Brett McGurk: U.S. Has Not “Turned a Corner” Against ISIS


October 11, 2016

Brett McGurk’s job is to wrangle American partners in the fight against ISIS, a fight he describes as “the most complex imaginable.” McGurk has been on the ground in the Middle East tracking the progress of ISIS, or ISIL, since the terror group’s emergence. After serving as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, McGurk in late 2015 was appointed the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

In the below interview, McGurk describes a handful of exceedingly tense moments in the battle, from ISIS’s capture of Mosul in 2014, to President Barack Obama’s decision in the Situation Room to risk a diplomatic storm with Turkey by providing support to Kurdish forces in the Syrian city of Kobani.

Pushing allies to support U.S. efforts against ISIS has proved challenging, even impossible at times, but international cooperation is necessary, says McGurk. “[ISIS] is a super-charged movement that we need to come together as an entire international community to eradicate.”

This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith held on March 11, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you recall where you were when you got the news that Mosul had fallen to ISIS?

Well, I happened to be in Northern Iraq for the three or four days before. But we were already getting information. In fact, I remember quite vividly, I was in touch with General [Lloyd] Austin, the CENTCOM commander, folks back here in Washington, Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki, Governor [Ethyl] Najafi of Nineveh province. Because —

And [President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud] Barzani.

And Mr. Barzani. Karim Sinjari, the minister of interior of the [Kurdistan Regional Government]. Because this was a pretty sophisticated move that ISIL was pulling off. And we had seen this before. You have to remember, six months before Mosul, as you’ve covered, they moved into Fallujah. January 1, 2014, they moved into Ramadi. They kind of seep into the neighborhoods, and then do something spectacular. Suicide bombings. And that was happening in Mosul.

So kind of saw this transpiring. Extremely concerned about it. Really pushed the Iraqis to get a number of Iraqi Army brigades north. Maliki at the time was not particularly concerned about it. He thought, you know, Mosul was going to be okay. We told him otherwise.

So I kind of saw this whole thing happening in real time from Northern Iraq. And then, I think the city fell about 3:00 a.m. — I forget what day it was — but I remember in the middle of the night. But I had been up all night talking to the governor, talking to others, talking to the Turks who had people in Mosul. So it was a very chaotic situation.

This had to be a big sort of goal, when the ISF [Iraqi security forces] dissolved, came across the river and ran.

… There was a psychological panic. There’s a story from the ’30s I’ve read about, When the Dam Breaks, about a town, when rumors that a dam is breaking. And just a huge panic ensues. When in fact, you know, nothing had actually happened. Something actually happened in Mosul that was very serious. But all south of Mosul, just the rumors and the psychological collapse led to this disintegration of six entire Iraqi Army and Iraqi Federal Police divisions.

… You had no security presence to contest them — and let’s face it, they were working with the local population [in] some of these places. So then you had incidents like the Speicher massacre, where, you know, thousands of young men are rounded up and massacred. And it’s all put on YouTube.

Which led to a further psychological panic … And the sense of the population, of Iraqi officials, that, you know, the entire apparatus around Baghdad was potentially disintegrating and fraying … and potentially, you know, Baghdad itself falling. I mean, that was what some were predicting at the time. I think that was a little bit overwrought. But at the time, being there, it definitely felt like it was — a potential.

As you say, you didn’t really know.

Yeah, it was very difficult. You know, in these things, when you’re in the fog of it, it’s fog and friction. And anybody who tells you they know exactly what’s happening is not telling the truth. So you need to collect as many sources of information as possible. Make judgments as best you can. But what’s most critical at that moment was getting our own eyes on the ground. So, you know, getting our own special forces in to be able to do that assessment mission was really critical.

So beyond the deployment of special forces to protect Baghdad — to protect the airport, to protect U.S. personnel at the embassy and getting eyes in the sky — there was a decision made not to counter ISIS militarily before pressing for Maliki to be removed, or to find another leader for Iraq. The criticism has been that you could have moved simultaneously. You could have moved militarily as well as politically. Why didn’t you?

