Esper, Milley Testify About U.S. Policy in Syria, Part 2

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.

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Thank you, Mr. Webman. Gentlemen, are you familiar with the case of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, convicted of the Kandahar massacre, 2012?

[Man] Yes.

That was a sergeant who literally lost his mind, walked into a Afghan village and machine gun, 16 Afghans. He’s now convicted of that crime, of that war crime. He’s in life in prison. Do you have any indication that the president is considering releasing pardoning Staff Sergeant Bales for his war crimes? That you know of?


I would submit to my colleagues that’s a war criminal. And we need to be very careful about very loosely throwing around that term. In the case of Navy SEAL Chief Gallagher, who, by the way, I would remind my colleagues, was acquitted of murder. He was convicted for taking a photo with a with a dead body. He is now retiring. He is no longer commanding seals. He is not going to be promoted. Is it within the president’s authority, given the balance of his service, has multiple valor awards, his numerous combat tours, to say that retiring no longer commanding seals, not being promoted and but also not being demoted? Is that within his authority?

Just to clarify, he was promoted, but he is now retired and all that was within the president’s authority.

[Man] Do you believe that he deserves to be called a war criminal?

I’d have to review what the crime that he was charged with, which was appearing with a corpse. I’d have to read it and understand it. I can come back to you on that.

[Man] But he was acquitted of the murder charge. In fact, other Seal admitted on the stand, pretty dramatic, he was the one that killed in a mercy killing, knowing that that that ISIS fighter would—

He was acquitted of the murder charge, but convicted of holding up the corpse. That would be a violation of the law of armed conflict, as I understood it as it went during my time as a military officer.

[Chairman] And we are over time, gentlemen. Time’s expired. Mr. Khanna.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Secretary and General, for your service. I want to follow up on the exchange you had with Representative Esper. And I understand your position is that the 2001 AUMF gives us the authority to fight ISIS and that we’re there to protect the oil because we don’t want ISIS to get it. I disagree with that theory. But I want to bracket that and see if you would at least acknowledge that we don’t have the authority to do what the president is calling for. President Trump on October 27 stated, clearly, we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. Now we may have to fight for the oil. That’s okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil. In which case they have a hell of a fight. It can help us because we should be able to take some also. And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with Exxon Mobil, one of our great companies. Would you acknowledge that this Congress has not authorized in any way the United States to go in and steal Syrian oil and make money off of it?

I’m not aware of Congress granting any authority along those lines. I’m also unaware of what inherent authority the president does or does not have in this regard. I’m focused on the military task of denying ISIS access to the oil.

Can you assure us at this point that there are no plans for us to try to take the oil and sell the oil?

All I can tell you is I’m not aware of any plans right now.

The second question I have is regarding the bombshell Washington Post report on the Afghan papers. I imagine you read that. The bottom line is that top military officials and civilian officials have known that the Afghan war has been unwinnable and have been misleading the American public for 20 years. Your predecessor, Secretary Rumsfeld, is quoted there as saying, I have no visibility into who the bad guys are. Are you embarrassed by Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments? And the other people quoted, and do you believe they owe the American public an explanation and an apology?

Congressman, I haven’t read all the stories, frankly. And so before I comment on what Secretary Rumsfeld purportedly said or didn’t say that, I’d want to read all that and understand it and actually talk to him. But I do know this much. The story spanned multiple administrations.

[Khanna] Certainly.

Multiple uniform and civilian officials. And I think it’s good to look back. I think at this point where I’m looking is forward, and forward tells me is the path to success, the win is a political agreement between the parties on the ground.

But don’t you think we have to have some accountability so we don’t make the mistake again? Would you support this committee holding hearings on the Afghan papers and calling in front of Congress every official who has misled the American public about whether this war was winnable and all or not, with 2,400 Americans soldiers dead, 775,000 Americans deployed. Don’t you think people owe this country an explanation?

Sure. Many of those dead are my friends and maybe some of my former soldiers. But look, it’s the committee’s responsibility to determine what it has hearings on. I don’t think you want the executive branch making that call.

Mr. Chairman, I would request that this committee hold hearings on the Afghan papers and call before Congress would subpoena every person who has misled this country. And just like in “The Pentagon Papers”, I think that should be one of our highest priorities in examining what has come out in that bombshell report.

If I may, as Mr. Khanna, we’ll pause your time for the moment. I think it’s appropriate to have hearings. I will tell you right up front, just to set expectations correctly, I’m not going to call every single witness who has anything to do with this. I do not believe that would be a productive use of the committee’s time. I do think it’s something that we should take a look at and then get explanations from. I agree with the overall point, but I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations about how the committee should approach it, so. Answer your question.

I respect that, and certainly at least having some of the prominent people come and explain to the American public. My final question concerns Yemen. And I appreciate that the administration has voluntarily suspended the refueling of the planes. But we’ve had a situation, of course, now our own bases and Representative Gates district, we have Saudi nationals are being trained and are attacking Americans. And the question, I guess, that the American public is asking, is why in the world would we be providing the Saudi air force with any possible logistical help to conduct bombing in Yemen when 10 million civilians possibly face famine?

So congressman, we’re not providing the Saudis logistical help with regard to their activities in Yemen. We are providing Saudis and 152 other countries training in the United States. Why? Because we have a distinct advantage over Russia and China who don’t have allies and partners. And I think it’s important that we continue these programs so that we have a broad network. That’s what ensures our—

Did you forget that we won’t help the Saudi Air Force to either logistically or in maintenance to do anything in terms of their bombing in Yemen.

