Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Press Briefing by Col. Ryan via Video conference from Baghdad, Iraq

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


COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON:  Good morning.  I'm Commander Sean Robertson.  I will be facilitating today's briefing.  We will begin with a brief communications check.

Sir, can you hear me?

COLONEL SEAN J. RYAN:  I can.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Today we have Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, from Baghdad, Iraq, for an update on operations.

Sir, the floor is yours.

COL. RYAN:  Thank you.

Good morning.  I'd like to discuss ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria.

Let's start in Iraq, where last week a joint operation was conducted by Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish counterterrorism forces, with some assistance of coalition forces.

This operation resulted in the arrest of 10 members of the al-Rawi financial network, a key ISIS financial facilitation group based in Iraq.

This operation was planned and executed through the interagency cooperation of the Iraqi treasury, security forces and judicial support.  This kind of cooperation is a hallmark of how we will ultimately defeat ISIS.

Additionally, Operation Last Warning is a large-scale effort targeting the remaining pockets of ISIS in the Anbar Desert.

In the past week, multiple ISF activities resulted in the discovery and destruction of over a hundred explosives and IEDs, and the facilities where they're stored and processed.

The ISF conducted a clearance operation in Ramadi, capturing 28 suspected ISIS fighters and discovering over a thousand IEDs.  They also escorted 31 displaced families back to their homes in and around Jazeera.

The ISF are working to contain and eliminate ISIS, who still pose a threat.

In Kirkuk, small pockets of ISIS are targeting water supplies, power lines and cell towers to undermine the legitimacy of the government of Iraq.  However, the Ministry of the Interior and the ISF have demonstrated their capacity by responding quickly in returning these essential services and relentlessly pursuing these terrorist cells through intelligence-driven operations across the nation.  And that commitment sometimes results in sacrifice.

Lieutenant Yasser al-Aboudi was a member of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service when he died during the Battle of Mosul.  He was renowned through the service for his bravery and dedication, from recovering his injured comrades in the middle of a firefight to delivering food to starving children.  He died sacrificing himself to provide medical aid to wounded members of his team after ISIS ambushed their position.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defense will feature him and his family's story in an upcoming documentary memorializing their honored warriors.  And as an important partner, we also remember him and all of the ISF members who put everything on the line to defeat ISIS.

Moving to Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to clear the last strongholds of ISIS resistance in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

One month into phase three of Operation Roundup, the SDF has successfully advanced and enveloped ISIS in the town of Marashia, while reinforcing battle positions along the front.

The SDF is making gains despite booby-trapped buildings, IEDs and repeated attacks, as they continue to degrade ISIS capabilities in the MERV.

ISIS, however, remains a deadly adversary.  The remaining fighters in the MERV are hardened combatants and have shown every indication of being willing to fight until the end.

This week, ISIS employed synchronized small arms attacks and indirect fire in multiple locations in the MERV, all in a failed attack to push back the SDF advance.

The SDF has proven over and over to be a steadfast partner in this fight and they will continue to reclaim their homeland from the brutal rule of ISIS.

As the SDF presses forward the final liberation of enemy-controlled terrain in the MERV, civilians continue to attempt to escape from ISIS oppression.  ISIS is resorting to the same desperate tactics we've seen time and time again to prevent their escape, and continues their stranglehold on the people as they use civilians as a cover to house IED factories, move weapons and stage attacks throughout the area.

Make no mistake:  ISIS is using these people as human shields, just as we witnessed in the battles of Raqqa, Mosul and Tabqa.  The coalition and SDF are acting decisively to ease the suffering and bring an enduring end to ISIS.

Moving to Raqqa, the civil council will soon observe the one-year commemoration of the city's liberation from ISIS rule.  The SDF liberated the city, and empowered local leaders serving in the Raqqa Internal Security Force, and are keeping it secure.

Stabilization efforts continue.  Farmers this month are preparing for the upcoming winter wheat season.  The Syria Recovery Trust Fund, on October 11th, distributed 140 metric tonnes of high-quality wheat seeds to the farmers of the greater Raqqa area.  Local farmers possess enough seeds to plant more than 5,600 hectares of land, a fresh beginning to a more peaceful Syria.

Workshops and small businesses throughout Raqqa are boosting their local economy.  The RCC processes and approves new licenses every day.  In fact, a major tile and marble factory recently returned and is doing its part to stimulate the local economy.

Other infrastructure is also improving in nearby Tabqa.  The municipality has installed 10 new water lines just north of the city.  Efforts to provide a critical basic service will better regulate water use and, more importantly, will increase clean water availability.

Overall, ISIS is territorially defeated, and until we achieve an enduring defeat, we will continue the fight.

With that update, and although I'm no Gerard Butler, I'll be happy to take your questions.

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

Tom.

Q:  Hey, Colonel.  Tom Bowman with NPR.

I wonder if you could address civilian casualties.  I guess the Pentagon and you guys estimate roughly 1,000 civilian casualties from air strikes, artillery strikes in both Iraq and Syria.  Amnesty International put that number at 3,000 in Syria alone.

Talk about how -- the difference in numbers, if you can.

And also, Amnesty says that your investigations are flawed because you don't interview witnesses or survivors.

COL. RYAN:  Okay.

Well, first of all, our thoughts and prayers to any innocent victims under the ISIS rule and, of course, from any coalition airstrikes.

We realize there are discrepancies in those numbers.  However, we go off facts.  We -- and that is how we go through the process of doing this.  We're not sure exactly the matrix of how these other groups are -- are coming up with these numbers.

So we're not saying that there could be more that were innocently killed, what we're saying is we have to go on the -- the facts that we have when we look into these cases.

One thing I'd also like to add, Tom, is we're currently still fighting ISIS.  It's not really -- you know, we don't have the -- the manpower to go in there and conduct the investigations that we'd like to do.  We do have people on the ground doing that, but that's not their sole focus.

So a lot still needs to be done.  It's -- it's terrible what's happened in those areas because of ISIS.  But, you know, we continue to take the responsibility and we realize that some of these areas came at a very high cost of liberation.

Q:  But what about interviewing witnesses and survivors in Raqqa, which has been, you know, pacified?  Are you interviewing witnesses and survivors in Raqqa itself?

COL. RYAN:  We have groups right now on the ground there investigating.  I don't think they're going as -- as detailed into maybe what Amnesty's doing right now.  I don't know exactly how their investigation works.

But we also use other things like, you know, videos and intelligence, and things of that nature to look into these and -- and to use that for our investigation.

Q:  Why aren't they going as deeply as Amnesty?

COL. RYAN:  I'm sorry, repeat that?

Q:  Why aren't they going as deeply as Amnesty, as you said?

COL. RYAN:  Tom, right now we're still fighting ISIS.

Q:  No, I'm talking in Raqqa.

COL. RYAN:  Right.  We're still fighting ISIS in -- in the MERV and some other areas in this region.  So we don't have the manpower right now to just exclusively send teams in there; we have teams going in, but that's not their only job.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Kasim?

Q:  Colonel, Kasim Ileri, Anadolu Agency.

As you mentioned in your opening statement, it has been one year that Raqqa has been liberated.  And just that small pocket in MERV has taken nearly a year for the coalition to clean and it still goes on.  It seems that it will go beyond one year.

How could you call this -- or do you call this a success or is there a stall?  What happened?  Why can't the coalition clean that small holdout while big cities like Mosul and Raqqa are freed in several months?

COL. RYAN:  Well, first of all, we're -- we're talking about, if I -- if I heard you right, we're talking about two different areas.  I mean, Raqqa and Mosul, those were -- that's house-to-house fighting, to where this whole area is deserty area, it is -- it's thousands of miles long.  So it takes a long time.

ISIS has also been using underground tunnels, as -- as we've mentioned before.  And they are a very elusive enemy, there's no doubt about.  But when they're underground, it's very difficult.

I think the SDF is making very good ground right now.  It just takes a long time.

And also you have to remember, ISIS has booby-trapped and IEDed almost every area in there, to where you just can't go rushing into these areas and clear them.  You have to have the equipment and the manpower to do that.  And often when you start the clearing, your equipment gets damaged when IEDs goes off.  So there's not an, you know, an un-supply of -- of vehicles that they can use.  They have to, you know, get resupplied.

So things do take time.

Q:  Okay.  A follow-up:  Have you recently supplied SDF with armored vehicle, and arms and ammunition?

COL. RYAN:  Well, I won't go into details on -- on what we supply them.

But yes, they -- they have the ammo -- ammunition right now, and you know, when they ask for something, we are usually able to deliver it.

Again, the whole presence of us being here is the enduring defeat of ISIS, and that's what we're trying to do.

Q:  If I may, just a quick follow-up on my famous question on Manbij, the training has started just last week, and then it was supposed to take just one week for the trainers, of course.  Can you update us what's going on with the training about Manbij?

COL. RYAN:  Yeah, I'm not sure who told you one week because it -- it was never one week.

But also Manbij -- you have to understand, you know, you're putting two different military groups together and it just simply takes time.  There -- there's language barriers, there's equipment that they both have to become familiar with, there's different rules of engagement, there's -- there's medical, there's communication.

What you don't want to do is rush to failure.  You send teams out there that aren't synced together, then bad things can happen.  So we'd rather train them properly and then send them out when they're ready.

Right now, Manbij is secure.  There's -- there's patrols going on every day there, and -- and nothing has changed there.  So this training is meant to enhance that, and -- and that's what we're working towards.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Laurie?

Q:  Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Quick question:  In your opening remarks, you said there were small pockets of ISIS targeting water supplies.  What are they trying to do to the water supplies, poison them?

COL. RYAN:  So, Laurie, they're trying to destroy the water lines to get discontent from the civilians in that area.  I mean, it's -- it's a death of a thousand cuts to the population.  I mean, any way they can get in there and legitimize (sic), you know, the government of Iraq, they will try to do that.

Q:  Thank you.

Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan met Monday with the KRG prime minister, and the coalition seems to have had a representative in the meeting.  The State Department said that security cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad was discussed.  Can you tell us anything more about that, any new developments?

COL. RYAN:  Well, I know that they talked about the road from (inaudible) to Bhatgania, and I know that they were there to congratulate Ambassador -- or, I'm sorry, Prime Minister Barzani.  And, of course, they did talk about the security between the regions.  But besides -- besides that, Laura, I don't know because I wasn't in that meeting.

Q:  Okay.

And are you concerned that as tensions rise between the U.S. and Iran with the second round of sanctions approaching that pro-Iranian elements in Iraq might attack you or try to attack you or -- or other U.S. facilities?

COL. RYAN:  Well, again, our fight is with ISIS.  And we hope that doesn't happen because, you know, we will defend ourselves if that comes to fruition.

But our fight's not with Iran right now, it's to defeat ISIS.

Q:  Is there any indication of Iranian preparations to attack you?

COL. RYAN:  I'm sorry, say that again, Laurie?

Q:  Any indication that Iran -- that you're seeing that Iran might use its proxies to attack you?  Are you seeing anything disturbing?

COL. RYAN:  We're not, not at this time.

I mean, that -- that's always something that could happen.  And it may not be Iran at all.  Like you said, it could be just proxies out trying to do damage.  There's a lot of people trying to, you know, make the government of Iraq look bad, make it look like -- that it's not secure here.  So that -- that could definitely happen.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Jeff from Task and Purpose.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.

For about 10 months, U.S. officials have said that ISIS only has about 2 percent of its original caliphate and it's just holed up in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  We're almost in 2019.  Can you say why this force of ISIS has not been eliminated yet?

COL. RYAN:  Well, Jeff, we've still got about three months to go and a lot can happen in 2018.

But it's more about the capabilities.  It's not about the land mass, it's about taking away ISIS capabilities.

And in the top, I mentioned the -- the financial part.  And that's a big part, but it's also from the military side, we're degrading them every day.  It's not just killing ISIS fighters, it's taking away their weapons systems, taking away their logistical support and things of that nature.  So that's happening every day.

Q:  If I could follow up, how is it that this force in the Middle Euphrates River Valley has been able to fight on for 10 months?

COL. RYAN:  Well, they -- I don't think they've been there quite that long.  It started not just, you know, in that area, but they're -- they're a resilient enemy.  There's -- there's no doubt about that.

But I'd mentioned, I think, in -- in the last one I was here, that, you know, they had planned on this four years ago.  They knew that they were probably going to end up in this area.

And, you know, again, with -- with the tunnels they have underneath and the tunnels that the oil companies left with food and supplies, they're able to sustain.

So, you know, we're methodically going through that area, making sure that we -- we capture or kill all the ISIS fighters.  And, you know, our -- our job there is to also help protect its citizens in that area, and I think the SDF's doing a pretty good job.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ryan?

Q:  Hey, Colonel Ryan.  Thank you for doing this.  A couple quick ones.

First, have you seen any change or plans, changes from -- for -- with regards to Saudi Arabia's commitment or participation in the coalition?  Has there been any discussion on that?

COL. RYAN:  Ryan, there hasn't.  I think with all the things as -- as you're well aware, going on, that hasn't even come up at all.

Q:  And then just if we could change gears a little bit and talk about, you know, the Rukban refugee camp that sits in the At Tanf deconfliction zone, there's been a lot of reports from NGOs about it, kind of -- the really heinous environment that's there.  Starvation -- reports of starvation.

Is there any -- you're talking about all the stabilization efforts that are going in other areas that have been liberated from ISIS.  Why is the coalition not doing more to relieve the humanitarian situation there?

COL. RYAN:  Well, Ryan, we've gone on record saying that we're standing by to help enable the delivery of those U.N. support systems.  And so far, that has not happened.  Those trucks have to get to where we're at first, for us to do that.

And it definitely is a humanitarian tragedy.  And it's, you know, not an area of military operation, but it's a huge area of concern for us from the human side.

Q:  Are you worried that the coalition's going to be blamed?  Since it sits in the deconfliction zone, is there a concern that the coalition's going to be blamed for this -- the humanitarian situation there?

COL. RYAN:  Absolutely, Ryan.  That's already happening out there.  There's, you know, malign actors that will blame us for just about everything.

But again, if you look at the region, we're in a specific area.  If they can get the trucks to -- to where we're at, where we can help, then we will get those trucks through.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Jeff, Voice of America?

Q:  Colonel, thank you for doing this.  Jeff Seldin with VOA.

Earlier this morning, General Dunford was talking to a conference on combating violent extremism.  And he noted that still, despite all the efforts, there are some foreign fighters coming into Syria.  He said it's now down to about a hundred a month.  But over time, a hundred a month adds up.

How are those foreign fighters contributing to ISIS in -- in the fight that ISIS is putting up?  Where are they going?

COL. RYAN:  Well, the foreign terrorist fighters are the intense fighters that I spoke about earlier.  I mean, basically, they have nowhere to go.

I mean, there's been some people disappearing, using the rat lines and -- and things of that nature.  But it hasn't been the foreign terrorist fighters.

They're either here to fight to the death, or they're just going to get killed because they have nowhere to go.  They can't blend in with the rest of the population in Iraq or Syria.  So they're the -- the die-hard fighters that we're seeing that are trying to live off the land and see this to the end.

Q:  So are these foreign fighters that are still coming in, are they going to the MERV to join the -- the fight there, put up the resistance?  Are they joining networks elsewhere?  Where are these fighters specifically fighting to the death?

COL. RYAN:  They're fighting to the death in the MERV, and the SDF is picking up a lot of foreign terrorist fighters.  I -- I think that we put out recently that the numbers are -- are well over 700 now.  And that's a pretty big increase from probably a month and a half ago.  So they're either capturing or killing a lot of them.

