Sputnik: Do you have an assessment of how many IS* fighters remain in territories where you’re operating?
Col. Ryan Dillon: So we know that we are down to two areas in particular — one is right along the Euphrates river on the eastern side of the Euphrates river, north of al-Bukamal and south of Mayadeen and then other area where isis still holds territory is further west along the Iraqi-Syrian border. We have not put out any estimates of remaining numbers of ISIS fighters, but those are the two locations where they still hold territory and I’ll just go straight into probably what one of your next questions is going to be, we had a lot of success in chipping away probably more so after Raqqa we continued to keep the pressure on and defeated ISIS through our partners in most of the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Things have slowed down because of the operations that happened in Afrin, where several members of the Syrian Democratic Forces left the Middle Euphrates River Valley to go and defend their relatives and others in Afrin. So while we have not – we’ve been limited now in our ability to conduct intensive operations and really put the pressure on. So we have at least been able to contain ISIS in those two locations and then exploit ISIS weaknesses with our strikes and limited offensive operations where we can use them effectively to strike on the ground and in the air.
Sputnik: Do you have estimates on number of SDF who left and how many stayed behind?
Col. Ryan Dillon: The SDF, they put out a statement a couple weeks ago that gave an estimate, I think it was 1,700 fighters had moved to go and reinforce Afrin. What I do not have, nor would I provide the overall number of SDF fighters that are arrayed in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. I know that overall there is about 57,000 SDF total. Clearly, not all of them are focused on the Middle Euphrates River Valley. And now that operations are over, I can tell you just as an example, I understand that there was for the battle in Raqqa there was about 10,000 SDF that took part in that operation. So while I won’t give the overall number in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, one thing I will say is that the majority of those fighters are Arab. So 80 percent of the SDF force that is fighting in the Middle Euphrates River Valley is Arab, about 20 percent Kurdish.
Sputnik: So you’re suggesting that the larger chunk has remained in the Middle Euphrates River Valley?
Col. Ryan Dillon: Yes, I would say that. Yep. And I would also just let you know that overall after Raqqa, that’s when the overall SDF forces was about 50,000 and it was right about 50-50 [Kurdish-Arab], the majority of the 57,000 are now Arab as well. So that tipping point happened on or about the time when Raqqa was underway, and that largely is due to as you continue to move through villages and areas that are predominantly Arab, they began to join the SDF as they continued further down the Middle Euphrates River Valley. So overall now, more Arab SDF fighters than Kurdish and particularly so in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Sputnik: But you guys have been saying and people at State and the Pentagon are saying that this battle in Afrin has distracted from the fight against ISIS. Can you say anything about how that has impacted your efforts there?
Col. Ryan Dillon: Clearly, with the amount of fighters that have left that the SDF had announced 1,700 a lot of those are – and I’ll be very blunt about this as well, the majority of the leadership of these elements are Kurdish. So a lot of the leaders of these elements in the Middle Euphrates River Valley have departed as well. So there’s no question about it, and it’s not just a distraction. What has happened and the events that have occurred in Afrin is another tragic chapter in this last 7 years in Syria. Afrin before the operations to go in there was largely stable. And you’ve seen now displaced of up to 200,000 to 90,000. Nevertheless, people have been killed, non-combatants, and have been displaced and it’s just another ugly chapter of the recent history that is Syria.
Sputnik: Turkey’s foreign minister was saying yesterday that US and Turkey reached “an understanding” but not a full agreement about stabilizing Manbij
Col. Ryan Dillon: I saw his statement as well and I will tell you from the coalition from on the ground here, if they have an understanding it has not reached down to us. We know that Secretary Tillerson between the President Erdogan and the foreign minister they all met and had discussions. We have not seen on the ground here any concrete direction or changes in our perspective. If that agreement or that understanding rather has come about, it has not reached those of us here on the ground.
Sputnik: OK, so there’s currently no effort to cooperate in areas in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria?
