Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 8, 2016
PETER COOK: Afternoon, everyone. Hope you enjoyed your Super Bowl Sunday.
Want to begin by highlighting some important news from north of the border.
Today, ahead of the secretary’s meeting of the counter-ISIL coalition in Brussels on Thursday, the government of Canada announced that it is adjusting its contributions to the campaign. The Canadians are tripling their training mission in northern Iraq, doubling their intelligence effort, as well as expanding their humanitarian and development contributions. They will continue to contribute to the air campaign in addition, with refueling and aerial surveillance aircraft, even as they conclude missions with their CAA teams.
The secretary sees these as significant contributions, and he appreciates the decision by the Trudeau government to step up Canada’s role in the campaign at this critical time.
The secretary is looking forward to discussing the details with Minister of National Defence Sajjan in Brussels this week. That will be their first bilateral meeting.
The Canadian announcement is the kind of response the secretary has been looking for from coalition members as the United States and our coalition partners push to accelerate the campaign against ISIL. The secretary expects to discuss additional contributions from countries willing to step up their role during the meeting in Brussels this week.
As the secretary has said, the United States is willing to lead the coalition in the fight against ISIL, but the barbaric group poses a threat to every nation, so every nation should join this fight. If countries are unwilling or unable to contribute militarily, then they should consider the important nonmilitary ways they can contribute to this effort. If you can’t send troops or your aircraft, then consider assisting financially with the humanitarian effort or help rebuild places like Ramadi, scarred by ISIL’s terror.
Thursday’s meeting will, once again, lay out for coalition members the enduring requirements for the campaign and what countries can do to help. Canada’s announcement, along with the Dutch decision last week to join the air campaign in Syria, adds momentum to the effort as the secretary prepares to host Thursday’s meeting.
As you know, the secretary also has a full NATO agenda while he is in Brussels. Key topics for discussion at NATO include the president’s decision to quadruple funding for the European Reassurance Initiative. The secretary believes the expansion of ERI will enable the United States to strengthen our robust military presence in Europe, enhance partner capabilities and improve our ability to uphold our Article Five commitments to NATO members.
It should make clear that America will stand firm and its allies in defending not just NATO territory, but also shared principles of international law and order in response to recent Russian aggression.
Now, I also wanted to follow up on North Korea’s missile launch from this weekend. Following on the heels of North Korea’s recent nuclear test, the latest launch represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action that only undermines peace and stability in the region. The United States remains fully committed to the security of our allies in the region and we will take all necessary steps to defend ourselves and our allies and respond to North Korean provocations.
To that end, and in response to the evolving threat posed by North Korea, the United States and the Republic of Korea have made an alliance decision to begin formal consultations regarding improvements to the alliance missile defense posture. Specifically, the viability of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or a THAAD system, operated by U.S. Forces Korea. This alliance decision was recommended by General Curtis Scaparrotti, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea commander and senior government officials of the Republic of Korea.
The goal of the formal consultations is to bilaterally explore the feasibility of THAAD deploying to and operating on the Korean Peninsula at the earliest possible date. As General Scaparrotti said this weekend, THAAD would add an important capability in a layered and effective missile defense.
The bilateral discussions that will occur underscore the ironclad commitment of the United States to defend the Republic of Korea. If the THAAD system were deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it would be focused solely on North Korea, contribute to a layered missile defense that would enhance the alliance’s existing missile-defense capabilities against potential North Korean missile threats.
Lastly, I did want to remind everyone of the release of the president’s budget tomorrow as well, and specifically the release of the DOD budget plan. As Secretary Carter made clear last week, today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we’ve been engaged with for the last 25 years and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting. The budget plan to be unveiled tomorrow meets those current and future challenges head-on and reflects critical investments in the nation’s defense while also incorporating reforms that will ensure taxpayers get the most bang for their buck.
The budget plan again will be released tomorrow and the secretary looks forward to discussing the proposal with Congress when he returns from his trip to Europe, but because of the secretary’s travel, Deputy Secretary Work and Comptroller McCord will host tomorrow’s budget briefing here in the briefing room. That is set for 1:30 Eastern tomorrow, weather permitting.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Q: Peter, a question for you on the Korea announcement you mentioned. With regard to the consultations, it said that to be — if it’s deployed, to be deployed at the earliest possible date. Does Secretary Carter have any kind of time table in mind? Is he talking about before the end of the year or before the end of the month? And are there any other kinds of military actions or preparations or adjustments that are being contemplated or being made with regard to Korea?
