Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman
MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Good morning, everyone.
Joining us today is Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
Before we get started, Colonel Dillon, how do you hear me?
COLONEL RYAN DILLON: I can hear you pretty well, Adrian. Thanks.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, we hear you very well.
And with that, we'll get started with your opening statements, and then go to questions. Over to you, sir.
COL. DILLON: All right, sounds good. Thanks. Thanks, Adrian.
Good morning, everyone.
First off, it was great seeing all of you and meeting many of you for the first time when I was back in D.C. with the Iraqi delegation a couple weeks ago.
So, let's go ahead and get started. We'll begin in Syria and then we'll move to Iraq.
Today marks day 53 of operations to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. About 45 percent of the city is under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF have cleared about nine square miles of terrain this past week as they fought against stiff, sporadic resistance from ISIS entrenched in the city.
On the western axis, the SDF took control of a series of multi-story buildings that allowed them to provide over-watch and push further into the city's center.
On the eastern axis, the SDF made incremental gains south of the main road that runs east to west in the city.
Currently, the distance between the east and west SDF axes is less than a half a mile. And once they link up, the SDF will have full control of southern Raqqa. And south of the Euphrates River, the SDF continue to isolate Raqqa and reinforce their positions.
In southern Syria, the Shuhada Al-Qaryatayn, commonly referred to as the Shook, one of our partner forces there, unilaterally, without U.S. or coalition permission or coordination, conducted patrols outside of the agreed upon de-escalation zone and engaged in activities not focused on fighting ISIS. The coalition only supports partner forces committed to fighting ISIS.
The Shook have been important partners in the fight against ISIS in southern Syria. However, the coalition will no longer support their operations. The coalition will support and train and advise and assist and accompany vetted partner forces in southern Syria that wish to defeat ISIS.
Moving to Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces control all parts of Mosul and continue to conduct detailed clearance operations to look for any ISIS fighters in hiding and identify explosive devices that could threaten friendly forces or civilians.
Iraqi army, emergency response division, counterterrorism service, and federal police forces maintain their sectors of Mosul until the hold forces take over and secure the area. There have been no strikes by the coalition in Mosul for nearly two weeks now. There have only been a handful of direct fire engagements by the ISF in Mosul over the last week.
And for the first time since operations to liberate Mosul began in October 2016, Tuesday marked the first day there were no ISF casualties in Mosul. These are all indicators to the improving security situation there.
There have been consistent reporting of alleged law of armed conflict violations recently. The coalition does not condone any violation of the laws of armed conflict. And while we cannot verify the authenticity of the reports, any violation of the law of armed conflict is unacceptable and should be investigated in a transparent manner.
We meet routinely with our partner forces to advise them on the expectations for thorough and transparent investigations, accountability for anyone found responsible for abuses, and public disclosure of findings and actions taken. The coalition has gathered alleged LOAC violations from various sources, from traditional and social media, from international organization reports, and reports from coalition members.
We pass all allegations of abuse that come to our attention to the government of Iraq. Prime Minister Abadi has stated that everyone will abide by the law; that he has a zero tolerance policy for any improper action by the Iraqi security forces. The government of Iraq has investigated previous allegations and they have taken action. And we have encouraged them to present the facts of these investigations to the public.
Lastly, I would like to discuss how the combined joint task force and the greater coalition are countering ISIS propaganda efforts. We have said several times that we will not allow ISIS sanctuary. When known, we will degrade ISIS's ability to conduct battlefield operations; to inspire, plan, finance and direct terror attacks; and recruit and move terrorist fighters.
In recent months, the coalition has targeted and killed several senior ISIS propagandists and facilitators in Iraq and Syria. The removal of these key ISIS leaders disrupts ISIS's propaganda production, distribution and the ability to fund their activities.
Abu Sulayman al-Iraqi, a senior ISIS propaganda official, was killed by a coalition airstrike near Mosul in early July. Al-Iraqi provide strategic guidance and production oversight for ISIS propaganda which recruited, indoctrinated and directed terrorists around the world.