Well, I would say two things. First, if you actually do the timeline of when we began military action, it was about three weeks before Maliki left power. So we actually —

August 7.

We actually came in militarily before that happened. And I actually think coming in militarily, in terms of the air strikes — Sinjar Mountain and some other places– actually helped enable that final phase of the political transition.

At the time, and look, I was in Baghdad at the time, and given how dire it was, I was an advocate of the most aggressive response possible. However, you have to do these things in a smart way … So what we had to do was set ourselves up, and set the foundation up, to fight back. So that meant getting ourselves in place, in terms of a fairly comprehensive military campaign. It meant planning that campaign. It meant where would we be based? Where would we be stationed? We wanted to get these pieces set up. We also recognize, because Iraq was undergoing this political transition, because it had just had an election, that the best-case scenario would be to get a new government, a new foundation, and come in with to support that government.

I remember being asked at the time in one of the meetings I was doing from Baghdad back to Washington, how long do I think it’ll take to get a new government? I think I said, “It’ll take about 90 days,” just given the way that I saw the transition timeline being undertaken. At the time, I was told, “We don’t have 90 days.”  But, you know, that’s how long it took, just because it’s a very step-by-step process to actually change a government.

And remember, Prime Minister Maliki had been in office for eight years. So to have a peaceful transition of power in that part of the world, a democratic transition, with everything going on at the time, was a very daunting challenge. And I think many looked at the situation and said, “That’s actually probably not going to happen.” But you know, we worked very hard with our Iraqi counterparts and with others to encourage keeping on that political transition process — a new speaker of parliament; new deputy speakers of parliament; a new president; and then a new prime minister, a new cabinet, and then voting in that government through the parliament. I mean, it was a step by step process. So I was there throughout most of that summer, working that. But in parallel, very importantly, we were setting up the foundation for a very significant military response.

I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say, you know, we necessarily held back until the politics came together. As we were working the politics, we were setting up the foundation to be able to be effective when the time came to take military action.

“I was advocating as aggressive a response as possible. Just given how dire the situation was.”

Foreign Minister [Hoshyar] Zebari, I sat down with him. He said the Americans could have done more, more quickly. Members of parliament in Iraq were saying the same thing. You were watching the militias re-arm. You were watching them demonstrate and march through the streets. The Shia militias. And on YouTube, ISIS was posting all sorts of videos of them in open desert, moving in large convoys, or down central streets of towns and cities. You were under political pressure here at home to be doing more militarily then. Right?

Well, again, I would just say we had a very active debate about when to begin a military campaign. And you know, I’m a civilian in Baghdad. I was advocating as aggressive a response as possible. Just given how dire the situation was.

Did you want to see a military response sooner?

Well, I knew what we’re facing in ISIL is not some popular revolt against the government. ISIL was an army … If you looked at how it conducts operations, it’s kind of classic. They would do the equivalent of an artillery barrage with suicide bombers, and then maneuver and scramble forces to totally panic and annihilate their enemy and their position.

So we were facing a military force. So those who were responding … that this needs a political solution, I just thought, were completely out of their minds. There’s a political component to everything. But without a military response to what is an army, we couldn’t possibly succeed. We had to degrade their command to control. We had to degrade their ability to mass and maneuver force. We had to degrade their ability to communicate. We had to do all of those things if we were ever to have any hope of defeating this organization.

So there had to be a military response. The question was always when. And you know, you have to defer to the military professionals about when things would be ready to be effective. We knew the minute we took an air strike, they would change their tactics and what they were doing.

… Just a few days after the president gives his speech, that we’re going to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS, the center of focus is on a small town on the border with Turkey, Kobani. Why was Kobani important?

… It was the strategic ground. So in order to defeat ISIL, we knew it’s not just in Iraq. It’s cutting off the border with Turkey. You know, now we’re up to almost 38,000 foreign fighters. At the time it was, I don’t know, high 20,000s or so.

