REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.
Let me just give you a quick update on the Ebola response and then a preview of the secretary's schedule for the next few days. First, on Ebola, I can announce today that 100 personnel from the Special Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response Africa are deploying from Moron, Spain, to Dakar, Senegal, with onward movement to Monrovia to provide interim resupply and transportation support until Army units arrive later this month to assume that longer-term mission. These personnel will arrive in Senegal tonight and in Liberia tomorrow, and their footprint includes four MV-22 Ospreys and two KC-130 Hercules aircraft.
Now onto the secretary's schedule. As many of you know, today Secretary Hagel is hosting a regularly scheduled meeting of his leadership council, which includes DOD's top civilian leaders, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the combatant commanders. This is an important opportunity for DOD senior leaders to discuss key challenges, including the strategic environment and fiscal realities, as they develop next year's budget submission.
This afternoon, as you know, President Obama will also be coming to the Pentagon to meet with the senior DOD leadership, including the combatant commanders. I know Secretary Hagel is very much looking forward to hosting the Commander-in-Chief here in the building. There will also be a full meeting of the president's national security team here this afternoon to provide the president with an update on the campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL.
Tomorrow, Secretary Hagel will embark on his second trip to Latin America this year, a six-day, three-country trip that includes visits to Colombia, Chile and Peru. Secretary Hagel will begin his trip in Colombia, where he will meet with Colombian leaders and reinforce our close and wide-ranging defense relationship.
Colombia continues to expand its role as a security exporter across the region, and Secretary Hagel will underscore the United States' continued support for these efforts, as well as Colombia's internal counterinsurgency operations as the government pursues a peace process. He will also seek new avenues for future security cooperation and visit a Colombian military base to observe training for Colombian special forces and aviators.
From Colombia, the secretary will travel to Chile, another long-standing defense partner of the United States and a regional leader in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peacekeeping. In meetings with Chile's leadership, the secretary will explore ways that the United States can expand our partnership with Chile in these areas and seek to identify new areas for cooperation in the broader Asia Pacific region.
Finally, in Peru, Secretary Hagel will attend the 11th Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas, a biennial conference that is the Western Hemisphere's premier venue for senior leaders to discuss regional defense issues. At the conference, Secretary Hagel will stress the United States' commitment to partnerships that strengthen national defense institutions and confront hemispheric security challenges, including ungoverned spaces, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking.
Addressing a major theme of this year's conference, environmental security, the secretary will also discuss the Defense Department's emerging strategy for adapting to the impacts of climate change. He will describe DOD's efforts to assess and respond to the risks that climate change poses over -- to our military's installations, operations and training. And he will propose cooperation with partner nations to address these risks.
On the margins of the conference, the secretary will also have the opportunity for bilateral meetings with leaders from Peru and other regional partners, highlighting our appreciation for the diverse contributions of partners who share a common vision for regional stability.
With that, I'll take questions. David?
Q: Thanks, Admiral Kirby.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what the Pentagon would like to see, with Turkey doing more in the fight against ISIL? And does the department see any value in establishing some sort of buffer zone inside Syria?
ADM. KIRBY: Let me take the second one first, on the buffer zone. This is not a new issue. This desire by Turkey for a buffer zone -- or a so-called buffer zone, as they refer to it -- and it's an issue that we have discussed with them many times. When we were in Ankara just a few weeks ago, it came up. Secretary Hagel discussed it with them. We know of their interest in this.
It is now not on the table as a military option that we're considering. That said, it's a topic of continued discussion. So I have nothing new to announce with respect to their desire for a buffer zone.
On what we would like to see them do more of, again, I think our approach to Turkey is much the same as it has been to every other nation in this coalition. We're not coming at them with specific requests. We're not -- or demands. It's a coalition of the willing, so we need to be willing to let people contribute what they can, and that's what our expectation and our hope is for Turkey, is that they will -- they have a very competent, professional military. They have invested interests just because of their geography.
They've got more than a million refugees. They've got a foreign fighter flow problem across their borders. And I know they've been watching the situation in Syria with great interest for years. So they have an interest; they have a stake. They know that. They've expressed that to us. And we are having active consultations and discussions with them about what their participation would look like in form and character and in speed. But, we're not making demands of them. We're not coming at them with a specific ask.
Q: This Marine task force to Africa is a change from yesterday. So what prompted the change? And second question. You said that the president would be updated on the campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS. Did you not get the Allen memo?
ADM. KIRBY: All right. I wouldn't describe these Marines as a change. As you know, David, there's a process by which these orders are pushed up the chain of command and signed and approved, and the secretary just signed it, so I'm in now a position to announce it. We just weren't in a position to talk about it yesterday, but now we are.
And it's not a change. It's part and parcel of the additions that we've been talking about. And I've been very clear that we'll continue to add resources as necessary. I also --
Q: Was it in the 3,900 that you've been talking about all along?
