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U.S. Department of Defense
Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Garver via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
Colonel Christopher Garver, Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
Aug. 16, 2016
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning.
Chris, we can see you. We just want to get a sound check to make sure we can hear you, too.
COLONEL CHRISTOPHER GARVER: All right, Jeff. I can hear you guys as well. Can't see you, because I'm standing at the teleprompter, but I can hear you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Well, good morning. We're pleased to be joined today by Colonel Christopher Garver, the public affairs officer for the CJTF-OIR and the OIR spokesperson. Your last brief today, before you get ready to come home.
Chris, we'll turn it over to you for your opening comments, then we'll take questions after that.
COL. GARVER: All right. Thanks, Jeff.
Good morning, everyone. It's good to here again with you today. As usual, I will have a short opening statement about coalition operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. And then I'll be glad to take your questions.
The coalition continues to attack Daesh across the breadth and depth of their formations in Iraq and Syria. I'll start today with Syria and then I'll move on to Iraq.
In Manbij, star one on the map, the Syrian Democratic Forces, predominantly the Syrian-Arab Coalition element, seized control of the city on Friday. They are now clearing through areas of the city through which Daesh retreated, looking for small pockets of Daesh fighters. Their stated aim is to make the city safe for civilians to return.
This clearance is slow, difficult and dangerous because Daesh left behind a significant number of IEDs as they retreated, as we have seen them do many times when they retreat. This work will take time. Outside the city, the SDF are reinforcing their positions in the immediate vicinity of the city to protect against Daesh local counterattacks.
During the final tough push for the city on Friday, a convoy of Daesh fighters withdrew from the city to the north in a convoy of vehicles. Civilians were observed in the convoy intermingled with fighters in every vehicle. We have repeatedly mentioned the care that our partnered forces were taking to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, so the partnered forces on the ground did not engage the convoy.
The coalition continues to track those Daesh forces. As it's an ongoing operation, we won't discuss the specifics.
The fight for Manbij has been a long, tough fight for the SDF, and particular the SAC element on the ground in Syria and they should be commended for their victory. We have discussed many times the strategic significance of Manbij to Daesh, evidenced by the protracted defensive fight the Daesh fighters put up before their eventual collapse.
The liberation of the city has significantly impacted the lines of communication for Daesh between Raqqah and the outside world and also impacted the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria and out to the rest of the world.
Moving on to Iraq, the ISF, led by Counter-Terrorism Service forces, have launched operations in the vicinity of Qayyarah in the Tigris River Valley, which is star two. CTS forces are isolating the city of Qayyarah as they increase pressure against Daesh inside the city.
They have liberated several of the small villages to the south. Iraqi army units of the 15th Iraqi Army Division, led by the 72nd Brigade, cleared Ihjala Gharbi to the south of Qayyarah and are continuing clearing operations.
While Daesh has overall weakened in the Tigris River Valley south of Mosul, we are still seeing pockets of resistance throughout the area and Daesh continues to use the tactics we have seen before, including suicide attacks and IEDs used as mine fields. Additionally, we have seen that Daesh continues to ignite oil and oil industry infrastructure in order to attempt to prevent coalition targeting of their forces.
Sunday, Daesh lit a large oil storage tank at the Qayyarah powerplant on fire. This wanton destruction of Iraqi oil and infrastructure by Daesh, while potentially damaging to the environment, will not prevent coalition strikes from attacking their fighters.
Also in northern Iraq, Peshmerga forces several thousand strong began clearance operations near the villages of Abaks, Shanaf and Kanhash southeast of Mosul. This operation seeks to secure additional ground lines of communication, which will provide multiple routes for forces and logistics supporting eventual Mosul liberation operations and to limit freedom of mobility by Daesh.
The Peshmerga forces have seen varying levels of Daesh resistance from light to heavy resistance along multiple avenues of advance. This operation is supported by coalition advisers and coalition strikes, and in the last seven days, the coalition has conducted 42 strikes in support of operations in the Tigris River Valley for both the ISF and the Peshmerga operations.
In the last 48 hours, the coalition conducted 13 strikes and attacked a large Daesh tactical unit near Qayyarah, destroying two vehicles, five fighting positions, a mortar position, a rocket rail, four rocket systems, a heavy machine gun and a Daesh command-and-control hub. Additionally, we disabled a VBIED before it could attack ISF troops.
The operations by the ISF and the Peshmerga are complementary and support each other in the overall campaign against Daesh in Iraq. These operations are shaping the eventual assault for the liberation of Mosul by reducing Daesh's combat power and mobility south of Mosul.
Moving down to the Euphrates River Valley, star three -- correction, star four. The ISF is continuing clearing operations north of the river near Ramadi. The 10th Division is clearing the small pockets of Daesh fighters out of the Albu-Ubeid and Albu-Bali areas. In the last seven days, the coalition has conducted 17 strikes in the Euphrates River Valley against Daesh.
