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Media Availability with General Joseph L. Votel, Commander, U.S. Central Command, in the Pentagon

Press Operations

Army General Joseph L. Votel, Commander, U.S. Central Command
Aug. 8, 2018
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STAFF:  General -- General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command.

GENERAL JOSEPH L. VOTEL:  OK.  Well, thanks -- thanks, Bill.  And thanks everybody.  And thanks to the Defense Press Operations team here for hosting us today.  Thanks to all of you for joining us.  I look forward to talking with you today.

I do have a short statement, then I'll be happy to answer any -- any and all of your questions.

First off, I want to acknowledge Macedonia for yesterday's transfer and repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters from Syrian democratic force detention.  Macedonia's actions set an important example for all members of the global coalition to defeat ISIS and the international community to follow.

As you are well aware, ISIS has used foreign terrorist fighters to pursue their murderous activities in both Iraq and Syria.  Repatriation of captured foreign terrorist fighters to their country of origin is the natural end state so that they can be prosecuted and held to account for their actions.  So it was great to see Macedonia's leadership in this regard and I urge other nations to follow their examples.

I also want to comment on a story posted on Saturday regarding ISIS Khorasan, ISIS-K, fighters who surrendered to Afghan forces in which -- in which questioned whether they were being treated as honored guests as opposed to terrorist fighters, suggesting that they might not be held to account for activities perpetrated against the people of Afghanistan.

The government of Afghanistan has assured us that these ISIS-K fighters will be treated as war prisoners.  They have been transferred from Jawzjan province to government detention facilities, where they investigated and held to account for any war crimes that they are found to have committed.  In televised remarks from the nation on Monday, CEO Abdullah Abdullah affirmed that commitment and President Ghani's spokesman and chief of staff echoed it yesterday, on Tuesday.

I also want to highlight that the fight to destroy to destroy ISIS-K being conducted by the United States and our Afghan partners continues.  We have killed numerous ISIS-K fighters this year.  And as you may remember, we continued our operations against them and other terrorist organizations like al Qaida during the recent Eid ceasefire between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

The military campaign against ISIS has been both continuous and effective.  And I am sure that that had contributed to this surrender.  It is important to recognize that while we apply military pressure against the Taliban to bring them to the table of reconciliation, we harbor no illusion about reconciliation with ISIS-K; our mission is to destroy this organization.

I assessed that the reporting on this topic was a moment in time after the surrender when the Afghans were working through the details, something which the Afghan government has said they could have managed better.  It's important to remember that many ISIS-K fighters did quit the fight and that is a good thing.  Taking ISIS-K fighters off the battlefield through attrition or surrender will make not only Afghanistan a safer place, but also protects the United States and its partners and allies.

And with that, I'm happy to answer any questions.

Q:  Thank you, general, for doing this.  We appreciate it.  I have a question -- a broader question on Afghanistan.  With General Miller coming in this fall, there's -- there are questions about what -- what his assessment may be, what he's going to look at.  Can you talk a little bit about what types of changes on the ground or tweaks you think he may need to make, or things that you think he should look at, and other changes on the ground fight in Afghanistan for the next -- for the ...

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, thanks.

Q:  ... next year?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, a very good question.  So, you know, obviously we've been talking with General Miller as he gets prepared to go into a theater and take over responsibilities from General Nicholson.  You know, I expect that -- that he will take some time to get out and see the operating areas for himself so that he can make his -- his own assessment.

I think it's been important, as we've -- as we go through the preparation period for him, to make sure that he is aware of -- well aware of the strategy that we have been pursuing.  So, an important part of this will be the assessment that he gets from General Nicholson on -- on his assessment of how the strategy has been applied over the last year.  And that should inform his -- his way forward.

So, you know, I can't predict exactly what General Miller may say in terms of this.  But, you know, as I've -- as I've commented, my -- my personal view is I think the strategy that we have in place is the right one.  There certainly are opportunities where we can tweak this.

We want to make sure we're taking actions to minimize vulnerabilities for the Afghan forces.  So minimizing the remote checkpoints and things like that is an important aspect of this.  And that may be something we -- we look at.

I think it's also important to make sure that we look at the proper utilization of some of their high-end capabilities, their Afghan special operations forces.  These are very highly trained, highly relied upon forces and we have to be mindful that they are not overused and used in -- in places that are not necessarily appropriate for their use, and for which other forces could be -- could be applied.

