Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning.
All right, we have -- we have Colonel Ryan Dillon joining us live today from Baghdad for our weekly Operation Inherent Resolve update. Thank you for -- everybody for your flexibility, and Ryan, for you -- for your flexibility in doing this today. We didn't want to go the -- with a week without missing you. So, happy Friday to you.
COLONEL RYAN DILLON: Right back at you, Jeff, and everybody.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ryan, the floor is yours.
COL. DILLON: All right. Thanks a lot.
Hello, everyone. There's a lot to cover this morning. And I know you all have many questions, so let's just jump right into it.
We'll start in Syria and then move to Iraq.
Our partnered force in Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are in their third week of offensive operations to unseat terrorist fights from ISIS' de facto capital. The SDF have taken 45 square kilometers of ground from ISIS, in and around Raqqa, this past week. The SDF continue to fight along with three axes towards the center of Raqqa against substantial ISIS resistance.
Moving from the east, the SDF have reached the ancient Al-Rifai (sic Rafiqa) Wall. From the northwest, they continue to push past the sugar factory, amidst well in-emplaced IED-laden defenses, and from the west, they continue steady progress one neighborhood at a time into the city. South of the Euphrates River, the SDF continue to push eastward to retake ISIS-held territory.
On 18 June, last Sunday, a U.S. F-18 Super Hornet shot down a regime SU-22 jet in defense of coalition partnered forces that were operating within an agreed upon regime SDF de-confliction area. And in southern Syria, a U.S. F-15 shot down an Iranian-made Shaheed 129 armed drone as it approached our forces near At Tanf. The regime drone, advancing in a similar manner to their attack on 8 June, was shot down as it approached its weapons employment zone.
The coalition has made it clear to all parties, publicly and through de-confliction line with Russia forces, that the demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward coalition and partnered forces will not be tolerated. The coalition reemphasizes that we do not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces. Partnered with them, our mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Moving to Mosul, in the last two days, Iraqi Security Forces made significant progress, pushing into the old city and also isolating the Al Jamhuri Hospital, severing the two remaining areas held by ISIS.
Emblematic of their own impending destruction, on 21 June, ISIS destroyed the historic Grand Al-Nuri Mosque from which Al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate in July 2014.
The nearly 800-year-old mosque and the famous leaning Al-Hadba minaret stood as a symbol of faith in unity for the people of Mosul. ISIS used this mosque to publicly justify its criminal campaign of genocide, mass rape, slavery and murder.
On Wednesday night, as Iraqi counterterrorism service members moved within 50 meters of the mosque, ISIS detonated it with explosives. Their destruction of the mosque in its -- is another despicable act, another crime that is consistent with the hundreds of other ancient and historic artifacts ISIS has destroyed in their wake.
The time is near when Iraq will celebrate their long-fought victory over ISIS in Mosul. There's no question about that.
And there's no question to the significant effort that will be required to stabilize west Mosul. However, if there was any doubt in Iraqi resolve, in their ability to quickly rebound from adversity, all you need is to go to East Mosul.
Wednesday this week, I accompanied our deputy commander, British Army Major General Rupert Jones, to East Mosul. While there, we met with the chief of police for the Ninawa province, Brigadier General Watiq. He is responsible for security throughout Mosul and its surrounding areas.
General Watiq briefed us from his headquarters, highlighting the fusion of Iraqi police, army and popular and tribal mobilization forces, how they have collectively captured almost 400 ISIS fighters in the last three months in both East and West Mosul, and in IDP camps. He also emphasized that civilians have been an increased source of information leading to arrests and stopping attacks before they happen.
My father used to say, "Don't tell me, show me." Well, after General Watiq’s briefing, we went to the Prophet Yunus Market, not far from Mosul University, and got to see firsthand what life is like in East Mosul now.
Driving to the market, multiple crews of 20 to 30 workers were shoveling rubble into wheelbarrows, sweeping the streets and fixing signs and sidewalks. Once we arrived at the market, it was teeming with activity, busy with hundreds of people selling and buying everything you could think of: nuts, fruits, clothes, candy, fish and gold.
And it was brought to my attention that, because of Ramadan, most people were in their homes at the time that we were there, and a shopper -- owner told me, "This is nothing. There are at least double this amount of people after breaking fast at sundown."
And while I saw this with my own eyes, there are some significant figures that further illustrate the progress: 191,000 Moslawis are back in their homes; 350,000 children are back in school; 320 out of 400 schools have reopened; and four of nine water treatment plants are providing water to nearly a million people, with more than 3.5 million liters trucked in daily.
