JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Last month, Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition finally retook Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, after a brutal nine-month campaign. And the fight to retake Raqqa, the ISIS makeshift capital, is ongoing now, with Syrian militia pressing the fight, again with U.S. support.
For more on where the battle against is stands, I spoke just a short time ago with Brett McGurk. He is the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. It’s a post he held under the Obama administration as well.
I began by asking him how big a footprint is has right now.
BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy: Well, what’s really more important is the trajectory.
So, if you go back to 2014, they were dramatically expanding movement. Since then, they have lost about 70,000 square kilometers. And in the last six months alone, they have lost about 20 square kilometers. So one-third of their losses in Iraq and Syria have taken place over the last six months.
So, it’s radically shrinking, the people that are under their domain, less and less every day. Our operations enabled by coalitions forces, with Iraqi forces doing the fighting, Syrian Democratic Forces doing the fighting, about five million people that used to be living under ISIS are no longer living under ISIS.
And, more importantly, if you think about where we were back in 2014, the refugee and migrant low, remember the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing out of Iraq and Syria, we have actually now reversed that. So, in Iraq, two million Iraqis are now back in their homes in areas that used to be controlled by ISIS.
And even in Syria now, the first six months of this year, we have actually seen, according to U.N. statistics, Syrians beginning to return to their homes. That’s a remarkable trend line that we want to continue.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has this progress sped up? Why has this happened this way in the last six months?
BRETT MCGURK: Well, we have a couple of important changes.
When President Trump came into office, about three really key changes. Number one and probably most importantly was the decision to delegate tactical decision-making authority to the commanders in the field, and that has made a key difference.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is part of a new initiative under President Trump? It’s not part of a plan that was handed over by the Obama administration?
BRETT MCGURK: Well, the rapid turn in decision-making is something that’s new and it’s actually causing us to act with great efficiency, and seizing some key opportunities.
It makes it different if decisions can be made immediately to seize those types of opportunities as they emerge.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw a story today in BuzzFeed which says that the U.S. is much more deeply involved in Syria in terms of supporting those local forces than most people realize. Is that a fair assessment?
BRETT MCGURK: I think we have been pretty transparent. We’re supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces. It’s a force that really has grown from way back in the battle of Kobani a few years ago, now 50,000 Syrians under this force, about of them half Kurd, about of them half Arab.
And we are supporting them, enabling them, special forces, advisers. We also have some diplomats on the ground. That is something that Secretary Tillerson spoke to here at the State Department a week ago. We have a small team of diplomats that help with humanitarian assistance, stabilization assistance.
And this is very important, because we’re not there to reconstruct cities, we’re not there to nation-building-type exercises, but we are focused on basic humanitarian support. About 300,000 Syrians have now been displaced from the fighting Raqqa. They have all flown north into the lines of the force that we’re working with.
We are helping with humanitarian aid supporting the United Nations and basic what we call stabilization. What that means is the elements to help return people to their homes, number one, de-mining. You have to clear the streets of land mines.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.
BRETT MCGURK: Second, rubble removal, electricity, water, those sorts of things.
We did the same thing in Iraq. And that’s why we have seen this remarkable trend of Iraqis returning to their homes in areas that have been cleared of ISIS. This is really hard work. It’s not glamorous, but it’s working.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You are answering some of the questions I was planning to ask. So, thank you very much for anticipating those.
I do want to ask you, though, Brett McGurk, about the cease-fire in Syria that the U.S. and Russia worked out. It’s been pointed out that Iran wasn’t part of that, and by ignoring or leaving out Iran’s interest in the long run, that that’s going to have to be taken into consideration.
BRETT MCGURK: Well, the cease-fire that was worked out in the southwest, I’m glad you asked about this.
It’s a very important initiative, actually, and another example of how some decisions have been delegated down. Secretary Tillerson really asked us to get after this opportunity that had emerged in the southwest. And we have negotiated really over a period of months with Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan was a key driver of this.
And with the Russians throughout that southwest corner of the country, very important corner of the country. It was a painstaking negotiation meter by meter mapping out what we call the line of contact between the Syrian regime forces and Syrian opposition forces.
And since then, we’re well into the third week now. The fighting has virtually stopped. It’s really — it’s going quite well. And I think the reason this cease-fire is going quite well is because there was this really detailed negotiation about what we call this line of contact.
The Russians have deployed some of their military police on the northern side of that line really to deter violations from the Syrian regime. And so far, it’s going well. We’re seeing people return to their homes in this area. So, we want to make sure that trend line continues.
Now, the presence of the Iranian forces, Hezbollah, some of the militia forces down in that southwest corner of the country, is highly destabilizing. And that’s not something that we only believe. It’s also something the Russians believe.
So, part of this agreement, there is a broader aspect to it. This is something that was very well worked out. We want to see stability in that area, which means setting Hezbollah out of certain areas. It means getting some Iranian-backed forces out of certain areas. And that’s something that we continue to work on.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of how complicated this is, it’s not just Iran, but Turkey is also a factor. We hear the Turkish leader President Erdogan talking about coming after the Kurds inside of Syria.
Of course, the U.S. has been working alongside them. We know a number of Turkish leaders have said they think you have been too supportive of the Kurds. How much of a concern is that to you?
BRETT MCGURK: So, Syria is one of the most complex challenges on the planet as we speak.
And, obviously, Turkey is a critical NATO ally. We are totally transparent with everything we do with the Turks. We had a very big decision to make also early on in this administration of exactly how are we going to get ISIS out of Raqqa.
And, quite frankly, we had two options. One options was to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which we’re doing, and which is going quite well. The second option, quite frankly, was an option that Turkey would have supported, but would have required almost 20,000 to 30,000 American troops. So, that’s something that we’re not going to go back to that model.
We think the model we’re using now is more effective, more sustainable. Look, the coalition that we lead, as the United States, 73 members now, the nature of any coalition, not every member sees eye to eye at all times. That’s the whole nature of having a coalition.
So, certainly, Turkey, every members of the coalition, we have disagreements, we work through them. And I remain an optimistic that we will be able to work through these issues.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds like there’s still some disagreements with the Turks.
BRETT MCGURK: We have disagreements with the Turks. We have disagreements with a lot of our coalition partners. But as with any endeavor, not everybody sees eye to eye all the time, which is why we continue to work through very difficult issues.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Brett McGurk, joining us from the State Department, thank you very much.
BRETT MCGURK: Thank you, Judy.