Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 25, 2016
PETER COOK: I hope everyone’s doing well today. Good to be back in the same time zone as most of you at this point. I see some of our fellow weary travelers with us.
We just had a successful trip, as you know — the secretary did — to Asia and the Middle East and during that trip we spent a very productive day in Iraq where the big focus was, of course, on the fight against ISIL. And that’s where I want to begin today.
A week ago, Secretary Carter met with top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Abadi, Minister of Defense Obaidi. He met with his top commanders in the fight, including Lieutenant General MacFarland and he met with U.S. troops who are providing critical support to Iraqi security forces.
He shared with those U.S. troops several additional steps we are taking to accelerate the campaign against ISIL in Iraq in close coordination with the Abadi government, and those steps include advising and assisting the ISF at battalion and brigade headquarters level, making AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and HIMARS capabilities available and supportive operations to retake Mosul, providing up to $415 million in assistance to the Peshmerga and increasing U.S. personnel to provide further aviation support, force protection and other assistance to Iraqi security forces.
The secretary also indicated we were prepared to do more in the fight against ISIL and Syria, and today, the president spelled that out in more detail.
He has authorized the deployment of up to an additional 250 U.S. forces, including special operations forces, medical and logistics personnel to be deployed to Syria to assist local Syrian forces who are taking the fight to ISIL.
This new complement will build on the success of the 50 special operators previously deployed to Syria. Those forces have improved our picture of the battlefield, made connections with local, capable forces and enhanced our targeting efforts in Syria. These new forces will expand those efforts and build on what has been working.
They will help our partners on the ground capitalize on their progress and increase the pressure on ISIL at this critical time. The secretary believes this deployment will make a tangible difference in the campaign to defeat ISIL.
I should note that the secretary will testify on the counter-ISIL campaign Thursday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, alongside Chairman Dunford. And we will also have our latest senior leader briefing on the campaign tomorrow morning, when we hear from General Major Gersten, who will join us from Baghdad. So, I hope you will tune in for that.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Q: So, can you just give us some more of the details on the deployment of the 250 to Syria? Have they been chosen — have any of them been chosen? What kind of units are we going to be looking at, special ops, special forces?
When do you expect them to go, and will it be of a similar deployment to the 50 who — our understanding, I mean, there hasn’t been a lot of transparency on the 50, but will they be going in in groups for short periods of time, and then coming back out to another location?
MR. COOK: Courtney, as you can understand, we’re going to be very careful in how we describe the activities of these personnel, because we want to maintain their operational security. So, we’re not going to get into a lot of details here, as we have similarly with the 50 who were deployed previously.
We would like to see and we expect that these forces will be doing much of the same thing that those original 50 did. As I said, they’ll be establishing connections with forces on the ground, capable forces to take the fight to ISIL. They’ll be improving our picture of the battlefield, our sense of what’s happening on the ground. They — the original 50 are providing very, very helpful information along those lines.
And so, they’ll be engaging with forces on the ground, getting a better picture of the battle space, improving our intelligence assessment and our targeting assessment as well. But we’re not going to get into details about where they’re going to be located, and what sort of numbers they’re going to be in at any particular time. As you can imagine, to try and keep them as safe as possible, and to, again, not let the enemy know too much about what they’re going to do.
Q: Will they go in the same kind of deployment that we’ve been told the 50 are? That they won’t be in there for an extended period of time, but they’ll move in and out?
MR. COOK: Again, we’re not going to get into details. We’re going to take steps —
Q: What is the operation security concern of that? I’m not asking specifically when they’re going or where they’re going. I’m just asking about sort of an OPTEMPO.
If we should expect that there will be — if, in fact, that it’s 250 that deploy, plus the 50 that were already authorized, will there ever be a period where there will be 300 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?
I’m not asking where or when. But will that occur? Is it going to be more of a rotational, smaller force rotation that won’t necessarily overlap?
MR. COOK: Yeah. I think it’s safe to say that there will be a presence of U.S. forces in Syria doing this kind of work in the — for the foreseeable future.
I’m not going to say whether or not they’re all going to be on the ground at any particular time. Again, some of these people are not necessarily special operators. You’re talking about medical personnel, logistical personnel to try and provide support to those people.
So — but there will be — we will have a presence of some form in Syria to try — and again, enable and support those local forces that have been — successfully taken the fight to ISIL to meet more of those forces, and to, once again, accelerate the campaign against ISIL.
