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On the Record Press Gaggle by Secretary James N. Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Good to see you.  All right, and this will be on the record for a little bit, OK, and then we'll go off the record at some point. Then I can really (inaudible).

Well, first of all, thank you all for going on the trip. I'm sure I ruined your Saturday night as well as your Sunday, so one of those things, but I appreciate it, going out and covering what's going on for us.

First stop, as you know, is Rome, and for those of you who go to crummy places, just remember I took you to Rome when we go the crummy places.

And then we'll head up to Brussels, Stuttgart and Munich.

Rome's the D-ISIS conference.  This is where we get together with a whole lot of nations, and we talk about the way ahead. There are numerous questions right now about what's next as we go forward.  First mission, finish off ISIS physical caliphate.  That is still underway.  

For those of you who've been on the plane, remember me saying the fight's not over against ISIS.  It's not over.  It goes on.  There's been tough fighting the last week with ISIS.  

We had the added complexity of a pro-regime force crossing the river.  Sometimes that happens back and forth.  We crossed the river in Tabqa, for example, all coordinated with the -- with the Russians, through the Russians, and all -- in this case, they came across the river and went some 10 miles, veered directly toward one of our positions.  They knew it was our position.  How do we know that?  Because they began shelling it.

We did have Americans at the position with the SDF headquarters there.  We responded and stopped the incursion.  That force retreated back to the west side of the river.

There's also been other firing going on there.  The reason for it, we cannot give you a reason for it.  We don't know.  As you know, the deconfliction line has pretty much worked, in terms of the river, and the deconflicion communication line between us and the Russians has stayed up for months, and has never gone down.  But it was up throughout this latest series of incidents.  

The Russians told us they had no forces there initially.  I think that's still the case, but we don't have full clarity on what the regime forces are doing there.

But for right now, at least at this moment, it's calm.

In Rome, we'll be talking about the way ahead, and this has to do also with the recovery efforts for the area that we're occupied by ISIS.  As you know, they tore the heck out of those places, and so there's a lot of recovery that's got to go on, and we'll be talking about that as well.

Most of what we'll be talking about there will be the initial recovery of places we take.  How do you get the IEDs out of the area, because there's schools open, get the clean water flowing again so you don't have disease outbreaks, that sort of thing.

Then I'm going up to Brussels, and that's for a long-scheduled defense ministerial.  There's nothing timely about this.  This is the normal routine for that.  Obviously an opportunity to strengthen the alliance.  I've had a lot of either phone calls or notes, letters passed to me, from the allies, expressing support for the National Defense Strategy, as well as the -- the Nuclear Posture Review, both of which, as you know, those of you who have been on the plane before, been in some of the conferences we've had, those were coordinated with them going in.  In other words, we're talking with them about the Nuclear Posture Review, consulted with them, getting their inputs and their ideas.  Same thing on the National Defense Strategy.  So there was no surprise.  It has been embraced by the nations.

But we continue to bolster interoperability and coordination.  This is a normal thing that keeps NATO fit for its time.  

We will address alliance modernization and burden sharing, as we have for years.  In the last adminstrations, plural, both Bush and Obama, and of course we continue today to press for everyone carrying their full share of the load -- fair share of the load, and keep NATO probably the most successful military alliance, at least in modern history, maybe ever, because it prevented war more than anything else.  (Inaudible) quite a war, was as military alliance that prevented war.

It is engaged in fighting now as you know in Afghanistan.  Afghanistan will be a key part of the discussion there in Brussels.  And as you know, we remain unambiguously committed to the alliance and to our allies, and that comes through loud and clear in the National Defense Strategy and underneath the White House and national security strategy.

In Stuttgart, I'm basically going to Stuttgart to see our two combatant commands there, AFRICOM and EUCOM, talk with them about their specific focus areas, their missions, and what they need, and always the normal clarification of civilization oversight of the military and what we expect from our military commanders, the combatant commanders.  

They have critical roles, EUCOM of course looking mostly the east and to the south. That is where NATO is mostly focused right now, so that's where EUCOM is focused.  The European Command is under SACEUR and SACEUR of course is the combined NATO command.

AFRICOM, they're bolstering efforts to eliminate violent extremism by, with and through allies.  We see, for example, the brilliantly led, as the only way to describe it, French campaign in the Sahel, that it's French led, French supported to the Africans, with American assistance.  So we'll certainly be talking about what -- what we're going to be doing in the future.  

