Nov. 13, 2017
Q: What message are you sending North Korea by paring three aircraft carriers off the peninsula?
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: I heard the three aircraft carriers. They're not -- and, yes, they're in the -- they're -- you've heard nothing out of China. I mean, clearly there's -- there's no big message. It's -- this is just a -- I would just tell you that this is what we normally do with allies. This is a normal operation of interoperability and working together.
Q: Three carrier operations are normal operations?
SEC. MATTIS: When they're -- when we can put them together, absolutely.
Q: This was scheduled, right?
SEC. MATTIS: It's a scheduling issue, yes. There's nothing --
Q: Once a decade?
SEC. MATTIS: Well it -- it's -- we don't have an abundance of aircraft carriers. We have a war going on in other places. So I mean, as you know, we've had three aircraft carriers operate together in 2001, for example, when we had to. But otherwise, we keep them spread out and working with allies. If they were in Europe right now, I'm sure they'd be working with the Royal Air Force, or the Norwegians, or someone else. It is the norm.
Q: Was Sergeant La David Johnson executed in Niger, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. MATTIS: Well we're waiting on the -- on the investigation. Yes?
Q: You haven't received anything from AFRICOM about the? --
SEC. MATTIS: I receive a lot, (inaudible) -- we’re working on the investigation. I won't pressure them. I want it done right, and they're working on it.
Obviously, we've tracked -- they kept us posted on putting the protection force in then the investigative team in, and that was Niger. Again, just like before Niger and Americans, there were French involved. And so, it was a -- it was a -- an investigation that they're doing. So I don't expect to have final results from it until they're done with it.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
Q: Can I ask you a question on Syria? The joint statement -- the U.S.-Russia joint statement on Syria mentions an Amman process. And there in the memorandum --
SEC. MATTIS: Amman, Jordan process.
Q: Yes. Yes. And in this process, apparently, the agreement between Washington and Moscow is to obtain -- get from Iran, that they leave a few zones of Syria -- that the Iranian fighters would leave the southwest of Syria. How are the Russians going to do to get -- to obtain that? What -- what kind of pressure do they have -- leverage do they have?
SEC. MATTIS: We'll have to see. But so far the southwestern deconfliction zone has worked.
Q: Yes, but there are still Iranians there.
SEC. MATTIS: I'm not -- I'm not saying yes or no to that.
Q: Could you just talk in general about the way ahead in Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, sure.
Q: The caliphates coming to an end. That's been the U.S. interest is getting rid of the caliphate and ISIS. So now that they -- they are pretty much coming to an end, the -- the caliphate, what now? Are you going to really work hard on coming up with a new political process for the country or is your interest really more next door to Iraq and you just basically say, if Assad's going to stay in power good luck, see you later? What's -- just talk about the challenges, I guess.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes -- I -- I, yes. As we get to this point, you see in Abu Kamal, the forces are also the Russian's supporting the -- the -- the Syrian regime forces are moving into -- they announced they have taken it, as you know. And I -- we weren't sure they had taken it. Bottom line is, you heard in the statement out of Vietnam about moving to the Geneva process.
And that's been our goal, step into the (inaudible), and the United Nations Coordinated Process in Geneva is the place we want this to go for political reconciliation and a way ahead. So that's our goal right now, to continue until ISIS is extinguished and the caliphate. Hold that -- that condition -- don't -- don't just up and pull it right out and wonder why they come right back up, until the Geneva process can give us a diplomatic solution and a way ahead.
Q: And you think the U.S. troops should stay there until the Geneva process concludes, or should they start moving out, or what?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, I -- yes, I don't want to get into too much detail there. But we're not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked. That doesn't mean everyone stays there. That's doesn't mean for certain -- certain troops are leaving. I'm just saying that we're going to condition -- and I've honestly not made those decisions.
We're going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution because the refugee -- you know, you need to do something about this mess now. Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say good luck on the rest of it. We did it for that -- to support the diplomatic solution.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you give us -- this is Phil, I'm sorry (off mic)...
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, hi, Phil.
Q: ... could you give us some sense about your discussions with the Saudis in recent days and how you're looking at these events with Lebanon, Yemen, the missiles -- all of it.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, the discussions continue and really I can't say much more than that right now. We have military relations and support for certain things going on, you know, antiterrorism, counterterrorism, you know about that. But it's diplomatic right now, is the principal lead on this -- a diplomatic effort.
