Soldiers from the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit patrol a mountainside during a react to contact training exercise at their training facility in the Nineveh Province, May 18, 2016. The NPPU are a small group of fighters who came together to protect their people in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Training focused on the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve overall mission to build partner capacity and increase the military capacity of local forces fighting ISIL. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio Rangel) (Photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio Rangel)
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good afternoon and thank you for joining us today. We're pleased to be joined by Colonel John Dorrian, our spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
J.D., just want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you.
COLONEL JOHN DORRIAN: I've got you loud and clear.
CAPT. DAVIS: Great. Without any further ado, we will turn it over to you.
COL. DORRIAN: Excellent. Good afternoon, Pentagon Press. Before I get started today, I want to take a brief moment to congratulate Jim Miklaszewski on his more than 30 years of outstanding journalism. I'm sure Mik's very busy right now preparing for a great day with his family and wish he was here to tune me up one last time just for old time's sake.
I know many of you will be a part of his special day and I hope you'll pass on my best wishes to Mik and his family for a long, happy and prosperous retirement.
We'll start with Syria today and then we'll move on to Iraq. At star one, in Syria, Operation Nobel Lance is ongoing with Turkish military and partner forces continuing clearance of villages along the Mara line near Syria's northern border with Turkey.
As reported in multiple media outlets overnight, Daesh fired a rocket into Kilis, which is just north of the border in Turkey. Daesh launched more than 40 rockets into Kilis since January, striking an area that's populated highly be a significant number of refugees from Syria. Turkish forces and their partners and coalition forces have been involved in tough fighting in northwestern Syria because Daesh recognized this area as very important to their ability to export terror in the region and bring fighters into and out of Syria and Iraq.
This area has been highly contested, with back and forth fighting between Daesh and coalition-supported opposition groups. As in Iraq, coalition forces are providing train, advise and assist support to Turkey in partners forces fighting Daesh.
Since Nobel Lance started, the coalition supported forces have cleared five additional villages, further complicating Daesh freedom of movement. Post-liberation stabilization efforts continue to be a priority in this area. In the continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to Manbij, the coalition is facilitating the delivery of more than 200 metric tons of food that will be provided to about 2,400 families throughout the Manbij organization for relief and development.
The food includes essentials such as rice, flour, chickpeas, and tomato paste, baby formula and water purifying tablets. In some cases, this means families will get anywhere from 30 to 60 days of food and supplies. In addition, the coalition is providing training to remove many of the explosive remnants of war that Daesh typically leave behind once they've been driven from an area.
Those trained by the coalition have successfully removed the explosive remnants of war. Enabling the reopening of the Manbij hospital as well as many homes and school in the city. In Iraq, we continue to see Daesh attempt to build up their defenses in Mosul, including restrictions on the population in attempts to conceal their operations in buildings that are restricted targets like hospitals, schools and mosques.
In addition, they continue to dig elaborate tunnels and place IEDs hoping to delay the advance of the ISF. But there are significant signs that they're feeling the affects of ISF advances in coalition strikes.
In some instances, like Qayyarah and along the Euphrates river valley, we're seeing them conduct harassing attacks to try and delay the ISF, but they're no longer able to mass enough forces to stop the advance, and have shown more of an inclination to flee rather than earlier times in the campaign.
In addition, we continue to see Daesh grumbling about money and supply shortages and reflections in social media indicating flagging enemy moral.
In Daesh's -- in Iraq's Euphrates river valley, forces from the seventh infantry division have started to clear the Euphrates River and enter the city of Kasi Arrat, Iraq in order to set conditions for the river cross operations to liberate the Jazeera Hiit area at star-two.
In the Jazeera Ramadi area at star-three, forces from the 41st brigade of the 10th infantry division have started to clear Abu Diab. These clearing operations further erode Daesh freedom of movement and reduce their ability to pressure the ERV or resupply from Syria. They also give Daesh more problems than they have the ability to manage simultaneously. Iraq and coalition forces are helping Daesh understand that condition as their new normal.