You can define help pretty broadly, right? We probably train Saudi personnel to do maintenance here in United States. I don’t know.

[Khanna] Can we stop doing any maintenance of the Saudi aircrafts in Saudi Arabia and help, and not have any of our men and women assist the Saudis in their mission into Yemen?

I’d have to get you to come back with you and let you know what we are or are not doing with regard to the Saudis and what the impact would be on not just the Saudis, ’cause keep them on those same Saudi aircraft, might be the same Saudi aircraft, we call upon to help us blunt an Iranian assault in order or help us respond to an Iranian attack. So you’ve got to be thoughtful in terms of how we think through what actions we take or don’t take it.

[Chairman] Gentlemen, time has expired. Mr. Gallagher.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I think the previous administration struggled to effectuate a pivot to the Pacific because its foreign policy got sucked into a black hole in Syria. I think despite a dramatically different approach to Iran in this administration, we face a similar grand strategic challenge, which is to say if we do not identify high impact light footprint approach in CENTCOM, it will suck up the majority of resources, time and attention and Indo-Pak on will not get the priorities and the resources that it needs. In other words, we won’t implement to India. So with that in mind, I’d like to ask a few questions about China, not Syria. But the two things are linked in my mind as I know they are in yours. The first is that on September 11th, representative Gallego and I join Senator Cardin and Schumer in sending you, Mr. Secretary, a letter about what’s called Section 1237 of the FY 1999 NDAA. It requires a regularly updated list of Chinese Communist Party, Chinese military affiliated companies operating in United States. We’re still waiting on a response. It’s 20 years late. We would really appreciate you delivering a response to this letter as soon as possible.

Sure. I’m sorry, but I’m tracking that. But we’ll get on it. It’s a good question. I think it’s one of things that concern me, somebody who’s studied China now for a quarter of a century. We’d beat need to be very careful about all their activities in the United States. And you’ve touched on one.

I think given your background on the China commission, you’re very well situated to talk about these issues. And indeed did talk very eloquently at the Reagan Defense Forum this weekend. I salute you for that. Almost one year ago, on February 2nd, Secretary Pompeo announced that we would be exiting the INF Treaty, following NATO’s unanimous determination of Russia’s material breach of its obligations under the agreement. We formally withdrew on August 2nd. Since then, I believe there’s been only one INF range demonstration tasked with another coming up shortly. Both of which stem from great work being done by SCO. What are you doing, Mr. Secretary to ensure the two INF range capabilities under development by SCO are being incorporated by the services into their FY 21 budget?

Okay. So we are supporting those activities with money and technology and all the right people. Having that capability is essential, not just to counter what the what the Russians have already deployed in Europe, but also maybe more importantly, vis-a-vis China. China has thousands of intermediate range missiles along their periphery, along their eastern coast, if you will. And our ability to either blunt or respond, that will be it will rely on intermediate range missiles of our own and in other ranges, too. But I think we need to move on that as well as with hypersonics and other means. And if the commanders need it, we will deploy it.

And just follow up on that, There was a FY 20 NDA prohibition on INF range procurement and deployment that I think could be mitigated because the department’s current schedule for INF range capabilities. But if there was, In other words, you’re not going to actually deploy those missiles in the next year or so. But if a similar provision were adopted for FY 21, what would be the impact on the department’s ability to actually execute the NDS?

Well, I think you made the technical point. It depends on our current development and deployment timelines. And again, I’m assuming the commanders would need the weapons. And if they do, I want to provide those. But it would take a tool out of our hands. Look, I don’t see any possibility that we’re going backward. The NATO allies are unanimous that in terms of us getting out of INF and at this point, our means to either address it with our own system and also to be able to defend against Russian systems.

And then back to where I started, you know, CENTCOM’s needs are obvious and apparent every day, sort of open up a newspaper. But also in EUCOM, we’ve established European deterrence initiative that’s direct about $17 billion in funding. We don’t have a similar, We have an authorized account for Indo-PACOM, but we haven’t actually funded in the way we’ve done for EDI. Given the NDS priority and into pay common China, would a similar dedicated funding mechanism for Indo-PACOM can be a useful step going forward?

Yes, or maybe it depends on where you take the money away from. You know, part of our efforts in both Europe and Indo-PACOM is to look at how we change our footprint on the ground. So it gets to your point in that sense? In that principle point, yes. But we’re also trying to. With regard to the allies and partners that can afford to, is help them help us as we as we expand that footprint

On a resource constrained environment, we we’ll have to make choices. And if I believe the logic of the NDS as I do, Indo-PACOM should be the priority. We’ll have to assume risk.

If I had to pour concrete in some locations, if you will, build bases, I’d rather prioritize. Should be prioritizing Indo-PACOM over other locations.

One final question, and I know this is about Syria, but I don’t often get the opportunity to talk directly to both you. It’s my understanding that current duty policy prohibits the U.S. from exercising with the Taiwan Navy, not as a result of any decisions we made in the 70s to the 80s. But this has just been the policy for the last decade. Is it still the policy, the Department of Defense, to prohibit bilateral naval exercises between the United States Navy and the Republic of China Navy?

