Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via Teleconference in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren
STAFF: All right. Good morning, everybody.
We don't have anything on the screen yet, Tom.
STAFF: There he is. All right. So, we are pleased to be joined today by Colonel Steve Warren from Operation Inherent Resolve. We'll give you an opener. Signal me if you'd like to get on my question list. If you speak up loud enough, think he can hear us. If not, I've got the mike ready to go Phil Donahue-style if he's having a hard time hearing, but try to speak loud enough.
All right, Steve. Over to you.
COL. WARREN: Thank you, Jeff. I appreciate it.
And good morning members of the Pentagon press corps. It's good to see you again for our second briefing from Baghdad.
I want to mention a few things before we get to questions. And I know you've got questions, but let me run through a couple of facts to get you updated on current events here.
As of 12 o'clock today, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted a total of 7,440 airstrikes, with 4,798 in Iraq, 2,642 in Syria. In Ramadi, the ISF continues to move to isolate enemy forces who are occupying the capital of Anbar province. We've conducted 292 strikes against ISIL in and around that city since operations there began. We've conducted 52 strikes just in the last 10 days. These strikes have killed hundreds of fighters, destroyed mortar positions, vehicle-borne IEDs, explosive facilities, heavy machine guns, and even sniper positions.
Aided by our strikes, Iraqi ground forces have advanced 15 kilometers over the last seven days and we've seen some encouraging developments. Last week for the first time, Iraqi F-16s provided direct support to maneuvering Iraqi ground forces. Over the past week, the CTS, the counterterrorist service, in particular has stood out in very tough fighting along the western approaches to Ramadi.
Iraqi ground forces recently trained and equipped by the coalition have been deployed around Ramadi in time for the decisive phase of this operation. We now believe that battlefield conditions are set for the ISF to push into the city.
In Northern Iraq, a recent Peshmerga operation returned more than 400 square kilometers of territory to government control, and liberated 23 villages, which will allow thousands of Iraqis to return to their homes.
In Syria, where our air operations continue, and we recently conducted an aerial resupply, friendly forces have liberated hundreds of square miles and cut Daesh off from all but 68 miles of the 600-mile long border with Turkey.
Also in Syria, since they began operations, the Russians have conducted approximately 80 strikes in Syria, including the recently reported cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea.
These strikes have been clustered around homes in Hama. We assessed that only a fraction of these strikes have been against ISIL or in ISIL-dominated areas. In contrast, coalition air strikes have continued to inflict casualties on the enemy, while taking care to minimize civilian casualties.
Before we move to questions, I do want to briefly highlight some of the effects of our operations. In addition to enabling local forces to fight ISIL, coalition air strikes are killing leaders that ISIL relies on for command and control, financing, logistics and propaganda. Even as they replace their emirs and their facilitators, our air strikes are forcing the enemy to change the way they communicate, they way they move, reinforce and resupply.
When we strike an enemy leader, we call it an HVI strike, HVI stands for High Value Individual. Coalition HVI strikes are depleting ISIL's bench. Recent HVI strikes have eliminated key enemy leaders, including Haji Mutazz on August 18th, and Junaid Hussain on August 24th.
Mutazz, as you know, was ISIL's second in command. He was responsible for operations both in Iraq and Syria. Hussain was a top recruiter.
Recently, we've also eliminated a number of social media savvy ISIL members, who used social media as a weapon in attempts to recruit Westerners for -- (inaudible) -- attacks.
HVI strikes have killed approximately 70 senior and mid-level leaders since the beginning of May. That equates to one HVI killed every two days.
In the last two months, strikes near Mosul have killed eight of ISIL's top leaders in that city, including Haji Mutazz.
We assess that this pressure creates paranoia, causes the enemy to continually reevaluate their security. In the days following a leadership strike, what we see is that ISIL routinely conducts searches of their own fighters, their own officials. They're known to execute suspected spies, and those who even practice poor operational security.
HVI strikes force ISIL to employ second and third-tier leaders. For example, in July, we killed the wali of the Diyālá province. A wali is a leader.
HVI -- so, we killed -- in July, we killed the wali of Diyālá province. That wali was replaced by his deputy, who we killed in September.
HVI strikes make ISIL leaders reluctant to communicate and afraid to move around the battle field for one simple reason -- they fear sudden death.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: Colonel Warren, it’s Bob Burns. Yeah, you've given us a lot to chew on, there.
Let me start with Ramadi. Go back to Ramadi. I believe you said that the U.S. now believes the battle field conditions are set for the Iraqis to move into the city. Why haven't they done so? And can you get us any indication that it's an eminent move by the Iraqis? What's holding them up?
COL. WARREN: Bob, thanks for that.
What we've seen is good progress over the course of the last week to ten days, maybe two weeks. As I have told you before, progress -- fighting had slowed down substantially over the summer for several reasons, environmental, which includes the extreme heat that was here, social, which includes the religious holidays that came up during the late part of the summer and some other factors.
All those factors are now beginning to -- to fade away, and we're starting to see progress. Like I said, ISF has tightened their ring around Ramadi, they're approaching on several axis, and they've in fact made about 15 -- 14 or 15 kilometers here in the last two weeks. So we're seeing movement. We're also seeing some better combined arms integration. We're seeing Iraqi F-16s providing direct support to maneuvering forces. We're seeing Iraqi forces approach these hardened obstacles that ISIL has placed around Ramadi in a more efficient way.
So I don't know that anything's holding them up, I think they're moving. We'd like to see them move as rapidly as possible. We believe that now a combination of the recent successes that they've had, along with the increased air power and increased ISR that we've allocated to the Ramadi fight, we believe that now is the time for a final push into Ramadi.
So we'll continue to encourage the Iraqis. The Iraqis are encouraged by their own success that they've had here recently, and we're going to continue to watch and see how this develops.
STAFF: Next will be Tom.
Q: Steve, it's Tom Bowman.
You know, we saw you two weeks ago when you said we're urging the Iraqis to take Ramadi. Today, we're saying -- you know, we believe they can do it. A couple of people I talked to in the building here said they're not even sure if the Iraqis can take Ramadi. That's one question.
Also, if you could talk about, besides the Iraqi security forces, what are the role here -- the roles of the Sunni tribal fighters and also maybe the Shia militias here?
COL. WARREN: Sure. Thanks, Tom. That's good. So three questions there. First, can they take it? We believe they can. They have the combat power, they have the training, they have the ISR and they have the air power that we're providing. And again, two weeks ago, I said that we believe that they are beginning to move and in the last two weeks, they've eaten up 15 kilometers. So I think that's a sign that there is progress. I mean, the Iraqis are starting to make some progress here.
Again, the environmental conditions have -- have lessened so that they're able to maneuver. They conducted a few relief in places, so some portions that have been on the lines have withdrawn and been replaced by fresh troops, many of whom are trained by coalition forces, freshly equipped, freshly trained, in possession of some -- some of the newer equipment that we've given them specifically designed to help them breach through these obstacles.
Now, that said, I don't want to overstate it, this is going to be a tough fight. It is going to be a tough fight, but we do believe that -- that -- like I've said, we do believe the conditions are set.
Role of the Sunni volunteers -- good question. Primarily, we see the Sunnis, they will participate in some of the fighting, but really we see them as part of the whole force, along with the federal police. We see the Sunni tribal volunteers who we've been training. We've I believe trained approximately, 5,000 of them so far -- trained and equipped about half of those.
So we will get them into the fight and we see them -- (inaudible) -- the whole force.
I'm trying to remember what your third question was. I can't remember what his third question was.
Q: (inaudible) -- the Shia militias.
COL. WARREN: Ah, Shia militias, right. So, as you know, the PMF is -- is, you know, it's a pretty broad group. The PMF who are working with the Iraqi security forces, whether they're Sunni or Shia, are PMF that -- that we will also work with. But it's all about whether or not they're working for the -- for the -- or whether or not it's under the command and control of the Iraqi security forces.
So we see some PMF who are Shia around, you know, in the battlefield around Ramadi and Fallujah. This is really an ISF-led fight, though. I've got to be honest with you. There are -- there are elements of the PMF on the battlefield, but this is really more of a conventional Iraqi security force-led fight, along with the CTS, who of course -- like I said in my opening, they've really distinguished themselves, you know, quite a bit here recently.
Q: Hi, Colonel Warren. Tara Copp, Stars and Stripes. Good to see you again.
A couple of follow-ups on Ramadi. Can you give us any sense of how far away the ISF troops are from Ramadi? (inaudible) -- about 14 to 15 kilometers, but what -- what is the distance from the city that gives you confidence that, you know, this battle is approaching closer?
And then switching topics to Syria train and equip, just a clarifier. Will the new program have the same kind of restrictions that the old program did that the -- the people receiving this equipment shouldn't be able to use it against the Assad regime?
COL. WARREN: Thanks, Tara.
Where are the Iraqi forces positioned? They are -- they have essentially encircled the city. So the approach -- there's four approaches into the city with Iraqi security forces occupying all four of those approaches and -- and squeezing in.
So I don't have -- I don't know the exact distance from, I don't know, the city center to the front-line trace of the Iraqi security forces. But it is -- it's at the point now where distance is less of an issue because it's dense urban terrain. The time-distance factor is going to be much different than on the approaches to the city.
If I were going to put it in more colloquial terms, I would say the ISF are probably around Falls Church, if it was Washington, D.C., that we were talking about; maybe they're coming in onto Arlington at this point, just to give you a sense of what this is like. So, they haven't entered the city center proper, but they're certainly kind of in the outer suburbs, if you will.
I hope that answers the question.
(inaudible) -- thanks -- thanks for that. It's something we need to talk about a little bit. I assume there will be some more questions.
So what can I tell you? I'll -- I'll -- I guess I'll start off with events over the weekend. I think it's been fairly accurately reported. There was a C-17 airdrop over the weekend. Approximately 50 tons of ammunition were dropped into Syria, specifically for the Syrian-Arab coalition. These are -- this is a -- sort of a team of teams. This is a group of smaller Syrian-Arab fighters who have, on their own, joined together to form a coalition, approximate strength maybe in the 5,000 range.
So this group -- we learned about this group as -- as part of our ongoing operations in Syria. Got to know the leader, we vetted the leader, we gave that leader some specific training on some of our specialized equipment, and now we have provided that leader and his forces with this 50 tons of ammunition.
Restrictions -- what we've done here, and this is -- I guess a couple of things I want to -- a couple of points I want to first. One, not anything new, right? That's kind of our big point. This is not a major shift in how we have been conducting our operations in Syria in my view. We have been supplying -- we've been -- I mean, we did an airdrop in Kobani almost a year ago of ammunition, at least 23 bundles of -- (inaudible). This -- this drop, by the way, was over 100 bundles.
So this -- I mean this is part of our program to equip -- train and equip forces who are fighting ISIL. In this case, these Syrian-Arab coalition fighters, they have been fighting ISIL in the vicinity of Raqqa. They're not that close to Raqqa, but if you look at a map, that'll kind of orient you. They've been fighting ISIL now for months. They're not anywhere near coalition -- they've not anywhere near regime forces, they are specifically near ISIL, which is who we are interested in fighting.
So while these forces are -- we do ask that we want them to fight ISIL. I -- I'm not prepared to talk about requirements or restrictions or pledges or anything like that. What I'll say is we're looking for forces who are pursuing the same objectives that we have, which is defeat and ultimate destruction of ISIL.
So the -- the next obvious question, will this continue? The answer is yes. Again, it has been ongoing. You know, I saw some headlines, $500 million Failed Train and Equip Program, and I think those are -- honestly, I think those headlines are misleading. We have spent a lot of money on the train and equip program, but the majority of that money or a large portion of that money, bought equipment.
So this 50 tons of ammunition that we dropped into Syria the other night is ammunition that we purchased with the Syria train and equip money. So we've spent about $300 million of that Syria train and equip money, maybe a little more, and the equipment that we've purchased is still going to get used to equip Syrian -- Syrians.
Does that answer your question, Tara?
Q: I guess just any other clarification you do on restrictions.
You said you wouldn't talk about it, but the -- the department was pretty clear that in the previous iteration, those forces would not be targeting the Assad regime. I don't get the sense that there's the same type of restriction on this new iteration.
COL. WARREN: Well, in this case, you know, yeah, the Syrian -- (inaudible) -- coalition is nowhere near the Assad regime. So it's kind of a moot point.
Q: Colonel, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC.
You opened your remarks today by ticking off a number of ISIS HVI targets that had been killed by coalition airstrikes. In the past, that proposition has been a risky one because they're so easily replaced by others. And there are also figures out there that say 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed by coalition airstrikes. But how many of those have you -- have been replaced?
Is there any indication that the overall force, the overall leadership of ISIS has been sufficiently degraded by these airstrikes?
COL. WARREN: Well, there are indications. "Sufficiently" I guess is a subjective term, Jim. But what I'll tell you is, we're drying up their bench, right? I mean, by killing this many of their leaders, they're having to go to second- and third-tier leaders. And like I said, you know, I gave that one example where, you know, they had a local leader, killed him. His deputy came up, became a leader, killed him. We haven't found the third guy yet, but when we do find him, we'll kill him.
So this has a great impact on the enemy's ability to fight. It has an impact on their ability to command and control their own forces. It sows paranoia within this group.
