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Department Of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room

March 15, 2018
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.; Colonel Rob Manning, Director, Defense Press Office

DANA WHITE:  Hello everyone, good afternoon. Good afternoon. Today I will highlight a few updates from the Secretary's trip this week. Then address several concerns regarding Russia's behavior in Syria. 

First, yesterday two Navy aviators died in an F-18 Super Hornet crash off the coast of Florida. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families as they mourn their loss. 

On the budget, I want to reemphasize the need for Congress to pass a spending bill. The continuing resolution expires next Friday, March 23rd.

We are grateful to Congress that it lifted the defense caps for Fiscal Year '18 and '19. We are optimistic that Congress will do its job, pass a budget and write a check. Regarding the secretary's travel, one of the secretary's priorities is building alliances and partnerships.

The secretary's returning from the Middle East, where he met with counterparts in Oman, Afghanistan and Bahrain. He travelled with an open mind, to listen and improve defense relationships and regional security. This trip is an example of his priorities in action.

Regarding Russia's behavior in Syria, Russia and Syria are partners. Russia enables the Assad regime. The situation in east Ghouta mirrors that we witnessed elsewhere during the Civil War. Russia agrees to its ceace fire, but supports a regime that continues bombing innocent civilians.

As Secretary Mattis said earlier this week, Russia is either incompetent, committing illegal acts or both. Russia is propping up the Assad regime, not targeting Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists in Syria. Russia could stop the civilian casualties in Syria.

Instead, their double dealing is exacerbating the loss of innocent lives. The Russians made deliberate -- made a deliberate choice not to restrain the Assad regime. Thus, the carnage in east Ghouta continues. Russia is morally complicit and responsible for Assad's atrocities.

We urge Russia to compel the Assad regime to stop killing innocent Syrians and allow much-needed aid to reach the people of east Ghouta and other remote areas. We support our diplomats in their efforts to resolve the conflict through the United Nations-backed Geneva process.

So with that, I'll take your questions. 

Lita?

Q: Hi, thanks. One quick question, then on Syria. First, has there been -- General McKenzie has the military exercises in Korea been rescheduled yet? Is there an update? And then on Syria, there's been a lot of discussion about the -- the lack of progress now that a number of officers and commanders have left to go to Afrin

I was wondering if you could just update us on the progress down in the middle -- in the MERV, and tell us has there been any either ISIS effort to build up their forces, have they gained momentum as a result of what's going on in Afrin?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  Sure, let me take the second half of your question first. We'll talk about the lower Euphrates River Valley, where we have in fact seen some SDF elements reposition back up into the Afrin area.

And that has had an effect on our ability to finish off ISIS in the lower Euphrates River Valley. It has slowed the pace of our advance. I would not say that ISIS is gaining any momentum, but I would instead say the inevitable conclusion of this has been slowed by the fact that not so much rank and file, but some leadership has moved back up to the north.

So it has slowed our advance. We're still engaged down there, fighting is still occurring, we're still pressing them. But it's not going as fast as it would, were all the leadership still down there to be able to assist in that effort.

So what -- we're watching that very carefully, and we'll continue as -- as, you know, from day to day as it moves forward. So I would say it's not going as fast as it was several weeks ago. We're still in -- we're still fighting down there, we're still putting pressure on them.

And we'll have to just see how that plays out here over the next few weeks. On your question about -- about Korea. We deconflicted our exercise schedule with the Olympics and the Paralympics. Those exercises will go on once the Olympics is over.

I just -- don't have the dates with me right now, but they'll go on in the very near future.

Q: I just -- a follow up on the Syria issue. Has there been any adjustments by the U.S. in order to compensate militarily for those commanders who have left?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So our commanders on the ground always go through a process of assessing what's going on in the battle space. So I would not have those tactical details, but I could tell you that we have probably done some repositioning to make sure of our own force protection.

Both down south, as well up -- as up in Manbij.

MS. WHITE: Kasim?

Q: The -- yes, just a follow up to Lita's question about the -- the SDF forces repositioning to Afrin. Did they discuss with you, because we have heard that a large number, like 1,700 troops left MERV and moved to Afrin.

