Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Press Briefing By Col. Ryan via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

Colonel Sean J. Ryan, spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Commander Sean Robertson, Pentagon spokesman


COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON:  Apologize for the delay, folks.  Good morning.  I am Commander Sean Robertson and I will be moderating today's briefing.

We will begin our brief with a quick communication check.

Sir, can you hear me?

COLONEL SEAN J. RYAN:  I can.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  This brief should last approximately 45 minutes.  Today, we have Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Iraq, for an update on operations.

Sir, the floor is yours.

COL. RYAN:  Good morning, everyone.  Sorry about the technical difficulties.  But I will read my opening off the teleprompter anyway, just like in there.

So good morning, everyone.  I'd like to update everyone on the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria.  Then I'd like to conclude with how we're working to enable stability throughout our areas of responsibilities, or AORs.

As you well know, this AOR is complex and dynamic.  Some actors are trying to shape the future for what they want, and others are working hard to ensure a hopeful future for everyone.

Some of the challenges that lie ahead include the formation of a new government, and being able to provide essential services after decades of war and conflict.  However -- and you've heard me say this before -- we are here to defeat ISIS.

The brutal legacy of ISIS is one of despair and violence, and any distraction from that jeopardizes some hard-fought gains.  And let me be clear:  ISIS is not yet defeated.  While they're in the final throes of their evil ambitions, they continue to (inaudible).

We have demonstrated remarkable success in battle against this aggressive and stubborn enemy.  Ultimately, the answer will not be the result of a purely military solution.  Defeating them will require ensuring that the conditions which allowed them to thrive are also addressed.

Starting in Iraq, Iraqi Security Forces, or the ISF, are fighting as the standard-bearers of their sovereign nation.  They are pursuing ISIS remnants in the few spaces (inaudible) offer some resistance.  Where ISIS has hidden tunnels, weapons caches and explosive stockpiles.  They are arresting suspected ISIS fighters so that they can be brought to justice and no longer threaten the Iraqi people, who just want to rebuild their homes and their nation.

The ISF planned and executed Operation Heroes Resolve, which synchronized with seven major operational commands to crush what remains of ISIS.  In the past seven days, they have seized over 520 mortars, destroyed over 595 IEDs, collapsed 71 tunnels, wrecked nearly 97 ISIS hidden locations, destroyed 24 motorcycles and detained 84 suspected ISIS fighters.

The ISF are equally adept at night or during the daytime.  Recently in Mosul, Iraqi forces conducted a series of nighttime raids on 34 locations, during which they detained 74 suspected ISIS fighters.

The fight against ISIS continues as well in Syria.  We are now in the third week of ground operations in support of Operation Roundup in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, liberated the towns of Baghuz Fawqani and Ash-Shajalah as they steadily push north.

As ISIS retreats, they're employing improvised explosive devices along routes and booby-trapping houses to inflict casualties as the SDF fighters clear through the terrain.  Additionally, last week ISIS fired a barrage of indirect mortar fire near coalition and partner forces in a likely attempt to distract SDF's operations in the southern portion of the MERV.

As the SDF's advancement begins to put greater pressure on the last pocket of ISIS resistance, the SDF continues to successfully capture enemy fighters attempting to flee the battlefield.

These tactics clearly demonstrate the growing desperation of ISIS as the SDF slowly closes in on the last group of remaining fighters in Syria.

It's important to remember that a military defeat requires the sustainable security structure to prevent the return of groups like ISIS.  As the SDF (inaudible) training internal security forces to protect liberated areas and thwart ISIS attempts at reemergence.

A sizable part of this training effort is to prepare forces equipping to counter IEDs.  To date, the coalition has trained approximately 400 SDF members and other internal security forces.  We've already seen the benefit of this approach, as many of our graduates are already being employed daily in cities across northeast Syria.  In just the past month alone, the Raqqa Security Forces destroyed 500 deadly projectiles.

While we continue to fight, let's also remember the people who have emerged from the sinister influence of ISIS.  The Deir ez-Zor civil council last week celebrated its one-year anniversary with a ceremony calling for increased cooperation amongst all Syrians to sustain the opportunities they brought back from tyranny.

Over the last year, the civil council opened 12 municipalities, 14 bakeries and 34 water pumping stations throughout the region.  That progress is well-earned and the return on that investment can be seen in the faces of the children who returned to the opening of 375 schools.  This school year, 140,000 school children registered, nearly a 20 percent increase from last year.

While the road to recovery continues for much of northeast Syria, the Deir ez-Zor civil council is an exceptional model of how local leaders are restoring key infrastructure and civil services.

This is what the coalition and our partner forces are fighting for:  to bring security to the region, allowing others to come in and focus on reconstruction.

With that update, I'll be happy to take your questions.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  For all questions, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your questions.  All called on will have an opportunity to ask one follow-up.

Joe?

Q:  Thank you.

Colonel Ryan, thank you for doing this.  This is Joe Tabet with MBN Alhurra.

As you may know, yesterday Iran has launched five or so -- six middle-range missiles over Iraq into eastern Syria, targeting what the Iranians has said ISIS militants.

My question for you is, how -- what is -- what are the consequences or the results of your assessment?  Were you expecting that the deconfliction lines with the Russians should have been used prior to the Iranian missile launch?

COL. RYAN:  Thanks for the question, Joe.

Well, I'll tell you, firing any missile through uncoordinated airspace is a threat to (inaudible) aviation.  These strikes potentially jeopardize the forces on the ground that are actually fighting ISIS and puts them in danger.

I can tell you that Iran took no such measures and professional militaries like the coalition and the Russian confederation deconflict our operations for maximum safety.

Q:  Quick follow-up (inaudible) Iran.  Are you expecting -- is the U.S.-led coalition expecting to take measures to counter future Iranian missile launch like we -- like we see yesterday?

COL. RYAN:  Well, it's certainly something that we're going to look into militarily-wise, and something we'll work with (inaudible) know as well.  But anytime that, you know, our forces are put in danger, then we'll definitely take a look at that and make sure we take all the precautions necessary to do that.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Carla?

Q:  Hi, Sean.  It's Carla Babb with Voice of America.

Before I ask my question, I have to follow up on Joe, because you said anytime forces are put into danger, we'll take a look at that.  I just want to confirm with you:  Were U.S. forces ever in danger when these missiles were launched?

COL. RYAN:  They were not.  But anytime anyone just fires missiles through uncoordinated air space, it's a -- it's a threat.

And again, the coalition is not requesting any support.  We can handle things ourselves, so we don't need anyone else firing into our region.

Q:  Okay, thank you, Sean.

Okay, so for my question on Iran, I would like to get some more detail.  Can you confirm the number of missiles that were fired?  And can you confirm some reports that they hit really close to U.S. troops; some reports saying as close to three miles to U.S. troops in Syria?

COL. RYAN:  Well, right now, we're still assessing, Carla.  We see what the open sources say, but right now, the investigation is underway.

So I don't have those answers yet.  But when I say that U.S. forces were not in danger, then it was -- it was still --

Q:  I'm sorry, you cut off.  I'm only following because you cut off.

So no assessment yet to tell us numbers, locations of -- of any more details.  This happened a full 24 hours ago.

COL. RYAN:  It did, but the assessment is still going on because we're still fighting.  So we just can't go into these areas and just, you know, walk around and do an investigation.  We have to be very careful about the safety of not only coalition troops but Syrian Democratic Forces as well.

Q:  And my follow now is on Manbij.

We just heard from Secretary Mattis that the training the U.S. and Turkish troops has begun.  Can you give us some more details about that?  How many are we talking about training?  How long is the training going to last?  When do you expect the joint patrols to start?

COL. RYAN:  The training will be conditions-based, so I don't want to get into a timeline on that.

And I -- I think the site itself, which they call Site G, can host up to 300 military personnel.  That doesn't mean that be the size of the patrol, but that just means that's what it has to house.

And a lot of things go into, you know, training.  I mean, you're talking different training with different forces.  You're talking a language barrier.  There's equipment.  There's life support.  It's just -- and so, you have to be very methodical when you go through this training to make sure you get it right.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ryan?

Q:  Thanks for (inaudible), sir.  This is Ryan Browne from CNN.  Thank -- thanks for doing this.

Today, Secretary Mattis talked about the number of U.S. diplomats in Syria doubling in -- recently.  Can you talk a little bit -- I mean, is the coalition providing security for those diplomats?  Has that, kind of, changed a little bit some of the mission sets that coalition advisers are performing there?

COL. RYAN:  Ryan, to the best of my knowledge, that hasn't changed our mission set and we have not been providing detail on that.

But that's -- again, that's, kind of, a political question.  They would know a little bit more about that.  We're just there to defeat ISIS.

So, I have not seen that.  So -- but I don't -- I haven't any changes in our mission either.

Q:  Okay.

And then, if I can just follow up, you mentioned that the SDF had captured quite a few ISIS fighters as it makes this push in this, kind of, last area in the -- in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  Do you have a new number in terms of foreign fighters currently being held by the SDF?

COL. RYAN:  Ryan, it's over 700 at -- at this point, and that's just counting the fighters.  I know that there's been some recent reports out by the SDF saying it's over 2,300, but they're including, you know, the women and children.  But we're looking at over seven hundred.

Q:  Over 700?  Did I hear that right?

COL. RYAN:  Yes.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Laurie?

Q:  Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.  Thank you, Colonel Ryan.

My question concerns the joint mechanism between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Security Forces.  Has there been any progress on that joint mechanism to prevent the reemergence of ISIS in disputed territories such as Kirkuk?

COL. RYAN:  Hi, Laurie.  Thanks for your question.

There has been increasing push from both the KSF and the ISF leadership.  (inaudible) developed a joint coordination center.  Right now, there's no timeline.  And that's due to the (inaudible) formation because there's still a lot of unknowns.  But they are working on that.  And -- and hopefully that will get underway.

Q:  And so, you expect that once the government is in place, this process will accelerate?

COL. RYAN:  I do.

I mean, when you're trying to form a government, a lot of things -- a lot of things get, kind of, put on hold, because forming the government is very important for the Iraqi -- the Iraqi people.  So, I think once that gets done, it will get accelerated.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Kasim.

Q:  Kasim Ileri with Anadolu Agency.

Just, I want to make something clear.  Two weeks ago you said the training for Manbij continues.  And yesterday, Secretary Mattis re-announced (inaudible) saying that it has just begin.  And now, the Turkish side does not confirm any of this.  They say that no training has started yet.

Can you clear the dust and tell us whether the training has begun or not?

COL. RYAN:  Well, let's make -- make sure we get, you know, our -- our lines not crossed here.

The training has begun according to the secretary of defense.  However, the patrols are still continuing.  So, there -- there is a difference there.  As a matter of fact, they just conducted patrol number 54 today, as matter of fact.

So, that's different from the actual training that's taking place (inaudible) training.  So right now, they're still operating independent coordinated patrols, but they're also starting in Site G to start the joint training.

Q:  So you are saying, the training started according to the secretary of defense, Secretary Mattis?  So the -- does that mean that the -- the training has started?  Because Turks doesn’t confirm that the training has started.

COL. RYAN:  Well, if the secretary of defense says it, I'm going with him every time.

Q:  Okay.  Thank you.

And the other one -- a follow-up on Ryan's question.  I -- I just want you to clarify something.  Can you confirm that the U.S. diplomats -- number of U.S. diplomats in Syria has doubled?  And how are they contributing to the coalition mission in Syria?

COL. RYAN:  I cannot confirm that because I have not seen any numbers that's saying they're double.  I can say that that's -- that's definitely a Department of State question.

But I can say, Ambassador Jeffrey has been a valuable tool in Syria.  And he has great insight and we're proud to have his team on board.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Back row, there.

Q:  (inaudible), Carlo Munoz with The Washington Times.  One follow-up and one question.

Wanted to follow up first on Laurie's question about the joint coordination center between the ISF and the KSF.  It's been a year since the independence referendum vote in -- in Iraqi Kurdistan.  A lot has changed since then.  Given the effort to create this JCC, are there any other efforts being taken on by the coalition to reaffirm its support for the -- the Peshmerga and the -- the local government in Iraqi Kurdistan?

And I have another question.

COL. RYAN:  Absolutely.

We're in contact with them almost daily.  I mean, General Renforth goes up there and -- and he talks with them.  And we've -- I believe other diplomats as well have done up there and -- and told them that we're here to support and -- and that's what we plan on doing.

As I mentioned in my topper, you know, we just conducted the Heroes Resolve in the seven different operations centers.  You know, Peshmerga was involved in all that.

So they're a big part of it.  But like I said, with -- with the government still not formed, things are just taking time right now because that's the number one priority.

Q:  And you said that Operation Roundup phase three is entering its third week.  Can you give an assessment of what the current -- I guess current assessment would be of ISIS fighters in that area?  Is it still hovering around a thousand?  Because the number hasn't changed very much in the last couple months.

COL. RYAN:  Well, I -- well, we -- we always said around between, you know, 1,000 and 2,000.

But, again, it's -- it's really not the numbers itself.  It's their capabilities.  And right now, that's what the Syrian Democratic Forces are doing.  They're -- they're severely limiting their capabilities and denying them terrain.  And, of course, they're also killing a lot of them as well.

So it's -- it's a tough fight right now.  But the SDF is doing a very good job, and they're going to continue to do that.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ma’am

Q:  (inaudible).  I'm here with Jane's.

I wanted to ask about the Russian S-300 going into Syria, and how that's impacting operations on the ground.  Or do you plan on it changing force structure?

COL. RYAN:  No, it hasn't changed anything.  I mean, that's a -- that's a defensive system.

So, we have a deconfliction with the Russians.  And so, it's always a concern, as I mentioned before, when a new piece of equipment is brought into the region.  But we have a deconfliction process with them, and that's what we plan on using.

Q:  Have you had to use it yet?  Or planned some place for that?

COL. RYAN:  We have not.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Lara

Q:  Lara Seligman with Foreign Policy.  Just one follow-up to (Ashley's ?) question.

Have -- are there any measures you need to take in terms of the aircraft that are flying in the region just because of the capabilities of S-300?  I know it's not as sophisticated as the S-400, but are there any precautions that are being taken to ensure that the aircraft flying in the region are protected?

COL. RYAN:  Well, again, we use the deconfliction process.  And, of course we're always concerned about our aircraft, so we take every step we need to ensure the safety of our pilots.  And also, of course, to our ground force as well, if they're there advising and assisting.

Q:  And then one other question, just on:  Some administration officials, including Ambassador Jeffrey, have talked about the possibility of maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria past the defeat of ISIS until all Iranian forces are gone.

Can you just tell us if you've had any change in guidance to support that change in agenda?

COL. RYAN:  I can tell you that I go off what the secretary says and he has three things that he's mentioned.  And the first and foremost is to destroy ISIS.  The second is to train local troops to eventually take over.  And then for the Geneva process to start working.

So I work under the secretary of defense (inaudible) and so does the coalition, so that's what we are going off of right now in Syria.

Q:  So no change in guidance?

COL. RYAN:  No.

Q:  Thanks.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Lucas?

Q:  Colonel, is the U.S. military helping with the evacuation of the U.S. consulate in Basra?

COL. RYAN:  DOD has offered support through CENTCOM and through U.S. forces with joint -- combined joint task force.  And so, we will support -- we don't have any numbers right now or timelines, but when asked, we'll definitely support.

Q:  So the consulate has not been evacuated is what you're saying?

COL. RYAN:  Well, we -- we're not giving dates or anything, but it's a process still in place.

I mean, if American lives are risk, then (inaudible) takes prudent steps to relocate the personnel from harm.  And, you know, Ambassador Silliman is -- is a great leader and he determined the risk (inaudible) the reward, so eventually that's what we're going to do.

But it's still very recent and very early in this process, so I just do not have all the -- the details involved yet.

Q:  (inaudible)

And can we have an update on the Iranian and -- or Iranian-backed forces' aim with these rockets?  You said last week they couldn't shoot straight, these rockets had landed short.  They've since fired missiles into eastern Syria.  Just want an updated assessment on the aim of these Iranian forces.

Thank you.

COL. RYAN:  Yes, I did say two weeks ago or last week they had bad aim.  That hasn't changed.

And that's actually one of the problems of -- of Basra as well.  You have folks that are out there shooting weapons that they may not know how to use.

So, I mean, it's not -- you know, like I said, American lives are at risk and, you know, you're making threats to U.S. personnel and it's -- it's definitely a State Department decision, but they're just not wanting to -- to put up with that.  They're here to be diplomats; they're not warfighters.

So that's the route that we're going.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay.  We have time for just one last question here.  Carla?

Q:  I'm just going to follow on Iran, if I can.  I just want to confirm and clarify with you -- I know you didn't talk about how close the U.S. forces were.  Can you tell us if there were any coalition partners in the area where the Iranian missiles fell?

COL. RYAN:  There were.  And they were -- they were closer than coalition troops, but I don't have the exact distance.

Q:  Can you take that for us?

COL. RYAN:  I'm sorry.  Say that again, Carla.

Q:  Can you take that for the record for us and get back to us on that?

COL. RYAN:  Absolutely.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  (inaudible)

Q:  Just a very short one Colonel Ryan, Kasim Ileri again, can you tell us when the training for Manbij joint patrol in Manbij began?  When did those training start?

COL. RYAN:  Sure.  Those started 18 June.

Q:  18 June.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  No, the training for the joint patrols.  When did the training for joint patrols start?

COL. RYAN:  Well, the secretary of defense said it started (inaudible), so that's what I will go with as well.

Q:  Okay.

Q:  (inaudible) what does that syllabus look like, the training syllabus, Colonel?  What different activities are involved here with the training of Turkish forces?

COL. RYAN:  Well, you have -- they do have a syllabus for that.  I won't get into details, but there's terrain, there's crew-served weapons, there's medical training, there's communications training.  So there's a lot of things that go into that to ensure that this is as safe and effective, to include the rules of engagement.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  That's all the time we have for questions this morning.  Sir, did you have any last comments?

COL. RYAN:  Well, again, apologize for the connectivity, but I am in an Iraq, so sometimes it just doesn't work.  But thank you for your time, and again, (inaudible) follow-on, feel free to hit myself up or my team at the time.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sir, thank you very much for your time and have a great day.