Confronting ISISView film
Linda Hirsch and
NEWSCASTER: Iraqi forces have been moving closer to retake that key Northern city of Mosul. It’s an ISIS stronghold.
NEWSCASTER: This is a major prize in this effort to unseat ISIS from Iraq. And I would also add─
MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] I have been covering the Middle East for 15 years. For the last few, I have followed ISIS closely. Earlier this year, I was in northern Iraq, headed toward the front line.
TRANSLATOR: This road takes you to Mosul.
WOMAN: Oh, it does?
TRANSLATOR: Yes, goes straight to─ I mean, you can tell there are no cars coming. [laughs]
MARTIN SMITH: This trip was part of a much larger journey across the region. On this day, I was traveling with Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers to an area that had seen heavy fighting. The Kurds are considered America’s best fighters both here and in nearby Syria.
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] There were several battles here, and [ISIS] put explosives on the road.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Whoa. That’s really destroyed down in there.
MAN: And how was this village destroyed?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] Mostly by air strikes and booby traps.
MARTIN SMITH: When was the battle?
[voice-over] The Kurds drove ISIS out of this town, Tal al Reem, in February 2015. They had a lot of help from U.S.-led coalition air forces.
[on camera] How many coalition air strikes hit this area here?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [through interpreter] Dozens.
MARTIN SMITH: Dozens.
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] We were under so much pressure. When ISIS attacked, there were always 400 or 500 fighters, usually with at least 20 suicide bombers.
MARTIN SMITH: So you pushed them out of this town. How far are they from here now?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] Who?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] They’re right over there.
MARTIN SMITH: How far?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] About 1500 meters.
MARTIN SMITH: Like a mile.
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] Does he want to go talk to them?
MARTIN SMITH: Will you go with me?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] No way.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] I was taken to a nearby bunker which overlooked the ISIS-held town of Qayarah.
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] There are still snipers over there. There are mortars, too.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] When’s the last time you had mortars fall here?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] They usually fire every day at this position, about three or four mortars per day.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] One mortar fell while we were there.
[on camera] So how many fighters does ISIS have out there?
KURDISH SOLDIER: [subtitles] It’s hard to tell. It’s not like there are hundreds. Units come into the village, we fire at them with mortars and they leave. It’s not like they live there.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Qayarah and its airbase were among the first targets ISIS hit in of June 2014.
[on camera] There’s a truck moving on this side of the river.
[voice-over] I could hear ISIS fighters chatter on the base radio.
RADIO: [subtitles] Abu Fatima, Abu Fatima. Can you hear me? I left him when he was at headquarters. He said, “I’m on my way. I’m coming.” He’s coming. He’s coming.
MARTIN SMITH: Since my visit here, Iraqi security forces with coalition support attacked and seized Qayarah. The Peshmerga are now awaiting orders to advance up the Tigris to the main ISIS stronghold of Mosul, about 40 miles to the north. It promises to be a hard fight.
COMMANDER: [subtitles] The Mosul strategy is very difficult. It’s really up to the Americans. We will go to Mosul with the help of the Americans, but we are not going alone. The Iraqi army is not capable of retaking it. They can’t even take a small town without the help of the Americans.
MARTIN SMITH: The push to retake Mosul is now thought to be imminent. What I want to understand is, why has the fight against ISIS taken so long? Who are America’s allies here?
This is the Middle East. There are no simple answers.
FISH VENDOR: [subtitles] Fish today! Fresh, fresh!
MARTIN SMITH: Our story begins more than two years ago, when ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. This is a home video made by an ISIS supporter.
HOME VIDEO: This is Mosul It’s Friday, June 20th, 2014. It’s Friday.
MARTIN SMITH: At the time, many Mosul residents welcomed them.
HOME VIDEO: [subtitles] Families are coming out to enjoy the fresh air after the complete liberation of Mosul.
MARTIN SMITH: Meanwhile, broadcasters around the world expressed shock.
NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] The people of Mosul woke up this morning and found that their city was totally out of government control.
NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] In just a few hours, Iraq’s second-largest city was seized by militants after its army retreated.
NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] People cannot believe their ears when they hear what’s going on in Iraq.
NEWSCASTER: The Iraqi military tried and failed to fend off ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: American officials were hard pressed to explain what had happened.
CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense, 2013-15: It wasn’t that we were blind in that area. We had drones. We had satellites. We had intelligence monitoring these groups. But when two divisions of Iraqi regular forces drop their weapons and run and leave then barren the cities and the banks and the territory─ I’m not sure how you predict that.
MARTIN SMITH: Americans had spent eight years, many lives and $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi army. Now hundreds of U.S.-made armored vehicles and weapons were in ISIS hands.
HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Foreign Minister, Iraq, 2003-14: The situation was dire. ISIS leaders were making claims, “Baghdad, we are coming.”
NEWSCASTER: It is becoming a matter of some urgency to push ISIS back.
HOSHYAR ZEBARI: The country is in a serious danger of being overtaken by these fundamentalist, extremist ISIS, who will kill everybody who will not convert to their religion.
NEWSCASTER: The Iraqi government’s begging for the Americans to help.
MARTIN SMITH: But the president didn’t want to launch a full-scale military campaign.
REPORTER: ─recent U.S. history there, are you reluctant to get involved again in Iraq?
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I think that we should look at the situation carefully. We have an interest in making sure that─
MARTIN SMITH: Before he would act, President Obama wanted a new Iraqi prime minister.
PHILIP GORDON Special Asst. to the President, 2013-15: I mean, the president was clear he didn’t want to launch that campaign until there was something to defend, that we were willing to defend, and that wasn’t Maliki.
NEWSCASTER: The administration has signaled they’d like to see a change in Iraq.
MARTIN SMITH: Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, an Iraqi Shi’ite, had been a deeply divisive politician.
PROTESTERS: [subtitles] No to the oppressor!
NEWSCASTER: They don’t have confidence in Maliki because he’s shunned the Sunni─
MARTIN SMITH: He had excluded Iraqi Sunnis from government jobs, purged them from Iraq’s military and police forces. He jailed and tortured Sunni dissidents. His sectarian policies fueled the rise of the Sunni extremists of ISIS. President Obama insisted Maliki had to go.
LUKMAN FAILY, Iraqi Ambassador to the US, 2013-16: And to that effect, we thought that was an impossible task of us. And even if we can get it right, we can’t get it in time to deal with this immediate threat.
ISIS FIGHTER: [subtitles] Maliki is a coward! Victory is only from God. May my last words in life be, “There is no God but God.”
NEWSCASTER: Things are changing here rapidly as militants from ISIS are approaching Baghdad.
NEWSCASTER: ISIS fighters now just eight miles outside the city─
MARTIN SMITH: U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk was at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad at the time.
BRETT McGURK, Dep. Asst. Secretary of State, 2013-14: The entire apparatus around Baghdad was potentially disintegrating and fraying and potentially, you know, Baghdad itself falling.
ISIS FIGHTER: [subtitles] We, the soldiers of the Caliphate, are coming for you!
MARTIN SMITH: Maliki continued to resist calls for his resignation. McGurk argued time was running short.
BRETT McGURK: There’s a political component to everything, but without a military response to what is an army, we couldn’t possibly succeed.
NEWSCASTER: Yesterday, the State Department announced plans to partially evacuate the American embassy in Baghdad.
BRETT McGURK: You know, I’m a civilian in Baghdad. I was advocating as aggressive a response as possible, just given how dire the situation was. So those who were responding, as some were at the time, that this needs a political solution I just thought were completely out of their minds.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Brett was calling from Baghdad and saying, “We need to respond militarily,” wasn’t he?
BEN RHODES, Deputy Natl. Security Adviser: Brett certainly was, I think, an advocate for military action at that time.
MARTIN SMITH: So why couldn’t they have been struck at that time?
BEN RHODES: Because in our view, it doesn’t work. There is a limit to how effective we can be in our own military action absent the right conditions, political conditions, inside of a country.
MARTIN SMITH: Why couldn’t there have been a simultaneous military response while continuing to pressure Maliki to step out of office?
WILLIAM WECHSLER, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: I think that would have allowed Maliki to sort of have his cake and eat it, too─ to be able to stay in power and still have the United States fight his battle for him.
MARTIN SMITH: It seemed pretty clear that they were moving openly across open countryside, that it wouldn’t have been hard to knock them out in those early days.
WILLIAM WECHSLER: It’s certainly true that─ that in those early days, should the policy have been different, we would have had targets to go after.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] I was in Baghdad just a few weeks after the fall of Mosul. I found the situation extremely tense. There were checkpoints everywhere. ISIS was on the city’s outskirts. The police were nervous. ISIS was sending in suicide bombers nearly every day.
In Baghdad’s Firdos square, Maliki’s supporters clung to the prime minister as their best defense.
CLERIC: [subtitles] How many children have [ISIS] killed? And women, elderly, and innocent people? All the while saying “God is Great!” They are calling for the removal of Maliki because he does not give in to their demands, nor does he turn away from the path to justice!
PROTESTERS: The people’s choice is─ Nouri al Maliki! The people’s choice is─ Nouri al Maliki!
MARTIN SMITH: Iraqis I interviewed at that time warned about the consequences of removing Maliki.
SAAD AL MUTTALIBI, Maliki Supporter: If Maliki is forced down, I can assure you an open civil war will take place in Iraq. Even I will carry a gun and go and fight. This is the will of a million people in Baghdad.
PROTESTERS: [subtitles] Yes, yes to Maliki! Yes, yes to Maliki!
SAAD AL MUTTALIBI: This is the people talking. They will protect their prime minister.
MARTIN SMITH: ISIS continued to take more ground, and they began releasing slickly produced videos on YouTube.
ISIS VIDEO: [in English] From the mujahideen came the believers who would rebuild the caliphate.
MARTIN SMITH: With an apocalyptic appeal, they recruited fighters from all over the world.
ISIS VIDEO: ─the few of the few from all corners of the world who answered the call of the Prophet.
MARTIN SMITH: And they had a thirst for extreme violence. Then ISIS directly targeted America.
