the terrorist organization ISIL, or Daesh.

Since taking command of CENTCOM at the end of March, I've spent a good bit of my time in the region.  As you all know, it is a fascinating and strategically important part of the world.  It's also a part of the world that's dealing with a myriad of complex challenges, including sectarianism, economic and political disenfranchisement, ungoverned or under-governed spaces and pervasive terrorism.

During my travels, I've met with many of our partners, both government and military leaders, and I will tell you the one thing that's been made very clear to me is that our partners value their relationships with the United States.  They value our leadership and they want to work together to accomplish common objectives.

Ultimately, at CENTCOM, our intent is to do what is necessary militarily to improve stability and security in the region, and we are achieving good effects in a number of areas and pursuing opportunities that are paying significant dividends.  And I'll give you a few examples.

Certainly, maritime security is an area where both preparation and collaboration continue to achieve good effects.  Nearly 30 percent of the energy vital to the global economy passes through the three maritime choke-points in the region -- the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz.

Our efforts, together with the efforts of our partners and allies, helped to ensure the free flow of commerce through these choke-points and to other parts of the world.  In recent months, we've seen an uptick in confrontations by Iranian vessels in the Arabian Gulf.  I personally witnessed this behavior last month while on the USS New Orleans transiting the Strait of Hormuz.  Some of you were with me.

And IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps missile ship and three fast-attack crafts demonstrated aggressive behavior in the vicinity of our ship.  In recent days, we have witnessed even more provocative activity by the IRGC and Navy vessels.  That type of behavior is very concerning and we hope to see Iran's naval forces act in a more professional manner.

In contrast, I cannot say enough about the professionalism of our naval forces.  I was pleased to see how well they handled the situations that were presented to them.  They remain measured in their response and they helped to keep a tense situation from escalating into an international incident.  I was very, very proud of our sailors and their leaders.

Our efforts in Afghanistan also continue to pay dividends.  We, along with our coalition partners, have made tremendous investments in that country over the last 15 years.  The Afghans today are in the lead and they are taking the fight to the enemy through their sustainable security strategy.  They are doing so while dealing with some tough challenges in places like Helmand province, for example.  They continue to demonstrate resiliency and they are proving capable of defending their sovereign spaces.

Meanwhile, our train, advise and assist and our counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan are also proving effective, to include our efforts against the ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in the Khorasan province.  During a recent visit to Afghanistan, I spent time with our train, advise and assist teams, and with the corps commanders leading the Afghan forces.  Across the board, I was extremely impressed by their skill, their determination, and their extraordinarily high level of resiliency.

Our recent combined operations against the Islamic State in the Khorasan resulted in destruction of 25 percent of their forces.  With President Obama's decision to keep 8,400 U.S. troops in-country through 2017, and with the additional authorities that have allowed us to target the Islamic State in the Khorasan, and to accompanying Afghan forces, I'm confident that we will see the Afghans continue to build on the momentum achieved to date.

Of course, we remain very focused on the ongoing fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  As a result of our coalition military operations, the group's capabilities have been greatly degraded and dismantled in both countries, and they've lost a significant amount of the territory they once held.  In just the last few weeks alone, ISIL lost a hold on the Manbij city and the Jarabulus and Ar-Rai border crossings in Syria, and Qayyarah and Khadidiya in Iraq.  And in the last few days, U.S.-backed forces -- coalition-backed forces defeated an attempt to counterattack by ISIL fighters in Shaddadi in northern Syria.

The cumulative effect of these operations has served to cut off key lines of communication for ISIL, while restricting the enemy's ability to bring in additional fighters.  As you look across the full battle space, you see that ISIL is under more pressure now than at any other time in the campaign.  We are causing the enemy to have to look in multiple directions and they are struggling to respond under this pressure.

Generally speaking, I do believe our approach, which requires that we work by, with and through the indigenous forces, is working.  We are making progress against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  That said, challenges do remain and there is much work still to be done to defeat this enemy in both countries.

We remain concerned about their external operations capability as well as their adaptiveness.  As Secretary Carter has said on a number of occasions, defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria is necessary, but not sufficient.  We need to continue to work together across boundaries, the whole of U.S. government and the international community, to truly defeat this organization.

Perhaps even more important, we've recognized that significant political challenges will also have to be addressed.  To this end, we are making concerted effort to ensure that we synchronize the political and humanitarian assistance plans with our ongoing military plans and operations.