ADM. KIRBY: It's been included. It's been factored into that 3,900. And as we talked about, this 3,900 -- and I think General Rodriguez mentioned this -- this is about capacity. So 3,900 is the total number at which we are sort of working within. It doesn't mean that we're ever going to get to 3,900. It's the -- when a combatant commander submits a request for forces, it's based on capabilities that he needs, and then there's a number associated with that to help us resource.
Just to reach out and grab a unit and say, "Okay, you're going to be the one to go," if you're going to go, and that's where we are now, so 3,900 is sort of the number that we're working with. It doesn't necessarily mean that all will go. Yes, these Marines were part of the calculus that went into that, so it's not necessarily a change.
The other point I'd want to make about the Marines is -- and I said this in the opening -- is that right now they're being sent as a bridging capability until the 101st can get down there, and we expect that they'll be some intrinsic air assets with them.
So we don't see right now -- right now, we don't see this particular deployment of these Marines to be long term. It's right now considered a temporary solution to just get us some air assets in the region to deal with the austere environment that we're -- that we're faced by there.
On the other question, I will just -- the commander-in-chief was pretty clear that the mission is to degrade and destroy ISIL, and that's the job that we're undertaking.
Q: Admiral Kirby, let me just add one thing, that all the combatant commanders are here. I assume that includes General Austin.
ADM. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: We have yet to see General Austin in any forum since the campaign began -- he clearly does not see any value in talking to the press, but at some point, it becomes the reality -- the responsibility of a combatant commander to show himself to the public. So would you on behalf certainly of me and, I assume, the rest of the Pentagon press corps convey that message to him?
ADM. KIRBY: I certainly will let him know about your interest. But I will say this. And, again, it's -- I mean, I don't speak for the combatant commanders. But I've known General Austin a long time. I can assure you that he understands the obligation to share information with the public and the responsibility to communicate what he and his command are doing.
And I -- while I take the point that you haven't seen him up here, the -- Central Command has done what I believe to be a commendable job in terms of constant updates. I mean, every day you guys are getting updates -- very specific updates about what we're doing operationally inside Iraq and in Syria.
So there is an honest, concerted effort to keep you and the American people informed about what we're doing. And I'm up here twice a week trying to do the same. Again, I take the point, and I'll relay the -- I'll relay the message. But I do think General Austin in the main understands the obligation to keep the American people informed.
Q: Okay, back to the -- Alexander's question about Turkey's proposal to establish a buffer zone. Could you explain to us why it's not a military option right now, why it's not on the table? What are the risks of doing that?
ADM. KIRBY: It's something -- this is not a new idea. It's something that we've talked about with the Turks for many, many, many months. I mean, we know this is something that they're interested in. I would tell you that -- rather than telling you why we're not going to do X, Y or Z, I'll just tell you what the focus is, is on putting pressure on ISIL from the air through airstrikes, and we believe that we're doing that, and also to assist particularly the ground forces inside Iraq with their competence, capabilities, and -- and their competence, quite frankly, through adviser teams, in which we have out and about now.
So that's -- that's the focus of what we're doing. And General Dempsey addressed this a week or so ago. It's just not an active topic under discussion right now, but it is a topic of discussion that we routinely have with the Turks.
Q: So what I understand, the buffer zone will not put pressure on ISIL? That's what I understand?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm telling you what we're focused on. And what we're focused on is continuing to put pressure on ISIL and deny them sanctuary and safe haven. That's the locus of energy that we're applying militarily, and, again, we -- we know this is something that the Turks are interested in, but we just -- I don't have anything to announce on that.
Q: Another question on the president's meetings today at the Pentagon. Do you think those meetings could result to a change in the strategy against ISIL? Can we see -- can we expect more U.S. advisers going to Iraq soon?
ADM. KIRBY: The purpose of today's meeting is to update the commander-in-chief on our progress across a wide variety of fronts. Yes, he'll be updated by General Austin on the campaign against ISIL. He'll get an update from General Rodriguez on what we're doing with Ebola. And the other combatant commanders will have a chance to speak, as well, for their regions and what they're doing.
It'll be a -- it'll be a global update. Clearly those two very hot topics will be discussed. I won't -- I can't speak for the president and what he will or won't decide as a result of the updates he's getting. We're not expecting any change to our strategy as a result of today's meetings.
Q: Another question on --
ADM. KIRBY: Go ahead. Go ahead.
Q: (off-mic) sorry. Looking at the situation in the town on the border between Turkey and Syria, and given that the fighting is surprisingly getting longer and longer, many questions now around the efficiency of the air campaign. Do you think it has been efficient so far? And what would you ask of those who are completely recusing the air campaign, saying it's not efficient, it won't get us result, and probably the U.S. and others will need years there? And they're thinking basically ground troops are the option.
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, I find this line of questioning really interesting, since we've been saying since the very beginning that airstrikes alone are not going to be sufficient. So let me just turn your question a little bit. You asked if they're efficient. I think the better way to -- if I may, a better question to ask is, have they been effective? Because efficiency and effectiveness are completely two different things, at least in a military mind.
