By Seth J. Frantzman
Transcript July 2, 2017
– Interview with Col. Ryan S. Dillon, spokesman for the Combine Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, US Central Command – An article based on this was published at The Jerusalem Post
Good afternoon, weather still unbearable in Baghdad?
Still 115 degrees in Baghdad. We work later here. I did a workout in the gym; and our commander does 10 miles [running] outside.
Can you briefly describe the US role in Tanf and its priorities?
What we are doing and have been doing is we have been operating from al-Tanaf [Tanf] garrison since the beginning of this year, more permanently, [and we have been there for] well over a year working with our partner forces indigenous to that area. We work with 2 partner groups, from that area and I’ve got the names, the MAT [Maghawir al-Thawra] and the SHUK [Shohada al-Quartayn, see more]
Those tribes [from which the volunteers are drawn] are indigenous from that area from Kallum [Spelling???] mountain area, if you look at al-Tanaf, the calalum [Spelling?] mountains are west and southwest and [the groups we train are from] all the way across the Hamaa [spelling?] desert area to the Euphrates river valley. So those are the groups we are training [and they] are from that particular area and we have been with them for well over a year. But [this is] training similar to other partner forces like SDF, both the Syrian-Arab coalition element and the Kurdish element, less so [e.g less than with the SDF], but training them on things like establishing checkpoints, patrols, ambush, medical training, some of these types of things. There have been skirmishes in that area and some battles with ISIS that have been down in that area.
Purpose number two is that these forces are from these areas. ISIS exists in the middle Euphrates river valley [and these trained forces] would be intended to be partner forces if and when we take on ISIS in the Euphrates river valley.
That’s a big area, about 200 km of ISIS area from where the SDF is near Raqqa, and then past Deir ez-Zor to Albu Kamal on the border, that the area you mean when you discuss using them?
As you know the Syrian regime has moved into the area [cutting off Tanf from ISIS in the Euphrates valley on June 10th when the Syrian regime forces reached Iraq border], largely based out of Al-Tanaf. [Before June 10] They had been going out on patrols, further and further out, setting up combat outposts and conducting further patrols and looking for ISIS and trying to get into a fight [with ISIS] so we can defeat more ISIS folks. Since Mid-May the regime moved into the area, so that ability to continue to patrol as far out as we had in the past, that is somewhat restricted [May 18 and June 6 and 8 there were airstrikes on regime advances toward Tanf]. Our fight is not there to fight the regime, so things have de-escalated quite a bit since the last incursion with the regime in the beginning of June, going back to why we are there [See also]. The partner forces are doing patrols in that are and regime has restricted [their] ability to patrol as far as we wanted to.
We have this 55 km radius around Al-Tanaf that has been established that keeps [us] from getting into mishaps with the regime and that is established and while we have gone outside that 55km areas, the presence of the regime now [restricts that]. We are being good on our commitment to try to de-escalate things, we are not patrolling as we were in the past.
There have been rumors that members the MAT were airlifted to the SDF frontline north of the Euphrates near Shadadi or Hasaka, can you confirm that?
The standard line for operational security is we don’t talk about movements and locations and capabilities but [off record there are rumors, not to say we couldn’t or wouldn’t but we haven’t moved them at least yet, we could.
If you have any numbers relating to the program and its achievements, can you provide details on the numbers trained and numbers of US personnel involved?
No [on the US personnel involved]. We will only say our presence in al-Tanaf is a few hundred and [similar to] the type of trainers we have in [other parts of] Syria, we don’t give numbers of our special operations folks. We won’t get into numbers. [But I can say] A few hundred partner force and coalition in Tanaf.
In Iraq I can say more than 40,000 Army [trained], 13,500 CTS [trained]; but I don’t have the numbers for the MAT and SHUK. For SDF total forces trained by coalition, some Kurds came already trained, 55,000 [total forces]; we trained Syrian Arab coalition, out of it on the 20th of June 2017 we had almost 7,500 [trained by the coalition].
[As for the Tanf program] I have a number just shy of a 1,000, but it says “north and south,” let me get back to you on that. [See also]
Are the operations at the new facility at Zakf [Zaqf] one of a series of planned new facilities in this area?
I don’t expect growth to be the case, this has been a temporary garrison to train from, especially since we saw the lack of presence of ISIS in the area since we began patrolling a year ago. If anything it will be in the opposite direction, we considered it temporary, how temporary is to be determined.
Is this part of a more active role for US forces in southern Syria?
[I would refer you to Jordan and CENTCOM for that]
In early June CNN reported the transfer of M142 HIMARS to Syria, can you describe the purpose of this deployment?
The line is we have ground artillery supporting our efforts in Raqqa, but for operational security, we don’t talk how many, who and where located.
The US has maintained a training program in Jordan related to Syrian rebels that has been reported in the media (often known as the Military Operations Command – MOC), is the US role in southern Syria around Tanf which works with Maghawir al-Thawra and other anti-ISIS fighters, a separate program?
Number 1, I’m not smart on it for a reason, which is we are not in Jordan, the coalition is focused in Iraq and Syria, so on that question I would send you to CENTCOM for overall Jordan and Southern Syria type of answers.
Will the US continue to defend this area in Syria from encroachments by pro-regime forces, or by Iranian-allied militias?
We said we are there temporarily and we use that de-conflcition line with the Russians so we can all focus on what we are there to do. The focus is on training and we continue to do until we use them for the fight against ISIS. We are defending ourselves against threats to us. We aren’t defending ground, or garrison, but ourselves against threats [Note: confusing explanation] that is the reason why, it isn’t some kind of ground based protection.
But you said there is this 50km radius around the area?
The 50km is where we are operating out of and we used the same de-conflcition zones and lines as in the past when de-conflicting with the Russians and it looks like others we established. Those are temporary; this is still in affect because there are still elements of the regime and partner forces [nearby], so that zone and radius is established for the regime elements and our elements in a congested space.
What are the implications of the Syrian regime arriving at the Iraqi border northeast of al-Tanf, doesn’t this restrict the continued role of US-allied forces in the war against IS in the Euphrates river valley to the north and will the US challenge the regime there?
We aren’t there to challenge or fight them. This is happening now and as elements continue to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, you are going to have different groups and organizations getting close to one another and we will continue to keep that de-confliction line open so we can avoid mishaps and strategic mis-calculation, we don’t want to fight anyone other than ISIS.
Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Quartayn are the full names for our vetted partners “MaT” and “ShQ.”
-For operational security purposes, we will not provide the number of MaT and ShQ operating in southern Syria.
-Overall in Syria, we have trained more than 900 vetted partners; that does NOT including the 7800 we have trained from the Syrian Arab Coalition.