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Defeat-ISIS Task Force Director Chris Maier Provides an On-the-Record, Off-Camera Press Briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room

STAFF:  Good morning.  Brief should -- brief should last approximately 30 minutes.  Today, we have Mr. Chris Maier, director of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force, for an update on the security mechanism and the Defeat-ISIS fight in northeast Syria. 

Sir, the floor is yours.

DEFEAT-ISIS TASK FORCE DIRECTOR CHRIS MAIER:  Thank you.  And thanks, everybody, for being here.  I'm going to just briefly go through a couple prepared remarks, just to kind of set the baseline, and then we'll welcome your questions, just give you a chance to -- OK, thanks.

So as we talk about the security mechanism from -- in Syria with Turkey, in late August, U.S. and Turkish militaries agreed to a framework that outlines the implementation of a security mechanism along the Turkey-Syria border to address Turkey's security concerns, prevent ISIS resurgence and maintain a continued fight against ISIS.

These conversations continue, as demonstrated by the deputy commanders from EUCOM and CENTCOM going to Ankara, Sept. 10 and 11, and continue at lower levels.  And we'll go into more detail on what that means, but really, the military operational level.

Following the development of this framework, we've expeditiously continued to put in place key tenets of this agreement, in conjunction with the Turkish military. This is a bilateral agreement, does not include other coalition partners.

These activities are occurring both in Syria and in Turkey.  The security mechanism continues with a number of combined operations between the U.S. and Turkish militaries.  There's three of these that I wanted to specifically highlight for you before we get started.

First, we have established a fully operational combined joint operations center in southern Turkey; CJOC is what we use as an acronym.  This center includes representatives from both Turkish and U.S. militaries at the one-star level.  The CJOC is responsible for the daily planning and coordination for implementing the security mechanism.

Second, major elements of the security mechanism in place at this point is the removal of YPG fortifications.  We're doing this in conjunction with the Syrian Democratic Forces on the Syrian side of the border.  These are occurring in a select area of the security mechanism.  The destruction of these fortifications addresses Turkish security concerns and, we believe, demonstrates SDF commitment to the implementation.  You may have seen some of these photographs in both U.S. and Turkish media.

Third, and the point that we view as in some respects the most important, is the actual operations with U.S. and Turkish military in a combined fashion.  Those are both aerial in the form of, at this point, helicopter overflights that have gotten some media attention.  We've completed five of those.  And then, also, ground patrols, of which the first was completed on Sept. 8. 

We're executing these combined joint patrols within a few weeks of the start of this mechanism, which we view as a significant development in the implementation. Training and preparation continues for future ground and aerial patrols into the security mechanism.

These three elements of the military implementation, we believe, are key to implementing the security mechanism; in some cases, earlier than the agreed-to timelines, and certainly in all cases, on pace with the agreement with Turkey.

Also, it's worth raising, as we transition here to Q&A, that we're focused on the refugee issue as a longer-term element of the security mechanism.  The U.S. position continues to be the safe, voluntary and dignified, also informed, refugee returns, is what we aim to work with.  Obviously, this will be the U.N. and other NGOs [non-governmental organizations] helping facilitate this as we work in conjunction with Turkey and our partners in Syria.

Last, I think it's important to keep in mind that all of this mechanism helps support, in our estimation, the continued fight against ISIS, which goes on on a daily basis.  With major combat operations now completed in Syria and Iraq, the transition is under way to continue to build those capabilities in the local security forces that can deal with continued clandestine threat we assess from ISIS. And again, the security mechanism is really the means to allow that campaign to continue unabated. 

So with that, I welcome your questions.

STAFF:  For your questions, please state your full name and agency prior to asking your question.  And, Bob?

Q:  I'll defer Idrees

Q:  Sure. Idrees Ali from Reuters.

Every couple of weeks, President Erdogan threatens to go into the safe zone in northeast Syria unless U.S. takes more action.  He did so again yesterday.  Is that Erdogan just being Erdogan and sort of making statements that are bellicose bluster?  Or is that something you take seriously and are in some way working to address?

MR. MAIER:  So I won't address the specifics of what the intent might be of President Erdogan, but I can tell you from the U.S. perspective, we're heavily engaged on a daily basis with the Turkish military and the Turkish government on implementing the security mechanism.

