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Presenter: Defense Department Press Secretary Peter Cook August 25, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing with Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Press Briefing Room


DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PRESS SECRETARY PETER COOK: Good afternoon everybody. What's that?

Q: (OFF-MIC)

COOK: Bob, I always have important information to share with you. Today will be no different. I did want to begin with a couple of operational updates in the counter-ISIL campaign before I turn to your questions.

First, in Syria, Syrian opposition forces, supported by coalition air power and Turkish military, are now in control of Jarabulus on the Turkey-Syria border. While ISIL has largely been forced out of the city, operations to clear pockets of resistance and IEDs left by ISIL continue. We did conduct additional coalition air strikes today in support of the effort.

Combined with the success of the Syrian democratic forces in freeing Manbij from ISIL, this is another important milestone in the military campaign. Again, this area of Jarabulus has been a focal point of foreign fighter flow for ISIL.

ISIL's ability to move those foreign fighters and potential external operative back and forth across the border has put the people of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and beyond at risk, and the Manbij to Jarabulus route is no longer available to ISIL forces.

COOK: Likewise the route from Manbij to Raqqah has also been severed as a result of all these recent operations.

This is a major blow to ISIL, and the Jarabulus operation in particular another significant step forward for the campaign.

As has been reported, some of the SDF forces who fought so hard and so well to free Manbij have, as anticipated, moved back to the eastern side of the Euphrates River. Some SDF elements remain to secure Manbij against potential reinfiltration by ISIL forces and to conduct the difficult, dangerous task of removing IEDs from the city.

This movement has long been part of our plan to focus available partnered forces on the next major objective, Raqqah, the so-called capital of the self-described ISIL caliphate.

It's important to remember what the SDF has accomplished. Over the last two years, the SDF has liberated approximately 28,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory from ISIL's grip.

Manbij was a costly fight for the SDF, but a deeply important one for the SDF and the counter-ISIL coalition. This operation demonstrates the importance and the viability of the strategy built on working with and through capable motivated local forces as the best way to deal ISIL a lasting defeat.

Shifting to the situation in Iraq right now, Iraqis security forces have made gains in their efforts to retake the city of Qayyarah, south of Mosul. Just as Manbij and Jarabulus are steps on the road to Raqqah, Qayyarah is an important objective on the way to the eventual liberation of Mosul in Iraq.

As you know, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are also involved in the effort to envelop Mosul. They also have made key advances in recent days.

In Libya -- switching there quickly -- forces supporting the Government of National Accord continue to take the fight to ISIL with the help of U.S. air power, and they continue to make progress in liberating the city from ISIL's control.

As you know, Prime Minister Sarraj met with our AFRICOM commander, General Waldhauser. That happened yesterday, and the meeting provided General Waldhauser an opportunity -- both to provide the prime minister an update on U.S. support for the counter-ISIL fight in Libya; offer a chance to discuss a common path forward for Libyan stability and security. And we look forward to continuing those discussion with the prime minister and the Government of National Accord.

We remain clear-eyed in our understanding that there is still much work to do in defeating ISIL. The job will not be done quickly, easily or without cost. But there is no question that on every front today ISIL is under increasing pressure from a global coalition dedicated to its defeat.

The United States will continue to work alongside a range of partners and allies in the fight to defeat ISIL in Syria, Iraq, Libya and wherever else it may be found.

Now, briefly, I know you did hear earlier from General Cleveland, but I wanted to address the terror attack yesterday in Kabul.

I just wanted to add that the United States, of course, strongly condemns this attack, in which terrorists targeted a university dedicated to helping Afghans prepare themselves and their nation for a brighter future.

On behalf of the secretary and everyone in the Department of Defense, I offer our condolences to the families of the victims killed in this attack, as well as the wounded.

Also I'd like to thank the Afghan security forces, including American University security, Afghan police and military units, who responded decisively to this incident, preventing an even greater tragedy. And they saved lives as a result of their actions yesterday.

