Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Townsend via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: All right, good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
General Townsend, just want to make sure you can hear us and we can hear you before we get started.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Yes, I have you loud and clear from Baghdad.
CAPT. DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. And we’re pleased to be joined today by Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who’s the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve. He’s coming to us live today from Baghdad to give us an update on the counter-ISIS operations that are taking place there.
General, we’ll turn it over to you and then to take questions from here.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Thanks. Good morning. I’ll starts with a quick overview of our main effort in Iraq, the west of Mosul, then I’ll move onto Syria.
On the 19th of February, Iraqi security forces, including the Iraqi army’s ninth division and the Iraqi federal police, as well as the counterterrorism service, started operations to liberate west Mosul from ISIL’s brutal control. They attacked north along the Tigris River and they captured high ground, which enabled them to move quickly onto Mosul International Airport.
The airport’s now under their control after a couple of days of hard fighting. Now, they’ve begun breaching into the outskirts of the city with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, federal police and army moving along three axes of advance that clear the enemy from neighborhoods inside the city, but also enveloping the city to the west.
As you recall, this tactic of presenting the enemy with multiple dilemmas proved effective when the Iraqi security forces employed it in the second phase of their operations on the east side of Mosul. It overwhelmed the enemy’s command and control. So far, this method is showing promise in the early stages of fighting on the west side, but we expect very tough fighting as the Iraqis move deeper into the dense urban terrain of west Mosul.
This enemy’s been preparing for this battle for some time and they’ve done an extensive amount of work to dig and build barriers to complicate the Iraqi advance. We’ve seen them use berms, T-walls, tunnels, shipping containers and vehicles in the streets to slow the ISF down and they’ve rigged many of these barriers with explosives.
We strike these barriers with our precision fires to help the Iraqis advance. We’ll also continue to remove leadership figures from the battlefield, attack their command and control and logistics nodes, enemy weapons caches and fighting positions. Our coalition advisors are also with the Iraqi command elements. Their support accelerates the Iraqi advance even more.
In Syria, the recent liberation of al-Bab by our coalition partner Turkey and the vetted Syrian opposition has dealt ISIS another significant blow, liberating the last significant ISIS-held population center in the Aleppo district. Also, closing the door to both its supply line of new fighters and its ability to export terrorists around the world.
Al-Bab is an important crossroads to several major cities in northern Syria. Since the liberation of Dabiq in October, ISIS has used al-Bab as a logistics and command and control center in northwest Syria. Cutting off ISIS supply lines and disrupting its leadership further isolates fighters in Raqqa and the Euphrates River Valley, making it harder for ISIS to move reinforcements into Syria and export terrorists to Europe.
The coalition supported Turkey and their partner force efforts in al-Bab with more than 50 airstrikes, taking fighters off the battlefield, destroying VBIEDs, mortar and artillery pieces and denying the enemy use of dozens of vehicles, buildings, excavation equipment and weapons caches. With the liberation of al-Bab, Turkey has now secured its border from ISIS.
The coalition is encouraged by the progress against ISIS in al-Bab by the Turkish military and their opposition forces. We encourage all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS and not towards other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.
The U.S., Turkey and coalition partners are working together to support stabilization and local civilian governance in Manbij. The coalition’s committed to the security of Turkey and will continue to work in close coordination with partner forces and allies to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIS, which remains the greatest terrorist threat to the region and the world.
We continue planning for the eventual liberation of Raqqa, ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital. We are confident that the SDF forces that are isolating Raqqa will continue their recent successfully clearance operations and set the stage for the liberation of the city. This would be a major setback for the enemy.
With coalition support, they have cleared more than 6,000 square kilometers of territory in the countryside of Raqqa since they started their operation November 5th. We’ve continued discussing how Turkey and their partner forces might contribute to the liberation of the city. The liberation of Raqqa will bring an end to the enemy’s mythology that they were ever more than a brutal, murderous terrorist group. And then we will continue working with our partners to deal them a lasting defeat.
Coalition efforts by, with and through our partners in Iraq and Syria have made significant progress. I continue to be encouraged by the bravery and commitment of our partner forces who have fought hard and made many sacrifices in their efforts to liberate their land. Their efforts protect the people of Iraq, Syria, the region and the world from a threat that needs to be eliminated for the good of all. I’m proud of our coalition troopers who are supporting our partners. They’re making a huge difference here.
With that, I’ll stop and I’m happy to answer your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We’ll start with Bob Burns from the Associated Press.
