Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brigadier General Croft via Teleconference From Erbil, Iraq

Brigadier General Andrew A. Croft, deputy commander, Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Commander-Operation Inherent Resolve

STAFF:  CJFLCC, this is OSD.  Are you ready to go?  Over.

STAFF:  Ready to go.  How are you doing?

STAFF:  Great.  We hear -- we hear you loud and clear.  I will give -- deliver a brief intro, and then we'll turn it over to General Croft for an opening statement, and then go to question and answer.  Here it goes.

STAFF:  You bet.  Sure, no problem.

STAFF:  Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Today, we're joined by Brigadier General Andrew A. Croft, who is the deputy commanding general, air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve, and the deputy director of the Joint Air Component Coordination Element, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, Baghdad, Iraq.

As the highest ranking Air Force officer in Iraq, General Croft ensures the integration and synchronization of Combined Joint -- combined forces air component assets in support of land component operations.  In this assignment, General Croft coordinates directly with CJTF-OIR and its sub-components as the air component commander's representative.

General Croft, we'll turn it over to you for an opening statement.  Over.

BRIGADIER GENERAL ANDREW A. CROFT:  Okay.  Thank you.  A quick opening statement, if you will.

Good morning, everyone.  I'm Brigadier General Andrew Croft, the deputy commanding general for air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve.  I'm speaking to you from Erbil, Iraq, where I'm temporarily commanding operations.

Let me start by congratulating the Iraqi Security Forces on their recent successes as they drive ISIS out of Iraq.  On Sunday, the prime minister raised the Iraqi flag on the border at Al-Qa'im, another milestone in the defeat of ISIS as a physical caliphate.

Over the past few months, we have seen the Iraqi security forces increasing in confidence and ability as they have taken the fight to ISIS and allowed the Iraqi people to regain control of their own towns and cities.

The global coalition has stood fully behind its fight, and we are proud of our role in the defeat of this barbaric enemy and its false narrative.  We will continue our efforts until the threat is completely destroyed and no longer able to terrorize the people of Iraq.

Here in Erbil, we are investing in the future by continuing our training mission to ensure that all Iraqis can be responsible for their own security.

We have a longstanding relationship with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces, both of whom have fought in the recent offenses against ISIS.  We support and assist in facilitating the continued negotiations between both parties as they seek to forge a new relationship in the post-ISIS era.

In my area of expertise, as a deputy commanding general for air, I am the primary coordinator of the coalition air campaign in Iraq.  As Iraqi security forces have fought a hard ground battle, I have been impressed by the capability and effectiveness of the Iraqi air force and army aviation command throughout the campaign.  Not only are we seeing the bravery of the pilots, but we are witnessing the air force come to maturity.

The coalition's part in this is to provide surveillance, reconnaissance, precision air support and ground artillery, enabling the Iraqi security forces' advance while taking great care to minimize civilian casualties in the process.

As the Iraqi Security Forces are pushing through the last areas of Anbar Province, the coalition continues to assist the ground maneuver with intelligence-led precision strikes and close air support.  In addition, we are providing technical and logistical support to the battle.

Our job here is not finished.  We as a coalition will continue to hunt ISIS and disrupt and destroy their operations.  Iraq will be liberated and secured by Iraqis, with the help of our united coalition.

At this point, I'll be happy to take your questions.

STAFF:  Thank you, sir.  We'll start with Joe Tabet with Al-Hurra.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

GEN. CROFT:  Okay.

Q:  Yes.  If you could give us a sense about your role during the Al-Qa'im operations -- and would you be able to assist the PMF and the Iraqi security forces, if they decide to push further inside the Syrian territories?

GEN. CROFT:  Sure, so the first step is that the Iraqi security forces are not going to cross the border into Syria.

So, from my perspective on -- as the air component coordination element, the air component, as the ISF started from the east in the vicinity of the Anah/Rawa area and marched west, the coalition provided ISR aircraft, so surveillance reconnaissance aircraft, over that part of the battlefield, in addition to the strike aircraft in support of the Iraqi security forces as they pushed to the west.

And what they did is they pushed all the way up short of Al-Qa'im.  And then, at that point, we had Iraqi security forces come in from multi axes, through -- down the Euphrates River, essentially coming in from the southeast and then the south.  And they assaulted Al-Qa'im from multiple directions.

And, as you saw on Sunday, Al-Qa'im was declared liberated.  So the air component's contribution to that was both precision strike and reconnaissance, primarily.