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

Bob?

Q: You having mentioned that the SDF forces have moved backed to the eastern side of Euphrates, are Turkish ground forces then -- are they leaving or they still flowing into the country?

And also could you give a little more detail about today's U.S. air strikes in support of that operation in Jarabulus?

MR. COOK: I'll leave the -- I'll leave it to the Turks to describe their next military moves, but...

Q: I meant current -- currently.

COOK: Currently there's still Turkish forces in the area of Jarabulus. But again, in terms of their operations, what they'll do next, I'll leave that to the Turks to describe.

But, again, that was part of their movement that was coordinated with the coalition. And of course, we supported it with air strikes yesterday and there were, as I understand, at least one additional air strike today.

Q: Could you say that you having kind of spun out the scenario there on having reached objectives in Manbij and Jarabulus. You mentioned Raqqah. Should we then see the operation against Raqqah as being imminent?

MR. COOK: You know, we're not going to put a calendar on it. We are working closely with local forces both in Syria and also, of course, with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi security forces in Iraq. And we are moving at their timetable. But obviously, this is something we want to accelerate. The secretary has made clear he'd like to do this as quickly as possible.

And as you can see in Syria and Iraq, we have gained momentum in recent days. And we'd like to build on that momentum. I'm not going to put a timeline on it, but you know our ultimate objective here is Raqqah. The secretary has has made clear that that, as their so-called capital, their so-called caliphate, is a key objective here and will be a difficult objective.

And we'd like to make a move on that as quickly as possible, but we're going to move at the appropriate pace in coordination with those local forces that we're working with, and likewise, the same for Mosul with the Iraqi security forces. But by all means, we'd like to do this as soon as possible.

Q: Peter, on Iran in the Gulf, the encounters with the U.S. Navy. Can you bring us up to date across the board? What yesterday happened that led the Navy crew to believe they had to fire warning shots at this Iranian vessel? What can you tell us about the possibility that there were two other additional unsafe incidents yesterday? Not the video that we've all seen from two days ago, but I'm referencing the warning shots, two other incidents yesterday.

And what's the assessment on what you think the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy is up to? What this says about Central Command being controlled by the Iranians over their own security forces?

MR. COOK: Well, let me -- there are a lot of questions in there.

Q: Sure, my question is across the board.

MR. COOK: So, I'm sure I'm going to forget one, and you can remind me.

With regard to the event yesterday that you all have reported on, again the crew determined that these Iranian craft coming at them were approaching at an unsafe and unprofessional manner. And they did what our very professional Navy has been forced to do in the past when confronted with similar situations. And that is to take appropriate steps to try and de-escalate the situation.

That's what they did in this instance. They deemed these craft approaching them as unsafe and unprofessional. And they responded accordingly. And that ended this particular situation yesterday. And again, our ships were in international waters. Our sailors were conducting themselves professionally as they are trained to do. And we did not see the same from the Iranian boats on the other side.

Q: But is it not the case in the view of the U.S. military, if you are compelled -- if you're in a situation where you're compelled to go to the step of having to fire warning shots, what does that say about the potential threat being posed to U.S. naval forces at that moment?

MR. COOK: Well, again, there's a series of steps that our crews are prepared to take to handle these situations. They are well trained, Barbara, as you know. And the fact that they did have to reach that step, and you're referring specifically to the incident involving the Nitze here?

Q: No. I'm referring to yesterday. The Nitze -- I'm sorry -- just to clarify, I'm not talking about the Nitze from two days ago. I'm talking about the USS Tempest and USS Squall in the northern Gulf yesterday.

MR. COOK: OK.

So, first of all, I'm just seeing some of the information regarding this incident as well. So I don't have all the details. I'm going to refer you for as many details that I miss to CENTCOM and to NAVCENT, because they'll have more than I will.

