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CENTCOM General Joseph Votel Pentagon Press Corps Brief

Press Operations

General Joseph Votel
July 19, 2018
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Army Gen. Joseph Votel

The Pentagon Press Briefing

Time: 8:45 am EDT, Thursday 19 July 2018

 

STAFF: Good morning, everyone. This briefing should last approximately 45 minutes.

Today, we have the commander -- General Joseph L. Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, to provide an update on U.S. Central Command's mission.

Sir, the floor is yours.

VOTEL: Thanks. Thanks, K (LTC Faulkner). Appreciate it.

And good morning to everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to provide an update on U.S. military activities in the Central Command area of responsibility, particularly as they relate to our South Asia Strategy and the ongoing campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At the conclusion of my brief remarks, I'll be happy to answer as many questions as time will allow.

While I'm here to tell you our efforts in Afghanistan are showing progress, it is important to highlight that much work and fighting remains.

The Afghan Security Forces are improving, but require time and support to contend with both Taliban and Islamic State fighters. They are fighting and they are taking casualties, but they are also very offensive-minded, inflicting losses on the Taliban and ISIS-K daily, while expanding their capabilities and proficiency every day.

There is cause for cautious optimism, and evidence that the president's South Asia Strategy is working. The most dramatic evidence of this was manifested recently when our conditions-based approach allowed President Ghani and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to set up the conditions for the first-ever nationwide cease-fire. Although the cease-fire was temporary, all parties respected the terms and there were no reported breaches.

The cease-fire demonstrated the increased desire for peace, not only from the Afghan people, but also from the belligerents to the conflict. We saw numerous instances of this during the cease-fire, and we have seen many since its conclusion, even in the midst of ongoing combat operations. Our campaign approach of increasing military pressure provided the time and space for diplomatic and social pressure to pursue this opportunity.

Examples of other ongoing military pressure include increased kinetic strikes in support of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, targeting of Taliban revenue-generation mechanisms, and making great progress in expanding our train, advise and assist mission.

All six Afghan national army corps have been frequently engaged in offensive of operations simultaneously, and at one point this spring, they were conducting offensive operations in 13 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces at the same time. This is testament to the great work by not only our forces, but also others in the NATO-led coalition.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are orchestrating unprecedented reorganization this year, moving over 30,000 border police and Afghan National Civil Order Police from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Defense, and initiating a territorial army project for long-term local security.

Through implementation of the inherent law, they are replacing older leadership with a new generation of Afghan officers and commanders, whose principal experience is driven by the relationship with the United States and other coalition forces, and in association with our modern military education training models and practices.

 

And despite the security challenges, the Afghans persist in a registering nearly 9 million people for the upcoming parliamentary elections, 70 percent of the eligible voters.

Since the Afghans took the lead for their own security in August of 2014, we have seen strong continued international support for the Resolute Support mission. This year, 29 of 39 NATO allies and partners increased their military or financial commitments to the campaign. Significantly, we welcome our Gulf partners from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to the Resolute Support mission.

At the recent NATO summit, international partners agreed to extend funding to the Afghan Security Forces through 2024. This is noteworthy and will provide us both time and resources to fulfill the intent of the president's South Asia Strategy.

And while this is a conditions-based approach, we and our Afghan partners are moving forward with a sense of urgency and purpose to ensure that we don't miss the opportunities that are being afforded by this continued support from the international community, or that have been created on the ground through activities like the recent cease-fire.

Overall, Resolute Support has observed remarkable changes in the environment, largely driven by the new strategy. The Afghan people and many Taliban grow more ready for peace, as evidenced by peace marches, local and international religious Ulema condemnations of the insurgency, broad diplomatic support to the Afghan-owned peace process and, of course, the cease-fire that I mentioned earlier.

This is a South Asia strategy, and cooperation from Pakistan remains key to accomplishing the overall objective of a durable political settlement in Afghanistan. We continue to work closely with Pakistan to help them fulfill the important role that they have indicated they want to play. Now is the time for them to step forward.

In our campaign to defeat ISIS, our center of gravity remains our coalition network of allies and partner nations. Without them, we are unable to achieve the pressure against ISIS that is required for their defeat. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 77 nations and international organizations remain committed to achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS and its pervasive and negative ideology.

In Iraq, Iraqi Security Forces recently marked the one-year anniversary of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, a liberation that they completely led. Today, both we and the Defeat-ISIS coalition and the government of Iraq understand that as major combat operations near completion, the fight of ISIS is not over. We must work with our Iraqi partners to set the conditions that will prevent their resurgence.

We've recently witnessed a very successful operation concluded this week involving the MOI federal police and the Peshmerga operating together to eliminate presence of ISIS in an area between their forces.

With the newly elected government of Iraq taking shape, we will continue our efforts to support the Iraqi Security Forces in their transition from major combat operations to the wide-area security force that the Iraqi people want and deserve, and that will be necessary to consolidate their hard-won gains.

The addition of the complementary NATO training mission in Iraq, which will achieve operating capability this fall, will be key to this effort.

In Syria, the coalition and our partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are making steady progress.

This week's liberation of the Dashisha area along the Iraq-Syria border is an important milestone, but military success against ISIS requires continued international cooperation to promote regional security and stability, and identify governance, security and economic solutions that will ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS.

 

As I've mentioned previously, consolidation of our military gains is perhaps the most important and oftentimes most difficult aspect of our campaign. It is the phase of the campaign that we are quickly moving toward now. There is certainly more fighting to do, but I am confident our partners and the coalition will prevail in this.

Ultimately, we must set the conditions for an appropriate political solution as specified by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 and a U.N.-led political process.

As the defeat of ISIS in Syria becomes more imminent, the other longstanding underlying issues that have led to Syria's instability are coming back to prominence.

Russia's support and protection has allowed the Syrian regime to escape full accountability for their use of chemical weapons and the horrendous violence against their own people, and has exacerbated the human suffering for hundreds of thousands in the western part of the country in particular.

We do continue our communication and deconfliction with Russian Federation commanders to ensure safety of our forces and compliance with our U.S. international obligations. This continues to be a largely professional military exchange.

Iran's continued malign presence in pursuit of their unilateral objectives threaten not only Syria but Syria's neighbors, and prolongs resolution of the conflict.

To ensure long-term stability, security and effective governance for the people of northeast Syria, we recently began conducting independent, coordinated patrols with our NATO ally Turkey near Manbij, to implement a diplomatically agreed arrangement that addresses our mutual security interests. As part of the diplomatic road map, we will soon begin the necessary training to conduct joint combined patrols along portions of the demarcation line in this extremely complex environment.

Let me close today by acknowledging the sacrifices that not only our American forces have made in these theaters, but also those of our coalition partners, and particularly the Afghan and Iraqi Security Forces and our partners in northeast Syria.

We don't for a minute minimize the continued risk and danger that all of our forces are exposed to as we pursue our common objectives.

Specifically this morning, our thoughts go out to the four American servicemembers and their families and units who lost their lives in the last week in the CENTCOM AOR, two of them from combat action.

I understand that there are many areas of interest in this very dynamic and complex region that I cannot cover in a short statement such as this. So at this point, I'll be happy to answer any questions that you might have.

STAFF: OK. Sir, thank you very much.

For all questions that we're about to go through, please provide your full name and agency for the outlying station to be tracking, as well as, due to limited time that we have, no more than two follow-up questions each.

We'll start off with Bob.

QUESTION: General Votel, this is Bob Burns from A.P.

You mentioned Russian involvement and Russian activity in Syria. Can you say what, if any, arrangements you've been advised of through your chain of command about U.S., Russian agreements on Syria as a result of the Helsinki summit?

VOTEL: Thanks, Bob.

For us right now, it's kind of steady as she goes. We have received no further direction than we've currently been operating under.

And as I mentioned in my remarks, we continue our communication and deconflict with the Russian Federation commanders to ensure protection of our respective forces and to meet our obligations.

But we have received no specific direction at this point.

QUESTION: Thank you.

STAFF: Ma'am?

QUESTION: Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. Thank you, sir, very much for this.

I have a question about you mentioned a combined operation earlier this week between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces.

Are you concerned about the Iraqi government's ability to control those areas and prevent the reemergence of ISIS, particularly in light of the diversion of counterterrorism forces further south to deal with the protests in Iraq?

VOTEL: Thanks for your question.

