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Deputy Commander, CJTF-OIR, Provides Update From Baghdad on ISIS Threat and Coalition Activities

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STAFF: Good morning, I'm Commander Jessica McNulty and I'll be facilitating today's press briefing. Let me start with a quick communications check. General Ekman, can you hear me, sir?

MAJOR GENERAL KENNETH P. EKMAN: Jessica, I can hear you loud and clear. Thanks so much.

STAFF: Wonderful, sir. Today we have Major General Kenneth Ekman, Deputy Commander for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. General Ekman oversees joint and coalition operations, intelligence and plans in the fight against the Islamic State group of Iraq and Syria. He is live today via satellite from Baghdad, Iraq and will provide us an update on operations.

Please be mindful there is a seven to eight second delay. Before we begin, I'd ask that you please keep your phones and laptops muted in order to -- unless you're speaking in order to prevent feedback and other distractions. General, the floor is yours for opening comments.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Well, Jessica, thanks very much.

And everyone, good morning from Baghdad, Iraq. First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I look forward to your questions during this session and I hope to catch you up on where we are in Operation Inherent Resolve.

I have served as the Deputy Commander for Operations for the Combined Joint Task Force for nearly three months. Reflecting on my experiences to date, what stands out to me is the dedication and professionalism of all the servicemen and women from our 30 nation coalition operating both inside and outside of Iraq and Syria.

Regardless of what we ask of them, they constantly adapt and apply themselves to the different challenges and circumstances that the mission throws at them. They do all of this very far from home. Our mission as the coalition continues to focus on defeating ISIS, or Daesh. We have come a long way, building on the successes of our predecessors and firmly linked with our Iraqi and Syria partners. Together, we are keeping constant pressure on Daesh to ensure their lasting defeat.

As I'm sure you all are aware, Daesh no longer holds physical territory. They struggle to conduct coordinated activities because Iraqi Security Forces find and destroy their hideouts and weapons caches. Their efforts are enabled by coalition support, including advising, intelligence planning and precision airstrikes.

The ISF continue to prove their capabilities as a cohesive force, even in complex operations. For example, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command recently wrapped up the fourth phase of their Heroes of Iraq campaign.

They showed outstanding cooperation among the Iraqi Army, Federal Police, Intelligence Service and anti-terrorism troops to clear Daesh hideouts in remote areas. Wherever Daesh seeks sanctuary, the ISF will find them.

Another tangible reflection of our partners’ success involves coalition reposturing. We are getting smaller. In the early days of the coalition, a broad network of bases was essential. We were battling ISIS in Mosul, Anbar, and Abu Kamal. These bases were used to foster our relationships with the ISF and stage training and tactical capabilities.

Now, over six years later, we have trained over 250,000 ISF and built strong relationships based on trust and mutual interest. The ISF is doing things for itself, training forces, and even developing training cadre that we used to do for them. Our reduction in basing is truly a sign of progress.

So what's next for CJTF-OIR? On July 25th, this week, we will take another step by handing over control of the base at Besmaya to the Iraqis. Spain led the coalition effort there, training 50,000 Iraqi Security Forces since 2015.

Their work is done there, so the coalition in Spain can depart, divesting equipment and facilities, to include enhanced weapons, ranges, and mock urban villages valued at almost $5 million to the Iraqi government. These transfers to include Besmaya reflect a shift to providing high-end advice and support to the operational command level.

The Iraqis still need our help in planning, our intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and our coalition airpower. These needs frame our continued partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces. To provide this support, we activated a military advisory group on the 2nd of July in Baghdad.

This centralized location allows military advisors from 13 coalition nations to work alongside senior Iraqi officers to plan and execute operations against ISIS across all provinces in the country. This approach has already proven its value in recent, large-scale operations to clear Daesh remnants.

The Iraqi Security Forces are already stronger than ISIS. Our high-level advising approach is moving our Iraqi partners to improve self-reliance. They're doing great. Throughout, we have coordinated changes to our mission and basing with the government of Iraq. Together, we remain united and resolved to achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh and regional stability.