The greater coalition will do all we can in working with Iraqi authorities to make sure that these trends continue, while mindful of the extraordinary, difficult nature of this battle and what lies ahead.
West Mosul stabilization efforts unquestionably will be more difficult. The level of destruction has proved to be more extreme, but the Iraqi resolve, determination and support from the coalition and international community will all help to bring West Mosul back.
In closing out, before I take questions, I would like to recognize that this afternoon at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, my predecessor, someone you all know very well, Colonel John Dorrian, is set to retire after 25 years of service to our country. He's a professional, a leader and a mentor. But most importantly, he's just a good dude.
So, in appropriate J.D. fashion, I will now be delighted to take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Let's start with Bob Burns, from the Associated Press.
Q: Thanks, Colonel.
A couple questions related to Russia. Do you have any reason to believe the Russians are incorrect in asserting that they have killed Baghdadi -- al-Baghdadi? Do you have any comment on their cruise missile strike today in Syria? And -- and also, can you give us any update on the activity on a de-confliction line today?
COL. DILLON: All right. Sir, thanks for that.
First off, with the Russian claims of killing al-Baghdadi, we will hold fast with our previous statements in that we do not have any definitive proof to -- to corroborate their claims to that. We certainly would welcome the death of al-Baghdadi, but we do not have any definitive proof to lead us to believe that that is accurate.
Secondly, on the cruise missile strikes that you had mentioned, from Russia, we are still using, and the de-confliction line is open. And it is open for a reason, to make sure that our collective air crews and -- and forces on the ground are operating in a safe manner and that there are no strategic mishaps that happen as a result of un-de-conflicted actions. I think that answers all your questions. Please follow up if you need to.
Q: I do have one follow-up there. You brought those two points together about de-confliction on the cruise missile strike. Are you saying that they -- did they use it to alert you that they were about to do the cruise missile strikes to de-conflict the airspace?
COL. DILLON: We won't discuss every single detail that is talked about on the de-confliction line. I will say that the de-confliction line is in use, and it is in use to make sure that we de-conflict our -- our actions and make sure that our crews -- air crews and ground forces are safe.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Laurie Mylroie, from Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you, Colonel.
There have been reports that Turkey is reinforcing its military presence in northern Syria in preparation for a -- an attack on the Kurdish Canton of Afrin. Do you have any information on that, and do you have any comment?
COL. DILLON: We have seen these reports as well, but I don't have any further comment to -- to talk about that. Our focus right now is -- in northern Syria, is on Raqqa. And as I mentioned in our opening, the status and the update of our partnering with the SDF and -- and how -- what they're doing there in Raqqa.
Q: So, you don't have any information to judge whether those reports are accurate or not so accurate?
COL. DILLON: We'll just say that we have seen some movement. But, you know, I don't have any further comment on that right now.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, to Barbara Starr -- I'm sorry. Nancy Youssef. You were next in line. Nancy Youssef, from Buzzfeed.
Q: I had a question about the operations in Raqqa. There have been allegations on the ground from local groups that the SDF has harmed or killed civilians in and around Raqqa. I'm curious if you've had -- seen similar reports, and had a -- ways to look at them. And is there a means to investigate allegations of civilian casualties by the U.S.-backed SDF?
COL. DILLON: As you know, we will look into civilian casualty allegations. The other thing is that we will also, if we see any kind of violation of Law of Armed Conflict, we have a duty to report that. And we have not seen that. I am not aware of any particular instances or events that have been reported or seen.
But as far as the Syrian Democratic Forces, I do not know if they are investigating or looking into allegations. I certainly know that -- that we are, and we have our process, and we present our civilian casualty report on a monthly basis.
Q: Sorry. To clarify, you look into civilian casualties by U.S. strikes. Is -- you don't look into them for SDF?
COL. DILLON: That is correct. We do not.
Q: And there's -- and -- and it falls, then, on the SDF to look into allegations of civilian casualties?
COL. DILLON: I missed a little bit of that question there, Nancy. What was that again, please?
Q: (Off mic) falls on the SDF to then look into allegations of civilian casualties by their forces. Is that right?
COL. DILLON: Well, I -- I do not know if they are, you know, looking into those or not. I know that we definitely look into ours. Any allegations, we take very seriously. I can't speak for the SDF.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Barbara Starr, CNN.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dillon. Thank you for doing this.
