U.S. Department of Defense
|Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook; Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin||January 13, 2017|
PETER COOK: Almost afternoon. Just wanted to -- we thought it'd be a good opportunity, as we were at a key moment in the fight against ISIL, to assess the progress that the coalition has made at this particular moment in time and also look back at how far the coalition has come, working with our local partners in Iraq and Syria.
As you all know, Acting Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin has been a critical member of the secretary's team throughout the counter-ISIL campaign and been actively engaged with all of our coalition partners throughout this entire process. So we thought it'd be a good opportunity to have Elissa walk you through a little bit her perspective on where the coalition stands at this point, and again, how we got to this particular moment in time. She's also available to answer questions on other areas of her responsibility and authority.
But I'll also be standing by. If we can keep her focused on her world and I'll be standing by to answer questions on other topics at the -- when she's wrapped up.
So with that, Elissa --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ELISSA SLOTKIN: All right.
MR. COOK: -- thank you for being here and it's all yours.
MS. SLOTKIN: Great. It's great to be here. This is my last day, so it's particularly nice to see everyone that we've traveled with and spent time with. And thanks to all of you guys for all your great support and educating me on the world that is the press.
So I just thought I'd offer a couple of comments after working the counter-ISIL issue set since -- well, since a long time ago. I thought I'd offer a few concluding comments just on my takeaways.
I think first is that momentum and simultaneous pressure are required to succeed against this target. The military has done a fantastic job at furthering that, but we have learned through many, many years that unless there's simultaneous pressure across multiple ends of their flank, they just have the ability to disappear and pop up somewhere else. We've all learned that since 9/11 and I think I've -- I've had that affirmed for me through our operations the importance of simultaneous pressure.
We continue to make really good progress, and I think right before I came in here, we got the quick report that the Iraqi security forces have progressed all the way to that Nineveh Governance Building, the provincial council building, and hoisted the Iraqi flag above it. That's the seed of the government for Nineveh Province. Those of you who know Iraq very well, that's a place you may have visited. It's both a symbolic victory and a significant operational victory, so thrilled to see that the success continues and we've got that momentum that's so required.
The other lesson -- we've talked about this before -- is that working by, with and through local partners, the Iraqi security forces, it's not just for our health. It's because we've learned that you need to go through those partners in order for the success to stick.
Working by, with and through partners often means that we work at their speed. And sometimes we hear the echoed comment, "Why aren't we moving faster? Why isn't this done already?" and that's because we want it to stick.
And I just wanted to make that point as I depart here, particularly learning lessons from the previous Iraq war. By, with and through I think has really borne out as something that has helped us make these victories stick on the ground.
Related to that is that I really believe that stabilization and governance in these areas is phase four of the military operation. It cannot be left out if you want to actually have a lasting defeat. It's something that is sometimes harder to do than the military victory but it is absolutely required.
So, something that we've worked hard with the Iraqis to do is figure out what is the plan after the military victory. And they've learned through hard experience in Tikrit, in Fallujah, in Ramadi, and now they will have that challenge ahead of them in Mosul.
And I just wanted to make the point that without that stabilization and governance plan, the job is not done.
The other thing I've learned -- and many of you have traveled with us and seen this in action -- ISIL is a global threat, so it requires a global response. We cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot do this bilaterally with just a few other countries. We need a global response.
So, we've invested heavily in global coalitions, 60-plus countries. And I feel very firmly that that will be required and a significant level of coalition engagement will be required in order to actually complete the task. And it may not just be a military lead in the future -- I hope that it won't be a military lead -- but you must have that global response.
It also requires senior leader engagement. That's why the coalition structure, the minister-level meetings that we've brought together are so important, because you need to have senior leaders at the top of their governments forcing their political systems to constantly be looking at contributions.
Right now the coalition makes up over 40 percent of the forces that we have on the ground in Iraq. We cannot do that -- we cannot do the level of effort we need without the coalition. So, I have come away with the firm belief that that is needed.
