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TRANSCRIPT | May 19, 2021

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. Sky News Arabia Interview, May 18, 2021

Reporter: Well, OK. The commander of United States Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, thank you so much for being for being with Sky News Arabia. Thank you, sir.

Gen McKenzie: It's a pleasure to be with you here today. I look forward to the opportunity to talk.

Reporter: We should start, first of all, by what's happening right now in Israel, mainly between the IDF and the Palestinian factions in Gaza. What's your take on what's happening?

Gen McKenzie: So, we believe Israel is defending itself. At the same time, we urge cessation of violence. We think the further spreading, increased violence of such a conflict, does no one any service. There's always the danger that it could spread. So, again, while we affirm the right of Israel to defend itself, we think we need to try to find a way to de-escalate as soon as possible.

Reporter: As you mentioned, the need of de-escalation, and also the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman Mark Milley said the same yesterday. Are you concerned that this conflict could have serious implications on the Arab world, especially the neighboring countries of Israel?

Gen McKenzie: Sure. I think any form of violence of this nature has the possibility of spreading, and we would view that with great concern.

Reporter: What are the risks that carry that any airstrike operations against populated areas carry on the short-term future? Do you see? Are you expecting that something could go wrong in this operation that the IDF is leading?

Gen McKenzie: Well, I know they go to great lengths to ensure they're striking militarily appropriate targets. We have great familiarity of that with U.S. Central Command because we also when we strike targets, we go to elaborate lengths to ensure that the lowest collateral damage possible is maintained. However, when you're striking in an urban area, accidents can always happen. It's always a possibility. I remain convinced. I think Israel is doing the very best they can to minimize casualties in this operation.

Reporter: With the thousands of missiles that have been launched from Gaza towards Israel. Is the U.S. military still interested in acquiring the Iron Dome missile system?

Gen McKenzie: So, first, I'd note that while Israel's operations have been undertaken with precision, the fires from Hamas into Israel have been widespread and not well targeted at all. And the success of the Iron Dome system in defending them is quite remarkable.         .

Reporter: Interesting. Talking about Israel and the region. What's the status right now of the decision to have Israel as part of the Central Command, AOR? Could you give us an update if the decision has been taken or approved? Would you please?

Gen McKenzie: Sure. So, the decision has been taken. It has been approved.  We're engaged in implementing that decision now. And there's been no reduction or change in the pace of those things going forward. As you would expect, moving a country from one area of responsibility to another is an elaborate task that takes a lot of planning, a lot of hard work. We're doing that thoroughly and to ensure that nothing falls through the crack as we do it. But it's going ahead. Israel is going to come into Central Command AOR.

Reporter: Do you have any timeline?

Gen McKenzie: I wouldn't share that. I think we will probably not share that publicly, right now. But we're moving as fast as we can to make that a reality.

Reporter: OK, this is the delay. Can we talk about delay?

Gen McKenzie: There's no delay at all. When the president signed the decision to bring CENTCOM in; we had a roadmap to make that happen. We're executing that roadmap. We're on track.

Reporter: And do you believe that having Israel part of CENTCOM could help in stabilizing the region, especially after what we've seen, the many tensions either in Israel or in the Gulf. This could help.

Gen McKenzie: I believe it could help. I believe moving Israel into the Central Command area of responsibility will help. It is a natural and logical extension into the future. It gives Israel an opportunity to work with their Arab neighbors more closely. And I don't want to minimize it. And I realize that, you know, they're going to be things like the recent the recent exchange with Hamas that are going to be a factor for that. But I believe we're on a path to do it.

Reporter: Gen McKenzie, I would like to switch to Afghanistan. The United States is terminating its long mission in Afghanistan after 20 years. Could you give us a sense, where is the withdrawal right now?

Gen McKenzie: The withdrawal from Afghanistan is on pace. We're moving exactly as planned, along with our NATO coalition partners who are with us on the ground as well. The principle is we came in together, we will leave together. At all times, the idea of force protection is very high. We're moving rapidly, but we're also moving in such a way that ensures our forces are protected. 

Reporter: Gen McKenzie, as you may know, after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, the government of Najibullah survived for almost less than three years after they fell. What can the United States and NATO do to boost Kabul's capabilities to counter Taliban's actions and also to prevent the fall of Kabul?