MR. COOK: Well, first of all, on the — on the last part of your question there, you have to remember, we are constantly assessing the security threat posed by North Korean in consultation with our South Korean allies. We have 28,500 troops on the Korean Peninsula right now. We will adjust and will continue to adjust, but this is one particular idea on the table right now, the THAAD system that we’re going to begin the consultations with the South Koreans over the deployment of this.
And I think, Bob, without getting into a timeline, again, we’d like to see this move as quickly as possible, but we’re beginning the consultations now in the coming days with the South Koreans and we expect that this will move in an expeditious fashion.
Q: There are no specific other adjustments or actions that you’re — that are on the table, so to speak.
MR. COOK: Well, again, Bob, we are constantly adjusting. We may not discuss publicly everything we’re doing, but we feel confident that — that we have assessed the North Korean threat in consultation with our allies in the region, not just South Korea, of course Japan, others as well, and that we’ll be able to respond accordingly.
We do feel at this particular moment, given the actions over the last few days, that the addition of THAAD system would only enhance the — the protective measures that we already have in place.
MR. COOK: Those are details that will be worked out through the course of our consultations.
Q: Peter, can you help us understand what capability, if it was deployed, the THAAD system would provide as a theater missile defense? Would it, for instance, provide any protection for the United States or would it be more for the allies in the allies region? What capability does it add that doesn’t exist now?
MR. COOK: Well, it’s — again, (inaudible), this would be part of a multilayered missile defense that we have, and again, it would be designed to bolster our capabilities. I’m not going to discuss all of those capabilities up here, but we do think it would add another level of reassurance to our South Korean allies, to other allies in the region and we think it would be an important step forward as General Scaparrotti suggested. An extra layer of defense, an extra layer of insurance, if you will, to the — to the missile defense system that we already have in place.
Q: For instance, would this system, had it been in place, been capable of shooting down the long-range rocket that North Korea launched Sunday morning Korea time?
MR. COOK: Again, I’m not going to discuss capabilities of all the systems, but we feel confident that the addition of the THAAD system would bolster those defenses and that we would have had the capability, had that system posed a threat, for example, to the United States, that we would have been able to respond to that.
Q: Okay. And one more thing. What — how do you assess — what’s the assessment of whether or not this North Korean rocket or missile launch was a success? Was this a successful test of this technology?
MR. COOK: It was successful in adding further destabilization to the region. It was another provocative action that does nothing to enhance stability on the Korean Peninsula. As to whether or not it achieved North Korea’s goals, you can ask the North Koreans, but there’s nothing about this test that — that surprises us, and so in that sense, again, it’s consistent with what we’ve seen previously from the North Koreans.
Q: But the satellite did go in orbit, then? That’s the question. I mean, did they successfully get the satellite into orbit?
MR. COOK: We’ve been able to determine that — that they were able to put a satellite or some space device into — into — into orbit. But again, characterizing how successful that was and how — I’ll leave that to the North Koreans. But there is nothing they did that comes as a surprise to us.
Q: For years, the U.S. policy had been to prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon and getting an intercontinental ballistic missile. It appears they — they got them both. Still questions as to how effective their nuclear device is and how effective the ICBM or something — you know, equivalent of an ICBM would be.
Now, you’re putting or may be putting a missile defense system in. Has the U.S. defense strategy become accepting in dealing with a nuclearized North Korea?
MR. COOK: Jim, we’re in a situation now where we have at the U.N. Security Council not just the United States, but Russia and China condemning this action. Clearly, this is something that requires an international response as well. But in the meantime, we’re going to continue to do what we need to do to protect the United States, to protect our allies.
This country continues to pose a threat. Its actions over the weekend only enhance that position. So we’re going to continue to do what we need to do to protect the United States, our citizens and our allies at the same time.
Q: You, of course, work for a Defense secretary who years ago, advocated for military action to destroy nuclear facilities on the ground in North Korea. I know he’s since said he no longer holds that position. It’s a different time. But are there military options still on the table to neutralize North Korean nuclear facilities on the ground? Are those still on the table?
MR. COOK: Jim, I’ll maintain what I said before, every day, our forces along the border there are ready to fight tonight. We are ready every day to respond to the North Korea threat. I’m not going to get into every single aspect of our posture in North Korea, but we’re satisfied that we have the capabilities right now to deter the North Korea threat.