As I alluded to in the opening remarks, the timelines we set with Turkey, we are on pace to meet, and in many cases, have already put things in place prior to the timelines agreed to.

Q:  And do you expect this to come up between President Trump and Erdogan at the U.N. General Assembly when they meet next week?

MR. MAIER:  I don't know.  I can only go with what we understand has been President Erdogan's public remarks, that he intends to raise this with the president.

STAFF:  Kasim?

Q:  There are also reports that the U.S. is conducting patrols with SDF or YPG elements in northeast Syria around -- around the Turkish border.  Could you confirm that, sir?

MR. MAIER:  So I think we have, for the duration of the D-ISIS campaign, worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure the defeat of ISIS and security in northeast Syria.  The degree to which those patrols continue is consistent with what we've been doing now for years, I think.  And we're very specific on saying we work with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is really a multiplicity of different groups, different entities.

Q:  Also, the United States is calling this deal with Turkey a security mechanism, while Turkey is calling it a safe zone, which has different implications, of course, Turkey's.  Will we ever see a safe zone in northeast Syria, where Turkey will control the area?  Or not?

MR. MAIER:  So we use the term "security mechanism" just because we think it's more apt from the military perspective of what we're trying to achieve here, the military arrangement that ensures security.

As to longer term implications for the security mechanism, we remain focused on protecting Turkish security concerns and taking those into account while at the same time maintaining the D-ISIS campaign.


Q:  Tom Bowman with NPR. 

Could you expand a little bit on this area that you're patrolling, ground patrols and also air patrols?  How wide is this, how deep is this?

MR. MAIER:  Sure.  So we have focused initially on an area from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ayn along the border.  The depth is really something that continues to be specific to the actual activities we're doing.  So as you can imagine, when we're doing aerial reconnaissance, it will go, you know, certain depths based on how the mission planning is.

At this point, I don't want to get into what has been, you know, different numbers thrown out.  But I think as we have talked with Turkey, we have an understanding of where the initial steps will occur.

Q:  So, like, 13 kilometers deep, does that sound about right?

MR. MAIER:  I'm hesitant to get into numbers because without the context, those numbers can be misleading.

Q:  How far along would this security mechanism go?  I mean, do you plan on heading toward the Iraq border?  Where is this whole effort going?

MR. MAIER:  Right now, the focus is on figuring out how it works in this zone from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ayn.  I don't want to speculate on where this might eventually go over time, but I think the purpose is, let's figure it out there with Turkey and in conjunction with the other components and contingencies that are at play, and then see where it goes from there.

STAFF:  Jack?

Q:  Yeah, Jack Detsch from Al-Monitor. 

Sir, can you talk a little bit about just the presence of Kurdish forces that remain in the zone?  How many are there?  Are these local council officials or are these shooters?  And have they removed heavy weapons -- how far has sort of the -- the efforts to remove emplacements and -- and weapons gone?

MR. MAIER:  So I think multiple questions there.  So I -- as the U.S. looks at this implementation on the Syrian side, we see existing governance, committees, local councils and also a -- a wide variety of security forces.

What we've committed to do is help to ensure the removal of the YPG elements and, as much as possible, ensure that that doesn't result in a security vacuum.  Our assessment is that there are other security forces there that are local that are not YPG that would be part of an enduring security force, understanding that that may ultimately result in needing more forces that we would work with -- with Turkey and -- and others to address.

Q:  But at this point, there's still YPG on those local councils in Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad?

MR. MAIER:  So I -- I don't -- don't want to speak to who's on the councils.  I can tell you, though, there are still YPG in the zones in the form of security forces, and part of what's going on -- and some of it has been documented photographically, as well as the removal of fortifications and also the withdrawal of some of those YPG forces.

STAFF:  Ryan?

Q:  Hey, sir.  Ryan Browne with CNN. 

Gen. McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander, recently said that the U.S. would not be increasing the number of troops in Syria to -- to do the security mechanism, using forces that are already in country.

Is there a concern that you're taking forces away from the advisory mission, from the counter-ISIS mission to do this?  Is it going to negatively impact the advisory mission for the SDF, especially given that Gen. Dunford said we're only about halfway to producing the local forces needed?  Is this a concern that you're -- without additional forces, you're kind of undermining that -- that counter-ISIS mission?

