Department of Defense Press Briefing by Lt. Gen. Townsend via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
CAPT. DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen, we're pleased to be joined today by Lieutenant General Townsend, coming to us live from Baghdad. He's the commander of the Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.
Sir, we'll turn it over to you for your opening remarks, and then take questions from here.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks, Jeff.
Good morning, everybody, from Baghdad, and happy holidays.
Since we're nearing the end of the year, I thought it was appropriate to review the progress the international counter-ISIL coalition has made in our military campaign in 2016. Our partners in Iraq and Syria have achieved a remarkable reversal of fortune since 2014 when ISIL seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq with masked terrorists and long columns of vehicles all flying the black banner of ISIL.
It's a different situation in Iraq and Syria today. 2014 was about helping our partners halt ISIL's relentless onslaught. 2015 was marked by helping the government of Iraq and our partners in Syria defend, while they organized and built or rebuilt their forces and began to counterattack.
In 2016, our campaign is all about the counter-offensive, liberating terrain and the population in Iraq and Syria from the clutches of ISIL's brutal control.
ISIL is a tyrannical terrorist group bent on destroying our way of life and imposing their own twisted ideology, plain and simple. They had an early mystique for some, which came from the false notion that they were establishing a state. But ISIL brutalized its own people. And what few services they did provide were financed through the seizure and taxation of peaceful cities and the illicit sale of stolen oil.
So, besides striking ISIL's military capacity, the coalition has targeted and dismantled their finances as well. We have destroyed every bank and cash reserve we have found. We have conducted hundreds of strikes to destroy ISIL oil infrastructure. We assess these efforts have cost ISIL between $4.5 million and $6.5 million a month. The liberation of key population centers and oil fields have further limited the enemy's access to taxes and oil revenue.
We have degraded ISIL's military capacity by killing or seriously wounding more than 2,500 of them since mid-October. And we have captured or killed 180 ISIL leadership figures and hundreds more lower-level commanders. Such strikes disrupt the enemy's ability to plan and conduct operations here, or conduct external attacks around the world.
ISIL's propaganda is becoming less effective. They named their magazine "Dabiq" after a town in northern Syria which they said would be the site of an apocalyptic body with the West. It used to feature articles about a utopian Islamic state. Now the name of their magazine is "Rumiyah," because thanks to Turkey and our Syrian partners, Dabiq is under new management, no longer in ISIL's control. Now, "Rumiyah" prints articles on how to best kill Westerners with knives and large trucks.
As the capability of ISIL as an organization is reduced, the capabilities and resources of our partners continue to grow. To date, the coalition has trained over 66,000 Iraqi security forces and over 3,000 Syrian partner forces. These forces have taken the fight to the enemy. They have encircled and are assaulting ISIL in Mosul and are marching to liberate Raqqa as we speak.
Regarding Mosul, the Iraqi security forces have seen a remarkable turnaround. Just two years ago, they were a defeated and broken army, barely able to stop ISIL at the gates of Baghdad. Today, they're conducting a multiple division combined arms assault on a major city 400 kilometers from their capital. This operation would challenge any army.
In Syria, Turkey and their partner forces have made tremendous progress in securing their border, liberating a large number of towns and villages, and they are now driving to eject ISIL from the city of Al-Bab.
In August, our Syrian partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, liberated tens of thousands of people from ISIL in the strategically important city of Manbij. Last month, they started operations to isolate Raqqa, ISIL's self-proclaimed capital. So far, they have liberated more than 800 square kilometers on their march toward the city. All told, almost three million people and more than 44,000 square kilometers of territory have been liberated from ISIL in 2016.
The coalition's main effort remains to liberate ISIL's twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa. The liberation of these cities will largely dismantle ISIL's physical caliphate, which is a necessary step in the group's ultimate demise. We recognize the step, while vital, is not sufficient. There is still a lot of work to be done. It will be important to maintain the focus of our more than 60-nation coalition effort.
Our Iraqi and Syrian partners have made tremendous sacrifices to free their land from ISIL, their efforts to defeat ISIL and improve security in all of our nations. We look forward to continued progress in the coming year.
In closing, let me say that for more than two years now, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians of the counter-ISIL coalition have supported all of these efforts brilliantly. They have provided training, equipment, intelligence, fire support and advice from the ministry level in Baghdad all the way down to battalion formations at austere and dangerous forward locations on the dusty battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
All Americans, other members of our coalition and the entire world should be grateful and proud of what their sons and daughters are doing to make our nations and the world safer from this evil scourge. I know I'm grateful and proud to stand in their ranks, especially with the holidays approaching. Thanks.
