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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | May 8, 2018

News Briefing Via Teleconference by U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, Deputy Commander, Strategy and Support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve

STAFF: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My apologies for the technical difficulties earlier. Without any further ado, General Gedney, we'll turn it over to you. 

U.K. ARMY MAJ. GEN. FELIX GEDNEY: Thank you. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have some communications problems so I'm going to start from the beginning again. And good morning again. 

Today's briefing will focus on our efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria in order to bring peace, security and stability to the liberated areas of northeast Syria. 

This week, following an increase in coalition strikes against the final ISIS-controlled areas in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces resumed offensive operations to clear the final ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria.

This increased defensive action to destroy ISIS marks the beginning of Operation Roundup, which is the coalition name for the operations to destroy ISIS in the final areas where they hold ground east of the Euphrates River and liberate the last of their fake caliphate.

In the first phase of Operation Roundup, the Syrian Democratic Forces are securing the southeast portion of the Syrian Iraqi border by eliminating ISIS resistance and establishing defensive positions in coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces, who are operating in parallel on the Iraqi side of the border. 

Coalition forces are supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces maneuver by conducting air, artillery and mortar strikes against ISIS targets. Since the Syrian Democratic Forces announced their renewed push to defeat ISIS on May the 1st, the coalition has conducted a total of 40 strikes against ISIS targets.

Destroying eight ISIS held buildings, six logistical assets, two explosives factories and two weapons caches. In the following strike video, the Iraqi Air Force struck an ISIS headquarters target on Sunday, May the 6th near Dashisha.

Further degrading ISIS' operational capability throughout eastern Syria and into western Iraq. The deliberate drive by the SDF brings the total liberated area in the Euphrates River Valley to more than 5,000 square kilometers.

Ground operations by the Syrian Democratic Forces, coupled with intelligence, surveillance and fire support provided by the coalition are having a devastating effect on ISIS, as we strike ISIS targets and Syrian Democratic Forces continue to liberate lands held by ISIS terrorists.

Furthermore, the build-up to Operation Roundup has seen a significant increase in our offensive operations against ISIS. A recent coalition strike in Dashisha on April the 29th killed Nur al-Din, an Iraqi leader with ISIS terrorist financial network.

Al-Din directed cross-border financial operations for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including support of ISIS military and external operations capabilities. 

His removal deprives ISIS of a key leader for financial resourcing and demonstrates the effectiveness of Kurdish and then partner forces efforts throughout Operation Roundup to rid the Iraqi Syria border regions and the middle Euphrates River Valley of ISIS remnants.

A previous coalition strike near Hajin in Deir ez-Zor province Syria on April the 17th also resulted in a severe blow to ISIS and its leadership, killing between 37 and 40 ISIS members, including several senior commanders.

We and our partners will continue to pursue ISIS and get them off the battlefield wherever they try to hide within our area of operations. Observations from eastern Syria suggest that morale among ISIS fighters is sinking.

Frictions are mounting between native and foreign-born ISIS fighters, and ISIS' privileged leadership continues to flee the area, leaving fighters with dwindling resources and low morale. ISIS fighters continue to surrender rather than face certain death, as the Syrian Democratic Forces tighten their containment lines.

Moving forward, as Operation Roundup progresses, the coalition will continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces compacting what's left of ISIS in Syria as we deal the final blow. As we have said and proven many, many times over the course of this campaign, the coalition will relentlessly pursue ISIS wherever they are until they're defeated.

The global coalition of 71 nations and four international organizations remains absolutely committed to the defeat of ISIS. And with that, I'll take your questions. 

STAFF: Idrees Ali with Reuters?

Q: Not just in Syria, but Iraq as well. Later today, President Trump is expected to sort of pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Have you seen any change in behavior by Iranian - or Iranian backed forces in the past few days or weeks?

GEN. GEDNEY: No, we see - we've seen no change. We got - closely monitor all threats to our forces, and as you know we retain our right to self-defense if we need to, but we see no change.

Q: A follow-up, are you making any adjustments in expectations that if President Trump does pull out, that they will - the Iranians will react in a certain way?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well you're asking me to speculate. The period through May be a busy time, with many things going on in the political space. As I said, we continually re-assess the threat to forces with what's going on and we'll adjust as necessary.

We are confident that we'll retain the security of our forces operating in Iraq and Syria.

STAFF: Next to Joe Talbot with Al Hurra

Q:  I wanted to ask you, what's the size of ISIS fighters who remain in this last portion between Hajin and Abu Kamal? What's your estimate?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well it's a very good question, but it's very difficult to estimate. And - and - and therefore I can't give you an exact number of how many is there, except to say there's too many. What we're going to do now is we're going to clear those final areas.

And I can assure you by the time we're finished, there'll be a lot less.

Q: A follow-up on this question. Do you have a timeline, when can we expect this Operation Roundup would be over?

GEN. GEDNEY: Again, you're asking me to speculate. It is absolutely clear that those final areas are going to be a difficult fight. We're going to continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces as they clear through those areas.

We're going to continue an aggressive pace of operations in our strikes and to clear through those areas. It's going to take a -- a while to do that, and even after that we then need to focus on making sure we can secure those liberated areas, and provide the stabilization necessary to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS.

STAFF: To Kasim Ileri with Anadulo.

Q: Thanks, general, for doing this. 

YPG in a statement has threatened that they will target the families of the Free Syrian Army groups working with Turkey and northern Syria, as they have been trained by the coalition under the care of SDF. How do you take that statement? And would you endorse such a move against -- a (inaudible) partner against -- as the Free Syrian Army families? 

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, the Free Syrian Army are operating outside of our main area of focus. We would urge all parties to de-escalate any of these attentions, and focus on what's critical to us now, which is the defeat of ISIS, and bringing peace and stability to northeast Syria. 

Q: The coalition has been saying that it trains local forces and partner forces with rules of laws of war. Does rule of laws of war allows targeting families, children and women in areas that you are training them? 

GEN. GEDNEY: No, of course the rules of law don't allow the targeting of noncombatants. And as I said, we would urge everyone to ensure the protection of the civilians -- of all civilians across the battlespace. 

STAFF: Next to Ryan Browne with CNN. 

Q: Hello, general. Thanks for doing this.

Two quick questions. One, do you -- can you tell us the current number of foreign fighters being detained by U.S. backed -- or coalition backed forces in Syria? I believe we were told it's over 400 was the last we heard. Is that still the number? And I have another one, but if you could answer that one first. 

GEN. GEDNEY: Well of course northern Syria, there's a large number of ISIS fighters being held by the Syrian Democratic Force in their detention centers. And exactly as you say, previously reported was a number over 400. That number is a bit larger but it's in the same order. But what we need to do now is to ensure those hundreds of foreign fighters that are being held by the Syrian Democratic Force cannot be a threat either regionally or globally in future. 

Q: Thank you. And then on the -- I know you're concentrating on fighting ISIS, but there have been reports previously of pro-regime forces conducting threatening actions, threatening posture along the Euphrates River Valley. 

Have you seen any new evidence of pro-regime forces or Free Syrian army, Turkish backed forces conducting any threatening activities in Manbij or Deir ez-Zor. Have there been any new threatening actions conducted by other groups? 

GEN. GEDNEY: Well as I said, our focus is absolutely on the defeat of ISIS. In doing that, we're operating in close proximity to a large number of other forces. And we have to carefully manage the seams where we're operating in close proximity of those forces. 

We have a very effective and professional deconfliction mechanism through the Russia forces. Not all of those forces are aligned to Russia though. And we continue to assess the level of threat that we see on the -- those areas where we're operating close proximity to other forces. 

Q: There've been no incidences of contact or -- between the two groups? 

GEN. GEDNEY: There has been no notable increase in tension across those borders in the recent future -- recent past, no. 

STAFF: Next to Wyatt Goolsby with EWTN. 

Q: Thank you. General, as you know, ISIS over years has targeted ethnic and religious minorities like Christians. And do we believe they're still being targeted specifically by the remnants of ISIS? 

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, as you rightly point out, ISIS has brutalized the population of Iraq and -- and Syria for many years. And we now need to make sure that we can rid this region of this cancer that ISIS meant. 

I would say that we are interested in the protection of all civilians in the battle space, and we want to ensure that we can build back unity within Iraq and Syria after the defeat of ISIS. 

STAFF: Next to Laurie Mylorie with Kurdistan 24. 

Q: My -- several questions. My first question, Ambassador Ryan Crocker -- sort of a legendary figure because he was General Petraeus' partner during the surge in Iraq -- decades earlier, served in Beirut when the embassy was bombed, the Marine barracks was bombed. 

And he recently cautioned that there was -- seemed, to him, to be a similar vulnerability with coalition troops in Syria, because there were so few of them, but you had the same enemies, namely, Syria, Iran and their proxies, aligned against the coalition. And was concerned about the vulnerability of those troops. You don't share that concern? 

GEN. GEDNEY: I'm -- I'm absolutely confident that -- that we can manage the force protection to our troops. And -- and let's be clear, our focus is absolutely on defeating ISIS. 

And we're doing that by fighting alongside a partner force in the Syrian Democratic Force, and that is enabling us to defeat ISIS in those final areas that they hold. 

Q: My second question. You said that ISIS had a privileged leadership, and they had fled. What do you -- did you mean by "privileged leadership," and could you describe the leadership of ISIS in any other -- other qualities of leadership of ISIS? 

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, I think what we've seen recently is ISIS' leadership deserting. And, at times, leaving with resources and leaving their fighters without effective leadership, because they can. 

Q: Another question. In Iraq, the BBC monitoring recently reported that there was an increase in violence in -- in the disputed areas: Kirkuk, Salahuddin Province, Diyala Province. Is that also your assessment? That -- that a -- increase in violence in those areas?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, the level of violence is always relevant, of course. There's a lot -- a lot lower violence than there was under ISIS and through the liberation campaign.

I think we will see ISIS attempt to increase the level of violence as we approach the elections. But I'm absolutely confident that Iraqi Security Forces, a highly professional and effective force, will be able to maintain the security of Iraq through those elections. 

Q: According to the BBC monitoring report and others, it's due to the Iraqi attack on a disputed areas that the Kurds held in October. That -- that's not going to change. I mean, that there has been, in measurable terms, an increase in violence in the disputed areas?

GEN. GEDNEY: There are still occasional spikes of violence within Iraq. But as I say, the Iraqi Security Forces are showing themselves to be a very effective security force in maintaining security throughout Iraq.

STAFF: Next we'll go to Tuna Sanli, with TRT.

Q: Thank you (inaudible). The United States is sending weapons and military support to YPG or SDF, and training them. How can you be assured that these weapons will not be used by YPG or SDF, in your words, against Turkey to fight against Turkey, a NATO member?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, we are working alongside the Syrian Democratic Force. We are training them and providing them resources they need to fight ISIS and make sure that we can destroy our common enemy across the coalition, including Turkey, which is ISIS. 

STAFF: Our next is Hans Nichols with NBC. 

Q: Thanks, General. Hans Nichols, NBC. 

You mentioned that a lot of the leadership is deserting. I was wondering what the latest is on al-Baghdadi and if you believe he's deserted or is he's still in the battlespace.

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, I don't know where al-Baghdadi is, but like all of the ISIS leadership, we continue to hunt for them and try to take them off the battlefield. You'll know when we find al-Baghdadi because we'll deal with him on the battlefield. 

STAFF: Next to Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.

Q: General, is it the belief of the coalition that the Iran Nuclear Deal needs to remain in place to keep the focus on ISIS?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, you're asking me to speculate on a political-level issue, which I'm not going to. As I've said, our focus and the focus of Operation Roundup is absolutely to defeat ISIS and liberate the final areas east of the Euphrates River. 

Q: If the deal falls apart does that hurt your mission, General?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, as I said we continue to assess whatever this context that we work in, and you're asking me to speculate on something that we simple don't know about at the moment.

Q: And, forgive me if this has already been asked, but can you talk about the last remaining pockets of ISIS fighters? Do we know how many there are?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, the answer I gave is too many. So we're actually going to make sure that we've cleared through those final areas. It's very difficult to assess exact numbers of fighters in those final areas. We believe there's a higher proportion of foreign fighters in some of those areas.

And so, we now need to make sure we aggressively clear those, so that we can move onto securing the liberating areas and bring peace and stability to Northeast Syria.

STAFF: Over here - OK. Lara Seligman

Q: Thank you, General. And, during the fall we heard a lot about Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. aircraft, or getting too close to U.S. or coalition troops on the ground. But we haven't heard a lot about that since then. 

Can you tell me, have there been any such instances recently and what has been the impact of the latest U.S. and British and French strikes on Syria on that had there been any impact?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well, we continue to have a very effective and professional deconfliction relationship with the Russian forces who are operating largely on the western side of the Euphrates River and we are operating on -- largely on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

Q: So -- but have there -- had there been an increase or decrease in those kinds of instances or are they just not public?

GEN. GEDNEY: We've had no instances recently that causes any concern.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

Q: Thanks, General, for doing this. I appreciate your time. 

On the leaders that are deserting can you give us an idea, where are they deserting to? Are they -- and how are they getting out? Are they moving across the river into coalition -- not coalition, I'm sorry regime controlled territory and are you guys making any attempts to target them when they escape?

GEN. GEDNEY: Yes, absolutely. And -- and they're moving in different directions and the reason the detainee population is increasing in those SDF detention facilities is because we are capturing ISIS fighters as they move through our battle space.

We remain concerned for any that are moving onto the western Euphrates River, where ISIS retains some freedom of action, as their regimes seem either unwilling or unable to effectively deal and finally defeat ISIS on the west of the river.

STAFF: Lucas, do you have a follow up?

Q: Why are so many foreign fighters still coming to Syria? You mentioned an increase of foreign fighters, why is that happening?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well I didn't say it was an increase in foreign fighters, I said it was a larger proportion of foreign fighters. And that's largely because they are unable to move through the battle space as easy, perhaps as a Syrian or an Iraqi fighter could.

So what we're left with is a hard core of foreign fighters in those remaining areas that ISIS holds.

Q: (Inaudible) threat to the coalition, Idlib province and some of those Al Qaeda fighters or these remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria?

GEN. GEDNEY: Could you repeat the question? I didn't hear it.

Q: Which is a bigger threat right now to the coalition, is it Idlib province and the emergence of these Al Qaeda fighters, or is it the remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well our -- our focus -- the focus of the coalition is in northeast Syria. And so the task for us is to make sure that we have completed the defeat of ISIS in northeast Syria and then bring peace and stability to the people of northeast Syria.

STAFF: To Ryan Browne, did you have a follow-up?

Q: I did. General, we talked a little bit about the foreign fighters have been growing a little bit north of 200. Are you concerned about the SDF's ability to detain -- obviously doesn't seem like many countries are taking back their citizens if the number is going up.

So are you worried in the long term about the SDF's ability to detain them? And you said that the regime appears either unwilling or unable to take -- take on ISIS in this area. Is this a concern that these ISIS pockets and regime controlled areas are going to continue to exist unless the coalition takes action?

GEN. GEDNEY: OK, two questions there. To your first question, in the short term we're not concerned -- concerned. The Syrian Democratic Forces have shown themselves to be both a highly effective force and a highly responsible force in detaining those terrorists that we've captured on the battle -- they've captured on the battle space.

In the medium to long term, we have to find a global solution to the problem of these fighters to make sure that they cannot become a threat again. So yes, in the long term, we do have concerns. 

Likewise, to your point about what happens on the western side of the river, we remain concerned about ISIS freedom in the western -- west of the River Euphrates, where it seems they have some freedom of action still, because they have not been properly defeated by the pro-regime forces.

STAFF: Back to Justin Miller with a follow-up.

Q: Just a follow-up on the desertion issue. As the -- the territory of ISIS is shrinking, have you seen any indication -- have you seen any ISIS fighters or leaders deserting to Afghanistan or somehow finding their way to Afghanistan?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well we have picked up fighters who have moved through the battle space. Difficult to tell exactly where their end location they're intending to get to. But we are seeing -- seeing fighters moving and trying to escape.

The truth is we're probably not collecting every one of them, but a significant number of those that we are collecting and stopping from escaping anywhere.

Q: The -- the ISIS operations inside Syria and Iraq is shrinking, and in Afghanistan it's increasing. Or -- or does it have any relation to those desertion issues?

GEN. GEDNEY: Not if we can help it. Our intention is to stop any ISIS fighters leaving this battle space. We're either going to kill them on the battle space or we're going to put them in detention.

STAFF: All right, we are at the end of my queue for questions. Are there any more questions for General Gedney? All right sir, well thank you very much for your time today. Do you have any closing words for the group?

GEN. GEDNEY: Well I -- I just say that you know the mission here is making great progress. The Syrian Democratic Force and the Iraqi Security Forces have shown themselves to be excellent partners in the operations to defeat ISIS.

And -- and what we now need to do, as soon as we finish the liberation of territory, the defeat will not be complete until we have stabilized and secured those areas that have been liberated. And then we can look to a lasting defeat of ISIS.

STAFF: Sir, have a great day. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much and my apologies once again for the technical difficulties earlier. Have a great day.