This has been one of my main areas of focus during my repeated visits to Iraq over the last five months and I've instructed our team at CENTCOM to explore ways that we may be able to work more closely with our interagency and our international partners to support these efforts and to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid in recently liberated areas until the security environment improves and allows for greater access to aid organizations.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have proven time and again over the years that when we work together, difficult challenges can be overcome.  And I remain confident that we will be successful in our shared endeavors in the coming days.

And with that, I'd be happy to answer any of your questions.

MR. COOK:  Bob Burns of the AP.

Q:  General Votel, question for you about Syria.

Today the Turkish presidential spokesman said the U.S. should end its policy of what he called supporting the Kurdish forces at all costs.  I'm wondering if you could respond to that and maybe comment on the broader point about whether it's possible to increase the Arab representation of the forces that you're developing in the SDF.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I'll leave it to the Department of State to talk on foreign minister responses.

But I will just say that we rely on both Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces to help us in our fight against ISIL.  Both of them are critical to it.

Turkey certainly plays an extraordinarily important role, with their access, basing, overflight, variety of things that they do.  And their operations along the border against ISIL are extraordinarily important and welcome.

At the same time, we also -- we also value the contributions of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have been a good partner to us in helping address the ISIL threat in the area.

So, I think, we see the -- we see the need to continue to work with both of these organizations as we move forward and address our principle threat, which is the Islamic State.

And -- Bob, can you say your second question again?

Q:  Well, whether it's possible or whether you're trying to increase the number of Arab fighters that you can put into that umbrella --

GEN. VOTEL:  Oh, we certainly are.  We certainly are.

And, you know, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, you know, do include Kurds and Syrians and Turkoman and a variety of other elements that are all included in that, really are proving to be the force that is most capable against ISIL in that part of the theater.  And what we do see is other -- other elements that want to align themselves with that as we move into other areas to liberate that.  So we are going to continue and encourage them.  We certainly do see the need for more forces to be aligned with that element.

MR. COOK:  Kevin Baron.

Q:  General -- (inaudible) – Kevin Baron from DefenseOne.

On the same topic, in the last week, week and a half, Kurdish media has really exploded with -- with worry about the U.S. reaction -- or initial, I think, slow reaction to what was going on with Turkey, feeling like they had been stabbed in the back or somehow betrayed by -- by U.S. forces who had helped get them to where they were.

Are you seeing any battlefield repercussions of this, any type of lessening of -- of their, you know, drive or willingness to work with the U.S. with the mission against ISIL?

GEN. VOTEL:  I'm not.  As a matter of fact, I think we've continued to enjoy strong support for the basing where we have our coalition aircraft and where we operate out of in -- in Turkey, and they've continued to provide that as we move forward.

And again, I think as we look at some of their operations along the border here against ISIL and some of the border towns, that is extraordinarily welcome.

So I -- I don't see any degradation to the support that we are getting right now with the campaign --

Q:  Are you worried about the endpoint of -- of these factions coming together in places like Raqqah to come -- that they're going to be able to work together, that -- as you all are saying -- that they need to?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, you know, I -- you know, I think as we kind of continue to make progress in our campaign plan in both Iraq and Syria, I think as we begin to dismantle and ultimately move in the direction of defeat of ISIL, we will see some of these other natural issues begin to -- to emerge.

But what I -- what we are focused on is getting both -- all of our partners focused in -- keeping them focused in on the fight, which is against ISIL right now.

MR. COOK:  Missy Ryan, Washington Post

Q:  Hi, general.  I'd like to ask you about Yemen.  Aid groups in the United Nations have reported repeatedly targeting of civilian facilities and civilians in Yemen by the Houthis and also by the -- the Saudi-led coalition.

How do you see this issue?  And what do you -- specifically, what do you believe is the American responsibility in thinking about civilian casualties in Yemen caused by the Saudi-led coalition, given the fact that the U.S. military is providing hands-on support to the Saudi air campaign?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, you know, I think -- I think it's well established.  Our -- our -- the level of focus that we put on trying to prevent civilian casualties, and that certainly represents our operational approach and it represents our values to how we conduct these operations.

So you know, I think part of our responsibility is to continue to emphasize to all the parties involved their responsibilities to operate in a manner that absolutely minimizes the chances of civilian casualties.  And so we -- we continue to emphasize that to -- to all of -- all of those partners that are involved in -- in that aspect of the -- of -- of the conflict in Yemen.

