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:  Good morning.  I'm 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.  Good morning, Sean.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Good morning, sir.

This brief should -- should -- we should have ample time for this brief this morning.  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.  I hope everyone had a happy holiday, and is staying safe with the weather on the East Coast.  I'll get right into it by discussing the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria.

Along the Syrian/Iraqi border, the 8th Iraqi Army Division continues to reinforce border security by engaging and repelling ISIS militants as they try to flee the offensive in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Iraqi units continue to conduct coordinated strikes, even as ISIS elements probe border positions with vehicle-borne IEDs, motorcycles, small arms fires and mortars.

On 20 November, the Iraqi air force launched two air strikes targeting an ISIS weapons facility in a building that housed 30 ISIS fighters.  This operation also signifies the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to protect its borders and to uproot cells.

In Mosul, Iraqi SWAT forces, backed by coalition air support, carried out a security operation in the al-Menkar village that resulted in five enemies killed.  More importantly, this operation demonstrated ISF are strengthening their intelligence-gathering to disrupt enemy operations and to protect the Iraqi citizens from bombings and kidnappings.

Another example of a successful ISF operation which resulted in the death of an ISIS senior leader code-named Katkut, who is known to have planned and conducted attacks in Al Hadr southwest of Mosul.  He was killed in Saladin province after fleeing from the scene of an attack earlier in the week.

Moving to Syria, in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, the coalition continues to support the SDF ground operations against ISIS with air and artillery strikes, pushing back enemy defensive positions and removing terrorists from the battlefield.  These strikes have thwarted ISIS counter-attacks and ensure they remain contained in the MERV.

The SDF continues to set conditions for offensive operations, like staging weapons, reinforcing fighting positions, and channeling reinforcements into the fight.

ISIS remnants are fortifying their positions and digging in for a protracted campaign.  We should remain patient, as fighting will continue to be intense as we continue to pressure the enemy into smaller and smaller spaces.

This is the last real physical terrain held by enemy forces, and they will continue to wage a resistance as they steadily lose relevance.

Also in Syria, the SDF arrested a senior ISIS official accused of involvement in the assassination of Sheikh Bashir Faysal al-Huwaidi, an Arab chieftain in Raqqa.

This targeted operation undermines the enemy's ability to operate in the shadows, and allows the SDF to ultimately eliminate sleeper cells that continue to threaten civilians and prolong their demise.

The coalition and its partners will continue to fight terrorists and degrade their capabilities.  It's important to take the fight to this enemy.  We must continue to consolidate our considerable gains.

Near Manbij, the alliance between Turkish and U.S. forces in the combined joint patrols allows us to continue to deny terrorists access to this area which over time has become a community that is thriving.  This stability is a direct result of our focus of our NATO ally Turkey and through cooperation with local officials from Manbij.

Additionally, U.S. forces are establishing observation posts in northeast Syria to further deny escape routes to ISIS, who may try to flee the MERV into Turkey to the north.  These observation posts will provide additional transparency and will better enable Turkey's protection from ISIS elements.

ISIS must be defeated and we must fight them here, because it means our loved ones across the globe will be safer if we do, and this is where the greatest concentration of evil is located.

To accomplish this, we cannot walk away, we must stay and work with our partners to develop their capabilities and capacity and ensure they can prevent this enemy from ever threatening Iraq, Syria and any other country around the world.

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 question.  All called upon will have an opportunity to ask one follow-up.

Kasim?

Q:  Colonel Ryan, thanks.  This is Kasim Ileri for Anadolu Agency.

Colonel Ryan, this is the second time that we hear -- we are hearing about the U.S. or the coalition training 30,000 fighters in northern Syria.  Once (inaudible) didn't disclose that the United States is training a border security force, then it was immediately denied by the Pentagon.

And then, now the PYD is -- has released a statement saying that the coalition or the United States is going to train 30,000 troops, actually SDF fighters to challenge the Iranian presence in Syria.

