U.S. Coalition representative Ryan Dillon: We will defend ourselves and our partner forces against any threat, whether it is ISIS or any other
Following strikes of the U.S.-led coalition on pro-governmental forces in Syria, the coalition‘s spokesman Ryan Dillon has given a Skype interview to Interfax‘s correspondent Ksenia Baygarova in which he speaks about if U.S. notified Russia in advance of upcoming strikes on pro-governmental forces in Syria, about how to avoid incidents in the future and about when al-Raqqa and Mosul will be liberated fr om terrorists.Question: What do you mean exactly when you are talking about ‘well-established de-confliction zone‘? By whom and when was it established and how many of such zones are in Syria in total?
Answer: In Syria, there is a very congestive and complex battlespace, and our number one priority as a coalition is to defeat ISIS. That is exactly what we are doing in Northern Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, as we started the operation to defeat the ISIS in al-Raqqa, their so-called capital. We are also elsewhere in Syria, training some of our partner forces to defeat ISIS in the regions where they are fr om and where potential future battles against ISIS in Syria.
In the particular part of At-Tanf, that is where the coalition and our partner forces fr om that area. We have been training for many months now, since the beginning of 2017. So, that is well-established.
We know there is the pro-regime that is working throughout Syria as well, and they are backed by the Russians. We understand that there are lot of different actors and elements and armies flying and maneuvering within Syria. Our number one goal is to defeat ISIS, our number two goal is to ensure that our forces are protected, and our partner forces are protected. We are there not to fight pro-regime forces, we want to focus on ISIS.
Q.: Do I understand correctly that according to the Coalition, the ‘de-confliction zone‘ is just a place where Coalition forces and its partners are currently based?
A.: This de-confliction line is an open line for us to make sure that we will not have mishaps between forces that we have unfortunately seen on May 18 and yesterday.
Q.: But physically, on the ground, these zones are located where coalition is based, aren‘t they?
A.: Not just where we were based. It works both ways. So, if the regime, or the Russians, want to conduct airstrikes somewhere, this line is open for these reasons, so that we make sure that there are not their forces and there are not our forces that we are going to strike as a result of not-knowing. That is why it is there. We clearly want to defeat ISIS, but we don‘t want to have something happened between forces that are really looking toward the same thing, which is defeating ISIS.
Q.: It seems like there is some misunderstanding with Russia on this issue. Because today Russian foreign Minister Lavrov said that he is unaware of the establishment of any legitimate de-confliction zones in Syria, and those declared as such by the United States-led coalition are a unilateral step and are therefore illegitimate.
A.: There are some semantics here. These are these de-confliction zones that came out of the Astana talks, we are talking about something completely different. Those are established zones that are a key matter of diplomatic talks, but once we are talking about the de-confliction which happens by elements on the ground that are fighting against ISIS. We just want to make sure that there are no mishaps. Unfortunately some accidents just did happen. That is what we want to avoid.
Q.: According to the recent statement of the Coalition about At-Tanf, the Coalition issued several warnings via the de-confliction line with Russia. Does it mean that the Russian forces were notified in advance?
A.: The two elements of the de-confliction line are the Russians and the coalition. We use this to do exactly that, to de-conflict cooperation. The pro-Syrian regime forces captured inside this agreed upon and established perimeter, this de-confliction zone, and the same happened on May 18 unfortunately. There was an element that moved inside this de-confliction zone and continued to move towards our troops. We conducted a strike, because after several warnings our forces at At-Tanf were threatened, and that was purely an air force protection, a defensive mode in which we conducted these strikes. The same thing was yesterday.
Q.: How much time before the strike was Russia notified?
A.: We did use the de-confliction line. That line is open and in use for things like this and, yes, we did use this line yesterday, and it is for these reasons.
I just want to say that it was not minutes, it was hours. So there was plenty of time for the regime forces to have understood and to have turned around and relocate outside of this zone.
Q.: Did Russian forces try to prevent this operation of pro-regime forces as they did on May 18, according to the Coalition‘s statement?
A.: I don‘t want to speak on behalf of the Russians. I just know that even prior or so to May 18 we used the de-confliction line, we also used several other means of warning show of force, wh ere our aircraft came in very close to let them know that we are there, we know that you are there and we don‘t want them to come any further. We also fired warning shoots offset to purposely let them know that we are willing and prepared to fire on them. But they still did not stop on May 18. So this was an escalation to something that again we don‘t want to have happened. Our goal is not to fight the regime forces, we want to be there to train our forces to fight ISIS.
Q.: After the first strike against the pro-regime forces Secretary of Defense, Gen. Mattis said that there were Iranians or pro-Iranian forces that tried to advance inside the de-confliction zone. Who was there this time? Again the Iranians?
A.: I can tell you who was not there. Inside the de-confliction zone, there were not coalition forces and there were not partner forces. They caused a threat to our forces and therefore we stroke them in defense. We reserved that right for any force that presents a threat, whether it is ISIS or anybody else. That is how we saw this.
Q.: However, could you clarify, whether it was Assad‘s army, or Hezbollah, or who?
A.: We assessed that there were pro-regime forces who went inside the de-confliction zone, so, yes, Assad regime forces.
Q.: Lavrov said that the Coalition strike was directed against "forces that are the most efficient in fighting the terrorists on the ground". How would you comment on this?
A.: My assessment is that the elements that entered inside the de-confliction zone were not coalition, they were not partner forces, therefore they posed a threat.
