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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq

COLONEL ROB MANNING:  Well, good morning.  It's nice to see all of you.

My name is Colonel Rob Manning, and I back-filled Captain Jeff Davis as the director for press operations.  So I'm in my first week here at the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs.

Again, very nice to see you.  I present a more familiar face here with Colonel Dillon for an update on operations in Iraq and Syria.

Colonel Dillon, can you hear?  How do you hear us?

COLONEL RYAN DILLON:  I can hear you well, Rob.  How about me?

COL. MANNING:  Okay.  We hear you.  We want to turn it up just a little bit.  Okay.  Excellent.

And we appreciate your patience in advance.  We're working through some technical challenges, but we appreciate your patience there.

Colonel Dillon is the spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force/Operation Inherent Resolve.  And he's going to make an opening statement, and then we'll turn to the floor for questions.  Again, this is my first briefing, so I would ask that you state your name and affiliation.  That will help Colonel Dillon with knowing who's asking the question.  And it will help me -- help familiarize me with each one of you.

And with that, I'll turn it over to Colonel Dillon.

COL. DILLON:  All right.  Thanks, Rob, and welcome to the team.  It's great not being the new guy anymore.  So, tag, you're it.

So, good morning everyone.  We'll go ahead and get started.  We'll begin in Syria and then move to Iraq.

Determined fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to make progress against ISIS as they fight block by block in Raqqa.  The SDF has now cleared more than 50 percent of the city from terrorists.  The SDF are in a fierce urban fight and have almost managed to link up their forces along eastern and western axes as they conduct deliberate clearance operations of areas under their control.

Fighting in the tightly packed old city is particularly difficult, with ISIS rigging buildings and even corpses with improvised explosives to try to stall the SDF advance.  In the past week, ISIS has also used car bombs to attack evacuating civilians, as well as journalists.  In attacks two days in a row, ISIS used armored vehicles packed with explosives to kill six noncombatants and wound five reporters.

The Raqqa Internal Security Force, otherwise known as the RISF, now more than 1,000 strong, comprised of mainly local Arabs from the Raqqa area, they are filling in behind the SDF to provide security and prevent ISIS from returning to cleared neighborhoods.

In southern Syria, near the Iraq-Syria border, there were clashes Monday between ISIS and militia groups.  There were initial allegations of coalition strikes on Iraqi popular mobilization forces.  We verified that the coalition did not conduct air or ground artillery strikes in that location at that time.  This has since been confirmed and corroborated by Iraqi security forces and Iraqi popular mobilization forces.

Moving to Iraq, hold forces are in place in Mosul.  The federal police, the 16th Iraqi Armored Division, and some CTS, Counterterrorism Service battalions, remain in East and West Mosul to provide security as the cleanup begins and civilians begin to rebuild their lives.

We have seen the resilience of the Moslawis in East Mosul and we are beginning to see it in the west as market open and people begin to return more and more to their neighborhoods.

The coalition continues to support the ISF as they reset and prepare for follow-on operations in Tal Afar.  We conducted more than 50 strikes in the past week against ISIS defensive positions, headquarters, weapons caches, and VBIED and IED factories in Tal Afar and also Kisik Junction.  Kisik Junction is about 30 kilometers east of Tal Afar, where ISIS is defending in depth leading to the city.

The coalition estimates there are about 2,000 ISIS fighters in and around Tal Afar.  We fully expect this to be a difficult fight to root out ISIS from one of their last strongholds in Iraq.

In former ISIS strongholds, where local Iraqis are back in control and taking care of their people, we see continued progress.

In Tikrit, liberated in April 2015, nearly all of the IDPs who departed the city -- more than 95 percent have returned.

Ramadi, liberated in February 2016, has seen more than 300,000 IDPs return; 20 schools, 18 health centers and 250 houses have been rehabilitated.

In Fallujah, liberated in June of 2016, 400,000 IDPs have returned.  Clean water is pumping to 60 percent of residents, and projects have begun to rehabilitate more than 10,000 houses over the course of the next 18 months.

These are all examples of progress that has occurred after ISIS has been removed, areas have been cleared of hazards, arrival of international aid and transition to local governance.

In my last two Pentagon press briefings, I announced coalition efforts to remove ISIS leaders from the battlefield.  Today, I would like to specifically highlight some of our successes towards degrading ISIS financial resources.

The coalition conducted precision airstrikes on five ISIS financial centers in Iraq and Syria over the past two weeks.

In southern Syria, two airstrikes in Abu Kamal destroyed an ISIS financial headquarters and a bulk cash depository.  And another ISIS financial headquarters was destroyed in Deir Ez-Zor.

Two airstrikes in Iraq destroyed ISIS financial centers in Hawija and Al-Mukana.