But my understanding is they were -- in this instance, they did feel compelled ultimately to fire three warning shots. And the reason for that is they had used steps -- they had taken steps already to try and de-escalate this situation, appropriate steps, including flares, trying to, again, warn the Iranian craft away. And so they felt the need to take an additional step to try and de-escalate the situation, and that was, again, to fire the warning shots.

And, Barbara, these steps are taken in order to make sure that our crew and our ship -- they're able to protect themselves, and to try and prevent this from escalating into a more serious situation.

They did that. The Iranian craft, as I understand it, left at that point.

But, again, the onus here is on the Iranians to conduct themselves in a safe and professional manner like navies all over the world do. And in this instance and the instance the other day with the Nitze, in the view of the crew, that did not happen.

Q: So, just to -- what does the U.S. think the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces are up to here? Are they -- are they under the control of the central government? Are they out there operating on their own? Are they threatening you? Do you feel a threat from them? Why are they doing all this?

And can you see if you can clarify for us, were there two additional incidents yesterday? Unsafe incidents.

What do you think the IRGC's up to?

MR. COOK: So, my understanding is that there may have been yesterday two incidents, involving the Tempest and the Squall. And there was another incident, involving another U.S. Navy ship. I -- quite honestly, I think it was referenced the Stout. And may have involved some of the same Iranian vessels.

So you may be talking about some of the same craft, but separate incidents.

Q: So, are you saying…

MR. COOK: So bigger picture here, these were incidents that, again, the crews deemed that were unsafe and unprofessional.

And as to why the Iranians are doing this, I'm going to leave it -- you need to ask the Iranians why they're doing this.

They're not conducting themselves in the way that professional navies do. And we have these interactions all the time. We have interactions with the Iranians all the time. And the Iranian -- and for a significant number of times, these are routine and safe and professional. At least that's been -- that's been...

Q: But these others are IRGC?

MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it to NAVCENT and CENTCOM to explain that to you in more detail.

But the big picture here, Barbara, is that these are incidents that carry a risk of escalation. And we certainly don't desire any escalation, any sort of confrontation there. Our ships are operating as they have for years in that part of the world, in international waters, and will continue to do so. And there is no need for this kind of, if you will, unprofessional behavior. It does not serve any purpose.

We're going to continue to operate. And we're going to continue to take the steps that we need to do to make sure that our sailors and our ships are as safe as possible as they conduct their operations.

Q: Were warning shots only fired once yesterday? Or this -- you said you had another in -- I guess Iranians twice, is what you're saying, came unsafely close to the Tempest and the Squall. At another point they came close to the Stout?

MR. COOK: Warning shots were only fired in this one instance, as I understand it. So...

Q: I guess I would just also say -- I guess, I do wanna just say I -- if you could communicate to the Navy, I think the level of interest -- when the U.S. Navy fires warning shots at the Iranians, is an immediate level of interest by the U.S. press corps. I think we -- it's a little distressing to find this out as a point of history the next day rather than of news.

Anything you could do to encourage the U.S. military to tell us when they fire on another country.

MR. COOK: I believe they fired warning shots in the water.

And, Barbara, we're sharing this information. In some instances, like today, you might be reporting on it before some people in this building are totally aware, given the distances.

And some of the information conveyed here -- there's a chain of command that needs to be followed here.

Our sailors...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK: Our sailors are conducting themselves professionally. They do have responsibilities to a chain of command. They have operations they need to maintain.

And again, our folks were doing what they were supposed to be doing, and they conducted themselves professionally.

And there is a review, of course, as always in these situations, as to the circumstances involved here and how this played out. And that is still underway, as I understand it.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... I think you understand we wanna know, Peter.

MR. COOK: Yeah, Paul?

Q: I wanted to ask two separate questions.

One is on the North Korean missile test. North Korea said this morning that it was a multi-stage missile that traveled on a high trajectory and successfully tested the warhead impact. Which, if true, seems like an advancement on their past missile tests.

