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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Department of Defense Briefing for Foreign Journalists

Captain Jeff Davis, USN, Director, Defense Press Operations
Washington, DC
November 4, 2015

Date: 11/04/2015 Location: Washington, DC Description: Captain Jeff Davis briefs foreign journalists on Department of Defense operations at the Washington Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image
3:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Captain Jeff Davis who will deliver an off-camera, on-the-record DOD overview briefing for journalists. Without further ado, here’s the captain. He will read a short statement and then he’ll take your questions.

CAPT DAVIS: Thank you, Andy. I appreciate it. And I thank you for having me over here. A great opportunity. Some faces I see are familiar. I know Nadia. I see several folks from the Pentagon that we see there on a regular basis. Thank you for coming. A lot of new faces too.

What I wanted to do really first and foremost is just to kind of give you a taste of what goes on on the – over at the Pentagon almost every day in some way, shape, or form, where we try to make our department, the Department of Defense, the largest of department of the U.S. federal government, a budget that’s larger than the GDP of a lot of countries – where we try to have a very transparent way of doing our business. And I think some of you who work there – I know I see people in the audience who I know have Pentagon badges – I think a lot of people are very surprised to find out how open our Pentagon is. I don’t know – correct me if I’m wrong, we have a lot of countries represented – of a defense headquarters building in any country in the world that is as open as ours. We actually allow press – credentialed press who visit us regularly, we allow them full, unfettered access to the building. They have the same badge that I do. They can swipe right in and come in. They work there. We have close to 50 resident press who work there every day, who – that is actually their place of duty. They come and they report live. They file right out of the building. We have all the major wire service represented; all of the major American networks, both cable and broadcast; and we have a lot of people who come in as needed as well and participate in our activities over there.

What I would tell you just at the outset – I know for a lot of people in the foreign press especially, you’re oftentimes one person who’s stuck in D.C. and one person – you have to cover Congress and the White House and all the agencies and all of the think tanks and there’s just so much to cover. So I wouldn’t expect you to be able to cover the Pentagon on a close – a close and recurring basis, but what I would say that – is that if nothing else, I would encourage you to go to our website,, and sign up for not only just our press releases. Press releases are interesting, but most places I think you’ll find press releases are a little boring. Where you get the really good information, frankly, is in the transcripts. So sign up to get our transcripts. We have an RSS feed, you enter your email address, you sign up, and you’ll get the transcripts delivered right to your inbox.

We do briefings over there, regular press briefings every Tuesday and Thursday, with our Press Secretary Peter Cook. We do a Wednesday Operation Inherent Resolve briefing. That’s usually done by Colonel Steve Warren who’s our spokesperson out in Baghdad. He gives an operational update of what’s going on in the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Those are available to anybody. If you don’t have a Pentagon badge, you can call our office; we make arrangements to come meet you and escort you in. And on all other days when there’s not a briefing going on formally, then they throw me out and I’m the off-camera briefer with the face for radio and we do an on-the-record but off-camera brief just outside my office in the Pentagon press office there.

We have a Pentagon Press Association, like I told you, and a very large resident press and a very even larger group of press who comes and visits us based on the events that are going on. And we have in our press office – we have 22 press officers there and we’ve taken and divided up this very massive Department of Defense into 22 separate pieces so that we can try to work with you and get you the information you need. We can’t necessarily always answer everything, but we can link you with people out in the field who can get you the information you need, whether it’s at a combatant command through one of the services – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – or with one of our defense agencies.

It is a big and difficult place – bureaucracy to navigate. And frankly, even I, after having doing this – done this for 24 years sometimes scratch my head and wonder who owns what particular issue. But the folks in my office are committed to trying to help you break through that bureaucracy and to get to where you need to go to find out the information you need.

I think a lot of you know that we’re broken up, the Department of Defense, into four services – the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines. Those are the people who man, train, and equip. They recruit people. They train them. They make stuff. They make ships, they make airplanes, they make tanks. And then they provide those forces to the combatant commands, and we have nine of those. The ones I think you’re most familiar with are our Geographic Combatant Commands – CENTCOM, PACOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM, NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM. Did I say AFRICOM and EUCOM? I can’t remember. And then we have functional ones as well – Transportation Command, Strategic Command, and Special Operations Command. Those all have global responsibilities.

So in each of those you also have a senior public affairs officer and a public affairs staff, and they can help you get what you need. We also have – given the operations that we’re involved in right now, we have people based forward in forward operating bases both in Afghanistan and in Iraq as we conduct those operations over there. So we have senior people available and significant press offices both in Kabul and in a combination between Baghdad and down in Qatar that can assist with covering those missions.

But I did just want to give you an overview on what’s going on today in the Department of Defense. The biggest thing today, where most of our news attention is, is, frankly, on Secretary Carter, who’s traveling. He’s in – he should be asleep right now, maybe getting ready to wake up and jump in the shower soon, but he’s right now in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and he took press with him. We have traveling press with him as part of that. And he will today, Malaysia time, so whatever time it is there. I think it’s 4 o’clock in the morning. He will today later on be flying out to the aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is currently operating in the South China Sea. So we’ll have Secretary Carter on the aircraft carrier Roosevelt in the South China Sea overnight tonight our time.

He has just concluded a meeting there with the ASEAN defense ministers. And that’s the ASEAN-plus, so it’s not just the ASEAN nations but it includes other countries as well that aren’t part of ASEAN – China, Japan, and others that we attend with. So that’s wrapping up. He had a lot of very good bilateral meetings on the sidelines of that, was able to meet with defense ministers from China, from Japan, India, Malaysia. I don’t have the whole list, but he had probably eight different bilat meetings while he was there.

