Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. policy in Syria and the broader region, December 11, 2019.
Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley for appearing before us to testify. The purpose of this hearing is to discuss our policy in Syria, particularly in light of the events that happened just a couple months ago when Turkey invaded and drove the Kurds out of portions of that. But before I do that, I do want to do one, this is our first hearing since Congressman Brindisi from New York has joined the committee. I want to thank him. We have a lot of new faces on this committee but now they’re a year into it so they’re not new faces anymore but it’s good to have another freshman added to the committee. I appreciate him serving, welcome. Thank you. As I said the purpose of this hearing is to look into the events around Syria and there’s a whole bunch of questions. And the other big issue for us is just the ability of the members of this committee to ask questions directly of the key policymakers in an area that is of enormous importance to the committee and to give them an opportunity to learn more about that policy and also express their views. That is a huge part of our oversight role in Congress and I think it is enormously important. There are three sort of broad areas that I’m interested around this. First of all, is where do we go from here? What is now the mission on containing ISIS and ultimately defeating ISIS in the region? Because without question, no matter how we got to the point where we got, the Turkish incursion into Syria changed that equation. We had built an alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces and with the Kurds is a big part of that in the region. And I think the history is important here. We were trying for years, or quite a long time, after the rise of ISIS to find a coalition as they built a caliphate across Syria and across Iraq and threatened our interests and the interests of the region. That was an unchecked expansion for a substantial period of time. In 2015, the Obama administration was able to cobble together a coalition, primarily of Kurds and the YPG in Syria, but also of Syrian Democratic Forces, and then working with Iraqis as well, to have a counter ISIS movement. And whatever else one can say about it, it worked. The caliphate has been broken up because of that plan started by the Obama administration and carried out by the Trump administration. Now, as we all know, it did not defeat ISIS. ISIS is still a robust transnational terrorist threat in that region and beyond. But the breaking up of the caliphate was a huge accomplishment. With the incursion from the north of Turkey, it undermines that. What’s the new plan? What happens here going forward? Because the biggest risk of this plan from the start was the concern that the Turks would have about our alliance with the Kurds and the YPG in particular. And the Obama administration spent a lot of time trying to make sure that Turkey didn’t do what they ultimately wound up doing here. And we need a new plan. So, understanding what that plan is is important. But the other piece with that I think is important for members is to understand how policy gets made between the Pentagon and the White House and how we can be involved in it. Because there certainly are a lot of concerns about how this came out and I’d be very curious to have you tell us what actually happened. But essentially, the President sent out a tweet, I think it was a year ago now, in December saying, and I don’t have it directly in front of me, but basically we are pulling out of Syria, and by the way pulling out of Afghanistan as well at the same time. And in all the meetings that I’d had and this committee had had, it’s the first we heard of that. There’d been no discussion about it. So, the impression that is given is that it wasn’t like he sat down with the NSC and said hey, what’s going on, what’s the plan? He didn’t sit down with you guys and say, you know, hey, this is a policy objective we need to get to, how are we gonna get there? He woke up one morning and decided we were going to do it. That is problematic to my way of thinking. And then we sort of backfilled the policy afterwards. We need greater transparency. I think the process is important. I trust the job that you guys do, I trust a lot of people at the Pentagon, a lot of people in the NSC. Their input is important in developing a policy, not just sort of throwing it out there and seeing what happens. So, we would like to learn more about how that works and there are other issues on that. There was recently discussion of aid that we had approved for Lebanon, that aid was held up for some period of time. We attempted to find out why and it was kind of hard basically. It was eventually released but we never really heard what was the point. Those sorts of things really matter. I think they matter for the executive branch but they matter a lot for us, too, because on this committee there are a lot of very bright talented people. We have people who have served in the military, people who have served in the CIA, State Department, people who are just policymakers who want to be part of that discussion to help as a coequal branch of government work towards a good policy. We want to improve upon where we’re at in that relationship. Lastly, certainly, ISIS is a huge concern in the region but there are other concerns in the region and we want to know how the policies as we’re dealing with Syria, with Bashar Assad having held onto power and seemingly will for some time. How does that impact the broader region? I personally just got back from a trip there, Miss Slotkin joined me on that trip as well as a couple other members, to the Middle East. And while there are certainly challenges, I think there are also opportunities there, there are protests in Iraq and Lebanon against the Iranian involvement which we had never seen before. People in the region are beginning to understand that Iran’s influence is malign and undermining their interests. There’s an opportunity there because in addition to containing ISIS, that is our other largest goal in the region, is to stop Iran’s destabilizing influence from Syria, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Yemen, all across, how can we contain them, how can we build on that and get an opportunity? Also the concern about Iran has given us, I think, an historic opportunity to try to deal with the Israeli Palestinian crisis, enormous crisis in the Middle East. There is now much more of a connection between some key Arab states and Israel because of their concern about Iran. Is there a way to build on that to create a more stable Middle East? So, those are sort of the three broad policy areas that I’m interested in. But again, a huge part of this is to give members an opportunity to better understand what the policy is. We are, knock on wood, going to pass a defense bill today. That is our effort, the more informed we are the better the bill is going to be. And with that, I’m pleased to yield to the Ranking Member, Mr. Thornberry.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and I want to welcome both of our witnesses. I believe this is the first time that you all are up here in your current capacities together. And we appreciate you taking the time to be here with us. As we think about Syria, I think all of us have, there are those who develop a Syria policy on paper in journal articles and so forth and it seems relatively simple and straightforward. What you all have to deal with is the real world including the historical, the cultural, the religious, the ethnic background and complications in this part of the world and that is the world as you found it and as you have to deal with it. It’s not quite as simple as putting down points one, two, and three on a piece of paper and assuming that everything will flow easily from that. You also have to deal with mistakes made by previous administrations. I remember the Obama administration made a big deal about pivoting to Asia, implying that we were pivoting away from the Middle East. Well, it turns out that the Middle East doesn’t really let you get away from it with terrorism, and as the Chairman points out, the necessity of containing Iran. I remember the previous administration drawing a red line in Syria and then failing to follow up which many people believe has emboldened not only Assad but others to take greater risks, that the U.S. would not follow through on threats or statements that it made. All of that is part of the quagmire that is Syria today, that you all have to deal with. But I agree completely, our challenges are how do we reduce the terrorist threat, especially to the homeland from that region and how do we contain an aggressive, seemingly increasingly desperate Iran? A revolutionary regime that seems bent on expansion and disruption of key neighbors. Of course, you all can’t fix the whole problem, what you can do is tell us what your objectives are and what the military role is in this. And we look forward to hearing on both of those things today. Thank you for being here.
Thank you and with that as I understand it you have one joint statement. Is that correct or are you both?
[Esper] We submitted one joint statement, Mr. Chairman, we both have separate statements.
Then I will yield to Mr. Esper.
