Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Dorrian via Teleconference from Bagdad, Iraq
Presenters: Colonel John Dorrian, Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
October 28, 2016
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning and sorry about the delay there.
We're pleased to be joined with us today by Colonel John J.D. Dorrian, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve coming to us live from Baghdad.
J.D., just want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.
COLONEL JOHN DORRIAN: Jeff, I've got you loud and clear. How do you read?
CAPT. DAVIS: Got it. And we'll get a tiny bit more volume, Tom.
We'll turn it over to you. J.D., go ahead.
COL. DORRIAN: Everything -- very good.
Well, good morning, Pentagon press. I know you've recently heard from General Townsend, but given the ongoing operations to liberate Mosul, we're temporarily increasing our briefing battle rhythm to offer new developments.
First, the ongoing operation to liberate Mosul. Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have continued progress in clearing their respective axes from Daesh and are black-clearing several areas before they continue to advance. As they do so, the coalition will continue our precision strikes to take our Daesh targets. For example, many of you have seen and noted the enemy's developed extensive tunneling networks in some of the areas that they use for tactical movement and to hide weapons.
If left unabated, this could present challenges for the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces advancing on the city --
COL. DORRIAN: -- 46 of those tunnels since the liberation battle for Mosul started on October 17th, reducing the threat from a favored enemy tactic.
One of the highest profile tactics the enemy has used since the battle of Mosul started has been their lighting of the toxic sulfur residue started at al-Mishraq south of Mosul. The latest information I have is that those fires are lightly -- are largely under control, but continue smoldering and flaring up as the Iraqis continue to use water, sand and fire-fighting foam to combat the blaze.
The coalition's constantly assessing the risk to forces at Camp Swift and Qayyarah West Air Field due to the smoke caused from the burning wells and from the sulfur plant fire. And the masks that have been required at those locations, they've not been required for the past two days. Daesh is intent on -- Daesh's intent in starting those fires was to divert and disrupt ISF forces who were going to Mosul and those efforts have failed.
Since the campaign for Mosul started, the coalition has delivered almost 2,500 close air support bombs and missiles, artillery rounds and HIMARS rockets on enemy targets since the battle started on October 17. Those weapons destroyed not only the tunnels we already discussed, but 33 vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in hundreds of enemy vehicles, fighting positions and artillery pieces.
Finally, in case you missed it, the air field at Qayyarah West is now open and the first flight landed there blacked out in the evening of October 21. The new air field capability provides the coalition and the Iraqis who have -- their own C-130s the ability, the ability to resupply or reposition forces rapidly. Daesh had largely destroyed that air field in a manner they thought would deny the ISF and the coalition from using it.
The Iraqi and coalition forces who swept the area to remove explosives plus 29 airmen who specialize in opening and repairing air fields used their heavy equipment and more than two million pounds of concrete to show Daesh once again that they are wrong. Five flights have gone into that air field so far.
Pentagon Press, I would be delighted to take your questions.
DAVIS: Start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: Colonel, thanks.
Could you first tell us about this October 17 incident where the Russian jet -- there was a close miss with an American jet over Syria. And also, could you tell us a bit about the use of human shields in the Mosul area and how that's being -- how that's being done and how it's being countered?
COL. DORRIAN: Sure.
I'll start with the -- the incident on the 17th. From my understanding, and I'm catching up with this a little bit late as you are, two aircraft, one Russian and one coalition, came within about a half a mile of each other. The -- the Russian aircraft was a fighter jet and the coalition aircraft was a larger framed aircraft that we don't provide additional detail on.
But the flight -- the jet -- the Russian jet passed in front of the coalition jet close enough that the jet wash from that flight was felt within the larger aircraft. So that's closer than we'd like. There was an immediate contact between the aircraft and then follow-up through the deconfliction channel that we've been working with the Russians for quite some time.
(inaudible) -- CAOC does -- does not asses this to be something that was done with nefarious intent. And therefore, they've continued discussing that incident. And those de-confliction calls, they continue to be conducted on a daily basis. The latest one was today at about 11 o'clock.
General Townsend was informed when this event occurred. So, he was aware of this as well. And that's about the -- the level of information that I have for you, Bob.
Regarding the human shields, we have seen many instances in the past where Daesh have used human shields in order to try and facilitate their escape. Right now they're using human shields to make the Iraqi Security Forces' advance more difficult.