So these might be some areas that we'll pay attention to.  But I'm very confident that General Miller, who is very familiar with Afghanistan, will have an ample opportunity to look at what has been done and then -- and then make his own assessment.

Q:  Just a quick follow-up on the -- just on the SFAB also, is there any changes that you think may be necessary in how they've done their job this year?  Because they will also be coming out; and then a new one will be going in.

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, right.  So, you know, again, a great question.  So, you know, as a learning organization, the U.S. Army really puts emphasis on this idea of passing lessons learned and passing information.

So I know there's been a steady flow of information from the current SFAB, the first SFAB, as we refer to them, to the second SFAB then we'll -- that will follow them in theater.  So they've been sharing a lot of -- a lot of -- a lot of lessons learned, just in terms of how they're operating, and how they're disposed of out on the battlefield, and --and -- and making sure that they take this new concept of this purpose-built advisory capability and really, really optimize it.

So, you know, I would expect that -- and, you know, some of the discussions here are where are the -- where are the best locations for the SFAB to be located.  Obviously we've -- we've, in some cases, pushed them down as low as the kandak or battalion levels.  We've also seen some very good progress using them at the brigade levels where there is a real capability to integrate.

We've learned a lot about some of our advisory capabilities with the combat support -- combat service support organizations that are -- that -- that support their operations.  So we'll -- we'll pass some lessons learned on that as well.

But I -- I'm -- I'm very proud of what my service in the Army has done has standing these organizations up.  They have a very robust training program.  They'll go through a certification exercise down at the Joint Readiness Training Center, just as the last one did.  And -- and I'm confident they'll be ready to -- to do this.

STAFF: Phil.

Q:  Hi, General?  

Just to -- what is this surrender and the confusion of this surrender, and this distinction between the Islamic State and the Taliban say about this kind of tricky situation you're at right now in the -- in the war in Afghanistan?

Where, there is kind of open reconciliation, and yet, you know, this -- this mismatch of -- of -- of groups who seem to be offering (inaudible).  What does it say about where -- where the U.S. is at in this campaign?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I -- I think, I don't know that it necessarily says anything about -- about where we might be in the campaign.  I -- I -- I guess, I would say to you, Phil, that -- you know, the -- this, you know, this is -- I know an overused statement here in CENTCOM, this situation is very complex.

And so, you do have a Taliban organization which, you know, as part of our strategy, we're focused on pushing, pressuring towards reconciliation.  In the meantime, we do have -- we do have a branch of ISIS there -- ISIS Khorasan -- that has adopted the ideology, some of the techniques and approaches, kind of the -- what I would just call the -- almost the mindless violence that has been associated with ISIS and is applying that on the -- on the campaign, in their campaign.

And that, I don't -- we don't believe is reconcilable.  This is something that is -- is not -- is not something.  This -- that -- the ISIS-K is not a popular insurgency in Afghanistan, everybody is against -- is against them.

So, you know, there has been some movement back and forth between these two organizations, ISIS-K and Taliban, with fighters moving back and forth.  That may add to a little bit -- to some of the confusion here.  But I think we've been very clear.  And I think the Afghans are very clear here that, you know, our focus is on military pressure against the Taliban for -- for reconciliation and destruction of ISIS -- ISIS Khorasan.

Q:  (Off mic) Well, just to follow-up then, I mean if these groups are moving -- if these fighters are moving back and forth, does that mean that they want to not be treated as war prisoners?  They have to first go back to the Taliban, or?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I think -- I ...

Q:  (Off mic) It's an ongoing situation, right?

GEN. VOTEL:  ... yes, I think you have -- I think there might be a variety of different motivations for them.  It might -- it might -- it might be as simple as they're getting paid more by ISIS Khorasan than they're getting paid by the Taliban.  Or they may not be satisfied with some of the -- some of the decisions that are being made by the Taliban leadership and so they're jumping -- jumping ship here.

So I, you know, I think there's a variety of reasons why fighters might move back and forth in those things there, between those organizations there.  So, I mean, I think that could be -- that could be present as well.

STAFF:  Nancy.