We’re adding or proposing to add in consultation an alliance decision to enhance those capabilities right now in terms of a defensive measure, but we’re confident that we have the capabilities necessary.
Q: Speaking of capabilities necessary, the American people care less about THAAD than they do about the effectiveness of the ground-based defense system. It’s had three — it’s had one success out of three attempts since 2008. What is the current level of confidence in the ground-based missile defense system with — (inaudible) — in terms of attacking and destroying an ICBM launch from North Korea?
MR. COOK: I’ll just reiterate, Tony, that we feel confident we have the capabilities to deter the North Korea threat from posing a threat to the United States and — and it’s a multilayer defense system, as I mentioned, and that’s one aspect of our multilayer defense. And again, we feel confident that we have the capability, the technology, the tools necessary to deter that threat.
Q: (inaudible) it’s only had one successful intercept in three attempts since 2008?
MR. COOK: I’ll repeat again. Tony, we believe we have the tools, the capabilities necessary to deter the North Korea threat.
Q: Thank you. Switching to Guantanamo. Where is OSD on presenting a plan to Congress to shut down the base?
MR. COOK: My — my understanding is the plan that has been presented has been — is with the White House and we hope again to have the proposal in the hands of Congress in the very near future. We hope that Congress is prepared to work with the administration, with the Defense Department, with the White House on moving this plan forward so we can begin the process of responsible closing Guantanamo and dealing with those detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be transferred to another country.
As the secretary’s pointed out, that is a critical obstacle here — finding a place to locate them in the United States. And we believe this plan will present Congress with ideas for dealing with that situation.
Q: And, really quickly, on the situation in Syria, what’s going on in Aleppo? Has the U.S. military thought any further about delivering aid there or setting up a safe zone?
MR. COOK: We continue to monitor the situation in Aleppo closely, as we do every aspect of the civil war in — in Syria right now. It still appears to be a contested situation, and we’re tracking very carefully what’s going on there.
And in terms of options on the table, things under consideration, we don’t have any announcements at this time.
Q: Yeah, one more — one more about Korea. And on the officers start consultation between U.S. and South Korea about the THAAD missile issues. Do you have any detail about this issue?
MR. COOK: My understanding — have they started? Is that your question?
MR. COOK: Yes. My understanding is that the formal talks have not yet begun, but we do expect that they will begin in — in the next few days.
Q: So, between the United States and South Korea agreed, talking about the THAAD missile issues?
MR. COOK: Yes. There’s been an alliance decision to begin those consultations — a working group first would discuss, again, the specifics about any potential deployment.
Q: Peter, the Chinese — going back to the THAAD missile system, the Chinese government has expressed some concerns about any additional missile shield on the peninsula. Have they brought those concerns to the department? And are they going to come up during the ongoing negotiations with the South Koreans?
MR. COOK: I’m not aware of any direct communication we’ve received from the Chinese here at the Department of Defense. I’ll refer you to the State Department, if they’ve had any consultations or any — any word from the Chinese.
But again, this is a system that, as we’ve pointed out, would be focused — a defensive system put in place to deal with the threat posed by North Korea, in addition to the layered missile defense that we already have in place. And so we don’t believe that it should pose any sort of concern to the Chinese.
Q: But, Peter —
MR. COOK: Jamie?
Q: — given that North Korea reacts badly to even the most innocuous U.S. military moves — just routine exercises — it often decries them as provocative and warlike — what would you anticipate their response would be to this potential deployment of THAAD?
And what would the response from the Pentagon be to what I think we can anticipate will be bellicose statements from Pyongyang about this deployment, which you have made clear is a defensive deployment?
MR. COOK: Well, I just reiterate, this is a defensive system put in place because of North Korean actions; most recently, the launch from — from over the weekend.
And again, this is a response that we feel necessary to take because of North Korea’s own actions, and if the North Koreans are concerned by this, they have an easy solution here, and that is to stop their own provocative actions.
And — and again, they’re in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Abiding by those resolutions would be an excellent place for North Korea to start.
Q: In between — you know, when a THAAD system might enter the peninsula, are you guys upping your BMD posture? Is there gonna be more independent BMD patrollers coming out of 7th Fleet? More Aegis destroyers kind of out there?
