March 28, 2018
Nathan Tek: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the Arab world. Today, we are joined by Commander of the United States Central Command General Joseph Votel. United States Central Command’s area of responsibility includes Egypt, the Levant, the Gulf, Iran, and Central Asia.
The mission of CENTCOM is to direct and enable military operations and activities with allies and partners to increase regional security and ability in support of enduring U.S. interests. General Votel is speaking to us on route to London, the United Kingdom. We will begin today with remarks from the General. After that, we will then open it up to your questions. Today’s call is on the record. It will last for 30 minutes. With that, I will now turn it over to General Votel for his opening remarks. General Votel, the floor is yours.
General Votel: Okay, thank you Nathan for that introduction and let me join you in welcoming all of our correspondents today. Thank you for showing your interest and thank you for participating in the call today. I look forward to your questions.
I have been traveling in the region for about the last week-and-a-half. I started off my trip in Afghanistan where I went to specifically look at how we are moving forward in our military preparations to implement our new policy and strategy in South Asia and I was very pleased with what I saw. I specifically focused on our advise-and-assist efforts with the Afghan forces.
Following my visit to Afghanistan, I traveled to both Oman and the United Arab Emirates where I had an opportunity to meet with Gulf partners from both of those countries and discuss many of our cooperative, ongoing efforts that we have in that part of the region. Again, this was a good opportunity to confirm many of our activities to discuss the current and evolving situation in the region and to begin to discuss some of our future activities in support of each other.
Following my visit to the United Arab Emirates and Oman, I then went to Iraq and, again, spent a couple of days meeting with our forces and with some of our Iraqi counterparts and some of their political leadership. As many of you know, Iraq has very successfully liberated their country from the scourge of ISIS and so we are now moving into a different phase of operations in Iraq, helping them consolidate their gains and continue to professionalize their military. All in all, it was a very good visit in Iraq.
I finished up with a short trip into Syria. My principal purpose here was to meet with some of our coalition force leadership on the ground to make sure I had a good assessment of the situation from their standpoint. And then I also had an opportunity to meet with some of our indigenous partners to get their perspective.
We have just completed some visits in the United Kingdom, as Mr. Tek said, again with our partners there. The UK forces have been great partners to us so it was a great opportunity to talk about many of our cooperative efforts that we are conducting together and, of course, to discuss the situation in the region. This afternoon I find myself on a jet flying back to our headquarters in Tampa. So that is what I have been doing for the last almost two weeks and I am very pleased with the continued progress that I see with our forces, with our coalition partners, and with our partners in the region working together. It certainly remains a very serious situation and very dynamic situation across the region with a variety of different actors but again, these trips are always great opportunities for us to reinforce our efforts and ensure that we stay in alignment with all of our partners.
So with that let me stop there and I would be happy to answer any of your questions.
Nathan Tek: Thank you General Votel, we will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to only one question related to the topics of today’s briefing. We will take questions, first from the English line and then from the Arabic line. I will now turn the floor to the English line, operator can you please give the floor to the first journalist in the English line. Thank you. Operator can we take the first question on the English line?
Operator: Sure, our first question is from Joe Aguilera from the Gulf Times [inaudible name].
Journalist: Hello, this is [inaudible name] from the Gulf Times. I want to get your comments about the unconfirmed reports about the U.S. plan to move the U.S. Air Base from Qatar and the U.S. Air Base in Turkey.
General Votel: Thank you for your question. I would simply say that we have no plans to depart the Air Base in Qatar. I am aware of some of this reporting out here. I don’t know where that comes from, but we have no new intentions to depart the Air Base in Qatar.
Journalist: Thank you very much.
Nathan Tek: Thank you very much. We’ll take the next caller in the English line. Thank you.
Operator: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question please press zero 1 on your telephone keypad. Our next question is from Mahmood Al Ken from Al Jazeera. Go ahead.
Journalist: Yes, hi this is Mahmood Al Ken from Al Jazeera. I would like to ask about the complicated situation on the ground in Syria. Have you coined any strategy, especially that there are some Iranian troops that are affiliated in there? Do you have any plans in the future to balance that?
General Votel: Thank you. I had a little trouble understanding your question. Is your question about the situation in northern Syria?
Journalist: Yes, the situation on the ground in Syria is very complicated. Now there’s an Iranian threat in the region and as well the Iranian troops are also present on the ground. Now, do you have any strategy to contain that threat in the region?
General Votel: Thank you. Our mission in northern Syria and Syria in the coalition is strictly focused on the defeat of ISIS so as we work through the very complicated situation in Syria, it is our intention to continue to focus on the aspects of ISIS that still need to be addressed. We certainly are aware that there are many actors that are operating in Syria and I think what I would say is we as our Department of State, and many others, have called for as we do call on these parties to observe the UN ceasefire to pay strict attention to the humanitarian situation and to pursue solutions to these challenges through diplomatic changes as opposed to through the military chains. So from our perspective, I am very keen to keep our coalition forces focused on the mission that our civilian leadership has given to us which is the defeat of ISIS.
Journalist: Thank you.
Nathan Tek: We will now take the next question in the English line.
Operator: Our next question is from Imad Atrachfrom Sky News Arabia, please go ahead.
Journalist : Yes, General you said you were in Syria lately. I would like to know what is your official position regarding the continuous of the Turkish president asking the U.S. to withdraw from the city of Manbij in northern Syria.
General Votel: Well, I won’t comment too much on that as this is a matter of discussion between the United States government and the government of Turkey and those discussions are ongoing at the diplomatic level so it’s not appropriate for me to interject into something that is ongoing. What I would simply say is this, that we have always recognized Turkey’s concerns for its security but we also have a key partner on the ground who has been extraordinarily effective in addressing the threat of ISIS and we have worked with them and they have sacrificed for a long time on this. So, what we have to do is we have to continue to work between these two objectives to ensure that we can find an appropriate way forward. I am confident that with the continued discussions in the diplomatic channel that we will hopefully find our way forward with this.
Nathan Tek: Thanks very much. I’m going to move now to the Arabic line. If we have time leftover we will switch back to the English questions but I just want to give the Arabic-speaking callers a chance before we run out of time. So with that, operator can you please give the first question to the Arab language line? Thank you.
Operator: We have a question from Ibrahim Bedawi.
Journalist : Good evening. Thank you for this opportunity. I have two questions. The importance of Qatar as a partner in countering terrorism and also, we need an explanation that refutes the rumors that—is the base going to stay in Qatar and what do you think of the importance of the role played by Qatar for the coalition forces?
General Votel: Thank you and thank you for the question. So as I mentioned a few moments ago, we have no plans and no intentions to depart the base in Qatar. That is not something that we are contemplating at this point. Qatar, like many countries, all the other countries of the region, have been good partners to the United States and we are thankful for the support that they have provided to us just as other countries in the region have provided support to us and our other coalition members. So as—you know, we look forward to continuing this relationship and do hope that as some of the tensions are addressed in the political arena that they will not have an impact on the military or security cooperation that has been so key for our combined security in the past. Let me just also say on the first question in the English line, I think the correspondent asked about Incirlik Air Field as well and whether we were planning to close our operations there and I would just simply say, no we are not intending to do that. The support that the Turkish government has provided to us from Incirlik has been essential to the campaign and we have no plans to stop any of the activities that we have been conducting from there. We are thankful for the support that Turkey has provided to us. Thank you.
Nathan Tek: Thank you very much. Can we please take the next question in the Arabic line?
Operator: We have a question from Ahmed Juma.
Journalist: Thank you General for this opportunity to ask you a question on behalf of [inaudible]. The first is regarding the operations launched by the Egyptian forces in Sinai and do you have any part to play in those operations and what’s your view about the raid that has been launched on the south of Libya with regards to Al Qaeda and what are the outcomes from the—is there any truth to the reports that there was a meeting in Jordan with the U.S. forces?