Q: But I mean, are you concerned that there's going to be --first of all, you had conversations with your counterpart -- who -- who were you speaking with? Just wondering...
SEC. MATTIS: I had discussions with Saudi leaders, yes.
Q: Sir, without asking you to comment on the specifics of the investigation in Mali, the dead Green Beret, what were your first thoughts when you heard that Navy SEALs might be suspected of taking the life of a fellow special operator?
SEC. MATTIS: This is separate from the Niger...
SEC. MATTIS: (inaudible) Yes, I don't comment on something like that. It's -- it would be inappropriate because of my authority to influence an ongoing investigation or whatever comes out of it.
Q: Mr. Secretary ...
Q: Mr. Secretary, are you concerned that violence, or tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan could boil over into actual violence? And what would that mean for the American mission in Northern Iraq?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, so far you can see the Iraq government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government under a new leader, and Erbil working together. I think I -- the half article I read this morning in the Early Bird, something about phone -- the phone line -- it was something about them and using the phones a lot.
There's been constant, daily, something like hourly conversations between the two capitals. Obviously we support and facilitate that. And that is designed exactly to avoid what your -- your -- your question's about. Yes?
Q: Has Washington done enough to sort of press Baghdad towards a conciliatory solution? It seems that...
SEC. MATTIS: We don't see ourselves pressing one side. We're trying to facilitate the two sides as we resolve this. I think you knew where we stood on the referendum. And we're not trying to help them resolve it in a way that -- that does not lead to any violence between the two.
You're aware, for the first time in probably 100 years that the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces fought together under very difficult conditions with severe casualties to take the enemy down.
So we don't want to lose where -- you know, all of that collaboration now over this issue. And so the effort right now is to make sure we don't lose that level of cooperation between the two sides.
So far, as you can see, outside of a few small incidents, and truly small, it's been widely successful along the entire line.
Q: Mr. Secretary...
SEC. MATTIS: Yes?
Q: ... how are things going in Afghanistan? And are you optimistic that NATO will provide, you know, I think it's 3,000 troops to their -- to the action?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, the challenge with taking will they provide 3,000 troops, already some nations added in June when they recognized we probably weren't pulling out. We hadn't been firm about it yet. The president was still analyzing it.
Right now, I'd say there's somewhere approximately two dozen NATO allies and partner countries that are leaning towards raising the number of troops -- now that's out of 39 total countries on the battlefield. So it's a little over two dozen.
Now, some of these are in their -- their inner agency processes. Some have to get parliamentary approval. So that's why I'm not willing to say the numbers of troops.
But if you start counting back when nations said they were going to increase, then they go into the Chiefs of Defense Conference, the CHOD Conference that we just had, that General Dunford attended, and I attended this one, there's a lot of moving parts right now.
I was impressed by how many nations came out with words like firmly committed, fully committed, we'll stick with this; that was the tone overall. That it -- we need more than just troops.
We need funding too. And also, there was a lot of talk about which nations would add funds there. So it's both troops and funds, but most importantly I think, just the political stance of sticking with it.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes?
Q: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is going to hold a hearing tomorrow on the issue of presidential authority in the use of nuclear weapons.
I'm wondering what you -- if you can describe whether you're comfortable with the system as it exists and what your roles is in that?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: What is your role?
SEC. MATTIS: (off mic)
Q: Are you in the chain of command? It's said that you're not. The president just to -- forwards his ...
SEC. MATTIS: I'm the president's principal adviser on the use of force.
Q: And you're comfortable with the system the way it exists?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, sir, I am.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you met the Turkish counterpart in Europe the other day. And then you also discussed with several of your NATO ally friends. Did -- did the Turkish deal for -- for S-400's with Russia come up during your meeting? And what was -- what's your general kind of ...
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, that's a -- that's a sovereign decision for Turkey. Clearly, it will not be interoperable with NATO. So they're going to have to consider that if they go forward.
Q: And the Turkish Prime Minister, last week when he was here, he said that because all the allies kind of did not help us or offered us any better solutions, we had -- the only alternative we had was those systems. Do you agree, or ...
SEC. MATTIS: That's a sovereign decision for Turkey.
Q: Thank you.
Q: I have a budget question for you, are you getting any insight that there may be a budget deal to remove -- remove the 18 camps -- (inaudible) 18 camps?
SEC. MATTIS: We're working it with our committees, core committees -- two House, two Senate. We're working that issue forward. There's pretty remarkable support for us across those -- not complete but that's clearly more than -- more than just party lines. But at the same time, we need the support of the broader Congress and therein lies the challenge.
