Senior State Department Official on Diplomatic Efforts To Build a Coalition To Confront ISIL and Iraq in Syria

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York City
September 23, 2014

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thank you for being flexible this evening with timing. I think all of you know this will be on background. It’s Senior State Department Official. And probably all of you also know our speaker, [Senior State Department Official]. But this will be on background, so that’s just for your knowledge, not to use any names or titles. [Senior State Department Official] will give some brief opening remarks and then we’ll be happy to take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks. I think I’d just give some background to where we are right now in this process. It’s really been a continuum and will continue to be a continuum. But if you go back and look over the last six weeks of the pretty aggressive diplomacy that we have conducted in the region, led by us but also led by our regional partners; and if you really go back to first starting with the NATO summit and you look at what we put out when we met with a core coalition of countries in Wales; and then secondly, not as broadly noted, but the Arab League met in Cairo and had a proclamation – that was on September 7th – in which the Arab League announced its unanimity against ISIL and also announced a very aggressive strategy and campaign across multiple lines of effort which happened in parallel most directly with ours and how we are defining the strategy it’ll take to defeat this organization.

And that is military support for our partners on the ground, and there’s a military component to this but it’s not the only component. It is drying up the financial base of ISIL. It is cutting down and eliminating the foreign fighter flow into Syria and into Iraq, which is a key focus of the Security Council meeting tomorrow. It is the humanitarian effort, given the humanitarian tragedy that this situation in Iraq and Syria is contributing to. And also the de-legitimization – and this is key – of the very ideology on which these extremists groups breed. Those are the five broad lines of effort which were set out in NATO, which are echoed again in the Arab League proclamation.

We then, shortly after that, had a new Iraqi Government formed, which was a historic pivot in Iraq if you think about Iraq’s history to have an actual transition of power, a peaceful transition of power – the first time ever without any U.S. troops on the ground. This is a very significant event, and that happened shortly after the Arab League summit in Cairo.

We then, right after that, had the Jeddah conference with the GCC plus Iraq, plus Lebanon, plus Jordan and Turkey. And at the Jeddah conference we issued the Jeddah communique in which all partner nations agreed to contribute. If you look at the last paragraph of that communique, contribute along multiple lines of effort and it listed them all, the five that I just outlined.

From Jeddah we then went to Paris, in which we had the Paris conference hosted by President Hollande, and that was focused on support for Iraq in its fight against ISIS. And the statement that issued in Paris, 26 nations signed up to a very comprehensive and broad-scale campaign to defeat ISIS. That then led into the Security Council meeting on Friday hosted by Secretary Kerry with almost 40 nations offering their very clear support for Iraq and a comprehensive global campaign, again, to defeat ISIS along these multiples lines of effort.

And this is all anchored by Chapter 7 Security Council Resolution 2170 that was passed right before the NATO summit, which basically discussed the need for all member-states around the entire world to cut down on foreign fighter flows, to restrict the financing of extremist groups like ISIL and associated movements, and also to stop the incitement and legitimization that these groups tend to get.

And this will flow in, of course, to the historic Security Council meeting we’re having tomorrow. And I’m using the word “historic” because I really think if you look at what’s happened over the last six weeks, it truly is historic, which gets to what happened last night and today. I know when we were on the road with a lot of you last week, there was some skepticism of what the coalition was about. We tried to emphasize that this was not only a military coalition; the military piece is only one part of it, but there is a military component. The support I know was described in some articles as tepid. Obviously, we couldn’t talk about everything that was going on behind the scenes, but behind the scenes we are very actively building a military coalition in order to target ISIL and some of the associated groups in a very effective and fairly comprehensive way with the target packages, and now everybody can see what happened last night.