MR. MAIER:  It's a -- it's a fair question.  I think our overwhelming focus remains the defeat of ISIS -- the enduring defeat of ISIS and working by, with and through the SDF to achieve that. 

Not in a position to get into the -- the details of what, you know, movements here and there may be possible with -- with U.S. forces, but I think, as Gen. McKenzie said, he's prepared to execute both the security mechanism and other missions that have already been assigned to him with the -- the forces that he currently has, so I'll -- I'll leave it at that.

Q:  And then on the issue of -- you mentioned the issue of refugee obvious returns.  Is it -- is one of the requirements that they would have to be -- any refugees returning would've had to have inhabited this area prior to leaving Syria?

MR. MAIER:  So I think the -- the principles we look at are safe, voluntary and -- and dignified, also that individuals are either from that home or they go there of their own choosing. 

So without getting into kind of the specifics of -- of, you know, how much somebody is from an area and -- and when they left there, I think we would go on what are the established kind of U.N. principles to that, understanding that both -- those are ones shared by Turkey and we've also had these discussions with the SDF and they are also open to the return of -- of refugees here.

So don't want to say that this is the culmination of the security mechanism but certainly this would be a benefit, if put into place, that individuals could return to the area when it was secure.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Lara?

Q:  Hi.  Lara Seligman with Foreign Policy. 

First, could you tell us how many U.S. forces are involved in these patrols?

MR. MAIER:  I don't want to get into -- to that at this point.

Q:  OK.  A different question, then.  There have been reports that -- that -- from Turkish officials saying that there are -- there were differences -- major differences between U.S. and Turkey on implementing this mechanism.

Can you say what those points of differences were and how you think you've been able to address those and whether some concerns still remain?

MR. MAIER:  So I -- I think we reached an arrangement with -- with Turkey when there was enough of an agreement to start executing.  Obviously it's not prudent to talk publicly about what those differences are but I would -- I'd leave you with the thought that we're inserting U.S. military and Turkish military into an area to execute patrols, aerial reconnaissance, in some cases removal of fortifications on the -- on the U.S. side.

So there's enough of an agreement to -- to take on those missions and that's a pretty high standard I would say.

Q:  Are the Turks satisfied with what we've done so far, in particular the removal of YPG fortifications?

MR. MAIER:  So I'd defer you to -- to Turkey on that.  I think we understand that there's a number of -- of elements to this arrangement that will take place over time, so removal of fortifications is not, as an example, happen overnight.  This is a work in progress and I -- I think that's what we're focused on and we're -- as I said early on, we feel like we're -- we're on pace or in some cases ahead of pace with what was agreed to.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Eric?

Q:  Eric Schmitt with The New York Times. 

Can you -- is the U.S. still providing periodic shipment of arms and ammunition to the SDF, YPG, and if so, when was the last one?

MR. MAIER:  Eric, that's -- we are, we continue to provide very tailored arms and vehicles to the SDF, but specifically for the D-ISIS mission, and as everybody in this room knows, we're advising, assisting the SDF and therefore have ample opportunity to verify that what the SDF has committed to us in the use of those -- those weapons is what they're being used for.

We're very transparent about what those supplies are, we provide monthly to Turkey a report of what those -- those arms and vehicles are.

Q:  More broadly, since the fall of Baghuz several months ago, can you give assessment of what degree has there been re-infiltration by ISIS elements, fragments, both in and around the MERV but also cross-border activity into Iraq?

And -- and how concerned -- how would you characterize the relative strength of the remaining ISIS fighters and their -- their organization, both in Syria and Iraq?

MR. MAIER:  I think if you look at where ISIS once was, it's but a shadow of its combat strength, economic strength, ability to govern, it certainly doesn't hold any territory.  That said, as we've been pretty clear, we see indications in both Iraq and -- and Syria of ISIS attempting to execute a strategy of a clandestine insurgency.

So certainly they are attempting to seed back into some of the areas where they've lost the ability to control or govern those areas.  It is, I think important to focus on the fact that we're invested in the de-ISIS campaign as a point of developing a security mechanism with Turkey in order to continue that campaign.

That gives you, I hope, a strong sense of how seriously we take that threat.