[Chairman] And beyond a yes. Beyond a yes or no, that’s gonna have to be for the record, unless you can get it done with a yes or no.

I’ll have to get back to you.

[Chairman] Okay. Mr. Keating.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’d like to thank Dr. Esper, thank General Milley for being here and for your extraordinary service. General Milley, your service is not only extraordinary, but lengthy. If I’m not correct, just looking back briefly on your bio, it goes back to maybe being in Princeton and the ROTC, is that correct, right around 1980?

That’s correct congressman, almost 40 years now.

Thank you

It is extraordinary in length. And I have a question for you quickly in that regard. During that almost four decades or four decades of service and several presidents having served our country during that period of time, could you share with us other instances where presidents have pardoned war criminals in your experience since you’ve been in the military during that time?

Presidents have pardoned individuals many, many times. As you know, for example, President Nixon, a very famous case, pardoned Lieutenant Kelly, who murdered 130 some odd—

[Bill] But during your time, though. During the four decades.

During my 40 years.

[Bill] Long time.

Someone who was alleged to have committed war crimes.

[Bill] No, but someone that was,

Or was convicted of crimes.

Can you share with us?

[Mark] I do not know of one that I’m,

I can’t think of one either, general.

It has been done historically?

I know. For that 40 years, that several presidents a long time. So thank you for that. In your joint statement, both of you said you’re focused on internationalizing the response to Iran’s provocative activities by encouraging increased burden sharing and cooperation with allies and partners. That’s a very important issue. I also serve in the Foreign Affairs Committee and very recently we had a special representative for Syria, Mr. Jeffrey testifying. During that testimony, he did say, and I agree with him 100% that it was a mistake when he was referencing the pull out of Syria without informing our allies. And to me, that’s a critical point because we have something that probably the country that is our greatest threat, China, doesn’t. We have something they don’t have. We’ve something Russia doesn’t have. We have this extraordinary coalition. I think it’s one of the biggest difference makers that we have. And Special Representative Jeffrey, myself, a lot of other people were concerned those allies weren’t even informed about what our action would be, even though they had troops on the ground there. And I’m concerned about you not having that kind of notification. What do we do going forward to really make sure we have greater communication? I know that wasn’t a decision you made or the military made.

But if I may, I know that I personally called our allies, and I believe, I won’t speak for a second. I believe he did as well. And I believe some people in the department of state, perhaps Secretary Pompeo. I don’t know about the rest of them. But I know I personally called our allies that were involved in Syria as soon as decisions were made.

[Bill] How much time was that?

It was very quick.

[Bill] Like what? It was quick.

[Bill] Like, what’s quick?


[Bill] What’s fast?

I’d have to go back and check the phone records. It was very, very—


[Mark] No.

That’s pretty fast.

Much faster than that.

A day? Yeah, it was inside of that.

Inside of a day. That’s not what I call having. Not that it’s your fault. Great cooperation, communication. I think it’s so important going forward to have this. Now you’re also referencing in joint statement, you know, some of the other countries that dealing with maritime and navigation issues and I’m looking at the list in the UK, Australia, Albania, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain. There’s certain countries that are usual allies and many of these activities with us. Are there instances or can you share this with us where we’ve reached out or communicated to other allies and they haven’t done what they quite often do and join us in these? I’m just concerned.

I can speak to that, congressman. On both on both the international maritime security construct and the integrated air and missile defense effort, I personally make calls to many allies in both Asia and Europe and asked for assets. And was told and was told either not possible or will think about it. And you can see how many are there right now.

I can see how many are out there too, that are usually there. That’s a that’s a concern I have. My time is winding up, but just want to highlight this.

Your point of allies and partners is critical. We, the United States of America depend upon for access basing in other things in military operations, allies. And we want to keep allies close—

[Chairman] And we will have to leave it there. We’re gettin’ late, sorry.

And we’re done.

[Chairman] That’s a good point.

[Man] Countries would have given blood too. Thank you.

Mr. Gaetz.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I want to make sure that your call and Mr. Khanna’s call for hearings on the Afghan papers is a bipartisan one. I believe that those are issues that we ought to look into. And I trust, given your thoroughness, that we will address that. We have been trading the same villages back and forth in Afghanistan for 20 years. And I think the American people deserve answers. Mr. Chairman, I also want to thank you and the ranking member for your work on the NDAA. And I intend to vote for it, but I’m deeply disappointed that it doesn’t include the amendment that Mr. Khana and I worked on to constrain any authorization for use of military force and a regime change war with Iran.

[Chairman]And just for the record, I share your disappointment, but we do have to work with the Senate and the president.

I know they worked hard on it. But it just is crazy to me in Washington, Mr. Chairman, that something that passes the House with a very robust majority. Every Democrat, dozens of Republicans, it’s up in the Senate. More people vote for it than against it. But I guess given the ways of Washington, it can still not be in the bill. It’s a little swampy to me that.

[Chairman] For a second, I think you have a much better relationship with the person who is responsible for that than I do. So I would urge you to work on that relationship. The president does have to sign the bill.