A couple of questions: The Mayadin area -- can you bring us up to date on what you see there in terms of an ISIS leadership presence, especially because the last several HVTs that have been killed have been in that area? So -- so what do you think the ISIS presence is in Mayadin? How are you going to get after it?
And, related, what's your assessment now of Russia's ability to actually influence Iranian-backed forces, as well as the regime -- but in particular, Iranian-backed forces -- to steer clear of your forces?
COL. DILLON: Okay. So the -- to the first question about Mayadin, I mean, we are -- are very much looking at ISIS resources, fighters, leaders, not just in Raqqa. That is clearly where our focus is, but if you look into our daily strike releases, you will see that we continue to strike ISIS targets wherever we find them.
And in the -- specific to what you were asking, I don't have the details right here in front of me, but I know that we have struck several HVIs -- high-value targets -- in and around the Abu Kamal, Deir Ezzour and Mayadin area since I've been in this position.
At the end of May, when I was in London, two out of the three HVTs that I had announced were in Mayadin, you had Turki al-Binali, that was announced last week, he was also in Mayadin. And then you have some others in Abu Kamal and Deir Ezzour.
This is still ISIS-held territory, and we know that they have resources, particularly financial resources, in the way of oil revenue producing things that they have in and around Deir Ezzour. So we will continue to strike in these areas when we have the targets, and they do not have any sanctuary -- ISIS has no sanctuary wherever they hold ground.
Now, to your second question about Russia influence over Iran, I can't speak for that. I know that we will continue to use a de-confliction line for the reasons as I've mentioned before, to make sure that our crews and our forces on the ground can stay focused on what it is that they are here to do, which is to defeat ISIS.
Q: But if I could just follow up, at this point now you've had several incidents. More directly, what potential threat do you believe these Iranian backed militias and regime forces continue to pose to your forces and your partner forces in the At Tanf -- Abu Kamal area?
COL. DILLON: Well if the Syrian regime -- and it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS held areas. And if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign. We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that. And as they move eastward toward Abu Kamal and to Deir Ezzour, if we -- as long as we can de-conflict and make sure that we can focus on what it is we're there to do, without having any kind of strategic mishaps with the regime or with pro-regime forces or with Russians, then that is -- we're perfectly happy with that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay next to Jack Detsch, Christian Science Monitor.
Q: Thanks for doing this, Colonel.
I'm curious, sort of, with the shoot down of the Su-22 and, sort of, all of the activity we've had in and around the de-confliction zone. Does that call for a need for an expanded AUMF, given that General Dunford said the 2001 AUMF covered that activity?
COL. DILLON: I'm not familiar with the AUMF, but what I can say is that has -- at least in the course of the last few days, things have gotten back to the way we want them, de-escalated, and we have also been able to focus on what it is that we're doing. So, I don't know if you want to ask further about the AUMF, I'm not familiar with that. But right now we will continue work de-confliction lines and de-confliction channels to make sure that we can focus on what we're doing.
Q: Okay, at least, do you plan on sort of releasing any numbers or -- I mean, it seems like there's been a bit of an uptick in pro-regime forces in and around that area. I mean, do you plan on releasing any numbers that indicate that activity at all?
COL. DILLON: I think what we have -- as far as the -- the strikes that have happened on regime forces and pro-regime forces, we have come forth on that. As far as numbers of the Syrian units and the regime units that are continuing to move east, that is not something that -- that we will provide and give detailed information on.
If you're talking about number of T-72 tanks or technical vehicles or number of soldiers, that is not something I expect that we are going to provide to the public.
CAPT. DAVIS: Joe Tabet, Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you, Colonel Dillon. If I could go back to -- to Baghdadi, if you don't have any information that he was killed, could you confirm that he's still alive?
COL. DILLON: I don't have any particular concrete evidence to say that he is still alive. We certainly know that, if he is still alive, we expect that he has not been able to influence what is currently happening in Raqqa or Mosul, or overall in the -- ISIS as they continue to lose their physical caliphate.
That said, we don't have any concrete evidence on whether or not he's dead, either. So our statement stands and we still cannot confirm with 100 percent of surety that al-Baghdadi has been killed.
Q: Quick -- excuse me, quick follow-up on Mosul. Why do you think ISIS blew up the Al-Nuri Mosque? What's the reason that led ISIS to blow up the mosque?
COL. DILLON: I can't tell you why they would have blown up the mosque. But I will say that it is consistent with the things that they've done in the past. They have absolutely no concern at all for, you know, people's, you know, ancient artifacts or history or -- or anything like that.
