Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby, Feb. 18, 2015

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—February 18, 2015.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have announcements today, so we can go straight to questions.

Lita?

Q: First of all, acknowledging the public news about your — your eventual departure here.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Mm-hmm.

Q: Just on behalf of I think most of us here in the press corps, we just wanted to express our appreciation for all of your hard work, your professionalism…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thank you.

Q: … your ability to answer any and all of our questions at any time of the day or night, when we ask them either here or whenever we’re traveling. And I think we hope that you know, we wish you good luck and we hope that whoever takes this job next has the depth and breadth of your knowledge, particularly about the military, someone who can answer questions as well as you have.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks.

Q: Hear hear.

Q: Hear hear. (Applause.)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks.

I think that’s a great way to end it. (Laughter.) We’re just going to wrap this right up, because it’s not… (Laughter.) … it ain’t going to get any better now.

But thanks very much, I appreciate that.

Yeah, go.

Ukraine.

Q: Is this in fact your last briefing?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t know.

It could be. I don’t know. It’s going to just depend on the — you know, the weekly scheduling.

Q: Were you going to tell us? Were you just going to go?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I would tell you, eventually.

I don’t know. We’ll just have to see how the schedule plays out.

You know, we try to do two a week, and then we’ll just see.

Q: And we all echo Lita. I deferred her the first question, but we all echo Lita.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I appreciate it.

Q: We’re very appreciative of your professionalism and your efforts.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks I appreciate that.

Q: Just so on Ukraine, obviously the cease-fire didn’t hold so well.

So, I’m wondering if you can update us on U.S. aid to Ukraine. What, if anything, can be — is being done, and are there any thoughts about doing anything more now that another attempt at a cease-fire has not worked?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t have anything to update in terms of additional aid or assistance. Nothing’s changed about the process through which we are trying to provide material assistance to Ukraine’s security forces.

As you know, the assistance is still of a non-lethal sort. Discussions continue about other types of assistance.

So, I’ve got nothing new to say on that.

But you’re right, the ceasefire did not hold. Moscow
violated that.

And there is additional, continued fighting around Debaltseve, as you know. We’re watching this very, very closely. And the only thing else I’d add is that nothing is going to change about two things: one our recognition here in the Pentagon that a U.S. military solution is not going to be had here.

That what needs to happen is Moscow needs to abide by the agreement it signed up to and to remove their heavy weapons and the Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine and respect the territorial — territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, and number two that we are going to continue to reassure our allies and partners in NATO through continued exercises, presence, Black Sea air policing, all that kind of stuff is going to continue.

Q: But this doesn’t add any weight to the argument about providing lethal defensive assistance?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: It certainly factors into the discussions. There’s no question about that, Lita.

But I — to say that it’s going to tip a scale one way or another, I think, would be to overstate it.

But we, as Secretary Hagel made clear before he left, you know, we’ve got to be mindful of unintended consequences here of every decision that we make.

But it is a decision, it is a discussion, excuse me, that continues, and I’m sure will continue. What really needs to happen here, instead of having, you know, a debate about lethal assistance or non-lethal assistance, what really needs to happen is, Moscow needs to abide by what it agreed to in this latest ceasefire.

Q: Admiral Kirby?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: If I could shift to Libya.

Back in August, you said that after the UAE and Egypt bombed certain positions in Libya, you said that we discourage other nations from taking a part in Libya’s issues through violence.

Has your position changed? Has the Pentagon’s position changed in terms of the actions of countries being involved in Libya? Do you support Egypt’s right to bomb ISIS targets in the wake of the — the Christian Coptics being killed?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think it’s important to remember the context with which I said that back in August. That was — that was not a — those missions conducted by Egyptian forces was not — they were not, or I think UAE was involved as well, was not involved against ISIL, or necessarily a terrorist network.

It was a different sort altogether. So, I stand by what we said back then. We aren’t taking a position here in the Pentagon on these recent strikes by Egypt, which I’m — certainly we’re aware of it. We — we didn’t — we weren’t notified ahead of time. We didn’t participate or support them in any way, and we’re not taking a position on it.