Good, thank you, Mr. Chairman. Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Thornberry, and distinguished members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the security situation in Syria and the broader Middle East. Before we begin, I would like to thank the committee for its work on the NDAA. I encourage Congress to move swiftly on its passage along with the defense appropriations bill. This legislation is critical to providing our service members the resources they need to fully implement the National Defense Strategy. I also want to offer my deepest condolences to the victims and families of the tragic shootings that took place at Pearl Harbor and Pensacola this week. In light of these events, we are reviewing our vetting procedures for all foreign nationals who come to the United States for military training as well as assessing our installation security procedures to ensure the safety of our military communities. As reflected in the National Defense Strategy, the Department prioritizes China and then Russia as our nation’s top national security challenges. As we transition our focus to great power competition we must also remain vigilant in countering threats from rogue states like Iran and violent extremist organizations such as ISIS. The United States strategy in the Middle East seeks to ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market. For the Department of Defense, this translates to the following six objectives, first, utilize a dynamic U.S. military presence with strategic depth to deter, and if necessary, respond to aggression, second, strengthen the defensive capabilities of regional partners, third, advance partnerships and burden sharing with allies and partners to address shared security concerns, fourth, protect freedom of navigation, fifth, deny safe haven to terrorists that threaten the homeland, and sixth, mitigate WMD threats. Although, there are a multitude of security issues to discuss in the Middle East, today we will focus on two of the most destabilizing players in the region, ISIS and Iran. Beginning with ISIS, the United States has achieved success alongside our partner forces in Syria and Iraq to destroy the physical caliphate and to liberate 7.7 million people living under its brutal rule. This includes the successful operations that resulted in the death of ISIS’ founder and leader Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as one of his top deputies. The Department of Defense remains committed to working with our partners to ensure ISIS is unable to mount a resurgence. Today, U.S. forces remain postured in Syria operating in close coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Although the recent Turkish incursion has complicated this battle space, the Department of Defense remains confident that we can continue the mission the President has given us in Syria which is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. We maintain our leadership role in the defeat ISIS campaign which brings together 76 nations and five international organizations to provide funding, military capabilities, and political support. In Iraq, we continue to work by, with, and through the Iraqi Security Forces to enable a strong and independent state. I was recently there to visit our troops and meet with our Iraqi partners. Despite the turmoil at the political level, our train, advise, and assist efforts with the Iraqi military remains strong and continues to show progress. Moving to Iran. Over the past 18 months the Department of Defense has supported the United States economic and diplomatic maximum pressure campaign. These efforts seek to bring the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table for a new and better deal that addresses the full range of threats emanating from Iran. Tehran’s efforts to destabilize the region have increased in recent months as it attacked targets in Saudi Arabia, disrupted commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, shot down an U.S. unmanned aircraft in international airspace, and provided support to numerous proxy groups. To address these threats we are taking a deliberate approach to strengthen our defenses to enable our partners to better defend themselves and to refine our response options. Since May of this year, nearly 14,000 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the region to serve as a tangible demonstration of our commitment to our allies and our partners. These additional forces are not intended to signal an escalation but rather to reassure our friends and buttress our efforts at deterrence. We are also focused on internationalizing the response to Iran’s aggression by encouraging increased burden sharing and cooperation with allies and partners from around the world. The international maritime security construct which protects freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman and the more nascent integrated air and missile defense effort led by Saudi Arabia are two such examples. Through these activities we are sending a clear message to Iran that the international community will not tolerate its malign activities. Along with our allies and partners we remain united in our commitment to regional stability and to upholding longstanding international rules and norms. Importantly, Iran should not mistake the United States’ restraint for an unwillingness to respond with decisive military force should our forces or interests be attacked. In conclusion, as the Department of Defense continues to implement the National Defense Strategy, the stability of the Middle East remains important to our nation’s security. As such, we will continue to calibrate all of our actions to deter conflict to avoid unintended escalation and to enable our partners to defend themselves against regional aggressors. In doing so, we will preserve the hard won gains of the past and ensure the security of the United States and our vital interests. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
Thank you. Chairman Milley.
Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Thornberry, distinguished committee members, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the national security challenges we face in the Middle East. And before I begin, I’d like to echo Secretary Esper’s condolences and sympathies to the victims of the families of the shootings at both Pearl Harbor and Pensacola. On behalf of all the leaders, bot uniformed and civilian in the United States military, our thoughts and prayers are with the fallen and we are thankful for the heroism and the skill of the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save countless lives. On the topic today in the Middle East, I just returned a few days ago from an eight country visit to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Oman. And the Middle East remains a challenge to U.S. national security interests. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups thrive on the instability in the region as they try to export violent extremism around the world. We are not finished with that fight. Iran exploits the volatility of the Middle East and asserts itself through malign influence to achieve regional dominance. Our national security strategy as Secretary Esper outlined has clear goals, a stable and secure Middle East, a Middle East that is not a safe haven and a breeding ground for violent extremists, a Middle East that is not dominated by a nation hostile to the United States, and a Middle East that contributes to a stable global energy market. As the Secretary stated, the National Defense Strategy provides military objectives to deter the destabilizing activities of Iran and violent extremist organizations and he outlined those six objectives. The national military strategy describes how the joint force achieves those six objectives through our five focus areas of responding to threats, deterring strategic attack to include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, deter conventional attack, assure our allies and partners, and compete below the level of armed conflict. Specifically in Syria, we continue combined operations with the Syrian Democratic Forces in order to complete the enduring defeat of ISIS and prevent their reemergence. Iraq has been a central partner in defeating ISIS in the region and we continue to work by, with, and through Iraqi Security Forces in order to achieve a secure and stable Iraq able to defend itself against internal security threats of terrorism. Our military strategy in Afghanistan is to continue to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the homeland and that has been our objective since October 7th, 2001. And we also support the effort to reach a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and Afghan to Afghan negotiated settlement that ends this war in a responsible way that meets U.S. national security objectives. And Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and has increased instability in the region through state and proxy actions. As you know, we have increased recently our force posture in the response to Iran’s recent attacks against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the continued acts of aggression and malign influence throughout the region. We will maintain the strategic depth of the joint force in the region in order to deter Iran, assure our partners, and, if necessary, respond if deterrence fails. In broad terms, our military strategy in the Middle East is part of an interagency international effort to sustain the conditions based approach designed to one, defeat violent extremism, including the enduring defeat of ISIS, two, to prevent regional dominance by Iran, and three, to assure our allies and partners. Thank you for your continued support to our men and women in uniform. I look forward to an NDAA later this afternoon and I appreciate the opportunity to appear here today and look forward to your questions.
Thank you, gentlemen. Now we begin with the questions. Our two witnesses have a hard stop at noon which means I’m going to be even more aggressive about enforcing the five-minute clock, make sure we can get to as many members as possible. I’ve had me opportunities before so I’m not gonna ask questions. I will yield to Mrs. Davis for the first set of questions. Five minutes. Thanks.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you to both of you, Dr. Esper and General Milley for joining us. I appreciate your statement and I wonder if you will just perhaps in more refined fashion, why is our military presence essential in Syria? And what can we not achieve actually through other means to fulfill our strategic objectives? And I wonder if you could end that answer, take us into three years with that military posture and touch briefly on the diplomatic mission as well? Thank you.
Thank you, Congresswoman. I’ll take the first stab and then let General Milley flesh out operational aspects of it. In short, the mission remains the enduring defeat of ISIS. We do that through this partnership with the SDF on the ground. The SDF’s been a great partner in the sense of providing very capable ground forces. What we provide for them are the enablers, principally the air support and intelligence, things like that that help us defeat ISIS as we see ISIS pops up. And Chairman, I don’t know if you want to provide more operational details?
You asked why is it necessary? It’s because ISIS still exists, ISIS as an entity, as an organization, is more than just an organization, it’s also an ideology, it’s an inspirational group and so on and so forth. They have been defeated, the caliphate, the physical entity, the proto-state called the caliphate, that was destroyed, defeated, but the organization itself still exists, there are still members. And they are generally, more or less, not 100%, but generally in the lower Euphrates River Valley. In order to provide for the enduring defeat and working by, with, and through allies and partners, Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq and the SDF in Syria, that enables us to continue to maintain intelligence collection and strike capabilities to continue to rip apart the remnants of what is ISIS. If we fail to do that, ISIS will reemerge. The conditions will come back and they will reemerge as a capable threat to the region and our interests.