Now, last week, General MacFarland mentioned that the Third U.S. Armored Corps is being replaced by the 18th Airborne Corps, which is commanded by Lieutenant General Steve Townsend. That transition is ongoing right now and the official transfer of authority for the units and the change of command for the commanders will take place this Sunday, August 21st.
Finally, I've got a video I'd like to show you from the fight going on around Qayyarah. One of Daesh's favorite weapon systems in this conflict has been rockets, which are quick and easily -- relatively easy to set up and fire. The rockets fire off a reusable rail system.
On the 10th of August, a Daesh team had established a firing position of 22 rocket rails south of Qayyarah. The rockets were aimed at the ISF positions further south. One rocket fired at the ISF, which activated one of our acquisition systems. We were able to locate the position with the surveillance asset, verify the target and the situation around it and bring in a strike from a nearby aircraft flying close air support.
In the center of the video, look for the parallel lines of the rocket rails under the crosshairs. So please roll the video.
COL. GARVER: All right. Thank you.
And now, I'd be glad to take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Lita Baldor.
Q: Chris, thanks and good luck as you head out.
Some questions on the bombings that the Russians did out of Iran. Can you give us a better sense of what the U.S. knew and when about these bombing raids? Was there some coordination or at least some discussions through the coordination center about the flights that the Russian bombers were going to be taking over Iraq?
So were there any problems with any, either Iraq or Syrian, U.S. operations? And was there any -- how much in advance was the U.S. aware that this was going to happen?
COL. GARVER: Okay. I understand everybody's interested in this. And as I've mentioned several times before, I'm not a spokesperson for the Russian military. And so I'll let them discuss their targets and what they hit and what they did when they were in Syria.
What I will say is the Russians did notify the coalition as per the Memorandum of Understanding for safety of flight. They activated that system, as we have in the past. They informed us they were coming through and we ensured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target and then when they passed out again.
They did not impact coalition operations in either Iraq or Syria during the time. And as I said, I'm not going to talk about the specifics of their operations. You can ask them about that. But we did know in time, as per the requirement in the safety of flight memorandum of agreement, and we were able to maintain that safety of flight during the entire incident.
Q: Did you -- just as a follow-up, did the U.S. have only, I guess, moments advance notice? Can you give us a sense of how much advanced notice?
And then was there -- was the U.S. aware of any major preparations on that Iranian base beforehand, either overnight or maybe in the days ahead of time, and whether or not there were large preparations going on or large numbers of Russian troops there? Was there any -- what did the U.S. -- was the U.S. able to see of that?
COL. GARVER: So, the first part, I will say, we knew in time when they activate the safety of flight memorandum of understanding instructions. It's not a lot of time, but it's enough, and it was enough time to make sure that we could ensure safety of flight.
The coalition is looking at Daesh. Daesh is in Iraq and Syria. And that's all I'll talk about in terms of that.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Barbara Starr.
Q: Hi, Chris. I want to follow up on the same issues.
A couple of things.
First, when you say you had enough time to ensure safety of flight, since you have -- you have aircraft up almost all the time, did you have to move U.S. aircraft out of the path they were on to some other path because you were notified of this?
COL. GARVER: Barbara, first of all, I'm not the air operations spokesperson, so I'll just kind of talk very generally.
Which is, it didn't impact our operations and it gave us enough time to react to make sure that the route in and the route out did not impact coalition operations.
But I'm not going to talk about we specifically moved an aircraft five degrees to the left or five degrees to the right. I'm not going to talk about that.
Q: Another question is, yes, we understand you're not the spokesman for the Russians. But it's clear -- it seems clear, they've said it -- that they struck in Aleppo, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor. In those three locations -- Aleppo, Idlib and Deir ez-Zor -- are there ISIS targets? Is ISIS in any of those three places?
COL. GARVER: ISIS is in Deir ez-Zor. We have struck targets ourselves in Deir ez-Zor.
Q: In Aleppo?
COL. GARVER: We have not struck targets in Aleppo in a very long time. We have not struck targets in Idlib in a very long time, if we have at all.
We don't see concentrations of ISIS in those areas.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next is Tom Bowman.
Q: I want to get into Manbij, Colonel.
You talked about that convoy leaving the Manbij with ISIS fighters. Roughly how many ISIS fighters are we talking about?
And did they -- any of them get into Turkey or did they disperse before getting to the border?
And lastly, you said you weren't able to strike because of the civilians in the convoy. Were any strikes possible, or zero strikes?
COL. GARVER: Well, first, Tom, there was several different estimates of the numbers that were in there. It was, you know, kind of a range. I don't know the specifics and, like I said, the estimates were slightly different. But it was in the hundred to a couple hundred numbers.
As for strikes, we did not conduct any strikes because of every vehicle had civilians that we could identify with our systems, and as we are receiving reports from our partners on the ground, every vehicle had civilians in it or on it. And so we watched, we kept track. I'm not going to talk about, kind of, where they went.
They didn't all go as a group; I'll say that. When they went north, they didn't all go together and stay together. But I won't talk about specifically where each of the pieces and parts went because I said -- as I said, that's an ongoing operation.
