THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release September 4, 2014
ON-THE-RECORD CONFERENCE CALL
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST,
DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR BEN RHODES,
AND U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO DOUG LUTE
ON THE PRESIDENT’S MEETINGS AT THE NATO SUMMIT
5:56 P.M. BST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks for jumping on the call this afternoon. I apologize for running just a few minutes late. I’m joined on the call today by Ben Rhodes, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, and Doug Lute, who has been representing the United States here at NATO.
Many of you heard from the President yesterday in the speech that he gave while we were in Estonia laying out some of the goals that he was — that he has set out for NATO, and some of the goals that he has set out for the United States’ participation in NATO and what the consequences are for security in Europe, security in the United States, and security around the world.
So both Doug and Ben can give you an update on the progress that has been made toward those goals over the first day or so of the summit. There’s obviously another day or so to go remaining in the summit. And you will have the opportunity to hear from the President, and even ask him a couple of questions tomorrow when he does a news conference at the end of the summit.
So that speech primarily yesterday was about — it was obviously about Ukraine and the situation in Ukraine. But there are a couple other topics that were covered today related to Afghanistan and some others.
So let me turn it over to Ben and Doug. They’ll do a quick opening, and then we’ll spend 20 or 30 minutes taking your questions.
So, Ben, do you want to go first?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Thanks, Josh. I’d just say a few opening comments, and then Doug can speak to some of the meeting today.
First of all, I think that we feel very good about the President’s visit to Estonia. We believe that he was able to convey a strong message of support to our front-line NATO Allies in the east, the three Baltic countries. And I think that set an important tone for how he is viewing some of the most pressing challenges facing NATO today.
I’ll just go through some of the meetings this morning, and then hand it over to Doug. The President saw Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom this morning. As you know, the two leaders visited a school. They also had some time to have conversations bilaterally both as they rode together to and from the school, and then back at the NATO Summit site before the following meeting.
They discussed the threat from ISIL and our shared determination to confront that threat. And you saw their joint op-ed this morning. They made very clear our commitment to working together as allies to confront this threat, and we’re discussing the range of ways in which different countries can contribute to an effort to confront the threat from ISIL, and as the President said yesterday, to degrade and ultimately defeat that organization.
With respect to the other subjects that they touched on were Ukraine, given our support for the Ukrainian government and given the focus on the issue here at NATO, the broader NATO Summit agenda. Also the Ebola — current situation and our efforts to confront that threat to global public health.
Then the President, as you saw, met with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy, along with President Poroshenko of Ukraine. The leaders — the President and the European leaders expressed their very strong support for Ukraine and for its sovereignty and territorial integrity, made clear their condemnation for Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity through its support for the Russian-backed separatists, the provision of arms, the presence of Russian personnel inside of Ukraine.
The President and his fellow leaders in that meeting agreed that there needs to be additional costs imposed on Russia for what they’ve done in Ukraine. The European Council has been developing options for additional sanctions. The United States has been preparing our own package for additional sanctions. And we will continue to be coordinated with Europe as we move to impose additional costs in the days to come, just as we have worked to be coordinated with them in imposing sanctions in the past. Because when we move together, it has the maximum impact in imposing economic costs on Russia, which are becoming ever more far-reaching.
At the same time, the leaders heard from President Poroshenko about his efforts to pursue a peaceful de-escalation. The President and the European leaders expressed their very strong support for President Poroshenko’s efforts to pursue a peaceful de-escalation. I think we all believe that if this situation can be resolved diplomatically in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that is acceptable to the government in Kyiv, that is the best outcome.
And so the leaders made clear that they would continue to support President Poroshenko’s very active diplomacy with President Putin, with representative separatists and with Europe and the United States in pursuit of a peaceful de-escalation.
Following that meeting, the President did the — participated in the ISAF session. I will let Doug give you a readout of that session. Before I hand it over to Doug, though, I’ll just make a couple of other notes here.
The President met King Abdullah bilaterally. We will get you all a readout of that later tonight when we have a greater chance to read that out. Some of you have inquired as to why he was late to the opening of the Ukraine meeting; it was simply because he had back-to-back meetings with ISAF and King Abdullah, and that led into the Ukraine session.
Clearly, the focus of his discussions with King Abdullah was on the threat from ISIL and how we are continuing to support and cooperate with Jordan as it deal with a range of difficult regional security challenges, including ISIL. And so that was an important opportunity for him to check in with the King.
The NATO-Ukraine meeting is ongoing, so we’ll also get you more information about the outcome of that session upon its — or after its conclusion. Then tonight, the President will have a dinner with his fellow leaders from NATO where they’ll have an opportunity to discuss a range of issues, including Ukraine and ISIL, before going into the NATO sessions tomorrow.
One scheduling note — the President will also have a bilateral meeting tomorrow with President Erdogan of Turkey to discuss our shared support for the Iraqi government, our shared commitment to combatting the threat of terrorism, and a range of issues in our bilateral relationship.
With that, I’ll give it to Doug to talk through the ISAF session, and then we can take your questions.
AMBASSADOR LUTE: So today, I think, really day one of the summit, should be looked at as NATO’s attempt to get its hands around the multiple challenges it faces. So as Ben has already said, first, it was the unfinished NATO business in Afghanistan; that led to the session that’s ongoing right now with the emerging challenges in the east with Ukraine and Russia. And this evening, we expect the dinner to focus increasingly on challenges to the southeast — that is, ISIL, Iraq and Syria — and to the south across the northern coast of Africa.
So if you add this up, day one becomes sort of an assessment and a discussion about the challenges. And then day two, tomorrow, really deals with, okay, so what are NATO’s responses. So we’re pretty much still today in the diagnosis phase of this summit, if you will.
The first session on Afghanistan — the first thing that was remarkable is that, as you sit there in this largest session of the whole summit with over 50 heads of state, heads of government, I was struck by how — first of all, how large this coalition remains at the 11-year mark for ISAF and the NATO-led coalition, but just how durable it’s been. So it’s been 11 years, and you can host a meeting today and still have 50 world leaders all discussing the challenges in Afghanistan.
The themes around the table as they spoke — and it went over three hours in this session — really were, first a recognition of how far Afghanistan has come, and then how far Afghanistan has to go. On the progress side, there was broad recognition of mostly the improvements in the security situation. Eleven years ago, when ISAF began, there was no Afghan army, there was no Afghan police force, and today they’re 350,000 strong; but also, more broadly, progress with a whole range of development metrics. So whether it’s education or health or communications or media or physical infrastructure in Afghanistan, growth in GDP, you’ve seen steady progress over that ISAF period — which, of course, from our perspective has been enabled by the improved security situation delivered in part by the NATO coalition, but also increasingly now in the hands of the Afghans.
But there was also a big recognition as they went around the table about how far Afghanistan still has to go. Clearly, 2014 is a real banner year, an inflection-point year for Afghanistan — not only on the security front, but obviously as the political transition continues on the political front as well.
I think it’s useful to just take 90 seconds here and sort of review the bidding in terms of context. ISAF went into — and that is a NATO-led coalition — stood up in 2003, and so this now compromises NATO’s largest ever, peaking at 140,000 troops, and longest ever operation in the 65-year history of the Alliance.
Then a real watershed happened at the Lisbon Summit in late 2010, and it was at that summit that NATO agreed with President Karzai on this four-year program of security transition. So from late 2010 until the end of 2014, we set out a program where we very deliberately and gradually stood up the Afghan security forces and then handed them — progressively handed them security responsibility.
At Chicago in May of ’12, the next NATO Summit, we reaffirmed the progress of that four-year campaign — we were about that point two years into it — and we made two further decisions. One was that a year after Chicago, in the summer of ’13, so last summer, we passed the security lead completely to the Afghans. So the development program had taken enough — had made enough progress that we could see a point in the summer of ’13, where we passed them the combat lead.
The other decision at Chicago was that the international community met the challenge to come up with a billion dollars of security assistance funding for Afghanistan. So this is funding to pay the salaries and sustain the equipment of the Afghan army and police from 2015 through ’16 and through ’17. And today, broadly at the table, that billion dollar — those billion dollars were reaffirmed, the pledges were reaffirmed.
And then this year, of course, we’re now just months away from the end of the four-year transition program. And the progress with the ANSF, the Afghan security forces, has been steady. It hasn’t been perfect, but projects like this are never perfect. But it’s been steady, and we now have secured the funding required for the three successive years after this year.
The NATO mission stands ready to go, so we have an approved plan. The troops are resourced, marshaled for it — that is for the mission beyond 2014 — and then the finances are in place, as well.