Prior to that, he had been in Korea where he met with his minister of defense counterpart, Minister Han there. He toured the DMZ up along the border with North Korea and recommitted our nation’s commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and working very closely with them as they face what is a very real threat from North Korea.

So I wanted to, just to kick this off a little bit today, give you a brief update of where we are today with ISIS, because I think that’s the biggest thing that most people, when they look at the U.S. military today and what we’re doing, this is certainly the biggest thing we have going on. So I did just want to walk through some operational details. I can take more questions on it, or about anything else you might have. And if nothing else I can get you in touch with the right people to help you answer a question if I’m not able to answer it myself.

But I did want to note today if you – if we take you over to Iraq and Syria that the so-called Mara line, which is north of Aleppo, we have seen friendly forces of the Syrian opposition resume the offense in the vicinity of Harbul and Dala. And vetted Syrian opposition groups there, along with Syrian forces that we trained in Turkey, are now participating in an effort to pressure ISIL along the Turkish and Syria border. And of note, and this is a really good thing, Turkey has been providing synchronized air support for this mission. They’re using F-16s that we sold to them that they own, conducting several strikes which destroyed enemy fighting positions and killed over 10 enemy fighters.

And further east in Syria in the area of Al Hal, we’ve really seen a – what we think is a very good-news story develop over the past few days. I think a lot of you who followed the mission in Syria know about the train and equip program, where we had some difficulties with that. We overhauled that program and focused our efforts on a group called the Syrian Arab Coalition. And you know earlier this month we did an airdrop to them of 50 tons of small arms ammunition that was dropped to the Syrian Arab Coalition. And we, as part of the training we gave them, trained them in how they can communicate with us to be able to give us information we can use for airstrikes. So we have here over the past three days, in company with the Syrian Arab Coalition, seen very real progress against ISIL. They’ve reclaimed over 250 square kilometers from ISIL in the past three days alone. These are the Syrian forces in the area of Al Hal, which is in eastern Syria, very close to the Iraq border.

The – our coalition aircraft has been supporting their advance. We’ve had 17 separate airstrikes over the past three days that have destroyed ISIL vehicles, ISIL fighting positions, ISIL weapon systems, and we have killed in excess of 70 ISIL fighters in those airstrikes. This isn’t a large tactical action, but it’s something that we think does demonstrate the viability of this new train and equip program, and it’s something that’s still in its very nascent stages. We’ve only had the one airdrop of ammunition to them; we do expect more.

I also want to tie into some things you may have seen in the news last week. You probably saw that we’re making some adjustments to our strategy with ISIL overall. In one of the key areas where we’re doing that not only in Syria, where we will be putting a small number of Special Operations Forces to support the Syrian Arab Coalition, but also in Turkey, where we’re going to be putting in additional air capabilities there to be able to increase the throughput of strikes that we’re able to make into Syria. We recently took out our F-16s, replaced them with A10s, and we will soon be adding F-15s – both a mix of F-15Cs and Es – to be able to further our efforts there as well.

Continuing into Iraq, another place where we have seen significant progress in recent days, Kurdish forces are currently massing in the area of Mount Sinjar. Mount Sinjar is very important because it sits astride the so-called Highway 47. Highway 47 is one of ISIL’s primary routes for funneling in equipment between Mosul and Raqqa. This is a key lifeline for them, and being able to deprive them of the ability to use that line of communication is very important to us. And while we can’t get into the specifics of our operational plan, I can tell you that since October 1st, so roughly over the last month, we’ve conducted 104 airstrikes in this vicinity as part of the shaping fires, and 48 of those strikes just since October 21st.

In Ramadi – Ramadi, as you know, further down the Euphrates valley there closer to Baghdad has been a very important and symbolic fight for the Iraqi Security Forces. We’ve had several days of bad weather there, but since that’s subsided, Iraqi forces have restarted their offensive operations. Along the western access, they’ve advanced several kilometers, and as we speak, there’s fighting going on inside Camp Warrar (ph). All forces there continue to encounter small arms fires and IED clusters, but they have held the line in the south and the east and they’ve advanced in the west and the north. We’ve conducted 18 strikes there in Ramadi just since the 28th of October.

And in Baiji – Baiji, another tragic story where ISIL has come in and completely overrun a city. And if you’re familiar with Baiji, it’s divided into two parts. There’s the Baiji oil refinery to the north; there’s Baiji City to the south. We’ve had both the ISF, Iraqi Security Forces, and Iraqi federal police have been reinforcing their positions there while conducting secondary advances of Baiji City, the Baiji oil refinery, and Sinia. The Iraqi air force is doing a lot of the strikes there themselves. As you know, we’ve supplied them as well with F-16s. They are now using those to great effect in Iraq striking ISIL targets as they develop their own intelligence picture.

Going back to the announcements that were made last Friday about new ways ahead, it’s important to note – I think if you look at kind of the big picture, most of the headlines really focused on boots on boots ground in Syria because it’s the small number of Special Operations Forces we’re looking to put in there. This is actually a little more comprehensive than that, and it gets into a number of things – an additional capability to partner with forces in Iraq – to really focus our training of Iraqis on counter-IED missions and capabilities. One of the big things that’s – people keep saying, “Why is Ramadi going so slow? Can’t they get into Ramadi?” The biggest problem in Ramadi, frankly, is IEDs. ISIL has had a lot of time to really dig into that city, to build a very strategically defensive net around it of IEDs. It is hard to get through that. Airstrikes are not going to do that. Trained ground forces are going to have great challenge doing it. So we’re working with the Iraqi Security Forces, providing them capabilities that they need to be able to get into that city to be able to retake it for the Iraqi people.

