Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Dorrian via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel John Dorrian, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning.
So, our briefer today from Baghdad is a WiFi password.
All right. There he is. J.D., just before we get started, we want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.
COLONEL JOHN DORRIAN: I've got you loud and clear, Jeff. Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thanks.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're pleased to be joined today by Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, coming to us live from Baghdad.
J.D., we'll turn it over to you for your opening remarks, and take questions from here.
COL. DORRIAN: Excellent.
Well, good morning. I -- we'll start with Syria and we'll move on to Iraq.
In Syria, we're accelerating our airstrikes on ISIL fighters and resources in support of Syrian defense forces' offensive in Raqqah. In the last month, we've conducted nearly 300 strikes, enabling the liberation of more than 270 square miles from ISIL. These strikes have destroyed about 90 fortifications and over 50 vehicles, and continue to disrupt ISIL supply routes, ISIL's ability to fund its operations from the illicit sales of oil in Iraq.
Strikes against ISIL-affiliated oil infrastructure routinely and severely reduced their revenue stream that had provided millions of dollars in revenue. We're doing the same thing in Syria to create pressure on the enemy as operations to isolate Raqqah are ongoing.
I draw your attention to the map of Syria depicting progress in the SDF operation to isolate Raqqah. Liberating territory in northern Syria has freed up thousands of civilians from ISIL, but many remain displaced. Many of those people are moving into Manbij, but unfortunately as they move in that direction, and even as they find refuge in and around the city, they're being targeted by ISIL small arms and IED attacks.
The SDF, with its Arab elements, has enabled the establishment of a governance structure representative of the local population. And they've begun providing services to the people of Manbij, including having opened more than 240 schools since its liberation. A similar model with local governance is in the works for Raqqah once it is liberated.
As the SDF isolates Raqqah, the number of SDF fighters continues to grow, as another Arab brigade joins the SDF with more than 1,000 citizens, men and women joining to reclaim and protect their homes. More than 1,500 new SDF fighters are in training now to join the ranks to liberate Raqqah and to defend the forward line of troops. More than 90 percent graduating are Arabs, which is critical to the liberating and establishing of governance for citizens in the area.
One notable force is the Syrian elite forces, who are led by Ahmad al-Jarba, an influential member in the region who has the ability to mobilize local forces in support of the offensive. The SDF has been from Raqqah, and they've been fighting ISIL there since the occupation of the city. The SEF now consists of approximately 45,000 fighters, more than 13,000 of which are Arab.
Finally, this week we're facilitating joint discussions with Turkey, the SDF and other coalition partners to promote de-escalation in the area. Diplomacy and continued coordination will ensure ISIL's lasting defeat. These meetings are starting points in addressing a challenging situation. Again, every party to these discussions has an overriding interest in common. This is the defeat of ISIL, an enemy that threatens us all.
In Mosul, Iraqi security forces continue to make incremental progress in clearing the city, with the CTS clearing additional areas in eastern Mosul, while the 9th division of the Iraqi army penetrated the city on the southeast axis. The opening of a new axis forces ISIL to react to that advance, reducing their ability to concentrate combat power on the eastern axis.
Coalition air and artillery strikes continue to damage this enemy, engaging tactical units on the battlefield, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, supply routes, and excavating equipment in the past few days.
As some of you have detected, our strike reports reflect more strikes in and around Mosul on supply routes, key terrain, and excavating equipment. These strikes have been conducted to reduce the ability of ISIL to rotate forces, resupply, and use vehicle-borne improved explosive devices against the Iraqi security forces.
As you know, four of the five bridges across the Tigris were disabled. Coalition strikes cratering the routes leading to that final bridge have further disrupted the enemy. ISIL have continued rudimentary repairs, so far with very little success. We've also created roads leading to locations where the ISF is operating. This is done to help protect the ISF from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
As you saw last night, the coalition conducted a precision strike on ISIL fighters who had seized part of the Al Salam hospital complex in southeast Mosul and were using the facility to fire heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the Iraqi security forces in the area.
