Department of Defense Press Briefing by Maj. Gen. Jones via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Major General Rupert Jones, UK, deputy commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve;
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning.
General Jones, we just wanted to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
MAJOR GENERAL RUPERT JONES: Yes, I can hear you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Great.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're pleased to be joined today by Major General Rupert Jones of the United Kingdom. He serves as the deputy commander for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. He's joining us today.
And, sir, I'm sorry, are you live in Baghdad? I should have thought to ask you before. I think you're in Baghdad. Is that correct?
GEN. JONES: Yes, that's correct. I'm in Baghdad.
CAPT. DAVIS: And sir, we'll turn it over to you for your opening remarks, and then take questions from here.
GEN. JONES: Thanks very much, and good morning.
I'm going to start in Syria, then discuss progress in Iraq, before finishing with an update on the stabilization efforts that set conditions for normality to return once Daesh is defeated.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, with the Syrian Arab Coalition, continue to make advances to pressure and isolate Raqqa. Since they started operations on the 5th of November, they've liberated more than 3,900 square kilometers of territory as they advance from the north-northwest, and now northeast of Raqqa.
Dozens of villages and tens of thousands of people have been liberated from ISIS. The bulks of the fighting has been by Arab forces and many more are being recruited and trained as they march south. The enemy is defending robustly, but the isolation continues at a deliberate pace and the enemy are losing fighters, leaders and resources.
The coalition continues conducting strikes in support of our partners. Sixteen command and control facilities and more than 30 supply and logistics nodes have been destroyed by the coalition. These sites were used by the enemy to store weapons, ammunition and supplies.
We're increasing coalition airstrikes against ISIS in and around Raqqa, targeting their leaders and command and control architecture. The enemy is under pressure on all fronts. We continue to target his finances and illicit sale of oil. His ability to communicate messages of hatred and extremism are ever more muted. His ability to recruit fighters has been stifled, and he can no longer move with impunity. The conditions are almost set for the liberation of Raqqa and ISIS knows it.
Meanwhile in al-Bab to the west of Raqqa, Turkey and their partner forces continue to squeeze Daesh out of the city. We continue to support them with airstrikes. As they advance, they're discovering a vast tunnel network beneath the city, a tactic we've seen in other areas the enemy has controlled. Soon, we expect to see the city fully liberated after weeks of heavy fighting.
Moving to Iraq, the Iraqi security forces continue to prepare for the liberation of West Mosul. The 16th Iraqi Army Division, supported by police and thousands of tribal forces, have moved into the east side of the city to provide security to the population and prevent the enemy from reinfiltrating or using sleeper cells.
The city has faced a devastating trauma under Daesh in the last two years, and it will take time to establish complete security. This should not be a surprise, and the coalition will support our Iraqi partners as they help to rid East Mosul of any residual threat.
In the meantime, the people are extraordinarily resilient and they're grasping the opportunity to bring some normality back to their lives in East Mosul. Markets and schools are reopening. Bustle and life is returning to the streets. And even the simple pleasure of a game of football without ISIS' rulemaking and oversight is being enjoyed.
The government of Iraq, working with the United Nations and others, has started vital stabilization efforts to reignite the city's essential services: water, electricity, sanitation, refuse and health infrastructure. And capital works projects are injecting vital life back into the economy and helping to clear the city of rubble and the other detritus left by Daesh's rule of fear.
In the most powerful sign in the city coming back to life, more than 46,000 people displaced by fighting in and around Mosul have been able to return to their homes so far. And there are great stories emerging about emotional family reunions as people return to the city.
Life in Mosul isn't going to be easy anytime soon, but this is a good indicator of growing confidence in security and stabilization efforts.
The enemy has tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate back into the east of the city and has indiscriminately fired mortars, rockets and artillery into liberated areas more than 300 occasions in the last week with characteristic disdain for human life. This tactic, together with their continued use of commercial off-the-shelf drones, is all they have left with which to attack the east as they await their fate.
Daesh still hold about 750,000 people in the west of Mosul and they must now be dealt with. Soon, and at a time of their choosing, the Iraqi Security Forces will move in to start the liberation of West Mosul.
Be under no illusion: The fight will not be easy. The tight streets and alleyways of the old city will be tough to clear. But the Iraqi forces have adapted to ISIS' tactics and they will drive back the enemy whose finite resources wane with each passing day.