Q:  Do you think that the United States should withhold the enabling support to the Saudi-led coalition if civilians continue to be targeted?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I think that's probably a topic for our policy leaders to -- to address, and so I'll leave that to them.  I think what our responsibility is to do as military professionals is continue to stay engaged with our partners, encourage them to operate in a manner that accomplishes their mission but yet protects the civilians and doesn't add to the humanitarian -- a devolving humanitarian situation on the ground.

MR. COOK:  Tom Bowman, NPR.

Q:  General, I wondered if you could walk us through the next phase of the anti-ISIL operation?  Now that the -- the Turks are in Syria, do you want them to go west as opposed to heading south of Manbij?  And as everyone's -- Vice President Biden and others have said -- they want the Kurds to move across -- east across the Euphrates.

So just, kind of, walk us through what you would like to see as a military man.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think -- I think -- you know, Tom, what we've seen with the Turkish operations up along the border I think are extraordinarily helpful to us and they are the exact right -- right things that we need for the coalition, we need for the fight to -- against ISIL.

So what -- what I see moving forward is -- is making sure that we keep all of our partners and all of our force focused on ISIL at this particular point.  I think we've got good momentum going against ISIL and I think we need to continue to emphasize that aspect of it.

So, you know, we -- we would -- you know, we are very much in favor of what the -- the Turks are doing against ISIL along the border areas.

Q:  But again, do you want them to move west?  What if they move south to Manbij where the Kurds are?  Do you see that as problematic?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I don't -- that's --

Q:  If -- if the Kurds do not move east across the Euphrates, will they, as Vice President Biden say -- said, lose all U.S. support?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, what we have made clear is that our support is -- our support to all parties is contingent upon the focus on ISIL.  And that will be how we will continue to do this.

So, what we are trying to do is ensure that we keep all of our partners focused on ISIL at this point.  It's not helpful to -- in-fighting among themselves.  We don't want that.  We're working to prevent that.

But it is, I think, most important for us to continue to keep the SDF and the -- our Turkish partners and other coalition partners focused on ISIL at this particular point.

Q:  But again, do the Kurds have to cross the Euphrates, head east?

GEN. VOTEL:  The -- the -- the Kurds, for the most part -- the -- the -- the portion of the Kurds that are part of the SDF, are on -- are on the east side on the Euphrates River at this -- at this time.  They have lived up to their -- to their commitment to us.

Q:  What about Manbij?

GEN. VOTEL:  In Manbij, I think it's important to understand that when you look at the SDF, the SDF is not just Kurds.  It is -- it is -- there certainly has been a Kurdish element to that, but there's certainly been Syrian Arabs, there've been Syrian Turkomen, there've been Syrian others.

So, I think what you see in the Manbij area are forces that are left in place to hold and provide security that are principally made up of forces that come from that particular area.  And so, that -- I think that's a -- I think we should expect that that's going to occur.

And what we have -- what we have seen is that the -- the -- the portion of the Kurdish elements that have supported that have largely moved back to the areas that they agreed to move back to the areas they agreed to go back to.

MR. COOK:  (Off-mic.)

Q:  Hi -- hi, general.

So just a follow up. Can you actually accomplish your campaign plan if the Kurds stay east indefinitely?

And -- and do you believe that the Turks actually agree with the construct of the -- of the SDF itself?  Or do they see it as a kind of a fig leaf for a YPG force?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think that's probably a -- that's probably a question you have to ask the Turks to comment on.

I mean, I -- I think our -- our responsibility is to make sure that as we work with our partners to make -- you know, we're transparent back and forth, and under -- understand who is -- who is who in that.

And as -- as I just responded here, we do see there are -- certainly are Syrian Arabs, and Turkomen, and others that are involved in that broader SDF piece.

But to answer your basic question, yes I do.  I do think, with the Kurds staying in the area where we have asked them to stay in, where they've returned, that does contribute to our forward momentum, and our continuing to move forward in our campaign plan.

Q:  (inaudible) -- reach the other objectives within Syria as long as -- even with the Kurds not participating, not moving west ever?

GEN. VOTEL:  That's -- yes, I do believe we can.

Q:  Okay.

MR. COOK:  Tony Capaccio?

Q:  I want to go back to Iran, since 20 percent of the world's oil goes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Have you, in the last three or four given a -- getting a sense of why the Iranians had those repeated actions last week?  It -- it's fairly extraordinary.  They -- these -- where -- where the shots were fired.

Is there a change in the IRGC's thinking in terms of possibly more harassment of the United States?

And since the world's oil community reacts to every hiccup over there, do you see the IRGC potentially harassing commercial traffic or oil traffic?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I -- you know, I -- I -- I don't think I can get inside the mind of the -- the Iranian regime and the IRGC to understand exactly what they're thinking in terms of their actions.

And while -- while we saw some activity here in the last couple of weeks, that's -- that's not particularly new.  We've seen that over time.

And, you know, I think as we've -- as we've reported in the past, you know, about 10 -- 10 percent of the normal interactions that we have in there are things that we would consider to be unprofessional or unsafe.  And that's been a factor over time.

I guess I would point out this, is that, you know, Iran's actions here are -- in the Arabian Gulf, are unlike anybody else.  No one else does what they do in the Arabian Gulf.  They don't go out and they don't drive fast boats towards military vessels out there in the same way that they do.  Nobody else does that.

And so, you know, in international waters.  And so, you know, what I call on Iran to do is to be the professional force that they claim to be.  Professional militaries, professional maritime forces don't operate in that way.  We acknowledge all parties, all countries in that area have the right to operate in international waters.  But they should do so in a responsible manner.

And what we see with the Iranians is not particularly responsible.  It is provocative, in some cases; it's unsafe.  And it can lead to situations where where we may not be able to deescalate in a time before something happens.

So I'm -- I'm very focused on this.  And I'm very proud of the way that our forces operate and the way they conduct themselves.  And I think they are -- we are very professional.  I think they're very measured.  And I think we're applying our values as we do this.  But I am concerned about those types of activities that are just plain unprofessional, and really are -- don't -- aren't replicated by anybody else operating in the area.

Q:  Do you have a sense, though, that, you know, the global oil community wants to feel there's some security there.  Do you get a sense that the Iranians may try to harass commercial --

GEN. VOTEL:  I don't have any sense that they're going to try to harass any commercial -- any commercial activities.

(Crosstalk.)

Q:  Just to follow up on Tony's question, General Votel.

The great landmark between the United States and Iran in the past decade has been this nuclear accord.  And since the accord was reached, we've seen a doubling of harassment of the U.S. Navy ships.  We've seen a number of ballistic missile launches.  Has this nuclear agreement in fact emboldened Iran?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I don't -- I don't know -- I'm not sure I'm qualified to make that -- that -- that assessment, Lucas.  But I would say that we haven't seen a significant change in their behavior, just as we've kind of been talking about here, with the agreement.  So, to me, that -- that remains a concern.  And it remains something we're going to have to continue to deal with in this part of the world and pay attention to.

And as regards to the other capabilities that they're beginning to add, you know, as the CENTCOM commander, it's certainly my responsibility to pay very close attention to that and provide advice to the secretary on how we -- how we should be looking at that and dealing with that if we're going to have to do something there.

So we're paying very, very close attention to all of that.

Q:  What do you attribute this new-found Iranian aggressiveness?  Would you say that since the deal, instead of Iran dialing back its behavior, they've in face become more emboldened?

GEN. VOTEL:  I don't know.  Again, I'm not -- you would have to -- really have to talk to the Iranian regime leadership about this.  What -- what I see is this is principally the regime leadership trying to exert their influence and authority in the region.  And they are trying to do it in provocative ways that are unsafe, unprofessional and really I think work against their -- their objectives in the long term here.

But I'd want to emphasize that, you know, about 90 percent of these unsafe, unprofessional activities we see come from the Iranian Quds Force navy vessels.  They don't come from the general Iranian navy; only a very, very small percentage of them do.  So this is, in my view, is not about the Iranian people.  It's about the Iranian regime and their desire to continue to do these types of things that stoke instability or attempt to stoke instability in the region.

Q:  Luis Martinez, ABC.

Q:  Thank you.

I’d like to ask you about Mosul and what happened in Hasaka. The timelines for Mosul, do you think right now that the Iraqi forces are prepared to launch an offensive to retake Mosul sometime by the end of the year or maybe even sooner than that.

And with the incident that happened in Hasaka when you sent up the combat air patrols, what do you think the motivations were for the Syrians in doing what they did and do you think that, I mean how close were they to American forces on the ground.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well first off with respect to Mosul, you know I think as the Prime Minister has said, it's his intention to try to get through Mosul by the end of the year.

My assessment is in over the course of my visits I think is that they are on track to achieve that objective. They own the timeline here for this, and so we'll continue to work very, very closely with them and insure that we can support their operations where their ready to go. But I think we are proceeding a pace exactly where we hope to be at this particular time, I think we're there with respect then.