I work to be a positive influence on everyone I have the chance to speak with, Mr. Chairman. I also would suggest that a practical, restrained and realistic view of foreign policy is entirely consistent with the Trump doctrine. And in that light, Mr. Secretary, it may be a minority view in the Congress and maybe a minority view on this committee, but I fully support the administration’s decisions in Syria and Turkey theater. It is my belief that we ended up in this mess in Syria as a consequence of the prior administration being all over the place on regime change wars in Syria that created second and third order effects that the Trump administration is now having to deal with. And as I see things in a very challenging and complicated environment where there’s been a great deal of war for a great deal of time, you have done all you can to balance regional interests, reduce U.S. risk and the U.S. footprint, and then secure the resources that will function as the leverage for the Kurds to have the greatest opportunity to have a say in their own future. And this notion repeatedly reflected in this committee on both sides of the aisle that because we are an ally with a group of people in one instance, because our interests align in that case, that’s somehow morally binds us to every conflict they have, past, present or future is crazy to me. And if we accept that doctrine, it will not enhance the utility of our future alliances, it will diminish them because we will not be able to engage in those alliances given the complicated world in which we live today. I do want to go back to Pensacola for a moment, because it’s very central to the thinking of many my constituents. I understand that with the Saudi government, we have a status of forces agreement that set this program up. That status of forces agreement has within it, you know, various accommodations for access. But to me, when the uniform military of another country, you know, attacks and kills my constituents were in the uniform of our country, maybe we don’t have to be as faithful to a contract regarding access, but we should be more concerned about ensuring that we contain the terrorism and hold those responsible. So perhaps you can you can inform me on what role the status of forces agreement is playing in the ongoing diplomatic standoff or negotiation that we’re currently having with the kingdom regarding those people currently in custody.

It’s a fair question. Excuse me. Sorry. It’s a good question. Honestly, I’m not up to speed in terms of what this SOFA says with regard to this case. I’d have to get back to you on that. Well, it is my sincere hope that that is not limiting the work of the FBI or creating unique challenges, by having the kingdom make demands to have their embassy personnel interact with people that we’re currently holding. And this is a question I get a lot from my constituents. Maybe you can elaborate on it. You know, when people who are the active duty military of another country attack our military in our country, why is that viewed as a like a law enforcement event rather than an event like more akin to an act of war where we would hold these people as prisoners of war, people in conflict rather than like, you know, giving them the full complement of the rights articulated in the status of forces agreement?

Well, I’ll just say up front, I think we need to let the investigation play itself out. But in this case, I’d say we’re obviously Saudi Arabia is a partner and we’re not we’re not in war with them. We don’t actually have any hostility with them whatsoever. So in this case, I look upon as the act of an individual at this point. Now we need to find out whether there is more behind it or not. But I certainly, It was not a state sponsored action, as best I can tell at this point.

Yeah, I’m not saying it is. But I don’t that the statement that this is the work of an individual is going to age well, Mr. Secretary.

No no, I said at this time, that’s all I’m going to say, is we know it’s one. We need to let the investigation tell us what else is out there.

At this time, I.

[Chairman] That is another argument that we’ll have to leave at that point. But I think that is something worth investigating. Mr. Crow.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate both of your testimony today and your accessibility. I found both of you under your tenure to be very accessible to the committee. And I do appreciate that. Notwithstanding some of my colleagues on this committee’s attempts here today to exercise some revisionist history with regard to blaming issues on the prior administration, the bottom line is that this administration really has no overarching policy in the Middle East. And with respect to Syria, it appears just to be a series of fairly ad hoc decisions stumbling from one decision to the next. And there is no greater illustration of the fact that the first week of October, I led a congressional delegation to the region where we met with and discussed security issues with numerous intelligence and military and diplomatic officials, none of whom, by the way, had any idea that we were about to exercise a precipitous withdraw from northern Syria. And that brings me to my first question. General Milley, several those officials expressed grave concern about the security of those ISIS prisoners in the prisons in northern Syria. And I just want to clarify what I heard you say today, that you don’t have any concern currently, even though the situation seems to be less secure now than it was in early October, given our much lower footprint in that area. But you don’t have any concern about the security of those prisoners? Is that accurate?

South of the 30-kilometer buffer zone, the reports I have indicate that the SDF is still securing the 24 prisons for which they are responsible for. Inside the 30-kilometer buffer zone, we don’t have that level of visibility. So I can’t say one way or the other. I think there were seven, if I’m not mistaken, from memory, seven facilities inside that—

And general, did we have that visibility before our withdrawal? Did we have that visibility on those prisons that you just indicated before or withdraw, and now we do not?

Sure, of course. I mean, they were co-located in some respects and the SDF had those detention facilities. Since the government of Turkey went into those, into that incursion, it’s their personal responsibility, is their legal internationally legal—

From the first week of October we’re in a less, we’re in a worse position with respect to oversight of those prisons than we were, are currently now than we were two months ago.

I would say we have less visibility because the Turkish government has responsibility and we don’t have the visibility on those detention facilities.

Next question, has there been several public media reports about Iranian drones called suicide drones conducting overflight operations of our forward operating bases in Syria, Iraq and potentially Jordan? Standing here today, if there is an Iranian drone attack on one of our forward operating bases and those three countries, do those forward operating bases and do our soldiers have the necessary materiel, equipment and intelligence to defend against those attacks?

I would say that, first off, it’s a very serious threat. We are aware of it. And in some cases, we have some capabilities to mitigate the threat. But to say that we can eliminate the threat, that would be a false statement. So, no, we don’t have everything we would absolutely want that technology you can provide.

