The fight continues in the Middle Euphrates River Valley to wrest the last 2 percent of land once controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from the grasp of the terror group, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said here today.
“That fighting is on-going and as we forecasted, it’s been a tough fight and we are winning,” the secretary told reporters.
The secretary said Syrian leaders have to be well aware of the U.S. position on the regime using chemical weapons. He stressed “there is zero evidence” that any opposition groups possess chemical weapons or the technology to employ those weapons.
The U.S. goal in Syria remains to end the tragedy that would have ended years ago, if Russia and Iran had not intervened, Mattis said. “We want to support the Geneva process — the U.N.-mandated process. … In that scope what we want to do is make certain that ISIS does not come back and upset everything again.”
The U.S. and allies are training local security forces inside Syria. The United States is working with Turkey to launch joint patrols in Manbij. “I think we are close on that; it’s complex,” Mattis said. “Once we get those patrols going along the line of contact and we take out the rest of the [ISIS] caliphate, our goal would be to set up local security elements that prevent the return of ISIS while at the same time diplomatically supporting … the Geneva process.”
The secretary said Russia’s vetoes of United Nations resolutions early in the process with Syria, “kept the U.N. marginalized at a time when it might have been able to stop what unfolded. Iran then sent in their proxy forces.”
Iranians are in Syria. Iran is propping up the Assad regime with forces, money, weapons and proxies. “Part of this overarching problem is we have to address Iran,” Mattis said. “Everywhere you go in the Middle East, where there is instability, you find Iran.”
Iran’s has a role to play in the peace process, the secretary said. And that “is to stop fomenting trouble,” he added.
Mattis condemned the terrorist attack inside Iran. “We condemn terrorist bombings anywhere they occur,” he said. “It’s ludicrous to allege that we had anything to do with it, and we stands with the Iranian people, but not the Iranian regime that has practiced this very sort of thing through proxies and all for too many years.”
And, the secretary praised the U.S. military response to Hurricane Florence.
“We rate ourselves as having done a good job so far,” he said. “The tactics were to surround it on the seaward side and the landward side, and keep people out of the area forecasted to be hit. So we had troops who were ready to go and follow the storm in from both directions, and we met all the requests from the Federal Emergency Management Agency … in a timely manner. We still have troops committed to it, but clearly it is winding down.”
Military equipment, to include deep water vehicles, boats and more, remain available if needed, he said.
The secretary announced he will travel to France and Belgium to take part in NATO’s Defense Ministerial Meeting.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)