Briefing on the Counter-ISIL Ministerial

Special Briefing
Brett McGurk
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
July 19, 2016

MR TONER: And thanks everyone for joining us this afternoon. Today’s call is an on-the-record call to provide information on the upcoming joint ministerial of the counter-ISIL coalition. And we have with us Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk. And the special envoy will make some brief remarks, then we’ll turn it over to you all to ask some questions. Just a reminder, this call is an on-the-record call, attributable to Special Envoy to the Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk. And also just note that any information is embargoed until the end of the phone call. So with that, I’ll turn it over to Special Envoy McGurk. Brett, go ahead.

MR MCGURK: Thanks, Mark. I thought I’d just give a few minutes upfront just to kind of situate everyone for where we are this week and the events of this week and how it fits into the overall campaign.

I’ll say upfront what I always say about this challenge. This is truly an unprecedented challenge. It’s the nature of ISIL. And we’ve talked about this before, but 40,000 foreign fighters have poured into Syria over the last four years or so. That’s almost twice as many we saw that went to fight in Afghanistan in the ’80s. We, of course, know where that led to. So we – it’s really – it’s uncharted territory; it’s an unprecedented challenge, which is why the President formed this global coalition in the late summer and fall of 2014. And the coalition really truly is unique. It’s an unprecedented coalition and it’s organized in a way to try to match capabilities and resources to this unprecedented challenge.

The coalition – we have about 66 members. We meet regularly, about every month. Myself and my deputy, Lieutenant General Terry Wolff, are constantly engaging with our coalition to basically kind of talk about where are we, what are we doing, what’s going well, where can we invest, what do we have to – where do we have to course correct. And ministers get together at the Secretary’s level about quarterly. So the last time we met at the foreign ministerial level was in Rome in February – just this past February. And then the defense minister, Secretary Carter, had a meeting with his counterparts in Brussels also in February. So this will be the first time we come together, defense ministers and foreign ministers, and it’s a really important time in the overall campaign to take stock of where we are.

And just to kind of – how we organize ourselves, we’re focused on ISIL really in three dimensions. There’s the core in Iraq and Syria. That, of course, gets a lot of the focus. That is focused on the military side and taking back territory from ISIL and shrinking and basically working to eliminate this phony caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi purported to establish two years ago this month is Mosul. So in the core in Iraq in Syria, we’re working to take back territory. That’s a military focus.

But very importantly, there’s much more than just the military campaign. We’re very focused on what comes after ISIL in these areas. So as a coalition we’ve established two stabilization funding facilities, one a funding facility for immediate stabilization. This is kind of to get the lights on, to get police trained, to get them back in the streets, to allow people to return to their homes. And this has actually been quite successful. We have about $100 million in the fund at any given time. And in the city of Tikrit, for example, nearly the entire population has returned to the city of Tikrit. And overall in Iraq, we’ve liberated about 50 percent of the territory from ISIL and more than 700,000 Iraqis have returned to their homes in areas that ISIL used to control.

That’s not to underestimate the significant difficulties of this endeavor. We’re having some serious problems in other parts of the country, and we’re looking ahead to Mosul, which will be the most significant challenge yet. So, much of the focus I think of the meetings, and particularly here on Thursday with the foreign ministers and defense ministers, will be looking ahead to Mosul.

Mosul is now increasingly coming upon us. We have it in sight, but we have to do it right. Militarily, it has to be very well planned. We have to have a stabilization plan ready to go and resourced. We have to have a humanitarian plan ready to go and resourced. And we have to have a governance plan. The local governance plan has to be ready to go. So all of this has been underway. It’s been – the planning has been going on for some months, and we’re now at a point where we want to bring the coalition together to talk it through, look at the details, and make sure we have what we need to give us the best chance we have to succeed.

Looking outside of Iraq and Syria – so the core in Iraq and Syria – the second dimension, of course, are the networks. And this is something that I think will be an acute focus of the coalition and the ministers and our two secretaries on Thursday. And the networks, of course, are the foreign fighter networks, making sure we have the intelligence to track them as best we can; the propaganda networks, making sure we are countering their messages 24/7 in cyberspace. And Under Secretary Stengel will also hold a meeting on the margins of the events this week together with the UK and UAE on the counter-messaging aspect of the campaign and the counter-finance. So looking at the networks and how to make sure we combat those.

