Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Jones via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
British Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander, strategy and support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, spokesman, Defense Press Office
MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Good morning, everyone.
Today, we're joined by Major General Rupert Jones from the British Army. General Jones is the deputy commanding general for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Iraq.
General, how do you hear me, sir?
MAJOR GENERAL RUPERT JONES: Yes, I've got you loud and clear. Thanks.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir, if you'd like to open with an opening statement, then we'll move to questions.
GEN. JONES: Thank you. Well, good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining today.
I'm going to give you quick operational and stabilization updates for Iraq and Syria, before touching on a couple of points about the strength of the coalition to feat -- to defeat Daesh.
As you know, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Iraqi security forces launched their latest offensive against Daesh, starting the attack on Tal Afar. The liberation of this city, and the remainder of Nineveh province, will essentially end ISIS's military presence in northern Iraq.
All the branches of the Iraqi security forces are taking part in this operation. Three Iraqi army divisions, the Counterterrorism Service, the Federal Police, the Emergency Response Division, the Iraqi local police, as well -- as well as Popular Mobilization Forces, all under the command of Prime Minister Abadi.
They've made a really positive start, but we should expect it to be a tough fight. As always, the coalition will be there in support, providing equipment, training intelligence, precision air and ground artillery fires, and combat advice.
There's still much to do once Tal Afar is liberated. Daesh must be driven from Hawija, as well as from the stretch of the Euphrates river valley leading to the border with Syria.
However, make no mistake, the momentum is clearly with the Iraqi security forces, and they have the intent and capability to complete the military defeat of Daesh in Iraq. And the coalition will be -- will be there in support all the way.
The results of the dark days in 2014 speak for them -- for themselves: 40,000 square kilometers have been liberated. That's basically the size of Switzerland -- 82,000 square kilometers in total, if you include Syria. That's the size of Austria.
The Iraqi security forces have prevailed in the toughest urban battle since World War II. As a result, about 4 million people are able to live their lives, free from Daesh's tyrannical rule. Another million and a half have been liberated in Syria. Daesh are losing on all fronts, and our partners have irresistible momentum.
But in many ways, the real challenge only starts when the fighting stops. The government of Iraq, with the United Nations and others, has worked tirelessly to help IDPs return home, to restore essential services and start the slow process of recovering from the great trauma cities like Mosul have suffered.
The results are pretty incredible. In Ramadi, over 330,000 people have returned home. Nearly 14,500 children are back in the classroom in refurbished schools. There's a similar story in Fallujah, where 400,000 have returned. Housing and jobs projects are helping a gradual return to normality and supporting livelihoods.
What always strikes me most, on the streets, is what the people are doing, their resilience and determination to take back their lives. The focus in west Mosul is often on the levels of destruction. But in many areas -- many areas people are getting back to some degree of normality and markets are thriving. You liberate people, not bricks. Buildings can be rebuilt. Lives cannot.
Moving to Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, with our support, are into the third month of the clearance of Raqqa. As expected, the fighting is tough, and the SDF face heavy resistance, not least from improvised explosive devices. But the SDF are making incremental gains on multiple fronts, and ISIS fighters are suffering considerable losses.
This week alone, the coalition conducted more than 250 strikes on tunnel systems, IED factories, enemy rocket mortar positions, and command and control nodes. There will be tough weeks ahead, but the enemy are suffering, and the pressure is translating into progress on the ground, building by building.
GEN. JONES: The de-confliction line, south of the Euphrates, is holding, allowing both the SDF and regime forces to remain focused on fighting Daesh. We will continue to use these de-confliction procedures as forces continue to advance against ISIS-held areas in Syria.
Now, last week, I met once again with the Raqqa Civil Council and the Tabqa Civil Council. We often characterize the situation in northern Syria along sectarian lines, particularly Kurds and Arabs. That's not how they see it. They're Raqqawis first, working in partnership to liberate and help their towns.
The councils are doing a good job, working at -- work -- acting on behalf of the people, channeling assistance to IDPs; providing security in liberated areas; and starting the slow process of restoring essential services.
Each time I return to towns like Ayn Issa and Tabqa, there are more signs of recovery. Manbij marked the one-year anniversary of its liberation last week. The town is thriving and the markets bustling, offering an insight to what Raqqa can look forward to.
Last week, I also met with a large group of IDPs north of Tabqa, the bulk of whom had come from regime-cleared areas. I asked them why they had not remained where they were, now free from ISIS. They were unequivocal, that they wanted to come to the SDF area, where they see the best prospects for their families, and they were effusive in their praise of how they've been treated by the SDF and by the Raqqa Internal Security Force.