That’s what — that’s the goal of this action is, the goal of the accelerants we announced in Iraq as well.
Q: And then just two more.
On the timing of it, will you be — at least be able to inform the American public? I mean, these are 250 — 250 U.S. soldiers deploying to a sovereign nation. Will you at least be able to inform us when the first of them have deployed or are deploying or are there? Anything? Is there going to be any effort at transparency in — on this mission?
MR. COOK: There’s going to be an effort to preserve their operational security and to share as much information as we can to maintain that operational security, and at the same time, be as transparent as we can with the American people. We will provide details as we can, but again, we’re going to defer specifically to the idea of preserving their safety, doing everything we can to — to bolster their own security while they’re in Syria and while they’re conducting their operations. I hope you would understand that we would defer.
Q: And then where — how close exactly will these 250 be to combat? Will they actually be potentially engaged in combat during this deployment?
MR. COOK: Again, they’ll be in support of local forces on the ground. The idea is that they will not be engaged in direct combat, they will not be on the front lines. They will be providing support to those local forces that are taking the fight to ISIL and — but they’re in harm’s way, that — we should be crystal clear about that, and they will be able to defend themselves if they come under fire. But that is not the intent of this deployment.
The intent is to bolster our ties to those local forces that are taking the fight ISIL to be able to enhance their efforts and these particular forces — U.S. forces will act as a force multiplier, if you will, to bring the weight and might of the U.S. military behind those local forces in a way that we have seen previously conducted by the initial deployment that we had, that we want to build on what they’ve done.
Q: Just to follow on Courtney’s questions, will these forces be (inserted ?) at the brigade and battalion levels, such as what was explained in Iraq last week? And then, you know, this is the second announcement within a week of the deployment of a substantial number of special operators, special forces. At what point is the strain on the special forces too great if they are the primary force assisting in both the Raqqah and Mosul fights?
MR. COOK: Well, first of all, in your — on your — let me answer the second part of your question first, and that is we feel confident that we have the resources we need within the special forces community to be able to carry out these operations. You are correct; we are looking to these particular personnel to carry out — to use their unique capabilities in these particular circumstances, both in Iraq and in Syria. But we feel confident that we have the resources to carry this out and certainly the leadership team to be able to — to carry this out as well.
And the first part of your question, again? Remind me.
Q: Well, with the announcement in Iraq, they’re being inserted at the brigade and battalion level. Can we expect the same in Syria?
MR. COOK: Obviously, the picture in Syria is different than — than formal Iraqi security forces that we have in Iraq. But yes, they’ll be engaging with leadership people and making connections, but I’m not sure if I’d necessarily characterize it as brigade and battalion level. They will be away from the front line. They will be meeting with the leaders and trying to, again, get a sense of the battle space, get a picture of local dynamics and try and to see what forces might merit further support from the coalition.
And again, building on those relationships, expanding those relationships, and again, this will be, as we’ve talked about in the past, transactional. Those forces that — that perform well will get additional U.S. support and these particular U.S. forces will be in the business of trying to identify who those people are.
MR. COOK: Yes, Tom?
Q: Peter, I’m told a big part of this effort will be to beef up the capacity of the Syrian-Arab force. We were fewer in number than the Kurdish fighters. And the numbers for the Syrian-Arabs are anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000. Some say 8,000. And I’m told they want to beef that up to roughly 15,000 Syrian-Arab fighters.
Does that sound about right and how long do you think this will take with these additional 250 Americans in there to really beef up the Syrian-Arabs?
MR. COOK: Yes, I won’t weigh in on your specific numbers cause I’m not sure — I’ve never — I haven’t heard someone identify a target. But I will say that even in our visit last week to Iraq and the conversations that we have had, the numbers of air — Syrian-Arab forces are growing.
And this is a little bit of the snowball effect that I think the secretary has talked about for some period of time, that success against ISIL has brought out more people and forces willing to engage in the fight against ISIL.
And we believe that that’s true of Syrian-Arab forces. And so, there will be outreach to those forces. We think they will be critically important in the fight for Raqqa for example. So that certainly will be part of the effort. But we’re looking for folks who are prepared to take the fight to ISIL, and those Syrian-Arab forces are certainly part of that contingent.
Q: What would you consider the size of the Syrian-Arab part of this?