With regard to what the Syrian regime, excuse me, motivations might have been in Hasaka, again I'm not sure I can speculate too much on that. You know, whether it's their concern of maintaining some level of lines of communication or something back and forth there. I'm not sure, I'd just be speculating on what their motivations might be.

Q:  How close did they get to American forces that were operating with our partners there?

GEN. VOTEL:  I think they were several hundred meters away from areas in which we were, close enough to be concerned but it wasn't an immediate direct threat.

Q:  Hi.  Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner.

There's been a perception over recent days that part of the reason that there were the clashes between Turkish Forces and Kurdish forces in northern Syria is that Turkey failed to adequately coordinate with the United States, that in the sense that the U.S. -- while this operation was welcome that it was more welcome if it had come after the U.S. was able to get some of the Kurdish elements to move out of the way.

Did Turkey jump the gun?

GEN. VOTEL:  I wouldn't say they jumped the gun. And I think that as they went across into Jarabulus I would highlight to you that we did support that operation focused on ISIL and certainly one of things I think all military leaders try to do is look for opportunities and move on those opportunities very, very quickly.

And so I think they saw an opportunity we moved, they moved quickly on that, and we tried to support them as we did. And we did support them. When they began to focus on something other than ISIL then I think we had to withdraw our support for that.

And so I think we are now trying to keep those elements separated and focused on the counter ISIL fight at this point.

Q:  Were you surprised by the -- (inaudible).

GEN. VOTEL:  Not particularly. I mean I think we saw some indications that they were doing that but again you know it's an opportunity we look for opportunities as well and we want to be able to move quickly. And it was focused on ISIL initially and so I'm -- we're glad that they moved in when they saw an opportunity against ISIL.

Q:  Hey, general, two questions.

One is, could you provide a bit of an assessment of the forces inside Mosul, it kind of ranges from this could be a huge fight to maybe everybody's going to melt away.

And then also what is your thinking kind of post-Mosul, post-Raqqah, past the Caliphate, as it were?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, thanks.

You're talking about -- when you say forces -- (inaudible) -- you're talking about the Islamic State?

Q:  Right.

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, so I think one of the effects that we are creating is ISIL is having to make hard decisions because they're getting pressured in a variety of ways.  Certainly in both Iraq and Syria, in a lot of locations, we are continuing to target their leadership or continuing to target their revenue generation sources in both Mosul and northern Iraq and certainly in Syria, so I think we continue to keep them on the horns of a dilemma here.

So they're having to make decisions.  What's interesting to me is you look at the battle of Manbij, which took place over the course of about 74, 75 days.  A very difficult fight, a very concentrated, urban fight, where there were extensive use of IED's, there were use of tunnels, we were fighting inside buildings, and by the way, the SDF, in my view, the leadership of the SDF exhibited great skill and concern for civilians in how they approached that and I think took a very deliberate manner to that.

When you look at Jarablus, when applied pressure there, they very quickly left that area.  So, Gordon, I think what you're seeing is I think we should expect that in some places, perhaps in some parts of Mosul, they will cede that area to us, or to the coalition, to the Iraqis, and then in other areas they will fight harder to hold onto that and I think that's what we're going to see going forward here.

They are going to have to make hard decisions about where they're going to concentrate their power and where they're going to have to let the coalition and our indigenous partners succeed and that's kind of what I see going forward.

So the second part of your problem, or your question, I'm sorry, is that again, as the Secretary has said, going to Raqqa and Mosul and addressing the core of ISIL in Iraq and Syria is very, very important.

But as we've learned about this enemy, one they are very connected.  So things that happen in Iraq and Syria resonate in other places and they resonate in our capitals in Europe and other locations, so it's a connected network.  They are very vulnerable and we are seeing that and as we present them with lots of dilemmas, they're having to rack, having to make these very difficult decisions, but they are also very adaptive.

And so we should expect that as we come out of the big operations like Mosul and Raqqa and others here, that they will continue to adapt and we will continue to deal with the next evolution of ISIL, whether they become more of a terrorist organization and return to more of their terrorist-like roots, but I think we are thinking very hard about how we -- with the coalition and with our Iraqi and ultimately with our partners in Syria, how we look at continuing to keep the pressure on ISIL after we complete these major operations.

I know I'm giving the impression that when we finish with Mosul or Raqqa that we're done.  We're not.  We will continue to deal with them.

MR. COOK: Carla Babb, VOA.

