Background Briefing on the June 2 Paris Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Ministerial
MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much and thanks to everyone for joining us. This is an on-background call with a senior State Department official. Just for your own knowledge, that official who’s joining us today is [Senior State Department Official], and he’s going to walk us through expectations for the Counter-ISIL Small Group Ministerial that’s taking place in Paris tomorrow, and is an opportunity for coalition partners to review progress on the full range of our shared efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL.
So without further ado I’ll hand it over to the senior State Department official. And as I said, afterwards we’ll have a little bit of time for your questions. Over to you, [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. I thought I would just give a brief overview of the ministerial tomorrow and what the coalition is doing in terms of coordinating our efforts against ISIL.
Let me first say that General Allen and I spoke with Secretary Kerry today on the phone, had a very long and detailed discussion about the ministerial tomorrow and about the state of the campaign against ISIL. And I would just say the Secretary was in extremely good spirits and also very focused on the meeting tomorrow. We had a very detailed discussion of what is likely to transpire, and the Secretary is quite eager to participate, and we’re looking for a way to facilitate that through technical means. Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary Blinken is here and fully engaged, and he will be seeing Foreign Minister Fabius here in Paris very shortly after this call.
The meeting tomorrow is the second meeting of the coalition Small Group, and it brings together a number of countries who are core contributors to the coalition. We met for the first time in January in London, hosted by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Hammond, and then we met at a director level for a working group, a real kind of working, roll-up-your-sleeve meeting at the Dead Sea about a month ago.
So this meeting is to follow up those efforts keeping in mind that this coalition did not exist – go back to just September, there was no coalition. So we built this beginning with the President’s speech back in September, and then you remember the meeting in Wales, the meeting in Jeddah, the meeting in Paris, leading to the plenary meeting we had in Brussels with all 62 members of the coalition. And we’ll be looking to get together all 62 members again, most likely on the margins of the UNGA later on this year.
(Inaudible) five lines of efforts with a common objective. The common objective is to defeat ISIL in all aspects of its organization, and really to asphyxiate it. That includes the military line of effort with a focus on activities in Iraq and Syria, and that’s important because Iraq and Syria is the heart of its perversely claimed caliphate, which is attracting foreign fighters from all around the world. The second line of effort is the foreign fighter networks, trying to cut down on the foreign fighter flows into the Syria and Iraq theater. The third line of effort is the financing, cutting down on ISIL’s attempts to finance itself and also to access global financial markets. The fourth line of effort is focusing on the humanitarian crisis, which has been generated by the fighting. And the fifth is countering ISIL in the messaging space. And the sixth is a new line of effort that we created a couple months ago focused on stabilization, and that is really (inaudible) cleared of ISIL, how do you flush resources into those areas, how do you take care of people, how do you bring services back. So that is the stabilization piece, which also brings an element of police with some coalition members really stepping up to help the Iraqis in policing.
So that is how we’re organized. Let me just kind of go through some of the highlights of what we’re doing. And let me say that we’re learning more about ISIL every single day, and we’re learning more about it because of our activities, because of our intelligence activities, and because of this coalition – because of the information we share, because of the information that is shared within each working group and which is shared across each working group. General Allen and I just hosted here in Paris a meeting of the working group leads, the leads from many different countries. For example, stabilization is led by Germany and the UAE, and they’ve done really great work in helping the Iraqis to organize a stabilization fund through the United Nations, which is now finalized. And we will have – it’ll be a key part of the discussion tomorrow. So we brought those capitals in the room together to share information and really learn more about this network.
I’ll give you an example: On the foreign fighters, this is a global network. As you know – we’ve discussed this before – more than 22,000 fighters from a hundred countries all around the world have poured (inaudible) Syria to join extremist organizations, mostly ISIL. And this is something that the world has really never seen before on this scale. Since September, when we formed this coalition and the United Nations Security Council passed the Chapter 7 Resolution 2178 to really encourage countries all around the world to crack down on foreign fighter terrorist networks, 34 countries since we formed this coalition in September have updated or enhanced their laws against foreign fighter networks. Twenty-six – in 26 instances, capitals have broken up cells. Interpol is now dramatically involved in this effort. Turkey has about 13,000 members on a no-entry list. And within the United States, the Department of Justice has brought charges to over more than 40 cases to date in individuals within our country trying to join ISIL.
