| Oct. 21, 2015
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning, everybody. We are pleased to be joined by Colonel Warren, coming to us live from Baghdad.
He'll have an opening statement, take some questions. Please signal me; I'll put you on the list.
Steve, over to you.
COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Thank you, Jeff. And good morning, Pentagon press corps. Before we get going, per usual, I've got a couple of announcements to make.
I'd like to high a few points before we move on to questions. As of today, we have conducted 7,603 airstrikes, 4,933 in Iraq, 2,670 in Syria.
I'd like to quickly walk you through the battlefield to get you updated on what's going on. In Baiji, Iraqi forces have regained most of the oil refinery. So, there's still small pockets of enemy resistance that are being cleared.
Coalition forces have conducted four airstrikes in Baiji over the last week. That number seems low, but it's notable that the Iraqi air force has also been flying in direct support of ground forces at Baiji, and in fact, they reported flying more than 40 missions over the last three days.
The ability of the Iraqi air force to fly close air support missions, and support their own ground forces, marks a key milestone or reflects a significant capability that we are helping the Iraqi security forces develop.
In Ramadi, after advancing along multiple axes over several days, the ISF is consolidating and reorganizing their forces in preparation for continued offensive operations.
The ISF forces on the northern, southern and western axes have continued to move forward, clearing IEDs in sections of populated areas. Their progress has slowed from the beginning, several days ago, but they are still moving.
I'd also like to point out that ISIL forces in Ramadi have conducted several unsuccessful counter-attacks in recent days. Yesterday, for example, the enemy attempted a counter-attack along the western access. They used three VBIEDs, they used indirect fire and a ground assault, and they did this throughout the entire night.
Aided by coalition airstrikes, the ISF fought off these attacks and in the process destroyed a command and control node, struck a VBIED before the enemy was able to use it, and killed several enemy, of course.
In support of the fight for Ramadi, coalition forces have conducted 21 strikes since we last spoke. They've destroyed tactical units, fighting positions, supply caches, and two boats.
Moving around the battlefield, I did want to touch on the two UAVs that recently crashed, just to clear things up. 17 October, a Predator crew reported a lost link and subsequent crash while the Predator was flying southeast of Baghdad. The drone was recovered by local Iraqi police in the vicinity of Al Qut. The local police returned it to coalition control. There were no injuries. An investigation as to the cause is underway.
On 19 October, a different Predator crashed in southern Turkey. The aircraft experienced mechanical failure. The Air Force in this case maintained positive control of the aircraft, brought it down safely in an unpopulated area; no injuries; U.S. military and Turkish officials have control of the aircraft. An investigation is underway.
Moving on to Syria, in northern Syria, we've conducted 15 airstrikes in the last eight days, mostly focused in Raqqa, the Manjeb pocket and Aleppo. Yesterday, as you know, still on Syria, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia regarding measures to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents. This MOU is currently in effect. It does not establish zones of cooperation. It does not establish intelligence sharing or any type of target information. This MOU includes safety protocols for air crews, and that's it.
We continue to believe that Russia's strategy in Syria is counterproductive and will exacerbate the instability there. We assess they've conducted about 140 strikes clustered around Hama, Homs, and Latakia. It's important to note that according to open source reports, these strikes have displaced about 7,000 households, 35,000 people. The majority of these people are believed to be moving to areas where humanitarian support is already strained due to overwhelming numbers.
As you know, civilian leaders from around the globe, including Turkey, Great Britain, France, Germany, Gulf Arabs, have all called on Russia to cease its attacks and seek a political solution to the Syrian civil war.
Initial open source reporting highlights the use of cluster bombs by Russian forces in several populated areas, including Hama and Idlib. Attacks using these imprecise weapons only continue to cause unnecessary suffering.
Final item. Last week, we spoke a little bit about the effect our HVI strikes have had on the enemy. This week, I'd like to draw your attention to another aspect of our air operations, and this is our airstrikes against our enemy's munitions factories. During the last 45 days, we've struck and destroyed 47 facilities that produce or store VBIEDs or home-made explosives. In other words, IED and VBIED factories.
We're significantly disrupting the enemy's ability to put its preferred weapon of choice, the IED, onto the battlefield.
Of note, enemy use of suicide vests and VBIEDs is down 49 percent from a 12 week average; IED incidents are down 32 percent.
And additionally, in the same period, we've struck 30 oil infrastructure targets.
The intent here with these -- the IED factory and oil targets, is really to pressure the funding and functioning of the ISIL war machines, so, getting at their industrial base.
And I just wanted to point that out, because I think it's something that hasn't been talked about very much. This is -- in addition to our HVI strike, in addition to our tactical operations in support of troops in contact, in addition to the dynamic strikes that we take when we see ISIL conducting some sort of an operation.