I would add that this, Our ability to respond is not unique to Iranian drones. It’s a challenge we face at large. And that’s why I recently reassign the responsibility for counter UAS systems. To the Army as executive agent, we need to get ahead of this because the offensive technology is changing more quickly than our defensive means to deal with it.

Thank you, Secretary Esper. Last question. General Milley, you’re a special forces officer and have worked with local forces a lot throughout your career. There’s bipartisan concern on the Hill about our lack of kinda standing by our Kurdish and Syrian allies who fought with us in northern Syria. And as a result of that, several of us have led a bipartisan bill called the Syrian Partner Protection Act that would create an SCV program for those fighters and their families and allow them to come to the U.S if they are in danger. Could you speak very briefly as to the impact, the positive impact that SIV programs have not only in Syria, but in Afghanistan and Iraq on our ability to demonstrate that we’ll stand by our partners and continue to recruit partners like that throughout the world?

I think for the United States, as we go forward, regardless of where it is in the world, maintaining allies and partners, both nation states, but also indigenous partners like the STF, are important to fulfill our national security objectives. And anything that we can do to assure them and maintain good faith with them, as is a positive.

[Crow] Thank you. I yield back, Mr. Chairman.

[Chairman] Thank you, Mr. Crow. Mr. Walz.

And I’m proud to join my colleague, Representative Crow, and that expansion of the SIV program, which I think is critical to our local allies and to our ability to move forward. Mr. Chairman, I have a unanimous consent request to submit to the record a letter from the commander and chief of the Syrian Democratic forces to this committee,

[Chairman] Without objection, so ordered.

Thank you. Mr. Chairman. I’d like to return very quickly to this issue of pardons and war crimes. The third case in First Lieutenant Lorance, I would just kind of conclude that, that line of thinking and the previous conversation that Lieutenant Lorance had served six years. I would submit to my colleagues, we need to be very careful in equating mistakes, perhaps bad judgment calls, calls that may even get you relieved of command with a war crime, and I too have received many texts and a lot of outreach since these pardons and most of them said that could have been me. And these split-second decisions in the heat of combat, again, making a mistake does not necessarily equal a war crime. And I do think we have to be careful with the signals that we send. And in this case, a very chilling signal that if you make a bad call, that you could go to jail for 20 years. And I would just ask both of you to consider that as we as we deal with these going forward. General Milley, I’m glad that you mentioned that we are, and clarified that we are fighting ISIS from Africa to Afghanistan. This is a my view, a global insurgency by extremists against an American leadership of a world order based on Western values, and that includes Iran and that support of extremism. Would you both agree with that characterization?



And that we are dealing with a multi generational war against extremism, against an ideology, much like the war that we fought against, the ideology of communism, and that we need a whole of government strategy to undermine the ideology, everything from girls education to women’s empowerment, economic opportunities in addition to the military aspects of that? Would you agree that we need we need that and frankly, that it’s been lacking in the last 20 years of that whole of government approach?

Absolutely, I do. You have to get the root causes and de-legitimize the ideology. Absolutely.

I think we need it. I’m not sure to what degree. I have to look back and understand whether it’s been lacking or not or where and when it’s been lacking. But the third piece of that is, is you have to have a culture of people willing to accept those ideas as well. And you have, It has to be organic, that’s some part of that population has to be receptive to those ideas. So that’s critical. So what we’re talking, I mean, we’re talking about individual battles here, from Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan, in that I think that broader conflict where we do need that whole of government approach. Do you believe, General Milley and your military opinion, do you believe that ISIS and al-Qaida can and will resurge, will regain capability, and has the intent to attack the homeland if we allow it?

Second one first first. Do they have the intent to attack the homeland? Yes, they absolutely do. We know that with certainty. Do I believe the resurge if we withdraw all of our capabilities and support to the indigenous governments and we don’t continue to operate by with and through them. And I believe that the conditions you see resurgence.

You do not believe then just approaching another way, that the Syrian democratic forces, whether that’s in Syria, the Afghan national security forces in Afghanistan, the Iraqi security forces currently have the independent capability without U.S. support

I do not believe—

To prevent that resurgence.

I don’t believe the independent really right this minute.

So in the near term, a full withdrawal would endanger the homeland?

It is my belief, that’s correct.

Okay, Syria in particular. I just want to focus on that a moment. It just seems to me that we have discordant objectives here. On the one hand, our objective is ensuring the defeat of ISIS and the enduring defeat of ISIS. Yet, would you agree that the Assad regime, backed by Iran, backed by Russia with the war crimes that they have committed and bombing hospitals and refugee camps, are essentially driving Sunni recruits to ISIS? I mean, on the one hand, by allowing Assad to continue its streak of murderous attacks across Syria, we are furthering ISIS. So my question is, what is our policy? And you could submit that for the record, what is our policy towards Russia, the Assad regime and in Iran? Actually, I saw I have 20 seconds.

I’ll just say broad based, this was asked a couple of times. Our overarching goal in with regard to Syria is to come up with a UN sponsored political settlement between the parties that ends the civil war. And it hits those three topics we’ve talked, I’ve mentioned before, objectives, not a safe haven for terrorists, not dominated by any power in this case, Iran hostile to the United States and contributes to a global security of strategic energy.

[Waltz] Thank you.

[Chairman] You’re off the record. Ms. Slotkin.