Ibrahim al-Ansari, an ISIS propaganda official, was killed on March 25th in al-Qaim, Iraq. Abu Ali al-Janubi, an ISIS senior media director, was killed April 16th in Mayadin, Syria. Abu-Sayf al-'Isawi, an ISIS media emir, was killed April 27th in al-Qaim, Iraq.
Abu-Khattab al-Rawi, an ISIS media emir, was killed May 17th in Ba'aj, Iraq. And Rayaan Meshaal, ISIS senior media official, was killed by the coalition airstrike conducted near Mayadin, Syria, between May 25th and May 27th. Meshaal was the head and founder of the Amaq, ISIS's official propaganda media outlet. He oversaw, authorized and disseminated ISIS digital propaganda to instigate and direct terror and recruit foreign terrorist fighters.
And lastly, Bassam al-Jayfus, who handled ISIS funds for terror attacks, was killed by a coalition airstrike on July 18th in Mayadin, Syria. His death disrupts ISIS's multinational money laundering and movement network, which is used to pay for foreign terrorist fighters, as well as plotting attacks throughout the world.
While the CJTF, the coalition -- the military component -- conducts these operations, the greater coalition of 73 international partners has collectively blunted the edge of terrorist propaganda. ISIS's online supporters are dwindling, with counter-ISIS content outnumbering pro-ISIS content across the world.
In May, there was a 92 percent decrease in global shares of ISIS video content on Twitter. In April, ISIS propaganda production dropped to its lowest point in over six months, a 75 percent reduction in ISIS's monthly output in 2016. And the global coalition launched a new campaign called #takedaeshdown, to inform social media users of how to report ISIS extremist content to platform owners, and adding pressure on these owners to act and remove its content.
ISIS is losing on every front -- on the battlefield, in recruiting, in social media, and generating money. And they will continue to lose with the pressure put on by our partners in Iraq and Syria. And just to let you know, with all the names that I just provided on those propagandists that we killed, after the conclusion of this briefing, that will be a press release by CJTF-OIR with all those names, so you don't have to worry about writing them down.
And with that, I'll now stop and take your questions.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Thank you, sir.
The first question will go to Kasim Ileri from Anadolu.
Q: Thanks, Colonel, for doing this. I actually have several questions.
Does the U.S. or coalition have -- have a rapid -- (inaudible) -- force inside Syria in support of the SDF?
COL. DILLON: First off, Kasim, I don't know that question. And I did receive your query last night, and we are running that down. We will have an answer to you by close of business today.
Q: And also, on Twitter, we see that ISIS shoot down some -- actually one R220 drone of SDF, allegedly. Are you aware that the SDF has those drones? Or do you know or did you support -- provide to them? Can you tackle this question?
COL. DILLON: Kasim, I have not seen or heard of that report that you are referring to. I know that we do use unmanned aerial surveillance devices to provide intelligence and what is going on with ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria. I am not tracking the particular instance that you are talking about.
But I will also say that there are measures -- countermeasures for UAS devices that -- that are in areas throughout Iraq and Syria where we are providing support to our partner forces.
Q: (inaudible) SDF have drones or unmanned aircraft, do you know?
COL. DILLON: I do not know what kind that they have.
We know that it is pretty -- it was relatively easy to get drones and to use them throughout the battlefield. We've seen that both from the enemy and from partner forces. But bottom line is I don't know what type and what kind they use.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, we have Tara Copp from Military Times.
Q: Hey, Colonel. Good to see you again.
I have a couple questions.
Earlier, in -- in your prepared remarks, you said that the coalition will no longer support operations of a specific group in southern Syria. Could you elaborate on that a little bit? What was the group? What were the violations? What led to this decision?
COL. DILLON: All right.
So, first, I won't try to spell the -- the name of the group. But it is commonly known as the -- the Shook. And they're one of the partner forces that we were working with in and out of the At Tanf area in southern Syrian.
We have made it very clear time and again that our goal in Syria and Iraq is to fight ISIS and fight ISIS only. And our partner forces, we've asked them, you know, to be committed to that same mission.
