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TRANSCRIPT | Jan. 12, 2023

U.S. Central Command Virtual Roundtable with DASD Dana Stroul and General Matthew McFarlane, Commander of CJTF-OIR

TAMPA, Fla. – The following remarks were communicated yesterday at a CENTCOM Virtual Roundtable. They are attributable to Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East; General Matthew McFarlane, Commander of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve.

            STAFF:  Good morning, good afternoon. Thanks for attending this meeting event. I'm Major John Moore, the CENTCOM Public Affairs Media Ops Chief. Joining me are DASD Dana Stroul and General McFarlane. Sir, are you on.

            OK. This is all on the record. Engagement will last around 30 minutes and will be focused on the DISIS. So, Ms. Stroul will open up with about five -- five, six minutes of comments and then I'll open it up for questions. Some housekeeping rules, please keep your mics muted until we call on you.

            Sir, Ma'am; on the call we have Oren Liebermann, Jared Szuba, Courtney Kube, Dan Lamothe. And Ms. Yousef, are you on?

            OK. Ma'am, over to you for opening comments.

            DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DANA STROUL:  Great. Just very quickly, are we on the record here, everything?

            STAFF:  Yes, we're on the record.

            MS. STROUL:  Thanks. Hey (inaudible) with General McFarlane.

            GENERAL MATTHEW MCFARLANE:  Hey there.

            STAFF:  Sir, thank you.  OK, Ms. Stroul is going to make her remarks at this time.

            MS. STROUL:  Good afternoon, everybody. It's Dana Stroul. Good to hear so many of your voices since I have spoken with so many of you before. Let me just do a really short scene setter and then we'll get to your questions.

            Of note I want to highlight the December 29, 2022, statement that CENTCOM put out. It's year in review for 2022, the fight against ISIS. I thought -- and I just want to emphasize this is an important statement because it captures the scope, breath and professionalism with which U.S. forces, together with our coalition continue to prosecute the fight against ISIS.

            Just want to make a few notes about that. First of all, if you look at how many both partnered operations, unilateral operations, ISIS operatives both killed and detained all in partnership with our partners in Iraq and Syria. This really speaks to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform and also the enduring commitment of the United States from the strategic all the way down to the tactical level to completing this fight.

            It is a key priority in our national defense strategy and our national security strategy, and it is one that our senior leaders in Washington D.C. closely follow. It also underscores that ISIS remains a threat and that we still have more work to do.

            So, on that point I want to just again emphasize a few key areas. One is the United States remains committed to this mission and it underscores our enduring commitment regionally both to promoting security and stability in the region and specifically to maintaining force presence in Iraq and Syria for this mission. I also want to flag that I was in Helsinki, Finland in December meeting with the political military consultative committee together with our coalition partners about the state of our fight against ISIS.

            And what was striking to me is the enduring commitment not only of the United States but of our European partners as well as New Zealand, Australia and other. Our partners across the world recognize the importance of this mission, recognize that ISIS still remains a threat and are committed to this coalition. It's also worth reflecting that it was only one year ago that we transitioned our mission in Iraq from -- to an advise, assist, enable and intelligent sharing mission.

            And again, the work continues since that transition of our military mission we've maintained our force presence. We've seen the Iraqi government come together, be seated and are engaging consistently and robustly with that government every day, not only on the military mission, on U.S. forces commitment to remaining in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government but also that the military mission is only one pillar of our strategic commitment to Iraq, which also underscores our commitment to realizing economic prosperity, political inclusion and recovery from the depravities of ISIS only a few years ago in Iraq.

            And then just a few words on Syria. We also remain committed to the D-ISIS mission in Syria by, with, and through our local partners. The Syrian Democratic Forces not only are U.S. forces continuing to prosecute unilateral operations against ISIS, but we maintain a robust pace of partnered operations with the SDF who are the only combat credible, capable, and committed partner present in Northeast Syria today willing to join us in this fight. I would also be remiss if I didn't address ISIS detainees, which remain 10,000 strong under the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Northeast Syria.

            We know that ISIS continues to have its eyes on these detainees and sees them as the path to reconstituting and resurging across the Middle East. Which is why we must stay the course; continue to work with the coalition and supporting the SDF to maintain custody of these detainees in a secure and human manner while we support the State Department in our ongoing mission to reduce this population by repatriating foreign fighters to their countries of origin and Iraqi fighters to Iraq as well as supporting Syrian fighters in reintegrating into their communities in Syria at the appropriate time and under the appropriate conditions.

            Let me stop there. I know you all have a lot of questions. Thanks for taking the time today.

            STAFF:  Ma'am, thanks for your comments. So we'll go to questions now. Ms. Yousef are you on? OK. Oren?

            QUESTION: Hey, this is Oren Liebermann from CNN. I appreciate the time and I appreciate the update. I was wondering if -- if we can kind of get a bit of -- a bit of reflection on -- on how things have changed in both Iraq and Syria. Iraq with its advise and assist? Syria sort of under pressure from -- from Turkey with a critical partner there. From just a few years ago, has the mission become harder or more difficult in these countries or changed in other ways as you see it moving forward here?  You know ...


            QUESTION:  ... something never goes easily there.

            MS. STROUL:  General McFarlane, do you want to go first, and then I'll (inaudible)

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Yeah, sure.  That sounds good.  First, everybody, thanks for taking the time to do this.  I appreciate the -- the opportunity to talk with y'all.

            In terms of how things have evolved over time, certainly the operational environment, which is the most complex I think in the world right now, based on the -- the ISIS threat and the strategic competitors operating in and around Syria.

            In Iraq, things continue to improve, in terms of their ability to demonstrate and actually execute independent operations as they're building capabilities, capacity, and competence towards gaining an independent ability to conduct enduring operations -- sustainable, enduring operations (inaudible) ISIS.

            This gives you this tangible aspect of -- of what I've seen since I've arrived compared to when I left here in 2005.  Baghdad is -- is alive and awake and illuminated at night.  They have a -- a military that is taking initiative, conducting operations as they secure the Arabian Gulf Cup down and ensure the security of that down at Basra, but also last night were conducting D-ISIS operations in Al Anbar Province.  So, progress and, you know, continued room to grow and build the capacity and capability but very capable force.

            In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces are our -- our -- our lead partner there, as they have been throughout the fight with ISIS.  They are -- continue to be committed to conducting operations against ISIS at large, and as recent as three nights ago, conducted a -- a large, wide area operation with over 1,000 commandos that effectively detained their targeted ISIS facilitators, with -- with enabling support from our forces but remotely our forces stayed on the base as the SDF conducted their large operation.

            Certainly, we continue to emphasize the importance of deescalating any -- any aggression in northern Syria, as we remain focused on the de-ISIS mission and supporting the SDF as they conduct that.

            Q:  A very quick follow-up on -- General, before you pass it over to you, do you see a situation where -- where the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government can conduct a de-ISIS campaign without U.S. support in an advise and assist role?

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  I absolutely do see that.  I think what -- what I've seen, especially -- you know, over -- from when I left until I got here, a very promising demonstration of -- of capability and capacity, both -- I've heard the government make public statements, in terms of their focus is on a -- a sovereign, stable, and secure Iraq, as they know that leads to economic investment, but also their military, I think -- I think, took to heart the lessons from the early days of the ISIS caliphate, if you will, and are committed to building a capable and -- and united Army in their efforts moving forward.

            STAFF:  Sure, thank you for that.  Next, Courtney?

            Q:  Hi.  Thanks.  Can you -- I -- I guess this is for both of you -- but can you kind of level set on the threat from Iran right now?  I guess maybe, Dana, if you could, like, look more at the region?  And -- and I'm -- and I'm talking about, like, any other -- any new capabilities that they're demonstrating.  Are there any -- any, you know, specific threats that they -- you are concerned about them right now?

            And then General, if you could address sort of this -- the -- within Iraq and Syria, specifically two locations where there are U.S. personnel and military -- have you seen any uptick?  Are you seeing, like -- well, I -- I guess sort of level set where we are in that threat and -- and also by -- I say "Iran" but also Iranian-backed groups as well, proxy groups.

GEN. MCFARLANE:  Hey, if you're -- I'm sorry -- if you're on the call, mute your mics.  It's distracting (inaudible) -- reverberations.


            MS. STROUL:  OK, hey, Courtney.  This is Dana.  I'll go first.  So, first of all, I would point you to the continuous stream of statements from U.S. Central Command noting all of the ways in which Iranian threats remain real, pressing, and urgent, whether it's indirect fire attacks against our forces in Syria or the continued attempts to illicitly ship advanced conventional weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, maritime aggression, et cetera.

            So, we see this threat in -- from Iran not only as consistent but increasing -- first of all, continuing support, arming, training, equipping, and funding terrorists and proxy groups across the region.  Number two, continuing aggression at sea.  Three, obviously consistent threats from Iranian cyber-attacks.  And four, of course, and -- and most pressing in the news right now is Iranian proliferation of UAVs, not only to proxies and -- and militias in the region but to Russia for use against Ukrainian civilians.

            So I would make the broader observation that all of us who have focused on stability and security in the Middle East know very well the threat from Iranian UAVs and has been working both to ensure force protection for U.S. forces who are in harm's way and are back in Syria but also to step up in supporting the defense of our partners, whether it -- it is the attacks from the Houthis against UAE only one year ago, last January, the hundreds of attacks from Houthi UAVs against our partner, Saudi Arabia, not to mention countless others in the region.

            Now I think the key takeaway is what has -- we've seen in the Middle East is not staying in the Middle East.  The Iran-Russia increasing alliance, the proliferation of UAVs to Russia, and the possibility that there's contemplation of the transfer of ballistic missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine is both a call for the entire global community to -- to step up, in how we counter the Iran threat, and very specifically to take a firm stance against Russian-Iranian cooperation.

            Over to you, General McFarlane.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  I am laser-like-focused on force protection.  And we track threats from multiple vectors across both countries.  We remain focused on innovating to stay in front of threats that are -- are developing weapons, like advanced conventional weapons, one-way attack UAVs, to ensure we can defeat those and protect the coalition, as we remain focused on our de-ISIS mission.

            This threat activity does distract us from our D-ISIS mission and we do everything we can to ensure we're protected and to stay focused moving forward on ensuring the defeat of ISIS.

            STAFF:  Thank you for that.  Dan, are you on?

            Q:  Yes, I am.  Thank you.  One follow and one question please.  I -- I guess to follow on -- on Courtney's question, can you give us a sense for how many attacks and injuries you saw on -- on U.S. service members in the last year in -- involving, you know, UAV attacks, rocket attacks, et cetera, from -- from these Iranian-backed militias?

            And can you walk us through more broadly what late last month looked like as tensions flared with Turkey, with the SDF, and -- and missions were halted and -- and how you went about talking about that, thinking about that, and -- and getting back to work?  Thanks. 

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Hey, Dan, can you repeat the last part of that question?

            Q:  Yes.  I -- I -- I was asking you to walk us through the -- the tensions late last -- last month between Turkey and the SDF and what that looked like from your perspective, both in terms of communicating with the Turks, with the SDF, and then also getting back to work?  I know patrols were halted for some time.  Thanks.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Sure.  Dana, you want to -- you want to answer the first part?

            MS. STROUL:  The -- the Turkey question or the level of attacks and number of injuries?

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Number of injuries, the level of attacks?

            MS. STROUL:  Yeah, sure.  So I can't speak to the exact number of attacks but I will say we see a consistent and steady stream of both plotting and indirect fire attacks against U.S. forces in Syria, which is why not only we're focused on, as General McFarlane said, ensuring U.S. force protection but also looking at ways to degrade and undermine this capability.

            There have been zero casualties resulting from Iran-backed attacks against U.S. forces in Syria over the past year.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  OK, and -- and then in terms of how we -- we walk through the -- the situation with Turkey, we -- we remain committed to the SDF, in terms of continuing to express our desire for all parties to deescalate the situation in the north, as we focused on ensuring we were cognizant of any efforts from ISIS to take advantage of -- of the pause in the SDF operations, and then worked with the SDF to resume those operations as we worked with them and conducted the partner operations, of which I mentioned most recently continue to increase in terms of activity in the eastern Syria security area.

            MS. STROUL:  Let me go ahead and just answer -- or -- or add a little bit on -- on top of what you just heard from General McFarlane because this is a call focused on the theme of where we are in the global coalition and our shared mission to defeat ISIS.

