Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Gedney via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, Deputy Commander, Strategy and Support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve


STAFF:  Today we have Major General Felix Gedney, deputy commander, strategy and support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad, Iraq, for an update on operations and coalition support to stabilization efforts.

Sir, the floor is yours.

U.K. ARMY MAJ. GEN. FELIX GEDNEY:  I thank you.  And good morning.

Today I'll provide a brief update on coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, followed by an update on coalition military support to stabilization efforts across our area of operations.

I'm going to pause there, 'cause I got a lot of feedback in my ear.  Sorry, I'm going to -- I'm going to start again, just 'cause I got a lot of feedback in my ear there and I just need to adjust the communications here.

So today I'll provide a brief update on coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, followed by an update on coalition military support to stabilization efforts across our area of operations.  And finally, I'm going to end with a brief discussion of the recently released civilian casualty report.

In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continue to pursue ISIS remnants in the country, destroying tunnels, weapons caches and explosives stockpiles, as well as arresting a number of suspected ISIS fighters across the country.

In Kirkuk, in addition to clearing villages in the mountainous region, the federal police and the Kirkuk special forces continue to secure the Kirkuk-Hawija highway, destroying several safe houses and improvised explosive devices, and detaining suspected terrorists.

Additionally, following the successful joint operations between the federal police and Peshmerga forces last week, units participated in ongoing discussions to determine future opportunities for coordination.

Across Iraq, the coalition continue to help build Iraqi Security Forces' capability to enable their increasingly independent security operations.  We are also supporting the civilian-led stabilization efforts that are now critical for the lasting defeat of ISIS.

In Syria, the second phase of Op Roundup is now complete.  The Syrian Democratic Forces have declared the northern Jazeera region cleared, although back clearance operations to ensure Dashisha is cleared of remnant IEDs are ongoing.

Additionally, an internal security force was established in Dashisha to ensure its long-term security.

Meanwhile, planning is ongoing for operations to clear the last remaining pocket of ISIS-held territory east of the Euphrates River in Hajin, in the vicinity of Abu Kamal.  This final stage of Op Roundup is likely to be a challenging fight, as it is a densely populated area.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have enabled some civilian convoys to leave the area, but the indications are that ISIS is stopping civilians from departing in order to hold them as human shields.

Finally, leaders from the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing opportunities to enhance partnerships ahead of the final clearance of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, particularly in regards to border security operations and cross-border fire support, which were key efforts in the Syrian Democratic Forces' successful operations in Dashisha.

In Manbij, independent coordinated patrols between coalition and Turkish forces are continuing, with 22 completed so far.

While military operations to defeat ISIS and to clear terrorist remnants are ongoing, so to is stabilization activity in areas liberated by our partner forces.

In Iraq, work is ongoing to improve the delivery of basic services to all Iraqis through the restoration of the country's infrastructure.  In Mosul and Ramadi, for example, 13 electric substations have been rehabilitated, in addition to the 45 kilometers of power transmission line that were improved in Sinuni near Sinjar.

In Syria, life is improving for those who live in cities such as Tabqa, Manbij and Raqqa, and basic services are also being provided to the recently liberated residence of Dashisha.

In Raqqa, the Raqqa Civil Council have made enough progress on improving conditions for the city's residents that we have determined that they will no longer need coalition assistance in their sanitation efforts.

In Manbij, divestment medical resources to the Al Furat hospital ensures that they are capable of providing medical services to the local populace.

Finally in Dashisha, the Shadadi Civil Council distributed more than a thousand food baskets and hygiene kits to the local population.

While we highlight our partners' ongoing efforts to improve the lives of their fellow countrymen, we still emphasize that more needs to be done by the international community to aid these efforts.  Military operations will only get us so far.  Our partners in Iraq and Syria are doing the best they can, but the scope of the problem goes far beyond the limited resources and capabilities that are available to them, particularly in northeast Syria.

We've said it many times before and we must say it again:  It is imperative for the international community to get involved in improving the lives of all Iraqis and Syrians, and to make sure that the conditions that gave rise to ISIS are eliminated.

Finally I would like to address the monthly civilian casualty report that was published on July the 26th.

This report confirms the tragic deaths of 105 civilians as a result of coalition operations against ISIS, including 77 deaths reported by Amnesty International last month.

The coalition makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths on the battlefield and to minimize the impact of our operations on civilian populations and infrastructure.  But the reality of the fight against ISIS and the brutality of this enemy has made it impossible to avoid a risk to the civilian population in the areas being liberated.

I speak on behalf of all coalition service members, from privates to our most senior leaders, when I say that such tragic occurrences are deeply felt throughout our ranks and push us all to do all we can to minimize these instances.  We strive to ensure the safety of the civilians that we are here fighting to protect.

