Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook
PETER COOK: Afternoon, everybody. Hope you've all been able to get a little bit of a break here in August. Some of you look more refreshed than others, but should be a busy time for us now that the secretary's back from his own leave and a busy fall. The secretary certainly will be busy.
Going to begin with some opening comments here before I turn to your questions since it's been a while since -- since we gathered here. And I want to start with developments in the counter-ISIL fight and the transfer of authority that took place this weekend.
As you know, last summer, Secretary Carter strategically consolidated our coalition military campaign plan for Iraq and Syria under one single command, charging Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland as the overall operational commander. Under General MacFarland's leadership, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve now has momentum in the fight against ISIL and clear results on the ground.
Working with our local partners in Iraq and Syria, we have been able to degrade and methodically dismantle ISIL. Today, the barbaric group now finds itself in retreat thanks to the coalition's efforts on the ground and in the air. Its finances are in trouble, its communications are challenged and its leadership, those that have survived, find it increasingly difficult to physically move anywhere much less operate.
Secretary Carter is grateful to General MacFarland for the extraordinary job he and his entire team did in this important fight. They have served the country with skill and dedication and accelerated ISIL's ultimate defeat. The secretary knew that Lieutenant General MacFarland, with his tremendous knowledge of the region and its people, was the right man for the job last year. The secretary also has total confidence in the man now replacing General MacFarland, 18th Airborne Corps commander, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend who took command, as you know, on Sunday.
Like General MacFarland, General Townsend is familiar with the region, the players and the continued threat posed by ISIL. As a former brigade commander, he served in Iraq previously, including time in Mosul itself. That will serve him well as the coalition looks to collapse ISIL's control over that city and the group's other power center, Raqqah in Syria. He and the rest of the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters team have hit the ground running. The secretary is looking to Lieutenant General Townsend and the coalition to keep the pressure on ISIL in every way possible.
I also wanted to discuss some recent events in Syria and what's happening in Aleppo specifically, given the concerns about the humanitarian situation there. The recent escalation in airstrikes and ground fighting in Aleppo is of concern, of course, to the United States, as it's only bringing more suffering to an already deplorable humanitarian crisis. The Syrian regime aided and abetted by its allies, Russia and Iran, is driving the escalation with its indiscriminate bombing campaign.
Bombing densely populated urban areas, interrupting water and electrical services and maiming civilians is only adding fuel to Syria's civil war and does nothing to degrade extremist groups which was of course Russia's original reason for its military intervention in Syria.
By intervening militarily in this civil war Russia assumed enormous responsibility for Syria's future. It is long past time for Russia to protect civilians, guarantee open access for humanitarian agencies and create conditions conducive for a political transition, as Secretary Carter has repeatedly stated.
The United States remains engaged with Russia on all of these issues, but as our colleagues at the State Department have made clear, we will not commit indefinitely to discussions that do not lead to results. Contrary to recent claims, we have not finalized plans with Russia on potential coordinated efforts. Serious issues must first be resolved before we can implement the steps Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov discussed in Moscow last month. We are not there yet and the regime and Russia's recent actions only make it harder to consider any potential coordination.
Finally, on behalf of Secretary Carter and the entire Department of Defense, I wanted to reiterate our strong condemnation this weekend's cowardly terrorist attack in Turkey. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones in the Gaziantep bombing and the many injured. This was a depraved act targeting innocent civilians at a wedding party.
We will continue to stand with Turkey, a vital NATO ally and a key member of the counter-ISIL coalition, as we confront the terrorism threat facing our countries in the civilized world. If this was the work of ISIL, it only highlights once again the need for all of us to accelerate the group's demise.
And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Bob?
Q: Peter, question for you about all the recent incidents in northeastern Syria where U.S. aircraft responded to a couple of incidences of Syrian air forces operating in the Hasakah area.
Could you explain kind of what the -- is there a continuous combat air patrol being flown now over that area in protection of the U.S. personnel who are on the ground around there? And does this amount to essentially a no-fly zone for the Syrian air force?
MR. COOK: Well, Bob, we've said repeatedly that we will protect coalition forces as needed in Syria, and I think we demonstrated that last week. And I'm not going to get into the specific of our air operations, but we will continue to do that. We will use our air power as needed to protect coalition forces in our partnered operations.
