Joint Press Conference by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and SPE McGurk

Press Conference
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
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Rome, Italy
October 28, 2016

FOREIGN MINISTER GENTILONI [as translated]: Good evening everyone. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to meet again with Brett McGurk this afternoon in Rome. We met during a particularly important moment in the Coalition’s counter-terrorism initiative because as you know the offensive for the military liberation of Mosul is under way.

I think we must first acknowledge that it is not a short while that the anti-Daesh coalition has been obtaining important achievements at the level of territorial recovery, and the encouraging thing is that these are not only military successes, but in particular, in Iraq the liberated areas gradually succeed in stabilizing themselves.

We are registering the return of the population in different cities, from Tikrit to Ramadi to Fallujah and so we can begin to see not only the possibility of a military success but also the possibility of the resumption of stability in Iraq and control of its territory. Naturally this is also the challenge for Mosul, because it is not just about winning a battle at the military level while also handling the unknown factors that exist on the humanitarian level, but also building an inclusive governance that will gradually allow Mosul to have stability and co-existence among the different communities and to avoid tensions or even the return of risks of the presence of terrorism, as has already occurred on other occasions.

We also discussed the situation in Syria, where the coalition is evaluating the possibility in the coming weeks and months to pose the problem of the fundamental base of Daesh that continues to be in Raqqa, and the situation in Libya where the offensive on the part of the militias in favor of the Serraj government, supported by the operations that the US conducts also via the use of Italian bases, has obtained important successes, although they are not yet over. We know that there are currently limited groups that resist in Sirte, where some 100 Daesh fighters remain.

But it is very important regarding Libya – I just had a meeting in France with several countries from Maghreb, and in which the Libyan Foreign Minister also participated – that despite its divisions, Libya has united to consider the defeat of Daesh as a common national interest. Some fought directly, others did not but all recognized the importance of this operation.

So I don’t think we should be overly optimistic but we must register the fact that for the first time the loss of ground of this new manifestation of terrorism that controls the territory, for the first time this loss of ground, can be decisive and the coalition can achieve truly important results. And for this I thank Brett once again for his role in these difficult days of intervention, action, mediation and coordination among the allies, which is a very important role.

MR McGURK: I would like to thank Foreign Minister Gentiloni for the very detailed meeting we just had to cover a whole host of issues related to our common efforts against Daesh. I just spent most of last week in Iraq, between northern Iraq in Erbil, not so far from Mosul, and in Baghdad. I wanted to come from that trip directly to Rome, mainly just to say thank you to all that Italy has done in this comprehensive campaign.

It is just not a military campaign, as the Foreign Minister just mentioned. It is also a humanitarian, a political, a diplomatic and economic challenge and the contributions of Italy to this overall campaign have really been truly extraordinary.

Your Carabinieri are leading the effort to train Iraqi police and this has now been ongoing for a couple of years and that is why all the areas that we have retaken from Daesh inside Iraq - and that is more than 55 percent of the territory now - none of those territories have been retaken by the terrorists and that is because we are just as focused on what comes after Daesh as actually defeating them and having police hold the ground is critical to that and without Italy’s contribution that would not have happened.

Italy is also contributing, which is a critical humanitarian initiative, on Mosul Dam. Mosul Dam was built by Saddam Hussein. It’s one of the most dangerous dams in the world and when Daesh took Mosul Dam in the summer of 2014 they booby-trapped the buildings and when the engineers came back to do the work after we liberated Mosul Dam many of the engineers were killed by IEDs and the work that it takes to uphold the dam was not being done because of the terrorism of Daesh.

Italy has stepped in to make sure that this work can begin again and they just had a major engineering breakthrough just a few days ago opening a gate in the dam which relieves pressure and this is the type of work that potentially could save millions of lives and it is a critical effort that Italy has stepped into.

We are also working very closely in terms of reconnaissance refueling missions and of course in Libya. So the contributions of Italy have been extraordinary.

The success we have seen on the ground not only driving Daesh out of the territories they control but most importantly holding the ground afterwards, returning people to their homes which is happening now in very large numbers, that is because of the very close partnership that we have had.

