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Press Gaggle En Route to Oman

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Well, first of all, thanks to all of you for coming out again and losing your weekend.  Thanks for covering out guys and gals.  

And -- you okay there, Gregory?

STAFF:  Yes, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.

But we're on our way right now, as you know, to Oman, and we will have only one aerial refueling, which will make you more comfortable, over the fight.  I thought it'd be more than that actually.  Must be have a good tailwind.

But go out and do the normal -- some of you have been through this so many times -- the normal consultations.  I go out and do a lot of listening.  I do a lot of asking of questions.  I respond a lot, to what's on their minds, that sort of thing.

We're going to be visiting two partner nations out there, that we have long, long relations with, and this really if you look -- I had a journalist tell me that I used the word "allies" 124 times in the National Defense Strategy.  Only you people could have such a boring life that you would count the number of times a word is used.  (Laughter.) I think maybe you know how to make a computer do the counting actually.

But that, as you know, the first line of effort is to make the military more lethal.  The second line of effort is to build more and stronger partnerships and allies.  So this is line of effort number two in action.  Nothing new to it.  It's a steady, consistent line of effort.  

The Gulf's cohesion is critical, we believe, to maintaining stability in the region.  That, as you know, that unity of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has been strained, to put it mildly, and so I'm also wanting to hear what the sultan says can be done about that situation, as well as the situation on his border in Yemen, with the various factions that are fighting there, and certainly the civil war.  

And he has for a long time endorsed trying to get this thing, the violence, turned off.  He's a very strategic leader, their Sultan Qaboos, and he recognizes the advantage that violent extremists, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, the advantage they gain from that sort of disarray inside of Yemen.

So we'll also be looking at ways that we further strengthen our mil-to-mil relationship.  We have a very good professional relationship with the sultan's armed forces.  It goes back a long time.  And so that -- that's where our first stop.

We'll be going into Bahrain, and I'll meet with the king.  There, too, we reinforce a very strong defense partnership.  Bahrain has for decades batted way above its weight in terms of providing support to the U.S.  And I would say to many nations that try to maintain stability in the Gulf, I think you're aware that the U.S. 5th Fleet is headquartered there, and has been in its various permutations, going all the way back to 1947, but our relationship with Bahrain goes back much further, starting with missionaries hospital there, the American hospital, which brought the first real medical care to the island kingdom. 

But it's a very strong defense relationship with a vital regional ally.  The basing is essential for our access and U.S. military operations in the Middle East.  And they've been an excellent host for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The visit's also an opportunity where I'll get to hear from the sailors and the Marines stationed in Manama, and I like staying in touch with those folks and hearing their view of what's going on, our forces that are deployed out here.

And so that kind of frames where we're going on this trip.

I'd like to make a few comments on the record about Russia.  This is interesting you all?  This would be a good one?  Okay.

I looked at President Putin's speech, and like many of us I focused on the last third of it.  The first two-thirds clearly about domestic issues, but also opportunities in that first two-thirds, as I was reading it.  And I tried to forget that I had knew what the last third was about.  That you would actually see opportunities there to reduce the tensions between the NATO countries, the Western countries, the nations that want to live by international law, maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity of everyone, and the Russian Federation.

And then I got to the last third of it, and it was -- I would just say that it was what I would call disappointing, but unsurprising right now.

Now we can dismiss some of this as election rhetoric on the eve of an election and that sort of thing, but as I went through and looked at the clips of what he showed on the videos and all, I get paid to make strategic assessments, and I would just tell you that I saw no change to the Russian military capability.

And each of these systems that he's talking about that are still years away, I do not see them changing the military balance.  They do no impact any need on our side for a change in our deterrent posture, which would be certainly an indication I registered this assessment with something that was changing.

I do hope the Russian military does not embrace the campaign rhetoric that they're hearing, but they have a pretty professional officer corps.  

And I would just say that, you know, canceling the strategic security talks, I would just say that that just shows a Russia that's not even acting in its own best interests.

And then I look down separately at what's going on in East Ghouta, seems kind of familiar, doesn't it?  Homs, Aleppo, East Ghouta, Russia signs up with the U.N. Security Council for a cease-fire.  Their partner proceeds to bomb, at best, indiscriminately; at worst, targeting hospitals.  I don't know which it is.  Either they're incompetent or they're committing illegal acts, or both.  

