Interview With Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
Washington, DC
September 11, 2015

QUESTION: (In Arabic.) General, thank you very much for your time, sir.

GENERAL ALLEN: Honored to be with you today.

QUESTION: It’s a year anniversary since you established this Coalition. What lessons can we draw from it, and what do we know about ISIS that we haven’t known so far?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, it is the one-year anniversary. We’re very conscious of that, and so we’re taking very – we’re paying very close attention to what we have accomplished in that year.

I think the first important lesson is that, as we expected, this is going to take a while. And while it has taken a while, I think we’ve accomplished a lot. When I look back on that year, when I looked at where we were this time last year, the situation was pretty grim. We were facing atrocities we had never seen the length of before, the fall of large components of Iraq, the threat to the Kurdish region, the threat to Erbil itself, actually. The Iraqi Security Forces were in very serious trouble, and Daesh was headed for Baghdad. And we frankly weren’t sure whether it was going to survive, the country.

What we have seen in the meantime was a capable political leadership which has emerged in Baghdad in the form of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has brought the central government a long way – far beyond what we thought it could have been this time last year. He had just taken over about two days ago a year ago. And since that time we’ve seen some significant political progress. He’s not satisfied with where it is, but he has a plan. He has an actual program; they’ve been able to get a budget passed. He’s reaching out to the various components of the population of Iraq. It is his desire and it’s our desire to take those steps that are necessary to recover the territorial integrity of Iraq – all of Iraq for all Iraqis – and to extend the sovereignty of the central government out across all of Iraq, to have it rejecting Daesh, and returning as much as possible the quality of life of the Iraqi people.

The other things that we have seen and have learned is that there is great capacity when the community of nations comes together to try to respond to an emergency. And ISIL last year, Daesh, was a real emergency. It was already well embedded in Syria, an area of great chaos even then and greater chaos now in many respects. And the community of nations came together to work very closely not just in the stabilization of Iraq, but to try to empower the people of the region to combat this threat and ultimately to take back their homes and to take back their land and territory.

As well there were significant efforts in helping the region to counter the message of Daesh. You and I have talked about Daesh is a symptom of something bigger and worse – the condition over the region. And what we ultimately hope and seek is to counter that message so that it does not create an allure for the youth, it does not become, as we say, the siren song for those who want to accomplish something with their life. What we want is for credible governance to take root, justice to take root, equal rights to take root, to create an opportunity where this emerging youth of the region who are better educated than ever before, who have aspirations for their people and for their countries that they seek to achieve – we want to create a platform in the aftermath of dealing with Daesh where these aspirations can be achieved, and any thought that Daesh has a resort or an alternative leaves their minds.

And so those are the kinds of thoughts that we have at the one-year point in the aftermath of this crisis.

QUESTION: We’re going to stay with Iraq. At what level do you coordinate with the Iraqi army regarding this – in terms of the structure to fight ISIS?

GENERAL ALLEN: Throughout, actually. Obviously, we work very closely with the minister of defense, Minister Obaidi. We work with his uniform general officers, and then through operations centers. And at five particular training locations in Iraq, we work closely with units that are cycling through training, but also with the tactical commanders as well down to the operational center level. So it’s a very close relationship to continue the process of improving the tactical and operational capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces.

To this point, in the five training centers we trained about 12,000 Iraqi security forces. We continue with – today, for example, there are 3,500 that are in training; about 2,000 are committed now into the tactical operations on the ground. We’re also working with the Minister of Interior, very importantly, to help to recover the police that were scattered in the aftermath of the invasion of Daesh, to bring the police back together to get them back in that blue uniform, to give them training and equipment and have them be a factor in the lives of those elements of the population that will liberated as the counteroffensive continues.

So the relationship is actually quite close, and we work with them throughout the command, down to the operational command level.

QUESTION: Now, you have the Iranians who have been helping the Iraqi Army as well training and equipping them, just like you do. So in a way you have this triangular relationship, if you will, between the Iraqis, the Iranians, and yourselves. Would you agree and disagree?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, we don’t have any relationship with the Iranians. We don’t coordinate with --

QUESTION: Indirect?