The coalition engagement continues unabated despite the transition that is going on right now. Every country has an LNO down at CENTCOM. They are living and working together. I saw the Australians yesterday. It is an engagement that we are handing off as responsibly as we can as a new team comes in here.
The -- the reason the coalition -- another reason the coalition is so important is because in this campaign versus the last war, the requirements on the ground change every six months. This is not that we have one plan sealed -- one operational set of requirements sealed and delivered that doesn't change. This campaign, and going by, with and through local partners, requires you to constantly be looking at what more do you need? What should be tweaked?
We saw this Ramadi, when we had a -- the Iraqi security forces had a really hard time with the IEDs. We needed to adjust our training, we needed to send in trainers who had an expertise on IEDs. We adjusted, we gave them that training, and then they went in.
That's the kind of flexibility on the ground that I've always said is a strength even when people criticize it as sort of adjusting the strategy regularly. That to me is a strength, not a weakness.
And then going forward, you know, we -- the Middle East is a complicated place, and for the Department of Defense, the counter-ISIL campaign has been our primary effort in the region. And even as regional policies change, I really think that the counter-ISIL campaign must be the North Star. And a new administration is coming in, they may decide to do something very different, but making sure we maintain focus on the counter-ISIL campaign first I think is absolutely critical to maintaining the level of pressure on the organization.
So let me stop there and happy to take your questions.
MR. COOK: (Off mic)
Q: Elissa, on your point about the speed of operations being governed somewhat by the pace by local partners, in his testimony yesterday, General Mattis mentioned that he would see accelerating operations in Raqqa. I'm wondering what would stand in the way of doing that -- why you haven't done that already, what are the limitations there?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah, so I think that we have worked hard to accelerate the campaign and we've been very open with you all when we have done that. And as the secretary and the chairman have said, everything that we've asked the president for, he's given us. So we are asking for the things that are needed on the ground.
I can't suppose what the -- General Mattis is particularly thinking of or what ideas that he has. All ideas are great, so I think that's -- that is a good thing. But you know, our campaign is deeply tied to supporting the local forces on the ground, so as the chairman said the other day, when they accelerate, we accelerate. When they need a minute to reset, you see the quieter period in our air campaign.
So, you know, I think it's always good to be reflecting on what more we can do, but I -- I do not feel like we've been held back in any way from accelerating the campaign to the greatest extent possible.
Q: So is it possible under circumstances to accelerate the attack on Raqqa or are you saying it's just not possible?
MS. SLOTKIN: On Raqqa?
MS. SLOTKIN: So our commanders have a plan. You know that we're in the beginning -- or we're in the middle actually of isolation of Raqqa, and that's going well. They have a plan that I believe is pushing to the limit what we can do on intensifying that campaign. But you know, all ideas are going to be on the table, but I believe we have in place a plan right now that it moves as fast as the local forces on the ground are able to move.
MR. COOK: Courtney?
Q: Thank you for doing this, by the way. Thank you for your willingness to engage with the media. It's not always common people in your position.
On Syria still, can you just talk a little about the -- like the increasingly complicated relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, specifically with regard to Syria? What does the Russian involvement specifically with al-Bab do to the situation? Do you see it actually plausible that the U.S. will provide more support or any support, frankly, to Turkey, specifically with regards to al-Bab or do you see that becoming more of a Turkish and Russian effort there?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah, so you know, we are engaged on an hourly basis with the Turks on counter-ISIL campaign in Syria. We have a liaison team that's resident in Ankara. They are engaging every single day on the full spectrum of coalition support to the campaign. You know that we've done everything from air support, surveillance, we've had to forces on the ground helping and advising. So the -- the full suite of coalition support is there and that's something we talk about every day with the Turks.
