MODERATOR: Okay. 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.
During this call, Major General McFarlane will provide an update on the D-ISIS mission, including outcomes of the recent Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue between the United States and Iraq. After opening remarks, Major General McFarlane 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.
We are only able to take live questions in English during the call. We have received questions submitted in Arabic in advance.
I will now turn it over to Major General McFarlane for his opening remarks. Major General, the floor is yours.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thanks, Sam. Well, good morning or good afternoon from Baghdad, everybody. I’m Major General Matthew McFarlane. I’m the commanding general for Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), and this afternoon I look forward to providing you an update on OIR’s campaign to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS as well as some of the outcomes of the Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue which I attended last week in D.C.
The Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue reaffirmed our commitment as a partner with Iraq to the bilateral security cooperation and shared interests in regional stability. This was a historical event and key milestone in the U.S. and Government of Iraq security cooperation relations. From a military perspective, those in attendance reaffirmed that U.S. forces in Iraq are here in a non-combat role at the invitation of the Iraqi Government to advise, assist and enable the Iraqi Security Forces in their fight against Daesh.
Over the last few years, the Iraqi Security Forces have made tremendous strides in defeating Daesh and continuing their efforts to prevent the re-emergence of Daesh. While Daesh has been defeated militarily, we know that their dangerous ideology remains a threat and they continue to aspire to regain some type of military capacity. That’s why we continue to work with our partner forces in our shared mission to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. Many regional challenges remain, such as the urgent need to repatriate displaced persons and Daesh detainees currently in northeast Syria to their countries of origin and to support reintegration efforts into local communities.
Additionally, we’ll initiate a process separate from the Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue (JSCD) inclusive of the coalition to determine how the coalition military mission will evolve, according to factors and conditions such as threat levels, the operating environment, and partner force capability levels.
The successful completion of the JSCD emphasizes the two countries’ commitment to our partnership across a full range of issues to advance our countries’ shared interests in both regional stability and continued security cooperation.
I’ll now take your questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, Major General. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. We have received quite a number of questions submitted in advance from our journalist colleagues, some of whom speak Arabic, and so we’ve translated those and have interpreted them, incorporated them into the queue.
I’m going to go ahead and start with one of those pre-submitted questions, and that comes from Moaz Shraideh from Almahaba radio in the Palestinian Territories. And Moaz asks: “Major General, do you believe that military operations alone are the solution in these circumstances?”
Over to you, General.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thank you for that question. Military operations are only one lever key to the defeat of Daesh, and within CJTF-OIR as a military organization, this is where we focus our efforts: on the military security aspect. The OIR mission is to advise and enable – advise, assist, and enable our partner forces. The work we do with the Iraqi Security Forces supports them, providing security within their country. Other organizations provide assistance in other areas of need, such as, humanitarian aid to displaced persons, which all contribute to improving the overall situation in the region and decreasing the re-emergence of radical ideologies.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, General. We’ll now go to a question from the live queue, and we’ll go to a question from Roger Barake from Icibeyrouth. Roger, I’m going to go ahead and open your line. And you should be good to go.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Roger. We can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. Hello, General. Well, I have a question about Iraq. How far can U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation go amid Iranian influence in Iraq? Thank you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Roger, thank you for that question. We are certainly focused – I am focused and the coalition here is focused on the defeat of Daesh, and our security cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces and our counterterrorism equipping and funding is focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh. We will not let other nefarious actors in the region pull us away from that or distract us from our single mission focused on the defeat of Daesh. And we remain conscious that there are other threats in Iraq and Syria that wish to do us harm at times and we are very proactive at protecting our forces to ensure we can remain focused on this mission and eventually see its completion. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’re going to try to get through as many questions as we have today, as time as we have. I see we have a lot of hands raised and I have quite a few pre-submitted questions, so we’ll go back to one of the pre-submitted questions we received from Bahia Mardini from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed based in Qatar. And Bahia asks: “Major General, has the mission of eradicating ISIS concluded? If so, could you please explain the reasons behind your position, whether affirmative or negative, in terms of that question?”
Over to you, sir.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thank you so much for that question. Certainly, Daesh no longer controls any territory and have suffered losses of their leaders and fighters at large. We continue to see a decrease in Daesh attacks year over year; this year, over 65 percent or greater from last year. This last Ramadan was the most peaceful Ramadan in recent history, according to our Iraqi colleagues. So they continue to degrade not just in attacks tracking, but other – all measurable categories that I am aware of, they continue to decline or degrade, from finances, military, and just numbers that are part for – that we are tracking are part of the organization.
So having said that, there are still – there are still radical fighters out there that aspire to re-emerge or rebuild the caliphate. We work very closely with our Iraqi counterparts. We share intelligence to make sure we address any possible re-emergence or any possible threats that emerge from those ISIS fighters that are still at large out there as we also work to address the long-term efforts like the repatriation of IDPs and D-ISIS or Daesh detainees that are in the detention facilities in Syria.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’re going to go back to the live queue now for a question from Bander Alwarthan from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s newspaper, Alyaum newspaper. So Bander, just give me a second and I will open your line. And you should be good to go ahead and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes. Hello, Your Excellency, everyone. Thanks for doing this. My question is – sir, is about the shared vision when it comes to recognizing peace and stability in the region, and those are the main challenges that is facing this goal. Of course, we are talking about the shared vision between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other allies here in this part of the world. That’s it. Thank you, sir.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Can you repeat that question, please?