We’ll have Interpol here with us. Interpol is a member of the coalition. And this is important, because what we’re finding as we take back territory in Iraq and Syria, we are collecting a massive amount of intelligence about – and information about the networks of ISIL. In particularly, in the campaign in Manbij, which has always been a foreign-fighter hub, we are – we have collected about 4.5 terabytes of information, many of which point the way to foreign fighters, the networks, where they’re from. And we want to make sure that all that information is disseminated in a coherent way among our coalition partners, through Interpol, so that we can track the networks from the core and all the way to wherever the dots might connect, whether that is in Europe or in North Africa or Southeast Asia. No matter where the dots connect, we want to make sure that we are able to connect them.

So that will be a big focus. So the core in Iraq and Syria, taking back territory, making sure we have the stabilization and the humanitarian plans in place; the networks – making sure the information we get is collected, disseminated among the coalition, and that we are constantly working to make it harder for ISIL to do what they’re trying to do.

And then finally – core, networks – the third dimension is the affiliates. ISIL has about eight self-declared affiliates around the world, and the one that we are particularly focused on is Libya, and Libya will be a topic of conversation in this very important ministerial that we will have on Thursday.

So overall this coalition of 66 partners, it’s strong, it’s united, and it’s organized in a manner that is focused on eliminating ISIL’s territory to make sure that it cannot control populations and exact – extract vast amounts of resources in Iraq and Syria, but also working to track, dry up its global networks, and also defeat its affiliates.

This is an enormous challenge and it’ll be with us for years to come. But what we’ve done with this coalition is set the foundation to make sure that we’re doing all we possibly can to stay ahead of it. We are succeeding on the ground in Iraq and Syria. We have a lot of work to do in terms of the foreign-fighter networks, and that’s something that is a constant focus. And we will have DNI Clapper with us as well to talk about some of the intelligence aspects of this global campaign.

So with that I’m happy to take some questions about what we hope to transpire over the next few days.

MR TONER: All right. Thanks, Brett. We’ll go to the questions now.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1 at this time. And we’ll begin with the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Brett, you said Libya was going to be a big conversation. Can you flesh that out a little bit more? I mean, has the government in Libya requested U.S. military aid formally and has it been decided if U.S. advisors will be on the ground to call in airstrikes?

MR MCGURK: Hey, Margaret. Yeah, thanks. So Libya is a – look, Libya is an incredibly complicated place, to say the least. So six months ago, we had no government in Libya; we had kind of no toeholds. It was very difficult to even explain exactly what the plan was to try to stabilize Libya.

And we were very concerned that the growth and trajectory of ISIL in Libya – we kind of – there was a debate about where it was going. Some were predicting it was like this hockey-stick-like growth of a major increase in its presence and capacity and capability. We, of course, saw external attacks from Libya in Tunisia and we identified a very sophisticated network in Libya led by a terrorist named Abu Nabil, who came from Iraq to set up their affiliate, and also an external plotting cell in western Libya. President Obama ordered strikes against the leader of ISIL in Libya, Abu Nabil, and also against that external plotting cell that was responsible for the attacks in Tunisia.

But to defeat ISIL, it’s not just a counterterrorism challenge. You have to have a governance structure in place. Again, it’s the post-ISIL governance, making sure you have all the elements in place to actually dry up their ability to put down roots.

So over the last six months, we now have a government in Tripoli led by Prime Minister Sarraj. We have found the capacity of forces operating underneath the leadership of that government. They’ve actually advanced on ISIL stronghold in Sirte in the central coast, and so we have some momentum. So the discussion here with the – with all the ministers in town will be about how we build upon this momentum.

There’s also a difficulty, just given the political divisions in Libya with General Haftar in the east and kind of how he fits into this mix, and that’ll obviously be a conversation and a discussion, but I don’t have anything in particular to announce about additional measures we might be taking in Libya. And I might have more to discuss over the coming days or weeks on that, but not right now.

OPERATOR: And we’ll now go to the line of Warren Strobel with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. And thanks for doing this, Brett. A couple of quick questions on Mosul. You said at the U.S. Institute of Peace a little while ago that you wouldn’t put a timeline on it, but I’m wondering whether you feel like the Mosul campaign is approaching more quickly than you might have thought, say, six or eight weeks ago, given the relative ease of the – or speed of the taking of Fallujah and fact that the Iraqi army is moving pretty rapidly up the Tigris Valley.

And the second question on Mosul is – do you – does everybody have agreement on who will and won’t be in the fight, particularly the Kurds and the Shiite PMF? Thanks.

