General Votel is speaking to us today from CENTCOM’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida. We will begin this phone call with remarks from the General. After that, we will open it up to your questions. Today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will now turn it over to General Votel for his opening remarks. General Votel, the floor is yours.
General Votel: Ok, thank you very much, and thanks to everyone who dialed in today. I look forward to the opportunity to talk with you and answer your questions. As mentioned, I just arrived back in Tampa last evening after about 10 or 11 days of travel in the region that took me to Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, The United Arab Emirates, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Jordan, so I do have a few things I would like to share with you, and then, as I mentioned, I’ll be happy to take your questions. In general, while we and our partners continue to face numerous challenges across the region, there are a number of areas where we are positioned to make significant progress in the weeks and months ahead, and I’d like to touch on three major points as we get started.
First, we need to recognize the tremendous sacrifice of our partners in the fight against ISIS. Thousands from the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces have given their lives or have been wounded during the fights to liberate major cities and liberate the majority of the terrain from ISIS. Having spent several hours in the city of Raqqa just a few days ago, I saw, first-hand, the level of violence that was needed to root out an enemy like ISIS. Partner forces on the ground conducted the vast majority of the effort and shed the preponderance of the blood, and for their efforts and sacrifice, we all – the global community – should be thankful for their efforts. Those forces have done well and continue to fight bravely. There is more work to do and they continue to do it. They have honored the entire 70-member Coalition with their grit and determination.
My second point is that recent successes against ISIS show that the best way to make military progress across the region and to work through the many, many contentious issues is through open and transparent military-to-military relationships. These military-to-military relationships preserve avenues of communication that allow us to de-conflict operations, deescalate tensions, and reduce the risk of miscalculation or error. We continue to see the value of our transparency and open communication with all of our partners across the region on a daily basis.
And finally, third, is the need – during the post-hostility period – for significant interagency and international action to alleviate and avoid significant humanitarian crisis. As I mentioned, I was in Raqqa this week, and while there is some efforts at stabilization that are underway, the need is much greater than the current resources that are available there. There is an urgent need now for a global effort to help with the recovery of displaced people, and the rebuilding and stabilization of war-torn areas. This is a massive effort that no single nation can undertake alone. Otherwise, if we don’t do this, we will find ourselves fighting the terrorists again in the future, and we will be unable to address the important underlying tensions that often times lead to terrorism.
And with that, I’d be happy to answer your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, General Votel. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topics of today’s briefing. We will take questions first from the English line, and then from the Arabic line. As a reminder, if you wish you join the question queue, please dial 01. I will now turn the floor to the English line. Operator, please give the floor to the first journalist.
Operator: Our first question is from Siraj Wahab, Arab News English newspaper. Please go ahead.
Arab News Reporter: General Joseph, thank you so much for giving an overview of your current visit to the region. I have only one question. What is happening in Afghanistan? What did you see during your visit there? You said the local partners are engaged. Does that mean that Pakistan is involved in the fight against terrorism, or what is your sense of what is happening there?
General Votel: Thank you. Thank you for your question. So what is happening in Afghanistan and really throughout the South and Central Asian period – or area – is we are very busily implementing our South Asia strategy, which is designed to bring the Taliban to the reconciliation table and end this very, very lengthy conflict. This approach – this strategy – requires the partnership of not just Afghanistan, but of all countries in the region, and of course, Pakistan is a key part of that. And as you are aware, we have had our differences with Pakistan over the years on this, but Pakistan remains absolutely critical to the solution of the problem in Afghanistan. And I would just note that there are very few countries that have suffered more from terrorism or sacrificed more in fighting terrorism than Pakistan. So their support to this effort is absolutely vital and we are working very closely in our military-to-military chains – and in other venues – to improve our collaboration and our support back and forth in what is an extraordinarily complex situation.
Much more broadly, the Afghan forces are preparing themselves for the fight ahead. Under the leadership of President Ghani and his four-year road map, they are making efforts at reform, they are addressing corruption, they are improving their leadership, and they are improving their Afghan forces and fighting capability with the expansion of their Special Operations Forces and their Air Force, and the offensive nature of all of their corps now fully-engaged in operations. They are set to continue to put military pressure on the Taliban and its cohorts as we embark on this season’s fighting, and of course, the Coalition – the US-NATO Coalition – will play a key part in that and we are taking all the necessary actions right now to address that. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Operator, can we take the next question from the English line?
Operator: Our next question is from Victoria Yan from The Daily Star. Please go ahead.
Daily Star Reporter: Hi, General Votel. Thank you for your time in briefing us. I know that you did not visit Lebanon on this tour, and I was hoping if you could talk a bit about the role of the US Special Forces in Lebanon. In 2015, it came up that they were operating drones in the area in order to – for counterterrorism against ISIS and militias along the area following the victory from the Lebanese Armed Forces against ISIS on the border region. Can you talk more about what’s being used – what’s being done with those drones right now and, furthermore, the role of the Special Ops?
General Votel: Thank you. Thank you for your question and I was in Lebanon – you’re right – not this month of January, but I was there last month and I do make frequent visits to Lebanon. I won’t go into too many details about what specific operations we are supporting, but our general role there is to help build capacity in the Lebanese Armed Forces and to help them in their fight against terrorism across the country and, as it affects them, from the region and to that end, our relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces – which goes back a number of years now – nearly a decade – I think, has made a significant difference, and the Lebanese Armed Forces are emerging as the recognized and preferred security instrument in the country of Lebanon, responsible for protecting their people and of course protecting their people from the scourge of terrorism. We don’t – we are not conducting unilateral operations there. We only support the Lebanese Armed Forces in their activities using our by, with, and through approach, and so the success that we’ve seen on the ground against elements like ISIS are really being achieved by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we take the next question from the English line?
Operator: Our next question is from Omar Shariff, Gulf News, please go ahead.
Gulf News Reporter: Hello General Votel, can you hear me?
General Votel: Yes, I can.
Gulf News Reporter: Yes, my question is this. Now that the main fighting against ISIL is over on the ground in Syria and Iraq, what lies ahead for the Global Coalition of 70 countries? Are you planning on winding down operations so that the peace actions can begin? Thank you.
General Votel: Thank you. That’s a very good question. First off, I would just remind you that while we have accomplished a lot on the ground and liberated a lot of previously-controlled land that ISIS controlled in Syria in particular, there still are pockets and locations of ISIS that our partners in the Coalition are actively fighting. We continue to fight even today and will continue to fight until they are liberated as well. But more importantly, what the Coalition is doing now is we are moving into what we refer to as the consolidation or stabilization phase and what our purpose now to do is to help local forces – whether they’re Iraqi or the Syrian Democratic Forces – consolidate their gains, ensure that we do not allow for the resurgence of ISIS, and that we create the security conditions that allow for stability and, in a longer-term sense, for reconstruction efforts – international reconstruction efforts – to take place in these areas. And so they work with local – our partners, supported by the Coalition, work with local civil authorities to address things like the remnants of explosive hazards that ISIS left behind, trying to create the conditions so that international aid groups and other resources can get in there and the population can be protected. So we can get these thousands, and perhaps millions, of internally-displaced people back in their houses.
In Iraq, in particular, we will continue to work closely with the Iraqi Security Forces to continue to develop their capabilities and their professionalism at the request of the government of Iraq.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we take the next question from the English line?
Operator: Our next question is from Zaid Benjamin, Radio Sawa. Please go ahead.
Radio Sawa Reporter: Thank you very much, General, for doing this. My question is on Egypt. Today, a crisis group said the jihadi threat in Egypt is expanding so, what’s your assessment to the situation in Egypt and the ISIS branch in Egypt *inaudible*? Thank you.
General Votel: Well, thank you. Well, certainly we share the concern that our Egyptian partners have with the presence of ISIS elements that operate in areas like the Sinai and are posing a broader threat to Egypt, and our intention is to continue to work very closely with them, to provide assistance where we can, and to help them address this particular threat. The nature of this ISIS threat is a very dangerous one and so it is important that countries like Egypt, and others across the region, treat this very, very seriously, and do everything they can to root out that threat. And in my observation, in our work, I think Egypt is well on the way to doing that, and we look forward to staying very closely partnered with them to assist them in those efforts.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Operator, can we take one final question from the English line?
Operator: Our final question from the English line, Imad El Atrache, Sky News Arabia, please go ahead.
Sky News Arabia Reporter: Yes, General, my question is about Syria. You said you were there very recently. Are you going to support – continue to support the SDF in Syria, especially now that the Turkish operation is still going on?
General Votel: Thank you for that question. The direct answer is yes, we will continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces as they continue their efforts to defeat ISIS and to prevent their resurgence and to create conditions for stability in the area that allow the humanitarian aid and other organizations to get in there to help the people. That’s been our government’s policy, but let me just expand for a moment, if I can. There are a couple of key objectives here.