The ISF requested the strike to facilitate the retrograde of their forces to a safer and defensible position. We don't take lightly any decision to strike a target that would normally be a protected facility. The commander has directed a review of the facts leading up to the decision to strike the hospital on December 7th, and the coalition at this time has no reason to believe that procedures were not followed properly or that unintended effects were achieved. We've not seen any indications at this point that civilians were harmed in the strike.
Nevertheless, it is appropriate to set the details to assure we can fully answer questions associated with a strike such as this, and to assure our processes for such circumstances are as refined as possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, I'll be delighted to take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Lita Baldor from the Associated Press.
Q: Hey, J.D. Just a couple more questions -- details, if you could, on Al Salam. Can you give us a better sense of whether or not the Iraqis have been pushed completely back out of there? And what the impact was on the Iraqi security forces? We're hearing that there were a lot of casualties. If you have any assessment on that.
And when you're talking about looking into the hospital strike, has there been a decision to conduct an investigation into the strike? Or is this just one of the early review processes that you're looking at to determine if an investigation is needed?
COL. DORRIAN: I'll start with your second question first, Lita.
At this point, it's just an assessment to just go over the facts, make sure that we have properly accounted for everything that was done and all the decisions that were made at this time. So it's not an investigation. It's just an assessment of what was done.
For your second question, I'm going to have to leave it to the Iraqi Security Forces to provide details with regard to their casualties. It was a very difficult battle, but the Iraqi security forces had advanced into an area pretty deeply into Mosul at this complex. And what we did is conduct this strike in order to allow them to fall back to a more defensible position.
Just to be clear, I've seen some mis-reporting on this. This was not a total fall-back. This is a few hundred yards. So they're in -- they're very near the city, that facility, and they've made significant progress into southeastern Mosul. This is a very helpful development because what it does is it forces Daesh to react to that advancing force. They did so in a, you know, very tough battle last night. So the Iraqi security forces have dug in and they're protecting the terrain that they have. And the ISIL fighters are going to have to react to that advance. That's a good thing for the Iraqis.
Q: To follow up, how certain is the coalition that the hospital was not continuing to serve as an actual hospital with patients? Or does the coalition believe that all civilians and patients were out of the hospital?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, it's very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity. So what we're going to do is review the intelligence that led into the decision. We haven't seen any indication that we achieved any unintended effects, in other words, civilian casualties or anything like that at this time.
So, we didn't -- didn't have any indication that civilians were at risk at the time of the strike.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, we'll go to Bill Hennigan from the Los Angeles Times.
Q: Hey, J.D. Just to follow up on that, I assume that you had been watching the facility for some time. Would you know if civilians hadn't been seen there for, what, more than 24 hours or something like that?
COL. DORRIAN: Bill, this is -- this is the types of details that we're going to go into as we do this assessment, just to make sure that we've got full fidelity on all those facts. We didn't have any indication that there would be any problem with the strikes. The Iraqis were operating in that area and they were under very heavy fire from Daesh. The strikes were conducted in the interest of trying to protect that ground force and enable them to retrograde to safe terrain.
Q: Okay. Got it.
Now, the Iraqi parliament's recent -- the law that they passed regarding the PMF, how has that changed -- has that changed the coalition's calculus when it comes to providing air cover for those forces?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, at this time, it's too early to determine what the impact of the legislation is. It wasn't a very detailed law. It's only a page-and-a-half in text. And right now, the government of Iraq is building the rules that will go around the implementation of the law. So we really kind of have to wait and enable and assess and see what they're going to do with regard to the implementation of the law and the manner in which they're going to do that.
In the meantime, we strike Daesh targets all around Iraq all the time. And sometimes, that, you know, provides positive impacts for any force that's operating anywhere in those areas. So, there is some incremental benefit to Popular Mobilization Forces as we conduct those strikes.
And in addition to that, often what we find, as is the case in Tal Afar, the Popular Mobilization Forces are partnered with the Iraqi army. And we do continue to conduct strikes in support of the Iraqi army in coordination with them.
Q: So -- so previously, the U.S. and coalition were not providing any air cover for the PMF full stop. So are you saying that that's changing now?
COL. DORRIAN: Bill, I'm not -- I'm not sure that your understanding of what was going on previously is -- is 100 percent correct. We had always struck Daesh targets all around Iraq when it was in, you know, a part of the coalition plan, a part of the Iraqi plan to liberate areas.
So, if there was some kind of an incremental benefit to the popular mobilization forces as they advanced as a result of that, that wasn't something that we were going to deny the positive benefit of taking that strike if we had an opportunity to do it. That's not what we were doing.
So, we've always, since this campaign begun, coordinated all of our strikes with the Government of Iraq.
They are working a plan, they share the plan with us, they also incorporate these Popular Mobilization Forces apart of it. Just to be clear on that point, as well, I've seen a little bit of misreporting on -- on what the make up of the Popular Mobilization Forces is, some of them are Sunni Arabs, some of them are Christian, Yazidis, Turkmen.
Not just Shia and not just affiliated with Iran. So, when it is a part of the government of Iraq's plan and -- and those forces are operating and doing what the government needs them to do or they're partnered with Iraqi army and Iraqi police or the CTS.
We conduct strikes in support of those forces. All those things have been ongoing, that -- that really hasn't changed at all.
Q: Well, I do believe that there was no coordination between the U.S. coalition and the PMF at all. If -- if coincidentally, that the U.S. was providing air strikes and the PMF benefited from that, then that was a -- that was simply that, a coincidence.
But now, it seems that you're describing a situation in which coalition aircraft could be providing air support for PMF forces.
COL. DORRIAN: No, our --
CAPT. DAVIS: Here we go. We need to top up our account.
A testing, one, two, three. J.D. can you hear us? We lost you for a second.
COL. DORRIAN: Yep, I can -- I can hear you, Jeff, can you hear me?
CAPT. DAVIS: Yep, we got you -- we got you back.
I'm sorry, I think Bill do you want to repeat your question?
Q: Not really. I guess it seems as -- it seems as though that -- that the situation has changed a bit in terms of the way that okay.
Do you got me J.D.?
COL. DORRIAN: I do, Bill.
You know what, the situation hasn't changed at all. We continue our coordination with the Iraqi security forces, we continue our coordination with the government of Iraq.
Its not direct coordination with the Popular Mobilization Forces and the rules with regard to coordination with organizations that have American blood on their hands or any of that kind of stuff, none of those things have changed at all.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right.
Next, to Laurent Barthelemy with Agence France-Press.
Q: Hi -- hi, colonel. I would like to go to Syria. You mentioned discussions to deescalate in northern Syria. I'd like to know if you could -- if you could describe these discussions, who are -- who are participating to -- who is participating to these discussions and what's at play?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, you know what, I really can't provide a tremendous amount of detail or fidelity. But I thought it would be of interest to let you know that those discussions are happening.
That's progress that's better than, you know, what was happening before. But that's, you know, a nascent and somewhat fragile step. So I really can't give a play-by-play on what those discussions are, I hope you understand.
But it is significant and it is an ongoing effort to try and make sure that all these groups, our partners and our allies, remain focused on fighting Daesh because all of us have the same interest in defeating them.
Q: I suppose the discussions are about Manbij, because the Turks have made clear their intention to go to Manbij. So is there a risk of some fight between the Turks and the forces that are now holding Manbij?
COL. DORRIAN: Again, I really can't get into the details for you. I wanted to give you an update to let you know that the conversations were happening, but just really can't get too much into detail on what the substance of those discussions are. I hope you understand.
Q: Do you think there is a risk of a fight between the Turks and the force -- the forces that are now holding Manbij?
COL. DORRIAN: You know, it's really inappropriate for me to get into speculation. There have been instances where -- previous instances where there has been an exchange of fire between the SDF and the Turks -- the Turkish military. That has already occurred at different times during the campaign.
So what we're trying to do is make sure that we keep all these operations de-conflicted, and to maintain a dialogue that keeps everyone focused on fighting Daesh.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Jim Sciutto with CNN.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dorrian. Thanks very much.
Are you concerned about the difficulty that civilians in Mosul have in escaping the fighting there? And is there any truth to reporting that under pressure from PMF, Iran, that that kind of western outlet has been closed off, and that civilians are paying a price for that?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, certainly the protection of civilians has been a centerpiece, a foundational element of the campaign to liberate Mosul. Prime Minister Abadi has been very clear on this during the planning cycle, and from the very beginning of operations to liberate the city. He's been very clear about that with the Iraqi security forces who, by the way, have done -- really gone to extraordinary measures to try and protect civilians in the city.
And really, Iraqi -- you know, all Iraqis should be very proud of the manner in which they're conducting themselves in the city, because they're doing, you know, a tremendous amount to protect civilians under the direst of circumstances. They're up against a barbaric enemy that's gone out of their way to do everything they can to increase the danger in the city, including use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in civilian areas; the use of human shields -- all of the types of things that mean that, you know, they are really the worst people in the world, and they have to be eradicated from Mosul as efficiently and as quickly as possible.
So we share the Iraqi security forces' concern for civilians. This is something, though, that we're going to have to be very careful about. We supported the Iraqi plan to keep civilians in place. The reason for that is it's very dangerous to egress from the city because of ISIL snipers. And to leave your home in ISIL's hands may mean that ISIL will have more opportunity to plant many of the -- the booby traps and explosive devices that we've seen in some of the other areas.
Q: Do you need -- just as a matter of follow -- snipers, of course, are a danger, but so -- so -- so is an advancing army, right? So -- so how do you balance that?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I -- I would say that I would submit to you that you're -- when somebody is shooting at you and targeting you purposely, like a Daesh sniper --
CAPT. DAVIS: Sorry.
So, a brief reminder while we have a pause here, we do have a senior military official that will be coming to the press office at about 12 noon. That'll be a discussion I understand it's going to now be on background vice off the record. So, you will not want to miss that. 12 noon in the press office immediately following this.
Sorry, ladies and gentlemen.
Tell him if we can't get it up right away, switch to phone.
STAFF: All right.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right, we're back.
Okay, J.D., I think we lost you again for a second, you're back now. Can you hear us?
COL. DORRIAN: I've got you loud and clear, Jeff. I'll take Jim's question. I wanted to point out the fact that the snipers who are purposely firing directly at you pose a much greater danger than the force that's trying to liberate you and taking extraordinary measures to protect you.
CAPT. DAVIS: This is Carla Babb from Voice of America.
Q: Hi, colonel, thanks for doing this.
Going back to the PMF, does the U.S. and the Iraqis still have assurances that the PMF is not going to enter Mosul proper during this fight and that that was something that was stressed prior to the fight beginning?
COL. DORRIAN: All indications that we have is that the Popular Mobilization Forces continue to execute the plan that Prime Minister Abadi approved. So, that plan is for them to remain outside of Tel Afar and disrupt the egress route from Mosul towards either Tal Afar or Syria. They've been very successful in doing that. Mosul is completely surrounded on all sides and Daesh have no ability to resupply or reinforce their fighters.
Q: And then, if I may go back to the hospital, to follow up on Lita's question, you said that there are no indications that civilians were hurt or killed during the strike. But my question is on the building outside the one that was targeted. Do you know if civilians are in that hospital, and if that hospital is operational for civilians? Maybe not in that particular building, but elsewhere in the complex?
COL. DORRIAN: Carla, these are among the details that we're going to go through in the assessment so I don't -- I don't know right now but we're going to look into that and that'll be a part of the assessment.
CAPT. DAVIS: Richard Sisk from Military.com.
Q: Hi colonel, in the strike on the hospital, can you say what assets were used? Manned or unmanned?
COL. DORRIAN: Those were -- were manned assets. Those were aircraft so they're precision-guided munitions, all of them. That's the only kind that we've been using, especially in a populated area like Mosul.
Q: (Off mic.)
CAPT. DAVIS: J.D., I don't know if you heard that, he'd asked you if it was F-16s.
COL. DORRIAN: I'll have to take that as a question. I don't know if it was F-16s. I'd have to check.
Q: In Syria, can you tell us, are we still withholding support, airstrikes for the Turks?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, to be clear, we have continued to conduct a lot of operations with the Turks, but there is a part of the plan that's a part of our national -- or part of the coalition effort and then there's a part that's a national effort on their part.
So, if you're referring to the Turkish military and the partnered force going into al-Bab or isolating al-Bab with the intent to liberate it, we have -- we have not conducted strikes in -- in support of that operation.
Q: And lastly, sir, has CJTF been asked by international organizations to provide relief airdrops into Aleppo?
COL. DORRIAN: Operations in Aleppo do not have -- they are not a part of the charter here really because Daesh are not present -- present in significant numbers in Aleppo and we're here to fight Daesh.
Q: But sir, have you been asked?
COL. DORRIAN: Not to my knowledge.
CAPT. DAVIS: To Dan Lamothe from the Washington Post.
Q: Colonel, good evening. Thanks very much for your time.
I wanted to ask you about the situation as far as the resupplying of these ISIS fighters. You mentioned, I mean obviously they're encircled. The bridge has -- both their bridges are out. This has gone on several weeks now. What's your assessment of their ability to either manufacture vehicle-borne IEDs at this point or -- or just small arms. What are -- what are they working with, what do you think they have left?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, Dan, thanks for that.
You know, they've had more than two years to prepare for this battle so they have significant resources packed away within the city at various points, but those resources are finite and being depleted. And part of this campaign, one of the reasons why the Iraqi security forces are using overwhelming force and have completely encircled the city, is that they understand that as this effort goes on with each passing day, Daesh as fewer fighters and fewer resources at their disposal.
We've already seen that some of their fighters unfortunately were seeing younger fighters; perhaps adolescent age, rather than adults. That's unconscionable on their part, but it is a long list of things that they do that are unconscionable.
We've also seen their vehicle borne improvised explosive devices don't have the exotic level of machining that we've seen in previous iterations -- a lot of the ones have been used before. So we've even seen the use just regular vehicles rather than the up armored versions that are much more difficult to stop.
So, what that tells us is they're beginning to run out of those resources. It doesn't mean that it's not still an extraordinarily dangerous situation. They are not going to go quietly, but they are going to go.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, next to Thomas Watkins, Agence France-Press.
Q: Hi, J.D. -- excuse me -- hi, J.D.
Actually it's to build bit on -- excuse me -- to build a bit on Dan's question, what -- we are coming up to the two month mark since the offensive was launch. What is your assessment today, of the number of ISIL casualties -- killed and/or wounded in the Mosul operation?
COL. DORRIAN: I would say many hundreds of fighters are gone. We don't release -- we don't release casualty statistics and we don't consider them a measure of merit, but I can tell you that the enemy is taking very significant casualties, as difficult as they are making it for the Iraqi security forces.
I can assure you that their fighters are being expended at a much faster rate than -- than are the Iraqis. It's still very, very dangerous fighting, it's very, very difficult, but, you know, eventually we're going reach critical mass where the enemy is going to begin to break and then things will start to accelerate.
Q: Many hundreds for many weeks now. Would you -- Would you go into the thousands at this point?
COL. DORRIAN: You know what; I really don't want to get into more details. I think we will just leave it at that. They're -- they are expending fighters at an accelerated rate, an unsustainable rate, especially given the fact that they're completely surrounded without the ability to reinforce.
Q: Just on a different topic, if I may. Do you have any assessment or thoughts to share of the video that Daesh release with the kidnapped British journalist, John Cantlie has been publicized in the last 24 hours?
COL. DORRIAN: We don't have any details beyond what -- what you've probably seen in open sources, or at least I don't have any that I could offer in this forum. So, it's a very unfortunate situation. It's the type of things that Daesh is known for. You know, they're an existential threat to anybody that falls into their grip, and unfortunately, this poor gentleman is being used for propaganda. So, it's another of the terrible things that Daesh does.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.
Q: Colonel, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Regional Security Council told Fox News last night that over 1,500 Peshmerga have been killed fighting ISIS. Over 10,000 have been wounded. He complained about not enough support from the U.S.-led coalition, including not just heavy weapons, but also protective equipment, body armor. Are you concerned about these high levels of casualties and is the coalition doing more to help the Pesh who's part of this vanguard to destroy ISIS.
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we've -- we've done a tremendous amount to equip our partners, both the Iraqi security force and the Peshmerga. We've continued conducting strikes, a tremendous number in order to support their advance and to protect them. That's, you know, ball park 6,000 -- 6,000 ordnance that have been dropped on Daesh targets since we've started this Mosul liberation campaign.
We do know that, you know, no matter how many resources that we -- we pour into the situation, ISIL remains a very dangerous enemy. We try to provide our partner forces what they need in order to be successful and to achieve the objectives that they have put together with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government. But, other than that I don't really have any further detail to offer.
Q: Can you talk us about -- walk us through the challenges of going into Western Mosul. So far the battles predominantly been in eastern half of the city and we're told that Western Mosul is going to be even more intense than it is now.
Can you talk us through some of those challenges?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I think it'd be very difficult to predict with any accuracy, exactly what awaits in western Mosul. What we've actually seen is that ISIL has done a tremendous amount to try to bring fighters across and confront the Iraqi security forces, particularly the CTS in the eastern part of the city. They've done that throughout the campaign, until they were disrupted from doing so by the strikes on the bridges that would enable that.
So, we'll have to wait and see. We don't want to get into the business of prognosticating on things where we don't have a tremendous amount of fidelity or detail. But, I doubt that there's a lot of people sitting there cooling their heels in western Mosul, while the predominant force that they have is being destroyed in eastern Mosul.
Q: Has the Iraqi plan changed with regards to Mosul. At the beginning, the western half of the city, where the western outlying area was left open for ISIS fighters to escape, presumably so the coalition could target them. But now with the PMF moving in a blocking position to surround the city.
I was just wondering, is this because of Iran's influence and has the plan changed? Because initially there was criticism that western Mosul was open and now there's been a shift. I was just wondering, had there been a change in the plan?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, the only plan that I'm aware of being executed is the plan of the government of Iraq. Every force that's fighting to liberate Mosul, is either working in cooperation with, or under the command and control of the Government of Iraq. We're here with their permission, and we're executing a plan supporting the plan that they are trying to execute.
The Popular Mobilization Forces that are operating to the western part of the city are conducting those operations in concert with and under the command and control of the prime minister -- the Government of Iraq.
So I've seen the reports that you're referring to, but all I -- all I know about this is that the government of Iraq is making the calls. They're determining the disposition of forces. There's no other nation that's making that determination, government of Iraq is making that plan and executing it and we support that.
CAPT. DAVIS: I think we have one follow up from Bill Hennigan.
Q: Yeah. Your picture's frozen on the screen and it's kind of freaking me out. But I just want to get back to a point that you said at the top about -- I think you called these -- these -- these new Syrian forces the Syrian elite forces?
COL. DORRIAN: That's correct, Bill.
Q: These folks from -- you said they're from Raqqah? And how -- how -- how big of a force if it?
Q: Yes, what is it comprised of?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, it's about 90 percent Syrian Arabs. And let me see if I have any details. I'll have to double check the size of that force and we'll get back with you, Bill.
Q: It -- it seems as though they're the ones that are spear heading this -- this effort in Raqqah? Is that -- is that an accurate characterization?
COL. DORRIAN: I think I would be accurate to say that they've joined the SDF effort to isolate Raqqah.
CAPT. DAVIS: And others before we sign off?
All right, J.D., we thank you for your time.
And thank you everybody for coming to see us today. We'll see you again soon.
COL. DORRIAN: Thanks very much, Jeff.
Team, I'm sorry this was a little bit rough with regard to the technology. We'll keep working it.