Colonel Ryan, can you confirm that the coalition is training 30,000 SDF fighters inside Syrian to challenge the Iranian presence?

COL. RYAN:  I can tell you that, as you know, we have trained the SDF in the past and their success in the MERV has proven that.  They're a capable force.

But we're not tracking a physical memorandum of agreement right now, so I'd have to tall you to probably refer to the SDF spokesman for further clarification at this point.

Q:  And a follow-up on the outpost along the Turkish border.  I know it's a unilateral United States act, move, but what will be the role of the coalition in that?  And has the coalition consulted with the SDF about those outposts?

COL. RYAN:  No.  We have coordinated with the Department of State and have briefed Turkey on these operations, because these are on the Turkish border.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Laurie?

Q:  Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.  Thank you very much, Colonel Ryan, for doing this.

You mentioned the killing of Katkut in Saladin.  Could you tell us more about who this person is, where he's from?

COL. RYAN:  Sure, Laurie.  Thanks for the question.

I should say doctor.  He is Iraqi born.  Of course, he was killed in the Saladin province.  He led a mortar detachment.  He was known as an ISIS emir that held various leadership positions.  And of course more importantly, he attacked and killed and injured Iraqi civilians and he had to go.

So, it's -- it's another example of a close coordination where the senior leaders are being eliminated, and that only helps the progress of the coalition.

Q:  Thanks.  And a follow-up.

On the outpost, Turkey has said it objects to those outposts.  Have you -- has anyone managed to work something out with Turkey to see their value?

COL. RYAN:  Well, the value is it brings stability and enables, you know, a better fight against ISIS in the area.  We're actually securing the locations by manning these observation posts, so I think it's a win-win for both on this one.

Q:  You got Turkey to agree to this?

COL. RYAN:  Yes, Turkey was fully briefed on this.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ryan?

Q:  Hey, Colonel, thank you -- thank you for doing this.

Have you seen -- now that these outposts are being set up, have you seen continued cross-border attacks from the Turkish side or from the Syrian side, is this -- or has that stopped?

And I have one additional question on Hajin, if I can.

COL. RYAN:  Okay.  Well, the last week alone we've probably seen over 100 strikes of -- of sorts -- munitions, not anything specific, into our area and obviously this is a very reckless on -- on these individuals part to do that because it's not along the same lines as us fighting ISIS.

This is in the MERV area of course, but that's -- that's all that we have at this point.  I'm not going to name and shame anyone, but there's going to be a press release out, so there'll be more information involved in that.

Q:  Sorry, Colonel, I was asking specifically about cross-border attacks on the Turkish-Syrian border.  Those attacks had kind of forced the offensive in Hajin to stop previously.  These posts are going in there, have you seen any more cross-border attacks or is that -- have those stopped?

COL. RYAN:  We have not seen any more at this point.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sylvie?

Q:  [Sylvie Lanteaume with AFP.]

We -- you were speaking about the observation posts.  When do you plan to finish installing them, and how many do you plan to -- to install?

COL. RYAN:  Well, we're still looking at locations right now.  I can't tell you the number we're going to install because that's operational security, but we're looking at appropriate space and then we'll go from there once we find that.

Q:  So do you -- do you already have some or is it really -- it's starting, a process that's just starting?

COL. RYAN:  No, right now we're in the -- the progress of securing locations.  They have not been completed yet.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sir there in the fourth row?

Q:  Hey sir, it's Carlo Munoz with the Washington Times.

A quick question, Ambassador Jeffrey gave an interview to Russian news outlets last week basically saying there have been quote "various engagements" end quote between U.S. forces and Russian, I guess, paramilitaries that have been working in Syria, outside of the -- the incident that happened in February.

During the interview he said these engagements have happened quote "a dozen times or so, sometimes involving small arms fire, sometimes involving deconfliction."  He didn't really provide any more details as far as, you know, locations of these engagements, how intense they were.

