Background Briefing En Route to Ankara, Turkey

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Ankara, Turkey
September 12, 2014


MODERATOR: We’re on our way to Ankara, Turkey. We’re going to do a backgrounder to preview our trip there but also to talk about the Secretary’s meetings yesterday in Jeddah. I’m just going to do a quick tick through of the schedule just so everybody knows what we’re doing when we get there. The Secretary will first meet with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. This – he met first with him in Wales. We’ll – he also saw him, of course, in Jeddah yesterday. We’ll see him again in Paris on Monday and then at UNGA a week after that. And Secretary Hagel was in Turkey earlier this week as well, so this is an uptick of discussion about our shared effort on addressing counterterrorism threats.

Then he is going to meet with Prime Minister Davutoglu. This is the first – as much as they’ve spent a great deal of time together over the course of the last year and a half, this is their first face-to-face meeting in his new position as prime minister. And then he’ll see President Erdogan. As you all know, he recently met with President Obama in Wales, and – but this is the Secretary’s, I believe, first meeting with him in his new position.

Beyond that, you should all have a fact sheet that we distributed and we can send to you electronically as well. This is an announcement the Secretary will make later today at the end of his visit. I would just note, as it says in the fact sheet, this is the largest funding announcement made by the United States in response to the largest appeal the United Nations has ever issued. So it’s nearly $500 million in additional humanitarian aid, goes through the United Nations. If you flip to the second page, it has a breakdown country by country, so it’s almost 48 million for Turkey, and it has about – let’s see – five other countries that also receive a significant amount of aid. This is different than the aid we announced the other day.

With that, why don’t we talk a little bit about yesterday? Or why don’t we – do we want to go straight to questions, or is there anything anyone wants to add proactively?

Why don’t we go straight to questions? Oh, go ahead, Anne.

MODERATOR: You can use that as soon as we land, and we’ll otherwise distribute it broadly after the Secretary announces it at the press avail, so (inaudible).

QUESTION: Have – in your consultations yesterday or in discussions with other partners or potential partners in the anti-ISIS coalition, have any nations indicated a willingness to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes, or is the United States alone in this at this juncture? And if any nations have, who are they? And what do you want to – what sort of cooperation are you looking for from Turkey? [Senior State Department Official Two], what sort of cooperation are you looking for in Turkey in terms of the coalition?

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Every country that was there committed to at least one action that we discussed the other night, and I think it’s premature to get into some of the issues about airstrikes. And on Turkey, there are several issues. One is the foreign fighters, which is an issue well known to you, that their border has been quite porous. There’s been improvement, but additional improvement needs to be made. And then I mentioned the other night the issue of oil smuggling from ISIL stocks. It must be going into Turkey and other neighboring countries as a revenue source for ISIL, and that is also on the agenda.

MODERATOR: Okay.

QUESTION: What’s the status of the training that was – that Saudi Arabia is going to be involved in for the Free Syrian Army? What’s the status on that program? Has Saudi Arabia committed to it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, I couldn’t hear.

QUESTION: What’s the status of Saudi Arabia and the treaty?

QUESTION: What did she say?

QUESTION: The status (inaudible).

MODERATOR: So I would point you to Lisa Monaco’s testimony yesterday where she said publicly that they have committed to it. We’re going to let them make their own announcement about the specifics and timing and everything along those lines. But I would say that one of the things that struck all of us in the meetings yesterday was how forward-leaning Saudi Arabia was, but also the other countries there about the – this threat and their willingness to take steps to address it.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: Yes, and I would point you – Lisa Monaco said it on the record yesterday, which may be more useful to you. So – other questions?

QUESTION: With regards to Turkey, the Secretary of State said that – and it’s been reported that its hesitancy or its limitations were related to the hostages taken. If the hostages were released, what would be the maximum you would be able to expect? I mean they’ve said they wouldn’t take part in combat role, they’ve said they won’t allow the airbase to be used for military operations. Would that change or to what degree are the hostages really affecting what they would commit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Can I just go off the record?

MODERATOR: So we can talk a little bit a little bit about this off the record. Let me just say something you can use on background if that’s useful.