Col. Ryan Dillon: I would say that cooperation has always gone on throughout the entire time that Turkey has been a part of the global coalition. We have Turkish officers within our headquarters, those are LNOs (liaison officers) and we also have LNOs that reside in Turkey as well. So I know at the coalition level we do have dialogue and coordination, and I know it continues all the way up through diplomatic channels all the way up to what we saw with Secretary Tillerson and even President Trump and President Erdogan as well. I would not say that coordination is something that is new – we’ve had a very open and transparent interaction between Turkey since we’ve been here fighting ISIS.
Sputnik: What do you think of Turkey’s plan to advance eastward toward the Iraq border (into Manbij)?
Col. Ryan Dillon: We have seen quite a bit of talk and rhetoric that has come out. We have been very clear about why we are in Syria and our actions also match up with our words and we’re here to fight ISIS and defeat ISIS and to make sure that they cannot resurge. We’ve been very, very clear about that. And so while there are diplomatic discussions, we, those who are wearing the uniforms from the 24 different nations that are fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we are very much focused on what our mission is.
Sputnik: Do you have any estimates of how many IS militants have been killed by coalition?
Col. Ryan Dillon: We do not typically put out the number of those that have been killed. Estimates range very, very widely. What’s more important to us is that they no longer have control of territory, they no longer have control of resources, they no longer have the ability to sanctuary to plan, finance resource and export their terror. And there’s been quite a few folks in nations that have said the coalition is not serious about fighting ISIS. I would say where is ISIS’s most prized possessions? Where were they? Their twin capitals of Mosul and Raqqa, their self-declared caliphate. It was the coalition that stood shoulder to shoulder with their partners in both of these locations. Now Isis has been removed from 98 percent of the territory that they held, 7 ½ million people are now free from under their control. So that is how we have measured success and not so much by the numbers we have been able to kill but more of the territory they’ve been able to hold and the terror they’ve been able to export from these locations.
Sputnik: We remember when IS rolled into Mosul and took over the (Iraqi) army base there they took a lot of US military equipment. Are you guys recapturing any of that, and what do you do with it?
Col. Ryan Dillon: The Iraqis continue to conduct aggressive operations, they have not let off of the gas. A lot of people think after Mosul and after Prime Abadi announced in December the complete liberation of Iraq, that they would kind of take a rest and a pause, and that has not been the case, Iraqi security forces have continued and every single day are going after and finding ISIS remnants you know so these small cells that are running back into the desert, traditional hiding spots where they began in 2013 and 14. So a lot of these caches a lot of these stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making materials, suicide vests, continue to be found. Iraqi security forces find these things every single day. There are a lot of cave networks, in particular in areas southwest of Kirkuk in the Hamrin mountains in west of Mosul and way out in the west of the Anbar desert. So that Iraqi security forces, that’s one of the other things that we as a coalition are doing and we have done over the course of the last 3 years is really focus on the training of the Iraqi security forces – all elements, so the Iraqi army, the counterterrorism service, federal police, local police, border guard forces – they continue to get better every single day, and as they demonstrate more capabilities and capacities to conduct operations on their own, there will be a gradual decrease of coalition forces over time.
Sputnik: What’s the situation now in Raqqa as far as civilians returning? I know you were conducting clearing operations for some time, do you expect-?
Col. Ryan Dillon: The Raqqa civil council have really taken, they have spearheaded efforts to do stabilization. The first thing though I would have to say overall is before any civil councils or civil works or non-governmental organizations, before any of those things can come in, the area has to be secured. And the blueprint that the coalition has used for success has been that any of these liberated areas, immediately after the SDF has defeated ISIS in these areas, there is immediately a hold force that is representative of the civilians and citizens in that area, they are there for a short time before internal security forces are established. And these are, like in Raqqa as an example these are local Raqqawis who are being trained by coalition and supported by the coalition with equipment, uniforms, weapons and training, and so they are from these areas. Local folks so they know who belongs and who doesn’t belong in these areas and make sure they cannot come back.
