FEBRUARY 28, 2023
Major General Matthew McFarlane, the commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul provide an update on the ongoing D-ISIS mission, including the preceding month of Operation Inherent Resolve operations, the future of the mission, and the Syrian Democratic Forces partnership. They also take questions from participating journalists.
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants joining us from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Major General Matthew McFarlane, the commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul. Major General McFarlane and DASD Stroul will provide an update on the ongoing D-ISIS mission, including the preceding month of Operation Inherent Resolve operations, the future of the mission, and the Syrian Democratic Forces partnership.
After opening remarks, the speakers will take questions from participating journalists. We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Major General McFarlane for his opening remarks. Major General McFarlane, the floor is yours.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: As-salamu alaykum. I’m honored to be here to discuss the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve’s important work in Iraq and Syria. As you know, the coalition is here at the request of the Government of Iraq, and our core mission is to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS both at large and to prevent its resurgence. We accomplish this through advising, assisting, and enabling our partners – that is, the Iraqi Security Forces, the Peshmerga, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The coalition’s efforts enable the stability and security of Iraq, and by extension the wider region in northeast Syria. We’re committed to this mission and to our partners as they continue to build capability, capacity, and competence, as they have demonstrated the will to take lead in this fight against ISIS. However, we recognize there is still a lot of work to do, and we are committed to continuing our support of our partners in Iraq and Syria.
One of the critical aspects of our approach is that in Iraq, we are not here to fight on behalf of Iraq; we are here in a non-combat role to provide the necessary support and resources, advising, assisting, and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to take the lead in the fight against ISIS. This approach has proven successful, and we are confident it will continue to be effective.
We are also focused on ensuring that the defeat of ISIS is enduring. This means as we continue to work with our partners, we build the necessary military infrastructure and capabilities to ensure ISIS cannot resurge in either Iraq or Syria. It is a long-term effort as our partners build the independent capabilities and capacity to lead and maintain the fight against ISIS. We’re committed to seeing it through until conditions are met.
In closing, I want to emphasize that the coalition is here to support the Government of Iraq and its people in their fight against ISIS. We are committed to the mission and believe our approach is effective in achieving our shared goals.
So thank you for the time and I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Major General. And now over to DASD Stroul. Over to you.
MS STROUL: Good morning to everyone here in the United States, and good afternoon and good evening to those of you tuning in from the region and globally. So just a few additional remarks on top of Major General McFarlane.
The first is that the U.S. commitment to maintaining its force presence both in Iraq, at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, and in Syria, working in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, are an investment and a commitment that the United States is committed to. We’re committed to maintaining our force presence in support of the enduring defeat of ISIS, and working collaboratively and consultatively with our partners across the region. This is a mission that has the full support of the Secretary of Defense, and in fact is one that is articulated in last year’s National Defense Strategy as one that is a priority that the United States and, in particular, the Department of Defense will continue to emphasize and resource.
Number two, this is a mission that has retained the support of both members of Congress and presidents across the last three administrations, including changes of party in the Executive Branch of the United States Government. This is an important point to emphasize, because every national security team looks at the atrocities of the world’s worst conventional terrorist army we have ever seen and decided that supporting our partners in the enduring defeat of ISIS must continue, including President Biden, Secretary of Defense Austin, and the entire national security team.
Third, I would like to flag for you all that U.S. Central Command put out a summary at the end of last year of all of the partnered and unilateral operations – unilateral and partnered in northeastern Syria, and then partnered operations in Iraq, given the transition of mission to one of advise, assist, and enable with the Iraqi Security Forces and the Government of Iraq. What it tells us is that there is still much work to be done in counterterrorism operations to – in support of the enduring defeat of ISIS, but it also speaks to the professionalism and commitment of U.S. and coalition forces who are working on this problem set every single day with their partners on the ground. Even though ISIS no longer holds territory, it still has the ideology to inspire and recruit members to its ranks, and it has the will to reconstitute, which is why we are committed to strategic patience and supporting our partners to ensure that this terrorist army cannot reconstitute and terrorize the people and citizens of Iraq and Syria or, indeed, the rest of the Middle East.
