Transcript

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Esper and General Milley in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Oct. 11, 2019
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark A. Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good afternoon, everyone. Over the past several days, Chairman Milley and I have been working closely with President Trump and the rest of the national security team to discuss the United States' military operations in the Middle East.

Today, we will provide you an update on the situation, and announce some changes to the U.S. force posture in the region.

Beginning with Syria, we oppose and are greatly disappointed by Turkey's decision to launch a unilateral military incursion into northern Syria. This operation puts our SDF partners in harm's way. It risks the security of ISIS prison camps, and will further destabilize the region.

From the president on down, we have communicated with the Turks on this issue. I spoke with Turkish Defense Minister Akar yesterday to express our strong opposition to Turkey's actions, and reiterated the damage this is doing to our bilateral relationship. The chairman has similarly been in communication with his counterpart.

As we've previously reported, when Turkey notified us of an imminent military operation, we relocated a small contingent of less than 50 special operations soldiers out of the immediate zone of attack. This decision was made to ensure American troops were not caught up in the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

The safety of our men and women in uniform remains our top priority. As such, we are repositioning additional forces in the region to assist with force protection as necessary.

The SDF also transferred two ISIS militants, known as the Beatles, who were involved in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. and U.K. citizens in Syria, to our custody. They are being held in a safe and secure location in the region, but outside of Syria.

At this time, we have made no additional changes to our force posture in Syria, but will continue to assess the situation and our troop levels there. To be clear, we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria.

The impulsive action of President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has put the United States in a tough situation, given our relationship with our NATO-allied Turkey, who has fought alongside the United States in the past; the Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS; and the safety of U.S. military personnel.

Rather than get pulled into this conflict, we put the welfare of our soldiers first, while urging Turkey to forego its operation, and working hard with us to address their concerns through the development of a security zone along the border.

We remain in close coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who helped us destroy the physical caliphate of ISIS. But I will not place American service members in the middle of a longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. This is not why we are in Syria.

We will continue to work with the 80 members of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure the defeat of ISIS.

Turning to Iran. It is clear that the Iranians are responsible for the recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Our international partners agree, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, who have said so publicly. Despite Iran's attempts to deny their involvement, the evidence recovered so far proves that Tehran is responsible for these attacks.

Iran's continued malign behavior is part of its larger campaign to destabilize the Middle East and disrupt the global economy. Iran's attempts to use terror, intimidation and military force to advance its interests are inconsistent with international norms.

Today, I spoke with the Saudi minister of defense to discuss the status of Saudi Arabia's defensive capabilities and our ongoing efforts to protect our partners from further Iranian aggression. Saudi Arabia is a long-standing security partner in the Middle East, and has asked for additional support to supplement their own defenses and defend the international rules-based order.

In response to continued threats in the region, I've ordered the deployment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of two additional fighter squadrons and supporting personnel, along with additional Patriot and THAAD [terminal high altitude area defense] air and missile defense batteries. Taken together with other deployments I've extended or authorized within the last month, this involves about 3,000 United States forces. In fact, in response to Iranian provocation since May, the U.S. has deployed in array of additional capabilities to the region, including airborne early warning aircraft squadrons, maritime patrol aircraft squadrons, Patriot air and missile defense batteries, B-52 bombers, a carrier strike group, amphibious transport dock, unmanned aircraft, and engineering and support personnel. This has involved the deployment of about 14,000 additional U.S. forces to the region. The U.S. military has on alert additional Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units to quickly provide increased capability in the region, if necessary.

The United States remains committed to protecting our allies, ensuring the free flow of resources needed to support the global economy, and demonstrating our commitment to upholding the rules-based international order. I urge other like-minded countries, especially our allies in Europe, to follow the United States' lead and join us with their own defensive assets to ensure stability in the region.

As we continue to implement the National Defense Strategy, my aim for the Department of Defense is to remain operationally flexible in accordance with the concept of the dynamic force employment. This deployment of troops is one example of how we will dynamically manage our force posture to align with the national priorities while meeting the challenges of today's very complex security environment. We will soon employ naval forces, brigade combat teams, bombers and other military capabilities in a similarly unpredictable fashion to place the right force in the right location at the right time.

