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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook January 05, 2017

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


PETER COOK: Good afternoon, everybody.

Michael, good to see you.

A couple of quick notes before I turn to your questions.

First, a number of you have asked about reports of airstrikes in Idlib province, Syria, targeting al-Qaida members. I can confirm today that the United States conducted a series of precision airstrikes this week in northwestern Syria against al-Qaida operatives, strikes that further weaken al-Qaida's ability to threaten the United States.

On Sunday, January 1st, U.S. forces struck two al-Qaida vehicles that had departed a large headquarters near Sarmada, Syria. On Tuesday, January 3rd, U.S. forces struck the headquarters itself, targeting multiple vehicles and structures. Al-Qaida's foreign terrorist fighter network used this headquarters as a gathering place and their leaders directed terrorist operations out of this location.

We continue to assess the results of these strikes, but our initial assessment is that the January 1st strike killed five al-Qaida militants and destroyed two vehicles, and the January 3rd strike killed more than 15 militants, destroyed six vehicles and nine structures.

Again, our assessment here is ongoing, but we are confident these strikes will degrade al-Qaida's ability to direct operations in Syria and beyond.

As you know, al-Qaida remains committed to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States, our interests, and our allies and friends. We will continue to take actions to deny any safe haven for al-Qaida in Syria and we will not allow al-Qaida to grow its capacity to attack the United States or our allies around the world, and these strikes demonstrate that commitment.

Second, I know you got an update yesterday from Colonel Dorrian on progress in the counter-ISIL campaign. But even in the last 24 hours, we have again continued to see additional gains in both Iraq and Syria that I would like to detail briefly, if I could.

In the campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraqi security forces have made progress both in liberating new neighborhoods and in clearing areas already liberated. They have further linked the various axes of advance into Mosul, which as we've mentioned previously, makes the ISF's job easier and ISIL's job more difficult. Of course, the global coalition continues to support Iraqi forces with airstrikes, eight in the last 24 hours in support of the Mosul operations, as well as assistance from the ground.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces continue to liberate territory on the way to Raqqa. SDF forces have now advanced to within 7.5 kilometers of Tabqa Dam, and continue to make progress in clearing areas north and west of Raqqa. And in support of these operations, the coalition in the last 24 hours conducted 10 airstrikes, including strikes against both tactical units and the oil infrastructure that provides ISIL's shrinking financial support.

Some operational deployments as well to update you on. Starting today and including tomorrow, ships and units from the Carl Vinson Strike Group will depart San Diego for a regularly scheduled deployment to the western Pacific. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Carrier Air Wing 2, and Embarked Destroyer Squadron 1 will deploy with Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Michael Murphy and USS Wayne E. Meyer.

Homeported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Michael Murphy will join CVN SG later this month as the strike group makes its way to the western Pacific. CVN SG will deploy with approximately 7,500 sailors and will focus on maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. The strike group assets will conduct bilateral exercises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, to include anti-submarine warfare, maneuvering drills, gunnery exercises, and visit board, search and seizure subject-matter expert exchanges.

And separately on the deployment front, the United States is demonstrating its continued commitment to collective security through a series of actions designed to reassure NATO allies and partners of America's dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Tanks, trucks and other equipment are scheduled to arrive in Europe this weekend, beginning a nine-month rotation of U.S. Army forces supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve. The arrival of troops and equipment from Third Armor Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colorado marks the beginning of the continuous presence of an ABCT and back-to-back rotations of U.S. troops and equipment in Europe.

After the equipment arrives at Bremerhaven, Germany, it will move by rail, commercial line haul, and military convoy to Poland. The personnel and equipment will later be relocated throughout the region for training and exercises with European allies. This effort is part of our European Reassurance Initiative to maintain persistent, rotational presence of air, land and sea forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

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

Lita Baldor?

Q: Peter, could you bring us up to date a bit on the situation with Turkey? Has the secretary had any discussions with his counterpart about the ongoing sort of rhetoric that's been going back and forth about whether or not there is an actual threat by the Turks to limit or close access to Incirlik?

And has there been an offer of additional aid -- military aid to Turkey? Where does that stand? Or have the Turks requested aid in some fashion for their fight in al-Bab? And is that being discussed?

Can you just fill us in on some of that?