Is that — is that something that you can talk about, like, as specifically as you can, or — or is there going to be an emphasis from some of these offshore kind of sea-based units to go and be able to take on this BMD mission? It sounds like there’s a —
MR. COOK: You make a good point that there — again, we have a multilayered system in place. I’m not going to get into specifics, but just we feel confident that our posture right now is adequate to the — to the challenge and the task, but we do think adding THAAD would simply — only improve that posture and improve, if you will, the — reassurance level for — for our allies in the region and for our own forces in the region as well.
Q: Continuing on the — the North Korean’s capability, what is your current assessment on the range of their missile capabilities? Does it extend, for example, to the West Coast or does it cover is the cover all of the continental U.S.?
MR. COOK: I — I don’t have right in front of me our latest technical assessment. Again, we’re looking at a missile defense system that we feel is adequate to the challenge posed by North Korea today, and again, we judge our capabilities equal certainly to the task or the challenge posed by North Korea.
Q: Is that — I’m sorry. Is that assessment being reassessed based on this launch this weekend?
MR. COOK: I’m sure we’re going to be evaluating every aspect of the launch this weekend, factoring that into our own calculations. But there — there’s nothing about this launch this weekend that comes as a surprise to the Department of Defense.
Q: There’s been a large emphasis on the importance of international cooperation with combating ISIS. So given the Canadian announcement today that they are pulling out of the combat role, how will that impact the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
MR. COOK: Well, as I said at the — at the top here, the Canadians are adjusting their contribution and this was a commitment with regard to the aircraft that the prime minister made during the campaign, and they have — following through on — on that commitment to curtail those flights. But at the same time, the Canadians are — are tripling their commitment to the train, advise and assist mission in northern Iraq, they’re providing other intelligence assistance, doing more on the humanitarian and development side.
And we consider those very significant contributions and we welcome those contributions from the — from the Canadians. They’re still flying refueling and — and surveillance missions, and that’s an important part of the campaign as well. And we welcome other countries looking at the Canadian example and seeing what else they can do as part of this mission, but we appreciate what the Canadians are doing and again, think it sets a good tone for countries that are stepping — traveling to Brussels for this meeting with the secretary and see what else they can offer.
There are a range of capabilities that will be needed in this fight to accelerate the fight against ISIL. It is not all aircraft and there are a host of things other countries could do that we think would further this effort. And again, Canada’s an example of a country that is adjusting its contributions in very specific ways, ways that will certainly help the coalition moving forward.
Q: (inaudible) — talk numbers here, what does that bring —
MR. COOK: I’ll leave that to the Canadians to — to walk through the specific numbers. But again, this is a critically important part of the campaign. We’ve talked about the need to train the Iraqi forces as they move on from Ramadi and take on ISIL and other parts of — of Iraq, ultimately in Mosul. Training will be a critical component, and again, the Canadians are joining that international effort.
They’ve already been part of it, I should point out. They’re simply expanding their role there, as other countries have been offering to do the same.
Q: In Syria, currently, the Pentagon is — is targeting only ISIS in Syria and not Jabhat al-Nusra, and critics have alleged that the U.S.-led coalition strikes against ISIS have actually empowered Al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and the group has gotten stronger. Your reaction to that?
MR. COOK: I know General McFarland was asked about this the other day. Our primary target right now is ISIL, the fight against ISIL, and as General McFarland pointed out, that particular group, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIL don’t necessarily see eye to eye, and I think he wished them well in taking each other on. We wish them all the success in the world.
But to your larger point, we — the critical thing right now is to — is to target ISIL, but we have not lost our focus on Al Qaida as well as a threat to the United States and we will continue to do what we need to to — to target Al Qaida and its affiliates, as well as — as we have in other parts of the — of the world.
Q: So why doesn’t the Pentagon strike Al Qaida in Syria on a regular basis?
MR. COOK: Our focus right now — the coalition’s focus is on the threat posed by ISIL because we see that as the most immediate threat to the United States and to our allies and partners in the region.
Q: Overall, after 10,000 airstrikes since August 2014, the size of ISIS or ISIL has not changed significantly, yet Russia, in just four months in Syria, have clearly made an impact, changed the facts on the ground in Syria. Is Russia winning, here?
MR. COOK: Lucas, we talked about this before. What — what Russia is doing is bolstering the Assad campaign, which is only fueling Syria’s civil war and arguably making things worse. I would not consider that winning. If Russia would like to see diplomatic resolution to what’s happening in Syria, and they’ve indicated that they do, then their actions — they could do more to bolster that effort.