STAFF:  Jeff?

Q:  Thank you.  Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose. 

Do you have an estimate of how many ISIS fighters remain in Syria and how many remain in Iraq?

MR. MAIER:  Those are, as you would expect, intelligence derived numbers, so don't want to go into specific numbers.  I can tell you, though, broadly speaking, it is still a clandestine insurgency that we have forces in the field to -- to deal with, and we assess that certainly there's thousands among Syria and Iraq.

Keep in mind, though, that this number is down from – various estimates upwards of 60,000, when ISIS was at its peak.

Numbers are useful, but not a complete proxy as to the threat ISIS poses.  And certainly, we see as answer to Eric's question, a continued effort by ISIS to wait, be patient, execute clandestine insurgency and wait for the opportunity in which either pressure lifts, or they have opportunities to re-establish aspects of their caliphate in addition to threatening the coalition members and, of course, the local governments in Syria and Iraq.

Q:  Thank you.  DOD has provided estimates before on numbers of ISIS fighters, and done so quite frequently.  What has changed?

MR. MAIER:  Just don't think I want to get into the specifics of your question, of how many are actually in Syria and Iraq.  We can take this back to see what we can provide that's already been cleared for distribution.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Sylvie?

Q:  Hello.  Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. 

Could you go back to the removal of the fortifications?  Do you exchange those fortifications for something else that could reassure the Kurdish troops, the Kurdish forces that they are not -- the road is not open for Turkey to just get in?

MR. MAIER:  So, fundamentally, the security mechanism is the United States helps guarantee the security, both working in a combined fashion with Turkey, Turkish concerns, and addressing those concerns, but also to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

I think our track record as a partner to them demonstrates that we remain focused on the D-ISIS campaign and are not looking for opportunities to perhaps introduce additional risk to them. 

So what I mean by that, in more specifics, is the removal of fortifications should not be seen necessarily as being something that makes the population of northeast Syria less secure.  Because we're pretty convinced that as we work with Turkey, the idea of a Turkish incursion into Syria has gone down substantially.

Q:  Although President Erdogan, again, has been threatening, regularly, about incursions.

MR. MAIER:  That's, I think, a fact.  But we would look at it, and I would look at it, frankly, more from the conversations we're having with Turkey through military and diplomatic channels.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Bob?

Q:  Hi, Bob Burns with A.P. 

A couple of times, you've described remaining ISIS as a clandestine insurgency and sort of buying time, waiting out.  I'm wondering what that description of the -- what remains of ISIS, what the implications of that is for the duration of the U.S. military presence there.  In other words, is it something that is reaching a turning point?

MR. MAIER:  We've continued to say, and certainly you and I have talked about this before, that the real focus is, as we define the enduring defeat, is local forces are capable of dealing with that threat. 

We actually think we're making good progress in helping local Syrian forces have that capability.  So undergoing some transition, of course, at this point, is moving that force from large combat operation, large maneuver force, to a force that is more capable of dealing with something that is less forces in the field, and more this clandestine insurgency.

So very much predicated on building forces that are responsive to local governance councils and can do that more, if you will, community policing or wide-area security or provincial-type internal security forces. 

A key part of that, of course, is the protection of the prisons where a large number of foreign terrorist fighters that are ISIS-affiliated are, in addition to large IDP camps, Al Hol being the biggest, in which we assess there's certainly elements that look to re-establish the ISIS caliphate.

Q:  Sounds like a long-term project.  I mean, probably years, would you say?

MR. MAIER:  I wouldn't want to put a timeline on it, but I think the history would dictate that these types of challenges are not alleviated in weeks and months.

Q:  A quick follow.  Even if the local forces are trained -- Cami McCormick with CBS -- won't you still have to provide them with logistical support, such as the vehicles, whatever they're using to fortify the prisons, et cetera?  Wouldn't -- that would be a long-term deal, wouldn't it?

MR. MAIER:  So I think there's -- to your specific question, yes, there are certain things that are not organic to their capabilities, or even in northeast Syria, to take your question specifically on the prisons.  There is not prisons controlled by forces in northeast Syria that can house 10,000, you know, ISIS fighters, Syrian or Iraqi, and FTF.  So that's definitely going to require additional support from the international community, as just one example.

