Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via Teleconference From Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Adam Stump, Department of Defense Spokesman
MR. ADAM STUMP: Good morning. Sorry for the delay. We had some technical difficulties.
This morning, we have Colonel Ryan Dillon joining us from Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. He's going to be joining us by phone because we are having some technical difficulties.
So I will turn it over to him for any opening comments before we get into your questions.
Ryan, can you hear me?
COLONEL RYAN DILLON: I can, Adam. Thanks much. Can you guys hear me okay?
COL. DILLON: Can you hear me okay, Adam?
I don't want to start unless I know you guys can actually hear me speaking.
All right -- one, two, three, four, five, six.
I'm a good counter. Hello?
I can't hear anyone on that end.
Right. Can you guys hear me okay?
MR. STUMP: We can hear you five by five.
COL. DILLON: Okay. Great. All right.
Good morning, everyone. Sorry about the technical difficulties. And, while you can't see me, some of your colleagues visiting can. I just spent a couple hours with some of your -- your compatriots here, but I'll give you some good stuff even-Steven. So here we go.
Progress in the brutal fight to clear fanatical ISIS terrorists from their self-proclaimed capital continue. The Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared about 55 percent of Raqqa, and despite the scores of improvised explosive devices emplaced by ISIS and the density of the high-rise buildings in the areas they are fighting in now, the SDF continue to pressure the enemy and advance.
We've told you about the tough nature of the fight, as desperate and fanatical terrorists cling to territory with no escape. They have had time to prepare for the end, and their plan is to make those fighting them to bleed for every inch of Raqqa.
ISIS has had time to rig up thousands of fiendishly clever explosives and to dig extensive tunnels throughout the city. They are using these tunnels and improvised explosive devices to attack advancing SDF fighters, as well as noncombatants trying to flee their homes.
In the last two days, ISIS mounted a planned counterattack through these tunnels, which the SDF managed to repulse. The few ISIS terrorists the SDF managed to capture alive, and the even fewer who have surrendered, show vividly their desperation. They are malnourished, emaciated and, many of them, pocked with needle tracks from what is assessed as amphetamines they used to maintain their murderous fervor.
As the SDF fights, block by block, we've also gotten a better picture of one of the ways ISIS plans to hold on. They have centralized much of their operations and many of their fighters in the city's main hospital. They have fortified the complex, created tunnels for access and are hiding among women and children who have nowhere else to go.
COL. DILLON: The SDF are also determined and will take Raqqa from ISIS. But you can expect more brutal fighting, and it will not be any quicker than it will be easy.
The coalition has continued to support the SDF by conducting more than 200 strikes this week alone, destroying more than 180 ISIS fighting positions, car bombs and other various improvised explosive devices.
Progress towards security for civilians and preventing ISIS resurgence strengthens with the growth of the Raqqa Internal Security Force. The RISF, a local partner force comprised of an Arab majority and local Raqqalis, continue to fill in behind the SDF to provide security in cleared areas.
Another 180 local volunteers completed training this week in security procedures, small arms tactics and the law of armed conflict, and became eligible to join the ranks of the RISF.
And they weren't the only ones stepping up to fight ISIS, either. More than 200 all-female volunteers also graduated from training course this week, and they will fill in and integrate with the SDF in the fight and operations in Raqqa.
South of Raqqa, the east-west deconfliction line that runs along the Euphrates River is holding, as regime forces remain south and the SDF forces remain north of that agreed-upon line.
Moving to Iraq, the Iraqi Federal Police continue to conduct security operations in Mosul. To the west of Mosul, the coalition continues to support the ISF as they reset and prepare for follow-on operations in the Ninawa province.
The coalition conducted more than 60 strikes against ISIS targets in and around Tal Afar in the last week, hitting defensive fighting positions, weapons caches and car bomb factories, among others.