So that then led into today. And today we had – the meeting I can talk about was President Obama and Secretary Kerry with the new prime minister of Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi, and with the countries from the region who were involved in the operation last night, so UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar – all around the table discussing the common threat of ISIL. And I think I would just say the President was very clear in terms of actually laying out where we are, talking about the fact that this is a threat that unifies everybody. And everybody’s head around the table was nodding at the fact that this is a threat that unifies everybody. Everybody around the table agreed that there are times in the world where you need to make a stand, and this is a time in which the world needs to come together and make a stand, but particularly the region needs to come together and make a stand, because this is a threat that is most prominently affecting our partners in the region.

So strong unanimity around the table, the fact that it is time to make a stand, the fact that this is going to be a long-term campaign, the fact that everybody around the table is in it for the long haul. And that was really what this meeting was about. And what made it quite interesting was the fact that Iraq was not only a key component of this meeting, but also a lead participant in talking about the wishes and desires of Iraq to open a new page in the region for all of the regional partners who were also around the table to fully restore relations, to open embassies, to work with bilateral and multilateral forums to help strengthen this new Iraqi Government as it takes on the very, very, very difficult fight that it confronts against ISIS.

So I think, again, if you look at the continuum of what’s happened over the last six weeks and the pretty extraordinary level of diplomacy not only in the region but also around the world, if you look at all the countries that have been brought together at the Security Council last Friday and Paris and of course at NATO, at Jeddah, and Cairo, and then of course, all the bilateral meetings we’ve had, that Secretary Kerry has had in Ankara and Cairo and Baghdad over the last few weeks, you can now see some of the – what we were building towards.

But again, this is only a start. Nobody is looking at this as something that is going to be short-term. We would like to defeat ISIL as fast as we can, but that’s not going to be possible. It’s going to be long-term and there’s going to be a military component; there is going to be a financial component; there is going to be a foreign fighter component, which is key because the foreign fighters are the oxygen that gives these movements their very lifeblood, and that’ll be a focus of the Security Council session tomorrow; there is a humanitarian component; and there is a de-legitimization component. All of these things have to work harmoniously and in an integrated fashion, and that is one reason also that General Allen has been brought on board to help integrate this entire effort and to match coalition contributions to the needs and to make sure the whole thing is synchronized, because this is a very, very difficult endeavor.

So with that, I can take a couple questions, then I’m going to have to run.

MODERATOR: Michael Gordon, go ahead.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], is – on the military line of effort. Airstrikes can only do so much, and the Administration acknowledges this. There’s an important initiative underway in Iraq to create these national guard brigades which are supposed to defend Sunni areas and be, institutionalize the Awakening, and the 26-odd brigades from the Iraqi Army that are deemed to be loyal to the Iraqi Government or need to be retrained and put to the field – what is the schedule? What is the rough timeline for establishing these national guard units for re – overhauling the Iraqi army so that it can begin a counteroffensive in earnest against ISIS? Will any of this happen before the end of the year? And if that’s not known, how concrete are these plans for overhauling the Iraqi ground forces?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, in terms of the overhaul, what the model is, is that the national guards would be focused on security in cities and local areas, and particularly Anbar, Nineveh, Saladin provinces, but the other provinces as well. You would have one or two brigades for each province, answerable to the governor in most cases. We have already identified, and the Iraqis have identified, the basing of where the folks would be trained – on Iraqi army bases – and we are in a fairly active discussion with them now about how to make sure that this can be done as fast as possible and as effectively as possible.

The Iraqi army still has the critical role to play in carrying out federal functions. So security, particularly outside of populated areas, controlling federal borders, and those are – that’s the model. It’s a model that the entire Iraqi political class pretty much has now bought into. It is a key component of their national program.

In terms of the timelines, Michael, I could go into some more detail in a separate briefing, but again, this is also going to take time. You have to recruit, you have to train, and you have to then deploy. So it is not something that is going to happen overnight. But the promise that the Iraqi Government has given – this is why it’s important – is that this is not just a Sahwa movement in which local people are asked to fight al-Qaida, kick them out of your neighborhoods, and you’ll get a monthly stipend. This is making a promise to the citizens in these areas that, as you control your areas, as you stand up and fight ISIL and get them out of your areas, you will be a fully integrated member of a national security structure, meaning you’ll have a pension and a livelihood to support your family over the long term, and it gives that guarantee.

