Telephonic Press Briefing with Colonel Ryan Dillon, Spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Today we are very pleased to be joined from Baghdad by Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve
We thank you, Colonel Dillon, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Colonel Dillon, and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 45 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Colonel Dillon.
Colonel Dillon: All right. Thank you very much and good morning everyone. I’m pleased to speak with you today to provide an operational update on the Coalition’s efforts --
[Discussion of concurrent Russian translation.]
Colonel Dillon: As I said, I will provide you an operational update on the Coalition’s efforts to defeat Daesh in Iraq and in Syria.
We’ll begin in Syria, and then we’ll move to Iraq.
In Syria, the fight continues against Daesh terrorists who remain a threat to the people of Syria and the wider region. The Syrian Democratic Forces therefore continue to pursue Daesh, specifically around Hajin, along the Euphrates River, and in the desert areas along the Syrian and Iraqi border. The SDF have completed clearance operations in Kharayij and Al Bahrah, as well as back-clearing more than 100 square kilometers in this last week.
The Coalition continues to support our Syrian Democratic Force partners in the fight against Daesh through advisors, intelligence sharing, and precision strikes. We remain singular in our focus to defeat Daesh terrorists in Syria. Any unrelated issues or operations are an unwanted distraction to the defeat of Daesh, pulling attention away from that. To be very clear, the Coalition only supports military efforts strictly related to defeating Daesh, and we urge all parties in the region to maintain the same focus.
As has already been reported, the Coalition recently defended ourselves when we and our SDF partners came under an unprovoked attack on the 7th of February, after aggressors moved east across the Euphrates River, the well-defined deconfliction measure established between the Coalition and Russia. After an SDF headquarters began taking fire, the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the Coalition targeted these aggressors with a combination of air and artillery strikes. Coalition advisors were with the SDF in an advise, assist and accompany capacity, and our actions were taken purely in self-defense. In accordance with standard deconfliction protocol, Coalition Forces communicated with the Russians and raised our concerns before, during and after this unprovoked attack on our forces. To be clear, the Coalition always retains our right to self-defense, and remains steadfast and undeterred in our mission to completely defeat Daesh.
While we remain focused on rooting out Daesh terrorists from the remaining territory they hold, we also support the SDF in pursuing and targeting foreign terrorist fighters attempting to escape through neighboring countries and inflict further harm across the region and the world. We are proud of the progress in this effort, with the SDF capturing hundreds of these foreign-born terrorists.
Finally, we are cognizant that any truly enduring victory over Daesh requires the Global Coalition’s continued commitment to the security and stabilization of liberated areas. The need for security is being met through local partners such as the Manbij Military Council and the Raqqa Internal Security Force. In addition to preventing Daesh’s return, these security elements play an essential role in clearing the many improvised explosives and booby traps left behind by Daesh terrorists, a dangerous but necessary task before residents can return to their homes, and people can get back to work. Such efforts to establish safety and security help pave the way for civilian-led efforts to address local needs.
We recognize the long-term stability in these areas must come from civil and diplomatic lines of effort, with the support of the Global Coalition, and we remain committed to ensuring these organizations can do their job in a safe and secure environment so that essential services can be restored, markets and schools can reopen, and life can return to normalcy.
Shifting to Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces have continued security and clearance operations across the country, resulting in finding and safely clearing IEDs from dozens of Iraqi homes during this month.
In addition, Iraqi Security Forces in the Provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah al Din, continue to discover Daesh cave networks with weapons caches containing large supplies of IEDs, suicide vests, and a variety of bomb-making material, all deadly reminders of the evil, fanatical nature of our enemy. Local and Federal Police, Army, and SWAT teams have all found, arrested, or killed terrorists set on continuing to cause harm.
Our Iraqi partners’ continued efforts against these Daesh remnants demonstrates our shared resolve to continue pursuing these terrorists and protecting the people of Iraq, and indeed the world, from any kind of terrorist resurgence.
