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TRANSCRIPT | Sept. 18, 2018

Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Press Briefing By Col. Ryan via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON:  Good morning.  I'm Commander Sean Robertson.  I'll be moderating the brief for you this morning.  We're going to begin with a brief communication check.

Sir, can you hear me?


CMDR. ROBERTSON:  This brief should last approximately 45 minutes.

Today, we have Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Iraq, for an update on operations.

Sir, the floor is yours.

COL. RYAN:  Good morning.  Today, I'd like to update you on the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria, and conclude by providing the current status of efforts to enable stability in our areas of responsibility.

However, first, I want to mention Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera assumed command of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve from Lieutenant General Paul E. Funk II, during a September 13th ceremony in Baghdad with CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel presiding over the events.  We proudly thank General Funk and his team for their service, and welcome General LaCamera and the 18th Airborne Corps staff.

Starting in Iraq, operations by the ISF to secure the nation and to combat malign actors continue as they threaten the safety of civilians who are trying to stabilize and rebuild.  The ISF continues to fight and secure the hard-fought gains that they have made in the past year to secure the nation against remaining pockets of ISIS, who continue to threaten their peace and security.  The various security elements, to include the ISF, the Peshmerga, counterterrorism services and the federal police, are all working together to continue securing their country.

In Nineveh, the ISF work daily to reduce improvised explosive devices and to arrest terrorists.  In the mountains of Kirkuk, the federal police and the Peshmerga are working together to secure the remote villages through the region and to clear pockets of terrorists who are trying and failing to exploit the rough terrain to maintain a foothold.

In Anbar province, border security forces continue to prevent ISIS fighters from streaming into the country, establishing presence in the villages across the western desert region and harassing residents.

For its part, the coalition is enabling the ISF efforts to secure Iraq by advising strategic leaders, training thousands of Iraqi servicemembers and divesting equipment they need to effectively secure their country.

In addition, since 2015, a multi-national effort led by various coalition members have trained more than 175,000 ISF members in basic soldier skills and specialized fields critical to the mission, such as intelligence, law enforcement, medical support and aviation.

Moving to Syria, ground operations for Phase Three of Operation Roundup began this month, and the coalition and its partner forces' efforts to defeat ISIS in the clearance of the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Hajin and the surrounding villages are the last remaining territory acquired by ISIS in the coalition's area of responsibility, and the victory by the Syrian Democratic Forces there will mean that ISIS no longer holds territory.

As expected, ISIS is trying hard to -- to preserve their remaining space, by using tactics like burning tires, using innocent civilians as human shields, and dressing up like women.  Despite this, we are confident that the SDF will prevail.

Finally in At-Tanf, the MaT continues to secure the area within the 55 kilometer deconfliction zone, and to prevent the movement of terrorists through the area.  Earlier this month, U.S. Marines conducted training within the area to reinforce our partners' forces, efforts and capabilities.

The coalition has supported the SDF through air support, as well as training and equipment.  Additionally, in liberated areas, the coalition trained internal security forces that maintain the peace and security in liberated cities, provide basic law enforcement support, as well as specialized services such as counter-IED and engineering.

In both Iraq and Syria, the success of our partner forces is creating stability in areas that have not seen peace since the arrival of ISIS more than five years ago.  Lives are being rebuilt again because the ISF and the SDF are providing the necessary security for residents to go back home, rebuild their lives and again hope for their future.

However, the truth is military stabilization efforts are not enough.  Security creates the space for rebuilding.  Residents only gain hope for the future when their children can go to school free from harm, women go buy basic necessities in local shops, and when they can go to their jobs that allow them to support their families.

Ultimately, the military cannot fight its way to stability.

The cost of reconstruction is dauntingly high for our partners, who must allocate very limited resources to address very serious concerns.  The reconstruction efforts in Mosul alone, for example, can cost as much as $100 billion.  We call on all nations to help those who have sacrificed tremendously fighting this global threat.

With that update, I'll be happy to take your questions.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  For all questions, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question.  All called on will have an opportunity to ask one follow-up.


Q:  Hi, Colonel Ryan.  Tara Copp with Military Times.

Based on reports that Russia and Turkey have come to an agreement over Idlib, does the U.S. welcome this agreement?  Have you had any chance to discuss what it might mean for any efforts to protect partnered forces in and around Idlib?

COL. RYAN:  Hi, Tara.

We have not had time to really discuss that.

I'll tell you what, if this holds up and it can save lives and avoid the humanitarian disaster that it could have been, then we're definitely supporting that.  But that's definitely a decision between Russia and Turkey, and the coalition was not involved with that.

Q:  But at the present moment, the coalition would welcome an agreement between Russia and Turkey over Idlib?

COL. RYAN:  What we want is a political solution that will save lives, is what we're really looking at.

Q:  Okay.

And secondly, can you comment at all on the -- the shoot-down of the Russian jet yesterday, and whether or not U.S. has any visibility in it over a deconfliction line or any other means?

COL. RYAN:  As far as I’m tracking, Tara, we did not -- the coalition was not involved with this.

Tough to comment because it just happened, and I'm sure an investigation has -- has already been on the way.  So I can't comment any further than that.

Q:  (Off-mic) involved, but were you able to -- did you have any visibility into it as it was happening through either your own radar or through the deconfliction line?

COL. RYAN:  We did not that I'm tracking.


Q:  Hello, Colonel.  Ryan Browne with CNN.  Thank you for doing this.

A quick question on Phase Three of Operation Roundup.  Have you -- so far, as the SDF progresses, has there been any high-value targets captured or foreign fighters captured in -- as the SDF has made its initial moves into the Hajin area?

COL. RYAN:  Hi, Ryan.

We have not captured any high-value targets that we're tracking.  We have had some individuals give up, and the SDF has them in custody.

It's been a very difficult fight so far, a lot of IEDs and booby traps as we expected.  So they are constantly changing their TTPs, their training tactics, to avoid some of this.

But -- but we have not seen any high-value targets to this point.

Q:  Thank you.

And then on At-Tanf, obviously this exercise with the Marines was well publicized, there was a lot of talk of Russia threatening to conduct unilateral operations within the deconfliction area, there was some unidentified shelling in the At-Tanf area.

What do you ascribe this kind of increased tensions around At-Tanf?  What do you -- what do you, kind of, credit that to?  What's going on there?  And have you seen some of these tensions subside in recent days?

COL. RYAN:  Well, there's a lot of actors, there's a lot of malign actors out there.  And as you know, not all of them are -- are thrilled that the U.S. is in this area.  However, our goal remains the same, and that's to defeat ISIS.

So I haven't seen any tensions that have been any different than before.  But again we're there, we will definitely, you know, reinforce our capabilities when needed and protect ourselves whenever necessary.

Q:  Has Russia threatened again to conduct unilateral operations in that area in recent days?

COL. RYAN:  Not that I'm tracking, Ryan.

Again, our reinforcement of our capabilities ensuring we're ready to respond was definitely not aimed at anyone.  It's something that we need to do as a military force.

But we have not seen any other aggression from -- from anybody since that.

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.


Q:  Hi, Colonel.  It's Kasim Ileri with Anadolu Agency.

I have a question on Manbij.  I don't know if you still remember, there was an -- a roadmap agreement between Turkey and U.S. on Manbij.  Can you update us about it, what's going on?

And I will have a follow-up.

COL. RYAN:  Sure.

We just conducted number 46 for independent coordinated patrols with Turkey outside Manbij.  And I'd like to think that Manbij is -- is a beacon of hope right now, because, again, there's stability there, the shops are open, people are moving around freely, there's very few signs of any ISIS or any other malign actors in that area.

So I believe that those patrols are working.

Q:  And -- so the Manbij plan, the roadmap was detailed and was phased and also there was a timeline on it, so there was going to be some joint patrols between -- with, you know, United States and Turkish forces together.  Also, YPG elements would have, according to the plan to leave the city.

