MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants joining us from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewish. During this call, Lieutenant General Grynkewish will discuss air operations and coordination in the Middle East and provide insight into recent Russian aggression against American forces in Syria. After opening remarks, Lieutenant General Grynkewish will take questions from participating journalists.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
And now I’ll turn it over to Lieutenant General Grynkewish. Sir, the floor is yours.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: Hi. Thanks, Hala, and good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us today on this call and taking the time to be here. I thought I’d start by just briefly talking to you about how at Air Forces Central we view the region and how we see our mission here.
Very simply put, the job of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight, and win, and be able to provide airpower anywhere and at any time. And we do that here in the Middle East – executing combat operations every single day in support of Combined Joint Task Force, or Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the Global Coalition’s military element fighting ISIS up in Iraq and Syria. And of course, we work very closely with our coalition partners and our partner nations here in the region doing that.
More broadly, at Air Forces Central our mission focus is to promote regional peace and stability. Again, part of that is working to defeat ISIS, or Daesh, and a large part of it is taking every effort necessary to deter Iran and its proxies, and then, finally, working with our partner nations in the region, other air forces, to try to work together to mutually develop our capabilities so that we can all perform our jobs better at combat.
There’s three things I’d like to just highlight that may be of some interest to you that we’ve executed over the last few days that fit into this broad set of priorities that I outlined.
The first of those is a Bomber Task Force mission that we conducted back on the 8th of June, and I know it received some coverage in the media, but there’s a couple of things that were really unique about this. The first is that when the United States executes a Bomber Task Force mission, it is intended from the U.S. side to demonstrate our commitment to our partners and demonstrate the ability of the United States to bring in overwhelming combat power really at a moment’s notice. And these bombers fly from very long distances – either from locations in Europe or the Pacific, or sometimes all the way from the United States – and can be here in a matter of hours, and that’s very important to us from a deterrence perspective and as a way to assure our partners that, again, we can bring in overwhelming power very quickly.
That Bomber Task Force, though, is not done by ourselves. Many of our partners fly escort missions with those bombers as they’re in the region. We work on our integration and our interoperability during those missions. So it’s a very important training event for us. And during this past event, we employed not only live GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM weapons, for those familiar with the lingo, but we also delivered for the first time in training live AGM-158A, which is a Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, or a JASSM, a long-range weapon that can be deployed from a safe distance.
So again, that was a first for us here in the region with one of these Bomber Task Forces, and we could not have done it without the support of our partners here. And again, I think it shows our enduring commitment.
The second thing that I’d like to highlight is the recent deployment of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors into our area of responsibility. And this is really part of a multifaceted show of U.S. support and capability in the wake of what I would deem increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft operating in Syria. I know there may be some questions on this, but the F-22 is the most advanced air-superiority fighter in the world, and what we’ve found is as Russian air forces in Syria increased their unprofessional behavior and were flying in a more assertive manner against us, it was necessary for us to change our stance, change some of our defensive measures that we were taking in the face of their behavior – which, again, is, for those who’ve heard me talk about this before, very disappointing to me to see the Russian air force in the unprofessional state that it is.
The last thing that I’d highlight is Task Force 99, which is our combined task force headquartered at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. And Task Force 99 is a combined task force; we now have five nations that have committed full-time personnel to that task force and many others that are interested, and they have a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, and we look forward to using those in some of our operations here in the region, both to find difficult targets – things that we want to locate on the ground either in the fight against ISIS or for other purposes. We are using Task Force 99’s fleet of UAVs to increase our awareness of the air domain in the region, and of course they provide fantastic opportunities to impose dilemmas: to give our adversaries difficult problems that they have to solve at a low cost to us.
So with those three highlights up front, and again, tying that back again to the critical importance of our partnerships who are integral to not just Task Force 99 and the Bomber Task Force but also to supporting our F-22 deployment to the region, I’ll pause here and would be very happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. And with that, our first question goes to Laurie Mylroie from Kurdistan24, and her question is: “Do you see this recent Russian aggression against U.S. forces in Syria as linked to the war in Ukraine and the international polarization that Russia’s war of aggression there has created?”
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: That’s a really good question, and thanks for sending it in. We certainly think of our interactions with the Russians in Syria in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. From my perspective, I see the Russian air force as being more aggressive in Syria, perhaps as a way to compensate for the fact that they have had to move capability and capacity out of Syria in order to support the war in Ukraine.