Q: Is there a role for the U.S. military in Libya now that ISIS has a strong hold there?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: The locus of the energy against ISIL is, as you know, in Iraq and Syria. No decisions have been made to expand the fight against ISIL beyond Iraq and Syria.

We’ve also said, and it’s a matter of fact, I mean, let me just take 10 steps back writ large, the — it’s been clear and we’ve been clear that we continue to have the right to engage terrorist networks wherever they are if they threaten Americans or American interests.

Q: And just finally, there’s 45 Iraqis who were purportedly burned to death by ISIS. Do you have any confirmation of that, or what were the circumstances?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We are aware of the video. It’s being analyzed. I’m not in a position, as we speak right now, to confirm the authenticity of it.

Certainly wouldn’t surprise any of us here if it — if it turns out to be authentic and true, given the kinds of atrocities that this group continues to wage against innocent civilians.

But we’re looking at it now, and just not in a position to confirm.

Barb?

Q: Couple of additional ISIS questions.

Now that military official — U.S. military officials are talking about how they may equip some of the Syrian rebels with trucks, light weapons, communications gear, the notion of equipping them also to call in U.S. airstrikes or to assist in calling in U.S. airstrikes, we are told that that is under consideration.

Do you have concerns that if you go ahead with that and have the rebels call in airstrikes, you could be in a position of carrying out one of their agendas, rather than a target set that might be something that would meet U.S. standards of verification?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure, it’s a great question.

And I want you to just forgive me for a little bit, because I want to provide some context on this. And this is a classic cart before the horse kind of thing. And you need to — again, we need to examine what this train and equip mission is all about.

It’s to — and we’ve talked about this before, to get a cadre of — of fundamentally trained, Syrian moderate opposition fighters to go back and defend their communities and go on the offense eventually against ISIL inside Syria.

It is, and we forget this sometimes when we talk about it, it is train and equip.

So, there is going to be some equipment provided, and you would imagine, you would expect that some of that equipment would be basic military gear, perhaps some mobility in the form of trucks and vehicles, small arms and ammunition so that they can better defend themselves.

And of course, you know, I saw in the — the Wall Street Journal, they talked about radios.

Absolutely. Why wouldn’t we want to help them out with some communication gear? Because communication, as we well know, is a key part of being able to command and control your forces in the field.

So, all that makes perfect sense.

The jump to saying that they’re going to be serving as, you know, forward air controllers is just way farther down any discussion that we’re having right now.

Is that a possibility in the future? Would — would — could we possibly get to a point where they might be able to help with spotting from the ground in Syria for coalition airstrikes? Yes. That is a possibility.

But it is only a possibility and we’re not even there yet. We haven’t even begun the training.

So, I want to make it clear that — and I’ve said this before, it’s worth repeating, the training that they are going to be receiving and the equipment that will go with that training is designed to give them basic military skills and organizational capabilities so that they can go back and defend their — their citizens, not to turn them into what we would consider independent, you know, JTACs, you know, joint tactical air controllers. That’s not the goal here.

Q: Understanding…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Also, sorry, I’ll give you a chance, but I also want to make one other point.

There has been no decision — no decision made about any combat air support for opposition fighters that would go back into the fight in Syria.

Now, we’ve said — we’ve said it that obviously we would have to provide some measure of support, but there’s been no policy decisions about what that support would look like right now.

So go ahead. I’m — I interrupted you.

Q: No — no that’s OK. But now, well, now I have another question.

So, first of all, on combat air support for — for the Syrian-trained rebels, are you saying that it is necessary, mandatory, absolute that there will have to be some kind of U.S. combat air support in Syria for them before they can go back in the field.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I’m not saying that.

As I said, there’s been no decision about — about air support specifically to opposition members, but we also recognize, and so — this isn’t — this is an area that’s actively under discussion right now is what manner of support would we give to these trained opposition members when they go back into Syria?

I mean we — we recognize that we’re going to have some responsibilities here if we are — if we’re bringing them into this train program, we’re equipping them, we’re getting them ready, certainly we’re going to have some obligations and responsibilities after that training is complete.

