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TRANSCRIPT | May 21, 2021

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. on-the-record interview with AP and ABC, May 21st, 2021

Lita Baldor (AP): Can you just give us a brief sort of recap of what you were able to learn yesterday, particularly regarding the strategic dialogue and where things stand?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. Great opportunity to visit the Iraqi prime minister yesterday and some of his key leadership. It was a good meeting. We affirmed the need to move together with the strategic dialogue. And we hope the military part of that, what we call the military technical (inaudible) will begin very soon. Those talks will be about the nature of our future presence in Iraq. I think the prime minister was very positive, and we are very positive about what those talks are going to bring us.

Luis Martinez (ABC): You are here today (inaudible) quarterly check...what changed? (inaudible)

Gen. McKenzie: So, I'm here in Eastern Syria to take a look at the men and women who are actually staying in the east of the Euphrates River, helping the SDF continue the fight against ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley. Just gives me an opportunity to talk to them, let them see the guy that's in charge. And see how things are going.

Luis Martinez (ABC): How important is the presence of U.S. troops in Syria right now?

Gen. McKenzie: I think it's very important to continue the fight against the remnants of ISIS up and down the Euphrates River Valley.

Lita Baldor (AP): Just one quick thing on yesterday, we were told that the Iraqis, hopefully, next week will bring in about a hundred families from al Hol. Are you optimistic that will happen? And do you think that's a one-off deal or do you see this as a first step toward something positive?

Gen. McKenzie: We're optimistic it's going to happen. It would be the first step in any such repatriations. And I think that's going to be the key to bringing down the population in the al Hol camp and the other camps across the region. Nations need to bring back their citizens, repatriate them, reintegrate them, deradicalize them if necessary and make them (inaudible) society.

Lita Baldor (AP): You've talked a lot about (inaudible) radicalization (inaudible). Do you think that is still happening (inaudible) increase in security (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: Sure. I believe that, first of all, security has improved. The SDF are doing a good job (inaudible). But, you know, security doesn't really have any impact on radicalization of children within the camps and that's what concerns me, the ability of ISIS to reach out, touch these young people and turn them. Unless we can find a way to take it back, it's going to make us pay a steep price down the road.

Luis Martinez (ABC): How is the presence of U.S. troops does that relate to the radicalization efforts or deradicalization efforts?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, what U.S. troops do right here and in the other camps up and down the Euphrates River Valley, is we provide support for our SDF partners. The SDF are actually the forces out there in the camps and actually fighting ISIS. We provide them support, enabling support that allows them to do that work.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Do you think the presence here is long term now, or is it just still a short term? Because ISIS has been defeated on the battlefield, so some people are asking, why do we still need American troops?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, ISIS has been defeated on the battlefield and they no longer hold ground in Syria. However, remnants of ISIS still remain. And, as we've said all along, that the future is not going to be a world where there's no ISIS. Instead, it's going to be a world where local security forces are able to deal with ISIS without external help. Training the SDF, working with partners in the region is a vital step (inaudible).

Lita Baldor (AP): (inaudible) growing ISIS threat in the West. Is that (inaudible) stronger foothold there (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: I would say east of the Euphrates River, where we are now (inaudible) west of the Euphrates River, none of those mechanisms are in place. You have Syrian forces with their Russian sponsors and there's very little effort being given to stabilization. The conditions that gave rise to the birth of ISIS there and nothing has changed. So, why would we expect a different result?

Lita Baldor (AP): (inaudible)

Gen. McKenzie: I think west of the Euphrates River in areas that the government of Syria controls, I think it's just as bad as it's ever been.

Luis Martinez (ABC): We've always heard that Syria is a complex battlefield. (Inaudible) can you explain to us how it is with the Russians, with the Assad regime, with ISIS...the whole (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, sure, there are a lot of factors, a lot of nations, a lot of interest (inaudible). Northeastern Syria is a perfect example of one of those. Our interest in Syria is getting after the final defeat of Daesh and preventing ISIS in any form from ever being able to threaten the United States. That's the reason we're here. That's the reason that we maintain this network and work with our SDF partners up and down the Euphrates River Valley.

Lita Baldor (AP): There's been a lot of talk about a possible pro-regime push against the (inaudible). Are you seeing any evidence (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: We always see pressure against our SDF partners here, but they've been able to fend it off.

Lita Baldor (AP): So, nothing more recent that you're seeing...?

Gen. McKenzie: Nothing new. Nothing more than normal.

Lita Baldor (AP): And, do you see the U.S. still as having a role (inaudible)?

Luis Martinez (ABC): How close are you to the final defeat of ISIS? They don't control any territory. What actually is the concern?

Gen. McKenzie: The concern is this. Even though they don't hold ground, the caliphate no longer exists. Nonetheless, there are still bands of them active. And that's probably worse west of the Euphrates River than it is here. But there's still constant pressure to be kept up. Even after the United States leaves - and probably at some point we will leave - there is still going to have to be pressure kept on ISIS. And we would look for that to be done by local security forces that we have trained and (inaudible).