I'm not particularly concerned about this. And I think this week's very successful operation between the federal police and the Peshmerga I think is illustrative of this. They went through a very deliberate planning process for this. The coalition was able to be in a position where we could help and facilitate that. And then, when it became time to execute, they executed with, I think, a level of professionalism here.

So I think this bodes well, and I think this is a good development.

We are certainly aware, and as we've always talked about, as ISIS was pushed out of these areas and lost their ability to govern and exert their sway over the population, that they would return to some of their more traditional terrorist-type tactics. And we certainly see that in some localized areas.

I'm not ready to declare that an ISIS comeback, or a resurgence, to this particular point. It's certainly something that we are talking about with our Iraqi Security Force partners. They are very well aware of it. And they continue to address that, as they continue to address other security situations that are developing around the country, as you just cited.

Ultimately, I would just add that, you know, the key to all of this is our stabilization efforts, and being able to pursue those efforts and return people to their homes, build up the economic opportunities and, again, get people settled back in.

This is a very, very important thing, and I do think this is an area where the government of Iraq and the international community remain very, very focused.

Thank you.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) more joint operations between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces in the future?

VOTEL: Well, I think we certainly hope there will be. These are always very good confidence-building measures here, and so, you know, confidence begets confidence, and it allows us to move forward in these areas, so I hope that we will.

A successful operation this week where they jointly operated together, cooperated, and collaborated quite well, I think sends the right signals, and I think it does create the conditions that allow these two elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to work together effectively in the future.

QUESTION: Sir, Tom Bowman with NPR.

General, I wanted to get back to the Helsinki agreement. The Russians are saying that there'll be cooperation with the U.S. No sense of what exactly that means.

I'm just wondering, do you think you can cooperate with the Russians, since you seem to be working at cross purposes? They're going after anti-Assad rebels; you're going after ISIS.

QUESTION: And secondly is what I understand, since 2014, when Russia grabbed Crimea, the U.S. military's been prohibited by law from cooperating with the Russians. So talk about that kind of a hurdle? And if that's the case, is this going to be a State Department cooperation with the Russians, as opposed to the military?

(CROSSTALK)

VOTEL: Yeah, thanks. Thanks, Tom.

First off, let me just reiterate: No new guidance for me as a result of the Helsinki discussions as of yet. And, you know, we remain in very good communications with the department here, and when that time comes, we'll certainly respond to it.

It is true, the National Defense Authorization Act as a law prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with the Russian forces. So that does guide our activities.

As I've described for you the nature of our interactions with Russian Federation commanders, it is in the area of deconfliction and communication. And the principal purpose of that is ensuring the safety of our forces, safety of flight, safety of our aircraft and our people on the ground, and ensuring that we are operating in accordance with our international obligations.

So that is the extent to which we have been communicating and deconflicting with the Russians. And as I've indicated to you, as a professional military, this has remained a professional interchange with them in these particular areas.

So I'm not sure I can -- I won't speculate on other things that we might do or might be done outside of CENTCOM here, but for us, steady as she goes.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, does that mean, then, you don't see any space legally for you to cooperate with the Russians in Syria?

VOTEL: Well, any space would have to be created by Congress, or a waiver that they would approve it to allow us to do something like that.

I have not asked for that at this point, and we'll see what direction comes down.

QUESTION: This is Phil Stewart from Reuters, and just to follow up on your comment on Pakistan, you said that now is the time for them to step forward, assist with the Afghan peace process or peace initiative.

And I'm just wondering, what have you seen so far from Pakistan? And what do you need to see? There are some deadlines coming up.

Thanks.

VOTEL: Yeah. I think we remain a very robust relationship with my counterpart, the chief of army staff. We talk frequently, virtually every week. And that has persisted for a long, long period of time. I'm certainly not the only one that is communicating to them. There are others throughout this. But it's important to continue to talk.

And as I've highlighted in my remarks here, we are seeing some very unprecedented and unique opportunities, most recently created by the cease-fire. And we've seen, certainly, the first of the Afghan people and I would extend that to some of the belligerents here, for peace.

President Ghani has made some very courageous offers. He has offered to move forward with the cease-fire, and to meet with the Taliban, and under, kind of, a no-conditions-based approach here, I think, are very courageous opportunities that exist before us.