So this is a significant international network. I can just say we know a lot more about it now than we did in September, and we’re looking at ways to collapse the networks as they try to move foreign fighters, foreign terrorist fighters, into Syria.
In the financing side, we’re working to deny any use of the financial system to any affiliates of ISIL or anyone associated with ISIL. We are targeting their oil processing capabilities, because one of their primary sources of financing, particularly when we started this effort, was in the oil trade and oil bartering. And of course, we just conducted – our special forces conducted a raid into Syria to target Abu Sayyaf, who was the number one financier. He kind of ran the whole financial network for ISIL. And I’ll just say from that raid we’re learning quite a bit that we did not know before we did that raid.
So again, every single day the picture becomes clearer of what this organization is, how sophisticated it is, how global it is, and how networked it is. And through these meetings with the coalition we’re able to learn more, synthesize, compare notes, and really kind of accelerate efforts where we need to.
On the military side, of course, that gets most of the focus but that’s only one of the lines of effort. We have 12 coalition partners now in Iraq training Iraqi forces. We’ve trained so far 7,000 Iraqi soldiers; 4,000 are in training now. Again, important to keep in mind that this effort is really just getting up and running. We always knew this would be a very long-term, very long haul, and it’s getting moving now. Important to note in Ramadi, which I’ll talk about, but the troops in Ramadi that retreated were not troops that we had trained. Some of the troops that will participate in the counter-attack we anticipate will be troops that we trained, so we’ll have to see how they do. We’re obviously very focused on supporting them.
We also, of course, have nine coalition partners conducting airstrikes in Iraq, six coalition partners conducting airstrikes in Syria. Jordan is now conducting airstrikes in Iraq. Canada is now conducting airstrikes in Syria. And the military line of effort, of course, is very closely coordinated through CENTCOM and our Department of Defense.
Getting to the meeting tomorrow, we’re, of course, going to go through all of the lines of effort, the working groups comparing notes as we usually do, learning more. What do we know now that we didn’t know when we first – when we got together in January with this group? But tomorrow also has a significant purpose. This is not a business-as-usual meeting. We’re coming in the wake of the events in Ramadi, and we’re coming to discuss with Prime Minister Abadi his plan – his plan – for liberating Ramadi and Anbar province. And this is important because in the immediate wake of Ramadi, Prime Minister Abadi called together his national security council, his cabinet – Sunni, Shia, and Kurds – and they unanimously adopted a national program for taking back Ramadi, and not just Ramadi but securing Anbar province and cutting off the access route that we know ISIL is using to funnel its – funnel resources all the way up north into Mosul, because as you may recall, we’ve been successful in cutting off its access routes into Mosul from the north with various operations we did with the Peshmerga and some of the Arab tribes in that area earlier this year.
So the Iraqi plan has – which was endorsed by their entire cabinet in about 72 hours after the events of Ramadi – really has five key elements, all of which we’re going to discuss tomorrow. One, and very significantly, is mobilizing the tribes of Anbar (inaudible). Iraqis have been working to do this. They need help, and we’re ready to help. Since this plan was announced, 800 tribal fighters have been enrolled as volunteers to serve with a paycheck from the state, with a weapon to go out and join the fight alongside Iraqi Security Forces, again, in a coordinated, organized way, in a way that we can help. So that happened – those 800 fighters were formally enrolled at Habbaniyah just last week, and that is just a start. We have about 5,000 now enrolled in Anbar province. That number is going to keep going up.
So we’ll be talking to Abadi tomorrow about his plan for mobilizing the tribes of Anbar province, and most significantly how we and other coalition members can help. That’s pillar one.
Pillar two is recruiting new recruits into the Iraqi Army. And since this campaign started (inaudible) new recruits into the army. The soldiers that we have been training, for example, are already existing Iraqi army soldiers who we bring in (inaudible) our building partner capacity sites, and they go through substantial training with us and coalition partners.