Obviously, there are some sensitivities that Turkey has, and we are cognizant of that and respect that, but they are an important counterterrorism partner, and that’s why we have certainly had an uptick in our meetings and engagements with them. And I would also note again that they have participated not just in the meeting in Wales, but in the meeting yesterday. They’ll be there again in Paris. We’re going to leave it to them to determine what – how they can participate and what’s most appropriate. But engagement with them, given the stake they have, given their role in the region, is incredibly important, and that’s why the Secretary is going there today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And just to add one more thing, as we’ve discussed, we consider our approach to the stability and security of Syria and Iraq and to the campaign against ISIL to be holistic and include lines of effort well beyond military action. And to that end, the Turks have played an extraordinary role on humanitarian aspects of the situation, including, I think, hosting now more than a million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. And as was mentioned earlier, they’re going to play a pivotal role and have been playing a pivotal role in our efforts to crack down on foreign fighter facilitation and on counterterrorist finance for ISIL and other extremist groups. So their involvement in the stability and security of Syria and Iraq is significant.

QUESTION: I know that you’ve talked about how each country is committed, and obviously there’s a very large group, but I’m wondering about how much some of the regional rivalries with Qatar and the differences of opinion between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and some of the other Gulf nations are factoring into how you’re approaching this, how you’re assembling the coalition, and how you’re targeting the group, because I know that getting everybody onboard for one message that everybody can coalesce must be a huge challenge. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: No, it’s a good question. I would just observe all of us have done this for a long time. There were a lot of rivalries in that room yesterday and a whole host of issues, and I think what really struck all of us was the unanimity about ISIL. I mean every single delegation was unanimous in the name to unite and to get after this very serious threat across the multiple lines of effort that the Secretary laid out in very specific detail for that.

And we had the Iraqis there yesterday. Iraq has not been invited to a meeting like this in some time. The new Iraqi foreign minister, Foreign Minister Saud called on Foreign Minister Jafari to speak first after he gave his intervention and then Secretary Kerry gave his. And everybody around the room welcomed the Iraqis, said that this is a sign that the region is moving in the right direction. So I thought that was quite significant. But most importantly, the unanimity about the ISIL threat was something that really brought everybody together despite all of the many differences in the room. And it was a long meeting, very detailed, very substantive, and all those differences really didn’t bubble to the surface, because the focus was on this ISIL threat. So I think that was one thing that we took away from it that was really quite significant and something we’re now looking to build on.

QUESTION: On Turkey, can you give us some metrics for how many foreign fighters, how much money you think is coming across that border from Turkey, just to give us a sense of how big of a deal this is? And also, I’m wondering, at some point I’m sure the U.S. is going to have to trust, but verify, right? So how long are you all willing to accept in good faith that Turkey can’t be public about its support for the coalition without seeing some of these concrete steps that you all have talked about in terms of cracking down on the border, closing it? How long can that go on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Like [Moderator] says, I think Turkey is a valuable, very – that Turkey has already done a lot on this coalition, and I’m going to give you some figures that they use vis-a-vis the foreign fighter flow, which they had – excuse me – that they had turned back 6,000 people and deported 1,000, which I think gives you an idea of the scale of the – he didn’t give a timeframe that I recall, but my impression was that it was relatively recent because, again, our impression is that they have cracked down on this flow recently because, like everybody else, they realized it’s not – it’s a threat against them.

QUESTION: What is your source on this? I’m sorry. I didn’t catch that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It was said in the meeting, actually in both meetings, the one in Wales and the one in – that we just finished in Jeddah.

QUESTION: So these Turkish –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: These are Turkish numbers, Turkish officials. But –

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They’ve denied entry to 6,000, mostly men I’m sure; 1,000 have been deported. So this isn’t – that’s not nothing. That’s significant. And at what point – I thought we’d come back – to come back to discuss Turkey a little more off the record when we’re through.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you tell us any more about progress on counter-extremism messaging? You told us in the call the other night that that was going to be a priority. Do you have any specific commitments or anything you can tell us on that front?