Q: General, question for you about Raqqa and your comments about still talking to Turkey about how they might participate in Raqqa. How long are you willing to wait for the Turks to come up with a proposal that’s acceptable to you? And can you elaborate a little bit more on whether you are ruling out or you would rule out Turkish forces participating directly?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I think I — forgive me if the audio’s a little shaky. Bob, I heard your name and I think I got your question there about Turk participation in Raqqa.
So, right now, we’re in the approach to isolation. Our Syrian Democratic Force partners have not yet closed to a siege around Raqqa as of yet. They’re still moving in that direction, so we’ve got some time yet to examine fully all the options and consider all the options for the forces that will eventually liberate Raqqa.
So, nothing’s off the table. We still have time to look at these things and plan and we’re doing that with all of our partners.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next we’ll go to Tom Bowman from National Public Radio.
Q: If we could stay on Raqqa for a second, first of all, do you expect Turkish forces to take part in the Raqqa operation and you’re just sort of discussing numbers, number one? And also, one of the last times we saw you, you said you’ve trained roughly 3,000 Syrian Arabs and you would need two or three times that to take Raqqa. Can you give us a status on those efforts?
And lastly, do you expect some number of Kurdish fighters to take part in the Raqqa operation?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Thanks, Tom.
So there were a number of questions there. Do I expect Turkish forces to participate and in what numbers? I think that was your first question. So, like I said before, we’re engaged in discussions with the Turks on how they might participate in the liberation of Raqqa. And I don’t know what the numbers of their participation might be.
As far as training Syrian Arabs goes, yes, I said before that we had trained over 3,000. I think the number now is over 4,000, right at that. We just graduated some here recently. I think that there are a large number of Syrian Arab forces already in the field. So, it’s not necessary or possible for us to train all of them. We are training more Syrian Arab forces to thicken the force that’s in the field now. And as I said, that number if over 4,000.
Quite honestly, I think you asked another question here, but I don’t — I didn’t get it written down. So if you would, please repeat. I think there was a third part of your question. I don’t remember what it was.
Q: As far as the Kurds go, what number of Kurds to you expect to take part in the Raqqa operation?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So, do I expect Kurds to take part in the Raqqa operation, and what number? I’m not going to talk about numbers, mainly because the enemy watches, probably watches this show as well. So I just don’t want to go to numbers. But yes, I expect Kurds will participate in the operation in one — one form or fashion.
The facts are there are Kurds from Raqqa and larger Raqqa district and province. So there are Kurds from there, local Kurds who will participate. And I think it’s probably likely that other Kurds — these are Syrians. These Arabs, these Kurds, these Turkmen and others are Syrians, and they’re liberating Syria from ISIS.
So yes, I expect there will be some Kurds that will participate. I don’t think we’re going to change the demographics of Raqqa by Kurds or Turkmen or any group participating in the operation. But I expect that probably all types of Syrians in northern Syria will participate in the liberation of Raqqa.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Jennifer Griffin from Fox News.
Q: General Townsend, what was the reaction from the Iraqis that you deal with daily when the executive order temporarily banning citizens from Iraq from coming to the U.S. was signed? Did it make your job more complicated?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, so how that played out, actually, the reaction of the Iraqis that I deal with to the executive order was actually pretty muted, and pretty level-headed and sophisticated. So, for example, I deal with Iraqis in the Iraqi security forces. They are military people like me, or they’re in police forces. And by and large, they said, “Hey, we have a war to fight. That’s political business; not our concern. Let’s keep focused on the fight.” So I appreciated that reaction.
The Iraqi political leaders and civilian leaders I dealt with actually took a very measured approach, and you can see that in their public statements right after the executive order was announced. Prime Minister Abadi refused to take any reciprocal action until he saw how this played out, and his main point was we have important work to do here, the United States and Iraq, in the fight against ISIS in this region and we can’t let anything disrupt or distract us from that.
So that was the initial reaction, which I found to be helpful. They were relieved when the executive order was suspended, and now — now they’re waiting to see how that may play out here in the future. We’re — and we’re waiting to see how that plays out ourselves.
Q: And did you personally have any concerns that if — if Iraq is included in the next executive order, that it could pose problems for U.S. forces on the ground?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I’ll say this. Iraq is our partner and ally. If not a treaty ally, they are an ally in the fight against ISIS. And they — this nation is fully mobilized in this war alongside of us. They’ve invited us into their country to help them. They are protecting us here and we’re fighting this enemy that threatens all of our countries together.
So I would prefer personally not to see anything that would reflect on that except that we have a very strong partnership. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we’ll go to Kasim Ileri with Anadolu News Agency.
Q: Hi, general. I’m going to ask about the Syria — the new Syrian Arab recruits for the fight for Raqqa. CENTCOM has posted some pictures of the new recruits in northern Syria, and the fighters seem to be girls and boys at their 15s. Do you have a specific condition in place for those groups not to recruit underage fighters for the fight against ISIS?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Thanks.
That’s kind of — it was kind of — you were kind of hard to understand, but I think I got the gist of your question, was about underage fighters. And I think you were asking me about Syria and Raqqa, but I’m not really sure about that.
I’ll just say this. All of the forces that we operate with, with the United States and the coalition, are vetted forces. We don’t allow child fighters, underage fighters. When we — if we see that, we bring it to their attention, and actually, I haven’t seen any examples of that or have — none of them have come to my attention in Syria.
So again, we lay out the rules to our partners and they are vetted and expected to follow those rules. Where we have seen a couple of instances like this were with some tribal resistance forces here in Iraq a few months ago. And it turned out to be — in a couple of cases, it turned out to be a commander’s son who was wearing army fatigues and going with dad to work.
Now, dad’s work happened to be with a tribal resistance unit fighting, but not unlike some of our children wearing Army suits and going off with their parents. So we brought this to the attention of some of our — the tribal resistance leaders and said, “Look, you can’t have your son here; he’s underage; he can’t be here at the unit where we’re doing our business with you, and in uniform, and he can’t be here.”
And so we made that clear to them. That was — those couple of instances were cleared up. And we haven’t really had any — haven’t heard any reports of that or seen any accounts of that on the battlefield here. But I am familiar with the press reporting that you mentioned.
Q: But what I’m talking about are not the tribal forces. Rather, these are the Syrian Arab Coalition’s new recruits in northern Syria that the CENTCOM has posted. And to what extent you are sure that there are not any underage fighters among the Syrian Arab Coalition’s new recruits? Could you — could you say with 100 percent surety that there are no underage fighters among Syrian Arab Coalition that have been trained by the United States or by the Syrian Democratic Forces?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So, sounds like you’re trying to box me in to an answer here. But of course, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty anything. There’s a war going on here. And it’s the most complicated environment and situation I’ve been in in my life.
So, could there be something going on? Maybe. Sure. It’s possible. But I’ll tell you this, we don’t train underage fighters, period. And if we find anything that looks like an underage fighter, we get them removed from the premises and from the formation and from our operations and activities. And I don’t know how to say it any clearer than that.
CAPT. DAVIS: The gentleman from the Daily Sabah.
Q: Ragip Soylu with Daily Sabah.
General, you told the — (inaudible) — media that you believe Kurdish fighters are not a threat to Turkey. But YPG fighters and commanders reported — repeatedly told several publications last year that they are planning to take the fight to Turkey once they are done with Syria.
In light of these statements, what makes you so sure that YPG is not a threat to Turkey?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I think I heard your question, which was why do I think the YPG are not a threat to Turkey. I didn’t quite hear the middle part of your question. So, I’m not really sure what you’re — how you prefaced that question.
I’ll say that we have watched and operated along-side the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which about 40 percent are composed of YPG Kurds, the People’s Protection units- YPG; and about 60 percent now are composed of the Syrian Arab Coalition.
Of those YPG fighters, I mean, I’ve talked to their leaders, and we’ve watched them operate. And they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they’re not a threat to Turkey. In fact, they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey and I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to or supported any attacks on Turkey from northern Syria over the last two years.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next, Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.
Q: General, are you concerned that any increase in U.S. forces, troops into Iraq or Syria, will be seen as an occupying force and draw more foreign fighters into the region?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, so in my opening statement, I talked about our strategy of by, with and through our local partners and that’s still the right way to go. It’s working and our local partners are fully invested, they’re leading the fight and we’re just here helping them. So would I be concerned if we brought in a large number of U.S. or coalition troops without coordinating that with our local partners? I would.
I won’t comment on the likelihood — I — I don’t foresee us bringing in large numbers of coalition troops, mainly because what we’re doing is in fact working. But in that event that we bring in any additional troops, we’ll work that with our local partners both here in Iraq and Syria to make sure that they understand the reasons why we’re doing that and to get their buy-in of that.
