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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via Teleconference From Kuwait

ERIC J. PAHON:  All right, everybody.  Thank you very much for joining us for not the last OIR briefing of the year, but next to last.

As a reminder, next week, December 27th, we'll have Major General Gedney.  He's the OIR deputy commanding general for strategy and support.

With us by phone today, however, is the infamous Colonel Ryan Dillon, the CJTF-OIR spokesman.  He's live from Kuwait today via phone.  He was headed back home for some much-needed R&R, but we made him do one last thing before we'd let him -- before we'd give him a plane ticket.

So, sir, can you hear us?

COLONEL RYAN DILLON:  I can hear you well.  Thanks, Eric.

MR. PAHON:  And go ahead, sir.

COL. DILLON:  All right, great.  And I just want to highlight that next week is -- Major General Gedney is a British officer, one of our coalition -- non-U.S. coalition members, and so you will get proper English coming out of his mouth next week.

So good morning.  Sorry you can't see me today, but I'm currently in Kuwait, as Eric has mentioned, for a few days before taking off on leave.  However, because you don't have me on camera, I've tried to beef up the visual aids for today's brief.  So we'll go ahead and get started in Syria, and then we'll move to Iraq.

In Syria, and the map should be showing, in Syria since the liberation of Raqqa in October, the Syrian Democratic Forces have maintained momentum in their advance against ISIS into the Khabur and Middle Euphrates River Valleys.  The SDF have deliberately and meticulously cleared more than 4,400 square kilometers of former ISIS territory since the beginning of operations in September.

Despite recent claims from Russia that Syria is free from ISIS terror, the SDF are still meeting resistance from ISIS fighters in the region.  ISIS is putting up a stiff defense in remaining territories in the MERV, likely as a delaying action to allow other elements to displace to southwest and northwest Syria to seek sanctuary and/or continue to fight.

Syrian regime commanders in eastern Syria suggest that ISIS fighters from the MERV may have slipped through porous Syrian and Russian defenses to arrive in areas near Damascus.  And we've also seen a recent ISIS attempt to transit westward through the Al-Tanf area, albeit unsuccessfully because of our partners' actions to interdict.

The SDF remains steadfast, making progress in the MERV, specifically in villages south of Mayadin.  In the town of Abu Hamam, highlighted with the yellow star on the map -- I know it's hard to see, but I'll give you a -- an idea of where -- a desperate and dwindling ISIS force continues to fight vigorously.

All right.  A milestone -- you should now be seeing a photo of the linkup between ISF and the SDF on the screen there -- a milestone was met Monday, December 11th, when the SDF reached the border of Iraq, linking up with Iraqi Security Forces that were completing their clearance of ISIS from the final pockets in Iraq.  Our two Defeat ISIS partners are working together to reestablish a secure international border, and I'll touch on it a little bit more when we shift to Iraq.

In Raqqa province, the Raqqa Civil Council continues to focus on rubble and explosive remnants of war removal as top priority, while also facilitating the needs of both IDP camps and returning Raqqa residents.

The colossal task of restoring Raqqa to a city free of explosive hazards is one that is taking many hands and organizations working together on this problem.  From counter-IED training to employment of bulldozers and RCC working closely with NGOs and our partner forces, all available resources are being used to make the streets and homes of Raqqa habitable again.

Just as coalition has been committed to the military defeat of ISIS, we are equally committed to securing the gains on the battlefield and preventing the return of this terrorist group.  The broader efforts of the global coalition are also focused on the stabilization of areas clear devices.

These civilian-led efforts address vital needs, such as restoring essential services and fostering education and employment.  Stabilization and humanitarian efforts go hand-in-hand with our military campaign.  And all these efforts lead to lasting security and help people return to their homes and get on with their lives.

Before switching countries, I'd like to announce three ISIS senior leaders the coalition has killed in Iraq and Syria in the past three weeks.  Abu Faisal and his deputy Abu Qudamah al-Iraqi were killed in a coalition strike on December 1st near Karachi, Syria, and Mustafa Kamal Jasim Muhammad al-Zawian, an ISIS senior leader courier, was killed in an operation on November 28th near al-Sharqat, Iraq.

The removal of these key terrorists disrupts ISIS leadership and information dissemination activities, reducing the terrorist group's ability to plan and conduct terrorist attacks within Syria and Iraq and abroad.  And there will be a press release with these terrorists’ names, and they should be waiting for you by the time you return to your desk.