But from our perspective, these changes primarily aren’t really a reflection of strategy. They’re a reflection of us doing more of what works and doing less of what doesn’t, and this shouldn’t be seen as a major shift. We’re going to continue to do this. There will be future things where we want to redouble our efforts on things that we know work and things that – and doing less of things that maybe don’t. Secretary Carter last week in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee referred to this as the three Responsible – the three Rs which are Ramadi, Raqqa, and raids. And each of these is somewhat symbolic of something bigger.

Raqqa is symbolic of what we’re doing with the Syrian Arab Coalition, how we’re – we are providing them with the things that they need and the capabilities they need to be able to move in, as they have in the past few days on Al Hal, and eventually turn west and start moving on Raqqa. Raqqa is the heart of ISIL, and we fully intend to – as part of our efforts to degrade and defeat them, Raqqa will be on the list of places that gets retaken.

In Ramadi, that’s all about the support we provide to the Iraqi Security Forces, and we’ve worked very hard with them. They have great capabilities. They’re doing well; they’re fighting hard. They’ve got the F-16s, now able to do strikes on their own. And that’s what that’s symbolic of.

And raids – I think you all know the thing that happened two Fridays ago, where we conducted the raid with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq to liberate 70 prisoners from an ISIL penitentiary, an ISIL prison. I can tell you this was chilling to see, and I myself had seen some of the intelligence in the days leading up to this. We knew – the Kurds came to us and said they were very emphatic that they wanted to do this mission and they very much wanted our support with it.

And it was very chilling, what we learned and what we found there. We knew from overhead imagery that the graves for these people was already being dug. They had dug large trenches. And we knew that execution for them was very close at hand. And indeed, when we went in and liberated these people, they told us firsthand that they had already been told that that was the morning. We got them at about 3 o’clock in the morning. They were told that following morning prayers, after that morning, that they were all to be executed. Chilling that it was that close and that these people were rescued in such a short amount of time before they faced certain death. Sadly, as you know, we did lose one U.S. servicemember. A soldier was killed in that operation.

But that’s the third R, which is raids, and I think what you’ve heard Secretary Carter say is expect a willingness of us to do more things.

This isn’t really combat, though, and a lot of people have been hung up on combat. We’re not doing combat on the ground in Iraq anymore. That’s over. What we will do, though, is enable the forces that are there, whether it’s the Iraqi Security Forces or the Kurdish forces – we will absolutely enable them and give them capabilities to be able to do these missions themselves. This raid, as you know, was a Kurdish mission. We were enabling it. We enabled it with helicopters, we enabled it with intelligence and with operational planning and equipment and with the training that they’ve gotten over the last year. Ultimately, it was their mission. When they got pinned down, we used – we exercised authorities we have to be able to step in and engage on their behalf and in their defense. And that was, sadly, when the U.S. servicemember was killed. But otherwise, a chilling example of what I think was a successful operation to prevent further tragedy from ISIL.

Anyway, that gives you a little bit of an overview and a flavor of what’s going on in the Department of Defense today, and I – with that, I’d be happy to take any questions that any of you might have.


MODERATOR: If you – I’ll call --

CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, sure.

MODERATOR: As – sorry. Please state your name and publication for the transcript, and wait for the microphone, which could be coming from another side. We’ll start right here with Jeremy.



QUESTION: Hi, Captain Davis. Thanks for doing this.


QUESTION: My name is Jeremy Au Yong. I’m from the Straits Times of Singapore. I actually have a several-part question about the South China Sea. My first one is: According to the U.S. Navy – a unnamed U.S. Navy official was quoted two days ago as saying that the USS Larsen conducted a voyage near Subi and Mischief Reef was an innocent passage. Would you be able to clarify if it was innocent passage or if it was a freedom of navigation operation?

CAPT DAVIS: It was not innocent passage. It was a freedom of navigation transit.

QUESTION: Okay. And my second question is: How satisfied are you with the reactions from ASEAN to the operation? Do you feel like the U.S. has gotten enough support from its ASEAN partners, and will – do you have a sense of whether any ASEAN partners will be conducting similar operations? And if they don’t, how does that change the calculus for the U.S.?

CAPT DAVIS: Sure, good question. So yeah, back to your original point – and I’m glad you asked that, because it is an important point – this was a freedom of navigation transit. Innocent passage is a little bit of a wonky discussion here on the side, but – so I won’t bore you with it too much, but innocent passage is something that applies to an archipelagic sea lane. A lot of people have pointed to when China came up into the – through the Bering Strait by Alaska a couple months ago. That’s actually a classic example of innocent passage. It’s something that may fall within our territorial waters, but it’s also a way that you have to be able to go through to get to that body of water, and that’s a – that is innocent passage. This was not that. This was a freedom of navigation operation that we did against what we believe are excessive claims.

I can tell you – let’s take a step back for a second. The freedom of navigation operations are something we have done – that our nation has done for decades. We don’t target specific countries in doing them. In fact, I’d encourage you if you’ve never seen it – we post a report every year. We did eight – we did freedom of navigation operations last year, last fiscal year – it’s done by fiscal year, not calendar year – on 18 different nations, 18 different nations who had excessive maritime claims that we conducted transits to challenge those excessive claims. You look at the list of countries; some of them are allies and friends. We don’t distinguish between whether they’re on our good list or our not-so-good list in deciding where to do these. If we see an excessive claim, we’ll challenge it.

And we do that not out of self-interest. And I think it’s important to know, of all the people who are making claims in the South China Sea, the United States is not one of them. We have no claims there. We have not – we’ve never gone in and said, “Hey, some of this is ours.” We don’t claim that at all. We want the South China Sea to remain the international waterway that it is, for all nations to be able to navigate freely through. And what concerns us there has been the rapid pace of not only reclamation of land and the dredging that’s been going on, but the militarization as well.