Q:  A quick question, sir.  Are you able to answer any question related to Syria?

GEN. CROFT:  I can answer it primarily from the air perspective, if you have a question related primarily to the air perspective.

Q:  Are you able to give us an update about the advances made by the Syrian regime in Deir ez-Zor?

GEN. CROFT:  No, I don't have good -- a good update for you on the ground.  I can tell you that the air component has aircraft and ISR aircraft essentially over Al-Qa'im and Abu Kamal, and up the Euphrates River Valley.

It's all being done simultaneously, and there's a -- quite a large concentration of force from the air component all along from Al-Qa'im, and stretching up towards -- just past Abu Kamal, toward Deir ez-Zor.

Q:  My last question -- have you seen any Russian activities inside Deir ez-Zor?  Some reports are saying that the Russians are -- have established a base inside the city.

GEN. CROFT:  Yes, I don't have information on Russian ground locations or what they're doing in that city.  What I do know is that we have Russian airstrikes occasionally coming in from both the north, and then cruise missile strikes from the Mediterranean.

And the air component basically deconflicts from the Russians, primarily for safety of flight, so that we don't have a mid-air collision.  And so that's the level of coordination that does occur.  It's simply just deconfliction from the Russian air operations.

STAFF:  Next to Jim Michaels, USA Today.

Q:  General, can you talk a little bit about how the coalition air support will change as the -- as ISIS's caliphate collapses?  Presumably there are fewer conventional targets and so forth.  So what will air support look like, going forward?

GEN. CROFT:  Sure.  So, as a -- as a number, the level of air support, if you're measuring it in number of strikes, has dropped by about 60 to 70 percent in the last month -- that's the month of October -- compared to the previous average over the last eight or nine months.

That's indicative of the fact that ISIS is collapsing, not only as a physical caliphate, but also in ownership of land.  They only now control about 4 or 5 percent of the original area they covered.  So the number of targets has dropped dramatically in -- particularly in the last month.

From the air component perspective, you're going to see those number of strikes drop even further.  But what you will see is a continued requirement for aircraft, such as our remotely piloted aircraft -- those are the unmanned aircraft -- and some manned aircraft to do surveillance and reconnaissance.

And, as ISIS is defeated in the Euphrates River Valley, one of our challenges is continuing to find pockets of ISIS as they are -- have moved to the desert, like the Jazira Desert, for instance, which is Northeast of Al-Qa'im, or potentially to the Anbar Desert, which is south of Al-Qa'im.

That's going to (inaudible) continued surveillance and reconnaissance.  The coalition has that capability, as do the Iraqis in the Iraqi air force.  They have fixed-wing manned aircraft that can do surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as unmanned aircraft.  So that part of our air support and intelligence and development is going to continue for some time.

STAFF:  Next, to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.

Q:  Hey, General.  Thanks for doing this.

You said that the Iraqi Security Forces are not going to cross the border into Syria.  But we know that several pictures and videos came out of Al-Qa'im that's -- the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, was in the city and kind of pledging to take care of the bordering area with Syria.

Do you have anything on the Iranian militias, or Iranian-backed militias, and their assertions -- aspirations in Al-Qa'im?

GEN. CROFT:  I don't.  So the PMF forces are aligned with the Iraqi security forces, and Prime Minister Abadi has said they will not cross the border into Syria.  So -- and I've not seen any evidence of that, particularly as we focus in Al-Qa'im.

Although -- realize the border, obviously, is a very coarse border.  There's no fence, obviously.  And so there may be crossing through the border here and there on the Syrian side.  But I've not seen anything happen from the Iraqi side, from any of those forces.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Next to Lucas with Fox News.

Q:  General, have there been any close calls with Russian jets in the skies over Syria recently?

GEN. CROFT:  No.  The coordination, actually -- and it's really just deconfliction -- has been very professional at this point.  So, as you're probably aware, as you see reported in news, we have the ability to communicate with the Russians from our Combined Air Operations Center, directly via phone line.

And we have taken great -- made great efforts to not appear threatening, to deconflict, to not be in the same -- at the same altitude or in the same location as the Russians, so we don't have an inadvertent accident.

And so, up to this point, the actions on both sides have been very disciplined and professional.  And that's what we're going to need to have continue over time as the air space over Abu Kamal and Al-Qa'im gets smaller and smaller, as Daesh gets smaller and smaller, as well.

And so the challenge is a large number of air forces, or aircraft, if you will, in a very small space.  So that discipline and professionalism which has been displayed so far is going to be required to continue.

