Major-General Rupert Jones, Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Ministry of Defence,
and former Deputy Commander (Strategy and Support) of the Combined Joint Task Force
– Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (August 2016 to September 2017)
Air Vice-Marshal Johnny Stringer, Chief of Staff Joint Forces Command, Ministry of Defence,
and former UK Air Component Commander in the Middle East
(October 2016 to October 2017)
Q12 Dr Julian Lewis (Chairman): Can I ask you a little more about the political interaction that you had in each of the two countries? You said that in Iraq you were closely engaged with the Government. In Syria, that obviously did not apply, but you said that you would work in close co-operation with the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Were there any other major actors in Syria with whom you co-operated in that way or was it primarily the Syrian Democratic Forces?
Major-General Jones: In terms of the defeat of Daesh in Syria, it took a little time to identify partners that we could have confidence in, that had suitable objectives and the capability to do what was needed. The Syrian Democratic Forces were clearly the dominant element of that, and I will come back to that in a moment, but there were some other smaller partner forces that we worked with down in southern Syria. I say “we” – I mean the Coalition as opposed to the United Kingdom specifically. The Coalition was working with some partner forces down in southern Syria – the MaT and the Shuq. I can give you the full names later; they are long and pretty unpronounceable. We were working with them down in southern Syria. Up in the area east of the Euphrates, the ground that people tend to focus on and the ground that led you to Raqqa, Mayadin, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere, clearly the Syrian Democratic Forces were the prime force.
So who were we dealing with in Syria? We were dealing on a military level with an individual called General Mazloum. He is the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces. He is a Kurd by background. You will, I am sure, know that the Syrian Democratic Forces are made up of two components: the Kurdish-dominated element of the force, called the YPG, and he is YPG by background, and the Syrian-Arab Coalition. What General Mazloum was able to do was act as kingmaker between those groups.
As we went deeper in towards Raqqa, into what is traditionally an increasingly Arab area, clearly the fighters had to be more and more Arab. If you are going to liberate an Arab village, it needs to be coming from Arab fighters. By the time we went into Raqqa with the Syrian Democratic Forces, about 80% of the fighters were Syrian-Arab Coalition as opposed to the Kurdish force.
So, we were dealing very closely with General Mazloum and his subordinates as the fighting force. We were also dealing extensively with the local councils in the absence of a sovereign Government, in particular the Raqqa Civil Council, which was formed up in readiness for the liberation of the province, to provide initial governance.
Q13 Dr Lewis: So, at its height, when we were operating in Syria with airstrikes, up to March of this year, we had 333 airstrikes in Syria. Would you say that the overwhelming majority of those were in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces?
Major-General Jones: That is a good British question. I defer to my British colleague.
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: Absolutely. I will talk to October ’17, if I may, chairman, because that was my cut-off point. Yes, absolutely. Our airstrikes in Syria were in support of the SDF on the ground.
[ … ]
Q45 Dr Lewis: I would like to spend most of the remaining time talking about the concept of partner operations. There is one more question from Ruth. In the case of these two countries, we have two very different situations. It is clear that you have a great deal of admiration for the Government in Iraq. It is fairly clear from what has been said that, in terms of the overall military effort, we have been mounting a much more weighty campaign in Iraq than in Syria. Would you agree with those two propositions?
Major-General Jones: Yes, I think I would. I do have great respect for the achievements of the Government of Iraq and their sovereign forces. We should all have done extraordinary things over recent years. Was it more of an industrial – that may or may not have been the word used – approach in Iraq than in Syria? Undoubtedly. Until relatively recently – I am talking, I guess, about the early part of 2017 – the Coalition footprint in Syria was very light. It was a bijou little operation with special operation forces enabling Coalition strikes, as they cleared places like Manbij. Once the preparations for the operation for Raqqa started, it was a six-month approach march to Raqqa, clearing the ground. As that started to build up, it was clear to us – the Coalition – that you needed to bring in industrial might. The Syrian Democratic Forces are not a heavy force, and they were clearly going to need quite a lot of Coalition might to get them through these Daesh positions.
Q46 Dr Lewis: Is it true to say that, effective though airstrikes can be – for example, in degrading the finances and resources of an adversary like Daesh – in the end, if they are going to help you win a campaign, they have to be in support of forces of the ground who are going to reap the benefits of those airstrikes?
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: We of course were doing all of those things, and they are all part of the story. Just to give some insight, after Mosul was liberated, we all thought Tal Afar in northern Iraq was probably going to involve six to eight weeks of hard fighting. It had all the potential to be so. It went in about 10 days. One of the reasons why it went was that the morale of Daesh fighters had just been stripped away over the preceding months. Whether it was the fact that the Coalition was after them, could find them and could ultimately take them out if required; whether it was the fact that they weren’t getting paid; whether it was the fact that they weren’t getting food through; or whether it was the fact that they felt, “Oh well, the game’s up, isn’t it? We’ve been rumbled, and we’re being defeated,” all those things are important.