That’s in the realm of discussion right now. No final decisions have been made about what that support would look like, whether it’s — whether it’s intelligence support or air support, all that is being discussed right now.

Q: Does that not take the U.S. military deeper into a Syria operation than it is right now?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t think so, Barb.

I mean, again, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals, but the fight inside Syria is the same for us militarily as it is inside Iraq. It is anti-ISIL.

Everything that we’ve done inside Syria has been aimed at that group and that group only.

Q: But right now, you are not providing support for troops on the ground inside Syria.

You are doing that in Iraq.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s correct, that’s correct.

Q: If you now have to do that inside Syria, does that not take the U.S. military deeper into an operation?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think the way I’d answer your — the way I’d, well, first of all..

Q: Why doesn’t it? What can one…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think what — I think what you’re asking is an operation against Assad, because we’re already involved in operations in Syria against ISIL.

I mean, virtually half of the 2,400 or so airstrikes we’ve conducted has — have been inside Syria.

So, nobody can say we’re not in a combat role in Syria. We are. We’ve dropped a lot of munitions there against ISIL, and we continue to do that.

So we’re already involved in operations in Syria.

It’s really important that we go back to the core purpose of this train and equip program, which is to get them ready to defend their communities, and to go, eventually, on the offensive against ISIL. That’s the goal.

Q: But, and there’s going to be so few opportunities to press you in the — immediate future…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Keep it coming.

Q: … you — you — the U.S. military provides air support for Iraqi forces, ground forces on the ground in Iraq. You have no military task at the moment to provide air support for any forces on the ground inside Syria, whoever they may be.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s correct.

Q: That is not a U.S. military task right now, so…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Because we don’t have partners on the ground in Syria.

Q: But with these rebels, it — it opens the door, you’re saying, to that possibility.

How — to a possibility — so how is it that this does not equate to the U.S. mission in Syria expanding?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Because the — you know, I don’t want to get into the rhetorical definition of mission creep, but remember, mission creep is when the mission changes. The mission would not change with the addition of…

Q: –I didn’t say mission creep. I said expanding. You’re adding a…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, creep and expanding is kind of the same thing. I mean…

Q: You’re adding a task you did not have.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We know, again, Barb, you’re — cart before the horse. You’re trying to get me to make decisions and policy decisions from the podium, and I can’t do that right now. We know that we would have an obligation to support in some fashion, trained opposition fighters that we would — that would go back — that we would prepare to go back into Syria and fight against ISIL.

We have an obligation and responsibility.

The nature of that hasn’t been decided, so I can’t tell you what it would look like right now. But — but clearly, I mean, I want to make it very well understood that we know we would have some obligations there. I mean, otherwise, why would these individuals want to come in and be a part of this train and equip program if they didn’t believe that we weren’t just going to get them ready, but that we would provide some support for them as they go against ISIL.

And that’s a real key part of this, because that’s the mission there against ISIL. That’s where — that’s who we’re fighting. That’s the purpose.

Q: As a follow-up to the training and equipping program, the State Department also confirmed yesterday that you reached an agreement in principle with the Turks. Can you give some details about this agreement? Will there be any signing ceremony here in Pentagon somewhere?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don’t have anything to announce with respect to a signing ceremony, and I’d like the — you know, I think the Turkish government spoke about this yesterday, so I don’t have anything to announce with specifics on this agreement except to say that we have maintained close consultation with the Turkish government about their role — roles. You know, many ways they can contribute to coalition operations. And — but I’m going to let the Turkish government speak for what they’ve agreed to do and to allow.

Q: But there were two major issues. One, the enemy, the other one was the vetting process. So, at least can you give a sense about have they determined a common enemy, and then secondly, who will do the vetting?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: A common enemy?

Q: ISIL only or ISIL and Assad at the same time?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I’ve handled that part ad nauseam with Barb. I mean, the fight is against ISIL and ISIL only as far as the coalition is concerned.

And your question about vetting and screening, I mean, we are — we continue to work through this screening process. I can tell you that we have, at this point in time, identified about 1,200 individuals through the screening process that we will begin to now, obviously, screen further and — and work through getting them into this training process.