One of the other things particularly for Raqqa is the sheer amount of explosives and booby traps and improvised explosive devices that ISIS has left behind. They have salted the city of Raqqa with all of these booby traps. And unfortunately there are many families who want to come home, who want to return and many of them are attempting to do so even at the request or I don’t want to say desire but there are Raqqa civil council members and Raqqa internal security forces that are what looks like they’re preventing people from going back to their homes, but largely it’s because these areas have not been cleared of these booby traps. And ISIS has left them in places like inside ovens, inside baby toys, inside baby formula, we’ve seen Qurans that have been rigged to explode with non-tamper devices. So we do training with Iraqi security forces on counter IED so they can identify and reduce and remove these threats. But there are also efforts by the non-governmental organizations through de-mining efforts to do this as well. So it’s a big challenge, there’s no question about it. There’s a Twitter feed we’d be happy to send it to you, and my Arabic is not that great, but the Raqqa Civil Council has been very much they’ve covered a lot of different events on the stabilization efforts that they’re doing with the return of social services.
Sputnik: So these are civilian-led councils?
Col. Ryan Dillon: In both Iraq and Syria that is the case, it’s the way we’ve fundamentally operated in Iraq and Syria. And I know that you’ve covered this, but a lot of journalists or people that I talk to, when you say Iraq, you say US forces or coalition forces, people think back to 2003, 2007, and it is not that case. Here in Iraq and in Syria it is Iraqis that are planning and executing the operations. We are enabling them with some things that they don’t have whether that be intelligence or precision strike capabilities, but they are the ones who are fighting and dying and have fought and died, which is not how things went in 2003 and 2007 for example.
Sputnik: So do US forces there mostly train and advise, or do they engage in combat missions?
Col. Ryan Dillon: Even in the high intensity conflicts and the major combat operations, like when you’re talking about the operations to defeat ISIS in Mosul, you did not have US forces or coalition forces that were kicking down doors and at the front of a fire team being the first ones entering a building. We have advisers that in Mosul that was about the closest they got to the front lines but that was they were still with battalion commanders and brigade commanders. They were not the ones who were engaging in combat at the front lines. It was largely Iraqis that were doing this. Now, did we have coalition members who were fired at? They had to fire back and have we had and coalition members who have been killed over the course of three years, yes we have. But it is not US units that are conducting combat operations and we certainly aren’t doing that now. They’ve shifted more to advising, well we have been advising all along, but it’s now at an even higher level. So you have lieutenant colonels and colonels that are advising 2- and 3-star generals in the Iraqi military.
Sputnik: Do you have instructions for any situations in which you could engage the Syrian army? Or is it fair to say the coalition isn’t going to provoke Syrian forces?
Col. Ryan Dillon: That is not our mission. Our mission is we’re here to defeat ISIS. And that is what we’ve done all along. And in my year that I’ve been here, there have been times when we have engaged with Syrian forces. All of those were strictly in self-defense. So over the course of, you take the 7th and 8th of February as an example when our partners in our forces that were advising and with our partner forces were attacked unprovoked and we conducted strikes and eliminated a lot of the threats that were on the eastern side of the Euphrates River. The Euphrates River is very much active as a deconfliction measure between Russia and the coalition with our partners on the east side of the river and the Syrian regime backed by Russia on the west side of the river. We’ve had a deconfliction line, meaning a telephone line just like you and I are talking on between the air components of the Russians in Syria and the coalition and also on the ground as well. And we talk on that line every single day and when necessary and when needed. Just like on the 7th and 8th of February we saw a slow buildup of forces on the eastern side of the river and continued to call before during and after the engagement and that we would defend ourselves and we did exactly that which we said we were going to do. The only time we have engaged with (pro-) Syrian regime forces is when we have been attacked and it’s always been in self-defense.
Sputnik: I’ve seen reports that these pro-regime forces are building up forces again on the east of the Euphrates, what can you say about that?
Col. Ryan Dillon: You’re exactly right, we have seen a slow buildup of forces on the eastern side of the Euphrates river and similarly to the 7th and 8th of February we have communicated this to our Russian counterparts in Syria and if we see certain types of equipment that can either range or we feel threatened we will communicate that through this deconfliction line and let our Russian counterparts know. Our intent is to #1 de-escalate this through dialogue, this deconfliction telephone line. But we have made it very clear in the past by action and by also our verbal dialogue through the deconfliction line that we will defend ourselves. And I think anybody, any commander knows that you have an inherent right to defend one’s self. And this is yet another distraction from what it is that we’re intending to do, what we want to do which is to defeat ISIS in these two locations.