            But we are very clear with all members of the global coalition, including Turkey, even though ISIS no longer controls territory and owns territory, it remains a very real threat, committed to reconstituting and attacking and terrorizing local communities in Iraq and Syria, as well as being able to inspire and direct attacks beyond Iraq and Syria.

            The SDF are the only combat credible, capable, and willing partner we have in northeast Syria willing to partner with us on a daily basis to continue the fight against ISIS.  Any activity that detracts the SDF from that mission, where they would be focus -- forced to focus on their own force protection or protecting their communities, is an opportunity for ISIS to reconstitute that we should not be giving them.

            So what we are very consistent with our Turkish allies is we understand and recognize that they have legitimate security concerns and we continue to work with them to address those security concerns, but any sort of large scale incursion that would detract from our core focus on the defeat -- the sustainable defeat of ISIS is not a risk that we can afford to take at this point in time, not only the need to maintain focus on partnered counter-terrorism operations against ISIS, but again, referring to what I said earlier in the -- this call, is the 10,000 ISIS detainees that the SDF maintains under custody, as well as the tens of thousands of displaced persons at the al-Hol displacement camp.

            These are very real concerns.  We are working to reduce this population, as well as ensure that it's secure and humane while we work on longer term reduction of that population.  Large scale incursions or activities in this area that detract from this focus on defeat ISIS is a risk that the global community cannot afford to take.

            STAFF:  Thank you for that, ma'am.  Jared, are you on?

            Q:  Yes, I'm here.  First, for DASD Stroul, if I could ask -- regarding Turkey's threats to launch an incursion against the SDF, is there any effort to revive previous years' commitments to Turkey to pull the (inaudible) back from certain border areas?  And is there any serious discussion ongoing with -- with the -- our Turkish allies on compromising or -- compromise on -- on the security structures in the northeast?

            And secondly, for General McFarlane, if I can ask -- just wondering if you could shed light on the visit of Bafel Talabani and his meetings with yourself and General Mazloum -- we saw reports of that last month in northeast Syria -- and what, if anything, this visit has to do with CJTF-OIR's role in deescalating with Turkey?  Thanks.

            MS. STROUL:  Hey, Jared, I'll go first.  So, number one, I am not going to speak to the private nature of discussions we have across our entire interagency with our Turkish allies and counterparts.  That being said, I do want to emphasize that there is no change to current U.S. policy in Syria.

            When it comes to the military arm of that broader policy, it is to maintain our force presence in Syria, to support enduring and sustainable defeat of ISIS, and in order to achieve that objective, we remain committed to working with the SDF.

            Over to you, General McFarlane.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Sure, thanks.  In terms of that KLE, I do routine KLEs with General Mazloum, the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces.  That -- the focus of that meeting was to talk specifically, as I do most of the time with General Mazloum, about D-ISIS options and the best way to ensure we continue to make progress in that effort and maintain stability there in -- in the (inaudible).

            STAFF:  Sir, if I could just clarify real quick, I'm just curious specifically about the visit by the UK official, Bafel Talabani, if you're able to speak to that?  Thank you.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  I am -- as -- as you know, the -- the (PUK ?) conduct D-ISIS operations in the Iraqi Kurdistan region and the SDF conduct D-ISIS operations in the (SO ?), and both of those leaders and I discussed how we'd go about doing those operations, to ensure we were optimizing our -- our -- their ability to continue to make progress in the fight.

            STAFF:  Thank you for that.  Nancy, just wanted to see if you were able to join the call.  OK, nothing heard.  One last -- one last -- go ahead, sir.  OK, one last round, we've got about a couple minutes left for this.  If anybody has any remaining questions, go ahead please.

            Q:  I have two actually if you don't mind.  Just one quick one on Turkey.  Do you -- I guess do you still see -- it seems as if the -- the -- the rhetoric and the tensions have dropped off quite a bit from where they were, like, a month ago and certainly two months ago and then last summer.  I -- I guess can you just give us a sense, for either of you, whether you think it -- the -- Turkey -- there's still a potential for a real incursion by the Turkish military?