I can't even fathom, you know, how ISIS thinks. It is deranged, and their actions are theirs alone. So this doesn't surprise me, that they would do something like this, especially during Ramadan, which goes completely -- even further against Islam. So I can't tell you what they are thinking. I don't know if anybody can.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, to Nafeesa Syeed from Bloomberg.
Q: Hi, thanks.
I wanted to get an idea of -- when we talk about continued coalition airstrikes, who's actually carrying out the missions? Is it still mostly U.S.? Or what other countries that are part of the coalition are still actually actively carrying out those strikes, as well?
COL. DILLON: We don't typically get into, you know, the -- the by-aircraft or by-country. But we -- we do have multiple countries that are supporting the coalition, not just in the air, but on the ground. And we will continue to conduct strikes to make sure that our partner forces in both Iraq and in Syria can continue their advance on ISIS in both of those countries.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Tara Copp, Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hey, Colonel Dillon. Could you talk a little bit more about the cruise missile strike, confirm that it was six missiles that were launched, and where they hit?
And at what point was the coalition aware that they were in the air? Was it before launch, or were you tracking them from the ship? Were there any forces ever -- coalition forces ever in danger, either on the ground or aircraft?
COL. DILLON: Tara, I'm not going to, you know, talk on behalf of the Russians. I think that's something that is a question for them, about their strikes.
I just can tell you that the de-confliction line remains open, and it is open for the reason to make sure that our forces are out of the way of potential strikes or potential actions from Russia and any other actors that are working with them.
Q: Did you find out about the launch through the de-confliction line? Or did you find out through other methods?
COL. DILLON: Again, I'm just going to say that the de-confliction line is open and it is working, and we can make sure that our forces are -- can continue to focus on their missions on the ground and in the air.
Q: Once the coalition was aware that there were six missiles headed into Syria, what, I guess, efforts were made to ensure that forces on the ground or aircraft were out of harm's way?
COL. DILLON: If we know through the de-confliction line that there are going to be particular strikes, and our forces are not in the area, then, you know, that is how we want things to be.
So the de-confliction line remains open. We're not going to discuss every detail about what is discussed on that de-confliction line. But I can tell you, in the last 24 hours, 48 hours, we have been able to make sure that we can stay focused on what we're doing without any kind of incursion or strikes or harm to our soldiers and our partner forces.
CAPT. DAVIS: Zachary Biggs, from Jane's.
Colonel, so, after the F-18 shot down the Syrian regime aircraft, the Russians made the threat about coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates. Obviously coalition aircraft have continued to operate in that area, but have any anti-aircraft systems illuminated any of those aircrafts during their operations after that incident?
And then a separate follow-up there, just -- with claimed territory in Syria, what's the organization to make sure that the SDF is able to hold that territory? Obviously in Iraq, you've got the Iraqi military to manage that, but since it's more of a coalition of disparate forces, how is Syrian territory being secured after it's reclaimed?
COL. DILLON: Okay.
So to your first question, in reference to whether or not our aircraft, after the statements made, were painted -- were illuminated, I think, is what you -- the way you brought that up, we were able to continue to operate throughout the rest of Syria. And as I think you may have read from Lieutenant General Harrigian's statement and comments to New York Times, we will continue to operate in areas.
But we're going to make sure that our air crews are -- you know, can manage that safely. And if it takes a specific aircraft with specific capabilities to fly in -- in particular areas, then that is what he will do as a commander. That is what our -- our air crews will continue to do.
We're not going to get into the details on whether or not, you know, certain aircraft were painted. We will take very specific and calculated measures to make sure that our air crews can continue to fly safely.
In reference to your second question on SDF holding areas. I know that, first off, you know, we are continuing to, in particular in Raqqa, and then in -- in Tabqa and to the north of Raqqa. Those are continuing to be SDF held areas as they have beat ISIS in those particular locations. As far as holding that area, and specifically, to who that goes to, that is something that will have to be addressed in the future.
And I don't -- I can't really predict as to what will happen when, you know, either Syrian regime or what the SDF will do after that. I know that we are consistently pushing towards local governance, which is the, you know, the councils and the security forces that liberate areas from ISIS, are representative and responsive to the people in those areas.
Q: Just a quick follow on the first part there, so I am not asking about a specific flight, a specific aircraft, a specific mission. Have any of coalition aircraft been painted, since -- or, we could say in the last month. Have there been coalition aircraft painted during their operations in the area?
COL. DILLON: I do not know that answer. And that is something that I would either point you in the direction of the CAOC, or I can find that out for you, but I -- I do not have an answer to that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. T.M. Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post.