Q:  Just to follow up, are these Russian long-range bomber missions and flights, as well as the cruise missile strikes in the Mediterranean, with submarines and ships, into Eastern Syria -- are those very helpful against ISIS?

GEN. CROFT:  It's hard for me to assess.  I primarily concentrate on what happens in Iraq.  I can tell you, on our side, it's very -- obviously, it's very coordinated, because we're advising, assisting the Iraqi security forces.

Over in Syria, it's harder for me to assess the effectiveness of what the Russians are doing, because essentially we are -- there is no coordination, at least militarily, in the counter-ISIS fight.  And so it's hard for me to assess.

Q:  And finally, are there any discussions of moving the U.S. Air Force component from Incirlik Air Base over to Erbil?  Would that be helpful to efforts going forward?

GEN. CROFT:  We are always looking at our basing options as the fight changes in size and complexity and location.  Right now, the answer is no on the Incirlik to Erbil question.

But, again, we had moved aircraft inside of Iraq to al-Asad, for example, as we were going down the Euphrates River Valley, just to get closer proximity to the -- to the battlefield.  And, as we shift our focus towards surveillance and reconnaissance over the next few months, that may cause a small shift in those types of aircraft.  But, in the Incirlik discussion, no.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Next, to Phil Stewart with Reuters.

Q:  Hello.  Just -- can you bring us up to speed about Iranian actions and whether or not there's been any kind of change in the actions by Iran, or Iranian-backed -- Iran-backed militia, as tensions with the Gulf States ramp up?

And also, has those -- have those tensions affected your force posturing in any way?

GEN. CROFT:  Well, I've not seen any effect of Iranian-backed forces, if that's what you're asking.  We've had -- Kirkuk is fairly stable right now, and that area -- south of Kirkuk.  That's where the Iranian influence would be largest.

But, again, we coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces, and with those PMF -- (inaudible) -- obviously part of that.  In the Gulf itself, I don't have a lot of involvement with that part of the -- of the region.  But I've not seen a large or any impact, if you will, on Iranian-controlled military forces.

Q:  Okay, but the -- but the tensions in the region haven't affected your force posture, your force protection activities in any way?

GEN. CROFT:  No.  I mean we always will protect our forces -- is our number one goal.  Obviously, we're always on the alert for a change in force or a threat to us which would change our force posturing.  So that's always something that we're going to do.  But in the -- in the immediate past, I have not seen any significant change.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Now to Wes Morgan with Politico.

Q:  General, as the demand for strike and other types of assets has declined in your theater, has there been any movement, or do you predict any movement of any different types of air assets out of the OIR theater, to other theaters where they're needed?

GEN. CROFT:  So we'll continue to assess the threat here.  ISIS -- even though the physical caliphate is near defeat, there's still remnants of ISIS in Iraq.  And we need to ensure that we don't take our eye off of that ball.

You know, sort of like a newly-plowed field -- if you don't tend it, you know, the weeds grow.  And I would equate ISIS and everybody else -- A.Q., AQI -- is just a bunch of weeds.  You've got to -- you've got to continue to tend that.  And that means coalition capabilities like surveillance and reconnaissance.  And so we'll continue to do that.

Now, in the long term, as things like strike assets -- the requirement for those is reduced, obviously, we are trying to increase our presence in Afghanistan, for instance.

The CAOC, since it essentially controls our air forces in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas, can easily flex our air power, day by day, as required, to areas where it's required.  And Afghanistan is an example of that.  So we can take an air asset and push it to Afghanistan on one day, and the next day, it can fly over Iraq or Syria.

So that ebb and flow is something we look at every day, and the CAOC, the Combined Air Operation Center, does every day as the requirement for air support shifts.  But I would -- a -- you know, we are -- we are cognizant of the fact that we still need air support over both Iraq and Syria, and -- not be too quick to start reducing that support before it's proven that we can.

Q:  So no decrease in the number of ISR orbits over Iraq and Syria yet, for instance?

GEN. CROFT:  Not in the immediate future.  Now, what you'll see is that the concentration of those ISR assets over Abu Kamal and Al-Qa'im -- that will be reduced.  But those will most likely be used in other areas, to ensure that we've found any other remnants of ISIS that have -- that have moved out of the area as an attempt to try and escape destruction.

Q:  Thank you.  And if I could ask one more, you mentioned that you’re up in Erbil temporarily.  Has there been any movement of U.S. forces within Iraq, or from Kuwait into Iraq -- into the Kurdish area, as a result of the referendum, or the events in Kirkuk and other tensions along the border up there?

