Transcription of joint press conference between International Coalition Against ISIS spokesperson Col. Miles Caggins and head of SDF Press Mustafa Bali, Rimelan, North and East Syria, 6 March 2020

Mustafa Bali: Once again, we welcome all the media present here today, especially the local media. We will share the latest information with you on the mutual efforts of SDF and the International Coalition against ISIS and their sleeper cells. In particular, because today is close to the first anniversary of the defeat of ISIS in Baghouz. I believe all or almost all of you present here today were there a year ago, following the war against ISIS from the frontlines in Hajin, Baghouz and the Deir-ez-Zor front.

Now, after a year, we are together once again, to discuss the successes made in the past year, what the plan is for the time ahead of us, and assess the level of the ongoing war against ISIS. Once again, you are welcome, and our guests from the Coalition are also welcome here in Rojava.

Myles Caggins: It’s good to be here in Rojava, to update you on our progress in the war against ISIS. More than 5 years ago, the international Coalition responded to the threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Since that time, together, the Coalition with more than 77 nations and 5 international organizations has worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces, Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga to defeat ISIS’ physical territory. And as my friend Mustafa Bali said, we are approaching the one-year anniversary of the physical defeat of ISIS in the battle of Baghouz.

But the fight still continues. ISIS is down but not out. We know there are sleeper cells in Deir-ez-Zor, Hasekah and other areas of Syria. And the military Coalition remains committed to partnering with the SDF to ensure there’s peace and safety for the people of Syria. And we look forward to your questions.

Questions

Q: the International Coalition has committed to defeat ISIS and to achieve stability in the region. There have been incidents recently where Turkey has bombed near the border. What is your comment on that?

MC: The Coalition of course is aware that there was an attack at a small outpost of SDF and Coalition troops, near the border. This attack remains under investigation by the SDF, and I want to point out something important. Part of our mission in Eastern Syria, in Hasekah and Deir-ez-Zor, is to work with the SDF to protect critical infrastructure, including oil sites. So any attacks that affect our forces and our partnership is a sign that there are entities who want to stop the SDF from having access to this oil that’s so important to the local economy. But the Coalition remains partnered with the SDF to protect the oil.

Q: He’s asking about the tensions that have happened recently between the US forces and the Russian forces, that was the first part of the question. The second part was, what is the future of the town of Til Temir and the area around it?

MC: The Coalition is in Hasekah and Deir-ez-Zor province, partnered with SDF. Of course, for us to travel in the area and go on patrols in the M4 highway and other places, we have to deconflict our operations with other military forces in the region. We have a process where we share information for the purpose of deconfliction with the Russians. This process has been in place several years. It’s in the air and on the ground. And the Coalition’s goal is to always de-escalate any encounters that we have with the Russians. We do not seek war with any forces in the region, we’re here to partner with the SDF to defeat Daesh. And along the way, there are other military forces operating, and we are not seeking confrontation, and when we do have encounters we want them to end peacefully. And most of the time, they do end peacefully and people go their separate ways. That’s the Coalition’s goal. We’re not here to get entangled in anything else. 

Q: First I would like to ask about the fight between the Syrian government and the terrorist forces in Idlib, and its impact on the region. Secondly, a year after defeating ISIS, what is the strategy?

MC: For the first part of your question, about the Idlib region, the Coalition has moved from the western areas of Syria, now we’re focused on the eastern areas, Hasekah, Deir-ez-Zor… and also the at-Tanf garrison and the 55KM deconfliction zone. There have been a number of tensions, and we certainly hope that everybody adheres to UN Resolution 2254 and that there’s a peaceful resolution for the situation in Idlib province. For additional questions, I refer you to the governments involved and the diplomats. 

To your second question, about a year after the fall of Baghouz, our operations must continue because ISIS still has a goal to resurge. But they’ve been unable to resurge, not able to hold physical territory, because of the pressure that the SDF have put on ISIS. Every day, the SDF – which is a mixed force of Kurdish and Arabic fighters – has been fighting small sleeper cells of ISIS, and what’s really outstanding is that there are members in local communities along the Middle Euphrates River Valley and other areas who are reporting to the SDF and the Asayish locations of outlaws of ISIS, and then the SDF – sometimes with the Coalition – can go on raids to attack ISIS and bust these sleeper cells.