And what they’re doing right now in terms of support for the Assad regime is counterproductive to that secondary goal they say they have, and that is resolving the Syrian conflict.
Q: Is the United States winning in the war against ISIS right now?
MR. COOK: Lucas, you know, this is a fight that we’ve been engaged in for some time now. We are making progress in this fight, but there is a lot of work to do and we are enabling those local motivated forces that can take the fight to ISIL in Iraq and Syria. We’re going to continue to do that. We’ve got a critical meeting on Thursday with now 28 other nations — 27 other nations that are contributing militarily to this effort. There will be other nations present at that meeting who are not contributing militarily, but are contributing in some form or fashion. We’d like to see those numbers grow even further.
We’re at an inflection point right now, an important moment in the fight against ISIL, and we think there is an opportunity to accelerate this campaign and deliver the lasting defeat to ISIL that we and the rest of the coalition feel is not only necessary, but necessary sooner rather than later.
Q: Quick follow-up on the missile, you said it was a successful launch. Just to be clear, did the U.S. observe anything new in this launch, greater capability, stage, et cetera?
MR. COOK: Not aware of anything about this launch that is — we’ve determined at this point is distinctly different from previous launches. Let me — I’ll come back — Tara first, then I’ll come over.
Q: Thanks, Peter. Another follow on North Korea. Given the sensitivities with the Chinese regarding a potential THAAD deployment, has there been any outreach to the Chinese? And how would this further complicate —
MR. COOK: You must have been walking down the hallway when I got that question.
Q: I’m sorry. I missed it.
MR. COOK: I’ll — I’ll repeat it again. But we — I’m not aware of any communication we’ve had here at the Department of Defense with the Chinese. I’ll leave you to check with the — the State Department if they’ve had any engagement. But the purpose of the THAAD system, again, is it’s a defensive system. It would be specifically put into place to deal with the threat posed by North Korea alone. We don’t feel that any other country should feel — have any concern about the deployment of the system, given its defensive nature.
Q: Is there any risk to I guess increase tension when there’s already issues like the South China Sea?
MR. COOK: There is a risk of increasing tension, thanks to the actions of the North Koreans, and we believe that they have done — taken a provocative — another provocative action here, which, again, only destabilizes the — the situation on the — further destabilizes the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
And the Chinese have condemned their actions. We have condemned their actions. This is — it is the North Koreans who are raising these tensions, and we are considering now, again, this move with our South Korean allies to enhance the defense, the security posture of South Korea — of our own forces that are in the region, and our allies — other allies and partners in the region, as well.
Q: Back to Canada, obviously, as you said, this was a campaign promise from the leadership of Canada, to withdraw from the actual striking of targets. How much discussion was there back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, between Canada and the coalition, about what roles they could fill instead of those military actions?
MR. COOK: This is a good example of something. There’s a new government in Canada. The secretary will meet for the first time with his counterpart in Brussels. This is a — he’s had a phone conversation with the Canadian national defense minister previously, but is their first chance to meet face-to-face.
I know the secretary’s looking forward to it, and this would be a chance, again, to compare notes. The Canadians have already outlined what it is they’re doing today.
I know that there were some conversations with us, but this is a decision that the Canadians have made in terms of their own interests — their own national security interests, and again, we appreciate the contributions they’re making, the adjustments they’ve made to the campaign.
These are significant contributions, and the secretary looks forward to discussing with his Canadian counterpart how these will not only help the campaign, but, again — what the other needs are going forward that not only Canada could perhaps play a role in, but other countries assembled there in Brussels could — could — could assist us with.
Q: You mentioned discussions. I mean, was it a situation where the Canadian government came to the U.S. government and said, “we’re making this move. We want to continue to assist in this fight. What areas do you need most support? What can we do specifically”?
MR. COOK: We have — without getting into the Canada example specifically, we have conversations with coalition members on an ongoing basis, as to what the needs are, what the — the requirements are for the campaign going forward.
These are everyday conversations that happen with commanders, with their counterparts at CENTCOM and elsewhere. So this is an everyday conversation.
And again, something that — that, as we pointed out for those who made the trip to — to Paris, the meeting there included a discussion — Admiral Fox in particular laid out what the — the — the long-term — the enduring requirements for the campaign would be, so that every country has an idea what’s needed going forward, how they might be able to fit into that mix.
