Transcript

Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Press Briefing By Maj. Gen. Ghika via Satellite From Baghdad, Iraq

May 14, 2019
U.K. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, deputy commander, Strategy and Information, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve; Commander Sean Robertson, Pentagon Spokesman

EDITOR’S NOTE: Statement from U.S. Central Command on the Operation Inherent Resolve Briefing attributable to Capt. Bill Urban, lead spokesman U.S. Central
Command:

"Recent comments from OIR's Deputy Commander run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region. U.S. Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve, has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria. As a result, OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq."


COMMANDER SEAN ROBERTSON:  Good morning. I'm Commander Sean Robertson, and I will be facilitating the brief this morning. We'll begin with a brief, quick communications check. Sir, can you hear me?

U.K. MAJOR GENERAL CHRIS GHIKA: Yeah, good morning, Sean. I can hear you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON:  This brief should last approximately 45 minutes. 

Today, we have U.K. Major General Chris Ghika, deputy commander stability for Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve from Baghdad, Iraq for an update on coalition operations.

Sir, the floor is yours.

GEN. GHIKA: Well, thank you, Sean, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for your time today. It's great to be back on a PPC, and I'd like to give you an update on where we are currently in our mission to secure the enduring defeat of Daesh.

I think the most significant recent milestone for us was probably the defeat of Daesh in Baghouz, Syria on the 23rd of March, which saw the end of the group's control of any physical territory. We must reflect on this great achievement by our partner forces and the coalition because for five years, Daesh's reign of terror instilled unbounded fear into innocent Iraqis and Syrians.

Today, it has been reduced to an underground organization, forced out of population centers and into hiding in caves and in the mountains. Its aspirations for a global caliphate have been destroyed. 

However, we cannot be complacent because this is not the end of Daesh or the operations against Daesh. Although it is now on the back foot, Daesh foresaw the fall of its physical caliphate and it has been reorganizing itself into a network of cells intent on striking key leaders, village elders and military personnel to undermine the security and stability in Iraq and Syria. Daesh fighters are still ambushing security patrols, detonating IEDs and conducting kidnappings.

Despite its territorial setbacks, Daesh is still having successes, and its ideology still inspires people around the world. We saw this on Easter Sunday with the devastating attacks in Sri Lanka. 

Last month, Daesh's leader, Baghdadi, appeared online for the first time in over five years, conceding defeat in Baghouz and attempting to rouse Daesh supporters to continue that fight. 

Globally, we must stop the spread of this message and prevent the violent jihadist ideology resonating with a new generation of recruits. This is a unique challenge in the information environment. In our Combined Joint Task Force, we are doing everything we can to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and the global coalition and the international community must continue its work to prevent the evil brand from spreading worldwide and terrorizing our communities at home.

In Iraq, we are working at the invitation of the Iraqi government, helping to train their security forces, enabling their operations and striking Daesh fighters, leaders, facilitators and financiers wherever and whenever we find them. The Iraqi army, supported by the coalition and by Iraqi F-16 fighter jets and C-130 transport aircraft are disrupting the network of Daesh cells across Ninawa, Salah ad Din, Anbar Diyala and Kirkuk Provinces.

Recent operations in Wadi Ashai and the Hamrin Mountains have cleared successfully hundreds of miles of territory in which Daesh groups were hiding. Daesh commanders and fighters have been killed or captured, and weapons, ammunition and IED-making equipment has been seized. We must congratulate the Iraqi Security Forces on their successes, but not forget the huge sacrifices they have made in the last five years.

Central to their success is the coalition's build partner capacity program, seeks to enhance abilities through training, mentoring and equipping our Iraqi partners. And as they improve, our focus will switch from training the Iraqi troops directly to mentoring the Iraqi trainers as they take a greater responsibility for training their troops themselves. 

In northeast Syria, there are ongoing discussions at the political level to ensure the stability of the region. From our military perspective, we must continue working with our partners to create the conditions in which Daesh cannot thrive again, and to ensure a secure environment in which our partners in the international community can operate. 

Having defeated Daesh's physical holdings in Baghouz, our partners are now progressing steadily back up the Euphrates River Valley, clearing the remnants of Daesh. The pace is slow and it's methodical, with the ground and buildings seeded with IEDs and booby traps. But progress is being made. 

