CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: All right. Good morning.
Before we get started, General Jones, just want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
MAJOR GENERAL RUPERT JONES: Yeah, I've got you loud and clear.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, sir.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're pleased to be joined today by Major General Rupert Jones of the United Kingdom, who serves as the deputy commander for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, joining us today live from my Baghdad to brief you on the latest state of play with Operation Inherent Resolve and to take our questions.
Sir, we'll turn it over to you for any opening comments you might have.
GEN. JONES: Thanks, Jeff. And good morning everyone in Washington, very good to be with you today.
What I'm going to do, I'll start with Syria, move onto Iraq and then I'll finish with some context on the non-U.S. coalition contributions to the war against Daesh.
In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces having recaptured well over 700 square kilometers of terrain from Daesh, and now continue planning the next phase of isolation of Raqqah. They're now less than 30 kilometers from the city and have encountered light to moderate resistance as they continue clearing villages along the axis of advance.
Of note, as they advance, they continue to find certain Syrian Arab volunteers who are either from Raqqah or areas that have been recently liberated. As they liberate cities and villages, they set up local councils to reestablish governance and maintain security. This is the same formula the SDF successfully used to liberate and reestablish governance in Manbij, Hasakah and other areas.
As the SDF continue their isolation effort, they have been taking a deliberate approach, back-clearing the areas they control to reduce the ability of Daesh to re-infiltrate or attack using sleeper cells. The coalition continues supporting their operations with air strikes, having delivered more than 600 munitions onto enemy targets.
These strikes have destroyed vehicle-borne improved explosive devices, fighting positions, vehicles, and eliminated Daesh tactical units -- the fighters they use to intimidate and maintain control over the population. The SDF continues to prove that they are quite capable of defeating Daesh wherever they encounter them on the battlefield.
In Iraq, the Iraqi security forces continue to make deliberate progress in their advance on Mosul. The CTS has continued clearing in the east of the city, despite tough resistance from Daesh elements. Although they have lost significant amounts of territory in eastern Mosul, Daesh has used snipers and indirect fire, mortars and rockets in an effort to terrorize civilians in areas that have been ripped away from their control. They've also used suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to attack the advancing Iraqi security forces.
In response, at the request of the government of Iraq, the coalition has disabled four of the five bridges connecting east and west Mosul, and increased terrain-denial missions. This is the creating of roads in areas where the ISF are seeking to maneuver. The intent of these operations is to reduce the effectiveness of the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. This combination of the two tactics seems to be reducing the number of VBIEDs the enemy has been able to use.
We expect tough fighting to continue in the weeks ahead. As the Iraqi security forces and other axes converge on the city, we expect that pressure on ISIL will continue to increase, and their resistance will begin to wane. This is not a race, so patience is required. The protection of civilians continues to be a top priority for the ISF. It's going to take time and a lot of tough fighting, but we're confident of Daesh's defeat in Mosul.
Daesh fighters are surrounded by superior force, with little ability to resupply or reinforce their fighters. Since the beginning of the counterattack to liberate Mosul, starting on October 17th, the coalition has relentlessly bombarded the enemy. The coalition has supported the Iraqi advance with more than 4,800 precision bombs, artillery shells, missiles, and rockets against Daesh fighters and resources.
The Iraqi security forces continue to fight bravely and display the dramatic progress they have made since 2014. It is truly amazing to watch them perform so professionally under pressure.
Now, as the senior non-U.S. officer in the coalition, I want to share some context about the contribution of non-U.S. coalition members. As you know, we're a coalition of more than 60 nations, united against Daesh. And we're very proud that so many have offered contributions to fight against Daesh's twisted ideology here in Iraq, in Syria, and other locations around the world.
In all, 29 nations contribute troops to Operation Inherent Resolve, with more than 3,800 in Iraq today. And they're contributing key mission areas. Many nations have roles in training Iraqi army, police, border and tribal hold forces. All told, the coalition has trained more than 63,000 of these forces, and many of them are now engaged in combat operations in Mosul and other locations around Iraq.