MR MCGURK: Yeah, thanks. Great questions. So I tend to be fairly cautious, so I think if you had asked me three months ago, would we be in position to begin the offensive on Mosul – and the key precondition is the Qayyarah West Airfield, which I think I mentioned in my intro. That was a very sophisticated military maneuver for the Iraqis. They had to fight all the way up the main highway there – we used to call it Route Tampa – all the way up the highway to retake that airfield. It’s a very long way; I think 60 kilometers or so they went. They then had to come across the Tigris and lay a bridge to actually set up an additional supply line.

So we were looking at this months ago, and I give Lieutenant General MacFarland just tremendous credit for the advice and assistance that he has given the Iraqis to organize this very complex military maneuver, probably one of the most complex things the Iraqis have done in the campaign. And it succeeded – and it succeeded, I think, for a couple reasons. One, I think the advice and assistance we have given the Iraqi Security Forces is really – has really begun to bear fruit, and they are showing a level of professionalism and capability and capacity that is far beyond what we might have anticipated even six months ago. And I give the Iraqis tremendous credit for that.

And also the degradation of Daesh and ISIL. They are not the force on the ground that they used to be, and so that operation was a big success. So we’re now in position of establishing the Qayyarah West Airfield as kind of a hub, as we did to Taqqadam Airbase before the Ramadi operation a year or so ago. And of course, as Secretary Carter announced, we’ll have some additional advisors as a part of that effort.

So we feel pretty good about that. And what it’s done – this gets the second part of your question – it’s really concentrated minds not only within our global coalition but inside Iraq. The last time I was in Iraq we had a very important meeting in Erbil with the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Government in Baghdad about this very question you just asked, about the disposition of forces, about the role of the Peshmerga, about the role of the Iraqi Security Forces, and very importantly about the role of local fighters from Nineveh province.

Because what we found works is a combination of Iraqi Security Forces that we’ve trained and that we advise and assist with local forces. So in Anbar it’s about 20,000 tribal fighters have been part of the operations there, and the Government of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi has authorized 15,000 local fighters from Nineveh province. And we are now very much underway of identifying those fighters, of getting them trained, equipped, and incorporating into what will be the overall campaign.

So Mosul will have – I mean, I’ll mention this in the ministerial, but there’s really four dimensions to the campaign. There’s, of course, the military dimension, but then the four dimensions that have to support that military dimension: first, you need an agreement on the overall disposition of forces because Mosul is a very complex demographic city, and so you need political agreement between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government and the local leaders of Nineveh, and I think we’re pretty much well underway there.

Second, you need a humanitarian plan. Has to be ready to go. In Fallujah, frankly, in the early days, I think the plan wasn’t quite as well-established as we might have hoped. We want to make sure that in Mosul we have everything very much ready to go, resourced and set up on a humanitarian response.

Third is the stabilization which I mentioned, to do all we can to stabilize the situation after Daesh and get people back into their homes.

And then fourth is the governance, the local governance – the role of the governor, the role of the provincial council, making sure they have the resources they need.

So those are the dimensions of the Mosul campaign that we’re working on now. It is extraordinarily complicated, but we feel pretty good about the fact that, particularly since the Qayyarah West operation, that the minds have really focused on this now, and we’ll be working very hard within the global coalition to make sure that we’re providing the resources that the Iraqis need and inside Iraq to do all we can to help facilitate the agreements that they’ll need to reach to do this right.

OPERATOR: We’ll now go to the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. A couple of questions. First of all, I mean, obviously, a lot of the military aspect is focused on the battlefield, but given the kind of plethora of worldwide attacks we’ve seen in recent months and just even in the last few weeks, how much of the meeting, if any, is going to address kind of collective working together on border security, whether it’s European borders or U.S. borders? And I’m wondering if there’s more consideration being paid to that.

And then just secondly, obviously, everyone is paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in Turkey and there seems to be some problems at Incirlik particularly on the power. And I’m wondering, how concerning is this given your upcoming plans or how far in the future you want to push on Raqqa whether this could – this could be a real landmine? Thanks.

MR MCGURK: Yeah, thanks, Elise. I think on your first question, obviously this is going to be – I mean, at the forefront of our minds are these terrible attacks around the world, some of which – I mean, look, in Baghdad you have an attack in Karrada, this just horrific attack that killed all these young people celebrating their Eid. Obviously, that’s an attack organized directly by ISIL. Other attacks we see connections between Raqqa and the actual operations, such as the Paris attacks. Then you have these horrific lone wolf-type events such as in Orlando, such as what appears to be the situation in Nice although I don’t want to get ahead of the investigators, in which there does not appear to be any connection to the core in Iraq and Syria. So this is going to be a primary focus, obviously, of the discussion, which is why there’s a very important intelligence dimension to the coalition and to the discussions that we’ll be having.