GENERAL ALLEN: No, we don’t. We have no indirect relationship with them either. We work specifically with the Iraqi Security Forces. We work specifically with the Iraqi Government. We are obviously aware that the Iranians are there. We’re clearly aware that the Iranians have provided support to certain elements of the Iraqi population, but we do not coordinate with Iran directly, primarily because we believe that the relationship we have with the Iraqi Government and the Iraq Security Forces is adequate to accomplish our objectives.

QUESTION: What do you think that Mosul can be liberated? And ISIS has been in charge. It’s the second largest city in Iraq.

GENERAL ALLEN: Sure. I don’t know the timeline on it. It’s an important question. But as Prime Minister Abadi has said, we want to do Mosul when we’re ready to do Mosul, not along a timeline, an artificial timeline. So there will be steps towards that end. We are working very closely, as I said, to train the Iraqi Security Forces right now. Some of those forces will be dedicated and committed to the liberation of population centers in al-Anbar. Some have been associated with operations in Salah ad Din province. But you’ll see that much of that force in the end will be committed to the liberation of Mosul. What I don’t want to do is get into the details and telegraph to --

QUESTION: Sure. But are we talking about months or years? Because --

GENERAL ALLEN: I would say months, but I want to be very careful about this. And it’s an important question, but it’s a question probably better put to the Iraqi Security Force leadership.

QUESTION: Sure. The view from the region that time is on the side of ISIS. They are tenacious. They are resilient. Do you think this after one year you need to change your strategy of how you are going to defeat them?

GENERAL ALLEN: I don’t think time is on the side of ISIS, to be quite honest with you. I – a whole variety of reasons. First, ISIS relied on weak and will also rely on weak governance to make its inroads. We’re beginning to see a strengthening of governance occurring in Baghdad, and that’s the first area which I think is really important.

This prime minister bases his philosophy of governance on what we call functioning federalism, which is to give more power to the provinces. So as provinces are liberated and reincorporated into the fabric of Iraq, I believe that we’ll see more discretion given to local leaders who can create the conditions within those regions that don’t favor either the return of Daesh or an organization that looks like Daesh.

Daesh’s surface area has been contained largely. Now, they have gained some territory in some areas, but they’ve lost significant territories in others. For example, Tikrit has been recovered. The Iraqi Security Forces cleared Tikrit. There are Tikritis who are going home now. About 100,000 have returned. More will go home. Obviously, we’re in battles – big battles right now, hopefully that will result in the liberation of other significant areas. Those areas in the Kurdistan Regional Government areas, those areas that were taken by Daesh last year in its attack on Erbil – all of those have been recovered. All that ground has been recovered and the Kurds are still in the attack against Daesh.

In Syria Daesh has, in fact, taken additional ground, but a large segment of Syria, the segment that runs along the Syrian and Turkish border from the Kurdish Regional Government, that area all the way through the Euphrates – that has been completely taken from Daesh. Daesh has been pushed well from that border, and there are elements of Syrian opposition forces that are within 45 kilometers of Raqqa.

Now, a year ago you could not have imagined that we’d find ourselves in that position – internally displaced people going home to Tikrit, a fully functioning government in Baghdad, the KRG having restored its sovereignty over this territory, Daesh having been pushed off the Syrian border all the way to the Euphrates, Kobani saved, Tal Abyad closed, and threatening Raqqa. It’s not where we want to end up, but it’s certainly progress from where we were a year ago.

QUESTION: Some people also in the region think that if the Arab Coalition can curtail the influence of militias in Yemen in five months, how come an international Coalition led by the United States cannot make more significant pushback against ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, again, we chose, consciously chose as a matter of strategy, to do all we could to empower the indigenous forces in Syria, local forces, and Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces. We have to remember the state of those forces when this process began, which is they had taken a terrible beating from Daesh at the beginning of this conflict about a year ago now. And so it has taken not an insignificant amount of time for the Coalition to establish five large training centers with Coalition partners to begin the process of training Iraqis, and we’re going to continue that process with Syrian partners as well.