There’s about 1,200 people that we — that we have, that General Nagata and his team, with our interagency and international partners, have identified as potential for the — no, for the whole Syria train and equip program.

Q: (off mic)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We’re not — we’re not talking about individuals and pegging them to a training site right now. We’re still in the very beginning of this. There are about 1,200 individuals who have been identified for participation, potential participation in this process and in this program. Where they will be trained, I don’t have that information right now.

Yeah, Jamie?

Q: You talked earlier about the secretary — former secretary being — I think about being mindful of unintended consequences. Along that vein, can you help us understand the theory behind the United States allowing the sale of UAVs to other countries and help us understand how it will be — how there can be any control over how those drones are used, and also that they don’t fall into other people’s hands?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean, you may have seen this Jamie, but I mean, there’s a pretty extensive list of guiding principles here for how these sales would be administered. The Defense Department would play a role in this, but it is essentially led by the State Department.

But I mean, if you don’t mind, I’ll just read these to you so that I get them right, but there are — there are some specific guidelines. For instance, the recipients are going to use these systems, must use them in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Armed and other advanced systems, unmanned systems, are to be used in operations involving the use of force only when there’s a lawful basis for the use of force under international law, such as national self-defense.

Recipients are not to use military unmanned systems to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations, and then as appropriate, recipients will provide operators, their unmanned operators the technical and doctrinal training on the use of these systems to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.

And we will have a role in what we — what we call end-use monitoring, so I mean, we will have a role as well as the State Department, in monitoring the use of these things.

So there are proscriptions here that will be in place for any transfers of these systems, and each, as it is in any foreign military sales program, each case would be examined individually and very scrupulously before a decision got made to actually transfer.

Q: Those are all very lofty goals, but given that the United States use of drones to carry out extra-judicial killings abroad is a subject of great debate, about whether that conforms with international laws and human rights, how could the U.S. possibly ensure that these things be held to those standards if other countries are using them once we let the technology go.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, two points, these aren’t just lofty goals. I mean, these are — these are actually proscriptions in place that we will follow and we will expect anybody that receives these systems to follow.

And I can tell you that we’ve got the architecture in place. We know how to do this, this isn’t the first advanced type of military system that we have worked with the State Department to transfer or to sell to other governments. And I mean, we have these same kinds of abilities with other systems. We’re very good at this, and I can just assure you that we’re going to take this very seriously, step by step, case by case.

We — we — this is a technology that — I mean, it’s — it’s in our best interest to be able to have this kind of control, supervision, and scrutiny over the potential delivery of these systems because it’s a ubiquitous, now, capability. Not every nation has the same sophistication at it as we do, but this is a technology that’s not going away.

So, it suits our interests, and I think it’s — I think it’s — I think it should suit the American people’s interests to know that we’re going to be involved, from soup to nuts, on how these systems are eventually transferred.

Did that answer it?

Q: Yeah, I think so.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: OK. Phil.

Q: Admiral, just two more Syria follow-ups, please.

First, can you tell us how many American troops have deployed to start doing the training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition forces? And also, can you tell us whether those people being screened in your words are going to learn the skills you talked about with Barbara, where they could talk on the radio to American warplanes and potentially identify targets?

Because the impression has been that they’ll get one shot at this training, and then go back to Syria, not come back for subsequent lessons.

Or has it been updated since we last heard about it from you?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: So right now, the first advanced detachment of about less than 100 personnel are in the region and they are — and they are making preparations for follow-on personnel.

I think I said here from the podium that the total applied U.S. — total applied military could be about 1,000. That doesn’t mean there’s 1,000 trainers. For those of you who know, there’s — you know, some number would be applied to force protection, intelligence support, you know, enablers. But about 1,000 total. The first 100 are in the region now. I’m not going to talk about where they are right now for obvious reasons.

I’m sorry, your second question was…

Q: Will, acting as JTACs or forward air controllers be part of the curriculum for these Syrians?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: It — so — the training’s going to be a stair step approach. They will graduate — these fighters will graduate from one level to the next and each level, just like we train American troops, will get more sophisticated as they work through it.