Q: (off mic) whether they're in Syria or Turkey?
COL. GARVER: I'm not going to discuss, kind of, where they went.
They went north. I'll -- I'll leave it at that.
Q: (off mic) with them, or are they going back to Manbij?
COL. GARVER: I'm sorry, say that again.
Q: Civilians still with them? Are they still being used as human shields, or did they go back to where they came from?
COL. GARVER: We have not -- we have not seen those civilians return to Manbij.
Q: (off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: Can you -- just make sure you can hear that. Tom had one quick follow-up.
Q: (inaudible) -- as far as you know, being used as human shields?
COL. GARVER: Can you guys hear me, Jeff?
CAPT. DAVIS: Make sure that -- let Tom ask his question again.
Q: Are the civilians still with them being used as human shields?
COL. GARVER: Yeah, yeah. This is Chris, I can hear you. I can hear you guys fine. The civilians have not returned to Manbij. They are still outside the city.
Q: (off mic)
CAPT. DAVIS: Just checking, here. He said -- he asked you if the civilians were still with ISIS fighters?
COL. GARVER: All right. Yeah. Like I said, I don't want to discuss kind of where that disperse or where all that happened when it left. Like I said, we're still paying attention to that and we're still watching those elements. So they have not returned to the city. They're still outside the city and I'll leave it at that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Kevin Baron.
Q: (inaudible) -- question I had. But on Manbij, I was under the impression that the city was encircled, and you know, forces -- allied forces were closing in, but this sounds like if a column or hundreds of fighters were able to escape, is Manbij considered safe and sealed for the residents there by SDF? Or is this really a porous city where ISIS can come and go still?
Second to that, I want to ask about Mosul, but I'll hear this.
COL. GARVER: So the city was firmly encircled for several weeks during the operation. When they saw this convoy moving and they could not engage it because of the civilians, they let the convoy continue to travel.
That was a decision by the SDF commanders on the ground, by the SAC commanders on the ground, was to let the convoy continue since they couldn't engage it. They let that convoy continue. And as I said, we're continuing to track that and continuing to pay attention to where those forces are in the battlefield.
But the -- but there have been assaults on both the outside and the inside of the city multiple times throughout the weeks leading up to last Friday.
Now, in terms of what's going on inside the city, the city is -- is under the control of the SAC, but there are still Daesh fighters inside the city and they still have to go through and clear. So there's still danger inside the city and that impacts on how quickly they can move civilians back in, as we've seen in Ramadi, as we've seen in Fallujah and other towns that are liberated from Daesh.
So that operation is still ongoing. The city just came under their control on Friday and that's going to take a -- take a while to do that.
Q: Okay. Thanks for clarifying.
So my original question, Mosul in the last couple of days has seen reports that the Kurds are somehow advancing toward Mosul and kind of implied that there was already some -- some movement toward the city going on.
Can you kind of clarify those reports versus what you're describing as still much more preparatory and getting routes ready? Are we getting misinformation or mischaracterized information about, you know, Kurds advancing from their side?
COL. GARVER: Right. It is -- I would say it's a mischaracterization more than anything. And these are all operations in preparation for the big operation for Mosul, their shaping operations. But these are not direct operations against the city.
So the way I describe this, the towns that they're operating around and the smaller villages in those areas, there's a lot of little small villages in these areas where they're moving in to clear the routes and prepare for future operations.
That is -- it's not oriented on the city itself. It's not oriented on Mosul. It's oriented to the south, as we described.
Q: Okay. Thanks for clarifying.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Courtney Kube.
Q: Hey, Chris. Actually, my questions have pretty much all been covered, but I wanted to, number one, thank you for continuing to do these weekly updates for us, and hopefully your successor will pick up where you leave off.
And then just a couple of quick little, nit-picky details. On Manbij, can you say how many -- roughly how many cars? If you can't say the number of individuals, roughly how many cars were in the convoy? And then is there any assessment on the civilians? Were they all family members? Or were they unwilling hostages, basically taken by ISIS out of the city?
COL. GARVER: Yeah. Hey, Courtney. Thanks. Great questions, both.
The first one, I don't have a specific number. I will say that the convoy was smaller than what we saw down in Fallujah, but it will still a pretty significant number of vehicles. Like I said, we watched that unfold and it was a pretty significant number of vehicles. But I just don't have an estimate for you on the specific number.
As for the civilians, we don't -- we don't know. We anticipate it was probably a mix of both, but we don't have that information. There were some that were being held unwillingly and some that were being held, or that were traveling willingly with them. We don't know that, which is why, you know, we had to treat them all as noncombatants. We didn't shoot. We kept watching. Like I said, there was no opportunity to engage either for the SAC or for us watching it from overhead.
Q: And then just one on -- or two quick ones on Mosul. In your opening statement, you talked about the coalition advisers that are southeast of Mosul with the Pesh. Just to be clear, are they actually forward with the Pesh? Or are they back in some sort of operations center doing the advising?