So "sufficient"? Well, it's certainly had an impact. And it has degraded their ability to conduct operations. It's significant to know, Jim. I mean, ISIL has not had one single -- they have not gained an inch of territory in Iraq since Ramadi -- not a -- not a millimeter. All they've done is hunker down and watch while their friends get killed, from the air or from the ground.
So I think we are having an impact. We -- we pick some of this up in some of the chatter we hear. We see this. You know, we've recently seen a number of ISIL fighters flee Mosul, right? I think that was just reported today, as a matter of fact. So we're seeing these indicators of not all is well in the -- in the so-called caliphate, right?
You know, they're -- we are pounding them from the air. They're under pressure from the ground here in Iraq. They're under pressure from the ground in Syria. So, the vise is beginning to tighten.
Again, I don't want to say -- I think I did sound pretty optimistic there -- I don't want to overplay that, though. To be sure, there are still -- you know, we estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 enemy fighters out there on this battlefield. That's a lot. The numbers of killed -- you know, we try to stay away from body counts, generally speaking. I'm not going to argue with those numbers that you just cited. But we -- we try not to get into that.
But what I'll tell you is we have -- we have eliminated ISIL fighters as fast as they've been able to recruit them -- as fast as they can recruit them, we're able to eliminate them.
And then you add in the fact that we have been eliminating their leaders, bringing -- (inaudible) -- second-tier leaders a lot of, you know, novice fighters. And you're beginning to see the edges fray.
So -- and what else did you have? I think that was it, right?
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, Steve. You mentioned in your opening remarks that Russia has conducted 80 airstrikes in Syria. And over the past week, we've heard repeatedly that the purpose of Syria's -- Russia's strikes into Syria is to bolster the Assad regime.
And so my question is do you have any indications that the Assad regime has been able to gain any territory in light of those 80 strikes in either areas around Hama or Homs?
COL. WARREN: I haven't seen any indications that the Assad regime has been able to make progress based on the Russian airstrikes. What we have seen, though -- and this is an important note -- we have seen ISIL make progress based on Russian airstrikes up around the (inaudible) which is in the northwestern corner of Syria. So we've seen Russian airstrikes and we've seen ISIL, in this one area anyway, able to take advantage of those airstrikes.
The other thing we've seen as a result of Russian airstrikes, the U.N. recently announced that they've had to cease humanitarian operations in Syria because of the danger posed by these Russian airstrikes.
And see, I find these airstrikes to be reckless and indiscriminate. They are doing exactly the -- having exactly the opposite effect of what Russian has claimed that they want to do. They've claimed publicly that they want to fight ISIL. In reality, these reckless, these indiscriminate, the irresponsible airstrikes have had the effect and will have the effect only of prolonging the suffering of the -- of the Syrian people.
So to answer your question specifically, I have not seen any regime progress based on Russian airstrikes, but we have seen other things based on Russian airstrikes, none of which are good.
Q: Hi Steve, this is Joe Tabet. I want to go back to what you mentioned about the PMF. Could you tell us what is the size of the PMF militants among the Iraqi forces? Is it fair to say that they share 75, maybe more, percent of the Iraqi ground forces?
COL. WARREN: Joe, I don't have those numbers, and they're not really numbers for me to put out anyways. I mean, those are the type of numbers that the Iraqis would have. I'll certainly ask them and see if they're willing to put something out.
But what's important to note is that the -- you know, the PMF who are working with the Iraqi government are PMF are that we too will work with.
Q: Steve, this is -- (inaudible). Could you update us on the type of the ammunitions that has been provided to the Syrian-Arab coalition forces?
COL. WARREN: Sure, that's an easy one. Fifty tons of ammunition. It was -- it was all ammunition, so bullets primarily. 5.56, 7.62 machine gun ammunition, assault rifle ammunition. There are hand grenades in there, there were some mortar rounds and rounds for RPG-7s.
Q: Steve, Jennifer Griffin, Fox News. The ammunition that you dropped, can it -- are there any restrictions on it being used against Russians? And also, can you tell us the -- when was the last time a Russian pilot flew up next to a U.S. coalition plane? How often is that happening and how dangerous is it?
COL. WARREN: Thanks, Jen. Those are -- those are excellent points for me to clear up.
We want the moderate Syrian opposition. We are supporting moderate Syrian opposition who are fighting ISIL. So it's difficult to put a restriction on a bullet, obviously, but we have supplied this ammunition and this equipment to forces who we are satisfied are focused on fighting ISIL.
I forgot the rest of your question, Jen. I'm sorry.
Q: Okay. So there are no restrictions on the -- the ammo being used against Russians if they happen to be on the other end of the moderate Syrian opposition. When was the last time that a pilot -- a Russian pilot approached a U.S. warplane? How often is it happening? And how dangerous is it?
COL. WARREN: And again, to be very clear on that, there are no Russians where that ammunition landed. There are none there.
Pilots and safety -- so, I don't know the last exact time. I think it was probably Saturday is the last one that I recall where -- where a couple of Russian aircraft came within visual recognition distance of a couple of coalition aircraft.
Visual identification took place. All pilots conducted themselves appropriately and everyone went about their business. But this is -- but it is dangerous, right? I mean, it's dangerous if two sets of aircraft come into the same piece of airspace without very clear, laid-out protocols for safety of all involved, which is why we've sat down with the Russians to establish some safety protocols.
As you know, we've had two meetings already with the Russians on this matter. I think there are future meetings scheduled. I think there are future meetings scheduled. Although, I don't have those details.
So yeah, there's always going to be some risk if there are uncoordinated actors in the battle space. There's -- it adds risk. There's simply no question about it. What's important to note is that, you know, U.S. and coalition pilots have extraordinary situational awareness based both on our capabilities as flyers and on our capabilities for information. So we have terrific situational awareness. Everyone knows where everyone is for the most part.
That said, it's still important to have established safety protocols that everyone's agreed to and will follow. So that's why we're -- again, that's why we're dealing with the Russians to establish such protocols.
Q: Just to follow up, that incident on Saturday, was that after the -- one or two of the meetings? And was it a breach of protocol?
COL. WARREN: The meetings haven't concluded, so that has not been a final agreement established. So can't call it a breach of protocol. And again, my understanding from the reports I read is that everyone conducted themselves appropriately.
So -- and it was really, frankly, I think it was right around the same time as that second meeting, if I recall. I -- although I -- I -- (inaudible) -- I've seen nothing to indicate that there was any relationship between the meeting and this -- this approach. There was two sets of aircraft who entered the same battle space is all it was.
So certainly heightened risk when there's two sets of, you know, combat aircraft in the same piece of airspace, but in this case, all -- all aviators conducted themselves appropriately, no incidents everyone moved along.
Q: Colonel Warren, a couple of questions.
One on Ramadi: Can you tell us what the strength of the ISIL forces are in that city? You've talked about how difficult or how well-defended it is, but how many are inside the city? And the second one is on Syria train and equip, you mentioned, I believe, $300 million for equipment. How much was spent training those few dozen fighters that graduated the course, for lack of a better term?
COL. WARREN: So, we estimate the enemy strength inside Ramadi to be somewhere between 600 and 1,000. It's difficult to get an exact count, but that's I think a good ballpark. Important to note that this is an enemy who's had time to dig in, establish some very hard defensive positions. There's trenches, there's berms, there's obstacles, there's what would amount to minefields created by placement of IEDs.
So it's a strong -- it's a strong defense. It's a strong defense and it's going to take a very determined effort to break it. But we think the combination of coalition air power and ISF -- we think they have the combat power to do just that.
On the Syria train and equip, hard to say, again, of the half a million dollars that has been allocated, approximately a little over $300 million of it has been spent. A lot of that money, though, went to buy equipment. Unfortunately, I don't have exact numbers for you, Tom. Maybe we can get those. I don't have them. But a lot of that money -- some of the money, of course, went to just improving the training grounds, you know, ahead of the exfiltration, some of those kind of start up cost.
But a lot of it was to purchase ammunition and equipment, and we still have that ammunition and equipment and we are going to use that ammunition and equipment against ISIL. So we owe you numbers. I don't have those numbers. I'm not sure who does have them, so give me -- give me a couple of days to work on that for you and we'll try to get you some numbers if they're releasable.
But what's important to note, and -- and this is the key thing, and I have -- again, I've seen these headlines, all this money wasted. I -- it's too soon for that because so -- so much of this money has been spent on equipment and ammunition and weapons, and the weapons, the equipment, the ammunition is in our possession and we just gave -- we just airdropped 50 tons of that ammunition, purchased with Syria train and equip funds. We just airdropped 50 tons of that to friendly -- friendly Syrian-Arab coalition member who are going to go use that ammunition to fight ISIL.
So the train and equip program has changed, but it has not gone away, okay? We are still training moderate -- excuse me, we're still equipping moderate Syrian opposition fighters. We are still equipping them, and this is important, I'm glad you brought it up and I'm getting excited now Tom, you can see.
