MR. ROSE: We begin this evening with the latest developments in the fight against ISIS. Turkey announced last week that it would cooperate with the U.S. in the battle. It will now allow American war planes to use two Turkish air bases to target the groups in Syria. Turkey had until now hesitated to play a bigger role and was criticized for its failure to stem the tide of foreign fighters into Syria. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg endorsed Turkey’s efforts earlier today after a meeting of ambassadors.
Joining me now from Washington: Ambassador Brett McGurk. He is the State Department deputy special envoy for the Coalition against ISIS. I’m pleased to have him again on this program.
Help us to understand, Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much, what is your title, special envoy?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: I’m the Deputy Special Presidential Envoy. Myself and General Allen are the President’s Envoys on the Coalition.
MR. ROSE: So you handle diplomatic end and he handles the military end.
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, we’re both diplomats in our roles.
MR. ROSE: All right. So tell me — help me understand how this Turkey thing happened.
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, Charlie, it’s been a long process, and it’s been about a nine-to-ten-month process, really. We began very intensive discussions with the Turks really as soon as we set up this international Coalition starting in September. And Turkey had a number of concerns, we also had a number of issues we wanted to work out with them.
And I really put kind of two bookends on it. You know, President Obama has had two conversations with President Erdogan about ISIL. And the first one in October, you may recall the town of Kobani — a very small village just over the border in Syria was about to fall to ISIL. Had that town fallen, the entire border, northern border with Turkey would have been controlled by ISIL.
So President Obama made a decision to do an air drop to the defenders of Kobani, the Syrian Kurds there. There were only a few hundred of them left at the time. And he called President Erdogan and they had a very in-depth conversation about that decision.
And actually myself and General Allen then went out to Ankara to discuss with the Turks that situation. And we negotiated with them opening up a corridor through Turkey for the Kurdish Peshmerga to come in and resupply with heavy weapons the defenders of Kobani. So that really a started a very in-depth process with Turkey and that ended up actually being a real a success.
So we built from there. We then approved with Turkey to work with them on the train and equip program for the moderate Syrian opposition. There is a ways to go in that program. But we’ve had good cooperation with Turkey. And we had a number of steps.
They had an election, so our discussion slowed down a bit. And then it was really about three weeks ago where the talks accelerated. And Turkey agreed to open up their bases for our aircraft to strike ISIS targets in Syria and in Iraq with Turkish F-16s flying alongside with us.
Now, some of the details of this have to be worked out. I’m just coming Charlie, from a meeting at the Pentagon with Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter and also General Austin, General Breedlove from UCom about coordinating a lot of this. We have a team on the ground in Turkey now and we’re going to move fairly fast but we just still have some details to work out.
MR. ROSE: So you did mention the PKK. What role did they play?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, you know, it’s interesting because a lot of this seems to be inter-tangled but it’s actually not if you step back and do the time line. We reached this preliminary agreement as two governments with Turkey about two weeks ago now. And of course, nothing was agreed until we came back and we had a conversation with President Obama and the national security team. And then President Obama discussed the issue with President Erdogan, and that’s when the agreement was basically sealed.
It was about two days before that conversation that the PKK launched a series of attacks in Turkey and killed a number of Turkish police officers and Turkish soldiers. And those attacks by the PKK were the triggering events for Turkish attacks, Turkish bombing raids in northern Iraq and the Qandil Mountains.
So this is a pattern we used to see some years ago: PKK attacks and then Turkish retaliation. Obviously it’s a pattern nobody likes to see. We recognize Turkey’s right to self-defense. That’s a bedrock defense of ours. We also call on all parties to de-escalate.
But what the triggering event here was the attacks by the PKK. If the PKK did not initiate these attacks in Turkey, Turkey would not be attacking the PKK in northern Iraq. But the PKK had nothing to do with our discussions with Turkey regarding ISIL.
MR. ROSE: So there is this question. They have said, I understand, no Turkish troops in Iraq or Syria correct?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Yes. In fact this is something that we discussed with them over a number of months. Would Turkish soldiers go in and be part of any potential operation on the ground in Syria and Turkey told us that that’s not something that they were contemplating. We want to look to use Syrians on the ground in Syria to be a maneuver unit that can fight ISIL basically building upon what we’ve learned.
I think, Charlie, the last time I was honored to be on your show was almost ten or eleven months ago. And, you know, since then — we just started about a week into the bombing campaign. Now we’ve done about 6,000 or so airstrikes — a little less than that but about 5,600 now. And, of course, we’ve had a number of ground operations in Syria and Iraq and we’ve learned that when you have a maneuver force on the ground that we can coordinate with, we can be pretty devastating against ISIL.
If you look at the Euphrates River and where it intersects Syria, everything to the east of the Euphrates on the border, hundreds of kilometers that ISIL used to control is now controlled by the Syrian Kurds and some Free Syrian Army groups. Everything to the west, there’s a 90-kilometer strip that ISIL still controls, and that is a strip that we’re really focused on because if we can help the Syrians get control of that area, some of the moderate opposition forces and working with Turkey, ISIL will no longer have an outlet.
