Remarks to the Economic Club of New York
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL
(As Prepared for Delivery)
I would like to thank Chairman Dudley for his generous introduction and for inviting me here this afternoon. The New York Economic Club for over a century has gathered some of this country’s most esteemed and accomplished individuals in business, philanthropy, politics, diplomacy and the arts. It is an honor to follow in this important tradition with you today.
I am just back from Baghdad, where I met with all the senior Iraqi leadership. I am just back from the Kurdish region, where I met with the Kurdish leadership. I’m just back from Amman, where I met with His Majesty the King and the Royal Court and his senior leaders. And I leave in 48 hours to head back to the Gulf to meet with all of our partners there.
And of course, it is always good to be back in New York. It was here just two weeks ago that at the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama convened Heads of State from more than 100 nations, 20 multilateral institutions, some 120 civil society groups from around the world, and partners from the private sector, to tackle violent extremists and the abomination that is ISIL. I will refer from here on by its Arabic acronym Da’esh.
Last year President Obama called on the international community at the UN General Assembly to recognize the world was “at a crossroads.”
And in the work I have been honored to perform over the past year as the President’s Special Envoy to Counter Da’esh, I have been deeply impressed by the diverse group of partners who have joined this campaign and by the willingness of so many to step up and take on leading roles. We have sent a clear message to Da’esh and to the world:
We refuse to stand idly by its atrocities. We reject its toxic, false ideology. And we abhor its vicious and continued assault on human dignity.
And ladies and gentlemen, we can never ever accept that organizations like Da’esh can become the new normal. It cannot become the new normal. And we must never lose our sense of outrage at what we have seen this organization do and are doing every day, and what it intends to do to the people that it subjugates, and to the people in this room if left unchecked.
Coalition Assembly / Organization
The initial action we took last year to impede and arrest Da’esh’s momentum was immediately essential, but by no means sufficient to counter the enduring danger that Da’esh represents. At root, Da’esh is not an Iraq or Syria problem; Da’esh is a regional problem with global implications.
Since I began serving in this role I have now traveled to 30 capitals, many of them repeatedly, and during that time we have assembled a global Coalition, welcoming three new key countries just last month – Nigeria, Tunisia and Malaysia – for a total now of 65 nations and international organizations.
Unlike other Coalition campaigns of which I have been a part, we have had to build this Coalition from whole cloth. When I served as Commander of our NATO forces in Afghanistan for instance, our authorities and organizing mechanisms came from the UN Security Council and later from NATO. The unprecedented nature and urgency of this effort required that we bind the international community in both the morality of its purpose and the agility of its function to confront the dangers at hand.
While it is the Coalition’s kinetic actions that often receive the most attention, it is the aggregate effect of the Coalition’s activities across multiple lines of effort that will … in the end … determine the Coalition’s success:
- A military component to deny Da’esh safe haven and provide security assistance to local partners;
- Providing stabilization and humanitarian relief to liberated areas;
- Disrupting Da’esh’s access to financial resources;
- Countering Da’esh’s messaging – or defeating Da’esh as an idea;
- And disrupting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.
Let me provide an overview of the Coalition’s progress over our central lines of effort and some of the ways the Coalition is evolving to confront Da’esh as it adapts.
There is no question that this is going to be a long-term conflict and there will be much work remaining as we attempt … and will succeed … to degrade and defeat this organization.
If you recall, the situation one year ago was dire. Da’esh had advanced unimpeded across Iraq. Erbil and Baghdad were under threat as Da’esh advanced rapidly on those cities, where U.S. government personnel were located. Tikrit had fallen. Kirkuk was threatened. Mosul Dam had been taken. They had also laid siege to Sinjar Mountain, threatening genocide against the Yezidi people.
A year later, with support to local forces on the ground, the Coalition has applied significant pressure, hitting Da’esh with more than 7,000 airstrikes, taking out numerous commanders, over 1,700 vehicles and tanks, over 170 artillery and mortar positions, nearly 4,000 fighting positions, checkpoints, buildings, bunkers, staging areas and barracks, including 26 training camps, in both Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, 18 Coalition members have to date trained more than 13,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers. Da’esh has lost the freedom to operate in over 30% of the populated territory they held last August. The city of Tikrit has been liberated, with 75% of the population having returned. And Iraqi forces are making gains in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which we anticipate will be the next liberated city.
