Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest 10/30/15
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday. Before we begin let me do a quick readout.
The President spoke today by telephone with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to discuss the political and security situation in Iraq and underscore the United States’ enduring support for Iraq in its fight against ISIL. The President commended the recent progress that Iraqi forces have made against ISIL in Bayji and welcomed the ongoing campaign to isolate ISIL in Ramadi, noting that the United States, in partnership with the Iraqi Government, will intensify support for Iraqi Security Forces in these efforts.
The President also voiced support for Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership in his efforts to combat corruption and implement governance reforms critical to promoting Iraq’s political stability and economic prosperity. The two leaders noted their full support for the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, emphasizing that both the United States and Iraq are fully committed to partnering with the international community to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. They also reaffirmed their commitment to the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq.
This was part of the discussion -- part of this discussion was some of the efforts that the United States will begin to undertake to intensify those elements of the U.S. strategy and our coalition strategy against ISIL that have yielded some progress. I know there’s been some reporting on this already today, and I anticipate that will be the subject of some discussion with all of you today.
So, Kathleen, we can go ahead and get started on whatever topic you would like.
Q Well, I think I'll start there. So the White House is saying fewer than 50 forces going to -- there’s initial reaction calling this tinkering around the edges, a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. What exactly do you think 50 Special Forces can accomplish?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn't underestimate the capability and capacity of our U.S. Special Operations Forces to be an important force multiplier anywhere around the world they’re deployed. And the President does expect that they can have an impact in intensifying our strategy for building the capacity of local forces inside of Syria to take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country.
That has been the core element of the military component of our strategy from the beginning: building the capacity of local forces on the ground. That was the essence of the call that the President just completed with Prime Minister Abadi. The United States and our coalition partners have worked effectively with the central government of Iraq. They’ve got command and control of Iraqi security forces in that country. And because of training and advice and assistance that the United States and our coalition partners have been able to offer to those Iraqi Security Forces we built up the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces to be more effective on the battlefield inside of Iraq.
The situation in Syria is quite different. The United States and our coalition partners do not have a central government with whom we can partner. The Assad regime has lost legitimacy to lead that country for a variety of reasons. In fact, they have actually used the military of that country to attack innocent civilians. So what the United States and our coalition partners have been focused on doing is enhancing the capacity of moderate opposition forces on the ground inside of Syria.
There are already a variety of ways that you already know about that the United States and our coalition partners have offered assistance to those forces. Some of those efforts have included carrying out military airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground. In some cases, those local fighting forces have been enhanced through decisions that the President has made to resupply them, offering them military equipment and ammunition that they have used to effectively make progress against ISIL.
When it comes to northern Syria, in particular, we have seen moderate opposition forces inside of Syria who have driven ISIL out of Kobane. You’ll recall that a few months ago that some of these opposition forces were under siege in Kobane. After being resupplied by the United States military these forces didn’t just drive ISIL out of Kobane, they drove them out of the broader region. And now there’s a 500-mile-long border between Turkey and Syria -- all but 90 kilometers of that border is now secure.
We've also seen these opposition forces make progress in the direction of Raqqa -- this is the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. There are now moderate opposition forces that are 45 kilometers outside of Raqqa.
So there’s been important progress that's been made in this area, and the decision that the President has made is to further intensify our support for those forces that have made that progress against ISIL. And all along we have indicated that the President is prepared to intensify those elements of our strategy that are showing promise. Obviously our support for moderate opposition forces in northern Syria have made progress against ISIL. They’ve shown promise, and that progress would not have been possible without our support.
We've also demonstrated a willingness to scale back our investment in those aspects of the strategy that have not yielded progress. There was a lot of discussion in this room a couple of weeks ago about the train-and-equip program that wasn’t yielding the kind of results that we would like, and the President announced a significant change to that element of our strategy.
So that is a long answer, but I just want to give you the full context of this latest decision that the President has made to intensify this element of our strategy that has already shown some promise.
Q And so just to be clear, so you said you think it will have an impact. Is that a significant impact? It doesn’t sound like you're selling this as a game-changer or anything.
MR. EARNEST: No, I think you are astute to make that observation. I think the President has been quite clear that there is no military solution to the problems that are plaguing Iraq and Syria. There is a diplomatic one. The President has put in place a multifaceted strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and this military component of that strategy is an important part of the President’s top priority, which is the safety and security of the American public.
And because of this strategy, we have taken extremists off the battlefield inside of Syria who were hoping to use a safe haven inside of Syria to attack the United States and our interests. So we know that we need a political transition inside of Syria in order to address the root causes -- the root cause of so many of the problems that we've seen in Syria. And those problems range from hundreds of thousands of Syrians who’ve lost their lives in the civil war in that country, millions of Syrians who have had to flee their homes to escape violence. Some of those Syrians have, unfortunately, died trying to flee their country.
And it's a tragedy both in terms of the human toll that it's had on the Syrian people; it's also significant in terms of the destabilizing impact it's had throughout the broader region. Countries like Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan are bearing a significant burden in trying to meet the basic humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians who have sought refuge in each of their countries.
So this is a significant problem. And we can take some military action to provide for the safety and security of the American people, but the root cause of all of these problems will only be addressed through the kind of political transition that the United States believes is long overdue.
Q Josh, I just wanted to flesh out some details here. We’ve heard that the President has authorized fewer than 50 Special Operations Forces. How many exactly? If this has already been authorized, can you tell us the exact number of forces that will be going into northern Syria?
MR. EARNEST: The less-than-50 number is accurate. I cannot be more specific than that, primarily for reasons related to operational security. There are a number of details about this decision that I’m not in a position to discuss in this public setting, primarily to ensure that our special operators can do their work as safely as possible, acknowledging that this is a very dangerous region of the world.
Q And you mentioned the call between the President and Prime Minister Abadi talking about intensifying U.S. support in Iraq to fight the Islamic State there. Will that include, even in the future, more Special Operations Forces? Is there any talk intensifying that support through U.S. troops?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any announcements along those lines to make from here today. But we have already found that pairing some U.S. forces, including Special Operations personnel, with Iraqi Security Forces in a strictly train, advise and assist role has been effective in enhancing the capacity of those Iraqi Security Forces to make progress against ISIL.
So I don’t have anything to announce along those lines today, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out that something like that could be a possibility if it continues to be an element of our strategy that shows some promise.
Q Is there a reason why the President is not publicly speaking about this move today? Is it because it’s seen as a relatively small maneuver, a small impact as part of a larger strategy? But why aren’t we hearing from him today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would answer that question in a couple of ways. The first is, you’ve heard the President on many occasions discuss our strategy in Syria, and the fact is our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed. The core of our military strategy inside of Syria is to build up the capacity of local forces to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country. There are a variety of ways that the United States and our coalition partners can offer our support to those local forces, whether it’s resupplying them or conducting airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground.