As the Foreign Minister mentioned, we now have the ongoing campaign to liberate Mosul. This started about ten days ago. This will be a long term effort. This will not be fast. We have anticipated that. Thus far, however, every single objective has been met and we continue to move forward. We focus just as much on the Mosul campaign on the military side as on the governance, stabilization and humanitarian side and this will continue to move forward.

At the same time, as we work to retake the city of Mosul, which of course is where Abu Bhakra el Baghdadi declared his Caliphate, this phony Caliphate, two years ago, as we work to retake that site from Daesh, we are also continuing to put pressure on Daesh in Raqqa and this also requires a diplomatic, military combined effort and we hope to see that get under way very soon.

So the progress against Daesh now is palpable. We are retaking their territory in Iraq and Syria. We have demonstrated that their core, fundamental narrative, the narrative that drove so many recruits to their organization – that this is an historic state-like organization that is constantly expanding its territory – we have proven that to be a total lie. It is not governing people, it is holding them hostage. As they are retreating in Mosul, we are seeing them light oil wells on fire, take human shields as hostages, and doing the things that terrorists do, but we will not let them succeed.

So we are working together in Iraq and Syria, we are working together to counter their finance, we are working together to counter their propaganda and this will be a long term endeavor, but we are on the right track and it is only because of the very close partnership as a global coalition and particularly the contributions of Italy to this overall campaign. So I’m honored to be here. I thank you for the very detailed meeting and I welcome a couple of questions.

QUESTION: There is a lot of discussion about the battle of Mosul, but not much about who will govern Mosul, considering the existing tensions with Turkey. You also discussed Syria. Again, once the areas are liberated, who will control these areas considering that in Syria there was a popular revolt?

FM GENTILONI [as translated]: In general, there is no doubt that the coalition began its operations in Mosul having already reached a few understandings between the different components - also thanks to Brett’s personal commitment - such as the understanding between Prime Minister Abadi and Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish region in Iraq; the understanding to conduct military operations together and then to leave to the regular Iraqi Army the final task – if and when we reach the final phase of the liberation of Mosul – and naturally the objective to have, as we say in diplomatic terms, an inclusive governance on the part of the Nineveh Governorate and on the part of the city of Mosul, which means that it doesn’t authorize sectarian policies or revenge, but respects a pluralistic reality of these areas. So we prepared ourselves to do this and naturally we encountered the difficulties that you can imagine and no one has had more direct experience with these than Brett McGurk.

MR McGURK: Thank you, that’s a good question. This is an enormous challenge and of course we have been working on this already for a number of months, so some of the things that we have been working on you can now see. For example, as the Foreign Minister mentioned, this really historic, unprecedented cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces.

I actually visited a hospital in Erbil where Kurdish Peshmerga wounded were recovering in the same room with Iraqi Army soldiers from the south of the country and talking as though brothers who want to get back in the fight together. So this type of cooperation and coordination, our message to the Iraqis has been from day one, is the only way to defeat Daesh. And we need to continue that spirit under the post-Daesh phase.

So we are obviously working with the tribal and notable figures of Ninawa Province. Up to 15,000 local fighters from Ninawa Province have been recruited to help hold the ground, including the police force, also locals from Mosul—so drawing on the same model that has worked in other areas of Iraq. In Ramadi, we have local people on the ground, securing the ground, encouraging, giving confidence to the people to come home.

So we rely on that same model and we rely a lot on the local leaders to work in close coordination with the regional and the central national leaders in Baghdad, and of course we, as a coalition, are providing them resources to help and facilitate.

As the Foreign Minister said, this will be very challenging. There is a lot of burden on the leadership of the Iraqis from all different parts of the country. But I had the privilege of meeting President Barzani, seeing Prime Minister Abadi and meeting a number of leaders from the Ninawa Province and we have been encouraged by the spirit of cooperation and we want that to carry through to the post-military phase which will be quite important.

QUESTION: Are you worried about the advances made by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels at the expense of US-backed Kurds? And are these advances affecting the chances to liberate Raqqa?

MR McGURK: That’s a very good question. We are working very closely with Turkey. President Obama spoke with President Erdogan just a couple of days ago. They had a very constructive discussion about a number of issues including our cooperative efforts in the counter-Daesh campaign.

If I was here just three months ago I would say Daesh, the terrorists, still control the 98-km strip of border with Turkey from which they are able to get in and out. The Turks have completely now shut that down. We are on the ground with them to help them do that.