Gen McKenzie: We will maintain an embassy in Kabul. That is our intention. The president has directed that at the same time, we will maintain security force assistance to the Afghans, but it will just be done from over the horizon. It will not be done on the ground. I don't want to understate the difficulties that are going to be associated with that approach, but we believe we will be able to continue to assist them. And I believe our NATO partners plan to do the same thing. So, we're not walking away from Afghanistan we are merely ending our presence on the ground in that country. But we will still do everything we can to support the Afghan security forces in the days ahead.

Reporter: When you say you will be maintaining the security of your embassy in Kabul; does it mean that you are you will be putting boots on the ground inside the embassy or surrounding the embassy to secure it?

Gen McKenzie: Well, let's remember that the security of an embassy is first and foremost a responsibility of the nation, which it is located. So, it is Afghanistan's responsibility to protect and secure our embassy. Having said that, we'll take all appropriate measures to ensure the embassy platform is secure there.

Reporter: A few days ago, Gen McKenzie, we have witnessed an attack against a girl’s school in Afghanistan. Does this kind of attack raise your concerns vis a vie the future of this country?

Gen McKenzie: Yes, it does. It it's very concerning to me, and I'm sure it's very concerning to people on the ground as well. You know, a lot of strides have been made in education and women's rights over the last 20 years. We want to see that pace of development continue. We'll do everything we can to help the Afghans as they go forward to maintain the gains they’ve earned during such a hard period.

Reporter: Talking about Afghanistan, as you may know, that GCC had a major role in supporting the U.S. mission and the NATO mission in Afghanistan. How do you evaluate now the military relationship between the United States and the GCC countries?

Gen McKenzie: We work very hard to maintain a good military to military relationship. That is a relationship at my level, my relationship with the chiefs of defense of the various nations there. I visit these nations frequently. We have the opportunity to sit down and talk. Even as you and I are talking right now, we value those relationships and I think they're good and solid relationships.

Reporter: Do you think the GCC area has enough capabilities to secure itself from any regional threat? And what would the United States do to preserve their capabilities?

Gen McKenzie:  I think the principal regional threat to the Gulf states is, of course, Iran. Iran manifests itself principally through ballistic missile land attack, cruise missile and unmanned aerial system platforms that threaten their neighbors.  In addition to their malign activities, their terrorist organizations that are exported across the region. So, I think among the Gulf states, there's a great opportunity to continue to work together toward an integrated air and missile defense shield that will help them as they consider Iran in the future.  So, there are lots of things we can do to help the Gulf states and not all of it involves the selling of military equipment. A lot of these what we call tactics, techniques and procedures, are things we can work on together that will enhance our ability to defend against likely attacks from Iran or any other state, for that matter.

Reporter: As a military commander, do you rely on the diplomatic approach from the Biden administration towards Iran and or do you think the Vienna talks could help stabilizing the region?

Gen McKenzie: We fully support the efforts of the administration in the talks that are underway in Vienna. I hope they turn out well. You know, my part of that equation is to deter Iran from undertaking military activity and give the diplomats time to work and to find a diplomatic solution. It's in everyone's best interest to find a diplomatic, not a military solution to this problem. And I can assure you the United States does not seek a military solution to this problem. 

Reporter: Do you think since the Vienna talks have started, have you seen signs of good intention from the Iranian Navy in the region?

Gen McKenzie: The Iranian Navy and the Iranian Republican Guard Navy, are two different entities. The Iranian Navy is a relatively professional organization. We've seen signs of irresponsibility on behalf of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps Navy, the IRGCN. But we believe those were local commanders acting irresponsibly, not given any orders from on high.  I think things are about the same as we go through this difficult period of negotiations.

Reporter: Let's go back to what happened a few days ago. As you may know, a shipment of illegal weapons has been captured by the U.S. Navy, but there was not too much details about it. Are you aware of its origin, where it was headed or was it was it headed to Yemen?

Gen McKenzie:  We're still evaluating the results of that find. It was a large find. Be difficult to think that anybody but a nation sent that. But we're still looking at the attribution of that. I don't want to get ahead of our different security organizations that are looking at where it came from, exactly what the arms were, and where they were going.

Reporter: What is the worst-case scenario that really keeps you up at night in the region when it comes to Iran?

Gen McKenzie: I'll be quite honest with you, nothing Iran does keeps me up at night. We're prepared to react to any eventuality that Iran might choose to have happen. I would urge them to continue the path of negotiation. That's their way forward and there are some things they need to do to make that practical.