At star four, the ISF announced yesterday evening that they had reached the city center of Sherqat. And Iraqis have been observed waving Iraqi flags and celebrating their liberation. The 34th, 35th, 73rd Brigades of the ISF will continue to back clear Sherqat and the outlying areas. But the removal of Daesh from Sherqat moves them further away from Iraqi supply lines and inhibits their freedom of movement, leading up to the liberation of Mosul. The ISF conducted the operation rather quickly, demonstrating their continued momentum in the enemy's inability to mass and stop them.
In preparation for the liberation, coalition forces conducted multiple strikes in the area to deny the enemy access to key terrain, destroy 29 watercraft along the Tigris River, destroy enemy weapons caches, including vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and eliminate tactical units that may otherwise have been engaged in the liberation battle.
As the ISF operation was ongoing, it became clear to Daesh that they were going to be defeated in place and they attempted to flee across a land bridge towards Hawija with technical vehicles and more than 30 trucks. The coalition destroyed that land bridge, which you'll see in the video we've queued for you.
Once that land bridge was gone, there was nowhere else for the vehicles to go and an A-10, F-16, and an MQ-1 all engaged to eliminate the vehicles with airstrikes destroying them before they could escape to fight another day. Jeff, if you would roll that footage?
COL. DORRIAN: Questions once the video's complete.
CAPT. DAVIS: Matt, we'll start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: Colonel Dorrian, there's reports of significant oil field fires in and around Qayyarah. I'm wondering if you can comment on the extent to which that might be an impediment currently for Iraqi operations.
And also, can you describe in some, any detail what exactly sort of activities U.S. forces are undertaking at Qayyarah? Or are they operating outside the wire, for example?
COL. DORRIAN: Bob, just to clarify, what you're talking about is Qayyarah West, is where the coalition forces are operating out of and in Qayyarah this is where the preponderance of those oil fires are. The Daesh set those fires before they fled from the area, and many of them remained burning.
They do that for a variety of reasons. One is a spoiler, but they also do it in an attempt to mask their movements. So, it does cause some problems. It certainly doesn't stop anything and the Iraqis had asked for coalition help to determine what could be done to put those fires out. We'll do what we can to support them.
Mention about coalition forces. We don't anticipate that they're going to be operating outside the wire on a regular basis. They're busy working at the base to get it up and running as a supply and logistics and staging area for the Iraqi Security Forces prior to the liberation of Mosul.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, next to Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Hi, colonel, just following on Bob's questions about Qayyarah. Could you let us know about how many U.S. forces are at Qayyarah West? And as far as the activities for building up the base, is that runway improvements, additional artillery?
And then just further to -- for the Mosul fight, can you let us know what is the current number of Iraqi forces trained? And what is the -- I guess the status of how many brigades you will need for this fight?
COL. DORRIAN: Yep. There are several hundred troops at Qayyarah West. They're very busy building that up as a staging area for the Iraqi security forces.
So what we're talking about here is getting the air field up and running. There's a -- an operational piece, getting that air field to work so they can be C-130 capable at some point.
And there's also a piece where we're talking about bedding down the Iraqi security forces and staging a lot of supplies and equipment that they'll need to go into what we expect to be a very tough fight for the liberation of Mosul.
So, those are the two big things for Qayyarah West at this point. As far as your question regarding the training, we've got 8 to 12 brigades ready for the Iraqi security forces to go into Mosul.
We've trained a total of more than 35,000 troops. Some have been through more than once. So what we're talking about with this, we've got forces that have been involved in some of the liberation battles in the Euphrates River Valley. And they've also come through for refit. So, a lot of that work continues.
We've got about 6,000 there right now that are going to be used as reserve and then for a wide area security forces. These are like police forces that'll be used to hold the territory and make sure that security remains once Daesh had been pushed out of Mosul.
And going back to Qayyarah West, there -- there is artillery there as well. And that's used for disruption fires, and then of course to make sure that Daesh understand that it's probably not in their interest to approach that base.
Q: Okay. Just a quick follow up. In some of the early briefings on Mosul, we've heard that you would need like around 20 brigades to be ready to launch that attack. Is that still the case or has -- you don't need as many now?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, what we're talking about is the -- the Iraqi Army. There are also going to be brigades that are there for police.
There are going to be Peshmerga brigades. And there are likely to be popular mobilization forces involved in some manner around the city. So, all told, the numbers that you've been given are -- are correct. We were talking about the -- the Iraqi Army.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Joe Tabot.
Q: Colonel Dorrian, I wanna go back to -- to Syria. What is the status of communication between the coalition and the Russian military in Syria? Have you started sharing any intelligence or information with them?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, the -- the -- the JIC that had been proposed is basically on hold at this point. But we do continue to coordinate and de-conflict air operations with the Russians. That's an arrangement we've had in place for quite some time. And what that enables us to do is make sure that our forces and their forces don't end up on the same altitude going against the same targets or target each other.
Q: To follow up, could you clarify why the JIC is on hold right now, and when we about sharing information, have you started sharing any information about the al Nusra front positions in Syria?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, one of the conditions for setting up the JIC was that there were supposed to be a week without hostilities. That condition hasn't been met and I know that there are diplomatic efforts ongoing to try and restart that effort. There is an interest in doing that in order to create better humanitarian conditions for the Syrians who been affected, but I -- my understanding is that those diplomatic efforts are ongoing and so far haven't borne any fruit.
Q: So my question, we - we've seen reports here in Washington the last few days, saying that the U.S. military is looking to arm directly the YPG in Syria. Are you aware of that, can you confirm any - if it's going happen?
COL. DORRIAN: Yeah, we have a program called the Syria Train & Equip fund in which we train and equip our partners in Syria; that's the Syrian Arab Coalition. So we've been doing that for quite some time and will continue to do that. The SDF, which is our partner organization of vetted forces in Syria have been stalwart allies and -- stalwart partners and have done a very good job in taking the fight to Daesh, we continue to work with them and we intend to keep doing so.
CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible) -- okay. Next to Carol Munoz.
Q: I just wanted to follow up on your comments about the PMU's likely to participate in the Mosul operation. You know, we've seen them, you know, fighting in Srikant, there's talk about them moving into Fallujah when that operation is ready to go. The PMU commission in Baghdad says there's about 15,000 militiamen ready to go into Mosul.
Now, in previous briefings, it still seems that the Iraqi government is on the fence about whether or not to let these guys participate in the Mosul Offensive. From what you're saying now, they're likely participate, does that means that we should expect some sort of announcement that officially they will be part of that -- of that -- of that force that goes in, and if that's the case, how is the chain of command going to work with these guys on a operation of the scale?
COL. DORRIAN: Well what we expect to happen is that the Iraqis are going to continue to develop their plan. We advise and assist them as they develop that plan, and one of the elements to the plan is a political dimension that basically requires, and this isn't something that the Iraqis are leading, think they are coming up with a plan that is politically acceptable to those who will participate, and those who will be affected.
We advise and assist them as they put that plan together, but at the end of the day Iraq is a sovereign country in the determination about where forces will participate, how they will participate, what their disposition is, those determinations will be made by the government of Iraq.
Q: A quick follow up then, sir, from your military perspective as well and looking at these plans that are being developed, is there any - what are the chances of success Mosul the PMUs are not allowed to participate?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about whether one group or another will participate, essentially, I'd be you know, stepping into the decision-making process of the Iraqis. They're leading the planning effort, they are going to make the determination who is going to be involved in this and in what manner they will do so. They'll also make the determination what they need.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next two, Ryan Browne, CNN.
Q: Hello colonel, I just wanted to -- as we move on to Mosul, I know relatively recently they've been granted they authority to embed advisers at the battalion level, but it's only been used relatively sparsely. Do you anticipate doing that more as U.S. -- as the Iraqi forces to make the approach to Iraq's second biggest city?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I've discussed this with General Townsend, he's mystified why it's such an area of interest, and you know, essentially this is an authority that he's been given by the Secretary of Defense; if he needs to use it he will do so. He said, when I've have discussed it with him, that the he thinks that it's not something that he has any immediate plans to do, but it's something that if circumstances warrant, he won't hesitate to do.
Q: Now just one quick follow up, you mentioned this aid delivery in the Manbij area, and that U.S. forces -- or coalition forces facilitated that. Can you talk a little bit about how they facilitated that, how -- with their involvement in that delivery was?
COL. DORRIAN: Yes, you know one of the key elements that we try to establish with all of our partners is a situation where once, you know, they need to get beyond the -- the piece of the effort where you know, they liberate that area, that they can reestablish some degree of normalcy and stabilize the situation.
So in Manbij, Daesh had had quite a bit of time, more than a year in that area, they were deeply entrenched there. So we have a situation where the forces there had -- Daesh fighters there had emplaced a lot of improvised explosive devices. The people that were living in that area were people who were displaced from that area, who were living under really difficult squalor type conditions, and so you're just can have basic human needs that have to be met.
In addition to that our forces are always, you know, they have medics in this sort of thing that they can assist in treating some of the people that a been hurt, either in the liberation battle, or as a result of the explosive remnants of war that are left behind. So we also conduct some training to make sure that those things can be removed, a lot -- you know, really across a variety of -- of areas where we help.
CAPT. DAVIS: Tony Carpaccio.
Q: Hi, John, can you bring this up to date on the infamous mustard agent shell? A lot of stories are saying today conclusively that the U.S. troops were attacked by mustard agent. What was the result of the third test? I'm hearing it's inconclusive and you have to test further.
COL. DORRIAN: What you've heard is correct so let me just kind of walk through it a little bit. On the 20th, this indirect fire came into the base, it was well away from our forces, I won't get into exactly how far but it was well away from them and then we went in and did some testing. They grabbed samples from those weapons that came down on the base, they did immediate testing on them. One of them was a positive test for a mustard agent and one of them was negative.
So we sent the samples out for more advanced testing. Those test results also came back inconclusive so we're going to do more advanced testing yet, it'll probably take us a couple of days in order to get those results back.
Q: So headlines and stories that say U.S. troops were attacked by mustard agent by ISIL rockets are inaccurate at this point because there's no evidence of that conclusive evidence, is that true?
COL. DORRIAN: There's no evidence of -- that -- there's no conclusive evidence on that. So we wait for the tests to come back.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Q: Hey John, has General Townsend made a recommendation to U.S. Central Command for additional forces for the push to Mosul?
COL. DORRIAN: Luis, we don't talk about troop proposals. I would say that we continually assess what we need and if we need something, we will ask for it but that'll be done through military channels up through the leadership as appropriate and not something that we do as a public thing.
Q: If you needed more troops, what kind of specialized troops would you need?
COL. DORRIAN: That's a hypothetical, Luis. I'm not going to touch that one.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Gordon Lubold. I'm sorry actually Lucas, you were next. Lucas Thomlinson and then Gordon.
Q: Gordon, do you want to go?
Q: No, you go.
Q: I don't know if I have a question yet.
Q: Okay, colonel if the test for mustard agent was inconclusive, what exactly was that oily substance that was on the shell?
COL. DORRIAN: Lucas, we're going to have to wait until the tests come back in order to determine exactly what was there. So certainly with the level of attention that this has gotten, we'll let you know once we know.
Q: And going back to the Mosul fight, are you seeing ISIS fighters digging in, preparing for a big battle? Can you talk us through that and some of the challenges in taking the city?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, Daesh have been in Mosul for more than two years. They built intricate defenses there. They've dug in, put up things like T-walls, big barriers to stop people from coming in or slow an advance. They've dug trenches. I've seen reports that they've poured oil in some of those trenches with intent to start them on fire.
Essentially, they've built a hell on Earth around themselves and they're going to be in that whenever the Iraqi security forces come in there and push them out.
Q: Yes, hey, colonel. Thanks for this.
Two quick questions. One is can you expand a little bit more on potential up-arming of YPG? I know what you said earlier but is there an argument to be made that expanding the assistance perhaps more directly to the YPG ahead of the Raqqa fight could be beneficial and potentially what form could that take?
And also, could you just clarify on this idea that U.S. troops are using white phosphorous on the ground for things that potentially are beyond screening on the ground and potentially in violation of international law?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I'll start with the white phosphorous one. Those are being used in accordance with our rules, they're being used in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and we always attempt to do the very best that we can to use any of our weapons, be they white phosphorous or any other, in a manner that has a minimal or as little as possible impact on civilians. So, what you've cited there is some allegation, I'm not aware of any allegations against U.S. forces for their use of white phosphorous at all.
But if you have anything on that, I welcome it and we'll answer it. Now, your other question about the arming of the YPG or other groups. We have for a long time been arming the SDF and the group in that SDF that we've been working with very closely is the Syrian Arab Coalition. So, I'm not going to get into pre-decisional or any type of philosophical discussion as far as, you know, who we might arm directly. We arm the SAC and that's -- that's the nature of our relationship.
Q: Can you possibly give us some more clarity on the strike on Deir ez-Zor that allegedly killed Syrian troops?
First, where U.S. aircraft manned or unmanned part of that strike? The reason I ask is that there's some reports -- well, Britain, Denmark, and Australia have said that their aircraft were part of that package and there are some reports out there that perhaps U.S. aircraft were not part of this at all. Were U.S. aircraft part of this?
And secondly, can you say, sir, the other reports that perhaps it wasn't Syrian Army troops that were hit that it was prisoners that ISIS pushed out in front to try to lure an attack. Can you clarify anything on that?
COL. DORRIAN: Well, I can clarify, there were U.S. forces involved in that. There were U.S. aircraft that were there. I can clarify that piece. As far as the rest of it, who was on the ground, who those forces were, we need to let the investigation play out.
So there has been a lot of speculation about that. It's time to just go ahead and let the investigators investigate and will get to the bottom of it and we'll release information on the other end about exactly what we believe happened there.
Q: Just -- just one more, colonel. A one-star has been appointed to conduct the investigation. Is -- that -- is that General, is he on the ground now over there?
COL. DORRIAN: I am afraid I -- I don't know. I'm gong to have to owe that one to you, I'll see whether I can get an answer for that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Do you have a follow-up, Tara?
Q: I did. On the Manbij aid drops, could you tell us what type of U.S. aircraft were involved in that, and whether the U.S. is -- would consider doing any sort of similar type of aid drop over Aleppo at this point?
COL. DORRIAN: Tara, I'm -- I'm not sure. I didn't catch the entire question.
Q: Okay, just to repeat, could you tell us what U.S. aircraft were involved in the aid drop over Manbij and whether or not the U.S. would consider doing a similar type of aid drop to Aleppo.
COL. DORRIAN: I should -- I should clarify, I believe those -- those aid -- that aid was delivered by truck, not by airlift.
Q: So the -- all right. On the Aleppo part, I mean, would there be any role for U.S. forces at this point to be able to deliver aid to Aleppo?
COL. DORRIAN: No -- the -- the international community has the lead for aid into Aleppo. We do not have a U.S. military mission there at this point.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, we're -- yeah, go ahead. I just want to point that we don't want to clear out a bit early because, I mean, -- (inaudible) -- make some preparations in here for the special -- (inaudible) -- this afternoon.
Q: Just one quick follow-up, colonel. Who is the one-star that general has been appointed to investigate the incident in Eastern Syria?
COL. DORRIAN: Afraid I will have to owe you that one to you, as well.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Anybody -- yeah, Ryan, go ahead.
Q: Colonel, on -- Noble Lance you said you described the capture of the flag villages as very tough fighting, highly contested. I mean, are any of the U.S. or coalition personnel involved in an operation? Have they been involved in it directly in any of that fighting, or have they been exposed to any of that fighting?
COL. DORRIAN: Our -- our participation in northern Syria is just like it is in Iraq. It is an advise and assist role and generally our forces are away from the fighting. So they may be nearby, but they're in an advise and assist role, not directly involved in fighting.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Anybody else?
All right. J.D., thank you very much --
COL. DORRIAN: Strikes to support those operations and have done a considerable number of them.
CAPT. DAVIS: J.D., thanks for your time and for coming to see us in what I know is late evening your time, so get to bed and we wish you all the best.
COL. DORRIAN: Thanks a bunch. Take care.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thanks, everybody.