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The challenge of stabilizing a recaptured Mosul

November 3, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
As the Iraqi military continues its push into the Islamic State-stronghold of Mosul, how are the disparate forces who make up the coalition working together, and how does Iraq plan to stabilize the city and prevent ethnic tensions? Special presidential envoy Brett McGurk talks with Hari Sreenivasan about the operation to retake the city and the coming fight against the militants in Raqqa.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The battle to retake Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, from ISIS is nearing the end of its third week.

For an update on how the operation is proceeding and the larger fight against the extremists in Iraq and Syria, we turn to Brett McGurk. He’s the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

I spoke with him a short time ago from the State Department.

Brett McGurk, thanks for joining us.

In the past few weeks, we have seen the images of forces slowly moving into the suburbs of Mosul. How long is it going to take to retake the city?

BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy: Well, Hari, thanks for having me.

I just got back from about a week in Iraq. And we’re the third weekend of this operation. This is really a multi-month operation to clear and hold and stabilize a city of this size. We have always expected ISIL to defend the city. They have suicide bombers. They’re quite literally a suicidal movement.

They have spent two years digging tunnels and defenses. What you saw over the last couple of weeks was really the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga pushing through kind of the outer crust of the defense. And they broke through that about a week ago.

And now we have a fairly rapid advance, particularly into the western area of the city. And the other axes are also catching up. And it’s really going ahead of schedule right now. But I would just caution your viewers that this will take some time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, you said something. Best-case scenario, let’s say you’re able to capture and hold. That third word, stabilize, the easy part might be the capture and hold. How do you balance all the different ethnic tensions that are already there?

And we have also seen images of tanks coming in waving Shia flags. That’s flaring some of these tensions back up?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, so, we have been at this for two years now in Iran. We have taken back over 55 percent of territory that ISIL used to hold in Iraq.

And, so far, ISIL has not retaken any territory. And there is a reason for that. We’re not only focused on the operations to win the military battle, but also on what comes next. So we call it stabilization.

That’s really about getting people back into their homes, returning the internally displaced people to their homes. This is extraordinarily difficult. If you look historically in a context like this of how long it’s going to take, it can take years, if ever.

But if you look at the situation in Iraq, I will just give you some examples. The city of Tikrit, that’s a Sunni Arab city in a mixed province. ISIL cleared out the entire population. And by working locally with local leaders — and the central government led by Prime Minister Abadi has a policy of decentralization, of really trying to empower people from the bottom up.

The entire population of Tikrit has returned to their homes. This is extremely difficult. We will apply the same lessons in Mosul that we have applied as in other areas of the country. We will work with the local officials, the local governor, the local council and all the local notables to ensure that the stabilization resources are in place, and the resources are in place, and that we have a governing structure in place.

So, it’s difficult, but we will use the same model that we used in other places. It will take time. There will be problems, but I think, so far, we’re off to a pretty good start.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so I know you have still got a lot of work ahead of you in Mosul, but let’s look forward to Raqqa a little bit.

This seems to be an ISIL stronghold. This is certainly on the target list for anybody who wants to take out ISIL. When does that happen? Who helps us with that?

BRETT MCGURK: Well, I would just say it will be starting pretty soon.

And one reason it will be starting pretty soon is that Raqqa — you know, if Mosul is kind of their national capital — this is where Baghdadi declared their phony caliphate — Raqqa is their administrative capital. Raqqa is where they’re planning and plotting attacks against us, against our partners.

We’re obviously using intelligence and all sorts of information sources to eliminate those leaders when we find them. Most importantly, Muhammad Adnani was their overall operational planner of external attacks. He was in Raqqa for some time. We were able to find and locate him and ultimately eliminate him and some of his deputies in an area to just the west of Raqqa.

We’re talking with our local forces on the ground and we’re talking, of course, with our allies in Turkey. We’re talking with the Syrian opposition constantly about the force makeup that will be needed to liberate the city of Raqqa in a way that is ultimately stabilizing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We seem to have a tricky set of partnerships here in going after ISIL.

On the one hand, you have got Turkey, a strong NATO ally. And, on the other hand, you have got the Syrian Kurds or the YPG, which we have been allied with, but here are our two allies really actively fighting against each other. Turkey has just recently bombed the YPG in multiple locations.

They don’t want the Kurds involved in retaking Raqqa in any way. You have got — how do you get both of these partners to be on mission?

BRETT MCGURK: Yes, so, I mean, obviously, it’s an inherently complex situation.

And that’s why we’re constantly engaged with all of these different actors. And we’re very determined to make sure that we are totally transparent with Turkey with every single thing we are doing in Syria. And we’re also working with our partners on the ground inside Syria, the Syrian Democratic forces, and with the Syrian opposition.

And what we try to do is try to encourage as much as possible a united focus on ISIL. Ultimately, what we’re doing is liberating territory that is inside Syria. We want Syrians from the local area to liberate their own territory.

The fundamental premise of this campaign against ISIL, at least in Iraq and Syria, it’s a global campaign, but in the Iraq and Syria component, is locally based forces to hold ground after ISIL is gone.

And I think that’s one reason we have actually been able to hold the territory that we have retaken from ISIL. You look at what we have done, for example, in Anbar Province, and it’s the same premise in Syria.

So, as we begin to move south towards Raqqa, the forces that we want as a vanguard to that force are locally based Arab forces who know the terrain and know the territory. We have a number of them already signed up. We have the training platforms ready to go.

And this is all being done as we speak. So, I think you will see some initial movement towards Raqqa fairly soon. And I’m not going to get too far ahead of our military colleagues as they put this together. But we have to move on Raqqa soon. We have to move on it fast.

But we have to move on it in a very deliberate and smart way. And that will require constant engagement with all of our partners, many of whom, of course, do have divergent opinions and divergent viewpoints.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Brett McGurk, thanks for joining us.

BRETT MCGURK: Thanks so much.

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