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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | Nov. 7, 2019

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman and Navy Rear Admiral William D. Byrne Jr., Vice Director, Joint Staff

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN R. HOFFMAN: Hey, good morning, everybody. Thanks for being here. Today, I'm joined by Rear Adm. Bill Byrne. He's the vice director of the Joint Staff, and we're excited to have him as our Joint Staff briefer. 

On Monday, the department will join the nation in celebrating Veterans Day and honoring all those who have served in the armed forces. Secretary Esper will be participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery before going to New York City to ring the NASDAQ closing bell in honor of veteran-owned and veteran-run companies. 

Next Wednesday, Secretary Esper will depart on a trip to our priority theater, the Indo-Pacific. He will travel to Seoul, Bangkok, Manila and Hanoi, where he'll participate in the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] defense ministers' meeting, and meet with many allies and partners in the region who share our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

We will assess common challenges such as the militarization of the South China Sea and predatory Chinese commercial and economic activities. The trip is a reflection of the department's focus on our concerns with Chinese efforts to undermine the rules-based international order in the region. 

I'd also like to provide an update on the USNS Comfort, which is currently in Haiti and has treated almost 65,000 patients during stops in Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Of the patients treated, 2,600 self-identified as Venezuelan. The ship is widely recognized as a symbol of what people with different backgrounds can achieve by working together, united by a shared purpose to assist others experiencing hardships or impacted by crises, disaster and emergencies. 

The hospital ship deployment reflects our enduring promise of friendship, partnership and solidarity with the Americas, and is one way the United States has shown its support for the people of Venezuela. 

Finally, today marked two significant milestones for the International Maritime Security Construct. One was the opening of the multinational IMSC Command Center in Bahrain. And two was the designation of the IMSC's first commander, Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey. 

We appreciate the IMSC staff from Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Albania, United Kingdom and Australia for their tireless dedication and commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in critical waterways across the Middle East. 

I want to close with a topic I will continue to mention until it's resolved, and that is the need for a DOD budget. The DOD needs sufficient, predictable and timely funding. Under a continuing resolution (CR), the department cannot continue the modernization progress made under the previous budget deal. CRs also disrupt training, impede readiness, delay maintenance, impose uncertainty on the workforce, and induce inefficient and constrained contracting practices.

Two weeks from today the current continuing resolution will expire. The department urges our congressional partners to pass a budget at this time. The six-week CR has been problematic. Another long-term CR will be more so.

With that, Rear Adm. Byrne and I will be happy to take your questions. All right, we’ll start here. Bob.

Q: So, thank you. Question for you about the situation in Syria. Is the – is the U.S. troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria completed? And similarly, can you explain the spate of the deployment of mechanized forces to the Deir ez-Zor Province, and has the mission of protecting the oil, or however you want to define it, has that been fully-defined for commanders in terms of what they can do, what they can't do – that sort of thing.

MR. HOFFMAN: Okay. I'll – Adm., you want to go...

REAR ADM. WILLIAM D. BYRNE JR.: Sure. First of all, the – our – our steady withdrawal, our deliberate withdrawal from the Kobani Landing Zone continues. I will – would say that most of the equipment and most of the people have withdrawn from that area. It's going safely, it's going successfully, and it's meeting the requirements of the commanders on the ground.

More largely, the military mission in Syria continues. It is the defeat of ISIS, like it has been since 2014, shoulder-to-shoulder with our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners, and – and that continues to go well. Also, I'm not going to pick on your words, but I would only – I would be cautious with saying that "the mission to secure the oil fields." The mission is the defeat of ISIS. The securing of the oil fields is a subordinate task to that mission, and – and the purpose of that task is to deny ISIS the – the revenues from that oil infrastructure.

As – as we know, back in 2015 when they were in control of that infrastructure, it was pumping out 45,000 barrels per day, to the tune of $1.5 million a day, to support their operations, and – and we're just not going to let that happen again.