When you have tens of thousands of foreign fighters, and these are, you know, ideologically driven, mostly jihadist fighters, who are coming to fight, and many are coming to die. When you have that many people coming in to a fairly small geographic area to wreak havoc and be suicide bombers, you cannot defeat the organization. So we had to shut that border with Turkey.

Kobani, at the time, the entire east of the Euphrates River was all ISIL, except for this little town in Kobani. So what ISIL was doing, very clearly, was launching a massive assault on Kobani. And so it wasn’t simply the fact this was a highly publicized operation. It was the fact that if you lost this little toehold, the whole border’s gone.

And to this day, had we lost Kobani, I don’t think we ever would have gotten that border back on the Syrian side. …

You proposed to give aid to the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. You got a lot of pushback, did you not, from the Turks?

At first we did. There’s a critical time, because Kobani would have fallen. No question. The battle would have been over had we not gotten resupplies into Kobani — we had about a 48-hour window. And we had a meeting with the president here in the Situation Room. And the president made the decision, and it was the right decision. We’re going to do the air drop.

Ankara was protesting it. Yes. President said he’s gonna do the air drop. [President Obama] called President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to explain exactly what we were doing. That we cannot allow ISIL to take the entire border. We recognize Turkey’s very legitimate security concerns against other threats, including the P.K.K. [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] But we cannot allow this town to fall.

Erdogan said, “You’re making a big mistake.”

No, Erdogan, I think, recognized what we were doing. He’s concerned about Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria, at least with the P.K.K. No question. But I think he also recognized that we did have an imperative not to allow ISIL to take the entire border.

… Did Erdogan and [Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu ask for you to wait before airdropping anything to the Syrian Kurds for the peshmerga to cross the border from Iraq. Did he ask for a delay?

No, we did the air drop —

Did [Erdogan] approve the air drop?

When President Obama called him, we weren’t asking for permission … We were saying, “This is what we’re going to do.”

Right. But he was he was opposed to that?

Again, he was concerned about the Kurdish groups on the Syrian side of the border, and their links with the P.K.K.

Well, they are closely affiliated, correct?


And they’re closely affiliated with a group that they consider a terrorist group, and that the State Department in the United States also lists as a known terrorist group.

So we were in touch with the fighters in Kobani through some Iraqi Kurdish parties. Primarily the P.U.K. [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and others. So we got to know these guys pretty well. And primarily, the defenders in Kobani and the commanders in Kobani were from Kobani. So, I mean, they’re defending their home turf.

And we we’ve since gotten to know them quite well. And, you know, they’re very focused on the future of Syria and committed to the territorial integrity of Syria. Things that are very important to us and the Turks. But when it comes to ISIL, a fundamental threat to us, when we have to act, we’re going to act. And what was coming across that border, east of Kobani and some other towns, such as a town called Tal Abyad, you know, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, and explosive detonators, and foreign fighters. Just all flowing across that border. And that just had to stop.

A number of Turkish officials described the situation as one where your priority was ISIS, but they considered the P.K.K. and the Syrian Kurds as a bigger threat to their security. So you had to convince them, didn’t you, that somehow ISIS should move up on their list of priorities.

Well, there’s a lot of history before Kobani. I mean, when you would be in Ankara, say, two or three years ago … what you would hear from Turkey in those days was that, you know, that’s a second war. Like, after [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, you can take care of those guys. We always said, consistently, that as we read history, playing with fire like that doesn’t tend to work out very well. So we always considered ISIL a top tier threat. And in terms of Turkey’s own threat perception, and every country has their own threat perceptions, it’s really shifted a lot over the last eight months. Certainly the P.K.K. is obviously a top tier. But ISIL suicide bombings have killed 100 people in Ankara. They killed a number of German tourists in Istanbul. A suicide bombing just north of Kobani in Turkey killed about 50 people.