MR. COOK: I will update you to the extent I could, Lita, but this is -- you're quite honestly not going to hear much more than you heard yesterday from Colonel Dorrian, because these are -- this is the focus of ongoing discussions between the United States and Turkey -- our coalition partner, our NATO ally.

These are discussions, as you've heard from me and from Colonel Dorrian as well, both at the highest levels of our government, as well as the military-to-military channels. And this is an ongoing conversation and I'm not going to read out those discussions at this point. Other than to say that we and Turkey both share the desire to defeat ISIL in Syria and elsewhere, and that this effort in al-Bab is an important effort aimed at ISIL.

And we're going to do -- again, continue our conversations and try to coordinate our activities so that we maintain the most pressure on ISIL, not just in Syria, but also in Iraq across the border.

Q: Has the secretary had any conversations with his counterpart?

MR. COOK: I don't have any conversations to read out for you.

Q: So you're not saying he hasn't. You're not -- you're just saying you don't...

 

MR. COOK: I don't have any conversations to read out here. We have -- I just want to reaffirm to you, as I did the other day, that these are very active conversations, daily conversations, and that they are ongoing at this time.

Q: And can you say whether the U.S. is prepared to provide additional military support to Turkey?

MR. COOK: We're having this conversation to find out the best and most effective way to support the broader ISIL campaign including in al-Bab and we are having that conversation with Turkey about the best way to do that.

Q: And do you believe that the Turks will limit or restrict access to Incirlik? Is that a credible threat at this moment?

MR. COOK: Listen, we -- you heard Colonel Dorrian and you've heard me say how important Incirlik is to our operations, how much the coalition appreciates access to Incirlik as part of this campaign. And we certainly will continue to have our conversations with Turkey and make that point clear and we will -- it's a valuable and important part of our operations and we certainly hope and expect that it will continue.

Q: Just a final follow up. I understand all of that but other than the public comments being made by some of the Turkish leaders, has there been a direct conversation from the Turks to the U.S. saying that they want the U.S. to leave Incirlik? Has there been any direct conversations other than what you've heard them say publicly?

MR. COOK: Listen, we continue to have our private conversations with the Turks. I'm not going to get into all of our discussions with the Turks but we are operating out of Incirlik right now, again, very appreciative of the access that we have to Incirlik, the coalition has to Incirlik, and we look forward to that continuing.

Q: A follow-up on that. The Turkish president said yesterday, I believe, that they're anticipating being able to retake al-Bab shortly. And then after that, they're going to focus on other towns, most notably Manbij where he said where terrorists are resting. Are you aware of any other significant terrorist forces that are currently holed up in Manbij? Last we heard that town had been liberated.

MR. COOK: Our assessment of Manbij has not changed, that ISIL's been defeated in Manbij and we think that's a good thing, that it's a significant thing. There was significant efforts made by the coalition and others to make that happen and we believe the best focus right now is again to remain focused on ISIL wherever it may be and the coalition's assessment right now is that ISIL is in other parts of Syria.

Q: So, with this apparent pledge from the Turkish president, what concerns do you have that the Turkish armed forces might be going after the Kurdish forces that are currently in Manbij securing it?

MR. COOK: Again, the focus for the coalition, for the United States, remains on ISIL and we think that that should be the focus of the coalition.

Q: And then moving over to Iraq, Colonel Dorrian said yesterday there are about 450 coalition advisors now involved in the Mosul operation including some who have gone into the city. Can you say at what level now U.S. advisors are embedded with headquarters of the conventional Iraqi units? I know last we heard I thought it was at the division level but they had clearance to go farther down.

Do you know how far down the chain of command?

MR. COOK: I think we've talked about this in the past, that there have been separate from the special operations forces, that the -- there is the capability, the authority to go down to the battalion level. And there has been at least one instance in the past. Specifically, we talked about the efforts with an engineering unit that assisted with bridging related to the movements around Qayyarah and I'm not aware of it extending beyond that at this point.

But I won't -- also can't rule it out. General Townsend has this authority to use as he sees fit but I'm not aware that it's been extended -- been used beyond that.

Q: So is it safe to say then that the Americans who are advising the Iraqi forces in Mosul are with either CTS or the Pesh then?