QUESTION: But are you --

MODERATOR: Okay. No. Sorry, sorry, we have to move on.


CAPT DAVIS: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t answer your ASEAN question.

MODERATOR: Oh, oh, my bad.

CAPT DAVIS: And I have to tell you I don’t want to – the Secretary’s there right now. He’s meeting with his ASEAN counterparts. I don’t want to – I’m not going to have nearly as good of information as he is and the team that’s with him. So if you don’t mind, I’m not going to be able to give you a direct answer on that, only to tell you stay tuned. And the – when I talked to you about the transcripts before, read those. That’s going to be a better source of information at this moment than anything I have.

MODERATOR: Okay. Down here.

QUESTION: Hi, Jeff. Nadia Tsao with the Liberty Times.

CAPT DAVIS: Hi, Nadia. Of course.

QUESTION: Welcome back. One follow-up on South China Sea. There’s a widely report that the U.S. is going to do two patrols, one per month. I wonder, can you confirm that? What’s the purpose of that?

And the second question is the Taiwan’s DPP – the opposition party – claimed that the U.S. will have arms sales in December, including two destroyer. I wonder – usually you guys don’t comment on arms sales, but wonder, can you confirm that too? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Right. So, South China Sea first. The question is frequency, and I – simple answer is we’re not going to comment on future operations. We can’t, other than to tell you broadly what the Secretary said before, which is we will continue to sail, fly, and operate wherever international law allows, and we’ll continue to assert those rights under international law in the interest of the international community. This isn’t about the United States. It’s really about the global community. But we’re not going to telegraph frequencies or when, where, how, et cetera. That actually is counterproductive to the reason why we even do it.

To your second question, Taiwan, I don’t have anything to announce with regards to arms sales. As you know, we have a Taiwan Relations Act that we abide by very closely to provide Taiwan with the materials that it needs to defend itself, but we continue to believe in a one China policy and want there to be a peaceful resolution to the issue that’s decided on by Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Typically for – so all of you know, the way that we do arms sales announcements, if you want to – if this is something you follow closely or want to follow closely, I’d encourage you to subscribe to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, DSCA. The way these work – I’ll just give you a primer on how – I know you already know this, Nadia, but for anyone else who follows arms sales. Defense Security Cooperation Agency is the Defense agency that manages arms sales, and the way that that goes public is they post on their website every time they make a notification to Congress. So arms sales notifications are made to Congress. It’s a 30-day period. Congress can object, and if they don’t object, it goes through.

So if you’re interested in following blow-by-blow details on arms sales, go to DSCA – Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Sign up for their releases. If you ever want to check, hey, when did – what have we sold to Turkey? Every single arms sale we do, every single arms sale announcement we do is on there. It’s a little tip for you. It’s the place where I look if you – if you call and query me, you’ll think I’m – I’m actually just going to their website, because it’s all there, so – (laughter) – but thank you, Nadia.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to Thomas.

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MODERATOR: Wait, sorry, microphone.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian, Tahrir, Egyptian daily news.


QUESTION: Regarding Sinai, how do you assess the current situation – security situation – in Sinai? What are the main challenges facing Egypt? What kind of cooperation between Egypt and U.S. regarding these challenges? And the main thing, too – are you reconsidering or reviewing the presence or the withdrawal of American force from the national – multinational forces of Sinai?

CAPT DAVIS: So I don’t – to be honest with you, I don’t have a lot for you that I’m conversant in and ready to talk about on Egypt. I can tell you, though, that as far as the multinational force observers in Sinai, we do remain committed to that mission. There has not been discussion of changing it. In fact, we just recently – August, I want to say – actually increased the number of people we have there. We provided additional forces there for force protection. I think a lot of you know we had an unfortunate incident where there was an IED that injured a number of U.S. and Fijian soldiers there doing this mission in the north Sinai, and we – actually, we didn’t respond.

Interestingly enough, this was already in the works even before the attack happened. We had already been working on moving additional capabilities in there, and we did. We brought in additional people and additional things to be able to provide force protection. And no, there’s not been any discussion of altering that. But I’ll see if we can get you some more information on the overall mil-to-mil with Egypt.

MODERATOR: Okay, then.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Captain Davis. This is Heba El-Koudsy from Sharq Al Awsat newspaper [of Saudi Arabia]]. I have two question. First, about the President Obama’s ordering 50 Special Operation Forces to Syria, what – does that number reflect the task? Why 50? Why not 20 or 100?


QUESTION: And the White House acknowledged that they are in danger; they may be at risk. So what’s the rule of engagement given to them?

My second question about ISIS. I would like to know how much and how they – military force in Qatar is using the U.S. fight against ISIS, and if you can --


QUESTION: -- elaborate a little bit about which country providing what and the number of aircraft and ammunition is used. Thank you so much.

CAPT DAVIS: Sure. So let me take the second one first, Qatar, a very important partner in the ISIS fight and part of our coalition. We have, I think as most of you know, over 60 countries that are contributing in some way, shape, or form to the anti-ISIS mission. Qatar is particularly important to us, as it’s – it is where we house the CAOC, the Coalition Air Operations Center. All of these airstrikes that you see occurring over Syria and Iraq that are being conducted by a lot of different nations – it’s not just the United States, as you know; many different countries are contributing to this – the nerve center of that is in Qatar, and that is where we have all the liaison officers, all the leaders of these different air forces that come together.

