Opening Statement Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL
(As Prepared for Delivery)
Chairman Corker, Ranking Member Menendez, esteemed members of the committee, thank you for providing me the opportunity to update you on the progress of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.
I returned to Washington yesterday afternoon from Kuwait, where at the request of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, I joined a group of more than 30 senior U.S. diplomats and military commanders for a wide ranging discussion of the counter-ISIL strategy.
While my role as Special Presidential Envoy is concerned with the consolidation and integration of Coalition contributions, not the coordination of its military activities, I remain closely synced with my colleagues in the military and we meet regularly with other departments and agencies involved to review the progress of our Counter-ISIL activities.
In addition, we are discussing the Coalition’s next steps now that we have largely achieved the objective for the campaign’s first phase: to blunt ISIL’s strategic, operational, and tactical momentum in Iraq.
Through over 2,500 coordinated Coalition airstrikes in support of our partners on the ground, we have degraded ISIL’s leadership, logistical, and operational capabilities, and are denying sanctuary in Iraq from which it can plan and execute attacks.
With New Zealand’s announcement yesterday that it will provide military trainers to build the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces, a dozen Coalition nations are now participating in these efforts in multiple sites across Iraq.
Still, the situation in Iraq remains complex, and the road ahead will be challenging and non-linear. Considering where we were only eight months ago, one can begin to see how this first phase of our strategy is delivering results.
As I appear before this esteemed committee today it’s important to recall that in June of last year, ISIL burst onto the international scene as a seemingly irresistible force. It conquered a city, Mosul, of 1.5 million, then poured south towards Baghdad, taking cities, towns, and villages along the way.
Outside Tikrit, it rounded up and massacred over 1,000 Iraqi Air Force recruits. To the west, it broke through the border town of al Qaim, and poured east towards Baghdad. ISIL's spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, vowed: “The battle would soon rage in Baghdad and [in the holy city of] Karbala.”
Shortly thereafter, ISIL launched a multiple pronged attack further into northern Iraq, massacring minority populations, enslaving hundreds of women and girls, surrounding tens of thousands of Yazidis at Sinjar Mountain, and opening a clear route to Erbil, the region's capital.
Then, the United States acted. Since our first airstrikes in August, ISIL’s advance has been blunted, and they have been driven back from the approaches to Baghdad and Erbil.
ISIL has lost half of its Iraq-based leadership, and thousands of hardened fighters, and is no longer able to mass, maneuver, and communicate as an effective force. Iraqis are also standing on their feet. The Kurdish Peshmerga have recovered nearly all of the ground lost in August.
Peshmerga have taken control of Mosul Dam, Rabiya border crossing, Sinjar Mountain, Zumar, and the Kisik road junction, which eliminated a supply route for ISIL from Syria to Mosul. These forces also broke the siege of the Bayji oil refinery, and have begun to push north up the Tigris Valley. To the west, Sunni tribes are working with Iraqi Security Forces to retake land in the heart of Anbar province, a land I know well.
Just last week, under the cover of bad weather, ISIL launched an attack on the town of al-Baghdadi, near al Asad airbase, where our forces are located with the Danes and Australians to help train Iraqi soldiers and tribal volunteers.
ISIL, as it has done over and over again, rampaged through the town, killing civilians, and driving hundreds of families into exile on the airbase. But the Iraqis did not sit idle; they organized, and fought back.
Prime Minister Abadi went to the Joint Operations Center in Baghdad and ordered a counter-attack. The Minister of Defense flew to Al-Asad to organize available forces. Iraqi Army commanders sent an armored column from Baghdad to join the attack. Sunni tribal volunteers organized to support and in some cases lead the attack.
Today, much of Al-Baghdadi is back in the hands of these local tribes and security forces.
I was at Al Asad Airbase last month, and my deputy, Brett McGurk, was there three days ago. All Americans would be proud to see what our troops are doing there, helping the Iraqis and the tribes join the battle against ISIL. This is only a start, and ISIL will remain a substantial foe. But any aura of invincibility has been shattered. ISIL is not invincible, it is defeatable, and is being defeated -- by Iraqi forces, defending and taking back their towns, cities, and ultimately, their country, with the support of the United States and the Coalition.
And importantly … very importantly … the aura of the so-called Caliphate is destroyed … and the future of the so-called Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is very much in doubt.
Because we lack the same kind of partners on the ground in Syria, the situation is more challenging and complex. Still, we are working closely with regional partners, to establish sites for training and equipping vetted, moderate Syrian opposition elements, to train approximately 5,000 troops per year for the next three years.
These and other military aspects of the campaign will inevitably receive the most attention. But as I have seen in the four previous Coalition efforts with which I’ve been involved, it will ultimately be the aggregate pressure of campaign activity over multiple, mutually-supporting, lines of effort that will determine the campaign’s success.
That is why when I visit a Coalition capital and meet with a prime minister or a king or a president, I describe the coalition’s counter-ISIL strategy as being organized around multiple lines of effort — the military line to deny safe haven and provide security assistance, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, disrupting ISIL’s financial resources, providing humanitarian relief and support to its victims, and counter-messaging … or defeating ISIL as an idea.
Since mid-September, I have traveled to 21 partner capitals, several of them multiple times, to meet with their national leadership. In that short span, we have assembled a global coalition of 62 nations and international organizations.
On many recent visits, leaders have expressed heightened concern for the immediate and generational challenge presented by foreign fighters … and rightly so.
Through capacity building in the Balkans, criminal justice efforts in North Africa, and changes to laws in more than a dozen countries, partners are working together to make it more difficult for citizens to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Even with these expanded measures, foreign fighters continue to make their way to the battlefield. We must continue to harmonize our border and customs processes and promote intelligence sharing among partners.
This kind of information sharing has also allowed the Coalition to make significant gains in synchronizing practices to block ISIL’s access to banks, both in the region and globally. This includes stemming the flow of private donations and restricting ISIL’s ability to generate oil revenues. We are now expanding these efforts to counter ISIL’s access to local and informal financial networks.
The Coalition is also supporting the United Nations’ efforts to provide food aid and supply critical assistance to protect vulnerable women, children and men from harsh winter conditions.
The ravaged communities ISIL leaves in its wake bear witness to ISIL’s true identity, one we are actively working with coalition partners to expose, with Arab partners taking a leading role.
ISIL was attractive to many of its recruits because of its proclamation of a so-called Caliphate and the sense of inevitability it promoted. The last six months have amply demonstrated that ISIL is really operating as a criminal gang and death cult which is under increasing pressure, as it sends naïve and gullible recruits to die by the hundreds.
Coalition partners are working together as never before to share messages, engage traditional and social media and underscore the vision of religious leaders who reject ISIL’s millennialist vision.
As the President announced recently, we are partnering with the U.A.E. to create a joint messaging center that will contest ISIL’s vigorous information offensive and extremist messages for the long term.
And we’re seeking to create a network of these centers where regional consortia of nations can dispute … and ultimately dominate … the information space filled with ISIL’s messaging.
The President has outlined a framework for the authorities he believes will be necessary to pursue this long-term campaign with his formal request to Congress for the authorization of the use of military force against ISIL. The AUMF request foresees using our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground … instead of through the large-scale deployment of U.S. ground forces.
The President has asked for the flexibility to fight an adaptable enemy, one that hopes to expand its reach well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
Taking the fight to ISIL requires that we be flexible and patient in our efforts. It also requires close coordination with this Committee and with Congress, so that we are constantly evaluating our tactics and strategy, and that we are resourcing them appropriately.
I thank you for the opportunity to continue that process of coordination and consultation today and I look forward to taking your questions.