The -- you know, we have talked with them about al-Bab. They know that we are in that conversation with them and there's a whole suite of things that we're talking about providing. I don't want to get into the details, that's part of our private conversation with the Turks. But the -- the -- I don't see al-Bab as radically different than other places in Syria where we're -- we've actively worked with the Turks.
Now, the Russians are there, and so that -- that definitely is an important factor. But we have, over the past I guess it's now almost 18 months, figured out how to work and keep ourselves safe with all the aircraft that are -- that are flying in that airspace. Obviously, with the coalition that's very easy. And with the Russians, we've worked out procedures that help keep us safe.
So those kinds of things are still working, they're still functioning, including on al-Bab. I don't think al-Bab signals some new change in something. I think that -- that wherever there's ISIL, we want to counter that and we are in support of that. So --
Q: But -- but the Turks have been pretty open about how they want to take al-Bab and then move northeast towards Manbij to take Manbij, which in the U.S. view, has already been cleared of ISIS.
So is that an impediment? Is there some -- is in -- I know you won't talk about any specifics. But with -- is there some -- is that sort of a stopping point for the U.S., the U.S. will not provide any help to the Turks for al-Bab unless they say they won't go to -- on to Manbij? Or is there -- is there -- what -- I guess, if the U.S. keeps saying they've been offering help to the Turks and the Turks are -- are having a tough fight in al-Bab, why are they not accepting it? And they why have they accepted help from the Russians?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah. So again, I'm not going to get into the back and forth of the conversation. I will just tell you we are all about hitting ISIL where there is ISIL. If there's not ISIL, that's not our mandate. So that is a -- an important distinction. We have always made it in any kind of conversation we've been having with any ally on Syria. That continues. But I am not aware of any conditionality, any kind of quid-pro-quo.
We are having those conversations and there is support that's being provided. And I just -- I can't get into the details of the -- the back and forth. And we don't want that conversation to be happening via the press, to be honest.
Q: Is this support provided from the U.S. to the Turks, you mean?
MS. SLOTKIN: There are -- of course there is support, yes.
Q: Specifically to al-Bab though?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yes.
Q: Thank you.
MR. COOK: Idrees?
MS. SLOTKIN: Sorry?
Q: What support has been provided? Because I think we've heard that -- that there's been one sort of flight -- over-flight or show of force. Has that happened again? Is there ISR going on? I mean, what's happened in the past in al-Bab for Turkey?
MS. SLOTKIN: So, again, we have the -- these liaison teams who are working on a daily basis with the Turks. So obviously they're having conversations about al-Bab, about strategy and approach. We have provided some ISR support on al-Bab. We have -- in areas north of there, as you know, provided ground forces and the whole suite of -- of air support.
So those are the kinds of things that we're talking about sort of on an hourly basis with the Turks.
Q: Are you dropping munitions in al-Bab?
MS. SLOTKIN: I am not aware that we have, no.
MR. COOK: Yes, Tara?
Q: Thanks, Elissa.
Have you been meeting with the transition team? And if so, what have -- to the extent you can share with us, what have you been advising them on like the next steps ahead for the war on ISIS?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah, so I don't want to get into the details of those conversations, but we have been meeting with the transition team. They've been very open. The secretary -- I mean, from the president on down, we were given guidance to do as open and transparent and healthy a transition as possible. I was part of that transition when it went from Bush to Obama. So it's part of our -- our responsibility here and we -- I feel very positive that we've been living up to it.
As you can imagine, they've been asking about the big issues, the big defense and security issues that are in my area of responsibility. They've been open, they've been interested and -- and we have been giving them our best policy advice based on our experience, but that's the level of the detail I feel comfortable going into.
Q: Okay. And then one more. You know, in the two years or so under Secretary Carter, are there specific actions where there was a lesson learned? Like for example, the first generation of Syria train and equip, were there lesson learned from that that applied to the -- to the fight now?
MS. SLOTKIN: Lessons learned the hard way, is that what you mean?