We do have a report coming out soon on the Niger incident, where we lost our lads in a fight there late last year. That report is making its way to me.  It's not yet been sent to me.  I would expect it as soon as the AFRICOM commander has reviewed it.  It is extensive.  It is thousands of pages long.  It looked into all that (inaudible), not just into the specific incident, but into the broader circumstances surrounding that incident, so you get a holistic view.

So it's going to take him a little while to get through it and make his recommendations, based on what the investigating officer, who is the chief of staff of AFRICOM, senior officer basically of the staff, went in to the do the investigation.

So once we get that up, obviously, we'll be briefing you.  I don't expect it for a week or two.  I've got to see.  But that, too, is something that I need to confirm when I see General Waldhauser, the commander.

But again, these are the commands that take the words by, with and through our allies and turn them into reality, turn them into action, not just theory, so I want to hear how they're doing with our allies, and we'll break that out into a lot of individual countries.  How did we do in this country?  How did we do in that country?  Making certain that we're response to other nations' requirements and aware of the challenges that they face.

Then I'm going to go over to Munich.  There it's a security conference.  It's the premier security conference in European each year, and what I really want to do there, I want to do a lot of listening, and then I want to do some bilateral engagements, just like I'll be doing in Rome with Minister of Defense Pinotti.  She's been the minister there since I came in.  

I'll do it in Brussels with individual ministers, NATO ministers.  Then in Munich I'll be dealing mostly with ministers who are not NATO.  In other words, other ministers around Europe and elsewhere that come.

So I'll be doing that work there throughout the trip in all of the locations, reinforcing the trans-Atlantic bond, which -- to which we are fully committed.

So that gives you a little sense of where I'm going and what I intend to you.


Q:  You ready for a question? (Laughter.)  I have two (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Golly, I mean, let me catch a breath -- go ahead.

Q:  (inaudible)


Q:  When you said there was...


SEC. MATTIS:  I was born ready for your questions.  No problem.

Q:  I'm sorry.

One, you said there had been some tough fighting over the last week against ISIS.  I was wondering if you could expand on that.  

And secondly, the -- Afghanistan's key to the discussions in NATO. Can you be a little more specific about that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, on the ISIS campaign, I would like a little bit to snow that you're pushing against.  You know that the Iraqi security forces basically are now in (inaudible).  You go down to small cells of little areas held.

But basically on the -- on the Iraq side of border, ISIS has lost everything, pushing them into Syria.

Of course from the Syria side, as you're seen from Manbij and all the way down to Tabqa, and Raqqa, and (inaudible), again, what we call the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  That's basically the river valley from Raqqa downstream to the Iraqi border, we're pushing against that.

So as you do that, you're compacting what's left of ISIS.  So the fighting actually becomes a little tougher at that point. 

And, plus, you know, you've got the -- the distraction of what's going on up in Afrin right now, which is drawing off some of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have got about 50 percent -- that's probably not a firm percentage; could be less, could be more -- that are Kurds, and so they see their fellow Kurds in Afrin under attack, so that is causing at least their attention to shift up there.  In some cases, some of the -- the troops have drawn off to there.  Not a significant number right now, but you know, between the concentration of ISIS and the distraction of Afrin, then you've got tough fighting down along the line on contact there, in what we call the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

And what was it on, Afghanistan?

Q:  Afghanistan, what you said would be key to the discussions in NATO.  Could you be more specific?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  As you know, yes, in Afghanistan, last August, I think it was, we rolled out a new strategy, four R's plus S.  How do sustain the four R's of -- basically start with a regional view.  We're going to realign our forces there into advisory duties to the unit that had not had advisers for a long time.  A lot of the special forces have had them; the others have not.  

I was down in Fort Benning, for example, talking the reinforcements, the third 'R', that are going in.  In this case, I was down there to bid them farewell and pay my respects.

And then reconciliation is where we're all -- all this is to drive them to the reconciliation table.  Already we have had splinter groups and some people in the Taliban just since August, even before we got any reinforcements there, start talking more.

Now what we need to do is make certain that the pre-fighting season efforts are fully engaged, brief everybody on those, what we're doing, and then ensure that we're all aligned with whose bringing in more troops.  We've got I think around a dozen nations right now that are sending more troops.  