Q: So does that include – just one quick follow-up. Does that include, then, securing all the oil fields? I mean, you only have so many people there. Do you have enough people to secure every oil facility?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: Well, we're doing the securing of the oil field, again, shoulder-to-shoulder with our SDF partners, and the SDF has – has been there for years, quite honestly. And that distribution of people, the force posture to meet that task within the larger mission, we're leaving to the commanders on the ground.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right. Go to Tom.

Q: I want to stay on Syria for a second. You say it's to prevent ISIS from gaining these oil fields. When they did have the oil fields, that was long before the U.S. showed up. It's now a guerrilla movement. They have no armor. They have no aircraft. Do they have the capability to actually seize the oil fields? And isn't this really about Russia and Syria seizing those oil fields?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: Well, they certainly had the capability and the capacity to do so back in 2014 and '15; and our force posture, whether it's mechanized, whether it's foot soldiers, and everything in between, is meant to prevent that from happening again. 

MR. HOFFMAN: And – and I think that we don't want to lose sight of, as the admiral mentioned, the impact of when ISIS had access – $1.5 million a day, $500 million a year, that they were able to fund operations not just in Syria, not in the region, but throughout Europe and throughout the world, and we want to prevent that from happening.

Q: If I could just continue on there, how can a guerrilla force seize those oil fields with no armor, no aircraft, and AK-47s? Can you explain that?

MR. HOFFMAN: I – I think what – that we would say, from initially – and I think the admiral's hit on it, is we are – if you look at where ISIS is today, we want to prevent a resurgence. We want to prevent them from growing their force and making sure they do not have the ability to get back to that place to where they have forces, they have the – the necessary force posture to be able to take that back, and this is part of that process.

Q: May I follow up on this?


Q: Yeah, so I have a question on Tehran and one on Iraq, if I may. So President Trump announced at least a couple of times the defeat of ISIS in Syria. Kurdish forces, I – I believe back in March, they said they liberated all the areas in Syria 100% from – from ISIS, and yet the Pentagon still thinks that there's – seems some kind of imminent threat of ISIS regrouping in that region.

Can you be more specific, where are they located, and how – what's the – what are the numbers, and how can they regroup to go back to that area? Because, I mean, as my colleague said, it seems the aim – at least many are reading that – into this, that the aim is to preventing the Syrian regime and Russia from gaining control.

And on Iraq, so I don't interrupt you, can you – are you able to verify whether some of – or the weapons that the Pentagon is providing to the Iraqi Security Forces have been used or are being used against peaceful protesters in Iraq?

MR. HOFFMAN: So let's take your first question. With regard to ISIS, what the president stated and what we've said, is that the physical caliphate, the – the – the physical ownership and control of – of land has been defeated.

We have not said that ISIS, as an ideology and ISIS as an insurgency, has – has been eliminated. We're going to continue that, and we're going to continue that effort, but they've – they've moved to a position where they are doing clandestine and insurgent operations, but they still have an eye with trying to grow that back, and our steps are to prevent that. One of the ways they would be able to grow that back is by obtaining access to revenue, including the oil fields. 

With regard to your question on – on Iraq, I don't have any information on that. We have a very stringent use requirement – end user requirement with those that we provide military weapons to, and our sales, and we would investigate any allegation that weapons are being used inappropriately, not in a manner in which they were intended to.


MR. HOFFMAN: ... and so – and – and – and not in a manner we intended them to. But I will – I will say that when – when the secretary was in Iraq a few weeks ago, we sat down with both the – the foreign minister and – and the prime minister. The – the protests were discussed, and – and our concern in – in help – and seeking assurances and that the peaceful protests would be observed peacefully and – and be able to continue, but at the same time, we are – we're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and we're not going to be interjecting ourselves into their domestic political process. 

So, Jennifer?

Q: Two questions. Are the Turks in breach of the cease-fire agreement, and are there instances of – of that cease-fire agreement being broken by either side? And is the U.S. military, U.S. government still providing arms to the SDF – to the Kurdish-led SDF?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: So in – in general, the cease-fire is holding. There have been skirmishes – relatively small skirmishes but it – it appears that all parties are adhering to the – to the – to the rules.