And I think what is interesting about what goes on there is they build a common ATO. There is, every day, a single air tasking order – ATO; it’s a term of art in the military – where we actually work together and collaborate on the intelligence, we work together and collaborate on the targets, and we nominate targets and pick targets. As you know, we go to great lengths in the – as part of the coalition to avoid civilian casualties. I don’t think you will find anywhere, ever in the history of warfare greater care that has been applied to ensuring that we do not hit civilians. We don’t always get it right and we’ve had times where we have inadvertently hit civilians, but by God, we try not to. And we do everything we can, and if there’s any chance that we’re going to hit civilians, we don’t do the strike.

But anyway, the work of that happens in Qatar. That is where everyone comes together and then we go at the end of the day and say, “All right, here’s the targets we want to hit; here’s the forces we have available,” and we assign targets to available platforms and let them go out. We put out a press --

QUESTION: On a daily basis or what?

CAPT DAVIS: A daily basis. The ATO is a daily battle rhythm. And you’ll see a lot of times, some of you may have gotten on the list – another thing if you’re able, we can try to help you get on it, but there’s a daily strike release that comes out from the CAOC, and it says every day, here’s every single strike we conducted. We list them strike by strike – where and what we hit. We’re very transparent about it. We’re not – I think a lot of people think we’re doing secret stuff in Iraq and Syria. We’re always, of course, protecting military security, but there’s not a lot of secret stuff going on there. We’re very transparent about what we hit.

But we put this release out every day. You’re all welcome to get on it if you’d like. We – it’s not something you sign up easily for, though, but if you want, give me your card. I’ll get you on it. And every day that comes out and lists what we’ve hit, and that’s – but what we – what the strike list provides is what our strikes were. It doesn’t say what country did it. We leave it to the individual countries to be able to define what their piece of it is. Some countries maybe want to be public about it, some countries don’t, and we respect that. So when we put out a coalition strike list, it lists everything, but it doesn’t specify which country did – which country’s airplane it was that did it.

To your second question, ISIL, why 50, I think it’s going to be a very small number. The point of why they’re doing this is to be able to have people on the ground that we can physically talk to. This group that we’re working with, the Syrian Arab Coalition, it’s conducting some very important work against ISIL that requires close coordination. We today do not have any U.S. boots on the ground in Syria – not one. We have, on a couple of occasions, had raids where we’ve gone in – I think you know about these – one was an Abu Sayyaf raid, the other was an attempted hostage rescue. And we’ve been very transparent and open about those, but we don’t have U.S. military boots on the ground otherwise.

This is a bit of a shift in that we’re going to put some people on the ground because we have the need to be able to coordinate with these people. It’s very hard to coordinate military operations with somebody over a cell phone, which is, frankly, what we’re often doing. So having this ability to physically link with them, to be able to physically coordinate, physically train, physically assist, physically plan these operations – in-person presence is a very strong enabling factor for that. So that’s why.

It’ll be a very small number. The intent is not for them to go into harm’s way; the intent is for them not to encounter ISIL. They’ll, of course, always have the right of self-defense. Every military person does have the ability to defend themselves if they should be in a dangerous situation. But it is not the intent for these to go into combat. They will be there in an advisory role.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to break away and take a question from New York. Please go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Michael Persson from a Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant. Two questions, Mr. Davis. First one about – there were some media reports couple – last couple of days saying that the Syrian Arab Coalition seems to be rather weak and ill-equipped as compared to the Kurdish forces over there. One newspaper was saying that they’re a sort of fig leaf for these Kurdish forces. Could you comment on that?

And the second question is that Secretary Carter had various options to present to the President as – on the way to go forward. And the President seemed to have chosen the most minimal option in the fight to ISIS with the 50 commandos go in. Are the other options off the table right now, or is it possible that they are still being debated for next phase in the fight? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Sure. So with regards to your first question, I know the article you’re talking about. Call it what you want – fig leaf, anything else – these guys have retaken 255 square kilometers from ISIL over the last three days. It’s real progress. I wouldn’t get too caught up on the nomenclature and who made it up or whatever. The fact is they’re achieving real progress on the ground and they’re going to achieve more.

Secondly, as far as what lies ahead, we absolutely remain open to additional policy changes. The Secretary and our senior leaders have been very clear that we are going to continue to adjust this strategy. It’s going to be something that we revisit on a regular basis, we’re going to make adjustments to it, we’re going to do more of what works well or do less of what doesn’t. One of the things about this particular new train and equip program that we’re doing – I think a lot of you are familiar with how we used to do – the initial train and equip where the idea was to take entire units out of Syria, take them to training locations outside of Syria, train all of them with a two-month training program, give them materials, and then send them back into the fight.

Well, we had some problems with that. One of the changes that we made in the interest of not pulling people off the battlefield at critical moments was to do these very quick things where we quickly work with the leaders. We still abide by all of our legal requirements, we conduct vetting on them, we give them human rights and law of armed conflict training, we provide them with – most notably, with material about how to make reports to us. This is a really important thing. We want them to be able to make an operational report, to be able to report to us where the bad guys are – more importantly, where the good guys are, because we don’t want to hit good guys, we don’t want to hit civilians – make those reports to us, allow us to assess and evaluate those reports, and if we agree, they will see bombs drop on places that are going to be advantageous to their operations.

So to your question, we’ll continue to adjust and modify, but I think, just based on what we’ve seen literally in the past week or so, we’re seeing some pretty good momentum here on both sides of the border, both in Iraq and Syria.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go to the middle of the second row.

QUESTION: Thanks. My name is Andrei Sitov. I’m with the Russian news agency TASS here in Washington, D.C. Thank you, sir, for coming over, and thanks to our good friends at the FPC for hosting the briefing. Please come back again.

