Full Transcript of Media Q & A with Major General Jones
Question: (Larisa Brown, The Daily Mail). I am just wondering have you ever uncovered any further evidence of jihadists plotting attacks against the UK or Europe in general?
Maj. Gen. Jones: Look, I am clearly not going to speculate about what we see coming out of ISIS fighters. What I can say is that we know that Daesh operating both in Iraq and Syria have in the past planned, directed and of course inspired attacks in Britain, Europe and elsewhere from within Iraq and Syria. That is why we are focused with our partners in liberating the rest of the held areas – most critically in Mosul and Raqqa.
Question: (Henry, The Daily Star) Over the last few week the Russians were making a lot of noise of the fact they think they killed Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, can you confirm or deny whether or not this is the case?
Maj. Gen. Jones: So clearly, there have been multiple claims over the months of people having killed Al-Baghdadi; we have no concrete evidence to support that, but clearly we will be delighted if that were confirmed to be true, but we cannot confirm it at this stage, we have no evidence to support it. What I would say is Al-Baghdadi, alive or otherwise, is increasingly a remote figure. A great many of his loyal lieutenants have been killed, what I am saying to you is that if you are a Daesh fighter right now in Mosul or in Raqqa, I don’t think you feel you are being particularly led and I think you feel you have been deserted, isolated, and you’ll know what the fate is.
Question: (Ben Farmer, The Telegraph) Do you see much evidence of foreign fighters fleeing and if you do where are they are going? Are they getting through the cordon or are they being stopped?
Maj. Gen. Jones: So Ben, you know well over the months there was a time when a very significant number of foreign fighters were flying into Iraq and Syria and that number has slowed to a trickle due to the great efforts by all sorts of people – not least Turkey in terms of locking down the border with Syria. It is increasingly difficult for foreign fighters to go back the other way because those borders are tight. So do we see great evidence of foreign fighters leaving Iraq and Syria? No, we do not and we are increasingly confident that those foreign fighters are, if you like, trapped within their areas and will be cleared by our our partners.
Question: (Latika Bourke, Sydney Morning Herald) When was the last concrete evidence that you had of Al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts and what does ISIS as a threat look like after the liberation and how will you adapt to that?
Maj. Gen. Jones: I confess I can’t remember from the top of my head when the last confirmed proof of life was. This is kind of the very point, is it not? Because there no proof of life, it is very very difficult for him to lead his claimed-caliphate in the way he sought to in the past. He has been driven underground and under cover. And since he is underground and under cover, he is not able to lead his fighters in the way he wishes to, nor can he inspire his philosophy of hatred around the world. Will you repeat the second part of your question?
Question: What does ISIS as a threat look like to you once you have liberated Mosul and Raqqa, and how does the Coalition adapt to that?
Maj. Gen. Jones: Yes, we have been very clear that the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and the liberation of Raqqa, that capital of their self-proclaimed would be a hugely decisive moment in the campaign and that is absolutely true. We have always been clear that there will a great deal of work to do after Mosul and Raqqa are liberated and that remains the case. It is for Prime Minister Abadi in Iraq to decide exactly what sequence of operations he wishes to pursue after Mosul, but you know there is a lot of work to do in Ninewa, Talafar needs to be liberated and Hawaijah. There are towns at the top end of the Euphrates river valley in Iraq that need to be clear and the same in Syria. So nobody should be under the illusion that with Mosul and Raqqa that is the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. There’s is much work to do and we are committed to complete that work with our partners.
Question: But do you see them taking more of an Al-Qaeda approach in attacking from the desert or what? Will ISIS keep up the fight, I guess is the question?
Maj. Gen. Jones: You know we have already seen evidence of that, we see evidence of that as they’re squeezed. They are a highly adaptable learning organisation, we know that. We have already seen evidence of them doing that. In Iraq, what I would say, there is great evidence that the Government of Iraq is responding to that, not least in protecting their capital Baghdad. So we must assume that we will seek to adapt and we are training our partners to be ready for that — so we trained our Iraqi partners forces to counterattack and liberate their own towns and cities and increasingly we’re adjusting that training for our partners to be able to deal with what we call in the compounds “wide area security,” essentially holding their liberated towns and cities again against those sorts of attacks.
