The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


U.S. Department of Defense
Press Operations
News Transcript

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook February 16, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

PETER COOK: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you survived the ice and snow.

We're just back from a successful trip to Brussels where we had a good NATO ministerial and the secretary hosted, as you know, the first ever meeting of the defense ministers from the counter-ISIL coalition. As you may have seen, in the course of that event, there was overwhelming support from the coalition for our campaign plan, which the secretary was pleased with.

He was also gratified to see so many countries answer his challenge and provide additional resources for the campaign against ISIL. Those contributions will allow us to accelerate the fight against ISIL. In fact, we're already seeing some of those commitments put into action. I can confirm that the Saudis renewed their participation in airstrikes in the last few days.

Separately, on the NATO ministerial, we had an opportunity to reaffirm our enduring commitment to the alliance and our transition from reassurance to deterrence, in particular the U.S. decision to invest $3.4 billion, quadrupling spending on the European Reassurance Initiative, was well received by our allies. It is a tangible example of the new playbook the secretary has been talking about since last June.

With that, I'd be happy to take your questions.


Q: Peter, on the bombing of that hospital in Idlib, can you give us your best on who may have been responsible for that attack? And I have an unrelated question.

MR. COOK: Bob, what I can tell you is that United States coalition aircraft were not flying in that region. So, I can tell you from our standpoint, we weren't involved. And I'm not going to at this point suggest to you who may have been responsible, but it wasn't the United States or coalition aircraft.

Q: Can you -- are you saying you know but you just can't say? Or you don't know who?

MR. COOK: We, again, it's going to require a careful assessment from people on the ground. I know there are questions about the Russian activities in the region, but I can't say with specificity who was directly responsible. I can tell you that coalition aircraft were not involved.

Q: If I may ask you an unrelated question. The -- the case of the breakaway blimp from some months ago off Aberdeen Proving Grounds, there's been stories in recent days about the results of the investigation that the problem was, or at least one of the problems was that someone failed to put batteries in the auto-deflate device, and that therefore -- (inaudible) -- could not come down.

Is that -- can you whether that's accurate? And it's also said that Secretary Carter has approved resuming the exercises that that blimp was involved in.

MR. COOK: Yeah. Let me handle the second part of that. The secretary has concurred with the recommendation made to continue with that operational test.

As for the results of the review itself, Bob, I'm not sure that we're able, at this point, to release that. But let me take that question for you, see if we can provide you more details.

I don't have those here with me. And again, I'm not sure, at this point, that NORAD and the Army -- I believe it's the Army that conducted that review, ready to release all the details of that just yet.

So, I'm going to move to Jamie, and then over to John.

Q: I wanted to ask you if I could get a response to a couple of things that Senator John McCain said, both at the Munich conference on security policy and also to reporters on the way back.

First of all, regarding the brief detention of U.S. sailors by Iran, McCain said that he's not satisfied with the pace of the briefings that have been provided to Congress, and that if the administration doesn't provide the briefing on the results of the investigation about what happened there, that he plans to subpoena the sailors involved to testify.

Can I -- and he accused the administration of dragging its feet on this investigation. Can I get a response?

MR. COOK: The Navy is conducting the investigation, as you all know. We have talked to you about it. And when they're finished with their investigation, I'm sure they're going to be happy to share it with Senator McCain and with you all as well.

At this point, it's in the Navy's court; the Navy is doing its due diligence, following its protocols with these 10 sailors and with this incident in particular. And again, I'm sure they'll be happy to share with Senator McCain when it's completed, but it needs to be completed as appropriate, as they would with any incidents like this.

Q: McCain has set a deadline of March 1st, and said that if he doesn't get the results by then, he will subpoena those sailors to testify. Do you think you'll meet that deadline?

MR. COOK: I would check with the Navy as to their timeline, but I'm not sure exactly when they're going to be completed with this investigation, but I know that they're going to -- at some point, that will take place. And hopefully, that will meet Senator McCain's timeline.

My understanding is Navy officials have talked with Senator McCain in recent days. But again, they need to conduct the appropriate investigation, as they would under a circumstance like this, an unusual circumstance, to be sure. And they're doing that, they're conducting their due diligence, and I think we need to respect that process.

Q: And again, on the cessation of hostilities agreement that was announced last week, Senator McCain in his public remarks at the Munich conference was very critical of the agreement. He called it, 'diplomacy in support of military aggression,' and essentially argued that it plays entirely into President Putin's hands in allowing Russia to decide when they want to stop fighting, who it is they want to bomb whoever they designate as a terrorist, but stemming control of humanitarian aid.

It has no consequences if it's violated by Russia or the Assad regime. Again, response?

