Moderator: Good morning to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of U.S. Central Command. General McKenzie will provide an update on CENTCOM operations, including counterterror and Defeat-ISIS efforts. We will begin today’s briefing with opening remarks from General McKenzie, then open the floor for questions.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request everyone to keep that in mind and speak slowly.
I will now turn it over to General McKenzie for his opening remarks. General, the floor is yours.
General McKenzie: Hey, good morning. Thank you very much, and thanks to everybody for participating in this call. I’d like to begin by thanking the team at the Dubai Media Hub for setting this call up and handling the logistical details, and I’m very happy to have an opportunity to talk with everyone today.
I am currently on my first trip to the region since February, as I postponed several trips due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus. So far, I’ve visited with both civilian and military leaders in a number of nations in the region, as well as U.S. and coalition diplomatic and military leaders. This is a good opportunity for me to re-engage in person with leaders across the region and to discuss mutual security concerns. It also allows me to engage with U.S. and coalition troops to discuss the security situation they’re seeing, and also it gives me an opportunity to see some of their challenges firsthand.
While I’m not going to be able to talk to you about where we’re going in the future on this trip, due to security concerns, I will say that I’ve already visited Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait, and I’ve had the opportunity also to visit U.S. troops in eastern and southern Syria. This trip also gave me my first opportunity to meet the new prime minister of Iraq. It was very important for me to get back into the region because some things just can’t be seen on a video teleconference, and I think face-to-face engagement is very critical.
With that, I’m ready to begin the question and answer period.
Moderator: All right, thank you very much, General McKenzie. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue.
And our first question for today will go to Bassem Mroue from Associated Press. Submitted in Arabic, the question is: “ISIS members have staged riots in jails run the SDF in northeast Syria over the past few months, and the Kurdish-led group has asked the international community for assistance. Does the United States have any plans to ask the home countries of these fighters to repatriate their citizens, or is it possible that these fighters would be tried in Syria? And do you have concerns about the spread of coronavirus in these jails or future attempts at a prison escape?” Over.
General McKenzie: Thanks for the question. We view the uprisings in the SDF-controlled prisons in eastern Syria and across Syria with concern. We believe the best way to reduce the population of those prisons, in all cases, is repatriation, and we fully support repatriation and we’re working with a variety of nations to make – to achieve that goal. That’s a slow process but we believe that is clearly the best path going forward.
We also are working every way we can to provide additional support to the SDF, who actually are in charge of security in those prisons. As you know, the United States has no direct role in security for those prisons, but we’ll try to help the SDF indirectly in any way that we can as they maintain that mission.
The last question you – part of the question is are we concerned about coronavirus in the prisons? Absolutely we are. We don’t believe it is a problem now, but because of close living conditions it presents a problem. I would also say it presents a serious problem in the various IDP camps, the internally displaced person camps, across Syria, and we are very concerned with that as well. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, General. The next question comes from Jared Szuba from Al-Monitor.
Question: Hi, General, thank you so much for doing this. You have said in the past that the killing of Soleimani established a form of rough deterrence against Iran, but that that deterrence may not last. Are there any significant signs that the Islamic Republic has since modified its strategic objectives of hegemony in the region? And is it possible that Tehran is waiting out the upcoming UN arms embargo vote or the U.S. presidential election to begin deploying tactics towards that goal again in the region?
General McKenzie: Thanks very much for the question. So my assessment is that after the exchange in January, we are in a period of what I would call contested deterrence. And I believe that deterrence is born of capability and will. I don’t think Iran ever doubted our capabilities, but sometimes they doubted our will [inaudible] as to what our will is actually capable of doing. So I think in the result – as a result of that in the period from January up until now, two things: First of all, I believe Iran still holds its goals for regional hegemony, and I think they’re still intent on pursuing that, and I think that also, as part of that, they are intent on attempting to eject the United States from the region. I think that is obviously, clearly aligned with regional hegemony for them because we provide support to many of the other nations in the region that are opposed to their drive towards hegemony.