And so, what are the conditions then that would allow us to withdraw? Does that mean that ISIS would absolutely have to be defeated? And we obviously know that the situation in Afghanistan is very critical in that way as well.
So, one thing I’ll add first and then I’ll answer your question directly. We are fighting ISIS right now all the way from Africa into Afghanistan. We have operations conducted there against ISIS and its derivatives. The metric that we have set out for this in terms of when we could consider redeploying, if you will, would be when we feel confident that local security and police forces are capable of handling any type of resurgence, if you will, of ISIS. I think the defeat, if you will, will be hard because it’s an ideology. I don’t think we ever, it’s hard to foresee any time soon that we would stamp it out, but when we get to the point where local police and security forces can handle the actual threat of ISIS activities, then that will be a metric.
And looking to Turkey and Syria, what can we see in the next three years in terms of their handling those objectives that you’ve outlined?
Well, I think Turkey and Syria have different objectives. This is our priority with regard to Syria. Turkey’s objective, and I hesitate to speak for them, but in my discussions with the Turks, their number one concern are Kurdish terrorists, the PKK, coming into Turkey and conducting attacks on the Turkish people. Close behind that is the presence of two to three to four million refugees in Turkey and their ability to sustain that. So, their focus is a little bit different than what ours is right now on that front.
Could you speak to the whole of government approach there then as well? Because obviously this is the Armed Services Committee but we also know that if we don’t have a full picture of where the State Department is in this and their capacity at this time to be dealing with it, that’s a real problem for us. Could you, I’m not asking you to be the Secretary of State, but please.
Secretary of Defense is challenging enough. The State Department is, within the context of Syria, the State Department is working through a UN process called the Geneva process that’s bringing the key players together in Geneva to discuss a resolution to the war in Syria, the civil war in Syria. That process has had its ups and downs over the years. Sorry but I can’t give you a current update as to where things stand. Progress has not been sufficient enough for our likes, if you will.
And General Milley, could you comment as well on your optimism, pessimism in terms of the support of diplomatic mission there?
I wouldn’t characterize anything I say as optimistic or pessimistic, I just think that we, the U.S. military, have a requirement not just in the Middle East but throughout the world to support diplomatic efforts. In the words of a previous Secretary of Defense, it’s much better that foreign countries deal with the Department of State than the Department of Defense. So, we want to act in support all the time of diplomatic efforts. With respect to Syria or Iran for that matter, as the topics are today, there are a variety of diplomatic efforts ongoing and we are directly in support of those.
[Davis] Thank you very much.
[Smith] Thank you, Mr. Thornberry.
[Thornberry] Mr. Chairman, I yield to Mr. Wilson.
Thank you, Mr. Thornberry and thank both of you for being here today. America’s fortunate to have such leadership and I know military families appreciate, Mr. Secretary and General, your service. It’s so meaningful. And Mr. Secretary, I appreciated earlier this year I had the opportunity to welcome you to Fort Jackson. I saw your empathy and relationship with the military, the troops. It was so positive and I fully supported the promotion that you received to be Secretary of Defense. It’s just reassuring again to our allies, to the American people, to military families. So, thank you. And with that, I’m grateful to be the ranking member of the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism subcommittee on the Foreign Affairs Committee. We understand any strategy in Syria should be both diplomatic and political. And so, what is the relationship of the Department of Defense and the State Department to try to promote stability in the region?
Well, thank you for your comments, Mr. Wilson. We collaborate constantly with the State Department at all levels to include myself speaking often with Secretary Pompeo. We’re brought together in the NSC process where we have committee, deputies, principal committee meetings to discuss these issues. And so, on each of them we’re hand in glove as the Chairman mentioned, as I’ve stated before, part of our job is to enable our diplomats. I want to do that as much as possible. In some cases it may be providing security, if you will, for the distribution of humanitarian aid. In other cases it’s making sure that we are using our military presence to reassure and reinforce allies and partners which is what we’ve been doing with Saudi Arabia. So, there’s just two examples of the close coordination that happens between us. And by the way, other players in that realm as well, whether it’s Treasury, USAID, all the key players in a whole of government approach.
Thank you very much. I’m very grateful you pointed out USAID, too, because they play such a vital role. I believe that ISIS materialized, Mr. Secretary, because of the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq under the previous administration which followed the unfulfilled red line. This premature decision based on a timeline rather than conditions-based led to the re-engagement to have to defeat ISIS. With the President’s recent comments about pulling out troops of Syria and keeping “a peacekeeping force”, how will this force accomplish any of the six objectives that you and General Milley have highlighted in your statement?
Mr. Wilson, the residual force in Syria right now is not a peacekeeping force it is a force focused on the enduring defeat of ISIS. They are working closely day in day out with the SDF to perform a number of tasks underneath that overarching goal and strategy. So, that’s their mission, that’s what they’re poised to do, and they’re conducting those operations day by day.
Thank you and General Milley, again, thank you for your service. It’s so reassuring to military families. You’ve already cautioned that a reemergence of ISIS is possible. Can you cite further the assessment of ISIS capabilities and potential for resurgence absent a U.S. presence?
My assessment at this point is that if we do not retain an intelligence capability that allows us to collect and see and then act with a strike capability on ISIS in Syria, then the conditions for a reemergence of ISIS will happen. It will take some time, it’ll probably take six to 12 months, something like that, but ISIS would reemerge if the United States went to zero. Now having said that, there are other forces in the area that also have interest in attacking and suppressing ISIS. But left unattended whatsoever, I think they would reemerge, absolutely.
I would add that in Syria we are also there with allied forces which we can’t discuss in this session but we have partners there as well that are working with us and supporting the SDF and that’s very important to our efforts as well.
Well, thank you. Because to me this provides, sadly, safe havens for terrorists to attack American families around the world and back home. So, thank you for what you’re doing. And then, General, the plan for the ISIS detainees held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, what is the status of maintaining the detainees as where they are or encouraging their return?
Yeah, the current status is there are 24 detention centers, prisons, that are manned by the SDF throughout different parts of Syria, and they are still under adequate control based on the reporting that I have. So, there’s no risk at this point that I can see of some mass escape or that sort of thing. The SDF clearly has them under control. In the Turkish incursion zones is the responsibility of the Turkish government and in that 30-kilometer incursion zone in the northern portion of Syria, northeast Syria, that’s the responsibility of the Turkish government, but in the rest of Syria the SDF has control.
Thank you and we have faith in both of you. Thank you very much.
[Esper] I would just add this is where the 81 member of the ISIS campaign helps because they provide funding for the SDF to do that.
One thing I need to mention up front is that I try to keep it to the five minutes, not the whole ask a four minute and 59 second question and then let the witness. I’ll give you a chance to wrap up but when you see the clock go off, if you could wrap up that’d be great. Mr. Langevin.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, General Milley, thank you for your service, thank you for your testimony here today. To follow up on that question, that was one of the main things that I wanted to get to in terms of the status of those 11,000 ISIS prisoners. Obviously the thing that most worries me is the threat to the homeland and obviously their escape would be very troubling for our security as well as that of our allies. I appreciate the answer you gave but is their any intention to transfer any of these prisoners to another entity? And if so, how would the U.S. ensure an orderly transfer of custody?
So, I’ll take first stab at that, Mr. Langevin. First of all, if you look at the 10,000, if we went into closed session and we were able to prepare, I’d tell you most of them are not the threats that we think they are in terms of fighters. There’s a hard-core group that I think we watch closely. So, I want to make sure you understand, though, this is a spectrum of fighters, some are more violent, if you will, than others. That said, of the 10,000 if I remember my statistics right, 2,200 or so are foreign fighters. We’re trying to work with our allies and partners to have them repatriated and brought to justice. I’ve had numerous discussions with our European allies on this fact, I’ve discussed it with our Iraqi partners and others. And so, we continue to engage on that front. Beyond that there’s no other plans to transfer them anywhere other than to repatriate them back to their nations of origin, their home nations.