We also got these deliberate strikes targeting their infrastructure, or in this case, it's really their industrial base. How they make money, and how they make bombs, their preferred weapon choice.
So, that's all I've got for you for an opener. I'll take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Bob.
Q: Colonel Warren, it's Bob Burns. Couple of questions.
I noticed what appeared to be usually extensive air strikes against targets in Sinjar, yesterday or the day before. Wondering if you could explain what that's about.
And secondly, can you clarify in anyway the -- what happened -- I guess it was also yesterday with General Dunford's aircraft trying to land in Northern Iraq, and being delayed by some 30 minutes or something.
Could you explain what happened?
COL. WARREN: Sure. I can handle both of those easily.
Number one, Sinjar -- there's not a particular operation ongoing in Sinjar right now, but what we're seeing -- and this is a great point, and I'm glad you brought it up, is the way this battle field is linked.
So, we've placed increased pressure on Baiji, so really -- really, almost completed the Baiji operations. Not quite ready to be called yet, but we're close.
And of course, increased pressure, continued pressure on Ramadi. And then we have pressure over in Syria, from our Syrian Arab coalition partners. So, you've had these pressures on multiple points across the battlefield, and what that's causing to do -- what that is causing, is it's causing the enemy to have to react, right? They have to move.
So, while there were many enemy there in the vicinity of Sinjar Mountain -- in fact, there's kind of a major line of communication that runs just south of Sinjar Mountain, and so, we're seeing more movement.
Because of the pressure that we're placing Ramadi, and Baiji, and Syria -- all of that pressure is causing our enemy to have to move. And one of the places that we're seeing them move is Sinjar, and as always, when we see our enemy, we will kill them.
So, that's the answer to that question.
The second part of your question, General Dunford's flight, that was a completely administrative problem, frankly. It was very low level. The flight plan that got filed wasn't exactly the right flight plan.
Normally, cargo planes that move, take a certain route -- this one, because operational security or other reasons, took a different route. And it just hadn't -- it wasn't cleared up right.
So, it wasn't -- it -- the point was never to avert it, this all happened on the radio. For a little while, the airplane -- the general's aircraft circled for a little while, while the administrative matters got sorted out.
It was down at a low level. I saw reporting that the senior people and the Iraqi government had to be involved. They were not. So, it was really just an admin mix up. Nobody's -- really, nobody's fault, even. It was just, you know, the nature of the situation.
CAPT. DAVIS: Gordon?
Q: Thank you.
Yeah, Colonel Warren, Gordon Lubold. Can you clarify the issue of what the Iraqis have agreed to or not agreed to in term of Russian involvement in Iraq? Because it seems today there's a little confusion there as to what they may or may not have promised, but also could you speak about the Canadian contribution there against ISIL and what it means now that there's new leadership in Canada.
COL. WARREN: Gordon, the Canadians are great partners. They have been great partners for the entire duration of this fight and, of course, they've been long historical partners to us. The Canadians have had about a half a dozen F-18s participating in this fight, they've also got a presence in our operations center. They're great partners.
But this is a big coalition. We're a 60-nation coalition, everyone contributes. So, you know, we continue to look forward to working with them. Don't know exactly what's coming next, but I do know that the Canadians have been a great contributing partner over -- since this began.
Ah, the Iraqis. Well, you know, I guess the short answer, Gordon, is no I cannot speak for the Iraqis and what agreements they've made with the Russians. I mean, that obviously a matter between the Iraqis and the Russians. What I do know is that, you know, we have a very good, close, tight partnership with the Iraqis, we operate in the same operations center, right across the street from where I'm sitting.
This is a very dynamic and a very productive operation. Every target we hit goes through the Iraqis. The intelligence that the Iraqis collect we use that to work up the next set of targets. So I don't know what the Iraqis have set up with the Russians, but I do know that what we have set up with the Iraqis is a very -- is a very good set-up and it's working to hurt ISIL.
Q: Just speak to the challenge that might be posed to your fight if the Russians enter now Iraq too.
COL. WARREN: Well, you know, we've said this before. Any time that there are uncoordinated players in the battlespace, that poses challenges, right? I mean, it poses just -- you know, the possibility of, you know, unplanned and uncoordinated mid-air situations.
And I think it would also cause us to have to, you know, really examine exactly, you know, what we're doing. You know, the Russians have been indiscriminate, they've been reckless in Syria, they seem to have no difficulty dropping cluster munitions around where civilians may be. They do not appear to be -- based on their actions, they do not appear to be interested in defeating ISIL, they appear to be interested in preserving the Assad regime. So that -- you know, that's problematic.
CAPT. DAVIS: In the back right here. Yes?
Q: Just -- sorry. (inaudible) -- with Reuters. Just following on from Gordon's question, there were reports today that Iraq's ruling coalition and some Shia militias were asking Abadi to formally ask for Russian airstrikes. Abadi hasn't formally said no, and an Abadi spokesperson said, you know, we're not ruling out any sort of support we can get in Iraq.
I mean, are you concerned that he hasn't come out and said, you know, "We don't want Iraqi -- or Russian support in Iraq."?
COL. WARREN: Oh, I mean, you know, I'm not going to speak for Prime Minister Abadi. You know, he's been very clear where he stands and we're continuing to fight -- we'll continue to fight ISIL.
Q: To follow up on that, what is the U.S. understanding about what understanding has been reached between the Russians and the Iraqi government?
COL. WARREN: Jim, I think our understanding is that, the Iraqi government, you know, they can make whatever agreement they want to. I'm not going to get into any type of diplomatic discussions that happen at the embassy. I'm just not -- it's inappropriate. I'm not going to get into that.
But what I know is as of right now today, the Iraqis are partnered with the United States and the 60-nation coalition to fight ISIL. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I don't know what -- what agreements the Iraqis and the Russians have entered into. The Russians aren't flying here. We've made our position very clear. I think the prime minister has made his position very clear right now. So let's get about the business of killing terrorists.
Q: Is there a separate MOU with the Russians to cover Iraq? And is it -- whatever agreement has been reached, you don't want to discuss that. Is there a potential that Russian aircraft will conduct airstrikes in Iraq? First, the MOU, and then is there the potential?
COL. WARREN: Right now, we see -- right now, we've seen no indication that the Russians are preparing to conduct airstrikes in Iraq. The memorandum of agreement (sic) applies to Syria. Actually, I'll have to check on what it has to say about Iraq. My understanding is that it's only Syria, but that's a question we should be able to get you an answer for, Jim.
But we've not seen any indications right now that the Russians plan to conduct any strikes here in Iraq. And I think both the prime minister and the Iraqi government has been clear on their position regarding Russian airstrikes in Iraq.
Q: Yes, Brian Everstine with Air Force Magazine.
I had a question about the A-10s that have just been deploying to Incirlik. And specifically, for months and months, the Air Force has said they would not send A-10s into Syria. Specifically, the former head of Air Combat Command said he would not send them without doing three weeks of degradation of air defenses within Syria they just wouldn't provide.
What has changed in the situation now that the military feels safe enough to send these aircraft into that situation?
COL. WARREN: Well, we're specifically -- I mean, A-10s have struck in Syria already, so this isn't a new phenomena. I don't know what remarks you're referring to. I haven't -- not familiar with it. I know A-10s have flown in Syria. A-10s have flown in Iraq. And obviously they'll continue to do so.
These A-10s are replacing some F-16s that were rotating out. It's just that simple. This is normal rotation of forces. This is about -- you know, there's nothing special or magical about the actual platform, right? I mean, it's -- it's, you know, the ability to conduct strikes when we need them and where we need them. A-10 is just another platform in this case.
Q: Twelve of them coming in to replace six F-16s. And recently, there were new combat search and rescue outposts opening at Diyarbakir. Did that play into any of this discussion for ramping up for more aircraft to make this deployment?
COL. WARREN: No, it did not. I mean, we're always -- we're always assessing our posture, and where we can put CSAR assets. Not something we normally get into much detail on, but you know, we always want to ensure we've got CSAR assets positioned properly.
And as we see where, you know, the focus of our strikes are, based on the fluidity of the battlefield, well, maybe we do need to reposition our CSAR assets a little bit to ensure that where we're spending more time in the air, we've got an asset closer to respond if needed.
CAPT. DAVIS: Tolga.
Q: Hi, colonel. Tolga.
As a follow-up to this question, given the different tactical capabilities of the F-16s and A-10s, is this deployment indicating a tactical change in the mission as well?
Or will they do exactly the same thing that the F-16 did?
And secondly, you mentioned about the Syrian-Iraq coalition. It -- was is your understanding about the Syrian Democratic Forces? You -- Patrick was asked this question. Last weekend, he said would look at it, but what is your understanding about this new form, and is this indicating the same thing or different group, or -- can I get your assessment?
COL. WARREN: So, on the A-10s, the same -- no adjustment to the tactical situation. No additional requirement for capabilities or drop in capabilities.
I mean, this is -- some F-16s had to go home; what we had available to replace them was A-10s. It's really that simple. I mean, this is one of those cases where it is where it appears to be.
On the Syrian Arab coalition, I'm glad you brought that up. You know, we've -- as you know, we dropped 50 tons of ammunition to the Syrian Arab coalition two weeks ago.
We have seen indications -- I know there has been some questions about this -- we are very confident, very confident that the ammunition that we dropped to the Syrian Arab coalition has -- is in the hands of the Syrian Arab coalition, and is being distributed to fighters who are members of the Syrian Arab coalition.
These Syrian Arab fighters are focused on fighting ISIL, which is one of the reasons we chose to -- you know, we welcome the ability to partner with them. And we're going to wait and see, obviously, but I think we're are going to see very soon that the Syrian Arabs will increase the amount of pressure on ISIL in Central Syria, in the vicinity of Raqqa.
You know, they only just -- you know, two weeks ago, received this ammunition, a week and a half ago, however long it has been. So, the ammunition has been distributed.
It's our understanding that now, the next phase is about to start here sometime in the near future. And I believe what you're going to see is Syrian Arabs bringing additional and renewed pressure on ISIL in the vicinity of Raqqa. And it's going to be because of the ammunition that we gave them.
So, you know, again, we're very confident. We're in touch with these Syrian Arab coalition leaders. We've seen -- we've asked them to send us, you know, some proof, some pictures, to help us be more assured that they are distributing the ammunition we gave them to their own fighters.
So, we're very satisfied that the Syrian Arabs that we delivered ammunition to, now have ammunition. They now have the ammunition that we delivered to them.
And again, I think you're going to see some renewed energy in that part of Syria.
Q: I'm trying to clarify who are the Syrian in our coalition because this is the terminology that only U.S. is using. But when you look at the ground, we have Syrian democratic forces, for example, but I didn't see anything seen in our coalition -- any group that -- which is using Syria -- at our coalition.
So if you can clarify, what is your understanding about Syrian democratic forces that we've seen on the ground? I mean, are they same or a different group? Who are the Syrian in our coalition? That's my question actually.
COL. WARREN: The Syria coalition is a group of groups. So it's 10, maybe 12 smaller groups of Syrian fighters who've been focused on fighting ISIL in the vicinity of Raqqa. And these 10 to 12 groups have coalesced together in an effort to, you know, multiply their combat power.
So we got in contact through various ways with the leaders of these smaller groups who then kind of came up with a overall group leader. We exfiltrated about a -- about 20 of these group leaders to another location where we spent a week familiarizing them with our train-and-equip program, given them some instructions on law of land warfare, et cetera, brought them back in and gave them their ammunition.
So, you know, I don't know what else to tell you. I mean, this is a group of Syrian Arabs who have -- a group of groups who have come together to fight ISIL.
CAPT. DAVIS: Yes?
Q: Can you clarify then? Does that mean when you say 20 leaders, does that mean that there are 20 subgroups within the Syrian Arab coalition?
COL. WARREN: It does not. There's 10 to 12. Some of them, it's hard to tell, exactly. But there's no more than 12. So -- but we ex -- we exfiltrated 20, so --
Q: And then I wanted to ask, one of the things we're having a hard time understanding is General Dunford said that the Iraqi government did not ask for Russian airstrikes, and yet every public statement we've seen from Iraqi parliamentarians and others is that they want the airstrikes to begin by the Russians.
And so I'm trying to understand how is the U.S. interpreting these conflicting remarks. Is it that Abadi doesn't want airstrikes and members of parliament do? How are you square that circle because on the face of it, it appears that the -- that the Iraqi government is very eager to have Russian airstrikes despite the claims by the United States that they do not.
COL. WARREN: Well Nancy, as with any parliamentary body or legislative body, you're going to find a diversity of opinion. But it is the prime minister of Iraq who speaks for Iraq on this matter. So General Dunford's comments and all the other comments surrounding this matter are based on our discussions with the prime minister of Iraq, who speaks for Iraq on such matters.
There's always going to be a diversity of opinion whenever you have a body of legislators together. Some of them think one way, some of them think another way. All of them are very vocal. And I don't think that's unusual for Iraq, I think we've seen that in other places as well. But in this case, on this particular issue, the prime minister of Iraq speaks for the nation.
Q: Clarifying point then. Have you seen an increase in ground -- Russian ground troops in Iraq in the last few weeks?
COL. WARREN: We have seen an increase in regime offensive activities in -- in Syria over the last two weeks. In fact, what we see is them trying -- kind of moving up south of the Mara line, kind of I guess north of Aleppo and a little bit south of Aleppo, too.
So, you know, we see the Russian airstrikes really primarily supported by regime ground forces. And we do know that there are Russian forces on the ground, but not any real combat power. Most of the Russian forces on the ground on either advising the Syrian regime fighters. Of course, they've got force protection matters as well.
But we have not seen an increase in the numbers of Russian, you know, ground forces into Syria. It's really been their air power, combined with Syrian regime ground forces.
Q: Colonel, to what extent the deployment of A-10s to Incirlik is related to a potential offensive on Raqqa?
COL. WARREN: Yeah, I didn't understand a word of that.
Q: About deployment of the A-10s to Incirlik Air Base. I said to what extent is deployment of these aircraft to Incirlik is related to a potential offensive on Raqqa, the city -- the stronghold of Daesh.
COL. WARREN: Well, certainly, if there is an offensive on Raqqa, we will use air power to support it. We've been striking Raqqa really for months, if not almost a full year. And I don't think it's unreasonable to think that there will be A-10s striking Raqqa as soon as those A-10s are up and running.
But these A-10s were not brought there ahead of any specific plans. I'll say, and I think I've said it twice now, I'll say it a third time, these aircraft are replacing the F-16s that were due to rotate out. The F-16s have been flying for several months and it was time for the F-16s to rotate out of Iraq, out of the area, so that they could undergo maintenance and do normal things that happen when you rotate forces out.
In order to replace those F-16s which rotated out of the area, we had to have other airplanes come in so we could continue keeping pressure on our enemy, so we could continue doing airstrikes in Syria, we could continue doing airstrikes in Iraq. When those F-16s departed, we brought in additional aircraft to replace them. And in this case, the aircraft that were available were A-10s.
Q: So is this -- in other words -- (inaudible).
COL. WARREN: (inaudible) -- seem to be a lot of questions about it.
Q: (inaudible) -- is Turkey included in air tasking order?
COL. WARREN: Yes.
Q: And last week there were reports that Turkish jets his Daesh, ISIS targets for the first time. But we know that the Turks have been part of the air operations since late July. So could you knock down those reports or clarify what's going on over there?
COL. WARREN: You'll have to ask that question again. I didn't understand you.
Q: So colonel, last week, there were reports claiming that the Turkish jets hit ISIS targets for the first time. But we know that Turkey has been a part of the air operations against ISIS since early August or late July.
So could you clarify what's going on there? The Turks have hit Daesh targets for the first time, or, you know, what's going on with those reports? Why are they claiming that Turks have hit Daesh targets for the first time?
COL. WARREN: The Turks have been a tremendous partner and part of this coalition. They've been flying since, I want to say, late August. We value their contributions and we value their continued participation and their continued contributions.
Q: Airstrikes on Daesh. Could you -- could you say that it was the first time that they hit Daesh targets last week, or they have been targeting Daesh with airstrikes since late August or early August?
COL. WARREN: Well, I'd have to -- I'd have to check date. I want -- I want to say the Turks began flying on August 30th, but double-check with -- you can just double-check with the -- with the desk officer there. But I'm pretty certain that the Turks began flying on or about August 30th.
CAPT. DAVIS: Here.
Q: Colonel, I just wanted to ask about the intensity of the airstrikes in northern Syria. I think you said 15 over eight days. That's obviously a lot lower than the intensity of certain other periods. Is there a reason for that throttling back at the moment?
And just one other quick question. You said there were no combat, Russian combat forces on the ground as far as you knew in Syria. Is it your understanding there are Russians operating artillery on the ground though?
COL. WARREN: Right. So intensity of airstrikes in Syria. There is -- there is nothing in particular. I mean, recently, because of fairly significant ground operations that have been ongoing in Ramadi and in Baiji and other areas in Iraq right now, that has -- that has been really where most of our airpower has been concentrated. But again, you know, we've -- there were eight strikes today, so today was actually a fairly significant day in Syria.
So it -- you know, a lot of it is -- because again, as you know, we're -- I think roughly 70 percent of our strikes are dynamic, so it's -- you know, we strike them when we see them. In this case, there's been a lot more targets available to strike in Iraq, and that's really all there is.
On the -- on Russians, I think you asked me about artillery. Yeah, they do have a handful of artillery pieces. I don't have the number at my fingertips. It's a small handful -- six, eight, 10 maybe. Same thing. They've got a handful of tanks, but a small handful. I think it's nine if I recall.
So they don't have substantial numbers. These aren't -- this isn't enough to conduct offensive operations with, this is -- you know, this is, you know, small numbers.
CAPT. DAVIS: James?
Q: Hey Steve, how are you doing? I have two quick questions. One, the Russian defense ministry yesterday said that they had struck 70 Islamic State and other Islamist targets, and they specified some of them. Are they -- are they simply making this up? Because the Pentagon has repeatedly said that they are predominantly not striking Islamic State and other Islamist targets. So are they -- are they making -- when they give a specific number like 70, 24 hours, are they making this up? Why are they saying that?
And then a separate question. A lot of talk in recent -- in the last week or two has been about supplying ammo and helping in other ways the Syrian Arabs.
There's been no talk at all from the Pentagon about helping the Kurds, who were talked about repeatedly and incessantly for about three months. Are you still helping the Kurds? Are you giving them ammunition? Are they calling in airstrikes? That sort of thing.
COL. WARREN: Right. Difficult for me to say why the Russians say what the Russians say. I think you can understand why that is difficult for me to figure out.
What I know is, that they -- you know, conducted about 140 airstrikes since they started, that's what I know. Are they maybe counting differently? Like, maybe they count every single bomb, whereas we could an actual strike? You know, who knows?
So, can't help you there.
Syrian Arab coalition and the Kurds -- right. You know, as you know, and it's a fine point, Kurdish forces fought from essentially the Iraq-Syria border west, all the way through Kobani. They -- since we saved Kobani from what would have probably been a terrible end. And they continued fighting west, all the way up to the Mara line -- well, actually, to the Manjeb pocket, then there's a gap, and the Mara line, but -- so, Kurdish forces have fought valiantly in Northern Syria.
We continue to work with those partners. And we will continue to work with them. We have not -- we, the United States of America, has not given ammunition to the Kurds. There was an airdrop, but that was donated ammunition from other coalition partners.
I don't have good status on the donated ammunition program. That's something I can look into you -- look into for you, if you want. But yeah, of course, we continue to work -- and this is not going to come as a surprise to anyone, but I feel like I have to say it anyway -- we continue to work with all partners who are interested in defeating ISIL.
Q: A quick follow-up. The 140 strikes that you just mentioned, is it still your position and the Pentagon's position that the majority of them have not been against the Islamic State or other Islamist targets, but have rather been against more moderate opposition groups? Some of which the United States supports?
COL. WARREN: Only a fraction of the Russian strikes have targeted ISIL forces.
COL. WARREN: No.
COL. WARREN: Again, only a fraction of the Russian airstrikes have targeted ISIL forces. Beyond that, I don't -- I'm not -- I don't have the breakdown.
Q: Steve, I wanted to get an answer to the Arab coalition. You said it's a group of groups.
Can you give us a ballpark of how many fighters they have, first of all? And also, from what we understand, both the Syrian Arab coalition and the Kurds will press Raqqa at some point.
But we keep hearing there are tensions between the Arab coalition and the Kurds for the one -- for the one thing. And secondly, since Raqqa is an Arab city, what problems does that pose if the larger Kurdish force is pressing Raqqa?
COL. WARREN: The Syrian Arab coalition numbers about 5,000 fighters, so again, a quick review: 5,000 members of the Syrian Arab coalition, we spent about one week training roughly 20 of their leaders. These 20 leaders come from the eight to 10 smaller groups of fighters, groups of Arab fighters who coalesced together, who banded together to create the Syrian Arab coalition.
Tom, I -- as far as pressure on Raqqa, you know, this -- is why our partnership with the Syrian Arabs is so vital, because the Syrian Arabs really have the ability to pressure Raqqa heavily. Whether or not Kurdish fighters are willing to move that far south, frankly, is an unknown at this point. We have not seen Kurds operate in Arab territory very much.
So this is -- this is frankly an unknown. But we do know that Syrian Arabs are ready. They're willing. And now that we've given them ammunition, able to conduct operations and place pressure on Raqqa.
Q: You say "place pressure on Raqqa," is that a sufficient force to take Raqqa? Or is it going to have to be beefed up quite a bit?
COL. WARREN: Yeah, it will need to be beefed up; 5,000 is probably not enough to do it, I wouldn't think. But let me tell you something, this brings up a great point that I was hoping I'd get to. And that has to do with the operational nature of this fight.
Again, as opposed to thinking of this fight as a series of smaller tactical operations -- the tactical fight in Baiji, the tactical fight in Tikrit. We're really trying to look at this thing as one entire fight.
So pressure on Ramadi is what allowed what we're seeing as a successful operation in Baiji. Right? Pressure here, pressure -- the little bit of pressure that has been placed in Raqqa, a lot of pressure that's going on up in the vicinity of the Mara line, continued pressure in the north; Operation Cloverfield which took place in the vicinity of Kirkuk -- all these different operations placing the squeeze on ISIL simultaneously is what is -- is what is beginning to show progress.
Add into that the HVI strikes; add into that our strikes against their defense industrial base and you see that we're beginning to squeeze them from the outside and -- and hollow them from the inside. So, whether or not, to answer your question -- that was the long way around, Tom -- whether or not 5,000 can -- can take Raqqa, I don't really have an answer to. I don't think it's enough. But what pressure on Raqqa can do is relieve some pressure on Mosul, right? Or pressure on Raqqa can relieve pressure on Ramadi. Or pressure on Raqqa can relieve pressure in other places.
As we place pressure everywhere, we force the enemy to make decisions. And when we force the enemy to make decisions, we force them to make mistakes. We force them to expose themselves to our air power and eventually to kill them.
Q: Hi, Colonel Warren. Two questions for you. We learned earlier this week that an F-16 operating out of Bagram took small arms fire from the Taliban. And we've been trying to get additional details on have any other have taken small-arms fire? Any details surrounding that contact? What type of fire?
And then secondly, apparently a Bahrain-based F-18 crashed in England today. I was just wondering if you had any additional details on that crash for us.
COL. WARREN: To my knowledge, no. No aircraft in the coalition has taken any -- any small-arms fire during the course of this.
We'll double-check that, but that's my immediate answer. To my knowledge, I don't recall a single report where coalition aircraft in this -- in this fight have received small-arms fire.
I do not have any information for you on the F-18. I'm sorry.
Q: To clarify, I was talking about the Afghanistan small-arms fire out of Bagram, but that may not be in your wheelhouse right now.
COL. WARREN: Right. I read that report. I did read the report about that, but yeah, that's not me.
Q: Hi, it's Jamie McIntyre.
And first of all, I just want to thank you for not arbitrarily cutting off this briefing at 30 minutes and sticking with us.
I want to ask about the potential for Russian airstrikes again, but from the other side. The statements that we're hearing from the Iraqi parliament and others expressing a desire for Russia to enter the fight in Iraq seem to be born of some sort of frustration or perception that the United States and the coalition are not providing the level of air support that's sufficient or desired.
Can you address that perception about -- is there any shortage of air power? Are the Iraqis on the ground getting the kind of support that they desire when they need it at critical times?
COL. WARREN: Jamie, have we gone over 30 minutes? Would you look at the time? Hey, I'm sorry. Just kidding.
Good question, a very valid question. It is easy to understand why the citizens of Iraq and their elected representatives feel like they need to have more. It is easy to understand. We have an enemy here that is -- is brutal beyond what we've seen, really, in recent memory. We have an enemy here that is occupying large chunks of this country.
So of course, the Iraqi people and therefore their elected representatives want as much as they can get. I mean, this is something that we absolutely, all of us have to empathize with. But that said, we believe that the pressure that we're putting on ISIL right now is right.
Because remember, our strikes have to work in conjunction with ground force movements, right? Just, you know, striking without ground forces, working in conjunction with those airstrikes, is simply not going to be effective. It just isn't.
So while we completely understand why Iraqis want to see, or why Iraqis feel like they're not seeing enough, what I can say is the air power that's being brought to bear on this -- on this problem is tied directly with the ground forces. And it's moving at the appropriate speed for the ground forces.
Did that answer your question? If it didn't, I want to -- because this is an important question. So if that didn't answer your question, ask a follow-up.
Q: Well, just -- so just quickly to follow up. So we've seen -- we're seeing the exit of the Canadian F-18s. Do you -- do you have enough resources, do you have enough planes to conduct the level of air support, both defensive strikes and close air support that the Iraqi forces need on the ground to succeed? Or could they use some help from the Russians?
COL. WARREN: Well, one thing no soldier in the history of warfare has ever said is I have enough combat power. That said, we do have enough to provide support to the ground forces who are maneuvering, and we are not short of platforms and we are not short of munitions.
Because remember, the Iraqi air force is also a big part of this fight. Like I said, 40 strikes around Baiji in the last 72 hours. So the Iraqi air force is getting stronger, the coalition air power is rock steady. You know, hundreds of aircraft, plenty of ISR. So we have enough to provide the support to the Iraqi ground forces that are maneuvering and that are conducting operations. Yes, we do.
Q: All right. Follow-up on that just very quickly. Just very quickly. Given the recent record of Russian airstrikes in Syria, have the Iraqis ever expressed any frustration with the U.S. emphasis of avoiding collateral damage?
COL. WARREN: Well, you know, again, kind of back to my last answer, right? You know, if you were -- if you were being occupied by a force like ISIL, you always want more. And this is something we understand. So yes, we have heard some of that from various interlocutors that they wish we would strike more and have -- and have less -- you know, have a different set of rules of engagement. We have heard that.
But we believe the rules of engagement that we have in place right now are right. You know, I've said this before, you know, never in the history of warfare has an air campaign been this precise, never in the history of warfare has an air campaign paid this much attention to the preservation of human -- of civilian life and civilian infrastructure. And we believe that's the right way and we believe it's the right mix because destruction of infrastructure and harming civilians, we believe in the broader scheme of things does not help.
So yes, there have been some who believe we should take less care, but we believe the amount of care that we're taking is appropriate.
Q: Steve, in Ramadi and Baiji, what's the role that the Shiite and Sunni militias are playing, and what's the role that the Iraqi security forces are playing? Who's -- who has more combat power there?
COL. WARREN: In Ramadi, it's very much an Iraqi security forces fight. There are bits and pieces of PMF around the battlefield, but they're not a significant factor one way or another.
In Baiji, there are Popular Mobilization Forces present. They are present in a follow-and-support role. So initially -- so I can walk you through that fight a little bit. Baiji oil refinery, picture it, it's kind of teardrop-shaped, it's dotted by these towers that the Iraqis call castles. So when the assault began, Iraqi security forces, specifically the CTS, the Counter Terrorism Service, which is really the elite forces of the Iraqi army, began moving tower to tower.
So, they were absolutely in the lead, moving from one of these castles to the next castle, and eventually encircling the Baiji oil refinery.
The air power that we brought to bear in support of that, was, obviously in support of the assault force, right? We're not going to drop bombs behind the assault, we're going to drop them in front of the assault force.
So, CTS, Counter Terrorism Service, conducted the encirclement of the Baiji oil refinery, closed that circle. And then you have a combination of federal police, and some of the PMF forces that are there, conducting the clearing operations. You know, the follow -- again, follow the support, is what we call it.
So, that's -- so that's Baiji. Did that answer your question?
Q: Yeah, thanks.
CAPT. DAVIS: Joe.
Q: Colonel Warren, this Joe Tabot.
Just a few clarification from your -- is the YPG part of the Syrian Arab coalition?
And also, have you seen any indication, or do you have any indications that some of the YPG leaders have had communications with the Syrian regime? Could you speak about that, please?
COL. WARREN: So, I'm obviously not a spokesman for the Syrian Arab coalition. It's my understanding that no, it's eight to ten Syrian Arab groups, which is why they named it that way.
So, Syrian Arab coalition of about eight to ten groups of Syrian Arab fighters. Nobody else is a member.
I have no idea who has spoken with the Syrian regime.
Q: The reason I asked you about -- if the YPG is part of the Syrian Arab coalition, because last Friday, CENTCOM's spokesperson, Colonel Ryder said that they are part of the Syrian Arab coalition.
But anyway, let me move to the -- to the next question, Steve.
Do you believe -- do you have any idea if the Assad regime is capable to retake Aleppo? And if yes, would you welcome to see that?
COL. WARREN: It's going to be a tough fight. That's a hard fight there, around Aleppo. So, it's really too soon to tell who's -- how that fight is going to shake out.
No, we would not welcome it. We believe that -- two things. One, this war has got to end by a political process, and number two, that part of that political process is that Assad depart the scene. That's what we would welcome.
CAPT. DAVIS: Missy.
Q: Missy Ryan. Just to follow up really quickly on the Syrian Arab coalition. Have they, to date, since the United States supplied them with ammunition, have they launched any operations or attacks against the Islamic State, and if so, how has that gone?
COL. WARREN: My understanding is, to date, they have not. Not any major attacks, at any rate. There may have been some smaller skirmishes that we're not tracking.
So, now we were -- it's our understanding that there's a planning process and generation of combat power. So, I think what we're going to see is the Syrian Arab will begin to place pressure on ISIL in that region, here in the very near future.
CAPT. DAVIS: Cami .
Q: Steve, hi, it's Cami from CBS Radio. Is this -- you mentioned the Russians using cluster munitions. Is this the first time that you have confirmed that? Are they using these munitions in populated areas? And are they using them with frequency?
COL. WARREN: Cami , I'm not prepared to confirm it operationally, so in my opening statement I mentioned that we've seen this in open press reporting. At this point, I'm just not prepared to make any other confirmation. I just wanted to point that out.
CAPT. DAVIS: I'm out of people asking questions. OK, we are cutting this off at only 56 minutes arbitrarily.
I ask for one last -- okay, Lucas.
Q: Colonel Warren, it's Lucas. Do you have any -- does the coalition have any objectives -- objections to the Russians talking to the YPG or other Kurdish groups?
COL. WARREN: We don't object to talking ever, right? I mean, talking is always -- is always good and -- and it's the results of those talks that need to be analyzed.
Q: Are the Russians giving you any evidence whatsoever that they can be trusted?
COL. WARREN: Lucas, the Russians have said that they are in Syria to fight ISIL. What we've seen is Russians fighting to preserve the Assad regime. Although I guess now that since I've been talking about it, the Russians frankly have changed their tune a little and now I guess they've admitted it, they're there to preserve the Assad regime. So there's one thing in their favor.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, Steve.
Thank you, everybody, for your time. Have a good day.