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Department Of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Veale via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

Press Operations

Colonel Thomas Veale, Director, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Public Affairs; Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Pentagon Spokesman
June 5, 2018
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MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Today, we are joined from Baghdad, Iraq by U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Veale.  Colonel Veale serves as the director of public affairs for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the military coalition headquarters directing combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and providing military support to our partner forces in both nations.

Before we get started, we'll do a quick communications check.  Colonel Veale, sir, how do you hear me?

COLONEL THOMAS VEALE:  Loud and clear, how me?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Great.  Can we get the volume up just a little bit in the room here?  All right.  And, with that, sir, we will turn it over to you for an opening statement.

COL. VEALE:  Thank you, Adrian.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Today, I'll cover two named operations in Iraq and Syria and close with some special topics.

In Syria, Operation Roundup is in its 36th day of accelerating the defeat of ISIS remnants in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and the Syria-Iraq border region.

Roundup began on May 1st, and phase 1 ended May 14th, when Syrian Democratic Forces secured the town of Baguz, a key location near the Syria-Iraq border.  Phase 2 of Operation Roundup began this past Sunday and is focused on clearing Dashisha, Syria.

Throughout Operation Roundup, our SDF partners on the ground have been supported by Iraqi and coalition forces, cross-border air and artillery strikes.  Close coordination with Iraqi Security Forces has ensured tight security on the Iraqi side of the border to prevent ISIS' escape from Syria into Iraq.

Communications and relationships among coalition members and partner forces at all levels remain strong.  Our unity of purpose, coupled with Russian deconfliction efforts, help maintain focus on the common objective of defeating ISIS.

The increased operational tempo under Operation Roundup includes 225 coalition partner strikes in May.  That's a 304 percent increase over March and a 123 percent increase over April strikes.  We and our partners have pounded ISIS remnants from the ground and air in relentless pursuit of their leaders and fighters.

ISIS morale is low and leaders are scurrying for their lives.  Thanks to increased coalition and partner pressure, quite a bit of ISIS traffic is now flowing west toward Syrian regime-held territory.

We're also announcing the recent removal of a high-level ISIS operative from the battlefield in Syria.  Ahmad al-Hamduni, a courier for ISIS senior leadership, was killed during a coalition operation, May 17th, near Dashisha, Syria.

Al-Hamduni carried messages among high-level ISIS leaders throughout Syria and Iraq.  His death hinders ISIS leadership's ability to communicate securely and increases their risk of public exposure or further isolation.

Our Iraqi Security Forces partners continue to provide excellent internal security, as well as border security, to protect Iraq's sovereign soil and citizens.

Citizens are increasingly returning home, as well.  When Maj. Gen. Gedney was at this podium last December, he said Iraq has passed a tipping point with internally displaced persons.  During that month, the number of returnees numbered more than 2.8 million Iraqis, which surpassed the number of those who remained displaced, at fewer than 2.8 million.

We're glad to report, between mid-April and mid-May, about 90,000 more Iraqis returned to their homes or home areas.  So, to date, more than 3.7 million Iraqis have returned home.

Regarding Operation Roundup, I'll reiterate and emphasize the ISF's key role in securing the Iraqi side of the border with Syria.  Iraqi border guard forces and the Iraqi Army have covered the western border as our partners' ground defenses attack ISIS remnants in Syria.

Iraqi forces have not simply been the anvil, though; they're also the hammer.  We've got a map and some strike footage for you to see here.  The map depicts several Iraqi Air Force strikes in support of Operation Roundup, reflecting an advanced Iraqi aviation and planning capability that continues to get better every day.

We've also got a short strike video clip demonstrating Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighters in action in Syria, if you'd please queue the clip.

What you see here is footage from four separate strikes by the Iraqi Air Force in April and May.  These strikes took out key ISIS facilities in support of Operation Roundup.  There will be more.

Additionally, Iraqi artillery has operated with coalition artillery in cross-border missions, and will continue to do so until ISIS remnants are annihilated.

The coalition also continues support to Iraq through Operation Reliable Partnership, which will enhance Iraqi Security Forces' ability to train and equip themselves.  Reliable Partnership will build resilience and security and sustainment capabilities, as well as the growing air enterprise, security policy and operations, intelligence and counterterrorism.

Brig. Gen. Vanacci’s engagement in this forum two weeks ago highlighted the training in various security functions, which has benefited more than 150,000 Iraqis in the past three years.

Our work with the Iraqi Security Forces also includes the provision of 17 brigades worth of equipment and vehicles to Iraqi Security Forces.