And Secretary Esper, what additional changes of disposition of U.S. forces in Syria planned for the next six months? And are there changes to disposition planned for the region?
Right now there’s no disposition plans that I’m tracking. Of course that could change if the threat changes or the commander needs to make changes on the ground. But I’ll defer to General Milley, see if he has anything to add.
That’s correct. The current disposition is what we anticipate for the next six months depending on if there’s some kind of significant change in conditions. But right now we don’t anticipate that.
And Mr. Secretary and General Milley, what do you anticipate will happen to the Syrian Democratic Forces given the President’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the Syrian Turkish border? They were strong allies, partners with us and I’m concerned about what is gonna happen to them now.
My current assessment is that the situation up there has generally stabilized, no ceasefire is perfect if you will, I think the wild card is always these Turkish surrogate forces that are out there but generally my sense is that things have roughly stabilized in northeast Syria. But, again, the Chairman was just in the region, he may have heard something different.
I haven’t heard anything particularly different. I think it’s settled down a little bit but I would also caution that it’s probably a little bit early to tell. These things take a while to unfold. That 30 kilometer or so buffer zone that was established by Turkey in the center and then by Syria and the Russians on either side of that, that is still an area of dynamic movement back and forth between those forces. We’re watching it all very closely. With respect to what will happen with the SDF, the SDF has already made adjustments in that particular area. We’re still working with them in the eastern portion of northeast Syria. And then they are working with Russian and Syrian regime in other parts of Syria. They’re continuing their cause and their fight against various entities that are inside Syria.
I would like to add one thing now that I thought a little bit more about your question. I think the other thing we have to watch out for here in the coming months is as Turkey begins to resettle the internally displaced persons within Turkey, like I said two to four more like three million Syrians, what’s that going to cause in terms of disruptions with the Kurds as they move them back into Kurdish areas an whatnot? There’ll be some turmoil I expect as that happens. That’s beginning to happen now. And I think we’re gonna watch that very carefully.
Thank you. And lastly, do we expect any escalation in Iran’s activity in terms of intelligence reports that we’re receiving? What do we expect within the next six months? Are we tracking anything in particular that we need to be ready for?
Obviously can’t discuss intelligence matters in this open session but we see a lot of a regime under stress right now both through the maximum pressure campaign. We see a lot of turmoil in the streets of many cities of Iran, suppression through various means that are happening so you know you hope for the best but we’re planning for the worst and as we see things happen or we see upticks in activity, we certainly will adjust our forces, adjust our posture accordingly. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Thank you. Mr. Turner.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, you have a tough job. Syria is both a difficult and a contested environment. Washington is both a difficult and contested environment. The House recently passed a resolution disagreeing with the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria on the same day the House would have been unable to pass a resolution authorizing keeping troops in Syria. You do not have an authorization for use of force to counter Russian influence in Syria, to hold back Iran’s influence in Syria, to support the Kurds, to support the Syrian Democratic Forces in their civil war against Syria, to protect civilians on how they’re being attacked by the Syrian government itself, or to counter the Assad regime. But yet those are criticisms that you receive every day that you’re not accomplishing in your goals of Syria. How difficult is it for you to operate and formulate policy when you don’t have an updated authorization use of force for the changing environment that you have in the Middle East?
Mr. Turner, we think we have sufficient authorities right now under the ’01 and ’02 AUMFs to do what we need to do in Syria. Those are holding up fairly well. So, we think we can do what we need to do at this point in time.
I would echo that. I mean the ’01 AUMF allows us to conduct offensive strike operations against terrorists, Al-Qaeda, etc. ISIS, we all should remember, is a direct derivative of Al-Qaeda, and it is Al-Qaeda in Iraq rebranded as ISIS and Zarqawi was its leader at one point. So, the AUMF grants us the authorities to conduct operations and continue operations for the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Well, there has been a significant debate both in the House and in the Senate as to whether or not the scope of what you currently have. I agree with you, that the scope, I think, allows you to vigorously pursue ISIS and I appreciate you doing that. I do believe that there are a number of goals and objectives that are being placed upon you that do not cover the goals and objectives of the original authorization of use of force and I don’t think their policy objectives that are currently within your assignment. With that I yield the rest of my time to Don Bacon.
Thank you, Mr. Turner and thank you gentlemen for being here. My question to you is when enough enough when it comes to Iran? When is our restraint being interpreted by them as weakness? When we look back to 1979 with the taking of our hostages or our diplomats for over a year, the Beirut barracks bombing, Khobar Towers where I lost a friend, the USS Cole bombing. And I think there was a recent analysis out of the Pentagon that 608 Americans were killed in Iraq by Shia militias or proxies of Iran. We can go on and on. At what point do they interpret this as weakness, our lack of restraint? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
No, thank you, Mr. Bacon. Look, it’s a great question. It’s something that we wrestle with in the interagency and the Chairman and I discuss it a lot because your assessment of that determines how much force you put on the ground or the activities you do in order to deter further aggression and if deterrence fails, then how do you respond? Obviously we have a great intelligence community that helps us with that. We talk a lot with our friends and allies. Chairman just came back from the region, I was in the region four or five weeks ago listening to them and also sending messages through them, sending messages publicly and I’ll repeat it again, the Iranians should not mistake our restraint for weakness. We are prepared to act if our forces or our interests are attacked. The question you’re asking is a key one and we think about it every day.
We all think about Beirut and Khobar Towers and lots of other things and I commanded in Iraq and lost soldiers to Iranian-supported surrogates with various munitions that were provided by the Iranians. So, there’s no illusion on any of our part about the malign influence of Iran. But when is enough enough? I firmly believe that the use of military force should be the last resort, not a first resort and that diplomatic efforts should be exhausted and all nonmilitary methods to resolve a given problem should be used first. Secondly, I think that you have to have clear unambiguous objectives. Thirdly, I think you have to have a reasonable prospect of success if you’re gonna use military force. So, we have to be careful, deliberate, thoughtful and I think restraint in this particular situation is an appropriate response up until this point. The ball is in the Iranian court. It depends on what they do, how big, size, scope, in the future. And that will determine what we do. We are in a, as one of the other Congressmen said, we’re in a period, I think, of heightened risk with respect to Iran. And I know this is a public hearing, we’re not gonna talk intel, but I would caution Iran publicly to be very, very cautious as to how they proceed.
Thank you, gentlemen, thank you, Chairman.
Time has expired. I do want to follow up Mr. Turner’s point and I notice he hates when I do this, but I agree with him on the AUMF issue. I just want to put a little more flavor on it. I don’t think it’s acceptable to say.
[Turner] Can we put that in the record twice that you agree with me?