Lita Baldor (AP): You talk about this being (inaudible)...and also the Iranian activity down in south the U.S. struck Iranian-backed militia in Syria about a month ago. Do you see that as (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: (Inaudible) I think Iran uses Syria principally as a corridor to transport advanced conventional weapons into Lebanon to threaten Israel. But they also don't mean us well in any regard either. So, I think they do a lot of things here in Syria that are not good.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Can you tell us about the lay down of troops here? You've talked about two different missions. Can you kind of lay down what your forces are? What is it they are exactly doing in each place?

Gen. McKenzie: I'm not going to be able to go into details on that (inaudible)...Bradley fighting vehicles behind me that we use out here on our patrols sometimes to make sure our people get appropriate force protection when they are out moving around the countryside.

Lita Baldor (AP): How much, if at all, has COVID affected the amount of operations and patrols that you all are doing?

Gen. McKenzie: I don't think it's had much effect at all in terms of what we do. We take appropriate force protection measures for our people. And, you know, we mask-up and get the vaccine in here as aggressively as we can. I think Syria has been hit hard by coronavirus. Certainly, that's a fact that the commander is taking into account here.

Lita Baldor (AP): (Inaudible) concerned in previous times you have met him about the U.S. commitment here for the Syrian (inaudible).

Gen. McKenzie: Look around (inaudible). Look at the Bradleys (inaudible)...that's a great question. I think Daesh or some successor of Daesh (inaudible) west of the Euphrates River (inaudible) the ability to have water, food, the basic necessities (inaudible)...but I think those conditions are bad. So, if you don't change those things, why would we expect it to be any different in the future?

Luis Martinez (ABC): Is that why this is more of a holistic approach? Obviously, you're dealing with the military, but you have USAID here with you (inaudible).

Gen. McKenzie: We work with our interagency partners and indeed our international partners to try to bring that sort of total, whole of government, whole of nations, approach to the problems that exist in Syria because it's not solvable militarily. There are long standing structural factors that can only be addressed through means beyond the military instrument. If we want to be successful.

Lita Baldor (AP): (inaudible) clashes with the Russian military. Do you think those have subsided? Do you think it's created, obviously, the need for you to add more troops to the region? Do you think you're at a point where things are (inaudible)?

Gen. McKenzie: Well, you never know, we tend to just judge by what happens day to day. I won't speculate, but I think the Bradleys behind us here are some of the things that were done to let all parties know that we're deadly serious about ensuring our people are well protected (inaudible) harassed when they go about their missions.

Luis Martinez (ABC): You talked earlier about what the mission is here in Syria, can you explain that?

Gen. McKenzie: (inaudible) So, what we are doing here is finishing the battle against Daesh/ISIS. We’ve crushed the caliphate, they are gone they no longer hold ground. (Inaudible) With our partners, the SDF we’re working to get (inaudible). They do the fighting. We don't do the fighting. We support them. They do all the hard work. We enable them to do that work. The process is continuous. What we don't want to do is take the pressure off now, because ISIS still has an aspirational goal to attack the United States. We want to prevent that from happening. In the long run, we would like to see local security forces without Americans on the ground be able to do this work that’s the aspirational state (inaudible).

Luis Martinez (ABC): Talking about enabling the Kurdish forces here (inaudible) what are the capabilities you bring here?

Gen. McKenzie: (Inaudible) So, one of the things we want to make sure is the men and women who are out here doing the work have a level of force protection that's appropriate so the Bradleys are out here looking to ensure that any party that this is not the time to mess around with the Americans here in the region.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Specifically, I think you wanted the Bradleys in to deter Russia from harassment...

Gen. McKenzie: So, I did order the Bradleys in after we had an episode where Russian had irresponsible behavior it was very provocative so we brought the Bradleys in just to show we’re deadly serious about standards of conduct are maintained. And, generally, it’s been better since that time.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Further on how long can this mission go on?

Gen. McKenzie: It will go on as long as the President wants us to be here.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Is there a review underway to see where the forces will be around the world and is Syria a part?

Gen. McKenzie: The new administration has certainly undertaken a review of that, with the Joint Staff and Secretary of Defense, and CENTCOM is a part of that. And I’m sure they’re come up with some answers (inaudible).

Luis Martinez (ABC): We’re seeing (inaudible).

Gen. McKenzie: (Inaudible. Discussing al Hol). They're being radicalized every day by ISIS even as we (inaudible).

Luis Martinez (ABC): We're talking tens of thousands of people (inaudible).

Gen. McKenzie: What you need is for nations to repatriate their citizens, bring them home. That's what needs to happen. And our State Department is aggressively working toward that goal. Indeed, the entire international community is, the pace is too slow right now, getting people repatriated. But it's not because of lack of effort by the U.S. State Department.

Luis Martinez (ABC): (inaudible) What is your main concern short term, and what is your main concern long term?

Gen. McKenzie: My main goal short term is to maintain the pressure on ISIS. Long term, it's to find a way to solve the refugee problem. That's become a true strategic problem for us down the road.

Luis Martinez (ABC): Okay, thank you. Thank you, sir.