Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: All right. Well, welcome, everybody. Good to see you again. Been a good day.

I'm honored to be joined by Mr. Brett McGurk. You all know him, the special presidential envoy with whom I work so closely as the Department of Defense works with and in support of our Department of State (inaudible) foreign policy.

I want to begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the sailors and the families of the USS John McCain. We obviously have an investigation underway, and that will determine what happened.

I also fully support the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson's efforts right now. He has put together a broader inquiry to look into these incidents and to determine any of the causal factors, to determine what's gong on, both immediate contributors to this incident, but also any related factors. And once we have those facts, we'll share them with you.

Q: You're referring to the Fitzgerald, sir? I mean -- together with this? Is that why you're -- used the plural, sir?

SEC. MATTIS: The chief of naval operations's broader inquiry will look at all related accidents, incidents at sea, that sort of thing. He is going to look at all factors, not just the immediate one, which will fall, rightly, under the fleet commander's investigation of what happened to his ship. This is a broader look at what is happening.

Q: Sir, sorry. Is that broader ? Seventh fleet’s investigation?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, it is. And, as we discussed Saturday, on the airplane coming out, this trip is part of the "by, with and through" effort with our allies. It is -- what we're going to do here is find how we can better support one another. It's a constant exchange of information against an adaptive enemy and a changing situation.

Jordan is a strong partner, as you know, and, in our effort to support the common security that all of us are looking for in this world, Jordan and its leadership, both military and political, are a great asset in this fight as we try to increase stability and protect our people.

Today, I did meet with General Freihat. He is the Chief of Defense of the Jordanian Armed Forces, and he is proving to be a superb leader in adapting his forces to the reality of the security situation he faces with the ISIS threat, right here on Jordan's border, having spilled somewhere around a million refuges into Jordan's society. Give you an idea of the immensity of the problem faced by this country.

I met with the king and had an excellent discussion with His Majesty. It was very informative for me. We're good allies. We support one another's efforts to bring peace and stability, here in the Middle East, and against a -- united against the terrorists. And it was a very good discussion.

I also visited our servicemen and women stationed here in the kingdom. And I also saw, working alongside them, the men and women from 20 nations that are working together against ISIS out here.

The U.S. remains committed to doing our share against ISIS, and that's our share of leading and in supporting our fellow partners. The reminder -- there are 69 nations engaged in this fight. Plus there are four international organizations; the Arab League, NATO, the European Union and INTERPOL, and with these partners and allies committed to this struggle, we will prevail.

I'd now ask Mr. McGurk to share a little bit more with you.

SPECIAL ENVOY BRETT MCGURK: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It's an honor -- I'm really honored to be here with Secretary Mattis, and also to see His Majesty, today.

So I thought I would give a few wave tops of some diplomatic initiatives that we're -- hope to reinforce our overall counter-ISIS campaign and our efforts here in the region.

So, of course, with His Majesty, today, in addition to our many bilateral issues, we also discussed the very important ceasefire initiative, which we negotiated together with Jordan and with Russia in southwest Syria.

And that ceasefire arrangement, of course, is finalized by President Trump and President Putin at Hamburg on July 7th. So we're now about six weeks into it, and it is holding quite well. The fighting has largely stopped, we're beginning to see people return to their homes. That's something that, obviously, we want to see continue.

Jordan, of course, is a founding member of our counter-ISIS coalition. They've suffered losses in this campaign. They, of course, had the tragic loss of their captain, their heroic Captain Kasasbeh, about 18 months ago, and they remain a critical partner in this -- in this overall effort to defeat ISIS.

Before joining the secretary here, about -- over the last week, I was in Saudi Arabia. I also spent a couple of days in Syria and a day in Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, some significant developments going on there, including a really historic rapprochement with Iraq. And we're very encouraged, of course, by this development.

And I had the privilege to visit the Arar border crossing with Iraq, which is opening, now, for the first time since 1990. And you can see with your own eyes about 1,200 pilgrims a day, now, coming across that crossing. And the Saudi minister of trade will be visiting Iraq, now, to discuss the commercial opening of that crossing, which actually gives Iraq access to the Red Sea, which it hasn't had in almost 30 years.

Similarly, the border crossing with Jordan, the Turaibil border crossing -- it's about a billion dollar a month commerce route that the Iraqis and Jordanians, now, are in very active discussions about opening, here, in a very short timeframe.

In Syria, spent about two days on the ground. Met, of course, with our team, and met with the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, north of Raqqa. Raqqa now is about 55 to 60 percent or so finished. It's a very difficult fight.

And it's not just a military effort. We also met with local councils and a number of tribal sheiks who are working very closely with us to defeat ISIS. And we have diplomats on the ground, working on the stabilization and humanitarian elements. It was a very encouraging visit, spent about two days there.