Additionally, we've seen very good and improved cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan military through the Afghan-Pakistan peace and discussion process that they've had going on, the AFPAKs, as we refer to it.

VOTEL: And that has increased the level of interaction between the military. And what we've seen is, we've seen a corresponding decrease in confrontations and conflict and tensions and exchanges along the border. These are very positive things.

So from our standpoint here, we see this as a great opportunity that now is the time do this. We think we've created this opportunity through our combined military pressure here, and what we need to see is we need to see Pakistan continue to press in the areas of helping to reduce the violence in Afghanistan by their actions against Taliban or Haqqani who reside in their particular areas. And they can do that in a variety of ways: by arresting them, by expelling them, putting pressure on them to do that. And we also need to see them continue to make efforts to compel the Taliban to come to the table and take advantage of these opportunities.

And this, I think, really are the key things that we have asked for them, and we have seen some -- over the last several months, some promising opportunities. And we have seen Pakistan move in some of the directions that we have asked them to, but we need to see that in a much more strategic way and longer-term way as we press forward.

And we think the current environment provides a very, very good opportunity for that.

QUESTION: Hi, sir. Tara Copp with Military Times.

Just to follow up on Phil's question and to clarify, earlier this week there seemed to reports that the U.S. was ready to engage directly with the Taliban and then there was a statement that came out that says that may not be the case.

Could you please update us on, you know, where exactly that stands and should we expect to see direct talks with the Taliban through the U.S.?

VOTEL: OK, well, first off, let me just highlight to you that, you know, as a military commander here, you know, we are a supporting element to that overall reconciliation effort.

This is an Afghan-led and -owned process. It is supported by the U.S. interagency, and, of course, the Department of State appropriately has the lead. And there are others outside of the U.S. government in the region here, who are supporting that.

So I guess what I would highlight to you is what I just said here. This is an Afghan-owned and -led process, and I see our responsibility and when I say us, the United States, the coalition, other regional partners as being in a position where we can be as supportive as possible to moving forward, to exhausting the opportunities that exist in this, taking advantage of some of the new actors that we have seen enter into the discussion.

As I mentioned in my comments, we've seen a number of not just local Afghan and Pakistan Ulemas issue statements on this, but we've seen some come from, you know, Southeast Asia, we've seen some come most recently from the Organization of Islamic Countries and the meeting they had in Saudi Arabia.

We've seen an extraordinarily helpful and powerful statement by King Salman, his majesty, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others. We've seen the president of Uzbekistan lead a Tashkent conference that is supportive to the Kabul process that President Ghani has been pursuing.

So these and other things all provide us opportunities that all fit into this broadly defined Afghan-led and -owned process. And it is our responsibility to be as supportive as we can in all of those things, and support the Afghans as they work their way through this. So, you know, that's what we're trying to do is trying to make sure we exhaust all of these opportunities that exist to us right now.

QUESTION: Thank you.

And to take on my two follow-ups, would that supporting role include a logistical support? Are you transporting Taliban to these talks?

And then separately, on Iraq, could you give us an update on the status of a future footprint for U.S. forces and NATO forces in Iraq; how those negotiations are going with the Iraqi government?

VOTEL: Sure.

So, you know, I will say, we haven't had any particular requests of the nature that you just mentioned, logistic stuff there. And there's certainly nothing we can't consider. We'll look at everything that's asked of us, and ensure that it's being done in accordance with our policy, and with the full knowledge of the leadership, as we move forward. But again, our objective is to be as supportive as we can.

Your other question, I just want to make sure I understand, if we could just state it again, please.

QUESTION: Sure.

Moving forward to maybe a more permanent presence, or a more supporting presence in Iraq, what sort of negotiations are going on with the Iraqi government now for a future U.S./NATO footprint there?

VOTEL: Well, let me just address the NATO piece here.

Obviously, we're obviously very, very supportive of that. The government of Iraq has been very, very supportive of this. And this initiative, which largely grew out of our secretary of defense and the secretary general of NATO, I think is something that is very complementary to our efforts here. And I think that will have an impact on the institutional development of the Iraqi Security Forces, and help with some of the ongoing security sector reform efforts that have been underway, that the Iraqis have largely diagnosed for themselves. So I think that it will be good.

My observation, as being someone who is in a supporting role to all of that, is that is going well. It is on track, on pace with where we want it to be.