So, yes, I think that if we showed up with a large number of coalition troops unannounced and uninvited, I would be concerned that that would cause a problem here. But I don’t think that’s the way we’ll go about it. I think we’ll be smarter than that. Any additional forces that we decide to bring here, the coalition does, we’ll work it with our partners, particularly here in Iraq and make sure that they understand and integrate.
Q: Would these U.S. forces be used with local partners in sabotage operations behind enemy lines?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I’m sorry — was — I think the question was would U.S. forces be used with local partners in sabotage operations behind enemy lines. Was that — was that what you asked? I thought that’s what I heard, I’m not sure.
Q: Correct. Against ISIS.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Okay, that’s just not how we’re fighting this war. As I described before, we’re — the coalition provides essentially five things to our partners. Before combat, we equip and train our partners, and once combat is joined, we provide intelligence, precision fires and advice. So the United States does have a capability to do sabotage behind enemy lines, but we’re not doing that kind of activity over here.
We might support with fires and intelligence our partners as they decide to do a raid or something like that behind enemy lines, and we have. But I think it’s not likely that U.S. forces or coalition forces will go with our partners, as you say, behind enemy lines to perform sabotage. That’s just not how we’re operating here.
Our partners are doing the fighting on the ground and we’re helping them with — with stand-off capabilities. We’re just not closing with the enemy and we’re not going with sabotage parties, raiding behind enemy lines.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Paul Shinkman from U.S. News and World Report.
Q: Good morning, general. Thank you for doing this.
I wanted to ask you about some reports that we’ve heard of ISIS fighters hiding in the migrant flows as they come out of Mosul. Can you confirm that that’s happening? And on what kind of scale are you seeing that, if so? How many ISIS fighters?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. Yes, I think it’s happening. I don’t think it’s happening on a large scale. So are there ISIS fighters, you know, concealing themselves in the flow of displaced persons coming out of Mosul? Yes. In fact, the Iraqi security forces have caught some of those.
They’re doing screening. The refugees, they — internally displaced persons flow through screening points and the Iraqi security forces screen those and the Muslawis themselves are very free to point out who they suspect as being an ISIS fighter. And we have captured — we — our Iraqi partners have captured some small numbers of fairly low-level fighters who I think are probably from the local area and have just had enough and just decided to get out and try to conceal themselves in the — in the flow.
So is that happening? Yes, probably at a fairly low level. I’m not greatly concerned by it and the Iraqis are acting on it.
Q: And do you have any sense of how many ISIS fighters remain throughout all of Iraq, not just in Mosul? And do you track the extent to which they might be hiding in civilian populations elsewhere? And if so, do you have any sense of that number?
GEN. TOWNSEND: So our current estimates — the best the intelligence community can give us right now are that there are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. I’m — we assess right now that there’s somewhere between 2,000 plus or minus in and around western Mosul, including the area out to Tal Afar. So that pocket there that’s isolated from the rest of Iraq, probably 2,000 plus or minus a few hundred.
So are they hiding amongst the civilian populations? Certainly they are. They’re doing that in west Mosul, they’re doing that in Raqqa. They’re hiding amongst the civilian population. Then they’re doing that in other places too in Iraq and Syria, and that’s what our partners are all about. We’re focused on their twin capitals, Mosul and Raqqa, right now, but it’s our intent with our partners to go root them out of the other population centers first and then chase them into the valleys and river valleys and palm groves and the rural areas after they’ve been chased out of the city.
So, yes, they are hiding amongst the civilian population all over Iraq and Syria. And we’re focused on chasing them out in a sort of sequential campaign.
Q: One quick follow-up, sir, if I may. You said 12,000 to 15,000 in both Iraq and Syria. Do you have an estimate for just Iraq? Or perhaps is that number too difficult to attain because ISIS can traverse the border?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, I would agree with you that — I’d probably say about half. But as you just — as you just correctly surmised, that number is a little bit difficult to obtain because ISIS can transport across the border.
So, we currently don’t have presence nor the ability to pressure the area. In the Euphrates River valley along the Syrian-Iraq border, there’s an Iraqi town there, a sizable one called Al-Qaim, and a Syrian town just across the border called Abu Kamal. And the enemy has freedom of movement in there. We only have the ability to watch and strike when we see something that is definitely visible from the air to be enemy.
So until we get down there, the enemy can move back and forth across the border in that region at least fairly freely. And so, it’s kind of hard to know, but for lack of a better number, I’d say roughly half.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.
Q: Thanks, general.
