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

MAJOR ADRIAN RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Good morning, everyone.

Today, we're joined by Colonel Ryan Dillon.  Colonel Dillon is the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and he is based out of Baghdad, Iraq.

Colonel Dillon, how do you hear us, sir?

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

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Sir, we hear you very well.  If you have an opening statement, please go ahead, sir.

COL. DILLON:  All right, thanks.  Today, we'll discuss operations in Iraq, and then in Syria.

The past week, our Iraqi Security Force partners made continued progress in the fight to eradicate ISIS terrorists from Iraq.  Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi announced the beginning of operations to liberate western Anbar and Hawija this week, the two final locations in Iraq where ISIS still holds territory.

Already, the ISF have routed ISIS in Akashat, Reihana, and just this morning, they have cleared the first 11 villages, completing their first phase of operations on offensive operations in Hawija.  These operations are evidence, and showcase the ISF's increased capacity as a battle-tested, formidable fighting force.

During the past week, the coalition has supported the ISF with 28 strikes on ISIS targets in Hawija and another 37 strikes in Western Anbar.  It is clear that ISIS terrorists are overwhelmed and outmatched by the strength of the ISF.  Daesh is losing ground and are failing in every battle, and soon, ISIS will have no sanctuary anywhere in Iraq.

I want to emphasize that the great progress made against ISIS throughout Iraq is due to the combined efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces working together.  This includes the Iraqi Army, the federal police, Peshmerga, local police, counterterrorism service and popular and tribal mobilization forces.  Together, all these forces have beaten ISIS decisively and repeatedly.

The ISF have also worked with the humanitarian community to care for civilians trapped by ISIS.  In fact, the United Nations recently noted that the coordination with the Iraqi military forces offers a model for how humanitarians can engage with the military to prioritize civilian protection in conflict.

All of the coordination I just mentioned has contributed to the victories we've seen recently against Daesh, and thus far across Iraq, more than 4 million people have been liberated and more than 41,000 square kilometers have been cleared.

I would also like to take a moment to add that the Combined Joint Task Force priority remains the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the current discussions about the Kurdish referendum have been a distraction in our pursuit of a common goal.  But I must emphasize that the referendum is a political decision, and I will leave it in that realm.

Moving to Syria, this week, our Syrian Democratic Force partners continued their fight to eliminate ISIS terrorists throughout eastern and northeastern Syria.  In Raqqa, the SDF continued to make steady progress, gaining approximately 84 city blocks within the city this week.  The SDF have now cleared about 70 percent -- more than 70 percent of the entire city.

On the western axis, the SDF maintain defensive positions around the fortified ISIS headquarters located in the compound commonly referred to as the National Hospital.  Like so many other protected sites, such as schools and mosques, ISIS has transformed this hospital into a headquarters, a logistics hub and a defensive position.

On the eastern access, the SDF advanced from the northeast into the city and successfully cleared major roads, isolating a large portion of terrain in the eastern part of the city.  In this last week, the SDF have also assisted more than 200 civilians flee the city of Raqqa and they also have detained ISIS fighters attempting to blend in amongst civilians, one of which was another ISIS Emir, or a local leader.

And if you recall from last week, I also mentioned that an ISIS Emir surrendered to the SDF out of Raqqa.  In total, we assess that there are about 400 to 900 ISIS fighters that remain in the city.  Elsewhere in Syria, we remain focused on defeating ISIS while maintaining deconfliction between various groups, especially in and around Deir ez-Zoir.

Coalition and Russian military officials met face-to-face this week to adjust and expand deconfliction measures.  The discussions emphasized the need to share operational graphics and locations to ensure that prevention of accidental targeting or other possible frictions that would distract from the defeat of ISIS.

We will continue to deconflict with the Russians at every level to ensure that we remain focused on fighting ISIS, all while protecting coalition and our partner forces.  To that end, our SDF partners continue their anti-ISIS clearance effort in the Deir ez-Zoir province, northeast of the Deir ez-Zoir city.

