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Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Maj. Gen. Gedney Via Teleconference

Dec. 27, 2017
U.K. Army Major General Felix Gedney, Deputy Commander, Strategy and Support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve


STAFF:  Good morning, everyone. I hope everybody had a nice Christmas. Today, we continue our series of Operation Inherent Resolve press briefings to provide a better understanding on what's going on over there.

Today, we're joined by British Army Major General Felix Gedney, deputy commander, Strategy and Support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

He joins us today from Baghdad, Iraq. He only has 45 minutes, and does have a hard stop. So, as one of two deputy commanders, he's focused on looking at the fight ahead, specifically in the areas of force development, helping our partner forces on the ground transition to sustainable organizations that are capable of ensuring the defeat of ISIS.

We'll start with a quick communications check. Sir, how do you hear us?

MAJOR GENERAL FELIX GEDNEY:  I hear you loud and clear Mike. How do you hear me?

STAFF:  Sir, we hear you great. Please take it away.

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, good morning. It's a pleasure to speak with you today, and I'd like to start by wishing you all a happy holidays.

I'll first provide an operational update for Syria and Iraq. With this being our last briefing for 2017, I'll also discuss this year's overall progress in the fight against ISIS and the way ahead for the coalition in 2018.

In Syria, the fight very much continues against ISIS terrorists who still present a threat to the people of Syria, as well as to the region and our home nations. The Syrian Democratic Forces have therefore, kept up their advance against ISIS in the Khabur and Middle Euphrates River Valleys. The SDF have isolated the remaining pockets of ISIS militants along the east bank of the Euphrates River and are methodically clearing areas to the east, in the desert along the border with Iraq.

In the course of the last week, the SDF, with coalition strike support, repelled ISIS attacks in the vicinity of Abu Hammam, with more than a dozen enemy killed. In total, coalition forces have conducted 23 strikes against ISIS targets in eastern Syria during the past week, destroying ISIS vehicles, weapons, explosives and a command-and-control center.

As we've seen this week in Damascus and in various other places in Syria, such as Palmyra, over the past several months, ISIS retains the capability to launch successful surprise offenses and retake territories from Assad forces. The Syrian regime has failed to demonstrate its ability to prevent the resurgence of ISIS on their own soil.

Additionally, the Syrian Democratic Forces have clashed with ISIS several times in the past week, and the coalition continues to support the SDF on the ground and from the air. While the Russians falsely claimed victory over ISIS in Syria earlier this month, we, the coalition, have remained focused on ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS in the region.

Such an enduring victory over ISIS requires the global coalition's continued commitment to the security and stabilization of liberated areas. In Raqqa, for example, the SDF and the Raqqa Internal Security Forces are conducting an important and dangerous mission. They're bravely searching for and removing the many improvised explosive devices and booby traps left behind by ISIS terrorists, so local residents can return to their homes and get back to their lives.

Despite this overwhelming threat, areas are returning to normalcy as the Raqqa Civil Council, SDF and RISF call out areas as safe to return. Such efforts to establish safety and security help pave the way for civilian-led efforts to address local needs.

While northern neighborhoods in Raqqa are still uninhabitable, conditions are improving daily in southern neighborhoods. With civilians returning to core tasks of rebuilding homes, sweeping roads and even opening shops.

Through coordination and partnership, the locally governed Raqqa Civil Council is working to get children back in the classroom, a key priority in an area that has not seen formal education for five years. Vetting and hiring qualified teachers, rehabilitating classrooms is developing at pace, reopening multiple schools.

Over 830 metric tons of humanitarian aid have been delivered to more than 40 locations around the city of Raqqa, and local councils are facilitating the delivery of aid to civilians. Just last week, medical equipment was delivered to the Raqqa Civil Council's new medical facility in Khatuniyah, Syria.