So ISIL’s a fundamental threat to Turkey. Since Kobani, we actually deepened our cooperation with Turkey on the ISIL set of issues, going all the way to opening Incirlik Air Base, to cooperation on the border, to a number of things that we’re doing now that we weren’t doing with Turkey before Kobani.

What are the Syrian Kurds going to get out of this in the end?

Well, the future of Syria will be worked out by Syrians. And the Syrian Kurds are a critical component of Syria. And a diverse Syria. But that’s something that the Syrian Kurds will have to discuss with their Syrian counterparts from other ethnic groups.

The Kurds in northern Syrian are very clear about what they aspire to. They aspire to a Syria with its territorial integrity intact. They discuss a federal Syria, meaning more local autonomy than they might have had before. …

What I’m getting at is, for what they’ve done for the United States, what do they expect in return? And what do we owe them?

Well, again, I think this is a relationship that’s new and just developing, similar to our relationships with the moderate opposition groups in Syria. And what makes the relationship with the Kurds a little bit different right now is that we have a presence on the ground. We don’t have a presence on the ground anywhere else in Syria.

They are our principal ally on the ground?

Well, we’re getting to know them better. But also, we’re very clear, as we are with everybody in this part of the world, you know, we are the United States. We have our interests. We are pursuing our interests. If, for example, we see the Syrian Kurds actively supporting or actively facilitating attacks on Turkish soldiers, Turkish policemen or something, that would be something that would be completely unacceptable, and cause us to rethink that relationship.

But aren’t they doing that?

Well, no. We have pretty good information on this now — they’re very focused on the ground in Syria. And so they now have a front line with ISIL that extends hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. That is under threat almost every day. And you know, most of their focus is in the south. …

Can you draw a line between the Y.P.G. [People’s Protection Units], the Syrian Kurds, and the P.K.K.? Is that a bright line?

Well, I would just put it this way. We have not seen, you know, we have had Turkish artillery shells attacking the Y.P.G. We have a number of other things coming from the Turkish border. The Y.P.G. has not returned fire. Which is important.

… But this is Syria. This is the most chaotic situation imaginable. It’s very hard to find white hats and black hats in Syria. There are some very clear black hats, such as ISIL and Nusra.

I want to just return to the decision to air drop weapons and ammunition to the Syrian Kurds. That was a difficult decision. Who finally made that decision to go ahead without a consultation and announce to Ankara that we were going to drop those weapons and ammunition?

I don’t think it was a very difficult decision, if you looked at the situation at the time.

“This is Syria. This is the most chaotic situation imaginable.”

There was another set of challenges that takes place in Iraq, with the growing strength of the Shia militia, the Popular Mobilization units and the involvement of Iranian-backed and Iranian-advised militia in the retaking of Tikrit.

The Tikrit operation was launched by, primarily by Popular Mobilization Forces. Shia militia forces. And elements of those forces that we, under no circumstances, will work with. I think they thought it would go well. They, after about 10 days or so, really bogged down.

Iraqi counterterrorism forces that we do work with and know quite well, came on the scene. We had stayed out of the Tikrit battle because we have a very clear principle in Iraq. We will support, and provide air support, for forces that are operating directly under Iraqi command to control … We will not provide air support outside that structure, for a number of reasons. It won’t be effective. There are risks of friendly fire incidents, which we really, obviously cannot afford and would not want. And this is the only way to strengthen the legitimate security forces. So Tikrit, you suddenly had this division between forces that are operating totally outside that command structure, and forces that were within that command structure.

And Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] came to us and said, you know, he really wanted some help to take Tikrit. We wanted to help them take Tikrit. But we were clear,  consistent with the principle of our policy, that for us to do that, it has to be an operation that is under Iraqi command to control. It has to be with units that we’re ready to support. And under that condition, ready to do that.