In Syria, Da’esh has lost significant territory in northern Syria and is now cut off from all but 68 miles of the nearly 600-mile border between Syria and Turkey. This is significant in reducing the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and squeezing Da’esh’s resupply lines; though, the Russian presence in Syria could significantly complicate this.
We are supporting counter-Da’esh forces in northern Syria, which include Syrian Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen, in their efforts to take back territory. These anti-Da’esh forces in northern Syria have liberated Kobane from Da’esh in the west, connected with others who expelled Da’esh from Tel Abyad … its main border crossing with Turkey … and have now cleared al-Hasakah from Da’esh in the east towards Iraq. Today some of those forces are within 30 miles of Da’esh’s nerve center in Raqqa.
Coalition strikes have taken out a number of senior Da’esh leaders: including its number two commander Hajji Mutazz, as well as Abu Sayyaf, a key emir involved in financing for the organization, and Junaid Hussain, a Da’esh member who sought to target Western interests in the United Kingdom and United States.
And we must not forget Turkey, a critical partner in this fight, who recently increased its participation in the Coalition, opening its bases to U.S. and other Coalition members, and conducting air strikes on Da’esh targets inside Syria alongside Coalition aircraft. This cooperation has proved a game-changer, reducing the transit time into Syria to just 18 minutes from up to 4 hours from bases in the Gulf.
And as a geographic chokepoint in the flow of foreign fighters, Turkey has increased detentions, arrests, and prosecution of suspected foreign fighters, as well as information sharing with international partners, and steps to improve the security of Turkey’s southern frontier.
And so to confront Da’esh in this new battlespace is part of why the stabilization of communities liberated from Da’esh is so important, and why Coalition support for these activities is a central line of effort.
The Coalition has helped Iraqis plan and resource these efforts. The Germans and Emiratis are helping organize contributions from more than 20 Coalition partners to provide stabilization support. The Italians are leading efforts to train an effective Iraqi police force. The Canadians have stepped forward to ensure protections and programs for women and girls are incorporated. And several nations, including the United States, have made sizable contributions to a stabilization fund administered by the United Nations Development Program.
This UNDP funding mechanism allows Iraq to meet the urgent needs of returning Iraqis, such as water, electricity, and healthcare … services that were destroyed or deteriorated under Da’esh’s heel.
And already we are seeing progress: Displaced Iraqis have been returning to Salah ad-Din province; since Tikrit has been liberated, three quarters of the city’s original residents have returned to their homes and have begun to rebuild their community. The Coalition in partnership with the UN is working tirelessly to ensure areas liberated of Da’esh control are secure, stable, and hospitable enough for Iraq’s vast displaced communities to summon the will return home once they feel ready and safe to do so.
The process won’t be quick or easy, but it will continue to move forward. Liberating areas from Da’esh will never be enough … we must help the Iraqi government restore stability, allow people to return home, and address the lack of security that fostered extremism in the first place.
Squeezing Da’esh’s access to financial resources and networks in both Syria and Iraq is one of the best ways to disrupt their operations and free populations from their hold. The raid in Syria on Da’esh’s finance, oil and antiquities emir, Abu Sayyaf, on May 16 has provided the Coalition with a wealth of information on the organization’s financial and economic portfolio.
We know Da’esh’s leadership places enormous focus on closely monitoring its finances, and is riven by well-founded fears of internal corruption.
We know from media reports that some of Da’esh’s leaders have fled the fight in Iraq and Syria, absconding with millions of dollars. One of Da’esh’s financial emirs in Syria fled to Turkey with over one million dollars raised from extortion schemes; another emir from in Eastern Syria fled with $10 million. We must expose Da’esh for the venal and vicious institution it is, and highlight its hypocrisy to would-be recruits.
We also know there are dozens of active oil fields, primarily centered in Eastern Syrian, right by their nerve center in Raqqa. Those fields are estimated to produce at least 40,000 barrels of oil a day – worth at least one million dollars.