I don’t have the curriculum in front of me. As I said, though, the — the main purpose of the training is basic military structure and skills. I can’t rule out that at some point, they — that we might find it useful for them to have the ability to help assist with targeting on the ground. But I really want to walk you away from this notion that we’re going to be producing Syrian forward air controllers. That is not the case. That is not what this training is designed to do.

I think, you know, one anonymous source in The Wall Street Journal story sort of likened it to Kobani. Let’s look at that for a minute. In Kobani, we didn’t have, you know, trained forward air controllers on the ground there. What we did have eventually, and it took a little time, was some reliable sources inside Kobani, anti-ISIL forces, who had a good working knowledge of not just the town, but where ISIL was on any given day. And so it was able to help us be a little bit more precise.

We were already very precise, but more precise. And so you saw the strikes went up in number and the tactical effect on ISIL increased, when you have somebody on the ground that can at least help you, if nothing else, help tell you what not to hit.

So, it’s a different level of sophistication than what I think we’re all used to when we talk about forward air control. That is not the goal here. Could there, as I said to Barbara, could there — could you get to a point where they might be able to assist in that kind of an endeavor? It’s absolutely possible, but we haven’t even started the actual training yet, and I think it’s really important that we maintain a sense of perspective here and patience.

Q: So it sounds as if you’re saying that the group in Kobani did not call in airstrikes, but simply assisted in targeting ISIS. Is that correct?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s correct.

Q: OK. That, then, would be the model for any moderate Syrian rebels. They would not necessarily call in airstrikes, as we understand calling in airstrikes.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think that’s right. And again, I’d say a potential role. Again, let’s not be too definitive here. The training hasn’t even started yet, but I think you’re right. You’ve got the right spirit of it. It’s not about, you know, creating a wing of forward air controllers that are going to be, you know, driving the air tasking order every day.

But could — could it be useful to have eyes on the ground to help us be more precise? Or just as critically, not make a tragic mistake? Absolutely. But we’re focusing mainly on basic military skills and organization. We really — this is a — this is a walk before you run endeavor. We want to get them basically trained so they can go out and defend their communities. And then eventually — eventually go on the offense against ISIL.

Q: And to clarify some of your answers to Barbara…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I didn’t think they needed clarification.

Q: Well, it sounded as if you were suggesting that U.S. airstrikes had not been conducted in Syria in support of any military forces.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That’s right. We have been conducting…

Q: But the Peshmerga, the Kurdish were not considered…

(CROSSTALK)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, in Kobani — in Kobani, yes. That’s — that’s true.

(CROSSTALK)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: But we’re not — I think the question was, you know, large ground units that were operating in support of, the way we are with the Iraqi security forces in maneuver. I mean, we’re assisting Iraqi security forces as they go on the offense against ISIL, so that they’re going to retake territory or they’re going to defend a dam. You know, we are — we are preparing the way — helping prepare the way with airstrikes, and then supporting them dynamically.

And I — maybe I got Barbara’s question wrong, but that’s not going on in Syria right now. That said, in Kobani, yes, we were providing air support to anti-ISIL forces as they were trying to retake the city. We were very open about that. I wasn’t trying to dodge the question, but I thought what Barbara was asking was about, you know, large ground forces — indigenous ground forces inside Syria.

Did I misunderstand your question?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Can I ask you for a clarification?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.

1 Q: The less than 100 in the region, and the about 1,000…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Eventually.

Q: Are they — are they screening? Or are these the trainers?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: This would be — this would be — the 1,000 are personnel devoted to the train and equip program, not all trainers.

Q: And the less than 100 in the region now?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: They are an advance group. They’re just — they’re just making the way for the ones that will follow. I don’t have any announcements on troop deployments today to make.

Q: So about how many U.S. personnel have been involved in the 1,200 that were found to…

(CROSSTALK)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: A very, very small number working out of General Nagata’s headquarters and his staff. I mean, he is — he’s the one underneath General Austin who has been leading the screening process. That’s — his staff has been doing that for several months now.

This 100 that I talked about, they are advanced personnel for the — the trainers and the enablers that will come with those trainers in the future.

So two different things. The screening process, General Nagata and his staff — I don’t know how many people are on his staff, CENTCOM can tell you that — they’ve been really working that piece.