MR. COOK: Again, this is an agreement that Secretary Kerry negotiated. His effort to try and get humanitarian aid to the people who critically need it in Syria, to try and at least forge a path forward, perhaps, for a diplomatic and political settlement.

Secretary Kerry is making his best efforts to try and achieve that, and this is the agreement he reached. And from our standpoint, what's most important to the Department of Defense at this point is that our fight against ISIL goes on. It is not affected by this agreement.

And so, we're going to continue to conduct our operations. But Secretary Kerry is trying to do what he can to forge a political-diplomatic compromise. That's the other part of the effort in Syria that we're not directly responsible for, but we applaud his efforts.


Q: On the sailors. Is Secretary Carter satisfied with the pace of the Navy's investigation?

MR. COOK: He's satisfied that the Navy is conducting a thorough and appropriate review of what happened here. And he looks forward to seeing the results of that investigation as well.

Q: And on humanitarian aid, has the Pentagon ordered the military to conduct humanitarian drops into Aleppo?

MR. COOK: We are not going to -- we are not involved in any plans for humanitarian assistance at this point.

Q: Finally, can the Pentagon rule out taking military action against the Russians?

MR. COOK: Our fight right now is with ISIL. And it's been -- that's been our focus in Syria. We again would urge the Russians to consider their -- the best policy path. They have also said that their fight is with ISIL. We'd like to see them change course, change direction, and refocus their efforts.

Right now, they continue to prop up the Assad regime. And we think that's counterproductive. We've said that from the start. And we'll see if they're willing to abide by this agreement reached with Secretary Kerry and that will be a test of what the Russians are really up to.

Q: Or else what? I mean, Peter, what is stopping the Russians from carrying out these, you know, this slaughter against civilians and bombing of opposition forces --


MR. COOK: They have obligations -- they have obligations, Lucas, as you know, U.N. obligations. They've signed this agreement. This is a test for the Russians. It's a -- it's a question that's -- that should be put to the Russians.

Q: Secretary Carter from that podium said about a Iran, Russia's ally, that he has not ruled out any military actions; all options are on the table, he has said in the past. Since Russia and Iran share this close alliance, can the Pentagon rule out taking military action against the Russians?

MR. COOK: Lucas, our focus, again, remains on ISIL. Our focus remains on defeating ISIL. And to the extent the Russians want to play a constructive role in Syria from a military standpoint, they would turn their focus and attention to ISIL. As best we can tell, they're not doing that at this point.


Q: A couple of airplane questions -- not as contentious.

The General Accounting -- the Government Accountability Office about a half-hour ago denied the protest from Boeing and Lockheed to take away the Northrup-Grumman bomber contract. Somewhat inside baseball, but a big deal in the contracting world and the Pentagon acquisition world.

What is your reaction to the decision?

MR. COOK: Again, I think from our standpoint, we were confident in the original decision and we think this decision from the GAO reflects that confidence.

Q: A second airplane question. Last week, the Pentagon and State announced the sale of an additional F-16s to Pakistan. The Indian -- our Indian allies were pretty upset with that. What do you tell the Indian government about that sale? And should they be upset that we're selling additional F-16s to Pakistan?

MR. COOK: This sale always took into account the regional security situation. We, Tony, look at our relationship with Pakistan and our relationship with India as separate relationships. And we think this is important capabilities for the Pakistanis to go after terrorists in that country. And as a result, we don't think it should cause concern for India.

This is a situation -- we think this is a capability that will help Pakistan in its counterterrorism effort and we think that's in the national security interests of the United States.


Q: Thanks, Peter.

You said that the focus is on ISIL. But you've said, and your predecessor John Kirby also said that the goal for Syria is to defeat ISIL and help facilitate a diplomatic resolution to this -- the conflict in Syria.

If Russia is not agreeing with that strategy, the strategy doesn't work. So, why is the United States military pursuing a strategy in Syria that doesn't work?

MR. COOK: We have -- there are two tracks, here. There's the military fight with ISIL, and there is the diplomatic effort, which the State Department, under Secretary Kerry's leadership is leading, making every effort he can to try and resolve this peacefully, working with the Russians.

That is the responsibility of the State Department; we're going to continue our effort at the military side to focus on ISIL and to defeat ISIL because of the threat it poses to the United States.

And that is not going to change. And again, we encourage the Russians to refocus their efforts, as we have for some time now. And to end their support for the Assad regime, because we think that only fuels this conflict, it only makes things worse.

And I think we're seeing that play out right now.

Q: But there are military experts that say that diplomacy can only happen at a position of strength or a position of equals, and the situation in Syria right now seems to be going the way of Assad.

Military experts have also said that the cease fire in Aleppo could potentially help Assad more than the rebels, because it would allow them a chance to hold the ground that they've gained instead of giving the rebels an opportunity to get it back.