Without sounding like an air power zealot, you have to do a number of things to contribute to the campaign but – to your point – in Raqqa you then need your guys on the ground, who you are supporting, to step in and use the opportunity you are providing to take and hold ground.
Q47 Dr Lewis: We have a problem, don’t we, when we are trying to do partnership operations in Syria, compared with Iraq? In Iraq, we know who we want to win. We know who we want to lose in both countries – it is Daesh – but in Iraq, we know we want the Iraqi Government to be successful, and we have a close relationship with them. In Syria, our position was that we did not want the Syrian Government to be successful, so we were very limited in our choice of partners, weren’t we? I think you said that the vast majority of airstrikes in Syria were in support of the SDF, and a much smaller number were in support of a much smaller group in the south of the country.
Major-General Jones: To suggest we were limited with our partners does our partners a disservice. We went through a pretty discerning process to identify who the Coalition did and did not want to back. As you well know, there are a great many malign actors operating in Syria, and the global Coalition would not wish to work alongside them. Certainly, by the late stages – mid-2016 – we had alighted on partners we were confident had the intent, the capability and the background to do the job at hand.
Q48 Dr Lewis: Sorry, but because we are under time pressure, I have to intervene a bit and move it on. What I am trying to get at is this: the Syrian Democratic Forces – you have referenced them on many occasions during the past couple of hours – and a small group in the south were pretty much it, as far as Syria was concerned.
Major-General Jones: There were other moderate Syrian opposition groups further west of Raqqa, which the Coalition was working with at various times.
Q49 Dr Lewis: Did they conquer any territory?
Major-General Jones: Yes, absolutely. You may be familiar with the operation that Turkey conducted down towards al-Bab. Turkey did that with opposition forces.
Q50 Dr Lewis: I don’t ask you to stray beyond the military, but it is widely reported that the majority of opposition forces in Syria, other than the Kurds, are Islamist in orientation. Is that a factor you had to take into account in deciding with whom to co-operate militarily?
Major-General Jones: I don’t fully recognise that characterisation. You are absolutely right that one has to be very careful in picking your partners. There were certainly Islamist groups out there with which we would not wish to partner, and we didn’t. It wasn’t only the Kurds. As you went into Arab territory, it was, to a significant degree, Arab fighters doing the liberating. They were not Islamists.
Q51 Dr Lewis: Yes, those were Arab fighters who were part of the Syrian Democratic Forces umbrella, which was led by the Kurds. What observations do you have about the situation now? Those very forces who appear to have been our principal allies on the ground in Syria now appear to be locked in conflict with Turkey.
Major-General Jones: I think the message we would all wish to send as a Coalition, both to our partner – the SDF – and to Turkey, is: let’s try to retain unity, and let’s keep our focus on the defeat of Daesh. I think it is the position of the British Government – it is for others to comment – that Turkey has some legitimate interest in their border areas. As it relates to the fight against Daesh, we would wish everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. The prize is the defeat of Daesh. I should just confirm that the Syrian Democratic Forces are firmly back on the offensive in the middle Euphrates river valley, as of the beginning of this month.
Q52 Dr Lewis: As of this moment, the Turks and the Syrian Democratic Forces are absolutely in a full-scale confrontation, aren’t they?
Major-General Jones: I am not going to get drawn into a conversation about what is happening in Afrin; it is not part of the fight for which I was responsible. It plays to the complexity point that Johnny talked about; we know that the Turks have very considerable difficulty with the YPG as a group and its alleged connections to the PKK. Clearly, the PKK is a terrorist group who poses significant threat to Turkey. The YPG has declared its independence from the PKK. It says they have no connections anymore. We as a Coalition were satisfied with that. We recognise that Turkey, as a member of the Coalition, had a different perspective on that. We continued to discuss that closely with Turkey throughout, in a very collaborative manner.
Q53 Dr Lewis: I am going to come to Air Vice-Marshal Stringer in a moment, to talk about airstrikes per se. Looking strategically at Syria, as opposed to looking strategically at Iraq where it was quite clear to us that if we got rid of Daesh, you would have the Iraqi Government in control, was it ever in your mind that if Daesh were defeated in Syria, given the presence of Russia, Assad would not be a substantial beneficiary of the defeat of Daesh in Syria? Who did you think was going to win in Syria, overall?
Major-General Jones: You know that was not my job. My job was to worry who was going to win against Daesh. I was absolutely clear who was going to win, and when they almost have. The counter-Daesh fight in Syria has to sit within something broader. I will not comment on the broader complexity. All I would observe is that if there were an easy answer to this, politicians around the world would have found the solution by now. As a military guy, I have quite a degree of sympathy with the political classes as they look at this challenge. Our job was to liberate those areas of Syria held by Daesh and allow that to connect to a broader political process.
Q54 Dr Lewis: At its height, what percentage of Syria would you say was under the control of Daesh – at its maximum?