Q:  General, could I follow-up on that, please?  You mentioned that ISIS-K has adopted the tactics and violence that ISIS Syria embraces.  I'm curious, have you seen them adopt the desire to fight external attacks outside of Afghanistan?  Have you seen any affiliation with outside groups that would potentially carry out attacks in Europe or against the United States?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think, you know, I think in general ISIS does have that -- does have that intention.  I think what we've mostly seen is ISIS making use of high-profile attacks in places like Jalalabad and in -- in Kabul, trying to inflict as -- as many casualties as they can, whether it's on the Afghan security forces or whether it's on Afghan civilians, and using the shock of this violence to try to increase their -- increase their -- their exposure.

I think we always have to be concerned about ISIS, whether it's ISIS-K or whether it's any of the other branches of it, harboring intentions to operate, you know, much more globally or externally from the areas in which they're operating.  And so, you know, we do have that concern about them.

Q:  Can I ask a follow-up on that?  Hi, Wes Morgan with POLITICO.  

Had there actually -- had there been links to -- between ISIS-K and any actual plots on the West, have there been any of those?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, I -- I'm not necessarily recalling any specific things right here.  I probably -- that's something I'd probably want to go back and take a look on.  And I think there -- I think there probably has been, but I'm -- I -- I can't cite a specific example to you.

Q:  OK.  General Votel, Missy Ryan.  Thanks for being here.  I just wanted to ask you two questions of -- on Iran and Yemen.  Firstly, there's a -- an effort underway to get a peace process going to end the Yemen civil conflict which the United States is supporting the Gulf countries on.

Do you think that the Gulf countries are doing enough to -- on their side of -- of the ledger to get that peace process going?  Obviously there's a deal on the table to hand over control of the city of Hodeidah, and I'd like to know what your message to those countries is.  

And secondly, on Iran, there's been some threats that have come through regarding the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran sort of suggesting that they might take actions to restrict shipping in waters off Iran.  

Given the heightened tensions and all the sanctions that are coming into play, is CENTCOM doing anything differently to ensure freedom of navigation in that area?

GEN. VOTEL:   Thanks.  Well, on your first question, just the comment here, that military operations in and of themselves, by themselves are rarely sufficient to achieve the end states that we seek.  And so, you know I think what we are seeing right now, I think, is a combination of military pressure and political pressure largely being orchestrated by the U.N. Special Envoy Mr. Griffiths, that I think is resulted in not -- in some progress in terms of moving forward, because we're bringing the parties to discuss.  There certainly is a lot left to be -- to be done there with that.  

And you know, certainly, our great hope is with that Mr. Griffiths and his -- and his efforts here, but I think that the key piece of this is that military operations, without a linkage to political end states and political approaches are rarely going to be successful. 

Q:  So just to be more specific, are the Gulf countries showing a flexibility and doing enough in order to strike the deal?

GEN. VOTEL:  I -- I believe they are.  I believe they are right now, and I think they've been supportive in terms of meeting with the U.N. special envoy and conducting their operations in a manner largely that is not exacerbated the horrible humanitarian situation that has taken place, in Yemen.  And I would remind you that it’s -- it wasn't just on the backs of the Gulf countries as well.  The Houthis are parties to this, and it's the Iranian-supported Houthis that frankly through their -- emplacement of obstacles and other things in the city Hodeidah, that are actually slowing down the movement of humanitarian aid to -- desperately needed humanitarian aid to the people.  

So all parties here have to -- have to adhere to this and Mr. Griffiths is doing his very best to try to move that forward.  

The second question was about the Bab-el-Mandeb?

Q:  Yes.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I would tell you that the Bab-el-Mandeb is open for business, as far as we're concerned.  And I would say it's a major -- it's a major waterway, not just for the United States, but for many countries in terms of moving through that particular area.  So one of our key missions here is to ensure freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce, and we will continue to exercise that through the region.

In terms the unique things that we did, we do, we always think of our defense in terms of defense in depth here, so we're making good use of our intelligence surveillance resources.  I think our crews that are onboard our ships are well rehearsed, well prepared like the U.S. Navy when they come into our area.  They are well schooled in their preplanned responses, and we're extraordinarily vigilant in watching for changes in environment there and making sure that -- that we are -- we are identifying that first and not putting ourselves in position where we're -- where we're vulnerable.

Q:  So you haven't seen any changes to the environment yet?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I mean, we're certainly aware that there are -- there have been some ships that have been stuck in the area.  There most recently, a Saudi Arabian vessel (inaudible) a tanker, and so we're certainly very mindful of that.  