Does this -- does the Pentagon agree with that military assessment?

MR. COOK: We support Secretary Kerry's efforts to achieve a cessation of hostilities. And most importantly, to get humanitarian aid to the people who need it.

This is a desperate situation in Syria. This is a terrible situation on the ground in Syria. Every effort should be made to try and bring some relief to those people.

And so, we applaud Secretary Kerry's efforts to try and achieve that. Again, this -- this agreement requires commitments from several players, including Russia. And we expect them to abide by this agreement going forward. And we're going to continue our efforts on the military side to focus on our shared threat, and that is ISIL. And we're going to continue to do that, while supporting those groups on the ground that are taking the fight to ISIL.

And we're going to continue to do that.

Q: But would this be militarily beneficial for the rebels, the cease fire?

MR. COOK: This -- this is a situation trying -- to try and again, help people on the ground, try and forge a political resolution, which ultimately, should be in the interest of everyone in Syria, if we can get there.

Q: (off mic).

MR. COOK: Yes, Tom.

Q: Can you do -- the secretary last week said he was confident that the Saudis and the Emirates would send in special operations troops to Syria.

Then the Saudi foreign minister came out and said they would only do that through a U.S.-led ground offensive. So, square that for us -- is he still confident, or is it changed by what the Saudi foreign minister said?

MR. COOK: Well, I think the secretary was gratified to hear the Saudis offer to contribute more to this campaign. This is going to be part of a conversation within the coalition as to what capabilities they can bring to bear.

But I think the secretary still believes firmly that the Saudis could, and other countries could play a role in contributing, for example, special operations forces that could do much the same thing that our special operators are doing, get a sense of what's happening on the ground in Syria -- enabling local forces to further take the fight to ISIL.

And I think he sees opportunities for that moving forward, working with the Saudis, the Emirates and others as well.

Q: But as the foreign minister said, only as part of a U.S.-led ground offensive or operation.

MR. COOK: Well, we'll continue to have our conversation on the best -- best contribution that they can make going forward.

Q: But the president -- the president has ruled out, as you know, boots on the ground. So how does that work? How does this -- how do the Saudis send in special operators without U.S. ground operations?

MR. COOK: This will be part of the conversation that the coalition has, Tom. There will be additional meetings after what happened in Brussels. But again, the Saudis have expressed a willingness to consider steps that can be taken both in the air and on the ground, and I would think it's worthwhile for the coalition to work -- to try and work this out and see what is the best use of those skills and those capabilities because they could make a difference on the ground, given the nature of this fight and the role -- the positive role the Saudis could play.

Q: Let me try one more time.

Is it possible the Saudis can go in with those 50 U.S. special operators in northeast Syria?

MR. COOK: I don't want to characterize how they would deploy. This is a decision that the Saudis will have to make. But I think it's fair to say that our use of those special operators, as the secretary has described, has proven beneficial already and he sees the opportunity for other countries perhaps to play a similar role.

Those forces, though small in number, have unique capabilities, a unique ability to bring the full weight of the U.S. military to bear. And they have skills and training that can benefit those local fighters. And that's exactly what -- what the goal was initially. And again, we feel confident they're playing a constructive role right now. Other countries could do the same.


Q: Peter, do you know if Saudi Arabia's decision, also Qatar's decision to send, maybe other GCC countries, to send air assets into Incirlik, was that part of the agreement in Brussels?

MR. COOK: Again, the Saudis committed to the secretary to once again reinvigorate their role in the air campaign. I'll let the Saudis for themselves as to exactly how they want to -- to carry that out. But again, they did participate in strikes over the weekend.

Q: I mean, in addition to the special operations -- special forces, could you elaborate more on the contributions and the assets that the GCC have to bring -- has to bring to the fight against ISIL?

MR. COOK: Yes, we'll leave it for individual countries to spell out their unique contributions. But again, we -- we can say after the secretary's conversations with the Saudis for example and the Emiratis that they did express a willingness to, if you will, participate more fully in the air campaign. And the secretary is very appreciative of those commitments and we've seen so far in the Saudis' case that commitment turning into action in the last few days.

But again, I would refer you to the individual countries. They can speak for themselves as to what they're contributing specifically to the -- to the coalition; what they might be willing to contribute in the future.

Q: A quick follow-up, Peter.

MR. COOK: I'm going to move over here. You've got a lot of questions already. Sorry.

Q: Peter, you've been laying out a case here today. I think you said that the Pentagon's role in this and your mission is not affected. Those were your words, as I understood them, not affected by the diplomatic track of the ceasefire agreement. I'm confused how that can really be the case right now, because your strategy requires moderate rebel groups to be alive long enough to fight. You're working with them. You're trying to train them. You're trying to get them out there.