Prime Minister Abadi, at the time, brought in all of his security commanders and said, “This is how it’s going to be.” And we helped the Iraqis take Tikrit. So I mean, that is kind of the sequence of events that happened there. It’s an example of this overall campaign. You have to remain flexible and adaptive. …

Can we talk about the challenges you faced in witnessing the revenge attacks that took place in Tikrit after the fall  of ISIS? Not only by the Shia militia, as is widely reported and seen on YouTube, but also by elements of the ISF?

Well, actually it was deeper than that. What had happened in Saladin province in the summer of 2014 was so horrific, and so devastating, that in a country like Iraq, to tamp down those impulses is extremely difficult. It’s Sunni tribe on Sunni tribe. It’s Shia militias. It’s undisciplined Iraqi security forces.

So this is something we deal with every day. It’s a reality we deal with every day. In Tikrit, we immediately acted and were very vocal about initial reports. And I actually think, when the history is written overall in Tikrit, in terms of what could have happened and what did happen, I think it’ll actually be a fairly favorable history … You know, 90 percent, 95 percent of the population of Tikrit have returned to their homes. Which, historically speaking, in terms of sectarian type conflicts of this nature, it usually takes years for people to return to their homes. So, look, Tikrit was the most dynamic, most complex situation imaginable. It could have easily gone off the rails. And the fact that you now have most of the population back in their homes, I think looking long term, is marginally on the success side of the ledger.

Let me ask about some things that we saw when we went to Tikrit. Recently we traveled up there and met with Hadi al-Amiri, and met with the a group of Shia sheiks. They, to a man, were complaining that they were not going to let any Sunnis back into their communities. They were not going to let Sunnis resettle the area. If you’re a Sunni in that area, which is predominantly a Sunni area, you would not feel comfortable moving back in.

… So, you know, we’ve also known Hadi al-Amiri for a long time. Nobody is going to say that the situation in Saladin province is where we would want it to be. But again, this is the scene of one of the most horrific massacres we’ve seen in some time. Which has seeped in the consciousness of the population. But in downtown Tikrit itself, we’ve had, you know, most of the population has returned to their homes. It’s an iconic Sunni city.

Saladin is incredibly complex. Just because of the diversity of it, and because of where it is. Anbar province, different story. It’s 100 percent Sunni. The Popular Mobilization Forces were not a part of the campaign to liberate Ramadi. So you know, everywhere you look in Iraq, it’s different. And Saladin and Diyala provinces are some of the most complex terrain imaginable. So you know, this is going to take some time to settle out.

What was important for us was that in the streets of Tikrit, in downtown Tikrit, working with the governor, working with the U.N., working with the central government to delegate authority to the governor, to the Sunni governor of Tikrit, to enable the population to come back. And that meant the Popular Mobilization Forces had to get out of the streets of Tikrit. There’s no question they’re going to remain in the outskirts for some time. They had to get out of the streets of Tikrit.

And they’re controlling the roadblocks all around.

But, you know, the population, again, this is Iraq we’re talking about. So nobody’s going to say that this situation is something that is acceptable. This is a long term thing. But the Sunni population of the city of Tikrit have primarily voted with their feet … That is extraordinarily difficult to do. To get the population back. And so, do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. But what we really are looking at is whether or not the population is returning to their homes. Particularly in the city of Tikrit.

The Gulf allies that took part in the coalition air strikes in the beginning. How significant and important was it that these countries participate in those air strikes?

I think it was important, particularly in the initial phases. We’ve now done 10,000 air strikes. In the earliest days, before you’ve done a single air strike, you don’t know exactly how the population will react. How things will go. Very important for us to demonstrate that this is not the United States, again, intervening on our own. This is not a Western group of nations intervening, but this is a challenge that is being taken up by states within the region.

But it’s not just militarily. What the states in the region primarily, we are encouraging them to focus on is this ideological counter to the narrative of the caliphate in Baghdad. That’s something that the states of the region can do much more effectively than us.

But as far as the air strikes, we understand that those air strikes have discontinued, have fallen off — that the last air strikes conducted by the United Arab Emirates stopped in March. And that the last air strikes that Jordan conducted were back in August of 2015.