Finally, I want to emphasize the coalition aspect of this fight. It’s not just U.S. forces who are maintaining their force presence on the ground. There are 84 members that are part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as well as a NATO mission in Iraq. Together with all of those partners, all of whom contribute different skillsets and different expertise, we are all committed to working both with the Government of Iraq and with the Syrian Democratic Forces for the enduring defeat of ISIS. Frankly, this is what the United States does best: we consult with and listen to our partners both on the ground and internationally; we convene coalitions of willing, capable, and committed allies and partners; we continuously work to expand intelligence-sharing, interoperability, and security cooperation in support of a shared and mutual objective; and we get after that objective until it is accomplished.
So again, this commitment to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, of which General McFarlane and his Operation Inherent Resolve are the core, are just critical, and again, have the support at the highest levels of the U.S. Government but also across the region and in Europe and, indeed, many other allies and partners, all of whom remain committed to this mission.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, DASD Stroul. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.
And with that, we will start with Mr. Mohamed Abdallah from Egyptian TV and Nile News, who asks, “What efforts are being made to combat ISIS on both the security and the ideological levels?” Over to you, Major General or DASD Stroul.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: I’ll take the first swing at that question. Thanks for asking that. We continue to conduct operations supporting our partners that do wide-area security operations and also precision operations to remove ISIS leaders both in Syria and Iraq. Year over year, we have seen a decrease in the number of ISIS attacks and the effectiveness of those attacks, speaking to the progress being made to remove ISIS or combat ISIS and remove any remaining fighters that may be in Iraq and Syria.
As we continue to do that, we are also ensuring we’re helping build the capacity and the enduring or independent capability for our partners to take more of these missions on themselves in an independent fashion.
In terms of the ideological levels, certainly as Mr. Stroul mentioned, the ideology remains unconstrained. There are still aspirations out there for radical fighters and a desire to continue to spread ISIS. And so that is what we remain focused on and ensuring we can prevent those – the conditions to allow that as we work with the SDF [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces], who provide security in the IDP camps. And I know the Iraqi Government is conscious in providing the right structures and system as they run a rehabilitation camp at Jeddah 1. So people are conscious that it’s the conditions that lead to the spread of the ideology, and I’ve heard leaders both in Syria and Iraq discuss addressing those and take action to start moving to remove those conditions. And where our partners are involved and security is involved, they are certainly aware of that and moving forward to decrease those conditions.
Dana, over to you.
MS STROUL: Thanks so much, General. So let me just add on top of that, many of you will recall when ISIS originally spread across Iraq and Syria, the Global Coalition had many lines of effort that it was focused on. One was to dry up the unconstrained financing that was going to ISIS ranks; another was to provide humanitarian aid given the massive flows of both refugees and displaced people fleeing ISIS terror; another was the military and operational support to our local partners on the ground; and then there was the countering ISIS ideology and its recruitment online efforts.
So number one, I would note here that it is not exclusively a military line of effort. This is something that for us in the U.S. Government we call a whole-of-government effort. We work on a daily basis with multiple different offices within the State Department, the National Security Council, and our U.S. Agency for International Development to both make sure that we are countering ISIS ideology in the information space but also offering tools for humanitarian aid, stabilization, so that communities can recover from the depravities of ISIS and seize opportunities both economically, politically, socially, culturally, and religiously for a better life post recovery from ISIS.
This is also something that the United States cannot do by itself. It’s something that we are constantly coordinating across the Global Coalition, with our allies, and also looking for partnership in the Middle East on how we can offer, especially the youth of the region, proactive and positive affirmation to make choices other than being recruited or inspired by ISIS.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Now to go to the live queue. I will go ahead and call on Julian Bechocha from Rudaw in Iraq. I will allow you to talk now. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me? Hello.
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you. Go ahead and ask your question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for having me. I’m Julian Bechocha, a reporter at Rudaw English. And I would just like to ask about the threatened renewed Turkish military operation into northern Syria. So this obviously threatens the SDF, which is the U.S.’s main ally in the region. And while we have seen countless statements of condemn from the U.S. regarding the operation, I – not much is being done, because despite a massive earthquake rocking Türkiye, Turkish commanders still found time to (inaudible) to fly into northern – northeast Syria and kill commanders of the SDF. So I would just like to ask, what are the steps that the U.S. is doing regarding stopping this operation, which is seemingly looming, from taking place and threatening the force that fought the lion’s share of the fight against ISIS? Thank you so much.
MS STROUL: General – General MacFarlane, I can take that one first. So thank you for that question. First of all, I want to underscore the numerous statements and engagements you’ve seen from across the U.S. administration – both National Security Council, State Department, Department of Defense – warning of our grave and serious concerns about the prospects of a Turkish ground incursion into northeast Syria and raising concerns about the continued air operations. So number one right now, a major focus of the U.S. Government is supporting Turkish citizens and expressing our condolences for the earthquake, the terrible loss of life, and the suffering of the survivors.
So one, we’re offering our support across the U.S. Government to the Turkish Government and also working across the U.S. Government and with allies and partners on how we can provide humanitarian and emergency aid to Syrians inside Syria given that the earthquake also affected these communities.
However, it does not change our concern that continued Turkish military operations or a ground incursion into northern Syria would detract from what is a shared global commitment and concern about ISIS.
So number one, we’re concerned that it would detract – the SDF would no longer focus on maintaining security at the detention facilities where still to this day 10,000 ISIS detainees remain under SDF custody, where they carry a serious responsibility for the international community in ensuring that these fighters cannot exit and reconstitute their ranks. And number two, we are also concerned that safe and humane conditions endure for the displaced families at the al-Hol and al-Raj camps. So a Turkish military operation that detracts from our focus both on continued counterterrorism pressure on ISIS and on maintaining security and humane conditions at both the detention facilities and the displaced persons camp is an ongoing area of concern which we constantly raise.
Finally, of course, we do have about 900 U.S. forces on the ground in northeast Syria. The highest priority for President Biden and for Secretary of Defense Austin is the security and safety of those forces while they continue to implement the one mission that they are in northeast Syria for, and that is the deterrent – enduring defeat of ISIS. U.S. forces are present in Syria for no other purposes, and we seek conditions that enable us to continue our focus on that mission.
Thanks for your question.
MODERATOR: Thank you, DASD Stroul. From the pre-submitted questions, we received quite a bit on Iran, so I’m going to couple a couple. So including from Tamam Abusafi from Alayam newspaper and Fath-ul Rahman Idris, who both ask: How do you currently assess the Iranian threats to the region?
MAJOR GENERAL MACFARLANE: I’ll —
MS STROUL: Go ahead. Go ahead, General MacFarlane.
MAJOR GENERAL MACFARLANE: Yeah, I’ll quickly speak to that. In terms of – just for the coalition, we stay focused on our D-ISIS mission, but we monitor threats across Iraq and Syria very closely. And we ensure we take actions necessary to protect the coalition and our partners’ interests as we prosecute the fight against ISIS. We also stand prepared to address any of these threats that prevent us from pursuing our D-ISIS mission. And then I’ll turn it over to Dana to address Iran specifically.
MS STROUL: Thanks so much. So number one, we see Iran and Iran-backed threats to the region only increasing. We see them on ground by Iran’s sponsorship, arming, training, funding, and direction of militia groups, proxies, and non-state actors on the ground. We see it in the air threats from Iran’s proliferation of missiles and one-way attack drones to non-state actors across the region. And finally, we see the increasing aggression at sea by its maritime actions. That’s not even to begin on its malicious cyber activities, which have clearly threatened not only partners in the Middle East but outside the Middle East, and all of that is probably reported.
You will see many different actions that the U.S. – in particular our really impressive leadership and forces from U.S. Central Command, increased maritime interdictions to shine a light on what Iran’s proliferating through maritime routes to non-state actors like the Houthis to threaten the region. You see it in the work we are doing to both take self-defensive military strikes in eastern Syria to protect U.S. forces. So all of these are ways in which we’re pushing back given the constellation of increasing Iranian threats.