Coalition efforts to constrain Da’esh’s ability to profit from these resources include a combination of air strikes on modular refineries, and increased border security by neighboring states to curtail smuggling. These measures have forced Da’esh to rely upon the most rudimentary forms of oil production and refining – open pits and primitive stills that produce limited yields of poor-quality product.
But Da’esh has proved more resilient and capable than we initially estimated. And this underscores the importance of maintaining pressure on the group and their supporters in this enterprise … from the military, diplomats, law enforcement, and indeed the private sector.
Beyond its energy resources, Da’esh also continues to draw on diverse sources of financial support:
- Extorting its subjugated population by imposing “taxes” on everything from salaries, to commerce, to real estate, to cash withdrawals from banks.
- And let’s not forget kidnaping for ransom, human trafficking, a slave trade, and profit from the sale and taxation of plundered antiquities.
We have made progress in recent weeks targeting those sources of income. Two weeks ago, the Treasury and State Departments designated 25 key Da’esh leaders and facilitators, including some engaged in facilitating travel for foreign terrorist fighters, not just in Iraq, but from the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Algeria.
The State Department has also authorized a reward of up to $5 million dollars for information that helps to significantly disrupt Da’esh’s illicit oil and antiquities trade, and hopefully generates more actionable intelligence on the smuggling networks, methods, and routes underlying these activities.
Our understanding of Da’esh’s financial networks is quickly improving as we process a greater share of what was seized in the raid on Abu Sayyef. As we operationalize more of this information, Coalition counter-finance efforts will only accelerate.
Our counter-messaging effort is also advancing as Coalition partners coordinate to contest Da’esh’s narrative across platforms and languages
Here, it is important that key, credible Muslim voices and scholars speak out and publicly reject Da’esh’s ideology. In the Arab world, it is vital that the voice discrediting Da’esh has an Arab face and that it has a Muslim voice.
Already we are beginning to see Da’esh’s media enterprise diminish, as social media companies become more vigilant and responsive to removing content, coupled by the efforts of many of our Coalition partners.
Just as important as preventing individuals from joining the fight is helping to amplify the stories of those who have fought under Daesh and have broken free from its ranks.
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications managed a multimedia campaign of “Da’esh Defectors.” The campaign leveraged the testimonies of former Da’esh members through U.S. government messengers, Coalition partners, and third-party NGOs, generating some 900 news articles, reaching an estimated 90 million people worldwide.
The United Arab Emirates has launched a joint messaging center with the United States in Abu Dhabi called the Sawab or “Right Path” Center, which is coordinating and driving counter-Da’esh messaging activity in the region. Through direct online engagement, the center is countering Da’esh’s efforts to recruit foreign fighters, raise funds, and terrorize local populations. As we learn from Sawab’s operations we will explore establishing additional regional messaging hubs in Southeast Asia and Europe.
Wherever Da’esh’s message can maneuver in the information space, we will challenge and seek to counter it. No matter how much progress the Coalition makes over other lines of effort, we cannot truly be satisfied until the very idea of Da’esh has been thoroughly delegitimized.
The final line of effort I will mention today is an area that evokes nearly universal concern in my conversations with Coalition partners: The effort to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.
To give you a sense of the scale of the current threat, some 20,000 foreign fighters joined the Soviet-Afghan war over the course of the 1980s, and some 10,000 foreign fighters travelled to Afghanistan over 13 years during the most recent conflict.
Since the start of the conflict in Syria, up to 30,000 individuals, from over 100 countries, have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq.
While we’ve taken back Tal Abyad, the #1 border crossing along Turkey’s border with Syria, the Turkish border is in fact the last line of defense in this equation … and as I already mentioned, we are now working with Turkey and local partners to clear Da’esh from the final 68 miles of that border.
We need all nations working together at each link along the chain … from the point of radicalization, to the point of violence, and to the point of return and rehabilitation.
Since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2178 in September 2014, which required countries to take steps to address the foreign fighter threat, 22 countries have enacted laws to create greater obstacles for traveling to Syria and Iraq. At least 34 countries have arrested foreign fighters or aspirants, and 12 have successfully prosecuted.
Today, through INTERPOL’s Counterterrorism Fusion Center, 52 countries now share foreign terrorist fighter profiles. And bilaterally, the United States has concluded arrangements with over 40 international partners to provide a mechanism for sharing terrorist travel information.