My questions are about Russia, but – and then Syria, but I wanted to follow up briefly on what Thomas asked about Sinai, because, as you know, the Russians lost a plane over Sinai. So have you heard anything new, any new intelligence on what was the cause of the accident, of what happened?

CAPT DAVIS: We have not heard anything on Sinai. I know that there’s been ongoing investigation on the ground with Egyptian officials, I assume with Russian officials as well. We obviously offer our deepest condolences to the people of Russia about this and we are committed, as you are, to finding out the truth and finding out what happened.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir, and on Russia, mil-to-mil, we know that we have this tactical agreement on flight security. But Secretary Kerry when he was leaving Vienna suggested that there were some additional ideas of what else might be done through mil-to-mil channels that he was taking back to Washington. So what are those ideas? Maybe the recent exercise – was that one of them?

And lastly, do you see any circumstance – and you just talked about your boots on the ground in Syria, and people are concerned about the safety of those people – do you see any circumstance where our forces in Syria might be targeting each other, even inadvertently? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, let me work through that. So first off, on the comments by Secretary Kerry, I have not seen them and I’m not – so I’m not able to offer you any assistance there. I can tell you, I think as most of you know, we do have a memorandum of agreement with Russia. We conducted a series of talks between our leadership and their leadership in order to work out a very narrowly focused agreement on aviation safety. What we want to ensure is that we don’t have an unintended incident that occurs in the air in case that our planes are operating – if they were operating in the same area.

So the exact terms of that – actually, one of the terms of the agreement is that we won’t make the agreement public, so I can’t give you a lot of specificity on it. But it does establish communications procedures, it does allow us to have the ability to call back to our respective operations centers and ensure that there can be – quickly, conversations can take place that can overcome any language barrier or anything else. We’re certainly not seeking any incident with Russia and we know Russia’s not seeking one with us.

I’ll tell you, as a practical matter, we haven’t had very many encounters, for the most part, because we’re operating in different areas. The majority – the vast majority, in fact, of Russia’s operations to date have really been focused on the west. They have been taking action primarily to support Assad regime forces in the west. Our actions are really where ISIL is, and those are in two different places. That’s why we haven’t, as a practical matter, had a lot of interaction.

The question about the exercise was – I will tell you is not an exercise. What we had yesterday was a communications check. There was a simple thing where we had two of our planes that were operating in close proximity – a preplanned event – establish communications, radio back to their respective ground units, and ensure that they have the ability to talk. It was a thing that lasted all of about three minutes and then it was over. The communications check was fine.

I would note, though, we do continue to believe that Russia’s actions in Syria are the wrong actions. Everything that we have seen Russia do has been to reinforce the Assad regime, and we believe that the Assad regime is fundamentally the cause of what is going on in Syria, the Assad regime is what created ISIS, and that the first step that needs to occur is a diplomatic solution to get rid of Assad. Our sole focus there is on fighting ISIL. We’re not interested in anything else, and we do have concerns that Russian actions seem to be focused – don’t seem to be, they are focused on reinforcing the Assad regime and assisting the Assad regime in fighting regime opponents who are not ISIL.

QUESTION: Rules of engagement?

CAPT DAVIS: Say again?

QUESTION: The rules of engagement? Do Americans have rules of – special rules of engagement in terms of engaging Russian forces (inaudible)?

CAPT DAVIS: We’re certainly not looking to engage Russian forces. Our – the sole target of what we’re doing there is ISIL. Of course, we always have the right to self-defense, but we have no reason to think we’re going to need to use it.

MODERATOR: Okay. Come down here, front row.

QUESTION: Lei Xuan with BBC Chinese. My first question is: There was some report about the White House and the Pentagon have some different opinions on when to start patrolling in the South China Sea. Could you please confirm that?

And the second question is: What made you believe that October was the best timing for you to start patrolling in the South China Sea? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Well, I mean – I’m sorry, let me just – let me just go after the premise of your question about start patrolling in the South China Sea. We’ve actually been conducting operations in the South China Sea for decades. It’s not new. We have --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) China?

CAPT DAVIS: The reclaimed island, yeah. I can’t give you a inside baseball account of conversations between the White House and the Pentagon. And what I can tell you is that we have said and we have demonstrated that we’re going to sail and fly and operate anywhere that international law allows, and like I was saying before, we do this not out of any self-interest – the United States does not make a single claim anywhere in the South China Sea. This is not about us. This is not about us trying to assert territorial rights at all. What we have concerns with are those that are trying to assert territorial rights unilaterally by reclaiming land and militarizing portions of that absent an international diplomatic process.

MODERATOR: Okay, all the way – last row in the back. I’m going to try to be fair to the folks in back and call on them if I can see their hands.

QUESTION: Thank you. I am Inga Czerny from Polish Press Agency.


QUESTION: Could you please comment on today’s Bucharest summit of leaders of nine Eastern and Central European and Baltic states? So they all called for increase NATO military presence in the region. Until now, U.S. opposed to a permanent base in this region. But I was wondering if you could tell us what are – if there are any other options that the U.S. would support, like, for example, having a battalion in Poland and each Baltic state, as it was reported by Wall Street Journal last week? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Sure, and I confess I’m not familiar with these talks that are taking place. I will just tell you more broadly that we continue to have an enduring commitment to Europe via – primarily via our NATO allies. We just had General Breedlove at the Pentagon this past Friday, and he spoke in great detail about a lot that’s going on in Europe. We have a very strong focus on deterrence. We work with our allies and partners there. Through NATO, we demonstrate our interoperability, our responsiveness. I think you may be familiar with an exercise going on in Europe right now called Trident Juncture, one of the largest NATO exercises we’ve had in decades that’s actually taking place in Europe right now. And this is the NATO response force certification exercise. It’s aimed at training the NATO response force and other allied forces to be able to deploy quickly within NATO when they are needed – 36,000 troops participating in this.