Q: Are you more sanguine today than you might have been three weeks ago?
SEC. MATTIS: No. No, not right now. No.
Q: So basically you're kind of pessimistic about it?
SEC. MATTIS: No, not pessimistic (inaudible). (Laughter.)
Q: Question from the outer room? (off mic)
Q: Keep it going. Keep it going.
Q: One on Syria and one on (inaudible). Do you favor the establishment of safe zones like the one in Southwest Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: And what do you engage them in? How do you -- how do you see that working (inaudible).
SEC. MATTIS: You keep broadening them. You try to de-mil one area and then de-mil another, and just keep it going, try to do the things that will allow people to return to one (another?).
I'm amazed. I did not expect the percentage of people returning, for example to east Mosul. In a region where we've all assumed refugees -- once they become refugees they never return, you know, for generations. I've been amazed at how many were willing to go back in.
You've got to remove the explosives. You've got to get the electricity back on. You got to get clean water, at least start the rubble removal, you know, so that they can get back in.
It's been a hard-fight fought fight, and the people in those areas, especially. I mean, enemies intentionally leaves IEDs behind. You've got to be careful how you do it.
And I -- and I, you we're helping with those immediate things to make sure they are able to move back in and be healthy, not blown up, not get cholera, stuff like that. But it --- it's going OK right now.
Q: And how would that impact the U.S. military assistance program? Militarizing them in Syria, how did that work?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, we trained, for example locals how to do it, because it's not something you want to have an amateur doing. You've got to teach them how to do it. Otherwise they'll in and do things, you know, and try to clear their -- their neighborhood or their city, their house, and you know, obviously they're designed to kill people, and you don't have people who know what they're doing, even then it's dangerous, but if you don't it's -- it's impossible really.
Q: On North Korea, the president said he's going to make a big announcement on Wednesday. Is this because deliverables are coming up?
SEC. MATTIS: We'll have to see what the president says. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh no, no, no, just I was going to follow up on the -- the safe zones. As these get bigger and more spread out, are you going to have -- is it going to be more difficult to police them? And then is the U.S. military going to have to play a role in at least attempting to police them?
SEC. MATTIS: That has not been discussed, the U.S. military policing them.
Q: So is there -- so how, how do you think you been -- they can be enforced as they get bigger and more scattered?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, there's a -- a lot of ways it's going to happen. Each one will be -- if you remember, that all wars are local we'll have to see how each place develops. The ones down in the southwest, which, you know obviously has Russian MP's down there, and that sort of thing, but each area is different, so you won't have a template where one size fits all, and that can be looked at. Basically what the conditions down are in that area, and who is trusted, and who has control, or who can impose control. That sort of thing. So, you can’t -- you can't make kind of a broader -- that's why you're starting with these little areas, because you can't do -- make a big universal statement about how it'll happen.
Q: You know, Assad says Iran and Russia were invited into his country, you were never invited in; you're there illegally. What legal standing do you have to -- to you know, be in Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: You know, the U.N. said that ISIS -- basically we can go after ISIS. And we're there to take them out. But that doesn't mean we just walk away and let ISIS 2.0 pop back around? as if we're surprised either. So we got to get the U.N.-brokered effort in Geneva to take this thing forward.
Q: (Inaudible) caliphate comes to an end though.
SEC. MATTIS: It's not, you know -- how do you call them in to someone who already has made it clear, and been clear, that they will continue to attack with small pockets, and that sort of thing.
So, you the enemy hasn't declared their -- their done with the are yet. So, we'll keep fighting them as long as they want to fight.
Q: On North Korea, why -- do you have a sense of why they haven't launched anything in weeks now?
SEC. MATTIS: Let me know if you figure it out. (Laughter.)
Q: Do you think the Chinese are playing -- pressure is playing a role?
SEC. MATTIS: I could speculate. But rather I -- I'd rather not do that. I -- generally I don't want the Pentagon to be -- I want to give you fact, it back or at least something grounded in -- in data, one or the other.
Q: Can -- go back a minute to what you just said about ISIS. You know, if they haven't declared that they're done and you know, so again it comes right to the question. The president has talked about defeating, annihilation, I think, of ISIS. Unless they come out and say, "OK, we're done. We surrender," how do you know when you're done? Are you ever done? What should people be looking for? I mean who...