Can you provide some more information on where -- what exactly Ambassador Jeffrey is talking about?

COL. RYAN:  I cannot.  Any further information would violate operational security.  I can tell you that after February -- I came in right after that and we have not had any problems on that front.  The deconfliction process has been proven to work and so far that's what we've been seeing.

Q:  So then Ambassador Jeffrey, these incidents that he -- that he is citing in this interview, they -- they just haven't been occurring, or they just haven't been reported?  You know, I'm just trying to sort of square this circle here between what he's saying and -- and your comments.

COL. RYAN:  Right, well I also -- he -- he did not give a timeline on that, so it could possibly be before February.  I don't know, I really don't want to speculate on something like that.  All I can tell you since I've been here, we've used the deconfliction process and we haven't had any serious incidents.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Lucas?

Q:  Colonel, Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.

What can you tell us about this large ISIS counter-attack in eastern Syria recently?

COL. RYAN:  Okay.  Well, yeah, it was in the MERV, ISIS counter-attacked and we've been saying this from the beginning that it's a very difficult fight.  I mean this is definitely not -- you know, Mayberry.  People are dying and for the ISIS side, it's fight until the end and they have a lot of booby traps and IED's and suicide fighters out there.

And -- and basically they came up with a counter-attack in -- in poor weather conditions and kind of caught the SDF off -- off guard, quite frankly.  Since, they've regained all the territory they lost, casualties have been inflicted on -- on both sides but the SDF continues to march on.

Q:  And just a follow-up to just overall operations in Syria, are you seeing Iranian or Iranian-backed forces increasing weapon shipments to Syria, growing in size in Syria, or Iraq by that matter?

COL. RYAN:  No, we're -- I'm not tracking that right now.  So there's someone out there that might be tracking that, but definitely not from the coalition side.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Jeff?

Q:  Thank you.  Colonel, Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.  I believe you mentioned there's going to be a news release tomorrow about munitions being used and I'm wondering can you say what is this about?

Are you saying that actors are doing air strikes and artillery strikes close to U.S. forces and the SDF?

COL. RYAN:  I can tell you no U.S. forces have -- have been put in any danger.  I'm saying that there are malign actors that are firing into our areas right now, so that's something that we're looking into and again I think the press release will shed a little bit more light on that.

I don't have all that information at this time.

Q:  Thank you.  Is there a reason you -- you use terms like malign actors as opposed to say Iran or Hezbollah?

COL. RYAN:  Sure, because I'm not -- I'm not going to get into the name and shame game.  I think it's more important that for operation security purposes that we just know where the strikes are coming from, and that way if we have the right to defend ourselves, if we have to do that we will, but it hasn't gotten to that point yet.

Q:  If I could just follow up one more time, the Coalition does name and shame ISIS, al-Qaida and others, what is different about Hezbollah and Iran?

COL. RYAN:  Well, right now the fight is against ISIS in the MERV and that's our -- our mission right now and -- and that's all I'll state for that one.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Tuna?

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.  Tuna Sanli from [Turkish Radio Television]

I want to follow up the previous two questions about the outposts -- to clarify, the purpose of the observation posts.  First of all, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told (inaudible) activity of the observation posts.

And in the other times, you say that these observation posts are used to protect Turkey from ISIS attacks.  So are these observation posts built for both protecting Turkey and YPG?

COL. RYAN:  Well, what it does is -- it's committed to the security in the northeastern Syria region, and takes Turkey's security concerns as well.  So that's -- that's important, they're a NATO partner, they're also a coalition partners.

So if we see any ISIS come into that area, they're the first ones that we're going to call.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Caitlin, thank you.

Q:  Hi.  Caitlin Kenney with Stars and Stripes.

I wanted to follow up on what you said, that a -- in Syria, an ISIS official was captured.  Do you have a name and what their rank within the organization is?

COL. RYAN:  Right now, the reports we have, we can't positively ID that person yet.  So I do not have that information.

Q:  Do you know that he's a leader in ISIS (inaudible)?

COL. RYAN:  Are you -- are you talking about Katkut or are you talking about someone else?

Q:  You didn't give a name.  You said that in Syria, there was an ISIS official that was captured.  I don't -- I don't think you gave a -- a name.  And I think there was someone in Iraq, too, but you said "in Syria," I believe.

COL. RYAN:  That -- that was Iraq.  Right.  The -- the story that I talked about, that Katkut was in Iraq.  For Syria, that -- there's reports out there that the number-two ISIS, Baghdadi's deputy, was apprehended.  And right now, we cannot confirm any of that information.

Q:  Okay.  And my follow-up on the ambassador, Jeffrey's comments about engagements with -- with Russia.  Are you -- you said you haven't seen an increase.  I mean, like, in the past, like, how have you been able to make sure that -- that that hasn't, like, increased or the deconfliction is -- is working?

COL. RYAN:  Repeat that again, please?

Q:  Sorry, I'm kind of all over.  I guess, like, you said there hasn't been any incidents since February with Russia, in attacking American forces?  Or, like, clashes between the two?

COL. RYAN:  Correct.  Since February.

Q:  Okay.  So you don't know when the dozens -- ones that he was referring to happened at all?  You don't know if they happened this year?

COL. RYAN:  No.  I -- I do not.  Unless there's some high-secret stuff that I'm not aware of, I'm not tracking that at all.

Q:  Okay.

Q:  Thank you.  Tom Watkins with AFP.

Can you characterize the remaining ISIS contingent in the MERV?  And give us your assessment about how they were able to launch this big counter-offensive.

COL. RYAN:  Well, I can tell you, they have not lost their -- their will to fight.  And we're seeing about 2,000 fighters still left in the MERV area.  They're determined.  We're seeing some foreign terrorist fighters that have nowhere else to go, so they're going to fight to the end.

A lot of them wearing suicide vests, like I mentioned before.  So anyone can have a good day -- any given Sunday, right?  And they had theirs.  And the SDF responded back, and regained all the territory back.

Like I said, sometimes war is a give-and-take.  And you're going to have good days and bad days.  They just happened -- the enemy just happened to have one good day.  And then the SDF beat them right back.

So we still are -- a hundred percent feel that they're going to be taken over in -- in the MERV area.  And that the SDF will beat ISIS down, and we're pretty confident about that.

Q:  Okay.  Just to follow up, it's been -- I'm sorry I don't have an exact timeline, but it feels like it's been at least a year that we've been hearing this -- and the same number, and the same area.

So is it that the -- the overall number of ISIS fighters is not diminishing, i.e. they're being replenished, or there's a stalemate, or what's going on there?  Why is it taking so long?

COL. RYAN:  Well, again, it's -- it's less about the number of fighters and more about capabilities.  And I can tell you, every day their capabilities are being degraded as far as communication, logistics -- any type of supplies, food, ammunition.  So that's more important.

The numbers game is difficult to count because ISIS is underground.  They're in tunnels, they're hiding.  So it's not like they're -- we walk -- we watch them walk into a building, we're counting as they go in.

So they're -- they're spread apart.  And you have to understand, the battlefield is a very big desert battlefield as well, so it's very difficult to come up with numbers to do that.

And of course, I believe General Dunford had said last month that for a while there, we're seeing about a hundred, you know, fighters come into the region as replacements as well.

So the number has -- has kind of stayed in that area.  But, again, it's just a -- an estimate.  And eventually, they'll be overtaken.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Lena?

Q:  Thank you.  Lena with Al Jazeera.  Thank you for doing this, Colonel.

I just had a quick question about the observation posts.  I was wondering if you can share with us the number of U.S. troops that will be placed on those posts.

COL. RYAN:  I can't give you that number for observation -- you know for Op-Sec obviously reasons.