We must also remember that the work of holding the coalition to account for our actions, an endeavor that we welcome and encourage, does not diminish the evil and brutality of the enemies we seek to defeat.

Crimes against humanity and the violation of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict are ISIS' routine modus operandi.

Those who live under their tyrannical rule endure a shocking level of violence to force conformity to a radical belief, a tactic which they sought to export across the world.  And when faced by the superiority of the ISF and the SDF, ISIS has exploited the innocent, the unarmed, and the weak as a means to slow down the forces determined and capable to defeat them.

As we work to minimize the risk to non-combatants, ISIS is doing all it can to maximize the number of innocent civilians killed.

Holding the coalition accountable for our actions in this war must be informed by facts and understanding.  We have said it many times and it bears repeating:  we work to make this campaign the most transparent in history, and we plan and execute our operations in order to minimize our impact on the populations that we are fighting to protect.

Force allocations that are not grounded on readily available information does a grave disservice, not only to the civilians who have had to live through the trauma induced by ISIS, but also to the countless service members from the SDF, the ISF, and the 26 troop-contributing nations who are on the front line in the global fight against ISIS every day.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

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

Laurie?

Q:  Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Can I ask a three-part question about Peshmerga-Iraqi cooperation, following up on what you said?

STAFF:  Ask -- ask a -- a question first, and if you have a follow up --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  We seem to have lost him.

STAFF:  We got him back.

Q:  OK, sir, I have a three-part question about what you said about cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces.  Why are the Peshmerga cooperating with the Iraqi police -- as a -- the federal police as opposed to the Iraqi army?

Q:  Thanks, Laurie.

STAFF:  Sir, can you hear us here?

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. GEDNEY:  I've got you loud and clear.

STAFF:  Fantastic, sir.  We -- we were -- Laurie -- Laurie Mylroie was just beginning a question when we lost you.

Q:  This is about an issue you mentioned, the cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi federal police.  So my question in three parts:  Why is it the federal police that the Peshmerga are working with and not the Iraqi army?

Could you say anything more about future joint operations?

And third part of it, there's discussion of opening the road between Kirkuk and Erbil.  Do you think that will facilitate joint operation cooperation between the two parties and therefore, security, in the area?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, thank you for the question.

First of all, the subject of why the federal police -- and the Iraqi security forces decide on which elements of the ISF they will use to conduct any operations.  In this case, they were the most appropriate to conduct that operation, and to some extent, it comes down to which forces are available to conduct a particular operation as well.

On the subject of the future, we are encouraged by the level of cooperation across all elements of the Iraqi security forces, and particularly that cooperation with the Peshmerga forces from the KRG.  And we fully expect that (inaudible) --

STAFF:  Sir, I believe we lost you right as you started -- began with speaking about the future.

GEN. GEDNEY:  OK.  Can you -- can you hear me OK now?

STAFF:  We can, sir.

GEN. GEDNEY:  OK, I apologize.  It's a bad line.

So turning to the future, we fully expect the level of cooperation to increase between all members and elements of the Iraqi security forces, including the Peshmerga forces from the KRG, and we believe that will be a great positive for the future security in Iraq.

Q:  The third part of the question was, reopening the road between Erbil and Kirkuk.  Will that improve the security situation by improving cooperation, do you think?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Yes, I think it will.  I think the -- the growing links between the KRG and the remainder of Iraq are -- are also a positive for the security in the country.

STAFF:  Carla?

Q:  Thank you for doing this.  Carla Babb with Voice of America.

I have two questions for you.  The first one is on Operation Roundup to clear up what you had said earlier.  You said that the second phase is complete, northern Jazira is cleared and you're now on to the last remaining pocket of Abu Kamal.

So, can we infer from that that this is the third and final stage of Operation Roundup that you're in?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Yes, absolutely right.  The third phase of Operation Roundup will be the final stage.  It will see the clearance of the final areas that ISIS holds east of the Euphrates River and it will be a difficult fight, as I've said, but that will be the final element of Operation Roundup.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

And so my follow up to that is what is next after the third and final phase of Operation Roundup, as the back clearing will continue with that?  And in addition to that -- sorry to make this a two-parter -- but what do you plan on doing with your partners after the operations are completed?  Will the coalition remain with their partners even after ISIS has been removed?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, that's a -- it's a really important question, because of course Operation Roundup will only mean the liberation is complete east of the Euphrates River.  After liberation, we have to ensure the security of the areas that have been liberated and then that allows stabilization effort to take place, and only after that stabilization has taken place will we have ensured a lasting defeat of ISIS.

       So, we will continue to support those security elements for the -- securing the liberated areas until we are ensured that we will be able to achieve that lasting defeat.

Q:  Thank you, sir.  It's Carl Munoz with the Washington Times.