Q: Hey, Colonel Dillon. Thanks for doing this. First question, the second Iranian drone that the U.S. shot down a week or so ago. I believe in the release it said there was -- it was approaching an established combat outpost, which I assume is the outpost at Zeke.
Obviously, there's a training base At Tanf. What is the purpose of that established combat outpost and what's the reasoning behind it? I know Tanf is a key border crossing. What's the strategic significance of Zeke and do you plan on building any other outposts closer to Abu Kamal? And I have a follow-up question on civilian casualties.
COL. DILLON: All right. Okay, T.M., the -- that is correct. It was a combat outpost who was outside of At Tanf. But this is, as we've stated in the past, that this particular area in and around At Tanf is where we have been training with the -- our partner forces for over a year. We been operating out of At Tanf for the -- since the beginning of the year, 2017. But we also continued to conduct patrols out into the Hamad desert, going towards the middle Euphrates River Valley and also further to the west.
Now with the presence of the regime around, we are going to make sure that we continue to de-conflict and make sure that we respect what has been discussed in de-confliction. But what of we are going to continue to do is train our partner forces, and that also includes establishing combat outpost and -- and also going into the Hamad desert area, just as we've been doing for well over a year now.
In reference to -- I think that covers both of them. The outpost towards Abu Kamal. I think I addressed both of them. So if the regime is -- has moved into an area that is towards Abu Kamal, then we are going to be limited to how far out we do patrols with our partner forces.
Q: And then the follow-up question. I think Airwars said today that the U.S.-led coalition killed more than 500 civilians in Syria. I know you guys kind of do a rolling estimate on this.
But how many assessments have you started, your crew of civilian casualty -- the civilian casualty team? How many assessments did you start last month into hostile casualties?
COL. DILLON: So, right now, I am tracking -- currently, the -- we have 38 open allegations. But that, you know, could have, you know, gone up. And that -- the -- the allegations that we have received in May will come out in a couple weeks. So, obviously, that'll give a -- a roll-up of all of the allegations.
We have seen, through Airwars and others, many unsubstantiated social media claims that are taken as -- as face value. And as far as I know, the coalition are the only ones who actually take evidence and, you know, put it together with strike logs and information to give credible assessments after the fact.
We will continue to do that. We will continue to take allegations, and we take them very seriously. But, you know, we are -- we have seen a lot of the numbers, and they're -- they are high. But I think that we are the ones who do the -- the work to come out to a -- a very detailed process that can credibly say whether or not it was credible.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, next to Kasim Ileri from Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Actually, my questions have been covered. But I will try to ask it in a different way. Maybe I can get something from him because the answer is still not here.
So, there -- there are reports that are saying that Russians have just informed Turks and Israelis about the cruise missile strikes, and did not inform the U.S. Could you deny -- would you deny those reports? Would you say that the -- the Russians have not informed the U.S. and the coalition that they will strike ISIS targets in Syria with cruise missiles?
COL. DILLON: Again, I'll -- I'll go back, and I'm going to say that the -- the de-confliction line is open, and it remains in place. If -- if Russia or any other actors want to -- want to target ISIS, that is very welcome, and is something that -- that we are okay with.
We are going to continue to use a de-confliction line to make sure that our forces are operating in a safe manner, just in the same way that the Syrian regime or Russian forces, when they are operating in an area, and we want to conduct strikes -- we will use the de-confliction line for that purpose.
Q: De-confliction line being open doesn't really mean that the Russians have informed the coalition that they are going to strike targets in Syria with cruise missiles. The question is whether they have inform -- notified or not, rather than whether de-confliction line is working or not.
COL. DILLON: Well, the -- the de-confliction line serves that purpose. If they have missiles that are, you know, entering into the airspace, and we have aircraft or ground forces that are operating in particular areas where those strikes are to happen or to occur, then that is why the de-confliction line exists. And the de-confliction line is open and it is in use.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, to Corey Dickstein, Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hey, sir.
When -- going back to the incident when -- where the U.S. fighter jet shot down the Syrian fighter jet, when the Syrians bombed the SDF controlled areas, were there any U.S. special operations forces or any U.S. forces endangered? I know you don't want to get into exactly where American forces are. But did those strikes, or any Syrian regime actions, endanger American forces?
COL. DILLON: No American forces were injured or -- or killed as a result of this, obviously. Otherwise, it would've been reported. But no, American forces or coalition forces were not in that immediate area when those strikes happened.
