Interview With Reuters TV's Andrea Shalal

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
Berlin, Germany
November 16, 2016

ANDREA SHALAL: I’d like to start by getting an update and try to figure out what is happening on the ground in Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria. These are big offensives and very important to the fight?

SPE BRETT MCGURK: Well, first it is very important to be here in Berlin because we have a Small Group meeting of our Coalition, about 29 partners are here to really coordinate the next phase of the campaign. You may remember in Washington the last time this group met at the Ministerial level we raised $2.3 billion, all of which has been fed into the stabilization and humanitarian element of the Mosul campaign.

So the Mosul operation was planned for about six months and the key element to that was to make sure we had very good cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Security Forces. And what we have seen over the last month, we are about a month into the operation now, is an unprecedented level of cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces.

So all that planning, all the training we have done together as a Coalition, we have trained 50,000 Iraqi Army, Peshmerga, police and tribal fighters as a Coalition, and those units are performing remarkably well. They are performing heroically. They are now in the city of Mosul clearing neighborhood by neighborhood. It is very difficult and will take a long time but the operation right now is on track. And it is on track because of the brave fighters on the ground but also because of what we have done as a Coalition to help them succeed.

A. SHALAL: There is concern about the potential humanitarian catastrophe that could occur as those towns are liberated. How do you think you are placed to deal with that? And I heard an estimate that a couple hundred thousand displaced people were in the realm of possible to manage but if the numbers got higher than that it would be very difficult?

MR. MCGURK: Well, we have actually planned for the worst case scenario. So we think there is a little over a million people in the city of Mosul, we planned for about 700,000 displaced persons, and that is like the worst case scenario, so far we have about 50,000, but what is happening is that as towns are liberated and the IDPs come back, many of them are returning to their homes in a short period of time. So far we have not seen the type of worst case type numbers that we had obviously planned for, but this is the type of thing where you plan for the worst and hope for the best. And so far the numbers are not that high, they are manageable but as you move into other neighborhoods of Mosul, this is something we are treating with the upmost seriousness and urgency.

A key element of this campaign in Mosul is that we want to make sure that all civilian life is protected. That is a directive coming from Prime Minister Abadi to all the security forces. And we face an enemy of Daesh that uses civilians as human shields, which uses a civilian when they cross the streets they try to have families with them , they barricade themselves in civilian homes with suicide vests, so this a barbaric and brutal enemy which is one reason why this operation will take time. We want to do it very carefully to make sure the civilian life is protected. That of course is totally different than the tactics that are used by the Syrian regime and the Russians in their so-called war against terror. They are actually not fighting terrorists, they are fighting the opposition movement.

So we are protecting civilian life. We are targeting Daesh with precision. It is the most precise air campaign in history. There are 16,000 airstrikes now and we have never had a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare. And so that will continue but it is difficult, there will be bad days and good days but so far, the overall operation is on track.

A. SHALAL: There have been some tensions obviously with Turkey on just how to fight ISIL and with their own concerns with the Kurdish forces. How are you managing that situation right now and are the Turks giving you the support that you need?

MR. MCGURK: So we are in constant communication with Turkey. Turkey is of course here for the meeting we will have tomorrow, the very important meeting we will have tomorrow. Our Chief of Defense, Gen Dunford, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was just in Ankara to see his counterpart, Gen Akar in Ankara to talk about the next phase.

Look when we started doing this two years ago almost the entire Turkish border, the Syrian side of the border was controlled by Daesh. And today, not an inch of that border is controlled by Daesh and most significantly what happened about two or three months ago is that Turkey organized moderate opposition forces, together with elements of the Turkish military, to come in in Jarabulus and clean out the last 98 kilometer strip of border that Daesh was controlling. That is an important strip of border because that is where the attackers for example in Paris and Brussels, that is where many of the foreign fighters traveled through to conduct their operations so we had to close that off.

Turkey did a very good job on its side of the border and then moving into Syria and creating this buffer has really helped pin Daesh into Syria without any outlet now to the outside world.

It is very difficult for these foreign fighters to get into Syria. In 2014 there was about 1,000 a month, in 2015 about 500 a month, today it is really negligible. And even in their propaganda, when Daesh says come join our movement, they are not telling people to come into Syria anymore because it is very hard to get into Syria, and once they are in Syria, it is almost impossible for them to get out. And so we give great credit to Turkey for that. We of course have some differences with Turkey in other areas, we have differences with all of our Coalition partners. Everybody sees the fight a little bit differently. But we are on the ground with Turkish Special Forces inside Syria and that will continue and we are very pleased with what they have been doing

A. SHALAL: Speaking of foreign fighters the outflow seems to be smaller, do you have new estimates for how many foreign fighters that have left Europe to go to Iraq and Syria and what is the back flow back?

MR. MCGURK: As I said the numbers coming into Syria now are really a negligible amount. And we are very meticulous in how we track this data and there is actually a nine-month lag in terms of hard numbers because it is very hard to count, and we have a number of different sources so that is why the number for 2015 was cut in half from 2014 and we think in 2016 this will be down to a very small number. I can say for the United States we had about a hundred a month or so who were trying to go and leave an now that is up to zero or one a month, that is according to our own domestic law enforcement services.

A. SHALAL: What about the other direction?

MR. MCGURK: Again, it is very hard for these guys to get out of Syria. So, if you are a member of Daesh and you made that stupid decision to go join Daesh in Syria and Iraq, right now you really have two choices, you can surrender or be killed, because it is very hard to get out of Syria, and certainly to get out of Iraq. So this is something that we wanted to make sure that once you are in, you can’t get out and make it even harder to get in.

So this will create other problems. Daesh in its propaganda now they are telling people ‘don’t come join our movement, stay at home and pick up a knife and kill someone on your street’ which is the type of barbaric organization this is. That is why this will be a fight, the ideological battle, the battle in cyberspace we will have to wage for many years to come and we are doing that as a Coalition. The information sharing now is almost at an unprecedented rate. We are working closely with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Twitter has taken down almost 400,000 pro-ISIL handles and that will continue.

So we are at this aggressively. It is not just – I try to emphasize this all the time – it is not just Mosul and Raqqa. It is also the foreign fighter networks, the financial networks, the counter propaganda, all the stuff the private sector can do on these internet platforms. So it is a 24/7 campaign, it is global, and it will continue I hope for many years to come because we have to stay at it.

A. SHALAL: Are you happy with the cooperation you are getting from the Europeans in terms of information sharing and this just sort of balance between privacy that has been a big concern particularly in Germany?
And then I just want to ask you quickly now whether you have had any contact with the Trump transition on how this will proceed going forward?

MR. MCGURK: It is a very good question on your first. So, information sharing is the key to this overall, long-term battle to protect all of our homelands. We have worked very hard as a Coalition and if you just look at the statistics now, about 60 countries have passed domestic legislation to make it harder for foreign fighters to transit their borders. Just in the last 90 days about 15 countries have broken up cells related to Daesh. Here in Germany there were a number of operations nationwide just yesterday. And of course we are working very closely through law enforcement channels to ensure we do everything that we possibly can to share information.

An example of how this works, there was a very important battle in Syria in the town of Mambij. Manbij is right between Raqqa and the Turkish border. It is where the Paris attackers actually traveled through, we believe, before they conducted their attacks. That town was liberated by a force that we work with in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, we have recovered 15 terabytes of information out of homes and houses and headquarters, lists of names, who these people are, where they are from. And that is all information that we then processed, put into a data base, and then disseminate through appropriate channels. We are also working with multinational organizations through the Coalition such as INTERPOL to make sure that these people and their associates cannot travel across borders. So this is meticulous, painstaking work but it is being done and the information sharing right now I think is at an unprecedented level.

I will just say in terms of the President-elect and his team, I worked with President Bush in 2008 in the White House when President Obama came in, we had a very seamless transition and we are very much now well underway to prepare a seamless transition to the new president’s team and that is something that should get going pretty soon.

A. SHALAL: The people you will be speaking with tomorrow at the meeting are certain to have questions about President Trump’s commitment to the ISIL fight and particularly the relationship with Russia and how that will affect it. What message can you bring to them if any?

MR. MCGURK: Well I would just say that obviously we had a close election, the country is divided on a number of issues, I think there is division in the world on a number of issues. One thing that really unites Americans, unites both candidates during the presidential election campaign, unites the world, is this fight against Daesh. This is a threat to all of us and we have to prosecute this campaign in a very smart and effective way. I think that is something that this global Coalition – really historic and unprecedented Coalition – military, law enforcement, intelligence, counter messaging/counter propaganda, it just runs the gamut.

And just today here in Germany for the past eight hours we have had all the different working groups, from the U.S. government we have Treasury here, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, with counterparts from all around the world, comparing information, trading information, talking about what and some things we might improve upon as we look ahead over the next 90 days. So I think this is something that will continue because it is just inherently essential and a common denominator across all of these different countries and despite other differences in the world, the fight against Daesh is something that really unites the world.