Interview with the US Envoy for the Coalition to Counter ISIS: “We work hard to make sure that not a single member of ISIS leaves Syria”
Few high-ranking officials in Washington have survived Donald Trump’s driving desire to obliterate all traces of his predecessor’s time in office. Yet there are areas where not even someone as bent on change as the US president can afford to create instability. One such area is the global coalition that is fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), and whose US representative is Brett H. McGurk. Tapped for the post by Barack Obama in November 2015, his strategy against the Caliphate has proven so successful that McGurk can afford to maintain the same approach without having to sever ties with the past – or make new plans for the future.
Question. You are in Spain as part of a round of visits to coalition partners. Is Spain doing all that’s necessary?
Answer. In Iraq, we have returned 1.7 million people to their homes, in areas that used to be living under ISIS, and Spain should be very proud of this record, because Spain came in at the darkest hour in 2014, when the Iraqi security forces had been completely disintegrated. Spain, one of the founding members of the coalition, came in to help retrain the Iraqi security forces. It looked like a daunting challenge back then, I remember those days quite well. We have now trained almost 97,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, Spain has trained nearly 20,000, and Iraqi security forces, the ones we have trained, have not lost a single battle against ISIS. Spain’s contributions have been absolutely vital to the success we have had so far.
Spain’s contributions have been absolutely vital to the success we have had so far
Q. In terms of land and resources, ISIS is clearly losing. But don’t you think we run the risk of underestimating their ability for long-term resistance?
A. Nobody is saying that, once you defeat their territory, the war is over. ISIS, Al Qaeda, these groups will be with us for many more years to come. But what made ISIS this global phenomenon that attracted almost 40,000 of these Jihad-oriented people to Syria, was this notion of the Caliphate, the Homeland. Come be a part of this historic movement. The propaganda of ISIS, two years ago, everything they said was retained as a part of the Caliphate. Territorial gain is a necessary condition for the defeat of ISIS, but not a sufficient condition, it is one element of an overall campaign.
Q. Is ISIS still strong on the internet and on social media?
A. The answer is yes, although their message has fundamentally changed. They are no longer calling recruits to come to Syria, in fact they are saying, “Don’t come to Syria, it’s too hard to get to Syria.” We are working very closely with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, to make sure that extremist content, ISIS content, is taken offline, and we are constantly countering the messages on these platforms. We also have a very active counter-messaging campaign within the coalition, demonstrating that this is a losing proposition: If you join ISIS now and you try to go to Syria, first of all you probably won’t get there. If you are in ISIS and you are in Syria, you’re probably going to die in Syria. Right now the odds are that you’re going to be killed in Syria. We want to make sure these people can never get out of Syria.
Q. You mentioned your operations in Iraq and Syria, of course, because of the physical presence of ISIS there. You have a lot of experience in Iraq, you’ve been there. But what about Syria and Bashar al-Assad? The US government attacked the Assad regime’s military positions last month for its use of chemical weapons.
A. The Iraqi government is an elected, legitimate government under a constitution, and they have asked for our help. The Assad regime has brutally repressed what were the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for a better life and more accountability from their government, so I think the two situations are just completely different. The chemical weapons strike was the response to the Assad regime using chemical weapons on some people, and President Trump took decisive action to make sure he would enforce international norm against that activity.
There is a lack of trust with Russia, to say the least
We’ve also made very clear that the only way the civil war can end in Syria is through a political solution. We have to prioritize the defeat of ISIS. So long as there is a Caliphate in the middle of Syria, controlling millions of people, it’s hard to imagine how you can have a constitutional referendum or elections. Russia has a proposal right now; we have to be extremely cautious with that proposal, because so many of the details have to be worked out. But where we can find some common ground with Russia, we will try to advance.
Q. How is your cooperation with Russia, which backs al-Assad?
A. Obviously, there is a lack of trust with Russia, to say the least, for a number of issues that have nothing to do with the counter-ISIS campaign. We have military-to-military discussions with the Russians every day, professional military to military discussions focusing on de-confliction over the skies of Syria, to make sure that there are no accidents. It’s a very professional dialogue. That does not mean that we are cooperating with the Russians or coordinating with them.
Turkey is a bedrock strategic ally and we are looking forward to deepening that cooperation
Q. What about Turkey? Do you think the political changes there will affect the cooperation to effectively counter the ISIS threat?
A. Turkey is a bedrock strategic ally, a bedrock NATO ally, and we are looking forward to deepening that cooperation. We’re looking forward to having President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Washington next week, that will be a very important visit about strengthening our overall relationship. Turkey has worked very closely with us to make sure that their border with Syria now is pretty much sealed. The attacks in Paris, the attacks in Brussels, these were operations that were planned in Raqqa [the Caliphate’s de facto capital in Syria] by ISIS, they formed an operational team, sent them out through Turkey to carry out their attacks – ISIS can’t do that any more.
Q. Do you have any evidence that the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may still be alive?
We’ve made very clear that the only way the civil war can end in Syria is through a political solution
A. We have now eliminated virtually all of his deputies. There was a period when we had not heard from him for some time, and then he released an audio tape around the end of last year. I think the going assumption now is that he is still alive, but it is a matter of time until that changes.
Q. Do you think the risk of attacks may increase in Europe as ISIS is weakened in Syria and Iraq? They have resorted to rudimentary techniques here such ramming trucks into people…
A. One: we have to remain vigilant, because these people want to attack us every single day if they can. Two: we have to degrade their ability to do the major types of operations, such as the Brussels attacks and the Paris attacks. That is why we work so hard to make sure that once they are in Syria they are bottled in there. The individual attack, the attack by a radicalized individual, that is a serious law enforcement challenge.
Q. The recent changes in the White House have made waves in the world, especially with regard to US diplomacy and foreign policy. Is anything going to change in the fight against ISIS?
A. President Trump has made very clear that this is our number-one priority and that charge has gone down throughout the government, and his delegation of authority to the Secretary of Defense and to the commanders has enabled a pretty swift move in the campaign. We are moving with real unity of purpose and real unity of effort from Washington.
Q. Are resources still the same?
A. If we need more resources the commanders will obviously ask for them.