The coalition will continue to exert pressure on ISIS senior leaders and associates across multiple networks in order to degrade, disrupt and dismantle remaining ISIS structures and remove the extremist terrorists throughout Iraq and Syria.

Shifting to Iraq, the coalition congratulates Prime Minister Abadi and all the Iraqi people on the achievement of full liberation from ISIS.  We honor the sacrifices of all elements of the Iraqi Security Forces that fought ISIS for the last three years.

The military parade in Baghdad was well received, and other celebrations were well attended and highlighted the professionalism of the Iraqi Security Forces.  Prime Minister Abadi said in his liberation announcement that "Iraq must wipe out any ISIS remaining relics, and never allow terrorism to return."

The fight against ISIS remnants continues today.  Iraqi Security Forces conduct clearance operations and pursue pockets of enemy ISIS fighters to thoroughly eradicate these terrorist elements hiding throughout the country.

The coalition will continue to partner with the ISF, advising, training and equipping them in their efforts to eliminate ISIS as a threat to Iraq.  On December 5th, the high-level committee of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and our CJTF leaders met to discuss the way forward for the coalition's continued support of the Iraqi Security Forces.

The meeting prepared for the -- as a -- in preparation for the future transition of the defeat of ISIS campaign.  The campaign will tailor our support based on Iraqi requirements, with a particular emphasis on the capabilities needed to hold and secure liberated areas.

As an example, the coalition began specific training with the Iraqi border guard force, with the delivery of the first border guard in a box at Bismayah Training Complex this week.  Sixty members of the border guard force began a two-week training course, and after the training is complete, the boxes will be divested to the battalion commander and shift to the western border.

The border guard project instructs these forces in the subsequent deployment on the border for controlling movement and denying the passage of terrorist infiltrations.  We have also focused on developing essential life-sustaining and logistical capabilities within the Iraqi Security Forces.

In November, the coalition began training Iraqi military leaders in medical planning for military operations, as well as providing combat medic training to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.

And also, just last week, we provided a course on nursing administration and these efforts will continue as we support the ISF in becoming an even more capable and sustainable force.  As with Syria, our focus in Iraq is increasingly on long-term stabilization, setting conditions so that life can return to normal and the people can look forward to a brighter future.

We have made it clear that the defeat of ISIS will not occur on the battlefield alone.  And that is why we are working with many governments and nongovernmental partners around the world to counter the terrorist group's efforts to radicalize, recruit and inspire people to violence.

Although ISIS' physical caliphate has crumbled, we fully expect the enemy to make a concerted effort to maintain their presence and influence in the virtual domain.  While ISIS has been defeated as a conventional fighting force, we cannot forget their terrorist roots.

To recap, across Iraq and Syria, ISIS has lost nearly all of the territory they once held.  And that's more than 105,000 square kilometers.  And they have not regained a single meter of those territories liberated by coalition partners.  More than 7.7 million people are now free from ISIS, and this does not, however, mark the end of the campaign.  We know this enemy is as adaptive and savvy as it is cruel and evil.

We will continue to support our partners and keep pressure on ISIS to deliver a lasting defeat so that these terrorists in Iraq and Syria cannot return.  And, with that, I'll go ahead and now take your questions.

MR. PAHON:  All right, Ryan.  Thank you very much.

Bob Burns, AP.

Q:  (Off mic) Thank you.

Colonel Dillon, I don't believe you mentioned anything about Russian air activity over Syria, unless I didn't hear it.  But there have been, of course, a number of complaints by the U.S. in recent weeks, of dangerous -- what you called dangerous and unprofessional activity by Russian air -- Russian pilots.

As of -- can you bring us up-to-date?  Have there been any recent incidents and what's the state of play on that?

COL. DILLON:  So you did see those initial -- or those statements and announcements that came out, particularly with the F-22 and Su-35.  There has been an uptick in these either sloppy flying, or overtly provocative flying, however, things have -- we have maintained using that deconfliction line, both the air deconfliction and the ground deconfliction, and since those incidents were reported last week, there have not been any more.  You know, things have tampered down since last week.  We will continue to use that deconfliction line and continue to work with the Russians so that we can remain focused on fighting the remnants of ISIS, at least on our side, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

Q:  Are they still flying the same amount, or have they decreased the amount of flying, the Russians?

