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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Good morning, everybody.

OK, I think just off the -- right off the top, I would like to, on behalf of Secretary Austin, express his, as well as the department's, condolences and -- and -- and deep sympathies to the family of Senator Max Cleland, who I think you guys all saw passed away today.  We may have more to say on that later today, but lived a lifetime literally of public service; combat in Vietnam, as a senator from the state of Georgia, as well as V.A. Administration -- the V.A. administrator, and then of course, his work as chairman of the American Battlements Monuments Commission.  Just incredible devotion to -- to the American people and to service men and women and veterans, as well, and he will be sorely missed.

On scheduling, the deputy secretary remains on the road domestically.  Today, she's visiting Quonset, Rhode Island, and Groton, Connecticut.  The focus of her visit there is to discuss department priorities with lawmakers, Defense Industrial Base partners and military leaders to address the needs of the future warfighter and reinforce the importance of manufacturing, renewable energy and green technology to national security.

And then just as a reminder today, I think we talked about this last week, but today through Thursday, there's a once-in-a-lifetime event taking place over at Arlington National Cemetery, where members of the public will be able to actually lay flowers right at the Tomb of the Unknown and walk right up to the -- to the tomb.  So today and Wednesday they'll be able to -- to do that, and that event is free and open to the republic.  It's free and open to the public -- sorry.

On Thursday, Veterans Day, a joint service honor procession will march through the cemetery, and that will evoke the memory of the unknown soldier funeral procession.  Concurrently, a joint service aerial review of 17 aircraft will fly over the tomb on that day.

And I think with that, we'll go to questions.  I think we've got Bob on the phone.

Q:  Yes, thank you, John.  I was wondering if you had any update on the discussions the department's had with the families of the 10 -- the families of the 10 who were killed August 29th in the drone strike on compensation and possible relocation, and I'm wondering why this has taken so long.  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t have any updates for you today.  We are still in discussions with NEI, the agency for -- for which the victim worked, and -- and of course, the -- the families.  And I just -- I don't have any -- any changes to the -- the -- the status.  We're continuing to have those conversations about -- mostly about process and -- and as soon as we have some developments to speak to, we certainly will.

In the room, Sylvie?

Q:  Good morning, John.  Can -- a delegation arrived in Taiwan today, and according to some sources, there are two military personnel who -- representatives of the Pentagon.  Can you confirm?

MR. KIRBY:  I think what you're talking about is a -- a congressional delegation.

Q:  (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, and I -- I -- I can't -- I don't know of military representatives in the -- in the -- it's a congressional delegation, so it's not a -- it's not a Pentagon delegation.  But they -- but it is not uncommon for them to be transported on U.S. military aircraft, and that was the case in this -- in this instance, so that -- that might be describing what you mean by U.S. military.

Q:  Okay, so there is no representative from the --

MR. KIRBY:  It is not a Pentagon delegation; It's a congressional delegation.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  So -- so -- so China condemns this visit, and also took some readiness patrol, I don’t know what that means -- so how do you see this action on the part of China?

MR. KIRBY:  Look, congressional delegation visits to Taiwan are fairly routine.  This is the second one this year.  It's not unusual, so I -- I -- I would put it in the context of -- of the normal practice here, and in keeping with our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, which has been supported by multiple administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that reinforces our requirement to help Taiwan with its self-defense needs.

Q:  On Afghanistan, can you confirm that Afghan pilots are leaving Tajikistan on a U.S. flight?

MR. KIRBY:  What I can confirm is that a group of approximately 191 Afghan evacuees, including pilots, remain in -- in Tajikistan, and our embassy there is working to expedite their departure.  We expect that they'll be able to depart Tajikistan soon, but we are not in control the timeline, and you know, I would refer you to the State Department for any additional context on that.  Okay?

Anybody else?  Yeah, Pierre?

Q:  In the last two or three weeks we have seen a few incidents.  One is the attack on Tanf, then we had the issue that happened on October the 24th, the Gulf of Oman, and also, when the Essex was leaving Hormuz it -- it encountered some UAVs from the Iranians.  This happens after, like, a lengthy time of quiet, and do you have any assessment about why we are seeing this repetitive attack?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, Pierre, I mean, I -- I -- I don't know that -- that I would, you know, be able to confirm or speak to the timing and the frequency.  You guys have been reported this yourselves.

I mean, the -- these -- these attacks continue, and we -- we've seen that in -- in just the last eight to nine months.  We know that these attacks are -- are being perpetrated by militia groups that are backed by Iran and have access to resources and to tools -- lethal tools to conduct these attacks.