Q: And the arming of the SDF, are you still doing stuff?

MR. HOFFMAN: So the SDF are our partners and – and we are still working with them in our – our fight against ISIS, and we're still going to provide them with the support and abilities to be able to continue that fight against ISIS. 

So, Sylvie?

Q: I would like to go back to the – to – to the – the mission in – in Syria. The secretary said last week that the mission was to secure the oil fields from ISIS, and I quote, "other actors in the region." Are Russia and Syria part of these other actors?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I – I think we would go back to saying ISIS – there are – there are other – there's a number of different players in the region. We are going to continue with our efforts to maintain it, not just to keep it from ISIS, but as the secretary's mentioned previously, to provide the – the – the Kurds in the area and the SDF forces to actually have a – a revenue stream and an ability to work on – on building up their strengths for the – on the D-ISIS [Defeat-ISIS] campaign.

So it's preventing ISIS from getting it, allowing the – the – the Kurds and the – the SDF in there to have control of it, as well.

Q: If I may follow up? So if – do – do the – the U.S. troops have the – the authorization to shoot if a representative of the Syrian government comes to the oil fields – oil fields and says I am here to take property of these oil fields?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: On the other forces in the area, I think we're all aware of who the players are in the field here. And to the rules of engagement in particular, I'm not going to get into specifics but – but I'll make a couple of quick points on that.

First is deconfliction; and there are existing – existing deconfliction channels in place in theater amongst U.S. forces and all of the players – that's airspace deconfliction, deconfliction on the ground. So we want to prevent incidents from happening by getting out in front of it.

The second is de-escalation; and when – when met with an unsure situation, an uncertain situation, the first thing we try and do – to do is de-escalate the situation. So we step through pre-planned responses to de-escalate. We identify who that potential threat might be, we make our presence known by sight and sound, and then we communicate with them to figure out who are you, why are you here, and what are your intentions, in order to de-escalate the situation.

And – and finally, our commanders always retain the right and the obligation of self-defense when faced with a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent.


Q: The legal basis of controlling the oil fields, the government of Syria is still, based on international law in the U.N., is still recognized legitimate government. Are government forces allowed to go back and retake national resources that belong to ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: I will – I will – I will make it – I'll ... 


MR. HOFFMAN: ... I'll put it very simply. Everyone in the region knows where American forces are. We're very clear with anyone in the region in working to deconflict where our forces are. If anyone – we work to ensure that – that no one approaches or has – shows hostile intent to our forces, and if they do, our commanders maintain the right of self-defense. 

So go over here – Tara?

Q: Thank you. I want to get back to Veterans Day. You know, there are veterans across the country who are now fighting cancers and other illnesses due to exposure to some sort of toxic element, perhaps connected to their military service, but they can't get the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] to recognize that service connection.

What will the secretary be doing on Veterans Day to push this? He has been trying to with the PFAS, but there are other elements out there, like burn pits and other types of exposures that, you know, veterans are kind of looking to leadership from DOD on?

MR. HOFFMAN: So the – the secretary will be – participating in an event with the secretary of Veterans Affairs. I'm sure it's been one of those topics they talk about. They talk frequently about the veterans’ issues and we've – we've just continued – or had a series of meetings with, some of the military services organizations, veterans services organizations, where issues like this were discussed with them.

PFAS is one example of what we're trying to do, and it's trying to get a – a – a interagency and whole of government look at – at some of these. But the secretary's been committed to expanding access to resources and access to care for military members, and we'll continue to push – push through with that. 


Q: I want to go back to the Syrian oil fields. I understand everything both of you had – have said about ISIS. I'm going to try this again. My question is specifically not about ISIS. When Secretary Esper was asked if his phrase "and others" included denying, preventing access to Russian and Syrian forces, not self-defense, denying and preventing access to Russian and Syrian forces, if that was included, he said yes, it does include that.

