Department Of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Ryan via Teleconference
Col. Sean J. Ryan, Spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve
STAFF: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We're going to get started now. We'll start with a quick audio check.
Sir, how do you hear us?
STAFF: Loud and clear. Thank you.
A little bit more volume in the -- in the briefing room, please. Thank you.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Today, we are joined by U.S. Army Colonel Sean Ryan. Colonel Ryan is the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force -- Operation Inherent Resolve, the military coalition carrying out defeat-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria.
Sir, we will open off with an opening statement from you, and then proceed to questions and answers from the group. Over to you, sir.
COLONEL SEAN J. RYAN: Good morning, and thanks to everyone for coming today. Today, I'll start with an operation update for Iraq and Syria. And, later, I'll give an update on recent strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
In Iraq, there were significant reductions in operations prior to the Eid celebrations. Across the country, focus shifted to police operations to ensure peace and security during the final days of Ramadan.
Nevertheless, the ISF continued to identify, locate and destroy ISIS remnants throughout the country. For example, in the village of Tolla Bash in Ninewah, the ISF seized a large cache of weapons and explosives during a clearance operation.
The same raid also saw the capture of a number of suspected terrorists. Check out our Facebook and Twitter pages for regular updates on these ongoing operations.
In addition to military operations, the ISF continue to complete vital training programs. Overall, our coalition-led training sites throughout Iraq found more than 8,000 trainees during Ramadan, operating at more than 100 percent capacity. This clearly demonstrates their commitment to providing security and stability for the country.
I'd like to highlight there are more than 400 new Counter Terrorism Service soldiers, who graduated from the rigorous CTS basic training course near Baghdad, as well as 20 new sharpshooters, recent graduates of the SWAT-designated marksman course in Mosul.
Let's move to Syria. Today marks the 50th day of Operation Roundup, which is the Syrian Democratic Forces' effort to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in the MERV and along the Syria-Iraqi border region.
The SDF are focused on clearing the town of Dashisha near the Iraqi border, where they continue to gain ground against ISIS, this week, clearing more than 200 square kilometers of territory since the beginning of phase two of Operation Roundup.
Meanwhile, in At Tanf, our partner forces confiscated more than $1.4 million worth of illicit drugs intended to fund ISIS activities in the area. More information about that seizure is available in yesterday's press release.
Since the beginning of phase two of Operation Roundup on May 27th, the coalition has conducted 172 strikes in support of SDF operations, destroying ISIS vehicles, command-and-control nodes, logistical and communication assets and ISIS-held buildings.
The following video shows a strike conducted by the ISF in the vicinity of Hajin, Syria, on June 7th.
STAFF: Sir, the video is complete.
COL. RYAN: As you can see, the strike destroyed an ISIS command facility used to coordinate terror activities in both Iraq and Syria. We cannot emphasize enough the contributions of ISF in halting the movement of fighters from the battlefield and destroying targets in Syria.
In addition to the strikes in the MERV, the coalition successfully eliminated yet another ISIS leader, Abu Khattab al-Iraqi who oversaw revenue generation for the terrorist organization through the illicit sale of oil and gas; al-Iraqi along with three other ISIS fighters was killed during a strike on May 26th. The death of al-Iraqi degrades ISIS ability to finance operations in Syria and Iraq and further dismantles their long term access to reliable funding.
For more information, please check the press release to be published after this briefing. The fight continues against ISIS both in the MERV where the SDF are working to accelerate the defeat of ISIS and in Iraq where the ISF continues to provide the safety and security necessary to enable stabilization efforts to take place.
With that, I'll be happy to take your questions.
STAFF: Thank you, sir. We'll start with Lita Baldor from A.P.
Q: Hi, good morning, Colonel, and welcome. I -- I have a couple questions on Manbij. Can you give us a little bit more information on the patrols going on with the U.S. and Turkish troops?
Are these patrols joint patrols, or are they separate? Can you talk a little bit about this increased de-confliction, and has the U.S. sent in -- even if you may not want to talk numbers, but has the U.S. sent in additional forces into that region to help with this de-confliction?
And just -- can you just paint a picture for us of how that's actually going on?