This 100 advanced element is there to go to help make the way for what will eventually be about 1,000 — and I — and it could go up or down — who will eventually be supporting the train-and-equip program long-term. And not all of those will be trainers. As you know, we deploy enablers, intelligence specialist, force protection.

I mean, some of that number of 1,000 will not be trainers. I think several 100 of the thousand will be devoted to the training mission. But I don’t have a specific number on that.

Does that kind of break it down for you?

Q: Just to clarify, the 100 is not new just on those…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’ve actually talked about that from the podium.

Q: … those are the ones that went before, right?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes. The same 100 I talked about before. They are still there, still setting the conditions for follow-on personnel to come, and they have not arrived yet. I don’t have anything to announce on that.

Q: Right. It’s just not a new 100.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Nope. Same 100. Yeah. You know how I am with math.

Nancy?

Q: Hi. Can I follow up on Egypt, please?

In the last 18 months, Egypt has had weapon sales with Russia and China. They have expressed frustration about the lack of weapon sales and suspension of things like the F-16 and spare parts.

And I was curious if you could characterize for me what the current Egypt-U.S. mil-to-mil relationship is. And has it been strained at all in the last 18 months as the U.S. has expressed its frustration with how the Mansour regime ended and whether it was a democratic or undemocratic process?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We still believe that Egypt is an important strategic partner in the region, Nancy. That — that’s — that hasn’t changed, and we also recognize that we have some common interest with Egypt with respect to terrorism, regional stability and including peace with Israel. I mean, Egypt has a huge role to play there.

What I can tell you is we are continuing to review the security assistance policy in light of developments – political developments inside Egypt.

So we are still holding — currently holding on the delivery of several weapon systems, to include the F-16s, the — the M1A1 tanks and — and some other things, like Harpoon missiles. Those are still on — on hold, and there’s been no decision with respect to that.

Q: I’m curious. In light of the fight against Libya, is there any push from this building to improve that relationship. Is there a concern that this strain that we’ve the last 18 months will affect the expanded campaign against the Islamic State that has now reached into North Africa?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, you might remember — I mean, back in August, we — we released those 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt specifically for and to assist them in a counterterrorism fight, which Apaches are very good for.

So we’re — we’re constantly reviewing the relationship with Egypt. I don’t have any new announcements to make, other than to say that, you know, the counterterrorism relationship with Egypt.

The threats we know they face from terrorist networks is real and significant. We — we understand that.

And so to the degree we can work through that with them and assist them with that, like on the Apache helicopters, we’re going to do that. But there are certain items, larger, more conventional items, that are still on hold, given the political developments in there.

I mean, it’s a complex relationship that we have with Egypt, but we recognize that they face a significant terrorism threat, and we’re constantly, you know, working through that with them.

Yeah? Carla?

Q: Thank you, Admiral. Cairo is asking to lift the arms embargo in Libya to the internationally recognized government.

Does the U.S. military feel that this is a viable option? Is this too scary, considering that there are so many Islamist militants in ISIS, that arms could be in their hands?

What’s our — what’s the U.S. military stance?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That — that really — the question sort of asks me to get into State Department equities, and that wouldn’t be appropriate for me from the podium.

I think I’d rather just kind of leave my answer the way I did with Nancy.

We view them as a strategic partner. We recognize they have significant counterterrorism needs and requirements. That’s why we allowed the delivery of those Apache helicopters.

But it’s a complicated relationship. The political developments there in Egypt make it so. And we’re working with the State Department — we’re kind of working our way through that.

But I wouldn’t want to make broad pronouncements here from this particular podium about the future.

Q: So how is the decision to arm the Libyan government in unsecure terrain different from the decision to arm and train Syrian rebels that will be going back to unsecure terrain or is it just that it hasn’t been thoroughly discussed yet?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, now you’ve switched to Libya. I mean, I didn’t…

Q: Yes, on Libya, Egypt is wanting to lift the arms embargo to Libya as they fight ISIS. They’ve been…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, again, I just — I don’t have — it’s not my place, from the Pentagon, to speak to an arms embargo like that. So I just don’t have anything to — I just don’t have — I don’t have a position for the Pentagon on that.