Just two weeks ago, I traveled with the CENTCOM Commander to northeast Syria. I want to highlight our close partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces and their success against Daesh. They are capturing ISIS lieutenants, busting smuggling networks, and denying Daesh territory, critical infrastructure, and revenues. Overall, the SDF is a strong, capable force and we are committed to our partnership with them.

Before we transition to questions, I do want to remind everyone of the selfless service of our troops. Yesterday, we lost one of our young warriors who was conducting a security patrol in northeastern Syria. On behalf of our Commander, Lieutenant General Pat White, and the entire 82-member coalition, we send our condolences and prayers to the families of our fallen comrade.

With that, I'll hand it over to Commander McNulty to begin the question and answer portion. Thank you. I look forward to the discussion. Over to you, Jessica.

STAFF: Thank you, sir. As a reminder for the media, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question. Please limit yourself to one question and one follow-up. We're going to go to the phone lines first. Lita from Associated Press, did you manage to make the call?

Q: Hi, yes, thank you, General. It's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. There were obviously some high level visits between high level Iraqis to Iran and Iranians into Iraq in recent weeks and the Iranians have made it clear that they continue to see the U.S. a threat in Iraq and that they still vow vengeance for the killing of Soleimani earlier this year.

What level of activity are you seeing among the militias and would you consider the militias a greater threat than ISIS to the U.S. forces there now?

Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, well, thanks so much for your question. I appreciate it.

And we are tracking the recent visit of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi to Iran. You know, as he reaches out to his various neighbors in the region, that will be very helpful as he sets an understanding between the newly formed Iraqi government and the nations that have a significant impact on Iraq's future.

With regards to the Iranian militia groups that reside here in Iraq, you know, they are clearly not our focus for CJTF-OIR. We're here to defeat Daesh and our goal would be that we be allowed to do that as we work towards the final goals for this campaign.

What we've done is we've turned to our Iraqi hosts -- and they've been quite helpful, by the way, particularly of late -- to provide us the protection that we need to operate from sanctuary here in our bases in Iraq. In terms of comparing the threat of Daesh to Iranian-inspired groups, I think that's a matter of apples and oranges. Daesh is definitely a malign ideology that threatens not only our area but the entire world, whereas the Iranian militia groups are responsive to a nation state.

So I guess what I'll say is that Daesh is the bigger threat to the world and we're grateful for the 77 nation global coalition that maintains its resolve to achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh. 

Thanks for your question.

STAFF: Here in the room, Tom Bowman of NPR?

Q: Yeah, General, I wonder if you could expand on ISIS in Syria. Where are you seeing them? Are they slipping back into the cities like Deir ez-Zor? Are they moving west into the Syrian government area?

And also, are you seeing any of them move north into Turkey? Just give us a sense of the laydown and the increasing threat, if there is one.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, so, Tom, thanks for your question.

And so, with regards to Daesh activities in Syria, we do see a residual presence of Daesh as they continue to find sanctuary in the more rural areas of Syria. That's what keeps us there, by the way.

You know, the remnants of Daesh that remain, they're largely ineffective. Daesh has been reduced to a low level insurgency. And so what we do as a coalition and what we do working through our partners in Syria is seek them out wherever they seek sanctuary to – to eliminate them.

And so the particular movements that you described, those aren't things that I'm specifically tracking. As you know, along the eastern border of Syria there is a bit of a concentration of Daesh still at the low insurgency levels but what our Syrian Defense Force partners and what coalition forces all remain committed to is rooting them out wherever we find them, and it's been quite successful.

Q: And as far as heading north into Turkey, you seeing any evidence of that?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, so our interactions with Turkey from this CJOA (Combined Joint Operations Area) are fairly limited. As you know, we're focused on Iraq and Syria. We are aware of some of the Turkish activities to deal with some of the terrorist threats to that nation, and I know that EUCOM (U.S. European Command) and NATO work with the Turks on this matter.