MR. COOK: Yes, let me let me take that question for you, see if we have an updated number. But, certainly in the thousands. But it maybe — there maybe a number in theater that we can get for you that’s more accurate.
Q: As far as taking Raqqa, is that still hope for, plan for, for this year? Or is that kind of squatting?
MR. COOK: Tom, there hasn’t been a calendar set for this. We’re going to — obviously we’re —
Q: But the secretary noted that they hoped to get Raqqa by year’s end.
MR. COOK: Well certainly. We hope to have this wrapped up as soon possible. Same with the fight for Mosul. But we are in a circumstance where we are counting on these local forces to carry out the fighting. And in that sense, we have to operate at their timetable.
We are trying to do everything we can to accelerate this. This deployment is a perfect example of an effort to try and speed things up in Syria as we’re trying to speed things up in Iraq. And to try and put pressure on ISIL at this critical time on as many fronts as possible. And we think this deployment will certainly help to amp the pressure even higher, at a critical time.
And perhaps, again, speed up the overall timeline for when we might be able to retake — when these forces can retake Raqqa and retake Mosul.
Q: Here, the secretary announced 217 soldiers would be deploying to Iraq last week. Today, the president announced there’s 250 more are going to Syria. Why the incremental approach?
MR. COOK: These are specific capabilities Lucas, specific needs right now as we talk to our partners, including the government of Iraq. And including our assessment, talking to local leaders on the ground in Syria, these are decisions that we think makes sense to accelerate this campaign and to further enable those local forces.
Q: And do you expect another 200 to be announced next week?
MR. COOK: The secretary has said from the start that these are the next steps in the fight against ISIL and we will be looking — continue to look for opportunities where we might be able to accelerate this campaign further.
We’re going to be meeting with more of our coalition partners, getting their sense of what additional steps could be taken in the future. But, we’re not taking anything off the table at this point.
Q: So you could announce 200 more next week?
MR. COOK: Lucas, we’re going to continue to look at every single opportunity we have, worked with our local partners, to see how we can accelerate this campaign. As you have seen from these specific — very specific deployments and decisions, that what we’re looking at here is specific capabilities.
Things that can make a tangible difference in a short amount of time and can bolster those local forces on the ground. And in the case of the Iraqi, specific needs expressed by the Iraqis.
Q: How is this not a mission creep? Just going a little step-by-step, with these steps?
MR. COOK: Lucas, we are building on what is working and — both in Syria and Iraq. We have seen the momentum in recent weeks, we have seen what has been successful and these actions, these accelerants reflect decisions made based on success on the ground. We want to build on that success.
Q: Peter, you mentioned medical personnel and logistics. Could one infer from that that the U.S. is contemplating setting up some sort of field hospital or some sort of medical support fighters in Syria?
MR. COOK: I think you want to infer from that that we’re going to provide the support that these forces need to succeed and we’re also going to put in place the kinds of — set up, if you will, to enhance their safety and security and to do everything we can to make sure those forces, who will be in harm’s way, that everything is being done to — make sure that they are as safe as possible.
Q: (inaudible) — medical personnel you mentioned support the U.S. forces that will be going, not necessarily to provide medical assistance to local fighters in Syria?
MR. COOK: I’m not going to get into all the details, but the just — again, the idea here is to support those U.S. forces that are going working with local partners. The board’s taking every step we can to make sure that those U.S. forces are in — as safe and as effective a position as possible.
Peter, you talk about specific units and responses to — (inaudible) – question. Just to be clear, where did the number 250 come from? Is that because you have specific units in mind and then those added up it comes to 250?
MR. COOK: This was a number that came about as a result of discussions among the commanders here, within the department, on the ground and in consultation with the secretary. This was the number that was deemed to be appropriate to try and build on the success we have seen.
We’ve seen original 50 make tangible progress on the ground force in terms of improving our picture, improving — in terms of improving our connections with those local forces and deemed to be the right number at this particular moment in time to try and build on that success.
Q: So if this series of — if this increase is also successful on the same scale as if 50 were, what’s the argument against discontinuing to add more and more U.S. forces this war?
MR. COOK: Because the big factor here, the local forces on the ground and the success that they have on their own enabled by U.S. forces. We are going to adjust based on what happens on the ground. At the end of the day, the goal here is to have these local forces not only eliminate ISIL, but to hold that territory.