So I think that – so I think that is still very much alive and well, but I think there is a period of rough deterrence that remains in place. I think they are calculating how they can achieve that goal without crossing a red line of ours, and I think for the first time we sort of clearly established some red lines that might not have been visible to them before. So I think – I think another strand that is there is of course it’s possible they’re calculating that they’ll continue into the fall, until the – until the UN weapons embargo is actually acted upon, and I think that that is also a factor in their thinking. But to be honest with you, it’s very hard to know and understand exactly what Iran’s thinking is, and I would say that’s even been more manifest after the death of Qassem Soleimani; I think it’s been harder for them to come to decisions and harder for them to decide on a clear path forward. So I think there – it’s difficult actually to know and understand exactly what they intend to do, and it’s even more difficult right now. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, General. The next question was submitted by Hazem Ayyad from Al Sabeel newspaper in Jordan, and the question is: “Can you tell us about the American presence in Iraq and the effectiveness of coordination with the Iraqi Government in light of its internal crises and conflict with Iran?” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure, thank you. So I am actually optimistic about where we are in Iraq right now. I believe that the newly seated prime minister, Prime Minister Kadhimi, is attempting to do all the right things, and it’s going to be a long slog for him because I think, at heart, he wants to assert the sovereignty of Iraq. We fully agree with that. We believe we can contribute to that. I think he seeks to bring the various militias under state control where that’s feasible. I think he also takes very seriously the obligations of the Government of Iraq to provide protection for U.S., coalition, and partner forces that are in Iraq on a CT mission against Daesh, and he has been very aggressive moving out on that. He also has practical political realities that he has to deal with, and we recognize those realities and understand that he’s – we’re going to have to have patience as he moves forward.
But I believe that we’re actually in a pretty good place with the Government of Iraq going forward. The United States will continue the second part of an ongoing strategic dialogue with the Government of Iraq later this month, and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for a shared view going forward. One thing I can – one thing I can assure you: the future U.S. presence in Iraq is going to be something that will be arrived at in close consultation with the representatives of the Iraqi Government, and I think we’re actually in a good place on that right now. Thank you.
Moderator: All right. Next we will go to Jean Mojon from AFP.
Question: Hello, General McKenzie. This is Jean-Marc Mojon calling from Beirut for AFP. I was wondering if you could confirm to us whether or not C-RAM systems have been deployed to protect the Green Zone and other bases in Iraq, and whether they have already successfully thwarted attacks, and when? Thank you.
General McKenzie: Let me make sure. I’m not sure I heard the question, but I asked – I believe you asked have we deployed air defense systems in the Green Zone in Iraq, and have they been actually deployed? Was that your question?
Question: That’s correct.
General McKenzie: Sure. So yes, we have completed that deployment and that’s about as much as I’m going to say about it because we don’t like to discuss the tactical details of where we place force protection systems. And it has been – and the one thing I would tell you, it has been deployed and will be ready to be deployed again should circumstances warrant.
Moderator: Great, thank you. Our next question was submitted by Monalisa Freiha from Annahar newspaper in Lebanon, and the question is: “What was your impression after your meetings with Lebanese officials? Do you think Hizballah might seek conflict with Israel in light of pressures that it’s facing due to the economic crisis in Lebanon?” Over.
General McKenzie: Thanks very much. Well, clearly the centerpiece of my [inaudible] opportunity to meet with the – with the chief of the Lebanese armed forces, General Aoun, and that was a very good meeting. I was able to reaffirm with him our commitment to support the LAF [inaudible] expression of national defense in Lebanon, the arm of the government. We think the LAF is a tremendous opportunity to get to a solution there [inaudible] requirements of defense of the government. Hizballah remains a problem, it remains an issue. We recognize that it’s there. We’d be – I’d be blind to say we don’t see it there. We recognize that [inaudible] local people there in Lebanon have to make accommodations as a result of that. But I think it would be a great mistake for Hizballah to try to carry out operations against Israel. I can’t see that having a good ending. Over.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Kiamchia Stein from Israel Kan TV.