I also think there’s a linkage in terms of the pilot mindset. We had the incident recently in the Black Sea, where a Russian fighter flying really unprofessional maneuvers actually hit an MQ-9 aircraft. It was a total accident; the pilot didn’t intend to do it and you can see from the video the – no pilot intentionally puts their aircraft in contact with another one. But that pilot hit the MQ-9 and it fell out of the sky. As a reward for that unprofessional behavior, which is absolutely egregious from an airmanship perspective, that pilot received medals. And so anytime you have an air force that has fallen so low on the professional ladder that they’re giving medals for buffoonery in the air, you’ve really got to wonder what they’re thinking.
So my concern there is fighter pilots that are deployed now into Syria from Russia will see that they’re rewarded for this kind of behavior, and we could see an increase in it. And the biggest risk for all of us is these aircraft are not flying on training missions; they’re on combat missions. Our aircraft have live weapons on board; the Russian aircraft have live weapons on board. And this kind of behavior just really increases the risk of a miscalculation, some sort of an incident occurring that’s unintentional.
So, again, I think it would be prudent for Russia to return to our protocols for deconfliction. It’s something that they adhered to since 2019 until relatively recently. I don’t fully understand why they think it’s appropriate to deviate from this, but again, that decline in professionalism as indicated by the Black Sea incident is certainly part of our calculus.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. And now we’ll go to the live queue, and our first question will go to Abdulhalim Sulaiman from Independent Arabia. Abdulhalim, please go ahead and ask your question. And unmute yourself. There you go. Abdulhalim, you’re free to speak. You’re unmuted.
Okay, it looks like we aren’t able to hear.
MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead, sir. Go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. (In Arabic.) In English?
MODERATOR: Ah. I can – I can – in English, please.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Thank you for – thank you. How many times has there been unprofessional friction between the U.S. and the Russian air forces, and how could – how could this affect on the aerial war of you and the coalition against ISIS, especially since your (inaudible) are being affected by Turkish drones? Do you think Russia has allowed Turkish military operation again when they’re in the area? Thank you.
MODERATOR: Lieutenant General, were you able to hear that question, okay?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: I think I got most of it, so I’ll do my best to reply. It was a little broken up, but I think the general question was how many times have we had incidents with the Russians and how is this friction affecting our fight against ISIS. So I’ll answer that and give a couple of other thoughts.
So we’ve had incidences where the Russians have flown into airspace that has been long recognized as coalition airspace where the Russians could fly if they deconflict that with us. But we’ve had incidences as recently as just earlier this morning in Syria time where a Russian aircraft came into our airspace. We had incidences yesterday and we had incidences the day before. So this is a pattern of Russian activity. We’ve had as many as three or four times that the Russians would execute in a single day where they incur into this airspace.
One of the things that concerns me very much is that oftentimes when the Russians come into the airspace – and there’s a reason we protect this, and it’s because we have coalition forces on the ground at our garrisons that are focused on fighting ISIS. Yet the Russians will fly directly overhead or very near to these garrisons with air-to-ground munitions – with bombs on board. So again this is something that if we were to fly over a Russian position in Syria with weapons on board, first off, we would never do it purposefully; and if the Russians called us and told us where their forces were, we would assiduously avoid that location to the best of our ability. So the Russians intentionally flying over in this manner is very concerning.
Now, what does this do? Frankly, it distracts us. All of us are in Syria because we have one common enemy, and that’s ISIS, or Daesh. They are – they are down but not out. ISIS continues to have the capability and a fair amount of freedom of action, primarily in areas where the Syrian regime and the Russians ought to be putting pressure on them. They are running training camps, and they’re building up their capabilities because the Russians and the regime are either incapable or unwilling to put pressure on ISIS. That then spills over into the parts of Syria where our partner forces operate or into Iraq or other neighboring countries.
So I think it’s a big distraction. It’s a big distraction for us because we have to focus on defending our forces, and it’s, frankly, a distractions that the Russians ought to be concerned about because they are letting the ISIS threat grow right under their nose. So that’s my summary of the concerns with this behavior.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. And to go back to a pre-submitted question, there was a lot of interest on Iran, so we’ll be asking a question from Kamel Mansari from Jeune Indépendant. And the question is: “How do you evaluate the recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in terms of its impact on reducing tensions in the Middle East, particularly in Syria?”