Q: [inaudible]

MC: I’d like to take a moment to describe some more of our relationship with the SDF. We are… the Coalition, the US-led Coalition is on several bases in NE Syria. The bases we live on are Syrian Democratic Forces bases. Today, you came and you saw SDF soldiers and guards who let you into this base. We exist in full partnership with the SDF. This partnership goes beyond the security of our bases. Outside the bases, we have joint patrols where SDF and Coalition troops provide regional security, search for outlaws and protect critical infrastructure. We also have training. We train the SDF on basic infantry skills, but we have the very best special operations troops here partnered with the SDF commandos, the YAT and HAT. And sometimes, not every day but sometimes, we go on partner raids. Those raids might involve Coalition helicopters, drones to collect intelligence, and occasionally, when the SDF request, and we are able, we will conduct an airstrike to defeat Daesh. 

Q: [inaudible]

MC: Your question was about the local economy, the business meeting that we had yesterday, and local governance. For questions about the Autonomous Administration and Syrian Democratic Council I refer you to Mustafa Bali, the Coalition is not here to do local politics. But we recognize that a strong economy in Eastern Syria is important. In order to focus on the mission outside of our bases to defeat Daesh, we need to have services inside of our bases. 

Yesterday, for the first time recently, at the Rimelan base we invited local business leaders to go through a process to be registered for contracts to support the bases that have Coalition troops. Let me describe this process. It’s important, before the Coalition and the USA gives money to businesses, that we register and certify the businesses. This means that the entrepreneurs, the business owners, must be willing to go through a security background check, and we have to be sure that the money is gong directly to the business, and not to the Syrian government that’s being sanctioned, or any terrorist groups. So this is the first step yesterday, of what we think we will see as a successful partnership to stimulate, to boost the local economy. Some people will likely get good jobs, or have another place to sell their goods. And each time that we are able to help the economy, each young person who has an opportunity for a good job, that builds a community of people who resist ISIS. 

Most of the Hasekah region, from here to Derik, did not have active ISIS fighters here because the community would not allow it. And we think a strong economy, economic stimulation is important for that, and we’re here to give local businesses an opportunity to compete for logistic services on our bases.

I’d like to add one more thing to that, if I can. We were glad to see that among the local entrepeneurs, there were both men and women, Kurds and Arabs, and the Coalition looks at people by what they can bring to the table, not where they came from. And we hope this is successful, and we will have updates in the weeks after the contract review process. 

Q: You say you are partnered with SDF, but at the same time they have been attacked by Turkey and the Syrian government and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in the areas where you used to be. Why don’t you assist [SDF] against these attacks?

MC: In October, there was a decision made by the leaders of governments that resulted in the Coalition repositioning troops. We left Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, Sarin airbase in Kobane, and repositioned to the eastern part of Syria. The Coalition is not part of the border tension. As we’ve said before, our mission is to defeat ISIS. And certainly, we want people who are suffering anyway to receive the humanitarian aid that they receive. And our side is with the SDF against ISIS, south of the border. And our NATO ally – their operations are independent of the military Coalition. 

Q: Still there are threats from Turkey on North and East Syria, still they say they are going to attack NE Syria. Do you have any guarantee to stop those attacks?

MC: I refer you to the government of the neighboring country for their intentions. We’re going to stand side-by-side with the SDF and the people of this region in the fight against ISIS, and to protect critical infrastructure. And we think through that partnership there will not be threats from terrorists in this region, that there will be additional stability throughout this area.

Q: [inaudible]… What is the attitude of the international Coalition toward the agreement between the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian government?

MC: We’re here to talk about military operations. Those are decisions made by diplomats and political leaders, so we’ll move on to the next question.

MB: In general, the whole of Syria is in a crisis situation. This crisis requires a political solution. We are soldiers, and our work is the war against ISIS, and the defence of our people and institutions. And we will continue with this work. These political questions, not just in terms of the Autonomous Administration but for all of Syria, must be solved on the political side. As soldiers, we – and I believe the Coalition is with us in this – recognize that a political solution is what is needed.

