On the Record Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route from Miami, Florida
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
SEC. MATTIS: Okay. So, since yesterday, went down to SOUTHCOM -- it's one of those great organizations, when you look at how we do things by, with and through others. There, you see Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, all the law enforcement agencies.
There's a general from one of the -- one of the countries down south -- Colombian brigadier who's on their staff who did a brief with me today, alongside the American officers; an ambassador sitting right there at the table -- she's assigned to SOUTHCOM. So you see the interagency and you see the integrated military, you see the international flavor of it.
So, there in our front yard, we see a pretty good -- pretty good teamwork, and -- not doing a lot of military -- purely military things, but integrating military with law enforcement, with diplomatic and security issues -- all putting together and doing a lot of humanitarian stuff. Obviously, coming out of the hurricane season's been very difficult.
So that was a good trip. I -- and then held a town hall, hear what's on the young guys' and gals' minds. They're doing good. Morale's good; we're holding strong, mission-oriented. And they've got some of their forces, of course, engaged in the -- in the hurricane relief.
The -- what else is on your mind? We -- it went well, is the bottom line. Real good, and now I've got to go back to Washington. (Laughter.)
Q: Can I ask you about Iraq and what's going on around Kirkuk? There's --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- a lot of tension. A lot of the Peshmerga forces were there. That is our Army there.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: What's -- can you give us your sense of what's happening? And do you get the -- are you worried that they're going to go back to fighting each other, now that ISIS really is getting out of the country?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. The -- what’s happened, as you know, we thought the referendum was an ill-timed political event, and that it could distract from the combined effort against ISIS.
Along what I would call the demarcation line between the Kurdish forces and the Iraq national government forces -- there's been some movement along that line.
I have not heard there's been any fighting or anything, and this is what we're trying to -- trying to tone everything down, and let's figure out how we go forward without losing our sight on the enemy, at the same time recognizing that we've got to find a way to move forward.
Geography's not going to change. They're going to be alongside each other, no matter what. So we've got to work on this. The secretary of state has the lead, but my forces are integrated among these forces, and they are working to make certain we keep any potential for conflict off the table.
But that's where we're at right now. I'm not -- there's been movement along there -- there's movement along that demarcation line, even if (inaudible) no referendum. There's been no combat that I'm aware of. But it is something that has our full attention.
Q: What's your message to them?
SEC. MATTIS: Pardon?
Q: What is your message to them?
SEC. MATTIS: It's just: everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can't turn on each other right now. We got to -- we don't want this to go to a shooting situation.
Q: Are you concerned about -- with ISIS being defeated, that these sectarian divides could rise again?
SEC. MATTIS: As ISIS goes down, it's not going -- the old problems are going to come back to the fore, is what you're saying. And these are issues that are longstanding, in some cases.
In some cases, we've made progress, and some of that progress has been eroded by the conflict of ISIS -- fighting ISIS. That's normal. So we're going to have to recalibrate, move things back to a way we can solve them politically and work them out with compromise solutions.
Q: (off mic) -- ask about the Iran briefing. The president's open now about his strategy for Iran -- basically --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- (inaudible) -- how do you see it? And are you concerned the Iranians will be more provocative? Because there's talk about being more provocative, if the president adds more sanctions -- (off mic).
SEC. MATTIS: Right now, I -- we keep an eye on the potential for more provocations from the Iranians. But right now, we've not seen that. Again, I've been with you, so I may not be current on this, but I don't -- I don't think there's been anything.
Now we always watch for this. The Iranians' destabilizing record -- from Lebanon, to Syria, from Yemen, to Afghanistan. Of course, we watch for this.
Q: Are you -- (inaudible) -- exactly are you planning on changing your posture after the speech?
SEC. MATTIS: No, right now, we are not changing our posture. We're postured against ISIS. At the same time, we're dealing with issues along the -- that -- we used to call them a disputed zone there, where the Kurdish forces are aligned with the Iraqi forces.
So far, we have not seen any turning away from the primary mission; in other words, they're holding in position right now. There's been -- there's been movement along there. I don't think it's been combat organizations engaged in a thing called "movement to contact."
When you -- when you're going into combat, you organize, and you move to contact. We have not seen that kind of movement on either side.
Q: -- broadly speaking, not just in Iraq or Syria -- broadly – no (inaudible)?
SEC. MATTIS: We watch for Iran's destabilizing movements and activities everywhere; from Bahrain, to Jordan; from southern Lebanon, against Israel, to Yemen. It's part and parcel for the way they conduct (inaudible).
Q: -- South China Sea?
SEC. MATTIS: What's that, Bill?
Q: Can I ask you about the South China Sea? The Chinese government said this week that the war ship passage through the sea was a violation of their sovereignty, and that they'd chased out the -- (off mic).
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. We -- our freedom of navigation maneuvers are not done with any kind of offensive -- for decade -- never with offensive designs. We do them in multiple areas around the world where we want to maintain freedom of navigation.
There's nothing offensive -- there's -- it's in accordance -- absolute accordance with international law, and that's why we do not get taken into any kind of international organization's hearing when we're doing freedom of -- we stay strictly in accordance with international law. So it -- there's no violation of anyone's sovereignty. Not our intent; not the reality.
Q: In Raqqa there are discussions about exfiltrating the last of the civilians. And there are some fighters -- ISIS fighters who maybe would surrender. Are you --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- would you accept their surrender --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- or total victory?
SEC. MATTIS: If they surrender, we of course accept their surrender. They're the ones who murder people. We're the good guys. But the -- right now, as the bottom drops out from underneath ISIS, more and more of them are either surrendering -- some are trying to surrender, and some amongst them -- more fanatical ones aren't allowing them to.
They're trying to stop civilians from fleeing to our lines, whether it be Iraq, in Mosul we saw this, Tal Afar, we saw it. We are seeing it now in Raqqa. We'll accept their surrender. They'll be taken in. Of course they'll be interrogated for intelligence purposes. They'll probably be detained by the SDF, or whoever -- Iraqis -- whoever's got them. There's a lot -- all these guys said they're going to fight to the death. Nah. They’re not all (inaudible).
Q: Have you been given new directions given to the Americans forces that are working for the Iraqis and the Kurds in regards to the tension near Kirkuk?
SEC. MATTIS: We are -- the Americans around Kirkuk and on the – in other words -- on the Kurdish side and on the Iraqi military side, they are -- they're all working to diffuse this to calm it down. And again so far, we did -- how long ago was -- was the referendum? A week, 10 days? You know, so far, it’s held, but we're not complacent about it, we're working on it.
Q: Have you talked to anyone to help diffuse the situation?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, I think I want to keep confidential what we're doing there, yeah.
STAFF: All right. Let's switch to off the record, guys.