So what we’re really missing is the output of the ongoing Afghan political process. And that, of course, for NATO culminates in the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and then a parallel authorities document — the NATO Status of Forces Agreement — which would authorize not only the U.S. but the NATO coalition to continue our work beyond this year.
So how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, we’re ready to do our part. NATO is ready to do its part. And we basically await the politics in Kabul.
So let me stop there and turn back to Ben and your questions.
MR. RHODES: Yes, I’d just say two quick things before we go to questions. One is just to piggyback on something Doug said. Both candidates, as you know, have made public their commitment to signing the BSA, and reiterated that commitment today. And they continue to pursue a conclusion to their election process based on the audit that was agreed to and the commitment to form a government that can bring together Afghanistan’s different political factions. And so that is ongoing, and we’ve urged them to conclude that as soon as position so that we can conclude the agreements that Doug referenced.
Just two quick scheduling things that I left out from today. This was also in that window between the Ukraine meeting and the ISAF meeting. In addition, to seeing King Abdullah, the President was able to check in with the NATO Aspirant countries, and that includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro. And then he was able to have a check-in with NATO’s Enhanced Partners. This is something that we focused on in terms of making NATO a hub of a truly global security architecture. And Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden were those Enhanced Partners. And those are just brief check-ins, but they’re a key priority to the United States that we reiterate NATO’s open door and to build these Enhanced Partnerships.
Q Hey, Ben and Doug. Thanks for taking the call. I just want to quickly clarify the President did, in fact, go to that meeting on Ukraine, correct? He was just late for it?
MR. RHODES: Yes, he went to the meeting. He was just a few minutes late.
Q Great. Fantastic. And can you talk a little bit more about these sanctions that you’re looking at, kind of what sectors are they going at and really where are they going to target?
MR. RHODES: Sure. I don’t want to get ahead of the process of developing these sanctions — or sorry, in the process of finalizing these sanctions. They’ve obviously been worked on steadily for some time now. Clearly, the last round of sanctions that we did focused on sectors of the Russian economy that would have maximum impact. And so we did sanctions on the arms and financial and energy sectors. We have broad authorities to look at a range of different sectors. So the United States is preparing our own additional sanctions.
We have very active discussions with the Europeans that have been ongoing for months now so that we can share our thinking and have an understanding of their thinking. They are working at the European Council on their own measures. I think the key point is that Russia must continue to face costs for its own escalation. If Russia escalates, we stand prepared to escalate our pressure. And that’s I think what the leaders are committed to in the face of Russia’s continued support for their proxies and to separatists in Ukraine, as well as their personnel moving overtly into Ukraine.
So, again, we’re working this in coordination with the Europeans. We believe that there needs to be a cost. At the same time, if there can be a peaceful de-escalation, that’s preferable. And that is something we would support, provided that President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government is committed to an agreement. And we’d of course have to see follow-through from all sides, including Russia and this effort that it’s been backing.
Q Hi, thanks for doing the call. Prime Minister Cameron earlier today mentioned that he would be willing to consider paying a ransom, given the imminent execution of a British citizen. Obviously, President Obama has been very clear in saying that he is not willing to pay ransoms. How will he respond to the Prime Minister this evening?
MR. RHODES: Well, I don’t think that that’s right. Prime Minister Cameron has been very firm in sharing our view that it is the wrong thing to do to pay ransom to an organization like ISIL for a number of reasons. One, that it incentivizes additional kidnappings; two, that it provides them with a key funding source. And, frankly, part of what has allowed ISIL to grow in the last several months is access to funding in part through very large ransoms that have been paid. And, three, we just as a general matter do not provide funding to terrorist organizations.
So we believe we are in agreement with Prime Minister Cameron on that issue. And at the same time, we’ve urged other governments to adopt a similar approach — because, tragically, we fear that ransoms incentivize further kidnappings. And so while we certainly understand the sentiments of families and loved ones who want to do whatever is possible to gain the freedom of those who are held hostage, we do that through every resource we have — military intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy — but we do rule out the payment of ransom. And that’s a position we’ve shared with the United Kingdom.