Question: Hello, good morning. My question is, how does – does the U.S. think that the explosion in Natanz caused a significant damage in the Iranian nuclear activity? And how does the U.S. view the recent explosions, or massive explosions, in Iran in recent weeks?
General McKenzie: So we have – we have seen and observed those explosions in Iran. I would – I’m not going to be able to speculate what that may or may not have done to the Iranian nuclear program. I think you’d be [inaudible] from remarks that have been made by regime officials in Iran, and I would probably leave it – I would probably leave it at that. Thank you.
Moderator: Okay. Our next question was submitted by Wael Badran from Al Ittihad newspaper in the UAE, and the question is: “How do you assess the current effectiveness of the Afghan army?” Over.
General McKenzie: So I think we’re at a critical period in Afghanistan right now, and I think the Afghan army is fighting hard to provide defense for the nation as we try to get [inaudible] intra-Afghan negotiations. As you know, we provide enabling support and other support for the Afghan army. We no longer accompany them, and I think they’re fighting hard right now. The Taliban is, frankly, not being helpful. At a period when we should be striving for a reduction in violence, instead the Taliban has actually increased their attacks on the Afghan – on the Afghan military. And that is, frankly, not helpful and it makes cloudy the chances for a peaceful resolution and a reduction in violence and a ceasefire and a way ahead in Afghanistan. But I am – I’m pleased with the way the Afghan army is fighting right now. Thank you.
Moderator: Great. Our next question was submitted by Subhi Franjieh from Al-Araby al-Jadeed, and the question is: “Recently, ISIS cells have become more active in the East Euphrates region. Please give us your assessment of ISIS activity now in Syria and the coalition’s strategy for addressing it.” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure. So we’re in Syria to fight ISIS. That’s our primary reason for being there with our partners on the ground. And I think we are keeping very good, solid pressure on ISIS, where sometimes they’re a little more active from one month to the next. I’m not willing to say that there’s a trend of a resurgence occurring in Syria. I just don’t believe that to be the case. I mean, but it’s important to understand this: at no point in the future is there ever going to be a period where there’s not some form of ISIS left on the ground. ISIS is an ideology; it is a – it is more than just holding ground. So simply by crushing the physical caliphate, which we’ve done, we’re not going to be able to completely rid ourselves of this malign strain of thought.
And so I think we’re going to continue to see guerilla activity, insurgency activity from ISIS, and really, well into the future. I don’t see that as ending. Our objective, it’s important to understand, is not the complete elimination of this; rather, it is the creation of local conditions that will allow security forces on the ground to be able to deal with these attacks from ISIS. It is not a bloodless future; rather, it is a future that can be handled by local people, and we’re working very hard up and down the Euphrates River Valley, and particularly east of the Euphrates River Valley, with our partners there to ensure that local security forces are in place and will be able to prevent this. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Moussa Srour from Al Mayadeen, and the question is: “It has been reported that there have been confrontations between U.S. troops and the Syrian army in Tal Tamr, in the western Hasakah region. What is your assessment of the situation there?” Over.
General McKenzie: So, as you know, we operate in the Eastern Syria Security Area with our SDF partners [inaudible] when regime forces enter into that area, in partnership with our SDF [inaudible] the SDF, we take actions to limit encroachments into that area. [Inaudible] the Russians, we talk to them through the approved deconfliction channel with them, and the Russians are very responsive to this. But I am comfortable with where we are right now. We will continue to assist our SDF partners in maintaining the security of that area. Occasionally, sometimes we will have dealings with forces that come into the Eastern Syria Security Area despite the best efforts to [inaudible] within their own area. Over.
Moderator: Next we will go to the queue and we have another question from Jean Mojon from AFP.
Question: Thank you, General. I wanted to ask you, who do you think is behind the —
General McKenzie: Is anybody on?
Question: Who do you think is behind the murder of the Iraqi advisor and academic Hisham al-Hashimi, and what message do you think the perpetrators were trying to send?