Hi, gentlemen. Thanks for being here. You know, I’m I want to go back to this decision, the president’s decision to allow the Turks to go into northern Syria. And I would offer, Mr. Secretary, that the only reason you’re sitting here today is because General Mattis resigned almost exactly a year ago today on the basis of the president threatening this very decision. So I think it’s makes perfect sense that we’re talking about it. Can I just ask, you know, I think this issue really resonated with voters back home in our districts, not because they understand every in and out of where Syria is and who the Kurds are and all the players. They understood that the American handshake has to mean something. And that when we shook hands with the Kurds, we gave them the commitment at the three and four star level, that we would work with them. And when they died with us on the battlefield, that that meant something to us, and we wouldn’t create a situation where they running for their lives and their families are an internally displaced people. So let me ask you a question. Is our plan in Syria and in fighting terrorism from Africa to Afghanistan still working by, with and through local partners?

Yes, congresswoman it is. But let me let me go back—

No, I’m sorry. No.

But this is too important.

Mr. Secretary, no.

You made a statement Mr. Secretary, you’ve said that’s inaccurate.

You’re working by with and through.

It is, but you made

And what I want

An inaccurate statement.

To understand. What I want to understand is in the future of our terrorist fights in West Africa and all these places, the decision, that the demonstration of going to the Kurds and telling them that we are leaving them, does that make it easier or harder to find partners to work by with and through for the next terrorist threat? Just harder. Be honest. Be straight.

I’m being honest.

And Secretary Mattis was as straight as they come. Be honest.

[Chairman] Miss Slotkin, I’m sorry. If you have a statement to make, then make a statement.

I’m sorry. Does it make it easier or harder?

[Chairman] I will give you more time and a second yield for just a moment. If you have a statement to make, you may make the statement. I don’t want witnesses badgered up here. You ask him a question, you have to give me a chance to answer. If you want to make a statement, perfectly within your right. But don’t bedroom when he’s trying to answer the question. Go ahead.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The handshake with the Kurds, with the SDF in particular, was a handshake that we would ensure that we would defeat ISIS. It was not a handshake that said, yes, we would also help you establish an autonomous Kurdish state. It was also not a handshake that said, yes, we would we would fight Turkey for you. That’s the difference there I’m trying to make, the point we’re trying to make. Whenever we make these handshakes with By, With and Through, which is our strategy, I think we need to be clearer going forward as to what the extent of that relationship actually is.

Will that be harder or easier if you’re in Mali or Burkina Faso or other places? Do you think that these partner groups would feel like they could trust us? If we’re clear and explicit with what the relationship is up front, yes.

You’re the secretary of defense. I know folks have talked about the authorization of military force. And I agree with most of my colleagues here that it desperately needs revision. And that is actually Congress’s responsibility, which they have shirked. Can I ask right now, do U.S. Secretary Defense believed that you have authorization based on any AUMF on the books to go to medium or long term war with Iran? We always have the right to self-defense, but to attack Iran, no. As a state on state attack, no.

Ok, thank you. I yield back

[Chairman] Thank you. Miss, I know we’re a little over time. If you’ll indulge me for just a minute here. Ms. Sherrill.

Thank you, Secretary Esper and General Milley, for being here today. I myself served in Pensacola, so I do look forward to hearing more about your investigations into the foreign nationals on that base. General Milley, you stated that our objective is a secure Middle East. Given that we’ve defeated the physical caliphate, but knowing how important it is to protect those gains, because as Secretary Esper stated, we haven’t defeated ISIS and given our relationship with our Kurdish allies, who have certainly done a great deal of fighting for our shared objectives. Excuse me. And now, given that we are still conducting combined operations, presumably with the roughly, I think you said 500 troops that we have remaining to fight in the region, I guess I fail to see how the president’s tweet to remove troops without coordination with the Pentagon or our own Kurdish allies, aides are objective of a secure Middle East. So have you found that tweet? Did you find that tweet to be helpful?

I’m not sure which tweet we’re talking about. To say that the president made a decision without coordination with the secretary and I, is not true.

So, he tweeted out that we were going to remove troops from Syria and the Pentagon did know, but you were both aware that he was going to make that tweet. I wasn’t aware of a specific tweet. The sequencing, I’m not exactly clear which tweet you’re talking about. I’m talking about the most recent tweet when he said he was going to remove the troops from Syria. Not the months ago when he said we were gonna do that, when Secretary Mattis resigned. I’m talking about the one after that. You’re talking about the one in October, when we pulled troops out.

[Sherrill] When we pulled troops out.

Yeah, I think that tweet, I believe that that tweet happened after we talked. But I’m not sure I’d have to go back and checked. I guess my point is this. There was coordination and there was discussion between senior advisers and the president prior to him making a decision.

So the senior advisers know, but none of our allies across the world. I mean, Mr. Crow, was just talking about his discussion with allies who right before that tweet had no idea that was coming. I’ll tell you, many people in the Pentagon had no idea that was coming back. But you had all discussed it internally and decided to do it without working with the Pentagon

I can assure you,

Or our allies.

There were discussions and deliberations done by members of the National Security Council with The President of the United States.

Did you recommend that you pull out of Syria?

I personally recommended that we pulled out 28 special forces soldiers in the face of 15,000 Turks that were going to invade

[Chairman] I’m sorry, if the gentlemen would yield. The gentleman yield for just one quick second, because this this is a question enormously important to me. That’s great. In December, you were in different jobs at the time, but you were both in jobs,

[Mark] December, a year ago, you mean?