ISIS FIGHTER: This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront─
MARTIN SMITH: Two days after the video of James Foley’s execution was released─
CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon, everybody─
MARTIN SMITH: ─Secretary Hagel held a press conference. He was questioned as to whether the administration needed to reassess the threat of ISIS.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC News: Is it the calculation that ISIL presents a 9/11-level threat to the United States?
CHUCK HAGEL: Jim, ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They─
MARTIN SMITH: Up to then, the White House had been more measured. Hagel was going off message.
CHUCK HAGEL: Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for─ for everything and─
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Were you asked to─ to tamp down that speech?
CHUCK HAGEL: Oh, I think the White House was not particularly pleased with that speech. They were uncomfortable, the White House, with me maybe overstating the threat. I didn’t think I overstated it. I think I said it exactly right.
NEWSCASTER: In Baghdad, the political deadlock over who will be the country’s next prime minister is finally over. Nouri al Maliki has agreed to step down.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Finally, three months after the fall of Mosul, a new Iraqi government was formed.
NEWSCASTER: The new man in charge will be Haider al Abadi. The challenges he faces are huge.
MARTIN SMITH: It was then that President Obama issued his pledge.
NEWSCASTER: President Barack Obama is gearing up to give a highly anticipated primetime speech tonight─
NEWSCASTER: President Obama will lay out his plan to address the ISIS threat in a televised speech tonight.
NEWSCASTER: Obama has been criticized for having a timid response thus far to dealing with ISIS.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: [September 10, 2014] My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.
MARTIN SMITH: “To degrade and ultimately destroy”─ the words have been repeated over and over again:
NEWSCASTER: Quote, “degrade and ultimately destroy”─
NEWSCASTER: His policy is to destroy ISIS.
NEWSCASTER: No, no, no! It’s to degrade and ultimately destroy!
PHILIP GORDON, Special Asst. to the President, 2013-15: There was a big debate about those terms─ defeat, destroy, degrade. Professionals wanted to argue for containing it initially, and then degrading its capability and ultimately defeating it.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: They understood that the odds of being able to simply wipe away ISIS were pretty minimal. So “degrade” became a way of saying, “Look, we’re going to knock them back into the point where they’re not really a big threat. We can’t promise to make them go away altogether.” “Destroy” is, you know, sort of an ultimate, “Wouldn’t it be nice if.”
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Who came up with, “ultimately?”
PHILIP GORDON: You know, I don’t know. This was─ there were a lot of discussions about whether it should be, you know, contain, defeat, destroy, degrade, you know, ultimately, and it gets more nuanced as it goes along. The recognition was this was a group that was going to be around for some time. The initial strategy looked at a 36-month timetable to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Immediately, the U.S. moved to stop ISIS from advancing on Baghdad. At the same time, U.S. warplanes struck at ISIS sanctuaries over the border in Syria.
CHUCK HAGEL: Strike, after strike, after strike. And of course, the vast majority is American. But it wasn’t just the United States. It wasn’t just the West. It was regional powers right there in the Middle East that were taking those strikes.
BRIAN KATULIS, Center for American Progress: The overriding imperative was to limit U.S. engagement in this and to try to get countries in the region and actors in the region to deal with this threat.
NEWSCASTER: Military officials say more than two dozen air strikes have been carried out in both Syria and Iraq.
NEWSCASTER: The Pentagon says it appears these strikes were very successful.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama said help from Arab allies is proof that the world is united to defeat ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: Over 60 nations around the world signed onto the fight. And there were 10 regional partners, including Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The problem they faced was considerable. ISIS held sway over large parts of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the U.S. hoped to resuscitate the Iraqi armed forces. In Syria, they faced a much bigger challenge.
BRIAN KATULIS: In Iraq, I think there was a fairly coherent strategy crafted by the administration. But the big, gaping hole in the strategy that was debated vociferously inside was Syria.
MARTIN SMITH: This is Raqqa, a city of over 200,000 people. Seized months before Mosul, Raqqa was capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
ISIS VIDEO: [subtitles] Thanks be to God. In these times, the Prophet’s words have come true. The Caliphate is coming!
MARTIN SMITH: It was clear that routing ISIS from here would require a large ground force. Bombing alone would not work. ISIS was intermingled with the local population and was attempting to build a state.
ISIS VIDEO: [subtitles] The service center in Raqqa has multiple departments. We have a department for water, electricity, communication, transportation.
MARTIN SMITH: They fixed roads, collected garbage, repaired phone lines, ran the banks, and carried out justice.
ISIS VIDEO: [subtitles] Our project to spread enlightenment is targeting 40 villages. Eighty thousand Muslims have benefited from this so far.
MARTIN SMITH: The question was who would fight them here.
CHUCK HAGEL: So then do you do an Iraq-style invasion or Afghanistan invasion? President Obama was not going to do that. The Congress would have never gone along with that. The American public would have run away. We’ve never been in this spot before.
DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: Everyone knew that we needed to have boots on the ground. The question was always whose boots would they be? No one wanted large numbers of American boots. There weren’t many Europeans who wanted their boots on the ground, and nor did any of our Gulf Arab partners want their boots on the ground. So the only answer therefore is to build up an indigenous force.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama meeting with his national security team about ISIS. The terror group has continued their march in Syria and Iraq.
MARTIN SMITH: In Washington, they met to discuss what to do.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama will meet today with his national security team to discuss ISIS strategy.
MARTIN SMITH: The president was cautious. He didn’t want any more Americans to die in another messy Middle Eastern war.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: ─because I was elected to end wars, not start them. And part of the reason─
MARTIN SMITH: And there was nothing messier than Syria.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: In Syria, certainly, President Obama is─ is a second and third order thinker. He keeps saying to his staff, “OK, then what? You want to put troops in. Then what? You want to make a no-fly zone. Then what?”
PHILIP GORDON: Syria is probably the most complicated issue that anyone in government has faced. And I recall one Situation Room meeting where one experienced government official said, you know, “This is the hardest problem we’ve faced.” And then somebody else piped in, “Ever.”
MARTIN SMITH: The Syrian war was already into its fourth year by the fall of 2014, and Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s relentless air campaign had already killed around 200,000 civilians. His use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons had devastated whole communities.
In all of the chaos, ISIS had benefited, flourishing in Syria’s ungoverned spaces and drawing recruits who were motivated to join the fight. Assad provided ISIS with a cause.
ISIS FIGHTER: [subtitles] To Bashar, the enemy of God, to Bashar’s supporters, to Bashar’s soldiers, I swear if you kill one of us, we will kill 10 of you, a thousand of you, a million of you! God is my witness.
MARTIN SMITH: For this reason, many people in the region had been urging the United States to do more to bring the war to an end.
KIM GHATTAS, BBC: A lot of people in the Middle East will tell you that there is no dealing with ISIS without dealing with President Assad. That is a view that many people in the region hold very strongly.
PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL, Saudi Intelligence Minister, 1977-2001: We’re all talking about fighting terrorism. Who is the biggest terrorist in Syria? Who has killed more than 300,000 Syrians? Who has dislocated millions of Syrians to leave and become refugees and create a situation in Europe and in other places of receiving these refugees? It is Assad. For us to defeat ISIS, Assad has to go.
MARTIN SMITH: President Obama had approved a very small CIA program backing some anti-Assad rebels in 2013, but Obama opposed launching a major new overt military campaign in Syria.
BEN RHODES: Our policy’s been very clear that Bashar al Assad needs to leave power but that we are not going to militarily remove Assad because, in fact, doing so would draw the United States in in a significant way and because we cannot impose a change on these countries militarily from the outside.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria─
MARTIN SMITH: The president wanted to focus much more narrowly. He asked the Pentagon to train and equip a force to fight only ISIS.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL.
MARTIN SMITH: They would be recruited from anti-Assad rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army. Many, including the president, had doubts.
NEWSCASTER: Some lawmakers sounding off about President Obama’s plans to deal with the growing threat of ISIS.
CHUCK HAGEL: There were many doubts that everybody had, I had, whether this could work. But we were in a position where we really had very few options. But you can’t afford the luxury of─ of just standing back.
NEWSCASTER: So now they’re going to focus their efforts on established units there on the ground, try to train and equip them─
PHILIP GORDON: We always knew it was going to be a challenge. You know, fighters in Syria at the time were involved in a life and death struggle against the Assad regime. ISIS wasn’t their primary fight.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN (R), Arizona: I understand, according to your testimony, that we will be training and equipping approximately 5,000─
MARTIN SMITH: Hagel was called to the Hill to explain how he thought the program would work.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: This group of 5,000 was fighting against Bashar Assad for a number of years before ISIL was ever a significant factor.
If one of the Free Syrian Army is fighting against ISIL, would we take action to prevent them from being attacked by Bashar Assad?
CHUCK HAGEL: Well, we’re first of all not there yet. But our focus is on ISIL, and that is a threat to our country─
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You were asked, “What would─ what would happen, what would you do if they’re attacked by somebody else?”
CHUCK HAGEL: Not somebody else, it was Assad. If they were attacked by Assad, then would you come to their defense and go after Assad forces, because our policy was that we’re not at war against Assad and Syria.
MARTIN SMITH: You looked as if you were put in a difficult position. What was going on?
CHUCK HAGEL: Well, essentially, we had not made─ the administration had not made─ made a decision on that question and─
MARTIN SMITH: So you’re hanging there without a script.
CHUCK HAGEL: I am.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I take it from your answer that we are now recruiting these young men to go and fight in Syria against ISIL, but if they’re attacked by Bashar Assad, we’re not going to help them.
CHUCK HAGEL: They─ they will defend themselves, Senator.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Will we help them against Assad’s air─
CHUCK HAGEL: We will help them and we will support them as we have trained them.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: How will we help them─ will we repel─
MARTIN SMITH: Once again, Hagel would go off message.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: ─assets that will be attacking them?”
CHUCK HAGEL: Any attack on those that we have trained who are supporting us, we will help them.
I just took it upon myself to say, “Yes, we’ll support them,” because any other answer would have sent, in my opinion, an absolutely wrong message to, first of all, the people we were trying to recruit and train and arm. To try to bifurcate and say, “Well, you can kill these guys, but you can’t kill these guys,” was just, I thought, unreasonable.
MARTIN SMITH: Did you raise that objection to President Obama?
CHUCK HAGEL: Well, we talked about it in different principals’ meetings and National Security Council meetings, but we never─ it was never really resolved.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The matter soon erupted into public view.
[on camera] You sent a two-page memo to the─
CHUCK HAGEL: To Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice.
MARTIN SMITH: Ambassador Rice. And you copied the president on it.
CHUCK HAGEL: Yes. I was very concerned about─ we were losing credibility everywhere in the world. My point was that we have spent no time focusing on a political strategy in Syria.
NEWSCASTER: Secretary Hagel apparently sent a letter blasting parts of the Syria policy─
NEWSCASTER: The blame game─ who’s responsible for trouble in Obama’s foreign policy?”
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Hagel had criticized the president for failing to have a strategy for removing Assad.
NEWSCASTER: He wrote this memo saying, Listen, the war can’t be all about ISIS because, inadvertently, you’re helping Assad by degrading ISIS because ISIS, of course, is one of Assad regime’s chief enemies here.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Within weeks, Hagel would be gone.
[on camera] It’s not long after you write the memo in October─ to Rice and Kerry and Obama that your─ your star is fading.
CHUCK HAGEL: I’m not going to get into that. I think it’s been out there. It’s pretty clear we had some disagreements, so─
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Publicly the White House denied that Hagel’s Syria memo was a factor.
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: It did not have any effect. And in this matter, Secretary Hagel has demonstrated clearly in a variety of public settings that he believes in the strategy that the president has laid out and it will be successful over the long term.
MARTIN SMITH: While in Washington, they debated Obama’s Syria strategy the first big battle of the war was already under way. It would be a major test of Obama’s ability to rely on regional partners.
NEWSCASTER: This is the town of Kobani. This town has been surrounded by ISIS. It has been under attack by ISIS militants.
NEWSCASTER: Fighting intensified today around the Syrian town of Kobani.
MARTIN SMITH: Trying to seize a key border crossing, ISIS was moving into Kobani in northern Syria. Kobani’s defenders were badly outmanned and outgunned. ISIS was winning.
But just over the border, Turkey, America’s NATO ally and an anti-ISIS coalition partner, stood idle.
NEWSCASTER: In a clear rebuff to the U.S. administration, Turkey refuses to actually send troops into Syria.
MARTIN SMITH: Turkey also refused to allow coalition jets to use the critically important U.S. airbase at Incirlik, Turkey. U.S. warplanes were forced to fly long distances to reach their targets.
NEWSCASTER: U.S. officials are deeply irritated that the Turks won’t even allow the U.S. to use Turkish airbases─
MARTIN SMITH: The problem was Kobani’s Kurds, a minority group that Turkey fears.
PHILIP GORDON, Special Asst. to the President, 2013-15: The Kurdish element is where the rubber hit the road in the difference between the two sides.
GONUL TOL, Middle East Institute: The Syrian Kurds are linked to the PKK, and the PKK is a Kurdish organization that’s been waging a war against Turkey state since 1980s.
MARTIN SMITH: The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, is a militant Kurdish separatist organization listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group. Their Syrian affiliate, known as the YPG, was leading the fight against ISIS in Kobani. Turkey wanted nothing to do with them.
KURDISH FIGHTERS: [subtitles] Hurry! They’re coming! Come on!
NEWSCASTER: Turkey has sat on the border watching Kurds get slaughtered by ISIS, doing nothing about it.
AHMET KASIM HAN, Kadi Has University, Istanbul: Turkey perceived greater threat from the Kurdish groups that were defending Kobani. And because of that, they wanted the Kurdish insurgency in Northern Syria to be extinguished via ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: The U.S., on the other hand, chose to side with the Kurds.
ADAM ENTOUS, Wall Street Journal: We were desperate for allies. So you know, this is the backdrop that makes it so complicated for the Pentagon. They desperately are─ need an ally. They know they cannot win without it. And we choose the partner that is the enemy of Turkey, which is our NATO ally.
NEWSCASTER: The fighting is absolutely ferocious. I don’t think I’ve heard or seen anything quite like it─
MARTIN SMITH: Raising the stakes for both the U.S. and ISIS, reporters gathered on the Turkish side of the border.
NEWSCASTER: So this is Media Hill, where people come to watch the war. [unintelligible] conflict because you can come just a few hundred meters from Kobani, which you can see over there, the smoke rising from attacks.
GONUL TOL: All eyes were on Kobani. This was almost a PR war. So if the Western world let the Islamic State win this war, it would be a major blow to the image of the coalition against the Islamic State.
MARTIN SMITH: American officials made frequent visits to Turkey to try to enlist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cooperation. Erdogan refused.
I wanted to talk to Erdogan himself about this. He lives and works from a massive new palace in Ankara with 1,000 offices and meeting rooms. After several requests, Erdogan refused to sit for an interview. Instead, he had me speak to his chief foreign policy adviser.
[on camera] So you’re a NATO ally of the United States, and you had a really fundamental difference in opinion about what should happen. The war in Kobani then just ground on and on and on.
IBRAHIM KALIN, Sr. Adviser to President Erdogan: Yes. And it’s difficult for us to understand why, you know, our ally, United States, a NATO ally with which we have a model partnership, will support an organization that directly or indirectly attacks Turkey, targets Turkish security forces, you know, inside Turkey.
NEWSCASTER: Diplomatic tension between the U.S. and Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan─
NEWSCASTER: Turkish officials want their Western allies to sever their links with the Kurdish fighters.
MARTIN SMITH: What does it tell us that, immediately, we’re engaged in this squabble with Erdogan, supposedly a chief ally in the region?
MARC LYNCH, George Washington University: It’s indicative of the entire problem because while most of our regional allies understand that ISIS is a problem, and many of them feel deeply threatened by ISIS, it’s not the top priority of almost anybody except for us.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] A month into the battle, things looked bad in Kobani. Turkey had sealed its border to prevent any shipments of weapons, ammunition or medicine. The loss of Kobani looked imminent. At the 11th hour, the U.S. drew up a plan to resupply the Kurds by air.
PHILIP GORDON: Our friends in Ankara were strongly opposed to this, told us so, told us it would be a grave mistake and damaging to the relationship with Turkey.
MARTIN SMITH: Gordon was worried about the long-term consequences of U.S. intervention. The air drop still remains a difficult subject.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Were you in favor of that particular move before the president decided to do it?
PHILIP GORDON: Was I in favor of the air drop? That’s a tough one to─ let me see if─ how I want to handle that.
MARTIN SMITH: Were you in favor of the air drop of arms and ammunition to the YPG?
PHILIP GORDON: No, I never─ ultimately, I framed and analyzed and underscored the potential consequences for the relationship with Turkey. I wanted the president to understand that there could well be very severe consequences. They might close Incirlik, the airbase, entirely. President said, “Fair enough. I see those points. But I think if I talk to Erdogan, I can get him on board.”
COLIN KAHL, Dep. Assistant to the President: There were folks on both sides of that equation. I think the president was ultimately persuaded by the Pentagon’s argument that unless we did something urgently, there was the real risk of Kobani being defeated.
BRETT McGURK, Envoy to Anti-ISIL Coalition: President Obama called President Erdogan to explain exactly what we were doing, that we recognize Turkey’s very legitimate security concerns against other threats, including the PKK, but we could allow this town to fall.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Did Erdogan approve the air drop?
BRETT McGURK: When President Obama called him, we weren’t asking for permission. We were saying, “This is what we’re going to do.”
MARTIN SMITH: Did you get any warning?
IBRAHIM KALIN, Sr. Adviser to President Erdogan: It came very late, and there was no time really to coordinate it properly.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The air drop delivered tons of badly needed weapons, ammunition and medical supplies. The Turks then appeared to soften.
AHMET KASIM HAN, Kadir Has University, Istanbul: The Turkish government started to realize that it has to give in to the U.S. in some regard. Why? Because Obama administration chose to support the Kurds, and the YPG was doing perhaps better than anyone expected. And Turkey felt that it was losing ground.
MARTIN SMITH: Reluctantly, the Turks agreed to allow a force of Iraqi Kurds, or Peshmerga, to come out of Iraq, across Turkey to the aid of their Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kobani. ISIS resisted for another few months, but in the end, ISIS lost. Over a thousand of its fighters were killed.
NEWSCASTER: It is a big victory for the Kurds and the U.S.- led coalition─
NEWSCASTER: It has been one of the most visible and symbolic locations in the fight against ISIL.
NEWSCASTER: IS has been defeated, but the costs of the conflict are there now for us to see. The city is devastated, empty and in ruins.
MARC LYNCH, George Washington University: So by intervening on behalf of Kobani and partnering with the Kurdish forces there, this really did succeed in stopping the momentum of ISIS. And it dealt them their first strategic setback.
MARTIN SMITH: But in the process, U.S. relations with Turkey were badly damaged. Incirlik airbase remained closed for another six months.
NEWSCASTER: It seems that when it comes to combatting ISIL, Turkey is determined to play by its own rules.
GONUL TOL, Middle East Institute: I think if one has to write the history of relations between Turkey and the United States under Obama and Erdogan, that would be almost a breaking point in bilateral relations.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
MARTIN SMITH: While the U.S. and Turkey faced off, the air campaign continued, and most of America’s Arab allies were participating. But there was more to this fight than planes and bombs. The Obama administration wanted their Arab allies to do much more.
JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Arab nations play a critical role, the leading role, really, in the effort to repudiate once and for all the dangerous, the insulting distortion of Islam that ISIL propaganda attempts to spread throughout the world.
MARTIN SMITH: The United States asked its Arab partners to play a role in a crucial part of their anti-ISIS strategy, what’s called counter-messaging, especially Saudi Arabia.