This plan for liberating Anbar brings in new recruits into the Iraqi army. That’s been a real challenge for the Iraqis due to fiscal constraints and a real budget crunch that they’re facing, but they’re finding a way to do this. And specifically in their plan that they announced, it mentions the divisions in Anbar province, and particularly the 7th Iraqi Army Division out at Al Asad Air Base, where we are present with the Australians, with the Danes, doing an awful lot of training. So we think that is actually quite significant.
And our efforts out at Al Asad, up the Euphrates River about 30 kilometers from Ramadi, have actually been quite successful. We’ve been working there now – we didn’t get out there until about mid-November, where we’ve been working with three tribes in that area and with the Iraqi Security Forces. And if you look on a map of the Euphrates Valley, all the way from Jarabulus all the way down to Ramadi, the area where there’s a big green circle, where Daesh has been trying its hardest but without effect, is in that area between Haditha and Baghdadi, because the tribes are mobilized. We’re helping them and they’re working directly with the Iraqi Security Forces all through the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. And we think that’s been quite successful, and we’ll obviously be looking to see if we can replicate that elsewhere.
The third part of the Iraqi plan is to recall and refit the police, and particularly the police in Anbar province. We think there’s about 24,000 policemen. And immediately after the events of Ramadi, Prime Minister Abadi fired the police chief of Anbar province. He appointed a new provincial police chief who has the full support of the Anbaris and the Anbari provincial council, and that effort is now underway. And we think mobilizing the police will be critical because as areas are cleared, it’s going to be crucial that local police are there to maintain order as the army and military forces go on to take on additional objectives.
The fourth plank of this plan is an international stabilization fund, and this fund will be – it’s now finalized – and this will be a part of the discussion tomorrow. And we’ll have a little bit more to say about that tomorrow. But the idea of this – it was developed through the Stabilization Working Group through the coalition, but also with the United Nations and with the Iraqi Government in the lead, and it builds on best practices from around the world of where this has been done in the past. And I refer to the UN experts – we were just talking to some of them today – who are very eager to get this moving because they think it is based on very sound principles and very effective principles. But it’s focused on immediate, quick-hit projects. So if an area is cleared and after fighting and after a military campaign, it immediately needs to flush resources, to clean out the streets, to remove mines and IEDs, and basically to make areas livable again so people can come back. This has been a real problem, because the Iraqis are not able to access capital markets; they remain fairly cash poor and they’re not able to flood resources quickly to areas, which is really essential as areas are cleared.
So again, a lesson we’ve learned over the last eight months. This has been something we had to correct. We think the International Stabilization Fund corrects that, and we hand it to our colleagues in the Stabilization Working Group led by Germany and the UAE; also the UN team in Baghdad and our team at the embassy who have worked with Iraqis to get this up and running. It is now up and we’ll be looking for coalition contributions.
The fifth – finally, the fifth part of this Iraqi plan which is very important is that as they organize all forces in the country to be part of this effort – and as you may recall in the fall of Ramadi, the Anbari provincial council unanimously asked Popular Mobilization Forces to come into the province to help, primarily to help cut off roadways and logistical resupply routes into Ramadi. But it’s very important as this proceeds that all forces be brought under the command and control of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi prime minister, and its something that is a fundamental element of the plan for Anbar province. It’s something that leaders, including religious leaders like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, speaks to quite frequently.
So those are the five core elements of this Iraqi plan. One, mobilizing the tribes; recruiting into the army; recalling of police; the stabilization fund to get resources to people quickly as areas are cleared after military conflict ceases and military operations cease; and the command and control over the forces.
In addition, there’ll be discussion tomorrow and also two days from now in Brussels about the tremendous humanitarian toll of the fighting and of the refugees that’ve flown, particularly out of Anbar province, as ISIL has gone on the offensive there. And that is something that the UN will be speaking to the (inaudible) when they’ll be making an appeal in Brussels in two days for specifically what they need. It’s probably around a range of $4- to $500 million. And we, of course, when Prime Minister Abadi was in Washington a few weeks ago, contributed an additional $200 million to the UN humanitarian efforts in Iraq, which are truly heroic efforts.