Earlier this week, while conducting operations to defeat ISIS, the coalition lost two of our own. Sergeant Allen Stigler, 22, of Arlington, Texas, and Sergeant Roshain Brooks, 30, of Brooklyn, New York, artillerymen with the 82nd Airborne Division, were killed while conducting a counterfire mission against an ISIS mortar site when an explosion occurred.
There is zero indication that this incident was a result of enemy contact. An investigation is underway. The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve extends its most sincere condolences to the family, friends and teammates of these courageous paratroopers.
And with that, I'll now take your questions.
MR. STUMP: So we'll go to Joe Tabet from Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you.
Colonel Dillon, I would like to go back to what you mentioned in your opening statement about 200 air strikes in Raqqa this week. Is this a big number that we haven't seen in the past?
COL. DILLON: The -- the strikes, as you have full access to in our strike releases -- those are -- that is higher than the normal -- what we have seen in the past. And a lot of that can be, you know, said because we are now fighting, you know, not exclusively in Raqqa, but that's where the priority is.
And as we see the Iraqi Security Forces reset, those assets that were used for both Raqqa and Mosul are now being used towards Raqqa as a majority. So, yes, there has been an increase to support the fight, right now, in Raqqa.
Q: Quick follow-up, Colonel Dillon. In regards to the RISF, the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, could you give us more details about this new force and where the training is -- is happening? Maybe you could share some details with us on that.
COL. DILLON: Sure.
The Raqqa Internal Security Force -- they are established to provide security to these areas after the SDF has fought and cleared from ISIS areas.
The Raqqa Internal Security Force -- they are from the local area, and they receive about a week's long worth of training from coalition forces that include first aid, law of armed conflict, setting up and manning checkpoints, and also temporary detention operations, so that they can be handed off to judiciary councils, you know, from the area.
They work for the Raqqa Civil Council and, as I stated before, they are a -- they're -- they're local, they're Raqqalis. They're also very -- they're representative of the population and the demographic of Raqqa. About 80 percent of the RISF is Arab, and about 20 percent are Kurds.
I don't know if that gives you a comprehensive enough answer. If --if you want, I'll try to answer another one for you, if needed.
MR. STUMP: (off mic)
Q: Colonel, based on your comments at the top of your opening statement that some of our colleagues are there, I'm surmising you're enjoying the -- a visit from a senior official. Can you tell us who that official is, and what the purpose of the visit is there?
COL. DILLON: It is General Votel, and he comes through here pretty regularly to meet and get updates on the -- what is going on in the CENTCOM region. And this is -- why he's here, he's meeting with delegates from the Government of Iraq and from commanders on the ground to do just that, to get an assessment. This is a regular and somewhat a routine thing for General Votel.
Q: Can you tell us any more about what he's going to be doing while he's in the region? Or is that all under wraps at this point?
COL. DILLON: I'll just limit it to what I had said prior. I will leave it to CENTCOM to address his overall plans. I just know that I can address what he's doing here with us, you know, during this time.
MR. STUMP: To the gentleman in the back.
Q: Yes, thank you. Wyatt Goldsby with EWTN, the Catholic Network.
Colonel, can you tell us a little bit more -- you mentioned Tal Afar. Can you talk a little bit more about the significance of that town? Obviously, it's not one that's as big as Mosul, but what is the strategic importance of Tal Afar? Why is it important that the Iraqi military retake it? And how close are they to -- to really being able to retake it?
COL. DILLON: Okay, thank you for the -- the question.
Any stronghold that is left in Iraq, which is less than a handful now, where ISIS is, is -- there -- that is -- we are going to continue and -- and work with the Iraqi Security Forces to defeat ISIS in -- in Iraq.
As far as strategic, as far as overall importance, I -- I would just say that the Iraqi Security Forces determined that this was where they want to defeat ISIS next. I think a lot of it has to do with the proximity to where it sits in relation to Mosul and the -- where we just finished operations there to defeat ISIS.