I also want to take a moment to note that even though the United States has consistently within the Department of Defense worked with our allies and partners to push back on Iranian destabilizing activities – and in fact, Secretary Austin made it a priority back in 2021 to focus on the Iran-backed one-way attack drone threat that we really concerned and remain concerned about the threats to our partners in the Middle East. We are now at a point where Iranian threats are no longer specific to the Middle East, but a global challenge. And that is a result of the increasing military cooperation between Iran and Russia, and the illicit transfer by Iran to Russia of one-way attack drones that are being used in Ukraine to kill Ukrainian civilians.
So now we are shifting not only to what has been longstanding efforts to create a regional security architecture, push back and counter these activities in the region; we now need to rally a coalition not only in the Middle East, but a global coalition to push back on the malign cooperation between Iran and Russia.
It is reasonable to expect that the tactics, techniques, and procedures that the Iranians are learning and perfecting in Ukraine will one day come back to threaten our partners in the Middle East, which is why we are increasing cooperation now, intelligence-sharing, understanding these networks, and increasing our collective defensive capabilities so that we are prepared to counter these threats in the region. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And now to Hiba Nasr from Asharq News. I will unmute you. Go ahead, Hiba. Go ahead, Hiba. You’re still muted. If you could unmute, and you can go ahead and ask your question.
All right. I think Hiba may be having some technical issues, so I will go to a pre-submitted question from Wladimir van Wilgenburg from Kurdistan 24, related to the earthquake. “Has there been any indication of the Islamic State gaining an advantage from the recent earthquakes in Syria, particularly with regards to potential damage to facilities holding ISIS detainees?”
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: I’ll take that one. We certainly are watching – first, let me start off by expressing my condolences for all those affected by the damage and the losses, loss of human life from the earthquake, both in Syria and Türkiye. We continue to monitor the situation very closely, and specifically track any possible threats that seek advantage from such a tragic situation.
And we are not seeing the Islamic State take advantage of this right now, specifically in regards to damage to facilities. We are tracking no damage to SDF-controlled facilities right now minus some minor cracks that we continue to monitor, but no structural damage that puts any of the facilities at risk. We continue to monitor both the threats and potential threats to detention facilities very closely with the SDF as they continue to guard the ISIS prisoners across northeast Syria.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And now to the live Q&A. I’ll go to Abdulhalim Sulaiman from Independent Arabia. I will go ahead and unmute. Abdulhalim, if you still have your question? You’re still on mute. Abdulhalim, would you like to ask your question?
All right. Looks like we’re having technical issues. So I will go ahead and go now to Mr. Shawgi Mustafa from Lusail newspaper. Shawgi, if you’re ready?
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for having me. I’m Shawgi Mustafa from Lusail News. Actually, my first question is: How are the important of security agreement with GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and especially with country like Qatar, in the fight against ISIS and countering terrorists as general? And my second question is especially for Ms. Dana Stroul, the assistant secretary. As your role to develop defense policy and strategy with the region country, how do you evaluate the role of Qatar in countering terrorism? We know that Qatar is hosting (inaudible) base. Thank you.
MS STROUL: Thank you so much for those questions. So let me start out by saying there’s a very high level of movement with officials from the Government of Qatar. And last year, President Biden designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally, which reflects U.S. commitment to the strategic partnership and the role that we envision for Qatar in the region. We think there’s been significant progress with Qatar in how we cooperate together on counterterrorism, and we will of course continue to consult on those issues.
And let me just say with every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council, since you mentioned the GCC, we are committed to these partnerships. I was in the region, in Riyadh, just two weeks ago with military leaders from our NAVCENT, our naval headquarters in U.S. Central Command, as well as AFCENT, Air Force Central Command, leadership from USCENTCOM in Tampa as well as the Joint Staff. This is a very significant delegation of U.S. defense and military representatives sitting with our colleagues, counterparts, and friends from every member of the GCC to consult on a range of issues related to deepening our multilateral partnerships. And how we work together multilaterally is not a replacement for the very robust and important bilateral relationships we have with each partner within the GCC.