What’s really important is to recognize that when you have a strategic decision like this where you can do it yourself with large numbers of foreign forces or try very hard to give capability and power to the indigenous forces, the outcome’s going to be very different.


GENERAL ALLEN: The antibodies that can be created by foreign forces being introduced sometimes take years or maybe even a generation to overcome. But if we can empower those for whom these countries are their sovereign territories, give them the capacity to take that country back and to return the control of that territory to them because they fought for it and we helped them to fight for it, that’s a really important outcome.

QUESTION: I want to talk about the same problem, especially in Syria, but I have to stop for a commercial break. (In Arabic.)


QUESTION: (In Arabic.) General, there’s great criticism against the Coalition and the United States about the training of Syrian opposition. You want to empower people on the ground, you want to have an organic movement, but yet you only trained 60 people and you’re telling them you cannot fight the regime, then because of Assad regime, we have ISIS on the ground. How does this make sense?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I think that was a long-term program and the intent was to work with those elements of the Syrian population that were ready to come forward and ultimately to fight Daesh. But that wasn’t the only thing we sought to do with them. We sought to give them the capacity to clear their own territories, to defend themselves and their families, and to clear Daesh from that part of the country, and within that area with – over which they held sway.

So it was very important for us as we went through this process to do a couple of things. One was to, of course, give them the capacity to protect themselves and ultimately to accomplish their objectives. And while we had difficulties with that first group that has come out and we’re looking at very carefully, we’re looking at the lessons that we’ve learned and how we can shape the program to be even more effective in the future, we have had real success in other areas by empowering those elements to both protect themselves and to clear Daesh.

QUESTION: You mean the Kurds?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, it’s not just the Kurds. It is the Kurds, but it is – it’s others as well – the Turkomen population, the Syrian Arab population as well. And they’ve been very successful and we’re going to continue to support them. At the same time, we’re going to be looking for Syrian Arab elements west of the Euphrates to help us close that final gap between Jarabulus in the west to Kilis roughly in the east. So we’re going to continue the process because we actually believe that empowering as much as we can the moderate Syrian elements, whatever they may be, from whatever ethnic group or confession they may be – by empowering them to take back the ground to defend their families, this is the right solution.

At the same time, though, we’re going to work very, very hard to try to effect a political transition. This political transition has to be the outcome because we’ll never solve the problems of Syria in a military sense there. We just – we’re confronted every day with the enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe that has come from this civil war. And so while we’ll try to empower those elements within the population as best we can to protect themselves and to defeat Daesh, we also want to create the conditions ultimately for a political outcome that does not include Bashar al-Assad, that is a political outcome that is the will of the Syrian people.

Now, that may seem difficult right now to envision --


GENERAL ALLEN: -- but that’s going to be our objective, and it’s something that we’re not going to change.

QUESTION: Well, and people say that you’re putting condition on this small group of Syrian opposition: do not fight Assad. You have the Russians now doing a major buildup inside, and they’re coming to his aid and people believe that your strategy is not working in Syria at all, because as long as Assad is in power, you cannot expect anybody just to fight ISIS and say, “Stay in your territories” while he’s sending barrel bombs and planes and destroying half of the country. So don’t you need to look at the strategy differently and say, “I need to look at this opposition in a different way,” and allow them to fight Assad alongside ISIS?

GENERAL ALLEN: It’s not our intent right now, the way in which we are dealing with the strategy, to empower the – a military force to counter Assad. I just have to tell you that that’s not the intent of our strategy at this moment. But the intent of the strategy is of course to give them the capacity to defend themselves, and if they are attacked by the regime, we will give them the capacity to defend themselves to include those that we support, to include all the support that we can bring to bear.

So we will help them to defend themselves against the regime. What we want them to do – and other groups that may attack them as well – what we want them to do --


GENERAL ALLEN: Nusrah, exactly – Nusrah and other groups – we want them to be able to create for themselves an area that they control and to help us to eliminate Daesh, and in so doing create the capacity of the Syrian people to be a voice in the political process as well. That’s the goal.

