Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Upcoming Travel to London and Davos
MODERATOR: Hey, guys. Thanks for hopping on the call. This will be attributable, as always, to senior State Department officials. For most of it, it’s not embargoed until – or there’s no embargo. So feel free to write on any of it now unless there’s specific pieces that we mention will be embargoed, but otherwise assume that all of it is fair game now. On the phone we have [Senior State Department Official One], who, as you all know, is [title withheld]. [Senior State Department Official One] I think, is already in London, so [Senior State Department Official One] is going to talk a little bit about that piece, and then I’ll talk a little bit about Davos, and then we’ll go to questions.
So, [Senior State Department Official One], do you want to kick us off?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, sure. I’ll be very brief. Tomorrow, Foreign Secretary Hammond and Secretary Kerry will cohost a meeting of the Counter-ISIL Coalition. We will have about 20 members here. And what this really is, is a follow-on to the Brussels ministerial in which all 62 members were present. And at that ministerial, you may recall the entire coalition agreed to a joint communique, a joint framework for how we would organize ourselves going forward along the five lines of effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.
So what the session is tomorrow is a political consultation at the highest levels. It’ll be – the meeting will be introduced by the foreign secretary, by Secretary Kerry, by Foreign Minister Fabius, and also by Prime Minister al-Abadi. And there will be a consultation about where we are along the five lines of effort in the overall global campaign to degrade and defeat ISIL. So it’s basically a check-in, a common political consultation, and also setting the framework for what we want to do over the next year. We’re really going to begin to organize ourselves among expert level groups, particularly among the difficult areas of foreign fighters, of counter-financing, and also of resourcing the overall military campaign.
It’s also a good time to have this consultation because in terms of the overall campaign, particularly, and I’ll speak to Iraq, phase one of the campaign, as you know, is to arrest the momentum of ISIL, and we think we’ve succeeded in that. And we’re still in phase one, but our airstrikes have taken off the battlefield thousands of their fighters, 200 oil wells; we’ve hit – we’ve taken offline their ability to command and control, their ability to mass and maneuver. And they’ve gone from a force that was very much capable militarily to conduct fairly large-scale offensive operations to a force that is now digging in for defensive operations. And we knew that that’s where we would get towards the end of phase one. And then building into phase two, the focus is building the capacity of the Iraqis and regenerating their force structure, particularly with building these 12 new Iraqi brigades at our building partner capacity sites for them in Iraq, to help the Iraqis begin to reclaim their territory.
That’s going to be a very long-term process. That’s going to be much more difficult than phase one, but we’re moving into that now, and it’s a common coalition effort. A lot of the members who will be here tomorrow are part of the military line of effort in the campaign. So we’ll have a pretty detailed discussion of that, but most importantly, we’ll also focus on the non-military lines, particularly countering foreign fighters, and after what happened in Paris two weeks ago and also Brussels just last week, this will obviously be a real focus of the meeting tomorrow. And the foreign ministers from Belgium and France, of course, will be here.
So it’s a check-in political consultation of the coalition. This is what coalitions do. And it’s putting the meat on the bones of the joint statement that was issued after the Brussels plenary, which many of you were there for about a month ago. So I’ll stop there.
MODERATOR: Great, thanks. And just very quickly on Davos, and then – because [Senior State Department Official One] I think has some limited time – we’ll go ahead and get the questions. Obviously, we go from London on to Davos, where the Secretary will have a number of bilateral meetings, which we’re still determining the schedule for those; also, obviously, there for the World Economic Forum. We’ll be speaking on Friday. His speech, which is, obviously, still being worked on, is focusing a lot on the anti-ISIL piece, but also in general how to combat violent extremism, picking up on what [Senior State Department Official One] said, given events of the past several weeks. So as we have more about that to share, we’re happy to do so.
Then Saturday we stay in Davos and there will be a host of other bilats as well. Again, we’re still working on the schedule. A lot of other leaders are there, so we are trying to figure out where all of that will land at this point.
And with that, let’s go to questions.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, again, if you’d like to ask a question please press * then 1 at this time. And first we’ll go to Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Speaker number one, could you talk a little bit about what we might expect to hear in the field of how to combat the foreign fighters returning home? And particularly, if there is anything that is uniquely American that the U.S. might be prepared to do that might be different from what the Europeans are facing. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, this is a – obviously, I mean, this meeting is not only focused on foreign fighters but it’s about getting together at a very high level to really focus on the issue. We have since this campaign really got underway. Remember, there was no coalition about four months ago; we really started this back in – the President spoke to the American people on September 10th, coming out of the Jeddah conference, and then we put together this global coalition with a real focus on foreign fighters.
We’ve had in recent months about 17 countries who have strengthened domestic legislation to begin to take measures against those who may be traveling to the battlefields in Syria or in Iraq, and we think that’s very good progress. Tomorrow is going to be an opportunity to share best practices, and a number of countries take a different approach to the foreign fighter issue and a lot of it is based upon specific domestic situations. But interestingly, because we’ve traveled to I don’t even know how many capitals now – I think we’re up to 15 or so in recent months – and recently being in The Hague talking to the Dutch about some innovative approaches that they’re taking; also in Belgium, they also have a number of programs; and we were in Berlin just shortly after they began the first prosecution of a potential ISIL – of an ISIL fighter who returned to Germany.
So there’s a number of measures that members of the coalition are taking to address this problem. Many of them are unique to their own domestic circumstance, and part of the discussion tomorrow – there’s an agenda item focused specifically on this – will be about that, comparing best practices and talking about how we can better share information and coordinate.
And then out of this meeting tomorrow, we’re going to form expert-level working groups across the lines of effort, of which foreign fighters will be one, and that will combine experts not only at the diplomatic level but law enforcement, intelligence, across the key capitals to make sure that we are sharing information and really beginning to combat this problem.
This will also fall into, of course, the countering violent extremism summit which will be held next month, which is also a subset of this issue. But tomorrow – and the way the agenda is framed is on foreign fighters – is about comparing best practices, about countries saying what they’ve done, things that have worked, things that haven’t worked, and then forming a working group structure so we can get the right people together about monthly to make sure that we’re sharing as much information as possible to really begin to address this problem.
One thing we’re doing, of course, in Iraq is that our airstrikes are having a devastating effect on foreign fighters who are coming into the Syria and Iraq battlefield, and many of them – I won’t get into the numbers, but they are not going home.
MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: And to the line of Warren Strobel with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing the call. A couple of questions for speaker number one. I’m wondering if you view ISIL’s very public demand for 200 million in ransom for the two Japanese hostages is a sign that they may be more desperate for money than in the past. And second question: Can you talk at all about where the U.S. and Turkey are in terms of negotiations over expanded use of Incirlik for the campaign? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we – again, the financing line of effort is something we also addressed extremely hard, and I think we’ve made some real progress. We’ve really taken out their ability to have oil as a financial resource stream, and a number of other things we’re doing seems to be having an effect. We’re seeing increasing reports of their inability to pay their fighters and to be able to govern the territories that they purport to govern. You’ve probably seen those reports as well, and of course, we have a lot of pretty good reporting from on the ground that that’s all actually happening. That also goes to the effect we’re having on the foreign fighter flow and their overall manpower. We’re seeing increasing reports that they are training – and they’re actually boasting about some of this – of training children and using children in operations, of forced conscription; particularly in Anbar province they’re going into homes and forcing military-age males to join this organization. That’s something that was not really happening about six months ago, and that, again, is an indicator of the impact that the degradation phase is having on the overall organization.
In terms of ransoms, this has been a common – this is what they try to do for one of their sources of revenue. And as you know, Secretary Kerry has been very involved and we’ve been in very close contact with our Japanese colleagues throughout this crisis.
So I would just – can’t draw a distinct line between the effect we’ve had on the finance stream and this particular situation, but certainly, we are having a very good effect on the finance stream in various areas.
Talks with Turkey are ongoing. The Turks will be here tomorrow, and in fact we’ll see them shortly. Again, it’s – we have a lot of very close, good cooperation with Turkey across a number of areas and the issue – we are doing some things out of Incirlik, as you know, but the issue of armed platforms and things like that is a pretty intense conversation in the military-to-military channel and also diplomatic channels. And again, it’s just kind of a work in progress.
MODERATOR: Okay, next question.
OPERATOR: And that’s from the line of Michael Gordon, New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. [Senior State Department Official One], two questions, please: One question, one a quick follow-up. A great deal of emphasis was placed in previous backgrounders on the importance of forming national guard units in each of Iraq’s provinces. It’s a way of empowering Sunnis and turning the fight against ISIL. Can – my impression from here is that hasn’t gotten anywhere, but perhaps I’m mistaken. What is the status of that initiative? Has there even been a first reading on it in the Iraqi parliament? Is it – when do you think it might happen? Is it likely to happen at all?
And as that effort was delayed, there was talk about a bridging effort involving tribal fighters. Deputy Secretary Blinken talked about that at the Carnegie Endowment some – a couple months ago. What’s the status of that sort of interim step? And I think you should fully answer the question on Turkey. Is the notion of an exclusion stone – zone still on the table in your discussions with the Turks?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, with Turkey, I mean, we’re very clear. We’re not going to do a no-fly zone. So to the extent there’s any sort of a precondition for progress in certain areas based upon our doing a no-fly zone, that’s not a particularly constructive conversation. So that’s not the conversation we’re having with them. We’re looking at ways to narrow differences, and all I can say is that’s ongoing. But I think we’ve been pretty clear that a no-fly zone is not something that we’re going to do for a number of reasons, and the fact we have in certain areas basically de facto no-fly zones given the density of our flights in certain areas. So anyway, it’s a pretty complicated conversation which is increasingly in military-to-military channels now as well about points of commonality in which we might be able to make some progress.
On the national guard, there’s a lot of aspects of this. There’s a formulaic aspect which is actually having a law, which is kind of the culmination point which is some point down the road. But the bridging strategy is really what’s critical. And the point here when we began – really, when the Iraqis began talking about this in the latter stage of their own government formation, was about mobilizing the citizens in the provinces in which ISIL is in control to begin to fight. And how do you do that? We wanted to take the lessons of the Awakening, and – but also correct for – build on lessons learned from the Awakening.
So the Awakening, of course, as you know as well as anyone mobilized the sons of Anbar province, of Salah al-Din and Nineveh to stand up and defeat then AQI, which is the same organization as ISIL, with our direct support back in those days – direct military support.
So the national guard as a concept is a mechanism to help mobilize the sons of these provinces and then incorporate them into the formal security structures of the state, because that’s what did not happen with the Awakening. It was more ad hoc, and eventually fizzled out is the story that has been well covered.
So the national guard is one way to make sure that those who would be recruited to fight ISIL in these areas would then be fully invested in the security structures of the state, and that would mean they would have a contract with the government, they would get paid, they would have livelihood, they would get a pension, and basically the bargain is that the government – the bargain is that the citizen of that province, in exchange for defending his community and his family and the country, will be paid by the central resources of the state. That’s actually happening now.
So in Anbar province, for example, where we have a building partner capacity site, and we are there, our special forces are there, and also some other coalition partners are there, we just graduated another about 260 tribal fighters on Friday. That number’s approaching about 1,000. And again, this kind of just got underway. And the tribal fighters are signing a contract with the government, they’re getting paid by the government, they’re getting equipped by the government, and they’re working in coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces and started to make some progress along that Haditha corridor.
But that was very tough out there, and we were just out there, so – but that – we’re building some critical capacity there, and again, just starting. We weren’t even doing this about two months ago, and I think it’s pretty good progress. The mechanisms to get these citizens of these provinces into the formal security structures of the state – there’s a few of them. There’s first joining the Iraqi army, because the attrition levels of the Iraqi army over the last year, there’s a lot of capacity in which these citizens can come into the Iraqi army. There’s also the police force.
Up in Nineveh, where you have training going on in some of the Kurdish-controlled areas of those who fled Mosul when ISIL took over Mosul, are being trained to be the ultimate police force in Mosul. So there’s the police; again, the formal security structures of the state. And in between the army and the police, it’s envisioned to have these provincial-based national guard units, and the bridging strategy that as these fighters come in – they’re trained, they’re equipped, they sign a contract with the government – they will then either become soldiers in the army, police, or eventually national guard.