Sputnik: Have you identified those forces? I mean there’s a question about who are they.
Col. Ryan Dillon: We have identified the types of equipment. So if we see as an example, and I’m not saying this is the case, but if we see an artillery piece that moves to within range on the eastern side of the river and starts to point at our forces then that is enough to constitute a threat and we would make a call on the deconfliction line to let the Russians know that. As in the case with the 7th and 8th of February, we continue to see all of this, but it was an attack that began with artillery and mortar fire and tanks maneuvering, so it was very clear that this wasn’t just an “oh, we let an artillery round go accidentally” or we’re fighting ISIS. It was clearly an attack and it was clearly directed at our partner forces, there were coalition forces as well and as soon as that happened we defended ourselves just as we said we would. And I think the results speak for themselves. We are very capable of defending ourselves. There’s many who were killed on the pro-regime side and there was no personnel on our side who were wounded or injured. So we definitely have the lethality and the responsiveness to react to attacks, but again that is not what our focus is.
Sputnik: But I mean have you identified them? Are they Syrian regime troops, or are they-?
Col. Ryan Dillon: I think from where they are it’s more about the types of equipment and that is what the threat is to us. It’s hard to tell. Unlike oldtime conventional warfare where everybody wears the same uniform, that’s not the case in this area of the world. It’s hard to identify, ok here is a soldier that is wearing a known uniform and we can tell exactly who they are. That is not the case here. So it is harder to identify elements on the ground.
Sputnik: Are there circumstances under which you would launch a pre-emptive attack on those forces, like if they started moving heavy artillery into the area?
Col. Ryan Dillon: I don’t want to give you any type of triggers, I think I’ve given you a hypothetical that would constitute a reason legitimacy for conducting a strike. But I would say that at any time that we have seen in the past in any instance it has always been where the aggressive force has not been us. So we have not fired first in any of the instances that I know of when we have had to conduct return fire and self-defense. It has always been initiated by a non-coalition force when we’ve had to use force.
Sputnik: Let’s turn to Russia. You were talking about the deconfliction line. Now that the pace of anti-IS operations has kind of slow, do you think there’s greater or lesser risk of any accidental collision between US and Russian forces along that deconfliction line?
Col. Ryan Dillon: That’s why we’ve instituted and put the deconfliction line into place – not just one but two (lines) We recognize this as pro-regime forces and the coalition forces where that frontline trace of the troops as they got closer, and this is really like in Tabqa before as we were isolating Raqqa, this was probably around the May-June timeframe if I recall correctly, we had pro-regime Tiger forces that were moving from the northwest towards the Euphrates river into areas that also had ISIS fighters. So we recognized that the closer we got, Syria’s already a very congested battle space and I’ve seen that because for those who don’t know, we have aircraft that are flying at hundreds of miles an hour over the skies and the time and space for miscalculation. We understand and we recognize that and Russia does as well and that’s why we instituted this deconfliction line. So as we got closer on the ground, we knew that it was necessary to also implement the ground deconfliction line. And we’ve been able to use that. There have been instances where we have struck in self-defense Syrian regime elements or pro-regime forces. We have always, always attempted to use the deconfliction line to de-escalate before any type of strategic mishap. And I would say that the difference right now is that yes, there still remains ISIS elements in these two locations but we’ve seen also just recently that ISIS is still very much a threat. And while Russia has said that ISIS has been defeated in Syria, we just saw major attacks and ISIS retaking neighborhoods in southern Damascus. So what I’m saying is that this is still a very real threat, and we recognize the significance of not just defeating ISIS or taking territory away from them but also holding that territory and preventing them from resurging and coming back. And as far as going to your real question about if there’s going to be any type of increased or decreased risk of strategic mishaps the majority well at least what we have seen is that the majority of the Russian aircraft and Syrian aircraft for that matter have largely been focused in western Syria. So they’ve most of their sorties and most of their aircraft presence has largely been in Damascus and Ghouta and the Idlib region, far from where we are conducting our operations in eastern Syria.