We assess those security agreements to be strong, and from the Biden administration work every day to strengthen and advance them not just bilaterally but what we do together to achieve shared objectives and interests across the Middle East.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And for just one last question, since it seems we’ve run out of time, I will go ahead and read Mr. Abdulhalim Sulaiman’s question from Independent Arabia since he was not able to ask it on the live feed. “What is your assessment of the activity of ISIS members in areas outside the control of your partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces, such as areas of Turkish military operations inside Syria and areas under the control of the Syrian Government, especially since these two regions played a major role in the group’s attack on the Sina’a prison at the beginning of last year? Do you have any plans to pursue them there?”
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: I’ll answer that and then let Dana follow. We certainly watch – and I am – and the coalition here remains focused on ISIS across Iraq and Syria, and monitor the network that remains as we continue to degrade it continually and monitor it closely, and then affect it where able based on the locations and different aspects of what ISIS elements or what their function is, wherever they are.
And so I would tell you that ISIS is continually trying to rebuild leadership based on the coalition effectively disrupting senior leaders, and making sure we continue to work with our partners as they build the capacity to do the same, and conduct their operations to not only keep pressure on the entire network but also monitor and track ISIS as they try and re-emerge, as there’s still aspiration out there, as I mentioned up front.
Right now they’re militarily ineffective, as they have been; the last time they’ve done a complex attack was during the Ghuwayran prison attack in January of 2022. Since then, they have not been able to mount a complex attack either in Syria or Iraq. And I think that’s the effectiveness of the coalition, our partners specifically as they conduct operations to maintain pressure on the network.
Dana, over to you.
MS STROUL: I have nothing to add to that excellent answer. Thank you, General.
MODERATOR: Okay. Wonderful. Thank you very much to you both. And now, Major General McFarlane and DASD Stroul, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Sure. Thank you all for your questions and for taking time to hear about the important work of this historic coalition and what we are doing with our partners in Iraq and Syria. Our efforts through our advise, assist, and enable mission have been successful in continuing to weaken and degrade ISIS. Our coalition forces and partners are willing and effective, but we recognize there is still work to be done. We remain committed to our partners in the region in pursing the enduring defeat of ISIS.
I’m proud to serve alongside our partner forces and all the members of the global coalition in this critical mission. Our collaborative approach is the most effective way to achieve our shared goals, and we’re committed to our partnership and the safety and security of the region. We appreciate your interest in our work and look forward to continuing to update you on our progress in the future. You have an equally important mission to your readers and viewers. We hope to make engagements like this a regular occurrence, enabling access to professional media and us providing you insights into the incredible work the coalition and our partner forces are doing to keep Iraq and Syria stable and secure. Thank you.
MS STROUL: I just want to echo what you heard from General McFarlane, which is to speak to the incredible professionalism and commitment, not only of the U.S. forces that are under his command in Iraq and Syria, but the broader U.S. commitment to keeping this coalition together and focused on this priority we have of the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Many of your readers, I think, continually question the U.S. commitment to the region. I hear often concerns that the United States is distracted or departing from the Middle East. I think what you just heard today from both of us, but particularly from General McFarlane and the truly impressive and incredible dedication that he and his team brings to this fight, coordinating and cooperating with the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Syrian Democratic Forces every day, underscore that in fact U.S. commitment to the Middle East is enduring.
We are maintaining our force presence. We are committed to our partners. And we are expanding ways not only to work with them on a daily basis but enable and empower them to be in the league so that they can independently maintain pressure on ISIS. Again, I want to underscore, this is truly what the United States does best. We consult, we listen, we understand what our partners’ objectives and shared interests are; then we design a mission in which we can cooperate consistently on a daily basis to achieve that shared vision.
Thank you so much for tuning in and look forward to engaging with you all again soon.
MODERATOR: Okay. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Major General McFarlane and DASD Stroul for joining us and thank all of our colleagues from the media for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you very much, and have a great day.
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