With respect to continuing the coalition presence the U.S. and coalition presence in Iraq, this, of course, has been a long-standing discussion with our Iraqi partners. As the government goes through its formation right now, we have seen no indications that have made any changes to any of the things that we previously have talked about.

And, of course, we are in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq, and we are pursuing the things that they have asked us to provide assistance on. As we move forward, I expect that we will continue to do that.

It's my belief that the way that we have operated here in Iraq, and using our by, with and through method, has put us in a very good position to continue to be a good supporting partner to the government of Iraq. And I think that goes to the other coalition members, as well.

And it's always, I think, helpful for us to remind ourselves that we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi people, and they are expressing their will through the elections, and we'll continue to operate from that perspective.

STAFF: As we move on to the next person, at this current pace we'll be busting time. So I'd like to limit it to just one follow-up. If there's additional afterwards, we'll take them to CENTCOM.

Ma'am on the end.

QUESTION: OK.

Missy Ryan from The Washington Post. General Votel, thanks for being here today. It's good to hear from you, for doing this today.

I have just a clarification on Helsinki, and then a Yemen question.

On Helsinki, you said there had been no further guidance as to whether or not there has been any understanding or arrangement on Syria in the Helsinki conference. Does that make things difficult for you as the CENTCOM commander? You're responsible for Syria and yet three days later there isn't clarity on whether or not there's any change on Syria or potential change.

And then my question on Yemen, there has been there've been a number of reports about, sort of, horrific abuses of prisoners at prisons managed by the U.S. military partner of the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. Did you have, did CENTCOM have information about these apparent abuses prior to these stories being reported by the A.P.? And does it trouble you that this apparent abuse is happening by a U.S. military partner in Yemen?

VOTEL: Thank you.

First off, with respect to your question about making it more difficult for us as we wait for something that might come out of Helsinki, the answer is no.

Our mission is very, very clear: It is focusing on the defeat of ISIS and then helping our partners in both Iraq and Syria stabilize the situation and specifically in Iraq to help create a platform that can lead to a long-term political solution through the U.N. process.

So it hasn't changed anything that we are doing. I think we're extraordinarily adaptable here, but we're also very, very clear in what our mission is, and we continue to pursue that with purpose.

On Yemen, we certainly pay very, very close attention to any allegations. As we became aware as they were highlighted, we certainly talked with our partners on the ground in trying to understand that.

I've had a chance to talk with my counterparts with respect to that and, of course, our forces that operate in that area. I am satisfied that appropriate investigations are underway to determine the facts associated with this.

And, of course, the Emirates have been good partners to us for a long period of time. And we have the confidence that they will continue to operate in a manner that befits their values and ours. And we expect that that's going to take place. We have every reason to believe that they will continue to do that.

So we're aware of this, and I think our partners are doing the appropriate activities to make sure they follow up on this, investigate it fully, address where there might have been some problems and then sustain the good approaches that they're taking.

STAFF: (inaudible)

QUESTION: Sir, Dan Lamothe with the Washington Post here.

I wanted to ask you, sort of, a two-part follow up on Afghanistan.

The first piece is we've seen reporting that the White House and the administration has asked for a new look at the Afghan strategy or the South Asia Strategy now that we're close to a year in. Can you elaborate at all on what you've been asked to do?

And, sort of, the second piece of that is: You're coming up on a year. What is DOD doing or what is CENTCOM doing to look at that strategy on its own?

VOTEL: I think what you just mentioned are really one and the same thing here.

You know, obviously we are, a professional military organization. We always want to assess the things we're doing and how we're making progress on this, and make sure that we make course corrections as we move forward. So, you know, a year into this we are doing that. And, frankly, I think that's what you're seeing at the Department of Defense, and more broadly across the U.S. government.

I view this very much in the lens of an assessment of how has this gone so far? Where are we making progress, and where are we not making the progress that we had hoped to make here? And how do we adjust our actions and activities to make sure that we continue to move forward?

So I consider this to be something that's, kind of, normal in the course of this, something we expected, and we're well-integrated with the Department of Defense. That's our, obviously, our principal interlocutor into this. And they, obviously, will talk with others outside of the Department of Defense as we pull together a more comprehensive assessment of how the strategy has gone through the course of the first year.