One thing that we want to make sure that we do – we’ve been working on this now for really over the last 18 months – number one, making it a lot harder for these guys to get into Syria. And it is a lot harder for them to get into Syria. Even their own propaganda recommends to people, hey, maybe don’t go to Syria, go to Libya. And now they’re not finding it a very hospitable place in Libya. So it’s much harder for these guys to come in, to get training, get combat experience, and to plan and to plot. So we want to make sure they can’t get into Syria.

And then secondly, if they do get in, we want to make sure they can never leave. So if you’re in Syria joining ISIL, you’re pretty much trapped there and you’re probably going to die there. So we’ve worked very closely to shut down the borders. The operation in Manbij is about shutting down the main corridor from Raqqa and then out, in which some of the attackers that launched the Paris attacks we know traveled through that route. So we’re working to shut that down. And by shutting that down, you make it harder for them to kind of plan the larger-scale, kind of more coordinated attacks. And that effort is very much underway and we have to keep at it. I think we have to accelerate our efforts and we have to really push on it.

In terms of the kind of lone wolf-inspired attacks, there’s a couple things we have to do. We have to constantly contest their messaging, and that’s why Under Secretary Stengel will be holding an important side meeting with many of his counterparts, and just sharing information, the intelligence constantly just keeping ahead of this. It is really difficult. Nobody can say that these attacks are going to stop. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see more of these. It’s horrible. But this is why we have to defeat ISIL in its core, because one thing that inspires these people – I’ve been all around the world, it’s a common denominator, I hear it everywhere – is this notion of this caliphate, this historic expanding movement. And it’s not that. So by taking away their territory, you take away the resources, you take away one of their primary propaganda appeals, and you take away their ability to really plan the kind of sophisticated stuff that we’ve seen before.

But so – anyway, bottom line, it’s going to be a primary focus of the meeting. One reason we will have the intelligence focus – and Interpol will be here as well – to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can as a global coalition to find anyone that would be inspired or directly tied to the core in Iraq and Syria.

On Turkey, as you know, President Obama just spoke with President Erdogan today. We’re working through the issues at Incirlik. I’d really defer to DOD. I think so far, we have not seen a significant disruption. I think the Turks have had some issues at Incirlik, obviously, which they’ve discussed. But I think they’ve been very clear that there should be no slowdown in counter-ISIL operations.

But of course, the Turks are very close partners of ours in this campaign. I was in Turkey about eight or nine days ago discussing with them a number of things that we’re doing in northern Syria, and we obviously look to increase that cooperation. But of course, they have a number of issues that they’re dealing with in Turkey, and we’ll support them as they work through that.

OPERATOR: We’ll now go to the line of Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I had two questions. One is whether, during this meeting, you’ll be briefing the ministers on any – on discussions that Secretary Kerry had in Russia, and if you could give us any indication on what was agreed there.

And secondly, the Syrian Observatory, lots of other human rights groups, and today the HNC have all said that the coalition airstrikes in and around Manbij have killed hundreds of civilians, including women and children. And I wonder if you could comment on that.

MR MCGURK: Yeah, thanks, Karen. I think the Secretary is returning tonight. I was with him in Moscow in some of those talks which were fairly productive, but I think we’re all very cautious about the long road ahead and the incredibly difficult situation in Syria.

There was an agreement on a series of steps that, if taken, I think could lead to a better situation in Syria, but the jury, of course, is very much out on that. There are things the Russians have to do, that they’ve agreed to do, and – but we have to see. I think the Secretary said in Moscow none of this is about trust. This is about trying to address two of the primary challenges to the cessation of hostilities, and there are two.

First and foremost and most fundamentally are the airstrikes of the Assad regime, and that is something that President Putin went to his people and made a national address when we began the cessation of hostilities to say this is something he was taking ownership of. And the Russians agreed before the whole world to make sure that the Assad regime lived up to its responsibilities under the cessation of hostilities, which was incorporated into a UN Security Council resolution. So that’s number one and that was a very serious topic of discussion, obviously, in Moscow.