Q Hi there, thanks for doing this. I wanted to go back to the ISIL response that you talked about. You said Prime Minister Cameron and the President had a chance to talk about a range of ways in which countries could contribute. Did they talk specifically about military action and whether the British would support the United States if President Obama decided to expand airstrikes into Syria or elsewhere? And what was the response to that? And then also, on Ukraine, could you talk about whether, specifically, direct assistance in the form of weapons for the Ukrainians was discussed and what the response was of the Allies for that?
MR. RHODES: On the discussion with Prime Minister Cameron, I don’t want to get into specific operational details that may have been discussed, and I certainly don’t want to speak for the United Kingdom. However, I think it’s fair to say that the President discussed the range of different tools that it’s going to take to confront ISIL. And we’re already doing that through our military action in Iraq, through the strikes that we’re taking, but also through intelligence, through the provision of humanitarian assistance, through efforts to crack down on the transitive foreign fighters, through political support for the Iraqi government, and through arming and equipping and training and advising security forces on the ground — the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish forces in Iraq. And, of course, we’ve been engaged in support for the moderate Syrian opposition.
Thus far, the United Kingdom has been with us in a range of ways in Iraq. They’ve done humanitarian airdrops with us on Sinjar Mountain, for instance; and most recently, in Amerli. They have provided important intelligence support. They cooperate diplomatically. And so we’re discussing the full range of options. Prime Minister Cameron spoke to this himself today, and he was looking at the full range of options. So I’ll let them speak for their own decision-making process.
But as you saw in their joint op-ed this morning, and as was reflected in their conversation, he’s very seized with the threat and committed to working as a part of a broad coalition that works in many different ways to confront the threat from ISIL.
On Ukraine, the capabilities discussion has focused on, well, both short-term assistance to Ukraine that can fill immediate needs. And we have been focused on non-lethal in our efforts to do so, although things like body armor, night-vision goggles are filling direct requirements that help the Ukrainian security services. The NATO discussions have also been very focused on supporting the professionalization and modernization and greater capacity of the Ukrainian security forces in both the short and long term, and what can we do in training and exercises and equipping to meet that goal. And that’s the focus of the discussion today.
Doug, I don’t know if you want to add anything about NATO’s partnership with Ukraine on the security side.
AMBASSADOR LUTE: Yes, so let me just add that after hearing from Poroshenko today and going around the table among 28 Allies, I think we’ll be prepared tomorrow to make some announcements about steps that NATO is actually prepared to take with regard to supporting Ukraine.
But there’s a range of things NATO can do. Most security assistance, weaponry, body armor and so forth comes from nations, not the Alliance as a whole. But the Alliance can perform a very useful and efficient clearinghouse role, both for humanitarian assistance and for security assistance. And I would expect that we may have more to say about that tomorrow.
But more broadly, NATO has had a something like 17-year partnership with Ukraine, as it has with about 40 other countries. And Ukrainian forces have served with NATO in Afghanistan, in Kosovo and so forth.
So one thing we can do going forward is, based on that partnership, continue to build the capacity of Ukrainian forces not for the purposes of working together in Afghanistan and Kosovo now, but actually for the purpose — the fundamental purpose of defending their own country.
So NATO’s existing relationship by way of this partnership really gives us the platform with which to continue our support to Ukraine. And I expect there will be news on that tomorrow.
MR. RHODES: Great. And again, I should just note that, given the summit is ongoing, tomorrow we would expect a range of announcements on issues related to NATO capabilities, support to Ukraine, and other issues on the agenda. So we’re checking in midway here, so that’s the important context that Doug gave.
Q Hey, guys. Thanks for doing the call. To go back to the Islamic State, in the Obama-Cameron op-ed this morning, it seemed like they were speaking directly to NATO members. And I’m wondering if you’re seeking any kind of concrete deliverables or statements from NATO on the Islamic State threat. And then also, if you could talk about anything that they’re asking of individual countries on the sidelines of the summit.
MR. RHODES: I’d say a couple of things, and Doug may want to add. There’s a couple ways of approaching this. One is individual countries and one is NATO.
With respect to individual countries, we will be able to have conversations on the margins of this summit as the President did with Prime Minister Cameron about contributions that they can make on an ongoing basis to an effort to confront ISIL. A number of NATO members have already stepped up — countries like France and Italy, as well as the United Kingdom, Germany — in things like supporting the Kurds and the ISF with arms and equipment. A number of them have conducted airdrops; Canada, for instance, as well.