BRETT McGURK: Far more important than having a Saudi airplane in the air campaign, the Saudis have to be the vanguard of the counter to the ideological message that is spread by not just ISIL but by all the preachers who spread a very similar message of incitement and hatred. What matters is what the Saudis are doing in the ideological struggle against Daesh.
MARTIN SMITH: I went to Saudi Arabia to better understand what Kerry and McGurk were talking about. The U.S. Saudi-alliance is an awkward one. For over 70 years, the U.S. has depended on Saudi Arabia for oil. But this also is the birthplace of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam from which ISIS springs.
It is an extremely strict interpretation of Islam. Moderate Muslims accuse Wahhabis of sanctioning violence against Christians, Jews, as well as all non-Wahhabi Muslims.
In a rare interview with a Western reporter, I asked Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, to comment on Saudi Wahhabist teachings and Islamic extremism.
[on camera] What do you say to those Americans who think that it is Saudi society and its conservative Salafist beliefs that have led many to take up weapons?
GRAND MUFTI: [subtitles] The guiding principles of Saudi Arabia are based on the rulings of the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The Mufti, who is blind, insisted there is no connection between the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and terrorism.
GRAND MUFTI: [subtitles] Our Muslim community rejects terrorism in all its forms and doesn’t cooperate with it. It knows the grave consequences of terrorism.
MARTIN SMITH: Next I went to speak to former intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal. He admits that ISIS has roots here, but says it is an aberration.
PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL: ISIS is a cancerous growth. Cancer cells, where do they come from? They come from healthy cells in the body. But the rest of the body is healthy. And so yes, ISIS does some of these actions that can be pointed to as being similar to what we do. But we have a judicial system.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Sharia law.
PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL: Sharia law. And we are not going to give that up for anything.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] The trouble is that the kind of justice often practiced here in Saudi Arabia can appear indistinguishable from Sharia justice as practiced by ISIS. Saudi Arabia is on the left. ISIS on the right.
FARAH PANDITH, U.S. Rep. to Muslim Peoples, 2009-14: ISIS is sort of the uber-Wahhabi, if you will. They’re taking the most pared-down and boiled-down essence of─ of the Wahhabi sect, and taking it and owning it.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] I’ve been to Saudi Arabia. I’ve talked to Saudi officials. They say that they don’t subscribe to this kind of extremism that ISIS represents, and they refuse to take any responsibility for in some way laying the groundwork or laying the seeds─
FARAH PANDITH: If you are looking for a smoking gun, it is going to be very hard to find the memo that tells you that ISIS is following their ideology. But if you look at the essence of what that sect of Islam is all about, it is very hard not to see that if not for this, there would not be that.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In fact, ISIS used Saudi textbooks for their schools, texts that preach hatred for all non-Wahhabi Muslims.
ISIS TEACHER: [subtitles] The first stage is elementary school. Students have five different areas of study.
SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: They did not have time initially to come up with their own curricula. So conveniently, the Saudi government puts up PDFs of its textbooks on line. And so ISIS just downloaded those textbooks and used them in ISIS schools.
MARTIN SMITH: The Saudis have revised some textbooks and say they are working on their messaging.
ADEL AL TORAIFI, Minister of Culture and Information: We’re working on the counter-narrative almost every day. We’re having meetings. We’re having consultations with people, with experts. We have a show called “Al Ikhbariya,” and on that show, people give their opinion. And one of the questions asked is the question, “How can you protect your children from the ideas of ISIS or the ideas of terrorism?”
MARTIN SMITH: Another Saudi TV show, Selfie, mocks ISIS through comedy by spoofing a mass execution.
FATHER: These poor guys, what did they do?
MAN: What do you mean? These guys are infidels! They need to be slaughtered!
SON: What are you saying, Dad!
MARTIN SMITH: Here, an ISIS fighter tries to get his father, who has come to take him home, to participate in the killing.
SON: Do me a favor. Please give my dad the opportunity to kill one of these guys.
ISIS FIGHTER: Who would you like? Pick one. Choose, choose, choose. What do you think of this guy? He’s ready for you?
DAD: Do I have to?
ISIS FIGHTER: Yes, you have to do it. You have to.
MARTIN SMITH: The question I had was whether Saudi attempts at counter-messaging were making a difference. ISIS has drawn more young men from Saudi Arabia than any other Gulf state.
ISIS VIDEO: [subtitles] To our families and the people of Saudi Arabia. We salute you with these victories achieved by the Islamic State.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Has Secretary Kerry made any progress? Has the United States made any progress in pressuring the Saudis to─
FARAH PANDITH, U.S. Rep to Muslim Peoples, 2009-14: We’ve made progress in─ we’ve made progress in terms of─
MARTIN SMITH: ─to change?
FARAH PANDITH: ─publicly talking about the issue, which is a step forward. But we’re just skimming on the top.
SCOTT SHANE: The message that gets through is still a troublesome message. It still tends to denigrate non-Muslims, Jews and Christians. It still denigrates non-Wahhabi Muslims, especially Shia, anyone who teaches or believes that Islam is something other than the Wahhabi version.
HUSSEIN IBISH, Arab Gulf States Institutes: I think the problem is so deep that addressing all of the layers of intolerance in Saudi discourse is very hard. The problem is Saudi Arabia needs to do more. And American pressure to get Saudi Arabia to do more is important.
MARTIN SMITH: It has been frustrating for the U.S., but counter-messaging is simply not the Saudis number one priority. Instead, it is the kingdom’s long struggle against their archrival, Iran.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini declared Iran to be the legitimate leader of the Muslim world. He called for an end to the Saudi monarchy. In recent years, as the U.S. began pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran, ISIS was seen as a lesser threat.
COLIN KAHL, Deputy Asst. to President Obama: The challenge, of course, we’ve had in the Middle East is that they all are concerned about ISIL. There is no question about that. But they don’t always rank order their concerns in the same order that we do. So in the Saudi case, for example, you know, obviously, I think they’re focused first and foremost on the Iranian challenge.
HUSSEIN IBISH, Arab Gulf States Institutes: There is not real buy-in to the anti-ISIL policy on the Saudi part. Their analysis, I believe, is that the Iranian threat is an immediate and existential one that has to be dealt with at once, or all will be lost. ISIL, on the other hand, is a big problem, but it can be dealt with over time. It’s much less threatening and much less urgent.
MARTIN SMITH: Another big challenge facing the war against ISIS came in Jordan. Historically, this small nation has been a reliable Arab ally. Jordan and the U.S. have had close relations for decades. The government shares information with the CIA and allows the U.S. to base special forces here. In return, Jordan receives hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid annually. But here, too, there were problems.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN, Editor, Rai Al Youm Newspaper: King Abdullah of Jordan has no other option but to join the coalition. First, he is fully dependent on United States when it comes to the financial aids. But in the same time, he is extremely worried because he knows that there is a base of support of the Islamic state inside Jordan.
MARTIN SMITH: As in Saudi Arabia, support for ISIS has deep roots here. This man, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a founder of ISIS, came from Jordan.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: If you look at the Islamic State, it was based on Abu Musab al Zarqawi organization. So Abu Musab al Zarqawi has a lot of support in Jordan.
ISIS CHILD: [subtitles] A message to the tyrant of Jordan. We are the grandchildren of Zarqawi, and we are coming to slaughter you.
MARTIN SMITH: For ISIS, overthrowing the monarchy in Jordan is among its stated goals.
ISIS MEMBER: [subtitles] We’re going after every member of your intelligence [department]. You’ll be so scared, you won’t let your women leave the house. I swear we’re going to bring in explosives by the ton.
LAMIS ANDONI, Al Jazeera: There were rumblings in Jordan whether Jordan should be engaged in U.S.-led war. The debate was, would Jordan be safer or not.
MARTIN SMITH: Then on December 24th, 2014, one of Jordan’s pilots flying for the anti-ISIS coalition went down over northern Syria. The cause of the crash is unclear.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN, Author, Islamic State: Some people are saying that there’s a mechanical fault. But whatever the reason, there was a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: His name was Mouath al Kassasbeh, a 26-year-old Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot.
LAMIS ANDONI: And there was a big shock in Jordan. He looked like many poor Jordanians who didn’t find jobs but who found the only place that would give him─ provide them a decent living was the army. So people identified with him. He captured the minds and hearts of people.
MARTIN SMITH: He came from a small town in southern Jordan. I drove down there to talk to his father. I asked him what he’d been told.
SAFI AL KASSASBEH: [subtitles] Mouath’s plane landed in the Euphrates River and no one helped him. Mouath stayed in the water for over an hour, waiting, until Daesh [ISIS] found him.
MARTIN SMITH: He blamed the failure to rescue his son on the coalition.
SAFI AL KASSASBEH: [subtitles] He got no protection, neither from the Jordanians nor the coalition.
MARTIN SMITH: MARTIN SMITH: When the Jordanian pilot is captured, what effect does that have on the coalition?
WILLIAM WECHSLER, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: I suspect that the other countries involved, if they didn’t understand the risk to their forces previously, they understood it very well then.
NEWSCASTER: Our ally, the United Arab Emirates, has stopped its air strikes campaign─
NEWSCASTER: ─has stopped conducting air strikes, apparently for fear of the safety of their pilots.
MARTIN SMITH: But any attempt to rescue the pilot was compromised. The U.S. rescue teams could not fly out of nearby Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Instead, they were hours away.
DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: We were conducting air operations from the Persian Gulf and from ships at sea. And so the flight time was considerable. Whether it was a bombing run or a search and rescue mission, there’s several hours of flight time that was required to get from those places to over northern Syria.
MARTIN SMITH: Failure to rescue the pilot led to anger on the streets of Amman.
PROTESTERS: [subtitles] The pilot needs to come back!
MARTIN SMITH: Demonstrators called for Jordan to quit the coalition.
PROTESTERS: [subtitles] Hey, coalition go away!
MARTIN SMITH: ISIS meanwhile wanted to exploit the pilot Kassasbeh to maximum effect.
NEWSCASTER: Making a deal with ISIS, a possible prisoner swap with Jordan.