And we had an element, a partner force that we were working with, who wanted to pursue other objectives, and those objectives were not consistent with defeating ISIS.
So, we have since talked with them and made them know that we cannot support them if they want to pursue objectives other than defeating ISIS. And so, that's exactly what we've done. And we are no longer going to support this particular group because that is -- that is what they want to do.
Q: Sure. A couple additional questions on that.
The background of the group, any sort of descriptors of Kurdish fighters, the size of the group, how long had U.S. -- how long has the U.S. been partnering with this particular group? And then, were they -- were they targeting regime forces? Is that why there's a -- a break in that relationship?
COL. DILLON: All right, so on a couple of those questions.
They are native from the area in and around southern Syria, around the Hamad Desert area.
Not going to give the number of the element, nor the number of -- well, I won't give the -- the number of the -- how many there are.
What I will also say is that that group did -- I -- I'll just say that they pursued other objectives that were not consistent with fighting ISIS. And, you know -- you know, fighting the regime could be one of those objectives.
Q: Can you provide their background at all?
COL. DILLON: I don't know what you mean by "their background." Can you elaborate your -- on that particular question, please?
Q: Was this is a Kurdish group? What kind of group?
COL. DILLON: Oh. No. They were not a Kurdish group. They were from the area in and around the Hamad Desert area, not far from the At Tanf garrison.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Elizabeth McLaughlin from ABC.
Q: Hi, Colonel. Thank you for doing this.
Are you aware of any instances in which American transgender service members have ever impacted battlefield readiness or the lethality of the force?
COL. DILLON: I -- I don't know that. And anything that has to do with the -- the transgender piece, I'll refer you back to the Pentagon for -- for anything to address on that.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Joe Tabet from Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you, Major.
Colonel Dillon, I want to go back to what you called the Shook-- the group Shuhada Al-Qaryatayn. Could you confirm if -- at first, if the coalition warned the Shook before they conducted the -- before they have conducted their attack on the Syrian regime? Was there any warning?
COL. DILLON: The -- our partner forces -- so warning, I will say that our partner forces know and have made a commitment to fight ISIS, and they are partnered with us as a part of the 1209 Program to do just that.
So they knew prior to going out and -- and pursuing these other objectives what the repercussions could have been.
Q: Could -- could you confirm is the Shook still or left At Tanf area? Because they used to be part of the -- of the -- of the partner forces in the Tanf area. Are they still there, or they have left?
COL. DILLON: No, we -- they are still there. We're in the process of ceasing our support, and -- and receiving the equipment that we provided to them, you know, for the fight against ISIS.
Q: Will you be asking them to leave?
COL. DILLON: I'm sorry about that. Please say that again.
Q: I said, will the coalition ask them, ask the Shook to leave?
COL. DILLON: I don't want to get into too many details.
Again, we are still working -- not working with them, but we're in the process of ceasing our support. And what happens after that is something that I'm not ready to discuss right now.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next to Ryan Browne from CNN.
Q: Hi, Colonel. Thank you for doing this.
I had a -- a question on Mosul.
You mentioned it's the first day that an Iraqi Security Force member not suffered a casualty. Has the U.S. begun shifting its advisory -- or the coalition begun shifting its advisory presence out of Mosul? I know there's a lot of back-clearing work to be done. Have they started drawing down on the number of advisers in the area to reposition them elsewhere, or are you kind of maintaining the same level advisory effort that had been going on during the actual battle?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, on -- on that particular question, I don't know, you know, if we have begun, you know, transition yet.
I know from reading the transcript and listening to Colonel Work last week, is that one of the things that we do not want to do is have the Iraqi Security Forces have to wait on us. So, as they develop their plan and their -- for the operations on where to go next, and when they make that transition, we will be ready to be right there to advise them all along.
Q: And -- and just one quick one on the At Tanf situation. We talked about this, I think, when you were here.