Q:  And in terms of vehicles and arms in the future?

MR. MAIER:  I don't want to speculate on that.  I think we've seen a pretty significant drop-off in those sort of supplies that we've needed to provide, to Eric's earlier point, because this isn't a major combat operation anymore, it's more about securing local populations and supporting local governance establishment.

Q:  Jared Szuba with The Defense Post. 

One of the SDF's official social media channels on Twitter put up a post the other day, saying that there have been reports -- or they have received reports -- that Turkey was moving concrete equipment for fortifications across the border.  Do you guys have any indication that that is going on?  Received any reports like that?  And would that potentially in violation of any discussions going on with Turkey?

MR. MAIER:  I don't know of any concrete Turkish fortifications being moved across the border.

STAFF:  Caitlin?

Q:  Hi.  Caitlin Kenney with Stars and Stripes. 

With the security mechanism, how strong is it in between -- in terms of this bilateral agreement?  It seems like, you know, there's a lot of trust that has to happen, almost day to day.  Like, do you feel like this is like a really long-term, you know, situation?  Or is it kind of like, you take it week to week?

MR. MAIER:  So I think we think there's a pretty solid foundation for this.  Turkey is, of course, a NATO partner and we have 70-plus years of experience operating with them all over the world.  And so I think it -- we're falling in on an ally that's longstanding and we know how to work with.  And certainly, we have longstanding relationships in military channels and diplomatic channels. 

Is this going to be, you know, completely easy process?  Probably not.  But some of that is indicative of the challenge of the circumstance.  We're attempting to put something in place that helps to reassure Turkey's significant security concerns.  And you wouldn't hear President Erdogan talking about this, I think, if it wasn't -- it wasn't important element for them and therefore a challenge.

But the bottom line, I think, is we have the longstanding relationship there that is that deep foundation that will allow us to, I think, be successful in this endeavor.

STAFF:  Tuna?

Q:  There are two -- I mean three purposes of the security mechanism, which DOD made a statement a couple of weeks ago.  One, the first purpose is to ensure the security of -- I mean, to meet the security demands of Turkey -- legitimate security concerns of Turkey.  The second is ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and the third one is to ensure the security of the U.S. partners on the ground.

Turkey said its legitimate security concerns are caused by the U.S. partners on the ground.  So there's a contradiction between -- it seems that there's a contradiction between the first and the third cause.  So is there a way forward and what do you think about President Erdogan's statement saying that the deadline is the -- until the end of September?

If the United States does not take necessary steps to take YPG out totally, then Ankara itself will take the necessary steps to build the safe zone and to take the YPG out?

MR. MAIER:  To your first question, I think if we thought there was a contradiction, we wouldn't have engaged in agreements -- an arrangement of a security mechanism, which U.S. forces are on the ground, operating in conjunction with -- with Turkish forces.

So is -- is there at times disagreements behind closed doors?  Of course.  I mean, who doesn't disagree with their -- their closest allies?  But what we're focused on is what Turkey has asked, both publicly and -- and, you know, privately, which is the removal of the YPG threat as they see it on -- on their border.

The security mechanism is focused on verifying that that is occurring and I think that's where we continue to place our effort.  I can't speak to what others have said and to -- to a number of the questions about President Erdogan's comments, I'm not in a position to really comment on those at all.

STAFF:  Jeff?

Q:  Jeff Seldin from VOA. 

I was wondering if you could give us a -- a -- a clearer picture of what's going on right now with all of the ISIS prisoners who are being held in the SDF camps.  How many are there?  How many of them are foreign fighters?  Of those, do you know how many are possibly still Americans?

And the SDF has been saying for some time that they don't have enough resources to hold all of these ISIS prisoners.  The State Department's put out comments saying that these -- so these -- really can't hold them much longer.

How much more help is the U.S. giving the SDF to make sure that these breakouts that are -- or attempted breakouts that are being staged on -- on a weekly basis, if not more frequently, aren't going to result in an actual breakout?

MR. MAIER:  So a lot of questions in there, I'll -- I'll try to address kind of the -- the -- the top line points here.  So we still assess that there's over 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 60 countries.  So this is not a U.S. only problem, it's an international problem and we're in, I would say probably fairly confidently, daily contact with -- with most of those coalition partners on addressing the situation and they share much of that concern. 