COL. RYAN: Sure, it's -- it's still in the early stages as -- this just happened yesterday, as you probably saw. But this is a -- they're independent coordinations, they're not joint patrols. I can tell you that Turkish soldiers will not go into Manbij.
Manbij military council is in control of all the area, and so this will just be basically along the northern demarcation line is where the conflict will take to it. Thank you.
Q: And has the U.S. increased the number of forces in that region to help with this de-confliction?
COL. RYAN: We have not. We have not seen any changes in our military operations whatsoever. The -- our goal is the same, to defeat ISIS in both the MERV area near Dashisha and then of course in the Hajin area as well.
STAFF: Next we'll go to Sylvie Lanteaume with AFP.
Q: Hello, Colonel, and welcome. Can you tell us how many ISIS -- ISIS fighters are still operating in the MERV? Do you count them in dozens, hundreds, thousands?
COL. RYAN: I can tell you right now we don't have an exact number, because you have to understand that the area that they're fighting in is -- is desert area, is very large, so we know that they're fighting in pockets from three to five fighters basically.
They've dug tunnels, they know the trains very well and some of them, you know, can blend in if there's a town around as well. So we don't have an exact number, but that's why we're pressing on with Operation Roundup, the whole goal is for the SDF to press forward, to clear the area, and that way we can find all the tunnels and sooner or later, the fighters will have to come up, and that's why the ISF has a border patrol so if they do
COL. RYAN: ... that way we can find all the tunnels and sooner or later the fighters will have to come up, and that's why the ISF has a border patrol, so if they do come out and try to cross the border, then they will be killed then.
But I can tell you, we're less concerned about the number of fighters and more concerned about their capability to continue their actions and be terrorists.
Q: And do you assess that Baghdad -- al-Baghdadi is still alive?
COL. RYAN: We don't have that information, of course there's always rumors swirling that he is in that area, and if he is, you know, we'll probably find him. But I can tell you we're less concerned about one individual and really more into trying to dismantle ISIS' logistics, their finance and their means of fighting, because that's what's going to end it in the long run.
STAFF: Next to Idrees Ali with Reuters?
Q: Who carried out a strike near Abu Kamal two days ago, which the Syrians blame on the United States?
COL. RYAN: I can emphatically tell you it was not the coalition.
Q: But the Iraqi government and many members of Parliament don't believe that, so if it wasn't you, who was it?
COL. RYAN: I would disagree with that statement, that the Iraqis put out a press release saying that it was not the coalition, and matter of fact we work in the IJOC with Iraqis on a daily basis. We know their strikes, they know our strikes.
They would know right away if we struck in that area and we did not.
Q: There's been some concern expressed by officials -- sorry.
COL. RYAN: No I was just going to say again, our -- our efforts are in the eastern part of the MERV, where these strikes are on the western part. We don't go into that area.
Q: Another quick follow up? Some officials have expressed concern that the PMF could retaliate in Iraq for what they still see as a U.S. strike. Are you concerned about that and have you asked the relevant party that carried out the strike to fess up essentially so it doesn't impact U.S. operations?
COL. RYAN: Well we work with the government of Iraq, which the ISF falls under them and of course the PMF falls under them. So I'm going to say you know we don't talk to them, but I think if they see already that the Iraqi forces have put out that statement claiming we did not do that, we work with them daily as I mentioned, so I don't think that's ever going to be a concern.
STAFF: Next we'll go to Barbara Starr with CNN?
Q: Colonel, one follow up and then a related question. Just to be clear, if there was that -- if you -- the U.S. knows who conducted that airstrike but will not say, is that -- first, is that correct? You actually do know who conducted it?
COL. RYAN: The coalition is concerned about what strikes we conduct. That is definitely -- you know I can't speak on behalf of the United States or any other country, I'm the coalition spokesman and I know that we did not make that strike, and I'll just keep it at that.
Q: My next question is on the PMF, both in Iraq and Syria. What is the trend line right now? How are Iranian backed militias increasing their forces and operations on both sides of the border?
COL. RYAN: I'm sorry, Barbara, could you repeat that?
Q: How are the Iranian backed militias increasing their forces and stepping up their operations and influence on both sides of the border?
COL. RYAN: Again, Barbara, I think you're asking me to speculate on -- on political matters, and -- and also we can't discuss, you know, intelligence, as well. So sorry, I don't -- I don't really have a good answer for you.
STAFF: We'll go to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: Thank you, Colonel, very much for doing this. A question about the situation in Kirkuk. Kamal Kirkuki, a very well-known Peshmerga commander, has said that the security situation is deteriorating there. Is it -- do you share that assessment? And if so, how should that problem be addressed, do you think?
COL. RYAN: I believe ISIS is still a threat throughout the entire region, and the world, for all that matter. I can tell you that the ISF and the Peshmerga work together every day to secure the city. It's getting better all the time. Matter of fact, they just announced this week they killed what they called the -- the "man in black" ISIS leader, and six others. They also just captured two other ISIS leaders, and they just destroyed six tunnels. So they're -- they're making Kirkuk safer, and matter of fact, you know, today they just announced that Kurdish Airlines is starting, you know, its first flight there. So usually, you don't start flights if -- if it's too much, you know, terrorist activity, so I'd say it's a good sign that Kirkuk is -- is definitely getting safer.
Q: And is the Erbil -- the route between Erbil and Kirkuk going to open soon -- reopen soon, and have you been involved in pressing for that?
COL. RYAN: That's a government of Iraq question. And I know that one of the reasons it hasn't been opened is because there was too many things on the road, where, you know, it couldn't be done in -- in the three days that -- that they wanted to. But again, that's a government of Iraq issue, and I'm just looking to, you know, our partners, whenever they need help. But they have not discussed that with us.
Q: OK. If I could follow up on Barbara's question, regarding the PMFs that were in Abu Kamal, were they under the control, command and control of Baghdad? Did Baghdad send them there and authorize their presence there?
COL. RYAN: Absolutely not, Laurie.
Q: They were just there under someone else's authority?
COL. RYAN: I -- I -- we work directly with ISF, and they said they did not send them, so I am taking them for their word, because they are one of our very good partners.
STAFF: Sir, could you please give your name and affiliation?
Q: (Inaudible) from Iraqi Kurdistan.
So sir, I just have a follow-up on Manbij. So while you said that Turkish forces are not going to enter Manbij. Turkish officials are saying they will go far beyond Manbij, to Raqqa. So are you giving some sort of guarantee to the residents of Manbij that the Turkish forces will not enter Manbij? Is there some form of agreement, (inaudible) agreement between U.S. forces and Turkish forces that they will not enter Manbij? Thank you/
COL. RYAN: Thanks for the question. Again, you know, this agreement was -- was just recently coordinated, and I think all the details are still going to come out. However, you know, this is definitely, you know, an agreement between both countries. And I haven't seen the final say on that, but from what we're being told on our side is they will not enter Manbij, or any other area, from the 4 June agreement.
STAFF: Next we'll go to Tom Squitieri with Talk Media.
Q: Thank you. Happy Tuesday, sir. I wanted to follow up on one of the questions, and I have a second one. And I'm -- I'm a little confused at the thoroughness of the SDF in the operation for Dashisha. Have they taken that area completely?
COL. RYAN: No. As I mentioned before, they -- they just got done taking 280 kilometers of Dashisha. But, again, it's a huge land mass area. It's over 1800 square kilometers. I went out there myself, and I saw it. It's probably about 7 percent grain of either rocks or sand area.
It very difficult to navigate. And what we don't want is to have the SDF go too fast, where we miss some tunnels or we miss some of the terrorists hiding.
So they're -- they're having a methodical approach right now. That way, when they roll through, they destroy any ISIS terrorists that they see. And it's taking a while, but we'd rather stabilize that area and know that it's safe so the ISIS fighters could not come back in.
Q: A question. My initial question is, who came up with the name "Operation Roundup?"
COL. RYAN: Lieutenant General Funk came up with the name "Operation Roundup."
Q: (Inaudible) for my ignorance, but I don't know who that individual is. Could you tell me, please?
COL. RYAN: Well, he's a senior commander.
Q: In where? Is he American, sir? I'm just trying to -- there's a reason I'm asking this. I'm just trying to pinpoint the name origin. And there's a reason. I'll -- the guys here at Pentagon (inaudible) been trying to figure it out. And no one seemed to know who came up with the name of it, and I was just curious. Thank you for the answer.
COL. RYAN: You're welcome.
STAFF: (off mic)
Q: (Inaudible) question on Manbij and maybe I have a follow-up on that. You said that there's an independent patrol connecting by Turkey and the United States Army in Manbij.
Joint patrols by the two countries depend on the conditions on the ground. What are these conditions, and do you foresee a timetable for the joint patrols by Turkey and the United States Army?
COL. RYAN: There's -- there's no timetable because, as you mentioned, it's -- it's conditions-based. And hopefully, with the SDF help, we can eradicate ISIS in those areas and that's really the main concern.
But, again, this is still new. And any joint discussions will -- will be discussed later, on military tactics.
Q: Follow-up on Manbij question. How do you ensure that YPG totally taken out of Manbij? Because the roadmap between -- with Turkey and the United States, the main focus of the road map is to take the terrorists out of the Manbij.
So how will you ensure the YPG will totally be taken out of the Manbij in the future?
COL. RYAN: Well, I think in a time of war, there -- there's never a hundred percent assurances for anything. But I can tell you, you know, they're going to -- Turkey and the United States are going to work within the framework that they discussed, and the goal is to keep Manbij peaceful and stable like it is right now.
STAFF: Next we'll go to Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.
Q: Hi, Colonel. Did the Israelis launch the attack on Abu Kamal?
COL. RYAN: Jeff, I can't comment on that. I can just tell you that the coalition did not. And I know that Iraqis did not either, and that's really all we're concerned about at this point.
Q: Follow-up, do you have a deconfliction line with the Israelis?
COL. RYAN: As far as I know, we don't discuss any military operations with -- with the Israelis at all.
Q: So it would be safe to say, they didn't give you a heads-up before doing this, or European Command?
COL. RYAN: Again, I'm not going to speculate. That's -- that's a Europe Command issue, it's not a Coalition issue. So I don't have any vague idea on what those discussions are.
STAFF: All right, next we'll go to Carla Babb with Voice of America.
Q: Hi Colonel Ryan, thank you for doing this as always. I just wanted to ask on Manbij, can you clear up a few things for me? I'm not exactly sure what's different about Manbij. I know that we're doing individual patrols, Turkey is doing individual patrols, they're not joint so just kind of tell me what's different now than -- than two days ago?
COL. RYAN: Well again, there's no difference. The goal is to keep Manbij safe and secure. Between the Turkey -- Turkish and United States government, they decided to do a joint patrol, and anything above that I would say, you know, definitely direct it to the OSD folks, cause that's all the information I have.
Q: OK, so just to clarify there's no difference in what's currently being -- being underway and what's -- the -- the current patrols are the same as they were in the past, so I'm kind of confused as to why we even announced that we were doing these individual patrols.
COL. RYAN: Well there's one difference, is obviously Turkish soldiers are going to be outside Manbij, so that -- that is a difference. Well the announcement was made because there's a lot of political sensitivity, then I think we want to be transparent and let everyone know that those are ongoing operations.
You know, we want to make sure that the security concerns are taking with Manbij and know that those residents will feel safe and secure and that everyone has a role.
STAFF: Next to Joe Tabet with Al Hurra?
Q: ... get through you some figures and numbers. What's the size of the Turkish troops who are patrolling the outskirts of Manbij? And also if you could give us the size of the Manbij military council, how many elements are in the council?
COL. RYAN: Joe, I -- I can't discuss those numbers with you, that's -- that's a question for -- for Turkey, and again that's a question for the Manbij military council. We're just concerned about the coalition forces and defeating ISIS, I'm not going to get into the numbers game.
Q: Quick follow-up, sir. (Inaudible) follow-up, Colonel Ryan. The arrangements that we have seen in Manbij, I mean the road map, do you -- do you think we can -- we can see, or do you expect that similar arrangements we could see in the future in other cities like in Raqqa or Kobani?
That's what the Turks have been -- have been expressing lately.
STAFF: This is Adrian from OSD.
So the questions on the -- the U.S.-Turkish road map are really not the purview of Colonel Ryan. He's focused on defeat -- defeat ISIS operations, whereas leader discussions that are taking place at the government-to-government level.
So I will kind of get Colonel Ryan off the hook here, and you're welcome to send questions about this agreement to me or my colleagues within the Press Office, but Colonel Ryan's purview is really strictly to military operations to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Thanks.
So we'll go first to Lucas. He's had his hand up for a while now.
Q: Colonel, did the airstrike in Abu Kamal help the coalition?
COL. RYAN: Again, I can only tell you that it was not a coalition airstrike and I'm just going to leave it at that.
Q: ... pleased with the results of the strike?
COL. RYAN: It was not in our area of operations, so I wasn't really tracking that. Obviously I'm tracking what happened, but it's not part of the coalition's mission or goal.
Q: Has any American troops come under fire recently in and around the Manbij area?
COL. RYAN: No, they have not.
Q: Now that the -- the American B-1 bomber fleet is not grounded anymore, will those bombers be flying over Iraq or Syria and helping the coalition? The B-1s being back in service could help the coalition.
COL. RYAN: I can't really -- yeah. Yeah, thanks for the question. Yeah. I'm not going to divulge information about, you know, military operations for obvious reasons. Thanks, though.
STAFF: Ma'am, could you please give your name and affiliation?
Q: Patty Culhane, Al Jazeera English. So sir, are you saying you don't know who carried out the strikes at Abu Kamal?
COL. RYAN: I'm saying the coalition did not carry out the strikes, and that's my only concern at this point.
Q: Well, it's your area of responsibility. You don't know who committed these -- who carried out these strikes?
COL. RYAN: Actually, as I just mentioned, it's not our area. We're on the east part of the MERV. Everything -- all the other area is -- is not our area of responsibility.
Q: No visibility at all?
COL. RYAN: I'm sorry, what was that?
Q: No visibility at all? You just -- just don't even look in that part?
COL. RYAN: Sure, we have ISR in that area, but we can't determine, you know, who fired it, nor is -- is that our military goal. That's intelligence question, and I can't divulge that information, even if I had it, which I don't.
STAFF: We'll go back to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.
Q: I -- I wanted to follow up, if I may, on my own question -- (Laughter.) -- which is, the forces in Abu Kamal that were attacked by someone, you said they were not in the control of the -- of Baghdad, but they're Iraqi forces, part of the PMF. They identified themselves as brigades. They gave numbers. Under whose authority were they?
COL. RYAN: Can you repeat that last part? I'm sorry.
Q: They identified themselves by their brigade numbers. I think it was something like 42 or 45, or the 42 and 45th Brigade. We were attacked, they said the U.S.; that's wrong. But my question is under whose authority were they in Abu Kamal, if not the Iraqi government? And does that speak -- if they were not the Iraqi government, does that speak to command-and-control problems with some elements in the PMF?
COL. RYAN: I would say, Laurie, that once it crosses the border area, it's no longer under ISF control or direction.
Q: OK. Then you don't know who -- under whose authority they were operating there?
COL. RYAN: I do not. Again, we -- we have area of operations, and once it crosses the border, that is not the ISF's area.
Q: Regarding the -- if I may, regarding your question, the seizure of drugs in At Tanf by that -- that ISIS was -- was using to make money and -- and earn income from, do you know where those drugs came from, and if they are related to ISIS presence in Afghanistan?
COL. RYAN: I can't tell you if they're related to Afghanistan presence. I can tell you that we took $1.4 million away from ISIS, and so that's a good thing. That's -- that's how we look at it.
Q: Thank you.
STAFF: We'll go Ryan Brown with CNN.
Q: Colonel Ryan.
COL. RYAN: If that was a question, I -- I didn't hear you.
STAFF: One more time sir, we -- we missed the last 10 seconds of your remarks there.
COL. RYAN: Oh OK, I said the press release should be out with more information on the drug siege (sic) after this press conference.
STAFF: So we'll go to Ryan Brown with CNN?