STAFF: Sir, moving back to the phone lines. Courtney Kube of NBC?

Q: Hi, thanks.

Two quick questions. From your opening statement, you mentioned that the casualty yesterday in Syria was conducting a security patrol. The release said it wasn't due to any contact. Can you just tell us what happened there?

And then my actual question is about coalition forces encountering Russian forces in Syria. There have been a number of reports, mainly on social media and in sort of some local press, that recently there are increasing numbers of encounters between Russian forces and particularly U.S. military but also coalition along -- particularly along the roadways in eastern Syria. How often are you seeing that happen? Is it something that occurs on a daily basis and are you seeing any instances where it's escalating?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, so I think I understand both your questions. So first, I'll address yesterday's very unfortunate mishap, where we lost a U.S. soldier who was an important part of our coalition. First, the incident is still under investigation. We have no indications that that patrol was anything other than a normal patrol and we look forward to learning more about the cause of that unfortunate mishap and loss.

With regards to our broader interactions with Russia in the eastern Syria security area, our purpose there is to ensure the enduring military defeat of Daesh. And so while the coalition pursues its objectives and interests, Russian forces do the same and those interests aren't quite aligned.

And so our goal is to maintain, both in the air and on the ground, sufficient deconfliction between Russian forces and coalition forces to reduce the chance of any sort of a miscalculation. There's a whole series of protocols that enables this deconfliction. Largely, both sides abide by those -- those protocols, and what that allows us to do is keep the forces from all countries safe as they pursue their respective objectives in Syria.

Q: Thanks, General.

If I could just follow up, again, how often are they actually encountering face-to-face though, U.S. and Russians in Syria? Is it happening on a day to day- on an almost daily basis? And then again, on the soldier who was killed, if it was a security patrol and there was no enemy contact, I mean, surely, you must know. Did they hit an IED? Was it a traffic accident? I mean, I know it's under investigation, but can you say, with a broad stroke of what happened?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Sure. And so how often does it happen - the Russians and coalition forces are out in some of the same spaces every day. Just as we conduct patrols, they conduct patrols. Ours largely serve ensuring the enduring military defeat of Daesh, and then, you know, they have their own objectives, as well. And so contact is actually very frequent. That's the true, both on the ground, in the air. And so frankly, our forces are quite used to operating in close proximity to each other. The goal there is, again, deconfliction and avoiding surprises.

With regards to yesterday's patrol, I will tell you that we have no indications that any Russian activity existed at the location of the unfortunate loss. And then the rest, we're just going to have to leave to the investigation.

STAFF: Sir, moving back here to the room, Lucas Tomlinson.

Q: This is Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News. General, how many U.S. troops are in Syria and Iraq right now? And are there any plans to remove some of those forces?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, so on numbers, first I'll just tell you that our coalition and U.S. troop presence varies somewhat as we go through the various phases of the operation in both Syria and Iraq.

With regards to U.S. force presence in Iraq, that is something that we continually coordinate with the government of Iraq, and right now the number is 5,200. That is the enduring number that we've coordinated with our hosts, as they invited us here. I will tell you that those numbers are subject to some discussion as we progress our way through the campaign and as we work our way through the strategic dialogue that will negotiate and sort through our relationship with Iraq in the future.

With regards to Syria, those numbers are managed very carefully to make sure that we have sufficient forces to achieve our objectives in Syria, and those have been fairly stable for a while.

Q: So you said 5,200 in Iraq, and I didn't hear the number for Syria, General.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, and we try to keep those pretty constant just because the numbers in Syria tend to point to specific capabilities. We're careful about how specifically we cite them, just given kind of our limited footprint there.

Thanks, though.

STAFF: Moving back to the phone line, Sylvie of AFP.

Q: Hello. Hello. Thank you.

You say that you are getting smaller, but answering Lucas' questions, you seem to say that the number is stable. So how are you getting smaller?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yes ma'am. Hey, thanks for your question. I didn't catch your name in the introduction.