In Iraq, saw Prime Minister Abadi, and, of course, Prime Minister Abadi, on his orders, announced the launch of an additional campaign, now, to clear ISIS out of Tal Afar, which is really their -- the last major city that they're holding in northern Iraq. That will be a very difficult battle, but even in the first 24 hours, here, about 235 square kilometers were cleared, and it's going well.

I've just mentioned, of all the territory retaken from ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- I've mentioned this before, a couple weeks ago, but about a third of it has been retaken, really, in the last six or seven months.

And I think that's quite significant and partially due to the fact that we're moving faster, more effectively, more efficiently, due largely, in part, I think, as Secretary Mattis has discussed -- these delegations of tactical authorities from the president has really made a difference on the ground. I've seen that with my own eyes.

So it's a military and diplomatic effort, joined at the hip, and I'm honored to be here. Thank you.

SEC. MATTIS: We can take a couple questions, if you have any.

Q: Sure. Thanks.

MR. MCGURK: Hey, if I could just mention -- it's not just the United States that does not think this referendum should be held, really. Every member of our coalition believes that now is not the time to hold this referendum. So we've made that -- we've made our position on that very clear.

We're also encouraged, of course, by a dialogue that's taking place between the leadership of the Kurdistan region and the government of Iraq. When I was in Baghdad, the Kurdistan region had a delegation in Baghdad. I met with them, and obviously, we're very encouraged by that dialogue. That's something that we very much support.

We believe these issues should be resolved through dialogue under the constitutional framework and that a referendum, at this time, would be really potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign. We've mentioned that before. And so we've made that position very clear, but we are hopeful that this dialogue that's going on now can deliver some results.

Q: I would like to ask a follow-up to Bob's question on the campaign in the Euphrates river valley. There's a deconfliction arrangement that's been worked out with the Russians for -- and the Syrian government, via the Russians, for south of Tabqa, south of Raqqa.

There seems to be no such deconfliction arrangement for what would happen in Deir Ez-Zor, Mayadin, the -- those eastern parts of Syria. What needs to be worked out diplomatically with the Russians and, through the Russians, with the Syrian government to make -- to prosecute this campaign in the MERV?

SEC. MATTIS: The deconfliction --

Q: And prevent the forces from converging that you don't want to converge with.

SEC. MATTIS: -- well, it's a good question, because the forces are more -- in closer proximity together as they close in on ISIS's last stand. In this case, the deconfliction line basically runs down the river. It has been holding throughout this time.

There is constant communications, notwithstanding any comments that have been made to the contrary, that -- deconfliction communications have maintained a steady drumbeat day in and day out. If they need to go north of the line to get a target they're pursuing, they would call us first, and if we have no one there, we would deconflict that.

As you know, we are operating south of that line, in Raqqa. And so we've worked that out with the Russians. We do deconfliction. We do not coordinate with them, but we deconflict with them.

And we do not do that with the regime. It is with the Russians -- is who we're dealing with. We continue those procedures right on down the Euphrates river valley.

Q: So just to -- to -- just to clarify, so, as things stand now, you feel you have an adequate arrangement where you -- the SDF and the American-led coalition that supports them would stay north of the river, and the other guys will stay south of the river, and that will serve you well enough, through the -- through the campaign in the MERV?

SEC. MATTIS: The deconfliction arrangement is there. What it comes down to is the execution of it on a day-by-day basis. That's the complex part, so far, it is working, but, every day, it's more and more work, as we come closer and closer together.

Q: Is -- you mentioned the regime forces. Has the positioning of the regime forces affected the coalition's progress against ISIS?

SEC. MATTIS: Not yet.

Q: Okay. And then we -- obviously, the Tal Afar operation has kicked off. Do you expect Hawija to be the next city to be liberated? And can the Iraqi forces hold both of those operations concurrently?

SEC. MATTIS: Now, we're not going to discuss future operations, and we just prefer not to give the enemy that sort of information.

Q: On the second question, though, do you believe that Iraqi forces are capable of conducting two operations at one time?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.


Q: Brett, I'd like to ask a quick follow up on stability in Iraq. Hawija's under ISIS control. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of displaced people in Iraq.

There are PMF in Sunni areas, and Sunni groups do not feel that this is the -- the next upcoming months is a good time for there to be an election in Iraq. They've raised concerns about whether these would truly be free and fair elections, and just how they would even be carried out.

Does the United States believe that the Iraq elections should go ahead over the next six months, in the next year? Or do you think it might be prudent to defer them, just because of the security situation?

MR. MCGURK: So, according to the constitutional calendar, the elections should be held by about the end of May or so, of next year. So that's quite a time from now.

The parliament, as we speak -- I saw the speaker of parliament yesterday -- they're working through their election law, which they hope to pass as early as this week.