And the President did make a decision to intensify that support by offering a small number of U.S. Special Operations military personnel to offer them advice and assistance on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL. So this is an intensification of a strategy that the President announced more than a year ago, and he’s discussed it with all of you on many occasions and I suspect he’ll discuss it with all of you again in the future.
Q I wanted to see if you could maybe define what the difference between -- or what the limits of advise and assist versus combat are. And I ask that for two reasons. One is, the President has laid down the marker that we would not send combat troops into Syria. So I’m wondering why this doesn’t qualify under that definition. And I’m also wondering if you could flesh out what exactly that they’re doing so we kind of have a marker to judge the President’s words.
MR. EARNEST: On the last question, it’s going to be hard for me to offer you many specifics about what precisely they’re going to be doing, primarily because there’s some operational security that needs to be protected. And there may be more details that the Department of Defense could offer you, but, from here, I can’t be more specific than to say that those Special Operations Forces will be in Syria and they will be offering some training, some advice and some assistance to moderate opposition forces that are fighting ISIL in northern Syria right now.
As it relates to their mission -- this is an important thing for the American people to understand -- these forces do not have a combat mission. In 2003, President Bush ordered a large-scale, long-term combat operation in Iraq. That is something that Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois, spoke out against and disagreed with that decision. And he didn’t at that point believe that it would serve the interests of the country to try to impose a military solution on the problems inside of Iraq. And President Barack Obama has that same view. He does not believe that that military operation was in our best interest, and he does not believe that that’s something that we should do again.
So that is why our Special Operations personnel inside of Syria have a very different mission. That mission is to build the capacity of local forces so that they can be even more effective than they’ve already been in taking the fight to ISIL on the ground inside of Syria.
Q I guess I just want to look back on the question one more time, because the President didn’t say there wouldn’t be a large-scale, long-term ground mission. He said that there would not be a ground operation in Syria -- a ground combat operation in Syria. And so I’m trying to figure out how can we measure that point. What are soldiers in combat doing that these train, advise and assist soldiers aren’t doing? Because it looks and smells and sounds like a combat mission. And soldiers are dying. The Pentagon has described some of these as combat --
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say that this -- what I’m trying to do is to be as specific as possible with you about the specific responsibilities that these Special Operations personnel have. This is not in any way an attempt to diminish the risk that they will face or the bravery that they will need to summon to carry out these operations. This is a dangerous place on the globe and they are at risk, and there’s no denying that. And that is, once again, a reason for us to remember the significant sacrifices that our men and women in the military make for our safety and security. And nobody is more keenly aware of that than the Commander-in-Chief.
At the same time, the responsibilities that they have there are different. First of all, I think if we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground. But because the responsibility that they have is not to lead the charge to take a hill but rather to offer advice and assistance to those local forces about the best way they can organize their efforts to take the fight to ISIL or to take the hill inside of Syria -- that is the role that they will be playing.
Again, it still means that they’re in a dangerous situation. It still means that they will have all of the equipment that they need to protect themselves if necessary. I’m confident that the Department of Defense has contingency plans in place to try to make it as safe as possible for those forces to operate there. But, again, I don’t want to diminish the significance of the risk that they are taking in pursuit of this objective that the President has identified.
Q And then the last one, and an apology -- this isn't on Syria but on the budget. Now that we’ve got a broad budget deal in place, I’m wondering what’s going on with the appropriations process that needs to happen by December 11th. Are you guys in negotiations with Congress on that? And how confident are you both that it will get done and that it won’t include any of the sort of riders that you have objected to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when Congress agreed to pass a continuing resolution back at the end of September, the goal all along had been to try to reach an agreement about these broader caps about a month in advance of a December 11th deadline to give appropriators in Congress enough time to negotiate below those caps. And so that goal has been met. Congress now will have more than a month to put together appropriations bills in advance of the December 11th deadline. So, based on the timeline that Congress described that they would need, we’ve met that deadline, and they should have ample time, based on their own descriptions, to put together legislation.
We are hopeful, though, that that progress will not get bogged down through an attempt by members of Congress to add ideological riders that are completely unrelated to these funding bills. And that is something that we’ve seen Republicans be tempted to do in the past, and we’re hopeful that they will not do that in a way that derails what should be a relatively smooth process.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to be very specific about what the President has said in terms of putting boots on the ground in Syria, and he actually didn’t even use the word combat. He said on September 10, 2013, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.” So with this announcement today, isn’t he effectively breaking that promise to the American people?
MR. EARNEST: Kristen, in September of 2013, the President was receiving questions about what the United States was prepared to do, given our insistence that President Assad had to go, that he’d lost legitimacy to lead. And the President was making the point that he was not prepared to put boots on the ground to take down the Assad regime. Again, that is precisely the mistake that the previous administration made in implementing a regime change policy against Iraq and putting U.S. forces in a large-scale, long-term ground combat operation to try to take down Saddam Hussein. That did not serve the interests of the United States and, in some ways, we’re still paying the price for that mistake.
So the quote that you pulled there is a very different situation.
Q But he said definitively he was not going to put boots on the ground. We’ve heard him reiterate that same idea multiple times, that he wouldn’t put boots on the ground in Syria.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’ve read one quote that, to be fair, is out of context. The situation that the President has described is a description of the kind of mission that our men and women in uniform will have in our counter-ISIL campaign.
Q But he’s consistently said he’s not going to put boots on the ground, Josh. You don’t deny that. He’s consistently said that that would not be a part of this strategy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Kristen, the only quote that you’ve read to me is a quote from 2013 that was a direct question related to what we were prepared to do to ensure that our concerns about the Assad regime and the need for a regime change were implemented. And the fact is the President said we’re not going to implement a military strategy to take down Bashar al-Assad. What we want to do is we want to build the capacity of local forces to make sure that they can be focused on ISIL. And that’s the strategy that the President has been focused on here.
And when the President has talked about combat situations, the President has been quite clear that he does not contemplate a large-scale, long-term ground combat operation either in Iraq or in Syria. That was his policy at the beginning of our counter-ISIL operations and it’s our strategy today.
Q You have acknowledged that these forces, these less than 50 forces could be in dangerous situations, could wind up in combat roles. So given that, how is that not a change in strategy?
MR. EARNEST: Because our strategy all along has been focused on building the capacity of local forces to fight these fights against ISIL for themselves in their own country. And our efforts to resupply them, to re-equip them, to conduct airstrikes in advance of their ground operations and in coordination with their ground operations have improved their performance on the battlefield.