In many cases -- why is it taking so long?  In many cases it requires parliamentary action by -- due to the nature of their governments, so those things of course move at legislative speed.

But I want to sit down with all the MODs, see where they're at, see what more they're going to do.  Some that can't send more troops right now, whether it's because of their concerns from the south, and they're putting more troops down there.  

Take a look at France.  Thousands of troops down in the Sahel.  Then can they provide either schooling for Afghan NCOs or officers in their countries, or money to support the campaign.  That's (inaudible).  It's all that coordination.

Is that it?

Q:  Yes, thank you. 

Q:  A couple of follow-ups.  Just on Syria, with some distraction going on with the SDF, are you concerned about these pro-regime fighters attacking U.S. and SDF more frequently?  Is that kind of a worry now?  

And are you having more discussions with Russia over the deconfliction line, to see if there's a way that they can put those at rest?

SEC. MATTIS:  The deconfliction communication line with Russia is constantly used.  We keep each other informed.  The Russians profess that they were not aware when we called about that force that had crossed, and it came closer.  The -- they were notified when the firing began.  That's when we heard there were no Russians there.  And we go out of our way to ensure that we do not endanger the Russians, as you know.

And so when we took them under fire, that's when they began the indirect fire, the artillery fire.  We went after them.  And to us, no, it's not a concern right now.  We're watching it.  Why do I say it's not a concern?  We're quite capable of rebuffing them.  It's perplexing why they would do it.  They have nothing to gain by fighting us.  There's ISIS to be fought.  It -- it doesn't make sense, and I think that's probably why the Russians, too, at least appear to be perplexed by it.

Q:  Well, that's why -- have you had discussions with the Russians looking ahead, or can they dissuade this from happening again?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we do deconfliciton.  We don't do coordination with the Russians.  We do deconfliction.  Because we have a deconfliction line, it doesn't need a lot of coordination, if you see what I mean, until someone decides they're going to come across the line. And we're OK with that in places where they need to go after ISIS, and they need to go -- and they're taking fire from the other side of the river, hey, we'll coordinate to make sure that we have nobody there.  And what they do is up to them.

But, no, we don't do coordination of that nature.  We don't need to.  It doesn't inhibit us, our operation on the other side of the river.  It doesn't inhibit their operation on the other side.

Obviously if we have aircraft near the river, then we'll talk to each other, because sometime an airplane can cross the river just in its normal bombing run.

Q:  But they're not influencing -- they're having less influence on Syria then perhaps U.S....

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not willing to say that.  I don't know if it's the same influence.  And this is a group that's off on its own agenda.  I'm not willing to say that the Russians have -- have lost influence or gained influence.  

Clearly coming out of Sochi, and Moscow's assurance they would support the U.N. approach.  We're on our way to Geneva is the law applied. For those who think that Russia is somehow the kingmaker, no, it's Steffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy is the kingmaker here.  He's the one who's going to decide how do you -- not the kingmaker, the peacemaker here.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, very quickly on North Korea.


Q:  Over the past few days, there seems to be a warming of sort of tensions between North Korea and South Korea, with the North Koreans inviting the South Korean president to Pyongyang, and he appears to be accepting it.  Is that positive sign for the peninsula?

And there's a bit of concern about that growing a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.  So how do you see that playing out?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I know that people are watching for a wedge between South Korea, Republic of Korea, in other words, and the United States.  There's no wedge there.  They -- staff -- the military staffs are integrated.  

If you move up to the political level, Admiral Song, Minister of Defense Song, flew into Hawaii when I was out in the Pacific, just so he and I could sit down face to face and consult.

He broached it to me.  He said -- as a matter of fact, in his opening remarks he said to the press that there is no wedge; there's no gap at all.

So in a political level in Seoul, there is no -- no wedge that can be driven between us by North Korea.

Clearly it's too early to say if this -- this -- that if using the Olympics as a non -- using the Olympics in a way to reduce tension, if that's going to have any traction once the Olympics are over.  We can't say right now.

Q:  But is it a good sign, the fact that they're just at least talking?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know if it's a sign.  It's too early for me to tell what he'll do, because in the midst of all of this, he ran a military parade that -- that highlighted his ballistic missiles.  That's a very strange time, if in fact he's trying to show a warming to the country that he has attacked repeatedly as an American puppet, a country that impeached their last president.  It's clearly a democracy.  It runs its own affairs.  So, I -- it's just too early to tell.