And -- and we haven't had a -- we haven't had a repeat of that in the last few days. And again, as I think you heard, my colleague Captain Davis made clear last week we would continue to advise the Syrian regime to steer clear of those areas.
Q: Can you just say whether there are combat air patrols that are being flown continuously over that area to keep them out?
MR. COOK: I'm just going to make clear that we're going to continue to provide the air support we need for our coalition forces and our partnered operations to make sure that they are as safe as possible in Syria.
Q: Not a no-fly zone?
MR. COOK: It's not a no-fly zone, but I would just again reiterate what you heard from Captain Davis last week and which you'll hear from me again, that the Syrian regime would be wise to avoid areas where coalition forces have been operating. And we will continue to defend them and if need be we will send aircraft again to defend our forces.
Q: And also apply to defending allied Syrian democratic forces that are on the ground there?
MR. COOK: We will continue to support coalition forces and our partnered operations on the ground in Syria as we've said previously.
Q: Just a follow up on Bob's question: Is Russia being used as a conduit to communicate to the Syrian air force to back off or is there direct communication to the Syrian air force from the U.S. side?
MR. COOK: Yes, I think as we pointed out last week, we did engage through our memorandum of understanding with the Russians specifically after that instance to have them communicate to the Syrian regime our concerns about what had happened and the fact that it shouldn't happen again.
We will continue to use that as a resource given the Russian relationship with the Syrians. But we are also prepared to speak, engage directly, communicate directly if needed, in order to avoid these kinds of situations in the first place.
Our goal is not to have this kind of situation happen in the first place.
Q: (inaudible) -- communication through Russia to the Syrians or just to U.S. aircraft for?
MR. COOK: My understanding is there were efforts to communicate between the aircraft, but when our aircraft arrived in the area, the Syrian aircraft departed.
Q: Separate topic?
MR. COOK: Sure.
Q: Today U.S. forces in Afghanistan announced that 100 U.S. troops were sent to Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province to help secure that area. But less than I think two weeks ago or a little over two weeks ago General Nicholson had briefed us that Helmand Province was largely cleared and that the 215th Corps had done a good job under, with the advise and assist of U.S. forces.
So it's a little confusing how there has been a lot of progress made and Helmand was largely cleared, but all of a sudden Lashkar Gah is in a state of -- I guess in a threatened state which requires additional U.S. forces be sent there.
MR. COOK: I don't recall General Nicholson's exact description of the situation but let me tell you first of all what these troops are doing.
As you said, about 100 troops, an expeditionary advisory package, in total. They've been sent first to provide train, advise and assist to the police zone headquarters there in Lashkar Gah, and second to provide force protection for those actually doing the advising. So some of these forces are there to protect those forces, and they were all done under the Resolute Support mission.
They've gone down there to assist the police zone headquarters and their leadership team with a focused train, advise and assist mission, looking largely at the force protection issue. And this will not be a permanent presence. They will return to their base at some point.
Getting back to your larger question about Helmand Province, I think what General Nicholson has made clear is that there still are challenges in Afghanistan, there are dangerous places in Afghanistan. But we continue to support Afghan forces that have shown progress and resiliency in recent months, including in Helmand Province, and this reflects again our support for their efforts.
And there are going to be setbacks along the way. I think General Nicholson was pretty clear about that. But in terms of the ANDSF forces and their performance, I think he feels good about where they are. But certainly there's room for improvement and there are going to be setbacks along the way.
Part of that effort will be again to reinforce them in areas, particularly in Afghanistan, where they have seen some setbacks, and Helmand’s one of them.
Q: Could you explain to us what has changed in the rules of engagement with Syrian regime?
You're asking -- you're saying that the Syrian regime is being asked to stay -- or to avoid flying over the areas where the SDF and the Kurds are. In another way, you are putting a no-fly zone inside Syria?
MR. COOK: Joe, what I'm doing is, sorry, go ahead.
Q: Explain to us, what's the difference between asking the Syrian regime to avoid flying over Hasakah and Manbij, and applying a no-fly zone?
MR. COOK: Sure. I just, it's consistent with where we've been in the past.