With that, I'll take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Lita -- Lita Baldor from the Associated Press.
Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this. Good to see you again. I have a couple questions on Syria.
First, can you say what, if anything, you all are seeing in terms of the evacuations out of Aleppo? Are you seeing any people moving out of Aleppo at all?
And does the fact that ISIS has re-taken Palmyra complicate anything for you as -- as you try to rally more -- the forces for Raqqa?
And can you say how many air forces have you been able to gather for the fight to go back into Raqqa?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, thanks, Lita.
So, just for the technical folks there, the mic is kind of getting overpowered and it's really loud and hard to understand what the question is, but I think what I heard, she asked me about Aleppo and the withdrawal from there, the wrapping up of Aleppo, and the complications that causes for our campaign and then I think hold forces for Raqqa, is what I heard.
So I'm going to answer those, and if that's not the right thing, you can ask me again, Lita.
OK, so I watched Aleppo on TV. It's horrible. Like most of you, and I read intelligence so I get special access to intelligence about Aleppo, but Aleppo is not in our charter here. So I'm blessed although it's a curse.
The complicators -- we have a civil war right next to our war -- even overlapping our war here against ISIL or Daesh. But I'm not responsible for what's going on for the coalition in Aleppo. The coalition's not doing that, so I can't really comment on the withdrawal or the end is near, or any of that. You probably know about as much about it as I do.
Now, it does complicate our life here, imagine fighting one war with another war raging just beside, and sometimes overlapping our war against ISIL here in Northern Syria, so it's certainly a complicator.
Then I think you asked a question, I thought I heard something about hold forces for Raqqa. So the Syrian Democratic Forces are marching to isolate Raqqa. Now once they get isolation in position we'll probably have another pause for a planning event as to how to go about the seizure and liberation of Raqqa.
But one thing we're agreed on is that the hold forces will consist of folks from the local area and that's pretty much been the mode of operation for all of these liberations in Iraq and Syria is ultimately the security gets turned over to folks from the local area, and governance has return to them as well.
So we're looking for a force from the Raqqa environs and mostly Arabs because that is the ethnic composition of Raqqa. So that's what I would anticipate the force would look like, once we get down there. Several thousand fighters are marching towards Raqqa right now. Many of them from Raqqa or the villages and towns on the way to Raqqa.
CAPT. DAVIS: (OFF-MIC)
Q: General, one of the questions -- I'm sorry you couldn't hear -- was Palmyra and what complications that might be posing with the Islamic State taking control of Palmyra again. And I was wondering the number of Arab forces that you've been able to pull together so far and whether you expect that to grow as you get more U.S. forces in, based on what the secretary announced the other day, with the additional 200.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, Lita, that's much clearer by the way. Whatever you've done to change it, its better.
So Palmyra, yeah, so ISIL has launched a counter-attack there and taken Palmyra in the last couple of days. The Russians and the Syrian regime took it from ISIL some months ago. ISIL has retaken it from them. Personally, I think they were probably -- took their eye off the ball in Palmyra because they were so focused on Aleppo and they didn't properly secure their gains.
So ISIL's been looking around the battlefield trying to get some sort of victory to reverse the loss of his narrative across Iraq and Syria. They tried a few spoiling attacks in Iraq and Syria against the coalition forces and our partners. They've been unsuccessful. So the -- I think they saw a weak spot at Palmyra against the Russians and the regime and they've had a little bit of a victory there.
I expect that the Russians and the regime will address it here in short order. We're -- we're -- it's complicating our life a little bit because they -- ISIL's managed to get their hands on some equipment there. We're watching that, and as soon as we have an opportunity, if the Russians (inaudible), we will.
CAPT. DAVIS: And next, we're going to Phil Stewart from Reuters.
Q: Hi, general. Just to follow-up on (inaudible).
CAPT. DAVIS: Sorry, we missed that last bit you just -- if you wanna -- if you could repeat yourself.
Q: Sorry about that. So just to follow-up on -- on Lita's question, you know, you said -- you mentioned the equipment that was seized. Could you give us a sense, are there any MANPADS or there any equipment that was seized that could threaten U.S. aircraft or U.S. operations?