Q:  Back to Turkey and Syria.  Analysts are worried and concerned and wondering whether or not Turkey will continue to move forward against ISIL or will retreat back across the border and just contain the problem rather than work on solving it and defeating ISIS.

Have you received any assurances from Turkey that they are going to continue this fight inside Syria?

GEN. VOTEL:  I haven't received any particular assurances but I think what we have seen is we have seen them move from Jarabulus, West along the border and I think that is extraordinarily good news.  That's very helpful to us and in our other partnering efforts with them over in the Mara Line area, we've seen them continue to support those operations.  I think those are extraordinarily positive.

So in this case deeds matter and what I'm seeing on the ground is that they've remained very committed to the ISIL fight.  They've said that and we will take them at their word for that.

MR. COOK:  Right here. The gentlemen in the middle. Can you identify yourself?

Q:  Rahim Rashidi with Kurdistan TV.

What will be Peshmerga role in Mosul operation?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well again, I won't get into the specific details of what each of the -- what each of the elements will do as part of the -- as part of the Mosul operation.

But I will tell you, as I mentioned, we have a very aggressive and I think a very interactive planning process going on, that includes the Peshmerga, that includes the ISF, that includes other entities in Iraq in making sure that we have the -- we have the right -- the right mix of forces to do this.

In my recent discussions with President Barzani, as recently as week or so ago, he continued to commit his pledge to continue to work with the Iraq -- with the government of Iraq forces, the Iraqi security forces in helping with us.

So we expect everyone to play a critical -- a critical role in the Mosul operation and so far I think we're seeing that.  And we're seeing good interchange right now between the military and political elements to continue to address all the very complex issues that have to be addressed in a large urban area like Mosul.

Q:  Back to the Iranian provocations, do you think that the recent provocations are indicative of a worsening U.S.-Iranian military relationship as to the extent that there is a relationship?  And what is the fear there, is there a fear of miscalculation, what are your thoughts on that?

GEN. VOTEL:  Again, we don't really have a military relationship with Iran so I can't say if it's -- there's no relationship getting worse or not.  But it is what it is and it's pretty much been the same.

I think the big concern here is miscalculation, that I'm very confident in the measures that our maritime forces are taking.  They are measured, they are deliberate in the things that they are doing, but ultimately we are going to protect ourselves if that comes to a situation.

So I am concerned about rogue commanders, rogue Iranian Quds force naval commanders who are operating in a provocative manner and are trying to test us.  Because ultimately we will prevail here and I'm very, very confident of that and we certainly don't want that to come to pass, and that's why I call on them to act in a professional manner that they espouse to act, particularly in international waters.

Q:  Would you say the calls are getting closer?

GEN. VOTEL:  The what?

Q:  Has there been any close calls in other words?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well I mean I think these all close calls.  For those of you that were with us when we saw this, I mean it's -- we're talking seconds here.  And this is very, very -- this is very important work that our people do here and it is -- we are relying on our good young leaders and out young sailors out there to make good decisions.

And in every case that I've seen they have made very, very good decisions, but ultimately if they continue to test us we're going to respond and we're going to protect ourselves and our partners.

MR. COOK:  In the back J.J. -- (inaudible).

Q:  General, two of your spokesmen told us recently -- Captain Davis last week said you're expecting some very tough fighting in Iraq and in Syria as these battles continue to unfold.

And Colonel Garver said about a week or so ago as well that there are some very visible signs that the Islamic state organization is weakening, but they're preparing for some tough fights to come.

I want to make sure I understood you correctly.  Were you saying that you think that they will just essentially cede Mosul to the coalition?  Or do you expect a big, tough fight there?

GEN. VOTEL:  No, I think that it will be a tough fight.  What I think they will do is they will have to make some decisions about perhaps towns and portions of areas in which we're operating, that they will -- they will not -- they will not defend.  They will not expend a lot of their efforts in order to kind of focus on those things that are most important to them.

So, you know, I think in some areas, we'll be able to move perhaps a little bit more quickly.  But I -- I do expect, based on what I've -- what we've seen here in Manbij, what we've experienced, as we get -- we are -- we are at a point here where we are now into -- we are really into the heart of the caliphate.  We are moving into Mosul.  We are moving towards -- towards Raqqah here, very, very soon.

And these are extraordinarily important cities for us.  And so, you know, as I -- as I learned in my career and as I encourage my commanders here, we have to respect our enemy.  And he is going to defend what he has -- what he has taken and held for a long period of time.  And so we should expect that there will be hard and difficult fighting there.  There will be extensive use of IEDs.  There will be very difficult urban fighting.