And so we're at that point in our campaign -- and I covered this some in my opening remarks -- where we've been quite successful. We're continuing to transfer bases back to our Iraqi hosts. The most recent will be Basmaya, where the transfer ceremony occurs on the 25th of July. All of that is a sign of progress. What that has allowed us to do is to reduce our footprint here in Iraq. We're going to do that slowly, and we're going to do that in close coordination with the government of Iraq. But both for U.S. forces and coalition forces, we continue to work with our hosts so that our footprint here supports our mutual objectives.

Q: So excuse me, sir. I can follow up. So you are saying that it's not done yet. You are going to get smaller.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yes, ma'am. I think over time what you will see is a slow reduction of U.S. forces here in Iraq in coordination with our Iraqi hosts.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Sir, Jeff Seldin of Voice of America. Jeff?

Q: General, thank you very much for doing this. Appreciate it. Curious, there seems to be a couple of narratives coming from the U.S. military about what's going on with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On the one hand, we've had the CENTCOM commander, General McKenzie, talked about that ISIS is always going to be around, yet we also hear repeatedly that the point of the coalition is to deal them a lasting defeat. So is there some middle ground there? I mean, what is the acceptable level of ISIS for the mission to be accomplished in Iraq and Syria?

And also, curious about how much impact the, what you've been noticing in terms of the ISIS attacks in Iraq, and especially in Syria. There was an uptick around Ramadan, but what have you seen since then, and how effective have they been? Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, you bet. So the, uh, Jeff, the current state of ISIS, and I'll just spend some time on Iraq first, is something that we look at closely with our Iraqi partners all the time. Obviously, it's our purpose for being here. Right now overall, we assess that Daesh has been reduced to a low-level insurgency.

You know, there's a five-stage model out there that Daesh-watchers will tend to address or consider. That's the Daesh Resurgence Model. We're actually migrating away from that because that's simply not what's occurring here. And so when we view the Daesh problem set and Daesh presence, we talk about it in terms of Daesh regression, which is really what it is.

You know, after six years, after liberating 110,000 square kilometers and liberating almost eight million people, we've achieved tremendous success across the coalition and across our partners. And so now where Daesh is, is they struggle just to find sanctuary in rural locations. Their leadership, their finances, their logistics, their media are all just shadows of what they used to be.

And so for us, you know, one of our signs of success is that Daesh does not and cannot control terrain. And so once you devolve to the point of that you have a low-level insurgency hiding in the rural areas and places, in caves and in mountains in this region, you've largely succeeded. And so it's a matter of maintaining them in that level.

I think we and our Iraqi partners, as well as the coalition alliance, Syrian forces, have no illusions that Daesh will never be fully eradicated, but within Iraq and Syria we've reduced their military strength and also their military potential immensely. And now, what we really rely on is the 77 nations in the global coalition to continue to work on the real root of the problem, which is the Daesh ideology.

STAFF: Sir, moving back here to the room, Laurie Mylroie of Kurdistan 24. Laurie?

Q: Thank you.

And thank you, General, for doing this.

On Monday, there was a meeting in Erbil that the coalition attended between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces about coordinating to fight ISIS in the disputed territories. Can you tell us about those discussions, what objectives do you want those discussions to achieve, and how close or far the two sides are from achieving them?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yes, ma'am. Hey, thanks for your question.

You know, we were really encouraged by that meeting that just occurred on Monday, both for the substance of that meeting but also what it reflects in terms of a -- a renewed willingness for Iraq to work on both sides of the Kurdish coordination line for the good of the nation's security.

And so from a coalition perspective, here to ensure the enduring military defeat of Daesh, our goal would be that the partnership for the nation across both sides of the Kurdish coordination line allow Daesh no sanctuary.

Now operationally, there has been the problem of some Daesh sanctuary existing in the terrain but also in the location that's fairly close to the KCL, as we call it, and I think this cooperation is a great step towards eliminating that out, one of those last sanctuaries.

So as a coalition, what we can do in helping in that is we can bring the parties together and then we can be clear-eyed with regards to what support the coalition can and can't provide as Iraqi Security Forces go forward. But we were definitely encouraged.

STAFF: Sir, back here in the room. Ryan Browne of CNN. Ryan?

Q: Thanks, ma'am. General, thanks for doing this.

I just wanted to follow up on the one question that Courtney asked about the Russians quickly. I know de-confliction’s been in place for a while. You said the number of incidents has become fairly common. What is your assessment as to what the Russians are trying to achieve? Are they trying to push U.S. and coalition personnel out of Syria? I mean, are they applying pressure with these patrols that are kind of in these increased interactions?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Well, in terms of the overall purpose of Russian presence in Syria, it's obviously about the regime which we oppose. We continue, from a U.S. perspective, we continue support the objectives laid out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. And so now, as the coalition, the U.S. and Russia go about their respective objectives, we are going to have interactions with those forces.

I'll give you an air perspective first. Every day, coalition air flies over the top of Syria, providing force protection and rooting out the remnants of Daesh in Syrian terrain. Likewise, the Russians go out and fly -- and sometimes for the same reasons. Plus, as they provide support to the Syrian regime farther on the west side of Syria.

Despite all that combat power in the air and in the same piece of sky, our very professional coalition aviators continue to successfully de-conflict from the Russians. And so that gives you a sense of the day-to-day play from an airman's perspective, which I'm happy to offer you.

From a ground perspective, that contact is just as frequent. And so our concern isn’t about the number of incidents – our troops are going to see each other out on the roads day in and day out as they pursue their respective objectives. Our goal is to make sure we abide by the de-confliction protocols and that we make sure that none of those contacts become escalatory. And by-and-large, we've been very successful.

And so I think, you know, without giving too much credit to our – to the Russian counterparts who are in Syria, and we talk to them multiple times a day, I think both sides agree that neither nation wants any sort of a miscalculation.

Q: And just a quick follow up on that and then I'll get to my next question. Apologies. You say ‘by-and-large,’ I mean, had there been a number of incidents that were considered unsafe or unprofessional with the Russians? As these increased contacts have occurred, you say ‘by-and-large,’ but that could have implied that there have been unsafe, unprofessional interactions.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Well, I'll just talk about, and I know some of the other acts that you're referring to that, you know, were reportedly occurring outside the CJOA. I'll just focus on what happens in eastern Syria. And in eastern Syria at the tactical level, at the soldier-to-soldier level, there's always risk for misunderstanding.

What we really impart on our forces is the importance of deescalating situations when there is misunderstanding and abiding by the de-confliction protocols that we maintain with the Russians. And so while there is potential there as we deal with armed personnel, we've not experienced any really significant interactions between the two forces.

Q: Thank you. And then I know --

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: It's something that we all watch very carefully.

Q: Thank you. And then I know with COVID, the U.S. and the coalition stopped accompanying Iraqi and SDF forces on raids. Has that changed or are you still no longer accompanying when they move on the objective?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, hey, thanks very much for that question.

And I think this is a great opportunity to highlight where we are in the campaign. You know, not too long ago we were very involved in, you know, what I'll call train, advise, assist efforts, working very closely with our partners very close to the tactical edge.

We've trained so many Iraqi forces now and they're functioning so self-sufficiently that it's given us the opportunity to what I'll call ‘lift up’ our partnership and put it at a much higher level of command. Instead of focusing on accompanying them tactically, now what we do is we advise at the operational to strategic level.

What that means is that coalition forces really aren't out there on the front lines, the Iraqis don't need us and they're exercising immense initiative. The majority of the operations that we see out of our Iraqi partners are unilateral and quite successful.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Sir, moving back to the phone lines. Jeff Schogol of Task & Purpose. Jeff?

Q: Thank you very much. The former envoy to ISIS Brett McGurk tweeted a video of Russian vehicles interacting with the U.S. convoy and said the President needs to tell Russian President Putin to stop harassing U.S. troops.

