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Senior Defense Official Holds an Off-Camera, On-Background Press Briefing Ahead of Secretary of Defense Travel to the Middle East Region

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for making time for this on a Friday.  As you all have heard, Secretary Austin takes off for a three-country trip to the region next week with stops in Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. 

Let me start out broad with some of the key themes of the trip, speak about some of the developments that we will be discussing with our partners throughout the trip, and then I'll make a few comments on the three partners that we are visiting next week. 

First of all, Secretary Austin will convey enduring U.S. commitment to the Middle East and provide reassurance to our partners that the United States remains committed to supporting their defense and increasing and strengthening the strategic partnerships with each of these countries. 

Number two, he will continue to say that while we remain committed to these bilateral partnerships, remain committed to our security commitments and increasing military cooperation with these partners, we believe that the path for the most sustainable and effective security in the Middle East is through integration and multilateral security cooperation.  This is a theme that you all have heard us come back to time and time again especially since the National Defense Strategy was released last year, this concept of integrated deterrence.  And you see us working through many different means to achieve and deepen multilateral cooperation with our partners in the Middle East. 

You've seen it through the Negev Forum, the regional security working groups that over 40 people from across the U.S. government went to Abu Dhabi in January.  You saw it in some of the work military leaders did in Riyadh in February, the US-GCC defense working groups. 

And Secretary Austin will talk about with each partner the tremendous opportunities that we have because of cutting edge innovation, emerging technology, shared assessments of what the threats are facing our partners in the region, that now is the time to improve collective and shared defense through taking steps to integrate air and missile defense, maritime security, intelligence sharing, early warning, et cetera.  This is important not only for the security of the citizens of the region, the territory and the defense of our partners but also, obviously, sends a strong strategic signal of our commitment to each other, and to the regional security and stability. 

And through that, he will constantly talk about the imperative of partnership.  You see this again in the National Defense Strategy that the U.S. competitive advantage globally is our network of allies and partners and, of course, that could not be more relevant than in the Middle East where working together whether it's aligning diplomatically, economically, or from a security perspective can achieve greater gains and what we can do unilaterally or bilaterally. 

And finally, in many of the countries, he will be meeting with service members, because the U.S. commitment of forces deployed in the Middle East remains significant.  Over 30,000 U.S. service members deployed across multiple air bases in many of these countries, using that platform and that posture not only to provide for the defense of our partners but also to increase this integrated deterrence and security cooperation that you heard me speak about. 

Let me reflect on just a few of the key theme we'll be talking about.  First and foremost, of course, is Iran.  You've heard most of our senior administration leaders talk about the fact that negotiations for mutual re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran is not on the table.

But from the Department of Defense perspective, we have been working regardless of negotiations led by the State Department on the full constellation of Iran-associated threats, whether it's Iranian cultivation of nonstate actors and proxies through its arming, training, and funding of violent proxies that threaten our forces, that threaten many of our partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iranian aggression at sea, cyber threats, and also air threats, obviously one-way attack drones and Iran's ballistic missile program. 

Every partner, every capital you visit in the Middle East will talk about their concerns related to all of these threats.  So, Secretary Austin will seek to advance those threats and consult with our partners on how we can most effectively push back and undermine them going forward.

Two, he will obviously be speaking about the unprovoked war of choice by Russia and Ukraine.  He will share his views about the imperative of increasing support to Ukraine now.  He will also talk about the strategic implications of increasing Russian-Iranian military cooperation, which right now is killing Ukrainians but, eventually, will come back with significant and negative security consequences for the Middle East. 

Obviously, the instability and escalation in violence in the West Bank is first and foremost on the minds of many of our partners, particularly Egypt and Jordan, who joined U.S., Palestinian, and Israeli officials last weekend in Aqaba.  He will be consulting with all of the leaders in the region about how we can best work together to reduce and arrest that cycle of violence and restore calm especially before the upcoming Passover and Ramadan periods. 

And, of course, he'll also talk about other strategic competitors in the region.  I would imagine that the People's Republic of China, the PRC will come up.  Specifically, what he will say there is that we are not asking for a divorce between our partners and China. 

Just like the United States has an economic, commercial, and trade relationship with Beijing, we fully understand that our partners will also have that and will want to maintain diplomatic ties.  But we will also be honest about certain areas of security cooperation that we think introduces risk to our security partnerships in the Middle East which we seek, of course, to strengthen, advance, and deepen.

In Egypt and Jordan, he'll express praise for both sets of leaders for the tremendous regional leadership roles that both are playing not only in facilitating integrated deterrence, but specifically with facilitating political processes that can wind down conflicts.  Jordan is one example I just gave you.