Q.: But do you agree that these forces are most efficient in fighting terrorists on the ground?
A.: I cannot give an assessment. We have not seen these particular forces fight on the ground. So I‘m not going to make that assessment. What came into the de-confliction zone were combat vehicles, combat elements that posed a threat to our forces in At-Tanf.
Q.: Is the Coalition in contact with Russian military regarding these two strikes against pro-regime forces?
A.: The de-confliction line that is established is used on a basis that is needed. But I will go far to say that we use it routinely and almost daily.
Q.: Including for the reason to discuss these two incidents?
A.: That‘s correct. The de-confliction line was used.
Q.: In general, what is your assessment of the implementation of the Memorandum on Syria with Russia about de-confliction? Are you satisfied, or you think that it should be improved?
A.: It is there for the reason, it has worked in the past. Unfortunately as we‘ve seen in At-Tanf it has not worked.... I am not saying it has not worked, I am saying what has happened is a result of aggression of forces that has not stopped the mishap that we have this line there for a reason.
Q.: After the Coalition‘s strike against pro-Syrian government forces, some groups which support Assad threatened to attack Coalition‘s positions in Syria. Don‘t you think that this is a dangerous escalation?
A.: We will defend ourselves and our partner forces against any threat, whether it is ISIS or any other.
Everything in Iraq and Syria, the fight against ISIS, is dangerous. You are going to hear me saying this a lot, but our number one focus in Iraq is in Mosul. Iraqi security force partners to defeat the largest ISIS stronghold that they ever held, and we have just kicked off operations in support of our partners near al-Raqqa to defeat ISIS there with through Syrian democratic forces. Our focus is to defeat ISIS here, and then to establish an environment for future operations and regional stability to have.
Q.: Now about al-Raqqa. In your opinion, how long the operation in al-Raqqa will take?
A.: We will support our partners from Syrian Democratic Forces until they are successful. We know that Mosul is still a very difficult fight. We see that al-Raqqa is going to be also similarly very difficult. We are talking about from 3,000 to 4,000 ISIS fighters that we assess are still in the city right now. They have had almost three years to prepare for this fight, to set up defenses. We know that Syrian Democratic Forces have already proved to be very successful against ISIS in Mandbij, in Tabqa, and throughout the entire Northern Syria area wh ere they have continued to defeat ISIS. We‘ve seen that across the border, in both Iraq and in Syria, ISIS has lost more than 55,000 square kilometers of ground. In the time the coalition has supported its partners, ISIS has not been able to take back and into that, and their decline is universal. They are going to lose, and the coalition will support our partners in Iraq and Syria in doing so.
Q.: Does the coalition plan to increase the presence of American ground forces, such as Marines, to help its partner forces?
A.: Right now there is no request from the coalition for additional troops and soldiers on the ground. Our commander reserves that right and when he needs additional capabilities he will ask for them and if granted, they may or may not approve. Right now the fight to defeat ISIS is going in a trend, in a direction that we wanted it to go. When ISIS loses in Mosul, and it will happen shortly, the fall of Mosul will only accelerate what is going on in al-Raqqa. The twin capitals of the so-called Caliphate, these are the two most prestigious areas that ISIS has ever held, and they are about to lose them both.
Q.: Is there any dialogue with Russia about al-Raqqa right?
A.: Above and beyond what it used to de-conflict operations on the ground, I don‘t know. As a Coalition [representative] I don‘t know if there are discussions that are happening at the higher level. So it‘s not for me to answer, that would be for elements higher than me.
Q.: Could you please explain, If al-Raqqa is taken, under whose control it would be?
A.: So, right now there is an established al-Raqqa civilian council, and these are leaders from that area, from al-Raqqa, and our philosophy and the way we have gone about supporting our partners is that every liberating force should be representative of the town, or location that is being liberated. So, what does that mean? It means that in al-Raqqa, which is predominantly Arab, so the force that is conducting the operation to defeat ISIS there, is predominantly Arab.
And so we see that to be the case after al-Raqqa falls. And one of the things that the coalition is doing now is that we are training security forces - it‘s called the al-Raqqa Internal Security Force. And these are people from the area, and they are being training in police-like capabilities, so that when al-Raqqa falls they will be the security apparatus, a security force that will prevent ISIS or any other terrorist organization to come in behind ISIS after they leave.
Q.: How many ISIS fighters are there right now in Mosul, and what size is the area which they currently occupy?
A.: Ok, so in Mosul, the Iraqi security forces have closed to within the final three neighborhoods in West Mosul, this is an area of about five square kilometers, or less than five square kilometers. But we will make no bones about it, this is a very dense and difficult type of environment, we are in an old urban city wh ere there are many alleyways and ‘urban canyons‘, if you will, that have been very well defended, and well built up for this fight, so even though there are only square kilometers left and only three neighborhoods left, so we fully expect this to take time, not only because of the type of environment that we are in, but also the way in which ISIS is conducting this fight. They have no problems at all, and we‘ve seen it unfortunately on live television, of using snipers to shoot down innocent civilians as they try to leave the city. The Human Rights Watch said just this week that 163 civilians had been killed at the hands of ISIS, so when you have an enemy using tactics like these, and you have a force like the Iraqi security forces who are trying to do their best to avoid these causalities, then it makes it very difficult. Just like we‘ve seen, the Iraqi security forces will prevail, and it will only be a matter of time until the black flag of ISIS is torn down and the Iraqi flag will be propped up, and Iraqi flags will fly all over Mosul.