But yeah, the fight in the MERV is -- is intense.  And like I said, we're not going in there, you know, quickly.  The SDF has to be methodical in their approach because they are fighting against a very intense enemy.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Lita?

Q:  Hi, Sean.  It's Lita Baldor from AP.

Could I just get a couple of clarifications?

On the training in Manbij, the secretary told us that the train-the-trainer had begun and would last a short period of time before the actual training would begin.  Has the train-the-trainer finished yet?

COL. RYAN:  I only got part of that, but the train-the-trainer portion in Manbij is not complete yet.  Again, there's a lot of things that factor into this and you have to make sure both sides are understanding the weapons, the -- the rules of engagement.  And, hey, listen, if they go out on patrol and someone fires on them, what are they going to do?  The Turks may have one way to do it, and U.S. forces may have another.  So we have to make sure that they're totally in sync together.

And they're going to do that training until they get it right.  Like I said, there's no rush to failure on this.  And we're -- better be safe than sorry.

And, again, nothing's changed in Manbij.  There's still daily patrols going on.

So it's not the quicker they can do this, the -- the safer it's going to be at all.  That's -- that's not the case in this matter.

Q:  Well, how long do you expect the train-the-trainer to go on before the actual training of the forces begins?

And then I -- I have a follow-up.

COL. RYAN:  It can be anywhere from a two- to three-week process, depending on (inaudible) everyone gets it.

But again, we're not (inaudible) anyone.  Because, again, you're talking different weapons systems and some are very complicated.

And communication's key.  You have to have an interpreter.  Not everyone speaks English like we expect.  So, you know, you have to be able to (abide ?) to what the Turkey soldiers are doing as well.

Q:  And just one real quick thing.  The 700 detainees that are being held by this -- the SDF, about how many have actually been sent back to their home countries?

COL. RYAN:  Not a lot.  I mean, the SDF is -- the SDF are a double sword on that one.  It's great that they're detaining so many fighters, but it's a global problem that needs a global -- basically, a way for them to repatriate their folks so they can prosecute them, is the best way to go about it.

But, you know, for it to become an admin issue is not a bad deal to have either.  However, we need to solve this problem.

And -- but we are getting good intelligence from some of the fighters that they've captured.  So there's -- there's good and bad on this case for both.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Gentleman here in the fourth row.

Q:  Hi.  Jack Detsch from Al-Monitor.

Colonel, Syria's foreign minister said this week that they expect full victory in the Syrian Civil War to be achieved once they've reunified the country, and including the area in the east of the Euphrates River.  They were also discussing the reopening of that Abu Kamal border crossing with the Iraqis this week.

Is the coalition supportive of those joint Iraqi-Syrian talks on that matter?  And do you see any threat to the SDF regarding the foreign minister's comments?

COL. RYAN:  Well, Iraq's a sovereign nation and they're still forming their government, but they can make the best decisions that they feel is -- is the best for them.  So we're -- we're open to that.  That's a political process, so we're not a big part of that.

The SDF is -- is somewhat in the same boat.  They're going to have to probably come up with a political situation and -- and that's why we're staying there until the Geneva process can work.

But they want to be part of Syria.  I've talked to a lot of guys out there; they're true Syrians, they want to be part of it.  But I think they want to have some -- some things that go to their favor as well.  So it's going to be, you know, diplomatic in political matters that are well above the coalition's handle.

Q:  Got it.

And then, just to follow-up on Jeff's earlier question, we've seen reports that there had been as many as a hundred families abducted in the Deir ez-Zor area last week.

I was wondering:  Is the coalition or the SDF trying to get those folks back from ISIS?  And is, sort of, the fighting there indicative of any resurgence of ISIS's capability or is it just challenging terrain in the area that you're dealing with?

COL. RYAN:  Right now, we haven't been able to confirm nor deny that.  It sounds amazingly high number, but at this point I don't want to say it hasn't happened.  But we haven't been able to confirm that yet.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Idrees.

Q:  (OFF-MIKE).

Just to confirm, because I think the stream was a bit gargled, you said there had been no conversations about Saudi reducing their roles in the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria, correct?