The president has said that the U.S. is taking the oil and controlling the oil. My question is, what is the legal basis for the U.S. military to be involved in taking and controlling oil, as the president has said, and denying access to Russian and Syrian forces?

This is, again, completely separate from the ISIS question you've repeatedly talked about. I'm asking this very specifically.

MR. HOFFMAN: So, Barbara, I would refer you back to the fact that all of our operations in Syria are done under the commander-in-chief's authorities to – with regards to protecting Americans from terrorist activity, including D-ISIS. And despite the effort to decouple the D-ISIS mission from this, that is what this is about. 

Our efforts in the region in – in preventing ISIS from taking the oil, keeping the oil fields in a place where the SDF is able to use them for funding for their D-ISIS efforts, is part of that mission.

Q: What is the legal basis for United – the United States military to take and control the natural resources inside the boundaries of another country?

MR. HOFFMAN: As I just said, the legal basis for this comes under the commander-in-chief's authority for us to be conducting counter-terrorism efforts against D-ISIS. And I – I get your point when you're trying to decouple the ISIS issue from the Syria issue, but it is not a decoupled issue.

Our efforts in the area are focused on our D-ISIS mission and we'll continue with that. 

So, Lara?

Q: Hey, so my question, to continue on the Syria topic, is about the mechanized forces and the number of troops that you have guarding the oil fields. Why is it necessary, can you just spell out to us, to have tanks, National Guard troops, all of these people as – at the same time we're bringing special forces out of Syria, we're putting new, different forces in? So why is it necessary to have those – this kind of large mechanized force in the oil fields now when we weren't doing this before?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: So the mix of forces is at the discretion of the commanders on the ground. Specifically with respect to armored vehicles, two reasons. One is mobility – they've got wheels and they go fast – and the second is force protection; it's armored, based on the threat.

Q: But we weren't doing that before, so why do we need them now?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I – I would say that the – the conditions on the ground have changed. I – I think one thing we've all seen from Turkey's destabilizing movement into Syria is that things have changed. There's now a larger number of players on the field, there's a – a larger number of militaries operating, you have – you have ISIS, you have the SDF, you have Turkish (inaudible) opposition groups, you have Syria, you have the – the Russians, you have the Turks, you have a large number of people.

So the commanders made a determination that, in – for his mobility and force protection needs, to ask for these mechanized forces, and that is what the secretary has authorized to be sent to the region.

Q: Sorry, again, as everyone has been asking, if the threat is ISIS, and ISIS is going away, then why do we need more force protection?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: I'm – I'm – I'm not sure ISIS is going away yet, and that's why we're there, to help them go away. And those forces are needed, those – that equipment is needed, based on the discretion of the commanders, to ensure that mission is completed.

Q: But ... 


Q: So Turkey is saying that the SDF have not led – left the 30 kilometer area. Is that correct? Are there – you know, as the U.S. is still getting out of that area, are there SDF sort of attached to the U.S. forces up there that you – that you're aware of?

And then back to the – do you say – just to be clear then, did you just say that the – that some of these mechanized forces are there to dissuade Turkish forces, or – I thought I heard that... 


MR. HOFFMAN: ... what I was saying was force protection. So there is a – a lot of conflict, there's a – a – going on in the area. And in an area where you have a – a number of different armies operating, and – and having, you know, battles taking place or skirmishes taking place, the commanders made a request for force protection assets.

But you – to your original question, we don't – we're not in the – the security mechanism zone in the same manner we were previously, so we don't have the same level of visibility into where all of the – the SDF forces are.

We are not responsible for enforcing the Sochi agreement or the cease-fire, so I don't have the visibility into that issue.

Q: So you're not aware of any SDF partners – folks partnered with the U.S. in that area?

MR. HOFFMAN: I'm not aware of that, but I'm just saying I don't have full visibility onto it.

So, Gordon?

Q: Has a decision been made on what the residual force will be in – in Syria? And if not, when do you think that decision will be made? And also, will you commit to sharing the number publicly once you're there?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: I'm not going to talk specific timelines, not going to talk specific force postures. It's conditions-based, and we rely upon that assessment – that continual assessment from – from the commanders, and – and I expect that when that change – dramatic – changes dramatically, we'll – we'll make that announcement.