We've said repeatedly that we would defend coalition forces on the ground, for one. And we would continue to defend our partnered operations.
And that is an area in which we've been active. We've been clear about that. And so, we're going to continue to defend our forces in that area. We're going to tell the Syrians and anyone else who may threaten our forces in that area, we will defend them. And they have a right to defend themselves as well.
Q: You think the Syrian regime has the right to fly over its territory?
MR. COOK: We are fighting ISIL. We have, again, forces on the ground supporting our partnered forces who are engaged in that fight. And we will defend our forces.
Q: Last question: The policy that you are talking about, in Hasakah and in Manbij, this could be implemented on other areas, for example? In Aleppo, for example?
MR. COOK: We will continue to defend our forces in our fight against ISIL, as you know. And we will -- as our forces move in Syria and continue their partnered operations, we will do what we need to do to protect our forces.
As you know, we have not been operating in all parts of Syria. And so, there are limitations to where we're going because our forces are not everywhere in Syria.
Q: Have you been in touch with the Syrian regime through third parties, for example? And what's the response, what -- (inaudible) --
MR. COOK: As I mentioned, we communicated through the Russians to explain our concerns about what happened last week. And we think that was communicated effectively.
Q: And they are okay with that?
MR. COOK: You'll have to check with the Syrian regime.
Q: Thanks, Peter.
With the Kurdish YPG fighting Syrian forces on the ground, is there -- do the U.S. -- will the U.S. forces on the ground also be supporting the SDF against the regime on the ground?
And if not, is there any concern that U.S. forces on the ground might get pulled into the fight between the YPG and Syrian forces?
MR. COOK: Kristina, as you know, our fight and our focus is with ISIL. And we'll continue to conduct ourselves on the ground in those partnered operations focused on ISIL. And we're going to continue to take the steps that we need to make sure that our forces remain as safe as possible in that effort.
And they will continue to stay focused on ISIL, as they have been in the last few days, even after this event.
Q: (inaudible) -- via air against the Syrian regime --
MR. COOK: I'm not gonna get into everything we are doing to protect our forces on the ground.
But the one way we can do that is to advise people to stay away from our forces, and that is what we've done in this instance.
Q: Just a couple of things to circle back.
You said a minute ago that you were going to protect partnered operations on the ground. So straight up, is the warning to the Syrian regime to keep its aircraft out, also include keep them away from your SDF partners on the ground, or just U.S. special, U.S. troops?
(inaudible) -- protection -- you said partnered operations, so does it extend to you are going to protect the SDF from the Syrian air force?
MR. COOK: We've been clear, Barbara, from the start, that we are -- our focus is on ISIL.
The forces that are taking the fight to ISIL and partnered with us, will enjoy the support of the United States and --
Q: So are you going to protect SDF?
MR. COOK: We're going to continue -- we're not going to get into our rules of engagement, Barbara -- we're going to continue to support, and protect, and provide that military support for our coalition forces and our partnered operations -- our coalition partnered operations on the ground.
Q: My next question is on Aleppo.
You said that, you know, the discussions -- I'm paraphrasing slightly. You said that it couldn't go on forever, right? I think those were the words you used.
MR. COOK: I think.
Q: So -- and you're not -- I think you also indicated you're just not there yet with the Russians.
So what is the -- if it can't go on forever and you're not there with the Russians, it's not a hypothetical question; you lay out that it can't go on -- these discussions can't -- you know, you're not going to wait forever. What's your answer on Aleppo?
What can you do or is the only answer if it doesn't work out with the Russian negotiations, to keep the status quo in the Aleppo situation? Is there anything else other than an agreement with the Russians, that you're not there yet, or status quo?
MR. COOK: Well, there are lots of things that could happen in Aleppo that are not -- don't require the United States. There's a lot that the regime could do, that the Russians could do to --
Q: In terms of?
MR. COOK: Well, let me be clear that the responsibility, Barbara, lies with those who are carrying out this bombing campaign. And that's right now the Syrian Regime and the Russians, and there are steps that they could take to try and ease the situation there. And I think we and our U.S. government partners have made that clear to them at every step.