One quick question on civilian casualties and a, sort of, follow up on the status of Iraqi security forces.  On the Iraqi security forces, I was wondering, there were reports that elements of the CTS and the 9th Division were pulled from counter-terrorism operations to help with some of the uprisings that were going on near Basra.

How did that affect efforts to, kind of, go after ISIS, and was there any sort of drop in -- in I guess productivity, for lack of a better term, against ISIS due to those forces being moved?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I'm not going to make any specific comments about how the government of Iraq are employing their security forces.  What I would say though is that there has been no let up in the -- both the momentum and the tempo -- of Iraqi security force operations against ISIS, and we are absolutely confident in the capability and the professionalism of all parts of the Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS.

Q:  Thanks.

One quick question on civilian casualties -- you mentioned the figures today, you know, looking at some of the previous strikes -- al-Jadida comes to mind in '17 -- in retrospect, do you think that the aggressiveness of the air -- air campaign by U.S. coalition forces was -- was a little -- a little too aggressive?

There's legislation now here in the States to add additional oversight to the Pentagon as far as the execution of air strikes and civilian casualties.

GEN. GEDNEY:  Absolutely not.

The air campaign was carefully metered and assessed.  It was absolutely militarily necessary in order to defeat a very difficult and brutal enemy.  Every one of the strikes that we conducted underwent a detailed assessment and validation to ensure that it was militarily necessary and to assess the risk to the civilian populations.

STAFF:  Ryan.

Q:  General, thank you.  Thank you for doing this.

I had a -- a question about the issue of foreign fighters being detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces.  We were told that the number of foreign fighters is about 600 or so.

Can you talk a little bit about how the efforts are going to repatriate some of them to their home countries?  Are you concerned about the long-term capacity of the SDF to continue to detain these foreign fighters?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, there's nothing more that I could tell you about any efforts to repatriate them.  That's an issue for national governments.

What I can tell you, though, is that the Syrian Democratic Forces have done a remarkable job in capturing and continuing to detain these individuals that remain a threat globally, and specifically to our countries.

Q:  OK.  And then to follow up, we haven't heard, really, any incidents between the coalition or trained forces and some of the pro-regime or Russian forces in some time.  Do you have any assessment as to why this is the case?  There hasn't been a need -- there hasn't been any violations of the deconfliction line?  Do you see better cooperation through the deconfliction line, increased conversations?

Do you have any assessment as to why there hasn't been any incidents as in recent weeks or months?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, we continue to have a routine and very professional dialogue with Russian forces in Syria in order to deconflict our respective operations.

Part of the reason that there may not have been as many incidents is there has been a less fluid battlefield.  But most of the reason is that the deconfliction is working.

Q:  Thank you.  Wyatt Goolsby with EWTN.

General, I'm hoping you can just tell me a little bit about how the humanitarian crisis in Syria impacts the coalition in Iraq and Syria.

We hear so much about a number of Syrians who are fleeing parts, like, for example, the Golan Heights.  I'm wondering if any of that impacts coalition operations in either Syria or -- or Iraq, and how you guys deal with that, noting that a lot of people are fleeing from the Assad regime, from the war.

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, of course, much of that tragic humanitarian crisis is occurring outside the area that the coalition is operating in.  Indeed, the area of northeast Syria is, at the moment, some of the most peaceful and stable parts of Syria.

There will have been some small impact in terms of movement of people into northeast Syria, to benefit from that peace and stability.  And that's very much -- response that is very much led by the civilian agencies and most importantly the United Nations.  And we do what we can to support the United Nations in their operations to support IDPs and refugees.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Hi, Lara Seligman with Foreign Policy.

I'm wondering if you can just tell us -- tell us a little bit more about the final stage of Operation Roundup.  What kind of challenges are you likely to encounter, and do you expect to encounter any other forces, for instance, the Russians or the Syrian army?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, let me take the last bit of that first, no, we don't expect to encounter Russian or Syrian forces.  We have confidence that the deconfliction mechanisms we have in place will work.  What we do expect to encounter is a hard core of ISIS fighters that -- who have been digging in and preparing their battle -- battle space, holding civilians as human shields, and we fully expect to see a high proportion of foreign terrorist fighters who represent some of the biggest threats to our nations.

Q:  And -- thank you -- and just to follow up on the stabilization piece, who is going to be responsible primarily for stabilization?  Is it going to be the military or State Department, USAID, who's going to take the lead on that?

GEN. GEDNEY:   I -- I didn't hear the question completely, but I think I got -- I got the gist of it.  So -- so the stabilization is absolutely led by civilian organizations, and our role in it as the military, is to provide them with all the support we can do within our capabilities.