There’s a little bit of disagreement which we’ll get to in a second here but I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be relying on the 2001 and 2002 AUMF in 2019. We can talk about what’s in the 2001 AUMF and how it applies to now. I think that thing has been stretched beyond all recognition. But the 2002 AUMF, it’s just ridiculous that we’re still saying that this is an authority. I was here and I voted for that. The 2002 AUMF was to remove Saddam Hussein from power and stop the threat that he posed. The idea that now, today, the Pentagon is using that as the authority for military action, to say that that was legislatively approved. Most of these people here don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. They weren’t here, didn’t apply to it. So, I think it is really important that we update that and that’s the part where I’m with Mr. Turner and Chairman Milley you made a very good point when we’ve spoken before that public support for what you’re doing matters enormously. We are representative of the public for good and for ill and if we’re not saying anything about it, it gets further and further away from that public. I think we really need to update what we’re doing here as difficult as it may be and not simply rely on authorities that I think are being twisted. So, I want to work with Mr. Turner and others to figure out how we can do that in a more sensible way. And with that I’ll yield to Mr. Garamendi for five minutes.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. In 2018, the administration issued the National Defense Strategy and in that strategy they talked about big power competition, China and Russia, and specifically raised the issue of Russia’s influence. Russia seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their government or economy and diplomatic decisions to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change Europe and Middle Eastern security and economic structures in its favor. The withdrawal of American forces in the northern portion of Syria led to Russia occupying American bases as we withdrew, after we had bombed our own bases. And it is now clear that Russia and Syria are very tight allies. Russia is improving its air bases and its naval bases in Syria and apparently has a nice cozy relationship with Iran, so much so that they are now providing very advanced missile air defense systems to Turkey. I’m wondering if in fact the Department of Defense has abandoned the National Defense Strategy as laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. So, Mr. Esper, could you please tell us if in fact we are engaged in countering Russia in the Middle East?
Sure, thank you, Mr. Garamendi. I think you know, Mr. Smith, Chairman Smith, said it in his opening remarks, history matters, so the relationship between Russia and Syria goes back, of course, to the Cold War, when it was the USSR. They’ve had a base at Tartus for many years. That relationship in post-Soviet Russia was reinvigorated.
Excuse me, the history lesson will take several months. Specifically today.
I promise I’ll get there in 20 seconds. The relationship was reinvigorated in 2013 or ’14 when Russia moved in under Assad and began working closely with Syrian forces. So, look, back to your question about the National Defense Strategy. The principle way that I see us countering Russia consistent with the NDS is through our NATO alliance, through our partners. We’ve seen a lot of good success there, I was just at the London meeting last week. The NATO allies are spending $140 billion more annually than they had been before. We’re focused on the NATO readiness initiative which.
Excuse me, sir, can you please focus on Syria Turkey?
Sure, so my biggest concern with Syria and Turkey is actually Turkey-Russia, the concern is that Turkey is moving out of the NATO orbit as I’ve said publicly on several occasions. I think our challenge is to figure out how we can get them back closer to the NATO alliance because I think they’re a critical and longstanding 70 year, nearly 70-year partner of ours.
And the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, how did that help carry out the goal you just stated?
So, I think, when you look at the situation at the time, we faced maybe one or two scenarios. One would have been to allow our troops to stand there in the face of a Turkish onslaught, which both Chairman Milley agreed wasn’t worth risking our soldiers’ lives. Option two would have been an incredible option which would be fighting a longstanding NATO ally.
I think you missed one step that preceded that and that is the President’s decision to withdraw. How did that address the big power competition? Did it not allow Russia to exert its influence in the area including its troops, so they’d be facing American troops?
The decision to withdraw was precipitated by months of events leading up to that that culminated in President Erdogan speaking to the President and saying very clearly that he is going into Turkey, he is going into Syria.
I think we may be talking about the decision, not the decision to withdraw the last couple of dozen but the decision eight months earlier to withdraw period. That decision, the signal that sent. That’s, I think, I don’t know if that’s?
Actually the decision you just described preceded the penultimate decision that did lead to the withdrawal of American troops and the replacement of American troops by the Russians and the Turks and the Syrians. My question really goes to the heart of the National Defense Strategy which presumably is big power competition in which case we have seriously lost a major element of our position in the region.
So, I think, I know we’re over time.
[Smith] Just quickly, yes.
I think the bottom line, I’ve said this privately, I’ve said this publicly, I’m looking at everywhere we are in the world to include the Middle East, to withdraw forces, draw down forces responsibly, so that we could reallocate them toward great power conflict in Europe and principally in Asia, INDOPACOM.
Abandon the field to Russia.
I’m sorry. We’re over time. But I think that’s an excellent point. The great power competition isn’t just in Europe and Asia. Mr. Rogers.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank both of you for being here and for our service and sacrifice for our country. Secretary Esper, in your opening statement you said the stability of the Middle East remains vital to our national interests. And you also listed as a priority, for the mission priority, was to deny safe haven to those who would do us harm. Now there are some in the Congress and on this committee who believe that it’s time to immediately pull out all of our troops from Afghanistan. What would be the consequence to those two priorities if we did in fact remove all troops?
In the context of Afghanistan, and I don’t want to upset negotiations that may be happening presently with the Taliban and others, I would say this much, we have an important counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. That means that we gotta make sure that Afghanistan never becomes again a safe haven for terrorists that can strike the United States. Our commanders, I’ve spoken with them, General Milley has, feel that we could reduce our force presence there and still be able to conduct that mission. I’m interested in reducing our force presence for the same reason I just outlined for Mr. Garamendi. I want to reallocate forces. I think we need to make sure that we can do that and the best way forward in Afghanistan is through a political agreement that allows us a long term sustainable path that ensures that the government in charge does not allow that safe haven to exist.
Thank you. General Milley, in our work on the Homeland Security Committee, we’ve been tracking a group that goes by HTS which stands for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This group seems to be primarily composed of Nusra front fighters and has publicly broken with Al-Qaeda. Can you tell us much about this group and their capabilities?
In an unclassified session, they’re a small splinter group of Al-Qaeda that’s operating in the region. They’re quite dangerous, they’re quite violent, and they’re quite ideologically committed to their cause and they’re willing to die for their cause. They’re probably an irreconcilable group. Some groups like the Taliban can be negotiated with and we’ll see where that negotiation goes. Other groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, HTS, and so on, are very deeply committed to their cause and there’s really only one way to deal with them is it’s to kill ’em or capture ’em and HTS falls into that category.
Thank you very much. Mr. Chairman, I yield the balance of my time to Mr. Banks from Indiana.
Thank the gentleman for yielding. While we’re focused today on Syria, the situation in the Middle East, the fight against ISIS today, I want to talk about the future for a moment. As both of you know, I’m co-chairing the Future of Defense task force with Mr. Moulton on the other side of the aisle. Secretary Esper, could you talk for a moment about the new capabilities that we will have and be able to use when JEDI goes live and why that’s so important and why delays would be costly in our fight against terrorism specifically?
Sure, so, first of all we’ve migrated many things to many clouds so far. The key piece about the next element, the JEDI piece, is that we can get a lot of the warfighting capabilities if you are into the cloud. And once you’re able to do that where you have that cloud base, you have two things, first of all you have better security. But secondly, is you can then put on top of that AI, artificial intelligence, and allow you to think and act a lot more quickly when you’re in a war fight through multiple domains. Look, it’s critical that we move to the cloud as quickly as possible. I underwent an education process, if you will, when I entered the job at the end of July and took a couple months and I’ve had a chance to talk with many of you about JEDI. Vitally important that we move to the cloud quickly, particularly this cloud, again, that’s underway. And we’ll continue to move that.
Can you elaborate on what further delays will cost us?
Well, first of all, we’ll lose ground to the likes of the Chinese in terms of their ability to act think and fight us quicker than we’re able to fight them. Secondly, if we don’t move this piece quickly into the cloud, what we may force the Services to do is to go in their separate directions with separate clouds or uncoordinated IT plans. And so, that’s why it’s very important that we move as quickly as we can and onto the JEDI.
Can you talk for a moment about the current contest by Amazon? You’re still moving forward in the contracting process so that we don’t afford further delays is that correct?
My understanding is we are still moving forward. I don’t want to comment any further ’cause obviously another lawsuit has been raised so it probably would be imprudent for me to say anything.
But the bottom line as you said already, any further delays are costly, not just in our strategic competition with China and Russia but in the fight against terrorism?