And then on the clearing routes -- these small villages that they're taking, what -- can you characterize the resistance that they're facing? Is it -- are the ISIS fighters putting up any actual fight? Or are they sort of melting away, as we've seen in other places?
COL. GARVER: Right. So, the first question is where are the advisers. The Pesh are organized differently. They fight differently. They're organized differently than the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Army specifically. So, we are back at the command posts. But they don't have a division. They don't have an overall command structure like an Iraqi division.
So we're at the highest-level command post that they do have, which is back of the FLOT, back of the forward line of troops, as our advisers are with the Iraqi Army. It's closer -- advising them is more like advising the Iraqi special operations forces because they don't have a division either. So you're down at that -- the next level below that of the command. But they're at the command level. They're not down on the ground with the -- with the Pesh on the ground.
Second part of your question is, so they're advancing on multiple axis's. So, you know, they're conducting multiple attacks at the same time, and they've seen everything from light resistance to some rifle fire, to heavy resistance with machine guns, indirect fire, rockets, as we talked about, and as we showed in the video; and IEDs and defensive belts.
So it's really kind of -- each village has been different by different. It depends on how many fighters are in there and how -- and how willing they were to fight.
We have seen overall throughout the Tigris River valley a reduction in the capability -- the combat ability of Daesh. They're still in there and there are still some dangerous spots and there's still some fighting going on. But they don't -- the fight doesn't last as long as it normally does. And I think General MacFarland kind of characterized it best. He said, "When we go someplace, it's easier to get there, and the fight doesn't last as long when we are."
So we've seen that throughout the Tigris River Valley. We believe their morale is lower because of shaping operations as they go. We've talked kind of in the past how they haven't really won a battle in this area inside Iraq in the last eight, nine months.
And so we think their morale has lowered. We think they're having a harder time re-supplying. We think that the fight is becoming tougher and tougher for them, and it's becoming better and better for our forces.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next to Phil Stewart.
Q: Quick question just on the convoy, why was the decision made to not -- I mean, they didn't try to disable the vehicles in the convoy, they just let the convoy go. Was that because it would be too dangerous to try and do that? Or -- and are you concerned that that could be a precedent for what you may see in Mosul, where they'll take human shields and try and leave the city?
You were pretty confident about your abilities to strike them when they left Fallujah. Is this -- is this them being an adaptive enemy and they've found a way to get out of any city?
COL. GARVER: Well, first question's first.
I would say, can we -- could we disable the vehicles? I think sometimes, that looks great on T.V., but I think when you're trying to keep civilians safe and you're in the middle of a fire fight, if you're not sure, the commander on the ground made that decision not to engage.
And the commander in charge of the air forces made the exact same decision, which is we don't think we can do this and still protect the civilians who are in the convoy. So that's why the decision to not fire was made. And at times -- like I said, we're still tracking these guys. We're still engaged with keeping track of these guys.
So the second part of the question is, are they an adaptive enemy? Absolutely, we have seen Daesh adapt, change its tactics. We've seen them adjust their tactics in different areas. And certainly, we know Fallujah was an absolute -- and in their words -- disaster for what happened at that time.
Did they learn from that? I don't know why they made the decisions they did inside Daesh -- excuse me, inside Manbij, why Daesh made those decisions inside Manbij. But I can tell you that it looks like they certainly paid attention, and now, we'll adapt and change as well.
They make -- and as my commander last week described it, we make an action, they react and we have a counter-action to it. So are we concerned that they're going to take human shields? They've been taking human shields all along. This was just a very significant group of them at one time.
They've tried to introduce all throughout the Manbij fight -- they've tried to introduce civilians into the line of danger. As the SAC forces were closing on the outside of the city, they kept throwing civilians to basically walk into the line of fire, trying to get them shot to use that potentially as propaganda we think.
So have they placed civilians in harm's way before? Absolutely. Do we anticipate that they'll do it again? Absolutely again. So yes, we'll have to walk for -- watch for that. Yes, we'll have to adapt to it. And then we're not going to tell you all the -- you know, the things we want to come up with to react or to counter-act that, but we'll continue to do that as we head toward the battle of Mosul.
Q: Thanks. And just more on Manbij.
How much or how -- I mean, is the YPG still going to stay in the fight until all of the -- until all the folks in the city are cleared out, until all the remaining pockets are cleared out?
Or at what point, you know, will the city be really kind of left to Arabs who are in the coalition? I think that was the stated intent, is that the -- the YPG would be kind of a support element and then they would kind of retreat to the side of -- or withdraw to the side of the Euphrates after the -- after the battle was over.
COL. GARVER: That's a great question. As we understood the plan with our partners that the YPG would indeed go to the east side of the Euphrates River when the battle was over. The battle's not over yet. They've still got work that they're doing in their clearing.
So we will -- it remains to be seen as to when it ends specifically and then what the follow-on response is to that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Carlo Munoz.
Q: Hey, Chris. Just a quick -- two quick questions.