We don't have quite as specific information as I've seen in some of the news reports today, but we did expect them to do some of this type of taking of human shields because they've done it in previous liberation battles, most recently in -- I guess most famously in Manbij, where they kidnapped you know up to a couple of thousand people in -- in their escape convoy. So, this is something that we've seen. We did expect them to do some of this.
And what's happening is as they fall back into the city, apparently they are taking some of the local residents as human shields. So this is something we try to stop when we can, or put a stop to it.
I am aware of one incident in which Daesh had gathered a large number of vehicles to try and transport some of the civilians back with them. We were able to attack those vehicles before they could take the civilians.
So I -- yeah, I don't have the specifics on the date and the location of that strike. We can owe that to you. I was gathering information on that this afternoon.
Q: Colonel, on the October 17th incident, you say it was reported up the chain of command. Can you say why it wasn't reported to the public, given how -- how close it was to being a collision?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, it wasn't reported to the public because we have a deconfliction channel to discuss these incidents with the Russians. The deconfliction channel is not one that's necessarily designed for public disclosure.
And really, the purpose of that is to do the exact opposite of turning it into a major incident. It's really more intended to keep the temperature down between us and the Russians in that very crowded and confused, at times, battle space. So that's why we didn't put it out then.
Q: Was it discussed with the Russians through that channel immediately or shortly thereafter or not until today?
COL. DORRIAN: Shortly thereafter. And there were communications between the two aircraft and it was followed up, I believe, the next day with the Russians in the normal channel.
Q: Tom Bowman with National Public Radio.
Q: Colonel, if we could just stay on this for a second. On October 17th, before these flights took off, was there discussion, deconfliction discussion with the Russians? I'm just wondering what the chatter was that day and how you explain this. You say it's not nefarious. What, is it just a mistake? How do you explain it first of all?
And then with the human shields, do you have a ballpark number of how many people we're talking about here? Is it dozens, is it hundreds?
COL. DORRIAN: Yes. For the October 17th incident, I don't know if they have conducted a deconfliction call that day. We'll take that question and get with the CAOC, and try to get it answered for you. So we'll have to get back to you on that one.
With regard to the human shields, we don't have good fidelity. I think it would be a little bit of a wag for me at this point. I just don't think it would be appropriate for me to offer a number because we just don't have that level of fidelity at this point.
Q: (inaudible) -- mentioned you took out a couple of ISIS vehicles before they were able to take civilians. Has that been done in other occasions recently? Is that pretty rare? Do you have a sense of that? And then any other ways you've kind of prevented this from happening.
COL. DORRIAN: Yes. On that incident, it was more than a couple of vehicles. My understanding from the discussions I've had was that they had massed about 50 vehicles and the strike was able to take out 40 to 45 of them. So it's a pretty significant strike.
I'm not aware of any other incident in which something like this happened, but we can -- we can look into that. That's one of the open questions that I had this afternoon when I learned of the larger strike.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, we'll go to Barbara Starr with CNN.
Q: Colonel Dorrian, if -- thank you for doing this.
If we could stay on the October 17th incident, I'm confused on a number of points that had been made. First of all, what is the -- Central Command's assessment on how dangerous this incident was to American pilots to have a Russian plan at night flying half -- less than half a mile in front of them? So that's my first question. What was the level of danger posed to U.S. pilots?
My second question is what is the increased danger in northwest Syria to American pilots from the Russians now that you're increasing, by your account, operations over Raqqah?
My third question is I want to understand this. Did General Townsend and your part of the command make a conscious decision not to reveal this incident because you wanted to, as you say, keep the temperature down with the Russians? Obviously the Russians knew about it, but the American public did not. Because I find that baffling, since today, it was actually revealed by a senior U.S. military official in the Central Command.
So what has changed that is -- now you're suddenly willing -- and that is General Harrigan of course. So what -- what's changed? Why not tell us? And why are you telling us today? What's changed in your thinking about this? If the Russians knew, why can't the American public know?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, first off, now you do know. And there wasn't anybody playing I got a secret, it had nothing to do with that. That's why this was used as an example. The purpose of the discussion at the CAOC, my understanding, was to discuss the importance of the deconfliction channel, and this was provided as an example in those discussions. So I don't think that it was perceived to be a danger.