And, again, keep in mind, a lot of questions on these outposts, that this is still very new.  You know, sometimes you have to build an (airframe ?) in-flight and -- and you know, we're going to figure this out and we're going to come up with the best solution to provide security in that region for both ourselves and for Turkey.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Anybody who hasn't asked a question yet that -- that still wants one?

All right.  Carlo?

Q:  Hey, Colonel.  It's Carlo Munez again with The Washington Times.

Just wanted to see, there have been, also, reports that the United Nations is considering sending in weapons inspectors to investigate claims of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

What I wanted to see was, has -- has there been any interaction between U.N. officials and -- and coalition officials, as far as facilitating that trip?  What kind of force protections measures would be taken?

And if so, would they -- would they be provided by the coalition, or would it be provided by groups like the SDF or anything like that?

COL. RYAN:  Those discussions have not happened as far as I'm tracking.  But of course, we're always willing to assist the U.N. for different needs.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Sylvie?

Q:  I have another question.  Sylvie from AFP.

Can you confirm the -- the number of 92 SDF killed in three days during this counter-attack by ISIS?

COL. RYAN:  I can tell you, there was losses on both sides but we're tracking the casualties for SDF around 80.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Ryan?

Q:  Colonel, just one last one on observation posts.  The -- Secretary Mattis, when he announced that these posts were going in, said that no additional U.S. troops would be going to Syria to help man them.

But have they -- isn't there a concern, as this fighting in Hajin's really intense right now.  You mentioned the 80 casualties by the SDF.

Pulling U.S. troops away from supporting that effort and putting them up on these observation posts without bringing any additional resources, isn't this a diversion of resources that you have at your disposal?

COL. RYAN:  Ryan, I don't think so.  I mean, there's already forces in that area.  So they'll just have to take on an additional responsibility.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  I have Laurie and then Jeff, and then we'll -- we'll wrap it up.

Laurie?

Q:  Okay.  So to follow up this question about understanding ISIS, I -- I think the question about this -- in Syria, you had mentioned that there -- there had been a senior ISIS official assassinated, a tribal leader in Raqqa.  Do you have any more details on that person?

COL. RYAN:  No.  I can tell you that -- not on the assassination itself.  It did happen, you know, during the day.  He was a key figure with the Raqqa Civil Council.  And obviously, he was, you know, beloved in that area, trying to help that area get going.

But besides that, I don't have any more information.

Q:  What about the ISIS figure who was -- who assassinated him?  You said they -- the SDF arrested the ISIS figure.  Can you tell us who this ISIS figure is?  Are they Syrian, for example?

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

Q:  You've -- you said in your introductory remarks that the SDF had arrested a senior ISIS official who had assassinated a tribal leader in Raqqa.  I think the earlier question, mine as well -- can you tell us more about the senior ISIS official who was arrested?  Was he Syrian, for example?

COL. RYAN:  I can't tell you more because they're still investigating that, Laurie.  So I don't want to give out any more information that I'm not supposed to.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay.  Jeff for one last question here.

Q:  Thank you.  Colonel, Jeff with Task & Purpose again.

For 11 consecutive months, the coalition has said that the -- that ISIS has only 2 percent of its geographical caliphate left, and there are roughly 2,000 fighters in the MERV valley.  How is that progress, if that's still the case after 11 months?

COL. RYAN:  Well, again, Jeff, it's not about land.  And it's -- it's down to less than 1 percent.  It's about their capabilities.  And dismantling their capabilities goes a long way.

You start, you know, tracking the money down, you start taking away their logistic supplies -- there's no more will to fight, once those go away.

So that is progress.

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

COL. RYAN:  I will say, it's -- I want to give condolence on two different levels.  One, to the SDF fighters that gave their life this past weekend.  Of course, to our fellow warriors in Afghanistan, that, you know, were -- were killed as well.  So our -- our thoughts and prayers go out to their families.

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

COL. RYAN:  You as well.