Finally, since this is my final briefing to you, after over a year in-theater, I want to end with a few words as a senior non-U.S. member of the coalition.
Up front, this has always felt like a coalition. The unity of the coalition is one of the greatest strengths we have: 69 nations and 40 -- four international organizations united against a common enemy.
The U.S. provides vital leadership and fighting power, but this is a team effort. Thirty nations contribute to Operation Inherent Resolve, with more than 3,800 non-U.S. troops in Iraq today. Every nation plays a vital role, no matter what size their contribution.
The recovery and success of the Iraqi security forces is built on the capacity-building effort. More than 110,000 troops have been trained by coalition nations, very largely by non-U.S. forces. Likewise, a substantial percentage of all airstrikes have been provided by nations other than the U.S. But it's more than that. You'll find coalition nations contributing to virtually every element of the campaign, and we couldn't do it without them.
Despite all the progress, we know there's still much to do after the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa. And it will take the continued commitment of all our nations to secure the military defeat of Daesh.
And with that, I'll happily take your questions.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Thank you, sir.
We'll start with Tom Bowman from National Public Radio.
Q: General, what can you tell us, in Syria, about the continued movement of Syrian forces and Iranian militia forces toward the east, particularly around Deir ez-Zor?
GEN. JONES: Well, Tom, you know that the regime forces have made pretty steady progress, over the last few months, east towards -- towards the Euphrates. We had always assumed that they would do that, to some degree. The regime have a beleaguered outpost in Deir ez-Zor, so it had always been part of our assumption that the regime would advance east to -- towards the Euphrates.
And, as you know, that's -- it's for that very reason we have these de-confliction procedures in place. Those de-confliction procedures are serving us very well, south of Tabqa, and we will, of course, need those -- those procedures later, on the assumption the regime continue to advance towards the Euphrates.
Q: Can you talk about the numbers you're seeing moving in that direction? And has there been any problems working out areas, de-confliction, with those forces heading there?
GEN. JONES: So I don't want to talk about numbers of regime forces in the various advances. You know, I think the point is that it's -- it's hard going for them. They're making steady headway, but it's not easy, you know, any more than it's easy for the coalition to advance against Daesh.
In terms of the de-confliction procedures, you know, thus far, the only area where we've need to -- needed to de-conflict is around Manbij and then the area south of Tabqa.
But I think what's really encouraging is we've got -- we've got the procedures in place. We know how to deconflict. We always knew that, in the later stages of this campaign, the battle space would become more and more contested, and that's exactly what we're seeing.
And the key is that we think about it in advance, we plan for it in advance and we have protocols ready to go. (inaudible) – de-confliction procedures have served us very well around Tabqa, and we're confident they can serve us well going forward.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, we'll go to Wyatt Goolsby from EWTN.
Q: Thank you very much.
General, you had mentioned -- (AUDIO GAP) -- the progress we've made into both Syria and Iraq. And Secretary Mattis had even mentioned that ISIS is being squeezed in the area.
Has that general strategy always been the plan? In other words, as the Syrian Democratic Forces make progress on Raqqa and the Iraqi forces make progress in Tal Afar, that you're squeezing ISIS at the same time?
GEN. JONES: Yes. I think that has always been the case. And, when I think for a considerable period of time, we have recognized that, to some degree, the campaign to defeat Daesh ends in what we characterize as the middle Euphrates river valley, so, essentially, the area from just north of Deir ez-Zor down to about Haditha in -- in Iraq.
You know, I think we've always seen that that is where -- where the battle ends, that -- that Daesh will be squeezed into that area, and that's where they would be closed out.
Of course, you will recognize one of the -- one of the features of working by, with and through our partners means it's not our -- it's not our campaign design, and we don't sit there with a beautiful spreadsheet, and then we fight, you know, exactly as we see it.
We've got to work through our partners, and so we have a -- we have an overall visualization of how this campaign will play out. But it has to be driven by the motives and the aspirations of our partners, not least, of course, by Prime Minister Abadi, the sovereign -- the sovereign prime minister who -- in Iraq, who -- you know, he will dictate where his forces fight.
But the expectation has always been that that would see Daesh increasingly squeezed into the -- into the middle Euphrates valley, and that is where the military defeat will be completed.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now to Ryan Browne from CNN.
Q: Hello, General. Thank you for taking our questions.
I just wanted to touch on a couple things you said. You mentioned the de-confliction line is holding up well as that battle space becomes more congested. We haven't heard much -- and you talked about Manbij being one of the areas that the de-confliction line is used.
There were reports that coalition forces came under attack in the area around Manbij. These forces were doing an overt patrol to deter aggression at the time. Is there any more -- have there been more attacks like that? And is there any information as to who was conducting those attacks?