Q: You’ve been saying that the fight against ISIS sleeper cells continues. Can you prove that? I don’t see any activities that go on, and you don’t let the press be involved in those operations.

MC: Let me make something clear. The fight against ISIS has been led by the SDF. We, the Coalition, respect and honor the more than 10,000 martyrs from the SDF, the more than 20,000 SDF fighters who were hurt freeing this land from ISIS, and most of the activities against the ISIS sleeper cells are conducted by the SDF.

MB: On this question, perhaps there are press who want to follow the operations which are carried out against ISIS. All members of the press want to join these operations and follow them. As SDF press, we are in the middle of discussions about this with our commanders and in connection with the Coalition as well. We hope to find a solution in the near future, so that we can give an opportunity to some journalists to follow these operations and witness the continued operations against ISIS, and see that ISIS are still present and that the war against them is still ongoing, and the long-term plan that there is for them.

Q: My question is about Assad’s comments, who referred to the US troops in Syria as ‘thieves’. What do you have to say in response to that?

MC: The Coalition is here for the fight against ISIS. We’re here to protect critical infrastructure that’s operated by people in this region. There’s nobody in American uniform who’s doing anything at the oilfields apart from protecting it, keeping it safe from ISIS. ISIS used to make more than 5 million dollars a year from the oilfields, particularly in the Deir-ez-Zor region. And we’re not going to allow that to happen again. Some people might lob accusations at the Coalition to distract from what they’re doing – indiscriminately bombing and killing civilians – tens of thousands of them – which must stop, and we’re glad to see that there’s been recent discussions that there may be peace in the northwest. But we’re just here to protect the oil infrastructure, that’s it, period. And defeat ISIS. 

MB: On the subject of defeating ISIS – we are military forces. We can fight on the frontlines against ISIS. We can force them into surrender and accept them when they come to us with their hands up. This subject, after these prisoners are brought away from the frontline, becomes a legal and political question. We are not connected to this subject. This is a subject with two sections, a legal section and a political section. The Autonomous Administration is responsible for this subject, they and those countries whose foreign nationals here. There is nothing more we have to say about this subject.

Q: As we know, your main mission is the fight against ISIS. But there are a lot of reports that confirm there are a lot of ISIS fighters now in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad. You have said as the Coalition you will continue your operations against ISIS, so maybe we will see some operation in that area, or maybe you don’t see that guys like ISIS…?

MC: The question is about the geographic area where the Coalition will hit ISIS. OK, we do not have operations along the border area, we don’t have troops on the ground in the western part of the country. But rest assured that our mission is to defeat ISIS of reaching out and striking ISIS at the request of the SDF. Any time we fly or drive in areas outside of eastern Syria, we will deconflict that with Russia, but if there’s ISIS somewhere and we can identify them, we will get them. A big example of that was at the end of last October, when US Special Operations forces went to north-west Syria and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself. So that’s an example of where we will help the SDF to find and strike ISIS, wherever they may be.

Q: You are cooperating with the SDF, who are called terrorists by the SDF. And meanwhile you cooperate with the Turks, so how can you handle that? They are calling you terrorists. 

MC: Look, our partnership with the SDF has lasted for several years. And our partnership has rested on our mutual commitment to defeating ISIS in this region. And the US government has continued to support the SDF by having military presence here, but also, in our most recent budget, we have tens of millions of dollars for aid, military aid to the SDF for the fight against ISIS. The training that we do with the SDF in Deir-ez-Zor province is about fighting ISIS, it’s for no other purpose. That’s my full comment on that.

Q: People in Amude, in Dirbesiye, in Tirbespi, they are afraid that Turkey will attack those towns. What would your position be if Turkey launches an attack on those cities, especially after they displaced the population from Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad… how can the people trust you after what happened in Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad?

