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Press Conference by Secretary Esper at NATO Ministerial, Brussels, Belgium

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  

I first want to thank Secretary-General Stoltenberg and his team for putting this ministerial together.

Over the past two days we've had a number of very candid and productive discussions on a wide range of issues related to our shared security.

First among those is the situation in Syria.  The current halt in operations along the Turkey-Syria border is a welcome measure.  We now call on Turkey to abide by their commitments to address the humanitarian crisis, to protect religious and ethnic minorities, to investigate allegations of war crimes and to maintain control of ISIS prisoners.

The alliance remains unified in our efforts to preserve the defeat of ISIS, and we must work together to ensure they are unable to reconstitute.  The United States will -- will maintain a reduced presence in Syria to deny ISIS access to oil revenue as we reposition for the next phase of the Defeat ISIS campaign.

The Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan continues to build the capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.  I shared with the alliance my assessment from earlier in the week, when I visited our troops and Afghan partners there.  It is clear:  The NATO alliance remains fully committed to the Resolute Support mission, along with our objective and -- of ensuring terrorists are never again able to attack our homelands from Afghanistan.  We all agree the best way to achieve this outcome is through an enduring political settlement.

As we adapt to changing conditions in Afghanistan, we are looking for ways to better optimize our force structure.  Our goal is to maintain a sustainable force that meets the requirements of the mission.  We will continue to consult with our allies, along with the Afghan government, to refine the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In addition to discussing operational matters, we also focused on those issues most important to the future of NATO.  I reiterated the importance of equitable burden sharing, and pushed our allies to meet their pledge to invest 2% of their GDP into defense by 2024.

The fact is, we are only as strong as the investments we are willing to make towards our common defense.

We also discussed the NATO Readiness Initiative, which is a critical step to re-instilling a culture of readiness throughout the alliance.  We are getting very close to our goal of Four 30s by 2020, and I expect that by the leaders meeting in December, we will have 100% of the contributions identified.

I appreciated our discussion last night on NATO-E.U. cooperation, hybrid threats and the challenges China poses to our security.  It's important that EDF legislation and PESCO guidelines for third-state participation permit the United States and other non-E.U. NATO allies to take part and lend our expertise to these initiatives.  We need to pursue efforts that complement NATO activities and facilitate NATO-E.U. cooperation, not ones that are competitive and duplicative.

I also expressed our concerns about the deepening integration of Chinese telecommunications within European infrastructure.  Chinese telecom firms are closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and have a legal obligation to provide technical support and assistance to the government.

NATO allies must carefully consider the long-term risks of the choices they make regarding 5G networks.  The alliance relies on secure and resilient communications for interoperability, intelligence-sharing and military mobility.

I'm pleased that NATO's moving forward to more thoroughly assess the long-term challenges that a growing and more assertive China presents to the alliance.

In closing, I want to make clear:  the United States commitment to NATO is ironclad; and joined together, we form the most powerful military alliance in the world.  Our willingness to defend one another has been the bedrock of our security since the alliance was first established, and it will continue to preserve our collective security well into the future, provided we commit to investing in it.

I'll now be happy to take your questions.  Thank you.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

If I could just get a comment on some of the updates that have taken place in the last few days, there's been some reporting saying that the United States is considering sending a couple hundred additional troops, which would include tanks, to protect the U.S. troops that are now going to stay to deny ISIS the oil facilities.  Is that something you're considering?  Have you confirmed that?  And what are the numbers?

And just to follow up, if you could explain the U.S. strategy in Syria and what that is.  Because since Saturday, there have been different iterations from, "All thousand U.S. troops are going to western Iraq," to "We're going to keep a residual force," to, "Well, we may actually send more troops."  If you could just clarify what the position is.

SEC. ESPER:  I will state again what the position is.

Again, we are withdrawing from northeastern Syria.  That was the direction of the president.

That deliberate withdrawal began with the removal of the less than 50 troops or so from the immediate zone of attack.  We are now in what we call the phase two withdrawal.

Ultimately, we always intended -- as the president directed -- to maintain a presence at the An Tanf garrison.  As I've said over the past several days, we are also considering how we might reposition forces in the area in order to ensure we secure the oil fields.

We are now taking some actions -- I'm not going to get into the details -- to strengthen our position at Deir ez-Zor to ensure that we can deny the -- deny ISIS access to the oil fields.  Because we want to make sure that they don't have access to the resources that may allow them to strike within the region, to strike Europe, to strike the United States.

Otherwise, all the other armed forces are intended to be -- to return home.

STAFF:  In the middle, right -- yeah?

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, if you could just give us a few more details, there's been a lot of discussion about an armored unit going in.  Is that what you think is necessary?  Has that been approved by the president?

And can you tell us, does this just involve securing the oil from -- from ISIS or does it also involve allowing CT to do strikes, et cetera, to control ISIS?

SEC. ESPER:  So, we are reinforcing that position.  It will include some mechanized forces.  Again, I'm not going to get into details.

But the mission in Syria remains what their mission in Syria began with.  It's always been about defeating the ISIS coalition.  So that is the core mission.  That mission remains unchanged.