We'd like to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. We'd all like to see that. And the engagement with the Russians, one of the goals of course has been to try and achieve that. And we remain -- and our colleagues at the State Department lead by Secretary Kerry -- continue to engage with the Russians to achieve exactly that end.
And the larger goal here, of course, Barbara, is to resolve the situation in Syria peacefully, to get a political resolution to something that cannot be solved militarily.
Q: But you are indicating today that you're -- the Pentagon is just not there yet on this. So --
MR. COOK: I don't think it's just the Pentagon. I think it's certainly our fellow -- our colleagues at the State Department and elsewhere who would like to see the Russians change their behavior.
Q: So what's -- right, it doesn't appear to be happening. So what's Plan B for the administration if you cannot get an agreement with the Russians and the Syrians, what's your Plan B for Aleppo?
MR. COOK: We're going to stay focused for now, Barbara, on Plan A, which is to continue to engage the Russians, continue to urge that steps be taken to ease the situation in Aleppo, the very dire situation that I think we've all seen play out on our TV screens the last couple of days.
This is a very serious situation -- a serious humanitarian situation that could be eased. And we will continue to take steps that we think are appropriate to try and achieve that.
Q: I'm sorry, can I just very quickly ask one other topic on North Korea?
With the U.S. military exercise starting now and the North Koreans, as usual, with their rhetoric about threatening attacks against the coalition and against the South Koreans, what's the assessment of this department in terms of just the usual rhetoric and you know, sort of brush it aside? Or is there anything with the North Koreans right now; their missile testing program, their nuclear program, their rhetoric that is causing you particular concern?
MR. COOK: I don't think we brush anything aside with regard to North Korea, Barbara. And we obviously watch this situation very closely.
The reason for this exercise, as you know, it's an exercise that's been in place since 1976, an annual exercise. It's to demonstrate again our commitment to the South Koreans, it's to train in terms of defensive actions that might need to be taken, and it is prudent planning on the part of our forces there and of course, the South Korean forces to make sure we're doing everything possible.
But this is -- it is an annual exercise. We have seen the rhetoric from North Korea. We've seen that rhetoric in the past, and of course, we would urge the North Koreans to do what they can to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula. That's certainly something we would welcome.
I'll go to Aaron and then move over.
Q: Hi, Peter.
Just to clarify, you said there -- these can't go on indefinitely, these discussions? So, is there a date, a rough timeline that this building says at this point to bring out discussions and find a plan B?
MR. COOK: We're not going to put a calendar deadline on it.
I will defer to Secretary Kerry, who's leading this effort very admirably in trying to move this process along. He has been -- obviously, I'll leave it to the State Department to characterize it, but has done a tireless effort to try and make this happen. And we will continue to support his efforts.
But at some point, if we do not see progress again, there's not going to be a resolution here. And we think there is an opportunity to ease the situation in Aleppo, but more importantly, Aaron, to address the wider situation. There is an opportunity for Russia to use its significant influence with the Assad regime, and we have yet to see them demonstrate a willingness to do that. And so for now, the suffering of the Syrian people continues.
Q: So -- (inaudible) -- we keep asking about no-fly zones a lot, and I'm just wondering if you could just -- for me because I'm not that smart at this stuff -- what is the difference from the podium view between a formal no-fly zone and what's been declared over the last week, which essentially seemed to be a, "Hey guys, don't fly your planes there. That's a zone you can't fly in because our guys are down there."
So, I'm just trying to understand what the difference is in this building's viewpoint.
MR. COOK: The distinction here is that we're going to defend our forces where they are.
And we're not going to tell you exactly where they are, but we have been operating in that area in particular. We made that clear to the Syrian regime last week, through our -- the Russians, through our memorandum of understanding.
We, again, would advise them to steer clear of areas where we're operating.
Q: So it's just a matter of a geographically fenced-off area versus where our forces operate?
MR. COOK: Again, it's -- the message should be clear to the Syrians that we're going to defend our people and I think we demonstrated that last week.
Q: What do you mean by "our forces"? Do you mean specifically U.S. or does that also mean the YPG?
Because it was our understanding that after that initial round of strikes by the regime last week, that the Americans left, but the U.S. continued to fly CAPs for a matter of days.
So, who -- what do you mean by "our forces"? Does that extend to the YPG? Or would we be wrong that the Americans did not leave?