One, going up to Mosul along the northern lines -- northern Peshmerga lines, near Bashik, Tal Asquf, that sort of thing. I wanted to ask, has there been any support from the Turkish military for Pesh units that are either kind of holding the lines up there or progressing closer towards Mosul?
And if so, how would you characterize that support? I mean, is it mostly artillery fire support, that sort of thing, or does it go further than that?
COL. GARVER: That's a good question. The answer is I'm not aware of any support like you're referring to. If that is going on, it is part of a unilateral effort, not part of coalition operations.
And we've said, you know, in the past, when we talked about folks in the area who are operating inside Iraq, they should respect Iraqi sovereignty and they should coordinate their operations with the Iraqis and with the coalition.
So, like I said, I'm not aware of any operations going on up there. If there are operations going on like that, they are not part of the coalition effort.
Q: And a quick question again with the operations going on near Qayyarah. What has the role been for the public -- public mobilization units? Have they been participating in sort of this push towards these villages and shaping operations?
And has there been a decision from Baghdad as far as whether or not these units will be part of the eventual push into Mosul? Because there's been mixed reports coming out of the ministries about that.
COL. GARVER: Right.
First question, have they been involved? The forces that I described in the beginning were Iraqi security forces south of -- around the Qayyarah area, with CTS and Iraqi army. So those are the forces involved in that operation. Up near the Peshmerga, we haven't seen the popular mobilization involved.
Now, of course, we've got a couple different kinds of popular mobilization forces. The local Nineweh tribal fighters, which are registered as part of the Popular Mobilization Program, they will eventually participate in the hold force Program and the Hold Force operations.
So they are, -- you know, we've trained forces there, we've equipped forces there at the direction of and the approval of the Iraqi government. Like I said they're registered as part of the program. So those will eventually be in the operation.
The overall operation as to who participates and what they do has not been decided yet by Baghdad. They are in consultation with the other elements on the battlefield and they're working on -- still working on the plan.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Luis Martinez.
Q: Hey, Chris. A question about the Iranian flights from -- excuse me -- the Russian flights from Iran. Don't they require over flight permission from the Iraqi government? Did the Iraqi government give that overflight permission and did they notify you? And is this a one-off or is this going to continue?
COL. GARVER: Hey, Luis. Great questions.
The first is, I don't have an answer for you on if they got permission. If you're flying over another country's sovereign territory and sovereign airspace, you should get permission. I can't say one way or another in this if they did. That's not part of the discussion with the coalition when they activate the -- the safety of flight memorandum of agreement, the memorandum of agreement.
So, if they didn't, they should have, in my opinion. But I can't give you an answer to that, because if you're flying over somebody's airspace, you should coordinate that.
As for future Russian intent, I'm not even going to try to speculate on that one.
Q: To follow-up on Manbij. You talked about an advise and assist mission with the Kurds in the north of Iraq, but what is the advise and assist mission like with the SDF and the SAC? There are indications there may be a large number of advisers who are accompanying the forces around Manbij. Was that accurate?
COL. GARVER: Yeah, no, that's not accurate. The -- so there is a coalition advise and assist effort. The U.S. portion of that, as the secretary of defense has discussed numerous times, it's less than 300, and not all of those are advisers. There's a support element built into that as well. That number hasn't changed in several months, I mean, since we bumped it up to 300.
And so those forces -- the advisers are doing exactly what they do, which is terrain feature back, at a command post. The advisers aren't out on the -- the front lines and I wouldn't characterize it as a large number of advisers.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Kristina Wong.
Q: Hi, Chris. This is Kristina from The Hill.
I just wanted to echo the thanks for your assistance during your time there.
Following up on Luis’ question, does the U.S. anticipate more Russian airstrikes from Iran? And will Russia have to notify the U.S. through the MOU process each time it wants to fly from the Iranian base?
COL. GARVER: Well, the MOU requirement is for them to let us know when they're flying through areas that we potentially could have an interaction. And so every time that you have to ensure safety of flight, that's when you activate the MOU. And so if they're flying from somewhere over Iraqi airspace, we -- the Iraqi air force flies in Iraqi airspace. The coalition is flying inside Iraqi airspace. So we would expect them to activate the MOU to let us know that they're potentially impacting on our operations.
When -- do we anticipate more? Again, I'm not going to speculate about, you know, what they've got planned. And I'm not going to speculate about what we think they have planned. The coalition remains focused on what we're doing, which is fighting Daesh.
Q: Just a little more clarity on the convoy. I think you previously said there were about 175 vehicles leaving Fallujah. Can you say that the convoy leaving Manbij was less than that? And by how much?
COL. GARVER: Well, I already said that we thought it was smaller than the convoys around Fallujah, but I didn't say by how much because I don't have an exact number and don't have a characterization.
And like I said, it looked like it was smaller than those numbers, but I don't have, you know, an accurate estimate.
Q: (inaudible) -- number for Fallujah, because that ranged widely. Was it about 175 vehicles?
COL. GARVER: No, that was just what we destroyed – we, the coalition, destroyed in the one strike on the convoy. So there were more vehicles involved in that. The Iraqi air force destroyed vehicles as well. Those convoys were bigger than that when we saw them for up. Remember, the one up near Albu-Bali, we couldn't fire initially because of the same concerns we had as we did in Manbij of -- of civilians intermixed amongst the fighters. That was a pretty large convoy as well. I don't have specific numbers on any of those to give you. I don't have a pie chart to show you. But it wasn't as big as the Fallujah convoy.
CAPT. DAVIS: Did you have a quick follow-up?
Q: Yeah, question on the size of -- of the convoy in Manbij? Because if you're following it with the -- if you're following those cars wherever they may go, whether it's inside Syria or in Turkey or whatever, there must be some estimate, even if it's a ballpark one. I know you can't answer the question now, but maybe you could take it.
COL. GARVER: Sure. I'll take it, we'll take a look and see what we -- how we can characterize it, sure.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thomas Watkins.
Q: I -- actually just going back to Phil's previous question about the -- the -- the Kurdish element of the -- the YPG element of the SDF. Can you give us an overall size of the SDF forces that were involved in the Manbij operations? And what percentage are SAC? What percentage are YPG?
And also, as you've gone through the town, are you finding much usable intelligence or has -- has the town pretty much been -- been ransacked and cleared of anything useful?
COL. GARVER: So first question is, we had initially reported that launched on this operation was around 6,000 fighters. That was weeks ago. We had also initially reported that what our -- you know, what the SDF had told us was the Syrian Arab coalition had led by about 85 percent to 15 percent of the other groups of the SDF. And that was the numbers they had reported to us as the coalition.
In terms of the intelligence being pulled off the objective, I don't have an updated number for what we had talked about originally. Clearly, as you go through and you're searching for IEDs, you're also looking for -- you're looking for intelligence as well for those fighters on the ground, and any little piece of information may eventually be able to be turned into intelligence as it gets analyzed.
But I don't have an update from the numbers we've given you earlier. We'll look at being able to do that sometime in the future when that clearing operation is farther along. It's in the middle of being done right now, so it's difficult to say.
When we talked about those other numbers of what we'd found, those were from the villages around the outside of the city where they had had those multiple staging centers that they were using to move foreign fighters in and out, were using to receive and integrate the foreigners as they came in to the -- to the so-called caliphate.
So as we took those little villages, that's where we pulled this information from. Inside the city yet -- we don't have an update yet as to how much information we were able to get out of it.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Next to Carla Babb.
Q: Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to go back and clarify on the Russian bombing coming across Iraq. You said one of those hit Islamic State targets. Russia's saying that they also hit Nusra Front targets. Can the coalition confirm that they hit Nusra?
COL. GARVER: No, I'm not -- we're not watching that. I'm not going to confirm that. The coalition's fighting Daesh.
Q: But the coalition's also aware of other terrorist groups in Syria, right?
COL. GARVER: We -- we certainly know that al-Nusra, whatever they're calling themselves today, are operating there. But they are who we are fighting, we are fighting against Daesh.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Richard Sisk.
Q: Hi, Colonel. Is there anything you can tell us about the current status of the -- the authorization to move U.S. advisers down to the battalion level? I believe it was last week or a week before you said that General MacFarland might not do that.
What's the status with the -- the authorization for moving forces down to battalion level?
COL. GARVER: Okay. Good question.
The status is -- the authorization is where it was when we talked about it before, which is he has the authorization to put advisers down at a lower level. What we have seen up to this point is he has done that with coalition forces to provide expert advice as the Iraqis put in the bridge over the Tigris River that we've talked about numerous times.
And we've kind of talked through what they did when they went down. And they helped provide engineering expertise for after the bridge was in for the method to protect the bridge and for securing it so you can run vehicles across it and do all the things that you want to do with a bridge across a big, fast, wide river like the Tigris. That is how we have executed that at this point.
General MacFarland has the option if he feels -- or in a few days, it will be General Townsend. But the commander has the option to put advisers at a lower level than division. That's an authorization given to him for U.S. advisers and he'll use that when it is right and when you can mitigate risk and when you can get a big bang for the buck out that, when there's important part of the battle, there's a unit that needs advice or there's a situation ongoing that our advice would be -- would be of, you know, at least operational level importance.
So it's a tool in his toolbox. He's used it once. It doesn't mean he -- you know, that's -- just because it's the only time he's used it up to this point doesn't mean he won't use it again. He certainly has the option to do that or, as I said, in the future it will be General Townsend has that authority as well.
Q: And also, Colonel, maybe I missed it before. Can you say anything about the -- the type of aircraft that the Russians used and how many of them there were?
COL. GARVER: I thought the Russians had announced that themselves. I thought that they had announced TU-22s I thought is what I had seen. You know, again, I'll let them speak to that. If they want to announce the number of aircraft involved in their flight, I'll let them do that as well.