            And then I guess this one is really more for General McFarlane -- I guess, you know, we're -- we're coming up on the 20th anniversary of -- of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which seems crazy, and I know the conflict is very different there from where it was but -- and you talked a little bit about -- about how different things are from 2005, when you were there, but I guess, you know, I think a lot of Americans would be surprised to know that the U.S. military still has a -- has a relatively large component there, you know, nearly 20 years later.

            So how -- can you give us a sense of how different things are or the same -- things are from 20 years ago until today?  Thanks.

            STAFF:  Hey, General McFarlane, sir, I -- I think you probably have something to say on this 20-year anniversary, sir.

            GEN. MCFARLANE:  Yeah, sure.  Thanks, Courtney.  Yeah, certainly the -- the -- the operational environment's evolved, the conditions on the ground have certainly evolved, but most importantly, the leader of -- of the effort, in terms of in the fight, is -- is squarely the Iraqis, and their capability and capacity to do it, we see it every day as we work with them at the operational level, in a joint operations center, where they are conducting their own operations to find, fix, and finish and do point strikes on ISIS targets but also do wide area operations.

            So, what I've seen is certainly an increase in the will to fight, which is incredibly important.  You're seeing some of -- the demonstration of how important the will to fight is in Ukraine.  We can see a similar will here, in terms of they recognize the importance of -- of protecting the Iraqi people.

            And our effort here is squarely in a combat advise/assist role, where, in 2005, we were leading the way in the fight itself in combat on the ground.  So, the evolution and the change that was made last December, I think, was -- is monumental, in terms of how we've adjusted our efforts here to ensure we're building and supporting the -- the Iraqis.  We're here at their invitation and they are demonstrating they appreciate and value the partnership that the coalition has with them as they are focused on a -- a sovereign, stable, and secure Iraq.

            MS. STROUL:  I'll jump in here.  Just to revisit the history of how we reached mutual agreement on the transition of the U.S. military mission last year to one of advise, assist, enable, and share intelligence, is that it was -- before that strategic statement and the transition of mission, U.S. forces and Iraqi forces held several military technical talks.

            What's really important to remember here is that, as General McFarlane said, U.S. forces are present in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.  And based on usual consultations about a shared assessment of the threat from ISIS and how we're going to work together to prosecute that threat and was -- was very clear from consultations last year, is that, as General McFarlane said, Iraqi forces have come in an -- an -- an exceptional way in being able to sustain this mission on their own.

            And there are specific capabilities and support that are -- that are value-added to their being in the lead for this mission, from the United States and from the global coalition, not to mention the NATO mission in Iraq, which is also focusing on supporting the institutional capacity development of the Iraqi Armed Forces.

            So, there are multiple entities all mutually committed to this mission and to supporting Iraqi Security Forces who are in the lead.  That is fundamentally different from the kind of mission we were prosecuting 20 years ago.

            And I think it would also -- it's important for both American citizens to know that we remain committed to this mission and that it's sustainable because it's a specific force level, it's based on transparency, mutual consultations, and again, the consent and invitation of the Iraqi government.

            And then Courtney, on your first question, I -- I'm not going to use adjectives to assess Turkish rhetoric but what I do want to be clear on is that Turkish officials are clear that they do not support the U.S. approach to prosecuting the D-ISIS mission in Syria.  However, we both agree that ISIS still remains a threat. 

            We are in constant consultations with Turkey about prosecuting and needing to stay the course when it comes to the ISIS threat.  Again, it was only a couple of years ago that ISIS held large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, was committing daily atrocities and brutalities against communities there.

            And we also know, for the past 20 years of counter-terrorism missions across the Middle East, that it's not only about the military instrument, it's about humanitarian support, stabilization, political inclusion, and economic stability, all aspects that cannot exclusively be solved by U.S. Central Command or the Department of Defense, and it's why we are also constantly working with our diplomats and defense professionals.

            STAFF:  Ma'am, thank you for that.  So right now, we are just about out of time.  So, thanks again for joining us on the call.  If you have any unanswered questions that we didn't get to or any follow ups, please email CENTCOM Media Box -- I know you guys are getting the distros, the information from there -- or call us at 813-529-0220.  Thanks again.

            (UNKNOWN):  Thank you so much.