There will be a mixture of civilians and fighting forces in there.  They will use civilians as shields for them, as we've seen them do in a variety of locations.  And that will make it more challenging for our -- for our people.  We will have to be more deliberate.  We'll have to be more careful as we proceed through that.

But I am confident that in the end, we will prevail through that.  So I think they will -- they will -- they will, some areas they will not concentrate in.  But other areas, they definitely will concentrate in.

Q:  Do you think it can be done by the end of the year, like the prime minister suggested or asked?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, as I think I mentioned before, it's the prime minister's objective to have that done by the end of the year.  And right now, I think, you know, obviously, they own the timeline in this.  We're supporting them with this.  My -- my indications are, my assessment is that we can -- we can meet the -- we can meet the prime minister's objectives if that's what he chooses to do.

(Crosstalk.)

Q:  Who in ISIS is making these decisions about whether to stand and fight or to melt away?  Is this the central leadership?  Are these local commanders?  And is there any pattern to their movements that tells you what they -- what they value most?  What they're going to hand onto hardest?

GEN. VOTEL:  I'm not sure I can -- I can answer your question about who is making those decisions.  Certainly, I mean, this is -- this is a very -- this is a strong network.  They do rely on -- on guidance from their centralized leadership.  So I would imagine there is some -- there is some indication that there's -- that there's direction coming.

I mean, some of what we saw in the Manbij fight was direction from Baghdadi to his fighters to fight to the death.  Obviously, they didn't.  So they didn't follow his direction, which may be an indication of -- of the state of ISIL, at least in some cases here.

So I do think there is direction coming from the centralized leadership.  But again, we have to respect our enemy and we have to recognize that he has -- he has leadership at the lower level that is also going to continue to make decisions down there about -- about what they're doing.

I'm sorry, David.  The second part of your question?

Q:  (inaudible) What are they likely to hang onto the hardest?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think they -- I think they will try to hang onto those certainly areas that are revenue-generating for them; that allow them to continue to support the caliphate that I think will be very, very important for them.  Certainly, iconic, you know, locations within either of those -- those cities or other locations are important to them.

I think it's important for them to probably to have a -- a capital of the caliphate.

So, you know, as they define that, I think they'll probably identify areas that are perhaps more defendable, or more important to them, and they'll continue to try to hold onto that.

MR. COOK:  We have time for just a few more.  Nancy?

Q:  Thank you.

General, I wanted to follow up on a response that you gave to Gordon about what Mosul looks like after it's eventual fall.  You made reference to the fact that the fight against ISIS will continue; that -- (inaudible), and that they're adaptable.  And I was wondering if you could offer some specifics about what does that look like?  Are you worried about the potential that they would then carry out terror attacks in Europe?

And the last, that they were trying to expand the caliphate to other places like in Asia.

And secondly, I was wondering if you could tell us about the U.S. efforts to get back hostages held in Afghanistan, like Caitlin Coleman?

Thank you.

GEN. VOTEL:  Thank very much.

So, you know, as we -- one of the things that we've -- we've seen is, you know, some of these horrific IED, vehicle-borne IED, or suicide attacks in Baghdad in the past as we put pressure on them.  You know, fortunately, we've worked very closely with the Iraqi government to begin to address that.  And again, I think that's an area where we're making some progress.

We haven't completely eliminated it, but we have through our work together enabled the Iraqi forces to go after that network that is pursuing that.

So, I think as we look in the wake of a big operation like Mosul, I think it is -- it is possible that we will see some of those type of terrorist attacks; that they will try to, again, go after vulnerable locations with vehicle-borne IEDs; to continue to challenge -- challenge the government and the forces that have -- that have taken that.

I expect that we will, as we do in northern Syria, we will continue to see them continue to counter-attack and try to retake some key locations for them.

And certainly as -- as the -- as the physical caliphate disintegrates, and as it -- as it -- as it comes apart, as we dismantle it, I think, as I've indicated, I think that they will return to more of their terrorist-like roots.  And so they will continue to try to either direct or support or potentially inspire attacks outside of -- outside of the core in Iraq and Syria.

So I think we -- we should expect to see that.  And that is why, I think as the secretary has said, it's -- we've certainly got to address what's happening in Iraq and Syria, but that's not sufficient.  We've got to look much broader at all of our efforts to address the -- address the threat that they pose trans-regionally, as well as in this particular area.

(Crosstalk.)