MC: I’ve explained the Coalition’s geographic array in north-eastern Syria, Hasekah, Deir-ez-Zor province, cities like Qamishli, Rimelan, Derik… that’s where we are located now. We have a long-standing principle that any military group, from our own to any group in the world, should avoid any civilian casualties in conflict. Discussions about what might happen in the future, those are high-level discussions that are happening with politicians, and our commitment, what the people in this region should know, is that where we are now, we will stay and wherever we are partnered with the SDF physically, we will do anything we can to support the SDF in the fight against ISIS. 

Q: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a place where the Syrian National Army operate, and we know, and everyone knows, that those people there are ISIS and they use the patch of ISIS on their arms. Everyone knows that they are the people who invaded Sere Kaniye. What is your attitude toward those groups?

MC: The military Coalition is in the fight against ISIS, and that’s why we raided Idlib province to get Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We are aware that there are other members of ISIS in north-west Syria, but let’s look back at why there are so many groups there. The Syrian regime, backed by the Russian government has killed so many Syrians and so many have fled to this north-western border of Syria. We hope there’s a peaceful solution that follows UN resolution 2254, but the military Coalition does not operate in those places. 

Q: [inaudible]… you are saying you have defeated ISIS, but what about these other terror groups?

MC: For the ultimate defeat of ISIS, and other terrorist groups, it requires all of us together to defeat the ideology that turns people into fighters of evil. This is not just a military solution, and we are approaching a great success of the military defeat of ISIS. But the mission will still continue and continue and continue and continue, both bilaterally and internationally, there have been more than 33%… 33% of nations in the world have responded to the global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, but we each have military and intelligence and finance agencies that are fighting ISIS beyond the geography of Iraq and Syria; stopping foreign fighters coming into this region; the SDF is holding 10,000 fighters from 50 countries. This is a big mission, and this mission will continue until there’s a final, final resolution, and it’s not going to be overnight, and that’s why the Coalition remains committed to partnering with the SDF for the ultimate defeat of ISIS and other terrorist groups should be also defeated too. But it’s a long-term mission that requires all communities.

Q: There have been reports that your budget for the SDF and the Peshmerga is going to be lowered. What is the reason behind that?

MC: We’re approaching the five-year, we’ve passed the five-year anniversary of the Coalition, we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the defeat of ISIS. As a result of the success of our partners in the SDF and the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi security and counter-terrorism forces, the Coalition military leadership is looking at the best way to continue those partnerships. There’s no longer 1100KM of ISIS; ISIS doesn’t have 30,00, 40,000 fighters running around. So we are adjusting our commitment with our partner to match the threat, but also we will stay ahead of the threat, and where needed we will surge the personnel or resources to defeat ISIS in this region. 

MB: Once again, we thank you for accepting our invitation, spending this time with us and sharing the most up-to-date information. On the first anniversary of the defeat of ISIS, and of course around this time is also the 8th of March which we celebrate for all women, especially our female comrades. We hope that in the future, our collaboration as military press will continue at the highest level, and we will once again meet to discuss the outcomes of our special operations. We thank you, and you are welcome. 

MC: Thankyou for your time this afternoon, to come to this press conference. I am honored to travel from Iraq and Baghdad to North and East Syria to talk to the press here, so you can hear from the Coalition directly. 

Many of you I have interacted with on Twitter and Whatsapp, so I now get to meet you personally. And I know that the martyrs from the fight against ISIS and terrorist groups are not just those of us who are in uniform, there have been members of the press corps who have been killed trying to cover the war to let the world know what’s happening.

And I personally admire your bravery, professionalism and commitment to the story.

As International Women’s Day approaches, I have one more thing to add. Our success, the Coalition and the SDF, would not be successful without the inclusion, participation, professionalism and expertise of women. And the women in the Coalition we are honoring in our social media pages on Facebook and on Twitter. And I have seen the SDF is doing a similar recognition for women. And although we’re coming up on the success of the one-year military defeat of ISIS, I reassure you the Coalition remains committed to this fight. And including our partners like NATO, the more than 30 military nations will continue to train and advise Iraqi security forces, as well as the SDF. And we admire and respect the people of this region. And on a personal note, thank you for your hospitality, thank you for answering my questions and helping me learn more about this region through your reporting, your hospitality and your videos. Thanks a lot.