It is true that the unprecedented number of ISIS fighters who came out of Baghuz and are now in -- in SDF custody presents a -- a challenge.  There aren't, as already addressed, proper prison facilities.  And so we're continuing to work, not only the U.S. government but the coalition, from everything from training local security forces to proper securities individuals, to look at options for improving what are makeshift prison type arrangements into more sustainable.

We, of course, remain focused on repatriating as many of these individuals as possible.  The general assessment has been that in home countries where proper law enforcement and, you know, other facilities and -- and safeguards are in place, is on balance and more secure arrangement than them being in prisons in Syria, in which many cases these are not prisons, they're repurposed facilities for that purpose.

Q:  Back in March, there was a shipment of supplies to help modify these facilities.  Have there been any more shipments to the SDF to secure these facilities?

MR. MAIER:  I -- I don't know the specifics of when we've done the last shipment there, but I can reassure you that we're working regularly with them to improve the security of these facilities.  A lot of this, frankly at this point, is in the training and advising, so taking SDF forces and giving them the basics of -- of dealing with managing prisons.

I -- I wouldn't want you to walk away here thinking we're providing large amounts of material.  Some of these -- these prisons are of the sort that we're more focused on getting them shut down and people moved to more secure facilities as opposed to improving them.

Many of these are schools and others that I'm sure you're well aware of.

STAFF:  Katie?

Q:  Hi.  Katie Bo Williams with Defense One. 

I wanted to stay on the -- the prisons question for -- for a minute.  With these attempted breakouts that we're seeing reports of, can you give us any idea of what kind of support, if anything, the United States is offering to SDF to help them contain these breakouts? 

Is it limited to just, you know, some eyes -- some eyes on the situation or is it, you know -- is it actually bodies helping to constrain?

MR. MAIER:  So on a kind of broad -- from a broad perspective, we continue to provide basic training and -- and assistance to the forces that are serving that kind of warden or prison guard type role.  I'm not in a position to -- to talk about specifics and specific cases and what kind of support we've -- we've provided.

Q:  Can you give us -- can you give us any more detail about what kind of -- sort of daily support you said we're not giving any material but we're giving -- you know, we're giving -- we're giving them instructions on how to manage a prison.

Is that -- is there -- you know, is there any kind of support of sort of surveillance equipment or anything else that's going into these -- into these facilities?  I mean, what the U.S. support for -- for the security of these prisons actually look like, I guess is -- is -- I hope you can expand a little bit.

MR. MAIER:  So looking at this through the -- the lens of the by, with and through approach that we use writ large in -- in this campaign, it very much fits into that mode.  So we're helping the local forces be more capable of dealing with the problem themselves.

In some cases, that means bringing in experts who can help explain and train and help them with the -- the right capabilities to secure large numbers of -- of ISIS prisoners.

Q:  And are you satisfied, from a security standpoint right now, with -- with the prisoners that are held right now in the facilities that exist today, that the SDF is -- is able to prevent a breakout?

MR. MAIER:  The amount of focus that we're applying into this I think should -- should kind of show you that this is a problem from a security perspective.  I think I said that the general assessment is that this is not sustainable over time.

I don't want to comment on specific assessments of the -- of the here and now, but a situation in which, you know, ISIS fighters, many of which came off the battlefield, are being held in -- in facilities that are not as secure as anybody would like, does not lead to a long-term, sustainable situation from a security standpoint.

And I think we -- we talk this regularly with our coalition partners and they share that assessment.

Q:  Thank you.  My name's Mikhail Turgiyev, I'm with the Russian news agency Ria Novosti. 

I'd like to question about Rukban.  As far as I understand, there is a plan to start evacuating refugees on the 27th of September, and do the most part of this in 30 days.

As usual, the Russian Defense Ministry has said that the rebels of the fighters who are allegedly controlled by the U.S. Army, would not allow the United Nations and Red Cross representatives to move in with the aid, and just to start this procedure.

So can you just tell what are you doing to make this process possible?

MR. MAIER:  In the case of Rukban, I think our principles have been the same, as I alluded to, potentially, as the case when we talk about the security mechanism, which is safe, voluntary, dignified and informed return of refugees.