Major-General Jones: I am trying to visualise a map, so forgive me. I am thinking 30% of land mass – something of that order. I cannot remember the exact percentage.
Dr Lewis: Now, that has been reduced to a very small percentage.
Major-General Jones: A tiny fraction.
Q55 Dr Lewis: In the reduction from 30% to a tiny fraction, how would you allocate the credit to the different forces that were battling Daesh? Just roughly, what percentage of that 30% is to the credit of the Syrian Democratic Forces for having retaken it? What percentage is to the group in the south? What to other groups and what to Syrian Government?
Major-General Jones: I am not going to give you a statistic, but the overwhelming successes came from the Syrian Democratic Forces. It is true to say that regime forces backed by Russia and others as they broke out of the western spine, have cleared some of the territory in the desert west of the Euphrates. That is certainly true.
Q56 Dr Lewis: Air Vice-Marshal, do you have the list that we have distributed of the airstrikes? It is based on the statistics that have been given to us. As you can see, from the beginning of the period when we started airstrikes in Syria, which is December 2015, we had a grand total of 333 airstrikes in Syria. That hides the fact that there could have been quite a few aircraft on any one of those individual strike operations, I appreciate that. If you look at the graph, you can see that for the majority of the time between the beginning of those airstrikes and December 2015 right up to March 2018, the number of airstrikes in Syria per month was in single figures, and often in low single figures.
If you look at the months from June to October 2017 inclusive, which is the period covered by the battle of Raqqa, there were no fewer than 160 airstrikes in Syria, which is approximately half of the total. Isn’t it quite clear that the opportunities that we had to strike in Syria in support of forces on the ground were, for the most part, very limited until we got to the battle of Raqqa?
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: Yes, I would say that is fair. I would put a couple of other points in which I think are important. First, when you put your aircraft in, if you are going to be a good Coalition partner you put them in as, effectively, a campaign asset. You put your aircraft where they can make the optimum contribution to the campaign at that stage. At the times you are looking at, there was clearly a significant amount of work that needed to be done in the campaign in Iraq, where UK assets were well configured to do that. That is exactly what we did. You are absolutely right: as Mosul is drawing down – we have liberated the east and the west gets to a smaller and smaller area by the river – it allows a proportionately greater focus on operations in Syria. That is why you see the uptick there.
Q57 Dr Lewis: I know that General Jones has to go in five minutes exactly, so I will keep this very brief. I know Ruth wants to come in as well. Can I just check something with you? The other big spike, as you can see from the graph, is that no fewer than 45 of the airstrikes in Syria were in the months of January and February 2018. Can you explain what that particular burst of activity was about?
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: That is actually outside my time of being the air component commander. We can get back to you on it, but my suspicion – underline, suspicion – is that that is probably as the operational focus moves to the middle Euphrates river valley, but we can check that for you.
Q58 Dr Lewis: In sum, therefore, roughly two-thirds of the airstrikes in Syria were in support of pretty much set-piece battles, and during the rest of the period we were having to do very limited numbers on very specific operations.
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: Well –
Dr Lewis: It is not a criticism. I am just trying to get to the facts.
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: No, I am actually trying to give you the best possible answer. Raqqa would have been the main focus. There were strikes around Tabqa as well. There were isolated strikes outside of there, but given the nature of the particular fight, and the way – we didn’t mention this earlier – that Raqqa was the main effort in Syria, and the campaign axis for the SDF, it was entirely appropriate that we would have been supporting around there, and against where Daesh were in numbers. In that stage, it was around Raqqa.
Q59 Dr Lewis: Just one last point. These airstrikes appear to have been very carefully documented. Is it true, therefore, that for each of these airstrikes there would be a record saying exactly where it was and exactly who it was in support of?
Air Vice-Marshal Stringer: Thank you for that. For every single weapon dropped – every single weapon, not just strike – a targeting pack is compiled, obviously pre-strike. Post-strike, we put the weapons video from targeting pods, or whatever other sensors we have that were looking at it. Those records are then archived for many years, so we can go back if necessary in the light of future evidence, or to pull lessons from them, or to inform future force development.
Q60 Dr Lewis: The reason I ask this is because we have asked the Ministry of Defence over and over again to say in support of which groups on the ground in Syria particular airstrikes were mounted, and they always say that they do not keep the information. The reason I ask that question is that we know that there were substantial forces that we could support in terms of the Syrian Democratic Forces – Kurdish-led, but wider than the Kurdish group we have heard so much about today. I was just curious to know whether either of you had seen in the course of your campaigning any sign of the 70,000 moderate forces of opposition that we were led to believe were also operating in Syria.
Major-General Jones: I am not going to comment on 70,000 or otherwise. What I will tell you is this: were there suitable partner forces with whom we could operate in Syria to complete the defeat of Daesh? The answer to that is yes.
Q61 Dr Lewis: Judging by the analysis of the airstrikes, those forces were overwhelmingly the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Major-General Jones: Yes, the hard yards against Daesh in Syria were conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces.