Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Press Briefing by U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, Deputy Commander for Strategy and Information, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Commander Sean Robertson, Pentagon Spokesman


COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON: Good morning. We'll begin our brief with a quick communication check.

Sir, can you hear me?

MAJ. GEN. CHRISTOPHER GHIKA: Yeah, good morning, Sean. I can hear you perfectly.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: This brief should last approximately 45 minutes.

Today we have U.K. Major General Chris Ghika, deputy commander of Strategy and Information for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, from Baghdad, Iraq, for an update on operations.

Sir, the floor is yours.

GEN. GHIKA: Well, thanks a lot, Sean.

And good morning to everybody back in D.C.

As Sean said, my name is Chris Ghika and I'm delighted to be able to speak to you today from Baghdad.

I arrived in theater a couple of months ago, as one of the two deputy commanders in the headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve. And today, what I'd like to do is update you on the current operations to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and then I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have on the progress of the operation.

But I thought I'd first make a few opening remarks.

This is my second tour in the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. I was in Baghdad in 2014 and 2015 as the deputy commander of the coalition's Land Component Command.

In coming back now, after three years, I'm struck by the immense progress that's been made by our Iraqi security force and Syrian Democratic Force partners in the fight against ISIS.

Over this last weekend, I think we've all paused -- including here in Baghdad -- to honor the memory of those who've fallen in war and conflict over the last century.

And I thought it appropriate, I think, that I mention the sacrifices that our Iraqi security force and Syrian Democratic Force partners have made to counter the evil of ISIS in their homelands.

Much remains to be done, however, to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS. And the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and our partners remain committed to the fight.

I'd like to start by mentioning a success story from the last week, the safe delivery of critical humanitarian aid to the Rukban IDP camp.

With their security successfully provided by the coalition's partner force in the deconfliction zone, the Maghawir al-Thawra, the U.N. and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, they delivered 10,475 food parcels and flour bags, clothed 18,000 children and over 10,000 hygiene kits and plastic sheets, as well as newborn baby kits for approximately 1200 children.

The United Nations also conducted an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 10,000 children against measles, polio and other deadly diseases. It's an undoubted success story.

More broadly, staying on the subject of Syria, you will be aware that the coalition and our Syrian Democratic Force partners are fighting ISIS in the last area of real physical terrain which they hold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley around the town of Hajin. This is a hard fight. Indeed, we have witnessed some of the most intense fighting since ISIS were defeated in Raqqa and Mosul.

The ultimate outcome is not in doubt: ISIS will be defeated in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

And I very much welcome the recent announcement by the Syrian Democratic Force that they have resumed ground offensive operations in the area.

Finally in Syria, I'd like to highlight that on the 8th of November, the U.S. and Turkish military conducted the second combined joint patrol in accordance with the plan set out in the Manbij roadmap.

I'm grateful to the Turkish military for their support in ensuring the safety and security of Manbij. This is a critical part of the coalition's efforts to prevent the resurgence of ISIS there and to enable the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced people.

Turning now to Iraq, where Iraqi Security Forces continue to target ISIS fighters who are attempting to regroup and regain after the significant losses they have suffered in this country over the last couple of years. The Iraqi security forces are conducting Operation Last Warning, a series of coordinated military efforts that began in the Anbar region, targeting small pockets of ISIS fighters, and has broadened to include the whole country.

In addition to this, the Iraqi security forces recently strengthened their positions on the Iraq-Syria border. These troops not only secure Iraq's sovereignty and security by effectively present -- preventing ISIS militants from fleeing the fighting in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, but they reinforce the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Force across the border.

In Salahuddin province, Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi counter-terrorism service, supported by the coalition, conducted multiple strikes on an ISIS senior leader meeting on Khanukah Mountain, killing a significant number of ISIS militants, including a number of their key leaders. These are the leaders who are responsible for overseeing ISIS operations within Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Nineveh and northern Anbar province.

In the nearby Makmuhr Mountains, Iraqi special operations forces, with the assistance of the coalition, conducted strikes and clearance operations that killed a number ISIS fighters and severely disrupted ISIS planning efforts.

These operations demonstrate cooperation between military organizations and are a hallmark of how the global coalition will ultimately ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS.

I'm delighted, therefore, to be able to mention here the new NATO-led mission in Iraq, which will work to further develop Iraq's security institutions and structures. The new mission, NATO Mission Iraq, is expected to be fully set up in early 2019. It will be a non-combat mission and will have advisers working closely with officials of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the Office of the National Security Advisor to help Iraq build a more effective, sustainable, inclusive and transparent defense sector.

I would just like to conclude my remarks by mentioning the recently published year-end report on Unearthing Atrocities: Mass Graves in Territory Formerly Controlled by ISIL. This report documents 202 mass gravesites and the U.N. estimates that these sites contain between 6,000 and 12,000 bodies. This is a stark reminder of why the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS was established and why nations across the globe have been willing to send their fighting men and women here.

These graves demonstrate the systematic and widespread campaign of violence and terror ISIS perpetrated across Iraq and Syria. The evil of ISIS must be defeated. Their actions amount not only to war crimes, but to crimes against humanity and genocide. We must ensure their lasting defeat and to ensure this never happens again.

I think that concludes my opening remarks and now -- now I'd be happy to take any questions that you might have.

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

Kasim?

Q: Yes. Yes, General, this Kasim Ileri with Anadolu agency. Thanks for doing this. I have a question.

The U.S. has -- reports are coming out of Syria saying that U.S.-led coalition strikes in the town of al-Shafa and the village of Gamsha have -- in rural Deir ez-Zorhas killed more than 20 civilians. Could you confirm or comment on that?

And I have a follow-up on your opening statement.

GEN. GHIKA: So -- can you just say that again? The -- the line was not very clear.

Q: Okay. Reports are coming out of Syria, claiming that the U.S.-led coalition strikes in the town of al-Shafa and the village of Gamsha in the rural Deir ez-Zor has killed more than 20 civilians. Could you confirm or comment on those claims?

GEN. GHIKA: So, I think the first thing I'd say about that is, those are very early and completely unsubstantiated reports. We're researching that at the moment.

I think it's important on this issue of civilian casualties to make really clear that we conduct all our strikes with considerable care for each and every strike to minimize civilian casualties at every turn. And where there are allegations, we investigate them very thoroughly.

And I think that we have to be particularly aware of people who put stories like this into the information space, knowing that they're not true. And then we all run off on them.

So these are unsubstantiated at this stage. We will investigate them, as we investigate every allegation of civilian casualties.

Q: Okay. And a follow-up on your opening statement.

In your opening, you said -- you actually mentioned the delivery of humanitarian aid to Rukban refugee camp as a success story. However, the strongest military of the world waited for Russian approval and -- actually -- mercy to deliver that aid to the refugees in Rukban camp.

What kind of a success story it is on the side of the coalition?

GEN. GHIKA: So -- again, sorry to be unclear but I think your question was about the Rukban delivery.

And I'd say that the situation around Rukban is very complicated and, as you know, there's a deconfliction zone. There are a number of different forces operating there.

And ensuring the security of the convoy in and out was our primary consideration. And therefore, I don't think it's surprising that it took quite a lot of time and effort to get it there.

That we got it there and it delivered aid to people in need, I think is a thing we should focus on.

Q: Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Joe?

Q: General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra News.

I would like to go -- to go back to your opening remarks in regards to the SDF that, as you said, they have resumed their operations in the MERV.

I would like, if you could, give us more details about this operation in the Hajin area; why it took so long and until now, you still admit that ISIS is in Hajin. And also, what's your estimate of the ISIS fighters in the Hajin area and surrounding the area?

GEN. GHIKA: Yeah.

So, I think the first thing I'd say about that area there, is that operations never stopped in the MERV. And the SDF and the coalition continue to prosecute operations to attack and contain ISIS in the MERV.

The estimate of the size, we think between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters.

And I think that we should not be surprised that this is a hard fight. The people who are in there -- the ISIS fighters in the MERV -- are some of their most hardened fighters. They have nowhere to go. They are being contained. They have had time to construct a series of defense positions, IED belts, underground tunnels, things like that. And so we shouldn't be surprised that this takes time.

What is important is the -- the commitment of the coalition and the SDF to ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS that are there and they will be defeated.

Q: Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Laurie?

Q: Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Kurdish authorities are reporting an increase in ISIS terrorism in the disputed territories. Do you have a plan for dealing with that?

GEN. GHIKA: Sorry, can you say that again?

Q: Kurdish authorities are reporting an increase in ISIS terrorism in the territories that are disputed between them and Baghdad. Do you have a plan, now that the Iraqi elections are over and the Iraqi government is in formation, for dealing with that problem?

GEN. GHIKA: We -- we absolutely do have a plan, and it comprises building the capability of the Iraqi security forces, and then using that capability to get after ISIS fighters, who are desperately trying to stay -- stay in Iraq, and desperately trying to retain some semblance of relevance.

It is inevitable that some attacks will get through, but they are a tiny amount when you compare them to those that ISIS plan and aspire to.

Q: What about increased coordination between the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga? Because the U.S. -- the inspector general for the Pentagon just put out a report saying that that is a big problem, that there needs to be better cooperation between the two forces.

GEN. GHIKA: So, I think that the issue of coordination is one that we've seen before. There are increasing levels of coordination between the two, principally using the operations commands that we have established across the country, all coordinated by -- using the assistance of the coalition.

So in the last couple of months, there have been a number of joint operations conducted between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces, and that's something we intend to keep doing.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Lara?

Q: Hi, sir. Lara Seligman with Foreign Policy.

You spoke about the new NATO-led mission in Iraq. Can you just give us some more details about this? Who are the countries that are involved? How many personnel do each of them have? And what exactly are they going to be doing? You said it's a non-combat mission; what does that mean?

GEN. GHIKA: So, the NATO mission is going to be about strengthening the Iraqi defense institutions. And therefore, it's going to focus its efforts on the institutional education establishments -- such as the National Defense University, the Staff College, the institutional structure of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense -- and then some of the schools, which are building military capability in areas such as engineering, such as infantry fighting and things like that.

And they will focus themselves on teaching the Iraqis who will be instructing in those schools, rather than actually instructing in some of the combat skills which the coalition have been involved in.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Ryan?

Q: General, Ryan Browne, CNN. Thank you for doing this.

You talked a little bit about the SDF restart of the ground campaign near Hajin. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic -- or previously, the coalition was talking about assurance patrols with the SDF in northeast Syria as part of an effort to de-escalate tensions.

The SDF in their statement announcing the restart said that those efforts allowed them to restart this offensive. What is the situation in northeast Syria right now? Are you seeing cross-border shelling continuing from Turkey? Has that stopped? Has that been one of the factors that has allowed the offensive to continue?

GEN. GHIKA: Well, I'm -- I'm aware of the situation on the north Syrian border, and I'm aware that there has been some reports of -- of cross-border fires. I -- I think the thing I would highlight is the fight has not stopped in the MERV, and I think from the point of view of the CJTF, I would call on all parties to deescalate the situation in northern Syria.

I know that nations, groups, indeed individuals all have a view on it. From my perspective, I think I would call on all parties to focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS, which is the objective of the CJTF and I think is the primary objective for the parties involved.

Q: Have you seen de-escalation? Have you seen a reduction in some of those tensions from that previous spike, or has it kind of remained constant?

GEN. GHIKA: I think it -- there remains a tense situation there, but I think it would serve everybody's interests to deescalate it so we can concentrate on the enduring defeat of ISIS.

Q: Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Caitlyn?

Q: Hi, Caitlyn (inaudible) with Stars and Stripes.

The U.S. Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General released a report earlier this month and one of the takeaways is that it will take the Iraqi Security Forces years, if not decades, to operate independently.

Does that sound accurate to you and how are you factoring this into your -- this assessment into your training and long-term planning?

GEN. GHIKA: Well, I -- I don't really look at it over time, I'm afraid. I don't view the -- the issue in that -- in that space. I -- I mentioned that I was here in 2014 and '15, and the Iraqi Security Forces are a quantum leap more professional and more effective today than they were then.

Their capability increases by the day because of the training that they're receiving from the coalition nations and because of the assistance and advice provided by the coalition. They get more independent every day and to me it's not a question of time, it's a question of capability relative to ISIS.

And at that moment, I can see an increasingly capable Iraqi -- set of Iraqi Security Forces that are seeking to overmatch an ISIS in Iraq that is struggling for relevance.