And [Senior State Department Official Three], specifically for you, can you tell us anything about filling those two vacant cabinet posts in Baghdad? Any progress on that or any timeline?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Which posts are you talking about?

On the posts – Abadi said a week. It’s really there’s one issue within his own coalition he’s got to work out, so we’ll see. So I think a week would be, what, Tuesday night? But they’re working on it. I mean, they’re working on it, having constant meetings. The defense minister’s pretty much settled. There’s an issue on the interior minister, so – but I’ll let you know.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On countering violent extremism, I mentioned to you all the other night the king’s speech and the YouTube video of the king basically scolding the senior Ulema, which to me was unprecedented, about their inability to speak out. Look, the Secretary was very explicit in the meeting about the news media that some of these countries – ‘cause some of these countries control. And he was very explicit about – and they have all indicated a willingness to do this. But I don’t think we’d want to get into the specific news media.

MODERATOR: Yeah. One thing I would just add, for you, Michael, is that one of the reasons that Rick Stengel came, our Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, is to talk about – yes, I know, but for the purposes of the transcript – it was to talk about this issue and kind of hear what many of these countries were saying. And this is something that he has been and will continue to be engaged in moving forward. So it wasn’t the focus of the meeting, but it certainly is a continuous conversation.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: He’s going to do follow-up in a few days with these media leaders out here. He’s going to make a special trip. And we’re also going to --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Rick is, yeah. And we’re going to do an event in New York. Rick’s also hosting an event in New York about the destruction of Iraqi and Syria patrimony with experts. So then we’re trying to get that point out, too.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on that? Sorry. (Inaudible.) I’ll just ask a follow-up, and then I’ll give it to Anne; she can ask a question. But I mean, part of the problem is not just about the messaging and the media, but the education. I mean, a lot of these people are coming out of Saudi madrassas and mosques with this Wahhabism that is really seen as kind of the seeds of this. So is that part of – I mean, you’ve been after the Saudis for years about their education. I’m wondering if that’s something you’re willing to tackle. And I’ll give it to Anne in a --

QUESTION: And I was – I wanted to ask just for a little bit more specificity on the counter – on financing issue, on countering the financing coming from some of the countries that were in the room yesterday. What was their – were there some specific promises from Qatar, particularly Saudi, about what they will do to try to stop money going to ISIL? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. That issue certainly came up. And the Secretary was very explicit about some of the issues involved in – again, it’s mostly – it’s really about private citizens. And as I said, it’s a lot less than it used to be, but he was very explicit about some of the issues involved. Mostly legal issues, prosecution. And the countries responded, saying yes, they would try to do more, and trying to describe for the group what had already been done. But yes, there was an extended conversation about that.

QUESTION: How much money are we talking about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would just add in response to Elise’s question specifically that the Secretary is very focused not just on the more acute causes of all terrorist phenomenon, but specifically ISIL, but also the sort of underlying root causes of these phenomena, and certainly education, lack of economic opportunity are major drivers. And this is something that the Secretary did mention in the meeting yesterday. But fixing the education system inside countries is a much longer-term proposition, and the focus of the meeting yesterday very much was sort of the near-term challenge and the more acute challenge faced. But certainly very cognizant of the phenomenon you raised and it’s something that we are looking for ways to address.

QUESTION: Was there any commitment by any countries to get Al Jazeera and other media companies to broadcast anti-ISIL messages and so forth?

And a second question: Did any countries express any desire to broaden the campaign beyond Islamic State?

MODERATOR: What was the second question?

QUESTION: The second question is: Did any countries that were present at the meeting yesterday express a desire to broaden the military campaign beyond ISIL?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Regarding the expansion to be to other terrorist groups of the military campaign, the answer is no. No one expressed any answer – any inclination to do that.

What was his first question?

MODERATOR: It was about Al Jazeera and other --

QUESTION: Did we get any commitments – anti-ISIL content on these things?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That’s what Rick Stengel is coming out here to discuss, is with these major news medias – obviously, Al Jazeera. I don’t know whether Al Jazeera’s been running anything. Someone sent me Saudi cartoons a couple of days ago that had a really, very profound – very specific anti-ISIL message, so we have to check the Arabic press. They may have been doing things already.