There are some reports that within western Mosul a lot of the more senior leadership within ISIS has fled. I don’t know how true those reports are. But have you guys seen any shifts in tactics or anything that would suggest that high leaders aren’t really running the fight there?
And then can you kind of characterize what the morale among ISIS is in west — in west Mosul? Do you expect a real, you know, fight to the very end, every ISIS fighter killed kind of situation?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So, as far as senior leaders go, yeah, the senior leaders rarely put themselves at risk in any place for very long. They’re not willing to share the risk that they demand of their fighters to fight to the death.
They’ll tell their fighters in a heartbeat, “You stay here and fight to the death; meanwhile, I’m going to Raqqa; you stay here and fight to the death, meanwhile I’m going to Abu Kamal or Al-Qaim.” So that’s fairly common.
So it doesn’t — it’s not a surprise to us that there aren’t probably that many senior leaders left in Mosul. If they are, they’re kind of stuck because we’ve isolated Mosul from the rest of Iraq and Syria. And it won’t surprise me if they don’t linger very long in Raqqa. They’ll slip away.
And we’ll — you know, we have a specific campaign to hunt them and kill them. And we’ve killed an extraordinary number of leaders. In fact, almost all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inner circle has been killed in the last six months, six to nine months; have been killed with precision strikes by the coalition. So that’s senior leaders.
And then as to the morale of the fighters, we see reports that are all along the spectrum of the enemy morale. You’ve got to remember that the enemy ranks are composed of several types of fighters. So, at one end of the spectrum, you have foreign fighters. Most of those foreign fighters you will recall on TV a couple of years ago them burning their passports. They — they’re committed to this. They’re hard cases. They’ve got no where else to go. We expect to kill them. They’ll fight to the death typically.
Then, in the middle, you have your average ISIS fighter and he’s probably willing to follow the orders of his leadership. If they tell him to stay, he’ll stay. If they tell him to go, he’ll go. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, probably — the foreign fighter percentage, those hard case guys are probably only about 10 percent of the enemy’s ranks and there’s probably another 10 or 20 percent that are very hardened local fighters and regional fighters.
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve — you’ve got fighters that have been pressed into service because they feel like they have no other choice or they’ve been actually threatened. Their families have been threatened or they’ve been personally threatened or they just don’t think that they can say no. And those fighters will vote with their feet at the first opportunity.
So, it’s kind of hard to know what the enemy’s morale is. Personally, having watched ISIL now for its two-plus years of existence, I don’t expect ISIL to suddenly collapse from a lack of morale. Like I said, there’s a portion that will break and run. The rest of them will fight as ordered or fight to the death.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Carla Babb from Voice of America.
Q: Hi, general. Thank you for speaking with us.
You talked a little about the fighting capabilities that we’ll have in Raqqa, who’s going to be making that up — mentioned the Kurds, mentioned the Syrian Arab Coalition. What would the U.S. — what would more U.S. military involvement in Syria look like?
And then, my second question is should more resources come to you for the counter ISIS fight, where would you like to see — oh, he can’t hear anything I’m saying.
CAPT. DAVIS: Carla, can you try again and speak up really loud?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I can’t — I can’t understand her. Give her — no, not loud. Get her closer to a microphone or something. I hear the moderator great. I heard most of the earlier questioners pretty good. I don’t — I can’t hear her at all.
Q: (inaudible) — couple of days ago. Hi, general. Thank you so much for doing this. Just to — to —
GEN. TOWNSEND: …a clarity issue.
Q: Can you hear me now?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I hear you great now. Go ahead.
Q: So, my question is what would greater U.S. military involvement look like in Syria?
And then also, second question, should more resources come to you, where you would you like to see those resources diverted in the counter-Islamic State campaign?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Wow. So, I’m really kind of sorry that we went to all that trouble to get that question because I don’t think I can answer it.
So, as far as greater — greater U.S. involvement in Syria look like, I’ve submitted some recommendations to — through my chain of command to the new administration. The new administration is weighing those recommendations and options and I prefer not to discuss them further here while my leaders make decisions.
And then I’m really not sure what — your second question was along the same lines. I’m just not going to talk about what our plans might be for whether we have additional forces and what they might do. Sorry.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, ma’am, from, sorry, Bloomberg.
Q: A quick follow-up to the executive order. White House officials told us that in the revised version, Iraq won’t be included in the countries that are banned from entry in to the U.S. I’m just wondering if you have any reaction to that and what that might mean for what you’re doing?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing about the revised executive order. But I really don’t want to comment on it because actually I’ve heard just as much that says they will be included again as says that Iraq won’t be included again.