And it’s not all aircraft. It’s not all trainers. There are a whole host of other things that are important to this campaign going forward, whether it’s logistics support, whether it’s training of police.
The Italians have played a — a critical role in training of the police — been very successful in that particular aspect of the campaign. Now the hope is that maybe that can be duplicated further by other countries as well, adding to the police forces — the training of the trained police forces, because they’re going to be so important to — in terms of holding those areas that the ISF are able to clear. Ramadi’s a perfect example of that.
And the final point I’d make is financial contributions. This is an expensive campaign, and if countries can’t contribute militarily, or in some other tangible way, then certainly, financial contributions would be important as well.
So I’m going to move back over here — some people haven’t had questions.
Q: You said that Canada’s response here — or Canada’s change in effort here is the kind of response that Carter has been looking for. Does that mean, in Brussels, he’s going to be primarily lobbying for help with training and — and intelligence and things of that nature? Or is he also going to be pushing for more military help?
MR. COOK: Well, I think those are — that’s military help. When you have uniformed military people performing training in Iraq, we consider that — that’s a military contribution. So I don’t want to — really, I think it’s important to — to look at it exactly as it is.
But the secretary is going to looking, as I just said, for contributions in a whole range of forms, whether it’s additional combat aircraft, whether it’s ISR, whether it’s refuelers. That’s just one aspect of it. Then we have trainers of the Iraqi security forces, we have trainers of police. These are critical things, logistics.
Not all these — not all these contributions may seem as — perhaps as exciting as — as others, but they’re critically important. Financial contributions alone would make a difference here. You look at a situation like what’s happened in Ramadi, the devastation in Ramadi. Footing the bill to get the water on again and the electricity in a place like Ramadi is critically important to the Iraqi people and to making sure that we deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL and that those people get a decent life back.
And so we look at those contributions as well as part of the conversation that will happen in Brussels.
Q: I just had a quick follow-up on Tara’s question on China. Could you explicitly say that the THAAD system will not be looking into China? Why isn’t it — why shouldn’t other countries be concerned about it? The system is — is highly capable —
MR. COOK: It’s going to be focused on the threat posed by North Korea.
Q: Not aimed at China at all?
MR. COOK: This is a — this is an alliance decision that we’re making with South Korean and we’re doing this in response to what the North Koreans have done, and that’s how it should be viewed.
Q: So the Iraqis —
MR. COOK: Richard?
Q: — agreed to allow the — the tripling of the Canadian troops and will the secretary Thursday be proposing to the allies or will he tell the allies how many additional U.S. troops will be deploying to Iraq?
MR. COOK: I’ll leave to — to pass to the — speak to the Canadians about their own diplomatic negotiations with — with the Iraqis, but the Iraqi prime minister — (inaudible) — defense minister will be in attendance at the Brussels meeting. So, again, I’ll leave that to the Canadians to spell out their own conversations with the Iraqis.
And I know that the secretary, as part of the conversation in Brussels, will certainly make clear what the U.S. role has been and will be going forward. But I’m not going to look ahead to — to the nature of all those conversations he has with our coalition partners.
Q: On Syria, some sources on the ground say that a new group of U.S. special forces are deployed in Kobani to help Syrian democratic forces to plan offensive on Manbij City. Can you confirm?
MR. COOK: Kaseem, I’m going to sound repetitive here, but I’m not going to discuss the location of U.S. special forces and whether or not they’re in any particular area. We’ve said we have a small number of special forces that have been operating in Syria and they performed great work, but we’re not going to get into details that might expose them to risk.
Q: (inaudible) — support Syrian democratic forces, as they are now moving toward Manbij City?
MR. COOK: We continue to support the Syrian-Arab coalition, other forces that are taking the fight to ISIL in a — in a host of ways and we’ll continue to monitor the situation on the ground and support those local motivated, capable forces that are taking the fight to ISIL that’s consistent with what — where we’ve been the last few months, so.
Q: I’m sorry. Turkish President Erdogan said over the weekend that U.S. should prefer either PYD, Kurdish rebels or Turkey. And we know that you — you are considering PYD as a capable force that’s fighting ISIS as well. Will you defy the Turkish president’s remarks and support the Kurdish forces over there as they are fighting on ISIS? Or are you going to consider his remarks?
