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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis En Route to Brussels

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Very quickly on the record -- so, I think you saw that yesterday President Trump rolled out the budget that you had heard all about the week before -- I did tell you it puts us obviously in a strong position with Republican and Democrat support and that this will give us the foundation for doing the very rebuilding that the Congress has been slowly aligned with us on, frankly -- it was simply a matter of how do they find the money.  They've now found the money, so we will move forward with for a more-capable, more-lethal and obviously more-ready force as we fill in the readiness gap that you all have reported on.  I won't belabor them right now.

It took us a long time to get to this point of readiness and so we're coming back -- we're first still a very strong military -- you can see that everywhere we are operating but we want to make certain that the underpinnings are sufficient.  

And to say that we appreciate Congress passing that urgently-needed two-year agreement -- budget agreement would be an understatement.  We're grateful and it's up to us now when the money starts coming in to make certain that we spend it wisely and earn the trust of the American people, the American Congress and certainly show that solvency and security go hand-in-hand.

Let me talk for a minute about coming out of Rome.  We had the de-ISIS coalition meeting.  It was joined by the Ministers of Defense of Iraq and Turkey for the latter half of it, which is the normal way it goes.  

The achievements of the Iraqi security forces -- this might be, to you, old news; to us it was never a foregone conclusion.  It was the result of blood sweat and tears, frankly, and they paid a heavy price as they are now hunting down the remaining cells -- the cells that went dormant; any small concentrations -- there are some areas they've not gone through because there are not very good living conditions of their but there are still cells that are taken temporary refuge.  And so, they're on the hunt as we speak.

Further down in Kuwait the Emir got together with the Foreign Minister's -- our Secretary of State was there along with a lot of others and they were working today on the recovery aspects.  How do we get the place back to normal?  Who's going to contribute money for the disastrous impact that ISIS had on Iraq society and Iraq infrastructure.

So, that meeting is going on -- I don't have the complete readout yet -- it may still actually be in progress; I'm not sure.  But we'll get that word -- when I get it I'll give you my thoughts on it, but I doubt I'm going to get it before we land.  It will probably be later tonight before I talk to the secretary.

One point I would make is as we look over at Syria you can see the complexity in sharp focus right now.  On the Middle Euphrates River Valley ISIS has counterattacked in a couple of places.  It's kind of normal -- maybe slightly above normal but I don't have the data to support what I just said so, I'll just say it's probably about normal counterattack levels against us.  They try to push back -- it would be local tactical counterattacks; it's not any kind of a larger effort as they try to keep the offensive off balance.

The attack went last week on us from a pro-regime element.  Now on that one, ladies and gentlemen, as you know, we were told there were no Russians.  That was right off the deconfliction line.  They said not our people.  We were perplexed some of you even asked, why would the Russians not have control of others.  

There is now reporting in the press -- I don't have any reporting -- that some Russians -- non-Russian federation soldiers, but Russian contractors were among the casualties.  I can't give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or at the Pentagon.  

And there was also one other incursion which involved indirect fire on a tank.  The tanks were taken out.  The firing stopped.  That's all I can tell you.

Again, its perplexing.  It makes no sense, it does not appear to be anything coordinated by the Russians -- Russians, and so that's -- again -- I know I'm not giving you much here, but we don't have much on it right now outside of what we've seen reported coming out of -- out of Moscow, I think, on open press.  

The reason -- on Afrin, we all spoke with the Turkish minister of defense today.  He laid out the rationale.  We laid out the rationale for working this to a solution that took into account Turkey's legitimate security concerns, and we'll still work it.  I will see, obviously, the NATO allies tomorrow, including the Turkish MOD, and I'll meet with him at that time.  I did not have --it was a -- it was the group meeting today in Rome.

The point I would make here is that ISIS is not done.  We've kept saying that the fight is not over.  I've said that now for two months, and you just have to recognize, the fighting goes on.  That's why we want to stay focused on it.  And it was a very strong -- that was the strong sense from the nations in Europe from out in the Pacific, all the ones that are fighting this.  That was the clearly stated consensus.  

This is not over.  Not even the caliphate is completely down.  Then we have to work the rhetoric and the message of hatred that they had put out.  We have to work against this ideology.  We have to work against its financing, and there's a very strong collaboration.  We've now grown to 70 nations and four international organizations, so it continues to have more nations come in as they recognize.  Even if they're not directly threatened, they want the information as they (inaudible) themselves against what's been spread.  

For example, several of the most recent nations are African nations who do not have an ISIS problem yet, and they're wanting to make certain they don't get into one.  

Then -- but this sort of collaboration is very, very strong, and the stick-to-it-tiveness, I would call it, of the -- of the coalition.  It was clearly stated in that meeting there today.  

I'm on my way to Brussels now for the NATO def mins, the defense ministerial.  And I'll follow that up by talking to -- at the AFRICOM headquarters at Stuttgart and the European Command, the U.S. command who are stationed there.  And we will -- we'll go over what's there.  Issues are the usual communication between me and the combatant commanders who work for me.

At the def mins, we're going to talk about keeping the alliance fit for its time.  That has to deal with its command structure, its organization below the command structure and burden sharing and military mobility readiness support -- that there's a number of issues that we'll the going over there.  And anyway -- let me go to your question -- I don't have much time here -- see if we can get a few questions.

Q:  Can you just address on the detainees -- Syria detainee issue -- how concerned are you about it?  What response did you get?

