Telephonic Press Briefing with Colonel Sean Ryan, Spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve

Special Briefing
Colonel Sean Ryan, Spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve
via teleconference hosted by The Brussels Hub, Belgium
August 23, 2018

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 the Middle East, and to thank all of you for joining today’s discussion.

Today we are pleased to be joined from Baghdad by Colonel Sean Ryan, the Spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. We thank you, Colonel Ryan, for taking the time to speak with us today.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Colonel Ryan, 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. Today’s call is on the record.

With that, I will turn it over to Colonel Ryan.

Colonel Ryan: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for being here today. I am Colonel Sean Ryan and I’m the spokesman for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. I’ll start with a quick opening statement and then after that I’ll be happy to take your questions.

First in Iraq, operations by the Iraqi Security Forces to secure the country and to pursue Daesh remnants or ISIS remnants are ongoing in desolate and hardened governed areas such as the remote deserts of Anbar or in the mountains of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah ad-Din. The ISF continues to locate, identify and destroy ISIS remnants in addition to securing roads and infrastructure from attacks by malign actors.

In the first week of August alone, the collective operations conducted by the ISF across Iraq led to the arrest of more than 50 suspected terrorists, and 500 IEDs and munitions.

Additionally, the ISF continues to clear and secure a central infrastructure that countless Iraqi civilians rely on such as the busy roads of Irbil and Kirkuk, Hawija, Samarra, Salah ad-Din and the region’s power structure, which was subject to a number of ISIS terror attacks recently.

The ISF are very capable forces and I reiterate, we’re here at the government of Iraq’s invitation, as well as here as a partner, and no [Coalition] troops on the ground are engaged in combat operations.

Switching to Syria. Coalition forces and partners are conducting shaping operations in preparation for phase three of Operation Roundup whose ground offensive has not yet begun. Operation Roundup is an effort to accelerate the defeat of Daesh in the last territory they hold in the Euphrates River Valley.

Once the SDF is preparing for the offensive they are also enabling the safe passage of civilians leaving Hajin, the last ISIS stronghold in the Euphrates River Valley and assuring that ISIS fighters attempting to flee the area are apprehended.

In the remainder of Northeast Syria local internal security forces are securing cities through law enforcement and counter-IED activities enabling civilian stabilization efforts to continue and preventing the resurgence of ISIS.

Finally, stabilization efforts across Iraq and Syria continue to prevent the return of conditions under which ISIS arose. In Iraq, the government is working to improve living conditions across the country by addressing areas of most need, particularly in rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the fight against ISIS and providing access to daily necessities such as electricity and water.

In Syria, stabilization efforts are focused on saving lines, demining, water, electricity and the delivery of necessities.

With that, I will take your questions.

Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question comes to us from Deger Akal from Deutsche Welle Turkish service.

Question: Colonel Ryan, my first question would be how does U.S.-Turkey tensions affect progress against ISIS? Especially some officials have mentioned that the tension could jeopardize information-sharing and law enforcement cooperation. What are your views on this?

And my second question would be regarding Idlib especially. Tensions regarding Idlib. Do you worry, do you have concerns regarding this?

Colonel Ryan: To answer your first question, we work with Turkish forces every day and I believe those are more political tensions, not military tensions. Like I said, everything’s been pretty good with our Turkish counterparts so I don’t believe that is true at all.

As far as Idlib, that is not within our area of operations, so we generally do not comment on that.

Moderator: Thank you.

For our next question we will turn to Alice Hackman from AFP.

Question: Hello, my question is regarding the operation against the last IS pockets in [inaudible] which you mentioned, talking about upcoming operations. What is the main obstacle to taking the last pockets?

And my second question is, why, Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking and recruiting yesterday. Why is it taking so long to capture Baghdadi, and do you have any leads on where, his location, his whereabouts? Thank you.

Colonel Ryan: In regards to phase three of Operation Roundup, right now as I mentioned, we’re in shaping operations, getting ready for the final battle. It has taken a while because ISIS has left behind hundreds of improvised explosive devices which slows progress down. And also, we want to make sure we have our forces correctly aligned before we go in there.

The other major obstacle is making sure that the civilians can get out without being harmed, and that’s one of our main priorities.

As far as Baghdadi, he has been very well hidden, but right now in our estimation he’s been rendered helpless and ineffective. So we’re not too concerned about any comments coming from ISIS leadership as they’ve already announced his replacement a couple of weeks ago anyway, so I don’t think that has any impact on our battle here.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will go to Mohamed Ataya from in Egypt.

Question: My first question is, ISIS leaders [inaudible] from all over the world, and now this morning there is a terrorist attack back in France. Is ISIS gaining power in other areas?

My second question is, ISIS [inaudible] in many countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Are there tensions between [inaudible]?

Colonel Ryan: I can tell you that is one of the reasons the Coalition is in this area right now is because ISIS in an international problem. It requires an international solution.

So the fights right now are, of course, in Iraq and Syria, but again, the whole reason we want to destroy the last remnants of ISIS here is so they don’t go to other areas.

As far as your other question, again, we can’t comment on operations in Libya and Egypt, because right now that’s not our main concern. Our last concern is destroying the last remnants of ISIS.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will go to Aleksandrina Ginkova from Dnevnik in Bulgaria.

[No response].

Let’s go ahead and go to the next question. We’ll take another question from Duygu Guvenc from Cumhuriyet Daily in Turkey.

Question: Hello Mr. Colonel. Thanks very much for this report.

I would like to learn the latest developments in Manbij, and how is this going with respect to joint patrolling, the training, I want to learn.

And with respect to the withdrawal of some PYD guys, would you see some concrete numbers, statements and facts? When do we expect it to be realized? Thanks.

Colonel Ryan: Currently rehearsals are ongoing between Turkey and the United States. They are committed to a sustainable agreement to ensure stability and security in that area. This implementation will be based closely and follow developments on the ground.

Right now I don’t have any numbers because we don’t work with the YPG, so I can’t speak for them. But that was part of the agreement with the framework between the United States and Turkey. And as the Coalition spokesman I can’t get any deeper into that one.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we’ll go to a question submitted in advance by Francesco De Felice from Agenzia Nova in Italy. He asks:

Question: What is the situation at the Iraq-Syria border?

Colonel Ryan: Again, the last major area is going to be in the lower Euphrates River Valley, which comes close to the border. The Iraqi Security Forces have done a remarkable job securing the border. And of course the Syrian Democratic Forces are the main offense that will be going into Hajin once that offensive starts to destroy the last remnants in Hajin.

Between the Coalition, Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi Security forces there’s very good communication, and that is where we plan to defeat ISIS in that area once and for all.

Moderator: Thank you.

We will now go back to Aleksandrina Ginkova calling in from Bulgaria.

Question: Colonel, thank you for your time. I’d like to ask you what is the ideal scenario for the finish such as in Idlib?

Colonel Ryan: Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question because that is not within the Coalition’s area of operation.

Right now we are working in the lower Euphrates River Valley to destroy the last remnants of Daesh or ISIS in that area.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will turn to the reporter from the Frontliner in the UK.

Question: Thanks for giving us this opportunity.

My question is there has been some allegations that actually the foundation of some Islamic wing fighting group in Syria in late June/July 2012 were in agreement with Turkish government, and that agreement consisted of the previous Western agreement that they would agree to allow this Islamic wing military force to actually fight Kurdish rebels along the Turkish-Syrian border. Is that still going on? What’s the reality behind this? What have you got to say about it?

Colonel Ryan: That’s a very intriguing question, and I really can’t comment on that because that is not under the Coalition purview.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will again turn to a question submitted in advanced by Guido Lanfranchi from the Diplomat Magazine in the Netherlands. He asks:

Question: As compared to the early phases of Operation Inherent Resolve, the current scenario has completely changed with ISIL increasingly losing manpower and land and its militants being driven underground. How is the Coalition reconfiguring its operations in the face of these changes?

Colonel Ryan: The Coalition along with the Syrian Democratic Forces, our partner force in that area, are continually changing military tactics to destroy the last remnants of ISIS in that area.

It’s going to be a tough fight, and we believe that ISIS is going to try to make a last stand, and we already know that they’re going to be laying improvised explosive devices, there’s going to be probably a wise use of suicide vests, whenever they can deploy something of that manner. It’s going to be a very difficult fight, but we believe overall militarily we will defeat them because we have greater forces and greater military capability.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will go to Lamia Yousry calling in from El-Zamen newspaper in Egypt.

Question: Sir, let me ask [inaudible] fighting [inaudible]. Is the push of ISIS [inaudible], and [inaudible] ISIS members?

Colonel Ryan: I couldn’t hear all that question, but I can tell you that the Coalition is here to destroy all remnants of ISIS and of course we target their top leaders whenever possible. And I can tell you that we’ve already seen a lot of leaders from ISIS flee the battlefield. They’re taking any lines they can find to escape. They’re abandoning their own forces, taking monies and supplies with them. So again, right now our last stand is in the lower Euphrates River Valley, and we hopefully plan on taking out all the rest of them in that area. And with our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, they’re performing very well, but we do expect this to be a long, hard fight.

Moderator: Thank you.

For our next question we will go to Giannis Symeonidis who is calling in from Politik.GR in Greece.

[No response].

Okay, we’ll go to our next question which is from Deger Akal with Deutsche Welle Service in Turkish. Thank you.

Question: Colonel Ryan, there is difference in [inaudible] ISIS, but there are different mechanisms regarding Syria. The latest one was proposed by President Erdogan inviting the German, French and Russian leaders together in Turkey. I would want to know what the Coalition’s position is regarding peace in Syria and all these different mechanisms, whether you think it’s constructive or whether, how do these different mechanisms affect your work?

Colonel Ryan: Of course peace is always the best offense whenever we can come to that. That’s a very political question and I can’t comment on that.

But again, we’re convinced that we need to destroy the last remnants of ISIS in Syria in the lower Euphrates River Valley. That is our mission, and we plan to complete that.

Hopefully the fighting will lead to a political process eventually, but again, that’s way above the Coalition right now. We’re just focused on our mission.

Moderator: Thank you.

We will again try to go to Giannis Symeonidis from Politik in Greece. Mr. Symeonidis, are you there for a question?

[No response].

All right, it appears he’s not on the line, so we will go to our next question which is Guido Lafranchi calling in from the Diplomat Magazine.

Question: Colonel Ryan, thank you for taking time to brief us.

My question would be on the evolution of Operation Inherent Resolve. It [goes back to] the early stages of the operation. The current scenario is very much changed. So ISIL has increasedly lost manpower and land and they have been driven underground, most of them.

How is the Coalition reconsidering its operations in the face of these changes? Thank you very much.

Colonel Ryan: Indeed, the military battle has changed. In other areas it was house to house, very urban fighting. Now it’s changed to a very complex desert fighting area where ISIS is living underground in tunnels and scattered throughout which does make for a difficult battle. But again, I believe the Syrian Democratic Forces along with the Coalition will defeat ISIS in the lower Euphrates River Valley, and we will also be able to finally liberate the citizens of Hajin which has only known ISIS the last four to five years, and whose children who have not been able to go to school for five to seven years, and who have not received basic necessities like other parts of the country. So that is our mission, and we plan to complete it.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question comes to us from Mohamed Ataya from Masrawy.

Question: [Inaudible] that occurred yesterday, and asked for [inaudible] in Syria to go out from Syria. How did you [inaudible]? Was there any kind of cooperation between [inaudible] forces and Syria? Thank you.

Colonel Ryan: Can you repeat that first part again, please?

Question: Russian authorities were asked from the foreign powers and foreign countries in Syria to get out from this place. Are there any kind of cooperation between Russia and the Coalition in Syria?

Colonel Ryan: We do not coordinate with the Russians, but we do have a deconfliction with them to ensure that all soldiers on both sides are safe. But that is all.

Moderator: Thank you very much.

For our next question we will go to Jan van Benthem from Nederlands Dagblad.

Question: Thank you, Colonel Ryan for this briefing. One question is, did you also [inaudible] the Coalition to the latest statement of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which was sent out in a new audio message by ISIS where he calls for worldwide attacks. Do you believe this is a recent audio taping? Or do you think it’s an older one and Baghdadi is out of function or even dead?

Colonel Ryan: I’d be speculating to answer that question, but I can tell you, as I mentioned before, we believe his leadership is irrelevant, and again, we’re focused on defeating the last remnants of ISIS. So whether he is around or not doesn’t really matter. We have our mission, and that is to defeat them in the lower Euphrates River Valley, and that is what we’re going to do.

Moderator: Thank you.

We will now go back to Alice Hackman with the AFP.

Question: Hello again, thank you so much for this briefing and taking our questions.

You said before that Bakr al-Baghdadi was irrelevant. And you mentioned that IS had announced his replacement. Is that correct? And if so, who will be replacing him? Who would you think it would be? Thank you.

Colonel Ryan: Yeah, they announced that a couple of weeks ago. His name is slipping me so I’ll have to get back to you on that one. But again, you know what, they’re down to their last fighters. They’re going to try to make a hard stand. And like we’ve seen them do already, they’re looking for spectacular attacks to make themselves seem relevant when really they’re militarily defeated almost except for the area that we’re about to go into.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our final question will come to us from Francesco De Felice with Agenzia Nova in Italy.

Question: Thank you.

I just would like to ask you how the withdrawal of the [inaudible] from Syria-Iraqi border announced on August 21st can affect the Coalition operations on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Colonel Ryan: We work closely with the Iraqi Security Forces, and that is really all we communicate with. Then of course they dictate where their forces go and how their forces operate. So they are a very strong partner of ours and we rely on them and they rely on us for communications and logistics in other areas, but we’re very secure in the decisions that they make.

Moderator: Thank you. It looks like we’ll be able to fit in just one more question. And that’s from Richard Spencer with the Times in the UK.

Question: Thank you very much.

Two questions, if I may. One is as John Bolton, the National Security Advisor for the U.S. yesterday, when [inaudible] have gone before [inaudible], he said that the mission in Syria includes now countering Iran influence in the region. And that implies that President Trump’s determination [inaudible]. Can you explain a bit more about how that might work? What are you going to do about Iran?

And a much more [inaudible] question is, [inaudible] a week or two ago said they were now maybe the figure 14,000 ISIS fighters in western Syria which is a lot higher than we previously thought. How many fighters do you think are in the Euphrates River Valley that you’ve been talking about?

Colonel Ryan: To answer your first question about Ambassador Bolton, it’s a political decision, not one for the Coalition. That’s very United States specific so I can’t get into that because I am the Coalition spokesman.

As far as the numbers, yes, this has been discussed. We’re looking into the metrics behind these numbers because when we are asked about ISIS fighter numbers we’re solely talking about the fighters that we’re going against in that particular battle.

In the Euphrates River Valley we have put out multiple times that we believe there are between 1,000 to 1,500 fighters left and that’s what we’re calling the last remnants of ISIS in that area.

Moderator: Thank you.

Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for.

Colonel Ryan, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?

Colonel Ryan: Yes. I would just like to say the challenges ahead in Iraq and Syria are great. We encourage the rest of the world to ensure that the radicalism and terror no longer find fertile ground in Iraq and the rest of the world also.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any follow-ons, just let us know.

Moderator: I want to thank you, Colonel Ryan, for joining us and to thank all of you for participating and for your questions.