QUESTION: Logical follow-up question: Did you anticipate any significant course corrections or changes at this point?

VOTEL: I'm not anticipating any right now, as I look across all the different things we are doing. I -- you know, from regionalizing the conflict; the realignment that's taking place within the Afghan security forces; the application of the additional authorities that we've had; the reinforcement that has taken place with the movement of additional resources to support General Nicholson and his forces; and certainly, the efforts on reconciliation. We see a lot of things that are moving in the right direction.

There are some things that are not moving as fast as we would like, and we'll continue to focus on those things.

But I don't envision something that I see right now, that would likely lead to a major change in the overall strategy, which I think is showing progress.

STAFF: Jeff?

QUESTION: Thank you.

General, Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.

The veteran community refers to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as forever wars. From where you sit, do you expect that a new generation of children will grow up to have to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan?

VOTEL: Yeah, I'm not sure I'm qualified to make that kind of assessment here.

But I guess what I would just highlight for you, Jeff, is that these things often take time. And I do recognize we've certainly been in Afghanistan for a long time, and, of course, we're back in Iraq for a second, third time, I should say, addressing some of these problems.

So I think this is a reminder that these things often take time. And I think as you look at other examples around the world of where we have seen these insurgencies, or the threat of terrorist organizations, they oftentimes do take time.

So you know, we've been very successful over the last almost two years here in a place like Iraq and Syria, where we reduced the physical caliphate. But we've always acknowledged that the networks will go to ground. They will continue to return to some of their terrorist roots. They will continue to try to exert influence, and re-exert their networks. And so we've got to continue to keep pressure on this.

And I think that that is something that we're going to have to do as we continue forward. Whether that involves the next generation of American or other children coming from coalition partners, or others who are interested in this, I wouldn't speculate on that.

But I do know right now, it's important to keep the pressure on this, and consolidate and take advantage of where we've made gains, and continue to apply pressure in the areas where we must.

QUESTION: Sir, the U.S. military has had 15 years in Iraq and 17 years in Afghanistan. How much more time do you need?

VOTEL: Well, I'm not going to speculate on any specific amount of time here. You know, we view these as conditions-based operations. That's the way we operate.

I maintain a very robust discussion with the leadership in the department about where we're making progress and where we're not in our respective campaigns, and the things that we need to do and the things that I need to do to move forward. And I believe I've been extraordinarily well supported in that.

We do understand the impact that continued operations has on readiness for our services. And, frankly, the services have continued to be magnificent in supporting CENTCOM, and other combatant commanders I would add.

So I'm not going to speculate on any particular timeline. These are going to be policy decisions that are made at levels above my pay grade. My job is to focus on the military tasks that we've been assigned, and ensure that our leadership -- our civilian leadership is well-informed on the things we are doing, the progress we are making and the areas in which we need to continue to move forward.

And I feel very confident that I have that access and that ability to communicate those things.

STAFF: Ma'am, do you have a question?

QUESTION: Hi, General. This is Nancy Youssef from the Wall Street Journal.

On one of the Sunday shows, John Bolton, the national security advisor, said that the U.S. would stay in Syria until ISIS had been defeated and it had stopped Iranian expansion. My question to you is: What militarily is the U.S. doing to try to stop Iranian expansion into Syria, given that we've been told that the mission is a primarily defeat ISIS one? And how much does the Iranian footprint in Syria shape your decision-making in terms of the U.S. presence in Syria?

VOTEL: Well, thanks.

Yeah, I mean, you've answered the question there. Our principal military task is the defeat of ISIS, so the coalition that -- that I lead, that General Funk leads on the ground force in Iraq and Syria, is focused specifically on that mission. We don't have a mission that is directly focused on Iran.

That said, there are opportunities for us to indirectly influence their activities by our presence, by the pursuit of our ongoing operations, that I think disrupt and make it difficult for them to pursue their unilateral objectives.

And to the extent that that is helpful to the overall situation, I'm glad for that.

But our mission here remains focused on that.

You know, with respect to much more broadly about Iran, you know, as I think you've heard me say and I've said several times, we do consider Iran to be the most destabilizing actor across the region. And our efforts across the region have been on, you know, exposing their activities and then working with partners to stop or disrupt them.