The coalition continues to disrupt ISIS financing across Iraq and Syria to prevent the terrorist organization from raising, moving and using these resources to pay for fighters and fund terrorism around the globe.

The coalition has struck around 30 ISIS banks and financial centers over the past three years, destroying tens of millions of dollars.  The Iraqi government has cut off more than 90 bank branches inside ISIS territory from global financial systems.

ISIS is under significant pressure as a direct result of the coalition targeting its oil and other revenue streams.  They have been forced to cut its fighter stay by half, and, having lost Mosul and with the SDF making steady progress in Raqqa, ISIS has lost much of its revenue base.  They are becoming increasingly desperate and resorting to more arbitrary taxation and extortion, which further undermines its credibility with the local population and its attractiveness to recruits.

These efforts, along with ISIS battlefield losses, their leaders being killed, and degradation of their propaganda, all contribute to an organization that is losing.

ISIS does not have the same level of leadership it once had.  They do not have the same level of grandeur.  People just no longer want to come and join these terrorists.  And they do not have the resources they once had.

ISIS is losing.  It will continue to lose under the pressure of our partner forces and the coalition until they are defeated in Iraq and Syria.

And with that, I'll now be happy to take your questions.

COL. MANNING:  Thank you, Colonel Dillon.

First question?  Go ahead, sir.

Q:  Sure.  (inaudible) -- with the Daily Caller.

Colonel, could you tell us what percentage of Raqqa is now under SDF control?

COL. DILLON:  Just over 50 percent of the area has -- is now under SDF control.  They have continued to make steady progress along the east and west axes of advance.  And over the course of the last week, in the southern portion just north of the Euphrates River, they have taken some ground from there as well.

Q:  So by my count there, it's been about five percent gain in the last two weeks.  Is there a reason that gains have slowed?  Is there -- are they hitting more fierce resistance than seen before?

COL. DILLON:  As I've stated in the last, you know, two Pentagon press briefings, there's no question that they have hit stiffer resistance, definitely compared to the beginning of offensive operations.  We've talked about the IEDs, car bombs, and the static vehicle-borne IED placements that they have used throughout Raqqa.

I mentioned last week that 80 percent of the engagements that the SDF have faced have been from some sort of improvised explosive device.  So, that also with the back-clearance that I mentioned in my opening statement, to make sure they hold the gains that they have had, all contribute to the level of progress that has happened.

But I'll be certain that there has been progress and none of the territory that they have gained has been ceded to ISIS at all.

Q:  Hello, Colonel Dillon.  Thank you for doing this.  It's Ryan Browne here.

I have two quick questions for you.  The first one, Brett McGurk last week at State Department said that he's -- it looked like the regime would be able to recapture Deir ez-Zor from ISIS, and looked like it was committed to doing so.  You know, you talked about the RISF and we talk a lot about the need to train hold forces that are from the local population.  The regime seems to be heavily reliant on Shia militias, Hezbollah, people who are not local.

So, are you worried that if the regime takes places from ISIS, that those -- that there may be continuing problems and that that won't be a long-term solution to beating ISIS?

COL. DILLON:  Well, first off, to just address the Deir ez-Zor and the regime's progress, you know, towards that.  We've talked, you know, several times from the same podium that they are making a concerted effort.  They have -- the regime is moving just south of the Euphrates River valley, south of the de-confliction line.  That has been coordinated and de-conflicted, and has been placed between the SDF and the regime and the Russians and the U.S.

So, they are moving in that direction.  Whether or not they get to Deir ez-Zor, that is still yet to be seen.  As far as the question about are we worried about the -- the militias as they get there, our focus and our number one concern right now is the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa.  And the -- we can point to other examples where the council and where the security forces that have been in place are working -- places like Manbij, places like Tabqa, where people from the area after they've been liberated are very passionate about, you know, signing up and joining these security forces so that people like ISIS cannot return to their neighborhoods and their towns.

Q:  Just to follow up, and then I have one more question.  But just to follow up on that, right, you talked about these local hold forces and how they're keeping ISIS out, but the regime does not have any kind of parallel program, it appears.  Are you worried that ISIS could return to areas that the regime is taking from ISIS?  Is that a concern?

COL. DILLON:  That is not an immediate concern of ours, but I don't know if we have looked into that more deeply.  Again, I told you where our focus is now and where our efforts are concentrated.

Q:  Thank you.  And just -- you mentioned Manbij and kind of the hold force there.  I -- we are hearing reports though -- I understand that the coalition has maintained an advisory presence in Manbij to kind of serve as a bit of a deterrent between clashes that are not, you know, armed forces that are not directed at ISIS.  How is that -- is that mission still ongoing?

And we've also heard reports that there have been attacks against coalition advisers in Manbij.  Is there any -- do you have any information on that?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Ryan.  Thanks.

The -- we do.  The coalition does continue to advise and assist our partners, and reassure them in northern Syria.  We are conducting overt patrols.  And over the course of the last week, there have been clear, direct fire engagements that have not resulted in injury or damage to equipment, but near our forces.  And we are prepared to defend ourselves if required.  But that mission continues, and it is ongoing.  And we have been doing that for some time now.

Q:  Just one last thing, Colonel -- just one last follow-up on that.  You've talked they are overt patrols.  We've seen the images of them flying the American flag on these armored vehicles.  Are you -- is it your assessment that these -- these -- these -- these folks firing at these vehicles, firing at these patrols are aware that this is, you know, U.S. or coalition personnel?  And do you have any idea of who is behind these attacks?

COL. DILLON:  We do not know who is behind these attacks.  But, you know, we are very clear about our presence there.  Like I said, these patrols are overt.  Our forces are clearly marked.  And we have been operating in that area for some time.  So, it should not be news to anyone that we are doing this, operating in that particular area.  And we will continue to -- to advise our partners and reassure them in that area.  But we will be prepared to defend ourselves if necessary.

COL. MANNING:  Okay.  Next, we'll go to Lucas Tomlinson from Fox.

Q:  Colonel, where are the ISIS safe havens in Syria where they can still plot attacks against the West?

COL. DILLON:  Lucas, I would say that there are no safe havens in Syria where they can plot attacks safely.  I've talked several times, especially over the course of the last two weeks -- the last two times that I discussed, and even today, how we will not allow ISIS sanctuary wherever they are.  And so, we have seen over the course of the last three weeks the targeting of high-value targets.  I think that at least 15 over the course of the last month.  So we target them wherever we find them, and we've been very successful at that.

We talked today about the financial resources and we also know that their defensive positions that they continue to try to set up, as they know that they will inevitably face the coalition and/or the regime.

We will continue to service those targets to soften them up.  But I would say that there is no safe haven for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  They are on their heels right now.


Q:  And what can you tell us about this ISIS plastic explosive that was mailed from Turkey to Australia.  Has the coalition been involved in any way in that investigation?  Or can you tell us more about what exactly happened?

COL. DILLON:  Lucas I cannot.  We're focused on Iraq and Syria, the military defeat.  I don't have any information, specifics, on the particular instance you're talking about, with that bomb in -- going to Australia.

Q:  And finally, is there a concern that, despite all the disruption of ISIS safe havens -- that ISIS still has the ability to carry out attacks abroad?

COL. DILLON:  We've -- we know that there has been inspired attacks.  But I would also say that, within Iraq and Syria, they do not have the ability with -- to plot and plan, certainly not the way that they did in the past.

So if we -- (inaudible) -- that they're doing something, if they have headquarters, if they're planning, if they're conducting external operations, they do not have sanctuary in Iraq and Syria.

I've also talked about the greater coalition and the 73 international organizations that have come together.  Those are countries and places -- people like Interpol, the European Union, who are working together to make sure that ISIS fighters and terrorists -- terrorists cannot move freely in and amongst the countries and the world.

So, those are some of those points in progress of greater coalition to stem the ability of ISIS fighters to move around the world.

COL. MANNING:  To you.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.  Elizabeth McLaughlin with ABC.

There have been reports of hundreds of ISIS fighters who are actually surrendering from inside Raqqa.  I don't seem to remember that happening this early in the operation with Mosul.  Can you speak to a little bit about why you think that's happening and your assessment of how many of these fighters are surrendering?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Elizabeth.  I don't have the -- a good confirmation of the total number of ISIS fighters that have reportedly surrendered.

We do know that they have done that.  Not only have they surrendered, there are several who are -- have been caught as they try to -- they drop their weapons and then they try intermingle with IDPs as people try to get out of the city.

So the security forces, the SDF and the Raqqa internal security forces, have done a great job of identifying those fighters.

And then what they do is they will detain them, and then temporarily get them to judiciary councils in Ayaneesa and another -- and another location that I can't remember off the top of my head.  But there are two judiciary councils that they get people to.

I don't have the total numbers.  So -- and that's -- and that's okay.  As long as we are -- ISIS is being defeated, or they're being held in Raqqa, or they're surrendering or they're being captured, these are all signs of progress, and something that we certainly would welcome and would like to continue as we progress in the fight against ISIS in Raqqa.

Q:  Are these -- are these fighters that are mingling with your -- with your forces -- are they trying to conduct attacks as they try to blend in?  Or are they actually trying to -- to escape?

COL. DILLON:  We've seen a little bit of both.  I mentioned last week a female ISIS fighter that intermingled, and then she detonated a suicide vest as she intermingled with these people.

We've also seen them just lay down their weapons, without, you know, suicide vests, without the attempt to try to blow or kill up other people.

So we've seen a little bit of both.

Q:  All right.  Thank you.

Q:  Hey, Colonel Dillon.  Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

I just wanted to follow up on Ryan's question.  What --


Q:  No, not Lucas' story.

What -- what different groups are still in the Manbij area besides, you know, obviously us and I assume some of the SDF in that area?

And then on these direct attacks, are these -- is this a sniper firing off a couple of shots?  Or can you, you know, describe those attacks a little bit further?


COL. DILLON:  You guys let me know when -- I'll give you a thumbs up when I can hear you again.

COL. MANNING:  Okay, Colonel Dillon, can you hear us?

COL. DILLON:  I can.  Thumbs up.

COL. MANNING:  Excellent, welcome back.  And we'll go ahead and restate the question there.

Q:  Sir, it's Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.  So, my question was following up on Ryan on the Manbij.

What -- what groups are still in the Manbij area?

And then do you have any more details on these direct attacks?  Is it a sniper shooting a couple of shots or is it something more than that, I guess?


Corey, I know that we're still working with our partners in the SDF.  I owe you an answer back if it has -- if we are working with anyone else in the particular region in or around northern Syria and around Manbij.

As far as those attacks, they were engagements, they were small-arms fire that were directed towards our patrols.  I can't really, you know, tell you whether or not it was a single shot, you know, sniper, but what I can say is that with these engagements, and there was more than one, there was no damage to equipment or casualties on our side.

Q:  I guess -- are there -- besides the SDF and groups that we might be working with, are there any others?  I think the Russians -- there was a Russian group out there months ago probably, or Turkish troops or Turkish-backed groups or any of those kind of people in that area?

COL. DILLON:  Corey, I don't know that question.  I -- I don't know that answer.  I know -- (inaudible) -- back to you.  I know that there were other groups that we were working with, and that was prior to me coming and showing up and taking this position.  I owe you a follow-up on that.

COL. MANNING:  Okay.  Lucas with Fox for a follow-up question.

Q:  To follow up -- were there any casualties on the other side, Colonel?  The guys doing the shooting?

COL. DILLON:  I -- we did not -- we did not engage.  We did not.  We do reserve the right to defend ourselves.  We did not engage in direct fire in these instances.  So, not that we know of.  There were no casualties on the other side as far as I know.

Q:  Just to be clear.  You're saying that U.S. forces did not return fire?

COL. DILLON:  That is correct.

Q:  Thank you.

COL. MANNING:  Okay.  Any other questions?



Q:  Colonel, just since I have you -- have your time here, I just wanted to follow up again on the middle Euphrates River valley and on al-Tanf.  Has there been any change to the mission there?  Are we continuing to train and continue to conduct joint patrols with the rebel groups there?

And you mentioned a little bit the defections in the past, a couple of -- a very small number of defections.  Have there been any more defections since we last spoke?

COL. DILLON:  Ryan, we are continuing to conduct patrols with our vetted Syrian opposition group that we are working with now singularly in al-Tanf.  There have not been any more defections as far as I know.  And we do continue to, as I said, conduct patrols in and out of the al-Tanf -- (inaudible) -- and in and around that area.



Q:  (inaudible) -- policy.

Can you talk a little bit about the gains that the Syrian army has made in southern Syria along the Jordanian border?  Does that come in close to al-Tanf or where those troops are operating?

COL. DILLON:  I don't know.  I forget who that was.  Is that Paul?

COL. MANNING:  It is, Colonel Dillon.  It's Paul.

COL. DILLON:  All right.  Thanks, Paul.

The -- the regime, you know, we have that 55-kilometer de-confliction ring around al-Tanf.  And that remains.  There are pro-regime forces that have moved around and to the north and to the east of that de-confliction ring.  The pro-regime forces are located -- have made it up to the, and you've read this I'm sure in open reporting, al-Suqna, which is north of al-Tanf, and then along the Euphrates River area southeast of Raqqa towards the area of Maidan.

So those are the two areas that we know of where the pro-regime forces are.

COL. MANNING:  Okay.  Any more questions?

Okay.  I guess we'll cut it a little bit short today.  Colonel Dillon, we'll go to you for any closing comments that you may have.

COL. DILLON:  No.  Again, you know, sorry about the coms issues.  We'll continue to try to work through these, but we'll always have a backup plan if this happens again.  So thanks again for your patience, your time.  And I think I'll see a few of you in the next couple of weeks.  So I look forward to it.

COL. MANNING:  Well, Colonel Dillon, thank you.  Stay safe.  And thanks to all of you for coming today.  Appreciate it.