On the humanitarian side, you will all be aware of the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees in northeast Syria. Local and international humanitarian organizations are managing the situation, but we must be mindful that there is a large concentration of radicalized individuals in these camps who will want to return to their homes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. 

We need to assist with deradicalization and education to prevent a new generation of Daesh emerging when these people go home. 

Militarily, we continue our campaign to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh. We cannot do it ourselves. Campaigns cannot be won by fighting alone. Instead, it requires a whole-of-government approach with the support of the international community, assisting the government of Iraq and the Syria civil councils to set the conditions for the stability and the prosperity that they crave. 

Any instability will create opportunities for Daesh to thrive. Daesh will exploit the divisions in the society and fragile governance, become the organization to whom the population turns to provide security. We cannot allow this to happen. Daesh's widespread killings, the brutal executions, the destructions of towns, cities and ancient monuments must remain a thing of the past. 

So I think just to sum up my opening remarks, I would say that Daesh still poses a significant threat in Iraq and Syria, and to the wider world. It has morphed into an underground network that we must not -- we must root out and destroy. 

We will continue to work with our partner forces to achieve this militarily. Our partner forces are improving daily, but they still need our assistance. Strong governance and effective stabilization will be the long-term key to providing security and prosperity. The international community, I suggest, must do all it can to help. 

I think with that, Sean, I'd be happy to take any questions there are. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Thank you very much, sir. 

For all of your questions, please provide your full name and agency prior to asking your question. And I would ask that you limit yourself to one follow-up. 

Idrees?

Q: Sir, Idrees Ali from Reuters. Obviously, the coalition troops work in close proximity of Iranian proxy forces and sort of PMF. Have you seen a change in their behavior over the past few weeks, especially since the United States has been talking about the threat that they potentially pose to coalition troops? 

GEN. GHIKA: So we've seen no change in the posture or the -- the laydown of the PMF. And of course, the PMF is a -- is a moniker for a very broad range of groups. So I think it's important to say that many of them are compliant and we have seen, as I say, no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the United States and Iran. And we hope and expect that that will continue. 

Q: And just a quick follow-up, are you concerned that sort of some of the bellicose statements things from both sides, but primarily the United States, could put coalition troops in danger, especially from sort of some proxy forces in Iraq? 

GEN. GHIKA: So I think there's a couple of points about this. Am I concerned about the danger? No, not really. We take a range of force protection measures for operating in this part of the world against a whole range of threats. We review them regularly, we review them obviously in the light of the events of the last week or so. 

You wouldn't expect me to go into what they are in detail. But we find them completely satisfactory and we don't intend to change them and our escalation presence within them. 

There is a broader process and a broader point, I think, about Iran, while we're on the subject. And I want to make quite clear that we are a counter-Daesh mission. Our mission is to defeat Daesh. 

I have no part of Iran in any of my orders, in any of my directives or in any of my planning documents. Iran is no part of our mission. We are here at the invitation of the Iraqi government to defeat Daesh, not to have anything to do with Iran. I just want to put that one out there because I think it's really important at this stage. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Carla?

Q: Carla Babb, Voice of America. Thanks for doing this so much. I'm interested in seeing, have you seen any threats by Iranian-backed groups in either Syria or Iraq against coalition forces? Have you seen any threat indications? 

GEN. GHIKA: No. There's been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. We're aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that's the environment we're in. 

But as I say, we see no -- we have no part of Iran in our mission. We are -- we are monitoring the Shia militia groups I think you're referring to, carefully. And if the threat level perceives to go up, then we will raise our force protection measures accordingly. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Barbara?

Q: Barbara Starr from CNN. General, you know, given everything you just said, what you're saying is a little bit surprising, I suspect, because the U.S. says very much and very publicly that there is an Iranian threat to forces -- land forces in Iraq and Syria. 

So I'd like you to square that for me. You see no threat? Do you believe there is a threat? Help us understand why your view is, on the surface at least, so different. And I have a quick follow-up. 

GEN. GHIKA: So I don't think there's a difference there at all. There are a range of threats to American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. We monitor them all. Iranian-backed forces is clearly one of them. And I'm not going to go into detail of it, but there are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don't see any increased threats from many of them at this stage. 