Participant: Hello, can you hear us?
General McKenzie: This is General McKenzie. I’m up.
Question: Can you hear me?
Participant: Sorry, got you. Captain Urban, can you hear us? Over.
Captain Urban: Yes.
Moderator: General, do you need the question to be repeated?
General McKenzie: Yes. The last question I asked was about interaction in the Eastern Syria Security Area. I got nothing after that. I think – did you get my response to that or do I need to answer the question again? Over.
Moderator: Yes. Yes, we got that response. The next question was regarding your assessment of the murder of Hisham Hashimi in Iraq.
General McKenzie: Sure. So, obviously, that is a – I interpret that as a sign that the prime minister is being effective in his actions to bring everything in Iraq under central control, and the militant groups that oppose that are trying to hit back. It is a tragedy, it is unfortunate, but it is a signal that his pressure is [inaudible] and we deplore that it happened and I’m very – and I’m very disappointed that it happened. But I think it’s a sign that the prime minister is actually having good effect. Over.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was submitted by Tamam Abusafi from Alayam daily newspaper in Bahrain, and the question is: “What is your comment on the IRGC’s announcement recently about establishing military bases for missiles and speedboats along the coastline of southern Iran? Does this pose a threat to navigation in the area?” Over.
General McKenzie: Well, we always look very carefully at threats to navigation through the Strait of Hormuz with our partners [inaudible] as you know a great portion of the – a significant fraction of the world’s oil and other vital economic things pass through that strait, so we watch it very closely. Iran has long had bases in – along the northern part of the coast there that could potentially threaten it. So we watch it closely. I’m not aware that this presents any particularly new or different threat than those that we have see in the past, and I’m confident that through entities such as the International Maritime Security Construct, we’re able to ensure that commerce passes unimpeded and we’re able to shine a spotlight on malign activities that occur. And of course, for the past several months it’s been pretty quiet, and we’re glad, and I believe that is actually due in large measure to the International Maritime Security Construct and to the flow of information, intelligence, and knowledge that it’s allowed to pass between states that are pushing cargos through the Strait of Hormuz. Over.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Malek Hafez of Rozana Radio, and the question is: “The coalition recently targeted leaders of Hurras al-Din in northern Syria. Does the United States intend to increase military pressure against organizations like al-Qaida in Idlib soon?” Over.
General McKenzie: The United States and its partners will maintain relentless pressure against al-Qaida and ISIS, and we will continue to work against them very aggressively.
Moderator: Okay. Our next question was submitted by Salima Lebel of Radio Sawa, and the question is: “What is the situation of U.S. military forces in the Gulf in light of consistent threats from the Iranian regime?” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure. So we have established a posture in the theater that is designed to deter Iran from acting either indirectly or directly against United States, partner, or coalition forces in the theater. So the posture we have is one that is designed to convince them that should they contemplate some malign activity, the cost of so doing would be greater than any object they might achieve by carrying out that action. And that is the – that is the classic definition of deterrence, and again, that is based on, additionally, calculations of capability and calculations of will. So we believe they have always known and understood our capabilities, and our posture in the theater right now possesses significant capabilities for – that we could employ should we be required to do so. And those forces go up and down based on global deployments, based on a variety of things. So the United States is a global power; this is not the only theater where there are United States forces. So we bring force elements in and out based on a variety of things, but the capabilities are there.
Additionally, I would argue that after the events of January, Iran is newly sensitive to our will and our willingness to employ those forces should we be threatened by their malign activities. So we are postured and we will continue to be postured in the region, working closely with all our partners, all our friends in the region, to ensure that we’re ready and Iran sees very clearly what would be the – what would be the high cost of any malign activity on their part. Over.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mohamed Ghaly from CNN, and the question is: “What are your plans regarding the presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East, especially Iraq, given Iraqi demands for a departure of foreign forces?” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure. So our approach to posture in Iraq will be one that is undertaken in close consultation with the Government of Iraq. We have already had the first phase of the strategic dialogue. The second phase of the strategic dialogue will occur in the next couple of weeks. It is my belief that in the long run, Iraq will see the virtue of a U.S. presence in Iraq and, in fact, a coalition and NATO presence in Iraq, and they will want us to remain. We’re there to continue operations against Daesh. There is still work to be done on that front, and I believe they will see the advantage of U.S. forces remaining. So I’m actually optimistic about that going forward.