I guess, can you help -- there doesn't seem to be a lot of fighting, actually, that those groups at At Tanf are doing against ISIS. Has there been any major engagements or any engagements at all between the groups we're backing in that area with ISIS fighters? Or is the regime still kind of positions itself between those groups and ISIS? Are they kind of still blocking that -- that access to ISIS territory?
COL. DILLON: There have been ISIS incursions, you know, both, you know, in and around that area within this -- since January, within the last few months.
And also we know that the regime has also, you know, run into ISIS, you know, fighters where they are operating. So, there still is ISIS presence in that area, in southern Syria, moving towards Abu Kamal area. I hope that answers your question. If not, follow up, please.
Q: Alright. Thank you, Colonel.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Zach Biggs, Janes.
Q: Thanks. Colonel, a few things.
First, you mentioned the 75 percent reduction in propaganda over the last six months out of ISIS. Can you give us a sense as to what the metric is that's being used to measure that drop? Is that just, you know, social media? Is it in terms of the number of personnel they have working in media? What's the measurement?
COL. DILLON: Yes, Zach. So, with those figures that I have presented, I talk much about the military efforts and, you know, killing many of the propagandists. I will follow up with you after this on the background of how the greater coalition, who is working out of London, came to that information. I'm about one layer deep on what I presented to you, but that is the greater coalition. I can point you in the right direction. I will link up with you after this and make sure you have a good contact.
Q: Thank you.
And the second thing, I know you said that you're not going to address the transgender policy issue that came out yesterday. But do you have a sense or a number as to how many trans service members there currently are participating in OIR? And can you give us any detail? Have they been told anything about policy issues yesterday? Not the policy itself, but have they been informed about anything related to the policy?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, Zach, on that, number one, I don't know how many, and I don't know if they have been told.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now to Carla Babb, Voice of America.
Q: Thanks, Colonel, for doing this.
Just to confirm on At Tanf and the situation with the Shook. Can you confirm that some of those are part of the VSO? Or that all of those are part of the VSO, the vetted Syrian opposition? And I believe some of those trained in Jordan, correct?
COL. DILLON: They are part of the vetted Syrian opposition. This was one of those groups that fell underneath that. And I don't know the answer to your second question about where they were trained. You know, they were a partner force of ours, and we can no longer support them because they don't want to fight ISIS.
Q: And one quick follow, a separate question. Some of those forces in Al Tanf, as has been explained to me, some of them are from the Abu Kamal-Mayadin area. Is there any plan in place to get them to where they can defend their homeland? Because right now, as Ryan was explaining, the Syrian troops are kind of in between you guys and that area.
COL. DILLON: Yes. You're absolutely right, and some of those vetted Syrian opposition forces that we still train are from -- are indigenous to areas along the middle Euphrates River valley. And, you know, can we leave on trucks and go straight across to Abu Kamal and Mayadin and Deir ez-Zoir without running into the regime? Likely not.
But as far as any future plans on getting them into the fight, we will address that and we believe that there will be an opportunity to use them in the fight against ISIS in the middle Euphrates River valley when needed.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Back to Ryan from CNN.
Q: Hey, Colonel, just a real quick follow-up.
You mentioned -- I just want to follow -- you mentioned retrieving the equipment that had been provided. Can you give us a little bit on what kind of equipment that is? And are you confident that this group who wants to conduct independent operations is going to willingly give up the weapons it has?
COL. DILLON: Ryan, like I said, those discussions with the Shook leadership and our forces there are still going on. I'm not going to be able to tell you by serial number or even if we're going to -- not even if, but the types of weapons and equipment that we're going to receive back from them, meaning, you know, is it going to be small arms? Is it going to be all the vehicles? Is it going to be all their uniforms?
I don't know that answer for you right now, but we are going to, you know, retrieve some of the equipment that we provided them to fight ISIS.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: To Kasim from Anadolu.
Q: Colonel, back to the U.S. forces inside Syria. We know that when the deployment happened among the forces deployed to Syria, there were engineering folks as well. So, can you say that the SDF forces are embedded? Or did these engineering folks are embedded within the SDF elements? And what kind of engineering things do they train the SDF forces with?