That element of our strategy -- to build their capacity -- has yielded progress. And so the President wants to intensify that assistance that we’re providing, and one way you can intensify that assistance is to pair them up with experts with some of the smartest, bravest most effective fighters in the United States military. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. And I do expect that that will improve their performance on the battlefield.
Q But these U.S. forces could be in combat roles. Their lives could be at risk, correct?
MR. EARNEST: They will not be in a combat mission. Their mission is --
Q I understand that’s not their mission, but they could find themselves in a combat situation, just as we saw with the rescue mission.
MR. EARNEST: There is no denying the amount of risk that they are taking on here, and they will be equipped to defend themselves if necessary. I’m confident the Department of Defense has contingency plans to try to make them as safe as possible in a very dangerous part of the world, and it is a good reminder of the appreciation that we need to have for our men and women in uniform.
Q I want to ask you one more question, Josh. Does the President have the legal authority to put U.S. forces in Syria? Senator Angus King said earlier today, “The war is not authorized,” making the point that the AUMF still has yet to pass through Congress. Do you need to redouble your efforts to try to get that passed in Congress?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a great question, Kristen, and here’s the answer to it. The answer simply is that Congress, in 2001, did give the executive branch authorization to take this action, and there’s no debating that. What the President has said he would welcome is Congress passing an authorization to use military force to be more specific about what exactly they’re authorizing.
So it’s not just that the President would welcome Congress taking that step, the administration actually wrote the bill for them. We wrote our own piece of legislation that Congress could pass that would give the administration more specific authority to carry out our counter-ISIL campaign. But we didn’t stop there. The President of the United States sent some of his top foreign policy advisors, national security advisors to Congress to testify under oath in open hearings to explain to Congress what was included in the legislation and why they should pass it.
And after all those efforts -- the President saying he would welcome Congress’s voice in this debate, saying that the administration -- having the administration actually write the legislation, to send it up to Congress so that Congress could pass it; sending the Secretary of State, his Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to testify before Congress about why they should pass this legislation -- and what has Congress done? Nothing.
So I don’t know when Congress is going to meet again. I know they often take Fridays off and they often take Mondays off, so maybe on Tuesday they can have a meeting and a discussion about what should be on their agenda. And I’ve got an idea about what should be at the top of it.
Q Is this 50 fewer than 50 and no more?
MR. EARNEST: The decision that the President has made to add these Special Operations Forces to build up the capacity of local fighters in Syria will involve fewer than 50 Special Operations personnel.
Q And that’s it? There won’t be any other escalations beyond that -- is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that the decision that President has made is to send fewer than 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria to offer some training, advice and assistance to local forces that are operating on the ground there against ISIL.
Q So it’s possible that there could be further deployments.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I don’t want to try to predict the future here. I think we’ve been quite specific about what our strategy is. And we have shown a desire to intensify our efforts behind those elements of our strategy that have shown the most promise. And building the capacity of local forces, particularly in northern Syria, has shown some promise and this is a further intensification of those efforts.
Q And you said that these Special Forces are going to be doing advising, training, assisting, but then, to another question, you said, well, I can’t get into the specifics for operational security reasons, I can’t get into -- so which is it? Are they going to be involved in some raids in northern Syria, potentially?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the role that they will have is to offer training, to offer advice, and to offer some assistance to local opposition fighters on the ground in Syria who are taking the fight to ISIL in their own country. That is the responsibility that they have. That’s the mission that the Commander-in-Chief has given them.
On an operational basis, in terms of where they’re going to be operating, with whom exactly they’re going to be partnering, where the first mission will take place, I think, for pretty obvious reasons, those are not details that we can get into in public.
Q And I want to get back to what Kristen was asking about, which is -– I want to see if we could have just a moment of clarity here because –-
MR. EARNEST: That’s the reason I’m here.
Q Yes, I understand that. I think Kristen was asking a basic question. It was a question that the American people have, which is, this President, this White House, the officials here at this White House repeatedly, over and over again, made it clear to the American people that there would be no combat role for U.S. troops fighting ISIS. That appears to be changing. Not only is there this announcement that you’re talking about today, which you say they won’t be involved in a combat role but you’re not ruling out the possibility that they may be involved in some sort of combat operation, but on the Iraq side, you have Pentagon officials this week saying we’re in combat. So I’m just -- it would be great if we could just have a moment of clarity here and you could acknowledge that, yes, this mission is changing. It is not what it was said it was going to be at the onset of this. I mean --
MR. EARNEST: To say that, Jim, would only confuse the situation. The fact of the matter is the mission that the Commander-in-Chief has given our military personnel in Iraq and now in Syria is a train, advise, and assist mission. And we have gone to great lengths to make clear that that is in no way diminishes the amount of risk that our men and women in uniform will be facing.
We’ve also been quite clear that there actually have been situations where combat boots have been on the ground inside of Syria. We’ve been quite candid about that. The President ordered a mission involving U.S. military personnel putting boots on the ground inside of Syria to try to rescue American hostages that had been taken by ISIL. That occurred more than a year ago. The President, earlier this year, ordered Special Operations personnel to conduct a raid against a high-value ISIL target inside of Syria. That raid was successful in both taking that ISIL leader off the battlefield and recovering significant troves of intelligence.
The Department of Defense has had contingency plans in place for search-and-rescue operations. Fortunately, the United States has not been in a situation in which one of our pilots has been shot down or crashed in the skies over Syria, despite the fact that they’ve conducted thousands of military flights over Syria. This is a testament to the professionalism of our Armed Forces. But there were contingency plans in place for search-and-rescue operations that would have put U.S. military boots on the ground in a fight against ISIL to potentially try to rescue American military pilots.
So we have been forthright about this fact. This is not the first time that we’re discussing this information. In fact, we’ve discussed this at some length. And the desire here, Jim, is to try to be as specific and clear as possible exactly what it is that they’re doing. Their mission is a train and --
Q You’re denying that at the onset of this military operation against ISIS that the impression was not given to the American people that there would not be a combat role -- I recognize there’s some potential double negatives in there. (Laughter.) At the onset of this, I think any rational person would conclude that the impression was given to the American people that there would not be a combat mission. It now appears that there are going to be occasions from time to time where there will be a combat element to what U.S. troops are doing in Iraq and Syria. And so you’re saying that that’s not the case?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is the impression I think the President went to great lengths to leave with the American people in September of 2014 when the President gave a national address on live television in primetime -- on September 10th of 2014 -- and the President did go to great lengths to make clear that our counter-ISIL strategy in Iraq and in Syria would be substantially different -- a difference in night and day -- between the strategy that President Obama was implementing to counter ISIL and the strategy of a long-term, large-scale ground combat operation that the Bush administration pursued back in 2003. The President did go out of his way to make quite clear that our strategy is quite different.