Q:  Go back to Syria.  Assad said several times publicly that he's going to go after SDF, so how are you going to avoid engaging a Syrian regime directly?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, it's a good question, because it's one of the most complex battlefields you could ever imagine.  I mean, as soon as you think you could make it this complex it grows in complexity.  

We are there for one reason, and that is to fight ISIS.  This is an international campaign.  No country in the world supports ISIS.  For example, Lebanese Hezbollah has got a state sponsor, Iran.  ISIS has no state sponsor.  There's no nation-state (inaudible) to say, we're for ISIS; we're there.  Countries all across the world, from the Middle East to Europe, have all contributed money or forces, whatever is needed, and this campaign that we're working on is couched firmly inside that -- that policy of defeating ISIS.  

You saw it in Iraq, where we have a government we can work with.  After what Assad did to his own people when they rose up against him, that is not -- we have not had that luxury in Syria.

However, we are there for one reason only.  We will not be deflected.  Obviously we have the right of self-defense.  You saw that when the pro-regime force for some reason, without apparently telling the Russians, without coordinating with anybody, came across the river and then attacked us.

So we will rebuff anyone who attacks us obviously.  That's natural.  But we're not going to broaden the war.  We're against -- that's not in our interest.  There will be no mission creep.  That would be a choice.  We will not choose to enlarge that mission.

Q:  But are you going to defend the (inaudible) of the territory that the SDF (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, what we are going to do is hold that territory and get it back in local leaders hands. Use Steffan de Mistura's Geneva Process to come up with a post-conflict map and post-conflict plan for the way ahead, and assure that ISIS 2.0 doesn't rise in the middle of all of that, and derail everything we're fought for, and many people have paid the price on this thing.  We don't simply up and leave when most of the caliphate's done, before the caliphate's really finished, and leave the diplomats without a leg to stand on against people who have no diplomatic inclination.  So that's how we'll keep it.

Now, it will be a challenge.  It will be -- it will be difficult, but we do difficult, no problems.


Q:  So you got the two-year budget deal locked in now with Congress.


Q:  So...

SEC. MATTIS:  It's not quite locked in, OK.  (Inaudible), there has to be an appropriations bill, yes.  But yes, we -- that was quite an achievement for the president to get it to where it is.

Q:  So president has said one of his main goals is to rebuild the military.


Q:  Last year the budget was (inaudible) as this is just kind of stopgap measure, but it (inaudible).


Q:  Is that still true?  Because 2018 might be the first (inaudible) kind of larger rebuilding.

SEC. MATTIS:  Uh-huh.  What we did, we got money from Congress.  As you know, a supplemental last spring, and that was just -- that was almost like stopping the bleeding, you know, trying to stop the continued degradation of the military readiness.  Buy more spare parts, get more fuel, buy more fuel for aviators, get more time in the air.  

But it just a stopgap.  It was not an integrated effort.  Because Dr. Nadia Schadlow, and she -- who led the effort in the White House on the National Security Strategy, made it very collaborative with us.  We were in on the ground floor.  We saw different drafts.  We went in with our inputs and all.

At the same time, we were putting together our National Defense Strategy.  So what we were able to do, our budgeteers, were getting constant guidance as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy were put together. 

So we're already starting the longer term.  In other words, this all feeds into the longer term view.  It's already couched inside the defense strategy. 

Whether it will be a larger military initially, or will we just bring on the additional capabilities.  I'll give you, an example, cyber troops that we need.  We know we've needed them.  Nine of the last 10 years we've operated under continuing resolutions of unpredictable and varied lengths.  And what that did was it gave us a stop and go, so we couldn't really adjust to the new forms of warfare that were coming out.

So first of all, we've got to further enhance the (inaudible) of what we have right now.  In some cases that means buying new gear, because squadrons that rate 10 airplanes have only seven.  They can't repair the others; they're no longer repairable. They've -- we've flown the wings off of them, so to speak, (inaudible).

So we'll get to buy some new F-18s, for example, in order to keep the F-18 squadrons where they can be maintained at full strength.

So we'll be buying stuff.  We'll be standing up some new elements.  Cyber is one example.  And we'll be recruiting more mechanics in the Air Force, and we'll be recruiting more soldiers to fill in gaps in the U.S. Army, for example.