So again, tomorrow – it’s a time for the Small Group members of the coalition to get together to share information, to say what do we know now that we didn’t know in January – what is working, what is not working, what do we have to fix – and really kind of synthesizing all the different working groups to learn more about the network and then think ahead; as we look ahead to the next two months, to think about how we can really strangle and squeeze the network: the foreign fighters, the financing, and of course in the military sphere, particularly in the near term in this campaign in Anbar. And we’ll hear from Prime Minister Abadi about his campaign plan for Anbar province and where the coalition can help. And we’re already helping in significant ways, actually, and trying to correct some things that we saw in Ramadi.
Just for example – and I’ll close on this point – the suicide VBIEDs is the main tactic right now that ISIL is using. They use them to quite devastating effect. Iraqi forces in the field have to have anti-tank capabilities, and that is something that our military colleagues have been working to address. And when Prime Minister Abadi was in Washington, we concluded an agreement to ship 2,000 AT4 anti-tank systems to Iraq, and the first tranche of those rockets – those systems – got in place just this past week, and so that is now moving. And they’ve actually had some success with other systems in shutting down the attempts of ISIL to launch suicide VBIEDs. But again, in the news today – I haven’t confirmed this, but an SVBIED attack on police in Salahuddin province. Again, this is the main tactic that ISIL uses, and there’ll be some news reports – took the life of a number of Iraqi policemen.
So we have to help the Iraqis with this, with denying this capability, and we also have to help them in shutting down the network of foreign fighters, many of whom become suicide bombers. All the suicide bombers in Iraq – nearly all of them, we assess – are foreign fighters. They come from all around the world. They come into Syria; they come into Iraq to kill Iraqis. And that is something that Iraq – as they make very hard decisions to move against ISIL in their own country, we need to help them as a coalition, both on the ground but also internationally to cut down these foreign fighter networks. That’s just going to be absolutely critical.
So it’s a very comprehensive agenda tomorrow. That’s why we had a very good call with the Secretary earlier today to review it and go through in (inaudible) looking forward to participate tomorrow, hopefully, remotely. Of course, Deputy Secretary Blinken and General Allen will be at the table for us tomorrow.
So with that, I’ll close and take some questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much for that comprehensive overview, and we’ll open up to questions. I’ll hand it back to our operator, Nick, to field those questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. To ask a question today, you may press * then 1 on your telephone keypad, and you should hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in the question queue. If your question has been asked and answered, you may remove yourself by pressing the # key. Once again, you may press * then 1 at this time.
Our first question today comes from the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], the Islamic State has provided various types of support to terrorist groups in Libya, Sinai, and to Boko Haram in Nigeria. And as you know, there has been discussion within the coalition about possibly broadening its efforts to acknowledge and deal with those threats in some way. Does the Obama Administration favor broadening the coalition’s efforts to deal in some way with these threats or what the Islamic State – in different countries, or what the Islamic State has dubbed provinces of its so-called caliphate?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks, Michael. It’s an excellent question, and it’s definitely a focus of our conversation. And it – the meetings that I mentioned earlier, the meeting in London and also in the Dead Sea, this was a focus of all of us. How do we (inaudible)? We are not going to be distracted every time a terrorist organization raises a black flag and says that they are ISIL. We have to focus on the heart of ISIL; we have to focus on the leadership networks; we have to focus on where they are controlling territory – again, in their perversely claimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact they are trying to expand and they are trying to co-opt already-existing terrorist groups to become a part of their network. This is not a situation in which ISIL sends paratroopers out to another country and you see an ISIL affiliate pop up. These are existing terrorist groups that are now taking on the connotation of ISIL.
And we look at it in terms of: How do we assess it analytically in a very disciplined way? And so I think tomorrow one member of the coalition will lead the discussion on this, and it’s a focus on (inaudible) analytically about how – what do we want to prioritize. And I think first you have to look: Is there a direct link between a self-proclaimed or proclaimed affiliate and ISIL leadership in Syria, number one? Second, is this affiliate a threat to members of the coalition, to the homeland? Does it have ambitions to strike outside of the territory in which it might be operating? Third, are there operational links? Are fighters going back and forth from ISIL and Iraq and Syria to the affiliate, wherever it might be? Are there financial links? Are there messaging links?
And that is something that, because we have this coalition now, we can share a lot of information and really assess. And if you look at the lines of effort, some of them lend themselves quite naturally to this problem, particularly the foreign fighter working group, the counter-finance working group, the counter-messaging working group. So it is certainly a topic of conversation, but we are (inaudible) very focused that we are not going to get distracted from the core of the fight, which is in Iraq and Syria, and in Iraq specifically in Anbar province at this immediate moment. But it is certainly something that nobody is ignoring, but we’re very attuned to, and that as a coalition we are coming to, I think, agreement on a kind (inaudible) analytical approach to how to assess the problem as we go forward.
MODERATOR: Great. Next question?
OPERATOR: That’ll come from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Would you address the Syria portion of this? I mean, how are you going to address the cross-border safe haven? I’m hearing you talk in terms of years. When it comes to Syria, aren’t you concerned that allowing ISIS time will really allow them to become more entrenched? If the wait for ground forces is dependent on building a more substantial rebel force that’s just beginning to go through training now, doesn’t that delay and thus become an advantage to ISIS? I mean, is the U.S. and is the coalition looking at something more immediate – air enforcement zone, something to help the rebels?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Margaret. Really good question, and just a tremendous, tremendous, challenge – just, like, the most complicated problem you can imagine. We’re very focused on Syria. Tomorrow morning, in fact, there will be a smaller, smaller group meeting to discuss coordination on Syria, which Foreign Minister Fabius will be hosting here. We’re in particular focused – and we were just discussing this with Turkey and others – on the northern border situation, learning more about the infiltration networks. And everybody is very concerned about the fact that ISIL’s controlling substantial portions of (inaudible) border. It is now trying to make inroads across what we call the Mari line, moving to the west. And that’s an ongoing situation as we speak.
At the same time, they are being very squeezed in areas such as Tel Abyad and some of their main areas in which they really rely on control of the border.
So it’s something that we’re very focused on. We have to get at this problem. We cannot allow them sanctuary. When they moved into Palmyra last week, that is an area that we have not really conducted many airstrikes, but we did conduct airstrikes to take out some heavy weaponry in that area. And I defer to DOD on kind of why we might conduct airstrikes in certain places than not. I think you can – it depends on where we can fly.
So it’s a very serious problem, something we’re focused on as the coalition and will be at the heart of the conversation tomorrow, particularly in a meeting that’s going to be early in the morning before the small group.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That comes from the line of Mark Seibel with McClatchy.
QUESTION: I’m curious. You talked about stopping the flow of foreign fighters to Syria as one of the priorities of this meeting. I’m curious – can you tell us what borders they’re crossing now? And you mentioned that Turkey has 13,000 people on a no-entry list. But have you seen a decrease in crossings from Turkey? And if so, how has that happened, and if not, what are you doing to slow that down?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, another excellent question. Almost all of them are coming in from Turkey, so we know that. We also know that Turkey needs help from source countries because, just given the number of people that come through Turkey every single day, it’s just very difficult to get a handle on the problem.
So what we try to do through the coalition and through the foreign fighter working group and through other elements within the counterterrorism system and all of our capitals is sharing more information, sharing passenger registry lists. And some of these things run up against privacy statutes in certain capitals, so it’s incredibly complicated. But trying to help make sure that not just – the focus can’t just be on Turkey; it has to be on the source countries – and trying to find the networks and the recruiting patterns, which is something we now, I think, have a fairly decent picture of, which I don’t think we really did about six months ago.
We have seen Turkey take some pretty active measures on the border. They have a very long border with Syria. They have smuggling routes that have existed for hundreds of years. They have had problems even when they were (inaudible) with the PKK, very difficult to close down certain areas of these borders. So we work with them all the time. It’s something that remains a real challenge. But at the same time, all the foreign fighters who join these networks – or at least nearly all of them – are coming through Turkey. And Turkey wants to get a handle on this. We are just sitting down with the Turks to talk about it. And it’s something – again, why I think this coalition is valuable.
This is a global problem. This is not a problem for any one country or any one member of the coalition. ISIL is a threat to all of us. We all have to work together to get a handle on it. So just looking solely at Turkey isn’t going to get to the problem. Turkey certainly has steps they need to take. They have taken some. They could probably take more. But members of the coalition – which have also promised to do better sharing information with Turkey – also, I think, need to take some more aggressive measures.
So one thing you’ve heard Foreign Minister Fabius say, I think, leading into this meeting, is that we all need to accelerate our efforts. The first – the last eight months focused on getting organized, building a coalition, setting up the structures that we think will be important for asphyxiating the network in all of its many spheres. We now know a lot more about the network than we (inaudible). And it’s now really the time for action among all of us to begin to crack down. So that’ll include Turkey, but (inaudible) most importantly, the source countries from which the foreign fighters are flowing into Turkey and then into Syria.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I think we have time for just one more question. Appreciate all of you joining us today, but I think we’ll make this the last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you, and we’ll go to the line of Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?
QUESTION: I’d like to go back a bit to Margaret’s question about Syria. In your remarks, you talked a lot about new initiatives on Iraq – in fact, you talked exclusively about that – and then said you were going to get together to talk about Syria. But back to her question, is there any recognition that you need to do something different regarding Syria – that you need to speed up any programs, that you need to change the strategy in some way? Or is this just going to be an update kind of on where things are?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Karen, I think I spoke about Iraq in some detail because Prime Minister Abadi is going to be here, and a big focus of the meeting is Anbar province. And there will be a Syria-focused meeting even before we get together as a coalition.
As you know, we have been in a series of discussions with the Turks about what we might be able to do with them cooperatively on their border. This has been an ongoing process over many months. There’s been a lot of disagreement. We’ve continued to move closer and we think we’re actually moving closer (inaudible). They have an election coming up on June 7th, and obviously they’re very focused on that. But we all recognize the urgency of the situation, particularly as extremist groups – not just ISIL but also the Nusrah Front – are making gains, and as the regime looks ever more fragile.
This is something that is tremendously urgent for the coalition and for the entire international community. It’s why Secretary Kerry went to see President Putin and has continued those discussions. It’s why my colleague Daniel Rubinstein has gone to Moscow, has been to Geneva with Staffan de Mistura trying to really restart a serious diplomatic track to end this conflict, because there’s no military solution to this conflict.
So the answer to the question is it is an incredibly urgent situation. We’re not just talking about it; we’re looking for things that we can do in a very material and tangible way. We want to help the Turks on their border. We want to get these extremists off their border. We want to look at a way that we can do that cooperatively with them. And that’s – again, has been an ongoing process of conversation. I’m sure those conversations will continue here in Paris over the next 24 hours.
So there’s the diplomatic effort that’s going on in different capitals. It’s going on in Geneva with Staffan de Mistura. The Secretary has been leading it and, of course, Daniel Rubinstein has been leading that effort, and he is also here in Paris to participate in the meeting tomorrow at the ministerial level on Syria. And we’re looking with the Turks to see what we can do on the border to clear ISIL and other extremist groups out from the border.
So we don’t have any answers yet, but – in terms of where these talks might go, but we have been – made a substantial amount of progress, particularly with Turkey, from where we were just about three to four months ago. And we’re very hopeful, perhaps when (inaudible) election’s over, that we can move to a new phase of those discussions to really put some concrete actions on the table that we might be able to work on together.
MODERATOR: Thanks. We’ll end it there, and deeply appreciate everyone for joining us and certainly most appreciative as well of [Senior State Department Official] joining us from Paris. Again, just a reminder, this is an on-background call with a senior State Department official. And with that, I’ll end it, and hope everyone has a good afternoon. Take care.