It's worth reflecting on the extraordinary efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces to protect civilians during the tough battle for Mosul. This respect for civilian life is in stark contrast to the enemy's brutality.
Let me finish by taking a brief look in the rearview mirror. We tend to focus on the fight, but I want to reflect on what follows the battle.
During 2016, an area the size of Wales was retaken by Daesh -- that's about the size of New Jersey for you on the other side of the Atlantic -- giving about two million people their freedom back in Iraq and Syria. However the scars will remain long after the battle.
Cities like Ramadi and Fallujah suffered significant damage to their infrastructure during their occupation by Daesh. They were riddled with explosive devices. Booby traps were left in homes in cupboards, in fridges, in schools and in hospitals, all aimed to kill and maim innocent civilians.
Daesh hope to stop the population from returning to their normal lives but they failed.
There's still much to do, but by way of a few examples, 26,000 kilograms of explosives have been removed from Ramadi since its liberation last year, allowing 80 percent of the population to return to their homes. 360,000 people in the city now have access to clean water.
In Fallujah, about 200,000 people have returned.
And across the whole of Anbar, where ISIS banned education, there are now more than 1,200 schools open, with well over 300,000 children and 16,000 teachers back in the classroom.
All this follows the great efforts of the government of Iraq, of the United Nations, and of a host of other international organizations. It's tough, grinding work, and for the people who've been traumatized by ISIS's campaign of terror, the work can't be done soon enough. There's much more to do, of course, but stabilization efforts are making real progress.
With that, I'll happily now take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We're going to start with Courtney Kube from NBC News.
Q: Hi, general.
There were some Iraqi officials who were saying earlier this week that there was a large airstrike that killed more than a dozen ISIS leaders in western Iraq, and that there was -- they were part of a meeting that may have included al-Baghdadi, that he may have even been injured or killed.
This -- we haven't heard much from the coalition yet on whether there was any coalition support or knowledge of this. Can you fill us in on what you know about this incident?
GEN. JONES: Courtney, we're tracking the same reports as you. We've heard the same thing as you. But we've not been able to corroborate it yet at this stage.
Q: You haven't been able to corroborate any part of it, including that any other ISIS leaders were killed or that Baghdadi was there, or anything -- any elements of it yet?
GEN. JONES: No. So, look, we know the Iraqi strikes are always coordinated with us. We know where their strikes are going to be. So we know they struck a group of what they assess to be leaders. But we haven't got any corroboration as to who -- who was on the end of that strike at this stage.
It would be kind of -- it would be irresponsible to speculate, I think, any further at this stage.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, Otto Kreisher.
Q: Good morning, general. Otto Kreisher, Seapower Magazine.
You mentioned the continued use of commercial, off-the-shelf drones. Are they continuing to drop bombs? Are they used mainly for ISR? What's the use of those drones?
GEN. JONES: Hey, look, you know, the use of drones is becoming an increasingly insidious threat in Iraq, being used by -- by ISIS. They're used to -- for surveillance, as you indicate, but, you know, in a way the thing that's most concerning is they are being used increasingly to drop grenades and other explosive munitions on the innocent civilians in East Mosul and elsewhere.
You know, I should say while this is a typically inhumane and indiscriminate weapon by Daesh, it's not a game-changer. It's, you know, it's -- we've got technical defenses to mitigate against it, and I'm confident it's not in any way a game-changer.
CAPT. DAVIS: Yes, I'm sorry. Actually, I had Al Hurra, Joe Tabet next, and then Ryan.
Q: Thank you.
Yes, General Jones, could you give an update about the relationship with the Russian military, your weekly or day-to-day contacts? Has anything changed in the last four weeks?
GEN. JONES: So, as you know, the coalition has de-confliction procedures in place with the Russians. And that is to ensure air safety and safety of all of our -- all of our people. Nothing has changed there. As you know, in and around al-Bab there's a very close fight going on, and we are supporting the Turkish military and their opposition forces as they seek to close out the clearance of al-Bab.
But in that area and other areas, we use that de-confliction channel to ensure -- ensure safety. But in answer to your question has there been any change in the last four weeks, no. That channel is used regularly, but there's been no change.
Q: Would you -- could you -- could you explain to us more, give us an example about the de-conflicting procedures? Could you give us an example?