NEWSCASTER: A new ISIS ultimatum─ hand over the prisoner or your pilot will be killed.
MARTIN SMITH: They called the pilot’s family and demanded Jordan release a prisoner in exchange for Kassasbeh.
NEWSCASTER: The prisoner ISIS is demanding be freed, Sajida Rishawi, is a failed suicide bomber on death row in Jordan.
MARTIN SMITH: But negotiations over a prisoner swap stalled. Ten days passed. Then ISIS released this video.
KENJI GOTO, Prisoner: I’m Kenji Goto Joke. The ball is now in the Jordanians’ court.
MARTIN SMITH: In it, another hostage, Japanese war reporter Kenji Goto, was holding a photo of the pilot Kassasbeh.
KENJI GOTO: Time is now running very short.
MARTIN SMITH: ISIS seemed to be now offering two hostages for Sajida’s release.
KENJI GOTO: I only have 24 hours left to live, and the pilot has even less.
NEWSCASTER: The fate of two hostages held by ISIS could be determined within hours.
NEWSCASTER: Goto’s mother issued an emotional appeal to the Japanese and Jordanian governments to meet the ISIS demands for a prisoner swap.
NEWSCASTER: A deadline looms for Jordan and Japan as every moment becomes critical.
MARTIN SMITH: King Abdullah told Kassasbeh’s father he was doing all he could.
SAFI AL KASSASBEH: [subtitles] He says Mouath is as much his son as mine! And he says God willing, everything will be all right.
MARTIN SMITH: But Jordan refused to negotiate until there was proof that their pilot was still alive.
GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON: We want to see a proof of life of the Jordanian pilot, and then we can talk about the exchange between Sajida al Rishawi and the Jordanian pilot.
JONATHAN KARL, ABC News: ─White House reaction to the Jordanian government expressing a willingness to give in to demands─
MARTIN SMITH: In Washington, the administration publicly discouraged any negotiations at all.
JONATHAN KARL: The United States government will not pay ransom, will not give in to demands. Do we think it is a bad idea if another government does exactly that?
ERIC SCHULTZ, Dep. White House Press Secretary: I can tell you that this is a long-standing policy that predates this administration, and it’s also one that we’ve communicated to our friends and allies across the world. Our policy is that we don’t pay ransom. We don’t give concessions.
MARTIN SMITH: The deadline passed with no word. Then the Japanese reporter was executed.
ISIS EXECUTIONER: [in English] So let the nightmare for Japan begin.
MARTIN SMITH: There was no news of the pilot until ISIS released another video.
ALI KHEDERY, Sr. Adviser, U.S. Emb., Baghdad, 2003-09: It looked like a scene out of a Hollywood blockbuster, the digitization, the GPS coordinates of when they were debriefing him, and he was saying, “These are my other fellow pilots.”
MARTIN SMITH: Next, Kassasbeh walks before what looks like a firing squad. The film includes stylized flashbacks. Kassasbeh is then put in a cage and doused with gasoline.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: [subtitles] They burned him! They released a video!
MARTIN SMITH: Back in Amman, members of the Jordanian parliament reacted.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: [subtitles] They burned Mouath! They burned him in a cage!
ALI KHEDERY: It was very savage, the way they lit the pilot on fire, and then his, literally, skin melting off. And that’s forbidden in Islam, to light human beings on fire. It showed ISIS to be what they really are, a scourge on humanity.
MARTIN SMITH: In downtown Raqqa, the ISIS capital, the film played to a crowd, including children, in the town square.
INTERVIEWER: [subtitles] What do you think?
CHILD: [subtitles] I think─ I’m very happy.
INTERVIEWER: [subtitles] Why?
CHILD: [subtitles] Because they burned him. I wish I could have done it myself. I hope more pilots fly over us so we can capture and burn them, too.
MARTIN SMITH: Coincidentally, the king was in Washington at the time. President Obama found time to meet with him, but with no questions from the press. Immediately afterwards, the king recorded a message to be broadcast back in Jordan.
KING ABDULLAH, Jordan: [subtitles] This criminal group of deviants does not connect to our tolerant religion in any way.
MARTIN SMITH: The question was, how would the Jordanian people react?
PROTESTER: [subtitles] Everyone, everyone, we’ve gathered here today after seeing the horrific way our hero, Mouath al Kassasbeh, was killed.
DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: At that time, Jordanians could have said, “What fight do we have with these crazy jihadists? Let’s not bring destruction down on any more of our young soldiers.” Instead, the Jordanian reaction was intense, passionate, anti-ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: The people called for revenge. Jordan’s prisoner, Sajida, was immediately hanged, and the government released a video featuring the king leading a new round of air strikes.
NEWSCASTER: Jordan’s King Abdullah is vowing a, quote, “relentless war against ISIS” after the pilot was captured─
SAFI AL KASSASBEH, Father: [subtitles] The Jordanian pilots, for three straight days, bombed Daesh intensively, avenging the death of Mouath. They wrote on the missiles, “A gift from the mother of Mouath Kassasbeh.” “This is a gift from the Jordanian people.”
MARTIN SMITH: The White House believed this would be a turning point.
NEWSCASTER: Arab allies are now fighting with a renewed enthusiasm.
MARTIN SMITH: But it was not to last.
NEWSCASTER: A coalition of Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia has launched a military operation in Yemen. They’re aiming to stop the advance of Shi’ite─
MARTIN SMITH: One month after the burning of the Jordanian pilot, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states began diverting their warplanes to combat what they believed was an Iranian-backed coup in Yemen. They suspended many of their anti-ISIS air operations.
MARC LYNCH, George Washington University: Jordan, like most of the Arab partners in the campaign, pretty quickly backs away and lets the United States take the lion’s share of the air campaign.
NEWSCASTER: Yemen’s continuing instability is complicating Washington’s efforts to confront─
MARTIN SMITH: The administration was disappointed with its Arab partners.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: It had to be something of a surprise. President Obama certainly wanted them to be and expected them to be fuller partners than they have been. And it’s been one of failings of this particular effort that it hasn’t worked out that way.
MARTIN SMITH: Six months into the war on ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition had made next to no progress. ISIS holdings were virtually unchanged. And in Iraq, U.S. efforts to rebuild the army were moving slowly.
Saladin Province, Iraq
MARTIN SMITH: Threatening to fill the void, a group of Shia militias in Iraq had emerged as the most powerful military force in the country. Supposedly under the control of the Iraqi government, they are also armed and advised by the Shia government of Iran. They are highly sectarian.
In March 2015, these militias were impatient to take the fight to ISIS. We hired an Iraqi cameraman to follow them as they began to make their move.
NEWSCASTER: These Shi’ite fighters working together to flush out Islamic State─
MARTIN SMITH: They set their sights on Tikrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad.
NEWSCASTER: ─part of a huge offensive to retake the city of Tikrit, the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein.
MARTIN SMITH: The militias informed Iraq’s prime minister they were going in almost as an afterthought.
KENNETH POLLACK, Brookings Institution: Reportedly, they came to Prime Minister Haider al Abadi about a week before the battle was going to start and said to him, “We’re going to do this. We are going to liberate Tikrit. If you’d like to participate, you’re welcome to do so, but no Americans.” This created an enormous problem for Abadi.
MARTIN SMITH: The militias had a bitter history with America. They were on opposite sides during the American occupation of Iraq. Yet Abadi felt he had no choice but to go along.
KENNETH POLLACK: Abadi could not allow the Shia militias to go ahead and mount a major military operation without his participation. It would completely undermine the sense that he was actually the man in charge of Iraq.
MARTIN SMITH: Abadi sent in a small force of Iraqi army regulars, but the Shia militia made up two thirds of the invading force.
NEWSCASTER: ─Iran providing weapons to fight ISIS. The U.S. is on the sidelines.
MARTIN SMITH: The U.S. decided to withhold all support. At the Pentagon, Ashton Carter had taken over from Secretary Hagel just as the battle for Tikrit was beginning. I asked him about the decision to stay out of the fight.
ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: We do not enable Shia-backed militia at all. The hell of Iraq has been sectarian violence, and so─
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] It’s what gave rise to ISIS in the first place.
ASHTON CARTER: Yes. So our approach has been to back Abadi’s government, realizing that that’s decentralized. But in order to have a defeat that sticks, we can’t fuel sectarianism.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] At the White House, they were also worried about sectarianism.
ANDREW KIM, Dir. for Iraq, Nat. Sec. Council, 2013-15: It was a huge concern to the United States. It could unleash sectarian violence even beyond what we were seeing at that time.
NEWSCASTER: Tikrit really is a show that’s run by the Iranian-backed militias─
KENNETH POLLACK: Many Sunnis in Tikrit and in Saladin Province more broadly see the Shia militias as being the stormtroopers of the Shia government, come to oppress them, come to slaughter them.
NEWSCASTER: Iraqi prime minister Abadi did not ask the Americans─
MARTIN SMITH: I also spoke with Prime Minister Abadi about Iran’s involvement.
HAIDER AL ABADI, Prime Minister, Iraq: Well, Iran is a major partner, as well. I think, if you look carefully, we are taking help in terms of advice and support from Iran and from international coalition. And it’s good for us. If they compete to help Iraqi security forces, that’s good for us.
NEWSCASTER: They’re facing a lot of resistance. They’ve been at this for almost 10 days now─
MARTIN SMITH: Then, a little over a week in, the militia offensive stalled.
NEWSCASTER: Islamic State fighters, who have laid explosives along the roads─
ANDREW KIM: They realized after a few days that they had made very little progress, like, inches a day at most.
NEWSCASTER: The battle to reclaim it has not been an easy one. ISIL had posted snipers and rigged the city with explosives to hold its positions.
KENNETH POLLACK: ISIS turns out to be a lot tougher than they expected. And it’s obviously a different battlefield than what they had been expecting.
NEWSCASTER: Shi’ite paramilitary fighters insisted that they did not need U.S. help to retake the city.