This is their home and we’re going to try and continue with that strategic approach. This is about accelerating their efforts. They are on the front lines of this fight, and though the secretary believes that, again, this is a kind of deployment, kind of step that can help those local forces make even more progress on the ground against ISIL and ultimately hold that — (inaudible).
But this is going to be largely in their hands and the same is true in Iraq and the Iraqi security forces are going to largely determines the fight with this support and help of the coalition.
Q: But do you see the concern, though? I mean, the U.S. has been reluctant to add ground forces to this conflict since the beginning. Now it’s slowly trickling in more and more and we’re beginning to see successes. Those initial promises were made to the American people as a sign that we’re not going to get involved in a ground war again. How are we not on the road to a ground war?
MR. COOK: Again, these forces in Syria, including the 50 that have been there previously, are not on the front line. They are providing advice and assistance to those local forces. They are not in the same role, I think, that you’re talking about and so they are providing support. They are enabling those local forces.
This is not a question of putting in thousands of American forces to wage this fight. We are looking to others to carry this fight out, but to do what we can to support them.
And these, the 50 who were there originally, the additional forces of them going, again, force multipliers is the best way to look at this. A small number of Americans with these kinds of capabilities can bring an enormous weight to bear in this fight and in support of these forces. And those forces who have come into contact and worked with U.S. forces, I think would attest to that.
We can make a difference by providing them assistance.
Q: I would like to come back to the issue that Jamie raised about medical support.
This — I could be wrong, but this is the first time I’ve heard you talk about — or the Pentagon talk about providing medical support. I’d like to ask you really, if you could clarify, because you’ve talked about it in terms of safety and security of forces, this medical support doing that.
It seems difficult to comprehend that that would be only for Syrian fighters on the ground, that if you have medical support there, clearly, you have an anticipation that it’s available also to U.S. troops.
So, what is it — can you please consider answering this, what is it that this medical support that you’re talking about for the first time is going to do, and for who are they going to do it? And is it going to include helicopter-borne medevac?
MR. COOK: We’re not going to get into a breakdown of the 250 specifically. So, medical support — Barbara, as you can imagine, these are folks in harm’s way, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that should they get into trouble, should they be injured in the field, that we would be able to provide medical support quickly and efficiently to get them — to be able to treat those people.
So, that is a — that is an appropriate precaution for us to take. Same with force protection for these folks, everything they’re doing, we want to be able to make sure that they’re put in a position of success, and that we are taking every step that we can to keep them as safe as possible.
Q: So, straight up, Peter, is this now — this is the first time, at least publicly, as far as I know that you are talking about putting a military medical support function, in — you’re talking about in harm’s way, which is the focus —
MR. COOK: I don’t — just to be clear, Barbara, I’m —
Q: What you’re saying is it now requires, in terms of the arms —
MR. COOK: When we have — when we deploy special operators around the world, Barbara, there’s — as you know, there’s always a component to that —
Q: I don’t understand.
MR. COOK: There’s always a component that provides medical assistance in preparation in case something goes wrong, and we’re going to do the same thing with these forces.
Q: But you’ve never felt — the Pentagon has never apparently felt that the need to — everyone understands that special forces go with their own inherent medical capability.
But you are talking about a medical support function. What are you — what has changed that leads the Pentagon to believe these troops will be in harm’s way sufficient to require this type of medical support function, which apparently is different than the inherent deployed medical support special ops always goes with?
What has changed?
MR. COOK: I’m not sure we’ve — haven’t been — you shouldn’t be interpreting this to suggest this is anything different than medical support provided to special operators in the past.
I’m not going to get into a breakdown of what’s being done, but I think one of the points we’re trying to make here is that these 250 do not all include special operators, for example, who will be engaging with Syrian forces.
Q: Let me ask you this: Are these 250 troops, whatever units they may belong to, are they going to continue to have this structure where you have described it as maintaining positions one terrain feature behind the front line?
Are — because the 50 have — you have openly discussed it. They’ve done that in the past. The new 250, can they go as far forward as one terrain feature behind the front line and you have discussed that in the past.
MR. COOK: I have not discussed from this location and I’m not going to do so now. We’re not going to discuss the positioning — the specific location of these personnel. I did indicate to you, they will not be on the front line. They will be removed from the front line. They will be engaged with those local leaders.
Those local forces on the ground providing support, enabling those forces. And that is the extent to which I would describe their activities, and is it.