So the national guard legislation is very complicated to get this right. It’s politically dicey. There’s a number of different views of how it should be structured – how many fighters there should be, what the equipment should be. And this is actually kind of moving through the system, and there’s a pretty good debate going on about it. Then again, the law – actually getting the law is kind of a culmination point. Building the capacity and getting the citizens of these provinces in the fight is really the main effort. And that’s starting to – we’re starting to gain some traction there.
MODERATOR: Great. Let’s go on to the next question.
OPERATOR: And that’ll be from Ken Dilanian with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. [Senior State Department Official One], did I understand you to suggest earlier that the flow of foreign fighters to the region was abating? Because I was at a briefing not so long ago and some senior intelligence officials said the opposite, that it hadn’t been abating. And then secondly, the – Iraq’s prime minister gave an interview to the AP today in which he complained about the lack of assistance that he saw on weapons. He’s saying we’re really – he said, “We are fighting very hard to find resources to purchase arms. We are left almost alone to get these arms and munitions for the army.” Could you respond to that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. On foreign fighters, I wouldn’t – I’m just not going to quantify it. But what I will say is that the two-way flow is certainly not what it was, because huge numbers of foreign fighters are being killed in Syria, and particularly in Iraq. And we’re seeing the overall effectiveness of some of the fighters decrease somewhat dramatically. And Kobani has really been a target-rich opportunity for us in that regard, which I don’t have to get into here.
But part of the discussion tomorrow is about really abating the flow, and both the source countries and where they’re coming from, and then the countries in which they are traveling through. So that’s going to be a big topic of the conversation tomorrow.
I haven’t seen the full reports on what Prime Minister Abadi said, and obviously he’ll speak for himself and his government. My understanding of what he said is that he praised the effectiveness of the airstrikes, which have been quite effective, and that’s kind of phase one of the campaign. And then as we move into phase two of building Iraqi capacity, there is certainly a view when you’re in Iraq that they want this to go as fast as possible, and there’s a sense of urgency, a tremendous sense of urgency to take back their country. You hear in Mosul there are slave markets, there are people being stoned to death and all sorts of horrible things, and they want to take back Mosul immediately. And we share that sense of urgency and are working to move as fast as we can.
We just got the appropriation from Congress, about $1.6 billion we’re getting set up to begin to train and equip the 12 brigades that we’ve talked about. But we understand that when you’re in Iraq, especially an Iraqi politician talking to his audience, it’s a sense of extreme urgency which is often expressed. But one of the reasons that Prime Minister Abadi is here tomorrow is that he will have the ability to speak at extremely high levels of the key contributors of the coalition about what they might need. And we will also be able to speak to him and to the Iraqis about some things that they might be able to do more effectively.
Another piece of this is that the price of oil is also impacting Iraq’s budgetary situation. That’s something Prime Minister Abadi is acutely focused on. He just formed an emergency cell committee yesterday to begin to address some of these problems, and he’s working with the United Nations about following up on something that was discussed in Brussels about a global reconstruction fund – really, a relief and stabilization fund, in which ensuring that Iraq has the resources to pour into areas once they are cleared of ISIL to make sure that relief and reconstruction resources are available so that those areas can be held, can be governed, and can be stabilized. That’s going to be really critical. And the economic situation in Iraq is impacted, obviously, by the price of oil. Despite Iraq hitting a record number of oil exports in recent months, the price of oil is impacting their ability and their resource base. It’s not at the level that we anticipated about 100 days ago when we were thinking through where we’d be, and that’s also something that will be discussed tomorrow.
MODERATOR: Great. I think we’ve – how many more questions do we have in the queue? I think we have time for just a few more.
OPERATOR: Actually, no further questions at this point.
MODERATOR: Oh, look at that. I was prescient. Great. Well, thanks, guys. Obviously, we’ll see you soon on the plane and we can talk a little bit more about any of this if you want to. All senior State Department official, no embargo. Feel free to go forth with your stories, and we will see you shortly. I think the snow is stopping, so get excited, everyone. Thanks, guys.