Question: (John Ingham, Daily Express) I wonder if you can give us a picture of how many Islamic State fighters you think are left in Mosul and left in Raqqa? Is there any breakdown you think of how many of them are foreign fighters and have you captured any them or have a picture as to the morale among them and whether they’ve run out of ammunition, whether they were just fighting on their own without proper order, etc
Maj. Gen. Jones: So, a number of things in answer to that. The first thing I would say, is that calculating numbers of Daesh fighters is notoriously difficult for reasons you will recognize. We estimate in Raqqa there might be about 2,500 Daesh fighters or something of that order, but that is to say an estimate only. In Mosul, I have to defer it to Iraqi security forces, against, what I am saying the actual numbers of fighters left in Mosul is slightly academic. Those that remain there, we know, will fight likely to the bitter end. What we do see clear evidence of in Mosul is the degree to which Daesh are really on the back foot. They still pose a lethal threat, of course they do, but the destruction of the Al-Nuri mosque is a sign of desperation. They know how it ends, but the security forces have the momentum and making great progress into the old city and they are also making great progress to clear the Al-Jumhuri hospital. It is quite clear the Iraqi security force’s moral is high and Daesh morale is most certainly not. And in Raqqa, there is real evidence that Daesh morale is low. They are feeling the pressure of the Syrian Democratic forces as they are closing into Raqqa. So it is not so much about numbers, it is about capacity and capability to fight.
Question: (Najlaa Harir, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat) We’ve heard reports that Daesh fighters are going from Raqqa to Deir Al-Zour, do you have evidence on that and if so how many of them going to Deir Al-Zour, the other question is can you put a timeline, an approximate timeline on the fall of Raqqa?
Maj. Gen. Jones: So, do we see evidence of fighters moving from Raqqa on down the Euphrates valley? The first thing I’d think we say is of course there are Daesh fighters further down the Euphrates valley and that’s why we always make the point that Raqqa is not the end. There are further towns and cities, Deir Al-Zour, Mayadin, Abu-Kamal must be cleared subsequently. That is the first thing to say. The second thing to say is that Daesh will have no sanctuary, wherever they are in Raqqa or elsewhere, they will be cleared and they will be destroyed by our partners, supported by the Coalition. The other thing I must say to you is that Raqqa is essentially surrounded. It is extremely hard for anybody to get out. The Syrian Democratic forces have pretty much closed the noose around the city. All the bridges across the Euphrates out from the city have been destroyed. When Daesh fighters have tried to used boats across the river, again they are destroyed. So if you are a fighter in Raqqa, you are essentially cut off and the SDF are closing in on them.
Questions: (Mohammed Najib, Jane’s Defence Weekly) What lessons has the Coalition learned in three years fighting against ISIS? The other question: what role has Jordan played in the Coalition’s efforts to fight ISIS militarily, logistically or in intelligence?
Maj. Gen. Jones: Ok, so in terms of lessons – I think it comes almost where we start, you know all militaries learn lessons from time to time and adapting the whole time. Our partners are doing the same; Iraqi forces demonstrated their ability and their agility to learn lessons as have the Syrian Democratic Forces. We are learning the whole time. One of the important things the coalition takes is something vital to support our partners. It is their fight, their towns, their cities and we must support their aspirations and their aims. In terms of lessons by the Iraqi security forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the point I’d make is a kind of a macro one: that our partners have increasingly stopped ISIS, they halted them, and they pushed ISIS back. What that demonstrates is just their ability to outlearn and outthink ISIS has been hugely impressive. In terms of Jordan, what I do not want to do is get into the ins-and-outs of individual Coalition partners – Jordan or anybody else. What I would say, Jordan is a hugely important part of the Coalition. Clearly, they feel the effects of Daesh more than most, since they have a border with both Iraq and Syria. They are hugely valued Coalition member. But it’s really for Jordan to comment on the individual role of their forces. But as I’ve said, they are absolutely crucial member of the coalition, we are hugely appreciative for their support and their resilience.
Question: (Angus MacDowall, Reuters) I wonder whether the Coalition has information about whether the YPG in Syria has been asked to return arms supplied for the campaign against Islamic State, and where they have, have they been convinced to do so? Are there are any assurances along those lines?
Maj. Gen. Jones: Sir, you know, we’ve been very clear, you know, I’ve stated that we’ve been very clear that the arming of the YPG is being done in a very deliberate and metered manner, to provide those weapons that they need to support the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa and elsewhere. We have undertaken to be extremely, or entirely transparent with Turkey on that. I don’t want to discuss in detail how that transparency works, but there is absolute transparency between Turkey and the United States on that subject. Thanks.
Question: (Dinara, Interfax, Kazakhstan) I have two questions. Firstly, is there a time frame for the Iraqi Mosul to be liberated? And also, how can you comment on the Russian statement that the Coalition is doing nothing about Al Nusra? Thank you.