The Syria train-and-equip mission is very specifically about ISIL inside Syria, where we know they continue to be able to find sanctuary, safe haven, resource themselves, finance themselves, train themselves. So there’s still a very significant anti-ISIL role there, inside Syria.

And when we talk about — and I know I’m getting a little off topic, but, you know, when we talk about ISIL’s attempts at expansion, and we’ve been saying this for a long time, we know they want to metastasize into other places. But those other places, whether it’s North Africa or Afghanistan, it’s still a nascent effort and in some cases aspirational at best.

It doesn’t mean we’re not taking it seriously and we’re not monitoring it. You heard General Rodriguez up here talk about the hundreds or so that he thought might be in North Africa. We’re still watching this closely.

But it’s — but the — the point I’m trying to make it, the locus of the energy is where it should be right now, which is on Iraq and Syria.

Q: John, just a clarification: is Egypt part of the anti-ISIS coalition that the U.S. is leading in Iraq and Syria?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I don’t believe they are.

I don’t — well, you have to talk to — to Cairo about that. And I don’t have the list of 60, but I don’t believe they’re on it.

Jim?

Q: The 1,200 initial recruits into the moderate opposition, do you know, did these all come from one or two specific FSA units? Or were they across the board?

And, just to follow on that, do you have some sense of when that vetting will be completed and they will, you know, go into training?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would say that the 1,200 come from numerous groups, and not any one group, but numerous groups that General Nagata has been in discussion with the leaders of those groups.

I mean, he’s — this is numerous. And I don’t know, I couldn’t give you a list of them all or who they are.

But, again, 1,200 total from — from numerous groups.

And your second question was?

Q: How long will that vetting take to complete so that they’ll be able to start training?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we’re working our — I don’t know. We’re working our way through the screening process now. Again, that we’ve initially identified this 1,200, that screening process for those 1,200 is still ongoing. I couldn’t give you a timeline. It’s — as we said before, we’re going to be very deliberate about this. And it’s going to be individual by individual.

And so, that’s going to take some time.

And the other thing that we’re going to do is — and I’ve said this before — is as they work their way through the building block of the training — the building blocks, I’m sorry — they will get rescreened to determine their readiness and ability to make it to the next level.

And so, all throughout the training process, they will be constantly screened, as we work our way through it.

So it’s not like it’s — it’s not like there’s going to be a finite moment where, you know, that’s it, you’re screened, you’re done, you’re ready, boom.

There’s going to be continual screening throughout.

Q: Is this the vetting, or will there be screening and then vetting?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We’re using the word “screening” here. So, when I say “screening,” I think it’s what you would interpret as vetting. It’s — but our word here in the Pentagon is “screening.”

Q: So, to be clear, when this process is done with these people, they will begin the military training?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: When the — when the initial screening is done, and — and the sites are ready. As I said, we still don’t have all the trainers in place, or the enabling personnel.

So while the screening’s going on, we’re getting the sites ready. Eventually, we’ll come together and we’ll be able to start it.

I think, and I think I’ve said this before, that we believe we could — General Nagata believes he could be ready to start training sometime around, you know, March-April, middle of March or so.

Or, so, don’t — you know, I can’t give you a date certain, nor would I want to, but that’s roughly around the time when I think we’ll probably be ready to start.

Yeah?

Q: Hi, excuse me, any outside helper? Contracts with an outside company to help with the screening? It seems like a very enormous task to…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’m not aware of any contracts, contractual support. I would point you to CENTCOM for that.

But what he has done, General Nagata, is work with both interagency partners in the federal government, people that know how to do this and have done it, and we know how to do this and have done it, as well as international partners. These are countries like Turkey, who have great, in-depth knowledge about some of these groups and have helped provide some context for us as we’ve worked out way through it.

So, it’s been a — it’s a team effort, it’s not just U.S. military alone doing this. Whether there’s contractors involved, I just — I couldn’t say.

Yes ma’am.