QUESTION: Can you just tell us when the first – these national guard units are to be established?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to give a timeframe, but it’s not going to be soon. But – so for example, I’ll give – in Haditha right now, you have the (inaudible) and some of the other key tribes who are mobilized against ISIL and are doing a very effective job. So even as you have tribal forces working with Iraqi Security Forces now, and a lot of this remains embryonic because the situation got so bad given the strength and brutality of ISIL, you’re going to build upon that. So it’s not really starting from zero, but what it is saying is that for local people who are fighting ISIL, there is a promise from the national government that you will be resource and you will have a long-term future to be able to sustain your family and have a better life.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

MODERATOR: Sure, and then I’m going to go to Kim in the back. Go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: But in the short term, to what extent is there a concern that while – until that happens, that Shia militias and Iranian-backed militias are going to be filling the void in the meantime, and then you kind of create the Sunni-versus-Shia, you’re back to the same problem that you had before?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, in a place like Anbar province or Nineveh province, I mean, it’s what – the idea of the national guard is that local communities, local people secure their areas. That’s kind of the key idea. So look, as ISIL has increased, as suicide bombers every month have increased, you have seen an increase in Shia militia activity, sometimes out of self-defense, frankly, and just going to self-help; sometimes out of things that other regional partners are doing, which is not helpful.

So all of this has to be handled in a systematic way. But one thing that Prime Minister Abadi has said, he is not going to take army units from the south to go liberate Mosul and Nineveh. The people of Mosul and Nineveh have to liberate Mosul and Nineveh. It’s a very different conception of actually how to go about doing this. So that’s very important.

And in terms of the overall polarization and different countries supporting different proxy groups, whether it’s in Iraq or elsewhere, that was actually a theme of the discussion around the table today, that that stuff has to stop. And it was actually a fairly honest conversation, because so long as there’s such radical polarization and proxy contests going on in the region, ordinary lives get caught up in it, and (inaudible) to rip it open.

QUESTION: Yeah, but Iran was not at that meeting and they’re one of the main ones that are guilty of backing some of these Shia elements. I mean, obviously the Sunnis are on board with your coalition and they’re going against ISIS and I guess a kind of bargain of that is that they’re going to stop doing that, but I mean, if you’re not – if you don’t have Iran at the table kind of committing to do that, then --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the Secretary’s mentioned we’ve been very open to conversations with Iran. We’re having a number of conversations with Iran here in this building as we speak about the nuclear issue. And it’s true that Iraq is a hostage to its geography, as I think Iraqis are the first to acknowledge, and they have to balance relationships with many of these different actors. So just because the Iraqis were in the meeting today with the Gulf states, the Iraqis are also going to have to have relations with their neighbors and I think that’s something that everybody is realistic about. That’s just the reality of the situation we face. You just have to look at a map to see how complicated it is.

MODERATOR: Going to Kim Ghattas next, from the BBC.

QUESTION: Hi. You talk about the fact that it’s going to take a while to deal with ISIL and there are several components – military, financial, de-legitimization, the issue of the foreign fighters. But some of your allies in the region argue that the best way to fight ISIS is to bring the war to an end in Syria and deal with the issue of the Syrian regime, and that’s where there’s a difference in your stated goals – the goal that you state, which is tackling ISIS – and the goal that is unspoken, perhaps, on the part of the Saudis and some of their allies about dealing with Assad. Are you able to really tell us a little bit how you see this in the long term in terms of how do you align those two goals? Can you talk about the strategy about actually bringing an end to the war in Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, it’s a great question and it’s an incredibly complex situation. I think the fact that everybody realizes now is that until you degrade ISIL, and until you degrade it to the point that it is not controlling what is effectively a quasi-state the size of Jordan, until you degrade it to the extent that it cannot control entire cities and subjugate entire populations, then the chances of political outcomes and de-escalating conflicts are increasingly minimal. So degrading ISIL is a necessary condition to getting to the political solution everybody wants to see in Syria, and I think everybody now recognizes that, and having an alternative such as the moderate opposition and the training that will go on there – an alternative for people to actually have some semblance of stability in their lives, particularly eastern Syria – is a critical component to getting to a political solution in Syria.