The specific measures we are taking with regard the reduction of oil fields is to deny ISIS access to those resources.  If ISIS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS.  So this is all nested underneath the Defeat ISIS campaign.

STAFF:  All right.  Terry Schultz, Deutschwelle?

Q:  Hi, thank you.  Terry Schultz with Deutschwelle.

You said yesterday morning that you hadn't had a chance to really get many details on the German proposal for a potential international monitoring mission in what might be an eventual safe zone.

You've had time now to speak with allies, to speak with the German defense minister herself.  What is your view of this?  Do you think it has a future at all if a U.N. mandate is necessary?

And is the U.S. willing to press Turkey to bring Russia in on an international agreement, which would have to start at the Security Council, if a U.N. mandate is necessary?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I had a -- we had a brief conversation -- I did -- with the German defense minister.  I wish I had had more time, but the secretary-general runs a very rigorous schedule, and we barely have time to breathe.

But as I said yesterday, I -- it's a proposal.  I think it deserves consideration.  For many years, the United States has been talking about European partners and allies stepping up to address problems.  This is a -- I put that in that set.  And so I -- I think it should be considered.

But to be clear, it's not something that the United States intends to participate in with regard to ground troops.

Q:  What about pressuring Putin to --

SEC. ESPER:  I'm sorry, I missed the second part of your question.

Q:  I asked whether the United States would be pressuring Turkey to -- given its new agreement with Russia, to -- to make this possible, especially with Russian -- and its veto at the Security Council?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I don't know really what that is yet.  And so, until we have a chance to see the details and -- and think it through, I'd be speculating.  So I'd -- I'd want to take it, study it first; and I'd want to consider it with, also alongside the secretary of state, to make sure that we come up with a, you know, U.S. government position.

STAFF:  Sir, right there?

Q:  Thank you, Secretary.  My name's Obil Nakamutawake Onike, Japanese media.

I have a question about China.  You said the biggest threat in the long-term is China (inaudible).  Do you think the NATO member -- other NATO member countries share the assessment you have -- they have the same assessment as you have?

And let me clarify on the 5G.  Are you telling the other NATO countries to exclude Chinese technology from the (inaudible) communication infrastructure?

Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  So, I -- I can't speak for all the NATO countries.  But I would tell you, collectively I think the United States has come to a -- we realized later than we probably should have, that China is in a strategic competition with us and has some malign purposes with regard to where they want to take the global international order.  And arguably, some of our NATO allies -- many of our NATO allies are may be coming late to that realization it's possible.

And I think for all of us, it's an education process.  I (inaudible) my first NATO ministerial here in June.  I -- I made that point in a couple of different sessions.  I made it again at different times here these past couple of days.

And -- and again, I think you have to look.  There's probably a spectrum of -- of where each country is on this issue, but to us it's a very serious, long-term strategic challenge we need to deal with.  It's not like -- it's not that we're looking for China to be an adversary in the future, but their trajectory is not one that we think supports the common values, the common interests, all those things in defense of the international order that have really secured our prosperity, our values and our security for the last 70-plus years.

STAFF:  All right.  And then right down here in the front row.

Q:  Thank you.  I'm (inaudible) from Afghan Media (inaudible).

The United States announced that the new round of peace talks will soon restart, but will the United States push Taliban for a cease-fire before negotiations resume?

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I -- I'm not -- you know, those are sensitive diplomatic negotiations.  If and when they begin, I'm not going to get in front of our State Department.  Obviously, we think that they -- the reduction in violence is -- is -- is very important as we -- as we consider and complete an agreement. 

STAFF:  Okay, we'll do one -- one last one.  (inaudible)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said that defeating ISIS remains a core issue.  

Can you help us understand why that core mission demands ground troops for defending oil fields, and not doing things like securing Iraqi prisoners and some of the other measures that you were doing?

And also, could you offer some specifics?  Has the president been presented with a plan for these additional troops and some of the mechanized forces?  If so -- and you said that it was being considered.  When do we -- do you anticipate we'll have more specifics on when the decision has been made?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I -- you said "Iraqi prisoners."  I think you meant ISIS prisoners.

Q:  ISIS prisoners.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so we -- we are in close contact with the SDF on the ground.  The SDF has assured us that all -- within the area under their control, all ISIS prisoners are being secured.  That's good news.

I've spoken to the Turkish defense minister.  He informs me that all the -- all the ISIS prisoners -- prisons in their area are under their control, and actually informed me that they've been able to recollect some of them.  So that's good news.

Yeah, that's news for you.  See?

I -- I think the other part of this, too, the second part is we -- the -- the securing of the -- of the oil fields, the commanders make their assessments on what troops to bring or what forces, based on the threat they see.  And so -- that we always are managing the force, adapting it to those -- to those measures and the -- and that's why we think the need for that in terms of that location have forces available.

Q:  (inaudible).  Is that right?

SEC. ESPER:  That's what the -- you should follow up with the Turkish Defense Ministry, but that's (inaudible) they recollected some of the -- that 100 that we estimated was released.

STAFF:  All right, guys, thank you very much. 

SEC. ESPER:  Thank you.