Q: My other question very quickly is, now that Baghdadi has appeared on video, what is your assessment on whether you believe the coalition will be able to capture him? 

GEN. GHIKA: Yes. I believe we will be able to capture him. We don’t know where he is at the moment.  If we did, we would, with our partner forces, conduct an operation against him. 

People of this sort don't remain at liberty for long and I'm completely confident we will capture him. But he, I think, is of less relevance with every day that goes by. He's one ISIS leader amongst many. And so while we do look for him -- and I'm completely confident he will be captured -- it's part of our ongoing operations. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Joe? 

Q: General Ghika, I would like to ask you, given that that the coalition led by the United States works on -- at very close proximity to the PMF, my question for you is, do you have any daily or weekly contacts with the PMF leadership?

GEN. GHIKA: So the question you ask is a very broad one because the PMF covers an enormous range of groups who were brought into the fold of the Iraqi Security Forces in the fall of 2016, many of whom played a significant part in liberating Iraq from Daesh. 

Now, they -- for us, we divide them, those that are compliant with the rule of law, those have been assimilated and brought into the -- into the Iraqi security forces. 

We communicate with -- through the chain of command of the Iraqi security forces. So we have interlocutors in the senior leadership of the Iraqi security forces. We talk to them on a very regular basis. But that is how we communicate with those elements of the PMF who are inside the Iraqi security forces. 

There are then a series of non-compliant actors in the PMF -- and you know perfectly well who I'm talking about -- and we do not have any interaction with them. 

Q: Quick -- quick follow-up, General Ghika. Given what you said about the -- that you don't have any credible information about Iranian threats against the coalition, as a commander on the ground, do you think there is some exaggeration from the U.S. side when the White House has announced that they have credible information that Iran is planning to target U.S. forces in Iraq? 

You guys -- the leadership of the coalition and the United States, you are not on the same page when it comes to those information about Iranian threats. How do you explain that? 

GEN. GHIKA: So on exactly the same page. What I said is that we monitor a range of threats. There are a range of threats to coalition, U.S. forces in -- in Iraq and Syria. We monitor them all very carefully. 

Still, at a time like this, some go up, some go down and that happens routinely. But we monitor all those threats. I'm not prepared to go into detail about how -- the detail of our threat reporting. But we monitor it carefully and we have appropriate force protection measures as a result. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Tom?

Q: General, Tom Bowman with NPR. I wonder if you could focus on Syria for just a second, give us a sense of the overall stabilization efforts there. We were told, I think last fall, that the coalition would have to train 40,000 or so local security forces to patrol in places like Raqqa and so forth. 

And also when I was here last year, they were training local young men, how to remove IEDs. So if you'd give us a sense of those numbers? 

And finally, if you could give us a sense, as you move back up the Euphrates River Valley, this stabilization effort, you're going to have to bring back water, sewer, electricity to some of these areas. Talk about the need -- how much money is this going to cost? Do you have a ballpark estimate? And clearly as we've been told, you're going to be there for years. 

GEN. GHIKA: Well, first of all, on the -- on the capability of the SDF. I'm not getting into exact numbers because in northeast Syria, that's sensitive. But if I just said that we're climbing steadily up to the total of 40,000, and I think we will get there. 

The activity that's being conducted by those forces is very effective, and they are now bringing a D-ISIS, a Defeat ISIS effect, to northeast Syria. And they are disrupting ISIS' operations there. 

As you rightly say, stabilization of those areas is tremendously important because the communities need to see the benefit of being liberated from ISIS, and then the return of the essential services, which will enable them to continue their lives and which will, in and of themselves, generate stability. 

The range of money required changes depending on who you talk to. Various aid organizations and reconstruction agencies set it at different amounts. And so it's really hard to give you a single figure. 

What I would say is that hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated and they are being spent by organizations such as the State Department's START program, which has got education, rebuilding, rehabilitation programs all in train, which I think are very impressive. 

So I think it's a combination -- for northeast Syria, I think the broader point is that it's a combination of security provided by a trained and enhanced SDF, which is conducting counter-Daesh operations, combined with the stabilization effect from the international community. 