I think you may also know that we have – as part of our enduring presence to Europe, we have 64,000 active and military personnel that are based there – down significantly, as you know, since what it was – about 400,000 during the Cold War – but something that we’re able to very quickly, because we’re much more of an agile military than we were back then. We are able to move in quickly and we’ve seen a lot of our allies within NATO have stepped forward and have greater capabilities, much more so than they did in times past.

But we’ll see if we can get you more. I don’t know if DOD had a role in the talks you’re discussing, but we’ll look into it.

MODERATOR: The gentleman in the – yes.

QUESTION: Thank you for your invitation. My name is Grigory Dubovitsky from Russian news agency RIA Novosti. So one more question about Syria and Russia. Can you confirm reports that Russia has increased in its presence in Syria lately and taking part in offensive together with Syrian forces? Thank you. I mean on the ground.

CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, sure. I – it’s not my place to speak for Russia. That’s really a question that’s better for them to ask. We certainly watch closely what’s going on in Syria. Certainly, we have seen Russians not just with airstrikes, but also with forces on the ground, using artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, and advisors have been working very closely with Syrian ground forces to support them, and we’re certainly aware of that. I’m not going to get into discussing intelligence, but I think Russia would be better able to speak to their operations than we would.

MODERATOR: Okay, gentleman in the far back.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. My name is Chae Byunggun, a correspondent with Joong Ang Ilbo, a South Korea newspaper. The Secretary Carter will be heading to the USS Roosevelt today. And the first question is: What is the meaning of this Pentagon chief’s visit to USS Roosevelt? And second: Is there any precedent for Pentagon chief’s visit to USS ships on South China Sea?

CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, I – boy, I don’t know. I’d have to check the history books. I’m not sure. I can’t think of another time when we’ve done that. Certainly, we’ve had secretaries of defense visit aircraft carriers in a lot of places around the world. I’m not familiar with having done it in the South China Sea before. And what’s the significance of it? I – it’s a – it’s just a timing – a good timing opportunity. He’s been in Kuala Lumpur for the ASEAN defense ministers meeting. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is transiting in the area. It was a chance opportunity for him to be able to fly out there. He’s actually going out with his Malaysian minister of defense counterpart, and they’re visiting together. So I – it’s a chance opportunity but a very good one.

MODERATOR: Okay, come right down here. (Laughter.)

CAPT DAVIS: We shared an elevator coming up here. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: Finally. Thank you for doing this.


QUESTION: I have a follow-up question on South China Sea.

MODERATOR: Sorry, your name and --

QUESTION: Oh, my name is Zhang Yuanan with Caixin Media.

CAPT DAVIS: Shenzhen – oh.

QUESTION: Caixin Media. She’s Shenzhen [pointing to her colleague sitting next to her].

CAPT DAVIS: Oh, okay. You’re Shenzhen. Oh, I’m sorry. (Laughter.) I heard wrong.

QUESTION: Yeah. You just mentioned Secretary Carter had a bilateral meeting with the Chinese defense minister during the ASEAN-plus meeting. And there was news reports saying the Chinese minister Chang told Secretary Carter that there is a bottom line to China’s patience with challenges to its territorial claims in the South China Sea. What was Secretary Carter’s response? And also, do you think – I mean, after this meeting, what is the United States understanding of China’s bottom line on this issue? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, good question. I will have to take that for you. I’m not, as I was saying before, I’m not on this trip. There are conversations that I’m not currently a part of, so I can’t characterize the conversation any more than what I’ve seen with the readouts. So we’ll take that for you and see if we can get you a better answer. We’ll get you another question, though, if you want. Try me – try something else.


CAPT DAVIS: Okay, sorry.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for a couple more questions. I’m going to try and focus on some folks who haven’t – or countries that haven’t had a question already. Perhaps the gentleman with the glasses. Yes. Wait for the mic.

Oh, sure, sure. Yeah.

CAPT DAVIS: I see people pulling glasses out of their shirts and putting them on. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: That’s sneaky. (Laughter.)

CAPT DAVIS: Oh, no. It’s Kasim. Hi.


CAPT DAVIS: He got – he already got to ask me questions today but I’ll take more.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much, Captain Davis, giving me a chance.

CAPT DAVIS: Thank you.

QUESTION: This is Kasim Ileri with the Anadolu Agency, Turkish news agency. Today Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told House Foreign Affairs Committee that, “As we accelerate our work with Turkey and other likeminded partners to roll back ISIL in northern Syria, a collateral benefit may be the creation of a space where Syrian civilians are free from Assad’s barrel bombs and as well as ISIL atrocities. So what will be – which – these comments seems to mean that a safe zone to be established in northern Syria. What will be your comment on that? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: I don’t know that I have anything more for you other than to tell you what you’ve heard already when we rolled out some of this – some of the new things last week. There were – there was some discussion at the time of zones. I think as you know, zones are very militarily difficult things to do and they require a national will to be able to be able to enforce it. So I don’t know that I really have anything more than what we’ve said on this before.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) somehow that Pentagon does not agree with what assistant secretary of state said?

CAPT DAVIS: I’m not familiar with the assistant secretary of state’s comments on it. I can tell you our job is to provide military options to the President and that’s what we do. But the – inside of the sausage making of policy I’m not able to help you with.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go over there, and I’ll get you for what happened.

QUESTION: Take off your --

CAPT DAVIS: Somebody else, yeah.

QUESTION: This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.