MR. COOK: I'm referring you specifically to coalition forces that are on the ground. I'm not --
MR. COOK: I'm going to discuss specifics --
Q: These are non-Americans then, non-Americans, right?
Our forces that -- because you've used that term over and over and over, and I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a clarification on what you mean by "our forces." That includes non-Americans fighting with or -- you know, with the U.S., with the coalition.
MR. COOK: There are forces on the ground that we've been working with that are fighting ISIL. We'll continue to provide support to those forces.
You know, there are our own coalition forces on the ground, and we'll continue to defend those forces on the ground, particularly as they conduct their partnered operations.
Q: Because in Hasakah after the Americans left after the initial round of air strikes by the Syrians, the U.S. continued to fly CAPs over the area to discourage the Syrian regime from additional strikes on the YPG that were there.
So that would mean those CAPs were flown to protect the YPG, non-Americans who were there on the ground --
MR. COOK: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to --
Q: It's a simple --
MR. COOK: I'm not going to discuss --
Q: -- it's not -- it's not to suggest --
MR. COOK: I'm not going to discuss where our forces are at this moment in time.
Q: I'm not asking you to --
MR. COOK: We're going to continue to provide support and to provide defensive support in particular to forces on the ground engaged in the ISIL fight, and particularly for those forces that are partnered up with coalition forces.
Q: So and why -- why can't you say whether the U.S. is continuing to fly CAPs over that area? We -- I mean --
MR. COOK: I'm not going to --
Q: For several days -- for several days we were told -- I mean, you need to understand, if someone tells us something for several days in a row and then just refuses to say it -- you can understand why that -- that raises a question in our minds. So, why is it -- is it –something force protection concern?
MR. COOK: The question should be answered, that we are going to provide air cover and air support to our forces on the ground where they may be.
We're not going to disclose where they are at any particular time. We did indicate that they were in that particular area -- had been operating there previously -- and that's why we provided that particular warning for that area. But I'm not going to disclose where our forces are in Syria at any particular time.
Q: I'm not asking you to. But again, we were told last week -- and correct me if I'm wrong or we were all wrong -- but we were told that --
MR. COOK: I was not here last week, so --
Q: I know -- I know.
But we were told that the Americans after the initial round of strikes that the Americans left. Yet, the U.S. continued to fly CAPs. So I don't -- again, I don't understand why you can't tell us whether the Americans are continuing to fly CAPs there?
What is it? What is the reason? Is it because Americans are back on the ground? Is that what the concern is?
MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into all of our air patrols -- our missions sorties at this moment in time. And I'm certainly not going to describe where our forces are on the ground for understandable reasons. And we'll continue to provide support and continue to protect our forces and their partnered operations on the ground.
Q: And again --
MR. COOK: I'm sorry I can't be more specific but I don't want to divulge some of that information.
Q: I mean, if you tell us something -- if we were told a fact day after day -- it's like if every single day you tell us exactly how many troops are in Afghanistan, and then one day you just refuse to say it. You can understand why that -- that raises a question in our minds of why?
MR. COOK: Well, we're going to do what we can to protect our forces --
Q: I'm not asking you to put the forces in danger; I'm just asking you to be consistent. If you're going to provide us information that would -- then explain why you can't?
MR. COOK: Well, you know that we fly missions in a range of areas in Syria, including in that area. So it would not be unusual for us to continue flying sorties over that area. We've --
Q: That raises the question even more of why you wouldn't acknowledge if you're continuing to fly CAPs there. But -- okay. Fine. We're going to just -- I'm kind of done on this one.
So, can you talk about Jarablus then? What is going on there? And the Turks announced today that they have conducted a bunch of strikes there -- some artillery strikes. And they say that they're hitting at ISIS militants but also some YPG?
What is the U.S. military's understanding of what's going on there? Are the YPG being struck by the Turks and --
MR. COOK: I'll leave it to the Turks to describe their military activities.
I know that ISIL is certainly present in Jarablus and this is a critical spot on the Turkish border. It's been an area that's been a concern of course because of the foreign fighter flows. And so the -- anything that puts pressure on ISIL anywhere in Syria but particularly in an area like that that is of such significance is -- is important. And we want to see ISIL ejected and removed from as many parts of Syria as possible including there.