But it’s until you degrade ISIL, it’s very hard to see how any political solution to the conflict is possible, and that’s why I think there was unanimity in the table today that degrading ISIL is critical to getting any sort of progress we want to see in Syria or in Iraq.

QUESTION: Sorry, can I just follow up this?

MODERATOR: Yeah, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Because degrading ISIL also has the potential of making it possible for the Syrian Government to take over that territory (inaudible), or whatever you want to call them, the moderate rebels, aren’t in a position to gain ground. So what – how are you strategizing to make sure that that doesn’t happen?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, again, I think degrading ISIL and having a – and training a moderate opposition force in parallel to be able to take some territory and fill the vacuum and space that will – that has been filled by ISIL throughout eastern Syria now is just – is necessary. But you can’t kind of draw this out in terms of a linear path of exactly how it’s going to go, but unless you degrade ISIL, none of that stuff is even possible.

MODERATOR: Let’s just do a few more. Elliot, did you have one?

QUESTION: Yeah. You mentioned Sunni tribes that are fighting with the ISF, but there are still a lot of Sunni tribes that are suspicious of the government and have chosen to not yet align with the Iraqi Government. What kind of outreach is being done to bring them into the fold, so to speak, and to the extent that that was discussed today?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, it was discussed specifically in terms of the region helping with their contacts in terms of standing up and fighting ISIL. And there’s a bit of a misnomer that Sunni tribes are somehow supporting ISIL because they have other grievances. In fact, everything we’ve ever seen is that ISIL, in terms of support among the Sunni community, is at, like, 2, 3 percent at most – everything we’ve ever seen. So ISIL is able to control territory based upon brute force. And if you look at the tribes that have stood up to fight ISIL in eastern Syria and in western Iraq, frankly, they’ve been decimated. They’ve been decimated by ISIL. So again, this gets to the point Kim had – that is why degrading ISIL is a necessary condition to empowering Sunni tribes and empowering local movements to control their own territory.

We are in a very active conversation with most of the tribal leaders in Iraq. It is an incredibly diffuse structure, so sometimes there’s Sheikh So-and-So who says “I control 100,000 people.” And I see that in the media a lot; that’s usually not quite true. It’s a very diffuse structure. But we’re in an active conversation with almost all of them and all of the key players. And one of the ideas behind the national guard is taking what worked before, which was the Sahwa and the Awakening, but making it into a formalized structure in which young people who happen to be part of these tribal structures in these areas know that by defending and controlling their own territory and protecting their own people, their own population, their own families, they can have a livelihood and a future.

And that’s a basic bargain between the local communities and the central government. That’s a bargain the new government has made. To get to Michael’s question, it is something that is very difficult to actually put into – to execute, but there is a plan for how to do that. And there’s actually a way forward for how to do it. But unless you degrade ISIL, it’s not possible.

We have not seen in eastern Syria or western Iraq a local tribal force stand up to ISIL in a sustained way and actually beat them. ISIL has been able to, particularly before the airstrikes started, they’ve been able to project such a level of force and brutality that they can just subjugate local populations. And so we have seen that build for some time. The airstrikes have been pretty effective in starting to at least draw a line at that and begin to gradually roll it back, and that’s part of the strategy going forward.

MODERATOR: We have time --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would just say one quick thing to Kim’s point, which is good, about the political – one thing that this ISIL conversation has done over the last six weeks is because it is such a unifying issue, it unifies so many disparate interests. And if you scratch below the surface, there is all sorts of – many differences among the groups around the table. But ISIL is such a threat to everybody, including Iran, that it does open up the possibility, as you move forward degrading ISIL with a broad coalition, it opens up the possibility for a broader political discussion for how to de-escalate conflicts in the region.