These positive developments offer hope for the future of Syria, but we know there is still more work to be done. It's for this reason, for the continued safety of the region and the world,that our coalition will remain committed to the mission in Syria until ISIS no longer poses a threat and a U.N. backed peace process is implemented to ensure lasting stability in the country.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces continue hunting down ISIS remnants hiding throughout the country. For instance, in the past week, in and around Anbar Province as well as Baghdad, our Iraqi partners reported clearing dozens of improvised explosive devices, as well as mortars, ammunition, and ISIS safe houses.

In Hawija Province and the Hamrin Mountains, the ISF reported the arrest of multiple ISIS terrorists and clearance of more than 50 IEDs. These have been a few examples in ongoing efforts to find and eradicate ISIS militants.

Both the ISF and our coalition forces are keenly aware ISIS is an adaptive and patient enemy. We know they may attempt to work in smaller cells, and they may certainly will continue attempting their acts of terror whenever and wherever possible. However, the ISF's ongoing clearance operations should dispel any ideas that ISIS can simply vanish into the population they once terrorized and be forgotten about.

On the contrary, our pursuit of these terrorists is as tenacious and determined as ever. And we will continue supporting our Iraqi partners as they work to bring these terrorists to justice and protect the people of Iraq from any kind of ISIS resurgence. To that end, the coalition will continue to partner with the ISF, advising, training and equipping them in their efforts to fully eliminate ISIS as a threat to Iraq.

We will tailor our support based on Iraqi requirements, with a particular emphasis on the capabilities needed to hold and secure the liberated areas. That means more training and support to the Iraqi police and border guards, for instance.

As with Syria, the coalition measures our success not only in our partners' battlefield victories, but also in our stabilization efforts. While there is much work to be done, we are seeing positive signs in the long-term effort to help Iraqis recover from life under ISIS.

Across Iraq, internally displaced persons are returning home. And, for the first time, we have seen the number of returnees climb above the number of those still displaced. Just over 2.8 million people have returned, and just under 2.8 million remain displaced.

We're encouraged by this positive trend, and the coalition stands together with the government of Iraq, and international and non-governmental partners as we all work to enable security and stabilization that will allow all Iraqis to return home. This effort is now decisive in our campaign to defeat ISIS.

More signs of progress are seen throughout the country. Anbar University's academic buildings have been rehabilitated, providing renewed hope and opportunities for thousands of students. The U.N. development program has helped enable the rehabilitation of 6,000 homes in Ramadi and Fallujah, an effort which also provides jobs for local Iraqis. The rehabilitation of water treatment plants in Mosul is providing clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Such recent developments are, once again, positive signs of things to come. The need remains great, however, so the combined efforts of the global coalition will remain vital as we move forward into 2018. As we close out the year, we should look back and consider the progress that has been made in the past 12 months.

During 2017, over 60,000 square kilometers were liberated from ISIS across Iraq and Syria, meaning that more than 98 percent of the land once claimed by the terrorist group has been returned to the people. More than 4.5 million Iraqis and Syrians were liberated from ISIS oppression during the year, bringing the full total liberated to approximately 7.7 million people now free from ISIS's barbaric activity.

We've been taking something away from the enemy every day in 2017. Over the course of the year, we all but eliminated their ability to draw illegal revenue for the oil field once under their control. We've decimated their ability to publish propaganda and recruit foreign fighters, and we've targeted their leadership, taking out approximately 130 ISIS leaders and high-value targets during the year.

The coalition started 2017 with 67 member organizations, and we've concluded the year with 74. That's 70 nations, plus the Arab League, NATO, INTERPOL and the E.U., together demonstrating the international resolve to defeat ISIS and, most importantly, to prevent the return of this most evil terrorist organization.

The coalition must also remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the global war to defeat ISIS in 2017, including hundreds of brave Iraqis and Syrians who gave their lives for their nations, alongside the fourteen service members from coalition nations.

The suffering that ISIS has brought to many Iraqis and Syrians is witnessed in the discovery of mass graves and the mass IED emplacements designed to target returning civilians. We remember all of their sacrifices, and we honor their memory by remaining committed to this historic mission.

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

STAFF:  Thank you, General.

We're going to start off with Tom Bowman, NPR, one and one follow-up, please.

Q:  General, I wonder if you could talk about reports we've been hearing that more ISIS fighters are now heading west, presumably toward Damascus? And you also said that you don't think the Syrian government can deal with counterattacks by ISIS. You talked about Palmyra.

So, I'm wondering, once the SDF cleans out the Euphrates River Valley, do you intend -- the coalition -- on working more with the Russians and even the Syrians in cleaning up ISIS to the west of the Euphrates?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, let me take the last part of that question first. The coalition will continue to deconflict with the Russian forces. We do that effectively in Syria, and it’s working. But, to come to your initial point, we are seeing the movement of limited numbers of ISIS militants westwards.

They seem to be moving with impunity through regime-held territory, showing that the regime is clearly either unwilling or unable to defeat Daesh within their borders. We're seeing those in and around the area of Al-Tanf, and we're dealing with -- every time we see them, we are taking those individuals off the battlefield.

Our intention is to finish off the defeat of ISIS in that last area, where they hold -- in the area of the MERV in southern Syria.

Q:  Again, I'm wondering if -- what about west of the Euphrates? Once you clear out that area, will you redouble your efforts? Will you help the Russians? Will you clean out those last remnants of ISIS?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, we'll continue to deconflict with the Russians, but we've got no intention to operate in areas that are currently held by the regime.

STAFF:  Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q:  Sure. General, as you know probably better than I do, just killing militants won't solve the problem of ISIS. And, historically, the coalition, maybe with the exception of Australia, has been pretty poor in dealing with insurgency, you know, whether it's Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

In this instance, as the number of militants decrease and as their territory decreases, how have they sort of moved towards an insurgency campaign? And how are you planning on sort of, you know, working your counterinsurgency strategy out, given that there is the Syrian regime in many of these territories that you've retaken, or they're close by in the territories that you've retaken?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, your premise is entirely correct. We won't judge our success by the number of people that we've killed during this campaign. We have generated an opportunity now, through military operations, to complete the defeat of ISIS. And, as I said during my pitch, the decisive part of this campaign is now the non-military lines of effort.

We'll continue the military lines. We'll continue to hunt down and find those remnants of ISIS and those sleeper cells, or anyone attempting to mount an insurgency. And we're pretty confident that our partner forces will be able to deal with that threat as it emerges.

But we'll also redouble our efforts to support those non-military lines of effort, and particularly the immediate stabilization that will show the people of Iraq and Syria that they're better off under their legitimate governance than they are under ISIS. 
Q:  And, just to follow up, I mean, you have a pretty good idea of the troop numbers. How many foreign or coalition troops are there in Iraq? And specifically, how many U.S. troops are there in Iraq currently?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I'm not going to go into the detail of numbers. The numbers are a matter of public record, and I know that DOD will be able to give you the U.S. ones.

But what I see -- will say about numbers, and this is really important, is that we have no more troops than we need to complete this mission, and as soon as we can, we will move people out of theater when the job is done.

STAFF:  Tara, Military Times.

Q:  Hi, Tara Copp, Military Times. Thanks for doing this.

Recent reports suggests that the Russians are actually, instead of departing Syria -- are actually building permanent naval and air bases and striking a deal with Damascus to be part of the long-term presence in Syria. How will the coalition deal with maintaining the peace in Syria if there's not more interaction with the Russians and a willingness to work together on a long-term plan?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I'm not going to make comment about any long-term plans. You'd have to ask either Russia or Damascus that. What I would say -- as I've already mentioned, our deconfliction with the Russian forces is effective and it's proving successful, and we intend to keep doing that.