Again, we -- making sure we're understanding what happened there and disseminating lessons learned, and advising our partners, and of course making sure that our forces are meanwhile aware of all that.  

Q: General, thanks for (inaudible).  Task and Purpose stories claim that a U.S. surgeon (inaudible) was struck by an YPG member in Syria in February.  Could you confirm and can you comment on (inaudible)?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, I -- I actually saw that story just before I came back in here.  I'd actually like to go back and just my facts on this and we'll -- I'd be happy to get back to you on that one if I can. 

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  General, could we go back to the foreign fighters in Syria?  Can you give sort of an update on how many are being held there and how many countries still have not stepped up to the plate to accept their nationals back?

GEN. VOTEL:  I wouldn't characterize it as necessary as people not stepping up to the plate in terms of this.  I think there's a -- there's a very robust engagement that is occurring through our interagency with these countries, to make sure they understand the people that we have, that they have.  They understand the materials they were -- they were captured with that they had -- had the ability to use this information to prosecute them as well.  So I think there's a very robust effort in terms of how we're -- how we're doing that.  And we are working -- working down a list of countries here to try -- to try to get them repatriated.  

Obviously, you know, each of these countries their own judicial system, their own standards of evidence and things that they have to pursue, so we have to work with that and so it requires some patience in terms that.  And so we are exhibiting that.  

And in the meantime, the Syrian Democratic Forces are continuing to hold them, and to continue to hold them in very humane circumstances and doing their best to do that.  In terms of the numbers of this, they are in the hundreds, and they come from dozens of countries, around the globe.

Q:   Quick Iran question -- have you seen any potential resurgence of unprofessional activities this past week since the Iran oil sanctions were re-imposed?  Do you anticipate any unprofessional maneuvers, activities because of the sanctions (inaudible)?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, we -- we have not.  You know, I think so far this -- this calendar year, we have not seen any -- any incidents that we would characterize as unsafe or unprofessional.  As compared to what we've seen over the last couple years, we've certainly seen some examples of that.  

I -- I don't, Tony, if I can explain why that is.  I'm glad that that's the case; I would encourage them to continue to do that.  We expect to -- we expect our -- our maritime forces to operate in a professional manner, and I think we should expect that from others that operate in an international maritime environment.  And so, for whatever reason that they're doing that, I hope that it continues.  

I would just highlight to you, as I mentioned, to Missy here, that we remain very vigilant in terms of this.  Our -- you have seen the number of pictures of our crews and ships going through the Strait of Hormuz and -- and -- and we are demonstrating our readiness and our vigilance with our activities through here, and we will continue to be well-prepared to deal with anything that comes up.  

Q:  This comes up every time there's a flare-up with Iran, that it could possibly block the Strait of Hormuz.  This is like over the last 20 years, it's been an issue.  Is that even possible at this point, to block traffic through the Strait, giving the U.S. and coalitions capabilities in the region?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, you know, I mean, Iran has - has a layer of capabilities here, you know, including mines, that include explosive boats, that include, you know, coastal defense missiles and radars, and other things.  So, you know, they certainly have some capabilities there.  But I would just suggest we have capabilities as well.

And, you know, we routinely focus on demining exercises in the region and we maintain the forces and readiness, as do some of our partners in the region that are well - well trained, well prepared to deal with these types of - of situations.

STAFF:  Joe.

Q:  Thank you.  I have a question on Syria.  You may know...

GEN. VOTEL:  On Syria?

Q:  On Syria, as you may know, as you have seen on the news in the region, Russia and Israel were in contact in the last few months trying to create a security zone along the Golan Heights.  

Some reports are saying that the security zone could go up to 85 kilometers inside the city of (inaudible).  So, I would like to hear from you if the United States military has a role in this - these negotiations, number one.  Number two, if -- what's your affiliation and we see that Iran would be able to take out all of its surrogates like IRGC, Hezbollah, and others from that area?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, thanks - thanks for your question.  First off, you know, in those areas I would just remind you that we - we don't operate in that part of Syria.  So, you know, I - I don't have a direct role in that aspect of the discussions that are ongoing.  So, I really am not really in a position to comment on that.

But I - but I would just add, you know, this to me is another very clear example of the destabilizing behavior that Iran pursues in the region where they are attempting to move advanced capabilities into places where they can threaten Israel or, potentially, other countries in the region.

And this, you know, is - I think is provocative and I think it is putting countries in the region, Israel, in a position where they have to - where they have to defend themselves.