Q:  So, if I -- if I could follow up, what -- what does that mean, exactly?  What will the military be -- where will the line be between what the military does and what the civilian -- civilian people do?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, most importantly, of course, we provide support in the form of the security which enables those civilian agencies to work.  We work very closely with the United Nations and also national efforts in both Iraq and Syria in order to help ensure that we do everything we can in the stabilization area, which we now know is critical to the lasting defeat of ISIS.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Hi, Wes Morgan with Politico.

If you look at the air campaign, it seems like the number of airstrikes is, kind of, dropping down to a trickle, and in Iraq, it seems like the Iraqi security forces are shifting more into kind of a counterterrorism mode, going back into using the CTS to root out terrorist cells like that.  I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of color or examples of what kind of support coalition advisers are providing in that counterterrorism campaign?  What kinds of things are advisers doing now as the Iraqi security forces shift gears?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Yes, again, another great question.

So, as I've said, Iraqi Security Force Operations are becoming increasingly independent and they are demonstrating the capabilities and professionalism that they exhibited through the liberation campaign.

As a coalition, we've continued to provide them with air support as you've already said, and advise, we provide them intelligence, but -- but most of all, we're helping mentor them though the planning and conduct of their operations and also building their -- their capabilities through our training efforts amongst their building partner capacity sites.

Q:  Could you give any, kind of, more concrete examples of -- I mean, we all have a sense of, kind of, what conventional advisory forces were doing during the battles for Mosul and Raqqa and so on, but what is the role of -- what does the mentoring look like when you've got, you know, the CTS going back into more, kind of, law enforcement types of intelligence-driven raids, that kind of thing, what is mentoring like in that case?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Yes, of course.  So worst during the liberation fight, we were operating in close proximity to partner forces, on the front line with them or closely behind them.

We've now moved our efforts in advising and mentoring them up to their operational command level.  So we have coalition forces alongside their operational commands, advising them, providing intelligence, and to some extent, ensuring that we mentor them and teach them what we know.

And in addition, we have a number of sites on Iraqi bases where we're conducting training activity to develop their capabilities.  And mostly in areas which they may not have needed during the liberation fights, but they will absolutely need in a counterinsurgency fight.

Q:  Thank you.

General, I would like to go back to the third phase of Operation Roundup.  What makes this, the last phase, so complicated, so tough, as you mentioned?  Is it the size of the ISIS fighters who remain -- remain in the Hajin area?

And also, what's your estimate of how many ISIS fighters still inside this small city?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Let me take the first bit of that -- the last bit of that first.  Sorry.  So there are -- I can't go into accurate numbers.  It's very difficult to assess.  We know there are over a thousand there.  And to some extent, until we get into the fight, we won't find out exactly how many there are there.

So there are three factors, really, I'd point to, which is why this is going to be a challenging fight.

The first is the nature of the terrain and the environment.  It's a densely populated area; more like Mosul or Raqqa than the fight in Dashisha.

The second point is the nature of the fight is there.  It's a hard core of fighters.  And we know this is one of the lost holdouts of a number of foreign terrorist fighters.

And the third point is exactly because it is one of the last areas that they hold that we think the fight to dislodge them from that area is going to be difficult.

Q:  Just to follow up on -- on what you have said, sir, how likely you believe or you think Baghdadi could be in -- inside the -- the small town of Hajin?

GEN. GEDNEY:  It's a question we are frequently asked.  And I -- I come back to the same answer I always give.  When we find Baghdadi, the international press will be the first to know that we've found him and dealt with him.

STAFF:  Just one more question for the general.

Laurie?

Q:  Last -- last week, the -- the State Department held a ministerial conference to advance religious freedom.  Ambassadors Brownback said at that conference that the Yazidi situation is very bad, that security is the most important issue for them.  It is lacking.  And when he was there earlier this month, he was -- raised this issue with U.S. military commanders.

Are you doing anything to address the bad security situation in the Yazidi areas, which includes the road closed between their area and Dohuk?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, our policy is very clear, that as a coalition we're doing all we can to ensure the security and protection of all elements of the Iraqi community.

Q:  The Hashd al-Shaabi there, that's part of the -- Iran's route to the Mediterranean, that Yazidi area that's now insecure, just for your information.

STAFF:  Thank -- thank you, Laurie.

That's all the time we have for your questions this morning.  Sir, did you have any final words for those here?

GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I -- well I guess I'd just end by -- by highlighting that we are making great progress, but we should be in no doubt that the -- that the campaign to defeat ISIS is not yet over.  We have to follow the liberation fight with security and the essential stabilization that will ensure we have a lasting defeat.

And -- and very finally, I would like to thank you all for the work that you do in reporting this campaign and making sure that the story here is told.  Thank you very much.

STAFF:  Sir, thank you for your time and have a great day.