Q: They've also been striking YPG there -- the same YPG that the U.S. was protecting last week. So is there any U.S. military outreach to the Turks? Any concern about the fact that they're hitting a U.S. ally, who the U.S. is working on the ground with in other areas?
MR. COOK: I'll leave it to the -- to the Turks to describe their operations and what their goals are. But the focus should be in our view, the fight against ISIL and targeting ISIL, and from what we've seen that has been happening.
Q: But again, is the U.S. military concerned that the U.S. partner, the YPG, are being struck in Jarablus right now? Is there any concern by the U.S. on that?
MR. COOK: Our concern and focus remains ISIL and doing everything we can to target ISIL and to keep the focus on ISIL, including making sure that the efforts of forces on the ground stay laser-focused on ISIL itself and not --
Q: Are you concerned that the YPG were being struck in Hasakah but not in Jarablus? Is that the concern?
MR. COOK: Our --
MR. COOK: Our concern, Courtney, is ISIL. And the fact that ISIL is present in Jarablus and any other part of Syria -- any other part of Iraq is -- continues to be our concern.
Our focus would be to try and shape efforts focused exclusively on ISIL. And we're going to continue to do that.
Q: I understand that General Scaparrotti was in Turkey today. Do have anything on that?
MR. COOK: I do understand he was -- bear with me one second.
I know that he was there and he met -- I think he was at Incirlik itself. And my understanding is he met with Turkish officials there, some of his counterparts, and of course talked about the importance of the NATO alliance and the vital role that Turkey plays in that alliance.
I don't know if it's -- if he's already wrapped up his visit, but I know he was there today.
Q: Do you know if the Jarablus operation came up or the Hasakah --
MR. COOK: I'd have to refer you to EUCOM for that.
Q: Okay, with the Hasakah, you said that there was -- there's not a no-fly zone but you're instructing Syria not to fly there. So what's the difference between those two?
MR. COOK: I -- again, our warning to the Syrians is the same that we've had for some time: that we're going to defend our forces and they would be advised not to fly in areas where our forces have been operating. And that's what happened last week.
Q: And when you say "our forces," you mean, coalition forces not just U.S.?
MR. COOK: Coalition forces and our partnered operations.
Q: So -- but that seems to be a change from what we knew before, right? I mean, are you now threatening to shoot down aircraft that come near coalition forces that threaten coalition forces?
MR. COOK: I made clear, we're going to defend our forces on the ground, absolutely.
Q: Okay, previous to this we had not -- we had not known that U.S. aircraft would engage Syrian aircraft had they threatened coalition forces on the ground. But that's now the policy?
MR. COOK: Again, I want to be clear here. We're talking collation forces in partnered operations on the ground that are focused on the ISIL campaign. Bill, we've been talking about this from the start. We've always said that we would defend our forces.
We have U.S. forces, in this instance, that were on the ground in that region, and that was obviously our first and foremost concern, and continues to be our first and foremost concern.
And we're going to continue to do everything we need to defend those forces.
Q: I understand the U.S. forces part.
But you're saying, "our forces" -- meaning coalition forces, which is a pretty -- that's a blanket -- that's a pretty wide blanket.
And that means that there are a lot of potential engagements out there now, if you're saying that you're going to -- you're threatening to shoot down Syrian or Russian aircraft that could engage our partners on the ground?
MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it where -- I think we've been quite clear on what we're doing here, and that's defending our forces on the ground. And when they are conducting partnered operations, we need to defend those too.
And we're gonna -- that's the message we sent to the Syrians, and we're gonna continue to defend our forces. And I'm not going to get into specifics about where our forces are and hypothetical situations in the future.
That is where we are. That is what we're gonna do to defend our forces and our partnered operations on the ground.
Q: Peter, would you say that's only when they're in action against ISIS? Maybe I just was missing it until now, that there --
MR. COOK: You know, Barbara, that our focus is against ISIL and the work that we've been doing in that part of Syria and elsewhere is all focused against ISIL.
Q: (inaudible) -- on the ground is when they are in operations against ISIS, not any broader action they might be doing separately. Is that right?