So, how can it be that these two things are on totally isolated tracks, and the diplomatic track does not impact at all what the military is trying to do and the Defense Department? I don't understand how this is possible.

MR. COOK: Well, the diplomatic track is to try and bring an end to the Syrian civil war, and try to bring some relief to some suffering people. That is that track.

The military track, Barbara, is to go after ISIL. And you're right, you make a good point that there are groups on the ground that have been successful in bringing the fight to ISIL, that right now, find themselves challenged by the actions of the Russians and the regime, and we think that's counterproductive.

So, the military focus is still the same; what's happening on the ground, we do not think is helpful to that effort. And we're trying to get Russia to change its course. We think, perhaps, this cessation of hostilities could present an opportunity there, but we'll have to see.

The test is really -- it's up to the Russians at this point.

Q: Well, but the Russian military at the moment is facilitating very strong advances by the regime. So, is the secretary willing, at this point, to just sit and let that happen? Or is he looking at any options, ideas, thoughts to see what could be done, so the moderate rebels can be kept alive long enough to see your strategy work?

Because the Russians right now, by any measure, appear to be out pacing and -- in Northwestern Syria and in Northern Syria, the Russians are out pacing what anybody else is doing there.

I just wonder if you're not concerned if the rebel -- if the moderate rebels can stay alive long enough to still accomplish some of your goals?

MR. COOK: Well, again, Barbara, go back to we -- there are groups on the ground, which have taken the fight to ISIL, which we are concerned by their situation. We're going to continue to monitor what's happening to them, what's happening throughout Syria, in terms of the fight against ISIL and what can be done going forward.

Part of that lies with the Russians. And as we've said from the start, anything they do to support the Assad regime, to further the Assad regime is counterproductive. It's only going to make this situation worse, and we're seeing that play out in Aleppo, north of Aleppo as well.

And so, we're going to continue to make the case that they should change their focus and stay focused on the real threat, the shared threat, and that's ISIL.

Q: Just two things. There are no new ideas, no new thoughts, no options, no discussion with the secretary?

MR. COOK: I can assure you that the secretary is well aware of what's happening on the ground in Syria. I receive and update today from his commanders as to what's happening there.

He's carefully tracking this, carefully tracking what's going on with this agreement. He has been in touch with the secretary of state. And we are watching this very, very carefully. We are watching what's happening to do those forces on the ground that we have supported, that have been willing -- those local, capable forces willing to take the fight to ISIL.

And we obviously have concerns about their wellbeing. And at the same time, we're seeing progress in Syria writ large. And while we have -- continue to have concerns about what's going on in and around Aleppo, and again, encourage Secretary Kerry and his efforts to try and achieve some sort of humanitarian assistance for those people caught in the crossfire.

Q: If I could just be very quick -- on Aleppo, I think last time you said, and I grant you, this was several days ago, I understand that. You said that by all accounts, it appeared that Aleppo was still -- appeared to be contested.

What is your assessment on Aleppo now?

MR. COOK: I think the assessment is still the same. This is a situation that's complicated on the ground. I think contested is still an appropriate way to describe it and we're watching it carefully.

This is a place that's been a focal point of fighting for some time; gains, losses, things have changed themselves -- turned around in hours, and even in days. And so, we're watching it carefully to see where --


Q: Where is it contested? Do you -- I mean, everything we see, it appears that civilians and rebel fighters opposition are taking a tremendous beating from the Russians and the regime. So could you just -- where is it contested?

MR. COOK: I think you've -- you've described part of the situation in Aleppo. But there are still opposition forces there. There's still a fight in and around Aleppo. But you make a -- you're right, Barbara, it is a dire situation for a lot of people, civilians included. And it's all the more reason why we'd like to see a peaceful end to this situation and a resolution in Syria, a diplomatic resolution in Syria that spares those civilians and anyone caught in that crossfire.


Q: On South Korea?

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: (inaudible) -- of U.S. strategic asset into South Korea, what is the current situation on this?

MR. COOK: If you're specifically referring to the THAAD discussions? The latest update I have is that the discussions about deploying a THAAD system will begin at some point this week. I don't have the exact day for you. And again, this is an effort to try and put in place a defensive system that will bolster security in the region. And we think it would be an appropriate step to take at this point.

Again, an alliance decision, working with the government of South Korea.

Q: Any specific assets already into South Korea -- U.S. and South Korea -- (inaudible) -- military exercise currently ongoing -- (inaudible) -- using that asset?

MR. COOK: Again, we are in constant conversation with out South Korean counterparts as to what steps need to be taken to respond to the most recent provocation from the North Koreans. And I don't have anything additional to announce at this time. But this is a daily conversation that we're having with the South Koreans about what the best approach for the alliance, with our other allies in the region as well as to the best positioning ourselves from a defensive standpoint to respond to the North Korean threat.