So until — I don’t know where our government is on that, but maybe you have some special insight. But until I see the executive order and it’s coming out, I’d just assume not comment on it because I don’t know what it’s going to say.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, Michael Gordon from the New York Times.
Q: General, you said earlier on in your presentation that you would encourage all forces to stay focused on the counter-ISIS fight, and not become diverted away from Raqqa. Are you seeing specific preparations or actions on the part of the Turkish military? Or are you concerned by certain statements they may have made that lead you think that perhaps the next objective might be Manbij and not Raqqa? Why did you feel the need to make that assertion?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, actually I was — I think I was referring to the area around al-Bab. And, Michael, as you know, and many of you in the room there probably know, that around al-Bab all the forces that are acting in Syria have converged literally within hand-grenade range of one another.
Just this week, we have seen — last week, we saw Turk and Turk proxy forces fighters converge with Syrian regime and Syrian proxy fighters, ISIS being in the mix there. We have YPG, Syrian Democratic Force fighters, and Syrian Arab Coalition fighters also right bumping up against each other there. And then here in the last 48 hours, we’ve seen Syrian regime forces advance through ISIS-held villages to essentially rifle-range or hand-grenade range with Syrian Arab Coalition fighters holding the area around Manbij.
Meanwhile, yesterday we had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS. Yet, they were actually — on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab Coalition forces. They had seen ISIS move out of the area in advance of the – as the regime and the Turks’ advance. The ISIS fighters withdrew, and the Syrian Arab Coalition fighters advanced into those villages.
So, I just described — tried to describe a very complicated battlefield situation where essentially three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid square. It’s very difficult and complicated.
And so I’m just trying — that was my attempt to say everybody should keep their sights focused on ISIS and that’s what we ought to keep our efforts focused on and not fighting deliberately or accidentally with one another. That’s what I meant.
Q: Quick follow-up, sir, what were the villages that the Russian bombed? Were there any U.S. or coalition advisers with the Syrian Arab Coalition in that vicinity when they were bombed? And have there been communications with the Russians about this?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I don’t really recall off the top of my head. I think you maybe asked me what the name of the village was. I don’t remember the name of the village. They’re just a bunch of little villages in the area there. It’s south and east of Al-Bab.
There were U.S. forces in the area. Not that close; they were four or five kilometers away because remember, we’re not fighting, we’re not at the front, we’re advising at command echelons a little bit farther back. So they were back, they observed these strikes. It became apparent that the strikes were falling on some of the Syrian Arab Coalition positions and some quick calls were made to our deconfliction channels and the Russians acknowledged and stopped — stopped bombing there.
And so we worked out an arrangement, a deconfliction. This is something that goes on daily in the air. Not every day on the ground, but daily in the air there’s a deconfliction arrangement with the Russians. And we used that mechanism and it worked.
Q: (inaudible) — the Arab coalition — Syrian Arab casualties as a result of the Russian bombing?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I think — you were sort of cut off. I think you asked if there were casualties. There were — there were some casualties from that bombing. There were.
Q: Among the SAC, among the SAC forces, among the Syrian Arab Coalition forces, they took some casualties?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yes.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we’ll go to — I’m sorry, Laurent. We might give him a microphone since he’s further the back.
Q: About these Russian bombings, can you say how far the villages were from Manbij?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I think your question was how far were these villages from Manbij?
I don’t know, a good number of kilometers. In fact, I have a map here in my pocket. I’ll pull it out and see if I can figure it out here. I don’t know, probably 15 or 20 kilometers or more, I think. But I’m not really sure. Just roughly looking at my map, it looks like they were about, like I said, 15 or 20 kilometers from Manbij City.
Q: Okay, thank you and I have another question I would — I would like to ask you.
Should the SDF lead the assault against Raqqa, do they have enough equipment, weapons to do it or would they need to be given additional equipment or weapons?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay, I think I understood your question. Should the SDF lead the assault on Raqqa, will they need additional weapons and equipment? I believe that they will.
I think our — I think we’re still in decision-making stages as to whether or not we will assault Raqqa with the SDF and what equipment they might need. But I would just say this; I’ve watched for four — more than four months now, I’ve watched the Iraqi combined arms — modern combined arms army attacking Mosul.
The Iraqis have all the modern types of body armor, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, fighter jets, helicopters, and they’re having a hard time taking — it’s a challenging fight taking Mosul. So I think if I, you know, transpose that to Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces are an irregular light infantry force mounted mostly in pickup trucks. So, they have very few heavy weapons.