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: That’s a really good question. So I’ll start broadly with the impact of the recent reconciliation, if you will, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first thing I’d say is anything that defuses tensions in the Middle East I view as a positive trend line. So I think there’s a lot of good that comes when countries are talking to each other, when they have diplomatic relations. That provides another avenue to resolve differences as opposed to always resorting to the military dimension. So that sort of rapprochement or reconciliation, in my view, is always welcome.
In Syria, I’m not yet sure how this will play out. And the biggest reason for this actually goes back to the Russians. And so as all of us know, Iran has been selling unmanned aerial vehicles to the Russians, and they have been using those against Ukrainian forces. And the – Iran and Russia have a growing relationship. My sense is that Iran feels that Russia owes it something, and that Russia is in some way now beholden to Iran.
The Iranians certainly want the coalition to depart from Syria and they want that so they can have freedom of action to have Iranian-aligned groups move advanced conventional weapons and lethal capabilities across Syria for their own purposes: to threaten Israel or to threaten other interests with whom they disagree. And so, to me, the growing relationship between Iran and Russia will have a big impact on exactly how Iran moderates or does not moderate its behavior in Syria.
More broadly, I will tell you that my assessment is despite this rapprochement and the general lowering of tensions in the region and some of the good outcomes it would have, the Iranian regime has not changed. They are still an authoritarian, theocratic regime that is bent on punishing people for very minor transgressions of freedom such as wearing the hijab. Any regime that is more worried about that, more worried about pushing lethal aid than taking care of its own people, is one that just by its very nature is going to continue to foment instability. They require that instability to continue to operate to have something that they can rally their people against in order to maintain their illegitimate hold on power.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go back to the live queue, and this question will go to Michael Wagenheim from i24. Michael, you’re free to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this today. As you mentioned, it’s apparent Russia is now doing more of Iran’s bidding in Syria rather than vice versa. So to what extent is the U.S. concerned that deepening Israeli aid to Ukraine could lead to similar aggression from Russia against Israeli forces that are conducting operations over Syria or maybe Russia imposing less freedom of action for those strikes in Syria? And have there been any signs that this was already taking place?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: Hi, Michael. A very good question that just reveals once again the complexity and the dynamism that we see in this region, in Syria in particular. I think that there certainly – I can’t speak for the Israelis and how they view the Russian and Iranian connection, but I can tell you that the growing connection between Russia and Iran, and if they are able to open up avenues where Iran is able to push lethal aid through Syria that threatens Israel, that’s certainly a concern for the United States. Israel is clearly one of our close partners in the region – one of many but one that we’ve had a longstanding relationship with over the years and a long history with.
And so the – it remains to be seen exactly how that Russian relationship with Iran affects the Russian relationship with Israel. It’s something that we watch closely in concert with our Israeli partners, and we’ll see how it plays out. But certainly the Israelis have every right to act in their own defense, and the United States has an ironclad commitment to the defense of Israel, and that will continue.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Our next question goes from the pre-submitted questions to Mohamed Maher from Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper and Al-Ain News. And it asks, “Lieutenant General Grynkewish, could you please elaborate on the recent deployment of the U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter jets to the Middle East? How do you anticipate this deployment contributing to the advancement of peace and stability in the region?”
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: So the – very similar to the Bomber Task Force, the ability of the United States to rapidly move a significant element of combat power, like a fifthgeneration air-superiority squadron, to the Middle East should be something that assures all of our regional partners. While the United States doesn’t have as many forces in the region on a daily basis as we did, say, three or four years ago, we do have the ability to very rapidly bring in other forces from outside the region.
In this case, the F-22s were on a different mission in Europe. That mission concluded and the U.S. was able to deploy them here for a period of time, where they will contribute to that regional stability, to trying to reset our relationship with the Russians in Syria and get them to go back to adhering to the protocols.
The key to me from a regional perspective, though, is that ability to rapidly increase combat power. So just because there’s not as much on the ground as there has been in the past, no one should doubt American commitment to the region. That’s enduring. I mentioned we have a longstanding relationship with Israel. We have a very longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia. We have very longstanding relationships with many members of the GCC. We clearly have a complex shared history with Iraq and a commitment to that country’s stability. And so the United States – and Air Forces Central in particular – we’re here to stay and we will bring forces into the region as needed to deter aggression.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And our next question from the live queue will go to Bander Alwarthan from Alyaum newspaper. Bander, you’re welcome to unmute yourself and ask your question, please.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this, Your Excellency, everyone. My question is regarding the cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and allies in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. From your perspective, sir, what are the main files that should have the priority of focus in order to achieve the highest level of this cause? Thank you.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: A very good question. So just on – just very quickly on the relationship with Saudi Arabia since you mentioned them specifically, I will tell you at the – that the military-to-military level, my relationship with the Royal Saudi Air Force chief, General Kurilla’s relationship with the chief of defense – these are some of our strongest relationships. They’re some of the relationships I enjoy the most, and I treasure every opportunity that I get to go to Saudi Arabia and visit with our partners. And certainly that’s true for all of our other allies and partners here in the region.