GEN. VOTEL:  On the hostages, you know, certainly when Americans are taken captive, this becomes an immediate priority for us.  I, you know, I -- we are paying extraordinarily close attention to that.  We always do.  We -- I won't give in to too many more details with that, but I'm -- I'm satisfied that we are doing everything we can at this juncture to understand who took them and to try to get them back.

MR. COOK:  All right.  Two more questions.

Q:  Thank you, general.

I have three very quick questions on these operations in Syria.  First, can you clarify the airstrikes that you conducted when the Turks started the operation in Jarablus?  Did you -- (inaudible) -- Jarablus?  And did you get an advance notice from the Turks on this operation?

The second, do you have any communication channels with the FSA units advancing from Jarablus to Manbij?  Are you allowed legally to coordinate airstrikes with CIA-backed groups on the ground in the Manbij pocket?

And the third, do you have any information about what's happened to ISIL who left the border areas?  Are you concerned that they can act under the umbrella of FSA?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think the fact that we provided some air support to the operations in Jarablus indicates that there was some coordination beforehand.

So, yes, we -- you know, we didn't -- it was not an extensive planning period for this.  It was -- we were taking advantage of an opportunity that -- that our Turkish partners identified.  And so, you know, largely because of the -- of the basing that Turkey provides us for coalition aircraft, we were able to respond very, very quickly in that situation.

So, yes, we -- we were able to respond and do it in a time that was timely for their particular operations.

We are not necessarily directly talking to all of those partners.  We do work through our Turkish partners to communicate to them and communicate what is happening.  So we try to use all mechanisms of communication back and forth here with how we talk to the various partners.

With respect to where -- I think your last question was where the Islamic State members in Jarabulus went to, I think there's a variety of places they could have gone.  They certainly could have gone further to the west, the southwest, down towards the Al-Bab area.  They could have moved down towards Raqqah.  Those are areas where there are a presence of Islamic State forces.

So my -- my -- my expectation is they would have moved to areas where they could have received support from Islamic State elements, which might be those locations.

Q:  The last one.  Are you concerned that they can attack under the umbrella of FSA?

GEN. VOTEL:  I don't -- I don't -- I don't know.  I mean, I -- I think we -- you know, that's -- that's something we -- we pay some attention to here.  But I don't that we've necessarily seen indications of that at this particular point.

MR. COOK:  (Off-mic.)

Q:  Thank you, sir.

General, are you concerned at all -- were you expressing any concerns to the Turkish – there are U.S. advisers with SDF forces, as Turkey targets SDF forces in these clashes, was there any -- is there a concern about U.S. advisers embedded with SDF?

GEN. VOTEL:  Okay.  We've been -- we've been co-located with Turks -- Turkish forces for a long period of time.  And so they -- they know very well where we are.

So, you know, we may remind them, but, frankly, I think our coordination and our situational awareness with -- with Turkish -- Turkish forces -- Turkish-led forces is good.  And that -- that was not an immediate -- an immediate concern for me.  My -- I think we have had good situational awareness with -- with the Turks.

Q:  And just on a separate avenue, there was recently a two-star was dismissed from European Command due to personal issues.  Are you at all -- as a combatant commander, are you concerned about the vetting or clearance process with generals with access to sensitive information in your command?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I think that's -- I don't know all the details of that particular situation.  I'm -- I think what we go through to prepare leaders is -- is very sufficient.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

MR. COOK:  Thank you, general.  (Inaudible)

GEN. VOTEL:  If I could just for a moment, I would like to just make two points here as I close.  Not so fast.

First of all, I have two points I'd just emphasize with you.  We do see momentum building in -- in Iraq and Syria.  And as -- as I've kind of commented to several of you, this is really, I think, the biggest concern that I have as a CENTCOM commander, is maintaining our momentum in the fight.

And the intent going forward is to continue to support our partners and help them maintain that momentum.  So that is a very key piece for me as the CENTCOM commander.

I would just also point out that we have extraordinarily good partners as we -- as we move forward.  We talked about a variety of them here in this room.  But certainly as in large coalition here that we have -- we -- we are very well supported.

I spent a good amount of time in the region over the last five months, and I've gotten out to see a lot of our partners.  And I'm very encouraged by the strength of our relationship and the willingness of our partners and our allies to continue to do what is necessary to achieve our common objectives against the Islamic State.  And I am confident that that's going to be the case going forward.

So, thanks once again for the opportunity to talk with you.  I look forward to seeing you again.