This is important because we've heard General Austin talk about this. We've seen him say that this is a complex battlefield and we tried a program. (inaudible) -- identify, vet, exfiltrate fighters, train, them. The program didn't work. That program didn't -- it was too hopeful for whatever reason. There were plenty of reasons. That program wasn't -- wasn't coming together the way we wanted it to.
So being an adaptive, an agile organization, we've made an adjustment. We've made an adjustment. We've adjusted our approach to what we believe is a fundamental -- a fundamental requirement, which is to place ground pressure on our enemy, right? We know that.
We know a combination of air and ground to put pressure on ISIL. The air piece we have. We tried the ground piece one way, we realized that that wasn't going the way we wanted to, and so, we have dynamically adjusted to a different approach. And now we're going to work on this approach.
And as we find other situations, we will continue to adjust this program.
So. Sorry I got excited on that one, Tom.
Q: Hey, Colonel Warren. Phil Stewart from Reuters.
First a quick follow up on the air incident between the Russian and U.S. pilots. Are we talking about hundreds of feet between the planes, or are we talking about miles?
And then I had a question on a comment about the Iraq intel center with -- you know, the Syrians and the Russians. But first, on the aircraft.
COL. WARREN: Phil, it was miles. I've seen two different reports, whether it was ten or 20 miles, but it was miles apart. So, we're far enough, however -- close enough for them to get some visual contact, but it was -- they were miles apart.
Q: And then, Iraq said today, the senior Iraqi officials said today that it has started bombing Islamic State targets with help from the new intelligence center, that included representatives from Iran and Syria.
Is that -- do you believe that those -- is that comment from Iraq accurate? And if it is accurate, that they are carrying out strikes with intelligence from that center, and that you have no contact with that center, does that mean you have -- there's also a parallel campaign that's independent from the U.S.-led coalition now starting to occur within Iraq?
COL. WARREN: I think what's most important is that the Iraqis are fighting ISIL, right? It's the Iraqis who are fighting ISIL, we are helping the Iraqis to fight ISIL.
I have not seen that report that you have just cited, Phil, so I don't know the answer. But what I have seen is, one year worth of coalition forces assisting the Iraqis to, I think what everyone would have to admit is to good effect. Again, think where we were a year ago, when we were having to air drop supplies to beleaguered and cut off forces in Baiji.
Think to where we were a year ago when it appeared that even Baghdad itself might be threatened by an ISIL advance.
So, we have been here for a year, we have trained almost 15,000 Iraqi security forces. We have taken back 30 percent of the territory that ISIL once had. We have killed thousands of enemy fighters, hundreds of enemy leaders, thousands of pieces of equipment.
So, I think -- you know, I think anyone would have to agree with the fact that this coalition is here, and is providing some very solid support to the Iraqi forces who are fighting ISIL.
Q: I say two quick questions for you. One of my questions is about how much money has been spent on equipment versus training as part as this first iteration and of course program. So, thank you for taking that question.
A point of clarification. One of the things that the Defense secretary had said was challenging about this program is that they couldn't -- is that U.S. law was so strict when it came to vetting for who gets training and equipment.
So, I wanted to clarify how we can sort of just move this equipment to this new group, given that there were so many challenges even getting fighters through the first program to be vetted to get that training and equipment.
So, can you clarify how that works? We can sort of just move equipment to a new group that you said you kind of just came into contact with, and didn't necessarily train?
COL. WARREN: So, a couple of things there.
So, first off, the vetting is the same. We are -- we are going through the same vetting process. With the original program, we were vetting every single person -- every single person – so hundreds. And the vetting does take a long time. It takes weeks or even months to get one person through the vetting process.
And we were vetting all of them so we could pull all of them out and train them. And part of it is because there was, you know, for our own protection, right? We don't want to accidentally exfiltrate someone who we're going to train who could potentially be a threat to our own forces -- our own trainers, right? So, it's important to do a good vet.
So what we've done now is we're only -- we're vetting the leaders, just the leaders. So in this case, of the recent aerial resupply of the Syrian-Arab coalition, we've vetted the leaders of the Syrian-Arab coalition to ensure that, you know, they -- they met the standards that we want met, that are both in law and our own standards.
Those -- those few people, much smaller number, we are able to then give a very brief training, really just a couple of days, where we introduce them to law of land warfare; show them how to use certain pieces of equipment that they may end up being in contact with, and generally solidify the relationship with them. So I think that is what's able to speed the process up.