COL. DILLON: So I would -- there is, you know, some significance, where it is in relation to the border with Syria, and Tal Afar has been for some time a -- one of the last places prior to moving in and out of Syria.
However, with the -- the operations largely from the popular mobilization forces earlier in the last couple of months to isolate Tal Afar, they have not been able to -- "they" being ISIS -- to transit that area as freely as they used to, if at all.
So that -- that leads to some strategic importance of where it is in relation to Syria and the fighters that are there.
Q: Thank you.
MR. STUMP: Next to Shawn Snow from Military Times.
Q: Colonel, thank you for doing this.
Kurdish fighters have discovered ISIS caches with Turkish versions of U.S. M72 LAW anti-tank rockets in Raqqa. Other arms researchers have documented the rockets in Mosul as well. Are you aware ISIS fighters have these anti-tank rockets? And do you know how they got them?
COL. DILLON: Shawn, I do not. And, you know, I certainly don't know the specific of what you're talking about and what I -- be the weapons systems you were talking about.
I do know that in this particular region, with the -- the conflicts that have happened, you know, over the last several years, there are a lot of different type of weapon systems that are amongst the battlefield.
So, I don't know specifically what you're talking about -- about, but I do know that there are a lot of weapons systems that have been there and left over -- over time. And that's all -- all that I'll say about that.
MR. STUMP: Next to Ryan Browne from CNN.
Q: Hello, Colonel. Thank you for doing this.
I just had one quick one on Raqqa and then a couple -- one on Al-Tanf and Manbij. On Raqqa, do you have an estimate on how many ISIS fighters are remaining at this point following another several weeks, as you described, brutal fighting?
COL. DILLON: Yes, Ryan. We estimate that there are less than 2,500 enemy forces, ISIS fighters that still remain there. Again, that's an estimate.
Q: Okay. I believe we had a number -- earlier estimate of 2,000. Is there any reason for that uptick? Or is it just a revised -- have new fighters come in? Or is that just a revised estimate?
COL. DILLON: That is just a revised estimate, Ryan. And that's why I say an estimate when I present these answers. These are the analysis that we get through various staff and that is what the number is right now.
Q: Thank you.
And on Manbij, I know we talked a little bit last time about a couple of incidents where unknown forces fired on some of the U.S. and coalition advisers there. Have there been any additional similar attacks? And is there any more information as to who was responsible for those attacks against those overt patrols?
COL. DILLON: Yes, Ryan. So, the answer to the first question is that, no, since my last briefing we've not seen any other attacks. And we still do not know who fired and conducted those attacks in the past.
I know in some follow-up questions from some of you, those -- the fire had come from more than 1,000 meters away, so that was just to give a little more context to the distance and how far away it was.
Q: Okay. And just finally on Al-Tanf, has there been any additional clashes between coalition-backed VSO or any of the pro-regime elements in the de-confliction zone area or just outside that you're aware of?
COL. DILLON: Ryan, no. We've had no indications or reports of our partner force or coalition forces having any kind of interactions, altercations or contact with any other elements inside -- in that -- or just outside the Al-Tanf Garrison.
Q: Great, thank you so much.
Q: Hey, Colonel Dillon. Ben Kesling from the Wall Street Journal.
Two quick questions: One is, as the KRG independence referendum approaches, how is that -- how is that having an effect on current operations or planning for future operations? Is it -- is it at all throwing -- throwing a monkey wrench into planning for places like going into Hawija?
COL. DILLON: So, Ben, I will -- with any of the employment and use of forces that fall underneath the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces, I will defer to them.
I will say that, from the coalition's perspective and from what we are doing with the training and the equipping with the Peshmerga forces that does continue. And right now, as of the beginning of this campaign, that training, right now, consists of over 22,000 -- coalition have trained Peshmerga forces.
Q: So, from a CJTF perspective, the -- this -- this forthcoming sort of contested independence referendum and the upheaval that's causing in -- in the country is not affecting operations in any way with which the CJTF is involved?