Q: A very quick question. The secretary talked about using the howitzers, the primary system in Iraq, to support Iraqi forces going forward into the fight against Mosul. When you first spoke publicly about these weapons being in Iraq, you described it as being for the defense of the U.S. trainers and the Iraqi forces at (inaudible) undergoing training.
Now you are talking — the secretary talking about using it to support troops going forward in combat, Iraqi troops. Does this not put the HIMARS — that the howitzer system and the troops who man it, in a ground combat role? And if it does not, how does it not?
MR. COOK: I think you’ve heard the chairman talk about this as well. These — the HIMARS capabilities, not at all that different than the air strikes that were carrying out right now. The level of accuracy is very comparable. They will be able to strike targets, in much the same way our aircraft carriers are striking targets, coalition air craft.
And they will be — not at the front line, but they will be providing offensive firepower if needed.
Q: But offensive firepower Peter, from the ground, not at 30,000 feet. So offense —
MR. COOK: They’ll be providing the same kind of fire support in much the same way.
Q: The standard is offensive firepower, but it’s on the ground, not at 30,000 feet. So how is this not a ground combat operation that they are engaging in? They are on the ground?
MR. COOK: The combat that is going to be moving forward, Barbara as you know, is going to be the Iraqi security forces. This will be in support of the Iraqi security forces. And this will be firepower that will help them in much the same way that coalition air support is providing support to them right now, as we speak, in Iraq.
And also the same with the coalition air support that we’re providing to Syrian forces. It is the same principle here and those forces will be providing — again, hitting targets at the coordination and with the work of the Iraqi government.
Q: But it is now a defensive operation as you just said, right?
MR. COOK: It can be used that way. Yes, it can be used as defensive fire as well. But it can be used, going forward, as we look at Mosul — and I think Lieutenant General MacFarland addressed this well when he spoke to some of our reporters last week in Baghdad. We’re looking at a much larger city.
We’re looking at a different set of challenges. When you look at, for example, Ramadi. And we want to make sure and the Iraqis want to make sure that the capabilities are in place to deal with that much larger city, complex set of the threats and challenges. And so that is what some of these specific capabilities will do.
MR. COOK: Yes, let me go here and then I’ll move back.
Q: Thanks, Peter.
Can you help me understand the difference between these 250 in Syria and the 217 in Iraq? Are they going to be more advise and assist on the logistical level, like we’re going to be seeing in Iraq?
Or are they going to be more advise and assist on the basic training level, on the organizational level? Not necessarily logistics from point A to point B. Can you get into any of those difference?
MR. COOK: I think the — again, the best way to look at the folks in Syria is Specifically, Carla, the notion that we are trying to engage with as many forces on the ground willing to take on ISIL. We do not know all those forces at this point, all the forces in play. And this is as much about introductions and connections and seeing what we can do to support those forces, some of whom we do not know yet, some of whom we have dealt with in the past, maybe they have expanded.
So this is an effort to try and improve those connections. That is what the main job — main task of these additional forces will be. I think the forces in Iraq are much more designed, as you said, logistical, specific training and advise and assist for Iraqi forces that we work with every single day, we know well, and I think it is a different picture altogether in Iraq and Syria. The end goal is the same and that is to support and enable local forces to take the fight to ISIL to speed the defeat of ISIL up as quickly as we can.
Let me go to the back.
Q: (inaudible) — can we expect potential weapons capabilities added to the Syrians once they’ve been vetted the United States knows who they are, kind of like we’ve done with Iraq, what the United States has done with Iraq, recently adding the Apaches, adding — (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: Well I think we’re talking mainly about enabling these forces, being able to help them with the — for example — air support for their engagement so I don’t think we’re talking about bringing these kinds of weapons capabilities to Syrian forces. But it’s enabling them — to the extent we can on the ground through these forces and from there as well.
Q: Peter, a couple weeks or a month or two back we heard that there was some mil to mil communication with the Russian military kind of notifying them of where this small group of initially 50 special operators were to be in Syria to avoid some kind of — you know — mishap or incident. How is that going to play out moving ahead now that this number is much larger? Is there going to be further notification to the Russians on a back channel of where these guys are located or is — to what extent are these guys on the ground in Syria going to face potentially a risk from Russian operations that continue in that area?
MR. COOK: First of all, I am not sure to the extent Russian operations will be in this part of Syria, but you raise a good question, a good point. In the past we have identified, and we did identify a particular geographic area where we asked the Russians not to strike and I am not going to discuss those conversations going forward, but we’re going to take additional steps.