BRETT McGURK, Envoy to Anti-ISIL Coalition: And then Prime Minister Abadi came to us and said he really wanted some help to take Tikrit.
MARTIN SMITH: The U.S. said they would help, but only if the militia pulled out.
BRETT McGURK, Envoy to Anti-ISIL Coalition: We will support and provide air support for forces that are operating directly under Iraqi command and control. We will not provide air support outside that structure.
ANDREW KIM: So the prime minister steps in and asserts that this is going to be an Iraqi government-led operation from now on.
MARTIN SMITH: Reluctantly, the militias stood aside.
BRETT McGURK: Prime Minister Abadi brought in all of his security commanders and said, “This is how it’s going to be,” and we hope the Iraqis take Tikrit.
NEWSCASTER: The final push is happening without Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.
NEWSCASTER: U.S.-led air strikes were requested by Iraq’s government.
MARTIN SMITH: Once American planes started bombing ISIS positions, the battle turned.
NEWSCASTER: Iraqi forces seized control of the governor’s headquarters and the main hospital here in the Sunni city of Tikrit after fighting Islamic State militants for nearly a month.
NEWSCASTER: Progress has been slow, but when the Iraqi forces retook the city of Tikrit, residents celebrated their arrival
KENNETH POLLACK: Psychologically and politically, it’s huge. It demonstrates that Haider al Abadi is the man who can get this stuff done. But it’s Iraq. Nothing goes exactly according to plan. And of course, while the U.S. does a very effective job of helping the Iraqi army to retake Tikrit, there’s no real well-worked-out plan about what’s going to happen after the fall of the city.
MARTIN SMITH: I traveled into Saladin province a year later with the Badr militia, one of several Shia militia groups. I came to see what had happened after the battle.
GUIDE: [subtitles] ISIS was in this area. Our men from the Badr Brigade liberated the area.
MARTIN SMITH: When?
GUIDE: [subtitles] Just one year ago.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The area is now under joint control of Shia militias and the Iraqi army. You can still see ISIS graffiti [“Owned by Islamic State”] painted-over ISIS flag. In this traffic circle, residents have erected a monument memorializing the day that ISIS executed 11 town officials.
ISIS was still in the area. I was taken out to this oilfield. Oil wells were still burning, set on fire by retreating ISIS fighters. And I snapped a picture of the ISIS flag flying in the distance.
I wanted to know about reports of sectarian violence by Shia militia forces after ISIS was pushed out of the area. Videos like this had surfaced on the internet, Sunni residents dragged out of their homes and shot, accused of being ISIS collaborators─
VIDEO: [subtitles] This is an ISIS house. I’m going to blow it up.
MARTIN SMITH: ─their houses blown up.
In Tikrit, I visited this Sunni neighborhood─ house after house demolished. Human Rights Watch has reported that scores of Sunni homes were leveled by Shia militia.
I went back to Baghdad to speak to officials about what I’d seen. The capital of Iraq supposedly represents all Iraqis, but militia propaganda is overwhelming here─
[on camera] Like, are these martyrs?
TRANSLATOR: Yes, these are martyrs.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] ─their heroes celebrated on posters and billboards. There are no posters of Sunni leaders.
Prime Minister Abadi has publicly asked the militias to take down the signs, but to no avail. I asked him who is really running Iraq.
[on camera] The question people have is whether or not you really have the control over these militia forces. They’re staffed by Shia. They’re powerful and more capable than your Iraqi security forces at this point.
Pres. HAIDER AL ABADI: Well, this is an official Iraqi organization, but yes, I agree, there are excesses. Some of it we are going addressing. We have to find the culprits and make them accountable. My government has zero tolerance towards any excesses in the war.
MARTIN SMITH: The reliance, however, on Shi’ite militias─ how can that make anything better?
HAIDER AL ABADI: It depends how you look at them. I think you are calling them Shi’ite militia. I’m calling them civilians who are fighting alongside Iraqi security forces to defend the country.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Next I went to see Hadi al Amiri, the head of the Badr militia, which had participated in many battles in and around Tikrit. His militia today has a heavy presence there.
HADI AL AMIRI, Chief, Badr Militia: [subtitles] ISIS was defeated and ran away because of your sons who gave their lives.
[on camera] After Tikrit, there were indeed some allegations of abuse.
[voice-over] I met him at his Baghdad headquarters and asked him about the Shia abuses in Saladin province.
HADI AL AMIRI: [subtitles] I don’t claim that there are never violations that occur during war. And I would say to you, as American journalist, examine the violations committed by the American army during the occupation of Iraq. This is a war, and in a war, there are violations. Let us have a neutral committee to investigate, and I’m certain they’ll find the Hasd [militia] more disciplined than American troops.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] I sat down with Hadi al Amiri, and when I raised the question of the abuses that had taken place, He simply said, “Stuff happens. This is war. There’s abuse.”
ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: Well, that sounds like the kind of thing he would say. But that just proves my point, which is that the militias, the Shia militias, are not under the control of anybody, still less are they serving in the interests of the government of Iraq. They’re sectarian militias that are out of control. And if his remarks to you were admitting that, that’s pretty much the way we see it, too.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Though Tikrit had been taken back, the next month, ISIS took Ramadi, a larger Iraqi town west of Baghdad. In Syria, they were advancing even more, seizing the Arak gas field and the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria.
Meanwhile, the administration’s strategy to train and equip a large force to fight ISIS in Syria was still in its infancy.
NEWSCASTER: Today, the Pentagon said it would deploy more than 400 U.S. troops to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria to target ISIS─
MARTIN SMITH: There was still a lot of skepticism about the plan, but the Pentagon was at least encouraged that its regional allies were cooperating.
NEWSCASTER: The troops will work out of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar─
DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: Initially, as this effort was getting under way, we were able to get partners on board. We were able to work with the Turks and the Saudis and the Jordanians to provide us facilities and space in which to do the training.
NEWSCASTER: The troops will train, equip and arm as many as 5,400 fighters─
MARTIN SMITH: When I interviewed General John Allen back in early 2015, he was surprisingly optimistic.
JOHN ALLEN, Envoy to Anti-ISIL Coalition, 2014-15: We actually are in the process of recruiting now and we’re finding a lot of enthusiasm, actually, amongst the Syrians.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Initially, you had trouble finding the men that would join.
JOHN ALLEN: Not really. We had questions about how the recruiting pool would look and ultimately the enthusiasm to do that. And once the process started, we actually found that the numbers are trending substantially higher, actually, than we thought.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] They were finding candidates, but it was the vetting process that would cause problems and long delays.
MATTHEW SPENCE, Dep. Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: Vetting was critical. There were extremist groups that we in no way wanted to support and wanted to make sure that weapons were not going through. So we would vet them before we started training. And then also, before they would actually enter the training program, we would have a vetting program for them as they were largely brought out.
ASHTON CARTER: But we know this program is essential. We need a partner on the ground in Syria─
MARTIN SMITH: In July 2015, Secretary Carter reported to Congress about the challenges they faced.
ASHTON CARTER: We are currently training about 60 fighters. This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point. And I can look out at your faces and you had the same reaction I do, which is that’s an awfully small number. Why is that number so small? The reason for that has to do with the criteria we apply to these recruits. We do counterintelligence─
MARTIN SMITH: One criterion in particular was problematic. Doubts were raised about it months earlier. Still, the administration had insisted that recruits be asked to sign a contract pledging to fight only ISIS, not Assad.
ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal: They show up at the crossing, they’re literally made to sign a form that says that they are only going to fight ISIS. And you can imagine, a lot of these guys turned around and walked away at that point.
ABU ISKANDER, New Syrian Forces: [through interpreter] The second rule of the training project is that we fight whoever fights us. The Assad regime is fighting us. Are we going to sit still and not fight Assad? We want the Assad regime to be stopped.
NEWSCASTER: So far, fewer than 100 volunteers have turned up.
MARTIN SMITH: Syrian opposition forces complained several times to General Allen.
KHALED KHOJA, Syrian Opposition: We had a lot of meetings with General John Allen, and we showed our readiness to fight. But we were clear. We─ when we fight ISIL, we cannot not just watch Assad forces coming from our backs and attacking us.
MARTIN SMITH: There was dissension inside the Pentagon, as well.
MATTHEW SPENCE: I was of the view that if we were going to train these individuals, and they were being attacked by Assad, we should train and arm them and allow them to attack Assad. That was not what happened.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Where was the White House?
MATTHEW SPENCE: So the White House at the time wanted us to focus on ISIS first, you know, that ISIS was the immediate threat to the United States. That’s what we need to confront right now, and we did not want to be in a place where we were diverting from that, from that immediate goal.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] According to rebel sources, the first 54 trainees were sent into Syria in mid-summer 2015. Thirteen never crossed the border. Around 15 entered Syria, but immediately joined a force fighting Assad. For most of the remaining men, the news was worse.
DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: They came in with poor intelligence, with a poor sense of the terrain, without really having a clear strategy for how they were going to move in that area, who their friends and enemies were. And they got crushed. They were attacked by Jabhat al Nusra. The U.S. sent drones in to try to save them.
REPORTER: Can you confirm reports out of Syria that U.S.-_[backed]_ rebels have been abducted by the Nusra Front [al Qaeda]?
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: At this point, what I can tell you is─ I got a piece of paper on this right before I walked out here, actually. We have seen press reports that some leaders have been detained.
NEWSCASTER: Some of the guys I think were killed, others were kidnapped or captured. There had been speculation at the Pentagon that some of them may have defected over to Jabhat al Nusra.
MARTIN SMITH: It turns out, they hardly had a chance. Once inserted, they were basically deserted.
WILLIAM WECHSLER, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: We were providing training, but we were not providing the kind of support that we would provide to our own units, should they be there. If our own units were there, we would have provided them with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. We would provide them with medevac to get them out of harm’s way, should they be injured. We would provide them with lift support to get them where they need to go. And we would have our special operators on the ground working with them.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] So you recommended these things.
WILLIAM WECHSLER: These things were all very well known to anybody who had been working in the counterterrorism arena for a long period of time.
