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U.S. Department of Defense

October 22, 2019

Media Availability by Secretary Esper in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Yeah, so first day Saudi Arabia. I've had a good meeting so far with the commander of Central Command, Gen. McKenzie, with our -- with our ambassador, General Abizaid, and of course, with the deputy defense minister and with the king. So it's been a very good set of meetings today; my first chance to stop here at Prince Sultan Air Base, which, you'll see, the bulk of our deployment, or much of our deployment come to, and the chance to stand here and talk to some of the soldiers from the patriot unit, the battery that's here on site defending the airfield and helping defend the kingdom from threats from the south and threats from the north. So I had a good discussion. I hope to have more conversation with the commanders and the senior NCOs before I take off here today.

Q: Could I ask a quick question. Earlier today, the Iraqi government said U.S. troops would not be allowed to stay there. They were just allowed to transit through when they're leaving northeast Syria. Do you have any comment on that? And -- and how do you, earlier last week we had talked about the troops being stationed in western Iraq.

SEC. ESPER: Well, like I said, we're going to be -- we'll reposition as they come out of northeast Syria into Iraq. You know, eventually, their destination is home. But what we've got to do is pull them out deliberately, out of northeast Syria, and make our preparations to go home from there; and I'll have that discussion tomorrow with the Iraqi defense minister about the details. But the aim isn't to stay in Iraq interminably; the aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you have any sense that there's a time limit on the amount of time that the troops can spend in Iraq at this moment?

SEC. ESPER: Oh, I think those are all details to be worked out, and much of that will happen at a much lower level, and I'll -- like I said, I'll have some of those conversations in the next day or so.

Q: And Mr. Secretary, on the -- on the Patriots, the president has said a couple of times that the Saudis were going to be paying for them. Can you give us a sense of what that might be, and where -- where the, sort of, equipment stands?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think the president has said since he took office, and I've said since I took office, the importance of burden-sharing from all of our allies and partners, whether it's -- whether it's host nation support in Japan, whether it's increased GDP from our European allies, the key is to help share the burden. In this case, the Saudis have agreed to help underwrite the operation and what we're doing here, which is not unusual, and we welcome it, and we think that it's the right thing to do.


Q: Do you know how much?

SEC. ESPER: No, I -- I -- I don't have that number right now.

Q: So you -- you'll also be asking NATO partners to contribute to air defenses and so forth in the Gulf region as part of the --

SEC. ESPER: Right.

Q: Do you -- first of all, what will be your message to them? And secondly, do you think you'll get more cooperation in that than you've gotten in the maritime area?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I'd say two things. I've already had several conversations with our NATO allies with regard to this. I've talked to the -- the French, and the Germans, and the Brits and others on the phone. I will see them this week, and several of those countries also sent their defense ministers or defense reps to a conference that was held yesterday, I think, or the day before, which -- which looks good. So that will be one of my messages, one of my objectives going into Brussels later this week is to build those conversations, and I -- I told the Saudi officials that I was planning on doing that as well.

Q: Do you think that'll be an easier sell than the maritime coalition?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think we all recognize that, you know, as the United States as I've outlined, there are three tasks here: first, help the Saudis defend themselves against Iran; secondly, deter Iranian bad behavior; and third, hold up the international rules-based order. And that continues to be the focus of our efforts here, and should be the focus of our allies and partners who can help provide assets and capabilities.


Q: Mr. Secretary, could you clarify just a couple points, please? Did the Iraqis communicate to you that they would not allow the United States to stay? And did they give a -- a time period in terms of how long they expected the transit to happen?

SEC. ESPER: No, we haven't gotten into that level of detail. Like I said, it was known that we're going to pull, as we withdraw -- withdrew forces out of northeast Syria, that we would withdraw to Iraq, and then we would be repositioned to Iraq, and then we'll figure out our next steps from there. But again, the end state is to bring the troops home, which is what the president wants to do, and -- and we'll have those conversations, those details as -- as events unfold. Like I said, we're still in the -- the early stages of a withdrawal from northeast Syria. It will take weeks, not days, and we're -- we're in many ways only days into the withdrawal. So we have time to work out these details.


STAFF: One last one, and then we have to go.

Q: You talked about the burden-sharing by the Saudis.

SEC. ESPER: Right.

Q: Can you specify when you said that they're picking part of the cost up, does that mean that they're paying for the troop deployments? And if so, what do you say to those that say that it's turning the United States military into a mercenary force?

SEC. ESPER: We're not a mercenary force. Mercenary forces do things for the pay. We're doing this for the three reasons I outlined. One is help defend our allies; second, to deter Iraq, [I mean] Iran, so we don't have increasingly bad behavior; and third, defend the international rules-based order. The fact that the Saudis are going to underwrite that is something that we expect of all of our partners and allies, whether it's Asia or Europe, is to help share the cost, share the burden of either housing, hosting our troops on their on their land or supporting them in deployments, whatever the case may be.

Q: I don't mean to be picky, but when you say "underwriting and burden-sharing" are you talking the -- is this different than just paying for the (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: This is -- this is a different way of burden-sharing. Burden-sharing takes many --

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Burden-sharing takes many forms. Burden-sharing includes having a -- spending at least two percent of your GDP on defense. Burden-sharing includes paying for bases and utilities on bases, et cetera, that you would find anywhere where we have forces forward-deployed. Burden-sharing also includes, in my view, underwriting deployments, helping offset the costs of deployments. I mean, we can go on and on. I think it's a wide menu of things that I would -- I personally put under the rubric of burden-sharing.

STAFF: All right, guys, thank you.

Q: Are you closer to a decision on the protection of the Saudi oil? Of the -- excuse me -- of the Syrian oil?

SEC. ESPER: Just what I'd left you with yesterday. You know, one step at a time.

Q: OK. Thank you.



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