Maj. Gen. Jones: The reality is that talking about timelines, as you’ll recognize, is speculation. We’ll all have a view on it. You know, the key is that the Iraqi security forces close out Daesh in Mosul, in a considered manner, doing what they always do – with extraordinary consideration for the local population. It’s been one of the real hallmarks of this operation is the Iraqi security forces have fought for eight months in a brutal, tough fight to liberate their city and protection of civilians has remained in their minds all the way through. So, you know, you can surmise how long it’s gonna take as well as I can. You’re seeing the rate at which the Iraqi security forces are moving forward, they’re clearing block-by-block every day. So I’m confident, it’s coming soon. Exactly when, only time will tell. In terms of Al Nusra, the key is we as a military coalition, part of the global counter-ISIS coalition. What we’re here to do is to defeat Daesh. That is our role, in support of our partner forces, is to defeat Daesh. And that is what we are going to do, that is what we’ve been charged by one of the most powerful Coalitions that has ever come together, frankly, in history. And that is exactly what our focus is. We are focused on defeating Daesh and that’s what we are to do.
Question: (Larisa Brown, The Daily Mail) Would the RAF shoot down a Syrian regime jet if it was asked to by the U.S.? And also – sorry, with regard to Ben’s question as well, with regard to the foreign fighters being trapped inside Raqqa and Mosul, is it fair to assume that that includes British foreign fighters that won’t be able to leave Raqqa and Mosul? Thank you.
Maj. Gen. Jones: Okay. So in terms of your first question, really that’s a question for the U.K. Ministry of Defence. As you know, the Royal Air Forces are quite a part of the air coalition, and operates over both Iraq and Syria airspace – a fundamental role they play. But in terms of that, I would actually defer to the U.K. Ministry of Defence. You recognise that I’m actually speaking to you as a Coalition officer. And to your point about foreign fighters and the degree to which there are U.K. foreign fighters there, again, you know, it’s not really for me to speculate. What we’re quite clear is that there are foreign fighters from a whole host of nations in both Mosul and Raqqa, from Europe and elsewhere. But I’m gonna say that’s really a matter for the U.K. Ministry of Defence and U.K. Foreign Office in terms of U.K. nationals specifically.
Question: (Najlaa Harir, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat) Yeah, thanks. Just wondering whether we have any numbers of soldiers from the coalition members on the ground in Syria, and then in Iraq, helping to train either the SDF or the Iraqi personnel, police, and military. Specifically, do we know, do you have a number for British forces on the ground? Cause we had numbers of American forces on the ground in both Syria and Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Jones: The United States have about something in the order of 500 troops out there. As you know, some other nations do or don’t comment on these things, so I don’t really want to get too far into those figures. It’s really for other nations to comment on their numbers. You know, what we are doing in Syria is essentially the same as what we’re doing in Iraq, essentially to help our partner forces, and that involves training our partner forces, it involves facilitating their fight through airstrikes, surveillance, artillery, and then indeed just providing critical advice necessary to them.
Question: (Henry, The Daily Star) Obviously we’ve been fighting in Iraq and Syria now for a number of years. Yet in terms of international terror, things seem to be, well, as bad as they’ve ever been. Or worse than ever – obviously in Britain we’ve had three terrorist attacks in three months. So, assuming Mosul and Raqqa are liberated within the coming weeks and months, what will that mean for the climate of international terror, and will it mean a reduction of ISIS’s capability to carry out these attacks in Britain and in Europe, and, well, anywhere in the world?
Maj. Gen. Jones: Again, I’m not going to speculate in terms of kind of domestic terrorism, that is really for nations to comment on. You know, again, what our role is. Our role is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Why are we doing that? We’re doing that so that that organisation cannot attack into Europe and elsewhere. What I can tell you is that Daesh are under extraordinary pressure. When you’re under pressure, in Raqqa, when you’re under pressure in Mosul, trust me, what you’re not doing is sitting there plotting attacks into Europe and elsewhere. You are fighting for your life. That is what Daesh are doing right now. So that means their ability to plan and direct attacks is very significantly degraded. You know that many of these attacks aren’t necessarily directed, they’re are kind of inspired by Daesh. What we are doing with the Global Coalition is exposing Daesh’s narrative for the lie that it is. For that reason, the flow of foreign fighters has all but dried up. People do not buy into that narrative. They don’t want to go in, cause they know how this ends. So look, you know, at an all-time high there were about 1500 foreign fighters coming into Iraq and Syria. So that has slowed to nothing more than a trickle. So, you know, I think that absolutely highlights the degree to which the narrative is being compromised. Is there more work to do? Of course there is. We have a role in that, in Iraq and Syria, in terms of defeating Daesh in the field, and the Global Coalition has an important role to play in continuing to undermine that narrative.
Question: (John Ingram, the Express) When you said that at the high point there were 1,500 foreign fighters coming into Syria and Iraq, was that a year, or a month, or what?
Maj. Gen. Jones: So that was a figure of about 1,500 a month were flowing in, at the peak.
Question: And when was that?
Maj. Gen Jones: I’m going to say that is just been hugely reduced, for all sorts of reasons. You know, one of which is which I’ve said before is that the narrative doesn’t resonate; people aren’t particularly attracted by the idea of coming to somewhere like Raqqa to be killed. But also it’s because of all sorts of great work across the global coalition in terms of order enforcement and the like. I’d say not least by our partner, Turkey.