So, if I compare these two forces and I envision the Syrian Democratic Forces assaulting Raqqa, a not unsubstantial city, I think that they’ll probably need additional combat power. But those decisions have yet to be taken.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Jim Michaels of USA Today.
Q: General, in your conversations with Iraq officials, have they indicated to you a desire to have continued training beyond the current fight?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So yes, I have heard Iraqi officials express a desire to have a continued U.S. presence here after the ISIL fight. I think that probably both of our governments, the government of Iraq and the U.S. government, are interested in that, but both — both those governments have yet to make that decision. We’re just not there yet as to what the — what or if — if or what that might look like.
We’re kind of focused on the current fight right now that I still think has a ways to go. But both governments have expressed an interest in that.
Q: Just a quick follow-up. The current training of Iraqi forces, is that mostly involved with police now to provide a follow-on security force or are there still training going on of Iraqi army combat formations as well?
GEN. TOWNSEND: We do have a particular focus on training Iraqi police right now, particularly for Nineveh Province where Mosul is because we’re trying to train and field the Nineveh hold force. The long-term solution for security in these towns and villages and cities is — are Iraqi police. So, we’re very focused on that.
That said, we’re still training all types of Iraqi security forces. Just today, I was out in Anbar visiting some of our partner capacity — building partner capacity sites, our training sites out there, and I saw Iraqi army soldiers training and I saw Iraqi border guards — troops training as well. So we’re building — training border guards for when they eventually secure — re-secure their sovereign border with Syria.
So we’re training all types of Iraqi security forces currently. We have a special emphasis on police for Nineveh because that’s a current need, but we’re looking down the road and training all types of them. And in fact, we’ve — building a program with the government of Iraq to start re-training forces after the ISIS — ISIS is defeated, we’ll start re-training those forces to secure Iraq into the future.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we’ll go to Paul McLeary from Foreign Policy.
Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this.
There’s been a lot of talk about safe zones in Syria recently. Given the situation around al-Bab, I mean, it shows how complicated it is. What would you need to create a safe zone? And would the north or the south be better in order to do something like this?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I think your question was about safe zones and what would I need.
And we’re — I think we’re considering what it might take to do safe zones. We haven’t been directed to establish any safe zones. I guess my first question would be safe zones for who, from what? We are building safe zones right now for all Iraqis and all Syrians to be safe from ISIS. That’s — those are the safe zones we’re building right now. We’re building them not just in the north or the south, but all over Iraq and Syria. Safe from ISIS.
We haven’t been directed to create any safe zones beyond that. We’re focused on our current fight to defeat ISIS, so I’ll — I’ll just leave it at that.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Luis Martinez with ABC. You should give him a microphone.
Q: Hi, general. Thank you for doing this.
Just a quick follow-up on the Syrian Arab Coalition casualties that you mentioned in al-Bab. Were there fatalities among those fighters? And what numbers are we talking about? And then I have another question, sir.
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. We don’t — we don’t announce casualty figures for our partners. We let our partners do that. So I — I don’t care to go into the characterization of the casualties or the number and type.
What was your follow-up question — your second question?
Q: Yes sir, thank you.
My question — I’ve heard you mention now Abu Kamal and Al Qaim, talking about their freedom of movement there and how the ISIS leaders seem to gravitate there. Is that their next safe haven in the area? And is it safe to assume that that will be the next focus of your operations after the conclusion of Raqqa and Mosul, whenever that happens? Or is it more timely to go at them right now?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. So I think anywhere we’re not attacking is sort of a safe haven for the enemy and their leaders, and we know they like to go there because they can transit the border with relative ease in the Abu Kamal, Al-Qaim area.
We’re hunting down there, hunting for leaders and we strike them with some regularity down there. But it’s a bit out of our reach right now. Our partner’s reach, really. It’s out of our partner’s reach right now. They’re focused on Mosul and they will turn their attention to Al-Qaim and Abu Kamal in due course. So, for now, right now, I think the Iraqi — or the ISIS leaders probably do gravitate to areas like that and anywhere else where we’re not currently pressuring.
I don’t care — care to talk about when we might get to Abu Kamal and Al-Qaim. I think the enemy — I’d prefer to have the enemy surprised to learn that information. So, I won’t talk about that.
CAPT. DAVIS: The next — this is last here — to Idrees Ali from Reuters.