Sputnik: Speaking of Damascus, Russia’s General Staff was saying recently that the US-led coalition was plotting a strike on Damascas, that there would be a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that would be used as a kind of pretext to attack Damascus. Can you say anything about that statement?
Col. Ryan Dillon: No, I can’t. I can I mean, number one, we’re on the eastern side of the Euphrates River focused on defeating ISIS but I mean, I’ve seen the same statements, I’ve seen quite a bit of statements that have come out, largely you know, talking about the coalition how we’re not serious about fighting ISIS or even allegations that we are supporting or allowing ISIS. In almost every single one of those instances, and those are largely come not from Russian counterparts, Russian elements on the ground in on the deconfliction line that remain very professional and responsive, but these are all the allegations that usually come from Russian Ministry of Defense and have been oftentimes very, well, wrong. Just flat-out wrong and false and absurd and they’ve also have used videogame footage to say that this is irrefutable evidence that we are supporting ISIS and they used a video game. So we’ve seen a lot of things that come out of Russian MOD, and I’m appreciative of real journalists to know not to even ask, and they’ll often ask with a chuckle, they’re embarrassed in a way to ask for a statement on that. Almost all the statements that I’ve heard that have come from Russian MOD have been half-truths half-lies or just flat out false. And that’s quite frankly there’s a big difference between those that are on the ground and on the deconfliction line that remain professional versus those that comes out at much higher bureaucratic levels.
Sputnik: Speaking of higher bureaucratic levels, we’ve seen Dunford engage in phone talks with Gerasimov and plans for a potential meeting with Scapparoti. From your vantage point is any of this high-level engagement related to any deterioration in Syria?
Col. Ryan Dillon: I don’t know about Gen. Scapparoti, I can’t talk on his behalf. But I know that number one, so starting at the lowest level, even if there’s nothing that is happening there are routine telephone calls that are scheduled just to make sure that the phone line hasn’t gone dead, so that happens from our headquarters to the headquarters on the ground by the Russians in Syria. It goes up even higher than that. I know that those same generals that talk on that line have met face-to-face probably about a half a dozen times throughout the region to discuss deconfliction matters and measures. That goes back to as we were both fighting ISIS on each side of the Euphrates River, as we moved further south there was more deconfliction that needed to be explained and so sitting down at tables, flapping the map down and looking at the same product instead of talking over phone lines and guessing what the other one was saying, they were able to sit down at those face-to-face meetings. Above and beyond that, overall commander, our Lt. Gen. Funk and Lt. Gen. Towsend before him, they would have routine calls with the overall commander, Russian commander in Syria, and I think that since I have been here and at least since June or July timeframe, I think that those have happened maybe 10 times, when needed or just on a routine basis. And then the next step higher is Chairman Dunford and.. Gerasimov. Is that they have also spoken in the past as well. And I think it’s a routine, calls that happened over the course of at least the last six months just to make sure that we’re communicating and know what each other are doing and what our focus is and what our efforts are towards.
Sputnik: Just one last question, do you think there might be senior ISIS leaders in the territories or do you have any updated ideas about the status of Baghdadi?
Col. Ryan Dillon: There’ve been several allegations and statements made by several different countries, Russia being one of them. I think it was June on claims that Baghdadi was killed. But we as a coalition and we as the United States have not been able to confirm any of these reports and so we have always assumed that Baghdadi is alive. There was an audio tape that seems to be very credible. So we still assume and are still looking for not just Baghdadi but several high-value individuals. But I think regardless of whether Baghdadi is alive or not there’s very little that he’s been able to do that has been able to reverse the course of the way that ISIS has gone over the last year or plus. They’re still losing. There is no longer a caliphate and we have been able to pick off several of his lieutenants and senior leaders and we’ll continue to do so. … We continue to go after these senior leaders and we continue to look for Baghdadi, and if we knew where he was we would have our professionals head over and hit him right now.
*IS is a terror organization banned in Russia, the United States and many other countries, also known as Islamic State, Daesh, ISIL or ISIS.
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