GEN. CROFT:  No, there's been -- there's been no change.  We still have the same forces here, up in Erbil that have been for quite a long time.  So there's been no shift in the force structure or composition here in Erbil or in Kurdistan.  So -- yes, there's been no shift up to this point.

STAFF:  Next, to Jamie McIntyre with Washington Examiner.

Q:  Hi General, two questions.  The first one:  In the wake of the New York City truck attack, the president said the U.S. was going to hit ISIS harder than ever.  But you also tell us that the number of airstrikes is down 60 percent in the last month.  Can you help us understand what the president might have been talking about?

GEN. CROFT:  I think he means the relentless pursuit of ISIS wherever they are.  So, back to my previous comments, we need to steel ourselves against declaring victory and walking away.  So that means a relentless pursuit of these folks, so that we destroy their leadership and their command and control here, so that it doesn't spread out of these areas, to other areas.

So that's just a relentless pursuit.  That's the way, I would say, that I'd get after that, and get to -- this region to a self-sustaining capability, where ISIS is reduced to something that can be dealt with through police forces and citizenry, instead of a large military force.

Q:  And my second question is, as the defeat of ISIS begins to look more and more inevitable not just in Iraq, but also in Syria, a lot of questions about what next -- not so much in Iraq, where they have a functioning government and you can sort of see the path forward, but in Syria.


Q:  Do you have any sense for what the endgame might be in Syria?  How does -- how does -- what does the -- what would the end look like when it comes?  And how do you ensure that their gains against ISIS stick?

GEN. CROFT:  Yes.  I -- well, I think that, obviously, the first one is stability and security.  You've got to have that.  That's always step one.  And then the next one is a representative governance, so that you don't have a disenfranchised population, which is that fertile field that I mentioned earlier, which then leads to the economic growth part of it.

And I think that's the -- that is the challenge that lies ahead.  And obviously, that's well outside of just the military lane.  We could enable the security and stability portion of it, but the remainder is something that the international community's got to weigh in on, to enable the follow-on steps.

So that would be -- and maybe I'm -- maybe I'm restating the obvious, but we got to enable the security and stability first, which we can do.

STAFF:  Next, to Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, General.  A couple quick ones, hopefully.  You mentioned concerns of some of the -- you know, ISIS folks squirting into the desert northeast of Al-Qa'im.  Are there any other areas you guys have observed that ISIS fighters might be trying to mass or, you know, kind of rebuild themselves inside Iraq?

GEN. CROFT:  Yes, so what's happened is we have significantly degraded their leadership.  The high-level leadership of ISIS has been significantly degraded, as long as their command and -- as well as their command and control.

So what's happened is you've had -- ISIS is now sort of disintegrating, or disaggregated, which makes it into a -- smaller, little groups of people, which I think -- you'll see them try and go to areas that are maybe lesser inhabited, so that they can't be found.

And they may also try and go sort of to ground -- to familiar areas.  I think that, if you're an indigenous fighter, that's easy to -- easier to do.  I think, if you're a foreign fighter in this land, it's very difficult, and you're probably going to fight or die.

So I think what we're going to do is work very closely with the government of Iraq, with their -- with their security apparatus and their intelligence, to continue to identify the locations of these pockets of ISIS fighters and eliminate the leadership.  And, if we do that, it disaggregates the ability of ISIS to mount any kind of significant attack.

Q:  And then, you know, at what point -- do you guys have a point in mind where the, you know, ISR and these strikes really turn over and become, you know, the Iraqis themselves taking care of all of it?  Is there --

GEN. CROFT:  Yes.  So our goal -- our long-term goal -- and you've heard the term "build partner capacity," "reliable partnership," those terms.  What we're doing is we have air advisers here, just like we have advisers on the ground, and -- we have Air Force air advisers, coalition air advisers that are building, at least from the air perspective, the Iraqi capability to do this on their own.

So, as I mentioned, they have surveillance, reconnaissance aircraft.  They have an intelligence apparatus.  They have the ability to do precision strikes with the F-16s and with the Cessna 208 Caravans armed with Hellfires and some of the other aircraft.

And the ultimate goal is to have the ability of these folks here, through the security forces, police forces and otherwise, to be able to identify, locate and then strike those fighters that are out there in various areas.