Q: Yeah, exactly.
MS. SLOTKIN: I will say I learned a lot from the operations that took place around Tikrit. That was some of the -- the first time where we had the Iraqis launching an operation to retake an important city and needed our support. We figured out how to work in real time to provide the local forces on the ground with the support that they needed and then work through some of the really difficult issues of stabilization and getting people back in that city.
That was the first time we saw in real time how important it was to have Iraqis in charge of getting people back into their homes. And I was -- I was very proud that, you know, a year later, you have the majority of the city is back. But in those early days, it became abundantly clear how critical it was to have Iraqis in charge of that messaging, Iraqis in charge of getting people safe passage back into the city. So I learned a lot of lessons from that and I think the Iraqis did too.
You know, listen, every operation -- we've talked about the importance of flexibility, and you know, I -- obviously, Syria train and equip is something that was a very public problem, but we learned a lot from it. We learned a lot about vetting, about how to run a program, how to think about who was going to be the right folks to go back in and we've learned from it and we've improved from it. But you know, every campaign I think learns from things that don't go as well as you'd like.
MR. COOK: Yes, Laurent?
Q: Coming to -- to the situation in al-Bab, the Russians have said that they have signed an agreement with the Turks on the coordination for strikes in al-Bab. Have you -- have the Turks informed you about that agreement? And do you think it's a positive step in the fight --
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah --
Q: -- that is going on?
MS. SLOTKIN: So I did see -- I did see that and I -- to be honest with you, on a policy level, I have -- I had not heard that, but on a military level, we're checking to see if folks have seen a copy of it or have -- are aware of it, confirming that it's true.
Honestly, when I saw the reports, I was pleased because I know how important our MOU has been to safety negotiations. I negotiated that with the Russians and we both, I think, lived up to it in good faith and it's helped keep -- keep our pilots safe. You know, we are operating in historically close distances and we needed a structure, and that structure has worked. We've also learned from moments of tension that we've had.
But if -- if the Turks and the Russians have such an agreement, I think that's a positive thing. Anything that helps promote transparency and safety is better than not.
MR. COOK: Missy?
Q: I have two questions. Hi.
Can you talk a little bit about the tension between trying to build up a force in Syria to do the Raqqa operation that, you know, is capable enough and -- and available to do an operation in the near-term, you know, with the YPG and then wanting it to have a sufficient number of Arabs so that you don't exacerbate the sort of long-term ethnic tensions?
And then the questions on Iraq is can you just talk a little bit about the stabilization and governance plans for post-Mosul? Because it hasn't gone, you know, entirely smoothly in some of the other places.
MS. SLOTKIN: Sure.
So on Syria, I mean, the local forces there, you know, I think we -- this -- this concept that we all banked on, frankly, the snowball effect of success breeding success and success breeding additional recruits who are interested in working with you, I think that has borne out in Syria. And you know, our numbers are somewhere around 50,000 for the SDF, for the Syrian Democratic Forces. That's a big number and that is not the number it was a year ago. And the theory of the case that as you liberate new areas for ISIL -- people did not like living under ISIL and they volunteer.
So we have seen that borne out, and even since the Manbij operations, frankly, we've seen a number of more -- a significantly larger number of Arabs come into the fight. So I think it's about 50 percent at this point is sort of Arab-Turkoman, the whole host of other folks besides the Kurds, and I think that's a pretty healthy number given the importance of the coming fight in Raqqa, which is an Arab town.
So you have to be conscious of it, you have to work on it every single day, but I think that theory, the case that success breeds success, is -- has borne out.
Q: Does Manbij, like the aftermath of Manbij, make you worried because there have been some tensions there about who's in control and stuff?
MS. SLOTKIN: You know, I think, again, it just sort of hits on my governance point. I mean, that's -- tension comes when people don't know who's going to be in charge and how they're going to govern. So that's the importance of being transparent about those kinds of things.