From a regional perspective and zooming out from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the main files that we’re focused on probably fall into about three buckets. So the first one of those is a commitment to mutual defense and defense of the Arabian Peninsula. So we work very closely with our partners, thinking about what are the triggers in the event of regional aggression where the United States would bring capabilities back in? What are the – how do we share intelligence with each other so that we see those threats coming and can move things quickly?
So there’s a lot of preparation for those sorts of operations. It’s ongoing. And there’s frankly dialogues on a number of different levels, from planners up to more strategic levels on this, very regularly with Saudi Arabia and other partners.
The other one that we’ve been given the task to work on at Air Forces Central is on the integration of regional air and missile defense. And this is tying all the capabilities we have in the region, U.S. capabilities; say, European countries that have come into the region with air defense capabilities; and of course the very robust defensive capabilities that many of the nations here in the region have.
The ability to link those all together, to have a common operating picture so that we can all defend as efficiently and effectively as possible, is really essential and it’s a key task that we’re working very hard.
This does come down to some technical solutions that require radars and computer systems and communication systems to talk to each other. It also comes down to a willingness amongst our allies and partners to share information and intelligence with each other. But in my opinion, the more we are able to stitch together a regional defensive construct, the more stable the region will be over the long term. Thank you for the question.
MODERATOR: And our last question from the live – from the pre-submitted questions goes to Khaled Aljeratli from Enab Baladi, asking: “We have heard from experts that the United States’ efforts to disrupt the drug trade operated by the Syrian regime in the region may potentially involve aerial targeting of drug production facilities. Is this a current consideration for Washington’s agenda?”
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: Yeah, so let me start by just saying that the amount of – or the increase in the drug trade and the flows of those illicit substances out of Syria is extremely concerning to me. We certainly see linkages to the Syrian regime in that network of drug smugglers. And as drugs like Captagon flow out of Syria and into the – over borders into neighboring countries, it won’t stop just with the countries that surround Syria. This is a very real risk that this drug trade could spread more broadly across the region and even beyond the region. And so I do think it’s something that we all ought to be focused on and we all ought to be concerned about.
As far as how we deal with it, from the U.S. perspective this is primarily not a military mission. There are a number of other parts of the government – I can’t speak to all the details here – but there’s a number of other agencies in the U.S. Government that are working very closely with neighboring countries looking at ways that they can robust up the actions and defensive measures that they could take in order to better secure their borders and better stop this illicit flow of drugs.
But again, it is an extremely concerning development for me. I think it has the unfortunate potential to sow regional instability in several of our key partner nations, something that we’ll stay very tightly aligned with them on as we work to find solutions to this problem that’s stemming out of Syria.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. At this point we’re out of time. I’m very sorry to those who did not get to ask their questions. But sir, Lieutenant General Grynkewish, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn the floor back over to you.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL GRYNKEWISH: No, thanks again for the opportunity to be here. I think I’ll end where I started, which is our partners and the network of allies and partners that we have in the region is really our most important asset. And I am absolutely committed to working with partner air forces here in the region and other partners who bring forces to the region with similar objectives to ours in order to help maintain peace and stability.
We’ve made good progress in the fight against ISIS. It’s not over yet, but it’s been a tremendously successful global coalition that has gotten us to where we are today. We’re, I think, deterring other regional aggressors like Iran – it remains a key concern of ours – and working to ensure that the growing relationship between Iran and Russia doesn’t contribute to further regional instability is absolutely essential.
How do we do that? Again, it’s back to partners. And whether it’s partners working with us and Task Force 99 on some of our innovative capabilities that we’re bringing in, or when we are able to bring in more traditional capabilities like the F-22s or the Bomber Task Force, those are absolutely essential elements of our approach to the region, and it’s my hope that that truly demonstrates the United States’ commitment and the fact that Air Forces Central is here to stay.
So again, thank you all very much for taking the time to join us today.
MODERATOR: Okay. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Lieutenant General Grynkewish for joining us, and thank all our colleagues from the media for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you very much, and have a wonderful rest of your day.
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