And so, I think the responsibility on this fully falls onto the Iranians and their exploitation of this environment in Syria, to move these kinds of capabilities into positions where they threaten bordering countries.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Barb.

Q:  Could we turn back to the Strait of Hormuz for one second, it was a bit unusual to see a public statement from Central Command on the Iranian exercise you don't really, routinely, put out public statements commenting on those things.  

Why do you think the Iranians engaged in this sudden, large, off schedule exercise?  Do you think it was related to the upcoming re-imposition of the sanctions?  What statement were they trying to make?  And to what extent was the statement from Central Command a message back to them?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I do think that their exercise, you know, first of all, the scope and scale of the exercise we saw was similar to what we've seen with other exercises that they've done in this region.

I think what was perhaps a little bit different was the timing of it in this particular case.  And so, I think it's pretty clear to us that they were trying to use that exercise to send a message to us that as - as we approach this - the period of the sanctions here, that they had some capabilities.

And so, they were - I think they were trying to message to us.  I think the purpose of any messages that we would send would be to highlight, to them, that we are paying attention.  We are very vigilant.  We are aware of what's going on, and - and we remain ready to protect ourselves as we pursue our objectives of freedom of navigation and the freedom of commerce in international waters.

Q:  Can I follow up very quickly?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes.

Q:  What is your assessment?  Do you think, at this point, the IRGC forces, the IRGC Navy, in particular, is operating independently of Rouhani and the national government in Iran.  Are they out there -- is Qasem Soleimani directing them, independently, to do their own thing?  Do they present an independent capability and threat to you, separate from the government of Iran?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, I don't know if I can make the determination of whether they're operating independently or not.  I don't really have any information to substantiate that one way or the other.  

I would just follow up on your comment about Qasem Soleimani.  I do think he is an individual who is perpetrating a lot of this destabilizing activity, his very aggressive nature, and, you know, wherever you see Iranian activity, you see Qasem Soleimani, whether it is in Syria, whether it is in Iraq, whether it is in Yemen.  

He is - he is there and his Quds Force, the organization in which he leads, that is, I think, the principle - the principle threat as we look at this and their principle ones that are stoking this destabilizing activity.

Q:  Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP.  Could you give us an idea of where - where you are with the phase three of Operation Round Up?

GEN. VOTEL:  Oh, thank you.  Yes, so, as many you know, we - we've continued to pursue the mission in Iraq and Syria that we were sent for - we were sent there for, and that is the defeat of ISIS.  

And so, as we are now moving in to the final areas which are under the control of - of ISIS or remain under the control of ISIS, as you referred to Operation Round Up here, we are now moving into what we refer to as phase three of it, which is - will be the operations, kind of deep into the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

I - I would just report to you that, you know, the preparations for that are on track.  The forces have been assembled.  We are well integrated with them and - and we are getting very good cooperation from the Iraqi security forces on the other side of the border.

So, there has been a very good collaboration between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi security forces as we have moved down into that area.  So, I - I consider this phase of the operation on track.  Like most of our fights against ISIS, I expect that this will be a difficult one.

And so, you know, I won't make any predictions about timing or anything on that.  It will be done when it's done.  But I think we are well postured for it and we have very good confidence in our forces.

Q:  Just one follow-up.  After the Operation Round Up, what is happening?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, then - then I think what we are - we need to do is we need to move them on what I, kind of, call consolidation of gains.  And, you know, at that point, we will have, in the areas in which we operate, we will have expelled ISIS from actually controlling population, from controlling terrain.  ISIS - there will be remnants that will still be there.  So, we will need to continue operations to root them out and keep the pressure on them.  

I, kind of, call that, kind of, in consolidation of gains phase here where we will continue to work with our partners to back-clear, to make sure we are paying attention to where the fighters have gone, and continuing to keep the pressure on them so that local governments, local security forces can get into these areas and begin - begin their work to get people back into their homes.

STAFF:  Jeff.

Q:  Thank you.  I just wanted to follow up on my colleague's question on the February '17 insider attack.  Can you say why CENTCOM didn't publicly release this incident and are there other insider events in Syria that have taken place?

GEN. VOTEL:  I'm not aware of any others.  And as I mentioned to your colleague there, I just saw the story before we came in here, so I - before I make comment here on that, I think I need to go back and make sure I review the details.  So we'll be happy to come back and provide a response to you.