No, Jordan’s back in the air campaign. What’s happened, these are, you know, militaries with some capacity, but a limited capacity. And Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., have been focused primarily on Yemen over the last year, there’s no question.

Are they still in the air campaign? Are they still running air strikes?

U.A.E. we back — U.A.E. we back in the air campaign. And —

Is Saudi Arabia involved?

Jordan’s in the air campaign now. And the Saudi’s, again, the Saudi’s been very focused on Yemen, right on their southern border. But the Saudis, importantly, because we’re going to encourage them, and it’s far more important than having a Saudi airplane in the air campaign. The Saudis have to lead this ideological battle against [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] and the narrative of ISIS.

But I just want to be clear. Are Saudis involved in the air campaign now?

Again, the Saudi air force is focused primarily on Yemen. Will Saudis be back in the air campaign over the coming months? I suspect so.

But right now, they are not?

Right now, I don’t remember the last time the Saudis did an air strike in Syria. But importantly, that really doesn’t matter. What matters is what the Saudis are doing in the ideological struggle against Daesh. And that is something we’re very much encouraging them to do.

The president recently gave an interview to The Atlantic magazine in which he was highly critical of Saudi Arabia. What is Saudi Arabia not doing that you would like them to be doing?

… Well, the Saudis have an important role to play in this campaign. And they’ve just formed a broad coalition of Muslim countries. Because what the Saudis have to do most effectively … is 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.

We’re two years into the campaign, practically. Have they moved quickly enough in their counter-messaging? In your view?

Look, I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, I don’t know, three or four times in the last year or so. And, you know, it’s interesting, when you talk to King Salman, and you talk about ISIL, this is not a foreign challenge to them. I mean, ISIL is in Saudi Arabia. Make no question. They have a formal affiliate in Saudi Arabia. They’ve launched a number of attacks in Saudi Arabia over the last year.

So this is not something that is just an academic exercise to Saudi Arabia. ISIL is a threat to Saudi Arabia. So they have to be a critical partner in this. And they’re very focused on that domestic threat. And of course, we’re encouraging them as much as possible, because they are able to lead the effort in this regard, on the counter-messaging. On counter-messaging, we’ve set up a 24/7 hub in the U.A.E. to do constant counter-messaging against ISIL. And that’s something the Saudis have also been a key part of.

“I would be the last one to say that we’ve turned a corner. This remains a lethal terrorist organization.”

Well, I understand that they need to do that. The question is whether or not they are sufficiently doing that.

Look, as the president’s envoy to the coalition,  every single country in the coalition, when I’m in every single capital, I have a set of additional requests and requirements.

So you want more. But the —

And the reason is, this is a global challenge that we have not seen before.


This is a global challenge that is off the charts. Almost 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 countries all around the world traveling into Syria and into Iraq to wage jihad, many of whom to blow themselves up. That is just the tip of the iceberg, because those are only the people who travel. So this is a super-charged movement that we need to come together as an entire international community to eradicate.

It’s eradicating the ideological messaging. It’s eradicating the finances. It’s eradicating the foreign fighter movements. Every single country around the world has more to do.

President Obama went to the Pentagon. He called on our allies in the region to do more. Secretary [of Defense Ashton] Carter followed that up with a trip to both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and other countries I believe. What caused the president to go in December to the Pentagon and speak out publicly, criticizing the Middle Eastern allies for not doing enough?

Well, what led to that specific meeting is that we actually have some momentum here against ISIL, which we want to accelerate. We want to seize the momentum and accelerate. In the ebb and flow of warfare, when you have momentum, you want to seize it. So —

Yeah, but he was publicly calling them out.