Q: The State Department put out a statement about three U.S. citizens who were released in Iraq earlier today. Can you just tell us anything that you know about it? Were they -- did they have any role in being contractors for the Department of Defense? Did the U.S. military have any involvement at this -- the statement from State Department says that -- thanks the Iraqi security forces specifically. Did the U.S. military role have any role in the -- in transferring them from whoever was holding them? Do you know who was holding them?

MR. COOK: I don't have much more beyond the State Department's statement, other than to say that the Department of Defense did not play a role in their recovery. But we do want to thank the State Department and the government of Iraq for -- for their role. But the Department of Defense did not have a role.

Q: Were they contractors for DOD? Do we know? There's a report that they were security contractors, but it's been sort of unclear.

MR. COOK: My -- my understanding is that they ultimately were contractors that answered to the chief of mission. So the State Department was responsible for them, which is why the State Department has taken this lead.

Q: And then, does DOD have any role in any kind of a debriefing or anything that they're going through right now? Or any kind of, like, post-hostage rescue --

MR. COOK: I can tell you that we are providing transportation out of the region. And if I had more details for you, I'll provide them to you, but that's all I know at this point. This was late word before I came out here.

Q: Do you know if they're -- are they leaving Iraq today, or have they left?

MR. COOK: My understanding was they were set to leave Iraq today, so -- yes, Austin?

Q: Peter -- on Secretary Carter's Goldwater-Nichols review, at the Economic Club, he said he would be getting recommendations and making decisions in the coming weeks. Can you give us any more information about when we're going to see some of those decisions and what the scope of the review looks like, what kind of things are being -- under discussion right now?

MR. COOK: Austin, let me -- let me take that question, because -- I know you've asked this before, and I'd like to get you a better sense of the timeline.

But the secretary, I know, has been getting recommendations feedback on some potential reforms and initiatives under the Goldwater-Nichols umbrella, if you will, from within the building. I know he's gotten regular updates.

But in terms of when he might be prepared to -- to roll something out, let me check with you and -- and get back to you, and I think that'd be, probably, a more appropriate time to -- to comment as to exactly what the substance of those are, as well. I'm just not in a position at this point.

But this has been an active area of conversation for this secretary, and again, he's tasked people within this building budget to try and come up with ideas -- important initiatives to reassess how we do things, and I think he's -- feels confident he's gotten some good ideas already, and -- and looking forward to more.

Q: Thanks.

MR. COOK: (inaudible). Yeah?

Q: Peter, you've referred several times today to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the dire situation there -- the department's concern about that.

The U.S. has ample abilities and assets in the -- in the region to alleviate some of that. Why is that not happening? Have the Russians warned the U.S., either directly or through third parties, against attempting air (inaudible) -- airdrops in the region that are being -- being most affected by the Russian airstrikes?

MR. COOK: The -- my understanding is that there are humanitarian groups that are prepared to provide assistance at this time. It's a safety --

Q: (off mic).

MR. COOK: -- it's a -- it's a safety and security situation, and that's what the purpose of the cessation of hostilities aims to achieve, and that's what Secretary Kerry has negotiated, and it's up to, again, the Russians and others honoring that cessation of hostilities so that -- that relief can come in.

It is not a question of U.S. capabilities. It's a question of having the security situation that -- that aid can make it -- make it into the -- into the region as appropriate.

And again, we have not been asked to provide that role at this point, and we do think that there is a need for that aid to make it to the people who desperately need it. And that's what this cessation of hostilities will test.

This is -- obligations that -- that countries have made through the U.N. to try and see this happen?

Q: Have the Russians warned us against their strikes -- against airdrops?

MR. COOK: No. Yes, Gary?

Q: Peter, you're always telling us that you can pinpoint buildings -- you know, you can pinpoint people. You can presumably pinpoint where to drop aid.

Why -- when you say, 'we're not involved in any plans for humanitarian action,' do you think the people in Syria are going to think, 'why on Earth not?'

MR. COOK: Again, Gary, that's just not something we've been asked to do at this point, and we do have capabilities, but my understanding is, from the negotiations in Munich -- and this is a good question for my colleagues at the State Department, at the U.N. as well -- that there are plans in place to get humanitarian aid to those who need it. They desperately do need it. We totally agree with that.

Q: You could drop it tomorrow, if you wanted to.

MR. COOK: Again, Gary, this has to do with a situation on the ground that -- the assessment has been made that -- that relief organization are in the best position to provide aid, and if could provide -- play a role, then we would do so. But at this point, the decision has been made, based on the situation on the ground, that the best way to do that is on the ground, and that's going to require, again, a cessation of hostilities and agreements -- countries honoring agreements, players on the ground honoring agreements about that cessation.