Q: My follow up is -- I mean, do you not, to that -- as a concern though that we could be involved in Syria and Iraq dealing with ISIS for -- for almost a generation and that -- that that's not being factored into the training, that there's no kind of like goal or end point or end game other than just the defeat of ISIS?

GEN. GHIKA: No I -- I don't look at it in terms of time. I mean I'm a soldier and I look at it in terms of conditions and the enduring defeat of ISIS is what the global coalition has committed itself to undertake. That plan, which is being rolled out over Iraq and Syria, is going very well.

It's going very well because of the commitment of the parties involved and I don't look at it in terms of time, I look at it in terms of a decreasing ISIS capability and the increasing safety for all of our nations by not having this virulent threat out there in the space.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Idrees?

Q: Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Given the tensions between Turkey and the SDF that you sort of talked to, do you foresee a situation where the joint patrols in Manbij could be paused, or will they continue regardless of what Turkey does on the border?

GEN. GHIKA: Well, I think the Manbij road map is a bilateral agreement between two NATO allies who are working together to provide security for the people of Manbij against an ISIS threat, and I think it's speculation to try and forecast how that may go.

What I will say is for the moment we've had two other joint combined patrols that have gone very well. We're sticking dead on to the plan and I think it's providing security for the people of Manbij and it's something that we should both take pride in.

Q: Could you just remind me, is -- is there an end or is it sort of the number of patrols are time-limited or is it just going to continue?

GEN. GHIKA: No, there's -- there's -- there's no sort of end state to this, there's no -- there's no timeline with a dead stop on it. This is a continual process with a purpose, which is to provide security for the people of Manbij in a -- in a joint and combined operation between two NATO allies.

Q: And sorry, just one -- how many coalition troops are taking part in -- in -- in the joint patrols?

GEN. GHIKA: Well, you -- you wouldn't expect me to -- to start to give you operational detail like that. What I will say is that we have sufficient forces available to go into a joint and combined operation with Turkey to achieve the effect, which is the security of the people of Manbij.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Otto?

Q: General, Otto Kreischer, Seapower Magazine.

On the new NATO mission, you didn't say what countries were involved and how many personnel are expected to be there when you fully -- when you're fully stood up?

GEN. GHIKA: Is that for -- sorry, forgive me, I didn't hear the start. Is that for the NATO mission?

Q: Yes, NATO mission.

GEN. GHIKA: That's a very easy question. They are all NATO soldiers.

Q: And how many and what countries?

GEN. GHIKA: They come from NATO countries, they are force-generated by NATO to deliver a NATO mission.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Jane's?

Q: Hi sir, Ashley Roque with Jane's.

As U.S. sanctions have gone into effect with Iran, have you noticed any changes in Iranian activities within Syria or other countries in the region?

GEN. GHIKA: So that's a -- a -- a political question and you wouldn't expect me to comment on that. I think it's important to say that we do not get drawn off into other issues in the region. This is a complicated part of the world to be operating.

There are a whole range of regional and national disputes going on in the area and it's important to realize that the Combined Joint Task Force is here to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS, and we keep very strictly to that mission set.

Q: And politics aside, have you noticed any shift in activities?

GEN. GHIKA: So I'm not tracking Iranian activity, I'm tracking ISIS activity.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Do we have any questions from someone who has not had an opportunity to ask one yet?

Okay. In that case, I'll take just one last question. Ryan?

Q: General, thank you for this -- you mentioned Rukban earlier. And then I just wanted -- there's been reports about efforts to dismantle the Rukban refugee camp because, as you said, it's a very difficult situation. Is the coalition aware of those efforts and are they supportive of those efforts?

GEN. GHIKA: So I mean, that’s speculation. I think we would seek to support anything which assisted the humanitarian position and situation there. It's not for us to comment on the -- on the dismantling or the continuation of the Rukban camp.

But if we can assist in any way, as we did with this convoy, to bring humanitarian aid to some people who are suffering then we will try and assist.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Sir, did you have any final words for those here?

GEN. GHIKA: No, I don't think so. I'm grateful to you for coming. I'm -- I'm very happy to have answered your questions and I'd be very happy to do so again in the future.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Thank you very much, sir. Have a fantastic day.

GEN. GHIKA: Thank you. Have a good day. Bye-bye.