Q: (Inaudible) said about the ISIS threat in Syria, do you have a number of how many ISIS militants remain in – in eastern Syria, in the Merv area?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have that number on me right now. I'm sure we can try to see if we can get that to you. I don't – I don't – I don't have it available.

Q: Just a quick – quick – quick follow up. In regards to the – to ISIS detainees, could you give us how – what's the fate of those detainees? How many still in Syria? How many were deported – were moved to out of Syria?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: So the SDF continues the mission of – of securing those prisons and those – and those prisoners. The – the number that we heard in the first week or so of the operation of about 100 ISIS escapees, no change to that, so – which is a good thing.

And so many of those ISIS fighters are – are from foreign countries, and we know the countries of origin, and we're encouraging those countries to take those fighters back as the ultimate disposition.


Q: Thank you. You had said that the United – the United States' legal basis to send troops to these oil fields comes from the commander-in-chief. Does President Trump have legal authority to take over these oil fields or is the United States stealing the oil?

MR. HOFFMAN: President Trump's the commander-in-chief and has the authority for us to be doing operations to defeat terrorism. And part of the efforts to deter, prevent D-ISIS – ISIS from obtaining the oil fields is an effort to prevent them from obtaining revenue so that they can fund their terrorist operations globally.

Q: But what legal basis does he have, as opposed to, say, Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait to take the oil fields?

MR. HOFFMAN: Once again – I – I – I don't know where you're going with that question, but once again, the – we have said we have the authority to be in Syria on – on our D-ISIS mission. That authority has been well stated and well – well put out there for the last four years, and that part of the mission, at this time, and – and just to be clear, we've been in this area with the same mission of preventing ISIS from getting those oil fields for the last four years. This is not a new mission. Everybody seems to be – believe that that has changed. That is not – that is not the case.

So this authority's been in place for years, and we believe it's consistent with the president's authority and then – and desire to prevent D … ISIS from obtaining funds from which to be able to conduct terrorist operations around the globe.

REAR ADM. BYRNE: And – and one – one addition to that, this is not a unilateral action. We're doing this shoulder-to-shoulder with our SDF partners.


Q: I have a question and then a clarification, please.


Q: When asked about that – the – widespread reports of abuses by Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria, what is the Pentagon doing to ascertain Turkey's role, what – the events – Turkey's role in – in the events that have been reported, and what would be the possible impact to the U.S. relationship with Turkey, given the fact that Ankara is arming and funding those forces?

And then the clarification regarding the movement of forces to – from Syria to Iraq, is the U.S. operating under the timeline of four weeks that the Iraqi government referenced for getting those forces out of Iraq?

MR. HOFFMAN: So your first question, we are aware of – of allegations of alleged war crimes taking place at the hands of – of individuals operating in Syria. Any information that we come into about that, we share that with the authorities that – that should be held accountable for it.

And so what we've done and will continue to do, and the secretary's raised this issue with his counterparts, is reaching out to the Turks, we'll provide them with information that we have about what we believe is taking place; and we expect them to investigate it, we expect them to hold those people to account, and we'll continue to push that with them.

With – with regard to your – your second question, the timeline, we're moving through that. I don't know if you have an update on the timeline, but we're in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. The secretary had meetings with the prime minister and the defense minister when we were in Iraq. We've committed to working with them on a timeline. 

I don't believe that there has been a – a – an agreed upon, exact end-date because they're committed to the D-ISIS mission, as well, and they know that some of the forces that we're moving through are going to be helpful into that mission.

Q: Okay, and just to clarify, so if Turkey doesn't do anything in regards to these alleged abuses, what happens then? Will the United States take any action vis-a-vis Turkey?

MR. HOFFMAN: So that's a – that's a diplomatic question. I would refer you to the State Department; but we are going to continue to ensure that they understand our belief that they are to be held accountable for those forces which they have command and control over, and we'll continue to – to push that.