So can you -- would you assess this as progress? And if so, does that worry you, (inaudible) situation (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: I'm not gonna characterize their tests, other than to say, as with previous test by the North Koreans, this is not only a violation of U.N. resolutions, but it is, again, a provocative act by the North Koreans that does nothing to promote stability and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

And again it demonstrates why we are continuing to work so closely with our South Korean and Japanese allies, in terms of the steps we need to take to make sure that the defense of our allies is as robust as it can be; why we're taking steps with regard to missile defense in the region; and why we're conducting exercises like we are with the South Koreans now, to make sure that we're doing everything we can to address the very real concerns we have about the actions of North Korea, actions like this test would indicate.

Q: And the second one on Iraq's parliament. (inaudible) to oust the defense minister. They also, as far as I understand, don't have an interior minister.

And -- is this a concern for the U.S., given that this is one of our closest allies in the counter-ISIL fight? Are you worried that there's a paucity of leadership there, that there's political instabilities already affecting our efforts there at all?

MR. COOK: I'll leave domestic Iraqi politics to the Iraqi government.

The one thing I will say, is that we have an excellent working relationship with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and with the Iraqi military. And certainly that continues on a daily basis right now in the campaign against ISIL, and we have every confidence that that will continue.

Yes, Carla?

Q: Going back to Syria and Jarabulus, have you heard from either your Turkish allies or from your Kurdish allies about attacks from Turkey on the Kurds or visa versa?

MR. COOK: We are in, obviously, close communications with all of our partners on the ground involved in the ISIL fight, including Turkey and our partners in -- in Syria.

And this effort so far has been focused on ISIL.

It was a bad day for ISIL yesterday Jarabulus. It was another bad day for them today. And that's thanks in part to our -- the many partners who are in our coalition right now.

And so, we remain focused on ISIL, and we believe all of our partners are as well.

Q: You're not aware of any attacks between the two?

MR. COOK: I'm aware that our coalition, including the folks you mentioned, remain focused on ISIL. And that's produced progress in the last 24 to 48 hours.

Q: Just a follow up on Bob's: You said there was at least one airstrike today? A U.S. airstrike?

MR. COOK: That's right.

Q: Can you tell us what was hit?

And also, just as a housekeeping: None of these strikes from yesterday were on the CENTCOM strike list today. Is there a reason for that?

MR. COOK: I don't believe that's...

Q: In Jarabulus.

MR. COOK: I'll check that. That's not my understanding.

There may not have been a reference to Jarabulus specifically. It may be in the region; Manbij is close, for example.

I'll check on that, but my understanding is that the air strikes that took place were captured on the normal CJTF-OIR release that you all get.

So...

Q: Where did the strike today hit?

MR. COOK: I don't have the exact information. But I understand it was -- again, it was in the vicinity of Jarablus and it was again focused on a specific ISIL target.

Q: Peter, the Iranian Defense Minister said today that this type of harassment by Iranian vessels against the U.S. Navy will continue. Do you have a message to him or his spokesman today?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of those comments.

But I guess my response to that would be, we certainly hope it doesn't continue, because it serves no purpose other than to raise tensions in an important part of the world; and tensions that we don't seek to have escalated.

We are conducting ourselves, again, as we always have, as the Navy does around the world, in a safe and professional manner. And our sailors will continue to do that. And they will continue to take the steps that they need to to protect themselves, their ships and our interests in the region.

Q: Just shifting topics to Guantanamo Bay, can we expect more detainee transfers in the near future?

MR. COOK: I don't have any additional transfers to read out from here.

But, as you know, the secretary continues to take the steps that he feels are necessary to take to responsibly close the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay. And that includes continuing to try and work with Congress in terms of closing the facility, and also, as appropriate, continuing to review the cases of individuals who have been deemed eligible for transfer through the interagency process.