So I'm not worried. I think that people on net absolutely prefer the SDF to ISIL and I think we've seen that borne out. And what they're concerned about, which there is a legitimate concern, is who's going to be in charge and how are they going to incorporate my views, my concerns, and I think that's natural and I think that has to be addressed. But I don't think those concerns are greater than their concerns over living under ISIL.
On the Iraq -- on stabilization and governance there, so you know, the -- the process that I think the Iraqis have learned from experience that works is as areas are liberated and cleared, particularly of IEDs, then the Iraqi government sends in people with a large inject of cash and support for local clean-up and kind of rehab projects, get people working, get people, you know, getting some income and then relying on the -- the elected councils from that area to put together a bit of a stabilization plan.
That worked in a number of other Iraqi cities and I think that is the approach that they are taking in Mosul. Mosul is obviously much larger, so it's a much more important and difficult task, but at least they've had the experience of multiple other cities to go with.
The governance issue, which in -- in -- in our (parlance, stabilization is kind of the sort of more short and medium-term, where as governance is sort of the big what is the long -- more longer-term way forward. Those are very much the really tough work that the Iraqi government must do. Some of the fundamental tensions that have existed since 2003, they are borne out in things like governance, so they're very difficult and they will require the highest levels of the Iraqi government to solve those issues.
And I think the good news is, Prime Minister Abadi, President Barzani, they know the importance of getting this right. They are motivated to try and solve it and they have the cooperation -- the unusual cooperation, frankly, and positive cooperation of the Mosul campaign as a backdrop for that important political work they're going to have to do.
MR. COOK: (Off mic)
Q: Thanks for doing this.
So, at the top you said that the pace of the campaign is dictated largely by the by, with and through component and, you know, you're going as fast as you can per the local forces.
How worried are you personally that there is going to be this new pressure to energize, to speed up and increase the tempo of the campaign? And it could actually ultimately -- could it have deleterious effect? Could it slow things down where the pace goes beyond that of the local forces?
MS. SLOTKIN: I guess because our uniformed military is not transitioning, because it's the same leaders on the ground, here in the building and I've been hearing their best military advice for years now on this, I am not -- that is not a concern of mine that we're going to get ahead of the local forces.
I think that our -- particularly the -- the air campaign is so deeply tied to the movement of the forces on the ground that I have a hard time understanding how we would get so far ahead.
Now, will we continue to take unilateral strikes to go after key ISIL leaders? Absolutely. But we're doing that now.
So, our military has developed a plan that I believe in and I just don't -- I'm having a hard time seeing how it would get so radically ahead of the local forces.
Q: Does that mean that you don't really -- you don't necessarily see, like, a big increase coming from the -- you know, despite what we're hearing here in Washington, you don't necessarily see, like, a sudden new increase in --
MS. SLOTKIN: I just don't know what the new team has in mind.
But I think -- I guess I would have -- I would have some questions about what exactly are you striking if you just launched a big campaign?
I -- I would -- I've just been learning from our military how deeply tied the air campaign is to the local movements on the ground, so I -- I just -- I would have some questions about, what is the effect you're going for?
MR. COOK: (Off mic)
Q: I want to get back to what you were talking about before about the safety MOU. We spoke to some aviators out at Al Udeid who were talking about close calls with Russian aircraft. Because you did help set up that MOU, I was wondering if you thought there was room to expand on that agreement and whether or not you thought there was a need to expand on it.
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah. So I think that we've done a lot of work. You know, we wrote the MOU -- I believe it was October of '15, is when we finished it, and -- right when the -- the Russians came into Syria. And since then, we've done a lot of work together. I mean, we've learned a lot of things about how to operate.
Some things are very basic, like just making sure the pilots can communicate with ease. Sometimes it's understanding each other and making sure there's transparency on what they're doing versus what we're doing.