QUESTION: Okay. Am I clear now?
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Bander, I got you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, okay. Your Excellency, my question is regarding the shared vision when it comes to maintaining peace and stability in the region and the challenges that’s facing this goal that the United States share with its allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and other countries. That’s it. Thank you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah, I am certainly focused on peace and stability in the region in terms of through our efforts and support to the Iraqi Security Forces, to the sovereign Government of Iraq. And so we – I do believe we contribute to regional peace and stability in terms of how we are building capability and capacity of our partner forces to ensure Daesh never re-emerges as a threat not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, as we saw what they could do over the last decade there as the international coalition, along with Iraq, had to put together a significant effort to regain the caliphate territory and then make the progress to what we’ve seen today.
And as I talked about, the attacks were down 65 percent. That was this year compared to last year to give you an idea of the continued progress year over year.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’ll now go back to a pre-submitted question, and this one comes from our colleague Abdulkader Aldwihi from Syria TV, based in Turkey. And Abdulkader asks: “There are reports about Washington’s intention to carry out military operations west of the Euphrates River in Deir al-Zour. How accurate are these reports? And how do you plan to address the frequent aerial encounters with Russian aircraft in Syria?”
Over to you, sir.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: So to the first part, the coalition continues to support our partners in the fight against Daesh in Syria. That’s the Syrian Democratic Forces, as they are leading that fight.
In regards to the Russians, their unsafe and unprofessional actions are certainly unwelcome and put our forces and their forces at risk.
We continue to remain unabashedly focused on Daesh and defeating Daesh, as it seems others at times focus more on us than the terrorists that we’ve seen have actually increased attacks in the areas that are not controlled by the coalition. So we are focused on coalition-controlled areas and stability and security in those areas and we support our partners as they continue in their efforts to ensure Daesh does not re-emerge.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’ll now go to another question from the live queue, and this question will be for our colleague Abdulhalim Sulaiman from Independent Arabia, based in Syria. So go ahead, Abdulhalim, and unmute yourself and you can ask your question.
QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Sam. Hello, Mr. McFarlane. Thank you. I want to ask you: Are the coalition forces preparing for a military operation to cut off the militias and Iranian forces in eastern Syria? And how do you view the recent ISIS operations in the area controlled by Syrian regime near Deir al-Zour? Thank you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: The coalition is not preparing for military operations to cut off anybody except Daesh. We remain focused on Daesh and the instability that a handful of fighters can cause if they regain or build their numbers to create a greater threat. The last complex military operation that Daesh conducted was in January of 2022 as they attacked the Ghwaryan Prison. And so since then they have not been able to do anything like that, and I think that speaks to the effectiveness of all of our partners, and in Syria that’s the Syrian Democratic Forces.
So we are focused on Daesh. We have seen the reports of the larger attacks that Daesh has conducted. One was south of Damascus that I saw. Another one was south of the Euphrates River in Deir al-Zour against a bus of Syrian army soldiers. And we have not seen any large attacks like that in coalition-controlled areas. So it is a concern to see those larger attacks over the last month that we’ve seen. We’re watching it very closely and hope that the regime and others can address Daesh in areas where they control.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We have time for a few more questions. We’ll go back to a pre-submitted question from our colleague Ahmed Abdulhamid from Khaleej News, based in Bahrain. And Ahmed says: “Major General, with the strength and collaboration with Iraq to combat the ISIS threat, the resurgence of this terrorist organization is evident in Syria and other regions. Are Iraq’s security capabilities sufficient to deter this group? And when can it be deemed that this threat has been effectively neutralized in Iraq and in the region?”
Over to you, sir.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah, thanks for that question, and certainly, I appreciate the way you characterized the partnership we have with the Iraqi Security Forces. It’s a strong partnership with a large amount of collaboration as we work with them to enable their capability and capacity and grow it so they can, over time, address the Daesh threat independently. They’ve made great strides, as I mentioned before, as they’re building capabilities such as ISR and targeting. And we’ve seen over the course of the last year them conduct independent operations using all-Iraqi capabilities to find, fix, and finish Daesh threats in Iraq.
We will continue to support our Iraqi partners through advise, assist, enable, and assist with their abilities to grow these capabilities. We work very closely and have identified areas that they are focused on and areas to ensure they gain the capacity to independently conduct these operations over time. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another question from the live queue, and now that will be our colleague Soran Khateri from Voice of America, based in Iraq. Soran, I’m going to go ahead and open your line, and you can go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir. Do you hear me?