MR. COOK: NATO is — Turkey’s a — is a NATO ally. We’ll continue to — to have our conversations with the — with the Turkish government about the — the fight against ISIL and the best way to execute that fight.
At the same time, we’re going to continue to — to support the moderate forces — the capable forces that are taking the fight to ISIL, and, again, they’re part of the coalition.
We’re going to continue to coordinate — have our conversations with the Turkish government, and — in the most appropriate fashion, and, again, focus the coalition’s efforts on defeating ISIL, which is where we think Turkey and other members of the coalition want to achieve the exact same goal we do, so.
Q: Thank you. It’s been a few days now since Saudi Arabia has said that they were willing to put boots on the ground in Syria. What type of mil-to-mil conversations has the United States had with the Saudis about this?
MR. COOK: I know that the secretary’s looking forward to speaking with his Saudi counterpart in Brussels. That’ll be one of — we anticipate, one of the bilateral engagements he’ll have, and — in addition to the meeting on Thursday.
So he looks forward to learning more of the details and — again, probably best to — to wait until he has that face-to-face conversation to learn more exactly about what they’re offering.
But again, as with others willing to contribute more to the campaign, that’s good news and that’s welcome news, and we look forward to learning more about the role the Saudis can play — the greater role the Saudis can play going forward.
Q: Peter, two different topics here. Going back to Zika virus, there are growing concerns about this virus, and we saw south — Southern Command, I think, a week ago, issue their voluntary relocation program.
Are other combatant commands or DOD looking at similar avenues for their personnel that might be in — not necessarily Southern Command, but in other areas that are close to it?
MR. COOK: I’m not aware of any other combatant command at this point that’s had to make the same adjustments that Southern Command has, for obvious reasons. Just geographically, my understanding is that the virus is focused essentially in — in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility.
So I’m not aware of any other adjustments. If there are any, we’ll — we’ll let you know. And as you said, this is SOUTHCOM doing what it needs to do — prudent steps to address this threat right now for the men and women within SOUTHCOM, who may be in — in — geographically within the area where this virus poses a threat.
Q: And the other question has to do with cyber defense. The — I guess there’s been a new hack of 10,000 DHS employees that’s been compromised by a hacker. Is there any role that — I mean, can you guarantee that OSD has enough cyber defenses to prevent a similar hack against military or DOD civilian personnel?
And also — I mean, is there anything that can be done on the cyber offensive front by NSA to kind of counter these kind of persistent attacks?
MR. COOK: Well, you know, this is something that this department takes very seriously, the secretary of defense takes very seriously. I think you’ll see that reflected in his budget release tomorrow.
But we’re under attack all the time here, and this is an everyday challenge for us to confront. We feel confident that we’re taking the steps that we need to, to try and defend our networks. That is the first priority for Cyber Command.
But this is a significant threat, and an evolving threat, and one we have to constantly adjust to. So I can’t make ironclad assurances, but I can tell you how important this is, what a priority this is for this department, for Cyber Command and certainly for this secretary.
All right. I got time for two more.
Q: Peter, there was a release at the end of January from — from the coalition saying that a coalition member had dead in a noncombat situation in Iraq. Do you have any more details on — on who that person was and how they died?
MR. COOK: I’ll take that question and see if we can provide you more details. I don’t have anything with me up here.
Last one, Lucas.
Q: Any update on the investigation into why 10 U.S. Navy sailors, in the secretary’s words, “misnavigated,” and went into Iranian waters earlier this — last month?
MR. COOK: My understanding is the Navy investigation is ongoing. I have not heard the results of that, but this is in the Navy’s hands to determine exactly what happened. And — and again, I’d refer you to the Navy for — for that question.
Q: Iran has clearly conducted an investigation and gave medals to their sailors for detaining the U.S. sailors. So I’m wondering, you know, what’s taking so long? And also, is there any action that’s going to be taken against the sailors because of their behavior? And if not, why haven’t medals been bestowed upon your sailors?
MR. COOK: Again, Lucas, the Navy is conducting its investigation, following its appropriate procedures and protocol, and again, when the Navy has something to report out about what happened and what, if anything, comes about as a result of that, you’ll — you’ll hear that from the Navy. But I think again, this is a situation that we need to wait for the Navy to conduct its investigation without interference and we’ll get a clear picture then.
All right. Thanks, everybody. And for those of you not joining us in Brussels, we’ll see you in a few days.
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