And I want to be clear -- I want to be clear on how we came in contact with -- with these and other groups. You know, this is -- this is been a year-long process of building ties with Syrians -- Syrian Arabs in this case who want to defeat ISIL. So it's not as if we just stumbled across them. I mean, it's a process of the -- the contacts that we've been working with as part of the original train and equip program. That is -- that's how we've come in contact with, you know, some of these other players on the battlefield.
So it's not like we just -- we randomly met someone on the street. I mean, these are -- these are -- these are fighters who have demonstrated to us that, you know, they're willing to go after and fight and -- and push back on ISIL. And as we've observed them and -- and, you know, come to some decisions about their capabilities and their veracity and their desire to fight, that's when we then identified their leaders -- (inaudible) -- them for vetting, give them a couple of days worth of training, get them back into that fight, and then in this case just two days ago, supply them with 50 tons of ammunition.
Q: How many of these close calls have there been between Russian aircraft and U.S.-coalition aircraft? And where -- what city were they nearby? Or where was this incident on Saturday?
COL. WARREN: Great questions, to which I don't have any answers. I don't know. We should know that, so let me try and run that one down for you. It's -- I mean, it's happened several times. It's not really a daily thing. But again, the Russians have only been flying now for not even two weeks yet. So it's happened several times. It's happened more with our drones, with our unmanned aerial vehicles, where the Russians will come and I think really they want to take a look at our UAVs.
So we've seen instances where the Russians are -- maybe they're flying a pattern of combat air patrols somewhere where one of our drones will -- or one of our UAVs will sort of come nearby and the Russian will break his pattern and come over and take a close look at the drone, or the UAV.
So that's kinds of -- I think there's been much more of that. That's happened, I think, several times, a number of times.
As far as manned aircraft, it's been very small. I don't -- I don't know the number off the top of my head. I can think of two, there may have been two or three more.
Q: (Inaudible) -- but you didn't say -- so he doesn't know where that incident took place on Saturday?
STAFF: He took the question.
Q: He took it. Got it. Sorry. Thank you.
Q: Thanks Colonel Warren, good to see you. This rebel Syrian-Arab opposition leader that was vetted, was he trained to call in airstrikes? Did the coalition tell this leader and others that you've been training that the coalition will provide air support against any threat that they come into -- encounter with during their fight against ISIL? And then I have one follow on the Turkish border.
COL. WARREN: So calling in airstrikes is not necessarily -- (inaudible). There was some instruction on how to contact us if you've identified a target so we can come and assist, if possible. The details on under what conditions we will assist, again, right now, these forces are only in contact with ISIL, so we will help them.
As far as other forces, you know, frankly, the policy on that is -- still needs a little bit of development. As it stands, though, these forces are in contact with ISIL, and so we're going to provide them support. They're not near any other forces, they are in an area of the battlefield that there's ISIL and there's moderate Syrian opposition, so we will come help them as they're -- as they're fighting ISIL.
And you said you had a follow-up?
Q: On the Turkish border, you mentioned that the Syrian opposition had taken away all of the border except for about 68, 69 miles, and I think that's positive because of the reporting -- last I had heard, it was in the 90s, so they are cutting that border down.
But 69 miles is still pretty significant amount of space. What is the biggest hold-up to that last 69 miles, and how is Turkey helping with this fight to help close the border?
COL. WARREN: Yeah, it's 69 miles out of 600, so it's very -- you know, it's, you know, not much left. And the problem is it's a -- you know, it's just become a very hard fight. The enemy has dug in.
Again -- you've heard me say this before maybe -- what we're seeing there is almost reminiscent of, you know, early 20th century warfare. You know, static lines, trench lines, berms and very difficult combat difficult to maneuver in. So that's the problem. The problem is, you know, a determined enemy that's dug in deep and difficult, difficult fighting conditions.
The Turks have been a great partner in this, and of course, our thoughts and our prayers go out to them in their recent tragedy, a terrorist attack right in their own country.
And the Turks have been a terrific help to us in this. They have been participating as an active member with the coalition since the beginning, and we continue to be appreciative of their efforts.
Q: Hey, colonel, thanks for doing this.
Two questions, and you may have partially answered just one of them. The U.S. has previously -- previously said it would defend the U.S.-trained rebels from attack, including from Assad's forces. Does that apply to the Syrian-Arab coalition or does that just no longer apply to any of the rebels we are working with?
And then my second question on the -- on Saturday's incident with the Russian air forces, in that case, did U.S. air forces change course, as in previous incidences with the Russian air forces?
COL. WARREN: Christina, I -- I don't want to give you bad information on the -- on the collective Assad defense piece. I -- I just don't want to give you bad information. We of course will -- you know, the who purpose for flying over Syria is to strike ISIL targets, so if any forces are -- are fighting ISIL, we will come and strike those targets. If those forces, as we've already demonstrated, there was a situation where forces that we were supporting were fighting al-Nusra, we supported there.