So did they discuss with you, and did they get your approval or OK or permission while they were taking such an action, because it has an impact on your operations down there?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. We have good communications with them, we continue to have good communications with them. We've talked about this, and they -- it's their decision to actually do that repositioning.

I'm not sure the exact numbers, it could be as high as what you've indicated; I just don't have the granularity on those numbers. I will say that some have repositioned. But we have -- continue to have good contacts with our SDF-vetted partners, and will continue to stay in touch with them throughout this process.

MS. WHITE: Tara?

Q: Thank you. Back to the Super Hornet crash, you know as the Defense Department has dealt with first the sequester, and then the continuing resolutions, you've pushed readiness forward at the risk and expense of home-based units, where training has become riskier for those units.

Have these home-based units seen any relief yet from either the FY 18 -- not obviously the FY 19, but are they starting to see relief, are they getting readier jets, or is this just simply a -- it's become more dangerous to fly in these training missions?

MS. WHITE: Well, this tragic event is still under investigation. I think it's important that we not necessarily draw direct correlations, but it is important that we have stable funding, that has been our message to the Congress and to the American people for the last several months. 

Capabilities erode and things are delayed and so it's very important, again, for the Congress to pass the FY 18 and FY 19 budgets soon.

Q: So at this point, general, if you have anything to add on the readiness of home-based units and the risk to those pilots who still see reduced flying hours, reduced access to spares, etcetera. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: So without going into any specific details, because I just don't have them, I can tell you that readiness is absolutely at the center of what we're doing right now, and I would -- I don't know how effective this particular aircraft and the causality of this mishap. 

But I would tell you that I think pilots are going to by flying and training's going to pick up. 

MS. WHITE: Jeff ? 

Q: Thank you. The New York Times recently highlighted an -- a raid -- sorry, sorry, a battle in Niger involving U.S. troops and there have been other such battles; it seems there's a lot of tactical engagements, but no overall strategy. 

Can you talk about why U.S. troops in Africa are engaged in combat operations in several countries?

MS. WHITE: Well, let me start by saying the majority of our troops in Africa are on a train-and-advise mission. They are building capacity in those areas. There's a great deal of ungoverned space within Africa, and we're helping those security forces increase their capabilities that they -- so that they can manage the security situations themselves. 

So, general, I'll let you...

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, I -- I completely disagree with you that we don't have a strategy. I actually think we have a very good global strategy against violent extremist organizations and what you see happening in Niger is simply one of the manifestations of that. 

So I think we do have a plan, I think the plan is working. It's unfortunate that we had the -- the -- the combat action in October, where four soldiers lost their lives, and I'm aware of the accident -- or the incident you're describing in December, but patrolling with our Nigerian partners continues, not combat operations, we try to do it when combat is unlikely. 

It was unlikely in the October -- in the December event. When combat occurred, our forces reacted appropriately along with their Nigerian partners. No U.S. -- no -- no U.S. soldiers were injured in that combat. 

Q: (Inaudible) there have been numerous battles in Niger alone, how can you say this is not a combat mission? Advise and assist when you're getting shot at is still combat as you know very well.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Absolutely, the intent is for our partners to do the fighting, for us to support them up until the last covered and concealed position before they become engaged. We do not intend to seek combat with our forces in Niger -- in Niger.

As you point out, the enemy gets a vote, and the situation's uncertain. If the situation weren't uncertain or dangerous, we wouldn't be there in the first place. So it's simply a fact of life. We try to control an environment as much as we can, but if we get into a situation where we have a combat situation, we're prepared to react to that. 

Q: Any indication whether the fighters killed in the December battle were the same that ambushed U.S. troops in October in Niger?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well the October event was about 1,100 kilometers away from the -- from the event that occurred in December, so probably not, but I have no more information on that. 

MS. WHITE: OK, Lucas?

Q: Dana, why didn't you put out a press release when these U.S. troops were attacked in Niger in December? And general, can you describe how these upcoming exercises off the Korean peninsula will be different this year compared to last year?

Why is the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson going home? And have these talks with the North Koreans changed any kind of the planning that goes into the training exercises?