The second problem with the cessation of hostilities we’ve had, frankly, is the growing capacity of Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is al-Qaida’s affiliate, formal affiliate in Syria. It’s the largest al-Qaida affiliate now in the world and it has grown in capacity as a military force. And it, of course, is not bound by the cessation of hostilities and it launches offensive operations against the Syrian regime, which the regime then retaliates against, and you get to see this cycle of attacks and the cycle of violence which we’ve been trying to dampen.

So those are two fundamental problems that we need to address, and the discussions in Moscow are about how to address those. So I do presume that – I know the Secretary, with the EU yesterday and in London today, has been talking about some of this. And of course, we’ll be happy to share information with our coalition partners.

On the situation in Manbij, I’d have to defer you to DOD. I just – obviously, we’ve seen these reports. I think they originated from Amaq, which is ISIL’s primary news source. So obviously, anytime we see an allegation like this we look at it very closely, and of course, we will. This has been the most precise air campaign in history and we’re going to make sure that it stays that way, but I don’t have any further information on this. I would just point out that the initial allegations arose from ISIL’s official news channel.

So it’s something that we’re looking at very closely, and when we have more information we’ll get back to you.

OPERATOR: We’ll now go to the line of Ely Brown with ABC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey there, it’s actually Justin Fishel at ABC. My question was asked and it was also about Manbij. But since we’re just talking about it, I mean, one of the reports that came out today was that 56 civilians were killed in one strike today, and we have spoken to some military officials who – they’ve commented on the record about it, but it seems to me that you would know if you hit 56 civilians and killed them. Where do you stand on that?

MR MCGURK: I just – all I can do is tell you what I – of what I know firsthand. And obviously, we’ve seen these reports. I’ve been touch with DOD. I know they’re looking at them. But I don’t think we’ve seen anything that would confirm anything like that.

But whenever these allegations occur, we don’t want to be definitive one way or the other, because it takes some time to piece things together. The initial allegations came from ISIL’s official news source, so I think some things could be particularly exaggerated or inflated, but I just – I don’t have any knowledge firsthand to discuss what may have happened or didn’t happen. So I think it’s being looked at right now.

But we take pains to make sure that every airstrike is really carefully vetted. I think many of you have reported on the process that we go through, and so we’re going to make sure that it stays that way. But – and I know DOD is looking at this right now, and I just have nothing else to say about it.

MR TONER: Sorry, I’m just going to jump in here to say I think Brett has time for just one more question, so we’ll go ahead with the last question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay, then. Our last question will come from the line of Barbara Usher with the BBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. I wondered if you could just comment a little bit more about the situation in Turkey and how’s that affecting or could affect the coalition efforts, specifically because of these reports that the coup plotters were actually using Incirlik as a base to fuel their planes right on the tarmac next to the American planes – whether there’s been any blowback about that. But more generally, Erdogan has really purged the military, including some figures who I believe were important in the fight against ISIS. So how is that going to – how do you see that affecting the coalition efforts, especially in Syria?

MR MCGURK: Well, I mean, one – I mean, we’ve been engaged with the Turkish Government officials since the moment of these events over the weekend, and I was with Secretary Kerry. He spoke with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu in the middle of these events the other night, and we’ve expressed our full support for Turkey. This is a totally illegal coup, and obviously we’re going to support them through this. They’re a very close partner of ours, a NATO ally.

But I think the President spoke with President Erdogan today and expressed our support; also, of course, urged the Turks to show restraint, act within the rule of law, avoid any action that would lead to further violence or instability. I think that’s something that was obviously made clear, just to make sure that we want a stable Turkey, we want a Turkey that’s a close partner in this campaign because we cannot succeed, particularly in Syria, without Turkey.

So Turkey is a fundamental partner in the coalition. They were a participant in the very first coalition meeting we had in Riyadh way back in September of 2014, and I think it’ll stay that way. One reason the President reached out directly to President Erdogan today was to talk about both our support for the Turks and also the need to stay focused on the fundamental threat of ISIL. And I think we don’t need to remind Turkey of that; they just suffered terrible attacks at Istanbul Airport only a couple weeks ago with a number of suicide bombers.

So again, I think we have to let the dust settle and let the Turks work through this. We’re, of course, in very close touch with them. And in terms of Incirlik, the latest information I had is that there has not been a significant disruption in our overall operations. We’re working through some of those power issues and making sure that we have the generators going until power is restored, but right now this is obviously a very fluid situation, and we’ll have talks with the Turks throughout the course of the week through the ministerial.

MR TONER: Great. Thanks, everyone, for joining us, and thanks to our speaker, Brett McGurk. And thanks again for answering all the questions. That’s all. Take care.