Yes, sir, absolutely. And I think there’s bipartisan agreement that we need to move quickly in terms of into the cloud and into this next domain of warfare.
[Banks] Thank you, I yield back.
[Chairwoman] Thank you, Ms. Speier is next.
Thank you both for being here secretary Esper, how many troops did we have in Syria before the President’s conversation with President Erdogan?
I can’t recall the specific numbers but over 1,000.
[Speier] Over 1,000?
A little over 1,000.
And then the President had the phone call then Turkey began its Operation Peace Spring. The President said we were removing all of our troops on October 14th and then it was said that we were only going to stay in Syria to guard the oil. And how many troops were gonna be there to guard the oil?
Well, first of all, what the initial plan was to retain some troops at Al-Tanf garrison down south. So, that was never off the table, if you will. And we could talk in closed session about that number. The current number in northern Syria is somewhere between 500 and 600 at this point.
Now are we there to guard the oil or are we there to repel ISIS?
We are there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. So, a sub task of that is we’ve directed to our commander on the ground is to deny ISIS access to that oil because whoever controls that oil controls a resource that allows them to buy weapons, equipment.
[Speier] I understand that.
Fighters to provide for the communities etc.
Ambassador Jeffrey and Amnesty International have indicated that there are isolated war crimes going on in Syria by Turkish troops. Can you speak to the ethnic cleansing that I think all of us have been concerned about going on there by the Turkish forces?
I’m not aware of any of those in particular. I will tell you the first week that the Turks moved in, I spoke out publicly that if there were reports on the battlefield coming through the media that war crimes may have been committed and I said very clearly those should be investigated and persons held accountable.
Persons being the Turkish?
Well, first of all whoever committed them on the ground and then whoever sanctioned them or directed them in the chain of command.
So, you haven’t been in contact with Ambassador Jeffrey about these incidents that they have reported?
[Esper] No, I have not.
Chairman Milley, you referenced earlier in your comments that you want to see Afghan to Afghan talks taking place in terms of a ceasefire. So, my question is why aren’t the Afghans at the table in negotiating with the Taliban?
It’s really, I think, Congresswoman, the other way around. I think the Taliban is, it’s my understanding anyway, that the Taliban is refusing to formally negotiate with the government of Afghanistan because they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the government. So, they’re not gonna, the Taliban is not gonna. So, you got this three-way negotiation happening with the United States being the third partner and then there’s other players involved as well. So, the direct negotiation, formal direct negotiation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, to my understanding has not happened not because the government doesn’t want to do it but because the Taliban don’t want to do it. But I think, and I don’t want to presuppose outcomes here, but I think we’re closer rather than further away on that particular task happening, an Afghan to Afghan negotiation. And that would be a good thing because the war must come to an end and it’s the only responsible way to do that is Afghans talking to Afghans.
So, you will make sure that there are female Afghanis at the table then?
I’m not running the negotiations, that’s part of the Department of State, Zalmay Khalilzad is the ambassador to do that and we are supporting military operations on the ground but we are not part of those negotiations so we don’t have responsibility to do that.
Alright, I think there’s been a lot of concern about discipline and the respect for the law of war as a reason to keep our troops safe and maintain command authority needed to fight effectively. Yet last month the President pardoned three war criminals. Chairman Milley, how does that impact our ability to maintain discipline in the ranks?
Well, let me, first of all three cases are different, only one of them, Lieutenant Lorance, was convicted of war crimes and served seven years in prison for those war crimes. The second case Gallagher was convicted of a war crime, taking a photograph with a dead body, he was not convicted of murder. That was an allegation. So, he wasn’t convicted in a court of law of that. And the third case, Golsteyn, he never went to trial so we don’t know if he was convicted or not because he never went to trial so. In this country you’re innocent until proven guilty. He was never proven guilty. I mean each one of those is different and I don’t want to group them and say they are in fact war criminals because you have to be proven that in a court of law, that’s point one. Point two, I think for all of us to remember, and I’ve mentioned this to all of those in uniform, the President of the United States is part of the process. He is the Commander in Chief so he has the full authorities under the constitution.
[Smith] I apologize. You’re over time and I’ll just take a stab at it. That’s not what she’s asking. She’s asking how does it affect, what was the exact way you phrased it? I’m sorry for jumping in.
Well, I was getting there in that he’s part of the process and good order and discipline is maintained in a lot of different ways but one of them is to maintain adherence to the process. And the President of the United States is part of the process and we are maintaining good order and discipline within our military.
[Smith] I’m sorry I gotta move on. It’s an important topic.
[Speier] I yield back.
[Smith] Mr. Lamborn.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and before I ask my question I want to commend you and the Ranking Member for an agreement on the NDAA. We’ve all worked hard but the two of you have put in countless hours and we appreciate that. No one ever gets everything they want but I think we have a product that we can all be proud of. So, I want to thank you for that. And I also want to thank Representative Wilson for his work on the Widows’ Tax in particular. Okay, my question is about Iran. Conventional wisdom has it that Iran, the Persians if you will, control four Arab capitals in the region. And there’s a lot of angst about what they’re doing in Syria. What are they doing militarily in Syria and what are doing about it? For both of you, please.
Well, thank you, sir, for that question. Clearly Iran has a lot of influence in many capitals, in many parts and not just the Middle East but also Africa and Afghanistan as well. It’s hard to discuss that in this session, we’d have to go to closed session. But you know, it’s everything from monetary support, payment of fighters, arms, arms trafficking, it’s political support as well. So, that’s just kind of give you the wave tops of what that looks like. I will say the maximum pressure campaign, again we can’t get into this in this session but as their revenues have dried up as a country, it’s also effected their ability to pay and do some of those things and that’s a good thing.
[Lamborn] General Milley.
As the Secretary mentioned, not a lot we can actually say specifically here in this session but Iran’s very, very active with their various special forces and other capabilities not only in Syria but also in Iraq.
I’m going to yield the balance of my time to my friend and colleague who has the honor of representing Pensacola, Representative Matt Gaetz.
Thank the gentleman for yielding. Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you and I want to thank the President for instituting a review of the Saudi program. I also wish I had more time to reflect on the heroism of the sailors who ran toward gunfire and who also informed on the location of the shooter during this terrorist attack. During this review that you are conducting, is the program paused, are we gonna be taking in new Saudi students?
So, first of all, my condolences to your, our constituents, you’re right there was a lot of heroism on the ground that day, a very tragic day for everybody. So, yes, we have directed a, if you will, stand down that would limit Saudi participation in our U.S.-base training to classroom training only until we can do expedited vetting of all Saudi students here in the United States. I spoke to their deputy defense minister yesterday, by the way a graduate of Pensacola Naval Air training. He agreed, he fully supports this. They’re gonna do parallel vetting as well to make sure we understand.
During that time, new incoming students or not new incoming?
I can’t answer that affirmatively but I’d have to get back to you on that.
Mr. Secretary this is an issue of great importance to my constituents.
It’s a very fair question but.
I would hope that very soon, perhaps within the day, you would be able to make a public statement as to whether or not we are taking in new students while you are undergoing that vetting process.
I think I know the answer but I don’t want to tell you something, I want to be affirmative in what I tell you. So, I think it’s a very reasonable thing to do.
Thank you. There are a number of Saudis that are currently with us on your base NAS Pensacola. Who currently has access to those people during the investigation?
Of the dozen or so that were immediate friends, acquaintances , etc. of the alleged killer, the FBI, Department of Justice has control of them on the base.
So, who has access to those people? I specifically want to know like, are embassy personnel, clerics, others speaking with, talking to, perhaps providing communication with these people who we’re holding for questioning?