So we will be exploring with individual NATO members what contributions they can make to a broad effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, which, again, will cover many different aspects. Those discussions I think will — today, as you’ve seen, Ukraine has been a key agenda item, and Afghanistan. At the dinner tonight, which is a wide-ranging discussion, I would expect the threat from ISIL to be subject, as well as tomorrow as NATO is discussing the current threat environment more generally. So I think there will be additional opportunities for the President to engage the leaders on the issue.
Separately, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel are here, as well as Susan Rice. And they’ll be able to have discussions with their counterparts on this issue. In terms of NATO as an Alliance, there is an existing NATO capacity to provide support to Iraqi Security Forces as well. So that is an essential area of cooperation. Although, again, when we talk about a more –a broader, multi-faceted effort to confront ISIL, clearly different member states would bring to the table different resources. And so those will be discussions that we’ll be having individually with different heads of state and foreign and defense ministers.
But, Doug, I don’t know if you want to add anything to that.
AMBASSADOR LUTE: The only thing I’d add, Ben, is that this is an Alliance where summit after summit for the last 10 years or so the discussion has been very much focused on Afghanistan. And as that mission is about to transition over completely to Afghan lead, while we’re prepared to continue in Afghanistan, what you see the Alliance doing at this summit is looking in more than one direction at a time.
So it’s looking east to the challenges presented by Russian aggression, but it’s also looking to its southeast, where Syria and Iraq border the Alliance immediately with the international border with Turkey. And then also to continued instability to NATO’s due south across North Africa.
So you’ve got NATO doing more than one thing at a time and looking in more than one direction at a time. So this is a pretty intense discussion as we move through the agenda. I think the diagnosis of those problems will really culminate at dinner tonight.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll just add one thing to that. I know there was a lot of talk last week about sort of the President’s comprehensive strategy for confronting ISIL. And a core component of that strategy was engaging in conversations with our allies and with regional governments, all of whom have a role to play in confronting this threat. And, obviously, the kinds of conversations that are happening at the presidential level over the course of today and tomorrow are a core component of that aspect of the strategy.
MR. RHODES: Great. Thanks, we’ll take the next question.
Q Hi. Let me ask you a little bit more about the idea of a diagnosis. I don’t think there is any question, as we’ve heard expressed from everybody — from the President to David Cameron and throughout many of the leaders — about the problems and how they exist. But when you talk about a diagnosis, what are you sort of drilling down on?
MR. RHODES: I think as a general matter, across a range of issues today, we’re looking at challenges and threats. And the nature of the summit is then tomorrow there’s focus on outcomes associated with that threat. And the diagnosis of the current threat from terrorism has clearly shifted. NATO has been focused on Afghanistan. That tracks with our focus over the last decade on al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we’ve been able to significantly degrade al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, decimate its leadership ranks, reducing the threat that they pose.
At the same time, we have seen the threat of terrorism evolve as different groups emerged in places like North Africa. And then, with ISIL, you have an organization that is the legacy of the al Qaeda and Iraq organization, which changed to ISIL. And they represent an acute threat in Syria and Iraq today. So essentially, we have to step back and make decisions based on threat assessments and where the threat is coming from. And we’ve been able to dramatically reduce the resources dedicated to Afghanistan and Pakistan as our troops have come home. That brings up additional resources as necessary to deal with other threats.
But the Alliance has to weigh a variety of demands. They, too, have removed a lot of resources from Afghanistan, so a lot has been freed up. But there’s a need to reassure eastern allies, and we’ve done that through our own initiative to have more rotational deployments and have a continuous presence in the frontline states. They have to look south to the threat of terrorism, as well.
But, Doug, you may want to jump in, too.
AMBASSADOR LUTE: Yes. So, I mean, Ben actually said it well. This is really an inflection point for the Alliance. So after 10 years of doing basically the same fundamental big chore, which was Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda — which, by the way, NATO went to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and it’s the only time in the 65-year history of the Alliance that its mutual defense clause, Article 5, has been invoked.
So NATO has been all about that now for more than a decade. But as that mission winds down, this is a step back and a reflection and a diagnosis of opportunity for the Alliance, because it faces new challenges. Six months ago, we weren’t worried about Crimea and Ukraine in the way we are today. ISIS, obviously, has gained prominence. And instability across North Africa continues, sustained.