But I would emphasize again that we remain in full and close consultation with the Government of Iraq, and I saw the prime minister just a couple of days ago, and we had this discussion, and I think we’re going to arrive at a jointly – at a jointly agreed upon position on the way ahead in Iraq. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mohamed Abdallah of Egyptian TV, and the question is: “What is the U.S. strategy for dealing with the conflict in Libya in light of foreign intervention?” Over.
General McKenzie: So, as you know, Libya is not actually in the U.S. Central Command AOR, so I’m not going to actually be able to talk much about it, except that I would say that we certainly embrace the U.S. principle of nonintervention there. We deplore foreign forces being in Libya and we think the best way going forward in Libya is going to be a negotiated settlement. And that’s really all I’m going to be able to talk about. It’s one of the few countries in the world that’s not in CENTCOM where we have problems, so I’ll pass on that opportunity. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Khaled Alsharqawi from Alrai newspaper in Kuwait, and the question is: “To what extent has COVID-19 affected your operations and how do you evaluate the efforts of Kuwait and the global coalition?” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure. So let me actually begin with Kuwait, because I had the – I had a great opportunity to go there yesterday, had an opportunity to see the prime minister, the minister of defense, and the chief of defense, and those were all great meetings. And I would just affirm that Kuwait is one of our key partners in the region. Kuwait has been a good friend of the United States for many years. It is key to our basic structure in the region. They allow us to move in and out as necessary. We have a very good series of agreements with Kuwait, and they’ve always been wonderful hosts [inaudible] flexible, very willing, very accommodating. So I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to go to Kuwait yesterday and to have the opportunity to convey those sentiments directly to the prime minister and his [inaudible] prime minister [inaudible].
So now let me just turn to COVID for a minute. Clearly, [inaudible] —
Moderator: General, we seem to have lost the connection so we will hold for a minute.
General McKenzie: — the region and rotate forces in and out, come into the region clean. By that I mean they typically have had the – have had the requirement to go through a 14-day quarantine period. They will have – they will have been tested before they come in. So when forces come in, nations can be confident that they have been tested, they’ve been – they’ve been isolated, and then they move into a clean route. And then we will work with whatever requirements the host nation has when we come in. We are sensitive to [inaudible] the nations that we work with in the Central Command AOR to ensure that we don’t make the problem worse by what we do. At the same time, we have worked closely with host nation medical support forces in all the countries across the region to help in any way that they can – that we can. We also acknowledge some of the assistance they have provided us has been very helpful and very much appreciated.
We are still able to carry out all of our activities despite the presence of the coronavirus both globally and regionally. All our capabilities remain; all our force elements are capable of carrying out their assigned tasks. It is a very stressful and demanding time, but I think the close cooperation that we’ve had with nations across the region is just indicative of our larger approach to problems here in U.S. Central Command, and indeed, the willingness of the nations to work with us and with each other in the region. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question was submitted by – our next question was submitted by Ibrahim Badawy from Al-Raya newspaper in Qatar, and the question is: “What is your assessment of the strategic partnership between Qatar and the United States?”
General McKenzie: So I think
relationship with Qatar. As you know, my forward headquarters is in Qatar, which should send a very significant signal about the importance of that relationship. We maintain [inaudible] structure in Qatar as well. So this is an important relationship; it’s one that we work at and one that we feel is vital to us.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Samira Frimeche from Annahar newspaper in Kuwait, and the question is: “What role do U.S. forces play in the Middle East?” Over.