Last year.

[Mark] Or you’re talking about October? This past October.

I’m going to different places. It’s a simple yes or no question. Just bear with me.

[Mark] Yes.

In December, when you were The Secretary of the Army and you were The Army Chief of Staff, to your knowledge, did anyone in the Pentagon before the president sent out his tweet saying that we were going to pull completely out of Syria and Afghanistan, did anyone in the Pentagon know that announcement was coming when the president tweeted it, to your knowledge?

I don’t know.

[Esper] Chairman, I can’t speak that ’cause I—

You can speak to that. To your knowledge, as The Secretary of the Army and the, to your knowledge, did anyone in the Pentagon know that that announcement was coming?

I don’t know.

And I’m not trying to dodge, because it’s not a yes or no.

[Chairman] It’s to your knowledge. Yes or no?

I can’t tell you. As a service secretary—

[Chairman] You don’t know what you know?

As a service secretary, no. The secretaries do not have an operational role.

[Chairman] I just asked a very narrow question.

[Man] I don’t know.

You talk to people in the Pentagon. You’re telling me that you’re The Secretary of The Army and you’re the Chairman of The Armed Chiefs, you’re hanging out at the Pentagon.

A year ago—

Oh we’re pulling out of Syria? They were talking about it three weeks ago. I didn’t know.

[Mark] A year ago, I don’t know if anyone was told. October,

That’s all I’m asking. I guarantee there was deliberation.

I know about that. But the earlier decision is the really important one here, in my opinion. I’m sorry to interrupt, Ms. Sherrill. Please go ahead.

Well, I’m also confused, because now, So it’s my understanding that you were deliberating with some number of people and you suggested then the president pull out 28 troops?

Let me review the bidding here. There were a variety of intelligence reports going back as far as early August, of a considerable buildup of Turkish forces and capabilities with the intent to invade northern Syria and establish a buffer zone. President Erdogan went to the United Nations and held up a map and did declaratory policy and said he was going to do that. When I became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the very first calls I made was to the Chad of Turkey to say, what are you doing? And he said, we are going to do this and we cannot guarantee the safety of the American forces that are in the way. Those reports went to The Secretary of Defense, president—

So, our NATO allies said we are gonna do this.

[Mark] That’s correct. That is exactly

And we’re gonna run right through American troops.

That’s right. That is exactly right. And we did not talk to our allies and we did not—

We did talk to our allies.

[Sherrill] Well, they seem remarkably unaware that we were gonna do this.

I don’t know which allies you’re referring to.

I’m talking about Jordan. I’m talking about allies throughout the region. I’m talking about Israel. I’m talking about our allies in the region, who seem to not understand

It is not correct. that we were gonna pull troops out. Which allies were you talking to, I guess is the question.

I’m talking about Britain, France and Israel. And they were personally called about the discussions and the situation. And they’re all fully aware of the possibilities and the discussions and the situation. The key people. I’m not gonna speak for every member of the government. And then—

Well, I’ll speak for Netanyahu, who seemed to be—

I know I called. But my point being, is there were deliberations and there were 15,000 Turkish soldiers and we had all the intelligence indicators to clearly indicate that orders were written and sent, rehearsals were complete and they were going to attack. There were 28 United States Special Forces, Green Berets. And I am not going to allow 28 American soldiers to be killed and slaughtered just to call someone’s bluff. There has been a lot of criticism—

I don’t understand where these 28 troops you’re referring to are. We had a thousand troops. What, and you wanted to

Pull out 28?

Along the axis of it. Along the axis of advance.

[Chairman] Sorry, the initial axis of advance. I apologize.

Axis of advance of their invasion, we had 28 soldiers.

[Chairman] I apologize, I apologize. And again, I really. And I agree. Once the president made the announcement six months before, in a tweet that we were pulling out of Syria, and this is absolutely what happened. When that tweet was made, everyone went, oh, my God, what do you do? And you all went, well, we got to figure this out. And it is my opinion, everything you just said, sir, is what Erdogan did after the president unilaterally without consulting the Pentagon, to my knowledge, without even consulting the National Security Council, said we’re pulling out of Syria. It is my opinion and someone can disavow me of this notion at some point, that was the moment when Erdogan said, okay, I can do this. And then, yes, over the course of the next six to seven to eight months, he planned it out, which then led to the series of events which you have told us and describe. And I think it’s accurate because the other thing is we had over 3000 troops in Syria when the president made that announcement. By the time we got to all that you just described, that number was way down. And it was way down. I’m sorry to say this bluntly. It was way down, not because it was in the national security interests of the United States, for it to be way down. It was way down because the president was trying to fulfill a campaign promise and he did not consult the Pentagon before he made that announcement and started us down this path. Now, I’m very sympathetic. Once we started down that path, you guys had to figure out how to make it work. And you really worked hard at it. I know Secretary Dunford did as well. He desperately tried to find partners who could fill in for us leaving. He did. He was just unable to do it. But that’s the discussion I want to have. And I’m sorry it’s frustrating for me. There were only 25 troops that we couldn’t possibly defend them. I agree. I completely agree that that was started before that. I do have to give Mr. Thornberry a chance to respond to this point. And then I do want to get to Ms. Escobar if I could. I said I would. I apologize. I know you guys are pushing on time. But this is a really important point. I’m really not trying to make a political point. But if we don’t understand that, I want someone to go over to the White House and said we’d really prefer you not to do this again, okay. That we have a process. The tweets have far more power than people realize on our policy. Let’s try to calm that down. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish. Mr. Thornberry.