Question: And when was the peak time? Was it about two years ago?
Maj. Gen. Jones: The peak was coming in early 2015. About January 2015 was really the peak of that flow.
Question: (Olivier, French Inter) Major General, do you have an idea of how many elements of ISIS’ chain of command could have fled to Afghanistan or Libya or other places where this organisation could rise again?
Maj. Gen. Jones: So, the first thing to say, is we are really focused on Iraq and Syria, it’s not really for me to comment on ISIS operating in other parts of the world. What I can tell you – and I’ll just reiterate the degree to which ISIS’s freedom of movement is very, very significantly constrained. Their ability to move around Iraq, their ability to move around Syria, is greatly constrained, and their ability to then move from Iraq and Syria out, either towards Europe or indeed out to some of the other places you mentioned, has very significantly been limited. They just don’t have the freedom of movement to move around with impunity. And what I would highlight, you know, one of the most recent members to join the global coalition was Interpol. And that is hugely significant in terms of ensuring that the flow of information across the international community is the very best it can be.
Question:(Najlaa Harir, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat), Major General, we’ve heard reports about preliminary agreements between the states Jordan and Russia, creating a sort of buffer or safe zone, 30 kilometers from the border of Jordan. Have you been informed of such an agreement that wouldn’t allow Iranian militias or Hezbollah or non-Syrian forces to approach the border of Jordan?
Maj. Gen. Jones: No, I’m not tracking that specifically. You know, I just would highlight what I said to you earlier. The well-publicised deconfliction mechanism we have with the Russians is hugely important. It’s hugely important to ensure that there’s ground and air safety between coalition forces, Russian forces, and indeed all our partners operating in the air and on the ground, so we use that mechanism frequently. But the specifics of an agreement between Jordan and Russia, I’m not tracking. Probably a subject to ask Jordan.
Question: (Larisa, the Daily Mail) When you say Daesh’s freedom of movement is significantly constrained, what’s changed? You know, previously obviously they were getting about. What’s changed to enable that?
Maj. Gen. Jones: In terms of freedom of movement out of Iraq and Syria, the points I’ve made in terms of international global efforts in terms of border controls, with Turkey doing great work in terms of closing out Daesh along their border. Those hugely significant steps in terms of preventing freedom of movement out of Iraq and Syria. In terms of limiting their freedom of movement in Iraq and Syria, well that is really about our partner forces taking the fight to the enemy, actually taking initiative from them. And when you’re on the back foot, you don’t have the freedom to move with impunity, so you have in Mosul an isolated city. And you can’t get in, you can’t get out. Same in Raqqa. And so as our partner forces take back more terrain, liberate more and more people, and about 4.7 million people liberated since the start of this campaign, a hugely significant figure, with that comes terrain, comes towns, comes cites. And as they do that, you know, the reality is Daesh’s ability to move with impunity is just more and more limited.
Question: (John Ingham, Daily Express) At their peak, have you any idea how many fighters Islamic State had? And I appreciate it’s a bit difficult because sometimes civilians can be fighting and then stop fighting, but is there an estimate as to how big a fighting force it was at their peak? Presumably around early 2015?
Maj. Gen. Jones: I made the point earlier – counting ISIS fighters can be a slightly academic process. You know, we never quite know how many fighters there are, how do you count them, et cetera. And what really matters is how many of them are left. I think the other thing that matters is the trajectory of the organisation. And what I’d say to you is, we have been killing Daesh at a rate that they simply cannot sustain, for the reasons I’ve described to you. Because their flow of fighters coming into Iraq and Syria to sustain them has just slowed to a trickle, because their narrative is being compromised, because people don’t believe in what they’re talking about. And therefore their numbers are just going down and down and down. But, you know, as to a number of how many fighters there were at the peak is – I would say – slightly academic. What matters is that they are losing organisation, our partners in Iraq and Syria have the momentum. You know, once Mosul is closed out, that will be a very significant moment for the government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi. As I’ve said before, there’s more to do, but it’s hugely indicative of where the flow of this campaign is going.
Question: But is their force now down? Just in ballpark figures, is it about half what it was, a tenth what it was? Just that sort of statistic so we can convey some idea of the extent to which it has been degraded as a fighting force.
Maj. Gen. Jones: They’ve lost way over half of the territory that they ever held, and their numbers are just being whittled down and down and down. You know, what I don’t want to do – because it’d kind of be a bit speculative – is to give you a percentage of the force that they still retain. A comment I made about a month ago was to say that in Iraq and Syria, we’ve liberated an area about the size of Ireland. That’s a hugely significant area, with about 4.7 million people liberated along the way.