So then you have their perversely proclaimed “caliphate” will be much more a self-contained problem. And then you can really see how we can start to pressure and squeeze it in the Euphrates valley and Anbar Province going up the Tigris with some of the progress we’ve seen in Tikrit and up to Bayji. And of course, what the Kurdish Peshmerga are doing.
Make no mistake: this is going take a long time. It’s going to be extremely difficult. But some of the elements are starting to come into place where you can start to see elements of synchronization between Syria, what’s happening in Syria and what’s happening in Iraq to really constrict and squeeze ISIL.
MR. ROSE: A number of questions. One, the Iraqis are constantly talking about when their attack on Ramadi’s going to take place.
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well Charlie, the counterattack on Ramadi has already begun. So it began two weeks ago. It’s an extended campaign, so nobody should expect any kind of lightning charge into Ramadi. But, you know, they’re making good progress. This is something we also just reviewed at the Pentagon.
Charlie this is also another instructive example. When Ramadi fell to ISIL, it was a significant setback. And we got together as a National Security Council team. We also deliberated with the Iraqis. And Prime Minister Abadi got his government together and they pulled together Sunni-Shia and Kurds a national plan for taking back Ramadi. There’s a number of key elements —
MR. ROSE: Right.
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: — and it’s now kind of moving forward. Some of the units that we’ve trained, Charlie, you know, takes months to train these units. Everything takes a long time. They’re now on the field in Anbar. They’re part of that counterattack. And Iraqi security forces just to the south, only a few kilometers from the boundary line of the city of Ramadi, retook the Anbar University over the past 48 hours.
Again, we’re enabling this. We’re coordinating. And you may recall a decision the President made about two months ago to open up a new platform — an advise-and-assist facility at the Taqaddum airbase just between Ramadi and Fallujah. We are there, our special forces are there and we’re helping to advise and assist this operation to retake Ramadi. It is going to take some time. It’s slow going but it is ongoing.
MR. ROSE: Who controls Fallujah?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Fallujah has been under control of ISIL for really almost 18 months. Six months before Mosul, in fact. New Year’s Day of 2014 is when Fallujah fell. But Fallujah is now surrounded and ISIL, you know, they’re kind of isolated now inside Fallujah. They were using it as a hub to launch attacks into Baghdad, to launch attacks throughout Anbar Province, and they’re no longer able to do that.
MR. ROSE: It is said that it will be of significant advantage for American airstrikes to have access to Turkish bases. How significant?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, very significant. You know, if you look again at that northern border area, that 90-kilometer stretch of border is significant because ISIL is really reinforced there and it’s just a huge, strategic asset for them. They have also at times tried to move to the west to break through and really to threaten some significant Turkish border crossings which the government of Turkey controls and which, of course, we helped get humanitarian aid into that strip just north of Aleppo. And if ISIL were to do that, that would be a very significant blow to overall campaign.
We have been striking targets in that area over the past two months but we’re flying from the Gulf, or Bahrain or other platforms, so really a thousand miles away. Incirlik airbase is about 150 kilometers away so it would make a significant difference. We have 24/7 loiter time. It’s something that, you know, our military commanders have always said would make a real difference. That’s why we worked very aggressively, diplomatically to try to get this opening. So it will allow us to put pressure on ISIL in these very strategic areas really on a 24/7 basis.
MR. ROSE: My understanding is the President is opposed to having Americans, either Special Forces or anyone else close to the front lines in order to direct air strikes. Is that still his policy?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: The President’s been very explicit in almost every meeting, he’s not taking any options off the table and he has said, you know, if the military chain of command were to come to him with a recommendation, I think it’s something obviously that he would seriously consider. So no options have been taken off the table, but those recommendations also have not been presented to him.
MR. ROSE: Why not?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, you know, we’re watching what works here. And when we have an advise and assist platform, as we just set up at Taqaddum — we just got there about really about six weeks ago and this is still in the development phase. And the idea is if you are located, co-located with Iraqi commanders who are in direct touch with Iraqi security forces that are operating in the field, and now we now have our chain of command through our joint operations center that controls the airstrikes, we can actually have a very good effect without putting U.S. forces out in the field.
But again, this is something that I know is discussed within the Defense Department and should the recommendation come to the President, he would obviously consider it.
MR. ROSE: Then there’s an idea of no-fly zones. Whenever I’ve interviewed President Erdogan a number of times — five or six times — and he almost every time brings up the idea when this question comes to the borders about no-fly zones, that he had a number of reasons for wanting no-fly zones, but that seems to be an idea that now is gaining enormous attention.
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, it’s interesting. A lot’s changed since the Turks first put on the table a no-fly zone really some years ago. And one thing that’s changed, again as we’ve done now about 5,600 air strikes, we’re flying in Syrian airspace every single day. I think the last time I talked to you this was all brand new.