We believe they have been effective at what they are trying to achieve. And what we are trying to achieve from the air is two things. In Iraq, it's to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground as they -- and this is an important point -- as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground inside their country. They are the ground forces that matter most in Iraq. And so much of what we're doing inside Iraq from the air is helping them do that job, as well as to just routinely put pressure and try to set ISIL back on its heels a little bit more.
As you know, we've moved from -- the first iteration of airstrikes in Syria were largely defensive in nature, and now they are a little bit more offensive and more tactical, in our parlance, dynamic. In Syria, the purpose of the airstrikes largely is to get at this group's ability to sustain itself, to resupply, to finance, to command and control. They use Syria as the sanctuary and safe haven so that they can operate in Iraq.
Now, I understand it's not that clean. First of all, the border is not much of a border. They are operating in Syria, as well. But that is essentially the way it breaks down. They're using Syria as the headquarters, if you will. Iraq is where they're operating.
So in Syria, the airstrikes are principally designed and -- and many of the strikes that we've taken -- even as recently as a couple of days ago -- are against fixed targets, facilities, ways in which they are using to headquarters themselves, sustain themselves, train.
That said, there have been dynamic strikes inside Syria. You saw another six overnight just in and around Kobani. So it's not like we've ignored the crisis around this town of Kobani. Not at all. And we have hit some dynamic targets, smaller, tactical targets there. And we do believe that they have had an effect on ISIL in and around that town.
ISIL does not own Kobani right now. They -- there's mixed reporting about whether they've pulled back or whether they're still in. I mean --
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, well, that's one estimate. I heard a third, as well. I mean, I don't know exactly where they are inside. But we do believe some of them are inside there. But we also know some of them have left. Partly because of the pressure that they've been getting from the air.
The last point I want to make here -- and this is a really important one -- is that airstrikes alone are not going to do this. They're not going to fix this. They're not going to save the town of Kobani. We know that. And we've been saying that over and over again. And yet we continue to get questions of, well, why aren't you doing more? And how come they aren't more effective?
But what we've been very honest about, the limits of airpower here. The ground forces that have to -- that matter the most are indigenous ground forces. And we don't have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now. It's just a fact. I can't change that.
That's why we're so eager to get the training and equip program up and running with our partners, Saudi Arabia now being willing to host the site, and that's going to take some time.
And if I could, I know I'm on a little bit of a riff here, but there's another point that I really want to make, and that is: Time matters here. Time matters. And, yes, airstrikes are dramatic. When you drop a bomb from the air, something blows up, somebody, you know, gets stopped, and you have a tactical effect.
But I think we've forgotten -- and I think we need to keep reminding people -- that this is going to be a long, difficult struggle. It's not going to be solved through military power alone. And as dramatic as airstrikes can be and as effective on the battlefield as they can be, they're not the solution here.
What really has to happen long term and -- is good governance, good governance in Iraq and good governance in Syria, options for people that don't -- so they don't have to turn to the ideology of a group like ISIL. And that's not -- that -- so there's a -- there's an element of strategic patience here that I think everybody needs to consider, all of us, all of you, the American people, everybody.
Q: Were you surprised by the extent, I would say, of -- from the military point of view, were you surprised, are you learning anything new about the capabilities of ISIL, from a military point of view, not political? I mean, we've been watching this fight in this town, and it's a back-and-forth -- (inaudible) -- they don't look -- at least to any foreign observer -- like just a sporadic militia, incompetent, unprofessional. They seem to hold ground facing the Kurdish forces.
ADM. KIRBY: I wouldn't say we've learned anything new, but I'd say that what we've seen -- certainly in Kobani, but also in Iraq -- I mean, it's not like -- everybody's focused on this town in Kobani, and I get that. But there's still a lot of fighting going on inside Iraq. These guys have not given up a whole heck of a lot of ground inside Iraq.
But we've said from the outset, what makes them different -- and when Secretary Hagel got up and said they're like -- unlike anything we've ever seen, some of that got mischaracterized. What he meant was, these aren't -- these aren't like a militia. They aren't like any other terrorist group that we've dealt with. They combine terror tactics with good financing and good resourcing and military-like capabilities.
I mean, unlike some terrorist groups, they actually do want to hold ground and infrastructure. They want to control means of production and streams of revenue, in addition to just the brutal, murderous tactics that they employ against innocent people. They have -- you know, they call themselves a caliphate. That doesn't mean they are one, but they certainly are acting as if they want that to be the achievement that they -- that they earn, is to govern. They want to govern in a very brutal, just terrible way, but they want to -- but they want to govern.
And so that's what makes them a little bit different. And we're seeing that reinforced as you look at what they're doing in Kobani and look at what they're doing in Iraq. I mean, that -- the basic thesis holds up.
