Interview on CBS' Face the Nation With John Dickerson

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
Washington, DC
November 22, 2015

JOHN DICKERSON, CBS HOST: We're back with Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the global coalition to conquer ISIL.

Mr. McGurk, I want to start just with this simple question. Is the United States at war with ISIS?

BRETT MCGURK, U.S. DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: John, absolutely, we're at war with ISIS, and it's a war that we're not going to relent until we destroy this barbaric terrorist organization.

But it's not just the United States that's at war with ISIS. It has to be entire international community. We have a coalition of 65 members that are coordinating efforts across multiple lines of effort, cutting off the finances, contesting them militarily on the ground.

And the U.N. Security Council just on Friday, a really historic resolution, in solidarity with the French, said this is an unprecedented global threat. So, we have to work together as a coalition, and we're going to do all that we can to take back their territory, to kill the leaders, to cut off the finances, and also to destroy the global networks that are feeding foreign fighters into Syria.

DICKERSON: Let me you about Senator Feinstein's criticism. And this is not her alone. Former administration officials make this claim, too, that it's not moving fast enough.

MCGURK: Well, those of us working on this, we're not going to be satisfied until we have destroyed this organization. Make no mistake.

And we have had to do some things over the last year to set the conditions for us to accelerate our efforts. So, for example, just over last two weeks, we have had simultaneous operations in Syria and Iraq with Kurdish and Arab forces to cut off this main supply route that ISIL has had between Raqqa and Mosul. Those were very successful operations.

Our special forces going into Northern Syria will be -- their mission will be to organize the forces on the ground, a broad coalition of forces, and begin to push down on Raqqa. We couldn't have done that six months ago. The conditions now are in place to do that.

DICKERSON: The special forces you mentioned, these are the 50 the president named. How many of those have arrived?

MCGURK: Well, they will be going in very soon.

In fact, I was just in Northern Iraq in Iraq, talking with the task force.

DICKERSON: But they're not there yet?

MCGURK: We're not going to preview when they're going to get in. Obviously, that -- those are -- that is sensitive information. But they will be going in, and they will be organizing the forces. And, in fact, the forces that they will be working with have been doing a very successful operation.

They have taken back about 1,100 square kilometers just in the last two weeks. They have killed about 300 ISIL fighters. And this is focused on isolating the capital of ISIL in Raqqa, where we think a lot of these plots are being hatched.

DICKERSON: Is the U.S. operation now -- there was -- there's been a lot of talk about Iraq, a lot of effort in Iraq. Is it now basically that Syria is ground zero for U.S. anti-terrorism operations?

MCGURK: Well, John, I gave briefing at the State Department just the other day to talk about it's a multiple-pressure strategy across what we call the core of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

But we're going to do two things. We're going to pressure them and strangle them in the core. And that means all around Iraq and Syria. And we're doing that by cutting offer their final 98-kilometer stretch of border they have with Turkey. We're doing by cutting off their access points between Raqqa and Mosul.

We're doing it by protecting the northern flank above the Tigris River up near Baiji, and working with Iraqi security forces to retake Ramadi. Our Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken is in Baghdad today talking with Prime Minister Abadi about that.

So, it is simultaneous pressure in Iraq and Syria. But as we suffocate and strangle them in the core, we're also going to work to strangle their international networks. John, we have never seen anything like this, 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries around the world. It is almost twice as many that went into Afghanistan in the '80s.

So, we have to work as a global community. We have to share information; 34 countries have now broken up foreign fighter plots. And now what we need to do as a global coalition is share the information to take down the networks at a single time.

DICKERSON: Let me talk to you about a man at the core -- center of that core you describe, Assad.

The U.S. wants him out. The Russians don't. We hear about cooperation in all the countries you name, but if the United States is not cooperating with Russia because we have a fundamental difference on Assad, how is any real progress going to be made?

MCGURK: Well, I think the president spoke to this, this morning.

The Russians, after ISIL took credit for downing an airliner above the Sinai -- and, of course, all signs point to the fact that ISIL was responsible for that attack, and the investigation still has to conclude.

But we welcome Russia's efforts against ISIL. And that is something that we want them to very much focus on. But in Vienna, over the last two weeks, John, for the first time in the history -- and since this Syrian civil war started four years ago, we now have all the players around a table, the Russians, the Saudis, the Iranians, all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

And they have agreed on a road map, an 18-month road map for a political transition, and also to put in place a cease-fire, because what we want to do, and we have been working with the Russians on this very closely, what we want to do is have a cease-fire against the moderate opposition and the regime so we can focus on the real threat of ISIL.

However, that is not going to happen, we can't get to a cease- fire unless we have a credible political transition process that will lead to Assad stepping aside for a new and inclusive government.

DICKERSON: All right, thanks so much, Mr. Ambassador, for being with us.

MCGURK: John, thank you so much.