QUESTION: Right now a lot of energy is to crush the ISIL in Syria and Iraq. But what is being done to prevent the growth of this terrorist organization? We have seen a lot of incidents in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. They claim more of terrorist attacks, recently in Pakistan also. So what really is being done to prevent the growth of this organization?

Secondly, General Raheel Sharif is coming to U.S. on his second visit in the second week of November, so what really is the agenda? He’s seeking for the continuation of coalition support for – what you really – the agenda of his visit? Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: So interesting point on ISIL, and I just offer this to you for what it’s worth. I mean, are we concerned about ISIL growth? Of course. What we’re seeing, and you see this in Afghanistan, a little bit in Pakistan, you certainly see it in Africa. A lot of people are holding up the flag and saying, “Hey, we’re ISIL, we’re ISIS. We’re ISIS now.” What we view a lot of this is as rebranding. They’re taking the ISIS brand. But what we don’t see is clear ISIS command and control. There’s pretty good command and control of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but other people, whether they’re in Afghanistan or Africa or elsewhere, who say, “Hey, we’re ISIS too,” what they don’t have is the command and control relationship back with the main ISIL. I don’t know if that sheds a little light on it.

I – so to your larger question, though, of how do we do it, I mean, take Pakistan for example. We work very extensively with the Government of Pakistan. We have what’s called Coalition Support Funds, CSF, where we have been giving Pakistan significant amounts of funding to be able to fight the Haqqani Network most notably, but also to have other broader spectrum counterterrorism capabilities there.

In Afghanistan, I think we have another interesting story there, where our actions there – as you know, we ended last year our combat operations in Afghanistan. Our role there now is simply to advise and assist the Afghan forces, and we’re doing that in coalition with a large number of nations, many of them NATO nations. And you have some people popping up there who were saying, “We’re ISIL” as well.

We continue though in Afghanistan, even though our primary missions is train, advise, and assist, we’ve actually retained a U.S.-only – this is actually not coalition, but it’s a U.S.-only unilateral role of being able to conduct counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan primarily against al-Qaida and its remnants, but ISIS would be fair game as well. What we’re not doing counterterrorism operations against is the Taliban. We don’t – we actually view the Taliban as being an important partner in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process. We are not actively targeting the Taliban. [1]

So – but to your original point, absolutely the growth of ISIS is a concern, but I – from what I can tell on the battlefield that we’re working on most closely with – in Iraq and Syria, we’re seeing some very real challenges that ISIL’s facing. They are on the run. They are not expanding anymore. I think we were all – watched in terror last year as cities were falling like dominos to ISIL. That’s not happening anymore. They are not taking new territory. They are on the run. Their infrastructure is crumbling. Their supply lines are crumbling. Their leadership is getting killed as fast as we can kill them and replaced by people who are more junior to the bench who are not as seasoned of leaders. The flow of foreign fighters into Syria continues to be a major problem, but we’re working with – most notably with Turkey and other nations to be able to shut that border down to prevent new fighters from coming in.

But we’re going to win it. We’re going to win this. ISIL will be defeated, and we’re going to do this in company with the – with the nations of the world in doing this. Sixty-five countries we’ve got working together with us. It’s important to do this – with due respect to Russia, it’s important to do this not unilaterally but as a coalition, and I think we’re going to make even more progress. This will be a long, hard fight but we’re going to win it.

QUESTION: What about doing train and equip (off-mike)?

CAPT DAVIS: I’m sorry, I don’t have anything on that. Let me take it for you. I’m not aware of it. Yeah.

MODERATOR: We’ll close with a question from the other guy with glasses. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Hi. I am Haykaram Nahapetyan with the Public Television Company of Armenia. So one question is related to the fate of Christian minorities of Syria. There were reports that the number of Christians in Syria has decreased significantly throughout last years. You mentioned Aleppo, and Aleppo had – still has Armenian population but lots of them were forced to leave Aleppo and some people were killed too. So I was wondering if Pentagon’s strategy – not just existing one but also the new strategy may be related to this possible – more engagement in Syria and boots on the ground that you mentioned earlier involves any consideration of providing more safety and security to the Christian population of Syria and also protecting the Christian monuments, because we know that ISIS targeted the Christian monuments of this geography as well.

And my second question is more specific related to cooperation and peacekeeping between Armenia and United States, also Armenia and United Nations. We have peacekeepers in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Mali, and I was wondering if you have any insight regarding how our peacekeepers are doing here. Thank you.

CAPT DAVIS: To your second one first, I don’t, and I’m sorry. You’ve actually educated me. I did not know that. Thank you.

Gosh, so back to Syria. And there are so many stories that are heart wrenching and tragic going on in Syria right now. And there is blood being shed, families being ruined, lives being lost, generations of people being wiped out because of ISIL, because of the regime. It is a tragedy. So I don’t know that we have all the answers to that. There’s a lot of things we’re doing through our government, our whole-of-government approach, and our colleagues at State Department and others work – work things through diplomatic channels.

I can tell you militarily our focus is solely on defeating ISIL, but that the other big cause of the problem in Syria, the other big cause of the tragedy and the heartache and the bloodshed – the needless bloodshed – is Assad. And he has to go. And we want him to go peacefully and diplomatically. Bolstering him, fighting for him, emboldening him through military operations like Russia is doing is not the answer. The answer is to let him go and let the people of Syria have a peaceful transition to a new leader.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. This event has now concluded.

# # #


[1] Captain Davis meant that the Taliban’s only path to political legitimacy is through an Afghan-led reconciliation process.  The Taliban have a choice:  they can join in a peace process or continue to kill Afghan civilians and destabilize the country.  It remains our hope that they will choose peace.