And again, we don't assess that this was the Russians trying to do anything with nefarious intent, but this is an -- the explanation for it is why it's important to have these deconfliction measures, so if there's something that could put pilots in danger that there's an opportunity to discuss it between the two sides and create processes and procedures and enough transparency to deconflict. So that's the explanation for it.
As far as General Townsend, you know, he was briefed on this incident. I don't think that he saw it as anything that -- that needed to go out in a breaking news event. He understands that the purpose of this deconfliction channel is to discuss these things with the Russians. And that's -- that's exactly how it played out.
Q: Can I -- thank you. Can I just go back and follow up two points? How many other near misses of this nature, half a mile or less let's say, have there been with Russian aircraft? Do you feel that you're facing increased encounters with the Russians now that you're getting into closer air space? So how many encounters? Is there increased risk?
And do I understand you correctly to say you do not believe that this was perceived to be a danger to U.S. pilots? Maybe I misunderstood you. I don't know.
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, what I said is we don't believe there was any nefarious intent. So that's -- that's -- that's all I meant.
As far as near misses and how many there have been in the past, I'd have to circle back with the CAOC and we'll have to owe you that answer. I'm not aware of any such incident other than this one and we'll just owe that to you.
Q: (inaudible) -- is a danger to U.S. pilots?
COL. DORRIAN: I'm sorry. You broke up a little bit. I couldn't -- couldn't hear what you said.
Q: Sorry, Colonel.
I just want to ask straight up, was this -- did this incident pose a danger to U.S. Air Force -- to U.S. pilots?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I think it's a significant enough incident that it required follow-up in this briefing in this deconfliction channel. We don't like to fly our aircraft within a half a mile of each other. I can assure you of that.
But as far as the level of danger, you know, it's -- no one declared an in-flight emergency or anything of that nature. And again, we just followed it up afterwards, and you know, continued those deconfliction efforts.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, we'll go to Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hi, Colonel Dorrian. Good to see you again.
Just to follow-up on Barbara's questions, in an interview with NBC News, General Harrigian had said that these incidents happen about every 10 days, which doesn't seem to gel with what you just told us. I just wanted to know, you know, how frequently are these if not near misses, but something enough to raise some concern or raise level of discussion at the deconfliction calls occurring?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, Tara, it -- it gives just fine with what I told you. I said I'm not aware of any other such incidents and haven't been briefed on any. So it sounds like you've got some additional information, so good for you.
Q: The deconfliction channel was started after there were a number of incidents, it seemed, where Russian aircraft were getting very close to U.S. drones or other U.S. fighter aircraft. Since the deconfliction channel has started, is this, from what you can recall and what you know, the first time that there's been this type of close call?
COL. DORRIAN: This is the first time I've been informed of any such thing, so that's all the information I have for you. I think it's clear to me that you're interest in learning more about this and if there are any further incidents. So we'll follow-up with the CAOC and get you some more information. But I just don't have any others -- any other information to offer about that.
And then separately on Mosul, it was I think my understanding that the Kurds had agreed with the Iraqi government that they would stay around 20 kilometers outside of Mosul and hold that area. There are various news reports that have the Kurds heading towards Mosul, as close as five kilometers away. And I just wanted to get an understanding if we were right about the 20 kilometer kind of barrier or if there's an agreement that maybe they help with an advance and then they go back and hold territory. Anything that you can do to provide some clarity on that would be appreciated.
COL. DORRIAN: What I can tell you is, that the Iraqis are an adaptive force, and so what they've seen is some tactics, techniques and procedures by Daesh that have lead them to believe it's in their interest to pause the advance in some areas in order to do some back clearing and make sure that their flanks and their rear are clear of Daesh. But you know, they are still largely on plan and on the various axis of advance, anywhere from 10 to 20 kilometers away, that's kind of where it stands right now.
Q: My question was about the Kurds and close they are to Mosul, and are they advancing closer than the 20 kilometer, I guess, barrier if that was their agreement?
COL. DORRIAN: Yes, they're following their agreement, they're executing the plan that they've come up with, the Iraqis -- between the Iraqis and the Kurdish regional government. There's been very good cooperation between the two sides and everyone's honored the agreements that they -- they entered into.