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Major General, the Iraqi prime minister announced recently – actually on Monday – that his country doesn’t need any foreign combat forces, and the relationship between Baghdad and coalition forces is going to be negotiated. At the same time, the Iranian-backed militia groups threatened to attack coalition forces unless they leave Iraq. Would be any change regarding the presence of coalition forces in Iraq, and how the coalition react to these threats? Thank you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Thank you for that question, and I can help address that. First, we are here at the Government of Iraq’s invitation, and non-combat role is exactly how I describe to my soldiers, the soldiers in the coalition, our partners, and anybody that visits. We spend our time advising and helping provide needed equipment to the Iraqi Security Forces and ensure that they have the ability to do the combat roles, and they are doing a good job and continuing to progress in displaying the combat requirements to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh.
Having said that, there are others that do openly threaten to attack coalition bases on social media, and so we remain keenly aware of that. And so some of our forces here, our advisors, watch that very closely and are prepared to respond, as well as the Iraqi Security Forces ensure that they are protecting us as well. And so we watch the social media landscape very closely. We also watch intelligence feeds that we get from the Iraqis but also some that we get from across the coalition to ensure we’re monitoring and taking necessary actions to protect the coalition members that are here as well as the Iraqi Security Forces if they are threatened.
So it is a close partnership and we’re working very closely together, but we are in fact in a non-combat role here, which is different – in Syria we are in a combat role, but in Iraq our focus is squarely on our partners and their ability to continue to increase capability and capacity for the long-term fight against ISIS, or Daesh.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, Major General. I think we have time for just one more question. Apologies to the many, many journalists who have their hands raised and the many, many journalists who submitted so many great pre-submitted questions today. We really appreciate all of the interest and all of the questions, and I know that Major General McFarlane is happy to do this again in the future. And so hopefully we can get to questions to all of you.
So the last question today, we’ll go to the live queue and it will go to Mr. Ahmad Zakaria from Syria24 media outlet, based in Türkiye. Ahmad, I’m going to go ahead and open your line and you should be able to unmute yourself and ask your question. Ahmad, you need to unmute yourself.
Okay. Let’s go ahead then —
QUESTION: (In Arabic)
MODERATOR: No, we can only do questions —
QUESTION: (In Arabic)
MODERATOR: — in English on the live queue, please.
QUESTION: (In Arabic)
MODERATOR: Okay, let me see, Ahmad, if I can find your question, if you just give me a second, and then I will go ahead and ask it to the general.
General – Major General, Ahmad’s question is: “Will the international coalition dismantle the al-Hol camp and what will be the fate of the inhabitants inside of it?” That’s Ahmad’s question.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah, in terms of the al-Hol camp, it is certainly a security concern over time. As you look at the conditions within that camp, it can contribute to a radical ideology. Our State Department, working with other ministries of foreign affairs, are focused on decreasing the numbers there to improve the conditions in that camp. And so we support our State Department in this effort as we help facilitate the repatriation of internally displaced persons from that camp, and then we also assist our partners – the Syrian Democratic Forces – at ensuring the security in that camp.
And so we’ve seen steady progress as we’ve assisted with guard or security force training for al-Hol. We’ve also seen a decrease in violent attacks. We’re tracking zero murders this year compared to previous years where they were in the double digits. And so we’ve seen improvements, to include from over the last year going from over 53,000 to 48,000 this year. So we’ve seen a drop in the numbers there because of many of our international partners repatriating, to include the Government of Iraq. And so we think that’s an important part of the long-term defeat of Daesh, is addressing the conditions in that camp to ensure the needed humanitarian aid can be provided and that the security in that camp fosters the atmosphere to allow the residents of that camp to get the needed aid.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, sir. And now, Major General McFarlane, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL MCFARLANE: Yeah, thank you, Sam, and thank you to everybody for participating. My apologies for not answering everybody’s questions, but I think this is important and I think your role in helping inform your constituents, if you will, that you provide needed media information to and help ensure everyone is aligned on what CJTF-OIR does here in Iraq with our Iraqi partners as well as what we do in Syria as all of our partners and this coalition is focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh.
The historic Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue last week in Washington reaffirmed the U.S. and Iraqi commitment to work together to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh and to continue the partnership as we work together for regional stability and security. The ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] show great progress, but the threat to the U.S., the coalition, still remains and the progress and stability we see can be fragile, if you look at what Daesh is aspiring to do, which was demonstrated over the last month in different parts of Syria. While they’ve been militarily defeated – they no longer hold ground – we must not be complacent. Their evil ideology persists and the prospect of a resurgence remains a possibility.
I believe the progress we are making with our partners here and the Iraqi Security Forces are driving in the lead in this fight in Iraq is an example of what we are trying to do in Syria, and we continue to see the results of this campaign in data, which is the decrease in attacks as well as the decrease in the effectiveness of those attacks year over year. And so we hope to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh, and I believe with the dialogue last week we’ve got a plan to address and then over time evolve this coalition and how it does and what it does with the Iraqis based on that progress and the factors that I shared with you earlier.
I appreciate everyone’s time today, and I wish you the best moving forward. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you, sir. Before I conclude the call, I’m just going to say something in Arabic to the Arabic speakers on the line because it looks like we – our translator had some technical problems and dropped out.
So that concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Major General McFarlane 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 and have a great day.
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Audio of the briefing can be found at: https://www.state.gov/special-online-briefing-with-major-general-matthew-mcfarlane-commander-combined-joint-task-force-operation-inherent-resolve/