And that was a theme that was around the table today about the need to get out of the kind of polarized, zero-sum narrative that has been in the region for some time, and think about how to begin to de-escalate some of these conflicts. But again, degrading ISIL is a necessary condition to getting to that point, and that’s what we have just kind of begun to do.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for one more. Lesley, go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Sneaking them in.

QUESTION: So one big question is whether the UK will get involved at all in this with a – and also whether the Arab participation last night will tip the balance a bit over there.

The other one is what kinds of – did any of the Arab countries extract a price for their cooperation? And how long are they in – going to stick in this? I mean, is this a one – would some hang in there until a certain stage? How long can we see them cooperating?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: A lot of questions there. The UK has been a very staunch partner. The UK was involved with humanitarian missions, militarily, involved in humanitarian missions at Sinjar, to Amirli, so they’re a very active contributor. There have been issues in the UK – domestic issues, which have also been – I think there’s been some focus on that, but I can’t really speak to that. All I can say is that the UK in all of our meetings – and we’re seeing our UK colleagues all the time – they’re as steadfast as anyone on this.

No, no price was paid whatsoever. The fact is – and this was all the bilateral diplomacy we did in all the capitals over the last six weeks. It was about this is a threat we have to get after. And the theme around the table today – a lot of to the President of the United States – thank you, we’re with you, and we’re with you for the long haul. I mean, clear recognition. That’s one thing I was struck by was that this is going to be a long-term effort. And so we are with you and we are with you for the long haul was a real theme of the meeting today. So --

QUESTION: And how long can you see them sticking this through? And what is the long haul, and what kind of is the outcome of that? I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well again, there’s different components to this. There’s the – we’re not going to be doing massive military strikes every night like we did last night. Just as important is shutting down the foreign fighter flows. It is just as important to make sure someone is not indoctrinated in a mosque, whether it’s in Hamburg or in Australia or somewhere else, and actually comes into Syria to be a foreign fighter or a suicide bomber, as it is to take that foreign fighter, suicide bomber off the battlefield once they’re there.

So it’s a long-term effort to squeeze ISIL as an organization, but also to get at the de-legitimization that is indoctrinating these young teenagers to go basically become cannon fodder in a foreign war. So it’s a long-term ideological struggle. It’s a long-term – there is a military component, obviously – but shutting down the foreign fighters, getting to the finances, all of it.

And what we’ll be doing and what General Allen will be doing coming out of the UNGA – if you go back in my opening where I talked about all of these diplomatic building blocks, and if you look at that diplomatic foundation that has now been built and that’s now been set with this broad unanimity, with these foundational documents which have now been established, and tomorrow at the Security Council will be another, we’re now at the stage of moving out very aggressively in functional areas – foreign fighters, financing, military support, humanitarian, de-legitimization, social media, and talking about in functional areas what can different countries do and how are we going to make sure we have a global effort against this. And this is also already underway, but that’ll happen fairly swiftly coming out of the UNGA meeting. I think General Allen and I will probably be traveling to the region and having follow-up conversations, and then we’ll be seeing kind of more functional meetings with experts in terms of actually implementing the agreements and the commitments that have been made.

So a lot of this is already going on, but the activity – look, we’re going to be totally relentless in this thing. This is the charge we have from the President of the United States. It’s a charge we have now from our allies and partners. And we’re going to be relentless until we’re able to degrade ISIL – degrade is the precondition – and then ultimately defeat it. Defeat it meaning that it cannot hold territory, subjugate entire populations, and become a breeding ground for even more multinational terrorist movements, such as Khorasan and other groups.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you for coming. Again, this was all on background as a Senior State Department Official. We’ll see you for the next one. Have a great night, guys.