Reporter: You're not concerned that the tensions between Israel and Iran, I'm not talking in Syria, in the Gulf and the Red Sea, could lead to miscalculation or escalation.

Gen McKenzie: Certainly, that low level engagement that's continued over a period could certainly lead to an expansion of hostilities and some miscalculation or provocation could occur there. And we watch that very closely.

Reporter: Let me ask you this. During this Cold War, Washington, D.C. had a hotline with Moscow. Even I remember under Secretary Gates when he was secretary of defense, the Pentagon had a hotline with the Ministry of Defense in China. Why not having a hotline with the other side of the Gulf, the Iranians?

Gen McKenzie: Sure. Well, I would just note that it takes two sides that want to have that happen for that to occur. And I'll just leave that comment right there.

Reporter: Would you encourage it? Are you in favor of having a hotline with Iran?

Gen McKenzie: In general, I believe you need to be able to talk to everybody. As you noted, during the Cold War, at the height of the Cold War, we're able to talk to the Russians. So, I think in general, it is a good thing to be able to communicate. It decreases the probability of miscalculation. It allows military to military communications, which can often reduce tensions.

Reporter: One year, maybe more than one year after the January 2020, operations that targeted Qasem Soleimani, when you look at this operation right now, what would you say? What's your take on that?

Gen McKenzie: You never hear too much about an operation that takes human life. We're always very witting of that and understand its effects. But I would tell you this, I think deterrence is born of capability and will and Iran has never doubted the capabilities of the United States. Often, they have doubted our will. Since January of 2020, they've had reason to reconsider their opinion, of our ability, of our will. And so, I think it has had an effect and I think it's ultimately had a calming effect.

Reporter: Nobody knows in Washington, D.C., if the Biden administration could reach an agreement with Iran.   Are you in favor that any deal, any agreement with the Iranians have to deal with the missile threats, the ballistic missile threats?

Gen McKenzie: I'll leave that to the diplomats as to what that deal should or should not have. But I will tell you that one of the most disturbing things about Iran over the last 10 years has been their build out of their ballistic missile force. It is large, it is capable, as we saw in their attack on al-Assad. They have very accurate missiles as well. I am very concerned about the Iranian ballistic missile force.

Reporter: I want to switch to Yemen. Have you seen any indications that since the Biden administration stopped supporting the Saudi led coalition in the Yemen, what have you seen any indications that the Houthis have increased their attacks against Saudi territories?

Gen McKenzie: Yes, they have increased their attacks. Those attacks have continued and the Saudis have done a very good job of defending themselves. And we helped them with that defense in areas where we can. But I think the Houthi attacks have been irresponsible, reckless, and they're not the types of things that would lead to any form of a negotiated settlement in Yemen, which is, after all, where we should be going.

Reporter: Could you tell us how you are helping the Saudis?

Gen McKenzie: We provide some intelligence warning when we can. That's about all I can say. There are a number of ways that we can assist them and I really can't go into more detail than that.

Reporter: Are you still having military presence in Saudi Arabia? We know that you visited Saudi Arabia and you visited the airport in Saudi Arabia, so nothing has changed since the Biden administration.

Gen McKenzie: Nothing has changed. We still maintain a presence in Saudi Arabia, principally at Prince Sultan Air Base, PSAB, as we know it, where we fly fighters and do other work there.

Reporter: I would like to switch to Syria now. As you may know, many Arab countries have right now relations with the Syrian government. Could you tell us if the United States military have any contact, any sort of contact with Damascus?

Gen McKenzie: So, at the mil to mil level, we do not. We have very limited contact. We did conflict with the Russians who were there. And we don't have contacts with the Syrians beyond that.  

Reporter: How do you see the future of the U.S. military from a strategic point of view? The U.S. military has to stay in Syria, you think so?

Gen McKenzie: I think that is a question for our diplomats to answer as we move to what needs to ultimately be a diplomatic solution to what's going on in Syria. We’re prepared to support them as they move toward, determining what that's going to be, working with other partners in the region who are informed. Then we'll be ready to support that.

Reporter: When it comes to competing with Russia inside Syria. How do you how do you assess the competition with the Russians and especially in avoiding any unplanned, unwanted clashes with them?