Q: Do you think people starving in Eastern Aleppo are going to buy that as an argument?

MR. COOK: Again, Gary, this is a dire situation. We agree with that. And you cannot look at the pictures of what's happening in Syria and not feel for people on the ground.

There is -- we support bringing humanitarian aid; we have provided, as the U.S. government, humanitarian aid. And again, we encourage any and all efforts to try and get aid to those people. We have not been asked -- the U.S. military has not been asked to play a role in that at this particular moment in time.


Q: Peter, the chairman of the HASC and SASC have decided that they're not going to have the secretary and General Dunford testify until the end, somewhere later in the process, regardless of what has been tradition.

Does the secretary have any concern about that? Has he talked to the -- have your people talked to the Hill about changing that?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary is looking forward to his testimony on the Hill. And I know the schedule this year was a little complicated because of the delay in the rollout in the budget initially and the secretary's own trip to NATO.

So, he looks forward to his testimony, and he's not worried about where it happens in the queue, if you will, in the calendar.


Q: Back on Syria. One of your partners, that is, PYD, is now taking on another partners of yours in the fight against ISIL -- (inaudible) -- army in -- (inaudible) -- and also in and around (inaudible).

How do assess the situation? And this comes out with the support of Russian airstrikes?

MR. COOK: Again, it's a complicated situation on the ground there. And we have supported groups -- a number of groups that have been willing to take the fight to ISIL. And we're going to continue to do that.

I don't have a particular operational update as to what's happening there. I know it has been busy, if you will, in that part of Syria. And it's obviously an areas that we will continue to watch closely.

Q: And according to a White House readout, Vice President Biden told Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu over the weekend, over phone, that the U.S. is discouraging the PYD from, quote, 'Exploiting the circumstances on the ground to grab additional territory.'

Do you agree with the assessment, and what is the level of discouraging that you --

MR. COOK: I think the -- what was communicated in that readout, the views of the vice president are consistent with what we've been saying as a government, and that is, again, that we've urged -- we've urged those forces not to take advantage of the situation on the ground.

And it's consistent with what we've been saying previously.

Q: So, you don't support the PYD's offensive on -- (inaudible) -- where its stronghold of the (inaudible) army, right?

MR. COOK: I'll just reiterate what the -- echo what the vice president said.

We have urged everyone to de-escalate the situation, the tensions along the Turkish border. And again, that includes reaching out to Turkey and to players on the ground, as well.


Q: If I could just follow up on his question.

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: Because it raises a point. In the past, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes in defense of any Syrian forces when they came under attack from other rebel groups.

In this situation, you have Kurdish forces that could -- could -- actually are facing now, fighting these new Syrian forces, you know, close to the Mara line.

Will the U.S. continue with its commitment to these forces to provide airstrikes as they have in the past? Because as Colonel Warren has said, they do have the communications equipment with which they have been continuing to use to call in airstrikes against ISIS. Can they do the same for self-protection against other forces that you have also been --


MR. COOK: We're going to continue to support forces on the ground that have been willing to take on ISIL. I'm not going to describe each and everything we're doing. But they will continue to get our support. And those forces, again, that have been -- shown a willingness to engage, have had the support of the United States and our military and the coalition. And they'll continue to have that.

Q: Are you saying that the U.S. will continue to provide airstrikes if needed, if they come under attack by the Syrian Kurds?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to talk about each and every situation. The situation on the ground is complicated, but we're going to continue to provide support to those groups as needed and as we assess the situation on the ground.

Q: How will you provide -- how will you continue to provide support to this group when it's under attack?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into the details of how it is we're enabling and supporting each and every group on the ground. But we will continue to support those forces that are willing to take the fight to ISIL, that have shown and demonstrated a capability and a willingness to take that fight to the enemy. And they've received our support in the past and again, I'll leave it at that. We're not going to get into describing each and every individual location. It's a very complicated picture.

Let me move over here. Nancy?

Q: I'd like you to clarify something. In a number of statements, you've hesitated to talk about what military actions -- (inaudible) -- take against the Russians for violating the cessation of hostilities. You said that we're watching the situation very, very carefully, and yet can't say whether the Russians were responsible for hitting several MSF hospitals.

And I guess I'm drawing an inference. I'm curious if it's correct that the military's understanding of the cessation of hostilities is strictly to get in humanitarian aid? Is that correct?

MR. COOK: My understanding, Nancy, is that this is an agreement that Secretary Kerry negotiated both to get aid in and it was his hope to build towards a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war. Again, probably a question better posed to the State Department, but that's the --

Q: (inaudible) -- the military's understanding of that cessation of conflict -- (inaudible).