Q: When you said the Iraqis are adaptive, does that mean that maybe the agreement has also changed a little for when necessary, the Kurds help and advance closer to Mosul with them, or what are -- how do you reconcile the reports that Kurdish forces are five kilometers away from Mosul in some cases?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, I haven't seen those reports, so we'll just have to look into that for you. But you know, everything that I have seen indicates to me that the Kurds are following the agreed upon plan, and they're doing what the Iraqis and they agreed to.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go to Idrees Ali with Reuters.
Q: As follow up on Mosul and human shields. Have you seen reports of human shields being used, or have you yourself with your own intel seen them being used by the Islamic State and how has that impacted coalition strikes? Have you had to adjust, given the fact that they could be using them?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we have seen a lot of open source reports, and there have been incidents that our intelligence enterprise has seen. We've not seen the very large numbers that we've seen in some of the reports, but we are comparing the things that we've seen from talking to sources on the ground, SIGINT and other intelligent sources, and just deconflicting those to determine the size and scope of the issue.
Q: And a follow up on the Iraqi Shia militia and the Shia said they will take part in an offensive, West of Mosul. I know you've said, you would provide support to Shia militias, but I mean, that does fill a gap where a lot of fighters were flowing into Syria. So what's your take on that? And are you supportive of them launch this offensive?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we're supportive of the plan that the government of Iraq has come up with, so my understanding is that that plan includes the popular mobilization forces moving into those areas. We'll support forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi government in doing the things that the Iraqi government has asked them to do.
CAPT. DAVIS: Bob Burns with Reuters.
Q: Colonel, when you were --
CAPT. DAVIS: I apologize. I did say Bob Burns, but I said Reuters and I -- Associated Press. Two great wire services. I won't say which one I like better.
Q: Colonel, in response to Tara's question, you mentioned that in some areas, the Iraqi security forces are pausing, to use your word, to make sure their rear areas are clear. Now, since the Mosul operation began, we've heard from coalition officials that there's been steady momentum and -- and so forth and it's been on schedule. Does this represent now -- does this pause represent a change, a shift, a slowdown of the momentum?
COL. DORRIAN: No, Bob. We expected that there would be instances where they needed to pause and reposition forces, you know, because the enemy gets a vote. The Iraqis have made the determination that now is the time to do that, and we've continued to conduct strikes in support of them, to go against tunnels, the command and control network for Daesh.
But they -- they have decided to do some back clearing and that -- that's not something that we would consider to be off-plan. I think they're still largely on-plan, and you know, they continue to push. And after, you know, a couple days to refit, resupply, repositioning, I think that they'll be moving forward again.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ryan Browne with CNN.
Q: Colonel, thanks for doing this.
I just had a question on Mosul kind of -- we've talked a little bit about the post-battle plan being a little bit -- it was still kind of in development when this operation kicked off. Do you -- do you -- is there any more knowledge on kind of where the Iraqis are on coming up with a stabilization plan, a counter-insurgency policing plan for Mosul once -- you know, as areas are liberated? I mean, has that -- has that plan been finalized? Is it still being worked on? And what's -- is there a U.S. involvement in that or coalition involvement?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, we -- we have been working with the Iraqi security forces and government of Iraq for quite some time on their plan for post-Mosul. So we've trained a very large number of security police forces because these are going to be key to establishing a degree of stability in the areas that get liberated from Daesh.
So we think the police are going to go in as a part of the hold force and the wide area security force, once Daesh have been pushed out of the city. And then they'll move into a lot of the other areas, and this is a part of the answer for counter-insurgency because as you know, the police and their regular presence and regular interaction with the population, that is the purpose of those forces and that's the answer for how you solve a problem with counter-insurgency or terrorist tactics.
So Daesh won't be allowed to simply melt away and then do terrorist attacks or sort of counter-insurgency ops. The police will be in these areas and assisting with that challenge.
Q: Thank you.
And has that -- is it your understanding that those police forces that will be responsible have been identified? The units -- I mean, I understand you are training some of them, but is -- is it kind of who's going to have the roles and responsibilities? Is there a plan in place as you understand it now, or is that plan still being developed?
COL. DORRIAN: There is a plan in place, but it's an adaptive plan, and it's -- you know, they continue to work on this.
I think what we have to do is get Mosul cleared of Daesh, and once we do that, we'll see where those remaining elements are. I think there's some in Tal Afar, there's some in Al-Qa'im, there's some along the Euphrates River Valley and then there are other areas where they'll try to infiltrate.