QUESTION: So this is the area that you talk, ISIS-free, or you don’t want to name it, you and the terrorists kind of have different terminology for it. This is the area you’re talking about for the time being?

GENERAL ALLEN: It’s anywhere we can create a credible relationship with those Syrians that are willing to fight alongside us. For now, it is those groups that are up along the northern tier --

QUESTION: What was --

GENERAL ALLEN: -- and there are some in the south, of course, as well.

QUESTION: Sure. Yeah, absolutely, the (inaudible). What was the problem with the training and assisting people, and some of them were kidnapped?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I – it’s a good question. I really don’t want to get into the details, the operational details. We did learn from that. We’re committed to the principle. We think the principle is right – to empower Syrians to defend themselves, ultimately to defend their families and their ground and ultimately to take the fight to Daesh. We’re in the process right now of looking at that program hard to see what we can learn from it to do better. But at the same time as we look at that program, as I described earlier, there were other Syrian elements that were empowered that have had really significant success against Daesh. So those are all important lesson learned – lessons learned that we’re going to apply across the support we will provide to the Syrians.

QUESTION: Some say that your relationship with Turkey will complicate matters because of the PKK and because of the Kurdish question. But putting this aside, are you satisfied by Turkey’s effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters through its border with Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, our relationship with Turkey is – it’s an old relationship. It’s an old friendship, and we’ve been together through some pretty tough times. We’re also part of an alliance together – NATO partners. And I’ve been to Ankara many times in the recent conversation that we’ve had with Turkey about its role in the Coalition. And the result, I think, has been some pretty significant decisions by the Turkish Government, which we absolutely applaud – the decision to permit us to fly off of Turkish air bases alongside Turkish airmen to strike Daesh; the decision by the Turks to work with us on the training of Syrian opposition elements; permitting us to fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and to provide pilot recovery from Turkey. All of those are a really significant decision. That’s just part of it.

Another part of the conversation we’ve had with Turkey is about the flow of foreign fighters and the control of the border and what more we can do as partners, but what more the whole Coalition and the community of nations can do with Turkey to help Turkey to deal with this problem. And if you’ve seen the denied entry list, that has grown enormously in just the last couple of years. It is because there has been, in fact, an increase of other countries’ willingness to share information with Turkey so that Turkey can do more to control its borders with respect to the flow of foreign fighters. The Turks are taking action inside the country, looking very closely at dealing with and interdicting the flow – the foreign fighter networks that flow foreign fighters across Turkey to give them access to the Syrian border.

It’s complemented by a conversation that we’re having with the – with Turkey about other elements (inaudible) on strengthening aspects of their border – infrastructure and other detection means – and then very importantly, it’s being augmented simply by military operations south of the border that’s going to deny Daesh access to that border.

So it’s not just one measure. It’s the community of nations that has to work with Turkey to help Turkey do a better job, which I believe it wants to do. It’s what Turkey does inside to attack the networks and the flows of foreign fighters. It’s what we can do at the border to make it hard to get across and it’s what we do south of the border to deny it as a means for entry of foreign fighters into Syria.

QUESTION: Finally, how concerned are you about the Syrian buildup in Syria – the Russian buildup in Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, we’re going to watch it very closely. We’re going to watch the developments and see where it goes. We’ve been in a long conversation with the Russians about political transition. We’ve been unambiguous with the Russians about our desire that this conflict has to be solved politically – that the military piece of this thing has created an enormous humanitarian crisis in the region, and it’s at many different levels now. And so our desire is to work with the Russians and other external partners to create a political transition that does not include Bashar al-Assad. But we also say very openly that we oppose any support to that regime that has the capacity to expand or increase the violence of that conflict.

So we’ll watch the developments with respect to what the Russians are doing. We’ll stay in close consult with our partners and our allies and we’ll see where it goes.

QUESTION: Great, thank you so much. Thank you for your time, sir.

GENERAL ALLEN: Great pleasure to be with you today.