Q: And you said you're climbing steadily toward that 40,000 number for, like, local security forces? Are you halfway there? Twenty-five percent of the way there? Can you give us a ballpark, and how long will it take? 

GEN. GHIKA: Yes. I mean, I think we're between 10 and 20,000 at the moment, and climbing steadily. Clearly, how quickly we go up and -- and the numbers that we train at any one time, will depend upon the structure of the SDF as they reconfigure themselves in the aftermath of the clearance of the MERV.

I think from our perspective, I would just say that we are wholly committed to supporting the SDF as they move into this phase so that -- but in partnership, we can counter the threat from Daesh. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Sylvie? 

Q: Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. Can you tell us if the security level of the OIR troops have been -- have been heightened in Iraq and Syria because of the perception of Iranian threat? 

GEN. GHIKA: I could tell you what I said earlier, which is that there are a range of threats to the American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, which we monitor constantly. They go up and down depending on a range of factors. And based on those factors is how we set our force protection measures. 

But I'm not prepared to go into more detail than that because it would affect the force protection of those troops that we have here. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Jeff? 

Q: Thank you, General. Jeff Schogol with Task and Purpose. Can you talk about whether ISIS is moving back into former battlegrounds that AQI and the Sunni insurgency used -- Ramadi, Fallujah, the belt south of Baghdad? 

GEN. GHIKA: Sure. I mean, I think, as I said at the beginning, we have seen ISIS reset themselves to become a series of underground cells, which they're using to conduct their campaign. 

And so the places where we are seeing those particularly -- being particularly virulent are in Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala and Anbar, some of the places that you (inaudible). At the same time, I think it's really important to also recognize that the ISF are not leaving them there to grow.

I'd say some of the best operations we've seen the ISF conduct in the last few weeks have been in Wadi Ashai, the Hamrin mountains, areas in Nineveh, around Hawija and Kirkuk.

So this is an organization that's going after ISIS wherever they find them. So the areas that you're talking about are similar, yes, but I think the thing that makes it different this time is the vigor with which the ISF are going after ISIS.

Q: One last Q: About how many ISIS fighters are operating in Iraq right now?

GEN. GHIKA: That's a really good question. And it's extremely difficult to discern. And if I said we think in the order of 10,000. But that is -- they're not all fighters. A lot of them are support network and they're spread around.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Lori?

Q: Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. Thank you very much, General, for doing this. Could you explain to us -- you've talked about ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And there was an IG report from the Pentagon about there's this considerable number of those folks. And you mentioned that as well.

Who are they? Aren't they predominantly Iraqi and Syrian?

GEN. GHIKA: So they are a mixture. We assess that those who were able to get out of Iraq -- out of Syria and move into Iraq were primarily Iraqis who are returning home. Those who were caught up in the -- in the final physical caliphate around Hajin were a mixture of Iraqis, Syrians. And then there were some from around the world, foreign terrorists of ISIS who had got caught up in it.

So I would say it was a broadly even mix of Iraqis and Syrians, but the Iraqis have now returned home to Iraq, where -- if they're able to do so.

Q: Yes, but my question, which would amount to a devastating critique of the Anglo-American approach to this whole problem, so let me -- OK -- isn't, in any place that you talk about, whether it's Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Burkina Faso, the basic problem, a local struggle over resources and power with an overlay of Islamic ideology?

And if you focus on Islamic ideology, you are providing a cover for those people who are fighting over resources and power and attracting lots of disturbed people, many of them youngsters, to go fight on behalf of some grand cause. Is that a fair critique?

GEN. GHIKA: No, I don't think it is. These are overlying parts of one complete picture. And so the campaign that we are fighting has to be a mix of countering the ideology -- that is necessarily a world problem because the ideology can be spread across the Internet, spread across media, things like that, and it radicalizes people in a home nation.

But at the same time, we must continue to conduct military operations in the places where ISIS is physically present.

So the fact that this is a campaign of many parts, I think, is completely natural. I think it's a good response to the threat we see in front of us.

But you are right to highlight the vulnerability of young people who can easily become radicalized. And I think it is a world problem which everybody has a part to play -- in which everyone has a part to play -- in countering that so that we stamp out the ideology and it does not become the, sort of, seed-corn and the feed which ISIS uses going forward.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Kasim

Q: General, Kasim Ileri with Anadolu Agency. Thank you very much for doing this. You said -- on Syria, you said, "Political discussion over stability of that area continues. Can you tell us who is discussing these political issues? Who are you talking about having these discussions on stability?