And if there are additional people who meet the interagency process and have been approved for transfer, then, of course, the secretary will give consideration to those individual cases on a case-by-case basis.

Q: But, Peter, isn't the Pentagon carrying out an unlawful order in closing the base when Congress has stipulated in law that it's -- you cannot close Guantanamo Bay right now?

MR. COOK: We are doing what is appropriate, and that is to engage with members of Congress who absolutely have a say in the future of the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay. Rightly so.

As you know, Lucas, there are members of Congress who feel very strongly about the need to close the facility. There are others who have a different view.

And the secretary, again, remains confident that there's an opportunity here to have a conversation with Congress -- an appropriate conversation -- about the future of the facility, and whether or not there could be an opportunity to move those who cannot be transferred to another location -- to another country, those who cannot be released because they pose such a threat -- to housing them in a facility -- an appropriate facility here in the United States.

And that's a conversation that, again, he hopes to continue to have with Congress.

Q: But that is against the law. You cannot move those detainees anywhere in the United States or spend any money to do that.

MR. COOK: Which is why we're engaged with Congress absolutely to try and address the concerns that they have.

Q: And finally, does the secretary support denying justice to the 9/11 families to transfer 9/11 detainees outside of U.S. custody?

MR. COOK: The secretary believes in appropriate handling of all those cases. Any detainee who is at Guantanamo now and there's a legal process that's been followed in each and every one of those cases, and the secretary supports the legal process in these cases.

Q: You cannot rule out the potential that some 9/11 conspirators could be transferred outside of Guantanamo to a third country?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to even respond to that question, because you're talking about a hypothetical that we -- individual cases at Guantanamo get reviewed as appropriate. And there's nothing along the lines of what you talked about that I can comment on at this time because I'm not aware of any suggestion that that is happening.

Q: So, just a quick question, just a clarification on Manbij. You said that some SDF forces would remain there. But I understand that the request from Turkey is that they -- all YPG go to the side of the Euphrates. So, is there -- is that the U.S. position as well, that there should not be any YPG in Manbij as of next week? Or is the U.S. position that some can stay as part of the SDF?

MR. COOK: There, again Phil, we have every reason to believe that the SDF will honor the commitments that it made. This is an active war zone. This is a complicated situation in which there are still pockets of ISIL resistance. And I think it's appropriate for local forces to be able to conduct the operations necessary to address the ISIL threat that remains.

Manbij is not done, as you know. But we have no indication at this point that the SDF will do anything other than the commitments that they've made.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: I'm sorry. So will the YPG sort of remain in Manbij?

MR. COOK: Again, Manbij is not complete. There are forces that are still taking out pockets of resistance. There's been a movement as appropriate back east of the Euphrates, and we have every reason to believe that that will continue.

Yes?

Q: Thank you, Peter.

The (inaudible) United Nations command that North Korea (inaudible) lay mines near DMZ to prevent defections. Can you comment on this?

MR. COOK: About the discovery of those landmines?

Q: Yes.

MR. COOK: I did see the report about that. Obviously, we have concerns about the placement of land mines that might pose a threat. So it's obviously a concern to us. I don't have all the details on that particular incident, but I know that it was something that U.S. Forces Korea certainly alerted us to here, and it remains a concern, of course, for General Brooks and his team.

Q: Also another one on North Korean, as you know, the North Korean SBBM test they already had last April, and of course two days ago. This is a really serious concern between U.S. and South Korea. Why does the United States not know any (inaudible) preparing their test? Do you have any information for before the testing?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to discuss intelligence matters from this podium.

You can be sure, and certainly our South Korean colleagues, we remain in close contact with South Korea, with our allies in the region, about potential threats that are present and the steps that need to be taken to protect against those threats. And we'll continue to do so.

Q: In the future for a threat again what are you going to do? It depends on the United States (inaudible) nuclear umbrella and security protections.