And we have constantly improved upon that document since we started. So, I'm in total favor of, as necessary, in order to keep all these guys safe, to expand upon it as needed. Absolutely.
MR. COOK: (Off mic)
Q: I wanted to ask you about -- thanks for doing this by the way -- post-Mosul. I think a lot of people are probably under the impression that once Mosul is finished that, you know, that's the end of the caliphate in Iraq and so forth. But there are in fact more battles to be had, especially in western Iraq. And so, what is the enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, as far as what you're seeing now, what this building is seeing in this administration?
I'm sure that's probably something the incoming administration has been concerned about as well.
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah. Yeah.
And I think there -- that question will have to be put to the next team.
But honestly, it will be up to the Iraqis. I mean, they -- just like the last time around, they will have to give us their sense of what is of interest to them in the long term.
I think the prime minister has been pretty open about the need at least, you know beyond Mosul, we are going to need a strong coalition presence, because the fight is not done.
But in terms of the long-term disposition, it's just an inherently Iraqi question.
Now, will the next team have to make a recommendation? Of course.
And my feeling is that some sort of relationship with the United States over the long-term is a positive thing. That doesn't mean it looks like what it looks like today.
But I think, again because of the lessons we've learned on meeting a lasting defeat, this is not something that's a short-term conversation. We have a -- we have a ways to go still.
Q: Is the U.S. preparing for a long presence in Iraq in places like Al Asad and these other bases where we have numbers of America troops?
MS. SLOTKIN: I wouldn't describe it that way, no.
Q: Where do you see the next battles?
MS. SLOTKIN: Well, I think -- I mean, all you do is look at a map and that, sort of, inkblot chart that -- that is always out there and where is ISIL? They are in western Iraq and that border needs to be reestablished.
I mean, this is -- this is an issue of Iraqi sovereignty. And right now we have some areas that still remain an open -- you know, an open place, an open plane. And we've seen ISIL in the past exploit that. We are trying to cut that off. The Iraqis are -- are very focused on how do we get to the border after Mosul. And I think that to me is where I will be watching from the sidelines, as the -- you know, you go up the valley and -- and try to reestablish some sort of traditional border.
Q: (Off mic) Mosul having to be held at that point?
MS. SLOTKIN: Well, that's why stabilization and governance is going to be so critical, because they need forces to be shifted around Iraq and to focus on other battles. And so -- and I think the prime minister gets this intimately, that he does not want Iraqi forces -- Iraqi army forces in the downtown area. He knows that that is not healthy. And that's a great thing.
But you need to have enough police forces, hold forces, and the -- the city needs to be stable enough that other forces can be moved to other battles. And that's why stabilization is so critical, because if you're -- if things are unsettled, then they can't go on to finish the fight.
MR. COOK: We have time for probably one or two more.
Q: (Off mic)
Forgive me if this has been asked, but in your role, has there been much discussion of what impact keeping 3,000 to 4,000 troops in Iraq after 2011 -- if we didn't pull out of Iraq -- you know the debate -- would that have had much an impact or any impact on stemming ISIL's rise in Iraq?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah. So, I think the key piece of information that's always missed in this conversation is that the Iraqis play a critical role in deciding whether any country has a presence within their borders. That's their sovereign right.
And the Iraqis at that time, their political process did not support the U.S. presence. So, whether we should have, could have, all that is -- I don't want to say it's moot, but it is -- certainly needs to be looked at as deeply affected by what the Iraqis decided at that time.
Now, we have new leadership, we have a new relationship with them, the question will still go to them, it is their country, so they will have to make that decision.
But I think that the debate on should we have, could we have, all that kind of stuff always gets -- they leave this big part out, and that's the Iraqi government and what the prime minister wanted and didn't want at that time.
Q: (inaudible) -- U.S. troops -- (inaudible).
MS. SLOTKIN: The political system could not support, at that time, an enduring U.S. presence. I -- you know, those of you who know Iraqi politics well, you can go into the details of it. But it -- the prime minister and the parliament together could not support that.
