Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, wrapping up his week-long trip to Indonesia and Vietnam, told reporters traveling with him back to the U.S. that military options are ready to go if North Korea attacks, invoking the “fight tonight” motto of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.
“We could fight tonight, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Koreans — or South Koreans, if they’re attacked,” Mattis said on his plane en route to Hawaii, saying military options for the defense of South Korea have been in place and constantly updated since 1953, when the war ended with an armistice, not a peace agreement. “They exist so that the diplomats speak from a position of authority, that they have to be listened to, because an attack on the Republic of Korea will be severely rebuffed if it’s attempted,” Mattis said, while insisting a diplomatic resolution is still the most desirable outcome. “This is still in the diplomats’ hands, as you know.”
Mattis also said he wasn’t worried about Kim Jong Un trying to strike a separate deal with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in an effort to split the 64-year old alliance. “I believe President Moon is the one who said, from their government, that if the North wants to bring up other issues outside the Olympics, they’ll be told, ‘No, the right people are not in the room.’ ”
PRUDENT PREPS: At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller confirmed that preliminary planning for possible war on the Korean Peninsula has been underway for some time. “I think the biggest thing everybody’s done is just look at, get familiar with the geography, get familiar with the plans and do some logistical preparation that’s just prudent,” Neller said at an event yesterday morning. He said U.S. commanders have reviewed “force deployment options,” and focused training on likely wartime scenarios. The message to Kim: “You don’t want to do this. You really don’t want to do this.”
THEY HAVE A DRAGON: Neller, who recently told U.S. Marines exercising in Norway that there was a “big-ass war” coming, explained that he’s just trying to impress upon his troops that they need to be ready for the fight of their lives, if it comes. “I go out and talk to Marines. I try to break it down for them as simple as I can,” Neller said. “I wasn’t predicating. I wasn’t saying it was going to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t want it to happen. It would not be good for anybody.”
Asked about reports he described the prospect of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula as akin to a coming climactic battle from “Game of Thrones,” Neller said, “I could come up with all sorts of analogies to that.” Clearly a fan of the HBO fantasy series, Neller said, “They haven’t started this year’s episodes of Game of Thrones so I really don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, other than the Army of the Dead has made it across, they have torn down the wall, and they got a dragon.
“So there’s a dragon over there, and I think we know what it is,” he said in an apparent reference to North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
THE TURKEY ‘DISTRACTION’: Distraction was the word of the day yesterday regarding Turkey’s week-long offensive in northern Syria, aimed at clearing out Kurds supported by the U.S. from along its border. The word was liberally employed at both the Pentagon, the State Department, and by Mattis on his plane talk with reporters. “Our concern is, is this going to be a distraction from crushing ISIS at this point in time?” Mattis said. “ISIS is not finished. … We’re trying to keep a focus on some very tough fighting down on the Euphrates River Valley, several hundred kilometers away. And yes, we are concerned this will be distracting.”
Mattis said the U.S. is engaging with Turkey through military-to-military contacts, as well as the foreign minister, secretary of state, and at the presidential level, and he said it does appear Turkey has slowed its offensive slightly. “The pace of the Turkish airstrikes have moderated from the first day. I think that would be the best answer for you.”
“We are not in a crisis,” said Dana White, chief Pentagon spokesperson at a briefing for reporters. “Turkey is an ally, and we are going to work with them, but this current issue, the offensive, is a distraction.”
THE PENTAGON’S FEAR: At the Pentagon, officials said while the U.S. is not training or providing support for the specific Kurdish factions under assault from Turkey in the Afrin region of Syria, the concern is that Kurdish fighters battling ISIS farther to the east will feel the need to leave the battle and return to Afrin to protect their homes and families.
“If someone leaves the fight against ISIS and goes somewhere else, that’s one less person in the fight against ISIS,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “That’s a powerful concern for us, and we would seek to try to prevent that, first of all by assuring all parties that there is no reason to go back and fight in Afrin, and we will continue to work that with our partners on the ground in the Euphrates River Valley.”
THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S PUSHBACK: At the State Department, spokesperson Heather Nauert rejected Turkey’s alternate narrative about what was said when President Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I think the president was clear, I think the president was tough,” Nauert said, saying she wasn’t surprised that Turkey disputed the White House account that said Trump “expressed concern about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey.”
“On behalf of the State Department and also the White House, we stand by that statement. We stand by the readout and the contents of that call,” said Nauert, who earlier in her briefing had some harsh words of her own for the NATO ally. “In Turkey, we remain seriously concerned about the widespread arrests and pre-trial detention of journalists critical of the Turkish government. We urge Turkey to end its state of emergency, respect and ensure freedom of expression, fair trial guarantees, judicial independence and other human rights and fundamental freedoms, and release those journalists and others who are held arbitrarily under emergency rule,” she said.