The Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Marine Corps General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a briefing on August 28 at the Pentagon. The briefing included a discussion of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which was named in honor of the late Senator John McCain, and the goals of the Defense Department. The two men also took questions from the media on a variety of topics, including Syria and Iran. Secretary Mattis also called the late Senator McCain a great patriot as part of his opening remarks.
“Senator John McCain was a man who served his country honorably as a naval officer, as a defiant prisoner of war standing with his brothers in arms until all returned home together, and as a leader in Congress,” said Mattis.
Strides made in Middle East
Mattis noted that the Defeat-ISIS Coalition continues to make strides, including the liberation of ISIS territory in Iraq and a diminished presence in Syria. Yet, he also acknowledged that while ISIS had seen its territory significantly reduced, the fight is not over.
“In Syria, 2,000 U.S. and additional Coalition forces are working to enable the 50,000 Syrian Democratic Forces in clearing the remainder of ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley and then stabilizing those areas that have been cleared of ISIS,” said Dunford.
The two men also took questions regarding Syria and chemical weapons being used there. Mattis indicated that the State Department has been active in encouraging Russia to support the U.S. in its efforts to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria, particularly Idlib, which is a new area that the Syrian government is attempting to take back control.
For Iran, the question of control of the Strait was addressed by Dunford. “For decades, our forces have been postured in the Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation and we’ll continue to do that,” said Dunford.
Iran put on notice
After being questioned about Iran and its proxy activities, Secretary Mattis acknowledged that Iran was the “single biggest destabilizing element” in the Middle East.
“Iran has been put on notice that the continued mischief they’ve caused around the areas, the murder that they have caused, the support from Syria, and what they’re doing with Assad, the threats about the Straits of Hormuz, the support to the Houthis with the missiles that are being fired into Saudi Arabia, or the Iranian-supplied UAVs that are being flown against international airports, that this is not tolerated by us, and they’re going to be held to account for it,” said Mattis. “Our problem is not with Iran; it’s with the Iranian regime leadership, not the Iranian people.”
Other reporters questioned whether Russia had the ability to pressure Iran to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah troops from Syria. Mattis acknowledged that Russia and Iran did not belong in Syria and that the U.S. was working to move the Syrian civil war into the Geneva process to establish a new government without overt Russian and Iranian support and without Assad.