I -- I can't speak with great specificity as -- as to the -- the -- the timing of these attacks and why they're happening, you know, at -- at certain times as -- as opposed to others.  All I can say is we're focused on the threat.  It's not just a threat to us but to our Iraqi partners, as the attack on the Prime Minister clearly demonstrated, and we take those seriously.

Yeah?

Q:  So, John, since you talked about Minister al-Kadhimi -- and I know you were asked this question yesterday --

MR. KIRBY:  But you're going to ask it again.

Q:  But I'm going to ask it again.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY:  That's fine.

Q:  -- Cause I need an answer.  So General McKenzie would -- has a media engagement day before yesterday.  He basically accused the Iran-backed militias of this assassination attempt on Minister al-Kadhimi.  Does the department share his own assessment?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- as I said yesterday, we have seen these kinds of attacks done, as, like -- just said it to Pierre -- by militias that are backed by Iran.  This is a -- a -- a typical tactic.  I am not going to speak with specific attribution on -- on that attack.

Q:  Okay, but you have the Central Command Commander accusing these militias.  Is this something that's personal?

MR. KIRBY:  We have seen these kinds of attacks by these militia groups in the past.  This is in keeping with that same modality.  I am not prepared to speak with specific attribution today.

Q:  So you don't share his assessment?

MR. KIRBY:  I am not prepared to speak about specific -- specific attribution today.

Q:  So what -- what he expressed is his own point of view?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I -- I think I've answered the question.

Q:  No but I'm asking about this one.  So that's --

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I know what you're asking --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  -- my answer's going to be the exact same -- I cannot speak to specific attribution today.  We have seen these kinds of attacks -- similar attacks, using unmanned aerial systems, small and big, against targets -- by Iran-backed militias.  I mean, that -- that is a -- a common tactic of theirs.

And so we are certainly working under the presumption that that's the case here, but I am not going to get into specific attribution at this time.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.  Caitlin?

Q:  The Joining Forces Initiative, the Secretary is planning to visit tomorrow with the White House for that event.  I was wondering if you can talk about why he feels it's important to show up and any efforts that he's making in that initiative?

MR. KIRBY:  It -- thank you.  I mean, obviously, the Secretary fully supports the -- the efforts of the First Lady in Joining Forces, which is really about knitting together not just the military community but communities across the country who routinely come together to help veterans and military families.

So he's obviously delighted to be able to join the First Lady tomorrow at the White House for this.  This one in particular is really about children and -- and the important role that they play not only -- just as members of -- of our family, but in many cases, taking outsized roles on -- on themselves, in -- in terms of helping look after a mom or a dad or a brother or a sister.  They're very much -- these military children are very much a part of the recuperative process, in spirit but also in kind, and I think that's what's going to make tomorrow very special.

I don't want to get ahead of the Secretary's remarks but he's very excited to meet some of these children and to hear some of these stories and to take time out to recognize the -- the tremendous role that military -- military families play in the ability of our workforce, our men and women to -- to defend the country.

Q:  Did you say what he is doing on Veteran's Day, or Thursday?

MR. KIRBY:  I did.  On Thursday, he is going to -- to the Tomb of the Unknown and he'll lay a wreath there.

Yeah -- yeah?

Q:  John, two -- two separate questions.  One, there are reports that a group of militia in Syria tried to break into a prison that actually held the ISIS militants.  Are you aware of that and --

MR. KIRBY:  No, I'm not.

Q:  Okay.  Could -- can you take the question, if possible?

MR. KIRBY:  Is your question to ask if we're just aware of it?  I mean, what do you want -- what do you want from us?

Q:  Yeah, so who -- who is -- who was that militia group?  Because reports are saying "unidentified militia groups tried to bust into the prisons."

MR. KIRBY:  We'll take a look at it, see if there's any context we can provide, but, I mean, I -- I don't know.

Q:  The other thing is there is a tension currently mounting in Belarus and Poland border, because of the unidentified, like, undocumented migrants trying to cross into Europe.  Does the department provide any support to Poland to protect the borders?  And what is your actually take on this tension --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I have nothing to speak to -- to -- with physical support to Poland in this regard.  I -- I think you've heard our colleagues at the State Department talk about this and we -- we obviously share their view, their condemnation of the Lukashenko's regime's political exploitation of vulnerable people and the regime's callous and inhumane facilitation of irregular migration flows across its border, and we also share in the call of our State Department colleagues for the immediate halt of these unacceptable actions.

But I know, there's -- I -- I -- I have no U.S. military movements or requests for assistance to speak to right now.  Yeah.