Q: So, anybody who claims that the Obama administration lost Iraq, it's an irrelevant argument unless you factor in Iraqi politics?
MS. SLOTKIN: Yeah, I think that argument is premised on the fact that we would be an occupying power into eternity; that we could just decide to be in a country without the permission of the people, and somehow that would be good for us; that our folks would be safe.
Both legally and security wise, I think that that is a misperception. And, yeah, so.
MR. COOK: All right, go ahead.
Q: Peter, are you going to still take some questions?
Q: On Syria, on the SDF, it sounds like you've had a pretty good influx of Arab and Turkmen forces. How quickly can you train them to be -- to be effective?
And then, also, this is just speculation on my part, but I would assume that the next administration might consider adding more American troops into Syria. Can you talk to why or why not maybe that would be a good idea, I guess?
MS. SLOTKIN: So, we recently announced adding more forces, so I think our views on that are -- are pretty clear. I'm not -- I can't suppose what the next administration is going to do. But we just added some ourselves. It's a natural thing to relook the campaign. That -- that does not surprise me.
In terms of -- I'm sorry, I'm forgetting your first question.
Q: How quickly can you train --
MS. SLOTKIN: Oh, train.
Q: -- this influx of --
MS. SLOTKIN: That's right.
So -- so, with any force on the ground, you -- you take in these new folks, you vet them to make sure that they're up to our new standards in terms of age and health and then also, you know, not being a terrorist list -- all those things -- and then you see what they can do.
And some folks are just -- they want to defend their town. They don't have skills and training as a -- in any military background. And some folks may have more experience, you know. But you -- you -- you need all kinds in a force that's going to take Raqqa. A force of 50,000, not everyone's on the front lines and not everyone's doing the checkpoints, you know.
So, there -- the guys on the ground, that's why we needed more forces was to engage -- more U.S. forces, we needed to engage with these guys and make sure that we were helping them as best we could with the plan for Raqqa.
MR. COOK: Do you -- on that note, I really want to wrap so we have time for other questions and you do have a hard out at the end.
Let me just -- personally, I want to thank Elissa as well, to echo Courtney's comments, for your willingness to engage with the press corps and to help me and everyone on my team explain so much of what is a very complicated fight against ISIL. And thank you for your service as well.
MS. SLOTKIN: Thank you.
Thanks, guys. Great to spend time with you. See you, thanks.
Q: Good luck.
MR. COOK: Thanks, Elissa.
Q: Peter, two questions, two different subjects.
First on China and the South China Sea, Chinese state-sanctioned media is saying that -- I think you're aware -- that the U.S. would have to wage large-scale war in the South China Sea if it wanted to prevent Chinese access to the islands it's developing. Does the Pentagon have a reaction to that from the Chinese, please?
MR. COOK: You -- I'm not aware of that particular report this morning.
I will just reiterate what we've been saying all along about the South China Sea and the -- you've heard the secretary, even yesterday, talking about this.
That we have been operating in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific for decades, the U.S. military has. We continue to believe that these disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved in a peaceful fashion through dialogue and through diplomacy. There's been court rulings to this effect that are, of course, we think significant and should be abided by claimants there.
We don't take sides in these disputes and the secretary has talked at length about a principled security network that is inclusive in the Asia-Pacific, inclusive to include China, should it be willing to abide by those principled rules that have allowed that part of the world to prosper and to flourish. We see that as an opportunity for all those participants and we will continue to fly, sail and operate everywhere international law allows, including in the South China Sea.
And we, again, call on all those claimants, all those who are part of these disputes to do what they can to reduce tensions there, including to refrain from any militarization of those features, and -- and we think that is a step that -- that all those countries could take, China included.
Q: And very quickly on another topic, the secretary's statements on Charlie Rose last night regarding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The secretary was very definitive about this. When asked about Baghdadi, the secretary said, "He moves around." That is a current statement from the secretary, much more definitive than he has been recently.
What should we take away from the secretary's statement that has led him to say Baghdadi -- that led him to say last night Baghdadi moves around?
MR. COOK: You should take from that much of what he said here in the press conference the other day, that it is certainly among the coalition's continuing efforts to target and to try and identify the location of senior ISIL leaders, including Baghdadi, and we will continue to do that.
And we -- as we continue to apply pressure, as we continue to gain territory, as we continue to recover sensitive intelligence in locations in Iraq and Syria, we're going to continue to use that intelligence and use what we learn about their movements, about their activities to try and, again, intensify the pressure, including intensify the pressure on the -- on senior ISIL leaders. And the secretary and the chairman, I think, echoed here that those leaders should be worried about their safety at this moment in time, and that includes Baghdadi.
Q: But he is saying that you know that Baghdadi's moving around now?
MR. COOK: I think -- Barbara, I think it's logical to think first of all, that given the kind of pressure we've applied and our partners on the ground have applied and the loss of territory that any ISIL leader who is not on the move and trying to -- is at risk.
And so I think it's fair to say that we anticipate that Baghdadi and other senior ISIL leaders have been moving around to try and avoid detection and they can -- undoubtedly will continue to try to do that and we will continue to try and reduce their ability to move freely and we'll continue to -- to try and track as best we can their movements and they'll know when we find them.
MR. COOK: Yes, David?
Q: The -- the head of the D.C. National Guard, Major General Schwartz, has just given an interview in which he said he's been ordered removed from his command effective one minute after noon on the 20th. Can you explain that situation?
MR. COOK: David, I -- I honestly do not know. That's the first I've heard of that report, so I'll try and find out whatever information I can. But I'm not aware of that particular situation.
Q: Could you get us an answer on that? And also, does that mean --
MR. COOK: Have you checked with the -- with the National Guard Bureau?
Q: (Off mic)
MR. COOK: Okay. Again, I'm -- this is news to me.
Q: And whether all 50 heads of National Guards in the states are -- are going to be removed as of one minute after noon?
MR. COOK: We'll try and get whatever information we can appropriate for us to speak to with regard obviously to National Guard issues.
Q: And who would've had the authority to do that?
MR. COOK: Barbara, I'm -- again, I'm trying to understand a situation I don't know about from the podium since I've been in here. And again, I can't speak to individual State Guard issues, as you all know.
Q: Most people -- (inaudible) -- think the military's immune from the transition. I recognize the Nation Guard is different from -- from active duty, but it might -- it would help if you could explain.
MR. COOK: I will do my best to try and ascertain what's happened here and the reasons behind it.
Q: Peter -- (inaudible) -- transition issue. Traditionally, the outgoing administration leaves a budget for the incoming guys and they can decide what to do with it. There's been some question as to whether the Pentagon has actually prepared a budget in any formal way or just given outlines to the incoming team.
MR. COOK: I know that as the secretary has indicated, we -- he sent the message on down to have a seamless transition, to do everything we possible -- everything possible to ensure the next team can hit the ground running, and that includes preparing information with regard to -- to the budget as well. And so, you can be sure that those responsible for the budget here have done their due diligence and have provided whatever information they could to the incoming administration.
Q: (inaudible) -- it's actually a drafted budget that could have been --
MR. COOK: I know that they have done everything that's been asked of them to prepare the next administration, including preparing numbers for them that would be useful to the next team coming in.
Q: Will Deputy Secretary Work stay in office a little longer?
MR. COOK: I'll leave that to the -- to the transition folks to speak to. And so, if we've got anything more on that, we'll let you know. But for now, any terms of any positions and staffing that they see fit to announce, I'll leave it to the transition team to talk to.
All right. Thanks, everyone. Going to come right back in here for a promotion ceremony, so nice day for us here in this room.
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