STAFF: Good morning, everybody. We have Brigadier General Kevin Killea today with us. He's the chief of staff for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).
He's briefing us today live from Southwest Asia. He'll make a few opening comments and then take your questions. We've only got about a half hour for this briefing, and I'll call on you for questions.
While you're able to see Brigadier General Killea, he cannot see you, so please state your name and outlets when I call on you, and when you do -- when I do call on you, please identify yourself, so he knows you by name and outlet.
Without any further ado, general, we'll pass it off to you for some opening remarks.
BRIGADIER GENERAL KEVIN J. KILLEA: Okay, thank you, and thank you all for attending today.
My game plan will be to briefly touch on the coalition's overall efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL across the combined joint operational area, and then I'd like to focus on operations in and around Ramadi.
Beginning with our work in training and the advise and assist missions in Iraq, there are currently more than 1,200 coalition personnel from 17 partner nations with coalition commitments that eventually will total [sic: 1,500 members. To date, more than 11,000] Iraqi security force personnel have completed various individual specialty courses at the BPC [building partner capacity] platforms.
In addition to the ISF's [Iraqi Security Forces] approximately 1,100 Sunni tribal fighters have attended training and subject matter exchanges at Al Taqaddum. Most recently, more than 400 Peshmerga fighters attended the training program in Erbil. The coalition works in coordination with the government of Iraq, who manages the throughput of trainees for all of these programs.
In terms of Syria, there has been significant progress, with the anti-ISIL fighters having gained more than 5,300 square kilometers since May of this year. In one day this week, they advanced more than 45 kilometers along their forward line of troops.
This is important, as any territory taken back from ISIL means their freedom to maneuver and their access to supply lines gets reduced. A perfect example of that is what recently occurred in Hasakah and Sarrin, and I'd be happy to talk to you about that in the Q&A if you'd like.
The air campaign continues to have success in striking ISIL facilities, vehicles and equipment, and, as you know, the air campaign enables both the ISF in Iraq as well as the anti-ISIL fighters in Syria.
Airstrikes have gone a long way to degrade ISIL's ability to mount large offensive attacks as well as reducing their ability to openly control towns and cities, where they so often inflict terror on those civilian populations. Since the beginning of operations, we have conducted more than 5,600 airstrikes.
So, now, let me turn to Ramadi. This operation, in many ways, is going along as planned. ISF are executing a very deliberate attack on a dense urban area housing ISIL forces that have been dug in for months. Moreover, ISIL forces have prepared and created complex obstacles and IED [improvised explosive device] belts, all of them covered by fire, in and around the city.
For these reasons, a deliberate, careful approach to isolate the city is being undertaken to set the conditions for follow-on operations.
As you know, the operation to regain control of Ramadi began on July 12th, and included weeks of shaping operations by coalition air forces and ISF ground forces in and around the Ramadi area.
As I alluded to, ISF are in the isolation phase, which involves preventing ISIL from accessing their lines of communication and, therefore, their ability to reinforce the fighters in the city. The clearing stage is next, and it promises to test the mettle of the ISF.
While I won't go into the details of the ISF's progress, I can say that the ISF have made some considerable gains in the isolation phase. In fact, it's fair to say that their progress is commensurate with Iraqi leadership's expectations for where this stage is -- of the operation is.
Coalition forces, of course, are providing continual support to the ISF in this phase of the operation. The coalition has helped prepare ISF ground forces by training and equipping ISF units, as well as providing subject matter expert exchanges through the advise and assist mission.
The advise and assist teams have been especially invaluable in providing their expertise to the ISF headquarters and operation centers. Coalition advisers have assisted ISF leadership in operational planning, with their experienced military subject matter experts working side by side with their Iraqi counterparts.
Two of the ISF brigades participating in ground operations in the vicinity of Ramadi were trained by coalition forces at BPC platforms. Additionally, 500 Sunni tribal fighters who trained with the support of our advise and assist teams at Al Taqaddum are fighting under the ISF.
To date, the coalition has conducted over 100 airstrikes against ISIL in the vicinity of Ramadi since the counterattack began, and over 650 in the broader Anbar province, since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve. These airstrikes have bolstered the ability of the ISF to maneuver on the ground, and, in some cases, isolate approaches to Ramadi.