You can be sure to take every step we can to preserve the safety of our personnel and limit the risk they face. But I’m not going to speak to particular conversations, you know, we will have in the future or have had with the Russians at this point.
Q: When you say additional steps, does that mean additional communications with the Russians?
MR. COOK: No, I mean additional steps — we’re taking a number of steps on our own to preserve the safety and security of these personnel and — nothing to do with the Russians. One of them is we’re not talking about publicly with you all where they’re going to go. And so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they are as safe as possible, but I am not going to, at this point, predict what commutations we have with the Russians on this front.
Q: But — (inaudible) — why wouldn’t you — (inaudible) — larger growth?
MR. COOK: We spoke to — we discussed that after the fact and, again, I am not going to predict now the conversations we have with the Russians from this podium .
MR. COOK: Yes, Joe.
Q: (inaudible) — the U.S. troops who are sent to Iraq, the decision to send them was coordinated with the Iraqi government.
My question is: Sending 250 special forces into Syria, could you tell us if this decision has been coordinated by third channels with the Syrian government Damascus?
And also if you could explain to us what —
MR. COOK: There has been no coordination with the Syrian government.
Q: — sending the 250 into Syria? The — what legal framework they were sent?
MR. COOK: It’s the same authorization that we used in sending the initial 50, Joe, and it’s the basis for our fight against ISIL overall. It’s the same authorizations that had been in place previously.
So, there is no difference and the additional 50 — the original 50 that we brought into Syria.
Q: New subject?
MR. COOK: Sure.
Q: Where is the secretary’s transgender policy, and — or do we expect to see that anytime soon?
MR. COOK: As you know, there has been a working group that has been looking at these issues for the secretary, trying to come up with recommendations for them on this.
This is an ongoing effort, one that has devoted a lot of time and attention — this group has devoted a lot of time and attention to it. And when their recommendations are ready for the secretary’s review, then he’ll look at them and make his decisions.
Q: There is a fear that it gets pushed to the right to such a degree that it really — you can’t get it through the building on time.
MR. COOK: The secretary — the secretary wants the very best recommendations, most thoughtful recommendations he can get from his working group. And when they’re ready to deliver them, he’ll be ready to review them.
Q: Okay, I apologize. One of the least — (inaudible) — because I came out delayed.
MR. COOK: No problem.
Q: About the 250 troops in Syria. I know you won’t identify the location, but will they — can you at least say they will be primarily be working with the YPG forces? The Kurdish forces?
MR. COOK: These forces, as we were talking about earlier will be working with local forces on the ground, Syrian Democratic Forces, and they’re going to continue to identify those forces that we feel are engaged in the fight against ISIL.
And that further enabling by the coalition will help accelerate their — their efforts against ISIL, and that will be a range of groups on the ground.
Q: Will — (inaudible) — be among those groups?
MR. COOK: We’ve been working with some Syrian-Kurdish forces, and I’m sure there will be some Kurds on the ground, but there are also Turkmen fighters, and we were discussing earlier some of the Syrian-Arab fighters in particular, who we would like to see get even more involved in the campaign.
Q: My last question. The Kurdish forces last week had some sort of confrontation with the Assad forces. Many people saw that as unprecedented, where there were casualties.
So, my question is, should be your forces or the Kurdish forces (combined ?) their attack if they work together, will they defend themselves and will they defend their Kurdish comrades if they are under attack by the Assad forces?
MR. COOK: If who’s attack, I’m sorry?
Q: If your forces are —
MR. COOK: If our forces are attacked by anyone, they will be able to defend themselves.
Q: About the — (inaudible) — say the Kurdish forces or the local forces, if they also get attacked by Assad, will they help them?
MR. COOK: Again, our focus is on the fight against ISIL. That has been our focus from the very start.
These U.S. special operators are there to enable and support those forces. And so, our focus is on — is on ISIL, and isn’t on an engagement with the Assad regime.
Q: North Korea? Could we ask about North Korea?
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: North Korea claimed to have conducted a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday, I believe.
What is the Pentagon’s current assessment about whether or not that was, in fact, a successful test?
MR. COOK: We’re still assessing the test that was conducted by the North Koreans.