Q:  All right. A lot of your initial pitch focused on Raqqa. Do you have an estimate as to how many civilians remain in Raqqa? And will the coalition's efforts really remain focused on fortifying Raqqa for the short term?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Could you just repeat the last bit of your question?

Q:  Will the coalition's efforts really focus on fortifying Raqqa in the short term? And how many civilians do you estimate remain in Raqqa?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Okay, so I thought I heard that. So we've got no intention to fortify Raqqa. The effort within the city of Raqqa, right now, is to stabilize it after the liberation of that city. The most important part of that stabilization effort is currently the counter-IED effort, to remove the IEDs and booby traps that ISIS have left in pretty much every building they inhabited.

The Raqqa Civil Council have managed the return of a number of people, and some of those southern neighborhoods now are blossoming back into life. It will be quite a long time, though, before that city is safe for the whole of the residents to return. 

Q:  Do you have any estimates on how many civilians remain in Raqqa or have returned?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  I haven't got an estimate for you. We can follow up on that later on.

STAFF:  Barbara Starr, CNN.

Q:  Sir, can we go back to some of the things you were saying about ISIS moving westward? I believe you said that they are moving with impunity into regime-held areas. So I'm not clear how the coalition can say it will stay to defeat ISIS, when you also say, with respect -- that you have no intention of moving into these regime-held areas.

And, if they are moving into these areas where you're not going to go, what is your assessment of their ability to establish a safe haven there and potentially further export terrorism?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  So you're right. I did say that, from our point of view, it seems to us that ISIS are moving through regime areas with impunity. We will remain committed to defeating ISIS in the areas that are currently controlled by our partner forces in Syria, and we would call on the Syrian regime to clear ISIS from those areas that are currently under their control.

Q:  And I wanted to follow up. Thank you. Again, overall, what is your current calculation on the ability of ISIS to export operatives, financing, planning of operations outside of Iraq and Syria, and your current calculation on that capability, and your calculation on how many ISIS operatives you really believe are left?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, let me take the first bit. I know that our spokesman has put out some numbers on numbers that might be left. And I'm not going to add anything to what he's said.

ISIS remains a threat in the region. It remains a threat to our homelands as well. But the military operations here over the past years have hit them very hard. We've taken an enormous amount of territory from them, we've killed large numbers of ISIS militants, and we continue to do so. So we have severely degraded their ability to conduct operations outside of Iraq and Syria, as well as degrading their capability in country.

STAFF:  Laurie Milroy, Kurdistan 24.

Q:  Thank you, General, for doing this.

At Astana last week -- at the Astana talks, both the Russian and Syrian representatives said that it was time for the U.S. to leave Syria. How do you view those comments, and what's your response to it?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, the time for the coalition -- I'm only going to speak on behalf of the coalition, not the U.S. -- the time for the coalition to leave Syria will be when we have defeated ISIS in the areas that we control.

Q:  You just are telling them no, in essence.

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Right now, we have not completed the defeat of ISIS, and it would not be the time to leave, correct.

Q:  And you mentioned in your opening statement that ISIS in Iraq was disappearing into the local population. Is that a serious issue? Have you have any estimate of how much of that is going on?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  I'm not going to give you an estimate. It's clearly a serious issue. ISIS, we believe, will attempt to mount some form of insurgency. However, the ISF operations are proving to be very successful. They're finding ISIS amongst the population, and they're taking action against them.

It's too early to say, at the moment, how much threat that potential insurgency might face in coming years. What we do know, though, is that the Iraqi security forces are proving to be very adept at dealing with it, and we have absolute confidence that they will be able to do so in future.

STAFF:  Lucas, Fox.

Q:  General, with ISIS largely defeated in Iraq and Syria, although still a threat, as you say, are more assets going to the pursuit of the ISIS leader, Baghdadi?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, as I've said, and I'll reiterate, ISIS are not defeated here. And, despite the liberation of Iraq announced by Prime Minister Abadi, we need to make sure we remain absolutely focused and continue this mission to defeat ISIS.