So it's not a lot bigger organizationally; it's more addressing -- it's built more to address the changing forms of warfare, and to bring the current capabilities up.

But the longer-term defense strategy projections that you can read about in what we release, that is also guiding where these funds are going.  We were able to do some of them as we were constructing the defense strategy.  

Kind of a long answer for you.  Is that -- what...

Q:  Is there anything you couldn't get with $716 billion?  If you were -- if you were pushing (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  I am very confident that what the Congress has now done, and the president is going to allocate to us in the budget is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy.

STAFF:  (Inaudible) real quick and then we're going off the record (inaudible). 

SEC. MATTIS:  No, we'll do one from each on the record.

Go ahead, yes?

Q:  If I can bring you to NATO.  You mentioned a long-term (inaudible) with adding to alliance burden sharing.  Can you speak a little bit about how much you think allies have refocused on burden sharing in the last year, if they've done anything, and what more would you like them to do?


Q:  And if you could just describe a little bit in their relationship with Turkey and (inaudible) progress on the (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me just hit on Turkey right up front.  Turkey is a NATO ally.  It is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside its own border.

We are assisting Turkey, a number of the nations are assisting Turkey, in terms of missile defense and counter-terrorism -- excuse me.  And we continue to work on the areas of disagreement, which is how do we take down ISIS as rapidly as possible.  But they have a legitimate security concern, and we do not dismiss one bit of that, along that border with Syria.  I mean, I don't care whether you're Israel or Lebanon, you're Jordan, Iraq or Turkey, you have legitimate political, you have legitimate security concerns.

So how do we thread that needle in this very complex -- what we were talking about earlier, this very complex campaign?  It's tough, and we're going to continue to work closely with Turkey.  Our militaries meet daily right now, so that's on (inaudible).

You're other question about burden sharing, clearly NATO has reversed what was a downward trend, and so now we're well into the second year I believe, where the nations are spending more on defense.  And you see it with the number of nations that have already achieve 2.0, or will here this year, and you see it in the number that have national plans to get 2.0

You also see it more broadly in Europe.  If you take a look at Sweden at Finland, not members of NATO and look what they're doing with their defense establishments.

So I would say that it's on a positive trajectory.  It's clearly stated by a number of the nations, they're going to make the 2.0, or they're already there.  You see it from France.  You see it from Britain.  It's over 2 percent.  Some of the bigger nations. 

In Germany you see the -- putting together -- the new government has delayed some of those kind of policy decisions, but I have a very close and collaborative working relationship with my counterpart, and she assures me that Germany will be doing more.  I expect -- I can't -- I've got to wait on one thing until after the government is formed, and it rolls out. 

But basically the trajectory is very positive. That's not to say that everyone's where they need to be or has plans for where they're going, and we'll discuss that.  We're all sovereign nations, and these are sovereign decisions.  So we've got to discuss it, so that's everyone carrying their share.

Q:  Sir, during this pretty big) dust-up between Israel and the Syrian regime in recent days...


Q:  ... (inaudible), Israel's accused Iran of flying a drone from Syria into Israel.  Can you talk a little bit about, was there any U.S. role in supporting those Israeli strikes, and what is -- is Iran's activities in Syria increasingly a risk, and increasingly perceived as a threat to the (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, first of all, no, we were not involved in -- in the events of the last -- on a military basis we had no involvement on the -- on the fighting there, the Israeli air force and the Syrian forces.

It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it.  Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged.

Now in two places, I can say, well, it just happened to fall out that way.  In three places, it's starting to look like there's something to it. And I think the further you are from there, the easier it is to dismiss this as some sort of, you know, Washington, D.C. chicanery or something.  If you live in the region, there's no doubt what Iran is doing.  If you're in Bahrain, and the police there have captured explosives and that sort of thing, clearly from Iran; if you're picking up debris in Saudi Arabia of Iranian missiles; or you've got explosive boats, remote-controlled boats, out in the Red Sea, you can see where Iran is -- is either producing the wherewithal for the fight or actually leading the fight, in some case. 

I think you'll all aware of when the Quds Force leadership is in Iraq or in Syria.  So when Syria, which has made no -- has not hidden at all, made no excuse for what they're doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughput for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israeli has an absolute right to defend themselves.  They don't have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.

So Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that's what happened yesterday.