Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (US military operation against Daesh) Colonel Steve Warren on speaks with Editor, The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi. (Photo/Muslim News)
Ahmed J Versi
Spokesman for the Global Coalition effort to defeat ISIL (Daesh) in Iraq and Syria is upbeat in trying to promote a positive outlook on the current situation of Operation Inherent Resolve.
But in an exclusive interview with The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, US Colonel Steve Warren also admits to several concerns and complications about the mission in what he detailed as a two pronged military strategy involving some 3,500 American soldiers on the ground and around another 2,500 from its coalition partners.
“You could break it into two really broad categories: conduct airstrikes and build partner capacity. That’s building up the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to confront Daesh on the ground, and we do that through training, advising and assisting, intelligence-sharing and through equipping – we’ve given them billions of dollars’ worth of equipment.”
The Colonel said the strategy had been going on for almost 18 months and started with building partner capacity first before moving into airstrikes and bombing. The result was that we were having both “some good effects” and was “starting to see some progress.”
“Daesh has lost 40% of the territory they once held in Iraq, that’s along through the north, you know in the kind of traditionally Kurdish regions of Iraq, they’ve lost about 10% of the territory they once held in Syria,” he said, listing Ramadi, Sinjar, Baiji and Tikrit among Iraqi cities recaptured. He also revealed that almost 20,000 Iraqi soldiers had so far been trained.
No ground troops were involved in combat operations, except for a raid the US carried out against Abu Sayyaf in Syria over a year ago and in Hawijah in Iraq but he struggled to remember who it was against other than it was with Iraqi or Current Forces to free prisoners of Daesh. No British troops were involved though, he specified.
US troops were advising and accompanying Iraqi troops. The Colonel specified Kurdish troops in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Independent Kurd Region, as he also called it, saying it was a “nice, static line” with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other. Down south in Ramada and surrounding areas, both the US and British troops “stay on their operating bases.”
On the relief effort, he says the US had contributed almost $600m from a total of nearly $1.2bn from the coalition. But he admitted after being pressed that there were complaints money was not filtering through from the Peshmerga to the refugees. The Kurds though we’re not going to just give up because “they’re good people.”
“On the ground in Iraq, at the military level we have no relationships, zero, none,” the US spokesman said when questioned about what relations the coalition has with Iranians in the region. There was not even an exchange of coordinates but there was “very much higher level contacts obviously” as what they did not want to happen was to have “any accidents.”
Although Shia Muslim militia, who he called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), are part of the Iraqi security apparatus, he admitted the US seemed to discriminate against them. “There are some segments of the PMF that we will not work with, they’re radical, they’re extreme, we will not work with them. But any piece of the PMF is willing to be directly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, Iraqi Ministry of Defence.”
“They don’t need training, they haven’t been interested in our training, they have their own training programmes.” The focus was on Iraqi security forces, where the US had trained 200,000 and Kurdish forces, where two brigades had been trained.
Colonel Warren confirmed that there was “a lot” of Muslims both outside and within Iraq and Syria who believe foreign troops are invaders in a clash of civilisation, but he insisted US forces were only there because the Government of Iraq “invited us to come in.”
“Clash of civilisations, I reject that completely. Who is the number one killer of Muslims today? Bashar Al-Assad and Daesh, they’re who are killing Muslims, we’re not killing Muslims, Bashar Al-Assad is killing Muslims, Daesh is killing Muslims, that is who is killing Muslims. We’re here to help.”
He concedes “concerns” about such perceptions as he sees them every day and did weekly press conferences in Iraq where. “Only Iraqis, no-one else is invited, just Iraqis, there is certainly a perception out there in Iraq in particular, that is not in alignment with reality. And some of this perception is fed by Iranian propaganda, some of this perception is aspirational.”
“There are segments of the Iraqi population that want to see more Americans, more coalition on the ground. There are segments of the Iraqi population who want to see less, so a lot of it is just kind of these competing information wars that are being waged by the Iranians, the Iranian backed militias, by Daesh, by Russia, so everybody is pushing, they’re pumping information into the environment in Iraq and it creates a lot of confusion.”
The US Spokesman also confirmed that some of the allegations of civilians being killed by coalition bombs in Iraq and Syria were true. “If we assess that the allegation is from a credible source, we conduct an investigation. We have launched 17 investigations so far, maybe it’s 14, we’ve already released the result of 7 of those investigations, and we’ve determined that 16 civilians have been tragically but accidentally killed, and 19 or 20 have been injured.”
“We’ll continue to do this every time we receive an allegation of a civilian casualty, we follow it up and we determine that we caused a civilian casualty, we’re transparent about it. Up until now none of these casualties have been caused by British aircraft, but there are some ongoing investigations, so that could change. Up until now British aircraft have caused no civilian casualties, majority have been caused by US aircraft and that’s because majority of the flights are being conducted by US aircraft.”
But the Colonel also insisted that the air campaign is the “most precise air campaign in the history of warfare bar none, our technology is getting so good, our pilots have become so skilled, our bombs have become so smart, that it’s remarkable.”
Questioned about how much had been achieved since the air campaign in Iraq started, he said that conducting a bombing is “not a sign of strength, it might be a sign of weakness. Strength can take cities, strength can hold cities.” Daesh has “only lost cities, they haven’t gained an inch of territory, not one centimetre of territory since May in Iraq. This isn’t strength, this is weakness, Daesh has failed, they have failed in Iraq.”
“They’ve lost 40% of their territory they once owned, the Iraqi army is stronger than it ever was, so, that said, they’re still fighting, Daesh are still fighting, Daesh still has capability, they’re still recruiting. We think we have made some fairly significant dents in their ability to operate.”
On the challenges faced in Syria, he said most of the dilemmas resolved have come out of the diplomatic process, including the US President ringing Turkey all the time and he’s been in recent contact. The British too were in contact and since Turkey was a Nato ally it had been a “valuable partner in this fight, they’ve given us Incirlik [air base], that’s an important thing, letting us use Incirlik.” But there remained “some very legitimate national security concerns, they have to address.”
Finding people to work with in Syria though was “hard.” There were “many desperate sub groups. Truly speaking, the Syrian Democratic Force is a force of I don’t know 30 to 40,000 total strong, it occupies the strip of land, between Kobani and the Iraqi border, the strip of land from Kobani through Hasakah to the Iraqi border, that’s where the Syrian democratic force is operating, and they’re pressuring south against the enemy in Raqqa their capital, so that’s who we’re working with.”
“And the Syrian democratic force is really a team, a group of groups, there are Turkish, Turkomans, Christian, Assyrian, Kurd, there are different armed groups, that have kind of banded together under a single leader with their focus being Daesh. So you know it’s tougher, it’s a lot harder, you know there’s no state established, you know state security force that we can partner with.”
With regard to the Russian involvement in Syria, he admitted it was “tough to deal with” and insisted it could really only be left to politicians and diplomats to sort out. “From a military perspective, the Russians are primarily restricting their bombing to the western corridor,” while the US-led focus was really from Aleppo to the east. “Raqqa to the Euphrates river, that’s our main area.”
The Saudis conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria for months, but he had not yet seen a single Saudi ground troop in Turkey. “There’s only talk, so let’s see where the talk goes.” He clarified that the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, said he would welcome the deployment of Saudi troops despite the sectarian issue. “I don’t see how it can be any more dangerous in Syria than it is right this very minute.”