As we have said publicly, we will work closely with the Turks and the opposition forces that Turkey is supporting against Daesh. We want to make sure that we have unity of effort against Daesh and that the other forces in this very crowded area work in close coordination. So that is a message that we have given to everybody and, right now we do not see a slowdown in the planning for Raqqa and I think you’ll see that unfold over the coming weeks.

QUESTION: We have news from the ground that the Russian military has formally asked for a green light to restart bombing of the rebel positions in East Aleppo after the offensive of the rebels this morning. Should this happen, would this jeopardize talks and what would be the reaction of the US administration?

MR McGURK: I would just say, as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said, that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. And we very much agree. And if they further choose to escalate the situation, I think this will make the situation even more complicated and ultimately in the long term will not work out very well for Russia.

So obviously we are working very hard to de-escalate the situation in Aleppo and a lot of that effort is being undertaken, led by Secretary Kerry, but the report that you just gave me is one that I have not seen.

But there is no military solution to this very difficult conflict and what Russia has been doing in Aleppo I think the entire world can see, working hand in glove with the regime. They are not fighting terrorists. Civilians are dying, which only drives recruits into the arms of the extremists. So we would encourage them to take a more constructive approach and obviously that is something that we hope to see here over the coming days.

QUESTION: The final and third front you discussed was Libya, particularly Sirte. At the beginning it was said that this was the last battle to retake Sirte, which has been going on for several weeks now. Do you have an estimate of how long it will last and most of all if in the end, after these pockets of resistance are eliminated, will be decisive in eliminating Daesh in Libya?

FM GENTILONI: [as translated]: I think we must never evoke expectations for quick solutions in all these operations against Daesh and terrorism. We must not do it for Mosul either. The operations that we are discussing will not be over in five days. It will be a very long and difficult road, even if it will be a positive one. The same thing is taking place in Sirte.

The truth is that the presence of Daesh in Sirte has decreased both in terms of numbers as well as in terms of the area of the city in which the terrorists are concentrated. And yet the total liberation is not simple also because the effectiveness of the air support can be reduced for example by underground activities and other forms of contrast.

Yet one political figure is certain and that is that the idea that Daesh would have made Libya its stronghold in the Middle East because of the pressure it is coming under in Iraq and in Syria has been completely overcome. There may be and there are pockets of resistance but the idea that circulated not two years ago but four or five months ago that the Caliphate that is under pressure in Iraq would move into Libya has been defeated.

MR McGURK: That’s a good question. Let me answer it by putting it into the words of Daesh and if you look at their propaganda over the last two years they used to say, “we are an historic, growing movement. We are retaining and expanding our territory. Come join this new homeland. Come to Mosul, come to Raqqa.”

About a year later they said – because it was much harder to get into Syria given the work we did as a coalition, they put out their propaganda and their spokesman whose name was Mohammed al-Adnani, you can read everything he said – “you know, if you can’t get into Syria, go to Sirte, go to Libya.” That was the new homeland.

Adnani’s last statement just a few months ago was, “we might actually lose Sirte, we might lose Raqqa, we might lose Mosul, but we’re still going to be around” and that’s when he called for individual attacks in different countries by these lone wolf actors.

So the point is they have gone from “we are an historic, expanding movement” to recognizing that they are a rapidly shrinking movement.

What remains in Sirte is a bunch of suicidal fighters in a very small corner of the city. This is far different from when they were saying this is going to be our new homeland.

They will eventually all be eliminated. That’s simply a military proposition and it is a matter of time. Mohammed Adnani, their chief spokesman and also their chief of operations and external operations is now dead. We are removing their leaders from the battlefield one by one and in a quite dramatic fashion. So what they wanted to have in Sirte was this new magnet for people to come from all around the world. They can no longer do that thanks to what we have done together as a coalition, and working with the Government of National Accord in Libya, it is just a matter of time before the remaining suicidal fighters in that corner of the city are eliminated, but as the Foreign Minister said this is a reminder of how difficult this is.

These people are quite literally suicidal. Many of them want to fight until the death and so this just gives indication of why we should expect Mosul to be a long-term campaign. But we will support the Iraqis 100 percent until the mission is complete.