So I ask you, these Russian vehicles and these Russian interactions on the ground, are the Russians harassing U.S. troops?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah and so Jeff I want to make sure I read back your question to you, it came in a little bit broken. I think what you were asking is, you know, what's the nature of the interactions between Russian and U.S. convoys and to what degree does harassment occur between the Russian forces and U.S. forces. Have I got that one right?

Q: In short, are the Russians harassing U.S. troops? Yes, thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, thanks.

And so, Jeff, what you might call harassment, which is, you know, less than absolute professional conduct between the Russians and the U.S., occurs on rare occasions. By-and-large, what we find is that the Russians abide by the protocols that we've put in place. They abide by the rules of the road, if you will, that occur at the tactical level between our convoys, and it's very rare that a misunderstanding triggers some higher emotions or some sort of harassment between the two sets of forces.

You know, in those very limited cases where misunderstanding occurs, one of the things that we really trust and can count on is the professionalism of U.S. forces who, when opportunities, when incidents like that present, de-escalate the situation and come back the next day.

Q: Thank you. Just a very quick question. I know you've been asked several times how often these interactions with the Russians take place. I'm guessing you get briefed on this at your battle update briefings. Can you give us a range of how frequent these interactions with the Russians are? Daily, weekly, monthly?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: So we interact with the Russians out in the Syrian battlespace almost every day. Our convoys are very frequent, as are theirs. We co-exist in some of the same spaces. As we do that, we abide by the de-confliction protocols. But whether it's on the ground or in the air, we see each other all the time.

STAFF: Thanks, sir.

Moving back to the phone lines, Hope Seck with Military.com.

Hope?

Q: General, thank you so much for your time. So you mentioned of course the July 4th stand-up of the Military Advisory Group and the transition taking place there. You also said specifically that it had been instrumental in some recent mission execution. Can you speak specifically to those missions and how that advisory group is informing them, and just provide some color and detail there?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Hope, absolutely. So the Military Advisory Group that we just founded on the 2nd of July is really one of the cornerstones for where we are in the successful prosecution of this phase. First, it's intensely coalition, so it is not just U.S. It's made up of a broad variety of officers from 13 different countries, right? We are one coalition.

Next, what it does is, it relies increasingly on the Iraqis' ability to coordinate, cooperate, and generate unilateral operations. We provide now high-level advice on how to choreograph large-scale operations within a rocky terrain. And what the MAG also does is it connects Iraqi operations with those capabilities that they haven't fully developed.

What do I mean by that? Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, in-depth planning support, and then finally strike assets. And so the MAG doesn't just provide advice, it connects the Iraqis to those specific resources that they're still developing within their own armed forces.

Q: Can you speak specifically to any recent missions in which this collaboration has been successful?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, sure Hope. So we recently completed a multiday large-force, multi-Iraqi force operation in northeast Iraq called Heroes of Iraq IV. That suggests that there was a one through three; there absolutely was. And Heroes of Iraq IV was the latest large-scale operation that they coordinated across multiple parts of the Iraqi military to clear significant swathes of terrain where Daesh – remnants of Daesh continue to seek sanctuary.

And so these are clearing operations, they're quite successful- everything from enemy captured to material recovered. They include a lot of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance planning and build-up and include limited strikes. And so signature large-scale events like that are really what harness the horsepower of the MAG.

What I also want to highlight though, is while we look at those signature operations, it's actually the day-to-day constant getting after it that Iraqi forces do at the, kind of the regional level or at the operations center level, that really have a high impact on the battlespace.

That occurs all over Iraq, every day, on a very unilateral basis. And so what we're finding is they simply don't need our help for the day-to-day business of securing a lot of the country.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you, sir.

Jared Szuba of Al-Monitor? Jared?

Q: Hi sir. Thank you for doing this.

I was wondering, you had mentioned that Turkey has taken action against terrorist threats in Syria. I was wondering if you could elaborate that -- on that, if that's against ISIS, if that's against the PKK in northeast Syria, and what the U.S. European Command involvement in that is. Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Hey, Jared. And forgive me, I heard the words "Syria" and "ISIS," that was about it. Could, Jessica, could you maybe relay Jared's question for me?

STAFF: Sir, actually, it was mumbled for me as well. Jared, could you please repeat your question slowly, please?

Q: Sure. Let's see if this works.

Sir, thank you for doing this. I was wondering if you could elaborate on Turkey's efforts. You had mentioned that Turkey has undertaken efforts against terrorism in Syria, and I was wondering what NATO and European Command's role in that is, if you could elaborate on that, please. Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Okay, Jared, so I think I caught more then. I think you were asking about Turkish operations in Syria against the YPG. Have I got that about right?

Q: Yes, sir, that's correct.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Okay. Yeah, so thanks for your question.

And so first, you know, the coalition is in Syria to help ensure the defeat of Daesh, right? We continue to get after the Daesh remnants every day, and we do that largely through our coalition-aligned Syrian forces. Obviously, the nation of Turkey has its own interests and its own security interests within the northern part of Syria, and our goal within that, frankly, is just to stay de-conflicted from them. There's a lot of de-confliction going on, as you can tell, in the northern strip along the top of Syria.

And so for us, our goal is to not have any sort of incident with Syrian forces. They are a NATO ally, after all. And what we do is, we follow their activities very closely to make sure that there's no accidental involvement between us and them.

STAFF: Sir, we have time for about two more questions.

Lara Seligman of Politico, Lara on the line?

Q: Hi, my question's been answered. Thank you.

STAFF: Okay, thanks, Lara.

James Martone, are you still on the line? James, is that you?

Okay. Here in the room, sir, back to Lucas of Fox?

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

It appears that the rocket attacks against Baghdad have been increasing in recent weeks. You said earlier in the briefing that the Iranian-backed forces are not your focus but aren't these rocket attacks, which you blame on those forces, making you have to focus on this threat? And is it increasing?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, so thanks for your question with regards to rocket attacks.

Those absolutely pose a risk to coalition forces. You know, they have caused casualties among our coalition forces within calendar year 2020.

You know, given the focus of our mission, being here to defeat Daesh, we turn to our government of Iraq hosts to help create the security conditions here that allow us to continue our mission. You know, since the government formation, we've seen a lot of initiative exercised by the government of Iraq but also by their security forces to create the security conditions that we need to continue to operate.

And so we applaud their efforts and appreciate everything that they do to keep coalition forces residing on Iraqi bases safe as we conduct our mission.

Q: And just one quick follow up, why are all these mysterious explosions happening in Iran? Is there anything you can tell us about that? What's causing it?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah and so I agree with you that they're mysterious. We absolutely focus on our mission here in Iraq and Syria and I just, I won't hazard a guess on what's happening on Iranian soil.

STAFF: Thank you all, that's all the time we have for questions. Sir, do you have any final words for us?

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Yeah, hey, Jessica, thanks very much. I appreciate the chance to talk to you today about our righteous mission in CJTF-OIR and I would just leave you with a few things.

First, I hope you gauge from the substance of this discussion how quite capable the Iraqi Security Forces have become. They are building on their and our successes and they are increasingly able to conduct unilateral operations to defeat the remnants of Daesh that exist within the country.

Next, because of their success, it's allowed us to make some progress here within the coalition. You see that by way of the base consolidation that we're doing as we turn the bases back over to our Iraqi hosts and you will see some degree of reduction of forces here in Iraq. That's just what success looks like.

And then finally, you know, as a coalition member among 26 different troop-contributing nations, it is my honor to serve alongside the nations who are willing to send forces here to pursue this absolutely important mission.

You know, and so we have a slogan here that we use as we conclude formal events – it is "one mission, many nations." We absolutely abide by that. Thanks for your attention today.

STAFF: Thanks, sir. Thank you for your time today, I hope you have a wonderful evening. This concludes today's press briefing. Thank you.

MAJ. GEN. EKMAN: Okay everybody, have a great day.