COL. DILLON:  We have seen a -- in the last two to three days, there has been a decrease in the presence along the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  And that's about as far as I'll go about that.  I'll let them address where they're flying, but there has been a decrease in the amount of sorties that they have flown around the MERV.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  All right, thanks, Bob.

Lucas Tomlinson.

Q:  Colonel, how many ISIS fighters do you estimate are still alive today?

COL. DILLON:  We still -- I know that I put this out a while ago, maybe a couple weeks ago.  We estimate that there are less that 3,000.  And, as you've seen with some of these press releases that we've put out recently, like with the incident that happened in Al-Tanf last week that number continues to go down to include with those ISIS fighters that we continue to identify and capture as they are trying to either leave the country or transit across Iraq and Syria.

MR. PAHON:  Okay, thank you very much.

Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q:  Hello Colonel, thank you for doing this.  Just a quick one on the -- you mentioned the ISIS fighters were kind of passing from the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and heading westward.  And, again, that's why they kind of pass through the Al-Tanf area.

You've mentioned porous defenses by the Syrian regime and the Russians.  Is this kind of permissible environment, is this done intentionally or is this done because they're unable to enforce kind of a hard defensive line?  And I have one follow-up.

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Good question, Ryan, thanks for that.  I think it's the latter.  We have seen, throughout this campaign -- and I did highlight how the -- our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces, how they have meticulously and deliberately cleared these areas, back-clearing and making sure that they have been cleared of ISIS.

We have seen, over the course of this campaign, several times on the western side of the Euphrates, where that has not been the case.  So what -- what I'll say to that is, I mean, you have their own Syrian commanders in Damascus that are calling out the other elements of his military, saying that they are making their way across from the MERV to areas south of Damascus, in one particular instance.

We estimate that the ISIS fighters understand this and they know if they were to come east of the river that they have to contend with our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces.  So they would opt for the easier solution, and -- which is, moving west.  So that -- that's our estimate with that.  And you said you had a follow-up?

Q:  (Off mic) Yes.  So, given this westward movement by ISIS, is there talk of kind of re-engaging with the Russians on this deconfliction agreement?  Because are you able to strike these ISIS groups as they move to the west?  Do you have -- are you able to do that without coming into conflict with the Russians?

COL. DILLON:  What I'd say is, that's one of the reasons why we have the deconfliction line, and typically, it is in and around the -- the MERV area.  So if it's on the -- the banks of the western side and we happen to see it, may be something that we deconflict to say, "We see this, we're prepared and ready to strike."  And then request to do so.  Or they pick it up and they take it.

As far as going further into the western part, or the interior parts of the -- of Syria, I'm not prepared and ready to address that, to say that we are doing that further into Syria.  So I'll just leave it at, right now those deconfliction measures are really tailored to the MERV area.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Lots of hands raised today.  I think I got everybody.

Jamie, I've got you down in the order here.

Joe Tabet, Al Hurra.

Q:  Thank you. Colonel Ryan, I would like to ask you about the local reports saying that the SDF and the Syrian regime have had sort of deal to exchange some territories around a town called Al-Hasham in Deir ez-Zor Province.  Are you aware of that?

COL. DILLON:  You know, Joe, I am not aware of that.

What I do know is that, from the, you know, beginning, when we -- the regime elements started to move into and getting close to the SDF, and as we started to do deconfliction and move from just air deconfliction to ground deconfliction, we're -- know that, in the past, there have been elements on the ground that have linked up from the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime.

But, as far as what you are talking about, I can't talk specifics.  I don't know anything about the specific town that you are talking about, or any deals.

Q:  A quick follow-up.  Do you have a number -- do you know what's the number of the ISIS fighters who were able to go to the south of Damascus?

COL. DILLON:  What was quoted in Open Source by this commando -- the Syrian commando battalion commander -- he said hundreds.  So I'll just leave it at that.  I think it was -- well, I'll just say that, because that's where we saw that.  And that's where I'll leave it.

MR. PAHON:  Okay, thank you.

Next, to Tom Bowman, NPR.

Q:  Colonel, I wonder if you could get into the issue of U.S. troops in Syria.  I know the Marine artillery unit left.  Do you anticipate any other U.S. forces leaving?

And you talked about stabilization.  Is that their main role now?  Just -- what, providing security force stabilization?

COL. DILLON:  So the first -- Tom, I fully expect to see that, as the campaign matures, as we continue to take more territory away from ISIS, that those commanders on the ground will make recommendations based on the progress.

And, just as we saw with the Marines, when that commander said, "We do not need this capability and we can send it home early," I suspect that, as we progress, those calls will continue to flow up to the decision makers, and they'll either approve them or deny them.

Now, as far as what they're doing, I don't know if we can go back to that first map in the MERV, but there still are areas that need to be cleared in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, along the Euphrates River specifically, and this town of Abu Hamam specifically.

There has been some fierce fighting, and we're talking about vehicle-borne IEDs, we're talking about indirect fire, we're talking about ISIS attempts at counterattack.  So this is not just -- this is specific areas, not just a pocket of two or three or five to seven.  It is -- it is much more formidable.

So -- and there are those areas that remain towards the border with Iraq.  So what we were doing, you know, a month ago, two months ago, is still what we're doing now in Syria.  So those coalition members and those coalition advisors are doing all those things that they were doing in Raqqa and in -- outside of Deir ez-Zor and for the -- everything that we've been doing.  So there has not been a downtick in what those advisors are doing.

The number of strikes clearly have gone down.  I think we've seen -- if you follow the strike releases, we've seen, in September, about 1,500.  In October, we went down to 700.  November was down to just below 300, and I don't have the latest tally, but the number of strikes have gone down.  Therefore, that was one of the reasons why those Marines were sent back, you know, without a replacement.

I hope that addresses that.

Q:  Right.  And if you could just expand a bit on stabilization, where is that being done?  Who's doing it?  Where's the money coming from, and how much money?

COL. DILLON:  Okay, so that is a -- across many different -- a whole-of-government approach on that.  And I know that we have some hand in that, militarily.  We do that through some of the counter-IED training that we showed you.

So you have the Raqqa Internal Security Force that we're training on these counter-IED techniques, so they can identify and, you know, clear IEDs, but then there's a much larger and broader effort that is required for the explosive remnants -- that removal, and that is a larger project, and that is typically done through the Department of State and contracted.  So there are some companies that are working towards that.

Other stabilization efforts go towards the restoring of essential services, and that includes water, electricity and getting schools back up and running.  And I certainly don't want to steal any thunder from Special Envoy McGurk -- Special Presidential Envoy McGurk.  I think he has a press avail within the next 24 hours.  So I think he will address a lot of them -- a little bit more of the specifics on the stabilization efforts.

MR. PAHON:  All right.  Thanks, Tom.

Ryan, we did miss a few of your photos as we were going through the topper, just FYI.  We put back up the demining training photo there.  I don't know if there's anything in particular you want to say about that.

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Well, what I'll say about that is that that is some of the training that we are doing with -- and, as most of you all know -- that the -- just how much ISIS saturated not just Raqqa, but Mosul -- there have been reports of up to 8,000 IEDs and booby traps that have been left behind in Raqqa.

So there is very much a need to remove that before you can even get in to start, you know, bringing in the essential services in particular neighborhoods.  We've seen how real this threat is.  The former Raqqa Internal Security Force commander was -- he was killed, along with two SDF soldiers, when he was going through one of his relatives' houses.  So it's a real threat.

I know that there are challenges that the RISF face, because there are several families who want to return back to their homes.  But we have seen too many times where families have returned to their homes to find these explosives and -- explosives that are hidden in -- you know, in really -- in places where you can -- that it only points to ISIS.  Specifically looking to maim and harm civilians.

So we're talking dresser drawers and ovens, and we're also talking about inside of toys, like a teddy bear.  So clearly some very twisted and -- this needs to be removed.  So I'll go ahead and pause on that one and open it up for the next question.

MR. PAHON:  All right, thanks.

Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q:  The Russian, I think, a few weeks ago said they would be removing some forces from Syria.  Have you seen any withdrawal from the Russians?  And I have a follow-up.

COL. DILLON:  Russians have said more than once that they would remove their forces, but they don't often correspond with actual troop reduction.  So whatever they have said, the bottom line is it does not affect the coalition's priorities in Syria.

They will stay on -- on their side of the Euphrates, and -- and we'll continue to support our partners on the -- the east side, and we'll continue to deconflict as necessary, so we can continue doing what we're doing.  And your follow up?

Q:  Yeah, but in this instance, have you seen -- I know previously they haven't followed through, but in this instance, have you seen any recurrence?

COL. DILLON:  I have -- we have not seen any withdraws.  What I mentioned earlier, I think it was Tom's question, is that -- and this is really, it's hard to call any trends, since it's really only been in, like, the last, you know, 48 hours, 42, 72 hours, just be the downtick in the presence of Russian sorties along the MERV.  So I think we have to wait and see what comes in the coming week and weeks afterwards.

Q:  Colonel, just one last follow up.  How many U.S. troops are there in Iraq -- not FML, but troop number?

COL. DILLON:  So you got the -- the FML, and that's the number that -- that we've got.

Q:  Could you remind us why you're not giving it?

COL. DILLON:  I'll let -- I'll let, you know, the Pentagon address that.

MR. PAHON:  Do you want me to address it now?  The public approximate number is 5,200.  Syria is 2,000.  That's our public approximate.  Okay, 
Jamie McIntyre.

Q:  Colonel, this is the time of year when our editors assign us stories to look back on the year we've just completed.  I wonder if you could help us out a little bit by just describing, if you can characterize what the -- what the state of play was, what the situation was in January regarding ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and -- and where it is today?  What -- what kind of progress was made in 2017?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I'll tell you clearly, you know, 2017 and the fight against ISIS has been -- has accelerated quite a bit, and I say that because you look at where we were in January, and we were still in West Mosul, so -- well, actually, so East Mosul finished out 25 January.

So, that nine-month campaign was still underway.  And the isolation of the other capitol, the twin capitol in Raqqa, was just -- was being isolated.  So you had the -- the two most precious and dear locations to ISIS both isolated.  One was being isolated -- the other one was halfway through it’s, you know, being in the east side, was complete.

Now clearly, after Mosul, we have seen in Iraq how quickly ISIS crumbled in the fight that came afterwards.  So when you look at Mosul when West Mosul was complete in July, when they transitioned, and they began their offensive operations in places like Tal Afar, Hawija and Al-Qaim -- hold on a second.  Sorry, guys.  Okay.

Okay, so you -- you saw how quickly the -- I just want to make sure I still have the right folks on the line.  Am I still talking to you?

Q:  Yes, we're still here.

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  There's like a -- like a space phone here, with a bunch of different numbers, but --

So we saw clearly that the Iraqi security forces were able to very, you know, swiftly and -- and dominate against ISIS in their remaining locations throughout Iraq.  We saw, and like I said, in these locations, when all the Iraqi security forces and elements can work together -- we're talking about the Peshmerga.  We're talking the Iraqi army, the popular mobilization forces, you know, also played a role in much of this.  We're talking, you know, even in some of these locations, victories that happened in a day.

And I think a lot of that has to do with, we talked about Mosul, and we talked about Raqqa.  Once those fell -- or Mosul in particular -- you had a -- a very confident Iraqi army and Iraqi Security Forces.  And I think you also had a demoralized ISIS element that, it just snowballed, and it turned into where we are right now, with a full liberation of Iraq, and in Syria, continuing to chase down ISIS elements, the remnants of ISIS elements, in Syria.

So I think that we'll have -- I'll ask General Gedney to prepare for that.

MR. PAHON:  Hello?

COL. DILLON:  I'll ask General Gedney to prepare for that as well.

Q:  And do you -- one quick thing.  I know you're -- you're on leave, or heading home, but do you think, as you guys or CENTCOM could shake loose some, you know, before and after maps that you -- you know, the maps that you released that show how much territory is controlled by ISIS?  Where things were in January, and where we are today?

COL. DILLON:  Absolutely.  We can -- we can definitely do that.  I know that yesterday General Funk briefed some Fort Hood, central Texas media, and I know that he showed where we are today and where we were when III Corps took over, but we will go back and provide that information to you.  We'll -- we'll dig it up, and if I don't have it for you by tomorrow, we'll make sure that we provide that to you in next week's brief when General Gedney comes on board.  That -- that sound good?

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  I think that got happiness from everybody.  

Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Q:  Thank you, Colonel Dillon, for doing this.  There were clashes today between Peshmerga and ISIS around Makhmur.  Could you provide any more details on the clashes?  And it's -- does it -- what does it say about what ISIS is doing in Iraq now?

COL. DILLON:  Well, Laurie, I can confirm that there were attacks near Makhmur.  We initially got that through open source, but we were able to confirm through Peshmerga on the ground that crashes did happen.  And there were some reports of KIA on the ISIS side, but I do not want to, you know, provide -- it is still, not developing, but before I provide any numbers, I just want to make sure that we're clear and -- and we are not right now.

We, as a coalition, were attempting to get some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over that area, we do have some assets overhead but the weather has been sporadic in allowing us to really assist and help with the elements on the ground.

So going back, yes, we can confirm there was attack.  The details on that, we still don't have them.

Q:  And are -- are you still working with the Peshmerga?

COL. DILLON:  Yes, we are.  So there is training that is still underway at our training location in northern Iraq.  But as far as the advise and assist, we -- we do not have coalition elements that are -- conventional coalition elements that are with them doing advise and assist right now.  So training is still underway, and we suspect that that will continue into the future.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Next, we'll go to Kasmi Ileri, Anadolu.

Q:  Thanks, Colonel -- Actually, nearly all of my questions were covered, but the Russian Defense Ministry also made a statement about the air activity in eastern Syria, and they say that their aircraft did not pass to the eastern banks of the Euphrates River; rather, the U.S. aircraft engaged them in the western side of the river.

So this -- both your statement and Russian statement -- both are official.  Why should we believe you and not them?  Or do you have any proof of -- showing?  Or what will you say about the Russian statement?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I'm -- I mean, I'll just say, if you look at a track record on, you know, what Russian MOD has said in the past, I'll leave that to you to decide who you want to believe.  But I think it is pretty clear to most reasonable people who they -- who they would believe.

I know that we are also looking to perhaps provide some further information on that.  But I think our word stands, and I know that -- I'll just leave it to you to decide who you want to believe.

Q:  Yes, okay.  (Laughter.)  So you will be -- you will be sharing some kind of other information that prove that Russians were actually -- Russian aircraft were actually at the east of -- east side of the Euphrates River, right?

COL. DILLON:  Well, like I said, we are looking to, you know, see if we can have some information that provides that.  But I'm not promising anything just now.  You have our word -- you have my word that it was on the east side.

Q:  Okay.  And then the -- another question.  About the -- those ISIS fighters going back toward the southern Damascus, could you say, or do you have any kind of indication that some of those fighters were the ones who -- that, actually, SDF let to leave Raqqa and -- yes, a part of the deal with the elders in Raqqa?

COL. DILLON:  We have not seen this.  So I know that with those ISIS fighters that came out of Raqqa as a part of their local deal, there was those that we have biometrically enrolled.  We have not seen any of those 200 members show up in any of the locations where -- either if we have detained someone, or if there have been ISIS members that have been killed.

So we have not seen any of the Raqqa, you know, SDF -- or not SDF, the Raqqa ISIS elements that were a part of that deal show up elsewhere in Syria or Iraq, at this point.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  All right, thanks, Kasmi.

I am drawing a blank on your name.  I'm really sorry.

Q:  Jack Detsch from Al-Monitor.

MR. PAHON:  Alright, Jack.

Q:  Colonel, can you tell us, sort of with Iraqi elections coming up, how many PMU have said they're going to hand over authority to the Iraqi government?  It seems like an increasing number saying that they'll hand over authority to the Iraqi government.

COL. DILLON:  Yes, Jack, I don't have the numbers.  I know that you have, you know, certain elements that were within the Popular Mobilization Units that have -- those leaders have told their followers to, you know -- to work for and listen to -- and turn in your weapons, but I don't have those numbers.

Q:  Got it.  And just -- so, even if these units are cooperating with the government, if sort of Iran has any type of presence in the country, will these militias ever be disarmed?  Will they ever sort of be able to swear full allegiance to Baghdad?

COL. DILLON:  I -- yes, I missed some of that.  There was something scratching, you know.

Q:  It's just if Iran still has a -- has a presence or influence in Iraq, will the PMU be able to swear full allegiance to Baghdad?  Do you guys assess that?

COL. DILLON:  That's a question for the government of Iraq.  I mean, they are the ones who have constitutionally, you know -- you know, said that, you know, the PMF are a subset of the Iraqi Security Forces.

So it'll be completely up to them on what happens to the PMF as they transition, whether that be, you know, blended into the other elements of the Iraqi Security Forces.  But that's clearly a government of Iraq, you know, answer -- for them to answer.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Thank you.  Paul McLeary, Foreign Policy.

Q:  Hey, Colonel.  You mentioned earlier that some elements of SDF have linked up with Syrian regime forces.  Can you give us some more detail on what that means?  And if they -- if they joined those forces or if they lose support -- if they do that?

COL. DILLON:  So we're talking about our -- our Syrian Democratic Force partners that had reached the border between Iraq and Syria, and they linked up with Iraqi units on the Iraqi side.  So this was a coordinated link-up on the border and they are looking to establish some sort of coordination center, and then we'll continue to systematically clear and establish border control points north, as they move north along the border.

And it's significant because this is a -- an area, vast desert area, and it has been known as traditional hiding spots and areas for ISIS and insurgent elements to -- to hide and infiltrate those borders.  So establishing these posts and establishing this coordination center and working with one another to prevent a flow of ISIS fighters moving through Iraq and Syria is only a good thing.

Q:  I'm sorry, I thought you meant that they hooked up with Syrian regime forces, not --

COL. DILLON:  No.  So this is Syrian -- our two partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces on the eastern side, and -- or correction, I'm sorry, on the Syria side and Iraqi Security Forces on the west side.  I don't know if you want to pull up the map, map number one, to show that.  It's the highlighted areas in the green along the border, is where they linked up.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Thank you.  

Caroline Houck, Defense One.

Q:  Thanks, Colonel, for doing this.  This is also the time of year that our editors assign us look-ahead stories, of what's coming in 2018.  So any broad goals?  I understand the finally routing ISIS, stabilizing, clearing.  But I guess, just what should we be looking for in 2018?  Shifts in posture, shifts in the types of forces sent to the region.

Can you talk about that?  Any timelines you want to offer would also be great.  I know that's probably asking too much.  But what should we be looking for in 2018?

COL. DILLON:  Okay.  Well, I'd say that, number one, just -- we're not going to talk timelines.  I think that we've been pretty clear about that, and much of what we do on the ground is conditions-based.  And so, what we see, in both Iraq and in Syria, is after ISIS has been cleared of -- of all areas, meaning, like in Syria, we've talked about this concentration of ISIS fighters that are along the Euphrates River.

But once they are cleared, and they no longer hold any territory, the next step is to make sure that they can't come back.  And in Iraq, that is by working with the Iraqi security forces and knowing the right type of training and the right amount of trainers for, not just the Iraqi army, but also the other elements of the Iraqi security forces.  So the police, the federal police, the local police, the border guard forces, the counterterrorism service and tribal mobilization forces, as an example in Iraq.

And then, in Syria, that also looks very much like the -- expanding the Raqqa Internal Security Force, the local security forces that are going to prevent any kind of resurgence or emergence of ISIS or other groups like them, to come back into areas that have been cleared.

Right now, in Raqqa, the Raqqa Internal Security Force sits at about 3,000 strong, more than 3,000 strong, and there are -- there are continuing training that happens in those areas, and we're starting to see that elsewhere in -- as more civil councils are established and start working to get the stabilization efforts under way so that people can start coming home to where they're from, voluntarily and in a dignified manner.

We also see that the -- our support to our partners would likely not be limited to just training, but also continuing to provide intelligence in several different forms.  And then, also, a longer-term -- and this is through the embassy, typically, but more -- a longer-term efforts for foreign military sales and -- and things like that.

So I think is what -- you'll see more of that in the future.  And, just like you saw with the last three months, the -- the downtick in strikes, I would think that that would continue to move in -- in a direction that would be fewer than, even, what we have now.

MR. PAHON:  All right, Ryan.

I think we've got a couple of folks with some second-round questions.

Is there anybody that hasn't asked a question yet?  Okay.

And then I'll save you a couple of minutes.  I know you want to talk about some stuff going on over there.

Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.

Q:  Yeah, I just want to clarify your answer to the question I -- I asked before.  You said the advise-and-assist coalition mission to the Peshmerga had ended.  Is that because the Peshmerga aren't really engaged with ISIS any more, or is it for a political reason?

COL. DILLON:  Oh, no, it's strictly because -- and we talked about this before.  In areas -- so, in particular, so when there was that initial incursion between the Kurdish -- the Peshmerga and the government of Iraq in October, when we were asked all the questions, we did not have advisors on the ground in that area because we were in the middle of transitioning.

Hawija operations were done, so we were transitioning to western Anbar operations.  So in areas that have been cleared of ISIS, we don't have elements on the ground, you know, doing a lot of the -- the offensive operations that we were doing in the past.

So we don't have -- you know, ISIS does not control territory in areas in northern Iraq.  There might be sporadic, you know, small groups that still need to be hunted down, but they do not hold territory.  So it is not political, it is strictly conditions-based.

Q:  Thank you very much.

MR. PAHON:  Just got two more.  I think Ryan Browne's got a follow up, and then we'll go to Tom Bowman. Ryan.

Q:  Colonel, just really quickly.  Syrian President Assad recently ratcheted up the rhetoric against the SDF, calling them traitors and also pledging to retake the entire country.  Have you seen the partners kind of adjust their defensive posture as a result of this rhetoric?  Has there been any change, any kind of hunkering-down in anticipation of a regime attack?

COL. DILLON:  Not that I know of, Ryan.  And I only say that because, I mean, those are -- that is rhetoric, those statements.  We're continuing to go about doing business of ridding Syria of ISIS.  And we've been successful at that.  Our partners have been successful at that.  And that's what they are focused on, not words.

Q:  And you will defend -- the coalition will defend its partners if it's attacked?

COL. DILLON:  I think that we have proven that in the past, both in Al-Tanf, and in the north just outside of Raqqa.  We will continue to support our partners and their efforts to defeat ISIS.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Yes.  And Tom Bowman.

Q:  Colonel, wondered if we could go back to the issue of U.S. forces in Syria.  U.S. forces were invited into Iraq, but not to Syria.  Iran force -- Iranian forces, Russian forces were invited in.  

Assad says you're there illegally.  Russia sort of says the same thing.  Can you explain to us the legal rationale here?  And why are you not violating Syrian sovereignty?

COL. DILLON:  Well, I would say number one is the ISIS threat -- we don't even have to go back to two or three years ago, when they're at their -- the height of where they were.  But, even still today, they're -- they still pose a threat.  They pose a threat not just to Iraq and Syria, but globally.  

And there is some legal justification.  Number one is that Iraq has said that ISIS is a threat, and they have invited us to that -- into Iraq to support their operations.

So -- and again, I would just point to -- clearly, we have seen that ISIS, even prior -- even just before Raqqa was taken, they were still claiming, executing and resourcing external attacks outside of the country, outside of Syria, outside of Iraq.  And the coalition and the 70 member partners continue to work to rid the world of ISIS not just in Iraq and Syria, but elsewhere.

Q:  And, when ISIS is defeated, Secretary Mattis said the U.S. forces will remain there to prevent an ISIS 2.0.  Talk a little bit about that.

COL. DILLON:  Well, I'm not going to go too much further than what Secretary Mattis said on it.  He has said we will be there until the political process, the Geneva process to -- gains traction.  So we're going to be there until that happens.

And I'll just point out, we -- and just in the last -- made a couple of these statements, but Assad and the regime, they have not demonstrated long-term ability to prevent ISIS from resurgence or threatening us or our partners.

So I think that, you know, there is definitely a legitimate -- legitimacy for the coalition being in Iraq and in Syria, and for remaining there until some kind of process -- political process takes ground.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  And we're coming up on an hour.  Anybody else?  Anybody else?  

Okay, Jack Detsch, one more.

Q:  You just mentioned the Geneva talks.  They collapsed the other week.  So, I mean, what type of momentum would you hope to see from the Geneva talks that, you know, would affect U.S. conditions on the ground?

COL. DILLON:  That is very much a -- I mean, we'd certainly want to see something move forward.  But I will -- I'll let the politicians and those higher than the CJTF -- to address that.  You know, we'll continue to support our partners and -- in defeating the remnants of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  

And, Colonel Dillon, do you have a few closing comments for us, sir?

COL. DILLON:  You know, I think you've got some photos there.  So what I just want to say is that, you know, even though we're very much committed to defeating ISIS and working with our partners here, we know that service members from all coalitions will always find ways to celebrate the holidays.

And I just wanted to show a couple of pictures there -- that our halls and our walls are lit up with lights and ornaments and designs that are as good and as creative as I've ever seen.

So I just wanted to say -- (Laughter.) -- you know, to a broader American, you know, audience -- and not just Americans, but also those countries that are providing forces here -- thank you for all their care packages.  There's certainly been no shortage of cakes, cookies, decorations, elves or any of the funny accoutrements that come in these things.  

So I just want to say -- I'm going on leave, but I want to say happy holidays and merry Christmas and a happy New Year to everybody there, and we'll see you after the New Year.

MR. PAHON:  All right, sir.  And, with that, thank you very much.  Enjoy your leave.