MR. COOK: That's what allies do. They work closely with each other and they coordinate their activities. They engage in military exercises, as we're doing right now with South Korea. We are working, of course, on the development of the THAAD system. We are taking additional steps with regard to missile defense in the region.

All of these steps are intended to protect our interests and, of course, the interests of our allies in that part of the world. And we'll continue to take the appropriate steps dealing -- having to deal with the provocations and the actions of North Korea, consistent with what we just saw with this latest test.

Yes?

Q: Just a clarification on the Iran incidents. Which of the U.S. ships fired the warning shots?

MR. COOK: My understanding is the Squall fired the warning shots, but I would again urge you, since I have gotten this information shortly before I came out here, to check with CENTCOM or with NAVCENT on the particulars.

Yes?

Q: Going back to Jarabulus. This operation kind of seemed to come out of nowhere. There wasn't that much talk in this building at least about a key border town. So I'm kind of curious, how much of a heads-up did Turkey give us, since it was a joint operation? We loaned ISR and air support to it.

You know, what was that coordination like and how long did we know before it happened that it was going to happen?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to give you a calendar on it, Thomas, but I can assure you that our conversations with the Turks have been ongoing for months. Of course, they're a member of the coalition. The issue of the border area has been a topic of our discussions for some time and this was closely coordinated and something that, again, we supported through the coalition, and something that we think could make a difference in the fight against ISIL.

And now that it's happened again, the goal here is to try and solidify and -- and address what's been a real concern. And that's the foreign fighter flows in this particular border crossing. And now there's been a positive step taken. We think that's a good thing.

Q: Well, I mean, obviously they're trying to drive a wedge between the (inaudible) Kurds and the Kurds advancing out of Manbij. I mean, was that part of your guys' conversation as well?

MR. COOK: We've been talking with the Turks for some time. We understand those concerns. We understand the concerns of many of our partners and players. It's a complicated situation. We've done what we can as, obviously, a key member of the coalition to try and address those concerns and make sure that everyone stays focused on the same goal and the same common enemy we all share, and that's ISIL. And that's what we think was the end product of this effort over the last 24, 48 hours.

Q: And just going back to (inaudible), that kind of got drowned out with Jarablus. Has there been any further air-to-air incidents between us and the Syrian air force or Russian air force?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any.

Yes?

Q: Staying on Jarabulus, as you mentioned, it's a complicated situation. How difficult is it for U.S. forces to maintain this positive relationship with our allies in the region, when there's tension between the Kurds and the Turks? But the Turks and the Kurds and the U.S. forces all have one common enemy, ISIL.

MR. COOK: Well, that's what makes it easier. We all share this enemy. We all believe it's important to make progress as quickly as possible against ISIL and to accelerate the defeat of ISIL, because ISIL poses a threat to all of us

So that one common factor is significant here, and was the reason that everyone was supportive of this action taking place in this way and at this time.

And again, it's a complicated situation. There are going to be concerns that need to be addressed, and we're doing our part to try and address them and try and keep everyone focused, as I said, on the common enemy that we all share and that's ISIL.

Q: You think having one common enemy is ultimately going to help bring the Kurds and the Turks to the table for future conversations to reduce tension in the region that they may have?

MR. COOK: I'll leave that to the Turks and to the Kurds to speak to the future. I can only address what we're doing as a coalition, focused on ISIL and again, we share this common enemy. We've made common progress against that enemy in recent days and weeks and we look forward to continuing that progress in the coming days ahead.

Yes?

Q: This is a question on Jarabulus. The Turkish foreign minister came out with a fairly thinly-veiled threat saying that Turkish forces would fire if they didn't go back to the other side of the Euphrates -- the YPG, that is. With the U.S. supporting the Turkish assault, couldn't that be seen by the YPG as taking sides in this issue?