And a good example of that is the attack that ISIS did on Ramadi.  It's probably about a month or five weeks ago now.  That was an attack of 200 to 250 fighters that came in from the Anbar Desert, from the southwest of Ramadi, in a bunch of armed trucks with heavy weapons.

They fully expected to roll into the -- into the city of Ramadi itself, we think, sort of like they did back in 2014.  And, within 12 to 14 hours, the response, which actually was from the ISF first, versus the coalition, was rapid and lethal.  And, between the Iraqi security forces, their SWAT teams in Ramadi itself, they were able to repel that attack.  The citizens actually helped repel that attack.  

ISIS then retrograded into the desert and were hunted down, and about a third of all those fighters were killed in the desert, and all those -- all their vehicles and weapons were destroyed.  That was an example of the Iraqi security forces being able to react fairly quickly to an attack that was not anticipated.  

It's that kind of capability that we need to continue to develop.  And from my side, it's the air component that enables them to do this.  Obviously, the training that we do with the ground forces will enable the Iraqi security forces, CTS and otherwise, to take the fight from the ground perspective.  

So there's an example of what success looks like in the future, and we see pieces of that right now.  And that is the ultimate goal.

STAFF:  All right.  We've reached the end of my queue.  Are there any more questions for General Croft?  

Lucas Tomlinson, FOX News.

Q:  General, Saudi Arabia's accusing Iran of helping the Houthis launch a ballistic missile at Riyadh a few days ago.  Did that impact U.S. air operations, that ballistic missile launch, in any way?

GEN. CROFT:  No, it did not.  We're fully aware of it, and we're -- of the -- of the incident itself.  But it did not impact air operations, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

Q:  Are you seeing an increase in these kind of launches, of late?

GEN. CROFT:  I don't track Yemen and Saudi Arabia closely, but I'm aware of a few missile launches, obviously, in the last couple of months.  I think they come from the northwest of Yemen, primarily.  

But, you know, again, the Saudis are great partners of ours, and they have Patriot missiles to defend themselves.  So that's a success story, when you have -- a country like Saudi Arabia is able to intercept a ballistic missile with a Patriot.

Q:  Thank you, General.

STAFF:  Next, to Phil Stewart, Reuters.

Q:  Can I just follow up on that?  Do you have any information about the actual missile itself?  The Saudis are saying that this must have been of Iranian provenance, and with Iranian assistance and training.

GEN. CROFT:  Yes, I -- unfortunately, I do not.  I know the Saudis are looking into that.  I'm sure they'll be able to look at the pieces and parts of that missile, and try and identify where it came from.  

You know, the Iraqis, long, long ago, had SCUD missiles.  It's a missile from -- it's probably a 40 or 50-year-old design.  So there's a lot of missiles out there that could be very, very old, and so the source is going to take a little while to identify.  But I think, eventually, you will probably see a report of where they think it came from.

STAFF:  Back to Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Sir, do you happen to have the number of weapons released in air strikes for last month, for October, in front of you?

GEN. CROFT:  It's about 850 or so.

STAFF:  All right.

GEN. CROFT:  So that -- so my comment -- my comment earlier, where I said we've reduced the number by about 50 to 70 percent -- in the previous eight or nine months, we were dropping between about 1,800 and 2,600 weapons, depending on the -- on the month.  

And, when we were in the end of Mosul and some of these other areas, Raqqa, there were some fights -- and the number of engagements.  But it's just about 850 or so in the -- in the month of October.

STAFF:  All right.  I think that is the end of the questions, sir.  Do you have any closing words for the group?

GEN. CROFT:  The one thing I'll say is that I think the -- at least from the air perspective, this has been the most precise, proportional air campaign that we have ever done.

And we've talked about it for a long time, but I want to reiterate, from Mosul to Tal Afar through Hawija through the Anbar Province, the ability of the air component to support the Iraqi Security Forces is a real success story.

And I -- and I -- sometimes I think it maybe gets -- I don't know how much press it gets, but it's -- from my perspective, it's been disciplined, professional and very effective.

And what we're trying to do is to continue to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to continue that with their ISR, with their precision strike capability.  Because this is the enabler that will allow this country to defeat another enemy, whether it looks like ISIS or otherwise, in the future.

And -- and that's what we're trying to build towards, to enable them to defend their own territory against a terrorist threat that has a -- essentially a narrative that is completely false.

And I -- I think that's a -- a success story that is worth perpetuating.

STAFF:  Sir, thank you very much for joining us this morning in -- in D.C. at the Pentagon.  We're going to sign off from here.

GEN. CROFT:  Okay.