MARTIN SMITH: It’s hard to imagine anybody with military experience seeing this force as anything other than a disaster in waiting.
WILLIAM WECHSLER: Well, it was─ it was a disaster at the end of the day, certainly.
Sen. DEB FISCHER (R), Nebraska: General Austin, when Secretary Carter was here before this committee in July, he testified that there were only about 60 Syrian fighters that had been trained in our train and equip program and reinserted. We’ve heard reports about the attacks on those individuals when they were reinserted back into Syria. Can you tell us what the total number of trained fighters remains?
Gen. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. CENTCOM Commander: It’s a small number. And the ones that are in the fight is─ is─ is─ we’re talking four, four or five.
NEWSCASTER: The Pentagon was forced to concede that a key part of the president’s Syria policy is a dismal failure.
NEWSCASTER: The U.S. military will announce today that it is ending its train and equip program─
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The program was quickly shut down. President Obama immediately distanced himself from it.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to, and I think the Department of Defense would say the same thing.
I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria.
PETER BAKER, _The New York Times: President Obama─ he never believed in it. He only did it because, basically, he’d been browbeaten into trying it. And then when it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that it didn’t work, he said, “I was right all along.”
NEWSCASTER: He’s essentially wiping his hands of this program─
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] That’s an odd thing for a president to say.
PETER BAKER: It’s unusual.
MARTIN SMITH: He’s the guy in charge.
PETER BAKER: He’s the guy in charge. And it’s pretty unusual to say, “I never believed that this program I started would actually work.”
MARTIN SMITH: And that I asked Congress for $500 million dollars to fund.
PETER BAKER: $500 million dollars to fund. And then once it did fail, it became a political talking point to say, “See? My critics were wrong all along.”
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] America’s war against ISIS was about to get much more complicated. In the summer of 2015, I was in Syria. Over and over again, the Syrians I spoke to were worried about gains being made by ISIS.
MAN FROM PALMYRA: [subtitles] We used to live in heaven until ISIS came to our country and destroyed it.
MARTIN SMITH: I traveled the length of the country. I was reporting from areas still controlled by the Assad regime. I witnessed the destruction and the cost of Assad’s war, paid in lives of young Syrian men and women.
[on camera] And what’s the toll of the war been on this town?’
MUNZER NASSER, Militia Commander: [subtitles] This place is famous for offering martyrs. I don’t know the exact number, but there have been a lot, more than 200.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] This militia commander was worried. Just over these mountains was some of the fiercest fighting in all of Syria.
[on camera] And how close is the front to here?
MUNZER NASSER: [subtitles] We are almost at the front line. We’re about 30 kilometers away, 25 or 30.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] It was a critical time. In a rare televised speech, President Assad acknowledged that his army was on the retreat.
BASHAR AL ASSAD, Syrian President: [subtitles] Sometimes in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto.
MARTIN SMITH: He said there was a shortage of soldiers. For those still fighting, morale was low.
ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times: There were reports of Syrian army units that were falling apart, that weren’t fighting well. You could just see the pressure that was growing on the capital.
MARTIN SMITH: Rebel groups surrounded Damascus, lobbing mortars into downtown neighborhoods.
But everything was about to change. At CIA headquarters, analysts were seeing new satellite images that showed a large number of Russian bombers on an airstrip in northern Syria.
PETER BAKER: Over the summer, Russia begins moving equipment, military equipment, and forces into Syria. And we’re watching this happening and we’re wondering, “What’s that about?”
MARTIN SMITH: In September, in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Putin raised hopes when he hinted that Russia might join the fight against ISIS.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President: [through interpreter] We propose discussing whether it is possible to agree on a resolution aimed at coordinating the actions of all the forces─
MARTIN SMITH: President Obama asked for a meeting.
PETER BAKER: And they talk about Syria, and the president says, “Look, I don’t know what you’re thinking about doing there, but you know, we need to be coordinated, whatever might happen there.” And Putin seems to suggest some, you know, constructive language.
MARTIN SMITH: It seemed they may have struck an agreement.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.
REPORTER: Are you going to work together?
REPORTER: Have you made progress on Syria? Did you make a deal?
REPORTER: How about a timeline, Mr. President?
PETER BAKER: And then a couple days later, suddenly, boom, the Russians are bombing.
NEWSCASTER: Russian air strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction to residential areas.
MARTIN SMITH: But the Russians were not bombing ISIS.
NEWSCASTER: The question of exactly who is Russia targeting?
ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: What they said they were going to do is come in and find ISIL and use their influence to move Assad aside and thereby end the civil war in Syria, which has been one of the causes of the whole fertile ground for ISIL. They didn’t do either of those things.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] So they lied to you.
ASHTON CARTER: Well, they certainly had a very different interpretation of combatting ISIL.
NEWSCASTER: Activists say the strikes have intensified since Russia began its air campaign to bolster the Assad regime.
SYRIAN MAN: [subtitles] Where are the Arab countries? Where is the United Nations? We are being shelled every day! We swear, we don’t know where to go!
ASHTON CARTER: The Russians have instead joined Assad against the opposition, thereby pouring gasoline on the civil war.
PETER BAKER: This is a whole new dynamic in this awful 4-year-old war at this point. Now another superpower has entered the fray with enormous military might, fighting, in effect, on the other side, even though it says it shares the same goals that we have of fighting terrorism. And it’s a huge complication for President Obama, who now has to figure out what to do.
MARTIN SMITH: With Assad now backed by Russian air power, the war was prolonged, defeating ISIS delayed.
COLIN KAHL, Dep. Asst. to President Obama: There’s no question that having the war rage, with all of its consequences, makes defeating ISIL harder. It’s also, I think, widely understood that it’s hard to see how the war winds down and ends while Assad is still in office.
NEWSCASTER: The simple fact is that Vladimir Putin is rubbing it in our face. We’re doing nothing about it─
MARTIN SMITH: There was pressure on the president to somehow confront both Assad and Russia.
NEWSCASTER: Clearly, our strategy is not working.
MARTIN SMITH: A confrontation he did not want.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: But we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be bad strategy on our part. Our battle is with ISIL─
MARTIN SMITH: The president resisted.
BEN RHODES, Dep. National Security Adviser: The decision to engage in military conflict with a government like Assad’s that has Russian and Iranian support, or to give significant military support to groups who include al Qaeda-backed extremists─ to go down that pathway is a very momentous decision.
MARTIN SMITH: The death toll in Syria steadily rose throughout the fall of 2015. An already dire refugee crisis now would only grow worse. People fleeing the country exceeded four million. Refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were overcrowded. The war was quickly moving beyond anyone’s control.
NEWSCASTER: One after the other, they keep coming, and the scale of this crisis is outstanding.
NEWSCASTER: An estimated nine million Syrians have fled the country.
NEWSCASTER: This crisis doesn’t seem anywhere near over.
PHILIP GORDON, Special Asst. to the President, 2013-15: It is clear that by 2015, the strategic consequences of the war in Syria are becoming almost unsustainable. You have hundreds of thousands of refugees, and it spills over to Europe, where it risks undermining the basic stability of the European Union.
NEWSCASTER: More nations are tightening their borders as a historic number of refugees flood into Europe.
NEWSCASTER: One million refugees into Germany alone─
NEWSCASTER: Hungary says it’s simply overwhelmed by the endless flow of refugees and migrants.
PHILIP GORDON: So you put all of this together, and the consequences of Syria are enormous. It looks worse than the threat of ISIS.
NEWSCASTER: The issue of free movement in Europe is playing out right in front of people─
NEWSCASTER: ─the biggest mass migration of people since the Second World War.
NEWSCASTER: This is the ideal situation for ISIS to penetrate Europe.
PHILIP GORDON: No one can look at the devastating consequences of this conflict over five years and not ask the question, “What could we have done differently to prevent this horrific situation?” And I think we’ve all rerun it in our minds, you know, “Could we have done this? Could we have done that? Should we do something now?”
NEWSCASTER: We’ve got to bring some sort of order to Syria so these people don’t continue to flow outwardly.
COLIN KAHL: The events in Syria have been horrendous. The impulse to do something about it has been profound and understandable. But the president has held firm that that, in and of itself, is not an argument to leap into military action if you can’t tell him a story about how this ends.
NEWSCASTER: Officials today said top ISIS commanders in Syria planned and directed the sophisticated Paris attack.
MARTIN SMITH: Then in November came the ISIS attack in Paris, killing 130 people.
NEWSCASTER: Inside that concert hall, survivors describe a horrible scene.
NEWSCASTER: ISIS has spread far beyond its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
NEWSCASTER: The worst attack in France since World War Two─
NEWSCASTER: ISIS saying, quote, “What’s coming next will be far worse and more bitter.”
NEWSCASTER: The bloodbath in Paris has turned the focus of this G20 summit from the economy to ISIS.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Our goal, as I’ve said many times, is to degrade and ultimately destroy this barbaric terrorist organization. The terrible events in Paris were obviously a terrible and sickening setback. Even as we grieve with our French friends, however, we can’t lose sight that there has been progress made.
NEWSCASTER: We have breaking news coming to us out of San Bernardino, where we have the sheriff’s office confirming that they’ve had an active─
MARTIN SMITH: Two-and-a-half weeks later, San Bernardino, an ISIS-inspired attack, another 14 dead.
NEWSCASTER: Now, in the wake of the deadly Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, it’s clear that America is on edge. There are investigations into ISIS now in all 50 states, and just yesterday─
MARTIN SMITH: Both Paris and San Bernardino were wake-up calls for officials. When and where would ISIS or its sympathizers strike again? Was the administration running out of time to stop them?
NEWSCASTER: Americans view terrorism as the biggest threat facing the country─
DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Secretary of Defense, 2012-15: Many of us who are part of this debate are asking, “Do we have enough time?” In other words, one of the risks we run trying to patiently implement a strategy is that we don’t have the time we think we had.
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] The worry is that we’ll wake up tomorrow and the Golden Gate Bridge will be─
DEREK CHOLLET: Absolutely.