MR. COOK: We go back to what we've been saying. This is a situation where we share a common enemy, ISIL; where we have been working with local partners and coalition members to try and address their concerns as we confront this central enemy. And we remain focused on that effort and we believe that this can be accomplished successfully while addressing the concerns of the various players. We'll continue to do that and again.

These are significant contributions made by a range of partners and coalition members. This is not just a U.S. effort. There have been significant, local forces that have made sacrifices in this fight in Iraq and in Syria. There are coalition members who continue to provide significant accelerants to this campaign, to further this campaign beyond the United States. We're deeply appreciative of those efforts and we want to continue this pace. We want to step this up. We want to do this even sooner.

You've heard Secretary Carter talk about that. This was a significant step in Jarabulus. It was a significant step in Manbij, and we think there are going to be more taken in the days ahead in Iraq as well.

Yes?

Q: Just on North Korea, with the bilateral decision to deploy THAAD upsetting Russia and China and your peers, and obviously North Korea, are you expecting more aggressive (inaudible) by putting THAAD there, operational by 2017, can you talk about should we expect a little bit more aggression from North Korea?

MR. COOK: What we're doing to (inaudible) a defensive system. And so we're taking steps. We're not going to predict the future. We would welcome steps by North Korea to ease tensions and to not take these kinds of provocative actions. But in the meantime, we have to address the reality we see and work with our allies. And that's just one in, of course, a number of steps that we've taken to try and bolster our alliance relationship and the security and defensive posture that we have in the region. And we would certainly hope that we don't have to expand and take additional steps.

But the reality is what it is, and we are taking the steps that allies should take to try and coordinate and work closely together to try and address the threat that we see right now from North Korea.

Q: Back to Jarabulus. You had just said that everyone was supportive of this action. Does that mean the Kurds were made aware by either the U.S. coalition or Turkish forces prior to the offensive in Jarabulus?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into all the private negotiations and private discussions that have been going on.

But this is a coalition effort with local partners on the ground, in which case there's been a significant amount of consultation and discussion to try and make sure that the end result here is that ISIL is degraded, destroyed, removed from Syria.

And we believe that again, the coalition has made progress and on that front Jarabulus is part of that progress, just as Manbij was a significant part of that progress. And now -- well, we don't have the timeline on it as I addressed in Bob's question earlier.

Certainly, we want to keep the focus ultimately on Raqqah and be able to reclaim Raqqah as well.

Q: But as a coalition partner, they were going to get a heads-up, right?

MR. COOK: There have been discussions throughout this campaign at every step of the way with all of our partners on the steps that are being taken. And we'll continue to consult and work with our partners as appropriate.

Yes?

Q: (inaudible) do you see (inaudible) any progress in (inaudible) North Korea (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: Again, I got this question earlier. I'm not going to characterize what they've done in terms of their testing. The fact that they are testing alone is a provocative act that does nothing to improve stability and security on the Korean peninsula.

It only escalates tensions. And what I know is that regardless of how you view the test, it is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. And we condemn this action.

And again, it does nothing to enhance any effort to try and ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. So we're going to, as I mentioned before, continue to take the steps we need to with our South Korean allies, our Japanese allies, others in the region who share the same concern we have about what North Korea is doing.

Lucas, you're back.

Q: Thank you.

Why does the U.S. military defend the Kurds, but not the other Syrian people?

MR. COOK: We are fighting right now, as you know, ISIL in Syria. But that does not mean we aren't concerned about what's happening in Syria. This is a civil war that is a humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the Syrian regime, aided and abetted by allies like Russia and Iran. And we have obviously significant concern about what's happening in Syria overall.

But our fight and the national security threat right now that is most direct to the United States is ISIL. And we'll continue to wage this campaign. And I might add, Lucas, as I've said, we've gained momentum in that campaign. We continue to take steps like we have in the last 24 to 48 hours to deal with what we see is the most direct threat right now in the United States.

Q: I can rephrase that, Peter. Why does the U.S. military protect the Kurds against the Assad regime in northeast Syria, but not the rest of the Syrian people against the Assad regime?