We have struck straight -- staging areas and destroyed multiple ISIL armored personnel carriers and other vehicles. Coalition forces have also focused on destroying ISIL IED facilities. As priority targets for ISF ground forces, these strikes degrade the ability of ISIL to tactically maneuver and defend within the vicinity of Ramadi.
I will emphasize that every target is carefully considered by coalition air forces to address and minimize the possibility of collateral damage and civilian casualties.
Supporting the Iraqis' fight to retake Ramadi is a high priority for the coalition at this time, and we will continue to support ISF ground maneuver with airstrikes against ISIL targets in direct support of the government of Iraq objectives.
Overall, the message I would provide to you is that momentum is a better indicator of success than speed, and the ISF have momentum in Ramadi.
With that, I would be happy to take any questions that you may have about the overall operations of the coalition to help defeat ISIL, and our support for ISF fighting to liberate Ramadi.
Q: Hi. General, it's Jamie McIntyre from Al Jazeera America.
I want to ask you about an Associated Press story that caught the attention of my editors this morning, which says that American intelligence agencies have concluded that, after billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was.
It has a quote from an unnamed defense official who says, "We've seen meaningful degradation in their numbers," saying that they're strength is still between 20,000 and 30,000, the same as last August when the air strikes began.
Can you give us some perspective on that? What's you take?
GEN. KILLEA: Yeah, so I was about to say, "Thank you, I'm ready for your questions." Apparently, I was rambling on too long. If I understand your question properly, it's about the duration of the campaign and the effects that we're having -- the ISF is having on the ground.
In my opinion, this is not the same fight as it was when it started, and I look at that based on the effects that we have had on ISIL. They are much more territorial, meaning they're defending more than they're on the offensive. Their attacks are smaller, they are more focused, and they're less enduring, and it -- it's -- all you have to do is look at the gains that have been made on the ground recently to see that -- that there is an effect, and there is progress.
Q: Just so I'm clear, would you disagree with the premise that ISIL is no weaker today than it was back in August?
GEN. KILLEA: I would say -- I would repeat that I have seen an effect on the ground for what the ISF forces and what the coalition forces have provided for the -- to the fight since Operation Inherent Resolve began.
Q: Sir, Kim Dozier with the Daily Beast. Just a bit of a follow up, the intelligence community's estimate earlier this year had actually been that ISIS's strength was mustering between 22,000 to 30,000 -- 32,000 fighters, and now that estimate is back down to 20,000 to 30,000 in the estimate released to the press this week.
So, does that mean that you've got better intelligence, better visibility on the size of their forces? Or do you think they're not able to replenish at the rate they were before? And what is the rate of replenishment?
GEN. KILLEA: I can't talk to the rate of replenishment, and I actually do not a sound figure myself on the number of forces that ISIL is fielding right now in Iraq and Syria. I can defer that question to CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] J2, who -- who should have those numbers for you. In my opinion the -- the -- in my position, I should say, the only thing I can tell you with confidence is the effects that I'm seeing on the battlefield, which I just talked about.
Q: Thank you, sir. Could you please discuss stories this week that some of the U.S. trained and equipped Syrian moderate fighters were captured? And what sort of plans, if any, does the U.S. have to assist or rescue or come to the aid of any sort of captured Syrian moderate fighters?
GEN. KILLEA: So -- I'm sorry. Could you repeat the beginning of your question again? I wasn't sure which group you were talking about.
Q: There are about seven U.S. -- potentially U.S. trained or equipped or went through the U.S. system Syrian rebels -- moderates, who were reportedly captured this week?
GEN. KILLEA: So -- so, we've seen the reports, too, but that report had nothing to do with the new Syrian fighters that we've trained and equipped. To our knowledge, we have -- well, not to our knowledge, we have zero indication or information that there are any captured new Syrian forces that we've trained.
Q: To follow up on that, if there is a potential for capture, what are U.S. plans to come to the aid or rescue of any captured?
GEN. KILLEA: I think your question was, if the new Syrian forces were captured, would we come to their aid? I would say that all of the anti-ISIL forces in Syria, that are credible, reliable partners on the ground in the fight against ISIL will receive coalition support as is required.