Let me go back to the phones here.  Paul Shinkman?

Q:  Yeah, hi, John, a follow up on Poland.  So you say that there have been no requests for any U.S. military support with regard to those migrant flows?  Did you just -- just -- just say that?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, I did just say that.

Q:  Oh, do you have any concerns -- so Lukashenko said this morning -- he sort of hinted at the idea that Russia may get involved if the situation continues to escalate.  Do you have any sort of idea if that's a credible threat?  Do you have any concerns about that?  And any indication that this might be linked to Russia's troop buildup along its border with Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  We're generally concerned, as I said at the outset, with these actions and we're -- we're mindful of the -- of the potential destabilizing effects of -- of these migration actions in -- in the region writ large.  I'll let the Russians speak for their intent here, what -- or -- or -- or what, if any -- to what degree, if any, that the -- you know, that they are -- that they're involved.

We have to stay focused on making sure that we remain committed to our allies and partners and that -- and -- and that -- and we don't want to see the situation escalate into any -- this situation or -- or any other situation on the European continent escalate in -- in -- into a point where there could be miscalculation and -- and conflict.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Matt Seyler?

Q:  Hey, John, thanks.  I just wanted to follow up on the Russian buildup near Ukraine, as well.  You said last week that any escalatory actions by Russia would be of great concern.  I just wanted to see, since you spoke, is it -- has the Secretary seen enough to be concerned at this point or has the department's assessment changed at all as it's continued to monitor the situation?

MR. KIRBY:  We continue to monitor it.  Matt, I don't -- at -- there -- there's -- I don't have any changes to -- to read out today.  The Secretary does remain concerned about these buildups and we do continue to monitor them very closely, and he is in touch and remains in touch with -- with senior military leaders here at the Pentagon, as well as -- as well as in Europe.

Q:  Thanks, John.

MR. KIRBY:  Jeff Seldin?

Q:  Hey, John.  Thanks very much.  Two questions.  We -- in -- in Syria, the SDF was reporting that ISIS launched four counterattacks yesterday after they announced that they had thwarted this prison break attempt in Osaka, and this follows the DOD I.G. report that contained warnings from DIA and others that ISIS in Syria was poised to increase activity after a period of recuperation.  So I'm wondering how concerned the Pentagon is about what it's seeing from ISIS in Syria, and also, Iraq.

And then as a second question, a research group, a pro-SDF research group says Iran now has about 30 recruiting offices across northeast Syria for its militias that it backs.  Wondering if the Pentagon's aware of that, and if so, what the level of concern is that -- that Iran seems to be moving into northeast Syria like that.

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I don't have anything on the recruiting offices.  We know that Iran continues to want to use Syria as a way to -- to funnel support to -- to terrorist groups in the region.  That hasn't changed.  So that they have an influence in Syria is not new.  It is -- and it remains of concern, clearly, because of their intent to use, as I said, to -- to use Syria as a way to further funnel resources and support to terrorist groups there.

On your first question, again, I don't have details on this specific event that -- that we have agreed to go take a look at it and see if there's more on it.  But just to your -- just broadly speaking, without speaking to the specifics of the event that you -- you detailed, we know that ISIS remains in Syria.  We know that they would love nothing better than to be able to reconstitute and continue to use Syria as a place to train, recruit, resource themselves, and that's why our mission in -- in -- in Iraq and in -- and in Syria continues.  It -- it's solely focused on the ISIS threat, and in Syria, on partnering with the SDF on the ground to try to continue to push back on -- on ISIS -- ISIS attempts to reconstitute and -- and to -- and to regain some of its -- some of its influence in Syria.  So we're -- we remain laser-focused on that.  That hasn't changed.

But again, on the details of this particular thing, we're just going to have to take that question and get back to you guys, because I just don't -- I just don't have that.

Okay, anything else?

Q:  (inaudible)  On Iranian influence in northern Syria, are you concerned at all that Iran is deepening its relations with SDF, particularly YPG?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I don't have anything on the -- on the -- the recruitment question or on northern Syria in particular.  I just don't.  What --

Q:  (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY:  We know that they have an influence in Syria and they want to retain that influence for their own malign activities going forward, but I don't have anything specific with this respect to the geography up there.

Q:  Yeah, but these relations with SDF, like, are you concerned about that they are -- they are looking --?

MR. KIRBY:  Our concern in Syria is about ISIS and partnering with the SDF so that we can continue to prevent ISIS from reconstituting.

Did you have a question?  Okay, I guess that's it.