So this is a bit of a point of, step back, look at what’s happening immediately on NATO’s borders, and then let’s figure out what we can do about it.
Now, tomorrow, that will be the big deliverable. There will be a series of — we believe leaders will take a series of concrete decisions about what’s next for the Alliance. And you saw a bit of a preview of that several months ago when the President was in Warsaw, but then most prominently yesterday in Estonia. And this is going to feature NATO taking on these challenges that it now faces and adapting to new realities. And it will have something to do with the way NATO postures itself; something to do with how responsive NATO is; something to do with how NATO deals with its partnerships, and how it deals with these problems immediately on its periphery.
So this is — I don’t think this is just any summit. This is a summit where NATO really has to do some reflection, look at new realities, and adapt.
Q Ben was talking earlier on the call about how different NATO nations may be able to bring different resources to dealing with ISIS. That kind of suggests that you are getting sort of a receptive attitude when it comes to dealing with that broadly, with NATO partners. Is that the case? Are you feeling that these NATO partners are receptive to this type of mission?
MR. RHODES: Yes, Jim, I think the evidence for that is what has already been done in Iraq because of the threat from ISIL. So, for instance, you’ve seen NATO countries join us in humanitarian airdrops, you’ve seen NATO countries join us in providing arms and equipment to Kurdish and Iraqi forces. That includes a range of countries, even Germany, for instance, which has not been as involved in Iraq over the last decade as, say, the United Kingdom has stepped forward to do that.
So I think when you look at the bigger NATO countries, they’re seized with the threat, in part because there’s a foreign fighter flow that has led many European citizens and passport holders into Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIL, and then that could, of course, put a threat back into Europe if they return home.
So we do believe that there is a receptivity of nations that provide support and to play a role in efforts to confront ISIL. We believe that’s manifested in what’s already taken place in Iraq. And as we are working to build a broad coalition to set in place a type of effort that will shrink ISIL’s space; take the fight to them, including partners on the frontlines like the Iraqi security force and the Kurds; degrade their capacity; and then ultimately defeat them — that’s a project that’s going to require regional buy-in from the neighbors and international buy-in from some of our key allies. And so I think that that’s the message that is well understood here at NATO.
At the same time, different countries are going to make different types of commitments, and that’s very clear. So there are some NATO member states who will be focused on intelligence and law enforcement support. There are some who can do more in working in coordination with us on efforts to go after ISIL, or to do the type of humanitarian airdrops that we’ve done in Iraq which require military coordination, because obviously that’s dependent on intelligence, ISR, and aircraft.
So these are all conversations that we’ll have over the next couple of days. Again, importantly, you have Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry, and Susan Rice all here. Then you are going to have Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel traveling on to the region for discussions with key partners there. Lisa Monaco, the President’s counterterrorism advisor, is also going to be traveling to the region. So there’s a significant amount of consultation that is taking place. And all of that will inform the President’s approach to building the type of coalition that can confront this threat not just in the coming days, but as is necessary going forward beyond that.
We’ve got time for a couple more questions.
Q Hi, everyone. Thank you for doing the call. On the subject of airstrikes in Syria, this time last year Prime Minister Cameron and the President were on the same page before the House of Commons vote forced the Prime Minister to sort of back away. So I’m wondering now if you think the U.S. and the U.K. are back in sync, or maybe moving back in sync on the question of the way forward in the region. And I know you get asked this question periodically, but it seems like a good time for a check-in. Do you think the phrase “special relationship” still applies?
MR. RHODES: Christi, it always applies. No, it is definitely a special relationship. There’s no country that we are more in sync with in terms of our values and our foreign policy and our security cooperation around the world than the United Kingdom. And I think that is the spirit that illuminates the discussion that the President had with the Prime Minister.
And that’s why coming into this summit hosted by the United Kingdom, the President and Prime Minister staked out the agenda for the summit in that op-ed this morning.
With respect to the subject of last year versus this year, first of all, I will leave it to the United Kingdom to define their efforts in this space. Clearly, Prime Minister Cameron has engaged his parliament in discussions of the threat. And so you saw him put forward a presentation about the threat that ISIL poses. He has not made decisions about things like airstrikes. That’s something that they’ll have to review as they consider the different ways in which they can contribute to this effort. But clearly, he’s engaged in that discussion here.