Q: A question about the CR and the budget. So obviously it's not ideal if the CR is extended, but it's happened many, many years in a row. The department in the past has crafted a list of anomalies or exemptions for programs that they say are urgent and need to be funded, even though the CR is underway.

We've got the good sense now from the services what programs will be disrupted. Are you working now on a list to ask for exemptions for some of those higher priorities?

MR. HOFFMAN: So we're going to continue to work with Congress and – to let them know the – the ones we think are most in peril. I actually have a list here if you'd like me to read it, but it sounds like you've already gotten one.

So – but we are working with Congress to make sure that they're aware of the ones that we think are most important. We would like to see Congress find ways in the CRs to fund those, but the bottom line is that a CR, top to bottom, is – is debilitating, whether it's readiness, we lose buying power, we lose predictability with our contracting, we lose our ability to do training exercises.

So we can – we can pick little pieces out of it to try to, you know, put a – put a finger in the dike and plug the worst problems, but overall, there's a budget deal in place, and we need to be starting our efforts to retool the military to focus not only from the – the – the fights we're in right now, but to focus on the China and the Russia fights coming up.

Q: But this being a planning organization, though. Are – are – to clarify, are you saying what you've got up there is a list of what you're going to seek exemptions for or just a list of disrupted?

MR. HOFFMAN: This is a list of what's been disrupted.

Q: And just looking for the exemptions still ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: So we have ongoing conversations with the Congress about the things that – that need to be dealt – one – one example is Space Force. A CR does not allow us to create Space Force. That's been a priority, it's something that we've been moving on that path, and we would like to continue to get to. 

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Thank you, sir. 

On South Korea, will the United States and South Korea joint military exercise restarting next month. What size will the – this exercise ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: Fortunately, we have the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Korea here to – to answer that question.

REAR ADM. BYRNE: Thank you. The most important thing to us in – in the Korean theater is maintaining readiness, being ready to fight tonight. So a year ago, we canceled the Exercise Vigilant Ace, and that was based on the – the environment on the peninsula at the time.

This year, we're conducting a – a combined flying event, U.S. and ROK [Republic of (South) Korea] Air Forces. And – and Gen. Abrams and his ROK counterpart are – are charged with ensuring that we're conducting the right number of combined events, the right type of combined events, in order to maintain that readiness, maintain that integration, so that we're – we're ready to fight tonight, while allowing our diplomats the space in the room to continue negotiations with North Korea.

Q: So you – what size will it be, this ... 

REAR ADM. BYRNE: I'm – I'm not going to talk specific force numbers, specific airplane numbers, but it's – it's a reduced scope from the former Vigilant Ace exercises at – but – but it meets all of the requirements of – of the ROK Air Force, the U.S. Air Force to ensure readiness.

Q: Thank you. I have a question about military information sharing agreement between Japan and South Korea.

MR. HOFFMAN: GSOMIA [General Security of Military Information Agreement].

Q: Yes, GSOMIA, yes. It will actually expire at the end of this month, but the U.S. has argued that it’s very important framework for the trilateral cooperation. And did you make any progress so far to maintain this framework, and are you confident that – that the South Korea will renew this agreement again?

MR. HOFFMAN: So we – we tried to work around some of this with regard to being able to do some of the bilateral information sharing between each of us, to try to keep going through it. But I will – but I will say that on GSOMIA, it's been a topic that the secretary has raised with his counterparts from Japan and Korea persistently as this issue's come up.

We are – we're hopeful, we're optimistic, we're going to continue to push on it. I can – I can practically guarantee that it will be part of our conversations when we're in Korea next week, but it's something that we – we would like to see resolved so that all of us can focus on – on the biggest threats in the region, which is North Korea's activities, and then – and then the Chinese efforts to stabilize the region.