MR. COOK: Lucas, we are carrying out our campaign with our local partners against ISIL. We have a diplomatic effort, a significant diplomatic effort that is underway even today, even at this hour, being led by my colleagues in the State Department to try and address the situation in Syria to do everything we can to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.

This is a responsibility for the Assad regime and for players like Russia that have significant leverage over the Assad regime to get them to ultimately resolve what we believe cannot be resolved militarily. And that's a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria.

Q: Is Russian and Iran -- is that what's preventing the United States against taking any kind of military action against the Assad regime?

MR. COOK: Lucas, again, this is a situation where we're trying to address the Syrian civil war from a diplomatic standpoint. We are fighting a military campaign against ISIL. And we are we are going to continue that campaign, even at the same time that -- again, our State Department colleagues try and resolve, and other players, other allies in the region, try and resolve what's happening in the Syrian civil war.

It is a catastrophe. It is a disaster -- human suffering that we see every single day. We absolutely are concerned with that, and worried about that, and want to do what we can.

Getting rid of ISIL is one way to try to address what is going on in Syria and the violence we are seeing. And the barbarity of what ISIL is carrying out is the reason we are carrying out this military campaign.

Q: Just one point of clarification on Guantanamo. Did you say that the secretary can rule out transferring any of the 9/11 conspirators outside of U.S. custody to another country?

MR. COOK: Lucas, I'm not going to refer to any individual case right here. The secretary's responsibilities are clear. He has indicated -- again, he has a responsibility to look at individuals who have been deemed eligible for review. He is the ultimate arbitrator of those individual case that have been vetted by the interagency. And he will continue to carry out those responsibilities as required by law.

Q: Isn't the only way really at this point to shut down Guantanamo, to transfer all the detainees from the facility?

MR. COOK: Secretary Carter has made clear there are some detainees who he believes cannot be released, absolutely.

But he also believes that it can be done safely, and perhaps more economically to house those detainees in a facility here in the United States. He also thinks that that might again remove a propaganda tool that's been used by terror groups around the world. And so he believes that's why this is in the nation's interest. But again, he wants it to be done responsibly.

He wants to do it collaboratively with Congress. And so that's why he's approached it in the way he has. But he absolutely believes that there are some detainees at Guantanamo who absolutely should not be released, and he has no plans to release them.

BOB BURNS: Thank you everybody.

MR. COOK: Sorry, Loree is in the back. Bob, sit back down,

Loree has a question.

MR. BURNS: OK.

Q: Please. Sorry. Thank you. Thanks, folks.

Peter, I'm wondering if you can give us an update on the U.S. military's role in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen? There have been reports that folks were pulled out. I'm just wondering if you can bring us up to speed on where that stands.

MR. COOK: Yes, Laurie. I can tell you that, as you know, that the campaign that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, we did provide and have provided some technical advice. We provided some logistical support for that campaign and some of that continues.

But we have modified some of our support for that campaign just as there was a cessation of hostilities for a period of time. And I think our efforts -- I think Secretary Kerry spoke to this today. He visited Saudi Arabia and talked about the effort to try and address the conflict in Yemen specifically, and the steps that should be taken -- that we believe can be taken to try and ease the conflict there.

So the United States still provides some military support for the campaign. But it has been modified somewhat, in part, reflecting the conditions on the ground.

Q: Does the U.S. also have train-and-advise teams on the ground in Yemen?

MR. COOK: Bob, as you know we have had a small group of individuals in the past there working in terms of our CT effort in Yemen. And I'm not going to characterize right now our presence in Yemen, but we have had a small group, as you know, a fusion cell, in the past.

Q: You won't say whether the...

MR. COOK: I'm not going to. I can't at this point definitively tell you exactly what they are, for a variety of operational security reasons.

All right. Thanks, everybody.

--END--

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/927030/



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