MODERATOR: And obviously, the role that Rick will play is to express concerns where we have them. I mean, they’re going to make decisions about what they’re going to do, but I just wanted to note that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I would just add we’re – would we like to see anti-ISIL programming? Sure. But our main concern is misinformation that’s appearing on a lot of these networks in a lot of the media. I think there’s been articles in the Western press about sort of the misimpression in some quarters, that the United States had something to do with the creation of ISIL. I mean, obviously, this couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s the type of nonsense that appears from time to time in these media. And we have a very strong interest in, first of all the truth being told, but second of all avoiding misimpressions like that that can be damaging. So --

QUESTION: I had a follow-up to that. Yeah, a pretty specific follow-up to that, and this goes to [Senior State Department Official Three]. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the anti-ISIL propaganda in Iraqiya. I saw one of their little music videos the other night in Jordan, and it featured a drunk cowboy who is supposed to represent America, dancing – literally dancing with the devil and the joker and Baghdadi. And I just found it very weird that at the same time that Baghdad is asking the United States to help that they are portraying the United States as allied with Baghdadi or helping out ISIL in some way. Can you respond to that?

I mean, this is – can I actually – sorry, but I want to add this for the transcript.

As you know, Iraqiya, being the state-run media, so it’s the government channel run by the same leaders who are asking the U.S. for help.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: I actually haven’t seen that. Prime Minister Abadi issued a very strong statement welcoming everything we’re doing in President Obama’s speech. We could not have had a more – closer meeting of the minds with Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Abadi.

QUESTION: Can I ask one very specific quick question? In a backgrounder that was done two days ago, a senior official said that regional defense ministers would be meeting soon to take up the question of overflight and basing rights for the military effort. Do you – can you say when these defense ministers are going to meet, and will they include – will Turkey be part of that defense minister meeting? In other words, will Turkey be part of the consultations about providing basing rights and overflight, whenever that occurs?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t know when it’s going to occur. And I don’t know about Turkey, but I would point out that Secretary Hagel was just there three days ago and had very detailed conversations

MODERATOR: Yeah, Michael, we followed up after the backgrounder. It’s not something that’s planned yet – obviously, preliminary stages. So clearly there’ll be consultations, but I think we’re not quite there at this point.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Turkey or elsewhere in the region?

MODERATOR: In general. Obviously, there’ll be consultations, clearly, between the defense ministers, but there’s not something that is currently on the calendar.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: With regards to the train and equip program for the Syrian non-Islamist rebels, or so-called moderate rebels, what – was that discussed in any detail in Jeddah? Not in terms of necessarily who’s doing the training, but who you’re going to recruit and how they will be recruited, given the fluidity of alliances and that sort of thing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The train and equip program did come up in various contexts yesterday. It’s also been the subject of ongoing discussions between U.S. officials and their counterparts in various countries in the region over a period of weeks and even months. I would say that we see this – in addition to being part of our efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition inside Syria, more broadly we see this as a facet, as a component of the overall holistic anti-ISIL campaign. So it was natural that it would be a part of what was discussed yesterday, but I would not say it was the focus of the conversation.

MODERATOR: Can I just – because we’re going to have to sit down at one point – I know Jason and a couple of other people have emailed me about the national guard stuff, so I just wanted to – do you guys want to ask a specific question about that and see what information [Senior State Department Official Three] could talk about? Obviously, we’re not going to get into that many specifics, but we’ll give you an opportunity. Here you go.

QUESTION: So I’ll ask one question on that, just – what is the – what will be the U.S. role in developing the national guard? And do you have a timeframe for building it up? And will this replace the Iraqi army in any way? I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: The concept comes from looking at the last 10 years, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and sitting down with the Iraqis on this. And so obviously, the Sons of Iraq was a successful program. But Sons of Iraq ultimately did not have the sustainability we wanted because it was never fully incorporated into a formal security structure. The concept here, which first came from the Iraqis and then we obviously – it’s something we will support 100 percent – is the same model as the Sons of Iraq. So local people are being empowered to secure their local communities, particularly to the fight – with the fight against extremists, but incorporate into the formal security structures of the state, so training, funding, everything else.