Q: Hello Colonel Ryan, thanks for doing this and welcome to the Pentagon briefing room. I just had a quick follow up on the air strike in Abu Kamal. So previously, when Turkey's conducted air strikes in Syria or even when the Russians conduct air strikes close to the Euphrates River Valley, those strikes are deconflicted with the coalition.
Was this strike deconflicted with the coalition?
COL. RYAN: We do deconflictions with the Russians and that's the only ones that we do.
Q: OK, and -- and just a quick follow up on -- on Tanf. Have you recently encountered any pro-regime -- have you observed any pro-regime forces threatening coalition or partner forces in that area?
COL. RYAN: No we have not.
STAFF: Now to -- back to Lita with AP?
Q: Hi, I think you may have misspoken when you were talking about Manbij. You said something about strike patrols, but previously you had said they are not joint patrols. I just want to make sure these are not joint patrols.
Are you suggesting that soon they will be joint patrols?
COL. RYAN: Yes, I did -- I did misspeak, they are not joint patrols.
Q: But do you expect that to change? I'm sorry.
COL. RYAN: But not joint controls (sic). I have no idea. Again, that's -- that's speculation. We're just going with the information that we have. It's still relatively new. So some of these, you know, answers may unfold in the next week or so, but that's -- these are still ongoing discussions, but that's what we know right now.
STAFF: All right, we are at the end of my queue. Are there any more questions for Colonel Ryan? Oh, we have one question from Luis Martinez, ABC?
Q: Hey Colonel, actually I have two questions, two topics if I could please. Manbij, who are these patrols supposed -- in Manbij, who are these patrols on our side, the U.S. side, coalition side and the Turkish side, who are they intended to encounter? What -- what are they -- what is their purpose?
COL. RYAN: Their purpose is to carry Manbij and ISIS is the enemy here, so of course it is to defeat ISIS.
Q: Right, so how close is ISIS to Manbij right now?
COL. RYAN: ISIS is still all over the battlefield. There -- there are small pockets of -- you know, anywhere from one to five guys and as long as they have the ability to conduct offensive operations, then that's who we're going after.
STAFF: Any more questions?
Q: You want to try to get to...
STAFF: Sir we (inaudible) -- of your response. Could you please repeat the last 10 seconds? Thanks.
COL. RYAN: Sorry, I said that's my response to the second question. I was hoping the second question was about the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, but apparently not. (Laughter.)
Q: Well actually, they just lost their head coach so I -- maybe we should talk about that. I don't know, but if I could -- I'd like to go back to your AOR answer from a couple of moments ago. You said that areas west of the Euphrates are not in your AOR in Syria, yet you have overwatch in Tanf, and presumably the area between there and the Euphrates where Abu Kamal is would be of concern to you if -- because if you do have aircraft over the Al-Tanf area and that 50 mile -- 50 mile de-confliction area, then any aircraft that come near it or -- or around it would be of concern. Would they not?
COL. RYAN: Well the whole -- I mean the area is a concern if we have coalition fighters in the area. On top, we train, you know, vetted fighters, but, you know, Southern Syria is still pretty far from Abu Kamal.
So we're not -- we're not concerned for that exact location.
Q: Right, but I mean you -- you -- you do have aircraft that provide missions over Al-Tanf on a pretty regular basis. I mean were there coalition aircraft in that vicinity at the time that this incident occurred?
COL. RYAN: I wouldn't say we have aircraft, you know, doing missions across the whole time. We have ISR assets that -- that cover parts of the -- of the battle field. But again, we -- we normally try to get the majority of the assets into the area that we're covering, which again, is -- is the one I told you about in -- in the MERV.
And Abu Kamal is -- is not within really our -- our flight corridor, because it's just too far.
STAFF: Are there any more questions for Colonel Ryan at this time? All right, well thank you very much. Colonel Ryan, do you have any closing remarks for the group?
COL. RYAN: Yes, I do. The ISIS threat continues, so I encourage, you know, all -- all countries and -- and international parties to help make this a stable region, and we're doing the best we can to do that by removing ISIS and taking out their capabilities.
I thank you for coming and I will see you probably everyone in about two weeks.
STAFF: Thank you very much, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much, have a great day.