GEN. JONES: So there have been instances of cross -- cross-line fires. You refer to the most recent incident, where there was fire that came across the -- across the line form some kind of opposition force, we believe.
So incidents like that do happen. We take appropriate measures to try and minimize the risk of those -- those events happening. But they do happen, and of course, all coalition forces have the inherent right of self-defense at their disposal, should they feel the need. But, as a -- by and large, these de-confliction measures are serving us very well.
Q: And to follow up in the other area where the de-confliction line is in effect, down in At Tanf garrison, we haven't heard much about it lately. Are -- is the coalition still training vetted Syrian opposition forces there? And is there a plan to use them as the coalition kind of anticipates moving into the middle Euphrates river valley?
Hard to do now because the regime forces are kind of positioned between Al Tanf and that area. Is there kind of a plan being developed to get them into the fight? And is there -- can you elaborate on what that is?
GEN. JONES: So I guess, you know, the reason you haven't heard much about the de-confliction area down in At Tanf is because it's working. I mean, that's the -- that's the -- that's the first thing. So, the situation is stable. Every -- all parties understand, almost, if you like, the rules of the -- the rules of the game, and that's exactly what we had wanted to be -- to be the case.
Now, we are still working with the MAT, one of our partner forces down there. They remain absolutely focused on the defeat of Daesh. Many of those, or the bulk of those MAT fighters come from the middle Euphrates River valley. So they have a very clear intention to get back to their homes, to help liberate their homes.
So, is there a clear path from Al Tanf up to the Euphrates, at the moment? Well, as you indicated in your question, no, clearly that it's not simple to do at the moment. We need to continue to look at the options as to how the MAT might -- might support the fight. An avenue might open up, depending what -- depending what the regime does.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.
Q: Thank you, major.
General Jones, since you mentioned Hawija and the Euphrates river valley as the next battle after Tal Afar, I'm wondering if you could share with us the size of -- how much do you estimate the size of ISIS fighters in that area?
GEN. JONES: Sorry. In which area, specifically?
Q: Starting Tal Afar and going to Hawija and along the Euphrates river valley.
GEN. JONES: Okay. I mean, I think the first thing I'd say, and you will recognize -- that predicting numbers of enemy fighters is an inherently difficult activity. We know that.
We know that often our predictions don't -- don't prove to be accurate, and there's a whole host of reasons for that, not least, of course, Daesh keep recruiting. You know, they don't start a fight and stop recruiting. You know, they recruit and they train throughout -- throughout a battle.
But, as to our current estimates, we would -- we believe that, in Tal Afar, there are about 2,000 fighters, and in the middle Euphrates, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000, something of that order. But, as I say, you know, those are -- those are broad figures, and it is very, very difficult, despite all of our best intelligence efforts, to predict that -- predict those figures accurately.
Q: (inaudible) -- sir, talking about numbers, does the coalition still believe there are 2,500 ISIS fighters in Raqqa?
GEN. JONES: Yes. So, again, our estimate for Raqqa would be about 2,500. I'll say, you know, that's -- you know, we don't keep a running total that -- you know, each time we conduct a strike, well that's -- that's -- you know, a couple more people ticked off the list. It just -- it doesn't work like that.
You know, what -- in -- to some degree, the numbers are slightly academic. What matters is the -- is the progress, because this is a battle of wills, it's not ultimately a battle of numbers.
So, you know, the fact that the Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared -- call it 55-60 percent of the city -- that's what matters. It's about the incremental effect that you're having on the enemy, rather than, if you like, an enemy scorecard.
Q: Quick -- quick, on the same topic, on Iraq, you mentioned in your opening remarks that the Iraqi army have fought the toughest operations since World War II. I'm wondering, how did you do this comparison?
GEN. JONES: How did we do the cooperation with the Iraqi security forces, did you ask?
Q: No, comparison. How -- compare the Iraqi operations to what we have seen in World War II?
GEN. JONES: Okay. So just kind of -- you know, we're not -- we're not stating absolutely factually. It is our assessment. As you look back through your history books, I think you'll be hard pressed to find an urban battle as intense and as challenging as the battle of Mosul until you go back to World War II.
There have been plenty of intense battles, but, by way of an urban fight, a fight through a city of a million and three quarters people, a fight that lasted nine months, a fight against an extraordinarily determined enemy -- I'm -- I studied history at university. I studied military history. But -- and I'm hard-pressed to think of an example of a more challenging urban fight since the Second World War.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Sir in the back, could you give your name and agency?
Q: Yes. Jack Detsch with Al-Monitor.