Gen McKenzie: In general, the ability to de-conflict movements in the air and on the ground, that's been an effective technique for us when working with the Russians, so generally speaking, that's been a that's been a good thing.  So, we continue to have that system in place. I think the Syrians would like to move to the east and reclaim the oil fields and do other things there. They are aided and abetted by their Russian sponsors and that puts pressure on our SDF partners up and down the Euphrates River. And that's just a continuing tension. It's not getting any better. It's not getting much worse, but it is an area of tension that eventually is going to have to be resolved.

Reporter: Talking about the de-confliction in the air of Syria. Do you know if the IDF has any sort of the channels with the Russians to the conflict?

Gen McKenzie: I would say you need to talk to the Israelis on that.

Reporter: Lastly, I would like to ask you about what we have seen here in the states, the cyber-attack against the colonial gas pipeline. Is the U.S. military concerned about a cyber-attack that really could be could damage the infrastructure of the U.S. military?

Gen McKenzie: We are very concerned about cyber-attacks. We are cyber dependent. Any operation we do, we think about cyber both offense and defense at the very beginning. And we are keenly aware of our elaborate support infrastructure, which is largely reliant on cyber, on the ability to access to access the net, to move vast amounts of information over the net. We are very vulnerable there and we're trying to do everything we can to upgrade our defenses as we go forward.

Reporter: We always hear about the Russian threat when it comes to cyber-attack and even the Chinese. Are you aware of that, that the Iranians have the capability of launching cyber-attacks against the U.S. military infrastructure here?

Gen McKenzie: I believe the Iranians do have that capability.

Reporter: They have done it.

Gen McKenzie: I'll just leave it there. We do believe they have the capability.

Reporter: I would like to go back to the tensions in the region between Israel and Iran. Does the Israeli IDF coordinate with the U.S. Central Command before launching any strike against the Iranian assets, either in Syria or somewhere else?

Gen McKenzie: You'll appreciate that I'm not going to be able to talk about the details of military operations, either planned ones or ones that might be ongoing. So, I would say, we maintain coordination with all the militaries in the region. And as Israel comes into the region, we work increasingly closely with the idea.

Reporter: As for the operation that the Israelis are launching against Gaza. Do you think they have they have an interest to end it as soon as possible because if it takes longer it might have negative consequences? Do you agree with this assessment?

Gen McKenzie: You have to ask the Israelis about their own goals for the operation. I would tell you that an operation that continues in time and could widen is in no one's interest, it is not in Israel's interest or anyone else in the region. And I believe they're aware of that as well.

Reporter: OK, how do you how do you evaluate right now the U.S. military's relations with Turkey?

Gen McKenzie: Turkey is an Article five partner of the United States, they're a NATO ally.  As you know, Turkey is not in my area of responsibility, but because they abutted or are directly adjacent to it, we work with it.  We have disagreements with the Turks, but we also have is an old and important relationship to the United States.

Reporter: But as you may, Turkey has a presence in Syria. And I guess if I'm not mistaken, the Incirlik Air Force Base has been used multiple times, to target ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. So, would you say the relationship now is good?

Gen McKenzie: We are still using Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The Turks are very supportive of us there. So, again, I would just emphasize the fact that our relationship with Turkey sometimes goes up and down, but it is founded on the bedrock core of a strategic alliance, the NATO alliance, of which they're a very important member.

Reporter: My last question to Gen McKenzie is what's going to happen with hundreds, maybe thousands of detainees, ISIS detainees that are now captive with the SDF?

Gen McKenzie: In the eastern part of Syria, which is the only part that we have true visibility on, our SDF partners maintain control of ISIS prisoners and a number of prison camps, 10,000 or more, among them, 2,000 we would assess as hardcore fighters. And so, the United States actually does not directly do anything to maintain their security. That's all done by the SDF. But we would argue that what should happen here is these people should be repatriated to their countries to face justice. And I know that our Department of State and other organizations are working very hard to urge the countries from which these people came to take them back so that they can be tried under an appropriate judicial system. And that's the best thing that could happen. We need to get these people out of this camp back to their country of origin so they can be they can be appropriately treated there.

Reporter: Do you have anything to say to our audience in the region and the Gulf in regards when it comes to regional threats?

Gen McKenzie: The United States has been a long partner in the region. We aim to stay in the region. We aim to continue to work with all our friends in the region. It's a very important part of the world to the United States. We continue to work to continue to look at Iran with concern, as do I think many of our friends in the region. And we're there to work with them.

Reporter: Gen McKenzie, the commander of United States Central Command. Thank you so much for being with Sky News Arabia, sir.

Gen. McKenzie: Thank you. It was a pleasure.