“We’re not going to increase our footprint on the ground to conduct these patrols because as we see it right now, this is directly linked to our defeat Daesh [the Islamic State] mission. Ensuring the security and the stability in the security mechanism zone contributes directly to fighting Daesh, and we have sufficient resources on the ground now,” Brigadier General Scott Naumann, the director of operations for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, told reporters during a 19 September call. He confirmed that the US has approximately 1,000 troops operating throughout northeastern Syria for both defeating the Islamic State and safe zone operations, but several military officials have declined to detail the number of troops working on the latter.
Despite Brig Gen Naumann’s troop level assertion, Washington has asked coalition partners to provide additional support in Syria, and some former military officials are questioning if the US is taking on more than it should.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference with Brigadier General Christian Wortman, Deputy Director of Operations, U.S. European Command, and Brigadier General Scott Naumann, Director, CJ3, on Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
Brig. Gen. Wortman: My name is Brigadier General Christian Wortman and I am the U.S. Director for the Combined Joint Operation Center, or CJOC, in the Şanliurfa Province of Turkey. My role is to serve as the lead U.S. military representative in coordinating with our Turkish allies to implement a security mechanism for Northeast Syria. I execute my responsibilities in close coordination with my Turkish Army one-star counterpart.
The intention of this security mechanism is to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and to preserve the conditions that support continued operations to defeat ISIS while fostering conditions that reduce the risk of violence and instability that would be counter-productive for all parties.
It is important to note that we are implementing this security mechanism in close coordination with Turkey, an important and longstanding NATO ally. The security mechanism is specifically focused on addressing conditions that have the potential to be threatening to Turkey such as military fortification, certain categories of weapons, and fighters with heightened potential to threaten Turkey.
Brig. Gen. Wortman: This is hard work and addressing these conditions effectively will take time.
The United States is fully committed to addressing the conditions of concern to Turkey. We are working aggressively to support full implementation of the security mechanism agreement and also working deliberately to limit negative impact to civilian populations in the near term or long term.
As always, it is essential to the United States that our activities adhere to widely accepted principles for the treatment of civilians.
To date, Turk and American forces have meticulously planned and conducted five combined aerial reconnaissance patrols over Northeast Syria and conducted a combined ground patrol in Northeast Syria as well.
The purpose of these air reconnaissance missions and ground patrols is to monitor implementation of the security mechanism. The patrols also support maintaining security in Northeast Syria so ISIS cannot reemerge and allow coalition forces to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS.
We expect that these activities will accelerate gradually over time as U.S. forces are postured to conduct these operations.
I am constantly impressed by what the CJOC has accomplished in such a short amount of time and what it continues to accomplish. It is the strong military to military relationship between Turkey and the United States, sealed by our common commitment inside the NATO alliance that allows for the effective coordination and operations between our militaries.
Our common NATO standards give us an important advantage as we conduct these challenging and complex operations.
I would like to complement our Turk allies for their high levels of professionalism.
I will pause here for Brigadier General Scott Naumann to provide an opening statement.
Brig. Gen. Naumann: Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you all about the security mechanism zone.
My name is Brigadier General Scott Naumann, and I’m the Director of Operations for Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve. My role is to work by, with and through our Iraqi and Syrian Democratic Force partners to plan and execute operations to defeat Daesh in order to provide a stable and secure environment.
With the territorial defeat of Daesh our campaign in Northeast Syria transitioned from major combat operations to enabling local security and preventing resurgent Daesh networks.
Daesh does remain a threat, and while their capacity to hold ground is gone, they still demonstrate the capability and the intent to plan and execute attacks, kidnapping and other nefarious activities. Our task force is working very closely with Brigadier General Wortman’s team and our Turkish allies to expand security in Northeast Syria through this security mechanism. Our continuous dialogue and coordination ensures we secure the border area in a sustainable manner that ensures the campaign continuity in the global coalition’s effort to defeat Daesh and it limits any uncoordinated military operations that would undermine this shared interest.
We’re rapidly implementing the activities my colleague Brigadier General Wortman just highlighted in a transparent and public manner. Both regional and international media have witnessed the joint patrolling aerial overflights and the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces to reduce fortification jointly identified by our ally Turkey and the United States.