Mr. Chairman, it’s a far more complicated story than that. It is true, in December, now a year ago, the president issued his text. There was immediate. There were immediate conversations. I know personally between members of the House and the Senate with the president and others at the White House, related to that tweet. And without going into all of the ins and outs over weeks, it is also true that there were other partners who did step up to assist in the work in Syria. And again, I have personal knowledge of a number of those conversations with partners. So the bottom line is that the president made a tweet. There was a lot of work and conversation. We did not withdraw from Syria. And we had partners working with us. I do not believe it was inevitable that what happened in October was going to come. Now, I understand your point that once he said that, it was gonna happen one way or another. I can just say, I believe it’s a more complicated story with a number of people who have been emphasizing to the White House and to partners that we all need to be there together because we had a lot at stake, and there was some success with that. And obviously, President Erdogan saw an opening. And just to emphasize, I think the decision made by the secretary and the chairman to safeguard American lives when they made it was absolutely the right decision. I have qualms with the original tweet, as you know. I don’t think that was right. And that’s part of the reason I was involved in some of those conversations to ensure that we can continue to safeguard American interests in that region. Thanks, Rich. Ms. Escobar, I apologize. I thought that was important. I know we’re over time you were. Just give you a couple quick minutes. Go, ahead.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And gentlemen, thank you so much for being here and for your testimony. I’m gonna pick up where my colleague, Ms. Sherrill left off. I want to be clear in understanding this. So, Chairman, you gave the recommendation because you had gotten notice from Turkey that American troops, their safety and security could not be guaranteed by our NATO ally and that they were about to invade. And if something happens to American troops, well, something happens to American troops. Am I understanding that correctly?

[Mark] That’s about right. That’s correct.


I would add that I made the recommendation as well. It was my assessment in discussions I had with my counterpart leading up to, in the weeks leading up to the events of that of that date. Was there an effort to negotiate with Turkey to ask them, to stand down, to not do it?



[Man] Very intense effort.

How long did that effort go on before the decision, before the recommendation was made?

Weeks. We had been working on this for actually months with the Turks to restrain them by going through a number of diplomatic actions, military actions on the ground, trying to set up the safe zone, all these things we we’re trying to do diplomatically, militarily, et cetera, while the buildup was happening that the chairman described earlier to pull them back from doing from crossing into northern Syria. Was the president involved? Did he pick up the phone? Did he call our ally? Did he make the case himself for Turkey, not going forward with its plan?

[Mark] I don’t know.

Well, I can’t. I don’t know all the calls the president does or does not make. But even if I knew, I wouldn’t convey that to you, because it’s you know, those conversations are private between me and the commander in chief. I would be interested in a classified setting to learn that information.

I still wouldn’t share it with you, congresswoman.

[Escobar] Okay.

Just as I wouldn’t share a conversation between me and you publicly or with anybody.

I think this is an important point to me, not even as a member of Congress, but as an American to know that we have troops that have been working side by side with allies. And you’re right, there was a handshake deal, not a specific commitment. However, there is something to be said for a handshake deal, for a mutually beneficial relationship that has benefited Americans safety and security tremendously, that it has has allowed us to push back on on terrorism and on ISIS. And so, you’ll have to forgive me. But this idea that while you’re correct, it wasn’t in the fine print that we were going to really be a good, strong ally. That is distressing to me as an American.

And I appreciate that. Look, we’ve both been there. But not only was it not in the fine print, but it wasn’t in the bold print. Never did we put on the table. In fact, I’ve spoken to our commanders about this. Some of them were very clear that we’re not here. We’re not going to defend you against Turkey. And, Mr. Secretary, I understand that. I think what is equally distressing to me, is to hear that a NATO ally was about to run roughshod over American troops. And I wonder if the president got involved. So that’s a question, obviously, that you’re that you’re saying that even in a classified setting, you’d be willing to to answer. Do you all know how many?

I don’t know the answer to begin with. I said even if I did. Well that’s distressing as well, because if we’re if we’re negotiating to protect American troops and to prevent an ally from from creating what is now a deeply unsettling situation. I mean, 200,000 civilians have been displaced. We’ve seen genocide occurring. I am now concerned and I’d like your opinion, part of what drives people into the arms of ISIS and what promotes terrorism is that instability, this feeling that you don’t have a future. If there’s anything that I’ve learned while serving on this committee is that that kind of hopelessness is a breeding ground. Is there a breeding ground right now in Syria for ISIS?

I can’t comment on that. I just don’t know. But let me take this. What the Turks are saying, And I’m not defending the Turkish action. But they would say, look, this has gone on for them for decades, if not a couple of hundred years of this conflict between—

But, Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, we had a situation that that was far more under control before, than it is today.

Yes and no, congresswoman. If you recall, from the earliest days when SDF was first set up under the Obama administration, there was unhappiness, vocal, public concern by the Turks about the relationship, and they had made two previous incursions into Syria to address what they thought was a terrorist problem.

And we will,

None of these.

I know you guys have been very generous of your time, and I think that was a good point. I know you gotta go. So I do want to cut you off. At the same time, I also want to respect your time. And I thank you very much for being here. We are adjourned.

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