COL. DILLON: That is correct. We are -- we are continuing to work with the Peshmerga in the same way that we have in the past.
Q: Okay, thanks.
Q: Colonel, thanks for doing this. Jack Detsch from Al-Monitor.
I'm curious, sort of given the encirclement of ISIS fighters in Raqqa, how readily can the group get supplies into the -- into the Old City, using tunnels or any other means?
COL. DILLON: So the -- we -- we have seen, and as we continue to -- or the SDF continue to advance into the Raqqa city center, we have seen the tunnel networks that they have built. And -- don't have -- you learn a little bit more every single -- every single day.
We don't know is -- you know, how extensive. And you can only see as far as your forward line of troops allows you to go, especially when you're talking about the tunnel networks.
Clearly, the ISR, the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that we use gives us a very good idea of what we can see above ground. But, under, we learn that as we go. So that's what I know about that.
Did you have another question?
Q: Yes, well, just, actually, sort of on the -- you'd mentioned that the ISIS fighters who had surrendered to the SDF -- they'd been sort of in poor condition. I'm curious if you can provide any more details on their condition, and maybe if that provides any clues into how long that group can hold out in the Old City.
COL. DILLON: So, we -- these are some of the things that we have seen throughout the different locations and areas where we have fought ISIS.
As the central services, as water turns off, as the ability for food to, you know, come in and out of these cities -- it makes it very, very difficult to sustain oneself.
COL. DILLON: And this is a relatively new report of, you know, some of these fighters that we've seen recently, to show how emaciated and how malnourished that they are, and the fact that they are using some sort of drugs to keep them alert and to keep them going is some telling signs of their desperation in the -- where they are right now within Raqqa.
COL. DILLON: Whether that is just in these, you know, certain pockets or as it gets further into the area, as we get deeper into the city, perhaps they have more ways to sustain themselves, I don't know. But these are some of the new reports that have come out in recent days.
Q: Great. And just one more on Tal Afar. The Defense Department had reported sort of a 40 percent decrease in combat power for the CTS in Mosul. I'm curious, sort of, if there are any capabilities or sort of combat-related skills that the training effort is focusing on ahead of Tal Afar?
COL. DILLON: Ahead of Tal Afar, the -- the training skills and the training that -- and I don't mean to be flippant here -- but the training takes a good amount of time. And it is not something that happens in a short amount of time, like between, you know, Mosul and likely what is to kick off for offensive operations in Tal Afar.
There are some, you know, tight, very specific niche training that we could -- we can do and we do provide, but as far as, you know, training that is really going to stick and is going to be useful, I think, in the way that you're talking about, takes a little bit longer, especially when you're talking about CTS. That is a program and a training pipeline that takes, you know, well -- takes several months, well over a year to build a CTS fighter.
MR. STUMP: Next to Tara Copp from Military Times.
Q: Thanks, Colonel. Good to see you.
I wanted to know if you could give us an updated number of the American forces that are in Iraq. And given that Mosul has, you know, is on the downward slope and you're preparing for Tal Afar, have you had to, or are you able to shift those numbers to be able to shift resources toward the Raqqa fight?
COL. DILLON: Thanks, Tara.
The numbers in Iraq and in Syria remain the same. In Iraq, that is 5,200 and in Syria it's just over 500. But there is ways, and we will shift and make sure that our advisers and the right resources are positioned to provide support to the Iraqi security forces. So, there have been a lot of questions asked as of late: Are you establishing new bases? Are you establishing new posts?
We have established and closed many of these temporary bases in order to support the operations. And those are some of the things and some of the signs to show that, you know, we are very nimble. We are very flexible to provide that support to the Iraqi security forces.
Q: Are any of the 5,200 kind of dual-purposed? Can they also support operations in Syria?
COL. DILLON: I don't -- I don't know that answer right at the top of my head. I know that -- I would say that -- I don't know the answer to that right off the top of my head, Tara. You know, I'll have to get back to you on that.