General -- General Townsend said, yesterday, that Popular Mobilization Forces are fighting in Tal Afar. I'm curious if you can provide any details on their numbers in the city, where they're located in relation to partnered forces and whether they're having any impact on the coalition's operations.
GEN. JONES: Yes, so, I mean, you know, you will recognize that Popular Mobilization Forces have been out west of Mosul for a good many months. They joined the Mosul operation. They were, if you like, isolating out to the west of Mosul.
And so, as he rest of the Iraqi security forces have moved round to conduct the Tal Afar operation, they've been going into an area that is essentially being held by the -- by the Popular Mobilization Forces. That's -- that's the first thing to say.
So I think we – got to recognize that the Popular Mobilization Forces are in a number of areas in the -- in the Tal Afar zone. And the government of -- the Iraqi security forces made the decision that the PMF would operate integrated with elements of the Iraqi security forces, rather than necessarily operating on their own separate axis. So, for example, they are working in concert with the -- with the federal police.
Now, as you know, we don't directly support the Popular Mobilization Forces. We support the rest of the elements of the Iraqi security forces. And so any support that we might provide to the PMF will be incidental to the fact that we're directly supporting the Iraqi army, the counterterrorism service, the federal police and the like.
Q: And do you assess there are any elements of your support to other elements of Iraqi fighting forces that have been shared with -- with the PMF, or any groups affiliated with them?
GEN. JONES: Sorry, can you -- I didn't quite get the gist of that question. I apologize.
Q: As you support the rest of the elements, like the Iraqi security forces and those -- those other types of forces, I'm curious -- you said there might be incidental support, so I'm curious if you've gotten any notification that the ISF or the CTS have provided any -- have shared any of that support with the PMF.
GEN. JONES: Okay. So, by "incidental support," what I mean by that is, if you conduct an airstrike, for example, in support of the federal police, but the Popular Mobilization Forces are operating on that same axis, they are going to get incidental assistance from it, because if the federal police can't advance, nor can the PMF.
But the support will be very directly in support of, in this case, the federal police or the Iraqi army. But you -- you know, it's almost impossible to make a complete distinction. We're in a congested bit of battle space.
So I'd say it is possible that we conduct an airstrike in support of a supported element in the Iraqi security forces, that, as I say, incidentally, the Popular Mobilization Forces get some indirect assistance from. But it will not be through any direct assistance.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you very much, General Jones. I have two questions.
You talked about the really difficult and important part being what happens after the fighting stops. And there's been a lot of talk about the need for political change in the Mosul area to give the population more of a stake in its governance.
Are you -- are you aware of any, or could you share with us any plan, what you know about any planned political changes that would address those concerns about governance in Mosul?
GEN. JONES: So -- was that -- there was -- I thought -- (AUDIO GAP) –there were two questions. Do you want to pass the other question, as well?
Q: Well, and the other question, very different -- Britain's security minister, Ben Wallace, warned that terror attacks -- are rising, they could rise, as ISIS loses territory. So I wondered, is that what you're seeing from your perspective? And then is -- this is after the attacks in Spain, he said that.
And then, is -- is Raqqa still a headquarters for ISIS external operations? Or do you think they've moved -- maybe -- may have moved someplace else, is the second question.
GEN. JONES: Yes, so okay. So, yes, two very -- very -- two very different questions.
So, on Mosul first, I mean, I think the first thing I'd say about Mosul, as I've touched on, really, you know, in many ways, the big challenge starts when the guns fall silent. That is not the end of the road. You know that. We all -- we all know that.
And I think back to January. We were all cautious about what would happen in Mosul as the Iraqi security forces transitioned across to west Mosul, leaving behind a hold force. We were cautious about what would happen over the coming months. All of our militaries have experience of how challenging it can be to bring security after the fighting.
But actually, we look back on it, and the situation is much, much better in east Mosul than we could have hoped for. Security is good. There's -- I mean this genuinely. I mean, the trust between the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army and the people is palpable.
I mean, I've walked the streets of east Mosul. I've gone in and spoken to store-holders. And you ask them, and they will say the same thing to you, as -- as security force commanders. You don't often get that. And what they will say is that the security in east Mosul is built on mutual respect between the security forces and the people. That's extremely encouraging.
But security is only the start of the process. You know that the government of Iraq, working with the UNDP and others, are working very hard to bring in the stabilization projects that are needed to get the schools open, to get the water running, to do all the things that are absolutely necessary. And then you've got to build, on the top of that, appropriate governance.
Now, map that across to west Mosul. We know that the challenge is very much greater in west Mosul. As you well know, parts of the city have been very significantly destroyed.