COL. DILLON: Kasim, sorry I didn't catch you. It was broken up a little bit there. I don't know if you can move closer to the microphone, please.
Q: So, among the U.S. forces -- Can you hear me right now, Colonel?
COL. DILLON: Okay.
Q: So, among the U.S. forces inside Syria, there are engineering folks. Those who are dealing with engineering things. And the question is: Are they embedded within the Syrian Democratic Forces? Or -- and what kind of training are they providing -- are they providing to the SDF?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, I -- I can tell you, I know that there are counter-IED training that we are providing and making sure that our partner force in Raqqa can face some of these threats that they are facing right now. There have been several IEDs, and that was well known. So, I don't know specifically which unit you are talking about. I know that we have our advisers that are with the Syrian Democratic Forces advising, assisting and accompanying.
But I won't get down into are they engineers, are they in J-TACS, are they -- whoever they are. You know, we're not going to talk about specifically who is embedded with them. But we are making sure that they can -- are ready to face and mitigate the threats that they face. And IED is one of those.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Okay. Next to Lucas Tomlinson from Fox News.
Q: Colonel, what can you tell us about the Raqqa fight compared to the Mosul fight? How is it different? What are the challenges in Raqqa? Is it going easier than the Mosul fight?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, thanks, Lucas.
I -- I think that it is -- it's fair to say that the fight in Raqqa is more similar to the fight in East Mosul than in West Mosul.
You know, the -- the infrastructure and the spacing of the -- the buildings -- you don't have quite the congested and very tight confines of the old city of West Mosul like you do in Raqqa, at least not at that magnitude. You know, obviously Raqqa is much smaller than Mosul as well.
But there still are a lot of those challenges that the Iraqi Security Forces faced in Mosul, with the vehicle-borne IEDs, with the -- the use of the human element and the population to shield and that ISIS is using that we saw in Mosul that we are seeing in Raqqa.
So, I -- I would also, you know, take account the -- how quickly that the Syrian Democratic Forces were able to make it immediately into the city, but there have been some stiff resistance since making it to, like, the ancient wall area as we've gotten closer into the city center.
Hope that answers your question.
Q: It does.
And how many ISIS fighters remain inside Raqqa right now?
COL. DILLON: We estimate less than 2,000 ISIS fighters still remain in Raqqa.
Q: And finally, whose idea was it to add the word Democratic to Syrian Democratic Forces?
COL. DILLON: I don't know. You'd -- you would have to ask them, Lucas.
Q: Finally, are -- is Google, Yahoo, Facebook -- are they helping in this counter-ISIS narrative? And is -- are they part of the team that helps get this 75 percent reduction in ISIS propaganda in the last six months, or any other help from the tech sector?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, I know that I personally have read open accounts of several platforms that are working to remove extremist content from their -- their sites.
But as far as the specifics, I can't say, you know, every single one that has or has not. But like I told Zach, I will be happy to refer you to our global coalition team up in London to delve into that answer for you a little bit more -- a little bit more.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now Anya, from CBS.
Q: Yes, sir. I had two questions. One is, I'm following up on the previous one right there.
How concerned are you that as -- that -- that these groups are going to start going underground and be harder to track, using other types of apps and communications for their propaganda?
COL. DILLON: So, can -- explain that -- if you can just elaborate on that a little bit more. What do you mean by "going underground"?
Q: I guess as -- as the more public platforms are shut down, as you -- as you were saying, using more secure -- secure ways of distributing their propaganda. Is that a larger concern? And do you guys have, sort of, a plan to deal with those issues?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, I -- as far as, you know, whether or not they are going to go further underground, I can just tell you that, you know, if we are able to reduce their ability to -- to inspire and to recruit other, you know, people who want to join their ranks, then that is success.
If they go underground, that means there are fewer people that they can reach. But as far as the specifics of that and how to address it, I would again, you know, like the others, refer you to our colleagues up in London who are really taking that global threat of ISIS, you know, propaganda and are weaving it throughout the entire world to defeat ISIS propaganda efforts.