The Coalition will therefore, at the request of Iraq, continue to work with Iraqi Security Forces with a focus on enhancing our partners’ capacity to protect their country through strong, sustainable security forces. We will tailor our support based on Iraq’s requirements, with a particular emphasis on the capabilities needed to hold and secure liberated areas. That means more training and support to the Iraqi Police and Border Guard Forces as examples.
To that end, I’m pleased to announce the ongoing divestment of mission-essential equipment for the Iraqi Police and Border Guard Forces. We have distributed dozens of containers called “Police Presence in a Box,” equipped with many of the necessary supplies to help police stations get up and running in their communities. And similar equipment, and associated training, is also being delivered to Iraqi Border Guard Forces to enable them to more quickly and effectively secure the border areas and prevent the movement of terrorists in and out of Iraq.
At the same time, the support of the Global Coalition is helping empower local residents to rebuild their communities. For immediate stabilization needs 25 countries, including many partners from the U.S.-led Global Coalition, have committed more than $785 million to the United Nations Development Program’s Funding Facility for Stabilization . This is an initiative that supports local governments and employs local workers to restore essential services, revitalize local economies and clean up the damage left by Daesh. From this fund, the UNDP has already completed or begun more than 1,900 stabilization projects in 25 different liberated areas, helping to facilitate the return of more than 3.3 million displaced Iraqis.
We are appreciative of the ongoing support from all members of the Global Coalition, 71 nations and four international organizations, whose contributions are essential to the lasting defeat of Daesh, and ultimately, the security and stabilization of the region.
With that, I’ll now be happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Colonel Dillon. Our first question comes to us from Deutsche Welle Turkish, from Değer Akal.
Question: Colonel Dillon, I have two questions. The first one is a Turkish question on YPD continues. Salih Muslim was arrested in Prague. The operation in Afrin continues. And Erdogan also continues pressing last week with a statement related to mandates. There were reports on the Turkish proposal to push YPD out of limits by assessing the situation on the ground. Do you think that this is possible? How do you evaluate this proposal?
And the first follow-up, Turkey is hosting multiple U.S. military assets and is also part of the Coalition in that it plays a role. I would like to know if you have witnessed any difficulties or limitations due to the tensions lately. How would you describe your cooperation with the Turkish military? Thank you.
Colonel Dillon: Thank you for the question. I think I got most of that, and if I miss anything in my response, please let me know.
What I will say is that the, as I stated, our number one effort as the Combined Joint Task Force is to defeat ISIS, specifically east of the Euphrates River, and to prevent any resurgence of ISIS in areas that have already been liberated.
There are, as I also mentioned, unlike Iraq where all the territory has been liberated, ISIS still holds ground in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and our partners, the SDF, are continuing to put pressure on and fight to retake and root out ISIS from these locations.
What I can say is that with the recent activities that are ongoing in Afrin,that has distracted and pulled fighters away from the Middle Euphrates River Valley to defeat ISIS. That is concerning for the Coalition. And as a member of the Coalition, and with officers that reside in our headquarters, we have let Turkey know how what is going on in Afrin has impacted the mission to defeat ISIS.
I would also address that in Manbij we have maintained a presence there, the Coalition, to prevent groups in that area from fighting one another. We have been successful in doing that, in allowing local governance to take root, and we have been in communication with our Turkish partners at this location almost on a daily basis over the course of the last year and a half.
I understand that Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have met recently with their counterparts from Turkey and have talked about moving forward on finding some kind of mechanism to move ahead in Manbij. I don’t know any of the outcomes of those discussions yet, but we know that the diplomatic efforts are always the way to begin, ramping down the rhetoric and/or discussions of any kind of confrontation between NATO allies and coalition partners.
So I’ll go ahead and stop right there, and if I did not hit something, please ask again.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Rym Momtaz from ABC News.