So we haven't learned anything new. Certainly, everything they've done and everything we've seen has reinforced our belief about what their goals and objectives are.
Q: Admiral Kirby, so is the Pentagon prepared now to ask the commander-in-chief for permission to put ground forces in there? You're describing Kobani as a place where airstrikes are going to be of limited value. You don't have ground troops on the ground, a local indigenous force to work with. Is it time now to ask for permission to use ground forces there?
ADM. KIRBY: No.
Q: And also, would the Pentagon consider the fall of Kobani a strategic loss?
ADM. KIRBY: I don't know that we're going to characterize the fall of Kobani one way or the other. I think we all understand that that's a possibility, that Kobani could be taken. We recognize that. We're doing everything we can from the air to try to halt the momentum of ISIL against that town, but that airpower is not going to be alone enough to save that -- that city.
Q: But why is the Pentagon not willing to do more to save Kobani? Six airstrikes is not enough to stop -- (inaudible).
ADM. KIRBY: Well, it's not just been six airstrikes, Jen. I mean, there were five the night before, dozens and dozens. I mean, we're --
Q: A handful of airstrikes. What -- has a decision been taken that you won't do more than just airstrikes to stop the fall of --
ADM. KIRBY: It's not about -- it's not about a decision taken not to do more. It's about -- it's about taking a look at this strategy in total. I mean, everybody's focused on Kobani right now, and I understand that.
Q: Kobani's not important?
ADM. KIRBY: I didn't say that it wasn't important. I mean, any time that -- let's -- let's just take a couple of steps back, because it's not just about Kobani. You're seeing them try to retake or take new territory in Al-Anbar province. We believe that they're largely in control of the town of Hit right now, which is not that far from Fallujah and Ramadi, and Fallujah and Ramadi are not that far from Baghdad. And we seem to have forgotten about that.
They try to grab ground and territory where they can, where they believe it's important. Now, I don't know what importance they attach to Kobani. What I'm telling you is, rather than say what we're not going to do, let me tell you what we are going to do, and that's to take a regional approach here.
So it's easy to get fixated on one town, but I think it's really important for you and for the American people to take a couple of steps back here and look at the larger regional context within -- within which this fight is being made. And the longer-term strategic objectives that we and our coalition members are trying to apply here.
We are not going to be able -- you know, it's interesting. I mean, we're being asked about why we're not or why we won't or why we can't save Kobani. And we're not being asked those same questions about towns inside Iraq. And I don't know why that is, other than maybe there's real-time footage coming out of Kobani or what the difference is.
But we're not -- we know that this is going to be a long struggle. We know that ISIL is going to continue to grab ground. And there are going to continue to be villages and towns and cities that they take. We all have to recognize that reality.
So when we get up here and we say it's going to be a long struggle and it's going to be difficult, and when we get up here and say airpower -- military power alone -- let's take airpower off the table for a minute -- isn't going to be enough to fix it, we really mean it.
And so we all need to prepare ourselves for the reality that other towns and villages -- and perhaps Kobani -- will be taken by ISIL. They have made no bones about the fact that that -- to my answer to the gentleman's last question, that this is their goal, to govern, to have space and territory that belongs to them. So we just have to recognize that.
Q: Admiral Kirby, on that point, administration officials have made the point to me -- as you are -- that Kobani is just one town of many there. But it strikes me that, in making that argument, they're saying, you know, it's not just about Kobani, but in Syria, frankly, there are any number of towns that we're not going to defend, that the strategy there is really to keep pressure from the air and that the territory doesn't matter.
So on Syria, without that ground force, on Syria, how do you deny the safe haven -- and I don't want to ask you about Iraq, because you bring it up -- but on Syria, how do you deny ISIL the safe haven without taking back that territory, just by pressure from the air, if you and other administration officials, as you said -- if Kobani is not strategically important by itself, as are any dozens of other Syrian towns. So how do you accomplish that goal without taking back some territory in Syria? Then I'll ask you about Iraq, if I can.
ADM. KIRBY: Denying safe haven is -- you do need competent ground forces to help deny safe haven over the long -- over the long haul. We believe that there's a limit to air power. Air power can have an initial effect on forcing them out of an area or denying them structure, whether it's hard buildings or the infrastructure of governance that they have or revenue. You can deny some of that temporarily from the air, but it's not going to be the long-term fix.
The long-term fix is -- and we recognize that -- is going to be competent ground forces that can retake territory from them. We believe -- and this is a lesson we've learned from 13 years of war -- that the best counterweight to groups like this on the ground are local, indigenous forces. People that know the ground, know the culture, know the tribes, they know the area.
And in Syria, right now we just don't have a ground force that we can work with. I understand that there are fighters and they are brave and -- and we recognize the sacrifices they are making, but we don't have -- military-to-military, we don't have a force inside Syria that we can cooperate with and work with. That's why we want to get this train and equip program up and running.
But we've been -- we've been nothing if not brutally honest about the fact that there is a limit to what military power is going to do here.