CAPT. DAVIS: Jamie, and then I think Luis had a follow-up too.
Q: Colonel Garver, it's Jamie McIntyre.
I apologize for going over the same ground again, but now that I've heard what you've said previously and what you just said in answer to Carla's question, I'm a little confused.
So I understand fully that you're not speaking for the Russian military and what they may or may not have targeted in Syria. But in answer to Barbara's question -- Barbara Starr's question earlier on, you did say that of the three locations the Russians announced, that the U.S. did believe that there were ISIS or Daesh forces in Deir ez-Zor, but you said you saw no concentrations in Aleppo or Idlib.
Carla's question, I think, raised an interesting point, was -- because the impression that you've left there is that perhaps the Russians were bombing forces that were supported by the United States. Carla asked a question about the other possibility, are there concentrations in the Aleppo and Idlib of former -- formally fighters known as the Nusra Front, which are -- which are not subject to the cessation of hostilities agreement and would in theory be legitimate targets for the Russians to strike.
So can you say the same thing about those two locations that you said regarding the Daesh forces -- regarding the forces that the militants that were formally known as al-Nusra?
COL. GARVER: Yeah -- and I didn't mean to leave any confusion for you, Jamie.
And I -- and I think our position is relatively clear on this, which is we have seen Daesh forces in Deir ez-Zor, and as a matter of fact for multiple months -- many months, since the end of last year. That city has been under -- it's divided. Daesh is in the city and the Syrian army is in the city. And they've been fighting over that city for quite a long time.
Daesh is in that city, so we -- we look to that city. And like I said, we've flown missions in and around Deir ez-Zor. We've attacked targets in and around Deir ez-Zor. And we've certainly attacked a lot of the oil infrastructure as part of Operation Tidal Wave II outside of Deir ez-Zor and in that area.
The other two -- the other two cities, Daesh we don't see concentrations in there and therefore we're not working. I didn't say a think about whether al-Nusra was in there. What I did specifically say was we're not fighting al-Nusra. We are fighting Daesh.
And so, you know, there have been plenty that have reported about what's going on inside Aleppo. There's been plenty of reporting of what's going on inside Idlib. And I will leave it to the forces that are actually fighting in those areas to talk about that. I know it's not necessarily a satisfying answer, but we're not focused on the former al-Nusra Front. We're focused on Daesh. And that's what we're fighting and that's where therefore we look and where we target.
Are aware of their locations on the battlefield? Yeah, they're out there on the battlefield. We know that. But we're not focused on them. You know, we're focused on Daesh.
Q: I would just say, just as a quick follow up, that your predecessor, Colonel Steve Warren, never shied away from calling out the Russians when he saw that they were bombing in areas where there were no ISIL or other targets that the U.S. would consider legitimate targets. He mentioned that many times and often in his briefings.
So, it sounds like you're not quite willing to go as far as your predecessor in calling out the Russians when they're striking forces that might be forces backed by the United States.
COL. GARVER: Well, first I'll tell you I'm taller than him. Clearly, I'm not Steve Warren. I'm taller.
Second of all, I will tell you that I have mentioned myself in the past that we have seen Russians strike targets that we did not think were Daesh. I specifically said the three targets that they said that they went to hit in Idlib and in Aleppo and in Deir ez-Zor, we see Daesh in Deir ez-Zor. I didn't really think I needed to go any further than that to call that out.
So, okay. I should make a boxing reference now, if that's what you want right now. But really, I'll just let it go at that and say I think we stated our position.
CAPT. DAVIS: Luis Martinez.
Q: A quick followup. You've been talking about the memo of understanding about air safety with the Russians. But that applies to Syria. Now, you're dealing with them coming from the opposite direction, obviously dealing with Iraq. Does that mean that there's an expansion of that document? Or is that expansion already included in the original document?
COL. GARVER: Well, Luis, that's a great question. I'm not exactly sure. I'll go back and check on that as well. We'll -- we'll take that one and check on that one. Like you said, it was on -- it was on operations. Clearly, this is a different direction the bombers have come from than before. And so we'll go back and take a look at that. But -- but I know they activated the memo. I know that we reacted to it, and there was no safety-of-flight issues throughout the whole flight.
We'll take a look at the other part of the question, though. I'll take that.
Q: One more on Manbij. Did those ISIS fighters cross the border when they escaped Manbij, and go to Turkey?
COL. GARVER: Yeah, Lucas. I didn't specifically say where they went. Like I said, we're -- we're keeping track of them. I don't want to talk too much about that. It's an ongoing operation.
So, we're paying attention to that and we're certainly keeping an eye on where all those forces and potentially where those -- those civilians who were being used as shields are going.
Q: Do you still assess that that border with Turkey in some areas is porous?
COL. GARVER: Well, the Manbij pocket has been a longstanding opening of where Daesh comes in and out of Syria. And then when it comes into Syria -- when the fighters come into Syria, they spread out to Iraq and -- and Syria.