I don’t know exactly. I want to say a Navy Muslim chaplain they have access to them, certainly the FBI, DOJ does. I can’t.
[Gaetz] Do any other Saudis have access?
I think the Saudi commander has access to them, he’s the one that’s keeping them restricted onto that site.
How about embassy personnel, Saudi embassy personnel?
[Esper] I don’t know.
That’s also really important ’cause to me this is.
I can assure you somebody knows, I just don’t know right here as I sit here. We’ll get back to you on that, too.
I appreciate your prompt attention to this because again that’s something that deeply informs on what we can do as policymakers to try to improve this relationship with the Kingdom. Because at some point there’s only so much of this we’re going to be able to take where the Kingdom tells us they’re some quirky part of the royal family that’s off doing some different thing. These Saudi students, they’re connected folks when they end up in Pensacola. And I appreciate your great efforts and I look forward to those answers. I thank the Chairman for his indulgence and I thank the gentlemen for yielding.
Thank you and I want to echo those concerns. I mean certainly the tragic event in Pensacola deserves our attention and sympathy and admiration for the people who responded. But the broader issue that Mr. Gaetz gets at, the vulnerabilities that we might face from Saudi presence in the U.S. is something we need to address now and be as transparent as possible. So, I appreciate your answers on that and look forward to the follow up as well. I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary.
I just to expand, of course I agree with what we’re saying here but to expand, we’re gonna look not just at, we’re gonna look for all foreign nationals coming to the United States to make sure we have the best, strongest, vetting procedures we have so we’re confident that regardless of where folks come from, that we know who’s coming to our country. It’s a very important program, we just gotta get it right, we gotta do it better.
Thank you. Mr. Moulton.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Secretary Esper, I’d like to just start with you. Regarding Iran, my understanding is that the administration’s three objectives for Iran are to limit their nuclear weapons capabilities, to deter regional aggression, and to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to get a stronger deal. Is that correct?
I’m gonna cast it a little bit differently. Our overall goal is to get Iran to be a normal country that behaves normally. The key aspects that we’re focusing on, actually four things, nuclear weapons, they can’t have access to nuclear weapons or the means to produce them, number two, missiles, number three, their aggressive malign behavior throughout the region and beyond, and then number four is hostage taking.
Okay, so, hostage taking has never been stated before but let’s focus on the first three that we can all agree on. Since President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal against the beat advice of Secretary Mattis, his Secretary of Defense, Chairman Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, literally hundreds, hundreds, of military and national security professionals, even many who were opposed to signing the deal initially but recognized the national security risk of pulling out and breaking our word as a country, breaking our word to our closest allies in the world. Since doing that, have you seen any evidence of success for the administration’s strategy?
Yes, I have in the context that maximum pressure campaign has denied them resources because of its dramatic effect it’s had on their economy. We’ve seen the Europeans make movements in our direction. You see Europeans expressing concern about how Iran has been violating.
Okay, I’m sorry, but Europeans were not listed as part of the goals of the administration strategy. You have three, these are the goals, the goal is to limit their nuclear weapons capability and Iran is now advancing their nuclear weapons capability, they’re much farther, their much closer to having a nuclear bomb than they were under the deal. International and American inspectors verified they were following the deal. Since pulling out, Iran has advanced their nuclear weapons capability. Now that second point was deterring aggression. Now, Iran was attacking us before. I mean Iran attacked Americans in Iraq. I have friends who were grievously wounded and killed by Iranian weapons in Iraq. Iran has now rejoined those attacks and we’ve gone through all the ways in which Iran’s regional aggression has picked up. But it was pretty quiet under the deal. There’s no question that those attacks have picked up as we pulled out.
What we saw after the deal was consummated and money was returned to them, we saw actually an uptick in activities and in terms of their missile program.
So, you would say there’s less activity now then when we had the deal? I mean they weren’t attacking Saudi oil fields. I mean I think that’s just an absurd conclusion and that’s obviously not true. Now on the third point, getting Iran to the negotiating table, we were with them at the negotiating table, we had lines of communication with them under the JCPOA. We do not have those lines of communication now. Have you seen any evidence that they are coming back to the negotiating table to negotiate a stronger deal to further limit their nuclear weapons capability?
No, but that is the.
[Moulton] Okay, thank you. Thank you, thank you, Mr. Secretary.
There’s more of an answer to this question.
No, no, no, look, I understand the administration wants to talk about the maximum pressure campaign and all the ways it’s hurting their economy and everything but I’m just holding you to your stated strategy, to your stated strategy and all three points the administration’s strategy is failing. The administration is worse off, we are worse off, we are less safe than we were under the JCPOA. I have only a minute left so I want.
I’m note sure you can make that statement. I think strategies take time to play out and I think, if you look, not everybody agreed to include the United States in the JCPOA.
Mr. Secretary, you might be right in the future but we’re talking about today. And there’s no evidence that this is working.
[Smith] Let’s have one person talking at a time if we could.
General Milley, I’d like to just go on to thank you for your earlier clarification about the three service men because to your point innocent until proven guilty, only two of them have been convicted of war crimes so we have two out of three who are war criminals. Now, I received a text from a Sergeant Major in the Marines after this happened and he said Trump involving himself in all the cases of these guys who conducted themselves inappropriately in a combat zone like Eddie Gallagher is appalling, basically setting a precedent that the rule of law in a combat zone doesn’t apply and encourages folks to start burning villages and pillaging like Genghis Khan. That and if you don’t like your ruling just tell Trump personally and he’ll overturn it. The man has greatly marginalized the positions of the Service leaders. Is this Sergeant Major of the Marines wrong?
I think that the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the means by which we maintain good order and discipline are a critical element in order to maintain that capability and some level of humanity in combat zones. And I think it’s critical. There’s much of what, I understand where the Sergeant Major is coming from and I know the advice that was given, which I am not going to share here, but the President of the United States is part of the process and he has the legal authorities to do what he did and he weighed the conditions and the situation as he saw fit. He is part of the process. We do maintain and we will maintain good order and discipline. We will not turn into a gang raping, burning, and pillaging throughout, as Sergeant Major implies. That is not going to happen because of this or anything else.
I’m sorry but we are out.
General, I appreciate that effort. Let’s just, careful here. This is a Sergeant Major of the Marines who got a purple heart and a Navy cross and we’re defending the actions of a draft dodger in our President.
I am not defending anyone’s actions.
[Smith] Mr. Moulton, this could go on for a very long time.
[Milley] And I respect your views and the Sergeant Major’s views.
Yes, the President is part of the process. What we’re concerned about is the way he’s being part of the process right now is unhelpful as Mr. Moulton describes. Mr. Scott.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Gentlemen, when we have these meetings I bring my computer so I can pull up the map of the Middle East and every time I pull that map up it reminds me of the need to have partners over there with common values and common interests and we seem to have very few that have both of those. We obviously have Jordan, we have Israel, but when I look at the others, I will tell you I think that the vote of disapproval or whatever the proper term is with regard to withdrawal of the troops, I trust your judgment on that even though I voted for that resolution. I think that my vote, as many votes, was indicative of the fact that we believe the Kurds have been a good partner and we believe that as of today Turkey is a partner of necessity but not a good partner and I think that we recognize that we need Turkey to be a good partner. And we hope that that happens sooner rather than later. I’ve been to the refugee camps in Turkey. I’ve been to the ones in Jordan. And it’s a tough scenario. It’s basically, the Middle East is kaleidoscope, every time one thing changes a whole bunch of other things change. I do have a little bit of an issue with the statement on the AUMF. I think the AUMF does absolutely give us, give you the authority on behalf of the United States to strike terrorists and terror cells where you see them. I do not believe that the AUMF of ’01 and ’02 gives us the authority to base in countries uninvited and I think that’s a further discussion that Congress needs to have and whether or not we’re allowed to base uninvited in countries almost 20 years after an authorization for the use of military force that did not include those countries was passed. With that said, if I can focus more narrowly one thing, General Mattis, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, wanted to move to preparing for China and Russia. One of the victims of that was the JSTARS program, the E-8C. They are no longer flying in CENTCOM, they have just been removed. My question is, are the ground forces in the CENTCOM area of responsibility receiving the proper intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance coverage they need to detect and counter the ground threats and what additional things do you need from this committee to make sure that forces have the adequate coverage?