Question: Thank you very much, Colonel Dillon. I just have one question on Iraq and two on Syria, if I may.
Let’s start with Syria. You mentioned that the incident with, in which you kind of had to return fire. The Washington Post had some pretty good reporting on the Russian mercenary contractors who were involved in that incident. According to the Washington Post reporting, they were in direct touch with people in the Kremlin and with Syrian authorities in the buildup to that confrontation.
Is there anything more that you can tell us about the involvement of the Kremlin in provoking that incident? That’s one.
Second, Sputnik reported this weekend that the SDF was planning on passing control of Manbij to the regime like they did in Afrin. Is that correct or not?
On Iraq, we’ve seen reports that this past week was probably the deadliest for ISF since Mosul ended last summer, with an uptick of ISIS attacks in multiple places. Can you speak more to that please?
Colonel Dillon: Thank you for that.
To address the first question about those strikes and the unprovoked attack on Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces on the 7th of February, what I will say is I’ve seen the open reporting as well. We have not determined who exactly nor the motives of the elements that started that attack and provoked that attack. What I will say is that we, regardless of who that could have been, what I will say is that the response would not change.
As I said in the opening, our actions were purely in self-defense. I would say anyone who is attacking with artillery and with tanks will receive the exact same kind of response that we provided. We have the inherent right to defend ourselves and we will do that without hesitation.
If anything, I hope that this response serves as an indicator of how we seriously take our defense and will prevent any types of attacks like this from happening again.
Regarding your second question in reference to, I think your next question was the SDF and any kind of deals potentially made with the regime. I don’t have any information on that. What I can say is that the Syrian Democratic Forces have been a proven partner in this fight against ISIS. We look back at exactly a year ago today and Raqqa was still completely in the hands of ISIS. No one else was prepared or ready to move, and remove ISIS from their capital. The SDF were able to do that. And the SDF Commander, General [inaudible] has been a remarkable commander, has been true to his word, and anything that he does is for Syrians and in that particular part of Syria, and those are his decisions. That is one of the main principles of our overall campaign is by working by, with and through our partners in both Iraq and Syria.
Then addressing your final question about the recent attacks in Iraq, even with Prime Minister Abadi announcing full liberation of Iraq in December, where there is no black flag of ISIS flying over any town, city or village in the country, we do recognize that ISIS still poses a threat. We’ve seen that recently. The Coalition will continue to provide the intelligence and the advisors and the training and equipment to address these challenges moving into the future.
I hope that answers your question.
Moderator: Thank you. For our next question we will turn to Julian Barnes from the Wall Street Journal.
Question: Thank you.
I have a question on Iraq and then maybe one on Syria.
On Iraq, NATO has been discussing the possibility of expanding its training mission. Colonel Dillon, do you have a sense of what areas the Coalition would yield to the NATO mission and how you make sure that this is not duplicative? I know NATO’s been talking about building up the sort of Professional Military Education in Iraq.
Then on Syria, if there was an agreement for Kurdish forces to pull to the east of the Euphrates Valley, is it your assessment that the remainder of the SDF forces would be strong enough to retain, to continue on with the fight against the remaining Daesh forces east of the Euphrates? Or is it the case now that the Kurdish forces that are part of the SDF are still needed east of the Euphrates?
Colonel Dillon: Thanks for that. To address your first question, reference to NATO in Iraq. NATO is already a Coalition partner. NATO is already conducting some missions and training opportunities in Iraq with the Iraqi Security Forces. They just had a delegation that came through here, a military delegation, to conduct a fact-finding mission, if you will, to identify opportunities and exactly addressing what you were talking about. What are those things that NATO has at their disposal that they can provide that is not duplicative of already ongoing efforts?
So many of the NATO countries are already here in Iraq providing niche capabilities to the Iraqi Security Forces, and I will just highlight one in particular. We talked about the transition from major combat operations to conducting security for people in Iraq. This was said during the Mosul battle by one of our generals, is that the future face of Iraqi security is not an Army soldier, but rather a police uniform. And here in Iraq the Italians are providing special police unit training to the Federal Police and I just bring that up because the Italians are, they run the Center of Excellence for Special Police Units. They are arguably the best at what they do. And so identifying and finding those types of partners and how they can enhance training for Iraqis moving towards the future is something that we are very much looking at.
As far as your second question, I do not want to get into hypotheticals and speculation on what could happen with the SDF. But what I would say is that the Syrian Democratic Forces, they are a multi-ethnic group of Syrians that include Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidi and others. The majority of that right now sitting about a 57,000-member force, the majority are Arab. However, we recognize that much of the leadership is Kurdish and they have proven that they can work together, and we will continue to train those elements in leadership as well so that potentially others, and not just Kurds, are also at the front line and taking leadership roles. And many of them have already.
I hope that addresses your questions.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Alec Luhn from the Daily Telegraph.
Question: Hi, Colonel Dillon. Thanks for taking questions.
I wanted to return briefly to the attack on February 7th. It’s pretty clear by now that Russian citizens were killed in that attack. Are you not worried that the first clash between U.S. and Russian citizens in half a century could happen again in Syria? Are you worried that it could hinder cooperation between Russia and the United States on both military and diplomatic levels? And finally, do you think there is a growing threat of conflict between external players in Syria, now that the Islamic State is being pushed out?
Colonel Dillon: Thanks for the question. I will answer the first part of that to say that throughout this attack on the 7th of February, 7th and 8th of February, we have maintained on a daily basis, multiple times a day, an open communication with our Russian counterparts in Syria so that we can deconflict our operations. We did that as we saw the buildup of these forces prior to the attack on the 7th. We communicated that to our Russian counterparts. And when they began the attack we immediately got on the phone and talked to them as well.
The professionalism on that line has continued since about the June time frame. Actually, the deconfliction line has been in place since 2015, but I will say that it has really come into play as we’ve seen the convergence of the Syrian Regime Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, as they got closer to Raqqa and [inaudible] as an example. That was around May/June time frame. So the need for this deconfliction line has been necessary as we have gotten closer to each other’s operations. That deconfliction line is in place. It haw always been in use and we will continue to use it so that we can pursue our goal which is defeating ISIS.
So that’s how I’ll address your first question.
On the second question, you’re asking about external players coming into Syria. I will just say that we will continue to focus on our mission which has been the exact same for three years, and that is on the defeat of ISIS. We have not transitioned, we have not moved away from that stance from the very beginning. And as a result of that, ISIS, which has been a global threat, has lost more than 98 percent of the territory they once held. The $7.7 million people that were once under their control are now free.
And the one thing that I would highlight is that all of that territory that our partners in Iraq and Syria have taken, not an inch of it, not a single meter, has been retaken by ISIS. That is because the value we put on the [hold] forces to secure these locations, and then also instituting local security forces to establish themselves as a responsive and representative of the areas where ISIS has been defeated. That is the blueprint that we have used and that’s how we’re going to continue to move into the future in this fight against ISIS.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Ana Pisonero from Europa Press in Spain.
Moderator: We’ll turn to the next question which is with Laura Makin with British Forces.
Question: Hi, and good morning. My question is probably pretty straight-forward, actually.
I was looking for a few further details with regards to the British Royal Air Force input into Operation Inherent Resolve over the last couple of months, and is that input with regards to airstrikes changing?
Colonel Dillon: What I will actually do is I will say that the Royal Air Force has played a vital role throughout this campaign. I will not talk specifically about their contributions by platform or number of strikes. What I can say is that overall for the Coalition the nature of the campaign has shifted and I will, you know, strike numbers from September as high as they were at 1,500 in September, and that included both Syria and Iraq. I can tell you that in January that has shrunk to just under 300 strikes, and those are still some in Iraq, but the majority of those are in Syria where we are still fighting ISIS.
The strikes in Iraq have gone down significantly because of the territorial losses, but at the same time the Iraqi Air Force is also capable of conducting many of these strikes, in particular in the desert regions in Anbar. And in Syria, again, those strikes are predominantly focused in the Middle Euphrates River Valley area.
So strikes have gone down significantly. Our process and our rigorous standards on conducting strikes on legitimate military targets and identifying our targets have not changed nor have the rules of engagement.
I’ll go ahead and stop there.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
As we wait for a final question or two, Colonel Dillon, just a question from the Moderator.
You’ve talked a lot about the success the Coalition has had, but can you talk a little bit about the strategy moving forward?
Colonel Dillon: Yes. We’ve talked about the success so the strategy as we’ve moved forward, we’ve talked a little bit about instituting local security forces and having them address the future challenges and the future threats of the ISIS remnants in both Iraq and Syria.
I would say that the training aspect in Iraq, we’ve talked about the transition from major combat operations. The Coalition has trained more than 135,000 Iraq Security Force members in this campaign. Out of those we have trained Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, the Border Guard Force, Peshmerga which are the Kurdish Security Force fighters that are in the northern part of Iraq, Counterterrorism Service, and the Tribal Mobilization Forces.
The majority of the training that we do for Iraqi Security Forces are from non-U.S. partner nations. We have Australians, Spanish, Germans, Danish, Italians as examples. And they continue to work on many different aspects of security, whether it be policing, whether it be combined operations or if it’s the niche capabilities talked about, flying drones and gathering intelligence, or even talking about the use of horizontal and vertical construction tasks and things that can be used long after their service in the military as they transition also.
So that was just a small smattering of what it is that we are doing with the Iraqis. The Iraqis are the ones who have said this is the type of training we want, this is where we want it, and this is by whom we want that type of training. And that will continue as we move forward in this campaign.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Ana Pisonero from Europa Press, we’ll try her line again.
Question: My first question is if we could have any information on the status of Abu Bakr. From our sources we understand that he could still be alive.
Also if you could talk a bit about the leadership of the Islamic state. What’s left of it and where are they mainly concentrated.
Also if you can give us an idea of the number of returnees that would have come back to Europe both again from Iraq and Syria. That would be very good. Thank you.
Colonel Dillon: Thank you for that. As far as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We know that throughout this campaign there have been many nations, many different people who have talked about Baghdadi’s demise and his death. The Coalition has, without any concrete evidence that says that he is 100 percent dead, we will assume that he is alive. And as such, we will continue to hunt him down. And not exclusively Baghdadi, but any of the high-value individuals that are part of the ISIS organization.
The Coalition has very much put an effort on ripping apart their networks and the different types of operations that they run. So as an example, we have ripped apart their ability to finance their operations. We have gone after their ability to inspire, recruit and bring in foreign terrorist fighters. We talked about counter-Daesh propaganda. Any of the locations where they have operated from with the territorial losses, Raqqa and Abu Kamal, they have not produced at the level that they once did in 2014 and 2015.
So we will continue to rip apart these networks. And at the same time, any of the information that we have received from any of the detainees, the foreign detainees or ISIS high-value leadership, allows us to illuminate the rest of their networks and go after them.
I would say that in the course of the last two years we have killed nearly 200 ISIS high-value targets, their leaders, and we will continue to do so with impunity as they have attempted to continue to cause terror throughout the world.
As far as the number of foreign terrorist fighters that have made their way back into Europe, that is a number that we do not know. But our intent is to not allow ISIS fighters to leave Iraq and Syria.
As a part of the greater Coalition, there is a Foreign Terrorist Fighter Working Group and they focus on supporting and encouraging preventive counterterrorism-related information sharing throughout appropriate bilateral and collective law enforcement channels. And a partner in the Global Coalition is Interpol. So sharing information amongst the different countries has also prevented and has captured several ISIS fighters attempting to move throughout the world and throughout the region.
I hope that addresses your question.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We now have a question submitted in writing from Tereza Engelova who is from a Czech news organization.
Her question is, “What is your position towards Idlib Province where ISIS elements have moved since Raqqa was captured by SDF? Are you going to be actively involved in pursuit of these radical elements there? Or will you leave it to the Russians and Iran? Thank you.
Colonel Dillon: Thank you for that question. Right now Idlib is not a location where the Coalition is operating. We have talked before about the deconfliction line and we talked about how congested the airs over Syria are. And as far as any future involvement in that location, that will be a diplomatic discussion if there’s any type of efforts by the Coalition to do so.
Right now we have stayed focused on only fighting Daesh and that has largely been east of the Euphrates River, and preventing their resurgence in Northern Syria, in places like Manbij. So we are not operating in Idlib and that would be a decision by the governments that provide security forces, military forces to the Coalition to make those decisions.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Ms. Akal with Deutsche Welle Turkish.
Question: --security concern. I would want to know what in your view could be a way to ease Turkey’s concerns. What would you propose to address these concerns?
Colonel Dillon: I think you were cut off, the initial part of your question, but I understand you’re asking about Turkey’s concerns.
Actually, I will let you ask the beginning part of that because I don’t know if you’re talking about Afrin, if you’re talking about Kurdish elements of the SDF. Can you ask again please?
Question: My question would be, obviously Turkey is concerned because of PYD and YPG, and is afraid of Kurdish autonomous region on the border. So I would want to know what your position or your view would be in order to ease the tension between the U.S. and Ankara, and of course towards the stability of Syria. What could, in your view, be the path for Turkey and the U.S. and YPG and PYD to find a common ground? What would you propose?
Colonel Dillon: What I will address is what we are doing, and what we have done since we began in May, right before we began operations to root ISIS out of their capital in Raqqa. That is when we began to provide equipment to the Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
As I mentioned before, we have Turkish officers that are within our headquarters, and I would also say that we have liaison officers that are in Ankara, in Incirlik. But we have been open and transparent with the type of weapons that we have provided to the Kurdish elements of the SDF. Again, we were in a position last year at this time as we were looking at Raqqa and isolating Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Caliphate, and the SDF were those who were best positioned and the only ones positioned to defeat ISIS in their capital.
We were still in the fight in Mosul and we saw how ISIS fought and the types of tactics that they use, particularly from these vehicle-born improvised explosive devices. So from the very beginning in May of last year any of the equipment that we provided to the Kurdish elements was well-known and was shared with Turkey throughout this. We have advisors that have been with them all along, and the SDF have also said that they would use the equipment that we provided to them exclusively for the fight against ISIS. That equipment was also metered out and was provided in limited quantities for the specific engagements that were used, that we fought against ISIS.
So dialogue and open communications will continue to be the way forward to assuage Turkish concerns of terrorist threats on their border. And we as the United States also recognize that the PKK is a terrorist organization, and we understand Turkey’s legitimate security concerns in their border area.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for.
Colonel Dillon, do you have any closing remarks that you would like to offer?
Colonel Dillon: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to so many different outlets from throughout the region, and what I would say is that the fight against ISIS has been incredibly successful up to this point. I had talked about more than 7.5 million people who have been freed from under their control. The Coalition has degraded ISIS’ ability to conduct battlefield operations, plan and finance and direct their terror attacks, and also to recruit and move foreign terrorist fighters.
We will continue to work with our partners in both Iraq and in Syria and in the greater Global Coalition to continue to address this threat by these fanatical terrorists so that the region and our homelands can remain free of these terrorists.
It is a global effort, and it is one that we are proud to be a part of, and we just hope that we continue to move along in the right direction to the lasting and complete defeat of Daesh.
With that, I thank everyone for participating.
Moderator: I want to thank you, Colonel Dillon, as well, for joining us and to thank all of our journalists for participating and for your questions.