That difference existed then and that difference exists today. And what the President did in the context of that speech and in the numerous other times that you all have asked him about it and when he has given other statements about it, the President has been quite clear about the fact that they do not have a combat mission, they have a training, advising, and assist mission.
That does mean that our men and women in uniform are going to be in harm’s way. It means they’re going to be taking risks. It means they’re in a dangerous part of the world. And it means that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Q What about that raid where a U.S. soldier died just last week? That was a raid.
MR. EARNEST: That was in Iraq. This was a raid that was led by Kurdish Iraqi security forces. The U.S. military personnel that were there were in an advise role, but when those Kurdish security forces --
Q So they’re in an advise role; there is the potential for something like this to occur where they may have to engage, people are in harm’s way. That’s the reality.
MR. EARNEST: That’s already happened.
Q How long will they stay in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, we’ve been quite candid about the fact that this is not a short-term proposition in terms of our counter-ISIL strategy. So what we’re going to continue to do and the instructions that the President has given to his national security team is to continually assess our strategy and look for ways to intensify those elements of the strategy that are showing the most promise.
Q So it’s up to 50 or less than 50; we’ll stay there for an open-ended period of time?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific date to give you when they will come out.
Q The reason I ask is because there’s a distinction I think you would acknowledge between raids, which you have said have occurred, and the permanent positioning of U.S. special operators. There’s a difference, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as permanent.
Q But it’s not an in-and-out operation is what I’m saying.
MR. EARNEST: Stipulating that I would not describe it as permanent, I would acknowledge that there is a difference, and it reflects the intensification of those elements of our strategy that have shown some promise.
Q And I want you also to acknowledge -- because this is important operationally if you have special operators in any place for a given period of time -- two questions. Will they have air cover if they are engaged in assistance operations that take them close to the fight? Yes or no.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s an operational question, and I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. However, you have already seen --
Q But you opened up the conversation to contingency plans the Pentagon has already built in. And you and I both know every contingency operation for special operators carries with it the implied support of air cover.
MR. EARNEST: What has been underway for more than a year now is U.S. military pilots and coalition military pilots taking airstrikes in coordination with local forces that are fighting on the ground. So that kind of air cover is something that local opposition forces have already benefitted from. But in terms of how it’s --
Q Special operators from the United States would not be denied.
MR. EARNEST: Well, for a specific operational question like this, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q You know that’s true. The President is not going to send special operators out there without U.S. cover.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve made clear that they will have the equipment that they need to do as much as they can to keep them safe. And I’m confident that the Department of Defense has a contingency plan, but for what those contingency plans are, you should check with them.
Q And would you acknowledge that special operators would be not only generally at risk, but because they represent the United States government and because they have not been in Syria for any length of time, they’ve been moving in and out, they will have a target on their back? And if they are in some ways either encircled or in jeopardy, they will have military extraction operations to support them if, in fact, they get into a dicey situation -- also correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no denying the significant risk that they’re facing. And is that risk elevated because they wear the uniform of the United States of America? I would allow that that’s probably the case. But for what those contingency plans are, you should check with the Department of Defense.
Q Just for the record, what I’m trying to establish here is they are combat forces, special operators. They are not desk people. They are, as you just said, the best fighters we have. They will have air cover and they will have extract operations. That’s three levels of combat operations that are implied with their continued staying in operations in Syria, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Major, what we have focused on is what is their mission. They’re not in a combat mission.
Q Right. But you have, as you’ve acknowledged, these elements that must support them and always have supported them in what they are trying to accomplish. You are not going to take those away from them. So we have three layers of potential combat operations inside Syria that we did not have when they were moving in and out. The placement of them in Syria for any length of time implies these other levels of protection, which are all combat, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I mean, I think what you primarily described are air combat operations that -- these are military pilots taking military strikes against enemy targets that have been underway for more than a year. So I’m not sure that this represents a dramatic change in terms of our military air presence. You can check with the Department of Defense to confirm that or to sort of understand what the impact on that would be.
But the idea of our military pilots using weapons to protect fighters on the ground is not new. That’s something that they’ve been doing for more than a year now.
Q Can you name the local forces they’ll be working with?
MR. EARNEST: For operational security reasons, I can’t.
Q So we don’t know exactly who they’re going to be operating with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, somebody does. It’s just not something we’re prepared to discuss publicly.
Q You mentioned that they will not be charging to take a hill. You said that. Will these special operators be near the hill?
MR. EARNEST: Look, that is a --
Q That’s not a silly question -- because they were near the operation, near enough for Joshua Wheeler to lose his life in northern Iraq. So this is a significant question about proximity and trying to accomplish a mission.
MR. EARNEST: Again, our military personnel will be in a train, advise and assist mission, and it means that it will not be their primary responsibility to lead the charge up the hill. That is, I’m confident, a rather antiquated hypothetical analogy I’m drawing here, but I’m just trying to illustrate exactly what their role is.
Will they be in the vicinity offering that advice and assistance? Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised that that’s the case. In fact, the situation that you just described, where U.S. Special Operations Forces accompanied Iraqi forces on a raid, that was precisely the scenario. You saw Iraqi security forces conduct the incursion to go and try to rescue the hostages. And U.S. military personnel were in the vicinity but they were not leading the charge. But once these Iraqi security forces got pinned down, they sought assistance from the U.S. military personnel that were nearby. And it is in the context of that engagement that Master Sergeant Wheeler lost his life.
Q To Jim’s question about the future, if this intensification works, and military commanders say to the President, “Mr. President, in Syria we’re actually gaining traction for the first time, we need more people to achieve greater success,” the President would say what?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me, first of all, say --
Q One or two things happen in these scenarios. Either you have problems and you need more forces to reinforce what you’ve already committed, or you have success and you need more forces to achieve more. In both scenarios, the American people are going to be wondering if this is not the beginning of something that grows over time.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say that we’ve already seen progress from these local opposition forces. That’s precisely the reason the President is seeking to intensify our support for them. So it would not be a situation where military commanders would come to the President and say, “We’re seeing progress in Syria for the first time.” In fact, we’ve already seen some progress. And that is why we’ve made this decision -- that’s why the President has made this decision to intensify --
Q To use your phrase, “force multiplier” -- if they say we are force-multiplying with our special operators and more special operators will achieve greater success, what would the President say -- “Good, let’s put more in there”? Yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President would say -- that’s a hypothetical situation, so we’ll see. The President has routinely told his team, including his military advisors, that he wants them to be continually assessing their strategy to determine what elements of that strategy are showing the most promise. And the President is prepared to intensify those elements of the strategy that are showing the most promise. In this case, it’s intensifying our support for local fighters on the ground.
Q Thank you, Josh. The Russians have warned the U.S. not to send troops to Syria. Do you see any linkage between the timing of deploying these forces and the negotiations in Vienna? In other words, would they strengthen the hands of the U.S. team and the allies to show they are willing to step up the military assistance to the moderate forces?