Q: Two quick follow-ups. Firstly, on the Kurds participating in Raqqa, you said they would take part in the Raqqa operation in one form or another. They’re obviously already a part of the isolation phase. Are you saying they could go into Raqqa to clear it out?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Okay. I heard the second part of the question, could Kurds go into Raqqa to clear it out. I did not understand the first part of your question, which I think is related to the second. Could you repeat the first part of the question over?
Q: I’m just saying you — you said that they would take part — the Kurds would take part in the Raqqa operation in form or another. And since they’re already taking part in the isolation, are you saying that they’re going to go into Raqqa?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Well, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying they’re taking part in the isolation. It is their — they’re moving on that. They will isolate Raqqa. We’re still going through various planning iterations to determine exactly what the composition of the assault force for Raqqa will be.
Do I anticipate that there will be some Kurds in that force? Yes, I do. Mainly — first of all because there are Kurds from Raqqa. It’s a predominantly Arab area, but there are Kurds from there. So, there — there are going to be Kurds assaulting Raqqa for sure. The — the number, the size of them and how many Kurdish units are participating in that I — I can’t really say right now.
Will — so, will Kurds go into Raqqa? Yes, I think if they are Raqqawis, they will go into Raqqa with all of the Arabs and all the Turkmen and everybody else. Raqqa is — a significant majority of Raqqawis, as we refer to them, are Arabs. But they’re like just about any other city in this region, and our own country, as a matter of fact. You’ve got a mix of peoples, right? Ethnic and religious mixing in — in Raqqa, in the city and in the larger province around it.
So, yeah, there will be Kurds attacking Raqqa and there’ll be Kurds in Raqqa. The size of that force, I don’t know. That’s still being considered.
Q: Quick follow-up.
Earlier on, you said that you don’t foresee any large number of coalition forces — additional coalition forces being brought into Iraq and Syria. Given that the plan was just submitted on Monday by the Pentagon, I guess what should we — what else to do you need if not additional troops in — in the region?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yeah, as I said when that question was asked earlier, I submitted my recommendations and advice to my military leaders and they’ve submitted that to the secretary of defense, who submitted it to the president.
And I don’t care to comment any further while our leadership makes these decisions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. And —
Q: And just to clarify, when did the Russians strike take place? What day did the Russian strike take place, sir — General? Was it yesterday?
GEN. TOWNSEND: I’m sorry?
Q: Just a point of clarification. When did the Russian airstrike take place?
GEN. TOWNSEND: Yesterday.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, general. Thank you very much for your time. I don’t know if you had any further closing comments for us. Otherwise, we will sign off.
GEN. TOWNSEND: No. Yeah, thanks for your questions tonight. Sorry I couldn’t be more forthcoming about some of our future plans. You have to understand that first of all I want to give our leaders a chance to consider the recommendations they’ve received from the whole chain of command, and not pressure them one way or the other.
So, couldn’t be that forthcoming on that. Sorry about that.
Also, I really don’t want the enemy to know what our future plans are. I prefer the enemy to find out about them as they are unfolding. So, thanks for being patient with that. I know several of you asked those types of questions. I couldn’t really answer them.
Also, as far as the makeup of the force that’s going to Raqqa, you know, here’s what I think. They’re Syrians. That’s who’s going to Raqqa. Syrians are going to go liberate Raqqa. And we’ll — you know, when Raqqa is liberated, whatever force it is, we’re all very focused on turning it over to local control.
In fact, there’s an international effort that’s looking at the post-liberation governance and stabilization of Raqqa. And that effort is designed to turn it over to local control for security, and local control for governance.
So, I’m not really sure it really matters what the composition of the force that goes there to liberate it. What matters really in my mind is the composition of the force that stays there and governs and secures Raqqa after it’s liberated from ISIS.
I think probably most Syrians and most Iraqis are welcoming of anybody who’s coming to help liberate them from ISIS. That’s what I’ve seen. They don’t really — they’re not that picky. But who sticks around matters, and that ought to be local folks who stick around and govern and secure Raqqa and Mosul and Al-Qaim and — and Manbij, and any of those places that have been liberated from or will be liberated from ISIS.
And last, I’d just like to say again how proud I am of the troopers, of the U.S. and our coalition partners here — some 30 nations contributing troops here in our coalition against ISIS. And they are helping our partner forces and they are keeping this region and our own countries, our homeland, safe from the threat that is ISIS.
And you — I would like all Americans to keep them in their thoughts and prayers.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, general. We look forward to seeing you again soon.
Thank you, everybody.