SEC. MATTIS:  Thanks.  I believe I meant to mention that.  We did talk about the foreign fighters.  You remember a lot of them saying they were willing to die for their cause.  Well, they haven't proven quite so willing to die when confronted with the coalition forces and the SDF.  

And so, we're gathering up hundreds now of detainees.  The important thing is that the countries of origin keep responsibility for them.  How they carry out that responsibility -- there's a dozen different diplomatic legal or whatever ways, I suppose.  But the bottom line is we don't want them going back on the street.  We don't want them on the street in Ankara.  We don't want them on the street in Tunis, Paris or Brussels.  We don't need them in Kuala Lumpur or New Delhi.  We don't need them in Kabul or in Riyadh.  

My point is, it's an international problem -- it needs to be addressed and we're all engaged on doing that.  There is not a one way forward for all detainees right now.  Some nations have specific interests where they want to bring people in.  Some nations do not have any detainees there, but they are equally worried.  

Obviously, this is not -- these people come home, and they have the veneer of civilization off them and they look at the world very differently after going through the kind of mayhem they've created where they're at.  So, that was brought up.  It was not resolved in a final way.  It's being worked.  There's a number of things going on already to have some of them being repatriated to certain locations but right now we do not have that one fully resolved.

Q:  But what about the US?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  We want to make sure that certain foreign fighters are taken off the battlefield and they don't show up somewhere else -- and I just want to hold with that right now.

Q:  Over the past few days there have been a lot of statements coming out from Turkey about the United States.  One of them was accusing the US of giving funding to ISIS.  But on the war the President Erdogan came out with a statement today saying about US support of (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we did discuss Turkey's security concerns and their concerns about our collaboration with the SDF.  What was your first question?

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  About bypass?  No, we don't bypass ISIS.  We have shown -- you take a look at the casualty figures that the SDF has taken, that the Iraqi security force has taken, and you look at the casualties on the side of ISIS -- we don't bypass ISIS.  Our tactics are tactics of annihilation.

Q:  The NATO secretary said today that (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  He said that today?  Okay.

Q:  Yes.  What would you like to see come out of this?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that what you're seeing is NATO's clear sense of mission.  I have not seen what the Secretary General said but his clear sense of mission to have stability in the geopolitical heart of the Middle East is in everyone's best interest in the Middle East outward -- and the Secretary General is obviously engaged in this effort with the Iraqi government, but I can't say more than that -- I've got to at least read his statement.

Q:  Do you know what the Iraqi government has specifically requested?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'll leave that to the Iraqi government to speak to.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Syria, given that another attack by pro-regime forces -- the senior Israeli officials say the US has built leverage influence in Syria.  Does the US have influence in Syria?  Is the regime attack showing that they're willing to take the US on?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think if you look at how we're now all trending toward what the US intended long ago, which is the Geneva process to resolve this -- I think that is the summation about our influence and our direction.  Unlike some nations, we don't try to suppress their options, we try to align along the lines of the UN and so I think we still have influence.

There was one other thing -- what was the first thing you said?  I wouldn't say that -- this could just be a local couple of guys doing something.  I don't want to dignify it as a big attack; okay?  It wasn't but it still something we're keeping our eye on for the very thing -- it's in the back of your mind right now.

Q:  (Inaudible) so, do you think that Guantanamo will be a solution?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not willing to say anything on that right now.  I think the best thing to is define the problem and then we'll get the solution.  We need to know how many of these guys or in what status, what countries are they from.  And so, I don't want to jump to offering a solution before I've defined the problem.

Q:  Well, very briefly I just wanted to check on the U.K. element detainees (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  I think we've got to talk more with them before I could answer that right now.  My view is that the country of origin that they were citizens of bears some sense of responsibility.  How they deal with that responsibility -- I'm not a lawyer.  I'm not an international law person but I know one thing -- they shouldn't be allowed back on the streets if they did what we all saw them doing -- those of you who slipped into Syria and took the pictures of the pirated photos that we got out.

So, the most important thing is we figure out how we're going to deal with this -- that we can deal with it.  We don't paralyze ourselves and just say nothing we can do.  I don't think that is an option.  That's the one thing I will say -- doing nothing is not an option.

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I do not see it increasing every year going forward.  I think that the alliance will increase, and you see that with -- I think we've got about a dozen nations now with firm plans to get to 2.0.  I think there's more than that, but the trajectory of almost all nations -- almost all, probably but for two or three, it's -- it's all going up.  So that's -- that's where it's coming from.  It's all of them pulling together.  

Q: (off mic)  

SEC. MATTIS:  I wouldn't say that right now.  It depends on the situation.  But right now, I think we have -- we have certainly proven that our trans-Atlantic bond and our commitment to NATO Article III and Article V.  Article III, where every nation is expected to take steps for its own defense and collective defense, Article III, and Article V, which is, an attack on one is an attack on all.  

So, I think if we put that together, we are where we're at.  We're in a good position.  We also see the rest of the alliance climbing in their commitment.  And we'll be talking about how much the climb and the -- you know, the -- you know -- Gary, all right, that's it.  (Laughter.)

(UNKNOWN):  I closed (inaudible).  

(UNKNOWN):  You could stick to that, Alex.  (Laughter.)

(UNKNOWN):  Is that it?  

(UNKNOWN):  Yes.  

(CROSSTALK)  (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  (inaudible) worked out.  

Thank you, guys.  

(UNKNOWN):  Thank you.