And then on the -- on the broader issue of Aleppo, you know, there is concern that -- that the defeat of this kind of opposition could wind up being good news for -- for Nusra, good news for -- for ISIL. What are your thoughts on that? I mean, is it gonna make -- is this gonna make your -- your Nusra and ISIL problem worse in Syria? Thanks.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Your first question I think was about equipment seized at Palmyra by ISIL. So I'm not really exactly sure, they didn't send us an inventory of what they've seized there. We believe that includes some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment.
Basically, anything they seize poses a threat to the coalition, but we can manage those threats and we will. I anticipate that we'll -- we'll have opportunities to strike those -- that equipment and kill the ISIL that's operating it soon.
Then, your question about Aleppo and will that, you know, will that free up forces that will further complicate their (inaudible). It's really hard to make what we're doing here in Syria any harder than it already is. Probably, the conclusion of Aleppo, whatever -- however it concludes, is I would anticipate would be a bit of a complicator for us, but I don't know exactly how. I think most of the actors there in Aleppo probably have other ideas what they're going to do next. But we're certainly looking out for that.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Next, we'll go to Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hi, general. Thank you for doing this.
Another one on Palmyra. You just said that if the Russians don't strike it soon, we will. Is there any sort of coordination going particularly with the threat of any captured equipment that the U.S. would act on Palmyra?
And then I have one follow-up.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Thanks.
So, we don't coordinate our activities as much as de-conflict them with the Russians. And so, Palmyra is their part of the battle space, but because ISIL may have come into the possession of some significant pieces of weaponry there, we're concerned about it. And I think Russia will probably take action. If they don't, we will do what we need to do to defend ourselves and we'll coordinate -- we'll de-conflict those actions with the Russians.
I think maybe -- probably, we will strike it if we see it moving away from Palmyra. I think if it stays -- as long as it stays in Palmyra, the Russians will have lead and the regime will have the lead to deal with that. I think that answers your question.
You said you had a follow-up?
Q: It does, thank you.
And then, in your introduction, you said that U.S. trainers and advisers had trained a force of 3,000 Syrians. And I just wanted to know if you could break that down for us? Who makes up that 3,000? And it seems to be a slightly different number than we'd heard in the past of forces of like 5,000. So, maybe if you could just clarify that a little for us.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Well, I can't speak to what number you've heard in the past, but -- so that number breaks down -- and I'm not going to get into details -- but it breaks down into two groups; what we refer to as vetted Syrian opposition -- those fighters have largely operated over there south of the Turk border down through Dabiq and they have helped the coalition -- and to include Turkey -- in liberating large areas of northern Syria there that I referred to in my opening statement.
The other group that we've trained is the Syrian Arab Coalition, which is a Arab component of the Syrian Democratic Forces. And we've trained both of those. They're -- they're distinctly different forces. We've trained both of them.
CAPT. DAVIS: I'm sorry, you had a follow-up?
Q: Thank you so much. Just one last one. With the announcement that 200 additional trainers would be headed to Syria, could you give us a rough estimate of how many trainers are there now? And Lita had asked about this, but will their primary job be to add to that 3,000 number to grow that force?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So, I'm not going to give you specific troop numbers out there or coalition troop numbers on the battlefield because that's just information that the -- the enemy's probably watching this press conference and I don't want him to know. So, there are several hundred out there and we're going to add a couple hundred more.
And yes, they're not just trainers, but they're also supporters of trainers and they're also advise and assist teams. They run the whole gamut of what we're adding there. And yes, you can certainly bet that they will add to the number of Syrian partner forces that will we train. That's a primary task for those additional troops.
CAPT. DAVIS: And next we'll go to Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you, sir.
I want to go back to Aleppo. What do you expect after the fall of Aleppo? Is it fair to say that Assad is winning right now?
I also have a follow-up.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So, for all of you in the room, again my charter is not the fight in Aleppo or the Assad regime. So, my opinions probably may be not that much better informed on it than you are. Clearly, I'm watching it. But again, I'm not -- I'm not one to cast judgments on it.
I would say this. When Aleppo wraps up one way or the other, those forces are going to go elsewhere and do something else, the opposition forces and the regime forces and their Russian supporters. Our estimate is they'll probably go somewhere else that is more important to them, and I won't care to comment on where we think that might be.
Q: I understand, sir, that. I do understand that Aleppo is not part of your mission in Syria, but you cannot ignore that the fall of Aleppo into the hands of the Syrian regime would have implications in regards to Turkey and also in regards to the rest of the country.
What -- what are the implications that this -- the fall of the city would have on Turkey? And you mentioned in your opening statement that Turkey is liberating many areas in northern Syria and is heading towards Al-Bab. Don't you see any implications of the -- from -- after the fall of Aleppo on Turkey?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I'm sure there are some implications on the regime -- for the regime. There's implications for the Russians. There's implications for the opposition. And there are implications for Turkey. I guess what I'm trying to communicate to you is that we don't see that those implications are going to significantly impact our campaign that we're doing.
Because I think the regime and the opposition forces that are fighting their war adjacent to ours will take their fight elsewhere. And again, we think that the impacts on our campaign will be relatively moderate.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Barbara Starr with CNN.
Q: Thank you, General Townsend.
Can we go back to some of the comments you made about the progress you're making against ISIS. And can I ask you to unpack that a little bit? Specifically, yesterday the White House, Brett McGurk, said there were 12,000 to 15,000 ISIS-capable fighters left, the lowest level ever. So, can I ask you to kind of walk us through some of where you have come from, and the level of progress you made?
Q: If there's 12,000 to 15,000 left, that's against what peak ISIS warfighting force the U.S. coalition was facing? And what kind of capability do you actually think ISIS has right now on the battlefield?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK, Barb. Thanks.
Yeah, so I think Brett McGurk's estimate of 12,000 to 15,000 fighters is ballpark close enough. We don't track that in painstaking detail because it's kind of hard to define fighters. So, are you talking about committed fighters who will die in place or are we talking about people who are going to start waving a Syrian or a Iraqi flag as soon as the coalition starts approaching?
So, there's fighters all along that spectrum and supporters. But, I think 12 to -- we got to have -- we got to have a number so 12 to 15,000 is probably good enough. I don't actually know what the number was. I've heard the peak number, I'm not sure what it was. I've heard figures, 30,000, 50,000. I don't know what the peak number was and, again, kind of hard to define that because I'm not sure people who throw -- sure that people throw those numbers around are defining them in the same way.
I'm not really sure it's all that important what the number was at its peak for us to know that. Suffice it to say this. We've taken back over half of the land that Iraq, for example, lost to ISIL in 2014. So, I think that's a measure of the progress and I could sit here and list city after city. Ramadi, Fallujah, Rupa, Tikrit, Baiji, Shirqat, Qayyarah, and now we're at the gates -- banging down the gates of Mosul. So, that's an example of the progress that the -- our Iraqi partners have made.
What's ISIL still capable of doing? They're still capable of fiercely defending the ground they have taken. We're watching that unfold every day. They're not making anything easy. They're fighting hard to retain the vestiges of their physical caliphate and I don't think that's going to get any easier. They're also capable of launching dangerous attacks in Iraq and Syria and in this region as we have seen recently in Palmyra.
You were asking -- your colleagues there were asking me about Palmyra. We also know that they are plotting attacks on the West and we know that central to external operations plotting is the city of Raqqa. And that's why we need to get down there and isolate that city as fast as we can. Just in the last week, we conducted a strike -- our special operating forces conducted a strike in Raqqa that killed three plotters. Two of those plotters had direct links to the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
So, that kind of plotting is going on in Raqqa and they still have the ability to motivate, self-radicalize followers, and they still have the ability to plot and cast into motion attacks on the West and that's of great concern to us. And we are hammering away at them to prevent that and we're going to get down to Raqqa and get it isolated and then seize it so they can't plot from there in the future.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go to (inaudible) of the Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this.
I will have a couple of questions.
It was widely reported in the region that several U.S. helicopters landed in YPG-held (inaudible) recently to deliver ammunition and equipment to the group. And social media accounts close to the group also confirm those claims. Could you comment on that?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I'm not familiar with the reports you're referring to.
I'll just tell you this, it's not U.S. policy to provide weapons, by helicopter or any other means, to the YPG. We do provide equipment, including weapons and training, to the Syrian Arab Corps or Syrian Arab Coalition, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Q: About Palmyra, you said as the Assad regime and Russians were so focused on Aleppo they've left a vacuum behind, which led ISIS to take over Palmyra. Do you think that they are further focused on the opposition-held areas, which led to the regime to lose more territory to ISIS?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I'm not sure I followed your question. I know it had to do with Palmyra and I'll just kind of restate what I said earlier. My own assessment is that, you know, the -- clearly, the regime and with Russian support were very successful in taking Palmyra back some months ago. Seems -- seems like I remember they brought in an orchestra from Moscow or somewhere in Russia to perform a concert there in the ruins of Palmyra to celebrate their victory.
I think they failed to consolidate their gains and they got distracted by the things they were doing, took their eye off the ball there, the enemy sensed weakness and struck and gained a victory that I think will probably be fleeting. But a -- a victory against the regime and the Russians none the less.
Q: My question was this, do you anticipate that as the regime and the Syrian -- Russians are focused on opposition in the north -- northwestern Syria, they are going to lose more territory to ISIS behind them?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I suppose it's possible. I -- I -- but I don't -- I don't think it's likely. I think what they'll do is they'll devote -- I think this is probably an embarrassment to them and I think they'll devote adequate attention to holding the ground that they're on. And I don't think -- my guess is they probably won't lose much more terrain to ISIL. And that's my guess.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Next, we'll go with Tom Bowman from NPR.
Q: General, I want to return to Palmyra. You said that you're basically waiting for the Russians to take on ISIS there, which is unusual because you and your colleagues have said repeatedly that Russia is not going after ISIS, they're going after moderate rebels in the country. So if your job is to basically destroy ISIS, why wouldn't you go after them right now?
And also, you mentioned this is Russia's battle space. That's a term we've not heard here yet. Are you basically saying the country is divided, that the coalition has its own battle space and Russia and Syria has its own battle space?
And also, if I could quickly turn to Raqqa, you say you've trained 3,000 Syrian Arabs. Give us a ball park of how many you expect to be able to take Raqqa itself. Is it double that number, triple that number or even more?
And also, Turkey has said it wants to be involved in the final assault on Raqqa. Do you still expect that to happen? There was talk that the Turks wanted their...
I'm almost done -- that the Turks wanted their own trained rebels to take part in the final assault on Raqqa, if you could address that. That's all.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Tom, I don't know if you have any follow-ups. I think there were about -- I lost track at four questions, I think, in rapid fire succession there. So I'll try to remember what -- I started writing them down and I'll try to remember what they all were. You were providing them pretty quick, there.
So Palmyra. Right, so there -- there's not necessarily a battle space, we don't have an agreement with a map, with a boundary, the Russians have this and the coalition has that. There's not such a thing. There are facts of life, there are places where the regime are and there are places where the Russians are with the regime, usually, and there are places where the coalition and our partners are.
These are facts of life, it's not an agreement, it's not a division of labor or the country or anything like that. It's just where people are. So at Palmyra, its not Russian battle space, I think I use that phrase kind of fairly loosely. But they were there, it was theirs, they were there with their Syrian proxies.
So yes, they lost it and it -- so I think it's up to them probably to take it back. And the reason we're not acting more aggressively is first of all, that's the first fact of life is that was theirs.
The second fact of life is we're not sure who is there on the ground, we can't tell one side from the other. So we can't tell if the truck and the armored vehicle is being operated by a regime trooper, a Russian trooper or ISIL fighter, we can't tell that. So we're just kind of staying out of it and watching it right now and protecting our own interest and letting the Russians sort that out, which I think is probably the common sense way to go about Palmyra.
Then, you asked me some other questions, I think. Yeah, preparing forces for Raqqa. I'm not gonna quote specific troop numbers but I'll just say yes, probably double or triple the number of forces that we've already trained will need to be trained for Raqqa, it's a big problem.
The Syrian Democratic forces have not faced a challenge this great before. They have pretty high morale. They have a lot of combat capability, but still, they're gonna need some help preparing for Raqqa.
Then -- yes, you mentioned Turkey. And Turkey has expressed a desire to participate in the Raqqa operation. We told them a couple months ago that we need to go to Raqqa now and they indicated they were not prepared to go right now because of all the other activities that they're doing. And they're some helpful activities, killing Daesh. So we told them that we're gonna march down and isolate Raqqa, and after we isolate Raqqa, we'll check back in with them and see if they -- if there's a way they can be incorporated into the operation before we proceed.
So right now, we're in the approach march phase to begin the isolation of Raqqa. I hope I got all your questions, there. If you have four or five follow-ups I'll write faster this time.
Q: One quick follow-up, what role do you expect Turkey to play? Would it be -- there's talk of sending their own trained rebels down to Raqqa. Or would it be some sort of Turkish aircraft? I mean, it -- would it be a Turkish government thing or their trained rebels? Do you have any sense of what they want to do?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Now, you'll have to ask them. I don't really have a good sense for what they want to do. I think it's probably a combination of the above, sort of like we're doing. They have their preferred partner force with who I think they'll probably want to have involved, and they may want to participate with their own military like in a limit -- to a limited degree. None of those things have been worked out yet.
CAPT. DAVIS: Carlo Munoz from The Washington Times.
Q: Hey, sir. Thanks for doing this.
I wanted to go back to Mosul operation, specifically west of Mosul, where the PMUs are operating. I understand that some Iraqi troops have been embedded with those forces are they're moving toward Mosul. One, can you give me a ballpark idea of how many Iraqi troops are with the militias?
And two, how is the coalition sort of threading the needle in providing support, whether it be air support logistical support, any kind of support to the Iraqi troops with -- while still maintaining the fact that there is no support provided to the militias?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. So your question's about the PMUs. You mentioned -- we call them PMF. So the PMF are operating west of Mosul. In fact, that -- they've been remarkably disciplined in their operations. There has been very little reporting of inappropriate behaviors or actions that characterized some of their operations last year and earlier this year in other campaigns.
They've been operating under the government -- the control of the government of Iraq and they've been supporting the -- Iraq's campaign plan for Mosul.
So they have done a good job of liberating a large swathe of desert west -- southwest and west of Mosul. They have severed ISIL's line of communication from Mosul to the Iraqi border and beyond to Syria. They have linked up with the Kurdish Peshmerga north of Tal Afar and they have seized Tal Afar Airport and are in the process of isolating Tal Afar City. All of these are really good contributions to the campaign.
There are at least two army brigades. There are some other formations with them, but there are two army brigades with them. We haven't provided them a lot of support. They haven't asked us for a lot of support. They've been handling things out there largely on their own.
We've conducted various strikes out there. I don't require a lot of justification for doing that. There is ISIL out there that needs killing, so we're killing them. And it assists the Iraqi security forces and the PMF out there in their work, fine, good, excellent. But we're not providing direct support to the PMF out there at present.
Q: A quick follow-up regarding Turkish-trained militias out near Bashiqa. I wanted to -- I understand that they're sort of operating around Mosul dam and in that -- that sort of part of the -- outside city. Have you been tracking their movements at all? Has there been any sort of indications that they plan to move closer to the city?
LT. GEN. . TOWNSEND: I heard you -- I heard the part about tracking movements and something about Bashiqa, but I didn't hear your first few words. So, who -- who were you referring to?
Q: Sir, I was referring to the militias that are being trained by Turkish troops up near Bashiqa. From what I understand, they're now operating new Mosul Dam and in that area. Have you been tracking that at all? And is that posing any concern to your plans?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So, yes, OK. Thanks. Turkish-trained militias.
So, the Turks have trained some Sunni groups from the Mosul area. They've done a reasonably good job of training them at their camp at Bashiqa. We are tracking their movements. In fact, when they graduated, they left Turkish control and started working for the government of Iraq. And they're part of what we call "tribal hold forces" -- a variation of the PMF, if you will; local folks who have been trained to secure their local area.
So, some of these folks that have been trained by the Turks are operating around Mosul, not at the dam. They are operating north of -- on the north side of Mosul in between the dam and the city. But they're operating under government of Iraq control. I don't track their movements day by day minutely because they're under Iraqi control. And by all reports, they've done a pretty good job.
CAPT. DAVIS: OK. Next, we'll go -- I'm sorry -- Laurie...
CAPT. DAVIS: ... of Kurdistan Today.
Q: Kurdistan 24.
CAPT. DAVIS: 24. That's it.
Q: Thank you, general, for your briefing.
I wondered, could you explain to us about Mosul? It seems to be going -- you said it's challenging, but it also seems to be very slow, and comparison is made to Beiji or Kobani, suggest it would not be before the spring that Mosul would be retaken.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. You were a little bit garbled, and I didn't quite catch all of that. But I think you're asking about the speed of the Mosul operation. I think that's what I got the gist of. So I'll answer that. And if it's not right, you can ask me again.
So, we're not on a timetable for Mosul. We're -- the attack started on time. It's progressing. It's probably not progressing as fast as I, as a U.S. Army officer, would like, but it is progressing, and the Iraqis are advancing every day.
So, the Iraqis actually would like it to go faster and they're engaged in discussions and plans about how to inject new energy into their assault. But the facts are they're gaining ground every day at Mosul. And how long it will take, I don't know. It could be over -- it could be over in a month or two; it could be over next spring, like you said -- not really on a time schedule.
So we're just going to let it go at the pace -- it's on the Iraqis' pace. They're the ones doing the fighting and the dying. And so I think that's appropriate. We're here to support them, and it will go as fast or as long as they want it to.
Q: Secretary of Defense Carter was in Erbil over the weekend and met with President Barzani. Presumably, they talked about Mosul. And could you give us any other details on what those discussions involved?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Nope. I was in the meeting and those discussions were between President Barzani and Secretary Carter and that's where it will stay.
Q: I have a question about Raqqa. You -- you've said that, you know, it's urgent for the United States, for the coalition to move quickly on Raqqa. You didn't have time for the Turks to get their act together, there's a threat from Raqqa. Europol issued a report earlier this month talking about ISIS and a chemical and biological threat. Is that one of your concerns in Raqqa?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. I don't think I said that we didn't have time for the Turks to get their act together. I think that's your characterization of what I said.
But that said, we're concerned about external ops plotting in Raqqa. Actually, we believe that they scored a locus, their chem-bio program. Are we concerned about an ISIL chem-bio program? Yes, we are. They have demonstrated a capability, they've demonstrated a willingness to use it. They have used chemical agents against Iraqi and Kurdish and coalition forces on this battlefield here, fortunately not to great effect.
But -- so, they have -- they are working on it. They have an active program and they are working to make it better. So, are we concerned about it? Yes, we are. We think the locus of that program has been in Mosul. I anticipate that they're probably going to try to move it at some point because they know they're going to lose Mosul sooner or later.
I think -- could there be parts of that program in Raqqa? I think sure, there probably could be. But we think Iraq is more their hub for external operations planning. And I -- I'm not sure they're going to move their chemical program there, mainly because they know we're approaching Raqqa as well. So, if they're going to move it out of Mosul, they're going to move it somewhere else, probably not to Raqqa because they know they're going to lose both of those here in the coming months.
CAPT. DAVIS: Carla Babb with Voice of America.
Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this.
My question is on Mosul as well. When -- we learned yesterday that about 15 to 20 percent of Mosul has been kind of cleared by Iraqi forces. Do you see that as kind of the time table progressing? And is there a point or, you know, where the fulcrum will swing to the other side, where things will start going faster if you could just past the river or just get to 40 percent or 50 percent?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK. Yeah, I think probably you're -- you're -- and I think I've used that myself. Roughly about 20 percent of Mosul. I think they're a little beyond that now, probably more like 25 percent of Mosul. And probably half or more of the eastern side of Mosul. And then your -- has been liberated by Iraqi security forces.
It's still a hard, hard fight. And it's a dense urban environment with a 360 degree threat and 3D threat because there's basements and tunnels -- tunnels dug to join basements on city blocks. And of course, you've got several story buildings there of several stories and even multiple stories in some parts of the city so it's a very hard fight, a tough problem.
Is there a time when I think things could shift dramatically? Yes, I think there is. I think that the -- as the Iraqis close on the one remaining bridge over from -- that joins the east side of the city to the west across the Tigris River, I believe that the enemy is faced with a very stark choice.
If he wants to fight and die, then he's made that decision, he'll stay there. If he wants to get out to try to fight again another day, if he wants to get out to try to go back home and stop fighting, he's going to have to make that choice soon as the Iraqi security forces approach. So, actually I think you'll see the eastern side will break at some point and go in a rush and it'll go from really hard like it is today to a whole lot easier and we won't have to clear every structure block by block all the way to the river because I think a lot of them will get the heck out.
Now, that doesn't mean the whole Mosul campaign gets easier. I think actually the west side is going to be every bit as hard, potentially harder than the east side. I think he's invested the great majority of his defensive work on the west side and so I do anticipate a point -- there's a point where it'll get easier on the east and then we're going to have to reset the army, secured gains on the east side and shift the army's focus to the west side.
Q: Do you see that coming soon?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Y'all are always fascinated with the timetables. No, I don't see it coming soon. It's hard.
CAPT. DAVIS: To Lucas Tomlinson from Fox News.
Q: Hey, general can you -- can we go back and can you describe in more detail this air defense equipment that you say ISIS has their hands on from Palmyra? Can you describe how many missiles, how many launchers, and what type of system it is?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: No. I can't. And I didn't say he had air defense equipment, I said he may have air defense equipment -- his hands on air defense equipment around Palmyra. So, he may and I don't care to characterize the size or type or number or any of that.
Q: And can you describe al-Bab and why it's so important for Turkey to take al-Bab?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, so al-Bab is held by ISIL, so right away that is a reason it's important for someone to take it. Al-Bab is also the largest sort of municipal area in that region sort of between Aleppo and Raqqa. So, there's another important reason to take it.
Also, the Turks expressed a desire to create a buffer zone to push ISIL out of a buffer zone away from their border. They've aspired to do that initially out to 20 kilometers.
They later said out to about 40 kilometers. Al-Bab is sort of in between that. I don't think they'll go much farther south because you actually start running into regime elements just a few kilometers south of al-Bab.
So, I think they believe that al-Bab is about as far south as they can extend their border buffer zone to keep ISIL away from their border.
Q: Thank you.
And lastly, are you concerned that Turkey's -- they want al-Bab because they also want you divide two separate Kurdish regions and could that be a concern with the campaign going forward?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I do believe that's one of the Turks reasons for going as deep as al-Bab, as they desire to keep Kurdish groups separated. Those to the east of al-Bab in the Manbij area and then those to the west in the Afrin area I think they see it as in their interest to keep those groups apart.
I -- I don't see that as a great concern for us.
CAPT. DAVIS: To Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Q: Hi sir, thank you again for doing this briefing.
Quick question about the irrational for recommendation -- of recommending the additional 200 forces for Syria, what effect were you looking for, why did you think you needed to recommend the additional forces? And then, I have another question.
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: OK well, it's pretty simple, I kind of alluded to it in an earlier answer. So Raqqa is the biggest thing that we have undertaken in Syria to date and the biggest and most complex thing.
So we had a certain number of forces that allowed us to assist our Syrian partners in liberating Kobani and Hasaka and Shadadi and Manbij. As you look towards Raqqa, it's farther away. It's a lot larger. It's a lot more complex.
And its ISIL's capital, self-proclaimed capital so we think they're gonna defend it in a very strong way. So just looking at that, it sort of becomes apparent that whatever forces we had to do the things that we had done up to that point we'd probably need some more forces. The Syrian partners also need more forces. And so that's why I said one of the primary tasks of these additional forces will be to train additional Syrian partners. So their demand for increased forces for Raqqa is matched by our own requirement to provide additional coalitions forces to support them.
Q: And the other question I had was about U.S. advisers with the Turkish forces or the Turkish trained forces. I believe that was -- they were no longer paired up with them when they moved on al- Bab.
Is that still the case, at what point do you foresee them going back, if at all?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: So you're right, we're currently not operating with the Turks and their partner forces and we're not operating around al- Bab with them. That's -- the -- their penetration into Syria exceeded the depth which our authorities went.
So we stopped supporting that directly. But I can envision a time, potentially, when we might team up with them again, we've done it before. So I can see a time where we might team up with them directly in support of them again in the future.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Phil Stewart of Reuters had a follow-up.
Q: Hi, general, so just to clarify, so in the clearing operations in Mosul, you said about half of the east side of the city has been taken. Does that mean that the U.S. forces now can go in, accompanying their Iraqi counterparts into that more secure part of east Mosul? Basically, is it safe to assume now that U.S. forces are coming in and out of east Mosul with some regularity?
LT. GEN. . TOWNSEND: OK. So, I've answered this question in these forums before. We're not limited on where we can go. So, we accompany our partners to a certain level where we have authorities to accompany them. We accompany wherever the partner goes.
So if at some point a partner -- we're typically paired up with partner commanders and their headquarters -- their forward headquarters, their battlefield headquarters. So if those battlefield headquarters are outside of Mosul, that's where coalition force advisers are. If their battlefield headquarters move into Mosul, which at some point it would be logical that they would as we continue to clear Mosul, then coalition force advisers will accompany them there.
We'll accompany our partners wherever our partners go to fight Daesh.
Q: Just to clarify: Has that happened? Are U.S. forces now accompanying in Mosul?
LT. GEN. TOWNSEND: I'm not going to go to that level of detail. That's too much information for the enemy. I want the enemy to guess.
CAPT. DAVIS: With that, sir, thank you very much. We've used up all of your time. Thank you for joining us today, and we hope to see you again soon.
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.