General Votel: Well, thank you. First off, I think with respect to Egypt, we certainly remain in very good contact with our partners in Egypt and are aware of the operations that they are conducting in the Sinai. We certainly wish them the very best as they address the ISIS threat that has emanated from this area and we hope that they will be successful in this. We don’t directly participate in these operations ourselves but in many ways, we do provide some assistance to Egypt in sharing lessons learned and providing advice and other assistance that may be useful to them as they address this particular enemy so we look forward to continuing that support.
I’m afraid I can’t comment on anything happening over in the area of Libya. That is outside of my area of responsibility but again, we are grateful that there are partners that are addressing the threats in those parts of the area as well. As I mentioned in the beginning, I did not visit Jordan on this trip. I was there just a month or so ago and had a very good visit with them. Jordan has been an extraordinarily strong supporter for the United States and for our coalition for a very, very long time. They are a bulwark of all of our security in the region and we are very grateful for that. I’m not aware of any recent meetings there or things that I could particularly comment on but again, we just really appreciate the strong support that Jordan provides us. Certainly, they are on the periphery of many of these threats and so we remain very, very supportive of their efforts and the efforts that we have taken to help with their security and will continue to do that going forward. Thank you.
Nathan Tek: Thank you very much operator. Can we take the next question in the Arabic line?
Operator: We have a question from Mr. Amr Salimfrom Future newspaper.
Journalist(??): Thank you for this conference. With regards to the Syrian case, there are some threats with regards to chemical weapons used in Syria. What is your viewpoint with regards to these allegations?
General Votel: Well again, I think the United States has made it very clear that we take a very dim view on the use of chemical weapons in any situation and in particular in situations where civilians are being targeted. And we call on all parties to operate in accordance with the Law of Arms Conflict and with the prohibitions that have been put in place regarding the use of chemical weapons. I won’t speculate or talk about any particular responses that we would take. Those will only be taken at the direction of our leadership, but I would just echo what has been stated by our Ambassador to the United Nation, that we take these—we take these threats very seriously and call on all parties to cease these activities and avoid these types of attacks here. And as we said, to begin to abide by the ceasefires and the resolutions that the United Nations has taken in trying to reduce civilian casualties and reduce the humanitarian disaster situation that is playing out in many of these areas inside Syria.
Nathan Tek: Thank you. We’re going to take one final question from the Arabic line. Operator, please open the floor to the next caller.
Operator: We have a question from Tamam Abou Safi, Al Ayyam newspaper.
Journalist : I would have a comment from the General with regards to the missile attack on Riyadh, the Saudi capitol, from the Houthis that are supported by Iran and how are you going to respond to the continuation of supporting them with weapons from Iran?
General Votel: Well, thank you. You know, as a matter of policy, we don’t—we don’t openly discuss how we would respond to these situations, but obviously we have some authorities and we have been working with Saudi Arabia to help them protect themselves from these threats and of course, we will remain in strong contact with all of our partners, all of our partners in the region, to look for ways to prevent these weapons from moving into positions where they can be irresponsibly employed against large population centers. I would compliment the Saudi forces who’ve responded to this unprovoked attack and did a very good job of protecting their population from even greater casualties. Unfortunately, it appears there was a small number of casualties that is unfortunate but I would point out that the Saudis did a very good job of preventing this from being even more effective with their good military response and we will continue to support them in their efforts to protect themselves. And we will continue to work with all partners to address the facilitation being done at the hand of Iran that threatens to widen the conflict and threatens to put populations at great risk.
Nathan Tek: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank General Votel for joining us and to thank all of our callers for participating. I apologize that we could not get to every caller, however unfortunately our time is limited. If you have questions about today’s call, please contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected] and you can also contact us at that email to learn about future calls like this. That concludes our call. Thank you all for joining us and good evening.