GEN. JONES: I'm not going to go into kind of -- into kind of the detailed specifics. But, you know, when you have got, you know that the Russians are operating over Syrian airspace as is the coalition. We want to make sure that there's no accidents or misunderstanding; that air safety is paramount; that we don't inadvertently cause casualties to each other.
And that de-confliction channel is there to achieve -- to ensure everybody's safety. I don't want to kind of go into specifics, but that's essentially what it's there to do.
What we're there focused on is getting on and taking the fight to Daesh and defeating Daesh. And this de-confliction channel ensures that we're able to do that safely.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we go to Ryan Browne from CNN
Q: Hello, general. Thank you for doing this.
Just two quick questions. The first one, when Manbij was retaken by the SDF, there was a lot of reports that intelligence pertaining to terrorist -- external terrorist plots was gathered. As the Iraqis have taken East Mosul, as they're starting to back-clear that, are we finding any intelligence pertaining to external plots by ISIS?
GEN. JONES: Sorry. Do you -- you had a second question as well. Do you want to fire that as well?
Q: Sure, of course. So, yesterday, the U.S. General Thomas, the commander of Special Operations Command, said that about 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. I know the U.K. Defense Ministry put out 25,000 as a number in December. So could you help us kind of understand how that number is assessed and what the -- you know, why there's such a kind of large difference there?
GEN. JONES: Okay, so let's deal with Manbij first and your question about kind of intelligence leading towards terror plots. As you say, there was a huge amount of material gathered in Manbij that helped intelligence agencies in Europe, in the U.S. and elsewhere to counter potential terror plots.
What I can tell you is that in Mosul, a huge amount of material has been gathered. You know, Daesh were there for two years. You know that Daesh are a very bureaucratic organization. They keep records. There's a whole lot of -- a great deal of material that was in East Mosul. We've worked very carefully with our Iraqi partners to gather as much of that as possible, that's in concert with the Iraqis.
And that material is being exploited at this stage both by the Iraqis and by coalition nations. And clearly, it would be speculation at this stage as to what that material might lead to. But I think it's in all likelihood it will point to terror plots. That's -- that's what we've seen in Manbij. That's what we've seen elsewhere. We know that Daesh seeks to run external operations. We know that Mosul and Raqqa as, if you like, planning headquarters are very important to them.
Turning to your question about numbers of Daesh killed since the start of the campaign, off the top of my head I cannot remember the working figure in terms of the total number killed since the start of the campaign. But the figure that the U.K. secretary of state was referring to of about 25,000 is the figure that we have recorded of enemy killed during the course of the calendar year of 2016.
Now, we work very closely to ensure that we understand not only how many -- whether or not we might have caused any civilian casualties, but also we do our best to understand how many enemy we've killed on the ground. Of course, that is difficult to do and it's not a precise art, but we do keep a running total after each strike as to how many enemy we think we struck. The figure of 25,000 Secretary Fallon was referring to was a 2016 calendar year figure.
I confess, I'm not certain where the 60,000 figure came -- came from, but I am -- I am confident that since the beginning of the campaign, we will have killed at least that many. So I suspect that's what he was referring to. So no discrepancy, different time periods that the two people are referring to.
CAPT. DAVIS: And next to Laurent Barthelemy with Agence France-Press.
Q: Thanks for doing this.
You -- you have mentioned that the Arab forces have done the bulk of the fighting in the offensive against Raqqa. Is it your assessment that the Arab forces can actually seize the city or will other forces, Kurdish or other, be necessary?
GEN. JONES: Well, we as a coalition have said all along that the Syrian Democratic Forces with the -- with the Arabs -- (inaudible) -- the fight will be used to isolate Raqqa, and that's exactly what they're doing and they're doing it very effectively. They're pushing the enemy back, they're writing down the -- the enemy's capability and they're closing in as we speak on the city of Raqqa, exactly as they said they would do.
So those forces are proving themselves absolutely for that -- for that fight.
We've also always said that we would discuss with our partners in terms of who is best placed to conduct the actual liberation of Raqqa. We'll do that. We'll have those conversations. But at this stage, the force that looks most likely capable to conduct the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF. Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are. We've seen their fighting spirit, we've seen what they're capable of doing. They re-took Manbij, a very tough fight, and they prevailed in the face of a tough -- tough opposition.
They're closing in on Raqqa and we're confident that they'll be able to retake Raqqa when the time comes, of course with coalition support. That's what we're there to do.
Q: Can the -- only the Arab part of the SDF do this or -- or will the -- will it be necessary to have the Kurdish component too?
GEN. JONES: Well, that's slightly for the -- for the SDF to decide upon. You know, the SDF -- (inaudible) -- they feel like a total force. I mean, it's made up of both Arabs and Kurds. As I've said to you, the bulk of the force is advancing on Raqqa are Arabs. But I said the bulk of the forces, not all of the forces. The Arabs and the Kurds actually word hand-in-glove, and my expectation is if the SDF are the assault into Raqqa, that is how they'll -- they'll operate. They'll work together in concert with each other, but the -- but the majority of the fighters will be -- will be Arabs we, the coalition, will be there to support them.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Kasim Lleri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Thanks for doing this, General.
My question will be about Raqqa. We know that the Russians and Syrian regime are fighting ISIS around Dayr az Zawr, closing the routes between Raqqa and Dayr az Zawr. Can we say that there's a chance of cooperation between the SDF and the regime and Russians in isolating Raqqa?
GEN. JONES: Could you -- I got the bulk of the question; just the last few bits I didn't get, the actual -- the heart of the question. I got all the context. Can you just repeat the last bit?
Q: Okay. Can you say that there's a tacit cooperation between the Syrian regime forces, backed by Russians, and the SDF in isolation of Raqqa?
GEN. JONES: Okay, thank you.
So look, we are focused on the defeat of Daesh. That's what we're getting on with. We're working very closely with our partners in both Iraq and Syria -- the SDF in the case of Syria.
Of course, there are plenty of other actors operating in -- in Syria, not least, of course, as you say, the regime and the Russian forces. But in terms of, you know, the fight for Raqqa, that fight is absolutely focused at the moment on the SDF and the coalition effort.
The effort you're referring to by the regime down in Dayr az-Zawr is a substantial different distance from -- from Raqqa and we wouldn't envisage it influencing the battle for Raqqa at this stage.
Q: And last week, Colonel Dorrian said that for -- to cover up the southern flank of Raqqa, they are -- you guys are trying to build up capacities down in southern flank of the city. Can you update us on what's going on the southern part of the city right now? How do you plan to cover up that area as you apparently don't have forces on that part?
GEN. JONES: Well, look, there's plenty of ways you can -- you can isolate a city. You can isolate it with forces. You can isolate it with a river. And there is a river south of Raqqa. And you can isolate it through fires.
So, look, I'm not going to go into the details of the plan. You would -- you would respect why I don't want to do that. But I'm confident we can isolate Raqqa and the Daesh fighters there are under the -- (inaudible). We're bringing in fires increasingly. We're shaping that -- that enemy. We're striking its command and control. We're striking his leaders. We're striking his fighters. We're striking his logistics. We're preparing the ground for when the attack on Raqqa happens.
And I'm pretty confident the enemy will feel isolated.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. We'll take a follow-up from Courtney Kube with NBC News.
Q: Hi, general. One more back to Iraq, please.
So, back to the Iraqi report that they struck this large group of leaders in Anbar. I just -- it just sort of opens up the question after Fallujah and Ramadi were cleared so long ago, are you seeing any resurgence of ISIS in Anbar right now? Are you seeing the ISIS leadership or even al-Qaida or any -- any terrorist groups moving back into Anbar, or trying to regroup there, now that the focus is more on Mosul in that country?
Are the Iraqis having a hard time holding any of the areas that were cleared in previous months?
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Have we dropped?
Give me a signal. Are we back up?
Okay. Can we do -- we switch to phone backup? It's important.
Yeah, right. We'll give it a minute here. At least it froze him at a good -- (inaudible), right? If it was me, it would have been mouth open, drooling.
Adam, can you get us a status? We'll give it another minute. Quick show of hands. If it's gonna be more than a minute, do you guys want to call it a wrap or do you wanna try to reconnect?
STAFF: (Off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: Sure.
STAFF: They're not picking up -- (inaudible).
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay.
STAFF: (Off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: All right.
All right, guys. I think we're gonna call it a wrap then. I think it was a great brief though and thank you. Sorry for the technical difficulties at the end. And he is -- he is available to you via Colonel Dorrian for any follow-ups if you need.
So thanks, everybody.
Q: (Off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: Yes. All right. Thanks, everybody.