As you know there has been a remarkable turnaround since Daesh rolled into Iraq in 2014. And the training of the ISF has been a key element in the campaign. It's been well over a year since Daesh last defeated an Iraqi force, although they continue to resist. And the training effort continues. There are more than 4,500 forces in training right now to sustain the Iraqi security forces and establish wide-area security and hold forces when Mosul has been retaken.
The overwhelming majority of the forces conducting this training are non-U.S. coalition forces. And we believe their contributions play a key role in developing a sustainable security way ahead for Iraq since the fall of Mosul and Raqqah will not in itself defeat Daesh. Once they have been defeated in Mosul and Raqqah, they will still be dangerous and we will continue to support our partners in the region in further reducing them.
With that, I'm happy to answer your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, sir.
We'll start with Tom Bowman from National Public Radio.
Q: General, I wanted to ask you about Mosul. As you know, the civilians there have been asked to remain in place, but some are saying now with the fighting intensifying, it might be wise to have civilians if possible leave Mosul. Is that something that makes sense and you're considering?
And also, on Raqqah, the isolation phase, we're hearing here that there's expected to be a request from Congress for monies to buy heavier weapons for the Syrian Democratic Forces. Is that something this is necessary and that you're looking at and that may be imminent?
GEN. JONES: Tom, you broke up a bit at the end there, but I think I got the gist of both -- both your questions.
So on -- on Mosul, I think we should be really clear. It's for the -- Prime Minister Abadi, the government of Iraq to decide on the advice that is given to the population of Mosul, and I have to say, this is something that the government does in a very considered and sophisticated manner.
In the case of Mosul, the decision was taken to advise the population to stay in their homes so long as it was safe to do so. That remains the advice and the Iraqi security forces are advancing in a very deliberate manner, very mindful of -- of the risk to -- to -- to the civil population. So we actually back the government of Iraq's decision on that.
In terms of the isolation of Raqqah, we are providing assistance to -- to the Arab -- to the Arab forces and any decision to provide further assistance will clearly be a matter for Washington.
Q: Also, we're hearing that it could be several months before the SDF enters Raqqah, maybe three months. Is that roughly what you believe?
GEN. JONES: Well, look, I think the first thing is -- is timelines are not particularly helpful. The key is that we defeat Daesh in both Iraq and Syria and in a considered, but timely manner. Exactly how long that takes will depend on -- on events on -- on the ground.
The key is to isolate Raqqah. That is happening. The SDF forces are going that. And when the conditions are set, we as a coalition will support the forces to seize -- seize Raqqah. But I wouldn't wish to put a -- put a timetable on it. I think that would be false to do so.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Nancy Youssef from The Daily Beast.
Q: Thank you, general.
I had two questions. One, we've heard this week that the PMUs or PMFs are being incorporated into the Iraqi army. I'd like to know how that potentially affects fighting and how you anticipate that could affect the shaping of Mosul after its presumed liberation?
And secondly, you mentioned earlier that you don't like timelines, but we know that the Iraqis had a timeline for Mosul. I'm not asking you for where they are in that timeline in terms of the end-date, but it seems that they are slower than they had anticipated in terms of this part of the campaign. Is that a fair characterization?
GEN. JONES: Thanks, Nancy. Again, you cut out at the end, so I think I got the second question, but if I didn't, I'm sure you'll come back to me.
So on the -- the PMU being brought -- brought in as -- as part of the government of Iraq, that is a decision by the government of Iraq and we clearly are here to support them. In terms of the support that we provide, we are here to support the government of Iraq and their plan to defeat Daesh in Mosul, in Tal Afar, in -- in other areas. And as you know, we provide support to the Iraqi security forces and we'll provide the necessary support to Prime Minister Abadi's plan.
So, from our perspective, this bit of legislation I don't think fundamentally changes how we do our business.