So what about the second phase of the plan?  Why is it not working?

And Secretary Mattis has -- as you would remember, has last month or the month before said that the training for joint patrols to begin soon and we have not heard about -- anything about those trainings.

What -- what -- what is the reason behind the stall in the plan to move ahead?

COL. RYAN:  Well, the training continues, so thanks for the question.

They just have not started the joint patrolling yet, but training is ongoing.

I don't want to get ahead of the secretary, but that's why we don't go into timelines.  There's a lot of things militarily that -- that we have to do whenever you have a joint patrol, and those issues are being addressed right now.

But again, there's -- there's very few incidents in Manbij right now and to us that's a sign of success that the patrols are working.

Q:  Just -- just a last follow-up.  Can you confirm that YPG elements have left the city?

COL. RYAN:  As far as I'm tracking, there's very little YPG if any at all.  And we are adhering to that agreement that the YPG will not be part of Manbij.

Q:  Thank you very much.


Q:  Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

Colonel, how many ISIS fighters do you estimate are -- estimate are in eastern Syria in the city of Hajin?

COL. RYAN:  Right now our estimate's around 1,500 to 2,000 fighters.

However, again, let me reiterate that they have freedom of movement underneath the ground in their tunnels and of course, you know, they built their own trenches as well.  So that's one of things that the SDF is fighting.  So it's very difficult to come up with an actual number when a lot of folks are underground and, of course, they -- they come out at night.

Now that the operation is underway, I think we'll get a -- get a better clue once things get progressing.

Q:  Following the downing of the Russian reconnaissance aircraft, is the U.S. military beefing up its combat air patrols over the skies of Syria?

COL. RYAN:  No, nothing's changed since that.  Obviously that was just yesterday, so nothing's changed from the coalition standpoint.

Q:  And finally, Secretary Pompeo on Friday mentioned that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad had received rocket fire from Iranian-backed forces.  How concerning is this for the coalition?  And what steps are you doing to mitigate future attacks?

COL. RYAN:  Well, it is concerning, because we have groups that are firing, you know, obviously, at the embassy compound and at coalition forces.

I mean, I get paid to be here, so they can fire those weapons at me all they want.  But the problem is they don't have very good aim and those -- they fell very short and they can, you know, hurt the Iraqi people.  And that's what we have a problem with.

If you want to, you know, have a beef with the military, that's one thing, but just aimlessly and recklessly shooting off weapons at the Baghdad population, that's the part that bothers us.

Q:  Would you say the threats from these Iranian-backed forces is increasing throughout Iraq and Syria?

COL. RYAN:  I think the -- it's stayed the same throughout.  I wouldn't say it's increasing.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Tom Squitieri?

Q:  Hi, Tom Squitieri with Talk Media News.  Thank for doing this, sir.

I wanted to follow up on Ryan's initial question about Operation Roundup.

Could you -- I read over the weekend some news reports that SDF had taken one village already.  And you mentioned in your remarks that there's several little villages or cities in that area.

Could you be a little more specific as to the -- what's been captured already by SDF, as well as go into a little more detail please of how the U.S. coalition -- the U.S. is supporting this effort, through, what, air, intelligence, whatever?

Thank you.

COL. RYAN:  Sure.

Well, the coalition is supporting with air support and of course medvac if they need that as well, to include ISR as well.

And so it's not just in the Hajin area.  I mean, it's -- they're fighting Al-Souza, (Bagouth, Baquani?). I mean there's other areas but eventually, you know, Hajin is -- is a hot spot.  But we have to -- you know, without getting into too much military detail on -- on where the forces are going, but there's -- there's other topics, there are other spots where the SDF have to fight and -- and there's obviously a very concentrated military plan.

But we're fighting a very difficult enemy right now.  The advance has been slow and methodical, but they're doing that -- that -- that way they don't lose forces either.  So we just can't -- they can't jump into it haphazardly.

And again, if they see something that is slowing them down, they're -- they're changing their techniques to meet the needs and to destroy ISIS.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Thank you, Colonel Ryan.  (inaudible) -- from Turkish Radio and Television.

There are reports that the U.S. is stepping up its presence in northern Syria, especially in Manbij, Kobani and Shaddadi.  These reports also say that U.S. is deploying radars and missile defense systems there.

Can you confirm these reports in some local media and the social media?

Thank you very much.

COL. RYAN:  I'm sorry, that was a -- that didn't come in very well.  Could you repeat part of that question?

Q:  There are reports that United States is stepping up its presence in northern Syria, especially in Manbij, Kobani and Shaddadi.  And also the U.S. Army is deploying missile defense systems and radars there.

Can you confirm these reports?

COL. RYAN:  I can confirm that the coalition forces have installed those radars in the past.  Some of the photos, I think, that were on the internet were old.

And we do this all the time to secure our planes in the air and our forces on the ground.  So I wouldn't say we're stepping up.  This is something that we constantly do, you know, based off the enemy to continue to make sure that all of our forces stay safe at all times.

Q:  Just a quick follow-up:  How many U.S. soldiers are there now?

COL. RYAN:  In Syria?

Q:  In Syria.

COL. RYAN:  Around 2,000.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Tara for a quick follow-up here.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.

I wanted to get back to the -- the shoot-down.  Did Israel communicate its flight plans or plans to hit Latakia prior to the -- the Russian plane being hit?

COL. RYAN:  I don't have any other information than -- than what I've discussed already on that.

We're -- we're tracking probably what you're tracking.  I'm sure at the higher levels, you know, the building you're at was tracking that.  But -- but we were not at the coalition level.

Q:  And just for my clarification, at the coalition level, would Israel be communicating to the coalition what its particular air strikes would be on any given day?  Is it -- does it operate within the coalition or is it operating independently?

COL. RYAN:  No, they operate independently.  They're not operating within our coalition communication system.

Q:  Okay, so they don't communicate their moves to the coalition at all -- their air moves?

COL. RYAN:  Not that -- not that I'm tracking, no.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Katie from Defense One.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  Thank for -- for doing this.

I just wanted to follow up on Lucas' question about the rocket fire on the U.S. embassy, as well as some of the -- the violence we've seen in Basra.

How concerned are you all that this stalemate in government formation is increasing instability in -- in the region?  And how do you see this as a -- as a -- as a factor in the, sort of, violence that we've seen so far?

COL. RYAN:  Well, it's definitely a concern, but you have to understand, too, that the Iraqi government has not formed yet, which I believe makes it more difficult.

I mean, what the residents are asking for are essential services.  I just had talks with the Iraqis today about that:  you know, water, electric -- electricity, things of that nature, which they deserve.  So that's something that the Iraqi government's going to have to take a good look at.  But once they form, I'm sure things will go a lot more smoother.  But right now, it's -- they're still in a little bit of flux right now, so it's a difficult situation.

Q:  Are -- are you concerned that the longer that flux goes on, the longer that stalemate goes on without the formation of a government, that that's going to -- to increase violence?

COL. RYAN:  I would say that the ISF is -- is doing a pretty good job right now curbing that.  The ISF's very respected in Iraq, and I think they're doing a pretty good job.

But obviously -- you know, I don't want to delve into politics too much.  But obviously, any time you -- you form a government, the faster you can do it, the better.

But, you know, they're a sovereign country, and they need to do things at their pace, so definitely don't want to dictate that for them.

Q:  Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, and before I come back up to the front here, was there anybody who hasn't had an opportunity to ask a question that wanted to -- wanted to get one in?


Q:  Hey, Colonel.  Thanks for doing this briefing.

A -- a question about the -- the operations in the MERV.  Exactly -- you gave us the estimate of 1,500 and 2,000, but in that overall area that remains, what is the estimate?  Is it -- is it 1,500, 2,000 for that whole area, or just strictly for the -- the town that you were referring to?

COL. RYAN:  No, 1,500 to 2,000 in the whole operation that we're working in the MERV is what we're guesstimating.

Q:  And do you have an estimate for how large the force is that the -- the SDF force is that's pushing into that area?

COL. RYAN:  I do, but that's operational information, and I'd prefer not to give that out.

Q:  Understood.

Last question:  It seems that -- is there new guidance about how long the U.S. presence in eastern Syria is going to continue after the potential defeat of ISIS in the future?

COL. RYAN:  Well, I'll follow what the Secretary of Defense mentioned, and, you know, he had three -- three things:  destroy ISIS, train local troops so they can take over, and then, hopefully, the Geneva process will take over.  I know that they had a meeting in Geneva on September 14th.  I have not seen the details from that, but that's the basis that we're going off right now.

Q:  Thank you.


Q:  Hey, Colonel.  Thanks for taking a follow-up.

Just wanted to, kind of, follow up on one thing you had said, I think at the top, which you -- you described this area around Hajin as the, kind of, remain -- last ISIS redoubt in the coalition's area of responsibility.

And I guess this, kind of, raises the question, I mean, what can the coalition do about ISIS pockets west of the Euphrates?  And -- and how significant is that a problem, that ISIS, kind of, has a safe haven in regime-controlled areas?

COL. RYAN:  Well, obviously, we -- we follow that to the best we can.  But our mission is not complete yet in the MERV, so that's obviously our -- our main goal right there.

But, you know, you hope that these other countries out there have the same goal as you do, is to defeat ISIS.  And I know in Iraq that they're dealing with this problem of pockets, and on the regime side, that's something that, again, we -- we hope that they're going to deal with, as well.

But right now, we just have to concentrate on our area.

Q:  And then very briefly, if I could follow on Luis’ kind of, point, you know, the enduring defeat is also described as training significant numbers or satisfactory numbers of local security forces to, kind of, take over.  Where are you in that process?  I mean, what -- how many fighters are you hoping to train, and how many fighters have you trained thus far?

COL. RYAN:  Well, I can use, like, Raqqa as example.  We've trained over 6,000 RISF soldiers to this point.  I mentioned in the topper, 175,000 ISF.  So, of course, we're still fighting this war, but we're still training on the same side.  And, of course, as you know, NATO will come in later, and they'll help the training process, as well.

And the training will lead to stability, and that's what this region needs.  So the more we can make it stable, then the more that, you know, these people can get back to their lives.

But training will continue to the best we can without taking away from the fight itself.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, we'll go to Lucas for a last question here.

Q:  Colonel, going back to the rocket attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, how often are these rocket attacks happening?  How close the rounds impacting?  And how much of a threat is it to U.S. embassy personnel and U.S. troops?

COL. RYAN:  Well, the rockets fell very short of the embassy.  They fell into an open field.

The great story on this one is that these -- I don't even know what you want to call them; I guess terrorists, we can call them -- were -- were firing this.  The local residents came out and basically, they called the ISF, and the ISF came, and they basically ran them out of the area.  So that was great news.

I don't believe that the embassy's been hit for -- for over a year possibly, maybe more.  It's very seldom, but it's a very secure compound, as well.  That doesn't mean there's not a threat.  There's always a threat when you're -- when you're over here, and you -- you know, you're part of the coalition forces, or -- or the U.S.  So that's just part of life.

But, you know, what -- like I said, it's a good news story when -- when the residents are telling these guys to get out of town.

Q:  It's happening, these -- how often is this happening, these rocket attacks?  Was this an isolated incident, or has it been going on for weeks and months?

COL. RYAN:  No, this is an isolated incident for sure.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, sir, did you have any final words for those here?

COL. RYAN:  I do.

I just want to say thanks again for -- for coming out, and feel free to hit up myself and my staff any time you have questions.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  Okay, Colonel, thank you very much for your time, and have a fantastic day.

COL. RYAN:  You as well.  Thanks.