MR. STUMP: Next, Hans Nichols from NBC.
Q: Thank you, Colonel Dillon.
If I could follow up on the condition of the ISIS fighters. Did U.S. forces observe the track marks on their arms? And how do you know that it’s amphetamines and it's not another narcotic?
COL. DILLON: So -- and I will just say that they were coalition forces, and our coalition forces did, you know, see this. And, as I said in my opening statement, it was assessed to be amphetamines.
So that is a report, like I said, that came in, that is relatively new. But those are the signs that show the indications, and we assess to be amphetamines.
MR. STUMP: Okay. Next, to Wes from Politico.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dillon.
Just to follow up on Tara's question, the numbers you just gave us, 5,200 and 500 -- are those the force main level numbers? Because Secretary Mattis said earlier this week we're going to get some additional clarity on how many troops are actually physically in the countries, you know, beyond the -- the FML numbers.
COL. DILLON: Yes. Those -- those numbers that I gave you are the FML numbers, and if there is going to be any other numbers that will be provided, we'll wait for guidance to do so.
But those are the numbers that are -- that we have in theater, and then we have the non-enduring numbers that come in and out, as people transition to support the fight.
MR. STUMP: Next, to Michael Gordon.
Q: I -- yes, Colonel Dillon, I have the same question as Wes. I just think it's important to clarify this.
Our understanding is that there are more than 5,200 U.S. personnel in Iraq, and certainly well over 500, maybe double that number, in Syria. And that's been the case for some time. So I wonder about the utility of putting out force manning levels that don't represent the actual numbers in these two countries.
I know you're not in a position to provide the actual numbers of personnel, according to your accounting rules, but isn't it the case that the numbers in Iraq and in Syria are in excess of 5,200, and in excess of 500, if you count the people who are deployed on a so-called temporary basis?
COL. DILLON: Michael, that is correct. That's what I had said -- was that, you know, the numbers are those force manning levels, and in Iraq, it's 5,200, or -- in Syria, it's just over 500.
That does not include the non-enduring forces and the non-enduring, you know, people that come in and out for the fight on a temporary basis.
Q: So I just -- I don't want to beat the dead horse, but what is the rationale for not -- this has been a policy for quite a long time. What's the rationale for not telling the American public what the actual number of American personnel is in each of these two countries -- at least a rough approximation?
COL. DILLON: Yes sir -- I think you -- you said it yourself. This is a policy, so I will refer you to -- to policy. And those are the numbers that -- that I have for you right now.
MR. STUMP: Did you have a follow-up?
Q: Excuse me, it's just a follow on Hans's question. It's Tina from Al Jazeera English. I was wondering, is this the first time that you captured detainees in this kind of condition? Is this the first time you've seen these kind of track marks before?
COL. DILLON: As far as I know, not necessarily the first time that we've seen them in these conditions, meaning emaciated and malnourished. But, as far as I know, this is one of the first times that -- this is the first time, you know, for me, seeing and getting reports on the use of some kind of, you know, track marks, or some kind of intravenous way to -- to keep yourself above water. So that's my first time in knowing this.
MR. STUMP: Did you have a follow-up, Ben?
Q: Colonel, Ben Kesling again. Quick follow-up on something Tara asked. You said that there'll be repositioning of troops. How much -- with repositioning of materiel going to Syria as well, does that include the -- the number of anti-tank rockets, like AT4s, that were pushed into Iraq for the Mosul fight?
Will those be going across into Syria, as well, and is that already happening? And is -- are there any anti-tank missiles that are being provided?
COL. DILLON: The -- as far as anything that has moved from Iraq to Syria, I don't have the eaches, but I do know that the types of weapons and the quantity of the weapons that are being brought into the fight in Raqqa are as needed, and are also -- if it's going to the SDF -- are also transparent and we're providing that information to Turkey.