MARTIN SMITH: ─or Grand Central Station will be─
DEREK CHOLLET: Exactly.
MARTIN SMITH: ─bombed.
DEREK CHOLLET: All of that. That’s something you live with every day. I─ let me say the─ the─ the primary kind of emotion when you’re in government is worry.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] From this point on, America’s war against ISIS took on a new urgency.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Good morning, everybody─
MARTIN SMITH: The president went to the Pentagon and held an unusual press briefing. He implored America’s Middle Eastern allies to do more.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Just as the United States is doing more in this fight, just as our allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy are doing more, so must others. And that’s why I’ve asked Secretary Carter to go to the Middle East ─ he’ll depart right after this press briefing ─ to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.
MARTIN SMITH: But Obama would immediately get pushback from his leading Arab ally.
SAUDI DEFENSE MINISTER: [subtitles] I assume you’ve all seen the press release announcing a coalition of Muslim countries working to fight terrorism.
MARTIN SMITH: Just hours after President Obama spoke at the Pentagon, the 30-year-old Saudi minister of defense held a midnight press conference. He declared that Saudi Arabia was going its own way.
SAUDI DEFENSE MINISTER: [subtitles] We will establish a control center in Riyadh to coordinate and support counterterrorism operations across the Muslim world.
MARTIN SMITH: The Saudis were focused not on ISIS, but on Obama’s newly completed nuclear deal with their archrival, Iran. They feared the pending release of $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets would help fuel Iran’s interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
JAMAL KHASHOGGI, Saudi Columnist: The nuclear agreement gave Iran a free hand to continue with its bad behavior in the region unchecked and balanced by the Americans and the Western world.
NEWSCASTER: This Iran nuke deal has so roiled the Middle East─
NEWSCASTER: They see the rise of Iran. Iran’s more powerful than they’ve ever been since the 1979 revolution.
KIM GHATTAS, BBC: Saudis, in essence, are telling the president, “We’ve had enough. We don’t believe in your coalition. We’re going to have our own coalition in the Middle East. We are going to be the leaders of the Sunni world. We are going to bring everyone together and fight terrorism the way that we think it should be done.”
NEWSCASTER: Yesterday, the Saudis executed 47 people, including a prominent Shi’ite cleric.
MARTIN SMITH: Shortly after announcing their coalition, Saudi Arabia executed an Iranian-educated Shia cleric, Nimr al Nimr.
NEWSCASTER: ─new and dangerous level─
MARTIN SMITH: The Saudis were sending a shot across Iran’s bow.
NEWSCASTER: The U.S. says it’s worried the execution of Nimr al Nimr will exacerbate tensions─
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You knew that you’d get a pretty bad reaction from the rest of the world, and from Iran. That must have been in your calculation, that you were sending some kind of strong message abroad.
PRINCE TURKI AL FAISAL, Saudi Intelligence Minister, 1977-2001: I hope that that was the case. And nobody has a right to either prevent us or condemn us or criticize us for that.
NEWSCASTER: Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown has angered Muslims in many countries.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Shia communities across the region rose up.
NEWSCASTER: Shi’ite protesters took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan in response to the execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al Nimr─
MARTIN SMITH: A Saudi consulate in Iran was torched. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain all immediately severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. The Saudis risked igniting a new war in the region.
KIM GHATTAS: The Saudis knew there would be some kind of reaction. I don’t think it was a miscalculation. My analysis is that it was a very well-thought-through move, that this was a time to tell the Americans that the Saudis were no longer willing to tiptoe around Iran.
REPORTER: Did Saudi Arabia give the White House a heads-up before cutting off ties with Iran?
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: Well, I’m not going to get into the details of all of the diplomatic conversations between the United States and Saudi officials.
MARTIN SMITH: The White House has repeatedly urged the Saudis to resolve their differences with Iran.
JOSH EARNEST: The United States regularly has raised concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia.
KENNETH POLLACK, Brookings Institution: The president and the people around him have said a number of things that have really ticked the Saudis off. You tell them that they need to just learn to live with the Iranians, this is going to drive them through roof.
MARTIN SMITH: In February 2016, just weeks after the execution of Nimr al Nimr, the Saudis launched a huge military exercise called Northern Thunder. Twenty Sunni Muslim nations participated. A massive arsenal of weapons was put on display, many of them U.S.-made. The Obama administration has approved some of the largest arms sales to Saudi Arabia in history.
VALI NASR, Johns Hopkins University: So the Saudis basically say, “Thank you very much for providing the weapons, then we’re going to take care of our own objectives. We’re going to decide,” you know, “what price oil works for us. We’re going to decide which theater of war we need to focus on first. We’re going to decide the level of threat we want to feel from somebody else.” You know, “We’re going to be on our own.”
MARTIN SMITH: The Saudis did not entirely abandon the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, but they did not noticeably increase their efforts, as Obama had asked them to do.
[on camera] After that speech in December of last year, was there any real─
VALI NASR: No, because, you know, exhorting these governments in public that “You need to do more”─ we’re past that point with them. They don’t feel why they should do it.
ADAM ENTOUS, Wall Street Journal: They think that this White House is naive, that they have their own priorities, they have newfound capabilities, and they can project force. They are pursuing their own policies based on their own priorities and their own interests.
MARTIN SMITH: So this whole idea of a coalition acting together and with common purpose is─ is a myth.
VALI NASR: Well, look, coalitions─ Iraq war, Libya, ouster of Saddam─ America did it all by itself.
MARTIN SMITH: But this is a case, it seems, where having regional buy-in was perhaps more important than in other coalitions we’ve seen over the last few years.
VALI NASR: Right, but you’re not going to get the buy-in of the region where you have a very narrow tactical objective and where you don’t have any solution for the day after you destroy ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Increasingly, the U.S. has shouldered more and more of the fight.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Over the past two months, I’ve authorized a series of steps to ratchet up our fight against ISIL, additional advisers to work more closely with Iraqi security forces─
MARTIN SMITH: Over the last several months, President Obama has agreed to send hundreds more soldiers to help the Iraqi army.
NEWSCASTER: Dangerous work for U.S. special operations forces, really going behind enemy lines─
MARTIN SMITH: He has also increased the number of special forces in Syria from 50 to 300. As a result, ISIS has been chased from several cities in northern Syria, and from Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq.
NEWSCASTER: The Iraqi army said it was finally in full control of the last neighborhood in Fallujah held by ISIS.
MARTIN SMITH: But administration officials say that while the U.S. has stepped it up, there is still a long way to go.
BRETT McGURK: Look, if you go back to where we were when the day that Mosul fell, and you look at to where we are now─ this organization can no longer communicate from its commanders to its people in the field. It can no longer project power outside of its strongholds. It has not taken any territory in Iraq and Syria. So it’s a substantially degraded organization.
But I would be the last one to say that we’ve turned a corner. This remains a lethal terrorist organization. It’ll seek to attack us here. It’ll seek to attack us in Europe. And it is seeking to spread.
MARTIN SMITH: The question is, what happens next?
NEWSCASTER: In Yemen’s capital, devastating air strikes from Saudi Arabia─
MARTIN SMITH: Saudi Arabia is still distracted by Yemen and their rivalry with Iran.
NEWSCASTER: The cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is heating up─
MARTIN SMITH: The Saudis say that along with the UAE and Jordan, they are back in the fight. But the Pentagon will not confirm what they are contributing. Turkey, too, says it is on board and has sent troops into Syria.
NEWSCASTER: Turkey moving into northern Syria after many years of staying out─
MARTIN SMITH: But at the same time, they have been shelling the U.S.-backed Kurds.
NEWSCASTER: Escalating tensions are straining long-time alliances and complicating an already difficult process aimed at ending Syria’s war.
NEWSCASTER: The battle for Aleppo is heating up in Syria, with the ceasefire in shambles. The last few hours have seen some of the most destructive bombing in the last five years. Residents are trapped inside─
MARTIN SMITH: In Syria, Russia and Iran continue to back Assad. All attempts to broker a ceasefire have failed. And in Iraq, the country is still deeply divided between Sunnis and Shia and Kurds.
On the last leg of my journey, I went into central Iraq with the Badr militia again, in a caravan of brand-new SUVs. This area 100 miles north of Baghdad is home to the Khazrajs, a predominantly Shia tribe.
PRODUCER: So where are we?
MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] And what is this? Why this protection?
DRIVER: [subtitles] This is an important area. They keep security very high. It’s secure.
MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In 2014, when ISIS moved into Khazraj lands, they rounded up and killed 3,000 of its members, close to 10 percent of the tribe’s population.
Badr chief Hadi al Amiri was going to a meeting with Khazraj sheiks. Amiri, whose militia has been accused of sectarian violence in the past, said he was here to encourage the tribe to welcome back local Sunni residents.
HADI AL AMIRI: We should return to living alongside each other. The victory [over ISIS] will be incomplete unless the displaced people return to their homes. A person can impose love and respect with his wisdom, kindness and courage.
MARTIN SMITH: But the sheikhs were not buying Amiri’s pitch. Many of them insisted their Sunni neighbors had been either ISIS supporters or collaborators.
1st SHEIKH: We tried to bring them on our side before. We pleaded. My son, my brother and my cousins were all killed. You want me to restrain myself? They won’t restrain themselves toward me!
2nd SHEIKH: I lost two of my sons fighting for you!
3rd SHEIKH: We all have the names and we know who carried out the fight and who was with ISIS. We know all of them by name.
HADI AL AMIRI: Anyone who is accused of murder or was with ISIS will never be allowed back. I’m talking about innocent people, those who were not with ISIS, and those who stayed silent under great pressure.
MARTIN SMITH: In recent battles to retake other areas from ISIS, such as Fallujah, there were again reports of sectarian violence. It’s a reality that will likely plague Iraq and the region for many years to come.
4th SHEIKH: We don’t need walls or protection. We’ll protect ourselves.
HADI AL AMIRI: Bad people will not return! Bad people will not return!
5th SHEIKH: Enough! Let’s stop this discussion. Say a prayer for Prophet Muhammad…