Assad regime forces -- I -- I just don't want to give you bad information, Christina. So I'm -- I don't know. I'm going to have to say I don't know. I just don't know what the policy is there.
On the Saturday incident, my understanding is nobody had to change course in that case or substantially. I think they just acknowledged, you know, visual call back, continued on their missions. Right now, to my knowledge, there's only been one incident or one case where coalition pilots changed course and decided to approach a bombing run from a different direction simply because of there were -- there were Russian aircraft operating nearby.
Now, I think we do owe you an answer on the -- on -- on the Assad defense. So we'll kind of -- you know, we'll try to -- I'll run that answer down here with our lawyers and try to get back to you on that one.
COL. WARREN: Yeah, the -- (inaudible) -- to Russia as well.
Q: Colonel -- (inaudible) -- from the Wall Street Journal. A quick question on the Russian cruise missiles last week. Did you have any advanced warning of the missile launch? And if there was no formal notification from the Russians, which seems to be the case, then did you communicate to them the risks that may have been posed by those missiles? Thank you.
COL. WARREN: We had no prior warning here. We did not communicate anything to the Russians. I can't speak for what happened in Washington, though, I can only speak to what's happened here. So we -- no, we here in the joint task force, we here in Baghdad did not have any communication with the Russians, nor did we have any prior notification. I believe that the government of Iraq there has also indicated that they too did not have prior notification. You'd have to check the record on that, but I think I've seen some reporting in the Iraqi press here that the Iraqis were not notified either.
Which again -- and thanks for the opportunity. Case of reckless and indiscriminate conduct by the Russians.
Q: Hi, colonel. This is -- (inaudible).
The Kurdish militia, the YPG, have -- has announced that is was a forming a coalition with the Syrian-Arab groups. I would like to know if -- if the group to -- to which you sent ammunition is part of that coalition with the YPG and I would like to know also if that coalition, which is called the Syrian Democratic Forces, could be a partner -- could be a buddy to which you could send ammunitions?
COL. WARREN: Yeah, I saw some press reporting about this Syrian Democratic coalition. I don't know who the members of the coalition are. But what I do know is that if different ethnic groups are coalescing around this common enemy called ISIL, that's a good thing.
So, I don't have details on this particular group or newly formed umbrella organization. I just don't have the details yet, it's -- it was only announced I guess publicly yesterday, maybe the day before. So, I don't know.
But what I -- again, what I do know is that anytime subgroups coalesce around this common enemy called ISIL and seek to defeat this common enemy called ISIL, then this is a good thing.
And you know, we'll -- as I think every leader in the U.S. government has said, we will certainly talk with anyone who is willing to fight ISIL.
STAFF: (Inaudible) then David. Then I think we're about out of time.
Q: Jacqueline Klimas from the Washington Examiner.
What's going to happen to the U.S. troops that were doing the training of the Syrian rebels? Are they going to now be doing this couple of days of training for the leaders? Or are they going to be reassigned?
COL. WARREN: Jacqueline, that's still to be determined. Many of those forces are continuing. There's one final class from the original program, it remains in training, so they'll complete that training. Exfiltrate -- or infiltrate that organization back into -- back into the fight when the time is right.
That is meant to be determined on the way ahead, there. No final decisions made to my knowledge.
STAFF: Dave Martin?
Q: Dave Martin. Have you yet seen any information to corroborate the Iraqi claim that they attacked a convoy carrying al-Baghdadi, and he was seen being driven away?
COL. WARREN: Dave, the Iraqis have since put out a statement indicating they do not believe Baghdadi was in the convoy that they attacked yesterday. We agree with that statement that the Iraqis have made.
STAFF: You guys wanted to follow up. Go ahead.
Q: Yeah. Steve, the Amnesty International has released a report which says that the Kurdish rebels, YPG forces have committed war crimes by expelling the locals and demolishing the houses.
Similar report was also published by the United Nations Human Right Watch. What would be your reaction to that?
COL. WARREN: I am aware that such a report has been published, although I have not seen it yet. Apparently, it came out early this morning.
But anytime there are allegations of human rights violations, this is a concern to U.S. and to coalition forces. And this is something that we will have to address appropriately.
STAFF: All right, thank you, Steve, for your time. Thank you, everybody.
COL. WARREN: Thanks, guys. It's good to see you. I hope you're able to do this again next week. Have a good week.