I would remind all of you that it is Iran that is attempting, with Lebanese Hezbollah and their other militia groups, to emplace capabilities that threaten the safety and security of Israel, forcing them to take action.

I would remind you that it is Iran who is supporting the Houthis, who are launching extended-range missiles against major population centers in Saudi Arabia, endangering not only Saudi citizens, but the international community that lives there.

VOTEL: It is Iran who backs the Houthis who are blocking the proper distribution of humanitarian aid and critical medicines to address one of the largest outbreaks of cholera on record in the world, that's playing out right now.

And it is Iran who is providing the capabilities in the Bab al-Mandab, the fourth most heavily traveled strait around the globe, and in the lower Red Sea that threaten international commerce and passage through international waters, with the coastal defense cruise missiles that they have provided and trained to them, with explosive boats, with mines, with other capabilities (inaudible).

So I could go on and on, but I think you get the gist here. Iran's activities across the region are not helpful and they are promoting instability in a way that is affecting the region significantly.

QUESTION: The U.S. is having indirect...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: When you said that Iran has unilateral objective you're indirectly influencing Iran and Syria, can you just explain what that would look like?

And can you support negotiations between the SDF and the Assad regime in places like Raqqa even if that potentially does not stop Iranian expansion?

VOTEL: We have very good partners on the ground in -- in northeast Syria. We're operating in areas with them. We've been very effective and that's illustrated by the recent Dashisha Operation up along the Iraq-Syria border, of knitting together our partners on both sides of the border: the Syrian Democratic Forces, obviously, on the Syrian side; and the Iraqi Security Forces on the Iraqi side. And what that does, I think, is that helps improve the overall security situation and reduces the opportunity for others to exploit that area.

So I think that's a good example of how we indirectly influence this.

You know, our policy is, we are not encouraging the Syrian Democratic Forces to engage with the regime. But, of course, we do recognize the pragmatic, you know, reality that plays out on the ground. All of these actors (inaudible) each other. That's a fact of life in this particular area.

And so we -- what I would just say about the Syrian Democratic Forces, is they have been very transparent to us and they have done everything that we have asked them to do and vice versa. They've been very communicative in the things that they are doing.

So, you know, I would just leave it at that.

STAFF: We've busted time here. We're going to leave for one question and one question only.

Ryan from CNN.
QUESTION: Thank you, General. Thank you for doing this.

There's been a lot of talk about a kind of grand bargain between Israel and the United States, Russia and the Syrian regime.

Are you having any role in that? Are you being asked to draw down U.S. forces or plan for the drawdown in U.S. forces as part of some kind of arrangement to keep Iranian forces away from the Israel border?

VOTEL: The direct answer is no. I haven't been asked to do anything along any of those regards. I'm not privy to any kind of grand bargain discussion or anything like that.

So my mission remains very, very clear to me. It's focused on completing the mission that we were sent there for, which is the defeat of ISIS and helping to stabilize the area, consolidate it, provide a platform so that we can move forward through a peace process that is supported by the U.N.'s Security Council resolution and a U.N.-led process.

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, yes. We have to be respectful of the general's time. Both myself and Commander Robertson will remain back to take any additional questions you all have.

Sir, thank you for your time. Do you have any final words you want to share with the group, sir?

VOTEL: I don't think so. I think we've covered a pretty good spread of the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

Obviously this is a very dynamic and complex area, but it is an area that I think retains a great importance, not just to the United States but certainly for many of our allies. And so we continue to operate in that manner.

I'm very grateful for the support that we get from across the department, particularly from the services, who will provide us the military wherewithal to pursue our mission.

I would just close by reminding you that I think we are a very lucky country. I think we are well-served by our young men and women who are out here undertaking these very complex jobs and doing it so well.

I, as many of you know, and a number of you have accompanied me, I'm in the region very frequently and I have the opportunity to see our young people out there, our young leaders, our young people out there doing great things.

And I will tell you, they represent us so well. They're well-aligned with what our intent is. They're acting with purpose, they're acting with understanding. And they are doing a phenomenal job as we pursue this by, with and through approach that we are orchestrating across our combatant command here.

And I think we should all be very, very proud of them and their families and the communities in our country from which they came. I certainly am.

So, K, with that I'll conclude here.

And for all of you, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you again. I look forward to the next time.

STAFF: Thank you, sir. Have a great day.

END