Clearly, that whole area of the border has been -- has been an open area for Daesh to come and go or for foreign fighters to come and go. The closing of Manbij -- the seizing of Manbij, the closing of that part of the route has interdicted, but I don't -- we haven't said one way or another; we're still trying to assess whether it's completely closed, that border or not.
It's really difficult to do that, as we know. And as any country with an open border knows, it's very difficult to seal a border like that.
So we haven't really, kind of, given you an assessment overall of the impact, but we think it has degraded the number of fighters coming. We said at the heyday that we think that they were up to about 2,000 a month, now we think they're somewhere down between 200 and 500 a month on their fighters coming in.
Clearly it's been reduced, but I don't think we've said it's -- we're down to zero and I don't think we're claiming that at all.
Q: Over to Mosul, there are reports that an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, is on the ground around Mosul. Can you confirm that? And also, would the U.S. military welcome his presence in helping retake the city?
COL. GARVER: I can't confirm what Soleimani is doing. If he's in the country or not, I'm not sure.
What I can say is that the coalition works with the government of Iraq. If the government of Iraq chooses to bring in other advisers, that's an issue for the government of Iraq.
We are not coordinating with the Iranians in any way. We're not working with them in any way.
We are coordinating with the government of Iraq. And we've got 60 other nations that we're coordinating in support of that fight.
However, the government of Iraq comes up with a plan, like I said, we're supporting the government of Iraq plan for the -- for the seizure of Mosul.
Q: Lastly, is there any concern among the U.S. military that as ISIS gets squeezed inside Iraq that you're really trading one terrorist army for another, as these Iranian-backed forces come into the country?
COL. GARVER: I think any force that is operating inside the country of Iraq is of concern to the government of Iraq.
And certainly they've had the popular mobilization forces in the country for the last two years. They reacted to the initial assault into Iraq by Daesh, and they've been here in the country operating for the last two years.
So, clearly, any force that's operating inside here is a -- is a concern of the government of Iraq. And it is a concern of the government of Iraq; it's their issue to be concerned with.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Carla Babb, you get a follow-up.
Q: Hi, Colonel.
I just wanted to follow-up what -- (inaudible) -- the coalition is aware of Nusra locations. I just wanted to go back. Is Nusra in Aleppo, in that fight? Because I know that U.S. and the coalition have targeted Nusra leaders and Khorasan leaders in the past.
COL. GARVER: No, that's not true. The coalition has not done that. When you say CJTF, we have not done that.
And the targeting of Khorasan Group, Nusra, that's handled at CENTCOM and higher. It is not us that does that. We are focused on Daesh.
If you go back and look at the press releases that CENTCOM puts out, they're focused on the other operations ongoing in Syria. So that's not a coalition operation.
As for whether I'm going to confirm anybody's there or not, I don't know. I don't have -- I'm not going to confirm it because I don't have that information in front of me.
Q: You're referring us to CENTCOM?
COL. GARVER: For targeting of Khorasan group and al-Nusra and any operations like that, that's who you would talk to, yes.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. The queue's empty. Anyone else? All right.
Chris, I know you literally have a helicopter to catch, but I just wanted to say thank you. You've been the OIR spokesman for the last few months, but you've been the CJTF PAO for the last year and you've stepped into the very big shoes of Steve Warren, doing this and you stretched the issues out even further. And you did it while doing two jobs at the same time.
And on behalf of the secretary and everybody here at OSD and the Pentagon Press, we thank you for coming out here and taking their hard questions every week and really helping us to be able to stay abreast of what's developing operationally and tactically on the ground. It's a very important perspective for them to be able to report effectively from back here.
So thanks for your service and Godspeed to you as you head back home and onto your next hardship duty assignment, which is in Hawaii, as I understand. And we'll turn it over to you if you had any closing comments.
COL. GARVER: Yeah. Thanks, Jeff. And thanks for everybody for attending today.
As Jeff just talked about, this is my last press conference with you guys, the Pentagon Press Corps, as the PAO for the CJTF and then also the acting spokesperson. It's been my honor over the last year to hopefully provide you all at least a little more information than you had before about our operation and to help tell that story of the U.S. forces, coalition forces, Iraqi security forces and our Syrian partners in the most complex operation in which I've ever been involved.
It's also one of the most important ever endeavors in which I've ever been involved in, and it's one at which I think we must succeed.
Thanks to the Pentagon Press Corps and for all the other reporters out there that we've engaged with over the past year, from both me and from Steve and from the whole team that's here behind the scenes. Thanks for your professionalism, your friendship and your patience when you needed it.
After the transfer of authority ceremony, Colonel Joe Scrocca will take over the CJTF public affairs officer and Colonel John -- J.D. Dorrian will take over as the CJTF spokesperson. They're both great public affair officers. They're both -- they've been both really engaged in the preparation of this and I'm sure they will continue to tell the CJTF story and keep the public informed about Operation Inherent Resolve.
So thanks to everybody. I appreciate it. And like Jeff said, I am literally going to a helicopter and getting on and flying away.
So thank you very much.
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