MR. COOK: That's our understanding is that this is an effort to try and build towards a peaceful resolution of this conflict. And again, our focus remains on ISIL and we're going to continue to prosecute that part of our campaign.

Q: Right. But if your focus is on ISIL and you don't know whether they've hit several MSF hospitals, and you say at the same time --


Q: If I could finish?

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: -- this is test for the Russians. I don't understand what the test to the Russians is, because I'm not hearing any sort of military consequence for a violation of the cessation of hostilities. So that's what I'm trying to reconcile. What is the U.S. military plan to enforce that cessation of hostilities? Because what appears to be happening is Russia is exploiting the period until Friday, and hitting civilian targets, several of them, causing more panic rather than a peaceful resolution as you described it.

So I'm just trying to understand what the U.S. military -- I don't know -- plans are to enforce the cessation of hostilities if it is seen that Russia is violating it? Because what I've heard you say so far is that essentially there is no plan, and that the cessation of hostilities is really about getting humanitarian aid in.

MR. COOK: Our effort -- and again, I would refer to the State Department in terms of the details of the agreement itself, but that cessation of hostilities is intended to try and not only get humanitarian aid in, but to be a building block towards a wider resolution of the Syrian civil war.

We support the efforts of the State Department and Secretary Kerry to try and achieve that. We will watch and see, as the rest of the world should, what Russia does in this interim period, and whether or not they abide by their own agreements on March 1st [SIC: February 19].

You raise really good questions about the conduct of the Russians in this intervening period and what they've done from the air during the past few days. I can tell you that the U.S. and coalition forces were not responsible for hitting those hospitals. And again, we're not in a position here to say definitively who was. But there's certainly some questions raised about the conduct of the Russians in the region over the past few days.

And we, like everyone else, will continue to watch Russia's actions, not just their words, as well as the actions of other players on the ground, as this cessation of hostilities is supposed to take effect on March 1st [SIC: February 19].

Q: Let me try one more time. Does the U.S. military have any role in enforcing the cessation of hostilities?

MR. COOK: The U.S. military is -- continue to engage, will continue to engage in the fight against ISIL. We will be, of course, monitoring the cessation of hostilities.

We will be keeping a close eye on who abides by it and who does not. And we will be in a position to say, clearly -- and to respond, if necessary, if there are violations of that cessation of hostilities.

Q: Wait a minute. What did you just mean? Just -- no -- it seems to me you just opened up a whole new thing here, 'respond if necessary.' You have been saying for 45 minutes --

MR. COOK: We will -- we will be able to adjust, Barbara, our military campaign depending on the situation on the ground. That is what we've done from the start.

Q: Well, wait a minute, I'm sorry. You just said, 'We'll respond if necessary, we will adjust.' After 45 minutes of saying you're simply monitoring what the Russians are doing.

MR. COOK: If people do not abide by this agreement, that is something we need to factor in on the decision making going forward. The coalition does as a whole.

Q: Well --

MR. COOK: That's no different than what we've done every single day, Barbara. We're looking at this right now, we're looking at the situation on the ground and determining the best way for us to take our fight against ISIL and to support the effort to try and resolve this in a peaceful way.

And that's not any different than it was before. This cessation of hostilities, this agreement, is a new marker, a new line, if you will, for Russia and others to abide by. And we're signatories to it as well.

Q: Okay. You're the Pentagon spokesman; you just said from the podium, 'We will respond if necessary.' So, you seem to now be saying that there are -- after we have asked several times, are there -- one, are there military consequences for the -- U.S. military consequences, coalition military consequences for the Russians violating the cease fire agreement.

And you had not said that there were -- you said it was a State Department issue, and that you were monitoring. But now you say, 'We will respond if necessary, we will readjust.' So, what are -- there are military -- U.S. military consequences, you're saying, if the Russians violate the agreement?

MR. COOK: We will assess the cessation of hostilities and whether or not the parties have agreed to it, and we will adjust accordingly.

I'm not going to tell you -- I'm not going predict what it is we're going to do if that takes place, but you can be sure it's going to factor into our decision making going forward, the coalition as a whole.

We are looking at the entire battle space. We are looking at the safety of our own people, we are looking at the safety of our pilots. There are lots of things to be considered here, Barbara, but the first thing is, we are trying to support the agreement as laid out by the secretary, and we will watch very carefully to see who complies and who doesn't.

We will make decisions based on that. I'm not going to predict -- hypothesize as to what happens in the future.

Q: But if you're speaking from the Pentagon podium, and you say there are consequences, it's hard to see how they're anything -- as the Pentagon spokesman, who will respond if necessary, it's hard to see how that can mean anything but 'there will be a U.S. military response if necessary.'


MR. COOK: There will be an appropriate assessment here at the Pentagon of what's happening in Syria, and if people are abiding by the cessation of hostilities or not, and we will be prepared to adjust accordingly. You would expect us to -- to do that.