The second question I think was to do with the Mosul timeline, where Prime Minister Abadi is confident, he is content. The -- the operation is going to plan and we would absolutely echo that. The Iraqi security forces have done an extraordinary job in advancing to, closing up to the city and breaking into the city. And they're now making good, deliberate headway through the city.
I think the key with the clearance of Mosul is that we want it to be done in a safe and a secure manner. And that's exactly what the Iraqi security forces are doing. They're clearing deliberately with absolute regard to the safety of the -- of the civilian population. And from that regard, they're very firmly on schedule, as Prime Minister Abadi has said today.
Q: Can I follow up briefly on the PMUs? Does it give any -- does it grant -- give any pause to the coalition that you have forces that could be seen as divisive in the post period and create the very conditions that allowed the very -- sectarian conditions that allowed a group like ISIS to rise in the first place?
It seems that those PMUs were there to start to shape things in the post-operation period. Is there any concern that this could contribute to sectarian tensions?
GEN. JONES: Well, look, I think I'll come back to the point that our role is very much to support the government of Iraq. And Prime Minister Abadi is giving clear orders and instructions to the PMU. And I think we should recognize that during the course of the Mosul operation, that the PMF forces have -- have abided by those -- those orders. And so, for as long as they do that, I'm sure Prime Minister Abadi will be content with that.
Whatever orders they are given as part of the operation, we will work closely with the government Iraq. We'll support the Iraqi security forces in whatever -- whatever that mission might be. And the PMU may -- may support the Iraqi security forces in turn.
CAPT. DAVIS: Sir -- don't know your name. I'm sorry.
Q: That's fine. Wyatt Goolsby with EWTN, the Global Catholic Network.
General Jones, you had talked about how you guys are -- are very much aware of protecting civilians. I'm hoping you can touch a little bit more on protecting religious minorities, likes Christians for example. There are many groups of Christians who are afraid to return to their homes, whether it's in Mosul or other parts of Iraq. Is there anything militarily that the coalition is doing specifically to protect religious minorities?
GEN. JONES: So, I think you'll -- you'll recognize our interest, the interest of the government of Iraq and the interest of the Iraqi security forces is to protect all civilians. And I'm confident that the government of Iraq takes absolutely due account of the requirements of minorities. I know the humanitarian organizations do as well. And I know that the government of Iraq has thought very carefully about those minorities and making sure that there's no, if you like, change to the ethnic balance in the -- in the Mosul area.
But I think from us in the military, our absolute requirement -- (inaudible) -- Iraqi security forces is to protect all civilians.
CAPT. DAVIS: And next, we'll go to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: General Jones, in the initial shape of Mosul battle was apparently leaving the western part of the city open. However, we see that the Shia militia group is now moving toward that route, closing that route. And they have announced even that they have closed that route.
Is this a part of -- is this part of the coalition plan or Iraqi plan for the Mosul battle? Or is it just an attempt by the militia group itself?
GEN. JONES: I think I should be very clear. There is only one plan. It's an Iraqi plan, and we, the coalition, are here to support Prime Minister Abadi in the execution of his plan. And as I touched on earlier, the popular mobilization forces have so far absolutely abided by Prime Minister Abadi's orders, and therefore was it part of a plan for the PMF to go out into the west of the city, yes it was.
Have they done it at the instruction of the prime minister? Yes, I'm confident they have. So this is very much an Iraqi plan and we are here to support them.
Q: So how does -- how does this movement by the Shia militia help the coalition effort to liberate Mosul?
GEN. JONES: Well, I'm not going to second-guess the prime minister's decision-making. But what I can tell you is that from a military perspective, what they're helping to do is to screen the western side of the city and help cut off any potential Daesh who might try and escape out of the city, and potentially head all the way west into Syria.
So that's the military role that they're fulfilling.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go with Jennifer Griffin of Fox News.
Q: General Jones, have you seen any evidence of Iranian ballistic missiles in Iraq or in Syria, either production or placement of?
GEN. JONES: That's quite a simple one. No. I mean, we're very much focused on the counter-Daesh fight and I'm not going to comment on broader policy issues with regards to Iran. That's very firmly a Washington matter. We're here focused on the counter-Daesh fight. As I've said, we are here supporting the government of Iraq, supporting Prime Minister Abadi to rid Iraq and our partners to rid Syria of the barbaric enemy that is Daesh.
Q: Just to follow up, are you seeing any Iranian forces involved in the fight in Mosul or in Syria?
GEN. JONES: So, we haven't -- we're not seeing any Iranians specifically. Again, I don't want to pass comment on that in detail. But as I say, there are a number of actors who are here to support the government of Iraq. The coalition is part of that. It's well known and it's no secret that there are -- there are strong and entirely reasonable ties between Iran and Iraq, as you would expect between two neighbors. There's nothing peculiar or suspicious about that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next to Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hey, sir. I wanted to see if you could expand a little bit on the bridges that were disabled in Mosul. Can you tell us, were they taken out in airstrikes? And can one infer that most of the VBIEDs are being made in western Mosul? And do you have any kind of numbers or anything to support that you're seeing less VBIED attacks?
GEN. JONES: I think I got most of that question, which is about the bridges. The back end of it, you may want to come back to me on. It was something to do with numbers, which I didn't quite catch.
So the -- we have hoped to leave the bridges intact for self-evident reasons. They're fundamental to be to the economy of Mosul, after the liberation of the city. But it was becoming increasingly clear to Prime Minister Abadi, that the enemy were using them to have free flow between the west and east of the city, to bring in explosive devices to attack the Iraqi security forces and to move fighters -- fresh fighters in and out of the -- the east and west of the city.
And for that reason, Prime Minister Abadi made the decision that he had little choice but to disable those bridges to prevent the Daesh from doing that, and that is exactly what we have done on his behalf. And forgive me, I didn't quite catch the -- there was a -- a follow-up element to do with numbers, so I'm afraid I didn't catch.
Q: You had mentioned that perhaps less VBIED attacks had occurred since you taken out the four bridges. Does that -- do you have any numbers or anything like that to support that, and were the bridges taken out with airstrikes?
GEN. JONES: Yes, so, two things.
Yes, the bridges were disabled through airstrikes, and in numbers, I don't want to be drawn on this detail -- tactical numbers, you'll recognize that's really for the Iraqi security forces to put those sorts of figures forward.
It's their fight, but what we are confident is -- is that we are beginning to see a reduction in the amount of suicide attacks on the Iraqi security forces, and we assess that to be for a whole number of reasons, one of which is the damage to the bridges that is making it harder for Daesh to flow fighters and ammunition across the river.
Secondly, we think because of course, they don't have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition and explosives anyway. And importantly because we, the coalition, and Iraqi security forces are adapting our tactics to counter this barbaric stall of attack.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, I'll go with Carla Babb from Voice of America.
Q: Hi general, my question is on Raqqah.
While the SDF, which is made up of a lot of Kurdish forces is encircling Raqqah, Turkey has -- a lot of Turkish officials have said that they want to sweep in from Al-Bab and help with the Raqqah fight.
Where is the coalition now? I know that the coalition has said it's been talking with its Turkish counterparts, but where does the coalition stand now on Turkey's role in Raqqah?
GEN. JONES: Yeah, thanks.
So, the -- the coalition position is being consistent I think for some time. And it is that we are in the process of isolating the city of Raqqah. To do that, we are using the Syrian democratic forces, they're the forces on the ground, they're the forces capable of isolating the city, and therefore the forces that give us the fastest and most effective route to rid Raqqah of Daesh, and therefore increase security to the region, but also globally. So, that's the first thing to say.
The second thing is, of course we'll continue to work with Turkey and with our other partners, and we will find the most effective force to retake Raqqah, and we are open -- open to -- to options for that. But in terms of isolating the city, that -- that will be the SDF supported by the coalition, but I'll just say we will continue dialog in terms of what force might be able to help with retaking Raqqah in a timely manner.
Q: No final plans on Turkey have been made so far to include them at this point?
GEN. JONES: No, forgive me, there was something about Turkey. I'm afraid I didn't get the rest of the question.
Q: I'll repeat. So, no plans to include Turkey in the operation take Raqqah have been finalized at this point? It's still ongoing discussions?
GEN. JONES: That is correct. So, at the moment the isolation force is the coalition supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces. There will be a continuing dialogue with Turkey and indeed with other interested parties to decide on what force is best placed to retake Raqqah.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Courtney Kube from NBC News.
Q: Hi, general.
Since you're talking about -- speaking about Turkey anyway, do you -- do you have any information about the Turks announced yesterday that a couple of their soldiers are missing in northern Syria? Is that -- I know that there's the Turkish unilateral operations and then there's the Turkish coalition operations and I think this one falls in the -- the first category, but do you have any information about that? And were there any other coalition members with these soldiers at the time that they went missing?
GEN. JONES: So, as I think you'll know, from -- from what's been announced publicly, as you say, two Turkish soldiers appear to have been taken. That took place, as I understand it, in the area of Al-Bab where Turkey are conducting operations. Those operations are not being conducted as a direct element of the coalition.
But of course, coalition -- sorry, Turkey is an important ally to us as a NATO partner and as a member of the coalition and therefore we are supporting Turkey in trying to recover their -- their two individuals.
Q: Can you give us a little information about how the coalition is supporting? Is it with air assets, ISR?
GEN. JONES: You'll forgive me if I don't want to go too far into the details. I think it would be inappropriate to do so. You'll recognize this is a personnel recovery operation, it is therefore inherently sensitive and I think we wouldn't actually be helping the Turkish very much if we therefore divulge the nature of the assistance we're providing. I think the key is that we work to support Turkey in recovering their two individuals.
Q: And then if I could just ask one more on Mosul, is -- the CTS have been taking some pretty heavy casualties in the east in the past couple of weeks. Are you seeing any sign that -- that their -- their casualties, whether it's injuries or deaths, are becoming unsustainable for the CTS to maintain the push into Mosul and that there needs to be some sort of, like, bringing in more Iraqi infantry or there needs to be some change in -- in how hard they're -- the Iraqis are deploying the CTS?
I know that this is an Iraqi issue but as a partner of theirs, you know, are you seeing any signs that there needs to be a change?
GEN. JONES: Well, I think the first thing I'd say is to -- to applaud the courage and the determination and the military skill of the Counter-Terrorism Service who have broken into the eastern side of the city.
They've done so, as you indicate, at great -- great cost, but they are great patriots on behalf of Iraq and they want to contribute to the liberation of Mosul and we should applaud them for that. They are adjusting their tactics to -- as any good military does in the face of what the enemy is throwing at them.
To your -- the detail of your question, do I see any evidence of the Counter-Terrorism Service beginning to -- I forget the word you used, but -- but run into difficulties -- that is most certainly not.
They are very firmly in the fight. They're pressing on. They remain confident; they remain determined. What we most do, as a coalition, is to help them to advance through the city. We continue to do that by adjusting our tactics, by giving them better and better fire support.
But also, we can help them by replacing some of their battle-damaged vehicles. And we are most certainly doing that. As to the point you made about should more forces be put into the fight, say, that is very much a matter for the governor of Iraq.
And without wishing to go into too much of the detail here because it is for them to talk about it, the Iraqi Security Forces are adjusting the posture as any good military would through the course of an operation to make sure they reinforce success and keep up the momentum against the enemy.
MODERATOR: All right, the queue is empty. Anyone else, questions?
Luis Martinez from ABC News.
Q: General, you mentioned several times now that the Iraqis are adjusting their tactics, particularly with -- when it comes to VBIEDs. Can you get into the detail of -- what -- what are some of the lessons that they've already learned from the battlefield in Mosul?
GEN. JONES: Yes, sorry, I didn't get the back end of your question, but I got the front end, which was about how the Iraqis are adjusting their tactics. Well, the first thing I would say is that the Iraqis are working really hard to close up on all their axes to get into the city. As they do that, they will place Daesh under greater pressure and will relieve pressure on the Counter-Terrorism Service. And that must be a good thing.
In terms of how they, and we, are adjusting tactics, I touched on it in my opening statements. In terms of trying to limit the ability of Daesh to bring their suicide vehicles onto the Counter-Terrorism Service and that is what we've been seeking to do. And part of that is about cratering the routes so that those suicide vehicle born I.D.s physically can't get down the routes and strike the Counter-Terrorism Service in their flanks.
Q: If I could follow on again. Overall, on the whole battlescape -- the battlefield there in Mosul, what are other lessons that you've learned? And then just a quick follow up on bridges. I imagine that these are through the pinpoint -- the disabling, as you put it, of the bridges and not total destruction of the bridges. Would that be accurate?
GEN. JONES: Yes, to -- to that second point first. Exactly as described. They -- they have not been destroyed, they have been disabled. We've done that in a very careful manner. Unlike, of course, what Daesh would do if they sought to destroy the bridges, which would leave them inoperable for a considerable period to come, no doubt.
So, we've done it in a very considered manner. I think the first part of your question was about the overall situation in Mosul. I'll comment to that and if that wasn't your question, then please do come back to me.
You know, I think I would defer to -- to Prime Minister Abadi not least because it's his plan, but secondly because he's absolutely right when he says the operation's going well.
It's on -- it's on track -- it's on -- broadly on schedule, if you can call it such a thing. The Iraqi Security Force has closed up to the city. They've done the hard yards. They've cleared the towns and villages leading up to the city. And they're now into the hard fight of getting -- getting through to -- to the river.
And my sense is that the enemy are beginning to struggle. These things do not happen quickly. Anybody who studies a history book will know you do not liberate a heavily defended city the size of Mosul quickly, and patience is therefore needed.
Patience is needed by politicians. Patience is needed by the military. And I'm confident that with that patience, we will slowly squeeze Daesh and the civil population will be liberated and be released from the scourge of Daesh.
Q: That's right. Other lessons learned in other parts of the battlefield for Mosul? Like Tal Afar or, you know, in the southern approaches? Any other lessons learned?
GEN. JONES: Well, I mean, I think any military is learning all of the time. That's the nature of our profession. And the Iraqi security forces are a hugely professional organization, as they've demonstrated month after month, as they've advanced back through their country, liberating their towns and cities.
So, do they learn all the time? Do they adjust their tactics all of the time? Absolutely. I can guarantee if you -- if we flew ourselves forward to a forward outpost of the Counter-Terrorism Service right now, over their cups of tea, they'll be discussing their day's fighting and they'll be discussing how they refine their tactics for tomorrow. That's what the best militaries do, and I can guarantee that's what the Iraqi security force is doing right now.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Last call?
Sir, with that, we will say farewell. Any final words for us, General?
GEN. JONES: No, just thank you very much for joining. Thanks for listening to the tame Brit in the coalition. And I guess my last -- (inaudible) -- say is just to return to the strength of the coalition. I think it's very telling. You know, 60-plus nations, united against a common enemy in the form of Daesh. That is hugely powerful.
That coalition will prevail and -- and we will support our partners in both Syria and in Iraq to ensure that the people are liberated and, critically, that the threat that Daesh poses to all of our homelands, whether you're in Washington, in London, in Paris, in Berlin, or any other capital remains safe.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, general. We appreciate your time and we look forward to hearing from you again soon.
Thank you, everybody.