MR. EARNEST: It certainly is an ironic argument for the Russians, who have committed so much military equipment and personnel on the ground in Syria, to be making the suggestion that the United States should refrain from doing so. It’s particularly ironic because Russia claims that they are doing that to fight ISIL when, in fact, we know that their operations are focused in those areas where ISIL forces are not present or at least not frequently present.
We know that the Russian military presence there is geared toward propping up the Assad regime. And we have made clear for months now that Russia doubling down on their support for Assad is a losing bet and doesn’t make our campaign against ISIL more likely to be successful; if anything, it undermines it.
So that all being said, our focus on diplomacy is an acknowledgement of the fact that the problems plaguing Syria don’t have a military solution, they only have a diplomatic and political one. And we’d like to see a political transition inside of Syria. The Russians themselves have acknowledged that this is necessary. Now, it also highlights the internal contradiction in their strategy that they’re carrying out a military strategy that makes this successful completion of their political strategy less likely. But those are tough questions for them to try to answer to the extent that they’re willing to do that.
What the United States has been doing is trying to build up the capacity of local forces and local opposition so that there actually is a political opposition that can engage in conversations about a political transition. And so what Secretary Kerry is doing in Vienna right now is trying to bring around the table all of those with influence and a stake in the outcome inside of Syria to try to find some common ground about the need for a political transition, about how exactly to effect that transition.
And that’s been hard work -- getting Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran into the same room is a painstaking effort, and it’s not something that’s happened recently. But it is what we believe is necessary for us to try to make some progress in pursuit of the only solution that addresses all of the root causes of the problems we’re seeing in Syria right now.
Q But you have 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. They are advising and training. And ISIS still has forces, obviously, and they’re still in charge of Mosul and Ramadi. What do you hope to achieve in empowering, as you keep talking about, the moderate Syrian opposition -- I think of the Kurdish forces because they’re the more trustworthy in that part of Syria. What do you hope that you will do with 50 advisors only that are only able to take Raqqa, for example, which is the capital of ISIS, that the Iraqi-trained army and a partner that you don’t have in Syria, as you mentioned, now that you have in Iraq, doesn’t exist? How can they do the job better than what you have done in Iraq with thousands more troops and a partner which is the Iraqi government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the problems -- well, let me say it this way. The challenges that we faced in terms of building the capacity of forces in Iraq and forces in Syria have been different because the situations in Iraq and in Syria have been different.
In Iraq, we’ve acknowledged that one of the most significant challenges facing the Iraqi security forces was ensuring that they were under the command and control of a genuinely inclusive, unified central government. And that’s not something that had been in place until relatively recently when Prime Minister Abadi took power and has sought to govern that country in a much more inclusive way. That more effective and inclusive political leadership has made the security forces that are under their command and control more effective.
The situation in Syria, obviously, is a lot different. Opposition forces there are not affiliated with the central government so they’re more loosely organized. But yet, despite that loose organization, the United States and our coalition partners have been able to effectively help them as they’ve taken the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country. And we cited the situation in Kobani as a good example of this; that there’s this long border between Turkey and Syria that is now almost totally secure except for one 90-kilometer corridor. And the advance that forces in northern Syria have made toward Raqqa have left them within 45 kilometers of the self-declared capital of the Islamic State.
That’s an indication that these local forces have shown some promise, and made some progress. And a lot of that progress is due to their efforts to coordinate with our counter-ISIL coalition. And whether that is resupplying them or conducting airstrikes in support of their ongoing ground operations, their performance on the battlefield has improved. And we would anticipate that their performance would improve even more when paired with the force multipliers that are this several dozen United States special operators.
Q Is this mission trying to take Raqqa back?
MR. EARNEST: This is a mission to support the efforts of moderate opposition fighters on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL in their own country. That is what they’re trying to do, to offer training, to offer advice and to offer assistance to those local forces inside of Syria that are fighting ISIL.
Q Josh, to go back to something that Major was trying to get to. Are these forces combat-ready if it needs to happen, if that was the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I made an allusion to the fact that these Special Operations Forces will have the equipment that they need to protect themselves if necessary. So they certainly will be equipped to defend themselves.
Q If something were to happen and they have the equipment, they would be considered boots on the ground, correct?
MR. EARNEST: There are boots on the ground now that's --
Q I'm just saying there’s no military -- you're not looking for any kind of military action right now. It's more about training and also advising and assisting.
MR. EARNEST: That is the military mission that they have been given.
Q No combat at this point, but there could be if they needed to be in a combat sense.
MR. EARNEST: They are not being deployed to Syria with a combat mission. They’re being deployed to Syria with a train, advising and assist mission. And that is not an effort to downplay the serious risk that they are facing. It is just an effort to be as specific and as clear as possible exactly -- about what exactly they’re being asked to do.
Q Okay. And now, many years ago, during the Bush administration, we kept hearing, when the fight was against al-Qa’ida, no military solution. And now we're hearing the same thing -- we're back in no military solution, looking for a diplomatic way. Now we're hearing the same thing, no military solution, looking for a diplomatic win. We never really saw the complete diplomatic win during the Bush years, so what would the definition of a diplomatic win really look like in this administration’s eyes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the reason for that -- this question actually goes to the core of our military strategy, ironically enough. The reason the President feels it's important for us to build the capacity of local forces to take the fight to ISIL in their own country is we want to enhance the ability of Iraqis and Syrians to provide for the security of their own country. The United States can't go in there and provide that security for them in perpetuity. We have tried that; it didn’t work. Ultimately, local security forces, local government officials and local citizens need to demonstrate the wherewithal to govern and secure their own country.
And when the United States goes in to try to impose that security and impose that military solution that can temporarily have the effect of pacifying the situation -- the United States military is extraordinarily effective -- but what it also has the effect of doing is it also has the effect of not forcing Iraqi security forces and Iraqi political figures in the situation in Iraq of stepping up and fulfilling the responsibilities that they have to secure the country and to govern the country in an inclusive, unified way.
And once the United States military left Iraq, we did see a situation where the Iraqi central government, because they did not have a commitment to unifying that country and governing it in an inclusive way, we saw the nation of Iraq start to break down along sectarian lines. And that had an impact on the Iraqi Security Forces. And that vulnerability was exposed for the world to see when ISIL made their rapid advance across the deserts of western and northern Iraq against Iraqi security forces that virtually disintegrated. All of that was reflected a failure of the Iraqi central government to unite the country and to put in place security forces that were prepared to defend the whole country.
So that is why our strategy all along has been predicated on not imposing our own solution, but rather trying to build up the capacity of Iraqis and Syrians to secure and govern their own countries.