Well, I think, again, as Secretary Carter said, there’s things that we want all of our coalition partners to do. Since the Paris attacks, we’ve had almost 80 percent of coalition partners have done something. Whether it’s, you know, I just saw the Danes yesterday putting back in their F-16s. Putting in their special forces. The Canadians are increasing their special forces. The Jordanians are back in the air campaign. The Jordanians are doing an awful lot to enable and train forces, some of whom just did a very successful operation in southern Syria. So this is a comprehensive, very dynamic campaign. But we are not going to sit on our laurels. And we are not going to say, “We have some momentum now, so now’s the time to wind things down.” We need to start winding things up.

… Throughout the Middle East, we hear from the Saudis, from the Turks, from others, that the real problem in the region should be getting rid of Assad in Syria. That until Assad goes, you can’t get rid of ISIS. That that’s the fundamental problem. And as we’ve seen through the refugees flooding into neighboring countries and into Europe, and the number of deaths from that war, this appears to them as a much bigger problem than ISIS.

Well, that debate also ebbs and flows. Our position’s clear: Assad will never be able to return stability to Syria. He has to be removed through a political transition process, because … if you have a military campaign against Damascus, and militarily remove the regime, as we have seen in Libya and elsewhere,  that type of vacuum is filled most quickly and most rapidly by radical extremist groups.

So in Libya, we don’t have a sectarian problem. In Libya, we have a very serious ISIL problem. So again, every country kind of sees these things differently. But everybody is unanimous now that we need a political transition in Syria. There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. Which is why we’ve worked so hard in colluding with the Turks and the Saudis on trying to get a cessation of hostilities in place, to deescalate the underlying conflict.

Well, what do you say to their criticism, that we focused too long on too narrow of a target in ISIS, and waited too long to recognize, as we are now, that the big problem, the elephant in the room, is Assad?

I think we just disagree with that. I mean, we all want Assad to go through a political transition process. But what has ballooned the growth of ISIS is almost 40,000 foreign fighters from all around the world pouring into Syria.

And sectarianism in Iraq —  

And without that, without that, you don’t have ISIS.

— And a bunch of sectarian problems in the region.

Right. But ISIS is something that is taking hold not just in Iraq and Syria. It’s taking hold far removed from any type of sectarian conflict in places like Libya. So there’s something deeper. There’s something deeper in the ideological currents which is taking hold, which we need to combat.

… And we speak very frankly about this with all with Iraqi officials and counterparts. Anyone acting outside the law of the state is a criminal entity that should be taken on by the state. I don’t care if it’s Sunni or Shia. No question about that. In Syria, the focus is trying to deescalate the conflict, and trying to open a window for a political transition. Because a military solution will just open up a vacuum, which is filled by elements on the Sunni and the Shia side of this conflict, that nobody wants to see take hold.

Are we winning?

Look, if you go back to where we were when the day that [Mosul] fell, and you look at where we are now, we have substantially degraded this organization. The president’s strategy is to degrade, and then ultimately defeat. The first stage is degrade. This organization can no longer communicate from its commanders to its people in the field. It can no longer mass and maneuver its forces.

It can no longer project power outside of its strongholds. It has not taken any territory in Iraq and Syria since May. 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. As we begin to take territory away, there’s no question it will remain a terrorist organization. It’ll seek to attack us —

It’ll spread.

— It’ll seek to attack us here. It’ll seek to attack us in Europe. And it is seeking to spread. But its philosophy is retention and expand … So shrinking its phony self-proclaimed caliphate is a critical component of the campaign. It’s not all we’re focused on, but we are very much focused on that.

And as we take territory away, its leaders do stupid things, and they move. We’re able to find them and kill them … you degrade and hollow out the organization. But it’s global. And that’s why we’re so focused on the foreign fighter networks, financing networks, and ideological networks. But again, I just can’t overemphasize — this is extremely difficult. It’s the most complex thing imaginable. There’s a role for our military. There’s a role for coalition military forces. But most importantly, there is a role for the Saudis, and our partners in the Gulf, in the counter-ideological campaign, because that ultimately is the main line of effort.

Katie Worth

Katie Worth, Reporter, FRONTLINE



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