Q: And then, just a second one. You -- you said that there is a de-confliction zone where the SDF are operating I -- I guess. Can you kind of explain that? Do you have an -- agree -- you know, some kind of agreement with regime, then, to leave the SDF alone?
COL. DILLON: So, right now, there is a -- a de-confliction line as we have seen the forward line of troops from the Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces. They have, you know, butted up against one another. We want to make sure that there are measures in place to -- to make sure there are -- are not incursions.
And so, between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime, and then all the way up through the -- the Americans, and the coalitions, and the -- the Russian forces, everyone who is operating in the area, a de-confliction line has been established so that we can make sure that we are focused on what we're there to focus on, and to not have these incursions, and not to have any more strikes as a result of not understanding or knowing where the line is and -- and where each other can operate.
CAPT. DAVIS: Gentleman in the back. I'm sorry, sir. I don't know your name.
Q: Saagar Enjeti, Daily Caller.
Turkish officials say that the Secretary Mattis gave them assurances that armed supply to the SDF would be returned to the U.S. after the Raqqa campaign is over. Can you characterize any systems that are currently in place in order to track these weapons and ensure their return?
COL. DILLON: Well, first off, there was a private letter that went to Secretary Mattis, to his counterpart in Turkey. And -- and that -- that is between -- between them.
We currently have a process in place where we are -- we know, by serial number, the weapons and the equipment that we are providing to the SDF. We are very open and transparent with our Turkish allies to the north, and they understand and -- and know, by serial number and by type of equipment, what those -- what that equipment is, what those weapons are. So, that process is already in place right now. And we will continue to be transparent with our -- our Turkish allies.
Q: So, follow-up question.
Did that -- did that letter not give a guarantee that the arms would be resupply -- would be given back to the U.S. from the SDF after the campaign is over?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, again, you know, that is a private letter that went from Secretary Mattis to his counterpart in Turkey, and I'm not going to, you know, speak -- I'm not going to talk to it, because it's a -- it's a private letter. It's a conversation between those two.
But I will say we have a process in place, and we will continue to use it.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ryan Browne, CNN.
Q: Colonel, thank you for doing this. I just had a couple follow-ups on some of your earlier exchanges.
One, with T.M., I think you said that the -- if the regime put outposts, kind of, near Abu Kamal, that would, kind of, hinder or deter the coalition and -- and its local forces' ability to, kind of, move north into the Euphrates River Valley. Can you clarify that a little bit?
I mean, we are -- we have heard reports that the regime is setting up a lot of outposts. We're setting up these COPs, the regime's setting up these outposts. Is that having an effect? Is that preventing the coalition and the local forces we're backing -- move north against the Euphrates River Valley?
COL. DILLON: So what I was saying about that is that, out of the At Tanf area, we have used that to train our partner forces and to continue to -- to fight ISIS, you know, if they are in and around that area.
You know, now that the regime has moved in, and they have made some significant, you know, progress, as it looks, towards moving to Abu Kamal and perhaps Deir Ezzour, if they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then, you know, that -- that would be welcome.
We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We're in the killing ISIS business, and that is what we want to do. And if -- if the Syrian regime wants to do that, and they are going to, again, put forth a concerted effort and show that they are -- are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir Ezzour or elsewhere, that means that we don't have to do that in those locations.
So I guess that -- what I'm saying is, in the At Tanf area, we will continue to train our partner forces. We will continue to do patrols in and around At Tanf in the Hamad desert. But if our access to Abu Kamal is shut off because the regime is there, that's okay.
Q: And just one follow-up.
You -- you mentioned that the regime is making a concerted effort to fight ISIS, it looks like, now. But you also -- we talked about, you know, that push near Tabqa, where they moved talks and artillery against the SDF. We've seen these drone flights, the bombing run with the Su-22.
I mean, clearly they've also made some efforts against U.S.-backed forces -- coalition-backed forces. What are you -- is there a broader strategic intent, do -- do you ascertain, on the part of the regime to, kind of, you know, challenge forces that the coalition is backing? Or do you think these are just individual, local, localized events?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, Ryan, I can't -- I can't characterize or, you know, guess for what has happened or what -- what happened as a part of the, you know, regime elements. And so I -- I won't speak to it. I know that, you know, there's been some open reporting that has said that they thought that they were fighting ISIS.
Well, I just -- all I know is that, you know, we have established a de-confliction line in the ground where we want everybody to adhere to so that we can focus on what we're there to focus on without having to get into any further skirmishes, any further engagements between regime, SDF, U.S., coalition and the regime or pro-regime forces.
COL. DILLON: I -- you've probably heard me say this 20 times as we look at the transcript, but we want to fight ISIS, and that's what we want our focus to be. And anything that takes us away from doing that is, you know, fewer resources towards doing what we're there to do.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ma'am, on the side.
Q: Cansu Camlibel from Hurriyet in Turkey. Colonel, thanks for (Off mic).
My question on Secretary Mattis' letter to his Turkish counterpart is covered. So I have a second one, and actually, it goes back to Barbara's question on the Iranian-backed militia being active in the -- in the Abu Kamal, Deir Ezzour region.
So just a bit of clarification on this, maybe. When you're talking about, everyone targeting ISIS is welcome so that you don't have to fight with ISIS in those areas, does that specifically include the Iranians, the Iranian-backed militia?
And does that hold for Deir Ezzour specifically?
COL. DILLON: You came in, you know, awfully broken up, but I think you're asking about Iranian militia fighting ISIS as well. You know, we're working through the Russians, and -- as they, you know, talk to the regime and pro-regime elements.
And again, if they are showing a concerted effort towards looking to defeat ISIS and can show that they are doing that and they are actually defeating ISIS, then, like I said, that is not a bad thing. That is what we're there to do, but if others are there to do it as well, then -- then we're okay with that.
CAPT. DAVIS: We -- Laurent is up next, but I'm going to save you, Laurent, to the end, where you're going to get the last question today. So we'll take a couple of follow-ups in advance of that.
Barbara Starr -- new one, or -- new business. Okay. Carla.
Q: Hi, Colonel.
You had just told Ryan that, if access is shut off to Abu Kamal because the regime is there, that's okay. Has that already happened?
COL. DILLON: Well, they are -- between the -- our elements that are currently in At Tanf, and moving to Abu Kamal, to the -- to the northeast. That's not to say that we could not continue to, you know, bring forces in, you know, through another means or another way.
We clearly are continuing to conduct strikes in the area. But I would say that, you know, without having to, you know, work, you know, some kind of -- not deal, but I think that the only way we could get to Abu Kamal right now, if that were something that was even on the -- the table, it would have to be from a different direction or a different location.
But we will continue to strike ISIS targets wherever we find them -- in Abu Kamal, or anywhere else along the Euphrates River Valley going north.
CAPT. DAVIS: Barbara, I think you had a follow-up.
Q: I need to come back on this very same point, because I -- I'm just sort of really not understanding this.
You seem to be saying, Colonel, that U.S.-backed forces, leaving aside airstrikes for the moment -- that U.S.-backed forces will now potentially -- and U.S. forces will now potentially defer to both the Syrians and the Iranians on the ground if you believe they're fighting ISIS.
I don't know -- if you believe they're making a concerted effort. What does a concerted effort, from a military standpoint, mean? Do you wait to see if they're striking ISIS targets? How long do you wait? Do you ask the militias that -- the people that you're training to wait?
Is this a new policy of the U.S., to wait? And you've suggested a deferring on the ground to the Syrian regime and to the Iranian-backed forces, and I'm just not clear what that means.
COL. DILLON: All right. I don't know if there's a specific question in there, but I guess what I would say is that -- not guess what I would say. What I will say is that, clearly, our focus right now is on the fight in Raqqa. And we're supporting our, you know, Syrian Democratic Forces there.
So, we are going to see that through. And once we call the liberation, or once Raqqa has been liberated, then we have to see, then, where else is there to go, where else is there ISIS-held territory.
And right now, we know that ISIS-held territory is along the middle Euphrates river valley. But is that going to, you know, still be true at the end of the fight in Raqqa? We're going to have to see that. We're three weeks into Raqqa right now. And we've made, you know, significant process. But we know that there's still a -- a difficult fight ahead.
So we will have to evaluate and see where ISIS still holds territory after the fight of Raqqa. Clearly, right now, that's along the middle Euphrates river valley. And, as you asked in your first question, we will continue to strike resources and leaders throughout that middle Euphrates river valley -- in Mayadin, Abu Kamal, Al-Qaim.
So, again, we're going to have to see where things go after Raqqa. And we'll see what the -- where the regime is at that point, and if they are in fact making an effort to defeat ISIS in their -- in those ISIS-held territories.
Q: You're talking -- you were talking much more near-term, I thought -- that you see regime forces moving, you know the Iranian-backed militias are moving, and that the coalition -- the U.S.-led coalition is now going to defer, if you see them making progress against ISIS. So, are -- is it U.S. military policy now to defer to the regime and to the Iranian-backed militias?