Q Fourteen years and counting for Iraq for looking for this diplomatic win. Then in Syria, are we expecting to -- maybe we're on the same timetable -- you're saying we could be there for a while.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we have been clear that countering ISIL and completing our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization is not a short-term proposition. And the President acknowledged this more than a year ago as well.
Q So it could be another 14 years like we're seeing in Iraq? I mean, because when you say it's not a short-term proposition, that's a broad brush. I mean, we're seeing already the situation in Iraq that seems like we have to stand there and stay with them because it's not ending right now.
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the important thing to understand and the lesson that certainly we hopefully have all learned about this is that these are problems that cannot be -- these are solutions that cannot be imposed by the United States using our military might. That's just not the way that it's going to work. And previous attempts to do that have been unsuccessful and did not at all serve well the interests of the United States.
Q Are these fewer than 50 on the ground now inside of Syria? Or is that deployment forthcoming?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to check with the Department of Defense on that. To be honest with you, though, I would not be surprised if they’re reluctant to say one way or the other, again, just for the operational security.
Q You can't say today that they are there now?
MR. EARNEST: You should check with the Department of Defense about the best way to --
Q And a little bit more on the mission, the train, advise and assist -- will that include involvement with airstrikes, training these opposition forces on the ground to call in airstrikes, something that Chairman Dempsey had suggested many times previously?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Chairman Dempsey had said that this is an option that was on the table. I don't think that Chairman Dempsey, while he was in office, had ever recommended that to the President, but he always noted that that was an option that he could recommend to the President.
You’ll have to check with the Department of Defense for an answer about whether or not that is part of the training that they’ll be providing.
Q Okay. And last question is you acknowledged previously that the Russian airstrikes over Syria have targeted U.S.-backed opposition groups. And now the President is sending in these forces on the ground to help train, advise and assist some of these groups. Is there any concern that U.S. troops could now become targets of these Russian strikes? Has there been any communication with the Russians on coordinating that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Devon, let me say a couple of things about this. We've seen that the focus of Russia’s military activity inside of Syria has been in those areas of the country where ISIL fighters are not frequently present. But there have been, as we've acknowledged, some strikes in other areas. So that's the first thing.
The second thing is, of course, the President is concerned, and I think the Department of Defense is concerned about the safety of these Americans who are operating in a very dangerous country and in a very dangerous part of the world. And that's why they’ll be prepared and with the equipment that's necessary to defend themselves, and that there are contingency plans in place to try to mitigate the risk that they face.
When it comes to the Russians, the United States military has engaged in a handful of low-level tactical, practical conversations with the Russians to de-conflict our activities. But I do not envision a scenario where the United States military is coordinating our efforts with won't Russians unless and until the Russians are prepared to make a constructive commitment in contribution to our counter-ISIL coalition.
Q So these forces, though, just to be clear, could be at risk of being struck by a Russian airstrike.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, these forces are at risk in a very dangerous part of the world and in a dangerous country. And the President has also made clear that he wants to make sure that these special operators have the equipment that they need to defend themselves, and that’s what they have.
Q The scale of this deployment suggests that the President is going down this path cautiously. Can you talk a little bit about his decision-making process and whether this is a move he’s making reluctantly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Scott, I wouldn’t describe it that way. I think what the President has -- let me step back. I’ve said a little bit of this before, but I think it’s important that this is actually exhibit A of the way that the President has been making these kinds of decisions. The President and his team are routinely assessing our counter-ISIL strategy to look specifically for those areas of the strategy that are not performing up to expectations and the President has made decisions to curtail investments in those efforts. The train-and-equip operation is the best example of that.
At the same time, they’ve also been conducting these frequent and regular assessments of the counter-ISIL strategy to look for those areas that are showing some promise and areas where the strategy is yielding some progress. And our efforts to offer support to opposition fighters in northern Syria have shown some promise because those fighters have made some progress. Those are fighters that have benefitted from resupply missions, where the United States military and our coalition partners have been able to provide them with equipment and ammunition that they have used in their fight against ISIL. And they’ve also benefitted from our coalition’s efforts to coordinate military airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground.
And so the President asked his military team for some options for intensifying further our support to those opposition fighters. And one of the options that the military came back with was putting a small number -- fewer than 50 -- Special Operations Forces on the ground inside of Syria in a train, advise and assist role to make those fighters even more effective, and to serve as essentially force multipliers by offering advice and using their expertise to enhance the operations and enhance the success of the opposition forces on the ground.
And so this is sort of the best example that you’ll probably hear me frequently refer to in future briefings about the President’s approach to decision-making in Syria -- acknowledging when those elements of the strategy are not yielding the kind of progress that we would like to see and curtailing those investments, looking for opportunities to intensify those elements of the strategy that are showing some promise. And in some cases, that means actually asking his team to come back with specific recommendations about how precisely to intensify those efforts. And this is a good example of that.
Q Is it fair to say you’re really trying to minimize the U.S. footprint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we are cognizant of the discussion that April and I were having, which is that the United States cannot be in a situation in which we are imposing a military solution on this problem. So I think the President is mindful of that -- our goal here is not -- our goal here is to build up the capacity of local forces to fight this fight on the ground in their own country for themselves. But we want to enhance their performance on the battlefield, and so we’ve looked for a lot of ways to do that.
The President is mindful that this is not something that we can do for them; this is something that they must do for themselves -- with the assistance and expertise that the United States military and our coalition partners have to offer.
Q Josh, thanks. Would you acknowledge or reject the notion that this is mission creep by any definition? And if you reject it, how do you explain that to the American people?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the mission hasn’t changed. The United States -- the President of the United States delivered a televised address in primetime on September 10th of 2014 where he made clear that there would be U.S. military personnel on the ground in the region in a train, advise and assist capacity to build up local forces who could then take the fight on the ground against ISIL in their own country. That mission has not changed.
Q And yet, we’re adding people -- Special Operations Forces. If you continue to add people, is that not mission creep?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I’ve just made clear that the mission that the President announced on September 10, 2014 was the mission --
Q So nothing changed.
MR. EARNEST: -- that the Department of Defense implemented at the direction of the Commander-in-Chief, and that is the mission that remains in place today.
Q So from your perspective, nothing is different. Disregard what we’ve read today, disregard what you said earlier. I’m just trying to understand because --
MR. EARNEST: I know. Well, I’m trying to explain it to you.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t -- I’ve made quite clear exactly what we’re doing to further intensify those elements of our strategy that have shown promise and have yielded some progress. That, of course, means changing. We’re intensifying it. We’re ramping up the support that we’re providing to those local forces. But the mission of our men and women on the ground has not changed.