We now know an awful lot. So of those airstrikes, 40 percent of them are in Syria. And when we’re flying with great density, the regime doesn’t come anywhere near there. So we don’t really see the need for a declared no-fly zone. When we’re operating for example in Kobani, we basically have what is a de facto no-fly zone. We made it clear to the Syrian regime that we’re there to strike ISIL and so far they have clearly gotten that message.
MR. ROSE: When I’ve talked to President Erdogan and ask him about the borders he always — his answer is always I assume a stock answer. He said look, you can’t even control your own border, so why do you expect me to be able to control mine?
AMBASSADOR MCGURK: Well, there is some of that and you’re hitting at the problem of the foreign fighter flow. And this is just a — it’s a global problem. We have about 25,000 now foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; they’ve come from all over the world. And building this Coalition, Charlie, of 62 countries, General Allen and myself, we’ve been all around the world, in fact.
And everywhere we go, we hear that this is a top tier national security problem, from Singapore to Malaysia to Australia to Belgium — everywhere. And of course, they’re all coming through Turkey. So it is an issue for Turkey first and foremost but it’s also an issue of the feeder countries to share information with Turkey. That’s also something that we’ve had some real difficulties with.
Within the Coalition we have five main lines of effort. One of them is working on foreign fighters — they have better cooperation across borders. And we’re actually starting to have some good effects there. What we would like to be able to do, we know a lot more about the networks now than we’ve ever known before. And so we’re now talking about now that we have this information, how do you really start to shock these networks and roll them up.
Turkey just in the last ten days at this meeting at the Pentagon, we had our Ambassador on the screen from Turkey talking about this: Turkey has made pretty significant inroads into some of the foreign fighter facilitation networks. They’re sharing some good information with us. So this is something that’s going to continue.
But certainly there’s more Turkey can do. We’ve said that very clearly. But really there’s a lot more the entire global community can do. There’s now a Chapter 7 U.N. Security Council resolution calling on all nation states to really enforce, enact and enforce laws against the flow of foreign fighters. And it’s something we all have to focus on.
You know, Charlie, we just had a number of convictions and arrests today in the United States against ISIL-inspired individuals. And you don’t have to be a foreign fighter and go train in an ISIL or al Qaeda training camp. You can be indoctrinated and radicalized at home through the Internet and through social media. So this is a huge challenge of the campaign. Turkey is a piece of it but it’s not the only piece.
MR. ROSE: You live this every day. And all of us ask this question. What is the attraction of ISIL and the caliphate and the Islamic state for these young people who discover it on social media and other ways but a lot on social media? And now the State Department has initiated a kind of counterforce with respect to social media. But what’s the attraction?
BRETT MCGURK: We find that there are different motivations. They put out a very positive message at one level. Come be a part of this glorious, historical movement of the caliphate. It’s perverse, but you can see in the propaganda, that level is sun-drenched scenes and children eating ice cream cones. There’s a lot of that.
And I think people are attracted to that. They see a historical movement that they want to be a part of to feel something bigger than themselves. It’s of course, totally false and totally perverse but that’s one line of it.
Another line of it is really the kind of the bottom feeders of society, they’re trying to attract — you know, come join ISIL in Syria. Basically you can do whatever you want and that’s the gore and mayhem that they put on line. They recruit through promises of sexual slavery and having a sex bride. So it’s really perverse. They recruit on almost a multi-dimensional level.
So to combat this, again, we’re trying to integrate globally because they also appeal with different messages. It might be a more religiously based message in the Gulf. It might be a more of this uplifting message in Europe. But let me just say, most importantly, to get the messaging right, we have to defeat ISIL.
So first and foremost, we have to show this is not an expanding movement, it’s actually a shrinking movement. If you go to the caliphate you are not going to live some life of luxury as a jihadist fighter with a sex bride. You’re actually going to die a very horrible death in a dusty field. So we have to get that message out too, because that happens to be the truth.
We think that that is starting — that the tide may be starting to turn but this is a very difficult challenge. It’s a global challenge. And it’s one reason Charlie when we went after this, it’s not just something the United States is doing, it’s something that we had to build this global Coalition and having 62 member states is very important.
Just tomorrow, in fact, tomorrow and on Thursday in Quebec, we’re bringing together the 23 core members, the Small Group of the Coalition, really some of the core contributors at the director level to roll up our sleeves and figure out where we synchronize, where we’re not synchronized, what can we do better? And this will be heading in, of course, to the U.N. General Assembly where we’ll have a much higher level session to figure out what’s working and what’s not. And we’re constantly correcting those lines of effort that are falling behind.
MR. ROSE: I look forward to talking to you right after that as soon as possible to get a sense of what comes out of that and what is the assessment of Coalition partners.
BRETT MCGURK: Very good.
MR. ROSE: Thank you so much, Brett. Pleasure to have you.
BRETT MCGURK: Thank you Charlie. Thanks for having me. I’m honored.