Q: Hi. Gen. Mazloum yesterday said the SDF is resuming its joint programming work with coalition to combat ISIS and securing infrastructure of northeastern Syria. According to current stage and new developments on the ground, can you translate that into what does that actually look like now on the ground?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: Well, my initial reaction is they're in the fight shoulder-to-shoulder, SDF, U.S. forces, Defeat-ISIS as the mission.

Q: (Inaudible) changed, in terms of let's go back to three months ago and – before Turkey's hand came into play. So what does that look like today?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: So from – from my perspective, what it means – that they are less distracted. There – there is – hopefully, we're getting to a steady state in – in the area, the – the cease-fire will hold, and the SDF can re-engage with U.S. forces in the Defeat-ISIS mission.

MR. HOFFMAN: Yes, sir?

Q: In terms of infrastructure, if I could just ask regarding the oil fields, how long can the U.S. maintain a protectionist posture, considering that this administration has made so clear that they want U.S. forces out of Syria writ large? It's a case of faith in the SDF taking over and holding it. What – what mechanism – what are – what's your bar? 

MR. HOFFMAN: Well, I think what you – you've hit on one of the president's objectives, and one of the things that he's mentioned is – is – is the – the desire to have troops come out of – out of the area. But he's also espoused the underlying themes and underlying desires such as the defeat of ISIS. And so we're committed to that, and we're committed to staying in the region. We're committed to, in this particular case, having troops in Syria in a way that helps us continue the D-ISIS mission as long as we believe it's necessary.


Q: Sir, what is the status of the oil fields right now in Syria? Are they pumping? And if they're capable, as you said before, under ISIS, $1.5 million a day, who's getting that money? Is the U.S. keeping it? Is the SDF? Is there a share agreement? What is the status here?

REAR ADM. BYRNE: I don't have the specific laydown in what – which field is operating and – and which – which is not. No mystery to anybody that we're about eight years into a civil war in Syria, and so there's – there is a great deal of infrastructure that's in disrepair. 

That said, it's the SDF and the U.S. forces shoulder-to-shoulder, protecting that to ensure that ISIS doesn't have access to and revenue – of – of the revenues.

MR. HOFFMAN: And to your second point, though, the – the revenue from this is not going to the U.S. This is going to the SDF (inaudible).

We – we're going to do one last one right here, and then that – that's it.

Q: Can you comment on the reports that the secretary's trying to convince the president not to interject himself into the military justice system regarding Eddie Gallagher, Clint Lorance, Maj. Golsteyn?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I – I – I – what I would say on that is, we have a – a robust military justice system that – that we believe is – is – is capable and it's an effective system. That system provides those who are charged with crimes a – due process opportunities to be heard, appeal process and all that. 

So the president and the secretary have spoken about this, and – and basically, what we – we do in all these situations, the president asks for additional information, is provide him information about the – the due process system and about the military justice system, providing some advice and some options.

But one thing to remember is that the president's part of the military justice system. He's the commander-in-chief. So this – this is not an unusual thing for the president to show an interest in cases. But I – I would – I would quibble with the characterization that we're – we are attempting to change some view of the president. As far as – as we're aware, the president sought information from us about it, and we've been providing that. 

But once again, the confidence in our military justice systems to provide good order and discipline allows us to have the most disciplined, most effective fighting force in the world, and we have confidence in it, and – and will continue to provide information as we need to, to support that system.

But with that...

Q: (Inaudible) Jonathan, what impact would it have if the president pardoned or commuted the sentences of these three on Monday?

MR. HOFFMAN: That – that – that's hypothetical. I'm not going to get into it. But I would say, is that the president is part of the military justice system. This would not be – the presidents in the past have – have taken views and taken actions in the military justice system, and our military justice system has continued to – to maintain robust. The military's one of the most respected organizations in the entire government, and we have agreements with more than 100 countries to have our forces in – in country, and part of that is because our allies and partners know that our people will be held to account for their actions and their behavior. So our – our – our – we are confident that that will maintain going forward, and we're going to continue to improve our system and make it better. But we're confident that we have a – a strong system that allows us to maintain good order and discipline.

MR. HOFFMAN: All right, guys. Thank you very much.