But we must continue to do more and to adapt to different circumstances and contexts in which extremism arises. We must appreciate that there is no one “type” of foreign fighter, no single method of recruitment, and no one source to support them financially.
Da’esh succeeds only when men and women feel little connection to their governments, and to opportunity in their societies. We must work together to offer different models.
I’d like to also comment on what will undoubtedly be at the forefront of many of your minds … and that is Russia’s recent intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
The topline message I want everybody here to understand is that we are going to continue to go after Da’esh. We are going to continue to reach out to the moderate Syrian opposition. We reject Russia’s assertion that everybody opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Asad is a terrorist. We think that is self-defeating and will only draw Russia into a quagmire. And can only be used as a further recruitment tool for foreign fighters to join groups like Da’esh. And this wasn’t helped by the way by the Russian Orthodox Church’s recent declaration that Russia’s involvement in Syria is a “holy battle.”
Let me be clear: Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Asad, was crumbling. And only Iran is lining up behind him to support this plan.
This is neither a smart nor a strategic move on Russia’s part. Russia is making itself a target for violent extremists in Syria, from within Russia itself, and from other parts of the world. Russia has committed its own forces into a situation where not only the overwhelming majority Syrians now see it as the enemy, but now one where the Sunni population throughout the Middle East sees Russia as a supporter, an enabler, and an endorser of a regime that routinely barrel bombs the innocent population.
There may be some short-term appearance of tactical benefit, as Russia stabilizes and props up the Asad regime, but unless Russia remains to assist Asad in crushing every component of the Syrian Opposition, the Asad regime will continue to require foreign support to survive. And as I said so far, the foreign support that has lined up with that regime is Russia, Iran, Lebanese Hizballah, and Shia extremist militias. There is a problem with that list.
Let me also observe that Russia as it was entering the fray in Syria portrayed its entry as potentially in partnership with us to defeat Da’esh within Syria. Yet when you plot the airstrikes and the long-range missile strikes and the cruise-missile strikes, what you find is that the vast majority of Russian strikes are going against opposition groups other than Da’esh, which in the end reduces the effectiveness of the moderate Syrian opposition, and strengthens Da’esh.
Let me be clear, this is NOT a contest between the United States and Russia. It is in our interest for Russia to be a responsible, effective actor on the international stage.
Our battle remains, and will continue to remain, with Da’esh. And our battle, along with the entire international community, is to resolve the conflict in a way that can end the bloodshed and end the refugee crisis, and allow people to be at home, go to work, grow food, keep their children in shelter, and send those kids to school. That’s the side we’re on. And, unlike Russia, in those valiant efforts we are joined by a coalition of 65 partners around the world.
As President Obama and Secretary Kerry have repeated, we are prepared to work with any partner … including the Russians and the Iranians … as long as their focus is on defeating Da’esh and on a clear understanding that the only way forward in Syria is a political transition away from Asad. Nobody pretends that will be easy, but we believe it is still possible and we are keeping lines of communication open in that regard.
From a practical perspective, the moderate opposition in Syria will need to be part of any political transition in Syria. And the Russian policy to drive that opposition underground or to eliminate its effectiveness, can only strengthen Da’esh’s hand.
As a Coalition, we cannot eliminate rivalries among nations and faiths, or address historic grievances. But in coordinating this global effort against Da’esh, with mutual interest and mutual respect, we can change how nations come and work together to fight the complex challenges of our time.
I view this fight as a regional conflict from my perspective of having been a theater commander in war. And in that context it’s not clear yet whether the Russian role can contribute to facilitate a political transition in Syria or in the end stabilize a murderous regime and dictator. If it is the former, there is the potential for cooperation, but if it is the latter, it is difficult to envisage a near-term political outcome that can end the violent and place Syria on a path towards humanitarian, economic, social and political recovery.
Alongside these efforts, the Coalition that I have described will remain focused on the challenges ahead. Aspects of countering Da’esh, like defeating Da’esh’s ideology, may take a generation or more. But we as an international community can and must rise to this challenge.
I look forward to taking your questions today, and to learning and drawing from your insights as our Coalition campaign continues to progress. Thank you.