Obviously in Israel, he will reaffirm his ironclad commitment to Israel's security and Israel's inherent right to self-defense.  He will consult on the way forward with respect to Iran and how we approach the constellation of threats you heard me speak about.  He'll also be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming holidays. 

Let me stop there and take your questions.  Thanks.

STAFF:  Leading with Ildris, please.

Q:  The White House and the administration has said one of the things that is at the heart of their National Security Strategy is human rights.  You didn't mention that.  In Egypt, in particular, is he going to bring up human rights concerns and how that's tied to weapons sales?  Or is that not something he's going to touch? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I fully expect him to bring up human rights.  Respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights generates more security and stability and makes better and more effective partners.  He will talk not only about the need for that broadly but specifically as a necessity as we seek to continue to strengthen our military and defense partnerships. 

He will also talk about steps that we're taking with our partners through their tactics, techniques, and procedures to reduce civilian harm.  This is something, obviously, in our own military that we have important lessons learned and implement as we go forward.  He will be more than willing to share lessons learned from his leadership as the Secretary of Defense and the former CENTCOM commander, and consult on how we can work together going forward. 

Q:  And are there any deliverables in any of the stops that you see like any sort of tangible results particularly, in terms of agreements or, I don't know, troop deployments or not? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't expect specific deliverables.  I would note that this is obviously a particularly tense time in the region.  The Secretary making the time to sit with these leaders, consult and work through ways that we can through multilateral cooperation, restore calm so that citizens can actually live their lives with security, peace, and prosperity is quite important at this moment in time. 

STAFF:  All right.  Courtney? 

Q:  Thank you. 

When you say that he's going to talk about the imperative increasing support to Ukraine now, are you talking about in Israel, I'm assuming, or is that more... 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We talk about it with all partners all the time.  Our view and his view, in particular, is that Russia's unprovoked decision to invade Ukraine is a threat to the rules-based international order.  And if not countered effectively in Ukraine, has major implications to embolden adversaries in other theaters, specifically, of course, INDOPACOM and in the Middle East. 

Partners in the Middle East benefit from the rules-based international order and thus have a stake in working with us to make sure that Russia's unprovoked aggression in Europe cannot stand.  What's needed now is more assistance for Ukrainian armed forces, more aid for Ukrainian civilians.  And he'll consult on the full range of what we see for Ukraine going forward. 

Q:  Just to be clear, when you say that, do you anticipate that Secretary Austin is going to publicly there call on partners like Israel to provide assistance to Ukraine in the form of equipment?  Or is this — are we talking about things he's going to talk about in meetings and not necessarily go on...?   

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't want to get ahead of what he might say publicly.  But I do want to make clear that in every key leader engagement Secretary Austin has with any counterpart or global leader now, Ukraine and Russia and the needs of Ukrainian civilians and armed forces are always on the agenda. 

STAFF:  Kasim 

Q  Thank you. 

With respect to Iran, you said that the Secretary is going to discuss the full constellation of threats that are imposed to the region.  What is he going to discuss?  Are there some contingencies that he will be discussing?  Can we expect some related options? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, first of all, we are working every day with our partners to push back on these threats that I'm talking about.  Let me give you one example.  You've seen an increased rate of maritime interdictions by CENTCOM and our partners through the combined maritime forces.  Not only are we working together to share intelligence and do these interdictions, but then we publicize it immediately so that Iran cannot hide behind the veneer of plausible deniability for its illicit actions and violations of arms embargoes.

When it comes to Iran-aligned militia groups and their activity, the same thing, we work to expose it.  We talk about when they're using weapons to attack either U.S. forces or our partners.  We encourage our partners to be more public about it. 

All of these things, the Department of Defense is actively working on a daily basis.  And he'll consult on those. 

Q:  There are some reports that the United States has a secret budget in the budget with respect to certain contingencies against Iran.  Could you confirm or could you comment on these reports? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I've seen those news reports.  I can't speak to them.  But I do want to be clear that part of the job of Secretary Austin is to make sure that — let me be very clear, President Biden's preferred course of action to address Iran's nuclear ambitions is diplomacy.  Secretary Austin's job is to ensure that should the President need other options, there are credible options from the Department of Defense available. 

STAFF:  Luis?

Q:  You mentioned the growing Russia and Iranian connection there and that it could lead to negative impacts in the Middle East region.  Are you specifically talking about the arm sales that might be headed towards Iran?  Or what other things are you talking about?  And have a follow up on Yemen. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Thanks for that question.  So, first of all, as you've seen recently from the Defense Intelligence Agency, I don't know if you all saw the press briefing.  So, we have shown very clearly the movement of Iranian one-way attack drones from the Middle East theater to the European theater.