Lastly, our ability to defend U.S. personnel, allies and interest abroad depends on predictable, adequate, sustained and timely funding from Congress. Regretfully, we are under -- under a continuing resolution once again. C.R.s cause great damage to military readiness and disrupt our ability to modernize our forces for the future. I strongly urge Congress to pass a defense appropriations and authorization bill now so we can move forward with the many important programs needed to ensure our readiness and deter our adversaries.

With that, Gen. Milley and I would be happy to take your questions. Thank you.

STAFF: Lita?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you -- you've said that the U.S. has not abandoned the SDF. Can you tell us whether or not ongoing operations against ISIS have paused or slowed, or is the U.S. partnering with SDF continuing to do that in other areas?

And Mr. Chairman, can you give us an assessment of the ongoing incursion by Turkey into Syria? Have Turkish ground troops gone in in any large numbers, and is there any pushback or fighting back of any substance by the SDF?

SEC. ESPER: I'll let the chairman go first and speak to what's happening on the ground, then I'll try and answer your -- your policy question, if you will.

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: So with respect to -- you asked two questions there. One is ongoing ops with the SDF. We're still co-located with the SDF, with the exception of the two small outposts that we withdrew forces from in a force protection mode.

As you know, the -- the entire frontage that -- of the Turkish-Syrian border is about 440 or so kilometers. The area of the incursion, the current Turkish incursion, is about 125 kilometers and it's -- on the west, there's a village called Tal Abyad and, you know, on -- on the east is Ras al-Ain. Those were -- that's where the two Ops [observation posts] were. So we've withdrawn forces from there.

Elsewhere throughout all of Syria, we remain co-located with them. The SDF is still guarding prisoners in the area that have been detained over time. So we are still conducting operations.

Obviously this incursion that was initiated by the Turks has had some effect, but yes, we are still co-located.

With respect to the incursion itself, right now the Turks have conducted airstrikes with fixed-wing manned aircraft.  They've conducted airstrikes with unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, in both a reconnaissance mode and an airstrike mode. They've conducted artillery strikes, and some direct fire from tanks on the northern side of the border, on the Turkish side of the border.

As far as forces that have come south, to our knowledge it's been relatively limited in terms of ground forces, so we're talking about those two villages east and west of the -- what is called the security-mechanism zone. They've come south on both sides with some Turkish military light infantry, commando forces they call them, in coordination with the Free Syrian Army. And you're looking at numbers of Turkish military in the hundreds, and maybe up to perhaps 1,000 or something like that, of the Syrian Free Army.

They've advanced in the west somewhere in the region of, say, five to seven, perhaps 10 kilometers, and in the east something like one to two to three kilometers. So the incursion on the ground is relatively limited, but the indirect-fire strikes and the airstrikes continue.

SEC. ESPER: So with regard to the broader question, up and down the chain of command, from President Trump to myself, Secretary of State Pompeo, Chairman Milley, our CENTCOM commander, others, we have spoke with all of our counterparts, urged them to stop this incursion, to -- and highlight the importance of doing so because of the destabilizing effects it's having throughout the region, the dramatic harm I feel is being done to our bilateral relationship.

I've also had a similar conversation with the NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg; updated him on the situation. I think you have seen that many of our NATO allies have come out and said the same, that Turkey must stop this incursion now. And that remains our message -- stop, let's get back to the status quo, and let's work out a -- this security mechanism, the safe zone, if you will, to get back to something where we can separate the two forces.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you asked the Turks to stop in what you've described as this loaded incursion so far. Have you seen any signs that they are stopping or slowing? And if you're telling the Turks to stop, what are you telling the Syrian Democratic Forces to do?

SEC. ESPER: We have -- in -- in my conversations with -- again, as of yesterday, with Minister Akar, I have -- get no indication that they are willing to stop. I'm not surprised, because since I came into office in late July -- and I've had multiple engagements with him -- this has been their consistent theme about the terrorist threat that they see from the PKK, the YPG, et cetera, how this is affecting their national security, et cetera, et cetera.

They have been adamant about making this incursion, and have been dissatisfied with the progress we've made, so I've seen no lessening with regard to their commitment at this point in time.

Q: And what are you telling the Syrian Democratic Forces to do?

SEC. ESPER: You want to comment on that?

GEN. MILLEY: Well, with respect to the Turkish military, I just got off the phone just shortly ago with my counterpart, and multiple calls over the last several days. And again, I'm not seeing any indication or warnings of any planned stoppage of their military activity.

Q: So a follow through on the -- what are -- what are U.S. officials, U.S. military, telling the Syrian Democratic Forces they should do in response to this incursion?

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, right now, we do have force, as I say, co-located, and we're asking them to continue their partnership with us and continue their -- a lot of it is force protection of our forces and so on.

And naturally, there's a considerable amount of anxiety, and I think you get a lot of that in your channels as well. And the leadership of the SDF has given instructions to some of their forces to begin to move north in order to defend what they think is their -- their territory.

And we're encouraging them not to over-react at this point, and to try to tamp things down in order to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution to some of this.

Q: Mr. Chairman, could you please explain to us how you expect to safeguard these prisoners, these Islamic State prisoners, some 11,000 that are being held, in the event that the SDF decides, as you all have said plainly before, that they might decide to move away from them to defend their homelands?

And -- and to the Secretary, or to both of you, has there been a decision yet on whether or not to back-fill -- or can you say whether or not you're going to back-fill the USS Abraham Lincoln when it wraps up its deployment?

And how does this latest announcement perhaps fit into that?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I'm not going to speak about operational deployments, particularly with regard to assets such as carriers. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we are at the early states of a new concept of employment called dynamic force employment, which would allow us to move systems like carriers in and out and around the world to allow us operational unpredictability. I think that's critical so that we keep adversaries off-balance, if you will, and allow our -- allow us to react to emerging situations around the world.

With regard to the -- this first matter, I'll just speak -- we've been in contact, obviously, with the -- the Turks. I've communicated to them multiple times that they are responsible for the security of ISIS fighters in these prisons. That is their responsibility if -- should there be a, you know, release of some, et cetera. And we continue to monitor that situation on the ground.

We are obviously in contact with the SDF. And, Chairman, I think you had a conversation with your counterpart on this matter as well?

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, with respect to the prisoners, first of all, as I understand it, the United States has no legal responsibility for those detainees. And that is an issue for -- for lawyers to discuss. But we -- the U.S. military have no responsibility to the U.S. military to secure those ISIS prisoners in Syria. So that's the first point.

Second point is the SDF is still in control of the various prison sites that they have. And we have no indication they're not -- with the exception of the limited incursion zone. And on the phone call that I just had with Gen. Guler, the head of the Turkish military, I confirmed that he understands clearly that the Turkish military has responsibility not only for the prisoners, but for collateral damage, humanitarian assistance, all the rest of it, in the areas in which they are conducting a large-scale military operation.

He acknowledged that. And -- and so that's -- right now, it's Turkish responsibility to secure those ISIS prisoners in the zones of incursion.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Mr. Secretary, some of your own forces say that you have abandoned the Syrian Kurds. These were your partners against ISIS. They are also asking for air support and a no-fly zone over the border. Will you provide that?

SEC. ESPER: We have not abandoned the Kurds. Let me be clear about that. We have not abandoned them. Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey -- just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation. But Lord knows they have opposed this relationship between the United States and the YPG since its infancy in 2014. The Turks have opposed it all along the way, and so we should not be surprised that they've finally acted this way.

We have tried, at least since I came into office two and a half months ago, week after week to set up the security mechanism in order to try to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns with regard to the P -- PKK, but clearly, they are very concerned about this, and have decided that they've reached a point where they could not accept it anymore, and decided to make this incursion, despite our -- our efforts to stop them.

Q: Gen. Milley, will you continue to arm your Syrian Kurdish partners?

GEN. MILLEY: Right now, the policies of the United States is to continue with our counter-ISIS campaign, and we are continuing those operations, except in that one area of the incursion.

With respect to the SDZ that you mentioned, there is no SDZ, that I'm aware of, that allows us to conduct military operations in support of the Kurds against the Turks, a 70-year NATO ally.

STAFF: Barbara Starr?

Q: Gen. Milley, can I follow up on the point you were making about Turkish responsibility for a minute. Have you now given the Turks -- either of you gentlemen -- any kind of no-strike list, like, “Do not strike these targets. This is where our people are?” And to follow up, you had talked about repositioning some additional forces to ensure that U.S. forces are safe, but you didn't indicate that they've gone into Syria. Can you tell us any more about what you are doing to try and protect U.S. forces in addition to the no-strike question?

GEN. MILLEY: So the no-strike -- the -- the Turkish military is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail, of the locations of U.S. forces, and -- and we have been in coordination with them through the CAOC in CENTCOM, at various levels throughout CENTCOM and personally at my level. So all levels of the chain of command -- me, McKenzie, everybody -- is coordinating with the Turks to make sure that they know exactly where American forces are, and -- and everyone has been told.

Q: Throughout -- throughout Syria, not just (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MILLEY: Throughout Syria and in the zones of incursion; and everyone is fully aware that we are the United States military. We retain the right of self-defense, and our soldier, sailors, airmen and Marines will defend themselves. That's clear and it's unambiguous with anybody.

Your second question about repositioning forces -- the Secretary has authorized the COCOM commander, CENTCOM commander, Gen. McKenzie, to reposition forces as he deems necessary at a tactical/operational level for the purpose of force protection for our U.S. forces that are in this area.

Q: Does that indicate...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: With regard to the first answer, the chairman...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... to go into Syria?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to comment on that at this time.

With regard to the first point, I reinforced those same two items with regard to my counterpart yesterday, with regard to the no-strike lists and with regard to the Americans' right of self-defense.

STAFF: Final question, go to Laura.

Q: Hi. Thank you, sir.

So first question for you, Secretary. There -- my understanding is there have been indications before that Turkey was going to come across the border to do some kind of border operation. What -- what is different now, exactly, that we have to move troops out of the way?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I -- I -- I -- we've been concerned about this, again, since I came into office, and I assume our predecessors were, as well. This was kind of job number one for me, if you will, working with Minister Akar, my counterpart, Chairman Dunford, Chairman Milley now, with their counterparts, to hold the Turks back from making this incursion. They've had troops massed for some time now, weeks easily, and so we thought we were making good progress on the security zone. We had begun, as you all know, joint ground and air patrols. We established a combined joint operations center in southern Turkey. We were exchanging information. We were doing all the things we agreed to do. I can't explain why they did what they did. Clearly, it's President Erdogan felt the need at this point in time, as I said earlier, since the beginning of this relationship between the United States and the -- and the YPG, and later, the SDF under the Obama administration. This has been a long-standing concern, thorn in the side of Turkey's, and I guess they decided it was time to act.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: For -- for you, Gen. Milley, can you perhaps clarify what of this deployment -- new deployment to Saudi Arabia, what was unplanned? My understanding is that two fighter squadrons were already supposed to rotate in and the -- the Patriot batteries and the THAAD battery were already, you know, supposed to go in at some point.

So can you say what was unplanned and what instance prompted this?

GEN. MILLEY: This -- this deployment of additional forces to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is for the purpose of defense of our interests and assets in the region, and also to reestablish deterrence with respect to Iran in the wake of an attack on -- on -- on Saudi Arabia.

Unplanned, I -- I'm not sure what you're getting at there. We have forces who are on prepare-to-deploy orders and in reserves. That's where they came from, and -- and they are deploying, in addition to forces that are already there.

Q: Yeah, you -- I mean, can you just explain what -- I know the fighter squadrons were already supposed to be ...

GEN. MILLEY: And the Patriot batteries.

Q: And the Patriot batteries ...

GEN. MILLEY: ... and the THAAD ...

Q: ... and the THAAD ...

GEN. MILLEY: ... and all of those other forces.

Q: What -- is there anything that's new that ...

SEC. ESPER: There's -- there's a difference between putting folks on deployment orders and deploying them. That's the distinction here. And we have a full -- what's -- what -- you know, timeline of additional forces can flow into theater.

We are taking this one step at a time. We have been concerned, based on what we hear from partners and allies in the region, about continued Iranian behavior. There are things we pick up, if you will, through the intelligence. So we thought it was important to continue to deploy forces, to deter and defend, and to send the message to the Iranians: Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond. And I've said time and time again, do not mistake our restraint for weakness. If you will, you will regret that.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: Thank you all. Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)