We believe these actions demonstrate the Syrian Democratic Force’s commitment to implementation and more broadly, the best way to maintain our focus on defeating Daesh while addressing the security concerns of our NATO ally Turkey.
With that, I’ll hand it back over to Justin.
Question: General Wortman, you talked about the treatment of civilians in your opening statement. Recently the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report that drew attention to, quote, “Large-scale operations by U.S.-led international coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces causing widespread destruction of towns and villages, leading to the displacement of thousands of civilians.”
I’d like to hear your comments on this. Were towns and villages destroyed? Were thousands of civilians displaced?
Brig. Gen. Wortman: Thank-you very much for your question. I’m, unfortunately not familiar with the report that you’re referencing, but I can tell you that we’re working very, very carefully to structure our operations and activities in a manner that limits any negative impacts to civilian populations and that adheres to widely accepted international standards for the treatment of civilians.
Question: Turkish Defense Minister gave an interview today to Turkish Daily saying that the United States and Turkey would establish joint patrolling bases in Northern Syria. Do you confirm this would occur? That Turkey and the United States would have joint bases in Northern Syria?
Brig. Gen. Wortman: This is Brigadier General Wortman again. I’m not going to comment on future operations. But what I will tell you is that we are working in very close partnership with our Turk allies and our OIR counterparts to plan and coordinate all of our operations. We’re working to expeditiously implement the security mechanism agreement, but we’re also working very deliberately to ensure that any negative impact to civilian populations are limited.
Question: Regarding the EU contributions to the security mechanism in the region, the Netherlands was recently asked by the U.S. government to contribute. What kind of contribution does the U.S. need, and what kind of role could the Netherlands play?
Brig. Gen. Wortman: This is Brigadier General Wortman. I’m not in a position to comment on the intentions of the Netherlands government or in a position to comment on any ongoing discussions at higher levels between our governments.
Question: Can you perhaps tell us where the removal of YPG fortifications, will it be necessary to complement the forces that are there with additional troops or additional resources? And how would you, just to ensure stability and security, and how would you go about doing that?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: This is Brigadier General Naumann. There’s been no change in our policy and we’re executing it in accordance with the guidance that we’ve been given from our commands. We’re not going to increase our footprint on the ground to conduct these patrols because as we see it right now, this is directly linked to our defeat Daesh mission. Ensuring the security and the stability in the security mechanism zone contributes directly to fighting Daesh and we have sufficient resources on the ground now.
Question: Turkey calls it a secure zone even though using that word, you call it a security mechanism. Turkey wants a 20-mile zone which would be controlled by Turkish Army and the [RMC] Opposition, and no YPGA assistance. Is that what the U.S. is aiming for with these talks with Turkey? And if it’s not, is Turkey openly talking about the details of its plan to operation in Northeast Syria during these talks with Pentagon?
Brig. Gen. Wortman: I’m not going to comment on the specific details of the parameters related to the size of the security mechanism zone, but what I will highlight is that we are currently focused between Tal Abyad and [Rosalein] and that the depth of the zone is carefully tailored to reflect the conditions on the ground with significant consideration given to concentrations of the civilian population.
I can also confirm that we are working to address fortifications, heavy weapons and fighters of particular concern to our Turk allies.
Brig. Gen. Naumann: I would just add that the air and the ground patrols that General Wortman referenced earlier are all being planned conjunction with our Turkish allies. So the concerns and the prioritization is really done in a combined manner to ensure that we’re addressing the security zones.
Question: Is the U.S. going to continue to send logistics support to SDF even though no significant ISIS activities have been recorded in the past? Isn’t this a point of contention between U.S. and Turkey?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: We are, and we continue to provide, very tailored arms and equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces, but it’s specifically for the defeat Daesh mission. I think that’s very common knowledge. We’re continuing to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces because there does remain a Daesh threat.
The Syrian Democratic Forces continue to conduct operations to detain Daesh leaders, to reduce financial sales, and to cease illegal smuggling throughout the area.