MS. WHITE: So, first, our troops are often in harm's way and there are tactical things that happen that we don't -- we don't put out a press release about. We also don't want to give a report card to our adversaries. They learn a great deal from information that we put out. And we don't -- they don't deserve a report card on how they can be more lethal.

GEN. MCKENZIE: So, just very briefly, aircraft carriers and their strike groups rotate on long-planned schedules. So any -- any carrier movement has long been in the offing because of the maintenance requirements of the carrier. So no particular linkage there. I would tell you that every year we conduct a robust series of exercises with our Korean partners and I don't think this year will be any different than those that have occurred in the past.

MS. WHITE: Right here in the middle.

Q: Two quick follow-ups, good afternoon. I'll take them both and you guys can choose. General, in regards to Syria, it was described a couple weeks ago, I think by Dana, that there was an operational pause because of the plight of some of the SDF forces. Is that pause over?

And then second, to you, Dana; on your opening statement regarding Russia, I'm sorry if I bore you with my psychological minor, but you described them as having -- conflicted. And conflicted to me means that they were...

MS. WHITE: They were complicit.

Q: Complicit? Thank you. Thank you for...

MS. WHITE: Complicit. Complicit. There you go.

Q: You cleared that one up, then.

MS. WHITE: OK. (Laughter.)

Q: And another thing, why do you think they're conflicted? OK. So, General, back to you. (Laughter.)

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. How I would describe what's going on in the southern Euphrates river valley is, we made -- we made -- moved very quickly for a period of time. Now it's slowed down. And it's slowed down because many of the leaders that were integral to the advances that we made have gone back up to the north. So there's fighting going on down there now. People are -- people are being killed on the ground down there now. Shots are being exchanged. The rate of advance is no longer what it was.

MS. WHITE: Barbara.

Q: I don't know who, but let me start with you, General McKenzie, if I may. Back on the subject of Syria and Ghouta and what's happening there. It has -- it has been said by more than one government official that you would have options for dealing with another use of chemical weapons in this area. And of course, more -- we know there are chlorine attacks and we also know that a large number of civilians are being killed by continuing conventional airstrikes.

So my question is this. And you talk about -- Dana talked about the Russians need to behave, essentially. Why should the Russians or the Syrian regime believe at this point that the U.S. military would enact any of these military options against this bombardment in Ghouta? I mean, are they -- are they credible options? Would you go after conventional attacks which are killing more people than chlorine? Why should they believe that they even need to behave?

MS. WHITE: I think we've been very consistent. And you hear this across the U.S. government. You heard Ambassador Haley's comments yesterday that we want Russia to live up to its commitments. The suffering that's going on in East Ghouta is horrific. And they could stop it but they choose not to. We will continue to urge them to ensure that the Assad regime is compelled to stop the killing of innocent lives.

We are going to be consistent in that message and we will continue to urge them to do that. We will use the U.N., we will use our partners. But understand that the Russians have a lot of control in this. And as the secretary said, either they're incompetent or they're -- or they fully support these illegal acts.

Q: Is there anything beyond verbal rhetoric that anybody should believe you're even willing to consider doing? Is this still simply, after all this time, anything more than rhetoric?

MS. WHITE: I will -- I will repeat what the secretary said. It would be ill-advised for the Assad regime to use any gas. I think this administration has been quite clear.

Q: I just need to understand, while you do say that, ill-advised to use chemical weapons, you're not extending that to ill-advised to continue aerial bombing, conventional bombing, which is killing more civilians every day than gas.

MS. WHITE: Ambassador Haley did talk -- she presented a ceasefire. Russia agreed to that ceasefire and yet hasn't upheld its commitment to it. We'll...

Q: Including conventional bombs?

MS. WHITE: In East Ghouta. In East Ghouta, there was a call for a ceasefire. And they chose not to. Russia has a pattern of saying one thing and then doing another. And we'll continue to call them on that. 

Right here in the middle.

Q: I was just wondering, is it still the U.S. policy that Assad must go?

MS. WHITE: The Department of Defense, our mission in Syria, is to defeat ISIS. It is not our intention to be a part of a civil war. But we do ask that -- we are pushing towards the Geneva process. It has been a failure in terms of the ceasefire. Sochi has failed. And now it's time that there be a political solution and we are -- we want the U.N.-led Geneva process to move forward.

Q: But (inaudible)?

MS. WHITE: Our policy has always been that our interest in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Right here.

Q: Yes, thank you. (Inaudible). One question on Ghouta and one on Iran. On the Ghouta -- from a military assessment, with the rate of this operation that's taking place in Ghouta, do you think the regime with the support of Russia will be able to retake the whole area of Ghouta now that it's been I guess chopped to three different areas?

And on Iran, with the nomination of Director Pompeo to become the new secretary of state, does that put more pressure on you guys to maybe have certain plans ready for Iran? We know he's not that enthusiastic about the nuclear deal and I guess General Votel says the nuclear deal is working, it's doing what it's intended to do and if you scrap it, you have to come up with alternatives, and I take it, military alternatives.

MS. WHITE: General, why don't I let you take the first question?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Combat in a built-up area is the most manpower intensive, the deadliest form of combat there is. They're grinding away at it but I don't know how long it would take them to complete the reduction. I don't know that they will be able to complete the reduction. Obviously the use of airpower against those targets there is hurtful to the opposition, the forces that are there. So I don't know, I'm just not going to engage in a hypothetical other than -- other than to note it is the bloodiest, most difficult thing to do, to get into a built-up area and prevail there.

MS. WHITE: With respect to Director Pompeo being named the next secretary of state, it's very important to understand that the policies are formulated by the president and he's articulated that Iran is behind much of the malign activity in the Middle East. That is the policy of this administration. And this -- and I won't speak for Director Pompeo but I will say that we are focused on ensuring that, one, our partners in the region understand that, as well as our international allies understand that Iran thrives in chaos, and they continue to create chaos in the region.

Stephanie?

Q: So the president was in Missouri at a fundraiser, and he said he was interested in pulling out U.S. troops out of South Korea. Has that been communicated to the secretary?

MS. WHITE: I saw those reports. I'm not aware that any of that has been communicated to the -- the secretary. But the focus -- our focus is that our relationship with South Korea is the strongest it's ever been. There's no space between Washington and Seoul, and so we'll continue to support them and work together.

Q: So when the president says something like that, I mean, what happens? Just, is it taken seriously, or are you waiting for a memo? I mean, the president said that's something he's interested in. What happens at this level? 

MS. WHITE: I would have to -- I would have to refer you to the White House for where that goes next. That's -- those, as you said, those were the comments allegedly at a -- at a fundraiser. So I would have to refer you to the White House about what -- where that goes next.

Q: OK. And the president was also in San Diego, and he said he wanted to create a space command. Now Secretary Mattis last summer sent a letter to Congress opposing a space force. Where does he stand now on space force? Does he feel the same?

MS. WHITE: So with respect to space, we all agree that space is a war-fighting domain, and it is imperative that we dominate that domain, and that we advance our capabilities. The president has shown his support and his enthusiasm by what he's provided, in terms of his National Security Strategy for space, as well as funding. So we look forward to working with him, and working with Congress to ensure that we dominate and advance capabilities in space.

Joe?

Oh, I'll come back to you, Jeff.

Joe?

Q: I would like to ask you, what is the -- the Pentagon position in regards to the JCPOA- the Iran nuclear deal? The reason I'm asking you is because we heard General Votel from Tuesday, saying that the deal is important to reduce tension in the region. So what is the Pentagon position in regards to the JCPOA?

MS. WHITE: Well, the secretary has testified that he thought we should stay in the JCPOA. But what's important to remember is this -- the Iran strategy, and this -- our approach is not just about one agreement. It's about taking a comprehensive look at everything that Iran is doing. We remain in the agreement, but we want our partners to understand that Iran is the source of chaos and confusion in the region. Everywhere you look, Iran is there. So we are taking a comprehensive look, and primarily, looking at and -- and looking to our allies in the region. 

The secretary is just coming back from the Middle East. Conversations are about Iran, and what Iran is doing. So that's where we are, and we'll continue to highlight those activities.

I said Jeff. Oh, Jeff, can you hold on one second? Because I did go to you before.

John – Danny?