Since beginning operations two weeks ago, the SDF have cleared more than 1,000 square kilometers.  They also continue to receive, screen and assist internally displaced people moving north from Deir ez-Zoir.  Hundreds of people have fled through the area to protected SDF areas in the past week.

In Southern Syria, near the tri-border region, coalition forces continue to conduct patrols and prepare for counter-ISIS operations within that and the vicinity of Al-Tanf.  I've answered many of your questions about the closure of one of our outposts nearby Al-Tanf and will tell you that the decision to establish and close bases are determined by operational requirements and the progress of the campaign.

The decision to close this outpost was decided weeks ago, well before this past weekend.  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 in both Iraq and Syria.

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

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right, the first question goes to Lita Baldor, Associated Press.

Q:  Hi, Ryan.  Can you give us a little bit more detail on the face-to-face meeting?  Because the Russians are saying today that they warned the U.S. that there are going to be Russian Special Forces with their troops around Deir ez-Zoir, and they specifically warned that there would be retaliation if any of their troops were -- any of these Syrian regime troops were targeted.

Can you talk a little bit about what came up in this meeting, where it was and whether -- what the U.S. response to those types of threats were?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Lita, thanks for the question.

First off, I'll say that the face-to-face meeting between the Russians and the coalition military officials happened in the region, so it was  -- it was nearby, and so that -- I won't go too far into discussions on exactly where that is, because there may be follow-up meetings, perhaps in the same location.

As far as, you know, the -- as far as what the statements were, made recently by the Russians, I will just go ahead and say that, you know, all the more reason why the deconfliction measures, you know, must be discussed and -- and, you know, really, you know, figured out to the gnat's detail.  And that is, as we have seen, the convergence of forces next to one another just increases the need for these deconfliction measures.

So what does that mean?  You know, they had a face-to-face discussion, laid down, you know, maps and graphics to discuss where those deconfliction measures would be put into place so that, one, we don't inadvertently, you know, fire upon one another; number two, we can stay focused on ISIS; and three, we can continue to maintain support to our forces both from the air -- to our forces on the ground, to make sure that they can continue their efforts to defeat ISIS.

Q:  Can -- does this set up a new sort of deconfliction zone, specifically in and around Deir ez-Zoir?  And it sounds like, when you're sharing maps and graphics- that sounds more like coordination, cooperation, than deconfliction.  Would you say that this effort to coordinate and deconflict has moved to a new level?

COL. DILLON:  So what I would say is we're not going to, you know, say that it is a zone.  This is a -- I think, a natural progression to the deconfliction line that we had had in place, that runs south of Tabqa and ran parallel to the Euphrates River.

Now that we've gotten into Deir ez-Zoir, that needs to be upped a level, and the level of detail that is required for the deconfliction, you know, has to increase.  And, because of the proximity, that is why we've had these face-to-face meetings, you know, because of what happened this past weekend, on September 16th.  This is another reason why these meetings are happening.

But as far as, cooperation, you know, I would not call it -- I think someone has described it in the past as a "chummy relationship."  It is professional, and it is for deconfliction, and it is so that we know where they are, and they know where we are, and we can continue our efforts to defeat ISIS.

Q:  Just one quick thing -- when -- when was the meeting?  Sorry.

COL. DILLON:  It was in the last couple days.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, to Kasim Ileri from Anadolu.

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  Look, my questions will again be about Deir ez-Zoir.  Could you tell us about SDF's movement around Deir ez-Zoir?  Where are they now?  And are they going to move forward -- than the area they are currently located?  And in which direction they are moving?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Thanks, Kasim.

In Deir ez-Zoir, as far -- as -- as part of the Operation Jazeera Storm, they have reached their initial objective, which is northeast of Deir ez-Zoir, I will say about, you know, 20 kilometers northeast of Deir ez-Zoir.  They have, you know, met that objective.  They have begun back-clearing.

I think last week, I had said that they had achieved 500 square kilometers, and that was coming down on two main axes of advance.  They have since back-cleared, and cleared all the space in between those areas, and they continue to also push and expand outside of those axes, particularly to the east.  So I think we're ready and prepared to show you, next week, some updated graphics similar to the Raqqa map to show that progress for you.

