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 Major General Matthew McFarlane, the commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul. During this call, Major General McFarlane and Deputy Assistant Secretary Stroul will provide an update on the ongoing D-ISIS mission.
After opening remarks, the speakers 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.
I will now turn it over to Major General McFarlane for his opening remarks. Major General, the floor is yours.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thank you, Sam, and good evening to everybody from CJTF-OIR, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. As we observe the end of Ramadan, I’d like to thank you all for being here and look forward to the next few minutes to provide some updates on our campaign to defeat ISIS.
If you walk away with one thing tonight, I want it to be the progress we have made, our partners have made, and the coalition in support of them, in the campaign against Daesh, or ISIS. While ISIS, or Deash, remains military defeated and hold no territory, the Deash ideology remains unconstrained and active, seeking to reconstitute and resume their campaign of hate in this region and around the world. But thanks to the efforts of our partners supported by the coalition, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in Deash, or ISIS, activity and effectiveness across our area of operations.
Since the beginning of this year in Iraq – so that’s January 1st through the first week of April – we’ve seen a – recorded a 68 percent reduction in attacks when compared to the same period last year. In Syria, where our partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to lead the fight against Daesh, we recorded a 55 percent decrease during the same time from last year. And when I say attacks, a reduction in attacks, I’m talking about opportunistic engagements, so relatively small from one to a few individuals. ISIS has failed to organize or coordinate anything more than that over the past year.
To punctuate this success of our partnership, I want to highlight some stats from this past Ramadan, which has been one of the most peaceful in years thanks to the combined efforts of our partners. This year there were only 19 recorded attacks of any kind in Iraq, an 87 percent decrease – or actually 80 percent decrease from last year and 87 percent from 2020. The same was true in Syria, seeing only 19 attacks, a 37 percent decrease from 2022 and a 70 percent decrease from 2020.
As our partners continue to disrupt and dismantle ISIS cells and activities, we continue to also focus on preventing any reemergence of ISIS through our repatriation efforts from detention facilities and IDP camps.
As you know, repatriating the thousands of displaced persons in northeast Syria and those in detention facilities requires international action and is critical to buying down the risk of a resurgence. Daesh is a brand, and, as I mentioned, they are militarily defeated; they still have an unconstrained ideology. And so efforts to repatriate those that are in the detention facilities and IDP camps, spearheaded by our State Department for the U.S. and other ministries of foreign affairs that are working to bring back any detainees and IDPs to countries of origin, is essential to the long-term defeat.
So far in 2023, we’ve seen the repatriation or the SDF have repatriated over 1,300 third-country nationals from al-Hol camp. However, there still remains a large amount of third-country nationals in these camps in northeast Syria awaiting repatriation to their homelands. The IDP camps continue to remain a strategic problem that requires an international solution.
In addition to the progress that we’ve seen with ISIS and our partners, we’ve also seen progress specifically as partners build the required capacity and capability to sustain the enduring defeat. In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Regional Government established the first two Peshmerga divisions in Kurdistan in early April, a key milestone for Peshmerga reform and a significant demonstration of the commitment of our partners to the long-term security and stability of the region.
We remain vigilant and cautiously optimistic of the progress against ISIS and Deash that we are seeing in Iraq and Syria. We remain laser focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh, or ISIS, and our role to advise, assist, and enable our partners.
I look forward to your questions tonight and I appreciate you joining us to discuss our progress in the fight against ISIS. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, Major General. I’ll now turn the floor over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Dana Stroul for her opening remarks. The floor is yours.
MS STROUL: Well, thank you so much to all of you for joining us across the region, and Eid Mubarak to those of you celebrating the end of Ramadan. Thank you so much to General McFarlane not only for his remarks today, but for the incredible, professional, and committed work of the general and his forces across Iraq and Syria, who are working every day with partners for the enduring defeat of Daesh.
What I’d like to do is just add a few remarks from the Pentagon perspective. The first is to hopefully highlight for all of you a press release, which you have already read, from April 4th, 2023, from CENTCOM, which provided a month in review from March of where we are in the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. And in that press release, it notes the number of partnered operations and the number of U.S.-only operations in Iraq and Syria against Daesh. The most important thing to note here is zero. Zero U.S.-only operations in either Iraq and Syria.
And the point here is the imperative of partnership. In Iraq, we have transitioned our military role to an advice, assist, and enable, where Iraqi Security Forces are in the lead every single day and U.S. forces remain present in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq. Secretary Austin traveled to Iraq in early March very specifically to consult with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and Erbil about the status and where we are in the fight against Daesh, but also to underscore the unchanged U.S. commitment to partnering so that Iraqi civilians and people can recover from the depravities of Daesh and live their lives with dignity and economic prosperity.
And in Syria, zero – zero U.S.-only partnered operations because the Syrian Democratic Forces and their professionalism and unchanged commitment to partnering with us to ensure that Daesh cannot reconstitute is critical to how we achieve this mission.
Speaking of partnership, I also want to emphasize the international nature of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh. There are over 80 countries as well as the NATO mission in Iraq who partner with U.S. forces in Iraq, and also in Syria, not only for counterterrorism military operations, but also to defeat Daesh propaganda and ideology – as you heard from General McFarlane, we are still concerned about Daesh ideology – to counter Daesh financing and funding, and also to work on the long-term repatriation goals that the global coalition has not only for Daesh detainees, 10,000 of which are still under Syrian Democratic Forces custody in Syria, but also the nearly 50,000 displaced peoples, largely families and children, at the al-Hol and the al-Raj displaced people’s camps in Syria.
The enduring defeat of Daesh will not be accomplished if we do not work across the international community to reduce these populations in Syria and also for displaced persons at the al-Hol and al-Raj camp, facilitate their rehabilitation and reintegration into their countries of origin. This of course is where it’s not only a military line of effort that will achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh. You heard General McFarlane reference this. We are working not only across the U.S. Government but with all likeminded countries who would like to ensure that Daesh is not able to return and retake territory across the Middle East that will threaten the security and stability of our partners.
So we are working with governments to encourage them to repatriate their either detainees or their families that are at the al-Hol camp, and also facilitate and share lessons learned and best practices on how to reintegrate and rehabilitate those who are able to into their societies.
This is incredibly important work. We here in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Defense are consistently consulting with the U.S. Congress as well as those across the U.S. Government to ensure that we have the funding, the resources, and also the political commitment to ensure high-level attention and continuity in this critical mission.
I look forward to your questions, and thank you again.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you both for those opening remarks. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue. We did receive many questions in advance from some of our colleagues around the region, including our Arabic-speaking colleagues who are listening on the Arabic interpretation line. I’m going to try to get through as many questions as possible in the short time we have.
Our first question is a pre-submitted question and it comes from Wladimir van Wilgenburg from Iraq’s K24 media outlet. And he asks, “What is your assessment of the capabilities of local forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, such as the ISF, Peshmerga, and SDF? Do they still require air or intelligence support or are they capable of conducting operations independently?” Over to our speakers for the answer to that question.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thanks for that question. I’ll speak to that and if Dana has anything to add, I’d ask her to pile on there.
Certainly from my perspective, I continue to be impressed with the competence and capabilities that our partners continue to demonstrate, specifically with the ISF and the SDF conducting wide-area security operations of which the ISF has recently done two, to include one during Ramadan or two during Ramadan, which continue to keep pressure and prevent Daesh from re-establishing any type of network or effective military effort.
Through our advise, assist, and enable approach, we continue to focus on those areas of which the ISF requests our support, which does include things like ISR support, requested advisement in certain areas to include planning and the execution of operations, and we focus on the operational level and specifically combined arms operations as they continue to build the capacity to sustain the enduring defeat that everyone is endeavoring to build.
Integrating these various array of fighting capability across the different elements of the Iraqi Security Forces and the different arms of the Syrian Democratic Forces to conduct operations is one of the key things we continue to watch and enable for our partners. We remain committed and will continue to provide any type of enabling or advisory support needed to deliver on this mission and see it completed.
MS STROUL: Nothing to add. General McFarlane said it perfectly. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you both. For our next question we’ll go to the live queue, and I’m going to go to Joseph Haboush from Al Arabiya. Joseph, just give me a second and I’ll go ahead and unmute you, or if you can unmute yourself. You should be good, Joseph. Okay, looks like he’s still connecting. Let’s give him a second. Joseph, are you there? Can you hear us?
QUESTION: Yes, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yeah, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Awesome. Thank you. General or DASD Stroul, are either of you able to provide any more details into the attack which targeted a convoy with at least three U.S. military personnel and a Kurdish leader earlier this month? And also, can you update – can either of you update us on where talks are or negotiations – is there – are there any fears of – or have the Turks relayed to you all that they’re still looking to carry out any sort of land invasion or ground invasion, which the U.S. has previously said could threaten this D-ISIS mission? Thank you.
MS STROUL: Thanks so much for that question. I’ll take it first. This is DASD Stroul. First of all, I want to emphasize that the Department of Defense is still investigating this strike on a convoy. I can confirm for you that there was a strike on that convoy in Sulaymaniyah, in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and that convoy did include U.S. military personnel. Thankfully there were no casualties.
Let me now turn to the risk to U.S. forces as well as our partner forces and to our counter-Daesh mission. We forcefully oppose any action that threatens the safety and security of U.S. personnel, and I would emphasize here as well the Syrian Democratic Forces are the partner that works with General McFarlane’s forces in Syria for the enduring defeat of Daesh, and we oppose any action that would introduce risk to them or to our counter-Daesh mission. This would not only affect the security and safety of our personnel and of the Syrian Democratic Forces, but also the security and stability of the region and all of those who have benefited from the hard-won achievements of this coalition in ousting ISIS, or Daesh, from the caliphate that it once had across Iraq and Syria. We in the United States are committed to maintaining our forces in Iraq and Syria in support of local partners to achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh.
With respect to your question about the possibility or threat of ground incursions or any other military or kinetic activity, frankly, that threatens either the mission or our forces, we remain forcefully opposed to it and make that clear across all of our consultations in the global coalition as well as all allies and partners who we believe share an interest in maintaining and furthering the enduring defeat of Daesh. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you for that, Deputy Assistant Secretary Stroul. So let’s move around the region a little bit. We’ve got a question from our colleague Waleed Sabry from Bahrain’s Alwatan newspaper, and Waleed asks if you can both discuss the prominent efforts or how we cooperate with some of the Gulf countries, including Bahrain and others, in cooperation with the international Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Over to you, speakers.
MS STROUL: I’ll take that question first since General McFarlane is very focused on our specific operations in Iraq and Syria. Bahrain is a critical partner of the United States and also a major non-NATO ally. We engage in consistent and constant consultations with all of our partners across the Middle East, to include Bahrain, on the threats that we agree jeopardize stability and security of our partners, their territory, and their citizens. That includes Daesh as well as a whole range of issues. Bahrain is well aware of and supportive of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh and has worked with us cooperatively and productively for years to ensure that the coalition both has the resourcing and the political support required to maintain focus on this critical mission set.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: This is General McFarlane. I don’t have anything to add to Dana’s response. I thought that was really good.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you both. I’d like to try to get through a few more of the pre-submitted questions that we got, and we have one from Mohammed Mahdi from Al Mayadeen, and he asks, “Recently we have observed an uptick in military operations against ISIS in Syria, which suggests that the threat of ISIS still exists. Are there any concerns that ISIS might have the potential to regroup and expand in Iraq and Syria?” Over to you, speakers.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: This is Major General McFarlane; I’ll take that first. The threat of ISIS absolutely still exists. That’s why the importance of building the capability, capacity of our partners so they can continue to ensure ISIS and that threat are never realized. We – and it reaffirms our advise and assist and enable approach.
While we’ve seen a reduction in ISIS attacks and their effectiveness over time, it takes many steps to climb a mountain, and that’s part of our process here is ensuring that all of our partners which are doing these operations – some of which you’re reading about, large wide-area security operations, the SDF which recently did one in Raqqa which was very successful, as well as the ISF that I mentioned earlier – they are important to ensure not only does ISIS never come back but any of the remaining militants that may be out there considering it never have the opportunity to ensure their aspirations are realized.
But this international effort of which Dana just mentioned the 85 different contributing nations that are part of the global coalition, 28 of which nations are part of the OIR team of many nations with one mission, is incredibly important and I think punctuates the international community’s desire to ensure ISIS cannot come back. The progress of our partners that they continue to build that capability and capacity and demonstrate with recent operations that they are moving forward and progressing in building that capability and capacity I think is an important effort or demonstration of the progress we’ve seen.
MS STROUL: Hi, this is DASD Stroul. I’m just going to add a few remarks on top of General McFarlane. You rightfully point out the increased operational tempo of counter-Daesh operations in Syria. Two main takeaways from this. One is the United States and the U.S. military remain deeply committed to ensuring continuity in this mission working by, with, and through local partners, because the threat remains. And number two, the job is not yet complete, which is why U.S. forces with risks to force protection remain committed to working with our partners in Iraq and Syria to accomplish this mission.
And I would like to add from the Pentagon perspective that countering Daesh, which we call a violent extremist organization in our doctrine, is a key goal in the National Defense Strategy, and we are also working to ensure that this mission has the resourcing, the funding, and the commitment not only in the U.S. Government but also in the U.S. Congress which funds and authorizes this mission every single year. So part of our job is to make sure members of Congress understand the importance of this mission, to talk to the American people about this mission, and also to make sure that for years to come, so long as the invitation remains from the government of Iraq, for the U.S. military to continue to work in Iraq and we are able to continue to safely operate with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
We will continue to remain committed to this important mission and we’re putting down both in our military planning and our posture planning and in our funding and resources documents, ensuring that there is shared commitment to this critical mission.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you both. I’m going to try to get through a few final questions before we have to close out. Let me take a question, if we can move around the region a little bit, and let me take a question from a journalist from Morocco’s Hespress, and this comes from Youssef Yaagoubi. And he asks if you can speak to the efforts exerted by the D-ISIS mission on the horizon of fighting ISIS, eliminating its expansion, especially in the Sahel and Sahara regions, and anything you can say about coordination with the Kingdom of Morocco or any other North African partners. Over to you, speakers.
MS STROUL: I’ll take that question first, General McFarlane, since you are leading our military efforts in Iraq and Syria. So beyond Iraq and Syria, as you’ve heard our CENTCOM leadership and our OIR leadership – General McFarlane – say, that even though ISIS is defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria, it’s ideology is unconstrained. And what this means is that there will need to be continued focus and resourcing of efforts to address ISIS and the conditions that give rise to ISIS’s ability to expand globally. That includes efforts in the INDOPACOM region as well as in Africa.
So I would point you to a recent working group that was held by Department of Defense and Department of State officials in West Africa to address those issues. There is also active consideration and planning with our partners in the Sahel for how we work together to address ISIS, or Daesh, in the Sahel. And those are constant areas of communication and work that the United States, again, seeks to achieve and maintain focus on by working with its critical allies and partners.
And here, of course, Morocco is a critical partner, one that shares U.S. interests and objectives in countering violent extremism and addressing not only in the Sahel but across Africa the conditions that give rise to Daesh’s expansion. And so again, these are areas that we maintain focus on and we partner not only with our partners but with the State Department and others to address it on a daily basis.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. I’d like to go ahead and go to a live caller. Let’s go to Jared Malsin from The Wall Street Journal. Jared, I’m going to go ahead and unmute you, if you want to unmute yourself and go ahead and speak. You should be good to go.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. Thank you all. I had a question about the Russian military presence in Syria. Last month General Kurilla told Congress that there was a significant spike in aggressive Russian military flights over U.S. bases in Syria. I wanted to ask both of you whether that trend has continued, has it increased, and can you give us a number of those overflights since that testimony from General Kurilla?
And related to that, can you speak to has there been separate aggressive behavior by Russian forces on the ground? And finally, just one other aspect of this question. Have you been forced to – have you had to use the deconfliction line with the Russians in order to resolve any of these issues with the Russians in Syria? Thank you.
MS STROUL: General McFarlane, would you like to take that one first?
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Sure. Sure, Dana. Yeah, thanks for asking that question. We continue to see unsafe and unprofessional area activity from the Russians, and we do use the deconfliction line to ensure we are keeping our forces safe and mitigating any of the increased risk due to those activities. We’ve only seen this in the air. We watch it closely as we want to make sure we can stay focused on our mission, which is defeating ISIS and ensuring that we can do that uninhibited by different players on the battlefield that seek to frustrate us possibly, and frankly, they don’t. We are conscious of the Russian activity and continuously communicate if we are concerned with their actions.
MS STROUL: Nothing to add. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Why don’t we do one final question. We’ll go to Jeff Seldin from VOA. Jeff, I’m going to go ahead and unmute you, if you want to go ahead and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. Can you hear me? Are you able to hear me?
MODERATOR: Yeah, we got you.
QUESTION: Terrific, thank you. It was just about a week ago that the U.S. carried out a strike that – a helicopter raid that killed a senior ISIS official in northern Syria, and according to CENTCOM part of the reason for carrying out the mission was because this official, Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali, was involved in a plot to kidnap officials from overseas and use them for leverage. I was wondering, is there anything more you can say about that plot, its nexus to ISIS leadership in Syria and Iraq, and whether or not there are concerns that ISIS in Syria and Iraq is looking to expand its activities or change its focus even from attacks in Iraq and Syria to more of the international type of attacks and threats that have more recently been associated with some of its affiliates like IS-Khorasan?
MS STROUL: General – oh, good. Okay.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah. Well, I won’t speak to that specific request about that plot or anything. I would tell you the targeting and degradation of Daesh, or ISIS, leadership is fundamental to the success of the mission, but also to the success we’re seeing in terms of the metrics that we saw if you just look at the reduction of attacks during Ramadan. Continuing to remove ISIS leaders that we know are attempting to coordinate and facilitate attacks, whether it’s in the CJOA or beyond, is an important aspect of our mission as our partners and us continue to not only target leaders but all ISIS fighters on the battlefield.
We – the analogy I use, it’s we go after all aspects of the organization. As Dana mentioned, you have the leaders that are like the head, driving the body which has arms and legs, which include the finances, media aspects, and facilitating trying to rebuild ISIS ranks. All aspects of ISIS that we are tracking continues to decline or degrade, which I think is a testament to our partners, the SDF, the ISF, and Peshmerga, as well as the global coalition and the coalition that is part of OIR.
MS STROUL: Nothing to add, General. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, now, General McFarlane, I’ll turn it back over to you and Deputy Assistant Secretary Stroul if you have any closing remarks. Over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah, sure. Thanks so much, and thanks again for joining us tonight. As I mentioned up front in terms of the progress in Ramadan, as I had a recent conversation with one of our Iraqi partners, he commented that it was the most peaceful Ramadan in many, many years that he has seen, and that this most recent Ramadan and the peace that it brought punctuates, I think, our partners, their commitment and will they’re demonstrating as they’re building the tools to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh enabled by the coalition. It is a testament to the strong partnership between all of the partners, all the contributing nations and the host nations, leading to not only efforts and success to date as we progress on the enduring defeat of Daesh, but also stability in the region.
Our approach is working and we see real change enabling long-term commitment to the enduring defeat of Daesh, or ISIS. I want to highlight, however, we must remain vigilant that ISIS, or Daesh, and that ideology still exists and can pose a threat not only against militaries out there, but also innocent civilians. The coalition alongside our partners will continue to systematically degrade ISIS, or Daesh, and continue to reduce any ability for them to reemerge.
Recent attacks that our partners have demonstrated I think punctuate the progress that they are making as they are committed to this effort.
Dana, over to you.
MS STROUL: Thanks so much, General. I just want to again underscore the deep commitment and investment not only of the United States, but working with the coalition and our partners in Iraq and Syria for the ensuring defeat of Daesh. This is something that we are doing not only for the benefit of the Iraqi and the Syrian people, but for the security and stability of those in the Middle East, our partners, as well as a benefit to the international community. It was not so long ago that ISIS held large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and pictures of ISIS brutality dominated the front pages of all of our newspapers, not only here in the United States but you all know across the world as well.
We’ve made significant achievements together, but the conditions that gave rise to ISIS have not been sufficiently addressed, which is why not only OIR under General McFarlane’s leadership but the Department of Defense is committed to expanding and deepening our cooperation across the U.S. Government, especially with the State Department, but also with the international community; to reduce the population of Daesh detainees and displaced persons at the camps in northeast Syria, at al-Hol and al-Raj; but also we’ll continue to invest significant resources and time in leadership at the global coalition level so that we are working with partners outside of Iraq and Syria who are also vulnerable to ISIS or Daesh expansionism and ideology; and also to ensure that we have long-term, enduring solutions to the repatriation, reintegration of fighters where possible and also the displaced persons. This is going to require years of effort through the global coalition, and the United States is prepared to do it alongside our partners. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you both for those closing remarks. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Major General McFarlane and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul for joining us, and thank all of 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 and have a great day.
# # #