In terms of Baghdadi, we have no intention to put any more assets to find him. We obviously would like to find him, and when we do, you'll find out about it.

Q:  Cheers.

STAFF:  Sylvie with AFP.

Q:  Hello, sir.

You said that ISIS is becoming -- is a very adaptive and patient enemy, and that it's transforming into smaller units. And you also said that you don't intend to follow them in zones that you don't control, that the coalition doesn't control now. So, if they just disappear in Syria, how are you going to defeat them?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, we'll continue to operate in areas liberated by our partner forces in Syria. And we call upon the Syrian regime to deal with ISIS in areas under their control.

STAFF:  Okay. Elizabeth, with ABC.

Q:  Hi, General.

How many fighters do you assess have moved westward, and how confident are you that Russia will indeed go after those forces, if you've seen that they're unable or unwilling to go after them now?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I think you'd have to address that question, really, to either the Russians or the Syrians. We've clearly seen a lot of operations by pro-regime forces, Russian-backed Syrian forces, over to the east of the Euphrates River. And we questioned some of the effectiveness of some of those operations. But, in terms of their future intent, that's not something I'm going to be able to answer, I'm afraid.

Q:  And how many fighters do you think have moved west?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  It would be impossible for me to tell you. I can tell you that we continue to find every day, we're intercepting and taking off the battlefield small numbers of fighters that are moving through the battle space in areas that we control.

STAFF:  Corey, Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Thanks, General.

How often are you seeing the ISIS fighters around Al-Tanf, where you said that you guys were taking them out? Is it like a daily occurrence where these guys are getting through there? And is there still regime-backed militias in that area, as well?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  So it's a relatively routine occurrence of fighting against ISIS militants that are moving through the area around Al-Tanf, where coalition-backed partner forces are operating. And, indeed, I'll draw your attention to a press release today from CJTF over one such operation to clear some cave areas.

Can you repeat the other part of the question?

Q:  There had been, you know, several instances where there were Syrian regime-backed militias, you know, kind of in the no-go zone around Al-Tanf. Are there still regime militias in that area?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Again, I'm not too sure I can tell you. We're aware of the areas that the regime control, but I'm not too sure I have full sight on all of the regime forces that are operating in those areas.

STAFF:  Richard.

Q:  Hi, General. Richard Sisk, Military.com.

In regards to the successes of the coalition that you've recounted this year, is that the result of the long-term strategy decided by the coalition, partnered with local forces? Or is it pretty much this year, the acceleration of the successes, is that due to some of the changes in tactics that gave field commanders more latitude in targeting, et cetera?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  So I think it's a combination of a large number of things. But, most importantly, it is, indeed, a success of a strategy of working by, with, and through partner forces. In Iraq, the Iraqi security forces had a rapid series of successes after Mosul, at Tal Afar, Hawija, Anbar. And, each time, of course, they're building on their success with more experience and expertise.

I mean, they're a very effective fighting force now.

STAFF:  Laurie?

Q:  Yes, sir. Are you concerned, regarding the -- you said the most important thing is to prevent the return of ISIS. Many people have called for political reforms in Iraq, which don't seem to be forthcoming. Are you concerned that the lack of adequate representation for the Sunni Arabs in Iraq might facilitate the return of ISIS?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, what you're asking me is really a political question, and I'm a soldier, not a politician. What I would point out to you, though, is that the people of Iraq have liberated their country through national unity, all parts of the nation coming together to drive out this evil terrorist group.

Within the coalition, we hope that that national unity will go forward as much as it does in the security side as it will in the political.

Q:  Could you comment on the role of the Peshmerga in the fight against ISIS and plans you have for training them in the future?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Yes, of course. Well, as I said, all parts of the Iraqi security forces, including the Peshmerga, play a hugely valuable role in defeating ISIS over the past years. We'll continue to train Peshmerga for as long as the government of Iraq wants us to.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Question in the back?