COL. DILLON: All right, I -- maybe -- it's a -- it's awfully nascent, right now, to be able to say where -- where -- where the Abu Kamal and the Deir Ezzour, you know, fight is going to be, and where the regime is going to be. They are moving along in that direction right now.
But, again, it's something -- I -- I don't see that as, necessarily, near term, and I just told you where our focus is. But we will have to see, in the future, after Raqqa -- and see where everybody else is in and around Syria at that time.
CAPT. DAVIS: Zach, did you have a follow-up?
Q: Yeah, I wanted to go back to something Nancy asked about. So when the SDF was initially getting armed with coalition arms last month, we were told that both there was a database being kept of the arms, and that trainers and advisers were -- who are embedded with the SDF would be keeping an eye on how the weapons are used, to make sure that they are being used specifically against ISIS.
If those arms are being used by the SDF and resulting in civilian casualties, are those trainers and advisers obligated to report those incidents up the chain of command that would disclose some of those civilian casualties that are -- could be the result of use of coalition arms?
COL. DILLON: I'm not going to speculate, you know, if-type questions. So, you know, we haven't seen that to -- to date, right now. We do have advisers who are -- advise and accompany and assisting our Syrian Democratic Forces, and they are there with them.
So -- not going to speculate on something that hasn't happened yet.
Sir, I just had a follow-up on -- on just Raqqa in general. Haven't really heard much about it, as far as the defensive belt, and -- and, basically, what are the -- the SDF casualties looking like? I don't know if you can give a specific number, if they're heavy or moderate.
COL. DILLON: Yeah, I'm not going to go ahead and -- and give you numbers at all.
What I will say is that, in the first two weeks, there was significant progress -- very, you know, quick progress that was made.
The SDF in the advance have since hit some significant resistance from ISIS. And now we are starting to see some of these, you know, better-emplaced defenses as we have gotten to the places where we have -- where we have advanced to in the campaign in and around Raqqa.
But I'm not going to give you numbers. I will say that the resistance by ISIS has steadily increased in this last week.
CAPT. DAVIS: We wanted to save our last question today for Laurent Barthelemy from Agence France-Presse.
In -- as Ryan drinks an extra dose of truth serum in advance of your final question, I just wanted to say, on the behalf of the Department of Defense, thank you for faithfully covering this department for the past five years -- only two? It seems like you've been in town longer, I guess.
But you have been great to work with. You have reported on us faithfully, aggressively, honestly, and we're sad to see you moving back to France. You also have the coolest accent of anybody in the Pentagon press, and we will miss you.
So with that said, sir, the floor is yours.
Q: Thank you very much. I appreciate what you said. Thank you.
Colonel, you have said that you would be perfectly happy to de-conflict with the Syrian regime forces in their push towards Deir Ezzour and Abu Kamal. Just to be clear, are you actually asking the regime to share informations with the coalition on the moves, on the intention? And -- and would you -- would you consider some kind of direct conversation with the regime forces on their move?
COL. DILLON: Thanks, Laurent.
So, no, we are not talking with the regime. But clearly we are able to see their advance and where they are on the battlefield.
And when I said, you know, "perfectly happy," I think I meant perfectly happy with the defeat of ISIS, regardless of who it is who -- who is able to do that. So if I said perfectly happy with the regime, you know, moving, I want to just clarify that we're perfectly happy with, you know, ISIS being defeated, regardless of who that is.
That said, you know, we -- we are -- are -- we can see their movements and how far along they are moving. That's -- that's -- we're not coordinating with them or de-conflicting with them. That de-confliction remains solely with the Russian forces.
Q: And just -- just a quick follow-up: Would you say that it could be the regime that finally leads the last battle against ISIS in Syria in the Euphrates River Valley?
COL. DILLON: I mean, I'm not going to -- I will say it is -- is it likely or probable? I don't know. But that could be the case. Again, we're going to have to see where everybody is, and how the collective efforts of defeating ISIS, in our own particular ways, where everything is going to pan out at the very end.
But the one thing that is constant and consistent throughout both Iraq and Syria is that ISIS is losing, and their losses are irreversible. And we know that that time will happen when there's no longer a physical caliphate, and we'll be -- that is what our mission here, is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and we want to accomplish that.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Thank you, Ryan, very much for your time today.
And for everybody, have a good weekend.
Thank you, Laurent, and Godspeed to you.
Q: Thank you.
COL. DILLON: Thank you.
Thanks, Laurent, and safe travels.