GEN. JONES: Other parts of the city have not. Again, I have walked the markets of west Mosul. It's not a picture that people often paint. Generally, the picture people show is of rubble. There are a great many parts of west Mosul where life is getting back to normal, in the same model as in -- in east Mosul.
And clearly, the -- the governance that you need in Mosul -- you need strong civil and you need strong military leadership. And, really, that's -- that's something I know that Prime Minister Abadi is very focused on.
So then your second question was, I think, the first bit of it, about -- was, I think, about the terror threat that can potentially emanate from -- from Raqqa and, I guess, by extension, the broader Euphrates river valley.
So, you know, as I said in my comments, you know, Daesh are under extraordinary pressure. They are losing on all fronts. They're losing on the battlefield. They're losing financially. The -- you know, the flow of foreign fighters has slowed to a trickle. You know, their narrative is being so very significantly discredited, partly because of the efforts of the global coalition
But I would argue, more than that, it's being discredited by ordinary people, people in all of our countries, in this region and beyond, who -- who are not willing to accept that -- that narrative. They reject that narrative. And the narrative is being drowned out by voices of moderation. That is much more powerful than anything a government can ever do.
That is, hopefully, the route to reduce the risk of -- of terror attacks. But as the attacks -- as it pertains to attacks coming out of Iraq and Syria, well, what I'd say to you is this: If you're a fighter right now, in Raqqa, I don't think you have got the time, the bandwidth or the security to be dreaming up and plotting imaginative attacks to mount against Europe or elsewhere.
Why? Because you are hiding underground and you are fighting for your life. So I'm not saying it can't happen, but it's extremely difficult. And if I was a fighter in Raqqa right now, I know I wouldn't be focused on plotting attacks. I would be -- I would be fighting for my survival.
And then, finally, you asked about the degree to which Raqqa remains -- I think you used the term "capital" of Raqqa. Again, you know, we -- we know -- it's well recognized that a great many fighters and, indeed, some of the Daesh capabilities, have moved on down the Euphrates to other places. And so, you know, there's, if you like, a bit -- a bit of a shift in their balance to other locations.
But we shouldn't underestimate the degree to which there are still a significant number of foreign fighters in Raqqa who need to be dealt with. And, as I say, I'm very confident the SDF will complete that job.
Q: Just to follow up on those questions, as far as you know, you're not aware of any planned political changes in the governance of Mosul that would prevent another ISIS from returning?
GEN. JONES: No. And I think that's really for Prime Minister Abadi to say what his intentions are for the -- for the governance of Mosul. There -- you know, the governor of Mosul is -- is the -- he is the responsible individual. So any intentions to adjust that would clearly be for Prime Minister Abadi to announce.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Ma'am, could you give your name and agency?
Q: Yes. I'm Barbara Opall-Rome, bureau chief in Israel for Defense News.
And, sir, I wanted to know if you could share with us the extent of Iranian presence in Mosul, or IRGC-backed elements in Mosul, as the coalition has cleared out ISIS. Are these IRGC-affiliated elements coming into the city?
Q: And the follow-on, sir, is, as you progress into the next phase of stabilization operations, will coalition forces be liaising, or perhaps even in some type of direct coordination, with Iranian or IRGC-affiliated elements in Mosul?
GEN. JONES: So, all the way through the Mosul battle, Prime Minister Abadi was very clear that he didn't want Popular Mobilization Forces going into the city. I touched on that earlier, and that's why the PMF were operating out to the west of the city. And that remains the case. So you will find PMF out on the outskirts of the city, but you won't find them in the city.
I'm not -- I'm not going to say you aren't going to get, you know, small elements. It's a big city. But you're not going to get areas of the city held by the PMF. Prime Minister Abadi has always been very clear about that.
And the other thing to say is, you know, you will recognize that the PMF are now a formal part of the Iraqi security forces. That was brought into legislation late last year.
But Prime Minister Abadi, I think, uses the phrase "disciplined" and "ill-disciplined" PMF. There's a -- there's a bit of risk in just kind of using a kind of blanket PMF, and it creates a kind of negative connotation.
The PMF are, now, part of the Iraqi security forces. And forces that are moderate in their intent, and -- and forces that comply with the orders of Prime Minister Abadi, rather than somebody else's instructions, are potentially a positive influence.
Q: And the follow-on mission, as you proceed with stabilization operations, in terms of liaising and coordinating?
GEN. JONES: Yes -- (inaudible) -- forgive me. I didn't deliberately duck that question, tricky though it is.