Q: To follow on that question, are any lessons from Iraq or Afghanistan being applied to prevent — if this should be a force that we may work with in the future, to prevent any maybe potential future green on blue incidents?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Absolutely, and we’ve talked about that before, too.

We are very good at this process, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons through — in blood, and so yes, we are obviously mindful as we screen these individuals for the potential for insider threats, obviously.

And as I indicated at the outset, when I talked about the numbers of total people that are going to be devoted to this, I mean, a certain number will be force protection specific.

So, I mean, it’s something we’re mindful of everywhere. We’ve got time for one more. Gordon.

Q: Two questions actually. One is, you’re aware of General Campbell testifying last week, saying he was seeking flexibility in the drawdown plan for Afghanistan.

It’s not clear that he met with the president before he left town or not, but has he submitted any formal recommendations to Secretary Carter about what he would like to see in terms of that flexibility?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’m not aware of any formal recommendations that have been submitted to Secretary Carter.

Q: Are there internal deadlines for when the plan would — if it was to be tweaked, when it needs to be tweaked, or else the military would have to adhere to the current drawdown?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’d point you to General Campbell for — for that, if he has time concerns about any changes to the process. I’m not aware of any here. It is only February right now.

And I also want to be clear that you know, we can’t — let’s not get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made. There’s been no change to the withdrawal — the timeline, excuse me. Either to a goal of being roughly around half of what we have today by the end of this year, and then down to zero by the end of next year.

That is still the plan. That is still the plan that General Campbell is executing to.

But as Secretary Carter made clear, he’s — he’s open to having a discussion and a dialogue about the suitability of that going forward. But no decisions have been made.

Q: Just a second quick question is, on your own situation, the reports were that Secretary Carter wanted a civilian in this billet.

Can you explain for Secretary Carter why you think he would prefer a civilian over a military person, just…

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, first of all, Secretary Carter hasn’t made a decision about who will be the next press secretary, so I wouldn’t want to get ahead of any decisions that he hasn’t made yet.

I think he comes to the job wanting to sort of revisit the role of spokesman here, and one of the questions that I think he wants to rhetorically ask and consider is not just who the individual is, but what that individual represents, and whether it’s appropriate or not to have a uniform up here. And those are fair questions for him to ask as he comes into the job.

I have agreed to stay on for a couple of weeks to help him with this transition into his new job, and again, you know, he’ll make those decisions about who he wants at the podium in his own time.

Q: Has someone been identified?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I’m not aware that any decisions have been made specifically with — with respect to who my replacement might be, no.

Q: Can we just ask you, as a spokesman in uniform, have you, in the time that you’ve served in this position, ever been in an uncomfortable position because as a military officer, you’ve needed to defend an administration or civilian policy? Does that put you in a difficult spot, sometimes?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: It — it…

Q: Like now, for instance? (Laughter.)

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Honestly, it hasn’t been a big issue for me.

I can’t say — I can’t look you in the face, Jamie, and say that there haven’t been some questions that obviously have tried to veer me into political discussions. I mean, that’s — I knew that when I took this job that that was a potential. But they’ve been few and very, very far between.

It hasn’t — it just hasn’t been a big problem for me. And I don’t know whether that’s because of my experience here in the Pentagon, or whether it’s because that I’ve known all of you for so long and you know where I can’t go, I think it’s probably a combination of that.

And I’ll also say, you know, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I’ll do it, but I think you guys are the best press corps in town.

And I think it’s because you — most of you have been here for so long and you know this building so well, you know the military so well.

And the kinds of information exchanges that we have, whether it’s here on camera or in my office on background, has been facts. You guys simply — my sense is you want facts. You want context. And you haven’t — you don’t cover the building from a political viewpoint, typically.

And that has obviously made it easier on me to be a military guy in this — in this job.

So for me personally, it hasn’t been a big factor, and I think it’s because of the appetite for information, what you guys were looking for and what I was able to provide, you know, just from my — the dint of my experience. It just hasn’t been a factor.

But obviously, you know, we all serve at the pleasure of the secretary and I — I’ve been honored to have the opportunity. It’s really been a real privilege and I’ve enjoyed almost every day of it. (Laughter.)

Thanks everybody. Have a good day.

Source: defense.gov