SEC. MATTIS: Well, first of all they still hold ground in Syria. They still hold ground in Iraq. So first of all, let's not get premature on this thing. You have to destroy the physical caliphate first. You cannot allow them to hold a haven. You saw what happened with Charlie Hebdo and all the others up there, Paris, Brussels, I can go on plus there is the role of the caliphate inspiring people, right.
You see we have a caliphate, we're going to go out and do this in the Philippines or do that in North Africa or something like that. You have to make it very clear it is physically going to be defeated. We are not there yet and it's not like it's over just because we now have cleaned them out of most places. As you know, some have run off in the desert and they come hightailing it back in to areas that have been cleared in Iraq and set off more bombs.
So we're going to have to wait until we get the Iraqi forces up and that they're patrolling the area before -- for example, if you want to see what it looks like, look at east Mosul. It worked there, but this takes time. And so we can't be all impatient. You know, legally -- and this way just, you know, marry your time, we're going to have to make certain that 2.0 doesn't pop right out of the ground.
Q: Sure. That's I guess, really, my question. OK. It might be more observable to be defined in a place like Iraq or Syria, but as you just said, you have all these affiliates or whatever they are popping up.
SEC. MATTIS: Oh, yes.
Q: Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Niger.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: So do you have to defeat them everywhere, militarily?
SEC. MATTIS: Not us, that's why you saw troops in Niger for years now and they're teaching them how to handle this sort of thing. And does that mean we're still giving them advice at a time, they're feeding them intelligence, or something like counter-supporting the French in the move against others. Yes, we'd probably be doing that but we're not doing the fighting in most cases.
Q: But as secretary...
SEC. MATTIS: All you have to do is look at the casualty figures and you can see the difference for whose doing the fighting.
Q: I guess my last question is as secretary of defense, what is your marker when you go to the president and say -- what is your definition when you go to the president and say, "We've defeated ISIS."
SEC. MATTIS: Yes the locals can handle it. That's not to say we don't have Interpol involved with foreign fighters or that we don't go in with advisers from Norway or special forces from Sweden or something like that to help them. We work together on something that translates that to print. But we're out to do is to allow others when you sought -- take a look at it this way, it's probably easier rather than talking in theory, talking practically.
Look at how the Americans enabled the Iraqis to take Mosul, to take Tal Afar, to take Hawija. It permitted the Syrian Democratic Forces to take Tabqa to take Raqqa and move against the Merv, to help the Philippine military move against Marawi, to help the Afghans to move against the terrorists there, enabling Somali forces to move against the enemy in Somalia. You see how many casualties, for example, would be one measure the locals are taking against these folks versus ours.
I know ours get an awful lot of play, but we haven't noted the -- the French have lost dozens in the Sahel over the years. We've -- and that's just killed, not counting their wounded, so this is by and large going by, with, and through our allies is what we're doing now. If we find a guy in Libya that we want because he was -- we believe part of the effort -- part of the murder of an ambassador, yes, we'll go in and grab him.
But even there we were doing it with the awareness of the -- what exists of the host country government, but by and large, it's by, with, and through our allies, so...
Q: Just to follow up.
Q: We have time for one more question before your next meeting.
Q: Just a follow up. In Syria, are you seeing the same level of cooperation?
SEC. MATTIS: How do you know my schedule? I've got three minutes.
Q: In Syria are you seeing the same level of support and cooperation between the Russians and the Iranians? Are you seeing any daylight between those two countries in Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I'm not -- I'm not going to answer that one, OK. It's a very good question, but I am not prepared to answer that.
Q: Is it as strong as its been in the last two years?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I'm really not prepared to answer, but it's a very good question.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Tell Mike Shapiro that.
Q: Got to give him a little star.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I really do have to get back up and get to work.
Q: What are we asking you -- what's our speech level? What time do you have to? What aren't we asking you that we should be asking you? What aren't we asking you?
SEC. MATTIS: We just talked about kind of the teamwork we have in the U.S. and the U.S. military. I know there's an awful lot of people who write about the disarray in America and everything, but none of what you see when you go out to the various posts and these ship's crews. And just remember there's a model out there, OK. All right, I got to run, really I do.
Q: Thank you for coming.
SEC. MATTIS: You're welcome. I'm sorry to whoever I didn't answer their question, I really didn't hear the first part of that because I like to answer one or two up there.
Q: We'll yell louder next time.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, so he was talking right then and I was trying to listen to him. He was very happy to be here, so I just (inaudible). (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you.
SEC. MATTIS: See you, guys.
Q. Thank you, sir.