So they're setting up the mechanics of the election. And obviously this is a -- really a matter for the Iraqis, but we think the election should be held on the constitutional timetable.

Q: I have just a quick question on Mosul. Of course, long before the battle for -- to retake Mosul, there was questions about governance of Mosul. And that was, of course, what -- a large part of what led to the problem in the first place.

But where do you stand, right now, on ensuring that there's -- there's proper government -- governance of Mosul?

SEC. MATTIS: Well, first of all, once it's liberated, it's a matter of getting security. There are still pockets of enemy and diehards and sleepers who are left there. So it's still working the security issue.

Once you have security, then it's a matter of local councils that are -- that have come together, and restoring proper governance there. It takes time, frankly, and it's not going to happen overnight. It's another city that was devastated, especially the west side that was the most recently liberated.

So it's going to be a heavy lift for them, going forward. But the proper governance would involve local representation in their day-to-day lives.

Q: It didn't work well last time. I'm just wondering, what would be different this time?

MR. MCGURK: So, if you look at East Mosul, which was liberated about six months ago, we have -- bulk of the population's back in their homes; 350,000 boys and girls are back in school, according to U.N. statistics. We have hundreds of stabilization projects which have gotten the water back and running into some of these sites.

And that's been done because the center government, working with governor of the provincial council, through the U.N., with coalition resources, has really delivered some results in east Mosul.

As the secretary said, west Mosul is different. The battle there just culminated and the destruction to the central city is far more extensive, mainly because we had hundreds of foreign fighters who were wearing suicide vests who fought until, you know, the last fingernail.

So it will take longer in west Mosul. But the formula of the central government, working through the -- through the governor, with the U.N., the coalition resources -- and I would also say, we're focused only on, as Secretary Tillerson said a number of times, stabilization.

And that's the basics: demining, humanitarian aid, water, electricity -- the basics to get people back in their homes. And in Iraq, in the territory that's been liberated, 2 million Iraqis have returned to their homes. These are almost all Sunni Arabs.

Historically, in -- that rate of returns is almost unprecedented in a post-conflict environment, and it's because we've gotten the stabilization piece.

We're doing it differently than we used to before. It's really locally owned, and the trend lines are fairly good. But Mosul's a very difficult environment, particularly the western part, so this will just take time.

SEC. MATTIS: I'd point out on this that, so far, we have not been constrained financially with the recovery effort. So far, we've had -- from the international donors, we've had enough money to do what needed to be done. So if we can keep that going, we can recover from what ISIS did elsewhere. (inaudible) -- thank you.

Q: Yes, I was wondering about -- we have -- Raqqa's halfway liberated. Mosul is liberated. I was wondering if there was any information or intelligence that's come out of those operations that have given you a more fulsome understanding of the group and what, maybe, plans are, post-caliphate.

SEC. MATTIS: We've gotten a lot -- significant amounts of intelligence as a result of the fall of these places. So much is still being analyzed, and some of the more -- from the more recent battles.

And the short answer is yes, it has helped us to identify at least some of their aspirations. We'll see if they turn into plans and if they turn into reality.

MR. MCGURK: I just -- every time we do an operation, we plan what we call the sensitive site exploitation. So, in Manbij, it was 10 terabytes of information, Raqqa, now, very similar. And we have systems to process it, analyze it, and then, most importantly, share it with members of our coalition.

So if we find information about foreign fighters from a certain country, we go through proper procedures to make sure it's shared. And then key members of our coalition -- as Secretary Mattis mentioned, Interpol -- and we built a database, now, of 19,000 known ISIS, you know, foreign fighters, sympathizers. And that's shared, of course, across our coalition.

So it is a -- it is a very comprehensive campaign, militarily, on the ground, taking territory back; collecting information; processing it; and then building the database and the system so it can be shared and acted upon. And certainly, in Raqqa, we're learning an awful lot.

Q: Can you say who's leading the fight on behalf of ISIS in Raqqa? Who's their commander, what is their command structure there? Are they all foreign fighters? Has the rest of the ISIS leadership moved out?

MR. MCGURK: It seems, from the information we have, that, of the 2,000 or so ISIS fighters that are left, bulk of them are foreign fighters.

Q: Most, did you say?

MR. MCGURK: Bulk.

Q: Bulk.

MR. MCGURK: Meaning most. Certainly most.

Q: Have you captured or killed and identified any American foreign fighters?

MR. MCGURK: Not that I'm aware of.

SEC. MATTIS: I don't believe -- you mean in the Raqqa fight, or recently --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: In Raqqa or Mosul, or anywhere in the recent fighting.

SEC. MATTIS: I don't recall any right now. I'll get back to you. Let me check, I'll get back to you.