So that -- I mean that -- you know, that's really a question to be asking in capitals, in Washington, in London and in Paris. But, do we have any freedoms at the moment to conduct that coordination? Absolutely not. And I confess, as a military man, I'll be pretty surprised if we received those sorts of instructions. But that's really a question for politicians in capitals.
Q: Would my colleagues allow me one final, quick follow- up? The Israelis are so concerned that Mosul is key to enabling Iran to establish an overland corridor that would link up -- you've heard the rhetoric -- from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
And as a military professional -- warrior on the ground, can you address the credibility of these concerns? The -- of Iranian-backed continuity and land bridge that -- the nexus is held together at -- in Mosul?
GEN. JONES: So I wouldn't kind of focus your question in on Mosul. You know, we are -- it sounds a bit trite, but we are here as a -- as a military coalition to defeat Daesh. Not to do anything else. We're here to support our partner forces to defeat Daesh. There are other malign actors and other malign influences at play. But that is -- that is not what Operation Inherent Resolve has been brought here to do.
GEN. JONES: But what I'd say is this, that, if the coalition helps Prime Minister Abadi in particular to defeat enemies within his country, specifically Daesh, if he can secure his borders, that gives him the firm platform for a secure and stable sovereign government.
And I think, with that, you get side benefits along the lines that you've just described. But I -- but I must reemphasize, and you know it, we, as a military coalition, a coalition of 30 nations involved in the fight against Daesh -- we are here to defeat Daesh and nothing else.
Q: Thank you, sir.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Mr. Zach Biggs from Jane's.
General, so you mentioned that about 55 to 60 percent of Raqqa is now cleared. How much of that territory is now being patrolled or secured by the RISF, those forces, as opposed to the SDF? And can you walk through what the determination is, as to when territory is handed over to the RISF, as opposed to SDF still patrolling it?
GEN. JONES: Yes. Really good question. And I was -- I was with the RISF only last week. I wouldn't -- I confess, I wouldn't put -- I can't put a percentage on it, but I can characterize it for you in kind of broader terms.
So the bulk of Raqqa province is already secured by the Raqqa Internal Security Force. So the areas north of the city, west, east of the city, and in the south city, down around Tabqa. And the RISF have started taking over some of the districts of Raqqa.
Once the Syrian Democratic Forces are sufficiently confident that security is stable, then they are handing off those outer districts to the RISF so they, of course, can then concentrate their fighting power closer to the front.
How's that happen? As any good military force would, when handing off to another force that's going to protect the rear area, essentially, it's coordination. So, when the SDF commanders feel that security is good enough, they'll liaise with the Raqqa Internal Security Force and the area is literally handed off. So it's really a judgment about is security good enough, is it stable enough, are we confident there aren't about to be Daesh counterattacks, and then the handoff takes place. And, just so you know, while you talk about the Raqqa Internal Security Force, I mean, they're still a relatively new organization.
Or, worth saying, I visited their training on two occasions. I've seen them out and about all over Raqqa province, and they're doing a really good job. Of that, there's no doubt. They are overwhelmingly Arab, the people coming in. They're self-defining them as -- when they come into the training as Arab. They are very firmly from the areas that are being liberated.
It's a good job. You get a -- you get paid, you get uniform and get to secure your own village, because you go back and you secure the areas you're from. And that's very appealing.
And that's a -- when I visited their training, I've been really struck. Your young, motivated, fit-looking men are coming forward to be part of the Raqqa Internal Security Force. And what we see on the streets is that they're doing a good job. It's low-level security, it's checkpoints, it's just maintaining. It's building confidence in the people.
And what you also see is them treating the people with dignity and respect, not least because, of course, they're from their own villages. So it's a -- it's a -- it's a pretty smart way forward. Long way to go, but positive steps by the Raqqa Internal Security Force.
Q: I wanted to circle back to something you mentioned earlier.
You talked about the goodwill and the positive feelings, especially in east Mosul, from civilians. There were also a lot of reports, during that campaign, about civilian casualties.
Q: You said that ISIS continues to recruit, despite fighting battles basically everywhere that they still have territory in Syria and Iraq.
Are you seeing that ISIS is still being able to recruit from reclaimed territory, not just from within territory they hold? And how much of an impact do you think those civilian casualties have had on the goodwill or the potential receptiveness of the civilians to the coalition?
GEN. JONES: So we don't see evidence of ISIS recruiting in liberated areas. You know, the -- the palpable sense of relief to be -- to have your life back, even if you're now in an IDP camp, is pretty powerful.
When I say "recruiting," what I actually mean is forced conscription. So, when they were still "recruiting," in inverted commas, late in the battle of west Mosul, that wasn't, you know, people walking into a recruiting office, saying, "Hey, I buy into your -- your narrative; I'm all up for the fight."
Far from it. That was people being -- facing the ghastly choice of probably being executed then and there, or coming and fighting, you know, frankly, kicking and screaming, for ISIS. That's what -- that's what I mean by recruiting.
In terms of the civilian casualties, no. You know, I don't see any evidence, when I talk to anybody, that the -- the regrettable, but inevitable damage that happens when you liberate a city is acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh.
If I -- if I may say so, we -- we regret civilian casualties enormously, but the people who focus on civilian casualties more than anybody are the West. And that's good, because you're holding the coalition to the highest possible standards.
But actually, in Iraq and in Syria, people are much more accepting that -- because it's clear that it's their city being liberated. They understand what they were suffering. And they understand, therefore, the sacrifices that are required to achieve -- to achieve your freedom.
And, as you know, the Iraqi security forces, and indeed the Syrian Democratic Forces, go to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilian casualties. One of the things that really characterized Mosul was protection of civilians was the very centerpiece of what the Iraqi security forces did, and we see exactly the same by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
And we, the coalition, play our part. You know, I -- I challenge anybody to contradict me when I say this coalition has the most sophisticated and the most advanced targeting process in history. We go to the very greatest lengths possible to protect civilians. We regret every single civilian casualty, and we would never destroy property unless we had to.
But this is a war. It's not a war of our choosing. It's not a war of the choosing of the people of Iraq or of Prime Minister Abadi. But if you want to liberate your towns and cities, it comes at a price. Our job is to ensure that price is as small as possible.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Wes Morgan, Politico.
Q: Hi, General Jones.
I'm wondering if you can tell us if coalition advisers and artillery are playing a similar role in Tal Afar to the role that they played in Mosul, or if there are differences we can expect to see, you know, whether it's more equivalent to the role they played in east Mosul or the -- or the role in west Mosul.
GEN. JONES: Yes. So, I mean, it's pretty much the same. You know, we've picked up from west Mosul. We've moved across to -- to Tal Afar. So, in conceptual terms, it's the same. We were there to provide advice and assistance and enablement to our Iraqi partners.
GEN. JONES: And the nature of the battlefield is -- is slightly different. And therefore, some of the tactics that may end up being used may be different. But in -- but in conceptual terms, and in terms of level of commitment to the Iraqi Security Forces, it's exactly the same.
And, as I said earlier, you know, we would expect Tal Afar to be a tough fight. It's smaller -- a good deal smaller than Mosul, but -- but, you know, for its size, we would still expect it to be a tough battle.
Q: (off mic) follow up on -- on a different subject. I realize that, as a British officer, you're not the perfect person for this question, but can you give us the usual update on what the current U.S. troop levels in OIR are in Iraq and Syria, whether there's been any change since the last update?
GEN. JONES: Yes, no, delighted, and I'm going to think -- this goes back to my coalition point, that I should be able to speak to U.S. numbers, as -- as well as if it was a United States general officer here, because I am -- I'm the deputy commander of the coalition forces. So I -- I can and will speak confidently to you.
So the -- the current force manning level in Iraq is 5,262. In Syria, it's -- it's 503. That has not changed for a little while.
Q: Thank you.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Next, to Otto Kreischer with Sea Power.
Q: General, you answered part of my question. You talked to -- earlier about Daesh continuing to recruit in the Syrian area, then you talked about how the flow of foreign fighters was down to a trickle, and that they were -- they were disillusioned -- they were discredited in the local (inaudible).
So, other than forced recruiting, you know, are -- are they able to bring anybody in? And where are the foreign fighters coming from, if the whole area -- if Raqqa is pretty well surrounded?
GEN. JONES: So, I mean, I guess that there's -- I guess there's two sources of recruitment. The first one is -- I'm not going to stand here and tell you that no foreign fighters are coming into Iraq and Syria. You know, you cannot, short of, you know, putting up a wire around Iraq and Syria, it will remain possible for people who want to join the cause to do so. I think the point is that, from the early days where, you know, in excess of 1,000 people were coming into Iraq and Syria a month, that has slowed to a trickle. Why has it slowed to a trickle? Well, it's slowed for a number of the reasons that I've touched on already.
Firstly, the brand is compromised. People don't believe in it. They don't want to come from France, Britain, Belgium or anywhere else to come and fight for ISIS.
But secondly, I guess, because of the great efforts by the global coalition that sits beyond what we, the military, are doing, on the policing front, on the information side, in terms of border control, not least, of course, by our NATO partner, Turkey, who are impacted by this more than, frankly, almost any other country, since they border both Iraq and -- and Syria.