Q I want to sort of follow up on something that was asked earlier about U.S. forces that may come under assault by the Russians. If American Special Operations Forces are eliminated by Russian airstrikes, is that or is that not an act of war?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, right now, that is a hypothetical situation, primarily because we’ve seen the Russian military activity has been focused almost exclusively on those areas of Syria where ISIL fighters are not present. U.S. Special Operations personnel will be operating in a train, advise and assist role alongside opposition forces that are fighting ISIL. So that’s why there is a low likelihood that they would come into conflict.
And we have engaged in low-level, tactical talks with the Russian military to de-conflict our activities. And we would welcome Russia making a more constructive contribution to our broader counter-ISIL coalition so that we could more effectively coordinate with them. But right now, Russia’s military efforts are not focused on ISIL, they’re actually focused on propping up the Assad regime. And that’s a problem for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it’s a big problem for Russia, because they’re being drawn into this sectarian quagmire that has significant consequences for the national security of Russia back home, but also for protecting their national security interests inside of Syria.
Q One more -- an American-Iranian apparently has been kidnapped in Iran. Do you have a readout on what happened there? Has the administration reached out to its counterparts in Tehran about this latest detention?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, we are aware of reports that an American has potentially been detained in Iran. And for any of our interactions with the Iranians about this, I’d refer you to the State Department. They can give you an update on those efforts.
But as you know, Kevin, the President has made a priority securing the release of Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran. That’s been a priority for the President for quite some time. Secretary Kerry talked about, in the context of the nuclear talks when he was meeting frequently with his counterpart, that he would raise the cases of these unjustly detained Americans in every conversation. And so this continues to be -- securing the release of Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran continues to be a priority of the Obama administration and the American people.
Q Josh, do you know if there was any prior consultation with congressional leaders on this deployment?
MR. EARNEST: There was.
MR. EARNEST: I won’t get into the details of those conversations, but there were a number of conversations with congressional leaders.
Q Including Speaker Ryan?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not aware of all the specific conversations that have taken place. Presumably, that’s the case. But there were a number of telephone calls that have taken place recently to ensure appropriate congressional leaders were aware of this decision the President made to further intensify our efforts in Syria.
Q Do you know if this deployment triggers a notification under the War Powers resolution?
MR. EARNEST: It does not, principally because the United States Congress has already authorized this --
Q In 2001.
MR. EARNEST: -- dating back to 2001. That’s correct.
Q Can you take a question or two about the budget bill?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q When is it going to be signed?
MR. EARNEST: Our expectation is that the White House will receive the budget bill on Monday, and I would expect the President would sign it shortly thereafter, probably on Monday.
Q Would you expect an event? A bill signing event?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t expect a big event. As I referenced earlier in speaking with Kristen, Congress typically doesn’t work on Mondays, so I don’t know how many members of Congress --
MR. EARNEST: They might. I think our intention right now is for --
Q Serve snacks, perhaps?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe that would entice them.
Q How about just a general question of coverage?
MR. EARNEST: We’re still working through that, but I would anticipate we’ll give you guys a chance to see it.
Q And one more on the budget bill. Can you say why President Obama believes that it is prudent to commit future administrations to selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way of offsetting increased spending in the bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, typically these budget agreements cover a broader period of time, and those who wield the green eyeshades would suggest that when you’re talking about a budget as large as the budget of the United States of America, that making decisions on a year-to-year basis without looking toward what the out-years -- what impact the budget would have on those out-years decisions is unwise. So this is sort of making decisions about the budget sort of over a 10-year window is what our accountants tell us is the most prudent thing to do.
So I would be the first to agree with you that sometimes it seems a little unrealistic to say you know exactly what the country is going to look like or what decisions are going to be being made 10 years from now, but this is the way that our budget experts and budget experts in Congress say that it should be done.
Q Isn’t the oil marketplace sufficiently volatile that you wouldn’t want to commit to selling 10 million barrels of oil in the out-years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, presumably. But how those decisions would eventually be made is --
Q Actually, it’s 58 million barrels over the eight-year period.
MR. EARNEST: How exactly that sale would take place is not something that I’ve been briefed on. But we can try to get you some more details on that.
Q Thank you. What’s the international legality or lack thereof of putting U.S. forces on the ground in a country that has not agreed to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Phillip, the case the United States has made is that the United States and our coalition partners are responding to a specific request from Iraq and the concern that they have expressed about ISIL incursions into their country. So our preliminary response was to assist the Iraqi government in this national security threat. Now, what’s also clear is that national security threat actually emanated from Syria; that ISIL had established this safe haven in Syria to carry out actions that threaten the national security of Iraq. And because the central government of Syria was either unable or unwilling to take the necessary actions to mitigate that national security threat that was being experienced by Iraq, the United States and our coalition partners have taken action out of the concern that we have for Iraqi national security and the available evidence that indicates that the central government in Syria is unable or unwilling to act to deal with it themselves.
Q Could you be a little bit more specific about who will be hosting these Special Forces in Syria? You mentioned the moderate Syrian opposition. Is this the Kurds you’re talking about in northern Syria, or is it a mix of different parties? Where is it specifically where these U.S. soldiers will be based? Will it actually be bases or safe houses? How can we imagine this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Philip, for operational security reasons, I’m not going to be able to get into the details of where exactly these military personnel will be or precisely with whom they will be working. But I can tell you that they will have a train, advise and assist mission, and a role where they will be partnering with these local forces as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country. But I can’t be more specific than that in terms of where they will be doing this or who precisely they’ll be working with.
Q Just one more. You’ve mentioned over the last two days a multitude of airstrikes on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition over Syria. But according to what Central Command sends out every day, there have been almost none over Syria over the last two weeks, whereas they do continue over Iraq. Why have airstrikes come to pretty much a minimum over Syria over the last two weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Philip, I’d direct those questions to Central Command. They’re obviously making the day-to-day decisions about what strikes should be carried out. There are a variety of reasons to explain that scenario. It could be that there’s bad weather. It could be based on a decision that they’ve made based on the intelligence they’re seeing on the ground. So for a specific operational decision like that about where to take strikes and when to do it inside of Syria on a day-to-day basis, I’d encourage you to touch base with Central Command.
Q Thank you, Josh. I just wanted to -- I don’t want you to get into details, but this training, advise and assist mission of local forces in Syria, is it similar to what the U.S. forces are doing with the Afghan forces against the Taliban -- somehow similar?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s always hard to sort of draw comparisons because the situations in each country are so different. But I think generally speaking, I think that would be a fair comparison to make because it does effectively differentiate between the combat role that American troops previously had in Afghanistan. They no longer have that combat role. Right now, what they’re trying to do is to try to make Afghan security forces more effective as they try to provide for the security situation in their own country. And they benefit from the training, advice and assistance that they typically receive from American military personnel that remain in Afghanistan.