We -- we are constantly assessing the situation on the ground, and the latest development here is the fighting in and around Aleppo, and now, this agreement. And we're going to continue to watch it carefully and -- and adjust if need be.

Q: But when you say you will adjust accordingly, as the Pentagon spokesman, that can mean nothing other than adjustment with --


MR. COOK: I am not going to make a -- predictions about future activities, Barbara. We're going to watch the situation, like everyone should, to see who abides by it, see who honors their commitments and who does not.

Q: And the Pentagon will adjust accordingly?

MR. COOK: The Pentagon will respond to the situation on the ground, depending on how this agreement plays out. And we hope people do abide by the agreement. We think that'd be a positive step.

We think that could be a building block -- we hope -- towards the ultimate resolution here -- diplomatic resolution, and we'll see if that takes place.

Q: Peter, the two -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: So I got time for two more.


MR. COOK: Jamie just -- let me go back here, because -- I'm sorry, I'm going to get people who haven't had a question yet. I'll come back to you.

Q: Yes. We're going -- going back to Iraq for a second, and --

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: -- specifically the Shia -- the Shia militias -- the PMUs -- there have been some reports from -- from officials in Iraq recently that there's been a concerted effort to recruit more Sunnis into those units. Their goal, I think, is 50,000 ultimately. I wonder if that's something that DOD has been tracking, and if you have any details on their progress.

MR. COOK: I know that -- that the effort to try and -- and recruit Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces and into the -- the fight, if you will, against ISIL has been a key component to -- to what the Iraqi government's been trying to do -- something we've certainly encouraged.

I don't have specifics on this particular effort that you're referring to, but the notion of -- of Sunnis playing a role in this fight is something, again, that I know that the -- we've been encouraging of the Iraqi government. And so -- again, but I don't have any particular details on what you're talking about here.

Q: It's been the policy of DOD not to cooperate directly with the PMUs? If --

MR. COOK: Again, I'm -- I was talking more broadly --

Q: -- sure.

MR. COOK: -- about the effort to try and get -- for example, in Anbar, the effort to try and -- and attract Sunnis to the Iraqi security forces, specifically.

Q: So if there were what the U.S. military considered an balance of Sunnis in the PMUs, would that change the DOD policy on cooperating with them directly?

MR. COOK: Again, we -- what -- what we've been supportive of, what we've encouraged the -- the Iraqis and Prime Minister Abadi, is to -- is to, again, try and attract as many Sunnis as possible as part of this -- this effort.

I'm not going to comment specifically on what you're talking about here, because I'm not familiar with it. But the effort overall to -- to try and recruit Sunnis as part of this effort to take on ISIL, is a constructive thing, and one we've encouraged.

Q: Peter, I just want to clarify the timeframe of this cessation of hostilities agreement. I thought I heard you say that it would go into effect March 1st. Did I hear you say that correctly?

MR. COOK: I -- that's my understanding.

Q: Okay. So I'm sure you're aware that one of the criticisms of this arrangement is that it gives the Russians a full -- more than a week to consolidate their battlefield gains.

March 1st is more than two weeks since the agreement was announced. Is -- are you saying that the Russians will have a full two weeks to continue to do whatever they want to do before this agreement goes into effect?

MR. COOK: I'm going to -- the State Department has the timing on this agreement; they negotiated it. I would encourage to check with the State Department.

But we are, like everybody else, going to be watching the activities of people in the intervening people, including Russia, and we hope people abide by this agreement. And again, we're going to be assessing compliance, just like everybody else.

So. I've got time for one more, and then I'm going to -- then I --

Q: I thought the agreement went into effect Friday, not March 1st?

MR. COOK: If I misspoke on the day, my apologies. Again, this is a State Department agreement, so I want to make sure that they speak to it. And if I've misspoken on the actual implementation, my apologies on that.

Yes? Last question, back there.

Q: Okay. So, circling back to the situation in Korean Peninsula, and my question is pretty much simple. There are some reports from Seoul said that an F-22 is heading to the peninsula.

So, can you confirm that? And if it is true, what kind of missions the F-22 have?

MR. COOK: Yeah, I'm not prepared to announce any deployments of assets or people at this time to South Korea.

But as I mentioned before, we are looking at -- as we always do, a range of options, the best use of our capabilities, working in conjunction with the Republic of South Korea, with the alliance -- our alliance partner, and others in the region to determine the best way to provide stability on the Korean Peninsula.

And we'll consider to assess what those options are.


Q: The Russian prime minister said the Cold War's back on. Would you agree with that assessment, Peter? (Laughter.)

MR. COOK: Lucas, I'm not going to agree with that, and I'll leave you to talk to the Russians about that.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias