Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Sylvia via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Army Colonel Brett Sylvia, commander, Task Force Strike, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Okay. Brett, just want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
COLONEL BRETT SYLVIA: I can hear you just fine. How do you hear me?
CAPT. DAVIS: Got you loud and clear.
Just at the outset, for anybody watching on channel two, I did want to point out, the farewell ceremony that's taking place right now for Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James occurring at Joint Base Andrews is being livestreamed on a separate channel on defense.gov. You can watch it there. This is being carried in the building here on channel two, as well as also being streamed on a separate channel on defense.gov.
I'd like to introduce to you Colonel Brett Sylvia. He's the current commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Strike, which is the roughly 1,700-person unit responsible for the advise and assist mission in Iraq. Task Force Strike advisory teams have successfully advised the Iraqi security forces through operations in Fallujah, Sharqat, Qayyarah, the occupation of Qayyarah West Airfield and they're currently advising during operations to retake Mosul.
I -- I set that out for you because I want you to please, as you -- as you engage in discussion today Colonel Sylvia, to keep in mind that's what his role is. I know we have a lot of other good questions about things happening in Syria, happening in the skies, happening with Russia and Turkey and other players. That's actually not his responsibility. So I will humbly ask your understanding of that at the get-go. We're happy to field those questions for you separately either here or with Colonel Dorrian in Baghdad.
Task Force Strike's role is critical in setting the conditions for the inevitable military defeat of Iraq -- of ISIS in Iraq, excuse me. And with that, I'll open it up to you.
COL. SYLVIA: Good morning. So as stated, I'm Colonel Brett G. Sylvia, the commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault. Here in Operation Inherent Resolve, I am the commander of Task Force Strike. We are the one brigade combat team deployed forward here in Iraq. Our primary mission these past nine months has been to advise and assist the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in the fight to defeat ISIL in Iraq.
I'd like to make a brief statement about some of the tremendous accomplishments we've achieved together since our arrival here in May, and then open it up to your questions.
So, as Lieutenant General Townsend described last month, 2016 has been characterized by the counter-offensive. Over the course of this year, this task force found ways to deepen our involvement with our Iraqi counterparts. Their success has been our success as we have been working very closely with one another.
I've gotten many questions about what the advise and assist mission actually looks like on the ground. I'd like to give you a short vignette to answer this particular question.
We were recently visiting one of our forward advisory teams at their joint command post on the outskirts of Mosul. Captain Dan Fitzgerald and his team advised the commander of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division. When we arrived, they were in the middle of processing a strike. Inside this small command post, I saw Iraqi officers and coalition soldiers huddled around a very small monitor. The Iraqis were talking on their communication devices and we were on ours.
They had identified a threat with a coalition ISR platform and together, they were working a strike to eliminate that threat before it reached the friendly forces. The division commander walked in, verified the threat, and authorized the strike. The threat was immediately destroyed. That is our advise and assist mission in a nutshell. The Iraqis do the ground maneuver and we support them with all the capabilities at our disposal. We work as one team to accomplish the mission.
We employ this model at various echelons, from this company commander all the way to me and my three-star partner. This model, in my opinion, has gotten more effective over time and has yielded greater and greater success. Over the course of the past nine months, great things have been accomplished here in Iraq. It has been our partnership that has achieved these things.
Hundreds of villages and cities have been liberated, to include Fallujah, Qayyara, Sharqat, and Qaraqush. Assistance has been provided to almost 250,000 displaced persons and almost 100,000 of these departed their IDP camps and headed back to their homes. An assault bridge was put over the Tigris River under fire, and then three more bridges were constructed over the Tigris and the Qaza Rivers.
A major airfield was liberated and then restored at Q West. And we have measurably reduced the effectiveness of ISIL's primary weapon system, the vehicle-borne IED. And we've assisted in the targeting of ISIL's drones, bringing down almost a dozen.
We've done these things together. The Iraqis have been on the ground, and we have enabled them both with effective advice and timely assistance. This has been a partnership between these Iraqi formations and Task Force Strike. As I said, their success has been our success. We operate as one team.
Before I close, I'd like to tell one story. On Christmas Day, I attended a service at the Marahana Church in Qaraqush. It was the first Christmas service in this church in over two years. I sat in a pew next to the operational commanders currently fighting in Mosul. They represented each of the Iraqi security forces and all of whom are Muslim. The commander of the federal police, who used his own funds to renovate the church to have it ready in time for Christmas mass, pulled me aside just before the service and said that this was his Christmas gift to me and to my soldiers for our contributions leading to the liberation of this area.
Since our arrival in Iraq, we assisted in the liberation of a patch of Iraq larger than the state of West Virginia, but this one event represented much more than the liberation of physical terrain. It was a symbol of the cooperation of all the Iraqi Syrian security forces, a symbol of the contrast between the tolerance of the real Iraqis and the intolerance of ISIL and a symbol of optimism of what Iraq can be in the future.
In closing, let me say that I am extremely proud of every member of Task Force Strike and all they have accomplished these past nine months. We provided training, equipment, intelligence, fire support and advice to our very capable Iraqi partners. Everywhere I go and talk with Iraqi leaders, they go out of their way to talk about their partner, a strike leader standing side by side with them, enabling them with coalition expertise and effects, compelling success and defeating an enemy of all people everywhere. They have truly lived up to our brigade motto; I am strike soldier, I fight where I'm told and I win where I fight.
That's all I have for an opening statement. I'd be happy to take your questions at this time.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Idrees Ali from Reuters.
Q: Speaking about the capabilities of the ISF in general, where do you see some of the deficiencies that they need more work in? Because as we've seen in the operation to retake Mosul, other than the CT forces, there are some serious deficiencies and issues. So what specifically do you think needs more work in terms of training and advising them?
COL. SYLVIA: One of the things that -- that we've had the great fortune of doing over the course of these last nine months is being able to witness a -- a great transformation in the Iraqi Security Forces.
When we first began these operations, the first village that we liberated together was a small village. It was called Qarbadon. And when they went to -- to seize this particular village, there was no more than 30 to 40 ISIL fighters that existed in that village and they sent an entire brigade to attack that particular village because that's what they felt was the -- the combat power that was required in order to be able to seize that village.
But what we've witnessed now over time since that day way back in May, is that they have increased their ability to conduct combined arms maneuver. It has been a growing capability. I'm sure you all have heard the stories about Ramadi where it was only the counterterrorism services that were leading the fight and it was the Iraqi army that had to move in behind them. They were the only offensive maneuver.
But today, in Mosul, what you'll see is you'll see the Counterterrorism Service advancing on one axis, you'll see the federal police advancing on another axis and you'll see the Iraqi army advancing on a -- on a third axis, each one of them now able to operate inside of a dense urban environment and be able to continue to make gains every single day, make progress every single day against ISIL.
And so it’s not like it was back nine months ago where they struggled to get true combined arms maneuver in order to be able to defeat the enemy. And today, they're doing that. And every day, they're getting better at that as they continue to gain more experience at this, they gain more confidence. Their leaders gain greater competence.
And so they -- they continue to make progress and it's actually -- it's very impressive to see.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Michael Gordon of the New York Times.
Q: Sir, I was out around Mosul at the early first few weeks of this operation. It's been reported there are is significant attrition that Iraqi forces have suffered, including the CTS. What steps have you taken to help the Iraqi forces deal with this situation? What adjustments have been made? Has it affected plans, training and equipping plans, replenishment plans for the forces? And what is the end-strength of the CTS and ISF in light of these operations? What's the projected end-strength you'd like to have?
COL. SYLVIA: So, as we're talking about casualties within the ISF, you know, specific numbers and all, I'm sure as you know we address those to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. But what I will talk about is -- is as we are looking at what happened in those early days in the attack in Mosul, like you said, you were there. You saw it.
What we witnessed was we saw all the, you know, Daesh's -- ISIL's primary weapon system was that vehicle-borne IED. And they used it actually with -- with pretty good effectiveness. One out of every two VBIED attacks resulted in some type of -- some type of casualty, whether it was vehicles, equipment, or personnel.
And what we have done over time, working together, is to be able to bring some of our capabilities and match it with their capabilities. So within the last couple of weeks, what we've seen is that effectiveness of the VBIEDs go down to one in nine or one in six of their VBIED attacks result in any type of damage and that damage is certainly much less than it was before.
And so for both of us, our involvement with them and our partnership with them, it has certainly been an evolution as we have figured out how to be more effective in our strikes, more effective in the counter-mobility fight in order to be able to support them against each one of the threats that exist in Mosul.
As you know, it's a three-dimensional fight. They're, you know, ISIL is in the basements of buildings, on the roofs of buildings, you know, and around the corners. And they've had two years to build this defense. But over time, they've gotten much more effective. And it's not just the CTS. It's all the forces that are much more effective there today.
And they continue to build their own combat power. And the three axes advance, you know, that you see now, and really in particular when it began on December 29th, has taken a lot of pressure off the CTS. Because in the beginning, there was a lot of -- the brunt of the attack was on the CTS. And so that in and of itself has been a great force protection mechanism for them.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Courtney Kube of NBC News.
Q: Hi, colonel. I wanted to ask you just one thing from your opening statement. You mentioned that the task force has been involved in taking down more than a dozen ISIL drones. Can you give us a -- describe what those drones are like, size? I'm assuming that they were unarmed, but what were they -- what was sort of the mission that they were doing? And how did the task force assist in taking them down?
COL. SYLVIA: Yeah, the -- the ISIL drones has been something that has evolved over time. It -- it is a capability that they have had for pretty much the duration of the time that we've been here. It's, you know, commercial off-the-shelf, you know, just UAVs that -- that they purchase. And in the beginning, they had some of these -- they were little bit, you know, larger fixed-wing, you know, no bigger than a five-foot wingspan, but -- (inaudible) – used for reconnaissance.
As we've made our way into Mosul now, what we've seen is that they use the smaller drones, the quad copters things, with a much shorter ability to -- to project them out. You know, they're up for, you know, 45 minutes, an hour so, and even that evolution has transitioned in the beginning of the Mosul campaign from -- from just reconnaissance to they are actually putting munitions in them and -- and dropping munitions on -- on the ISF, on the Iraqi security forces and their positions.
And so, while I won't go into any of the technical matters, the technical capabilities that we use on these ISIL drones, what -- what we have found is that we're able to bring to bear some of our technical capabilities and then the Iraqis are able to couple that with much of their direct fire weapon systems. And as a result of us working together hand-in-hand, we've been able to -- to bring down these ISIL drones and -- and have made them much less effective than they -- than they were in the beginning.
Q: Could you give us a little bit -- describe a little bit more about the munitions that they've been putting on them? And then are you aware that any of these munitions have resulted in the deaths of any Iraqi security forces?
COL. SYLVIA: Yeah, you know, like I said before, you know, we -- you know, we don't talk about the ISF casualties. That's, again, something to -- to take to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense for them to -- to be able to -- to address.
I can tell you it has resulted in the damage to some equipment and damage of some structures as well as to some civilian casualties because certainly, they're not concerned about whether or not any of the civilians in Mosul are -- are killed or wounded. So -- so there has been -- has been that.
You know, they are small drones with -- with small munitions that they -- that they've been dropping, you know, just -- you know, akin to, you know, a small little grenade that -- that drops on the ground, enough for them to be able to -- to do what -- what Daesh does, and that's just, you know, indiscriminate killing. That's -- that's what they do.
But like I said, their effectiveness has significantly waned as we have, you know, worked this counter-UAS fight together with the Iraqis.
Q: One more. You haven't seen them trying to deliver any kind of chemicals or any kind of -- anything like that with these drones, or have you?
COL. SYLVIA: We have not. We have not, no.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Barbara Starr from CNN.
Q: Colonel, thank you for doing this.
I wanted to follow-up a bit on what Courtney just asked you. Just so I understand, you're saying that ISIS has now achieved the ability to aerial drop the munitions from the wings of these UAVs? And do the UAVs go down on the ground and then sometimes Iraqis may approach them and they explode at that point? Is it both cases? Or have they -- what -- I mean, it sounds fairly concerning that they would have achieved this capability to drop this stuff off the wings.
And also, have any of your U.S. troops been wounded either by this or in any other circumstances?
COL. SYLVIA: Yeah, so it is -- I do want to make sure that I capture a little bit more accurately kind of what it is that we're talking about with regard to these armed UASs.
I'm not sure if you're familiar with -- with these small quad copters. You know, probably no bigger than, you know, a couple of feet in diameter. So, it's not as if it is it a, you know, a large armed UAV that's dropping munitions from the wings, as you described, but literally a very small quad copter that, you know, drops a, you know, small munition in a somewhat imprecise manner, in a somewhat crude manner out there on the battlefield.
And that's really what we've seen up to this point. And, you know, like I said, you know, indiscriminately targeting, going after Iraqi security forces. We -- we, you know, we certainly, you know, to address your question, you know, there have been no U.S. -- no U.S. casualties from any of these UAS's. They're very short-range, targeting those frontline troops from the Iraqis.
Q: Any casualties in the time you've been there?
COL. SYLVIA: I'm sorry. I didn't hear that. Could you say that again?
Q: Sir, can you just bring us up to date. Has your unit suffered any wounded during your deployment?
COL. SYLVIA: No, we have had no combat-related injuries; no combat-related deaths within Task Force Strike. You know, our advisory role as we partner -- so like I talked about with, you know, Captain Fitzgerald in my opening statement. You know, Captain Fitzgerald, you know, his partner is an Iraqi two-star general. The lowest that we go is, you know, one-star generals who we are partnering with. So it's one-, two-, three-star generals.
And much like you would imagine, you know, they are behind the lines. They're in their, you know, their command posts, in their headquarters. And that's where we do our advising. You know, we are there to assist them with situational awareness tools. We're there to help bring precision fires in support of their operations. And our effectiveness comes from being co-located with their decision-makers, their general officers.
And so as you can imagine, you know, their general officers are not on the frontlines, you know, kicking down doors and shooting people. And that's where our advisers are. That's where their best place is with those Iraqi commanders behind the frontlines, you know in those headquarters areas.
Q: I was noticing, though -- I guess what I was referring to in your fact sheet, you said your fire battalion has fired more than 6,000 rounds, the highest number of PTMs ever fired in combat. Since you say "ever fired in combat," over what period of time are you talking about? Since you were there -- 6,000 rounds since you arrived?
COL. SYLVIA: That's right. That's right. Yes. So, I'm sure you all remember, you know, Fire Base Bell that was there at the, you know, more than a few months ago. We fell in immediately on that. My task force top guns came in, assumed that position. And from the beginning, we've been providing precision surface-to-surface, all-weather fires in support of Iraqi security force maneuvers. That's been part of our -- part of our assistance effort to them.
And so, you know, like we talked about, you know, us bringing, you know, strikes forward, a lot of times people think of that as just primarily the close-air support, you know, the, you know, the Air Force aircraft that are flying overhead. But there's also an all-weather, you know, component. We've got, you know, HIMARS, triple-seven artillery. We've got Paladins. All that have been in support of the Iraqi security force maneuver. And it is something that we work in concert with our Iraqi counterparts.
In the beginning when I first got here, and I talked about Qarbadon -- we did, you know -- Qarbadon, Qarbat Jabbar or Hajj Ali. You know, a series of villages that we went on through. And my partner, every time that he would want fire support, he would turn to us and say, you know, "Can you provide us fire support?" And I'd say, "Well, you know, you've got your own artillery."
But in the beginning, as we talk about the maturation of the security forces, in the beginning they didn't have any trust or confidence in their artillery forces. And that's something that when we talk about our advisory mission, we've gone forward to co-locate with their artillery in order to be able to provide some additional training and instruction; in order to increase the precision of their own fires.
So now, as we are in Mosul, there is a whole range of kinetic strikes that could be brought, some of which are Iraqi and some of which are coalition. And we've been there in order to support.
Clearly, we have a great precision fires capability, whether it's air-delivered or whether it's surface-to-surface. And so when we talk about the precision fires that have been delivered, the greatest number, you know, in combat ever, that's because of new precision-fires capability that has come to even our own Army and our ability to deliver very accurate fires, which is particularly important as we're fighting in an urban area, in order to be able to go through the very deliberate process to limit any collateral damage.
Q: (inaudible) -- rounds of ground fire, on average, what would you say, out of 6,000 rounds, and it's the highest ever, how many ground combat rounds a day do you fire?
COL. SYLVIA: I only caught the last portion of your question there. So, you're asking, you know, what percentage of these are precision-fires? Is that your question?
Q: Sure. Sorry. I'm just asking, you say you're firing 6,000 rounds in combat, according to your fact sheet. So if it's 6,000 rounds, on average give me your best calculation: What would you say you fired -- and maybe it was more in the beginning -- what would you say -- how many rounds on average a day in this ground combat that you describe?
COL. SYLVIA: I'm not prepared to -- to tell you I guess what the daily averages on the rounds that are fired. I will say that we are, you know, firing more today than we were six months ago.
Today, as we are supporting multiple axes and their maneuver as they are, you know, maneuvering in and around Mosul, certainly we are firing more today than six months ago when we were just supporting, you know, the -- the maneuver of one division taking, you know, one village at a time. And so -- so we are. We -- you know, we are there supporting as part of a whole range of -- of kinetic strike capability, precision fires capability that we provide to the Iraqis every single day.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to David Martin from CBS News.
Q: You said you had reduced the effectiveness of vehicle-borne IEDs from one in two that cause damage to -- and you said one and nine or one in six. So just wondering -- clarify, is it one in nine and is it one in six? And besides dropping the bridge spans cross the Tigris, what else have you done to reduce the effectiveness of VBIEDs?
COL. SYLVIA: I -- I think this is a -- this is a great new story in terms of our advisory effort and -- and really working together with the Iraqis on this one.
So as -- you know, as you know, the VBIEDs have a -- have a tremendous impact not only in terms of casualties, but they've got a great psychological impact when you've got an explosion of -- of that size that -- that go off in proximity to -- to soldiers of any kind. And so really getting after the -- the VBIED fight has been an important one for us.
And so what we have been working together with our Iraqi counterparts are a whole range of things in order to be able to be more effective. One of them is just increasing the number of anti-tank munitions that our Iraqi counterparts have. There's an equipping program that -- that we do that -- that has allowed us to -- to increase the numbers of these munitions in the hands of the Iraqis that are there on the front lines.
The second thing is working through even some very rudimentary methods, like road spikes or, you know, hedgehogs, you know, string and wire, you know, out along the roads. There's a -- there's a natural pace of operations that occurs each day where, you know, you attack and you know, at some point, you got to, you know, kind of establish a defensive line and then prepare for the next day.
But now, you know, when they -- when they slow that advance and decide this is the point that we're gonna stop and, you know, kind of refit until we push on again, they -- they put out these counter-mobility measures, put these things out there on the ground. As we've seen, you know, these VBIEDs come in any form of a sedan or truck or anything, and some of these elementary methods help to be able to -- to stop their advance or slow their advanced to the point where they can be targeted.
And the other thing that we do is we do some -- we do some terrain denial. There are at times some -- you know, some high-speed avenues of approach that are -- that are difficult to put some of these road spikes in, and so we'll put some -- some craters in the roads, very large potholes that a -- that a vehicle would have to slow down or would have to maneuver around or potentially even, you know, if it's a heavily-laden village, would get stuck inside these areas. And so then the ISF are able to then engage them much more quickly.
The reason why I said one-to-nine and one-to-six is because we do it on kind of, you know, a two-week average. And over the course of the last month, it was one-to-nine, and then, you know, we've had one-to-six lately. Some of that is just dependent on how fluid the battlefield is. And so sometimes that percentage changed.
But regardless, you know, going from 50 percent to these larger percentages has been a significant -- a significant win for us. And at the same time, even the ones that do have some effectiveness, the relative effectiveness has been less in terms of the number of casualties or the amount of equipment that's been damaged.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Bill Hennigan with the Los Angeles Times.
Q: Hey, colonel.
These dozen drones that you mentioned before, when did you first start seeing this -- when did you first start taking them down? And when did they first have the capability of dropping munitions?
COL. SYLVIA: Well, so like I said, you know, even after we first got here, this is a capability that ISIL has had to be able to fly drones. You know, it's the same ability that, you know, any, you know, 13-year-old kid in the states has. You know, he can get online and purchase, you know, some type of unmanned aerial vehicle and put it up. And so, that's what Daesh has been doing -- ISIL's been doing for some time.
And even in the beginning when we were first here, sometimes these things would fly over and our counterparts would, you know, through small arms they would shoot them down and bring them down. So -- so they've been, you know, they've been coming down for a little while. But it wasn't until we got closer and closer to Mosul that we -- that we really began to see not only the increase in quantity, but the frequency of their flights.
And then -- and then really that's when we saw them using them in an armed fashion in order to be able to drop them on our -- on our Iraqi counterparts on their frontlines. And so that has been something that has evolved. You know, it was -- it's almost like popcorn, right? You know, you -- you see one, and then you don't see another one for a little while, and then you see another one, and then you see another one.
And so actually, it's -- it has increased in frequency. Or it did increase in frequency, I guess I should say, until very recently, both as we have now been more engaged with our partners in helping out with this fight. And so now we've seen that -- we've seen their use drop off. And at the same time as the Iraqis have taken more ground inside of Mosul.
Most recently, elements of the federal police moved into an area and captured up what appear to be kind of a UAV launch and recovery site, where they collected up a bunch of UAV parts that when ISIL was in such a hurry to depart the area, they left all these -- all these things there.
And so -- so, obviously their effectiveness and the quantities available to them have certainly decreased over time. Number one, as they've been, you know, shot out of the sky, brought down, or as these areas have been taken over.
Q: Thanks. And as you approach the Tigris here, what challenges do you see going west as you push into the districts west of the river?
COL. SYLVIA: Yeah. So -- so I'm sure you've heard -- I think it was in an Iraqi press release yesterday. They believe -- (inaudible) -- between 70 and 80 percent complete with eastern Mosul. And really, in terms of kind of the doctrinal definition of defeat, you know, you can say that there has been a defeat there because they have certainly broken their will to fight, to continue to really fight in earnest in eastern Mosul. And so the Iraqi security forces continue to make great progress there.
And so, you know, naturally the fight is not over. There is -- there's a lot of fight that's left to do in western Mosul. There has been an extensive defensive work that has been done in western Mosul. They have certainly been working on that area, and even in some cases have greater defenses built in western Mosul than they did in eastern Mosul.
And I think you’ve seen recently, they completed -- not the complete destruction, but have certainly even done more destruction to a couple of the bridges lately to ensure that they could try to delay the advance of the Iraqi security forces over to the -- over to the west side.
But I'll tell you that, you know, the Iraqi security forces, as I said, they have a tremendous capability. That capability has grown. They've gotten better at this urban fight. They know what they're getting themselves into. And they know that they have in many cases, you know, broken the will of many of these Daesh fighters. And we hear a lot more and more about many of them, you know, running away.
And certainly when ISIL hears that they've got fighters running away, they, you know, they execute them. So I don't know what incentive that gives to people to continue to fight for them, but certainly that's just another indication of, you know, how they operate.
But, you know, the ISF have -- have more than enough capability to get around to the west side and to begin that fight. They certainly don't need those bridges in order to be able to get over there. They've demonstrated in the past that they can -- they can build bridges. You know, like I talked about earlier, you know, we have provided advising at multiple echelons.
One of the things that we've done is bridge advising. And so when they first put in that first bridge over the Tigris, we were there to advise them and provide some, you know, technical capabilities in putting that bridge in. And then they put a second bridge in, and we were there to advise them on that second bridge. But then they put in a third and a fourth bridge without us there, without us advising.
They've grown in their capability to do these things. And I'm confident that they'll be able to continue to do that as they bring forces from the east side to the west side when they're ready to do that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next to Corey Dickstein, Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hey, sir, appreciate your doing this.
I wanted to see -- you said, obviously, that the vehicle-borne IEDs have been less effective recently. Do you have maybe an estimate of how often they're using them? I'm sure it's daily, but can you say how often ISF is coming into contact with them?
And are they becoming more crude as territory is taken and things are cleared that they've held for a while?
COL. SYLVIA: Today, to be honest with you, I read an article today -- Major General Maan, who is one of the commanders of the Counterterrorism Service, I think he said it best. He said in the beginning, we would see as many as 10 VBIEDs a day against our front-line troops, and today, you know, we see, you know, no more than -- than one or two and on some days, you know, we don't see any.
And -- and you're right, they have become much more crude. When we were fighting on the outskirts of Mosul before we even got into -- into the city proper, we like to call them those “Mad Max”-looking VBIEDs. They had taken vehicles, they had put steel plating, you know, all around these things and just had a small little porthole that the -- that the driver would be able to see through. They would try to ram these things into -- into the Iraqi defenses.
And today, you know, we don't -- we don't see those anymore. Like you said, they are much more crude. To some degree, that's -- that's good because they have less capability to break through barriers. In some cases, it does make it even a little bit more difficult because they look like every other sedan that's on the street, and so -- so sometimes, it can be difficult -- (inaudible).
The Iraqi security forces have shown great restraint and great care in being able to safeguard not only the -- the people of Mosul, the civilians that are still there in Mosul, but even their property. And so that has in some cases, even made it just a little bit more difficult on them.
Q: And then on the artillery, you said your artillery battalion has worked directly with the -- the Iraqi artillery forces. Can you talk at all to how the Iraqi artillery has advanced? Are they able to strike with, you know, similar precision to our -- to our artillery soldiers?
And then can you kind of also tell -- you know, how precise, you know, can a Paladin or a triple-seven get? Can you take out a VBIED, you know, with an artillery strike like that?
COL. SYLVIA: So first of all, I'm not gonna go into the -- the specifics, as you could imagine, on exactly how precise, you know, our artillery is, given some of the specifications on the -- the rounds and things that we have.
But what I will say is that they have been able to -- to strike VBIEDs, they have been able to -- to take out, you know, a mortar team, which is, you know, two guys standing around a mortar tube and being able to strike them with -- with great precision. They have -- you know, they've been able to put rounds in -- in some places that have allowed us to -- to destroy Daesh, and at the same time, safeguard structures or even civilians that may have been, you know, close, not too close but -- but -- but close.
Can the Iraqis do that? They don't have the same -- the same type of equipment. While they do have some Paladins, they have an earlier version of Paladins. They don't have the same kind of rounds and things that -- that we do. But they have become much more precise in terms of what they've been able to do. They -- they don't necessarily have the same precision that -- that we do, though.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, we'll go to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Sir, thanks for doing this.
During your operations around Mosul, have you had any interaction with the forces trained by Turkey in Bashiqa?
COL. SYLVIA: Yes, I have. So, there are some tribal -- Sunni tribal fighters that were trained in Bashiqa. And they are currently fully integrated in the Iraqi army, and with the 16th Iraqi Army Division on the northern axis.
They have been used as a hold force. So after the 16th Iraqi Army Division has pushed through certain areas, has cleared those areas of ISIL, they were able to move some of these tribal fighters and to hold that ground to prevent any, you know, infiltration of ISIL behind them.
So I have had -- had that limited interaction with them only through the 16th Division.
Q: What was your impression about their capabilities? Are they trained well?
COL. SYLVIA: They've proven that they were able to hold that ground behind the Iraqi army. Certainly, I'm getting my information second-hand from the commander of the 16th Iraqi Army Division. And they are, you know, fully integrated. Those tribal fighters are not there by themselves. They're there with the Iraqi army soldiers who really do kind of provide the -- kind of the overall backbone for the security forces in that area.
So that's really the only assessment that I could -- I can provide on them.
CAPT. DAVIS: And finally to Luis Martinez from ABC News.
Q: Hi, colonel. Thanks for doing this briefing.
I want to ask you about the federal police. How are they being utilized in the fight in Mosul? Are they a holding force now? Are they being used as a combat force? How many of them are there? What's your role in advising them as they operate in Mosul?
COL. SYLVIA: First of all, I'll say the federal police have proven to be a critical portion of the overall Iraqi security forces that are -- that are engaged in this fight. And if I could just step back just a little bit and frame, you know, what we're talking about when we talk about the police.
I know some of you, you know, are aware of this, but I just want to make sure that we, you know, kind of frame it appropriately.
You know, we have local police who are those who, you know, grow up in that area, you know, work for the ministry of interior, and they are, if you will, cops on the beat. We have Ninawa provincial police who are kind of a, you know, a little bit of a step above. They're not tied to, you know, kind of a checkpoint on the street or anything. They're the ones that are able to move around and -- and more along the lines of, you know, if you will in the United States, you know, kind of the state troopers who have some mobility there.
And then you've got the federal police, who are trained by the Italian carabinieri. You know, they're a gendarmerie. You know, they are, you know, really a high-end force who has the capability for offensive maneuver. They have -- they have vehicles and equipment and weapon systems that make them much more than police and really kind of straddle the line. You know, they're more like an army unit with policing authorities.
And so the federal police in, you know, kind of a little partnership with the emergency response division, who is currently falling under the federal police, they have proven to be a very effective fighting force. I know that in the past, they served perhaps a little bit different role in places like Fallujah. But here, they have -- this is the first time that we have advised them. And it has been really a fruitful partnership in all regards.
And so as a result, what we have seen, and I talked about, you know, that day in the church where we had all of the Iraqi security forces together. When I think about the greatest achievement or the greatest accomplishment of my time here, has been the integration of each one of these Iraqi security forces.
And so today, you'll see that, you know, the CTS, the Counterterrorism Services have given forces up to the Iraqi army, to the northern access, in order to be able to facilitate, you know, their clearance. You've got, you know, fed pol forces and Counterterrorism Services that meet each day in order to be able to synchronize and coordinate maneuvers as they are in support of one another in their clearance operations.
Something that I don't think we've ever seen before -- that degree of synchronization and cooperation amongst these Iraqi security forces. And I'm very proud to say that Task Force Strike and our advisers and our adviser teams, company commanders, battalion commanders, they've been there with each one of these elements, facilitating this crosstalk and this coordination and this synchronization.
And over time, I'd like to say that we played a role in being able to bring each one of them together. And so the rapid gains that we've seen since 29 December, in my opinion, are a direct result of all of them working together in synchronization to be able to achieve the effects and the great success of the last couple of weeks.
Q: If I could follow-on real quick.
Around that timeframe, the 29th of December, I guess there was discussion of a second phase going inside Mosul. There was talk about the federal police's role in -- as part of that operation. Were they always a part of the operation? Or were they brought in as an add-on because of the situation -- the holding situation that had taken place in Mosul at that time?
COL. SYLVIA: Yes, so the federal police have always been part of this, you know, Mosul counteroffensive. On the 17th of October, the federal police were, you know, they owned one of the axes of advance, and liberated, you know, almost 56 kilometers of what we used to call, you know, MSR Tampa, between MSR Tampa and the Tigris River.
A very impressive move, multiple villages. You know, we count villages a little bit different, but I think if you asked them, they'll tell you they liberated, you know, almost 100 villages, you know, through that -- that particular area.
And then they achieved, you know, what it was that they were initially asked to do. They -- they met their limit of advance. They were there to -- to set up some blocking positions and to -- and to support from that side. And then -- and so, you know, like you talked about, yeah, we did go to a phase two on December 29th, and there was a reorganization of the combat power.
And so then the federal police then did bring forces from the west side of the Tigris over to the east side of the Tigris in order to be able to add combat power to the fight there on the east, as we had seen, you know, ISIL move in combat power from the west to the east as well.
And so -- so that addition of combat power, the development of a refined plan, and the ability to move forward in order to be able to -- to make the rapid gains that we see today.
CAPT. DAVIS: And with that, we will call it a day.
Colonel Sylvia, thank you very much for your time and for coming to Baghdad to do this. And we wish you all the best of luck in the fight to re-take Mosul and look forward to seeing you again soon.
COL. SYLVIA: It's been my pleasure, thank you.