So, the new Syrian forces are part of the anti-ISIL forces in Northern Syria.
Q: Is I could just follow up on that -- Cami McCormick from CBS Radio.
There is a report this morning that coalition war plans may be targeting al-Nusra in this area, as al-Nursa attacks this Division 30, in this particular area that Tara was talking about in Syria. Is that true?
GEN. KILLEA: There's some reporting this morning that we've heard as well, that we're looking into the details. It's a very new report. We don't have anything that talks about specific groups on the ground, or what war planes are doing with respect to that report.
As you know, the combined joint operations area is very large. There's a lot of activity up there, and a lot of strikes. There's deliberate strikes, there's dynamic strikes, and so we're still looking into the details of that, and don't have any more information for you on that.
As that information emerges, I think CENTCOM public affairs will be able to provide that.
Q: To be a legitimate target for the U.S.-led coalition if it were attacking this Division 30?
GEN. KILLEA: I missed the beginning of that question.
Q: Is al-Nusra a legitimate target.
GEN. KILLEA: I don't get into specific groups that are on the ground with regard to who's a target and who's not. The efforts of a coalition that are Northern Syrian are anti-ISIL, and the anti-terrorist groups -- or not anti-terrorist -- terrorist groups that are associated with ISIL, and our campaign is purely against anti-ISIL.
Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I have a couple of quick follow-ups.
On Tara’s question, you said that you don't have any knowledge that any of the new Syrian forces had been captured. But do you know how many -- there's also a report that several have been killed and injured already. Do you have any numbers on that? How many of the roughly 60 have been killed, injured, or taken out of the fight?
GEN. KILLEA: So, I can tell you that we have nothing to confirm any reports that talk about injured, killed in contact that you just alluded to. But I -- I can tell you with certainty, we know that none of them have been captured. And the information that we have, I don't know where it came from that they said they were captured, but all the information that we have is that nobody has -- none of the non -- I'm sorry, new Syrian forces have been captured.
Q: And then you mentioned in your opening that the anti-ISIL fighters have gained 5,300 square kilometers in Syria. How much -- how many square kilometers do -- does ISIL now control in Syria, total?
GEN. KILLEA: I can tell you something about numbers -- they change twice a day around here. And that's a good question, and I will make the CJTF-PA team get you that exact number and send it to you.
Q: And then, just one more quick follow-up from your opening. When you talked about the airstrikes in Ramadi, just to be clear, the more than 100 airstrikes, where they actually in Ramadi, or are they around Ramadi? The ones that you talked about since the operation began?
GEN. KILLEA: Both, they are in both. Within -- there are targets, deliberate targets, that we target in the city that we confirm are Daesh targets, valid military targets. And then there are shaping targets outside the city where the forces are closing on the city that we support the ground forces with their maneuver.
So, the answer is both.
Q: So, this is Scott Maucione from Inside the Pentagon.
What kind of role are contractors playing in your mission, and when -- looking forward, I know you're using OCO [overseas contingency operation] funds, so you can't look too far forward, but do you see an increase or decrease in the use of contractors?
GEN. KILLEA: I'm sorry, I can't answer that question. I don't have that information readily available, nor do I know it off the top of my head. But I can get to my PA team, and we'll get you that answer as a response to query.
Q: General, thanks a lot for this – Tolga Tanis with Hurriyet.
I had a quick question regarding the groups that you're cooperating with on the ground against ISIL. First of all, have you determined any group after this Incirlik agreement that you reached with Turkey, especially for the region that Turks are focusing, the region between the other than Jarablus, in terms of some others -- the Syrian groups, like the Levant group, or Army of Conquer (sic: Conquest).
And secondly, can you please give us more details about the ongoing cooperation with YPG? Weren't you able to cooperate with YPG through the flights from Incirlik and other Turkish bases? Is there any commitment from the Turks on this issue?
And the last one, how the Incirlik involvement for the operation will impact the Operation Inherent Resolve in general?
GEN. KILLEA: Okay, a couple of questions there that really require a lengthy response, but I'll try and keep it short. And I'll probably ask you to repeat the third question, if we get to it, because I didn't understand it.