Q: Yes, sir. Oh, I have one more. And I apologize. I know you said you really were referring the transgender issue to back here. On the ground, though, in a general sense, do you guys have a message for folks who might be serving on the ground who might be affected by this? Have you put a message out to the troops who are serving and might be concerned about this and assuage any concerns that they may have?
COL. DILLON: We have not put anything out. We're going to await direction from the Pentagon on steps to move forward.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now to Elizabeth from ABC.
Q: Hi. One more question. So, I wanted to follow up about this idea of the police in the box and border guards in the box that you had addressed several weeks ago. I think there were 100 that had been purchased, and 50 had started going out. Can you tell us a little bit about the effectiveness of those? Have they been successful in countering any skirmishes that could have come up? And what's your assessment of will more be purchased? Anything else you can tell us about that.
COL. DILLON: Elizabeth, that is the one thing I did not follow up on -- not the one thing, but, you know, I don't have an answer on that. I actually wrote that down to see how many have been distributed and I'll follow up on the use of those. I don't have an answer for you right now. I will have to follow up with you on that afterwards, though. Sorry about that.
Q: Appreciate it. Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now to Carla from Voice of America.
Q: Hey, Colonel. Sorry. One quick follow, since you gave the number in Raqqa. Do you have an estimate of the overall ISIS fighters that are in Iraq and Syria now? We haven't gotten an update in a while.
COL. DILLON: Okay. You're going to make me do public math here, which I don't really like to do, but I'll break it down for you this way. I'll say that there are 5,000 to 10,000 ISIS fighters that we assess are -- that we estimate are in the middle Euphrates River valley area. I already told you Raqqa, less than 2,000. And I think that -- and then in Al-Qaim, we estimate about 1,000.
I don't know if that answers your question. Those are the main ones that I'm tracking right now.
Q: What about Tal Afar?
COL. DILLON: In Tal Afar, less than 1,000.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, we lost your audio. The group asked about Hawija, if you have an estimate for the number of ISIS remaining in Hawija?
COL. DILLON: Yes. Yeah, it must have cut off when I said that: less than 1,000 in Hawija as well. So just to take stock in everything again, about 1,000 Al-Qaim; less than 1,000 in Tal Afar and Hawija. So 1,000 each, excuse me; about 2,000, less than 2,000 in Raqqa, and 5,000 to 10,000 in the MERV.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Ma'am, go ahead.
Q: Hi -- (inaudible) -- Turkey.
Last week, there was an expression of discontent by the Pentagon on the report by Anadolu Agency showing the U.S. bases in Syria. Do you still have the same concerns? Or are you satisfied with the Turkish government's statements that they were -- they were not the source of the leak? What do you make of the -- the position of the Turkish government?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, you know, while we -- we cannot confirm that there is -- we don't know who provided this information to the Anadolu Agency, but it would be concerning if it came from a NATO ally.
So, you know, we have expressed our concerns. We're going to continue to -- to operate, you know, throughout northern Syria in the way that we have. And we do have force protection measures that allow us to continue to focus on fighting ISIS in northern Syria.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: All right, with that -- oh, sir, in the back. Oh, excuse me, ma'am. Sorry. Sorry.
Q: You’re good, you’re good.
Thank you, sir.
I'm wondering if you'd speak to, before severing, or this ongoing severing of ties with the Shook, when's the last time that the coalition broke ties with a member of -- or a group under the umbrella of the vetted Syrian opposition? Has this happened before, and if so, when -- when did it happen?
COL. DILLON: Yeah, you know, we asked that question as well, and, you know, from -- we have not had an -- an incident like this, so -- where we have had to cut ties with a vetted Syrian opposition group. This is the first time.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: And with that, are there any more questions? All right, thank you.
Sir, do you have any closing remarks for the group?
COL. DILLON: I do not. Thanks, Adrian.
Thanks, everybody. And we'll see you next week.