Q:  You said the SDF apparently wants to move down to east, and the regime also is interested in moving to that direction, particularly, the border area with Iraq and -- the bordering area with Iraq.

So what is the deal here?  What -- did -- does this came up during the meeting that you had with Russians?  Who is going to take that area -- the eastern part of the Deir ez-Zoir, which connects the Iraqi and Syrian territory, the bordering area?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  And I -- and I'm not going to get, you know, too far ahead, but those were points of discussion on -- during the face-to-face meeting, and continue to be points of discussion at all levels of the deconfliction line, both face to face and on the normal telephone lines that we've used in the past.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Lucas Tomlinson from Fox News.

Q:  Colonel, this Russian general accuse U.S.-backed fighters of attacking his forces two times.  Can you confirm that?

COL. DILLON:  I have not seen the statement.  I know that you have brought it up.  I will just refer back to the statements that I've made already about deconfliction and how important it is to do so.

Q:  The Russians and the Syrians are fighting ISIS.  What's the problem with that?

COL. DILLON:  We're fighting ISIS.  I don't -- I don't know what your question is, you know, Lucas.  So, you know, either ask it again or -- yeah, please ask your question again or elaborate on what you're -- what you're going to.

Q:  The Russians and the Syrian military are fighting ISIS.  What is the concern in Deir ez-Zoir?

COL. DILLON:  There's -- they can fight ISIS, and they have been fighting ISIS, and they've reached the city of Deir ez-Zoir.  The Syrian Democratic Forces, our partners, have also made, you know, significant gains across north -- northern Syria, and are not ready to, you know -- you know, give that up or to -- or to prevent ISIS from moving back into the area.

So, you know, they're fighting ISIS.  We're fighting ISIS. Deconfliction efforts are put into place so that we can continue to focus on our efforts to do so.

Q:  (Off mic) ISIS together in Deir ez-Zor?

COL. DILLON:  Are you -- I missed you on that -- you know, ask it again, please?

Q:  Are the -- is the United States, and U.S.-backed forces and Russian-backed forces together fighting ISIS in Deir ez-Zoir?

COL. DILLON:  We're fighting in Deir ez-Zoir province.  They are fighting in Deir ez-Zoir city proper.  And there is a separation between the locations where they are fighting and where our partner forces are fighting.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, to Nancy Youssef from the Wall Street Journal.

Q:  Thank you.

Colonel, earlier today in the press conference you held with Brigadier Razul, he made mention of the fact that the Iraqis were motivated to fight a two-front campaign against ISIS in Hawija and in Anbar.

And my question is, do you believe that the Iraqi conventional forces are capable of fighting a two-front campaign?  And what does this mean for U.S. advisers?  Could we see U.S. advisers spread over a wider geographic area?  Could we see a scenario in which there'll be a demand for more U.S. advisers, should a two-front campaign start?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Thanks, Nancy, and a good question, and I will give you the answer immediately.

And that is, you know, are they capable of it?  You know, they're already showing that they can do it.  So they've already kicked off operations in Hawija this morning, they've already made significant progress there, while at the same time, doing that out in Western Anbar.

So at the initial stages of both this -- these offensive operations in Anbar and also in Hawija, they have already shown success.  As far as the advisers, we are already positioned to provide assistance to our Iraqi Security Forces through both of those campaigns.  And if there is a requirement to expand that, then that is a decision by the commander to ask, but that has not happened for this particular fight.

Q:  Can you help me understand what's the incentive given the risks associated with having a two-front war, given that the Iraqi Security Forces have been quite exhausted through this campaign?  I'm  -- I'm just trying to understand what's the driving factor.

Is it simply to get rid of ISIS faster, and if so, is there a risk in trying to do it this way, rather than one after the other?  Is there a worry that they'll -- that it's a balloon effect that they're pushing in one city versus another?  I'm trying to understand, militarily, sort of the thinking behind going about it this way for the first time.

COL. DILLON:  Okay, well I -- I think, number one, it's an Iraqi decision.  And number two, I would say that, based off of their successes over the course of the last three years, there is a level of confidence with the Iraqi security forces that is very much merited.  They have come out of a victory in Mosul that would have been hard for any -- any army in the world to undertake.

And they came out on top and it came out victorious.  And then immediately after you that victory and the liberation of Mosul, their next operation was Tal-Afar.  And they rolled over ISIS in Tal-Afar, you know, very quickly and we have seen how they have continued to, you know, just, you know -- with the momentum and the confidence that has been accomplished with these defeats against ISIS, can very well have presented the decision for them to make -- to go on both of these offenses.

Again, bottom line is, you know, they are in command and -- and they are the one in charge of making these decisions, and right now, the initial successes of both of these -- of this campaign and you know, defeating ISIS in western Anbar and Hawija at the same time, has -- looks very promising.

Q:  A lot -- the campaigns you mentioned, a lot of them have a heavy Special Forces component.  Can you give me a breakdown in terms of the -- in Hawija and Anbar, how many -- how much has been led by conventional and what percentages, conventional versus Special Forces in both of those campaigns.  Do you have that breakdown?

COL. DILLON:  I don't have it right here in front of me, I don't have it off the top my head.  I can, you know, try to look for that for you and provide it and then I will follow up.  But I don't have it with me right now.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Elizabeth McLaughlin, from ABC.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.  I know you don't want to talk about the Kurdish referendum, because it's a political decision, but the State Department said yesterday that it had already negatively impacted the fight against ISIS, specifically communications between Erbil and Baghdad coming up on Hawija.  So can you clarify how the campaign has already been affected and what were the differences in that communication?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, that's fair.  I will say that prior to the referendum, there was a singular focus and that was on defeating Daesh.  You know, since, and most recently, as with the joint press conference that I just held earlier today with my Iraqi counterpart, many of the questions -- almost all of them -- have been directed at the referendum.

So I will say that, you know, the focus and -- there is a distraction from the fight against ISIS.  So, you know, I think that explains -- I think that explains it.

Q:  Can you speak at all to what's actually affected what's going on on the battlefield?

COL. DILLON:  As far as what's going on on the battlefield, I will also just shed some light on some of the most recent interviews that I've had with Iraqis over the course of the last couple weeks.  And there have been a lot of speculation about Hawija and how the government of Iraq was holding back on Hawija as a bargaining chip or as a threat to the referendum.  Clearly, that's not the case.

They have kicked off operations to defeat ISIS in Hawija prior to the referendum.  So that has -- these -- the decision to, you know, start Hawija is a decision by the government of Iraq.  The generals and the Iraqi security forces on the ground have decided when, and after they have prepared and gotten the forces into place, they have decided when to start this campaign.  And they've done that.

But, you know, it has not distracted at least the ISF, as far as the commencement of operations in western Anbar and in Hawija.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, to T.M. Gibbons-Neff from The Washington Post.

Q:  Hey, Colonel Dillon.  Question about the meeting between the Russians and the U.S.-backed forces in the ERV -- does the U.S. have the ability to talk to their Russian counterparts on the ground directly?

COL. DILLON:  T.M. yes, there is a -- the ground components have a line to talk with one another.  The air components have a line to talk with one another.  And the commanders -- General Funk has a line to talk with his counterpart, the Russian counterpart, in Syria.  So you have multiple levels of interaction and deconfliction and lines to discuss.

Q:  And, second part of the question, southern ERV, looking Mayadin, Abu Kamal -- has it been decided -- you know, we can definitely say that would happened in Deir ez-Zoir was kind of because there was not proper deconfliction?

Has the U.S. and the Russians decided on a tempo of how they're going to carve up the southern Euphrates river valley?  Or is just going to be a wait-and-see approach?

COL. DILLON:  That is a part of discussions -- is the expansion of this deconfliction line as it moves further on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley but as far as, you know, any specifics on that, obviously, we're not going to, you know, provide that detail.  But those are part of the discussions -- those are part of the deconfliction as we move forward.

We very much, as a coalition, and our Syrian Democratic Forces, want to continue down into these areas where we know ISIS is. Obviously Mayadin has been a location where we know ISIS targets have been. We have struck them, you know, throughout the middle Euphrates river valley, particularly in Mayadin and Abu Kamal, and we want to get after ISIS there, and that is the plan -- is to do just that.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right.  Next, to Ryan Browne from CNN.

Q:  Hello, Colonel.  Thank you for doing this.

The face-to-face meeting -- can you provide who was actually attending that meeting?  What level of seniority was the officials?  I mean, like, was this, you know, O-6 to O-6, or was this higher -- higher up the chain of command?  And has the U.S. advisers, or coalition advisers working with the SDF, have they changed their force protection, in the wake of Saturday's airstrike against -- the Russian airstrike against the SDF?  I mean, are they doing more protective overflights?  Are any -- you don't have to go into specifics, but has there been any adjustment in the force posture in the result of that airstrike?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  First off, Ryan, I will say that the face-to-face meeting with the military officials was at the general officer level on both sides.

And as far as the increase of force protection measures, we have always maintained the capabilities and the overwatch, both from the air, and our forces on the ground.  And, you know, we maintain that.  There is not -- I would not say that there has been an increased amount of force protection measures.  I would say that, you know, it is where it needs to be, and it has been so from the beginning.

Q:  Just to quickly follow up on T.M.'s question -- when did the ability for the ground units to communicate -- Russian and coalition -- communicate with each other directly, when was that, kind of, instituted?  How long has that been going on?  And -- and that -- yeah, how long has that been going on, I guess.

COL. DILLON:  All right.  I don't want to -- I don't want to, you know, steer you the wrong way, but I would say it's has been over a month now.  But I'll -- I owe that back to you.  I will, you know, get a more definitive answer on that.

Q:  And just -- there hasn't been any coalition strikes in Deir ez-Zoir for a long time on the strike release.  Was that -- is that just because no targets have been identified, or is that part of the deconfliction?

COL. DILLON:  I'll have to get back to you on that as well.  I have not -- I -- I have not, you know -- you know, kept a -- not kept a tight eye on the strikes there.  I know that, you know, obviously, our strikes continue in -- in Raqqa, and further down the middle Euphrates River Valley.  But I will check on the Deir ez-Zoir, and if it's, is it just that we are, you know, writing at a different, you know -- characterizing where it is near?  I owe you that answer.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right, and I'll go to Corey Dickstein, from Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Hey, sir, my first question, I want to clarify something, because I'm probably just misunderstanding.  Following up on Ryan and T.M. on this -- this ground-to-ground deconfliction talk, are you saying that special -- like, special forces advisers on the ground can talk to Russian special forces advisers, with the -- with the Syrian forces?  Or are you saying that there's a measure somewhere on the ground in Iraq, deconflicting with Russians on the ground in Syria?  I'm a little confused.

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  No, that's fair, Corey.  What it is, is it is those, you know, forces not on the -- not on the ground, but ground forces (inaudible); those that are, you know, maneuvering from them.  So, you know, don't think that it is, you know, you know, special forces, you know, tactical level engagements on the ground with their counterparts.  It's at a higher level than that.

And, you know, sorry.  I have it now, going back to Ryan's question.  We have continued to strike locations in Deir ez-Zoir province, 17 is what I've -- tracking right now, over the course of the last week.

Q:  All right, then my -- my other question, in Iraq.  Can you -- what is the estimate for ISIS fighters in -- in the Hawija area?  And same question for Western Anbar.  And are those -- are those mostly going to be foreign fighters, guys who have fought, you know, in other locations in Iraq before?  Or are these going to be guys that have been in those locations for a while?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  All right, Corey, so for in -- in Hawija, we estimate that there are 800 to 1,500 ISIS fighters that are in the Hawija area.  Out of those, there are some foreign fighters.  We don't have a breakdown of that.  General Jaja Rasul, today's joint press conference said -- also acknowledged that there are foreign fighters in Hawija.  As far as the Anbar Province, we've got, right now, an estimate of 1,500 ISIS fighters in Al-Qa'im, and in Abu Kamal is 1,000.

So in that -- in that area, is about 1,000 to 1,500 fighters in Abu Kamal- Al-Qa'im area.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Thank you.  We'll go to Kasim from Anadolu.

Q:  Just another question, Colonel Dillon.  About Afrin, did the coalition get any assurances from Turkey against the possible operation toward Afrin, while on the other hand there is Iraq operation where YPG is part -- taking part in?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, Kasim.  I will say that we maintain communications with the Turkish elements to the north.  As far as, you know, where their forces are arrayed in Afrin, I'm not going to go into that level of detail.  And then as far as -- can you ask again the question about the SDF in Raqqa, how does it tie to that?

Q:  YPG is part of the operation in Raqqa and also there's the YPG element in Afrin.  So did you get any assurances from the Turks that they are not going to take any kind of offensive inside -- in Afrin while the operation in Raqqa continues?

COL. DILLON:  Yeah, Kasim, we are -- our partner force in Raqqa is the SDF.  And as we have discussed in the past, you know, from this podium, is that the arms and the things that we do with the SDF, we are very transparent about those things with our Turkish partners and our coalition members.

So we will continue to do that.  They know what we are providing the SDF.  We have our advisers and those that accompany the SDF in Raqqa and we'll maintain that -- we'll maintain that all the way through, both the transparency and our ability to stay with the SDF in the fight in Raqqa.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next to Courtney Kube from NBC.

Q:  Good evening, Colonel Dillon.  I'm sorry, I'm completely confused on communications now.  So -- so we have the existing deconfliction line that's run out of Qatar and that is solely for deconflicting airspace, Russian to U.S.  Okay.  Are these other -- how are these other -- are these other communication lines also considered other deconfliction lines?  I -- I'm sorry, I don't get this at all.

How many different, like, lines of communication are now going between the U.S. and Russia, period?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  So you -- I can understand how, you know, you were getting a little confused.  So you have the -- the actual, you know, the deconfliction telephone line.  One is with the -- the air-to-air, and another one is, you know, from ground components, and that is also.  So think two telephone lines; one talking to air stuff, and one talking ground stuff.  And then the other one, you know, as needed.  It's still just a telephone line, and that is between the commanders, our combined joint task force commander, and the commander of Russian forces in Syria.  I hope that clears it up.

Q:  That helps.  And -- and -- and the ground component one is -- is also at, what?  Like an -- who -- I guess, who's the U.S. side of the ground component one?  Is that the CFLCC commander?

COL. DILLON:  No, it is at the CJTF level.  So you know, we -- it is at our level.  So for -- for the -- this combined joint task force, it is at our level, and that is a discussion between the ground component forces from Russians, and the combined joint task force.

Q:  Ground component one is -- that's for deconflicting ground operations.  Nothing for air, right?

COL. DILLON:  That is correct.

Q:  I got it.  And then my real question:  I don't know if this is anything that you are -- are tracking at all, but do you have any sense of how many al-Qaida fighters might be in Syria right now?  Is it something that you're tracking?

COL. DILLON:  Courtney, that is not.  We're not tracking al-Qaida, at least not CJTF, and -- and I don't get that normally in -- in briefings.

Q:  Thank you.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  I'll go to Richard Sisk, from

Q:  Hi, Colonel.  Again, on the -- on the meeting with the Russians, the face-to-face meeting, is that the first time ground commanders have met with the Russians?

COL. DILLON:  Sir, yes, I believe that it is.  I'm also, you know, looking in on that.  So to say that was the first time since I have been here that I know of, and -- and that goes back to about the last four or five months.  But we are looking into this to see -- because this question was asked of me yesterday as well -- to see if this has happened in -- in the past.  But not to my knowledge.  This is a first.

Q:  And sir, was the SDF part of the meeting with the Russians?

COL. DILLON:  They were not, not to my knowledge.  That was the Russian general officers, and the combined joint task force coalition general officers that met.

Q:  Lastly, Colonel, in -- in Hawija, are the Peshmerga participating in these initial operations?

COL. DILLON:  They are not a part of the elements that are conducting the advance, but they will very much likely play a part because of the proximity of the Kurdish defensive line, to where Hawija is.  And so what I'll say is, as an example, the same happened in Tal-Afar, and, you know, the Peshmerga were not a part of the forces that were, you know, moving and conducting offensive operations in Tal-Afar.

However, as the ISIS elements fled north, they ran into the Kurdish defensive line, and Peshmerga forces played a large role in killing many ISIS members, and also taking them, those that -- captured -- and -- and those that surrendered.  We can, you know, predict or say that it is likely that they will also play a part in the same way in Hawija.

Q:  And again, lastly, are the -- are the Peshmerga around Hawija currently coordinating with the ISF?  Or have they cut off communications?

COL. DILLON:  No.  That was discussed today, and it was confirmed that the Iraqi Security Forces, you know, are continuing to work with the Peshmerga in and around the operations that are happening in Hawija.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right.  And we'll go to Wes Morgan from Politico.

Q:  Hi, Colonel Dillon.

So there have been some reports in the last few days that some U.S. units in Afghanistan are bringing forward troops who had initially been left behind at their home stations.

And I'm wondering, is this also happening in OIR?  Have any U.S. units in Iraq recently been rounded out with troops from their home stations who had initially been left behind when they deployed?

COL. DILLON:  Wes, I'm not tracking that. No. I can't say that that is happening.  I don't think that is the case here in Iraq or Syria.

Q:  Thanks.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now, to Carla Babb from Voice of America.

Q:  Thank you, Colonel.

Back to Hawija, you just told Ryan that there were an estimated 800 or 1,500 ISIS fighters there.  Not to get too picky, but a couple of weeks ago, you said there were less than 1,000, and that's what Voice of America had been reporting, because that's what you had said two weeks ago.  Have they had reinforcements in the last couple weeks?  Why have the numbers gone up?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  So, Carla, every time I announce or I present any kind of numbers, these are estimates.  And these estimates are driven by our intelligence folks and the capabilities that they use to track and come up with these estimates.  So that is -- that's where we will leave it.  You know, there are -- these are estimates, and 800 to 1,500 is the current amount right now.

Q:  (Off mic) assume that they've had reinforcements arrive?

COL. DILLON:  No.  Again, I'm not going to, you know -- you know, give an assessment as to, you know, why we think this.  Again, these are estimates, and they're based off of many different means to collect data and to put them together.

Q:  Thanks.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  T~.M. from Washington Post.

Q:  Yep.  Just to clarify again on that -- on that communication, my question was kind of -- maybe said a little too broadly.

Do the maneuver units on the ground, the American forces on the eastern side of the Euphrates, have the ability to communicate with the Russian forces on the western side of the Euphrates?  Or do they need to go to a third party, say, General Funk, to communicate their concerns, say, in case they were getting mortared or, you know, strafed by Su-25s?

COL. DILLON:  Yeah.  There is not communication on the ground from U.S. forces and Russian forces on the ground.

Q:  (Off mic) party to communicate, you know, a deconfliction incident?

COL. DILLON:  Well, there are -- we've got the different lines that we've already discussed, both from the air and the ground.  So that's where those would be made in order to deconflict.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Next, to Phil Stewart from Reuters.

Q:  Hey there.  Could you just back it up really quick?  What -- can you tell us a little bit more about this face-to-face meeting?  How long it lasted, ERV -- where -- give us some sense of where it took place?  Was this in a U.S., you know, facility?

There must have been force protection in place, or -- where did this take place?  And kind of why was -- why was it important?  Anything you can tell us more about that meeting?  And then I had a question about Iran.


You know, we're not going to go too much more into detail, for the reasons that I said in the beginning.  This happened in the region, and it happened, you know, face to face.  It may happen again in the future; therefore, I don't want to, you know, get too much into location.

But -- and I think that -- I think that addresses it.  I've already talked about at what level it was and the potential of possibly doing it again.

Q:  Like a -- you know, a 10-minute meeting?  Was this a 12-hour meeting?  Was -- you know, can you give us any sense of -- I have no idea whether they were just sort of saying hello, or if they were going through, you know, pretty intricate plans, or what.

COL. DILLON:  Yeah.  So, you know, Phil, I don't know, you know, exactly how long.  It was scheduled for a day.  It didn't go multiple days.  But I can't tell you how long, if it was a 18-hour session or if it was a 4-hour session.  I don't know that.

Q:  But it was probably hours, as a safe bet?  An hours-long meeting?

COL. DILLON:  I think it's a safe bet to say that it was more than an hour.  But I'm not going to, you know, go too much more into that, because I -- like I said, I just don't know.

Q:  Great.  And, just really quick, on Iran, I mean, I'm just wondering whether Soleimani's been seen lately, either in areas where Syrian forces are operating, or where Iraqi forces are operating.  When was the last time you -- he's been kind of spotted out and about?

COL. DILLON:  There are -- there's no question about it that there are Iranian-backed militia groups that are supporting the pro-regime forces, and they have capabilities, and we watch that.  And as much as we can, we know where they are.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Now, to Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

Q:  Colonel, following up on T.M.'s question, if Russian-backed forces are fighting ISIS and U.S.-backed forces are fighting ISIS, why aren't the two sides coordinating?

COL. DILLON:  Well, right now, you know, we are -- you know, we're focused in a particular, you know, area and, you know, we are -- I'll just leave it at that we are deconflicting.

And the way that we have conducted the operations throughout northern Syria with our partners is a -- looks different than the way that the Syrian regime and the Russians have.

Q:  (Off mic) in eastern Syria and Deir ez-Zoir, you have forces eyeball to eyeball across the Euphrates River from one another.  Why isn't there some coordination, since both sides are fighting ISIS, the same targets, and seem --


MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Colonel Dillon, this is Adrian.  I will take that question from OSD (Off mic) we'll take that question from here.

Q:  Okay.  Then, last one (Off mic) did the U.S.-led coalition take it as a threat, this Russian general's comments about "if attacked, we will strike back"?  Was that a threat?

COL. DILLON:  All I'm going to say is that we will continue to deconflict, and we'll continue to make sure that our forces have all the protective measures in place, and are ready to defend ourselves if necessary.

Q:  Yes or no, was it a threat?

COL. DILLON:  You have my answer already, Lucas.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  And to Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q:  Colonel, just one last on this.  So in the last few -- few days, Russia bombed SDF forces.  They said that they would attack SDF and U.S. forces if they were attacked.  They accused the U.S. of imitating the fight against ISIS over the last three years.  Is -- I mean, is any of this rhetoric out of the Russian military, Russian Ministry of Defense, is it helpful to the campaign against ISIS?  And is it accurate at all?

COL. DILLON:  I would say, Ryan, right there is -- I mean, you -- you talked about rhetoric, but I would say that as far as the progress that has been made by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the coalition speaks for itself.  You look through northern Iraq, and you look at all the locations that the Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated areas, and have cleared areas of ISIS, more than 43,000 square kilometers.  And none of it, not a single inch of it, has been ceded, or, you know, given back, to ISIS.

There have been military councils and civilian councils that have been established, that both are representative and responsive to the people in these areas.  These are Syrians, fighting for Syrians, and they have shown that they are able and capable, and have proven that they can do this.

So I think that anything that -- that we'll say is, we'll point to the progress that we've made to include Raqqa right now, the self-declared capital.  And we'll let our actions speak for themselves.

Q:  And Russia also accused the U.S. of initiating an Al-Nusra attack on a regime base yesterday.  Is there any truth to that at all?

COL. DILLON:  Yeah, I -- we're talking about defeating ISIS, and -- and not -- I don't know, you know, what -- what comments you were talking about.  So again, I -- I'm not going to entertain that question.  We're -- we're going to fight ISIS, just like we've done, and we've continued to be successful at that.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  All right, are there any more questions from the group?  Sir, thank you very much.  Any closing words for -- for the group?

COL. DILLON:  Nope, thanks.

MAJ. RANKINE-GALLOWAY:  Thank you, sir.

Have a good day, everyone.