We have, for a long time, publicly advocated openly to the Syrian regime and to their Russian allies, to be as responsive as possible in allowing humanitarian and other assistance into the Rukban IDP camp.  That continues to be the case. 

The idea that somehow the U.S. elements, whether they're -- we're partnered with them or otherwise, are preventing that from happening, I think is factually incorrect.  And we welcome the ultimate resolution of the Rukban camp situation.  But it's got to be done with the principles of safe, voluntary and dignified.  It can't be that people are compelled to leave.

STAFF:  Ashley and then this gentleman over here, that's all the time we're going to have.

Q:  Hi, Ashley Roque with Jane’s. 

What are the next steps, going back to the security mechanism, that the U.S. and Turkey have agreed to undertake?  And what is sort of the timeline for these next steps, whether it be assets or numbers of troops?

MR. MAIER:  Mm-hmm.  So I think as alluded to early on, we're in the early days of this.  This has really only been in play and being implemented since late August.  So the word I might use here is more "thickening" of the activities we're doing.

So I alluded to the fact that we've already done a number of military efforts in the zones.  So, you know, five aerial reconnaissance flights, combined joint patrol, removal of fortifications.  This is going to be a process that takes place over time, and I think you'll see more of the same.

Q:  And within the agreement, the Turkish foreign minister has already sort of accused the U.S. of slow-rolling it.  If there is a change with ISIS fighters, how did the partners deal, would the U.S. troops have to be taken away from the security mechanism to focus on something else?

MR. MAIER:  When you say a change of ISIS (inaudible), what do you mean by that?

Q:  ISIS fighters.

MR. MAIER:  ISIS fighters.

Q:  Is there sort of a mechanism with the agreement with Turkey, that you re-evaluate priorities?

MR. MAIER:  So I think I would look at it from the perspective of, we continue to be focused on the D-ISIS campaign, the movement of forces and capabilities in the overall northeast Syria and, more broadly speaking, Iraq OIR theater, is something that the commanders on the ground, I think, will deal with.

I don't want to get into speculation of what would happen to the security mechanism if something were to happen, but I think we're able to balance all of that.  And in fact, one of the key points I want to leave you all with, is the security mechanism is a means to the D-ISIS campaign and the enduring defeat of ISIS.

STAFF:  Sir, over here.

Q:  Thank you, sir.  Russ Read with the Washington Examiner. 

You mentioned -- you used the clandestine term quite a bit, just piggybacking off Bob's question, there's been some concern from some analysts here around town, that this clandestine situation may evolve into a potential land grab in the future.  Any indication or concern from you all that that might be happening in the near future?

MR. MAIER:  So ISIS has a practice of doing this, right?  They establish control over large swathes of territory.  We see no indication that that intention or desire has gone away.  The reason we use "clandestine insurgency" is because we think this is a calculated effort on their part to stay below the radar screen, regather strength and then potentially attempt to establish a caliphate or something more overt down the road.

Q:  One question on Baghdadi?

STAFF:  One last question Lucas.

Q:  A few days ago, we heard from the ISIS emir, Baghdadi.  Do you know where he is or what was the reaction to his message?

MR. MAIER:  So don't know where he is.  And, frankly, wouldn't tell you anyway if I did, right?  Just -- (laughter) -- tongue in cheek, for those that are recording this. 

As to his message, I think we would say more of the same.  I mean, this is an organization that's taken some serious blows.  Not surprised that he would come out and try to reassure his forces and his followers, but this is an organization that I think we kind of know their playbook at this point, and this isn't surprising to us.

Q:  Do we think he's still in the Syria-Iraq region, or do you think somewhere else?

MR. MAIER:  Don't know and can't comment, sorry.

STAFF:  Sir, do you have any -- any final words for us this morning?

MR. MAIER:  I think I'd just thank everybody for their efforts in what they do here.  And I think the key punchline is the security mechanism here is really part of our overall D-ISIS campaign, as we look to really address Turkish legitimate security concerns.  They are, again, of course, one of our longest standing NATO partners.  But we do, at the same time, remain focused on the D-ISIS campaign.

We do not see a contradiction in those terms, and I think what we're trying to lay out, in more detail than we have to date, is some of the mechanics of how that works.  So hopefully, that helps your overall reporting.

Q:  Thank you.