Q: Does that include anti-tank missiles as well as rockets?
COL. DILLON: So what we're talking about are -- when you ask about Raqqa -- they're not missiles. Those are not provided to our SDF partners, so I'll just go ahead and say that out right there. So APGMs are not provided to our Syrian partners in Raqqa.
MR. STUMP: Do we have any other takers?
Q: Just one follow-up Colonel. I was a little bit late coming into the room and the audio is not feeding over the Defense News Channel.
With the detainees, is there any possibility that they would be transferred to the U.S., or are they going to be maintained by the Iraqi government? Or Syria. I'm sorry. They're in Syria, so.
COL. DILLON: Sorry. Out of -- I think I got your question. Any detainees that are found or that are detained in Iraq, that is for the Government of Iraq; and then if they are from another nationality, that is something that would be discussed with the individual embassies here in Iraq with the Government of Iraq.
Q: Specific to the ones who were captured, where are they going to go?
COL. DILLON: That is a question for the -- number one, the Government of Iraq. If they are captured and brought to any facility in Iraq, that is a question for them. And then the other answer remains the same. Where are they brought, and that is all up to the embassies.
Q: Just -- if I could just follow-up, I think the question is the ones that are captured in Syria, sir.
COL. DILLON: Oh, the ones -- oh, I'm sorry. I misheard. So those that are captured in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces. And there are specifically in Raqqa, in and around there, there are two judiciary councils. And I need to provide those names for you. I think one is in Ayn Issa. The other one, I don't have the name off the top of my head. That is where any ISIS fighters that are captured are brought to those locations.
As far as, again, the -- whether they are Syrian, or foreign or otherwise, those are up to those state departments and those embassies to work through those issues.
Q: Who is maintaining those facilities, and who's interrogating those detainees?
COL. DILLON: I think you would have to ask the SDF and the councils, particularly like the Raqqa Civil Council, those questions.
MR. STUMP: Back to Wes from Politico.
Q: Just to follow up on that: Do U.S. forces or coalition forces have an opportunity to question those detainees in Syria?
COL. DILLON: I -- that is -- if it's immediately afterwards, I believe that that is the case. But once they get into the detention facilities, I don't know if that is the case. I don't know the answer to that, so.
Please say who you are again, and I'll follow up. Is that Politico?
Q: Sure. Yes, Wes Morgan from Politico.
COL. DILLON: Okay, thanks.
Q: (off mic)
COL. DILLON: You guys still there? Quiet on the other side.
Q: Can you hear me now?
(UNKNOWN): Do you mind repeating?
MR. STUMP: Col. Dillion, can you hear me?
COL. DILLON: Yes, I got you now.
MR. STUMP: Okay, so, the question was --
Q: How many forces have been captured -- (inaudible) -- at this point? ISIS fighters -- (inaudible)?
COL. DILLON: Adam, all I got was "the question was."
MR. STUMP: Do we have an estimate of the number of people that have been captured on the battlefield in Syria?
COL. DILLON: I do not. That is something you'd have to ask the SDF, our partner force.
MR. STUMP: Okay.
Any other takers? Ryan Browne for a follow-up.
Q: Just one real quick one, Colonel. There are reports said Al-Qaeda is increasingly active in Northern Syria, close to the Turkey border. I know that there was -- the coalition helped Turkey secure that border against ISIS. Is the coalition playing any role helping Turkey secure its border now that Al-Qaeda has an increased presence there?
COL. DILLON: That is something, Ryan, that you're going to have to -- I'll address to CENTCOM. Our fight is against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And it's the fight specifically against Al-Qaeda, and particularly, I think, likely the Idlib area where HDS is, I think that's a question for CENTCOM.
Q: Thank you.
MR. STUMP: Any other follow-ups?
All right, Colonel Dillon, thanks for your time.
COL. DILLON: All right, thanks. And again, apologies for the comms issues. It's something we'll work through.
Q: Thank you.