And we'll get a feel for the size and scope of the challenge that there is. And a lot of the forces that we've trained up until now, will be repositioned to address that.
CAPT. DAVIS: To Tom Bowman?
Q: Colonel, getting back to this pause, can you give us a sense of how widespread this is? Is this, you know, many Iraqi forces and units south of Mosul?
And you said you expected just a couple of days, is that right?
COL. DORRIAN: That's exactly right, Tom. It is -- it is widespread. It's, you know, forces on several axes. They're -- they're pausing and repositioning, refitting and doing some back-clearing. We think it'll just be a couple days, and they'll be back on the march toward Mosul. That's -- that's their game plan, and believe they're gonna be able to stick to it.
Q: Presumably as they move closer to Mosul, there'll be more and more resistance. I mean, is that what you're anticipating as this operation continues?
And maybe -- as we've been told, the momentum and they're on schedule, may be be going -- you know, going south so to speak; that maybe it's more -- more resistance than you guys anticipated.
COL. DORRIAN: No, I would -- I would say that what the definition of on schedule is, they have a plan for how far they want to get each day, and they were able to get to those places faster than they anticipated that they would.
So, the Iraqis continue to be successful in the engagements against Daesh. And, you know, essentially they are on plan and, you know, ready to move back toward Mosul probably within the next couple of days.
CAPT. DAVIS: Corey Dickstein with Stars & Stripes.
Q: Thanks, sir.
Can you, kind of, characterize what it is that they're facing that -- with this pause? Is -- is it more IEDs than they expected? Is it groups of fighters that, kind of, laid low? Could you, kind of, help what -- what it is they're back-clearing?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, a lot of it is just repositioning forces as we get a feel for where areas of extra Daesh presence, very tougher -- you know, tougher areas. The Iraqis may reposition forces in order to sort that out.
And we share our intelligence with them so that they can determine where they want to advance and with what force. And then we'll continue to assess the situation and conduct --
COL. DORRIAN: -- kind of where we are.
Really, what I would say is, you know, the -- the Iraqis are, you know, quite capable of defeating Daesh. They've pushed them out of all these key areas around Mosul and they continue to reposition as they see fit.
And when I was discussing this with my counterpart, General Tisheen, the other day with a couple of our press who were visiting, what he said is that one of their primary goals is the protection of civilian life. So they are assessing the same news reports that you are all assessing and making the determination how best to get after those issues.
Q: And then just quickly, do you have a general idea how much, you know, square miles they -- they've recaptured at this point, the ISF and the Pesh combined through this whole operation?
COL. DORRIAN: We can take a look and see how many square kilometers have been recaptured. I don't have that figure handy here, but I think we can probably get that for you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go to Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Q: Hey, John. A quick question about what happened in Al-Rutbah. How large of a force was it? How large was that ISIS force that pressed on the town? How well equipped were they? Did they seem like a -- like they had good command and control? And just how much of a threat did they pose to the city?
COL. DORRIAN: You know, my -- my information is there were anywhere from 60 to 100, and you can get a lot done with 60 to 100 determined fighters. We do assess them to have been a dangerous force. Obviously, they were able to take temporary control of some of the government buildings and go into the center of the city and cause some significant mayhem with the -- the local populous there.
The Iraqi security forces did expect a lot of these kinds of attacks and they positioned their forces around the country in order to respond to those. We had seen some significant spoiler-type attacks and harassing attacks around Rutbah, so this was not a real surprise for the Iraqis and they were very -- very much capable and moved their forces that they had nearby into the city and were able to take it back. Within about 36 hours or so, they pretty much had everything pacified.
Q: And if I could just follow up, did that ISIS force -- were they pushed out or were -- were they all taken and seized? I mean, how -- how did this incident finish up?
COL. DORRIAN: Most of them were killed in -- in place. Some of them were trying to escape the city and were struck by coalition air strikes. So you know, probably somewhere a third to a half of them. So that's -- that's about it.
Q: Touching on a different matter, General Votel yesterday was quoted as saying that between 800 and 900 ISIS fighters have been killed since October 17. Is it safe to assume that the numbers he's citing are from air strikes and not necessarily from ground combat?
COL. DORRIAN: I don't know, Luis. We'll -- you'll have to follow that one up with CENTCOM.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. The queue is empty. Anyone else?
All right. Thank you, J.D. We appreciate your time.
COL. DORRIAN: Thank you.