But I would just say that right now we're also getting reports -- I don't have evidence that I can show you -- but I am aware of the reports of chlorine gas use, and of the bombings that we're seeing now.  It's almost like a sickening replay of what we've seen before, in Aleppo for example, and before that in Homs.

We did -- Ambassador Haley worked with the U.N. Security Council to get this cease-fire, and Russia's partner immediately commenced violating it.  

So it is what it is right now.  We're working through diplomatic means, continuing to work.  We don't give up.  But what's going on there is, I think, being well covered by the press brave enough to be in the area, but it's not enough to get the full story out.

All right, so on the record we'll take a couple of questions, and I've got my various policy people in there -- four ladies, two guys and partridge in a pear tree of policy people (laughter) as well who guide me here.  So I can probably answer your questions.  That's what I'm got them in the room.

Go ahead, NuNu

Q:  I would like to ask about North Korea.  What's your take...

SEC. MATTIS:  Ah, thank you.

Q:  on the latest (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Ladies and gentleman, it's a very valid question.  Again, this is a diplomatically led effort.  You can see that in action.  Right now for those who questioned me about whether it was really diplomatically led, I now rest my case with exhibit A, so I do not want to talk about Korea at all. I'll leave it to those who are leading the effort, the State Department and the NSC (National Security Council), for the president, because it's that delicate.

When you get into a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high or goes higher, so I want those who are actually engaging in the discussions to be actually the ones who answer all media questions.  

And I should have brought that up earlier.  Thanks, NuNu for asking.

Q:  Can I just follow up quickly.  I understood what just said, and also you've raised several very interesting questions on other topics that we would of course like to ask you about.  But just to be clear on Korea, are you saying that -- can you tell us anything about the Foal Eagle.. I mean, that's -- the military aspect, the Foal Eagle exercises?

SEC. MATTIS:  Again, Robert, I understand -- if I was sitting on your side of this cabin I'd be doing the same thing.  

What I want you to understand is that right now every word is going to be nuanced and parsed apart across different cultures, at different times of the day, at -- in different contexts, and right now I want a very straight line from those actually responsible, not from those of us in a supporting or background role.  

So that's why even on the military things that we're doing that you all know the alliance does daily -- you know it's a very tight-knit U.S.-ROK alliance -- I don't even want to go into those things right now; just steady, and Department of State and White House will be, I'm sure, keeping you very informed.

Yes, Tom?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said a number of interesting things about Russia.  I'd just like to ask you specifically about the weapons that president...

SEC. MATTIS:  The novel weapons or...

Q:  Yes, the hypersonics and these other -- the rockets that could reach anywhere on the globe.  Are you -- you said you didn't see anything that indicated a new capability, so are these -- is just bluster?  Are these many years away, or do they even -- are they even going to exist at all?

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me talk about the end-state, how many years away they are, how much money they want to put into this arms race that they're creating with themselves.  At the end of the day, they can sink all of that money in; it does not change my strategic calculation.  I just assumed it would all happen at great expense to the Russia people.  It doesn't change anything.

Okay, they say they can hit one of our port cities with a robotic torpedo.  Okay.  They can hit one of our port cities right now today.  

They say they can hit any city by getting through defenses.  We have never said that we have a missile-defense system against Russia.  It's always been against one thing -- rogue nations.  And let me be very clear on those: North Korea and Iran.  And that's why the ones are in Eastern Europe.  They would not work.  And the Russian officers are professional enough and are technically skilled enough, they know what their politicians say is wrong.  They will not work against Russians, and they're not designed to.

So what I'm saying is they have the capability to do right now what he was touting.  So it doesn't change anything, other than how much money do they want to spend on something that does not change at all the strategic balance.

Yes, go ahead.

Q:  Thank you.  

A question on Syria.  There's reporting this week suggesting that options are being drawn up potentially to respond to some sort of chlorine gas attack.  That's a line, to date, that we have not crossed.  You know, sarin gas and other agents of that sort, we've responded, but not with chlorine.  Can you kind of elaborate on where we are at this point?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm going to leave a little bit of -- I'm not going to strictly define it.  We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians, on any battlefield.  

Russia was the framework guarantor that Assad would get rid of all of it.  Again, either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad.

There's an awful lot of reports about chlorine gas use or about symptoms that could be resulting from chlorine gas.

For any of you who've been near where a high explosive goes off, you know the breathing problem, if it's a real dusty area, that you'll have for a time.

So I don't have evidence right now of it.  I just want to reiterate -- it would be very unwise for them to use weaponized gas.  And I think President Trump made that very clear early in his administration.