COL. RYAN:  I'm -- I'm sorry, could you repeat that again?  I didn't get that.

Q:  I just wanted to confirm that you had said that there had been no conversations about Saudi Arabia reducing their role in OIR, correct?

COL. RYAN:  You're still coming in broken, but if it's Saudi -- Saudi Arabia related, I -- I didn't hear all that.

Q:  Maybe I'll come a bit closer.

I'm just saying could you -- I -- I just wanted to confirm that -- because the stream was not great, that you had said that there had been no conversations with Saudi Arabia about reducing their role in OIR.

COL. RYAN:  Correct, there have been no -- there's been no conversations regarding that.

Q:  Very quickly, just say what exactly Saudi Arabia does as a part of the coalition.

COL. RYAN:  Well, I'm not going to get into the details of -- of each individual country.  Some, obviously, provide soldiers on the ground; some provide financial support, diplomatic support.  So I'll just leave it at that.

Q:  Not every country, just specifically this country, though, because it is in the news and it's unclear whether they provide large amounts of support or is it limited.  Could you at least characterize it in those terms?

COL. RYAN:  I can tell you at this time, I can't tell you the specific support for -- for that one particular country.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Gentleman here in the second row.

Q:  Sir, if I could follow on my colleague's question on the reports of the abductions of families from the Deir ez-Zor area last week, did I hear you correctly that you have no information on that?  Because if it's so, it doesn't seem to be that this -- this is a force, ISIS, that's on the edge of defeat.

COL. RYAN:  Well, I would disagree with that.

I mean, I think some of this happened during a sandstorm.  And I was -- the -- the rumors are out there, that's why I didn't want to confirm it.  Because what we've heard is some of these could be ISIS widows and things of that nature, so I'm not exactly sure who they captured on that, and that's why we still need to get confirmation.

They -- we did see a photo.  There are six to eight individuals.  But definitely not 120 family-type people in that photo.

So there's a lot of misinformation going on in this area.  We deal with that on a daily basis.

So until we can confirm that, I definitely wouldn't go on record saying that that actually happened.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ashley?

Q:  Hi, Ashley Roque with Jane's.

It's been a couple of weeks since Iran sent some ballistic missiles into Syria.  Could you give us an update on your assessment of that?  How many missiles came in?  How many hit their targets?

COL. RYAN:  The assessment that we have seen so far is, there were six missiles that landed.

And again, we didn't see any BDA, any damage from those missiles at all.  I know what they claim.  But from what we've seen, there hasn't been any damage.

Q:  Okay.

And as a follow-up, do you have a number of how many S-300s have gone into Syria at this point in time?  And are they being manned by Russians or Syrians at this point?  And are the S-200s still being used in the country?

COL. RYAN:  Who did you say came into the country?

Q:  Sorry.  How many S-300 weapons systems have been deployed within Syria at this point?  And are they being operated by Russia forces or Syrian forces?

COL. RYAN:  That's probably a better question for the Syrian or Russian army.

I don't know how many.  We're tracking that they came in and they're trying to get that working capability, but I don't have the specifics on that one.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Got time for one last question here.

Laurie?

Q:  Could you clarify the situation in Manbij, that the train-the-trainer program has begun but that it's far from complete?  What's the situation there?

COL. RYAN:  The -- the train-the-trainer program has begun in Manbij.  And right now, they're just going through all the different classes and all the different instruction that both parties need to fully complement each other before they go out on an actual patrol.

Q:  Training is being done in Turkey?

COL. RYAN:  It is.

Q:  And you expect it to last a few weeks?

COL. RYAN:  Yes.  There's no timetable, but that's the projected time.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay.  Sir, thank you very much for -- for your time.  Do you have any final words for those here?

COL. RYAN:  I don't.

I know everyone's busy out there.  So, again, if you have any follow-on questions, feel free to -- to send us an e-mail and we'll try to get right back to you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, sir.  Thank you very much and have a great day.

COL. RYAN:  You as well.