Iran is supplying those weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine.  It's reasonable to conclude that the Iranians will take important lessons about the efficacy of their weapons in Ukraine, and apply those lessons at some point back in the Middle East. 

The Middle East, long before Russia's war of choice in Ukraine, knew the threats of one-way attack drones and other lethal aid from Iran to non-state actors, like the Houthis, like militias and Iraq and Syria.  So we think that what's happening in Ukraine has tremendous, profoundly negative consequences for the Middle East.

Q:  And what about the potential of upgraded fighter aircraft, Russian fighter aircraft headed to Iraq? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We've seen those reports.  Let me just say up front, what is clear from all of the consultations across the Department of Defense enterprise with our partners in the Middle East, is that all share the same threat assessment of the destabilizing activities that originate from Iran, all share a stake and pushing back on those activities. 

Russia is enabling Iran and providing it with more leverage, not only in the Middle East, but globally.  So we think our partners have a stake in working with us through our coalition to look for ways to reduce and constrain and push back on those malign activities. 

STAFF:  Lara?

Q:  Something that I don't think we've talked about yet is ISIS.  And I'm wondering if that is something that you expect to come up in Secretary Austin's discussions. 

And specifically, we heard, I think last week that there were four soldiers wounded in Syria.  I'm wondering if you have similar situations in Iraq, where U.S. combat troops are going on these kinds of raids against ISIS? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Sure.  So first of all, the enduring U.S. commitment to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, I think is a great example of U.S. competitive advantage.  We consult with partners.  We build coalitions.  And we support others in achieving a shared objective, in this case, the enduring defeat of ISIS. 

So in the Syria context, U.S. military are only present in northeast Syria, and only for the enduring defeat of ISIS.  We do that primarily through working with vetted partners, including the Syrian Democratic Forces.  There are both partnered counterterrorism operations and unilateral counterterrorism operations.  So, that's what you heard about the Syria operation. 

In the context of Iraq, it's different.  We have a state partner in the government of Iraq.  The government of Iraq has extended an invitation to U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.  We accomplish our transition of mission in December of 2021. 

Iraqi security forces are in the lead.  We, U.S. forces and the coalition remain in advise, assist, and enable role.  So there are not unilateral operations.  They are partnered operations. 

And if you look at the CENTCOM statistics of its operations that were released in December, you'll see the difference which is we are in a supporting role to the Iraqis. 

Q:  Are still partner operations — oh, sorry.  They are still partnered operations in which their U.S. strong combat troops going on missions with the Iraqis. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  U.S. Forces with a combat role departed Iraq in December 2021.  And the Iraqi Security Forces are doing remarkably well in maintaining pressure on ISIS.  There are specific kinds of capabilities that they rely on us for.  We provide them based on consultation. 

And you've heard, for example, Prime Minister Sudani, talk about the need for continued U.S. military support for some period of time, we'll continue to work with him. 

Q:  When you say no, no combat troops, can you say there are no combat troops, no U.S. troops going on combat missions with the Iraqis? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  U.S. troops are in advise, assist and enable role to Iraqi security forces who are in the lead.  But I do want to be clear that should U.S. forces be attacked, we always retain the right to self-defense. 

STAFF:  Felicia?

Q:  Just following up on the questions about Israel and Russia, Ukraine, given what the Israelis described as their concerns about freedom of action in Syria, I wonder what you think is a realistic request for them in terms of supporting Ukraine? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I think the Israelis have taken some very important actions to support the Ukrainians.  They have legitimate security concerns across the region as well.  And of course, they will hear from Secretary Austin affirmation of his commitment to working with them on how to best enhance and protect Israel's security, and its qualitative military edge.  And he'll consult with them on what the realm of the possible is for them to support the Ukrainians. 

Q:  ... There have been reports about certain systems...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I would not want to get out ahead of those conversations.  Needless to say, I don't think it's for us to specify which systems but what we do is consult with partners on what they have available, what's most relevant to the conflict at a particular moment in time and work with them and within their systems on what's possible for them. 

STAFF:  Pierre?

Q:  Thank you.  We can clearly see the cooperation, the synchronization of work that's happening in the Arabian Gulf and the Oman and the GCC area in general.  But we are not seeing much about measures that are being taken to counter proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  Is there something on the table that the Secretary is going to discuss with the partners, Israel and Jordan especially, and Iraqis? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, broadly speaking, our view is that the most effective way to counter non-state actors is by empowering our partners in the government to have a monopoly on the use of force, professionalize their security forces, work with them on border security, and other means to mitigate the destabilizing role of non-state groups. 