MR. COOK: Our focus all along in Syria has been on ISIL, working with local partners on the ground willing to take the fight to ISIL. That continues to be our focus. That's why we are on the ground in those areas, and we'll continue to -- that will be our mission in Syria.
Q: I think you can understand, we're all really looking for some clarity here. And I know it's difficult, but is there any way you can just clarify these points because we keep asking? So is it that the extension of the protection to partnered forces on the ground, YPG or SDF, is when they are in action against ISIS? Is that right?
MR. COOK: We've been prepared and have in the past used our air power to support forces on the ground taking the fight to ISIL and to defend them, and we are prepared to defend them.
Q: Right, so it's when they're in action against ISIS, not when it's --
MR. COOK: That's -- that's what we're doing with them right now, Barbara. Everything we're doing with them is focused on ISIL. So we're not -- we haven't changed our mission in Syria.
QUESTIONS: If the Syrians know they have a broad understanding -- I want to go back to Bill's question. You're making clear that the Syrians should now, through the Russians, have a broad understanding of where U.S. forces are operating and that they should not fly in areas where they are potentially going to be seen as threatening U.S. forces.
So if you were telling them no-fly in those areas, just is there any way you can explain to us why that is not a no-fly zone?
MR. COOK: You can label it what you want, Barbara. I'm explaining to you what we're doing with regard to defending our forces -- the coalition forces on the ground, our partnered operations there.
Q: Is it a no-fly zone?
MR. COOK: It remains the same warning that we've had in effect since we started our operations in Syria. We're going to defend our people on the ground and do what we need to protect them. That's what we did last week.
And to the first part of your question, the Syrians should be aware of that based on the message we delivered through the Russians. They should be -- if they're not clear about that, they should be hearing me today. And we have -- if they don't understand, then I would ask you to ask the Russians if they haven't communicated that information to the Syrians.
Q: Are you prepared -- is the U.S. military prepared to shoot down a Syrian or Russian aircraft if they threaten U.S. forces?
MR. COOK: If they threaten U.S. forces, we always have the right to defend our forces.
Q: (inaudible) -- with (inaudible).
Over the weekend, according to a report, China's ambassador to Japan said that Tokyo will cross a red line if Japan's self-defense forces sail with the Americans in waters near the reclamation activity. My question is, in terms of freedom of navigation, is it okay for Japan to operate with the United States? And do you have any concerns about the rhetoric coming from Japan -- sorry, coming from China -- with regard to Japan's cooperation?
MR. COOK: Let me just say that I'm not totally familiar with the quote you referred to. So I'm not going to comment on that because I just don't know exactly where that came from.
But I will just say that I think -- you know, anyone who's heard the secretary and heard us talk about the South China Sea and more broadly freedom of navigation around the world, the importance of freedom of navigation not just to the United States but to all countries, including China, and the right to defend freedom of navigation. And we will continue to support the notion of freedom of navigation and allowing people to operate within international law, as we do in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Q: Do you have any concerns about that close an ally as Japan getting that kind of rhetoric from China in terms of, "You can't sail there" when you're talking about the South China Sea?
MR. COOK: We have concerns about any rhetoric that escalates tensions in the region. We've made that clear. We think -- based most recently of course, the arbitral ruling, if there's an opportunity to bring those tensions and the rhetoric down and to try and resolve these disputes peacefully and diplomatically.
That's what the arbitral ruling represented and we certainly hope that the countries in the region will take advantage of that opportunity and will take additional steps to try and lower the temperature, if you will.
Q: Two questions. One, going back to Afghanistan, what do you think recent stories also terrorism in Afghanistan and also disunity among the government there? And what is the future as far as U.S. security -- (inaudible) -- is concerned?
MR. COOK: Well you know, the secretary traveled recently to Afghanistan and we'll continue to work closely with the government of Afghanistan to bolster the security situation there, to enable the Afghan security forces to better defend the country on their own.
That's been the goal of our mission there and the reason our forces are there in the first place, in addition to, of course, the counterterrorism mission that they're carrying out. And so we will certainly continue to maintain that relationship with the Afghan government and expand our security relationship to make sure that the -- Afghanistan continues to move in a forward direction with regard to its own safety and security.