The commander, General McKenzie, he has not requested additional ISR, in fact CENTCOM for the last many, many years has the preponderance of the ISR of the U.S. military. PACOM gets a lot and EUCOM gets a lot but CENTCOM gets a lot. So, I don’t thing they’re at lack of adequate ISR that which we have. There’s not a commander out there who doesn’t want mores ISR. Everybody wants more all the time. But General McKenzie has not come up on the net and said hey I need this, that, or the other thing immediately sort of thing. And if he did we would give it to him.
Mr. Secretary, I understand that the E-8C, the recap of the JSTARS was not a system that we would necessarily use against Russia and China or near peer competitors but I do believe it was a mistake to not go forward with the recap of that program. It’s a low-cost program that we could have used and certainly anywhere in the Western hemisphere it would have helped us. And Africa we could have used it. We could have used it in the majority of the areas where we’re currently operating and while I recognize this decision was made under a previous Secretary, I just want to express my belief that it was a mistake not to go ahead and recap. I think that it will be seen as the same mistake as canceling the F-22 buy before the replacement system, before the F-35. So, I respect both of you. I do think the committee needs to look at whether or not the AUMF from ’01, ’02 gives us the authority to base in a country uninvited. With that I yield the remainder of my time.
Thank you. Mr. Brown.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Want to return to Syria and certainly express my concerns. I thought it was a grave mistake that the President’s decision to relocate our forces to the northeast region of Syria and essentially abandon our partners the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. I think it runs counter to your work, your effort, your responsibility, our responsibility in the counterterrorism fight, but I also think it runs counter to our objectives as stated in the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy which is to prepare for great power competition and in this case competition presented by Russia. Just this Sunday the commander in chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, he wrote, “We know that we would have “to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad “if we go down the road of working with them.” certainly expressing his lack of confidence in our support to him and his forces. He goes on to say, “But if we have to choose between “compromises and the genocide of our people, “we will surely choose life for our people.” We are seeing Russian flags that are flying outside of the Turkey Russia patrol area. We know that Russia now has taken possession of military bases built by U.S. taxpayers and Russia is essentially supporting the Syrian government in regaining control over the entire country and establishing itself a sphere of influence for Russia. Can you please tell us what concerns you have about Russia’s increasing presence in Syria?
Well, as I look at the global situation, and somebody mentioned before, we compete with Russia all around the globe, principally in Europe but in other places whether it’s the Middle East, we discussed even Africa. My principle concern with regard to the Kurds and the SDF specifically was that the mission was the enduring defeat.
Actually, let me just fine tune it. It’s Russia. Are you concerned about Russia’s growing influence in Syria and what impact that will have in their ability to have even an expanding influence in the entirety of the Middle East? Are you concerned about Russia?
I’m concerned about Russia in other parts of the Middle East.
[Brown] Right, are you concerned about Russia in Syria?
Not as much because they’ve had a pretty solid footprint there now for four or five years since they first moved in.
[Brown] Do you see that footprint expanding?
It has expanded in the last month and a half.
[Brown] Does that concern you?
Some but I’m more concerned about Russian expansion into Egypt, into Saudi Arabia, and other places, if you will. There’s only so much, you know, so many resources and time you can focus on and the bigger issue with Russia was the nexus with Russia and Turkey, that’s what really concerns me is the Russia Turkey nexus.
Let me, and I don’t have much time here, I have two minutes left. So, let me turn to Afghanistan. And both of you mentioned Afghanistan in your opening comments and the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. You know, I traveled to Niger where we have about 800, 900 troops there. In Syria our number was about 900. And using the various authorities, 127 Echo, 333, we seem to have been effectively supporting local partners in the counter-VEO effort. What is, we’ve got 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Have you developed, have you considered an option where we have a minimal footprint purely for the purposes of counter-VEO operations regardless of the stability and the viability of the Afghan government and their forces?
I’ll take the first stab but again the Chairman just having come back and more in his lane. I will say, the short answer is yes. The commander on the ground will tell you that in some ways you can’t disaggregate the CT from the train, advise, and assist mission, if you will, because the Afghans are playing an increasingly important role. And, of course, we have to protect our intelligence people out there and that’s probably as far as I can go on that matter right now right here. Chairman.
Yeah, the short answer is yes, Congressman. We have multiple options, that’s one of them.
And in a classified setting would you be able to brief us on what that minimal footprint would look like?
Yes, yes, we can do that.
[Brown] Thank you. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.
[Smith] Thank you. Mr. Wittman.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’d like to thank Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley for joining us today. Secretary Esper, I wanted to focus on the outcome of my trip to Turkey last year. Had some conversations with Erdogan defense officials, Erdogan administration defense officials, defense committee members from parliament. And we talked about a lot of different issues but one of the areas we talked about was the relationship between Turkey, PKK, and YPG, or really lack thereof, and what that was doing to the U.S.-Turkey relationship and how they saw things that were happening there. I wanted to get your perspective on how do you think we reconcile what appears to be an inconsistent approach in training Syrian YPG forces that potentially as things ramped down or they spread out from Syria, could actually go back and join the fight with PKK forces within Turkey which is really inflammatory towards the Turks in how they see that? Is there a way that we can tailor that policy to best suppress ISIS forces in Syria without subsequent negative consequences for Turkey? Because they look at and just say how can you support these folks that are perpetrating terrorism in Turkey and, of course, what we’re saying is listen, let us help defeat ISIS in Syria and then we’ll make sure we turn back around but I’m wanting to get your perspective on that.
I think the fundamental difference, Mr. Wittman, and thank you for the question, is that we have fundamentally different views, we being the United States and our NATO allies, on whether or not the YPG is a foreign terrorist organization, we don’t think they are nor do many if not all of our NATO allies, but the Turks do. That’s one reason why they’re holding up some actions in NATO right now to the detriment of the Alliance. So, I think we have to reconcile that. The State Department has the lead in terms of how we designate foreign terrorist organizations. I think you rightly noted, too, and it’s fair to say there is fluidity on the ground between people in these groups and it’s hard to pin that down. But we make our best assessment as to who we think really is the terrorist organization and who is not. And Turkey wasn’t happy with the SDF either because it included members of the YPG but other groups as well, but the fact that YPG members were part of that broader coalition was one of the reasons why they didn’t like the SDF, they didn’t like the SDF along the border etc., etc.
Yeah, I think their concern was and they said listen we have clear evidence that YPG forces and even SDF are infiltrating into PKK. We believe that they are part of perpetrating those attacks within Turkey. So, you know, that’s the basis of their concern. And I know that we said the same thing that you said and that is we’re trying to distinguish forces that are sympathetic to U.S. causes versus those that may perpetrate harm against Turkey.
And we try to take those considerations and address them, that’s why we were working hard up until the point of the incursion to establish this safe zone, if you will, and it was still unsatisfactory to the Turks with regard to what we were doing. They wanted, they had clear ambitions as to how far they wanted to go, the depth and the extent of their operation and what they wanted to do afterward.
Thank you. I’m gonna yield the balance of my time to Mr. Waltz.