We view Reliable Partnership as an investment in Iraq's future security which, as the finding against ISIS has demonstrated, is an investment in global security.  We look forward to continuing the successes of this partnership.

I'm going to preempt questions on the future of the coalition in Iraq by stating we're here at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and decisions on our mission and presence here are political discussions, and not military ones.  I'll also confirm that NATO has recently concluded a site survey in Iraq, and is discussing its presence here with the Iraqi government, but that does not fall within our purview.

The important thing to remember is that our mission remains unchanged:  to defeat ISIS in designated parts of Iraq and Syria, and to help set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.  We remain committed to our mission.  We, the military arm of the global coalition, work by, with and through our partners to achieve and help sustain security that enables stabilization activities.

Stabilization's a non-military line of effort that is significantly more advanced in Iraq than in Syria, but much work remains in both countries.  Most obviously, we must defeat the remaining presence of ISIS conventional forces in Syria, and prevent the return of conditions favorable to ISIS.  Our partners in Syria are liberating areas and turn them over -- turning them over local inclusive governments.  Their successes in northeastern Syria demonstrate diverse populations and local leadership, creating the most stable areas of the country.

However, true stabilization will occur when governments and NGOs flow in to assist the people in key areas of need, such as rubble clearing, explosives removal, infrastructure repair, humanitarian assistance and medical aid.  In order to prevent the return of conditions under which ISIS arose, the international community must support stabilization activities that allow displaced persons to return to their homes, to give them basic access to basic services, and to hope for a better life.

In other words, military action will only take us so far, by providing a safer environment in which to work.  We now encourage the international community to take advantage of the space, time and opportunities military successes have bought.

A couple of special topics I'd like to cover today are the Amnesty International report on Raqqa, the remaining IED threat, and foreign terrorist fighter detention.

I've had a chance to read the Amnesty report, and would like to offer the following comments on it.

First, I think the report underscores the human tragedy of this war, which was brought on by an evil criminal organization that, at its peak, subjected 7.7 million Iraqis and Syrians to its brutal rule.  Thanks to the coalition and our partners, those people and their homes have been liberated.  In fact, I'd point out that Amnesty's visit to Raqqa for 11 days in February was made possible by ISIS' defeat there last year.

The coalition's messaging has been consistent since we stood up in late 2014.  We adhere to a meticulous targeting and strike process that always aims to minimize harm to noncombatants and civilian infrastructure.  We've also been transparent in our process and accountability, publishing weekly strike reports and monthly civilian casualty statements on our website.  We published two press releases pertaining to the evacuation arrangement between Raqqa tribal leaders and ISIS remaining in Raqqa.

We were very clear that we disagreed with the agreement.  In fact, Marine Brig. Gen. James Glynn was filmed by a Syrian in the tribal venue as he stated the coalition's disagreement prior to the evacuation.

Nonetheless -- and we've said this publicly, as well -- part of working by, with and through partners entails accepting local solutions to local issues.

The actual process of evacuation did not involve the coalition, so you'll have to discuss that process with the Raqqa Civil Council, the tribal leaders themselves and the security forces that were present for the screening of evacuees.

I'll state my three major objections to the Amnesty report.  First, they never asked us for a comment, an interview or a courtesy check of the draft.  They also failed to check the public record thoroughly.  So not only did they not discuss the article with us, but they didn't thoroughly research things we've said.

One example is their assertion that III Corps forms the primary staff around Lt. Gen. Townsend.  That is not true.  III Corps and Lt. Gen. Funk took over mission leadership when Lt. Gen. Townsend and the XVIII Airborne Corps went home in September.  Again, this is a failure to check the public record and get facts straight.

My second major objection is Amnesty's recommendation that our process provide for a cancellation of a strike if it is deemed indiscriminate or disproportionate.  Again, they failed to check the public record.

Brig. Gen. Cross spoke to the Pentagon press corps on October 25th last year, and Brig. Gen. Isler spoke to the Pentagon press corps on November 7th last year.  General Isler provided a specific example of a canceled strike for those reasons.  This is yet another failure to check the public record.  Those transcripts are on defense.gov.

My third and biggest objection to the Amnesty report is the prima facie argument on page 14 that the coalition violated international law.  In other words, they are literally judging us guilty until proven innocent.  That's a bold rhetorical move by an organization that fails to check the public record or consult the accused.

I will reiterate our willingness to work with anyone who has an allegation of civilian casualties.  We have consistently demonstrated our willingness to consider new or compelling evidence.  And we have, in fact, reopened old cases, changing some from non-credible to credible based on new or compelling evidence.