But the first question is about who we are supporting on the ground in Northern Syria, and it's clear that the coalition forces are supporting anti-ISIL forces that are credible, reliable partners for us in the fight against ISIL. And that includes Syrian Kurds, it includes Sunni-Arab fighters, and it includes the moderate opposition forces from Syria, many of whom we've vetted, so those are called vetted Syrian opposition.
So, those forces, in themselves, are the focus of anti-ISIL forces in Northern Syria that we support.
The second question you had was with regard to the YPG. The YPG for the coalition against ISIL is -- has been a very credible and reliable partner as part of the Syrian-Kurdish group that comprises anti-ISIL forces.
And please repeat your third question.
Q: Just to clarify the second one. Were you able to cooperate with YPG to the flights from Incirlik, from Turkish bases, according to the new deal that you reached with the Turks?
And the third one, can you please elaborate the role of Incirlik in the Operation Inherent Resolve, what will be the impact of Incirlik to this operation?
GEN. KILLEA: Yes, so thank you for that question. It's a good question. And right now, we are in dialogue, and in discussions with the government of Turkey to better fold them into the operational activities, if you will, of the combined joint task force against ISIL. That's our focus.
And with the opening of base facilities, we think that that is going to be a very positive impact in our efforts against ISIL.
Those dialogues and that conversation are really just beginning, and I don't have any details on those. And when those get concluded, and when the agreements are made, I'm sure those details will be released. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News.
I have two disparate questions. You said that 500 Sunni fighters have joined the fight against -- in -- in Ramadi. Were those Sunni fighters brought in since the White House expanded in Anbar Province our outreach to Sunnis, and how many are in the pipeline right now to be vetted and join the fight?
GEN. KILLEA: Yeah, so that's a great question, and -- and the answer is yes. They were Sunni tribal resistance fighters, were basically part of our advise and assist program at Al Taqaddum, and so, obviously, we do very high-level subject matter exchanges with the Iraqis, and then they train their Sunni fighters, and the answer to the second part of your question is yes, there is a second group.
They're -- they're actually beginning to form, and to -- beginning to -- to see that training as we speak. This week, sometime, if not early next week.
Q: Second question, on a totally different subject. Aircraft carriers. There is a concern in Washington that the Theodore Roosevelt leaving the theater at the end of the year is going to leave a gap in the number of fighters -- aircraft that can participate in anti-ISIL activity operations.
What's your level of concern there? How much does the Navy actually contribute at this point, and what plans do you have for this carrier gap, to mitigate it?
GEN. KILLEA: So I would defer that question to the Navy, and to CENTCOM, for response. I can tell you that, right now, where we are today, with the support that we get from the combined force air component commander and those coalition air forces that support the JTF, it -- it -- it is -- it's -- it's been fantastic, and it has shown an impact on the ground.
Q: Thank you. Patrick Tucker with Defense One.
Do you have an opinion about the establishment of a, quote-unquote, "buffer zone" between Turkey and Syria, and are you engaging any Kurdish groups in any discussions about that?
GEN. KILLEA: So I -- I don't have an opinion. I've got a lot of opinions, but I -- I don't have a personal opinion on that except to say that the ongoing dialogue and the conversations that we're having with the government of Turkey -- it promises to show great impact, positive impact, on the coalition's fight against ISIL.
As you know, Turkey is already a strong coalition partner in that fight. Now, we need to get them to fold in operationally -- into the CJTF activities. I believe that that will go a long way, not only in the war against ISIL, but also to secure the border and to make that safe, between Turkey and Syria and Turkey and Iraq.
Q: Are growing hostilities between certain Kurdish groups and Turkish forces having any sort of impact on your operation?
GEN. KILLEA: Can you repeat -- I -- the first half of that question got cut off. Can you repeat the question, please?
Q: The growing hostilities between certain Kurdish groups and Turkish forces. Is that having any impact so far on your operations?
GEN. KILLEA: So, again, the government of Turkey, we respect their right to self-defense with regard to their activities in -- in -- on the border between Syria and Iraq.
So, again, respect that right to self-defense. We feel that if we can fold them into the dialogue and the conversation to become a more active member operationally, in CJTF operations, that we -- like I said in the last question, we could go a long way to support -- or, I'm sorry, to stabilize that border.
I don't -- I don't have any other comments on impacts to CJTF operations.
Q: General, it's Andrew Tilghman with Military Times.
I'd like to ask you about the militias, in particular, the PMF [popular mobilization force] and the non-aligned militias that the U.S. is not coordinating with. Can you talk a little bit about the tactical challenges or limitations that their presence on the battlefield creates in terms of -- do you have to limit your sorties to avoid their indirect fire, or do you have to -- is there ISR [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance] confusion about what -- who's the enemy, and who are these other forces? What complexities and challenges do those forces create?
GEN. KILLEA: Yes, so that is a great question. And you're exactly right, it is very complex. But it's clear for the coalition force on who they can support and who we do support, as a coalition on the ground. And it is those forces that are properly aligned with the government of Iraq, and who report to the ministry of defense for operations. In other words, if you're not in the chain of command to the government of Iraq, you're not going to get coalition support.
So, to your question about the difficulty of working that out, that comes down to the teams that we have in the joint operation centers with the -- with their Iraqi counterparts. And having and understanding, a situational awareness of who's on the ground and where and ultimately, what forces we can support.
STAFF: We have time for one or two more here, General.
Q: Kristina. (Laughter.)
STAFF: Sorry. Forgot the A.
Q: Thanks. General, this is Kristina Wong from The Hill.
Just to get a sense of the size of the force that's fighting ISIS in Ramadi, how many total ISF and Shia militia, and Sunni, overall -- not just that we've trained, are fighting there?
And do you have any information about the NATO defense capacity building package that was announced today?
GEN. KILLEA: So, to your first question, I can't talk to any friendly or enemy order of battle on the -- in the Ramadi fight. And for operational security reasons, I hope you can understand that.
The second question about a NATO force, I missed. If you could repeat it.
Q: So, NATO announced a defense capacity building package today with Iraq. I just wanted to know if you had any information about that?
GEN. KILLEA: I don't. I would defer that question to OSD-PA [Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs] to help you answer that one.
Q: Hi, there. Phil Stewart from Reuters.
Just a couple of follow-ups. One on Ramadi. You said clearing operations were coming up? Are those days, weeks away -- months away?
And on the issue of the PKK strikes, the strikes by Turkey against the PKK. I understand that your support of Turkey's growing role, but have there been any -- a need to suspend operations due to deconflicting airspace? You know, making sure that the Turks can carry out their strikes. Has that inhibited you from carrying out any of yours?
GEN. KILLEA: I forgot the first question, but the second question, with regard to the PKK and the Turkish strikes -- and again, we respect their right to self-defense, and especially attacking a terrorist group like the PKK.
With your question in that regard with having to cancel operations or anything like that, there's enough coordination with the government of Turkey right now, that I would -- I would characterize, me, personally, the impact on operations as minimal. But I would also say that that coordination is why we're in discussions and dialog with the government of Turkey right now, to get them better folded in, to have a more deeper, broader participation in the operational activities of -- of CJTF-OIR.
And I need to repeat that Turkey has been a very strong partner in this coalition. It's just now, with the need to take that next step to fold them into operational activities, I would say, integrated more formally to lessen any impact that there might be without that.
As you can imagine, that would always be better than worse -- having more coordination than less.
And I apologize, I miss -- I missed your first question, if you could repeat it.
Q: How far off are clearing operations for Ramadi? Days, weeks, months?
GEN. KILLEA: Yes, I would defer that question to the government of Iraq, who has a better idea of their campaign plan and their operations on the ground. I don't -- I couldn't give you a time frame on that. I can tell you, they're still in the isolation phase, and they are making progress.
And as I said, it's a very difficult fight. And so, their deliberate approach there is going to take some time. It's not going to be quickly. But I couldn't give you a real good left and right limit.
STAFF: General, thank you. You've been very generous with your time.
Did you have any final closing comments or anything for us, before we sign off?
GEN. KILLEA: No, I appreciate everybody attending, again, and giving me this opportunity to give you a little bit of boots on the ground from what's going on over here. And I appreciate everybody's continued support.
STAFF: Thank you, again, General, for your time. And thanks everybody for joining us today.