But regardless of exactly what took place, we know already that this was a violation of U.N. resolutions. This was an action that again we condemn, in that their pursuit of ballistic missile nuclear weapons capabilities continues to pose a significant threat to the United States, to our allies in the region and remains obviously a significant concern.
Q: Can you provide any details about what happened in the launch? There was some reporting suggesting that the missile only traveled a short distance.
MR. COOK: Again, we’re continuing to assess the launch itself and the test itself. And at this point, you want — I can’t say from this podium at this point exactly how best to characterize it. Other than they conducted a test that we feel is, once again, another provocative act by the North Koreans. One that does nothing to promote stability on the Korean Peninsula.
But we’re continuing to assess what they did and again, it is just the latest in a series of steps they’ve taken that we think have been counterproductive. And certainly nothing that they have been doing in recent weeks is going to add to stability in the region.
Q: And a quick follow-up to that?
MR. COOK: Let me go over here and then I’ll come back.
Q: A couple of Iraq questions and a specific question.
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: On the force, the 250 going into Syria?
MR. COOK: Yes?
Q: Will any of them have the authority to call on airstrikes to assist the local Syrian resistance forces?
MR. COOK: Again Tony, I’m not going to get into the details of what these folks are going to be doing. But these are U.S. forces on the ground with the ability to defend themselves. The ability to engage with the — local forces on the ground.
One of the most important things they are going to be doing is again, once again, helping those local forces be able to identify targets on the ground for coalition airstrikes. That’s been one of the more successful things they’ve been doing.
Q: How many airstrikes though? Were they local forces or were they special ops people you’re sending in?
MR. COOK: Again, this is an ability for U.S. to enhance communications that these folks have in terms of identifying targets. But I’m not going to get into the specific decision-making process.
Q: On the clarifications, a lot of the news reporting has said we’re going to — that the U.S. would deploy Apaches to Iraq. Isn’t it more of the case that the nine Apaches over there could be used by the Iraqis and on Mosul or operation versus some being flown from Germany or the United States into Iraq?
MR. COOK: Yes, we were just — we were asked this when we were in Iraq last weekend. And Tony, as you know, there are Apaches in Iraq already. But we’re not going to preclude the notion of additional assets being brought in if that is what is needed.
Q: Okay. I have a Trans-Pacific question. Australia, one of our closest allies is going to be announcing soon, a multibillion-dollar submarine tender. One of the requirements was that the winner, no matter who it was, the Japanese designer, German, French, have high interoperability with U.S. systems.
Has the United States communicated to the Australians the types of requirements they would like to see in the submarine, no matter which design wins, in order to enhance this high degree of interoperability?
MR. COOK: Tony, this is a decision for the Australians. And we’re not — we don’t think it’s appropriate to weigh in, in this competition. This is a decision for our ally Australia to make — and the — we will leave it to them to make this decision.
Q: You agree though, that something — this would be a significant decision in terms of potentially building up interoperability with the United States. Is that something you slight —
MR. COOK: interoperability is certainly something that we push with all our allies and all of their decisions. It is something that we look for, we think they look for, in terms of engaging with U.S..
But we are not going to get into any criteria or anything that we’ve communicated to the Australians. In this case, this is their decision.
Q: One more on Syria. When there is a Syria train and equip reprogramming that’s been languishing on The Hill for a number of weeks or a month or so, couple of months. What is the status of that?
Is the secretary going to be pushing this way for Congress to jump start that and — for all four of the committees who approve the reprogramming?
MR. COOK: Tony, I don’t know exactly where that stands, if we’ve had any sort of breakthrough with the various committees. But I know this has been an issue that the secretary, as you pointed out, has raised previously in his testimonies to the Hill.
He certainly would like to have as much money freed up for this fight as possible. And where we continue to work with the committees, I’m not aware of what hurdles still remain, if any. Maybe there has been progress, even in the last two weeks.
But this could be something that comes out in the course of his testimony this week.
Q: Could you check that for the record to find that out?
MR. COOK: Yeah, I’d be happy to.
Q: And release the programming, since it’s unclassified? It —
MR. COOK: You’re looking for the amount?
Q: Just if you put the documents up, just so we can see what you’re asking for.
MR. COOK: We will check with Mr. McCord, who would have this answer.
Q: Going to the train and equip program. Has that progressed? I think we’ve heard Colonel Warren talk about how the program should focus its — shift it towards smaller elements.