Q:  Thank you, General. Jeff Seldin from VOA.

You mentioned the number of ISIS fighters that are being taken off the battlefield. Do you have a sense of what is happening to them? Are they being killed? Are if they're captured, what is being done with them? Do you have a sense of what the Russians or the pro-Syrian regime forces are doing with their fighters, as well?

And to what extent have ISIS fighters perhaps managed to leave the Iraq and Syria theater prior to these last couple of months? Is the numbers -- the decrease in the numbers of fighters due to the bombing campaign and the advances of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Iraqi security forces? Or, because they were able to move with impunity in some areas, was there an exodus that you think has taken place?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, the first thing as I've said, I'm not going to answer for the Syrian regime or the Russians. I can tell you that we are seeing a number of ISIS militants in particular, we've seen their leadership deserting the battlefield and leaving the battlefield at the earliest opportunity.

We're interdicting them, and I think we've been relatively successful in that task. We have seen an uptick as we've squeezed ISIS into their sort of last remaining stronghold in the Middle Euphrates Valley. We've seen an uptick in the numbers of people moving because of the numbers of interdictions we're doing.

And I can't tell you that none have managed to get through our grip, but I would tell you that -- not many.

STAFF:  And we'll do one more question. Tom Bowman.

Q:  Hey, General.

Defense Secretary Mattis had said that U.S. forces will stay in Syria to prevent the return of ISIS 2.0. Heading back to the issue of ISIS west of the Euphrates, how can you prevent that? How can you prevent the return of ISIS 2.0, if you're not going to work to eliminate ISIS west of the Euphrates and leave it up to folks who you say are now unable or unwilling to go after ISIS? Explain that to us.

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, as I've said to you already, the Syrian regime must be held responsible for clearing and defeating ISIS in the areas that they control. Our part in this as a coalition -- we'll continue to support our partner forces in northern Syria in the defeat of ISIS. And that includes, once we've liberated territory, supporting those forces that will maintain security, and particularly internal security forces or border guards, after the liberation.

Q:  What if they don't take out ISIS? Then what? You just throw your hands up?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I think you'd have to address that to the Syrian regime. We can only defeat ISIS in the areas that our partner forces control.

STAFF:  Lucas?

Q:  General, how would describe the threat from Iranian-backed forces, some of whom have threatened U.S. and coalition troops on the ground?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, I guess you're talking about those Iranian-backed militia. Let's be clear:  The Popular Mobilization Front, which is that umbrella group for all of those militias -- some Iranian-backed, some religious organizations -- played a valuable part in the defeat of ISIS in this country.

Now, while we haven't supported them directly, we've operated in the same battle space, and effectively we've had a good cooperation through the government of Iraq with those forces. And we hope that cooperation will continue in the future.

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  I've talked about national unity. It was national unity that liberated this country, and we hope that will continue and -- to secure the country in future.

Q:  What about some of these forces that don't want unity, but want to attack U.S. troops? What are you doing to deal with those forces?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, that is a question for the government of Iraq. Prime Minister Abadi is working with those groupings to make sure they remain under the control of the government of Iraq. The government of Iraq, as the state government, must retain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in this country.

STAFF:  Okay. General, thank you very much for your time today. Do you have any closing remarks for the group?

MAJ. GEN. GEDNEY:  Well, yes. I will, first of all, thank you. Thank you for your time. I would say that we've had a very successful 2017 in the military campaign. We haven't created a win; we've created an opportunity.

A coalition of 70 nations and four organizations will continue in our fight against ISIS. Much of that campaign will now focus on the nonmilitary lines, where we're absolutely committed to continuing this job until we've defeated ISIS and lifted that horrific shadow off the people of Iraq and Syria.

Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you, sir, for your time. And please pass on our thoughts and prayers to all those who are deployed and away from their families.

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today's engagement. Have a great day and a safe and happy new year.