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

ERIC J. PAHON:  Okay.  Well, good morning, everybody.  With us live today, via satellite from Baghdad, is Colonel Ryan Dillon.  We actually have picture today.  It's great -- Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman.  So Colonel Dillon will give us a brief update on operations to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and then he'll take your questions.

Before I turn it over to Colonel Dillon, though, I would like to give a special hello and welcome to visiting Pakistani journalists from the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program.

The International Visitor Leadership Program, IVLP, is the U.S. State Department's premier professional exchange program.  The goal of the IVLP is to provide firsthand knowledge about U.S. society, culture and politics while cultivating a last -- lasting relationships by connecting current and emerging foreign leaders with their American counterparts, IVLP fosters lasting relationships and helps strengthen U.S. engagement with countries around the world.  We welcome you and we thank you for your attendance today.

And with that, Colonel Dillon, you have the mic.

COLONEL RYAN DILLON:  All right.  Thanks, Eric.

Good morning, everybody.  We'll begin with Iraq and then we'll move to operations in Syria.

The past week saw steady progress in Iraq as our Iraqi Security Force partners keep up the fight to eradicate ISIS from Iraq.  Clearance operations in and around Tal Afar continue.  The ISF have encountered and defeated pockets of remaining ISIS fighters, mostly north of Tal Afar.

The handover to hold forces in cities and towns of northern Nineveh province continues as the ISF prepare their next offensive to defeat ISIS.  Remaining ISIS holdouts in Iraq include Hawija and a cluster of towns in western Anbar.

The coalition will continue our support to the ISF with training, equipment, intelligence, precision fires and combat advice.

In preparation for the upcoming battles, the Iraqi Security Forces have worked tirelessly with the humanitarian community to prioritize the evacuation of civilians trapped by ISIS.  They have planned and positioned personnel and assets to screen, receive and transport IDPs to camps.

Stabilization continues in Mosul as federal police, local police and tribal forces conduct security operations in both east and west parts of the city.  Residents are working together with local and national government institutions to clean up and return essential services to the city.  UNDP, working with the government of Iraq, has more than 300 projects underway in Mosul, worth over $200 million.

Moving to Syria, this week, our Syrian Democratic Force partners continue the fight to eliminate ISIS terrorists throughout eastern -- northeastern Syria.

In Raqqa, the fighting has moved to the center of the city, where the SDF have cleared 35 city blocks this week.  The SDF now controls 63 percent of the city.

The SDF have encircled the stranded, desperate ISIS fighters near the national hospital, one of the many protected sites ISIS regularly uses to base their operations.  And they've also gotten very close to the main stadium.

The SDF have cleared several neighborhoods in the southwest portion of the city and continue to clear key infrastructure in the east, to include buildings, tunnel systems and landmarks.

The al-Naim traffic circle, once an ISIS symbol of fear and terror, where they held public executions, is now a fading propaganda setting, much like ISIS's hollow caliphate.

The liberation of these sites, both symbolically and tangibly, destroys ISIS's legitimacy as a so-called state, while increasing the morale of our partner forces and the civilians of Raqqa.

While the SDF continue to make steady progress, the improvised bomb threat in Raqqa remains the most challenging obstacle.  Our partners work tirelessly to clear these explosives deep in the city center, where ISIS has had years to prepare for this battle.

SDF fighters describe this struggle as much a fight against IEDs as it is against ISIS, with the sheer quantity of improvised explosive devices far exceeding anything the SDF had seen previously.

Recognizing the humanitarian challenges to both internally displaced people and civilians trapped in the city, the SDF continues to assist and safeguard civilians as they try to escape ISIS's violence in the city.

This week, the SDF and the coalition delivered more than 90,000 leaflets and made loudspeaker announcements near the front lines to notify remaining civilians how to evacuate safely.  These measures have been effective.

And even desperate ISIS fighters, with their families, have surrendered to the SDF with these leaflets in hand -- five this week, two include a military emir, or -- also considered as a local ISIS leader.

As ISIS continues to face defeat in Raqqa, the SDF also commenced clearance operations against ISIS in the Khabur River Valley, northeast of Deir ez-Zor.  The SDF has met light resistance while clearing more than 300 square kilometers.

Some of the reports that have been -- that have come from our SDF partners illustrate the personal nature of this fight.  Arab SDF fighters native to the area are reuniting with friends and family they have been separated for from (sic) years due to ISIS terrorist control of the villages they called home.

Civilians have expressed their gratitude, stating, "The sons of Deir ez-Zor are returning home."  The SDF has received hundreds of internally displaced people seeking refuge daily as they move along their advance.

The start of SDF offensive to uproot ISIS north of Deir ez-Zor proves once again that, once our multi-ethnic partner forces liberates territory from ISIS, it effectively holds it with indigenous forces and provides the necessary security to enable representative civilian councils to stabilize the territory.  They will continue to defeat ISIS while protecting the people in the region, freeing them from ISIS brutality.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces are advancing on Deir ez-Zor city, on the western side of the Euphrates River.  The convergence of military forces in this area calls for increased awareness and de-confliction.  The de-confliction line that starts south of Tabqa and runs west to east and parallels the Euphrates River is holding as regime forces and SDF forces remain in agreed-upon areas.

The coalition de-conflicts the complex and congested air space over Eastern Syria with Russian officials.  Communication between the coalition and the Russians ensure the safety of our collective air crews and assets and supports our operations on the ground.

With proper de-confliction, we have been able to successfully support our SDF partners in their offensive to defeat ISIS in the Khabur River Valley, and ultimately, further into ISIS-held territory along the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

And, speaking of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, we are depriving ISIS terrorists of any havens there, as well.  In fledgling ISIS outposts of Mayadeen and Abu Kamal, the coalition has conducted precision strikes, killing senior ISIS leaders, destroying ISIS command and control locations, chemical and biological weapons caches and other legitimate military targets.

In total, across Syria, about 2.3 million people are no longer under ISIS control and more than 44,000 square kilometers have been cleared in the ongoing fight against ISIS.

We still expect tough fighting ahead, but with our partners' battlefield successes, increased capacity and continued support from a 73-member coalition, we will keep the pressure on until ISIS is defeated.

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

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Thank you very much, Colonel Dillon.  First, we'll go to Lita Baldor with A.P.

Q:  Hey, Ryan.

First, can you tell us what you can about this U.S. citizen who, apparently, either surrendered or was captured as an ISIS fighter?  What -- what do you know about that?  And then I have another unrelated question.

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Yeah, we've -- we have seen those same reports, and the SDF, as our partner, has, you know, taken note to make sure that any of -- fighters that they, you know, capture -- that they maintain them and bring them to the proper authorities.

In this case, the proper authorities would be the equivalent of the Department of State in the -- in the country.  But I will say, also, regardless of the nationality, ISIS will be defeated, and our goal is to defeat them, regardless of where you come from.

Q:  Well, has this person been turned over?

COL. DILLON:  Again, I would refer you to the Department of State of the -- of the authorities, you know, which is -- if you -- if this is a U.S. citizen, then it would be the Department of State, to find out the -- the updates on that particular person.

Q:  And then, one unrelated question, the missiles fired from the Russian frigate -- can you -- do you have any sort of U.S. assessment on the damage and -- that wasn't de-conflicted, correct?

COL. DILLON:  So, like I said in my opening statement, we do maintain de-confliction with the Russians, and we do that on a daily basis.  We -- as I've stated here from the same podium, we don't talk about the specifics of those calls and the de-confliction.  But I'll just leave it at that -- is that, you know, we de-conflict with the Russians daily.

Q:  Have the -- sort of -- what those strikes did, the damage, and how that's furthering their progress there?

COL. DILLON:  I'm sorry, Lita, can you say again, please?

Q:  Do you have an assessment of the damage that those strikes did, and -- and did it help their progress there?

COL. DILLON:  The -- it was their strike, so I don't have that information, you know, for you to share collectively.  You know, that is something that -- I refer you to, you know, the Russians for that.

Obviously, we will, you know, monitor it and keep an eye on it and, you know, see how that affects our fight against ISIS in that -- in the same vicinity.

MR. PAHON:  Thank you very much.

Next, we'll move to Ryan Browne with CNN~.

Q:  Colonel, thank you for doing this.  Just one quick follow-up on the reports of a U.S. citizen surrendering or being captured.

You mentioned five surrendered ISIS fighters in Raqqa, I believe.  Is it -- and including an emir.  Was the U.S. -- reported U.S. citizen among those five, by any chance?

COL. DILLON:  They were -- he was not, not to my knowledge.  I can follow up on that, but that is -- I understood that these were the -- these were local fighters that had surrendered with these leaflets.  But I will confirm that and get back with you on -- on it, Ryan.

Q:  One -- thank you, sir.

And one last one on this issue:  Were there any U.S. or coalition military advisers present when this supposed U.S. citizen was captured or surrendered?

COL. DILLON:  Ryan, I don't know that answer either.  I know that our advisers, coalition advisers, are spread across the battlefield with our Syrian Democratic Force partners in both Raqqa and elsewhere.  But I owe you an answer on that, as well.  Not to my knowledge.

Q:  And finally, you talked a little bit about how, in Deir ez-Zor -- that the coalition-backed SDF and the regime forces are getting in closer proximity to one another, and you actually that this required additional awareness and additional de-confliction.

How close are they right now?  Are they, both forces, inside the city of Deir ez-Zor?  Do you have approximate distance on how far away from each other?  And what would increased de-confliction look like, potentially?  I mean, we understand that they're speaking every day.  I mean, what more could be done to increase de-confliction?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, so, first off, the separation -- there are not Syrian Democratic Force partners that are in the city.  The SDF partners that we are -- that we track and we follow, they are -- and we support -- they are still east of the Euphrates River, and are northeast of the -- of Deir ez-Zor city.

I don't have the, you know, approximate distances between the, you know, forward line of troops from the regime or from the SDF, but as we get closer into this particular area, it will require increased de-confliction.

And so what is that?  That means, you know, the frequency of the phone calls and at -- the frequency at the multiple different levels where those phone calls are made.  So that means air components, ground components are speaking regularly.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

MR. PAHON:  All right.  Thank you very much, Ryan.  Thank you, Colonel Dillon.  Next, we'll go to Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q:  Colonel, just a quick follow-up on Deir ez-Zor.  I understand -- obviously, they're east of Deir ez-Zor right now.  Is the plan for them to -- when they've cleared the east, to then go into the city?  Or hold outside of it?  I mean, what is the sort of plan going forward?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Idrees.  Yeah, the plan is -- right now, is not to go into the city.  They have objectives, and they've reached the initial objective of clearing the initial portions of the Khabur River Valley.  They've begun that clearance of some of that area, in still ISIS-held territory.

Eventually, you know , the plan, as I also had spoken to, is to continue to keep the pressure on ISIS in the known areas where they are.  And we know that to be further on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley, in Mayadin, in Abu Kamal.

So that is, you know, to be determined, to be seen.  And when that is going to happen, you know, we'll have to see.  We're not going to tip our hat (sic) on that.  But there will be conditions that will be met before we continue to pressure ISIS in these -- in these other holdout areas.

Q:  Sure.  And just another follow-up question -- the Kurdish referendum's going to go forward.  The Iraqi government is obviously opposed to it.

How do you see the operation for Hawija and other cities after the referendum takes place?  I mean, there's obviously not going to be the same level of military cohesion after the referendum as there was before.

COL. DILLON:  Well, the -- as we've seen in Tal Afar most recently, which required all elements of the Iraqi Security Force to participate in that battle, a battle that was very decisive, we see the same thing playing out in Hawija.

Hawija, because of its proximity to the Kurdistan defensive line and where it is in relation to Kirkuk, is going to require all elements of the Iraqi security forces to play a part in the defeat of ISIS in the Hawija pocket, in and around there.

So those plans are -- are continuing.  They're underway.  There are -- the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces that support them are positioning themselves to have a successful kick-off of operations to defeat ISIS in Hawija.

But the way we see it is that it will require all elements of the Iraqi security force and the Peshmerga, because of their proximity, to play a part.

Q:  Okay.

MR. PAHON:  Thank you.

Next, we'll move to the back and Carla Babb, Voice of America.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, Colonel.

I'm going to follow up on Idrees' question and go a little bit sooner than that.  Even before the referendum, we just found out that the Iraqi parliament has voted to remove the Kirkuk governor, Karim, from his position.  No reason was given.

The Kurdish lawmakers have boycotted the most recent session today.  How has that effected your cooperation with the Peshmerga?  Are you already seeing some tensions?

COL. DILLON:  We -- I mean, obviously, those -- it is in the news here in Iraq, but the way that -- and our focus on defeating ISIS, that has not changed.  And it's going to take, as I told Idrees, all elements of the Iraqi security forces to -- to do that.

So, you know, this is a political question.  It is going on here.  We have -- the United States, through the embassy here, has made their statement clear.  And we, as the coalition, are going to continue pursuing ISIS.

Q:  Thank you for that.

And then, in Syria, you kept saying the SDF in Deir ez-Zor, in that area -- where are the VSO right now?  Are they part of that group with the SDF that are helping clear that area?

COL. DILLON:  I missed part of that.  You asked what part, so I know you said SDF.  Can you say that again, please?

Q:  I can say that again, yes.  So you mentioned SDF -- where are the vetted Syrian opposition?  Because, you know, they were training for that fight, as well, down in al-Tanf.  Are they part of that SDF force, now, that's clearing north of Deir ez-Zor?

COL. DILLON:  Carla, they are not.  The -- the vetted Syrian opposition force that we work with and we train and we're partnered with -- they are still down in al-Tanf.  And we will see if -- there's still more fighting to do.

You know, this is Deir ez-Zor, the most northern part of the middle Euphrates river valley.  There's still more fighting to do and, you know, if we can get the -- the MAT into the fight, then we will find a way to do that.  But they are still in al-Tanf, conducting training and patrols with our -- with our forces down there.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Thank you very much.  Next we'll go to Elizabeth McLaughlin, ABC.

Q:  Hi, good morning, Colonel Dillon.

Another question for you about this U.S. citizen:  Can you speak at all to any prior reports of U.S. citizens who have been captured, or have surrendered, leaving ISIS?  Has this happened before?  And can you speak a little bit to that history?

COL. DILLON:  Elizabeth, I -- I cannot.  I know that, since I've been in this seat and been the spokesman here, I don't recall any other, you know, U.S., you know, ISIS fighters being, you know, captured and/or surrendering.

We have seen it in Iraq, as far as other nationalities, the same answer is that the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq will work with the nationalities and the equivalent of the Department of State from the nationalities from where these fighters come.  And then they will determine what to do.

They have seen a most recent statement from the French minister that mentioned about them staying and being tried in Iraq.  Again, that is a decision that is made by the -- the countries who are involved.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.

And next, we'll move to Joe Tabet, Al Hurra.

Q:  Thank you.

To follow up on Deir ez-Zor, could you tell us what was the coalition role in the clearance operations of the Khabur River Valley?  And also, do you know if the SDF have direct communications with the regime?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Good questions.  Thanks, Joe.

So, yes, the first thing is the coalition supported the advance into the Khabur River Valley with advisers, with equipment that we have provided to the elements that conducted this offensive.

And we also had intelligence that was -- collecting throughout the area, both before and during the operation, and providing precision strikes on ISIS targets as they continued their advance.

Now, as far as the coordination and/or communication between the SDF and the regime, that is -- yes.  They do have a line of communication between them, as well.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.

Next, Wes Morgan from Politico.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.

You mentioned the strikes in the Abu Kamal-Mayadin area that targeted chemical and biological weapons caches.  I'm just wondering if you can provide any more detail on the biological weapons aspect of that.

COL. DILLON:  So that -- those were these -- I'm trying to think of how we've described it in the -- in the past.  These were industrial, you know, type of, you know, storage areas for chemicals.  And we identified it and struck that.

So I think that is -- that is really the limit of, you know, what we have struck, as far as, you know, chemical capabilities or designs for -- for that use.

MR. PAHON:  Wes, any follow-ups?

Q:  No.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Does anybody else have a question?

Ryan Browne, CNN, follow-up.

Q:  Colonel, just real quick on this, did I hear you correctly and -- say that the plan is that the SDF is not to go into the city of Deir ez-Zor?  I -- I think you were saying -- responding to Idrees' question on that.  So, I mean, has that -- is that plan because of fear of interacting with the regime, or Russian forces?  Or why is that the plan?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I don't want to, you know, discuss, you know, what, you know -- the plans, and why we, you know, conduct them.  But right now, that is not the case.

I've already mentioned how congested and how complex this battlefield is.  So it's already, you know, very, you know, tenuous in that sense.  So, you know, I'll just tell you that we're -- you know, the plan is not to go into Deir ez-Zor city.

But there is, you know, plenty of ISIS fighters and resources and leaders that are -- continue to have, you know, holdouts throughout the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  All right.  I believe there are no more questions.  So, Colonel Dillon, thank you very much for joining us again today, and thank you for everyone in the room for joining us today.

Colonel Dillon, do you have any closing thoughts?

COL. DILLON:  No.  I'm glad the video actually worked this time.  And we'll see you guys next week as well, same time.