Q: And second, as far as the U.S. and Pakistan relations on fighting against terrorism, before U.S. talked this -- (inaudible) -- Pakistan supposed to do the job. Now, Pentagon has cut almost $350 million from the Pakistan defense budget or so. Is that something that -- (inaudible) -– attacks again started against Pakistan.
So is there something Pakistan has not done the job they're supposed to do?
MR. COOK: Well, we continue to have a close relationship with Pakistan with regard to terrorism and fighting terrorism. It's obviously in Pakistan's own interest and the United States interest to combat terrorism in as many ways as possible. We'll continue working closely with Pakistan and we've seen, of course, significant efforts on the part of the Pakistanis.
With regard to that $300 million, that was money that -- there was a deadline in terms of whether or not to transfer that money or to use that money in other ways, and it was determined that at this moment in time, it was best to reprogram that money in another direction.
Q: My name is -- (inaudible). And about DPRK, North Korea.
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: So the --
MR. COOK: Welcome, by the way.
Q: Thank you. The new IAEA report assess that the DPRK still continue in the -- (inaudible) -– development of the nuclear program. It is reported that DPRK resumed to make plutonium again. So how do you assess their nuclear program now?
MR. COOK: Okay. I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments from up here. But of course, we've talked repeatedly about our concerns about North Korea and its efforts to try and obtain a nuclear weapon and we continue to have those concerns.
There's an opportunity for North Korea to -- to resolve -- lower the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and we certainly have not seen from their most recent actions any clear attempt by the North Koreans to do that. And we will continue to have concerns about their efforts to try and obtain a nuclear weapon and -- and their continued testing that takes place.
And it's something we watch very, very closely. And I mentioned earlier, the exercises we're doing with the South Koreans, which are defensive in nature. And of course, the reason we're doing those kinds of things is because we see the kind of provocative actions that the North Koreans have taken recently.
Q: So -- (inaudible) -- questions.
So it is reported that the president considers new -- new Korea policies, and including the idea no first use, the nuclear weapons. So some allies concerned about the idea of the no first use. So do you think -- do you have any comment on this?
MR. COOK: Our -- our policy position has not changed. And I'm just going to leave it at that.
Q: Thank you.
MR. COOK: Yes?
Q: This is Tajinder from Indian American Times.
What is your reading about on the Indian Minister M.J. Akbar's visit last week to Syria and his meeting with -- with Assad? Because this is not normal times in Syria, so every visit has to be noted.
So what is your reading? What are you seeing in that visit?
MR. COOK: I'm going to leave that to the Indian government to describe that visit and its purpose. And perhaps my colleagues at the State Department would be best to -- to respond to that question.
Q: The State Department says this is a -- you know -- it's an independent country. But Syria --
MR. COOK: I would agree with the State Department.
Q: And you know, it's not a normal situation in Syria. So --
MR. COOK: No, it's not a normal situation in Syria.
And I just would refer back to what I said at the beginning about the -- the situation with the Syrian civil war and the dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria in places like Aleppo and an opportunity for -- for the regime in Syria to take the most important steps here to try and resolve this diplomatically, peacefully and end the suffering for the Syrian people. And I think the most important move here is on the part of the Syrian regime.
Q: Do you think that the Indians are going to help in any way in this resolving or, you know, or are they going to --
MR. COOK: I'm going to leave that to the Indian government to describe its -- the motives and what transpired and what the benefits were of the visit.
Q: Just a quick question.
As far as campaign is concerned, when secretary travels and meets other foreign defense ministers and all that, do they ask what is going on in the campaign here as far as security concern to those countries in the future of whoever comes, either Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump?
MR. COOK: Goyal, this tells me you have been paying too much time over at the White House and have not heard Secretary Carter on this issue over here.
The secretary is -- first of all, I'm not going to describe the secretary's private conversations with other ministers of defense. But he has been clear that, with regard to discussions of the campaign and this political season, that that is not a topic for us at the Department of Defense to be weighing in on.
We have an important job to do to defend the American people, to defend our nation's security, and we'll continue to do that. And we'll continue to do what we need to do in terms of the transition to the next administration, as appropriate.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MR. COOK: Thanks, everybody.