So, for example, both Jordan and Egypt have played key roles in welcoming Iraqi leadership into the Arab fold.  That's another example of where there's a very key leadership role.  And those leaders will hear praise for that. 

We think that by Iraq's integration, for example, into the global system, and to the broader Middle East, there are enhanced opportunities to show the Iraqi people the benefits of integration diplomatically, economically, commercially, et cetera.  As well as in the security fabric. 

STAFF:  Jared?

Q:  Just wanted to ask, you mentioned the potential for Iran, Russia military cooperation, posing significant negative security consequences for the Middle East. 

I'm wondering if the U.S. efforts to encourage integrated — security integrated deterrence in the region, particularly on air and missile defense, are these efforts moving fast enough to keep pace with anticipated advances in Iranian capabilities as a result of this partnership with Russia? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I think that's an area of risk that we'll have to continue to consult with our partners on.  So, Iran does not seek to join the rules-based international order, nor does Russia and that emerging axis of cooperation should be a concern for those who want to work within the rules-based international order.  One of the risks of the emerging technology and innovation landscape is that some of us are going to work within coalitions for positive benefit. 

And then there are going to be adversaries and malign actors that are going to seek to exploit that system for their own gain.  So part of what we're doing, you mentioned integrated air and missile defense, but part of it is intelligence sharing, illuminating the networks of destabilizing activities and illicit activities, how we can effectively counter it, and then sharing lessons learned about defensive capabilities and the most effective way to push back. 

STAFF:  (inaudible). 

Q:  You've previously mentioned that the threat from Iran continues to increase through continued arming of proxies and funding of proxy networks in the region.  Why does the Department see Iran — what is Iran's motive behind doing this? 

I mean, there's no fighting in Iraq.  There's no fighting in Yemen, with Iran's proxies and U.S. forces, or local state actors at this time.  Is Iran preparing the proxies for future fights?  Are they trying to build leverage with diplomatic negotiations with the West?  What — Why is this? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  So, I think the pattern of activity is that Iran thrives in unstable, less governed areas where security forces are not present.  There is an entire system of international isolation, economic sanctions, et cetera, on Iran, so Iran seeks to benefit and exploit in the shadows, right? 

So part of cultivating the Houthis is to hold at risk the Gulf region, part of cultivating a proxy groups in Iraq is to hold at risk the Iraqi government.  Part of this is to threaten U.S. partners with coercive tactics in order to achieve what Iran believes benefits itself.  And part of it is because there's an ideological orientation of the regime that doesn't want U.S. forces present in the region, and doesn't want the United States to have strategic partnerships in the Middle East so that Iran can dominate the Middle East. 

And I think the point here is, despite attacks either directly by Iran, for example, on our partner in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, on U.S. forces through its proxies in Syria or Iraq, on Saudi Arabia and the UAE through its proxies in Yemen, U.S. forces remain in quite significant and substantial numbers with significant capabilities and military power, not only in the region, to support the defense of our partners, but we have also demonstrated that we can dynamically and rapidly flow force in the region to fall in with interoperable partners and respond to crises. 

STAFF:  Sir, in the back. 

Q:  Thank you.  One question on Ukraine.  I do believe U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East share the U.S. position on sending lethal weapons to Ukraine.  That's it. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I wouldn't want to speak for the partners of the Middle East.  But again, what I'm going to make clear is you've seen a broad global coalition stand up to provide for Ukrainian forces to ensure the defense of their territory, and the protection of Ukrainian civilians.  One year into Russia's war of choice in Ukraine, what we've seen from Russia is a decision to devastate civilian infrastructure, target and terrorize Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian energy infrastructure. 

If one believes that this is a threat to the rules-based international order, and that adversaries and bullies should not be able to terrorize the people of another country, then you have an interest in standing up, defending that rules-based international order, and providing equipment to the armed forces of Ukraine so that they can defend their people and their territory, period.

There's no secrets.  There's nothing ambiguous about that stance and that posture, and we will share it with every ally and partner in our global network. 

STAFF:  Oren? 

Q:  On the question of aid to Ukraine, is that a — is that a discussion we'll also have with Egypt?  Do you believe there's either lethal or nonlethal aid Egypt could provide Ukraine? 

If so, what types of systems or what type of equipment would you be looking at for Egypt to possibly provide? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I'm going to refer back to my earlier comments.  We believe that every ally and partner who has an interest in defending the rules-based international order can contribute to supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces and defending their people and their territory.  We consult with all allies and partners. 

STAFF:  Am I missing anybody? 

All right.  And then to you for our closing comments please. 


STAFF:  Well, then thanks, everybody.