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Statement

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper at the House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Syria and Middle East Policy

By Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper Department of Defense

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Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Thornberry, and distinguished members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the security situation in Syria and the broader Middle East.

Before we begin, I would like to thank the committee for its work on the NDAA. I encourage Congress to move swiftly on its passage, along with the Defense Appropriations Bill. This legislation is critical to providing our Service Members the resources they need to fully implement the National Defense Strategy.

I also want to offer my deepest condolences to the victims and families of the tragic shootings that took place at Pearl Harbor and Pensacola this past week. In light of these events, we are reviewing our vetting procedures for all foreign nationals who come to the United States for military training, as well as assessing our installation security procedures to ensure the safety of our military communities.

As reflected in the National Defense Strategy, the Department of Defense prioritizes China, and then Russia, as our Nation's top national security challenges. As we transition our focus towards great power competition, we must also remain vigilant in countering threats from rogue states like Iran, and violent extremist organizations such as ISIS.

The United States' strategy in the Middle East seeks to ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market.

For the Department of Defense, this translates to the following six objectives:

(1)  Utilize a dynamic U.S. military presence with strategic depth to deter and, if necessary, respond to aggression;

(2)  Strengthen the defensive capabilities of regional partners;

(3)  Advance partnerships and burden-sharing with allies and partners to address shared security concerns;

(4)  Protect freedom of navigation;

(5)  Deny safe haven to terrorists that threaten the homeland; and

(6)  Mitigate WMD threats.

Although there are a multitude of security issues to discuss in the Middle East, today we will focus on two of the most destabilizing players in the region – ISIS and Iran.

Beginning with ISIS, the United States has achieved great success alongside our partner forces in Syria and Iraq to destroy the physical caliphate, and to liberate 7.7 million people living under its brutal rule. This included the successful operations that resulted in the death of ISIS's founder and leader, al-Baghdadi, as well as one of his top deputies. The Department of Defense remains committed to working with our partners to ensure ISIS is unable to mount a resurgence.

Today, U.S. forces remain postured in Syria, operating in close coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Although the recent Turkish incursion has complicated this battlespace, the Department of Defense remains confident that we can continue the mission the President has given us in Syria, which is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. We maintain our leadership role in the Defeat-ISIS campaign, which brings together 76 nations and 5 international organizations to provide funding, military capabilities, and political support.

In Iraq, we continue to work by, with, and through the Iraqi Security Forces to enable a strong and independent state. I was recently there to visit our troops and meet with our Iraqi partners. Despite the turmoil at the political level, our train, advise, and assist efforts with the Iraqi military remain strong and continue to show progress.

Moving to Iran, over the past 18 months, the Department of Defense has supported the United States' economic and diplomatic maximum pressure campaign. These efforts seek to bring the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table for a new and better deal that addresses the full range of threats emanating from Iran.

Tehran's efforts to destabilize the region have increased in recent months as it attacked targets in Saudi Arabia, disrupted commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, shot down a U.S. unmanned aircraft in international airspace, and provided support to numerous proxy groups.

To address these threats, we are taking a deliberate approach to strengthen our defenses, enable our partners to better defend themselves, and refine our response options. Since May of this year, nearly 14,000 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the region to serve as a tangible demonstration of our commitment to our allies and partners. These additional forces are not intended to signal an escalation, but rather to reassure our friends and buttress our efforts at deterrence.

We are also focused on internationalizing the response to Iran's aggression by encouraging increased burden-sharing and cooperation with allies and partners from around the world. The International Maritime Security Construct, which protects freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and the more nascent Integrated Air and Missile Defense effort led by Saudi Arabia are two such examples.

Through these activities, we are sending a clear message to Iran that the international community will not tolerate its malign activities. Along with our allies and partners, we remain united in our commitment to regional stability and to upholding long-standing international rules and norms. Importantly, Iran should not mistake the United States' restraint for an unwillingness to respond with decisive military force should our forces or interests be attacked.

In conclusion, as the Department of Defense continues to implement the National Defense Strategy, the stability of the Middle East remains important to our nation's security. As such, we will continue to calibrate all of our actions to deter conflict, avoid unintended escalation, and enable our partners to defend themselves against regional aggressors. In doing so, we will preserve the hard won gains of the past and ensure the security of the United States and our vital interests.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.