General McKenzie: I think
U.S. forces play a stabilizing role. We’re here to work with our partners. We’re guests in the countries that we are in. We recognize that often it’s a very – it’s a difficult political decision to bring foreign forces in, so we’re very sensitive [inaudible] I think the presence, along with our many partners and coalition friends and allies, has been very – has been very helpful at keeping that stabilized. And I’d return to an earlier comment I used [inaudible] form of rough deterrence against them.
The other thing that U.S. forces do in the region [inaudible] extremists in the region. We know particularly those are al-Qaida and ISIS, or Daesh, and those – those entities not only exhibit a desire to attack states in the region, but they also manifest a desire to attack what we call externally – that is to say, outside the region – against places as far away as Europe and even the United States. So we believe what we do by keeping forces in the region is keep direct pressure on those entities to prevent them from developing those attacks, either inside the region or, ultimately, against the United States homeland and the homeland of our partners and allies.
So I believe there’s a vital role for our forces here in the region. We’ve been here a long time. We value the friends and commitments that we have in the region. Thank you.
Moderator: All right. Our next question will come from Alex Cromwell from Reuters.
Question: Hi, General, thank you for the opportunity. On your recent visit to Saudi Arabia, what discussions were held about ending the Gulf dispute with Qatar and what willingness did you see from the Saudi side to resolving this multiyear issue?
General McKenzie: Sorry, but I was [inaudible]. Could you repeat that? [Inaudible.]
Question: Yeah, my question was during your recent visit to Saudi Arabia, what discussions were there about ending the Gulf dispute with Qatar and how willing do you see the Saudi Arabians in ending that dispute?
General McKenzie: I’m sorry, I did not get that question.
Moderator: Sorry, our apologies.
General McKenzie: Dubai, are you up or —
Moderator: Yes, yes, Dubai is up. Do you hear me, General?
General McKenzie: Bill, are you up? Over.
Captain Urban: Yes, sir, we hear you loud and clear.
General McKenzie: Okay. Hey, Dubai, are you up? Over.
Moderator: Yes, yes, we are. Can you hear me, General?
General McKenzie: You’re up? Okay.
Moderator: I can repeat the question.
General McKenzie: Yes, please go ahead. Thank you.
Moderator: The question was regarding your recent trip to Saudi Arabia and discussions you had regarding resolving the dispute between Qatar and the other GCC countries. Did you get that, General?
General McKenzie: Say it one more time, please. We’re getting a little broken up. Just will you say it once more, please?
Moderator: No worries. Your recent trip to Saudi Arabia. The question was regarding any discussions that you had regarding resolution of the dispute between Qatar and the other members of the GCC. Over.
General McKenzie: Sure, so I understand. Thank you. I’m sorry it took so long for me to get the question. [Inaudible] and we did not get into that subject at all. Thank you.
Moderator: Okay, General, we have one last question, and it was submitted by Ibrahim Rihan from Al Hadeel in Lebanon, and the question is: “How do you view the cooperation between the Syrian regime and Iran related to air defense?” Over.
General McKenzie: Sure. So Iran’s [inaudible] and that’s [inaudible] using Syria for its own reasons and its own purposes, and the Assad regime should be smart enough to see that. But I don’t know that anything qualitative will change as a result of the agreement. [Inaudible] one thing is the ability to actually do something in the ground or in the air is something else. So we’ll watch for actual actions rather than just comments and discussions. Over.
Moderator: Thank you very much, General. I will now turn it back over to you for your closing remarks.
General McKenzie: Sure, thanks very much. And I’d just like to thank everybody for participating on this call. It was a pleasure to have an opportunity to discuss regional security with you and to give you my perspective [inaudible]. Ultimately, the United States continues to work with allies and partners in the region to enhance and preserve security and stability, and that means working together to deter Iran from aggression [inaudible] Afghanistan and to pursue terrorists wherever they attempt to hide.
Thanks to everybody for your time today. I really enjoyed our opportunity to talk and I look forward to doing it again in the future. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank General McKenzie and his team for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any follow-up questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected] Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.