Has that been taking place in Northeast Syria? And also, initially the support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, there were air drops and additional supplies were sent to them on a conditional basis. Have those continued, and is it safe to say that, by sending in an additional 250 U.S. personnel, that those supply drops or inflows have increased significantly as well?
MR. COOK: On the T & E program, I’m not going to go much beyond what Steve, I think, shared with you all last week. That program has been, again, restarted in its new configuration, and is proceeding, but I’m not going to get into more details in terms of numbers, where it’s happening, that sort of thing.
And — but one of the goals of that has been to provide those vetted leaders, who go through that training process with support, in terms of material support. And so, that’s certainly been part of the program overall, but I can’t read out to you here about whether or not there have been additional air drops or anything at this point.
But one of the goals of that program is to identify leaders who are worthy of that kind of support, and to be able to work out the logistical hurdles, communication hurdles that would be — that would need to be overcome to be able to provide material support for those forces.
Q: But there have been battle field successes by this group over the last couple of months since those air drops began.
So, isn’t it safe to assume that they have increase substantially since then?
MR. COOK: It’s — again, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, but the goal has always been those forces that have shown success in a transactional way, that we are willing to provide more material support for them. So, in that sense, that’s the way we’ve been looking at it.
If you do well and you meet the conditions under which we provided support in the first place, certainly you can expect that any additional support could — your chances of getting additional support would be enhanced, if you showed success on the ground and if you, again, met those guidelines.
And so, that’s how we approached them.
Q: We’ve seen the deployment of these additional personnel as part of that as well —
MR. COOK: Well, I think —
MR. COOK: Well, as I mentioned to Carla, I mean, one of the main goals here is as much about meeting people on the ground.
Before we had any forces in Syria, our picture of the country, quite honestly, was limited. Those forces on the ground have expanded our ability to (inaudible), and to meet the forces on the ground that we didn’t even know about.
And so, in that sense, that’s right, that we hope to meet even more groups, individuals, leaders, who are not only committed to the fight against ISIL, but capable. And capable, also of being able to benefit from additional U.S. support in terms of — (inaudible) — and materiel. So.
Q: So, you’re saying that the majority of the people that you’re sending are there to meet other people, as opposed to being medical and logistic personnel?
MR. COOK: I think a good number. How about that?
Q: Yeah. It was reported last week that Iran conducted a test of a space launcher called the Simorgh. It was unsuccessful. Can you confirm that or comment on that?
MR. COOK: I cannot. So — I am not aware of that report myself.
Q: Quick question. Could you update us on ISIS’s ability to replace fighters taken off the battlefield? For instance, the estimate has been downgraded by the IC [intelligence community] to between 19,000 and 25,000 total fighters within ISIS and the Pentagon has given previous estimates on how many people they think they’ve killed. I did have a couple officials tell me that they don’t think ISIS now has the ability to replace fighters as fast as they’re being taken off, but I have not heard that from a podium.
MR. COOK: Let me tell take a question just to make sure we get the numbers right, but the published numbers about the sheer numbers of ISIL fighters, as you said there have been updates there that reflect a drop in those numbers. So it does suggest that it’s — ISIL might be having a harder time. But I want to make sure that I have the very latest assessment for you. So let me take that question and — (inaudible) — get back to you.
I got time for one more then I’ve got to go.
Q: In the last few days, there have been ballistic missile launches by Iran, China, Russia and North Korea. Is there a full-blown nuclear arms race underway right now?
MR. COOK: The ballistic missile threat is something that we take very seriously with regard to all those countries, and you can see the secretary’s budget that he’s going to be talking about in front of the — up on Capitol Hill this week, reflects some of the threats out there, particularly in this area.
We think it is important that the United States be invested in the kinds of technologies and deterrence steps — that can address some of the threats out there. But it is — what we have been seeing recently is a reflection of some of the priorities that this department is making right now in terms of investments.
Q: Have you seen an increase in the testing of these kind of missiles by the countries I just mentioned?
MR. COOK: I am not going to get into specific numbers here in terms of number of tests, but clearly these countries have decided this is a moment to test those capabilities and enhance those capabilities and we see that as a concern, obviously, particularly in those cases when they are violating U.N. resolutions.
In doing so, we think that is not a good thing and — but more importantly, we are doing — taking the steps we need to take, not only working with our allies in the region, but also the investments we need to make in our own technology, our own capabilities, to be able to address those threats.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
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