And I think that there’s a unique nature to this situation given the fact that you have foreign fighters from — including from the United Kingdom, who have been with ISIL in Syria and in Iraq. And tragically, you’ve heard the Brits confirm that they believe a British national was involved in these barbaric beheadings of the two Americans that we tragically lost. That speaks to the fact that this is a threat that could potentially impact them, as well as the people of Syria and Iraq, just as it could potentially impact U.S. interests and the United States.
In terms of last year, it’s always worth noting that, look, the United States made clear our willingness to use military force. On the specific issue of chemical weapons, the United Kingdom and France joined with us in that determination. Clearly, there was a change after the parliament vote here in the U.K. But at the end of the day, with that threat on the table, the Syrian regime went from denying it had chemical weapons to agreeing to remove them, and their declared weapons have since been destroyed. This is a different beast because it’s been a threat of terrorism that crosses two borders — it’s Syria and Iraq — and that could pose a threat beyond those countries. And that’s what illuminates the discussion here at NATO.
AMBASSADOR LUTE: Ben could I just add on that one — on ISIL. One thing that’s amazed me as an American living in Europe is that they are seized with this question of the potential of returning foreign fighters from ISIL and other extremist groups in the Syria-Iraq theater back to Europe. And they actually cite very prominently the attack on May 25th at the Jewish Museum in Brussels as the first solid example, proven example of a European fighter who went to Syria, gained his — had his training, gained his sort of street cred, returned and committed an act of — at least a crime — act of terror on European soil.
They are very seized about this because they understand there are thousands more who are on that path. Now, it doesn’t mean they’ll all come back and commit acts like this, but even if a fraction of them do, they know they’ve got a serious security threat.
Q I just wanted to clarify — one thing you haven’t mentioned in trying to get deliverables is trying to get direct military action from NATO partners to fight ISIL in Syria or Iraq, and I wanted to see if tomorrow you are hoping for some concrete commitment from the countries here for direct military action against ISIL?
MR. RHODES: So, look, on that question, we are engaged in discussions with different countries about what role they can take. Direct military action is obviously the far-end of that spectrum in terms of engagement.
I think this is something that’s going to be ongoing over the next several days as we talk here and we talk to countries in the region. So in terms of those types of pronouncements, that’s not something we’re seeking as an outcome of this summit. This summit I think is more a chance to get a sense of the commitments countries will make. They will then have the ability to make decisions and announcements about their own commitments.
But we also feel like it’s a very important piece of this puzzle to talk to the countries in the region. We’ve been consulting with them, but with Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel and Lisa Monaco all traveling to the region, that can also give us a sense of additional countries that could contribute in a variety of ways. And then we can get a sense of what is the picture across this coalition of what nations are prepared to do. And again, that spectrum includes direct action, it includes arms and equipment and training for security forces on the ground — including Iraqi security forces, Kurdish forces, the moderate Syrian opposition. That includes support to the Iraqi government and its government formation process, and diplomatic support for an inclusive Iraqi government, which is essential to getting a buy-in from Sunni tribes and others inside of Iraq to work to evict ISIL from a territory that they’ve claimed. And then that includes intelligence resources, law enforcement resources both to get a better understanding of ISIL’s operations, but also to deal with the challenge of foreign fighters that the President will also be addressing at the U.N. Security Council session.
So there’s a range of ways that nations can contribute. And actually, the last point I’d make is dealing with the significant humanitarian crisis in both Iraq and Syria, which a number of nations have already committed substantial resources to.
So there is a spectrum. And again, I think we’ll have a better sense coming out of this summit as to how key nations are thinking about this and what they’re prepared to do. And then we’ll get a sense — an additional sense in the region over the next several days. All of that will inform our own approach, and we’ll be looking for nations to make their own decisions and announcements about the type of support that they’re willing to make.
I think for tomorrow, the outcomes are really focused on NATO as an Alliance and what they’re going to do on a range of issues. That, obviously, includes the threat from ISIL. It also prominently includes issues like support for Ukraine; issues around NATO capabilities; and issues around how do we structure and resource the Alliance going forward so that it can meet all these various challenges.
So with that, I think we’ll wrap up here. The President will have the dinner tonight and then move back into meetings tomorrow. And you’ll have the press conference from him tomorrow after the conclusion of the summit and his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan. And we’ll keep you updated on any additional developments in the interim.
END 6:44 P.M. BST