Question: U.S. officials previously pledged to retrieve weapons given to Syrian affiliate of PKK terrorist organization, People’s Protection Unit (YPG), once the war against Daesh is over. Since the U.S. President announced that Daesh no longer exists and it lost all territories, does the U.S. military have any plans to start processes to retrieve heavy weapons?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: We continue to provide assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces as we continue to fight Daesh throughout Northeast Syria. They do remain, despite not being able to hold any territory or to govern.
And I would point out that every month we provide specific information to our NATO ally Turkey so that they understand specifically what support we are providing to the Syrian Democratic Forces as they fight Daesh.
Brig. Gen. Wortman: I will add that as part of the security mechanism zone the U.S. is fully committed to the removal of heavy weapons from the area designated as part of this zone or area.
Question: Firstly, do either of you have any idea as to how many Western members of Daesh are in some form of captivity with the SDF? Especially the numbers of British ISIS detainees.
Secondly, what would you, the U.S. authorities, like to see happen to these Western detainees that are in SDF captivity? Whether they be in the Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camps or in actual prison conditions?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: What I would point out broadly speaking is Syrian Democratic Forces have detained more than 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters from over 50 different countries. We continue to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces every day to verify their national identities.
As you point out, though, these prisons are vulnerable to ISIS ideology and this really won’t get better with time. So repatriating Daesh fighters and their families to countries of origin now is important to the enduring defeat of ISIS. And I think we’ve been very clear that returning foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin is the best way ultimately to mitigate their reengagement in terrorist activities here and in our homelands.
Question: I wanted to follow up on Lara’s question a bit. What is the estimate that you have right now of U.S. troops that are actually contributing to the security mechanism?
Also, what role or contribution potentially could a partner and ally country have in contributing to the security mechanism?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: We have around a thousand U.S. forces that are operating throughout Northeast Syria to execute our defeat Daesh and security mechanism zone missions. Currently, the security mechanism zone is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Turkey.
Question: Turkish President Erdoğan has said he’d like to resettle as many as three million Syrian refugees in the joint zone. Can you comment on the Americans’ position on this, as well as the likelihood that it could happen?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: I won’t comment on President Erdoğan’s statement. You’d probably have to ask Turkey or their ministries for more information.
What I would say is that the principles that we look for with refugees is that we’re looking at safe, voluntary and dignified movements of refugees so that individuals are either moving back to their home or to a place of their own choosing.
Question: If such a plan was implemented to return Syrian refugees to the security mechanism zone, how would this affect U.S. military operations in Syria? Or would it affect it? And if so, how?
Brig. Gen. Naumann: I don’t really want to comment on hypotheticals, but I would say we are committed to moving forward with further implementation of the security mechanism zone because this is the best way to provide security and stability in Northeast Syria while ultimately allowing us to focus on our defeat Daesh mission and assisting our Turkish allies with their security concerns.
Question: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week declared Turkish forces will unilaterally intervene against the YPG if the safe zone is not created by the end of the month. What will the consequences be of such an action on the ground? And will U.S. Air Forces allow Turkey to use Syrian airspace to carry out such an operation?
Brig. Gen. Wortman: I can’t comment on Turkish timelines or decisions, but I can tell you that the United States is fully committed to addressing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.
This is a highly challenging and complex environment, so full implementation is going to take time.
We’re working deliberately with our Turkish allies to limit potential impacts to civilian populations and to address the conditions of greatest concern to Turkey.
Brig. Gen. Wortman: I want to highlight the fact that Turkey is an important and longstanding NATO ally. Our strategic relationship with Turkey and their security concerns are important to us.
The United States is fully committed to addressing the conditions of concern to Turkey and to fully implementing the security mechanism. This is hard work and it’s a complex and challenging environment, so doing this properly and effectively is going to take time.
Brig. Gen. Naumann: Again, our goal in establishing a security mechanism in Northeast Syria is to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh while simultaneously addressing the security concerns of our NATO partner Turkey. A strong ally for decades.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are aggressively moving out to accomplish this task. They’re reducing fortifications. They’re participating in all of the tasks that have been agreed upon in a combined manner moving forward. And we believe that this shows the total commitment to this agreement and our continuing coordination as we build on the positive momentum that we’ve achieved together.
This is the best way to secure the border area while continuing to focus on the defeat of Daesh.