And I will add that other Western nations have said the same thing. And why Russia would work to disband the joint investigative mechanism -- the JIM -- that was the way we would investigate any use of gas -- makes it very suspicious that the nation that was framework guarantor of Assad getting rid of his chemical weapons would be the one that does not want an investigative agency from the U.N.

So that's about as much as I want to say on it.


Q:  Well, just on that point, the White House last weekend made a -- put out a very strong statement, condemning Russia and accusing Russia of killing civilians in Syria.  Have you seen anything that indicates the Russians have killed civilians in Syria, or that the Russian have dropped munitions on Eastern Ghouta or on Damascus during this operation?

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now I'd prefer not to answer that question, Phil.

The -- Assad could not be in power right now absent Russia's unfortunate veto in the U.N. years ago, and the Russians full-throated military support for Assad.  I mean, they are Assad's partner.  

And whether the airplane dropping the bomb is a Russian airplane or a Syrian airplane, I'd prefer not to say right now.

Q:  And then to be clear on your point to Dan's question, when you said that, you know, President Trump made it clear about the use of gas, it's always been quite ambiguous, I think, to us in the media about whether there was ever a line drawn, or if that case, that individual case was so horrendous that message was sent.

SEC. MATTIS:  I'd prefer not to define that further.  The president has full political maneuver room to take the decision that he believes appropriate, and there are other Western nations that have been in contact with us, who are watching this very closely and are completely aligned with us, and what I just said, that it would be very unwise for someone to use gas.

Q:  So going into Oman, as you know, which has either looked the other way or been complicit in providing weapons or allowing weapons to go through the porous border into Yemen.  What -- can you give us your assessment of what role they're playing, and then what role the U.S. can play in mitigating the porous border there?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, with Yemen, they have been on the record that they want to see this civil war stopped for obvious reasons.  They have been an enormous help, going all the way back to right after 9/11 and the counter-terrorism war.  

They have security concerns that we share.  I'm going there to listen, like I started off with, and find out how they assess any trafficking that's going on at all.  What is their assessment?  What is their view of routes and that sort of thing?  

You're aware that the French navy, Australian navy and U.S. Navy have all intercepted arms shipments from Iran going into Yemen.  These have been on the high seas, ships at sea bringing the weapons in.  And so you see an international effort that is trying to stop this.

So I'll be going in to talk to the sultan, who obviously has a keen role in all of this, because he's got a border with this country.  And so I need to go in and find out how they assess it.

Q: And you'll know more, obviously, after you talk to him.

SEC. MATTIS:  Absolutely.

Q:  But is there a sense that they're turning a blind eye to this, or unable to stop...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'm not willing to say that right now.  I need to go in and listen first, and assess what's going on.

Q:  Is there anything specific that you want to ask of the sultan that he's not doing now, that you would like...

SEC. MATTIS:  Ask who?

Q:  The sultan.

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh.  Their could be, but I want to first make certain I'm current.  One of the reasons you go down and you do these kind of trips, you know, you say, well, you get on the phone with each other.  It's a lot better to sit down together in a room and talk our way through, and look at a map and talk details, with his officers in the room, too.  So I want to make sure we start with that, and I listen first.

Q:  Then, again, also we have U.S. forces across the border in eastern Yemen at this time, I assume?

SEC. MATTIS:  We have very small numbers, as you know -- they're not big numbers -- of U.S. forces there.  They are working with, in most cases, the Emirates, and the Emirates and the Yemen counter-terrorism organization, and AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS are those targets, and those have been the targets throughout this period.

For example, Mukalla Port was held by AQAP for a year, and the United Arab Emirates, with some American help, intelligence help principally, had gone in, organized the local tribes to take it away and Mukalla Port fell in 36 hours after being held for a year.  And so we're there to help that sort of an effort.  We're not there in the -- you know, with troops on the ground in the civil war.

Q:  And is ISIS -- does ISIS have more of a presence in Yemen now than a year ago?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'm not really willing to say that right now.  You may be right.

I think in some cases it's people who've adopted the brand.  In other words they were there, and they may have been under AQAP or something, and you know, some of these groups change their names as often as a rock band.

And so I think right now, if you were to look at the overall numbers, you'd have to take into account all of the groups and see where they're at in order to make an authoritative statement.

But you may be right, I just don't -- off the top of my head, I'm not willing to say that.

STAFF:  You want to switch to off the record?

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.