Q: Are you preparing the public, in effect, for the fact that not just Kobani, but other Syrian towns may fall over the long haul of this air campaign until you have those competent forces on the ground?
ADM. KIRBY: I think we all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality, yes.
Q: Let me then ask about Iraq, because Iraq, you do have the competent -- well, you have ground forces there, Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. But as of yet, they've not been able to gain back much territory. I know you protected the Haditha Dam, Mosul Dam, but Hit has fallen, Ramadi is being contested now. What's the barometer of success for Iraq? And doesn't that indicate that the air campaign in Iraq has been failure to this point?
ADM. KIRBY: No, I wouldn't say it's been a failure at all. Again, you've got to take the long view here, Jim. It's not just about, you know, the last few weeks. We have definitely -- there's been a positive effect of the airstrikes in Iraq. And I'll get to your bigger question in a second. We know we've changed -- by virtue of the pressure we're putting on them from the air, we've changed their tactics, we've changed the way they communicate. They've dispersed. They are hiding among the population more. They aren't -- they aren't as free to operate as they once were.
That does not mean we've eliminated them as a threat inside Iraq, but we certainly have made it harder on them to do so. And that was the effect that we wanted to have. And we're going to continue to have that effect.
The other part of the airstrikes I talked about earlier is in support of Iraqi forces, whether they're Iraqi security forces or Kurds. Let's just say Iraqi forces. As they start to take this fight back or start to take ground back from ISIL, it's a mixed picture. We've been, again, nothing but honest about that inside Iraq, that it is a mixed picture, and that -- it's a mixed picture on the ground and it's a mixed picture inside the Iraqi security forces. Not every unit is as capable or as well-led as any other.
And I want to just get back -- before I finish this answer, I want to talk a little bit about the advising mission. But -- so we're mindful of that. It is mixed. There are places where ISIL continues to make gains in Iraq. We talked about Hit. We talked about Ramadi. We talked about Fallujah, which is still in contention right now. That's worrisome, because it's close to Baghdad.
But let's talk for a second about what the Iraqis have been able to do. They have been able to retake the Mosul Dam facility. That is not a small thing, not a small thing in terms of the importance of that facility. There was an article today about how this group wants to use water as a weapon. And when we were saying that back then, the eyes were rolling. Well, why are you going after a dam facility? Well, because it matters to them; it's infrastructure.
We've been able to protect Haditha dam, which they have -- Iraqi security forces have maintained control of, but ISIL very much wanted to take, and they haven't been able to do it yet.
We prevented two humanitarian disasters. And when I say we, I mean the big we, not just us, but our Iraqi partners on Mount Sinjar and in the town of Amerli.
And then, lastly, I would talk -- let's look at Baghdad. Baghdad is still protected. It's still defended. Now, that doesn't mean it's not coming under threat. It doesn't mean that ISIL still doesn't have designs on the capital city. They do.
But our airstrikes around the city, particularly to the south and to the southeast of the city, we believe have been effective in blunting ISIL's, you know, continued probing on the capital city itself.
So, I mean, there's -- there's been progress. But I don't want to overstate it, either. I'll say it again. This is going to be long, it's going to be difficult, there's going to be setbacks, there's going to be successes, there's going to be failures. Thirteen years of war have taught us that this is -- that's the nature of a fight like this. And so we're trying to impart some of our wisdom on the Iraqi security forces as we now ramp up this advise mission.
And we have about a dozen or so advising teams right now on the ground. They are at the brigade level or higher. But they are on the ground with these -- not on the ground on the battlefield, but they are out and about with headquarters units, advising, assisting, providing vehicles for information-sharing and intelligence to help the Iraqi security forces continue to get better.
The last thing I'll say on this -- and we don't ever talk about future operations, so I want to be careful here, but I will tell you that Iraqi -- the Iraqi security forces, they have a plan. They know what needs to be done, and they are developing plans to get after it and do it. But I think back to my point about strategic patience. We're all just going to have to be a little patient here.
Q: A New York Times report quoted an official -- a U.S. official that said essentially our air superiority over the area near Kobani is already a buffer zone. Would you agree with that statement? And as a follow-up to that, I was curious -- because we did help with humanitarian efforts at Mount Sinjar and Amerli, are we planning any sort of humanitarian relief for the people in Kobani?
ADM. KIRBY: I know of no plans for a humanitarian relief mission in Kobani. Many of the residents have already fled, as you know. I don't -- you know, I don't know that I would characterize the airstrikes that we're doing up near Kobani as a buffer zone. Is it possible that the presence of coalition aircraft and the ordnance being dropped is having the same effect temporarily as what a buffer zone might? Yeah, that's possible, but that's not the intent. And I wouldn't want to mischaracterize the purpose of those strikes.
Q: And one quick follow-up. How much is this costing? It's been -- this week -- a month since President Obama announced the Syria airstrikes. Do we have an update in the cost for this operation in Iraq and Syria?
ADM. KIRBY: It's -- as of -- and I just checked on this recently -- it's still ranging between $7 million and $10 million a day. That's still an accurate estimate of the costs, yeah.
Q: John, there have been reports today of barrel bombings conducted by the Assad forces outside of Damascus. Given that this comes at a time when the allies are carrying out their air campaign, to what extent are you concerned it only reinforces the impression, at least on the ground, that the U.S.-led coalition is basically supporting Assad as he continues to carry out strikes against his opponents?
ADM. KIRBY: I understand how some people might characterize it that way. We, of course, don't. Nothing has changed about the desire by this government that Assad has lost all legitimacy and has to go. Nothing has changed about the fact that we believe -- continue to believe that he's a big part of the problem here. He is one of the reasons why this group has been able to grow and develop inside his country. The areas in which that they -- that they focus on in Syria to the north and to the east are largely ungoverned spaces that he long ago lost any control over.
So, I mean, I -- certainly, I recognize people may say that. But it is not at all our intent -- and there still is no -- from a military perspective, there's no communication or coordination with the Assad regime on what we're doing.
Q: One quick Kobani question, and then I had a Panetta book question. Can the public expect in the next couple days that the U.S. and coalition will ratchet up their airstrikes in that region, in that area?
ADM. KIRBY: In what region? Kobani?
Q: In the Kobani area to almost like 24-hour, around-the-clock strikes?
ADM. KIRBY: I don't talk about future operations, Tony. I think what the American people can expect is that we will continue to put pressure on ISIL from the air using coalition air power as needed, where and when needed, but I won't talk about specifics.
Q: Panetta's book is getting a lot of buzz for many reasons. You were one of his spokesmen. Were you surprised when the excerpts started coming out about his views on Iraq and the vacuum we left in Iraq, that now -- that led to -- potentially led to ISIL? You were in on a lot of those meetings. Were you -- did he say a lot of that privately that he's now saying in my "buy my book" tour now? Or are you surprised at what he's been saying?
ADM. KIRBY: One of the things that makes for longevity as a spokesman is knowing when not to speak.
I -- I'm not going to detail private conversations that -- that I was party to when he was the defense secretary or meetings that I attended. And I certainly won't speak for the content of his book.
I mean, former Secretary Panetta has written this memoir, and I know he's talking about it. I'm going to leave it to him to speak to his views while he was in office.
Q: And more broadly, are people within this building upset at the timing of his remarks, given that U.S. fliers are putting their lives at risk and you're trying to keep the support of the public, he's out there saying things he might have said three or four months -- seven or eight months ago that he's saying now? Is there a sense of frustration, a little anger, a little angst that he's saying it now while you're trying to get the support of the U.S. public and fliers are at risk?
ADM. KIRBY: We're not focused on the timing of his book or his memoir. We're focused on the job at hand. And I'm not -- I have not detected any consternation here about this -- again, our -- our focus is on the future and moving ahead and getting the job done that we've been told to get done. That's where our focus is.
Q: Admiral, on Ebola, the German defense minister said in September that she was willing to send soldiers to combat Ebola in Africa. And there have been reports surfacing that they just don't have the transport aircraft necessary for her to keep that promise. Would the U.S. be willing to help Germany out with U.S. military aircraft or allow infected Germans to stay at the 25-bed hospital in Liberia? Is that discussion ongoing within this building?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any specific discussions with the -- our German allies on this particular issue. But let me just talk about it just broadly for a second. The aircraft I just announced today will be designed and purposed to help facilitate the transportation of supplies and our own troops to and from -- from Senegal, which is where the air hub is, in and out of Monrovia and to some of the more remote areas.
One of the great things about the Osprey is it can go where lots of other aircraft can't go. And one of the challenges that we're having is some of the sites at which we are trying to set up these emergency treatment units are in pretty remote locations, where there are not only no roads, but there's no other way to get to them sometimes than either on foot or -- in this case, from the air.
So they're going to prove helpful in that regard. But they're largely designed to move our people and our supplies. That doesn't mean that, once they're down there, they become an asset of the joint forces commander. And I won't speak for him on how he may, in fact, use them or what other passengers he may allow to use them. I just don't know.
But we're not -- I'm not aware of any active discussions with the Germans over air lift assist. We're going to -- but, again, broadly, airlift is an issue. And airlift is a need. It's a requirement. And that's why we're sending these Marines down there, and that's why the 101st will probably bring some additional aircraft assets of their own.
It's just -- it speaks to the very austere environment we're working in, you know? Again, you know, people talk about speed and why you're not there faster or why you're not there in greater numbers faster. And part of it is -- General Rodriguez addressed this -- you don't want to overwhelm the system down there. Infrastructure is limited.
But it's also just a very tough physical environment. I mean, it's monsoon season right now. And so the troops that are trying to build these units and get the ground level are really set back every day, hours and hours every day, by rainfall. That doesn't drain off, necessarily, very quickly, either. So it's just -- it's been a challenge. These aircraft will help with that.
Q: Airstrikes in Kobani have certainly picked up and reports from the ground suggest that they've become more effective. Has there been some sort of change in intelligence? Or is there a coordination with the Kurds going on, U.S. and Kurds within Kobani? And in terms of the significance, it does seem like it's sort of a chicken-and-an-egg. It has become more important based on the number of airstrikes.
If there was blame to be had about later why it falls and coming late to the game, can you say that Turkey has been a large problem?
ADM. KIRBY: Well, there's a lot in those questions, Joan.
Q: I've been waiting.
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah. First of all, I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters. I just won't do that from the podium. There have -- there has been a steady amount of pressure we've been applying from the air in and around Kobani. And just in the last 48 hours -- I think I'm counting 11 strikes just in the last two days -- so -- and we're using precision-guided munitions. We've very careful and very discriminate about what we hit from the air. And, again, we believe we have been effective. And I've seen reports that -- you know, from officials there who think they have been increasingly more effective, and that's a good thing.
I also -- but I want to keep going back to not overstating the significance of airpower. So we do believe that they have had an effect, a positive effect. We know they're -- we know we're hitting what we're aiming at and that it -- and that we're aiming at ISIL terrorists and their capabilities there in Kobani.
You had a second question.
Q: Are you communicating with the Syrian Kurds?
ADM. KIRBY: Oh, communicating, thank you. No, we're not in active communication or coordination with the Syrian Kurds. One of the challenges, quite frankly, in Syria -- and I addressed this -- is that there is no opposition force, no recognized military organization with which we can work. And so that's one of the reasons why we want to get this train and equip program up and running, but that's clearly a limiting factor inside Syria. There's no question about that.
And on Turkey, I think I've addressed this already. I mean, we're not -- we're not making demands of the Turks. They have a stake in what's going on in Syria. They have a stake about what's going on inside Iraq. ISIL is a big component in both those places, because they share a border with both.
And in our conversations with Turkish leaders in Ankara, they made it very clear that they understand that threat, that they want to help address it, and that they will, but they're going to do it -- they're going to do it in accordance with their own dictates and their own mandates and what the Turkish people will support. And I just simply can't speak for another country.
Q: Would you say that militarily you could have asked for a more helpful partner?
ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, I'm not going to -- we -- we want every member of the coalition to contribute what they can and what they're willing to. We're not making demands on them.
And so we obviously -- Secretary Hagel was clear about this -- we obviously want to see Turkey contribute. We want to see them be helpful. We know they have information and capabilities militarily that we just don't have, because they're there. They're a neighbor. This is -- their part of the world, and we certainly encourage them to participate as actively as they can.
Q: Admiral, just two quick follow-ups on points that you've hit today. First, you said earlier, the areas in northern Syria where American aircraft are operating are basically ungoverned spaces or Assad has lost control of them.
ADM. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q: Does that mean that the American aircraft operating there are basically free to operate, safe from Syrian air defenses, or that Assad has basically switched their systems off there and he could turn them back on if he wanted to, if he decided to threaten the aircraft?
ADM. KIRBY: Well, I won't get into a hypothetical, Phil. But what I can tell you is that we have not been -- in our air missions there and in the north and to the east, we have not been threatened by Syrian air defense systems, that their posture has remained what I would call passive.
Q: Because they're -- because they can't reach, they're out of range, or because they're deliberately turned off?
ADM. KIRBY: I can't speak for Syrian intentions. We don't talk to the Syrian military. We don't -- we don't have perfect knowledge about why they do what they do or why they don't do what they don't do. All I can tell you is their approach from an air defense perspective has been passive.
Q: Okay. And on the buffer zone, you said earlier, it's not an active topic of discussion right now. Has the Defense Department -- which as you often say is a planning organization -- done the work on what it would require to set one up and decided not to? Or has it not gone down that road knowing that one of the things that it could find, if it tried, was the need for ground troops to do it?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any planning effort. And I think Chairman Dempsey mentioned that pretty clearly a while ago. There's -- I'm not aware of any planning effort to -- to lay before any leadership the possibility of a buffer zone at this time.
But I also -- you know, there's an implication in the question that we're not doing that or perhaps we're not doing that because we don't want to face this eventuality of U.S. ground troops. I can tell you that every leader in this building, every leader down at CENTCOM understands the very clear direction, that there will not be a return of U.S. ground forces in a combat role in this fight, in Iraq or Syria. That has been made very clear.
And I would also want to revisit the truism that we also believe -- after 13 years of war -- that we know the best ground forces for this kind of threat are indigenous ground forces. That's where the focus and the energy really needs to be right now, on helping the Iraqi security forces -- which is why we have those advising teams out there -- and then trying to get a moderate opposition trained and equipped.
Q: Does having the prohibition against ground troops up front mean that it's not even worth pursuing a buffer zone, because it would be less effective?
ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any linkage between the prohibition on -- you know, on using any U.S. ground forces and the execution of a buffer zone. I mean, largely, the way -- as I understand it, largely the way the buffer zone has been communicated and talked about is in the context of airpower.
Q: One other question to ask about the situation with vetting troops, because you've stressed that ground troops have to be a part of the process. Where are we? It's been a month. Have we vetted a certain number? What's the number of opposition forces we've vetted? And when do they start the training?
ADM. KIRBY: Great question. There's been no vetting started yet and no recruiting at this point. We are -- we are in the very early stages right now of trying to develop the procedures and protocols within which we would do that.
The other locus of energy right now is on working with Saudi Arabia, who has agreed to host this training facility, and trying to -- you know, sizing up the facility, getting a look at the infrastructure, you know, sort of figuring out the architecture within which the training would actually occur, and then setting up a program, a viable, sustainable, verifiable program to properly recruit and vet these opposition members. There's a spadework still left to do, which is why we were very honest about the length of time here, three to five months until we can even get through that process. That's before you even start doing any of the training. So this is going to be a long-term effort.
Yeah, I already got you. Yeah, Andrew?
Q: Admiral, you mentioned on the advise and assist mission that U.S. advisers are out with about a dozen Iraqi units. I think that General Dempsey indicated earlier --
ADM. KIRBY: Headquarters levels. Headquarters levels. Yeah, I don't want to -- the word unit can be misconstrued.
Q: I think General Dempsey said there was about 50 of those total and about 26 they'd identified as being units they could work with, 24 maybe they hadn't. You're saying about a dozen now have advisers. Is that -- is that it for now for the foreseeable future? Are they going to continue to expand into -- towards the number? I mean, how extensive is the advise and assist mission going to go? How many units?
ADM. KIRBY: The focus right now is on these 12 teams or so. I think the total number of teams was going to get up to 15 to 17. And I can check on that to see where we are. But right now, I know we have 12 out there now. The eventual goal is, I think, between 15 and 17.
And I think -- I've seen nothing to indicate that it's going to go up beyond that. But it's a dynamic situation, and I don't think we would remove the possibility of additional teams, if we felt that that was necessary. But right now, I think everybody's satisfied that the number that we're dealing with now is about right.
Q: Is that because of concerns about the remaining 35 or so, because they're not properly led or --
ADM. KIRBY: No. As a matter of fact, I mean, one of the things you want to do in these -- in this advisory mission is you want to work with units that may need the help. I mean, there are going to be some units that, frankly, we don't -- their headquarters elements, brigade staffs that perhaps don't need the help. I mean, we want to put the advising teams in those units that we think we can have the best effect with and on.
So I'd really point you to CENTCOM for sort of how they're breaking that down. I don't have that level of detail today. But the whole purpose of this mission is to help them get better and to sustain their capabilities in the field. And so you should expect that some of the headquarters staffs that we'll be putting these teams with are headquarters staff that, frankly, need the help.
I'll take one last question. Tony?
Q: Just a quick housekeeping. Foreign Policy magazine today disclosed that General Dempsey next week is going to host the chiefs, military chiefs of up to 20 countries in the region for a talk on defeating ISIL, crafting a ground force. Can you confirm that and a little bit of what the agenda is of the meeting?
ADM. KIRBY: Actually, I don't have much on that, Tony. I would refer you to the chairman's public affairs staff. I mean, they're better suited to speak to -- for the chairman and what he's doing. I do know he's getting the chiefs of defense together from some of these coalition nations to talk about the effort and what can be done to improve all of our unity of effort and collective effectiveness, but I don't have an agenda for you. I just don't have more detail on it than that.
Q: (off-mic) you just don't have the details?
ADM. KIRBY: I don't have the details. But, yes, he will be hosting this meeting. But I'd refer you to the Joint Staff public affairs office for more detail on it. Yep.
Q: (off-mic) you said, sir, during this discussion here that the 13 years, many lessons. What are the lessons of (off-mic) from a Pentagon point of view?
ADM. KIRBY: I don't think I can do that in the time I have left. I mean, I think we've -- we've learned a lot about the region. We've learned a lot about the threats. We've learned that this is a generational issue. It's not -- none of these problems are going to be solved overnight or quickly, that -- that extremist elements look for ungoverned spaces and areas in which they can continue to spread their -- their warped ideology, and that that's not an easy problem to solve, certainly through military means alone.
We've also learned the importance -- not that we didn't before, but we certainly have relearned the importance of partnerships with -- with local forces and understanding culture and society and knowing how to operate in those kinds of environments.
So nobody's under any illusion here. Even as we focus on the Asia Pacific region and we've got issues in Europe, which interestingly now have been pushed off the front page, yet are still there. Nobody's under any illusion that we're not going to have to maintain a focus, energy and resources in the Middle East for many, many, many years to come.