So -- so we would assess that it's still possible some foreign fighters to come into Iraq and into Syria, but in very small numbers. And I should say, therefore, by extension, it's equally hard for foreign fighters to go back home again. You know, the idea that they can just mooch their way through Europe is -- is just -- is just not the case.
As far as recruiting inside the middle Euphrates River valley, you know, I think I'd refer you to -- to what we saw in Mosul where, you know, they are -- I'm sure, down there, they are still able to conduct some recruiting. But I would wager it's increasingly forced recruiting.
GEN. JONES: I think I touched earlier on the fact that I spoke with some -- some IDPs, last week, in a -- in an informal settlement north of -- north of Tabqa. It was a fascinating insight, actually, about 80 of them, passionate, all around me. And, you know, they'd come from places like Mayadin -- they had already escaped from Daesh areas.
Why? Because they want to be liberated from Daesh as much as somebody from Raqqa or from Mosul.
Q: And, continuing on slightly on that point, are you seeing any of the fighters inside Raqqa surrendering? Or are you -- or are you forced to, basically, kill them all?
GEN. JONES: So there -- there have been instances of Daesh fighters in Raqqa surrendering. Indeed, some of the messaging that has been delivered to them is, you have to give them the option to surrender. They've been advised to how they might do that.
And I would -- I would echo what Prime Minister Abadi said at the weekend. He said it about Tal Afar, but the same pertains to -- I'm sorry, he said it -- yes, he said it about Tal Afar. But the same pertains to Raqqa. And he said, at the weekend, "Surrender or die."
Now, that's a pretty stark statement, but it is the truth. And the same absolutely relates, if you're a fighter in Raqqa.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Let's go to Carla Babb with Voice of America.
Q: Thank you, General, for your time and for doing this. I have just a couple quick ones, back on the RISF. You said that they had a good job, they got paid. Who is paying the RISF salary right now -- the military salary? And, once Raqqa is liberated, who will continue to pay their salaries?
GEN. JONES: So the Raqqa Internal Security Force are a vetted force, and so are being paid as part of the U.S. process. You know, they're essentially a Syrian opposition force, and they're a vetted Syrian opposition force. So that is how they are trained and equipped.
And clearly -- it's for others to comment downstream in terms of how they -- how that may play out over time.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Now, to Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.
Q: General, what percentage of Tal Afar has been liberated, right now, from ISIS?
GEN. JONES: Just for (inaudible), I'm just going to make one point of clarification on that last question, because you used the word "pay." Technically, it's -- they're given a stipend, just to be -- to be accurate.
So in percentage of Tal Afar, so -- what day are we on? It's Wednesday today. We're on day three. I wouldn't start breaking it down as a -- as a percentage. I think that would be unhelpful to do.
You know that the Iraqi Security Forces had quite a lot of ground to advance before they got to the city, particularly on the eastern side. On the south and the west, the front line was already closer to the city.
So what you've got going on at the moment is the Iraqi security forces closing in on the city from the east. They've taken Kisik Junction. They've taken the Twin Cities, and they're closing the noose, if you like, from the east, very effectively.
In the south and the west, the front line was already much closer. And they have broken into the city in both the west and the east, during the course of the day. But I wouldn't want to start kind of breaking that down as percentages. It's early days of the battle. But the key is that they have broken into the city.
Q: General, would you call these Iranian-backed forces that are helping in the fight allies in a common cause?
GEN. JONES: I'm not going to comment on that one way or the other. What I'm going to say to you is that we, the coalition, are here to support Prime Minister Abadi.
We're here to support him, to defeat Daesh. And we're here to support his Iraqi security forces -- security forces that comply with his orders that take their orders from -- from Baghdad. Those are the forces we're working with, and those are the forces we're supporting.
Q: And, lastly, do you think that your American counterparts are a bit too optimistic in their reports and their general take on the war against ISIS overall?
GEN. JONES: I don't know what U.S. reporting you're talking about, because we're a coalition. It is a U.S.-led coalition. I touched -- touched on that. You know, this isn't a NATO operation.
The United States has -- has stepped up and taken the lead. And thank God that they have, because a coalition like this needs leadership, and the United States has provided that leadership.
So I don't view this through a United States optic. I view it through a coalition optic. So if you're referring -- so I guess what you're referring to are coalition reports. And so, no, I don't judge those to be unduly optimistic.
MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY: Are there any other questions?
Well, General, thank you very much for your briefing today, and for your year of -- year of service in Iraq. We have greatly benefited from your -- the information provided to us. We wish you a safe conclusion to your tour in Iraq and a safe return home.
GEN. JONES: Thanks very much. Nice talking to you all.