In terms of the specifics, the Secretary discussed it with Prime Minister Abadi. The concept was in the President’s – President Obama’s speech the other night. General Austin is going to be in Baghdad shortly to have a discussion about this. We are willing to provide support in terms of training or whatever else they might want. They are doing an assessment now of how many people they might want per province in the national guard units. We’ve run the numbers in terms of standard-type counterinsurgency doctrine of what you would need to have reliable security personnel to be able to secure the population. These are things we’ve done before.

So we’re going to work very closely with them, but it does not replace the national army. The concept is that in cities, for example – say, if Mosul – if ISIL is ever kicked out of Mosul – and this’ll take some time – what then replaces it to secure the population? There’s obviously local police, but you need something additional to that, and you want local people in Ninewa and in Mosul controlling their own population. The federal army then will have more federal – the national army more federal tasks – controlling the border, so they can really focus on the border, and outside of cities with making sure that ISIL – logistical convoys and highways and things are being able – are controlled.

So it’s a bit of a division of labor in a federalism concept, which is fully consistent with the Iraqis’ own constitutional structure. So that’s the concept and now it’s getting more into the – actually how do you implement it. We’ve identified the basis on which the folks might be trained. But look, this is not going to – it’s going to be a long-term process. You have to recruit, you have to resource, you have to train.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on that, a very quick follow-up. Will they replace the federal police force that I think is mostly operating in Baghdad and bigger cities? And are – is it fair to assume that this national guard is mostly for the Sunni provinces?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, the concept is all provinces and it’s a national guard in which they are charged with securing their local communities. But yes, primarily – I mean, the main issue of the security vacuum is that ISIL is controlling substantial chunks of Anbar, Ninewa, Saladin province. And we want to mobilize, and Prime Minister Abadi, in his address when he – the night when he was – became the prime minister, said we want to have a national mobilization of people to fight extremists, particularly ISIS. So yes, it’s primarily an idea to ensure that Sunnis and the Sunni communities can control their own areas. They have more autonomy, which is a core kind of – one of their demands in the political process. And it’s something that the new prime minister fully supports, so --

QUESTION: Federal police in Baghdad? I mean, there’s not going to be a national guard police in Baghdad (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well, Baghdad’s a province, so it can – and with this concept, it can have a national guard force.

QUESTION: It’s such a big city.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: But this is very – right now, that sort of thing is conceptual. I mean, it’s really focused right now on Anbar, Ninewa, Saladin. I mean, those are critical.

QUESTION: If I could do one more (inaudible). Also on the national guard question, in the past, there’s been some U.S. nervousness about the idea of empowering tribal militias. I mean, at this point, does it just seem like the better option rather than trying to continue to rely on the national army, which obviously wasn’t up to the task here? I mean, how did you get from being worried about empowering tribal militias to doing it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Well – no, it’s a good question, Anne, but it’s not a tribal militia. That’s the idea. So it’s recruited, they’re trained, they’re vetted, they’re – so when that one – when it then takes the field, it’s an equipped, well-trained force. We have a lot of tribes working right now in Haditha, for example – the operations in Haditha and our airstrikes in Haditha. The tribes out there – the Jerafi (ph) tribes and some others – are working with the army and also working under the cover of our airstrikes to take back some territory. So we work very closely with tribes.

What’s happened in some of these areas is that as ISIL’s come in, they rule by such brute force intimidation. Some of the tribes that have fought them are now not fighting them – not so much working with ISIL, but just not able to stand against them.

So what the national guard does is it basically gives a promise to people in these provinces that if you stand up and want to be part of securing your own population, your own families, your own communities, you will be taken care of in terms of salaries and pensions and be able to have a sustainable life and future for your families. So it’s both being able to secure the local areas, having a force that is vetted, trained, and able to actually secure the population, and also giving a promise to these communities that you’ll be a fully part of the state under this – under a federalized federalist structure, which is in the Iraqi constitution.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, everyone.