I'll close this topic by acknowledging the terrible destruction this war has brought to the people of Iraq and Syria, and our role in it.  We are committed to the lasting defeat of ISIS so the people of this region can return to build their lives and return to normalcy.

Improvised explosive devices are another topic I'd like to cover tonight.  Before evacuating Raqqa, ISIS seeded civilian homes with thousands of them.  The IEDs they left were specifically designed to kill the most vulnerable civilians -- leaving them in children's toys, bedding and blankets and even baby formula bottles.

Thanks to partner and contractor efforts, many of those devices have been removed and families have been returning to Raqqa.  But, in some cases, our partners are finding areas re-seeded after initial clearance.

Coalition training in IED removal had proven to be a key element in our partners' success in liberated areas against this continued threat to civilian populations.

Iraq has also enjoyed success in its efforts to rid the country of this pernicious threat.  IED-related casualties in Iraq have decreased from nearly 6,700 in the first quarter of 2016, to just over 800 during the same timeframe in 2018.

Vehicle-borne IED attacks, which tend to be more harmful, have also been reduced from 64 percent of all IED explosions in 2016, to about 17 percent of the total thus far in 2018.

Although the numbers are decreasing and the potency of IEDs is lower, one civilian death is one too many from this remaining threat.  It's imperative that our partners continue to address and defeat this latent threat through active patrolling, raids and advanced intelligence work.  We are here to enhance their capacities to do just that.

Foreign terrorist fighters are a third area of growing interest among the international community.  Among the past few months, officials of several governments have spoken openly of hundreds of foreign terrorist fighters under SDF detention in Syria.

We have repeatedly called on the nations of the world to come forward, claim their citizens and bring them to justice in their home countries.

We know from past experience that detention centers are a breeding ground for radicalism.  We cannot afford to allow this issue to go unresolved.  It's a global issue that requires a global solution.

Although we're now defeating the remnants of ISIS's conventional military force, we have to remember the enemy is adaptable and determined to rise again.

If the nations of the world fail to address the foreign terrorist fighter detention issue, they will have missed an opportunity to prevent the next iteration of ISIS, whose foundation is in detention right now.

I'd like to conclude on a note of cautious optimism.  There is no doubt momentum's on our side, but we're facing a determined enemy and there is much work to do.  We're grateful for the support of the global coalition of 71 nations and four international organizations, and we are ever mindful of the sacrifices our predecessors and our partners have made.

Hard work remains, and we're committed to the defeat of ISIS. With that, I'll take your questions.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  We'll start with Bob Burns from A.P.

Q:  Thank you.

Colonel, a question about the Manbij deal that was announced.  Could you comment on the broader meaning of that arrangement for the -- you know, the broader campaign against ISIS in Syria?

COL. VEALE:  (Off mic) U.S. Department of State or Central Command or the Department of Defense.  So I think it'd be inappropriate for me to comment.  And, quite honestly, I don't know what the outcome of that is.  We'd expect an official government announcement for that.

However, we have long said we understand Turkey's valid security concerns along the southern border.  They are a coalition member, and they are a valued NATO partner.  And so working closely with them through these discussions is exactly the right approach to this -- to this issue.

Q:  Could I just ask you to repeat your answer?  Because we couldn't hear the first few things you said there.

COL. VEALE:  Sure.  I think my opener was that I'm not going to get ahead of the U.S. Department of State or DOD or CENTCOM on that.  If there's an official pronouncement to be made, it's going to come from them, and not from us.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Kasim Ileri from Anadolu News Agency.

Q:  Colonel, I will follow up on Manbij, but it's not about the future projections (inaudible).  But Turkey and the United States have agreed on a roadmap for Manbij, which requires removal of YPG elements from the city.

But the deal also means that -- actually says that the United States actually admits that previous statements by U.S. spokespersons -- by U.S. -- some generals, even, and special envoys for the counter-ISIS fight -- that YPG -- they said YPG have left the Manbij city, and now the deal accept that YPG is there and they will be removed from the city.

And then those statements -- it means also that those statements were inaccurate and, in some ways, were misleading.  What will you say about the past statement, saying that YPG was not -- actually, they have left the city, and now they admit that they are there?

COL. VEALE:  I'm not -- I'm not privy to those statements.  I served with the previous spokesman, Ryan Dillon, for about eight months, and I don't recall him saying that.  I also don't recall any official U.S. statements on that aspect.  So I really can't answer that question.

Q:  And another question on Iraq:  Recently, there are some reports coming out of Iraq that United States has sent some forces to Sinjar to patrol or to oversee what's going on there, or to advise Iraqi Peshmerga forces to take control or stabilize this -- the region.  Do you have anything on that?  What's the posture of the United States forces in -- in Sinjar?

COL. VEALE:  Absolutely.  I think that was some bad reporting.  So a convoy was sighted, and the purpose of that convoy was to go to a tactical area that was going to directly support Operation Roundup operations.

I've covered Operation Roundup here.  I've stated that we're working very closely with the Iraqi Army and the border guard forces.  And we are conducting some cross-border operations that includes Iraqi artillery and Iraqi Air Force operations too.

So, that movement that was seen around Sinjar was specifically pertaining to Operation Roundup and has nothing to do with any other topic.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, we'll go to Carlo Munoz with The Washington Times.

Q:  Hey, sir.  Thanks for doing this.

A quick follow-up on Kasim's question regarding Turkish efforts in the country.  There have been local reports stating, you know, quoting the defense minister of Turkey, saying that the -- the country will expand its presence in Iraq up to, I think it was 12 fixed bases in northern Iraq.

My question is, sir, with that expansion, how is the coalition handing deconfliction between Turkish-led operations focusing on YPG and other coalition efforts more focused on -- on Daesh?

COL. VEALE:  Well, you know, any country's operations in Iraq is by permission of and with close coordination with the sovereign government of Iraq.  And Prime Minister Abadi has asserted that, over and over again.  So, you know, as I said before, Turkey is a coalition partner and a NATO ally.

We work with them very, very close as a result.  And I have no outstanding concerns about whatever Turkey is doing bilaterally with the government of Iraq and how it -- how it interacts with coalition work here.

Q:  Just a point of clarification then, sir.  So the expansion of Turkish forces in Iraq will have, in your opinion, no effect or it won't affect any of the coalition's efforts against the Islamic State?

COL. VEALE:  I, you know, I really can't speculate.  But I don't imagine it would.  And I think that you're going to have to go the government of Iraq and the Turkish government because I don't -- I'm not hearing anything that would indicate that there would be some interference there.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now, to Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose.

Q:  Thank you.  Colonel, so once the SDF takes Dashisha and Abu Kamal does that mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. presence in Syria?  Will the U.S. begin drawing down after those objectives have been taken?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  (inaudible) -- and I don't know if you can hear us over here.

Radio check.  Over.

(Laughter.)

COL. VEALE:  (Inaudible).

(Laughter.)

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Sorry, so we're having a little bit of interference.  If you could just give us a minute while we clear this up.  Thanks.

All right, sir.  We can see you.  Can you hear me, sir?

COL. VEALE:  I -- I can hear you fine.  Can you hear me?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  We hear you great, sir.  So, Jeff, do you want to re-ask your question again?

Q:  Sure.  Once the SDF takes its objectives into Dashisha and elsewhere, does that mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. military presence in Syria?  Will that begin the transition, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria?

COL. VEALE:  Yes, our -- our presence in Syria is a matter of policy.  So I'm not going to speculate on the future.  Secretary Mattis was very clear that we'll support the SDF through a resolution.  He said that several months ago.

You know, there's a political process set forth in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, and that's going to obviously dictate quite a bit about -- about the end, as you say -- the beginning of the end in Syria.

But we'll do what the policymakers want us to do.  Right now, there's still a lot of work to be done to defeat ISIS. They have a fielded conventional threat in Syria, and that's -- that's what we're doing.

Q:  I wanted to follow up.  Is there a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria as we speak?

COL. VEALE:  I -- are you trying to get President Trump to fire me?

Q:  Negative.

(Laughter.)

COL. VEALE:  Yeah, we're -- we're going to have to -- we're not -- we're not going to talk timelines.  You know, these -- this is a conditions-based campaign right here, and the condition is, as very clearly stated, the annihilation of ISIS.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now, to Barbara Starr with CNN.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  A couple of questions.  Aside from your -- your joke about this, I mean, is there a timeline, even if you cannot -- three questions.  Is there a timeline, in fact, even if you cannot say what it is?  Can you clarify -- is the U.S. military in the field operating under a timeline?  Don't tell -- if you don't -- can't tell us what it is, just tell us yes or no.

My second question is, in this current set of operations you're describing, what is your estimate of how many ISIS left on both sides of the border?  You described a conventional ISIS threat in Syria.  How many fighters do you feel, do you estimate are there?  How many do you feel are on the Iraqi side of the border?