Q: Thank you, Dana. On North Korea, last Thursday President Trump had accepted North Korean Kim Jong-un's invitation. But North Korea had been -- North Korea has not mentioned nothing about the North -- U.S. and North Korea talks, but this morning North Korean authorities said that North Korea wants U.S. troops withdraw from South Korea. What is your...

MS. WHITE: So I've seen those reports, but it's -- it's very important to understand that this is a situation that is being held -- is being led by our diplomats. And it's very important that we give them the space, the people who are leading these conversations, the space.

Because many things can be misinterpreted, and so I will just leave it there. And I would refer you to the State Department with respect to anything -- with regards to reactions.

Q: ... do you have any to reduce the size (inaudible) South Korea exercises (inaudible), or either exercises?

MS. WHITE: Again, I -- I appreciate the question, but we're going to -- as the secretary said, we're going to stay quiet. This -- this is important, and we want the people who are actually involved in those conversations to have the space to have them. 

Goyal.

Q: Thank you, Dana. I have a question -- two questions please. One, as China's expansion in the South China Sea has concerned many nations who are watching, including Maldives and also India. And there's a cooperation -- big cooperation with Pakistan and China on these issues, as per military concern there.

And also Pakistan is still supplying the military personnel in Afghanistan, according to the Iran president and officials there. So is U.S. watching as per Chinese expansion or Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the Maldives?

MS. WHITE: Well as you know, the secretary just returned from the region. He met -- he was in Vietnam. We are absolutely looking at China's activities in the South China Sea. We'll continue to -- to make a point about the free navigation of international waters.

We are always ready to have those conversations with China, but it's also important to understand, and we outline this in the National Defense Strategy, that China has benefited from the free -- free navigation of international waters.

And it would be important for them to continue to understand that.

Q: And I have one more. As per Afghanistan, Pakistan is concerned, State Department (inaudible) informed that Pakistan is not doing enough in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, or even they're supplying the weapons to the -- against the Afghan government.

So what are we doing now, as far as peace in Afghanistan is concerned also, Pakistan are using U.S. fundings, according to the State Department and also the press reports.

MS. WHITE: Well I can only speak to DOD and the secretary, and the secretary has said there is more that Pakistan can do. And we look forward to them taking more steps to combat terrorism in the region. 

Christie.

Q: With Secretary Tillerson leaving, does Secretary Mattis feel as though he's losing a close ally, and has he spoken to Director Pompeo yet, and does he plan to forge a similar relationship with Director Pompeo?

MS. WHITE: I will tell you -- I can tell you that the secretary knows that all of these institutions are not about a single personality. He has a very good working relationship with Director Pompeo. So no, and his relationship with the pesident is -- is very good and they talk consistently.

So there'll be no change in that. One more? 

Corey?

Q: Thanks, Dana. I just want to make sure I understand when you say that you're going to give the State Department space on the North Korea meeting, and that you guys are going to stay quiet. Do you mean the Pentagon won't be involved in preparing the White House as this meeting comes?

Or are you just saying publicly you're going to be quiet?

MS. WHITE: Thanks for the question. We will continue to work alongside our State Department colleagues. It is our job to ensure that they always negotiate from a position of strength. But as the secretary has said, they are leading these conversations.

And so it is for them to talk to the way ahead. I'll take -- I'll take -- I'll take one more question. 

Lucas, you had a question.

Q: (Inaudible)

Q: When you said that U.S. troops are often in harm's way, and that's why you didn't have to put out a press release when U.S. troops killed 11 ISIS-affiliated fighters in Niger. The Pentagon did put out a press release when you killed over 100 Russian mercenaries in Syria.

And I'm just wondering what changed with this battle in December, when U.S. troops weren't just in harm's way, they engaged in combat and killed 11 ISIS fighters.

MS. WHITE: I will have to take that, because I don't recall us putting out anything about that -- what you just said. I -- what -- what we said about that particular incident was that in self-defense, our troops defended themselves against pro-regime forces that were gathering.

Q: Wasn’t it self-defense in Niger?

MS. WHITE: General, I would refer to you -- I believe it was, but again there's a lot of times where U.S. forces are defending themselves around the world, and we don't put out press releases every time. 

Thank you all very much.