Q:  Sir, Amnesty International came out either yesterday or the day before with a self-congratulatory news release saying how they were right and you guys were wrong about the number of civilian casualties in Iraq.  And they suggested in that news release, and I'm not sure if you saw it or not, that you all have been essentially hiding other numbers.

Could you respond to - not so much to the release but to the process in which you guys can make public civilian casualties?  I know the report that came out and that’s what triggered this amnesty of release.  Thank you.

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, thanks.  So I guess what I would say is that, you know, we've been very, very clear that any allegation, any information that is provided to us either at the time of when something happens or after it happens, we will investigate that and make every attempt to come to a final determination on that.

In this case, some of the information that was provided to us by Amnesty International, we did go back to our processes, through our teams that we have that look specifically at this, and we determined in some cases that the information that they had alerted us to is accurate.  And so, we made adjustments to that.

Q:  Why do you think, sir, that you missed that information the first go through?

GEN. VOTEL:  I can only imagine it's just the nature of the fight and the nature of the combat that we've been in.  You know, during - as you will recall, certainly as I recall during the conduct of our operations in places like Raqqa or Mosul, we did have incidents during the conduct of our operation where we assessed we had civilian causalities.

And so, in those cases, we took immediate action.  In other cases, we just did not have the - we do not have the information.  And so, as we've pledged, you know, we take all of this seriously.  

Our intention is always to operate in accordance with the law of armed conflict and establish accountability for ourselves where we didn't meet that standard in terms of this - in terms of this very difficult condition.  So I guess that's what I would say about it.

STAFF:  All right, two more.  Helen. 

Q:  Can you just clarify, sir, just through your remarks on Yemen and Soleimani? Did you mean that he's been actually seen in Yemen or just like his influence....?

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, I think what I'm implying here is that the Quds Force itself is the principle actor out here who is orchestrating all of this.  Qasem Soleimani is the leader of that.  He bears responsibility for this.

So, you know, where we see their destabilizing activity, we see Quds Force and, of course, Qasem Soleimani as the leader behind that.

Q:  General, thanks very much.  Two questions.  You mentioned foreign fighters were being repatriated and the work being done to get their countries to take them back.  How many of these foreign fighters have families, have wives, children, and what is being done with them in the interim?  What are the concerns about the long-term threat?

And also, what role is Russia playing in destabilizing your area of operations.  They just signed an agreement today with Pakistan expanding military cooperations.  We've seen what they've been doing with Turkey.  How much of a concern that as the U.S. either pulls out or withdraws aid from some countries that the Russians are moving in?

GEN. VOTEL:  Yes, thanks for your questions here.  On the first one there, I do think this aspect of the families of ISIS fighters is another aspect of this operation that we're going to continue to deal with.  

So there are families of fighters that are in detention that are in refugee camps.  And so, we will have to, again, work through that with our partners, with the international community for how they are returned to their homes or their ultimate disposition is established.

But again, this just highlights the really bad situation that ISIS has created in these areas through their operations and through the way that they approach this.  Both fighters and, in some cases, families and, of course, families include children. 

And so, this is a - I think this will be a challenge as we kind of continue to move forward.  We'll have to continue to work with our international partners and certainly the interagency with, and there's not going to be an easy solution to that.  So that's an aspect we're going to have to move forward.

I'm sorry.  Your second question?

Q:  Russia...

GEN. VOTEL:  Oh, Russia.

Q:  ... reaching out to Pakistan and moving in other areas.

GEN. VOTEL:  Well, you know, Russia is trying to exert their authority and their presence, their influence across the region.  And so, I think they'd look for areas where they can do that.  And so, we see them in different places across the region.  Obviously, we contend with them in Syria.  As you know, we communicate.  We de-conflict with them, and that's largely a professional military-to-military exchange with us.

But I would highlight that it's also Russia that is enabling the Syrian regime.  It's enabling the Syrian Regime to pursue the murderous tactic of barrel bombing of their own people.  It's Syria - it's Russia that's blocked full accountability for the Syrian Regime for their use of chemical munitions against their people.

So, you know, these are, I think, are destabilizing activities in the region.  So it's an aspect of CENTCOM.  And frankly, as many of you know and you've all looked at the National Defense Strategy, it's an aspect of great power competition that plays out right here in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

STAFF:  All right.  Thank you, everyone.

GEN. VOTEL:  Thank you.