We do recognize that Turkey has a very significant concern – a very legitimate concern – about security along their border, and so that objective of working with Turkey to address that is an important one that we have to do. Turkey has been a very good partner in the defeat-ISIS campaign, and of course they are a NATO ally to the United States, and so that means a lot to us, and so we will continue to support that objective as best as we can. At the same time, we also have an objective to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS, and our partner on the ground to do that is the Syrian Democratic Forces, and they have been – in our estimation – the most effective force against ISIS – certainly in Syria – for a long time now, very effectively liberating large urban areas and bringing stability, particularly to the North and the Eastern part of the country. We do recognize that the Syrian Democratic Forces do include some Kurds and some Arabs and, of course, how our NATO ally, Turkey, views that, as they view them differently than we do, that’s a difference. That’s a rub, but we are working through that, but nonetheless, the Syrian Democratic Forces have, frankly, done some very good work with the support of the Coalition to address what is not just a Syrian problem, but really, is an international problem of foreign fighters who have converged on this area, who have attempted to take over terrain, who have caused mass refugee migration, and who have inspired, influenced, or perpetrated attacks in many of our homelands. And so they have done very good work in this regard, and we will continue to support them while we complete this. Thank you for your question.
Moderator: Excellent. We’re now going to switch over to the callers on the Arabic line. Operator, can you please take the first question from the Arabic line.
Operator: We have a question from Al Etihad.
Dina Mostafa from Al Etihad Newspaper: My question is about Syria. You said that there are efforts to secure the Turkey borders. What if you come face-to-face, could there be any confrontation with American forces?
General Votel: Thank you for the question. Of course, as I mentioned, Turkey is our NATO ally, and we are doing everything that we absolutely can to avoid that type of confrontation, and so we routinely – daily – communicate with our Turkish partners about activities that are taking place on the ground, about the locations of Coalition forces and partner forces and the intentions of activities that we are undertaking on the ground, and so we have a very robust deconfliction and coordination mechanism to ensure that that does not happen. And we certainly aren’t looking for that to occur, and we will continue to do everything we can to support the two objectives that I talked about a few moments ago, and to ensure that we don’t come to a situation like you just described. Thank you.
Moderator: Operator, can we take the next question from the Arabic line?
Operator: Thank you, General, for making sure to communicate with us. My question is about the Iranian threat in the region. What is the nature of the cooperation you have with Gulf States and Arab states facing the Iranian threat?
General Votel: Thank you. Thank you for the question. Certainly, the United States shares many of the same concerns that Arab and, in particular, the Gulf States have about Iran. As you’re aware, they’ve had efforts in the past to develop and procure nuclear weapons. Certainly, this is a significant concern that we all share. As you know, there is a JCPOA in place designed to address that and certainly, the discussions continue about that.
But, more broadly, I think the United States and our Gulf and Arab partners in the region share the concern about many of the other destabilizing activities that Iran perpetrates across the region. This includes the facilitation of advanced weaponry to groups such as the Houthis, who use advanced missiles to fire and attempt to attack into Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Of course, those are our very good partners, and we have some of our people and resources on the ground in those areas, so this is a concern for us.
Iran continues to stoke and develop relationships with extremist groups out there who are focused on conducting destabilizing activities and posing a threat to other partners, like Israel, in the region, and so this is a concern. They are attempting to influence governments, and try to exert undue authority over governments across the region. They support a number of other radical groups out there, like we see in Bahrain, that are designed to conduct destabilizing activity. And then of course in the past, they have conducted very provocative activities in the maritime environment, particularly down around the Straits of Hormuz, and in the Bab-el-Mendeb, where they have deployed capabilities or provided capabilities to their partners that could have a significant impact on the safe passage of commercial vessels, and the movement of commerce through the area. So, certainly, this is a very, very significant threat, so I think we share all of these concerns with our Arab and Gulf partners, and of course, we work very, very closely with them to align our efforts and collaborate in our planning. So, thank you.
Moderator: Operator, can we take the next question from the Arabic line?
Operator: A question from Ahmed Ghallab from Al-Hayat Newspaper. Good morning, General.
General Votel: Good morning.
Operator: You talked about the partnership with Gulf states, including The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How do you perceive their participation in the international coalition against ISIS, and what about, also, their role in Yemen?
General Votel: Well, thank you. Saudi Arabia is, of course, an extraordinarily important and influential state – not just in the Gulf, but throughout the Middle East, and globally. So, they are a very, very important partner, and have been very supportive of the activities of the Coalition, one of the original members of the Coalition when it was stood up back in 2014, and they continue to be very important partners. As you’re well aware, Saudi Arabia leads a coalition in Yemen that is attempting to address the challenges being posed by the Iranian-backed Houthi organization. We are not necessarily parties to that conflict, but certainly they play a key role in trying to bring some stability to that conflict. I would say that Saudi Arabia is doing a very good job in helping to address some of the humanitarian issues that, unfortunately, are taking place in Yemen right now. As many of you know, they have supported the opening of the Port of Hodeidah, but they also have a much broader plan to allow aid into numerous other ports, aid to come over ground lines of communication, and aid to come into airports and other airfields in the area. And so I know they have been very, very focused on this, and when I was in Saudi Arabia last week, I had an opportunity to see some of what they are doing in this regard, and I think this is very important – important work – and I think it highlights that Saudi Arabia, while they are attempting to accomplish a military mission, is also exerting a lot of effort to try to protect the population and address some of the human suffering that is, unfortunately, taking place. Thank you.
Moderator: Operator, can we take the next question from the Arabic line?
Operator: Okaz Newspaper. Good morning, General. You mentioned the cooperation with Saudi – The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How does the US deal, particularly, with the Saudi efforts to face terrorism, and how can you describe some facets of this cooperation?
General Votel: Thank you very much. Well, Saudi Arabia has been a partner in countering terrorism with the United States and with many others for a long period of time. They have very good internal security forces and intelligence services and others who have very effectively addressed terrorism in the Kingdom, and around the region here, and have had a very cooperative and – excuse me – collaborative relationship with the United States and with other countries in terms of addressing this. More importantly, Saudi Arabia sponsors and hosts the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition, and I had an opportunity to visit with their staff when I was in Riyadh last week. This is a very important initiative that has over 40 nations – Islamic nations – as members of it, and is designed to address things like ideology. It is designed to address things like financial resources that terrorists use and to prevent them from doing that, and it’s also – it attempts to address the training and equipment shortfalls that Islamic countries have in fighting terrorism.
So, we consider Saudi Arabia to be not only a close partner, but a leader in addressing violent extremism, and the most clear example of that, of course, is the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition that I just mentioned. Thank you.
Moderator: Ok. We have time for one more question. Operator, can you take the final question from the Arabic queue?
Operator: A question from Mohmed Ataya Baladna Al-Youm Newspaper. Thank you, General Votel. I wanted to ask you what possible areas militants can go to after the defeat of ISIS, and how could you deal with that on the ground?
General Votel: Well, thank you. That’s a very good question. Certainly, what we have seen with militants like ISIS or al-Qaeda or other extremist groups, they have a tendency to thrive and move into areas where there is a lack of government control, or there is great instability on the ground, and so areas like, for example, we just talked about Yemen. We would expect that as ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria, that we may see the rise of ISIS organizations in a place like Yemen, where there is great turmoil, where this is not complete control by the government and these provide the conditions that an organization like ISIS can grow in.
I would also point to you that we do see some presence of ISIS in areas of Afghanistan that are not yet under the control of the government, and, of course, locations like Libya, not necessarily in the area in which I am responsible for military operations, but right on the periphery here, are also areas like that. So, what these organizations are looking for is they are looking for vulnerable populations. They are looking for weak governance. They are looking for economic disadvantage, and they try to come in and use their poisonous ideology to take control of the area, to subjugate the people, and to impose their will in these particular areas, and so that is why it is so important that as we complete our military operations in Iraq and Syria, or wherever we do, that we address stabilization activities to allow people to get back in, to allow governance – local governance – to begin to emerge, and then, ultimately, help create the conditions so that many of the underlying tensions and issues that often lead to terrorism can be addressed. That – I think that is the work of, certainly, the military – but it’s the work of all aspects of our governments and partners out here, our law enforcement, our diplomatic corps, and many others all have to pay attention and work very hard to address those conditions. Thank you very much for your question.
Moderator: Ok. That concludes the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. General Votel, do you have any final remarks?
General Votel: I would only say thank you to all of the journalists for joining us today. We appreciate the opportunity to talk with you and answer your questions. We value the relationships we have across the Central Command region. This area remains extraordinarily important for us. We have many national interests in this particular area beyond just terrorism. Certainly, the prosperity that comes out of this area because of the energy resources, the critical choke-points that support commerce globally, trying to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction that do sometimes emanate from this area, these are all vital interests of the United States, and they’re interests that we share, certainly, with our partners in the region, and we look forward to continuing to build strong military relationships as we address these very pressing problems of the region.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank General Votel for joining us, and to thank all of our callers for participating. If you have questions about today’s call, please contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. That concludes our call. Thank you all very much.