I guess the reason I’m comfortable drawing this analogy is that this is consistent with the broader counterterrorism strategy that the President laid out -- I believe it was in his West Point speech where the President talked about how the United States needs to develop more capability when it comes to enhancing the capacity of local forces around the world to prevent extremist and terrorist elements from establishing a toehold in their country.
So we’ve talked about how this is an important part of our relationship inside of Afghanistan -- building the capacity of Afghan national security forces. We even had a long debate about the situation in Yemen -- that previously, before that country was sort of subsumed by a civil war that the United States was able to partner effectively with Yemeni national security forces to take strikes against -- or at least mitigate the risk posed by extremist elements that were operating inside of Yemen. We still do have some capacities inside of Yemen to protect the American people, but it’s been diminished because we don’t have a central government with whom we can coordinate effectively right now.
But this is part of the counterterrorism strategy that the President laid out before, and it’s why the President called for the establishment of this Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, where we essentially have resources available inside the federal government that could be used to support the local forces in countries around the world where the United States is trying to build the capacity of those local forces to provide for the security situation in their country and prevent terrorist organizations or extremists from establishing a toehold there.
Q But shouldn’t we be worried, considering the reason --decision made of keying U.S. forces longer in Afghanistan more than expected and the fate of our operations, the U.S. operations in Yemen -- shouldn’t we be worried of a similar degeneration -- I don’t know if you would say it this way -- in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Richard, the greater risk is -- and this is something we discussed in the context of the Afghanistan decision that the President made -- the greater risk is essentially denying a request from a government like the one that exists in Afghanistan for the United States to continue to partner with them and to build up the capacity of their local security forces. The Afghan government has demonstrated that they’re committed to taking on this task. They’re not asking the United States to do this important work for them; they’re asking the United States to help them develop the capacity to do it in their own country.
And that’s why the President made the decision that he made in Afghanistan. Obviously, our relationship with the central government in Syria is much, much different than that. But there is a similar dynamic in Iraq. Prime Minister Abadi, with whom the President consulted just today, where they talked about what they could do to intensify their efforts in those parts of the country where they still need to take the fight to ISIL in places like Ramadi, and the United States can play a role not on the front lines, necessarily, but certainly in a situation where they are supporting the Iraqi security forces as they take the fight to ISIL in their own country, including places in Ramadi where they’ve recently experienced setbacks.
Q One last question. In Iraq, the U.S. hopes that NATO forces will continue the mission -- the training and assist mission that they are also doing over there -- the NATO forces are doing over there. Any plan of trying to build a -- to extend the coalition mission from the air to the ground in Syria with NATO forces?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that we’re prepared to announce at this point. But let me just say generally that the United States benefits from the expertise and capabilities of our coalition partners in this region of the world. It is not just American military personnel that are serving in this training role inside of Iraq. There are other countries that have made important contributions based on the capacity and capability of their own countries to be engaged in these training operations.
I think it underscores the significance of the difference in approach of the United States to trying to counter ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, and the unilateral approach that the Russians have taken that is actually not targeting ISIL but is actually seeking to go on their own and try to prop up an Assad regime that has become increasingly desperate.
Juliet, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. One a different subject. Could you talk a little about the meeting the President had with FBI Director Comey yesterday -- talk about their differences, their different view on mass incarceration and also the extent to which increased scrutiny of police activities has led to a shift in law enforcement patterns and subsequently violent crimes in some major cities.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Juliet, you may not be surprised to hear that I’m not going to get into the details of a conversation that the President had with the Director of the FBI. The Director of the FBI is obviously in an independent law enforcement role, and the President does have an opportunity to consult with him on a range of topics on a fairly regular basis. So I don’t have any specific conversations to read out.
But I can tell you that one of the reasons that the President chose Director Comey for this job is he is somebody who is an experienced prosecutor, but somebody who has also demonstrated the capacity to think and act independently. And the Director of the FBI has an important independent law enforcement role. And I think over the last few weeks we’ve seen Director Comey’s willingness to independently express his views.
The fact of the matter is the President believes that the Director of the FBI, particularly with somebody who has the prodigious skills of Director Comey, must be involved in grappling with the difficult policy debates that we’re having in this country right now in balancing security and the protection of civil liberties.
So take, for instance, the encryption debate. The fact is policymakers and experts both inside of government and outside of government have been grappling with how to effectively ensure that the civil liberties of the American people are protected without giving terrorists the opportunity to hide behind technology and plot and carry out attacks that could threaten the safety and security of the American people. This involved a highly technical debate about the capabilities of technology, but it also involves a more philosophical debate, too, about how to balance these competing equities. And somebody like Director Comey has an important contribution to make to that debate.
The same is true when it comes to criminal justice reform. There’s a similar dynamic at play in terms of trying to put in place criminal justice policies that adequately protect the American people and adequately protect the civil liberties and civil rights of every single American. And these are difficult issues. And the President certainly appreciates the important perspective that Director Comey brings to those policy debates. But more importantly, his constructive contribution to that debate will be necessary for us to find the right policy solution.
And so I would expect that Director Comey will continue to participate in all of those debates, and he’ll do so with the full confidence and support of the President of the United States.
Q And so when he says the sentencing guidelines of the past haven't created as much of a problem in terms of mass incarceration, as the President does, should lawmakers, when they’re figuring out what to do about reforming those laws, put Director Comey’s statements on par with the President’s interpretation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would allow Director Comey to describe the point of view that he has. And our expectation would be that somebody who has a position -- who serves in a position, like the Director of the FBI, that their views would be taken into account when we’re making policy decisions when it comes to criminal justice reform.
With that, let me do the week ahead, and then I’ll let you all get started on your weekend.
On Monday, as part of his commitment to criminal justice reform, the President will travel to Newark, New Jersey to highlight the reentry process of formerly incarcerated individuals who are working to put their lives back on track and earn their second chance. The President will be joined by Senator Booker and Mayor Baraka during that trip. Afterward, the President will travel to New York City for events benefitting the DNC and the DCCC. That’s two separate events. The President will return to the White House on Monday evening.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House. On Wednesday, the President will deliver remarks and take questions at a DNC event here in Washington.
On Thursday, the President will host the 2015 White House Tribal Nations Conference. The conference will provide leaders from the 567 federally recognized tribes the opportunity to interact directly with high-level federal government officials and members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. This will be the seventh White House Tribal Nations Conference for the Obama administration, and it continues to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives with an emphasis on increasing opportunity for Native youth.
And then, on Friday, the President will attend meetings here at the White House.
Q Will he sign the budget bill before he leaves for Newark, Monday?
MR. EARNEST: That is the current plan, provided that Congress can complete their work and deliver it here on Monday morning. And that’s what we expect they’ll do.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good week.
2:13 P.M. EDT