MR. COOK: I think, again, they're with headquarters elements in -- in most cases. With the conventional Iraqi forces, they're providing advice and assistance, at the division levels with the leadership. And I can't tell you with, again, precision here because I honestly don't know whether General Townsend has used that more recently at a lower level but, again, there are -- some of those headquarters elements are moving as the forward line of troops moves that certainly there are Iraqi commanders who are closer to Mosul now than they were previously and our folks are providing advise and assistance to them. Likewise, I want -- I want to make clear that not all these folks are specifically tied to Mosul. We have advisors right now, for example, in Baghdad. We have advisors at various locations, installations that may be supporting Mosul. I mentioned Qayyarah again, Camp Swift. So, we have forces in a variety of positions -- advisors in a variety of positions, not necessarily right -- even on the outskirts of Mosul so it's -- that's a countrywide figure that I believe Colonel Dorrian referred to.

Yes Barbara.

Q: Let me go back to the carrier announcement...

MR. COOK: ...Yeah...

Q: ...That you made for a minute. So, you know, the Defense Department, the Navy always likes to talk about aircraft carriers as a symbol of U.S. military presence in the far corners of the world. But it's been days if not weeks now since you have had a carrier either deployed in the western -- far western Pacific, vis a vis the Korean peninsula or in the Persian Gulf.

So, in both cases, starting with the presence to counter North Korea, well you have other assets. What should people take away from the fact that the Navy does -- has not had a deployable carrier for weeks in the two acknowledged hotspots, the Persian Gulf and off Korea?

MR. COOK: Again, the deployment of the Carl Vinson is a routine deployment and as you know very well, we have significant capabilities within the U.S. military. The Navy has significant capabilities. They are not all limited to aircraft carriers and so those deployments are determined based on, again, operational needs, operational requirements and we make adjustments accordingly.

And we have had a significant presence in both those areas and will continue to have a significant presence even though we may not at any one particular time have an aircraft carrier there.

Q: But is it not somewhat interesting to you that there has not been an aircraft carrier off the Korean Peninsula or in the Persian Gulf for many days if not weeks?

MR. COOK: Until you asked the question, it had not piqued my interest so, again, we have a significant capabilities. We've walked through some of what we do on a daily basis with regard to the threat from North Korea. We've talked about not only our presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula but the substantial military capabilities that we have in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some of those capabilities very clearly associated with the threat posed by North Korea. We're confident in those capabilities.

Q: And if I could just ask one last thing on -- on North Korea, I mean the world acknowledges there's been a certain level of rhetoric from Kim Jong-un since the new year and he made his public statements about wanting to launch an ICBM. Have you -- are you able to say, understanding that you don't want to talk about intelligence, nonetheless, what can you say?

Have you seen any signs of movement inside North Korea of their military capability or leadership that concern you? And do you find that since the new year, when he made his statements and other statements were made inside the United States,that you want to watch North Korea any more closely than you already do?

MR. COOK: Barbara, we watch North Korea closely every single day, for understandable reasons. And I am not going to get into intelligence matters here. And I'm just going to say that we -- our forces remain ready, as the slogan goes, to fight tonight in South Korea along the border.

We remain vigilant in terms of watching the actions of the North Koreans and obviously the rhetoric that we hear from North Korea. And we will continue to do so. And today is no different than yesterday. And tomorrow will be the same.

Yes.

Q: (Off mic) journalist, I...

MR. COOK: Welcome.

Q: Thank you. I would like to ask you about Afghanistan, the Afghan people, they are concerned about their future, especially after the situation that President Obama leaves his position.

What do you think of U.S. 15 years' involvement in Afghanistan? Do you think that you were successful in Afghanistan? And you were successful in Afghanistan during this15 years?

And also the second question that I -- (off mic) get connection with the Taliban. That's why it's a big question mark for Afghan people, that (off mic), you know, start to have a relationship with the Taliban?

MR. COOK: So I'll start with the second one and I'll leave it to the Russians to describe why it is they might be having relations with the Taliban and how that's productive for the people of Afghanistan. I'll leave that to the Russians.

But more broadly, on the question of U.S., the military presence in Afghanistan, we continue to have a military presence there, as you know. We continue to provide support to the Afghan government, to the Afghan armed forces so that they can take -- secure the country for themselves.

They continue to make progress in those efforts. Our folks, I know, General Nicholson and his team continue to work very closely with the government, with the armed forces of Afghanistan.

In terms of that effort we have a separate CT mission, counter- terrorism mission in Afghanistan that is also ongoing, critically important to the United States in keeping the homeland safe. That remains very active. And we feel good about the situation right now in Afghanistan with regard to the support we're providing along with other members of the NATO coalition in terms of bolstering the Afghan security forces, improving their fighting capabilities on their own so that ultimately they can secure the country on their own.

We see progress there. Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place. Challenges remain. I think you've heard President Ghani speak to that recently. And we will continue to provide this kind of support we can to bolster the Afghan security forces.

And that is an important mission and one that, again, we're joined by other international partners in that effort.

Yes.

Q: I have a question about Sinjar Mountain. There's a significant amount PKK fighters on that mountain. Prime Minister Abadi and KRG officials have asked the PKK to leave the mountain and go back to their places.

What is the U.S. position on that? Do you think they are helping on securing the area from ISIS infiltration? Or what is your position on that?

MR. COOK: I think -- I mean, Prime Minister Abadi, Iraq is a sovereign government. Prime Minister Abadi speaks on behalf of the Iraqi government. And the PKK, as you know, is a terrorist organization, designated by the United States.

And we're supportive of what President (sic) Abadi has said on this front, and remain a concern, of course.

Again, Iraq is a sovereign government. The prime minister has spoken on this issue. And we're supportive of what Prime Minister Abadi has had to say.

Carla..

Q: Thanks, Peter.

Going back to what Lita and (inaudible) were talking about, you said that the focus of the coalition is on the Islamic State and we believe that should be the focus. But what is the consequence if that is no longer the focus?

Have you been talking with your allies about the consequences should they not focus on Islamic State?

And then also can you follow up to talk about Turkey's role? I know Turkey wants to have a role in the fight for Raqqa. And the U.S. has been saying that this is a part of ongoing negotiations. Where is the U.S. and Turkey on that?

MR. COOK: Again, Carla, we're talking every day with our Turkish ally about these issues. And these are important issues. Turkey has significant concerns given the threat ISIL poses to Turkey.

We've seen ISIL's own claims of responsibility for this most recent night club shooting. And we share Turkey's interest in defeating ISIL, delivering ISIL a lasting defeat.

And we think there is important progress that still needs to be made on that -- in that effort, and that Turkey can be a key player and is a key player in that has a significant interest in that.

The United States, the rest of the coalition have a significant interest. So we want to remain coordinated in that effort. We want to maintain pressure on as many fronts as possible, particularly this moment in time when ISIL finds itself under assault both in Syria and in Iraq, in Mosul specifically, and around Raqqa specifically.

We think there is an opportunity here to accelerate this campaign even further, to put even more pressure on ISIL. And that remains the focus. All of efforts are intended to accelerate this campaign against ISIL, to keep the most pressure possible on ISIL, and that's the conversation we're having not just with Turkey but with all of our coalition partners.

Q: Can you confirm that they will take some sort of role in the operation to take Raqqa?

MR. COOK: Again, that conversation is ongoing. I'll let the Turkish government speak for itself. But certainly we're talking to all of our coalition partners about the next steps in the campaign, the most efficient and effective way to do that and, again, speed matters here.

We want to move quickly. We've got ISIL under pressure right now. And we want to keep it that way. We want to accelerate, turn up that pressure if we can.

Q: Would you say that the most effective way to move forward is to go into cities that have already been removed from Islamic State control?

MR. COOK: I think I spoke to that previously. We think we should go after ISIL where ISIL is.

Otto.

Q: (Off mic) Vinson battle group, you cited (off mic) plans in the western Pacific (off mic) area. But there is still no plan to put carrier back in the Gulf to support the Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria.

Is there any possibility that Vinson will be moved into the Gulf after its additional stint in northern Pacific?

MR. COOK: Otto, I'm not going to get ahead of deployments we've announced, where the Vinson is going, the Navy did. And so I don't want to predict the future as to what future operational deployments will be. We are constantly assessing the operational requirements. But we feel confident we have the resources we need right now with regard to that part of the world, and specifically with regard to the counter-ISIL campaign.

All done? In the back, yes.

Q: Peter, do you have any update on the engine that fell off of a B-52 yesterday, and whether or not people should be concerned about parts falling off of military aircraft that are 50-plus years old?

MR. COOK: I don't have a specific update on that. I would refer you to the -- to the Air Force if they've got any more details or specifically to Minot about what happened in that incident.

Obviously, it's a concern and something that we'll want to investigate fully. But I don't have a specific update for you.

OK. Thanks, everyone.

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1042944/



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