And my very quick third question is, separate from Amnesty International's report, how can you ever really know how many civilians were killed by U.S. and coalition strikes, given the fact the U.S. wasn't really ever on the ground?  Can you ever really know?

COL. VEALE:  Well, thanks for three questions in one, Barb.  I was writing those down.

So, first of all, timelines:  No.  We are a conditions-based organization.  We're going to fight until the -- the ISIS threat's eliminated.  And there is a political resolution under UNSCR 2254; that's clear.  No timeline involved that I'm aware of.

As far as the numbers, there's -- there's been some numbers thrown out there over the past few months.  You've heard the previous spokesmen range from 1,000 to 3,000.  You've seen a lot of subject matter experts say something like that.  I have nothing to add to that.  What I will say is one ISIS fighter is one too many, and that's what we're pursuing.  We're pursuing their defeat.

Now, as far as how do we know how many civilians were killed -- I'm just being honest -- no one will ever know.  Anyone who claims they will know is lying, and there's no possible way.

When we do our civilian casualty estimates, we are saying that, with a degree of certainty, we have killed at least X number of people.  And that is extremely unfortunate.

It is a terrible, awful part of this war, and we're trying to evaluate the evidence that we have, the best evidence we have.  But I -- I don't think we -- we're -- we'll never know.  We'll never know those numbers.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, to Carla Babb with Voice of America.

Q:  Thank you for doing this.  I want to follow up on Barbara's question real quick about the numbers.  You said one ISIS fighter is one too many, but, realistically, how many -- how many fighters left would be considered a victory for the United States?

Because we've been kind of hovering at that 97 percent of territory cleared, 1,000 to 3,000 ISIS fighters, for several months now.  So -- so what does the United States and the coalition consider to be a definite victory?  That's the first question, and then I have one follow-up.

COL. VEALE:  Yeah, so we're less concerned with numbers than with capabilities.  So obviously, we want to defeat the military, the conventional fielded force, which we're doing right now.  We know they're going to transition to something else.  They came from terrorism.  They may return to some form of insurgency.  I think from the U.S. officials have -- have -- I think Gen. McKenzie spoke on that last week.

What we're concerned with, rather than numbers, is their ability to reform the connective tissues they had that will allow them to continue to plan, fund, inspire, train, recruit and continue to be a threat to the world.  Remember, this isn't about Iraq and Syria.  This is about the entire world.  There are multiple countries who have been attacked using plans, or inspiration, or weapons that generated out of this region, and that's what we're going to do.  We're going to take out that capability, so I'm not going to get into the numbers game.

Q:  Okay, thank you.  And then, my follow is on the Amnesty report.  They point out four different cases with different families who were killed.  They also say that at the time, there were no fighters in the vicinity, so they considered that a civilian strike.  I'm just curious -- are those strikes that were pointed out in the Amnesty report, were they also compatible and parallel with the civilian casualty reports that you guys have put out?  Are these strikes that you had already admitted to having civilian casualties, or were these strikes that you were unaware of?

COL. VEALE:  Well, I -- I'm aware they did -- they did cite specifically from our strike report and our civ-cas report, and I can tell you with confidence that we are always willing to reevaluate cases based on newer compelling evidence.  That's what I said in my statement.  As I speak, people are looking at that article and trying to correlate those claims to the strike log, and -- and how the battle of Raqqa unfolded, as our participation went in it, and so that will continue to be evaluated.

We are open to working with anyone.  I think you could talk to Airwars and find from them that we work with them very regularly, and we're always accepting new data from them, and -- and we have a back-and-forth with them that's very productive.  And we're just as willing to work with Amnesty International.  I -- as I said, I wish we'd worked with them earlier, but they didn't come to us.  They just went ahead and published.

Q:  You guys aren't currently reevaluating those four cases, and you'll present us with whatever you've done after the reevaluation, once that's completed?

COL. VEALE:  I'm saying that -- that the data presented in that article, or in that study will be a part of reevaluation, if it, you know, if it -- you know, if it suffices as new or compelling evidence in a case we've already addressed.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.

Q:  (Inaudible) -- still talking?

COL. VEALE:  I think Raqqa's closed out.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  No, we can all hear you, sir.  Can you hear us?

COL. VEALE:  I can hear you fine.  I heard Laurie Mylroie.  Did my answer drop?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Sir.  Can you hear me, sir?

COL. VEALE:  I can hear you fine.  Can you hear me?

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  We -- we hear you just fine, sir.  Laurie, why don't you re-ask your question?

Q:  Okay.  Gen. Piatt met yesterday with the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council.  Could you give us a readout on that meeting?

COL. VEALE:  Laurie, I -- I got your question earlier, and I looked into it, and Gen. Piatt does not intend to release any form of notes out of that.  But I have asked them for a statement for you, so --

Q:  And you'll get it to me?

(Off mic) question.  Over the weekend, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and then the foreign minister made strong demands that the U.S. leave Syria, and implicit was a threat of terrorism.  What's your response to that?

COL. VEALE:  Well, first of all, I -- I wish he were more concerned with defeating ISIS in his own country.  And we are not there to participate in the civil war, and we're not attempting to engage with Assad's forces.

And I -- I understand what he said.  And we have asserted our right, over and over, for self-defense, and we've demonstrated our ability to do that.

Q:  Are you concerned about a combination of Syrian-Iranian terrorism, like the U.S. experienced in the 1980s in Lebanon?

COL. VEALE:  I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?

Q:  In the 1980s, when the U.S. was in Lebanon, it experienced a wave of terrorist attacks from Syria and Iran that drove the United States out of Lebanon, particularly the Marine barracks bombing.  Are you concerned about a repeat of that now?

COL. VEALE:  I -- I am not concerned about that.  Our operations area is east of the Euphrates, in northeastern Syria.  As I said in my opening statement, it is the most secure and stable part of the country.  So that is not a concern for me.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Ryan Browne with CNN.

Q:  Hey, Colonel.  Thanks for doing this.  Have coalition forces in and around Manbij come under attack by any rebel groups in the last month or so?  And if I can have one additional follow-up to that --

COL. VEALE:  Yeah.  I'm not aware of -- of any.  I have nothing for you on that.

Q:  Great.  And -- and, with regards to Al-Tanf, I understand there was a -- a bit of a fight between U.S.-backed rebels there and ISIS today.

There was also a lot of talk in local media reports that the base was going to be part of some arrangement, potentially, between -- to -- to get Iranian forces away from the border with Israel.

Can you talk a little bit about the future of that base, is there any plan to change that, and what the situation is?  How is there still ISIS there, all this -- you know, considering that this base has been in operation for some time?  There's still ISIS present.

COL. VEALE:  Yeah.  So, regarding discussions about the future of the Al-Tanf garrison, we're not privy to that.  Those are political discussions and not necessarily military.  And it'll be a policy decision that determines whether or not we stay there.

To your -- your very first question, though, I can confirm there was a firefight between our Maghawir al-Thawra, our MAT partners, and ISIS.  I got the report yesterday:  seven ISIS killed, no MAT partners killed.  And that's all I have on that.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now, to Fatima Al Khirsan with Al Jazeera English.

Q:  Hi, General.  Thanks for doing this.  I wanted to go back to the foreign fighters issue very quickly.  You mentioned how concerned you are, and how repeatedly you've asked the global community to assist with this.

It had -- it did cause, obviously, the rise of ISIS from Iraq.  So what -- how immediate is this urgency?  What -- how are they being held?  Are they in groups together?  Can you shed any light on -- on that side of things?

COL. VEALE:  So we're -- are we talking about Syria, here?

Q:  Yes.  Foreign fighters in Syria.

COL. VEALE:  Is it -- in Syria.  Okay.  So our Syrian Democratic Forces partners have adequate facilities right now to house and care for the detainees.  As you can imagine, it is a drain on their resources.  They are not a policing organization.

We -- we wish they could dedicate all their resources to doing the work they've done so well the past three years, which is kill and capture ISIS.  So that's -- that's why we're calling on the international community, because there are citizens of various nations in detention there that should go home to face justice.  That's not an SDF job.

Q:  May I have one follow up, please?  Has any members of the global community offered any assistance yet?  Have you had any response from any countries?

COL. VEALE:  I'm aware that some countries have responded to the call.  I'm not at liberty to speak for any one country, so I'd urge you to go to the individual countries whose citizens are represented in the detention centers.

But I am aware that there has been several countries who have come forward.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Ashley Roque with Shepherd Media.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  I wanted to ask about the political situation in Iraq.  It's still under review at this point, but what plans are underway to pull out if the U.S. is asked to?

COL. VEALE:  I -- I'm sorry, I didn't understand that question.

Q:  Sorry, the political elections in Iraq are still under review right now, but from the U.S. what plans are underway to withdraw if asked to?

COL. VEALE:  Well, as I said, we're here at the invitation of the government of Iraq.  Everything we do is coordinated closely with and approved by them.  We get questions all the time about building permanent coalition bases.  There's no such thing.  There are Iraqi bases, where we do have some operations.

So whatever the government of Iraq -- you know, duly formed, democratically elected, whatever they decide they want from the coalition, we will -- we will comply with that.

Q:  Just a quick --

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Why don't you ask your follow up?

Q:  Okay.  Just on the timetable of how long it would take if you were asked to leave?  How long would that take?  And then what kind of impact could that have on the resurgence of ISIS?

COL. VEALE:  I'm -- I'm not going to talk timelines.  I'm just going to stick with that.  What I will say about the resurgence of Iraq -- of Iraq, with the resurgence of ISIS, is there's work to be done to prevent the conditions under which they arose.

There's some capabilities and capacities of our partners that need to be enhanced.  We feel we're in the best position to do that.  We've -- we've got a pretty good working relationship.  We'd like to continue that.  So I'm not going to speculate on what the future may hold, but we believe it is in everyone's best interests for reliable partnerships in Iraq to continue.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now to Luis Martinez with ABC.

Q:  Hey, Colonel, two questions please.  One on Manbij, what is the role of U.S. troops in Manbij right now?  Are they still there to be a visible presence, and what -- have they continued building up semi-permanent locations there?  And then I have a follow up on what's going on in Iraq.

COL. VEALE:  Yeah, so coalition troops have been there for quite some time and they're conducting security operations.  They are not forward presence. They're not there -- this isn't like the Korean DMZ.  They are there conducting security operations.

And the future of that mission, again, that's subject to political discussion and policy determination.

Q:  And then with regards to what's going on in Iraq, the situation there has I think lead in the past to what Col. Dillon said, a re-adjustment of forces.  Has that continued, and has that also lead to a less of -- a decrease in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq?

COL. VEALE:  Yeah, well so, as I said, we're a conditions-based organization, so as conditions on the ground change and as our partners' needs change, we will evolve and adapt to meet that need.

So in early May, I think it was -- late April or early May -- we cased the CJFLCC colors -- you know that, we put out a press release -- that allowed us to achieve some efficiencies by combining headquarters elements.

There are some things that, you know, we don't need that we're sending back home.  I think you know that CENTCOM announced that its priority was the Central Asia effort in Afghanistan.  So some of those resources went over there.

Others went home.  You know, we announced in November that a Marine battalion of artillery was going home.  They were no longer needed after the liberation of Raqqa.

So, again, we will continue to adjust force levels based on what is needed and what our partners are asking for.

Q:  Does that mean -- does that mean that the force levels are now below the 5,200 that had been the authorized limit?

COL. VEALE:  Yeah.  I'm not going to -- I'm not going to comment on the public approximate figure that was put out December 6th.  That -- that's all you're going to get for numbers.

What I will tell you is -- and you know this -- numbers are always in flux.  We had a slight bump up recently because 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which was our advise-and-assist brigade, they're going home to Fort Polk, Louisiana.  They're being replaced by the 3rd Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Hood, the great place.

So during that relief-in-place, that transfer process, there was a -- there was a slight increase in figures.  And that happens all over the combined joint operations area.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Thomas Watkins with AFP.

Q:  Thank you.  Just to build on the answer that you just gave Luis, is it fair, then, to say that there is no immediate plan to change the footprint of French or U.S. Special Forces in Manbij?

COL. VEALE:  No immediate plan to change the footprint.  I mean, again, I'm not going to talk operational details.  But I'll say that conditions on the ground will dictate what we have on the ground.  And the commander's prerogative to organize his force accordingly, and that's what he's doing.

Q:  Okay.  I'm just asking, like, since the -- the announcement of the SDF withdrawing, has that had any immediate impact on the French and the U.S. Special Forces in Manbij?

COL. VEALE:  Has -- has what had any impact?

Q:  The -- the -- the announcement about the SDF.

COL. VEALE:  I'm not following.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Yeah, yeah.  The military fighters announced this morning.

Q:  Yeah, it was announced this morning that the SDF were withdrawing from Manbij.

Q:  Their military advisers.

COL. VEALE:  Yeah.  I -- I don't -- I don't know that that's a valid statement.  I haven't seen an official proclamation to that effect.

Q:  (inaudible) -- can I -- can I interject?

Q:  Sure.  Go ahead.

Q:  Sorry, Colonel.  It's Fatima from Al Jazeera English again.
The YPG put out a statement saying that their military advisers would, indeed, withdraw from Manbij beginning tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m.  So I think that's what -- (inaudible).

COL. VEALE:  Okay.  Well, I -- I guess we'll have to see what they do.  But, you know.  I -- I'm not -- I'm not following that statement.

Q:  Okay.  And then separately on the foreign fighters, can you give us a breakdown of how many and which countries they're from?

COL. VEALE:  The foreign terrorist fighters?  I can't do that.  You know, we view that as national information, and we're working with those governments.  So we're not going to come out and -- and break that down.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Tara Copp with Military Times.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  Thanks for doing this.

I wanted to get back to something you said in your opening statement about Iraq, that there were NATO advisers on the ground in Iraq, kind of assessing what the future footprint there would be like.  Could you expand on that a little bit?  What are they looking for?  Is it for additional training size, or places where there would be a permanent coalition presence?

COL. VEALE:  So the question is, what do I think the Iraqis want the future footprint to be?

Q:  No, I believe in your opening statement you said NATO has been assessing potential future sites in Iraq?

COL. VEALE:  No so -- so NATO was recently out here.  They did what we call a pre-deployment site survey.  They were invited by the government of Iraq.  I think, you know, the government of Iraq is exploring options for continued training.

I can't speak for NATO, I can't speak for the government of Iraq and that's why I made that statement.  And I acknowledge that the PDSS happened, but that's not within our purview, as I said.

Q:  But as a member of NATO, wouldn't the U.S. have a say or a role in any sort of future presence or any sort of site selections?

COL. VEALE:  Well, I think all NATO members can do a voluntary contribution to any NATO mission, yeah.

Q:  But is the indication that this team was on the ground there, just -- basically the military presence there is kind of transitioning into a post-ISIS Iraq, at the invitation of course of the Iraqi government?

COL. VEALE:  Well, of course, you know, as military leaders, we have to look down the road and consider what options are ahead of us, and again, you know, we're conditions based.  So there's been a significant downturn in the offensive against ISIS in Iraq, so we're focusing more heavily on those reliable partnership programs I talked to you about.  You know, security operations and policies, the aviation enterprise, sustainment, intelligence, these are all areas that the Iraqis have asked for help on, and you know, we have the luxury of stepping up those efforts because the ISIS fight has -- has decreased here.

Q:  And just to make sure I understand you correctly that would be more of a NATO-led mission -- future mission or would it still be kind of a U.S.-led coalition approach?

COL. VEALE:  Yeah, I did not say it would be NATO-led.  I said NATO has been invited in to do a survey in Iraq, and that is between NATO and Iraq.  That is not a Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve concern.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Thank you.  And we really have time for one more question, and we'll -- last one will go to Jack Detsch with (inaudible) -- oh dear.

(Laughter.)

Sir, I don't know -- I think there's some issue with the audio.  Do you hear me?

COL. VEALE:  I can hear you fine, yeah.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  So the -- we have time for one more question and the last question will go to Jack Detsch with Al Monitor.

Q:  Thanks for doing this Colonel.  Last year, the Pentagon was talking about a plan to potentially remove weapons that have been given to the SDF, to the Kurdish elements of the SDF.  Are you still on track to do that, and are you still providing the Turks with any oversight or insight into the arms that are being provided to Kurdish elements of the SDF?

COL. VEALE:  Well, yeah, so the Turks are, as I said, they're members of the coalition and they're NATO allies.  We report everything to them. They're -- they're -- they're privy to a lot of discussions and plans and operations.

I think the Pentagon has been very clear that weapons are metered out in a controlled manner, and with direct relation to the mission.  The equipment provided to the SDF has been appropriate to the mission, and that is to defeat ISIS.

So we're not giving them weapons that they don't need against ISIS, and the commanders have been vetted, all these units -- these SDF units have vetted commanders who have said they would abide by the law of armed conflict, and they do understand that those weapons are recoverable when the mission is done.

Q:  And has the U.S. recovered any of those weapons from groups that are no longer involved in the fight?  Or is that just a process that hasn't begun?

COL. VEALE:  Well, I -- I think I've been clear.  There's -- there's -- there's still some fighting yet to do.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right, sir.  Thank you very much.  Do you have any closing words for the group?

COL. VEALE:  No.  Thanks -- thanks for your time.  I appreciate the dialogue.  I hope to see some of this stuff in the press.  I think our work with our Iraqi and Syrian Democratic Forces partners has been great.  We're making progress.  We're continuing the fight.

There's a lot of it ahead, and -- and almost as important is establishing the conditions for follow-on operations that will ensure the lasting defeat of this terrible, terrible criminal network or organization.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Sir, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.