GEN. GHIKA: Hey, Sean, could you just repeat the question, please? That was -- that broke a little.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Sir, Kasim’s question was about the -- you talk about political discussions in the -- northeast Syria. And his question was who is having those political discussions in northeast Syria?

GEN. GHIKA: Yeah, sure. So these are the discussions being conducted by diplomats between the Turkish government, between the SDF and SDC, to determine how the future of northeast Syria will look following the end of the physical caliphate.

Q: Just if I could for clarification, did you say that the Turkish diplomats and SDF are discussing about stability in northern Syria?

CMDR. ROBERTSON: His follow-up, sir, is -- is -- Kasim is asking if the -- if you are saying that the SDF and their diplomat are speaking with the Turkish diplomat?

GEN. GHIKA: No, I said the American diplomat. So Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador for this area, is -- is talking both the Turkish government and also to the SDF to try and chart a way forward for northeast Syria following the end of the physical caliphate.

Q: Using my follow-up right now, there is a rising wave of protest in predominantly Arab areas in northeast Syria asking YPG to live there in, kind of, residential areas. Do you have any measure under way to meet this demand?

CMDR. ROBERTSON: So his question was growing protests in -- in northeast Syria in predominantly Arab areas and is there any plan to ask the YPG to leave those areas?

GEN. GHIKA: So we're monitoring the protests, and the fact that the SDF and SDC went to Iyan Issa and they held an -- a huge gathering to listen to the concerns of people. And I think it's important to -- to point out that many of these were about quality of life and the conditions in a post-Daesh northeast Syria, as much as they were about tribal and ethnic tensions within the area and the SDF.

I think the important thing is we're through that phase now and we have a path going forward in which everybody recognizes that the predominant threat in the area is ISIS and that, to break or fracture now would not be helpful because it would allow the regrowth of ISIS and that would threaten the security and stability of the region.

Q: Thank you.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Lucas?

Q: Lucas Tomlinson from Fox News. General, do you agree with the U.S. assessment that there's an increased risk by attack on U.S. and coalition forces by Iran or Iranian proxy forces?

GEN. GHIKA: So I'm gonna say the same as I said at the start, which is that we monitor a range of threats to the coalition and American forces here, because there are a range of threats from a number of different actors. They go up and down according to various (inaudible) range of force protection measures to -- to protect us against those threats which we raise and reduce according to (inaudible). And I'm not going to go into more detail because we -- Iran is not a part of our mission. We are here to defeat (inaudible), and that is what we focus on.

Q: General, there just appears to be a disconnect between what you're saying and what the U.S. government is saying. You're saying you don't see any, quote, "increased threat" from Iranian-backed forces to the coalition, but the White House and the U.S. government is saying there is an increased threat. We're just trying to figure out who's right here.

GEN. GHIKA: Yeah, sure, and that's not what I said. I said there are a range of threats to the American and coalition forces in this part of the world. There always have been, and I -- the -- you know, and we -- that is why we have a very robust range of force protection measures. The threat comes from a range of different groups. We monitor them carefully. We raise and reduce our force protection levels accordingly.

More than that, I'm not going to go into. I can say, as my main focus is on countering Daesh, but I don't think we're out of step with the White House at all. 

Q: And would you say the threat is increasing, decreasing or staying the same from Iran or its proxy forces?

GEN. GHIKA: I'm saying that we monitor the threats to the American and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria very carefully, and we adjust our force protection measures accordingly.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: I'm going to move on a little bit.

Sir?

Q: Thank you. Inaudible Goyal, I  thank the general. My question is that now, this war has been going for a long time, and many people are asking how long this will continue. So many nations are fighting to disrupt or to kill or end these terrorists or ISIS. And I have a follow-up, please. And is the locals are with you, or not?

GEN. GHIKA: So Sean, could you just repeat that for...

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Yeah, so the question was, this -- this -- this war has been going on -- on for some time, and -- and how -- how -- how long do you -- do -- do -- do you see it continuing, sir? And then whether or not the locals are -- are with the coalition.

GEN. GHIKA: So let me take the -- the second part of that question first. We see significant support for the coalition in the liberated areas which have been taken back from Daesh, and that should be no surprise because these people were living under an appalling oppression. They were living in appalling conditions, where the ability of them to live their normal lives was completely removed by a -- a brutal group.

The -- I wouldn't put -- I wouldn't characterize this campaign in terms of time; I'd characterize it in terms of the effect we're having on ISIS, and if you look at the start of this in 2014 and you look five years later, that has completely changed. And so I think we will continue with operations to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. There are a range of different factors which come to play, when it comes to talking about time. But for me as a military person, I'm focused on the effects that I can have to defeat Daesh during the time that I'm here.

Q: And just to quick follow-up, can you say if ISIS, the one who are defecting or behind the – all the disruption in the area? And also, at the same time, can you say that they are going back and forth from Afghanistan to -- to the region? And also, as far as the earlier attacks in Sri Lanka, if these people are behind?

GEN. GHIKA: Sean, if you wouldn't mind, please?

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Yeah, so -- so -- so I think this was actually a three-part Q: One, is -- is ISIS responsible for the disruption in the region? Do you see movement of ISIS from Afghanistan to the region in Syria and Iraq, and do you believe that ISIS was involved in the Sri Lanka bombing?

GEN. GHIKA: Let me take the last one first. I -- I think the thing that was involved in the Sri Lanka bombing was ISIS's ideology, and I talked earlier about the importance of countering the ideology. So the people who perpetrated in Sri Lanka were clearly inspired by the ISIS ideology, and that highlights, I think, the -- the importance of preventing the ideology from spreading, of deradicalization and of ensuring that they cannot propagate this to other parts of the world.

On Afghanistan, we do not see any -- any movement of people from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria at this time because ISIS, when it first started in 2014, was an attractive brand. People came from around the world to join it. It was the place people wanted to be. Today, it simply isn't, and I think the lure for -- of foreign fighters coming to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria has declined substantially.

On are ISIS responsible for the disruption in the region, you would have to expect me to say that ISIS are responsible for considerable turmoil, disruption and -- and havoc in northeast Syria and in large parts of Iraq because between 2014 and broadly, 2016 and '17, they -- they wrought an appalling havoc on the -- on the region. And so I -- I can't say that they are not responsible for some of the situations and some of the -- the -- the -- what -- what we're looking at today in parts of Iraq and Syria.

CMDR. ROBERTSON: OK. So I'm going to -- I'm going to go with just the questions that -- that -- that I have on here on the sheet at this point. 

Cailin ?

Q: Cailin from Stars and Stripes. My question is, how many do you estimate -- ISIS fighters that are in Syria? And then I have a follow-up.

GEN. GHIKA: So that's a really hard question to answer, and I -- I think I would put it at some – some,  below 10,000, but some thousands.

Q: And also, in Iraq and Syria, are you seeing any, I guess, like, surges in -- in war fighters in certain areas? And if so, where?

GEN. GHIKA: What we're seeing is in certain areas, ISIS are trying to reset themselves, reorganize themselves, reorientate themselves for what they see as the next phase of that campaign. So this is a move away from the physical caliphate to a series of underground cells, and that's the sort of nature of what we're seeing at the moment.

Q: Thank you. General, Fadi Mansour with Al Jazeera Arabic. Are you concerned that this heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran will have -- will affect in any way the mission of the coalition in Iraq? And I have a follow-up, as well.

GEN. GHIKA: Sure. Well, I mean, we are aware of the heightened tensions, but the focus of our efforts is on defeat ISIS, and on the defeat of ISIS's mission. And so really, we're not going to be deflected from our de-ISIS mission. We're aware of the context in the -- in the region. As I've said before, we monitor a number of threats to us. But for us, the central point of us being here is to conduct the de-ISIS mission at the invitation of the government of Iraq, and that's what we're doing.

Q: And on that last point, clearly, you're fighting ISIS in Iraq based on the invitation from the government, so your mission will end when the Iraqi government sees fit. However, that's not the case in Syria, so how long is the coalition mission in Syria will last? Or is it an open-ended mission?

GEN. GHIKA: So we have a conditions-based process and for the -- for us and the coalition in the coalition forces, we will continue our mission until we whittle down ISIS to a point at which we consider them to be defeated. 

So we're looking to -- to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And that is the CJTF mission. And that is what we're here to engage in. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Ashley?

Q: Hi. Ashley Roque with Jane. General, I wanted to clarify a point. I believe it was to Carla's question. You said that you had not seen an increase in Iranian threats. But then there was to Lucas, you said that it's up and down. Can you square those two answers? Are we misunderstanding? 

GEN. GHIKA: So I'll say it again. I mean, to be really clear, we monitor a range of threats to the CJTF and to the coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. We monitor them carefully. There are a range of them, as you would expect in this part of the world. And we have an appropriate response depending on the threat. 

I'm not going to go into where the increases and decreases are and what our force protection measures are because that would compromise the safety of our force. But we monitor a range of threats and we respond appropriately. 

Q: But I'm going to jump in here, General. Sorry. This is Carla Babb. I asked you about that question, and you said there was no increased threat against the coalition by Iranian-backed forces. "We are aware of their presence. We are monitoring the Shia militia groups carefully and if the threat goes up, we will monitor accordingly."

And I know that wasn't exact. That's just from my notes, sir. But you did say that there was no increased threat. And now you're saying you can't say whether or not. So did you misspeak when you were answering my question? How should we interpret that, sir? 

GEN. GHIKA: So I mean, we are monitoring the situation here. We monitor a range of different threats from a range of different groups. And we set a force protection measure for our force according to the threats from -- which we monitor. 

So I'm not going to go into the detail of where the threats have increased and decreased. But I'm just going to say that we monitor them all very carefully. We're clearly aware of the -- of the context. And we'll keep it under review. 

Q: So is that statement not accurate? "There are no -- there is no increased threat against coalition by Iranian-backed forces." Is that threat -- is that statement that you said at 11:08, is that inaccurate? I just want to know for reporting purposes. 

GEN. GHIKA: Well, there are a range of Iranian-backed forces. There are a range of -- of forces. I think you're talking about the PMF. There are a range of groups in the PMF. At last count, there are dozens. So it's very difficult to start to delineate between them. 

But if I just said to you that there are plenty of Iranian-backed forces in the PMF who do not present any threat whatsoever to the coalition, and we are monitoring the range of them very carefully. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Kathy?

Q: Hi, Kathy Gilsinan from The Atlantic. Can you comment on recent activity in Idlib province? Understanding that the diplomats are taking care of the political element, but how does the coalition envisage its role in the event of an escalation there, a further escalation there? Thank you. 

GEN. GHIKA: Sure. Idlib province is not part of our operation. We do not have an presence in Idlib. But clearly, we monitor the situation there very carefully. And I think it'll be, you know, the CJTF's position is that we would call on all parties involved in the conflicts in Idlib, to cease their operations and to move apart.

Because what's happening at the moment is that a substantial human suffering is taking place. There is a breakdown in (inaudible). And the only people who can benefit from such a situation are ISIS and other violent extremist organizations. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: OK. Thank you. That's all the time we have for questions this morning. 

Q: Just to clarify one thing with the general?

Hey, General, if you could clarify one thing in the threat level. Because it's always public. You walk into the Pentagon, you walk into a base, they'll tell you what the threat level is for that day. So again, have you raised the threat level in Baghdad or is it still the same? 

GEN. GHIKA: If you walk into the base in -- in Baghdad and you come here, then you can see the threat level. 

(LAUGHTER)

Q: I'm sorry, sir. You're based in Baghdad. We are not. Has the threat level been raised or not? 

GEN. GHIKA: If you come to Baghdad, if you come into our base in Baghdad, then we'll tell you what the threat level is. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Thank you. That's all the time we do -- we do have for questions. 

Sir, do you have any final words for those here? 

GEN. GHIKA: No, Sean. Thank you very much indeed. I haven't done one in a while. I enjoy doing them. And we'll try and reinstitute them more regularly than we have done in the past. So thank you very much. 

CMDR. ROBERTSON: Thank you very much, General, for your time. And have a fantastic day.  

GEN. GHIKA: Thanks, Sean. Goodbye.