Press Conference by Special Presidential Envoy McGurk in Erbil, Iraq

Remarks
Brett McGurk
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS
Erbil, Iraq
September 14, 2017


MR. MCGURK: Okay. Thank you very much for joining me. Unfortunately, I have to keep this fairly short, but I just wanted to give a brief update on a series of really very constructive and positive meetings that we’ve had here in Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah, here in Erbil, and today in Dahuk.

So, began a couple nights ago in Baghdad. We met with Prime Minister Abadi and members of his team for about two-and-a-half hours, discussing not only the fight against Daesh, but also the overall situation here in Iraq and in the region.

And the United States, our entire international coalition, which is now 69 countries, we have tremendous confidence in Prime Minister Abadi. We believe he’s done a tremendous job in leading this overall campaign against Daesh.

And also, very importantly, the overall regional environment. We’ve seen a historic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. That’s very important. I was in Amman before I came here to Iraq. And opening the Trebil border crossing between Jordan and Iraq, also a very important moment. So we’re working very hard to make sure that, in the post-Daesh environment, we also have an improving regional environment, as Iraq gets further integrated into the region.

Then traveled to Sulaymaniyah. And let me first say whenever I’m here in the Kurdistan region just how honored we have been to work with all of you and with the heroic Kurdish Peshmerga in this fight against Daesh. The Peshmerga have suffered almost 2,000 martyrs in this overall campaign, and the Iraqi forces have probably suffered five times more.* So if you put that into context, this has really been a very extensive campaign against Daesh. It has now lasted almost three years.

We can see there is still a few battles to go. I just came from a briefing on the upcoming operations in Hawija. But the combination of the sacrifice from the Kurdish Peshmerga is something that we, the United States, our entire coalition, and the entire world are -- really honor. We extend our condolences to the martyrs and to the families, and similar to all those lost on the side of the Iraqi Security Forces.

And the historic cooperation we’ve seen between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces has really been essential to the victories we’ve seen recently against Daesh, particularly in Mosul. And again, I just came from a briefing on a very important meeting that was held today between leaders of the Kurdish Security Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces for upcoming operations in Hawija. And I’m very pleased that that cooperation remains very strong. And that’s something that we want to see continue, obviously.

So, even as there are political disagreements ongoing, which I will discuss, it is very important that we remain united and focused on the effort to defeat Daesh and ensure they have a lasting defeat. And this war against Daesh is not over. They are still in Hawija, just south of here. And those operations will be starting very soon. And we have to make sure that we all remain focused on this very serious threat.

So in Sulaymaniyah we had very good meetings with the leadership of the PUK. We saw Hero Talabani, we saw Bafel Talabani, we saw Lahur Talabani. And I extended my best regards to them and for their cooperation with us. I also sent my best regards to Mam Jalal, who has been such a close partner of ours for so many years, and also praise the heroic sacrifice of the PUK, not only in this campaign against Daesh, but over so many years here in the Kurdistan Region.

We met with the leadership of the Gorran Party, and I extended my deepest condolences on behalf of the United States for the loss of Nawshirwan Mustafa. The loss is really profoundly felt. And I extended my regards to him on behalf of us. And also had a very good meeting with the new leadership of the Gorran Party and the importance of fully participating in the political process, being a part of the process here. And we had a very constructive discussion about the upcoming political horizon here in the Kurdistan Region.

Here in Erbil we had very good meetings with more leaders of the PUK. We saw Vice President Kosrat Rasul yesterday, a very, very constructive discussion. Again, thanked him for his heroic leadership over so many years. I also met with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his leadership team last night to discuss the many issues confronting the Kurdistan Region and the issues confronting Iraq. Again, a very constructive discussion. And then today we spent most of the day in Dahuk with President Barzani.

In the meetings today with President Barzani, it was very poignant, because we were at a command center in Dahuk, which not too long ago was only about less than five kilometers away from the front line against Daesh. Now, of course, they are hundreds of kilometers away, and we will ensure that they can never come back.

It was also, I think, a very historic meeting. We were joined by the UN Special Representative Jan Kubis, and also by the UK ambassador here to Iraq, Ambassador Frank Baker. And, of course, we had on our side Ambassador Doug Silliman, and our Consul General, Ken Gross.

And I just want to extend our gratitude for the tremendous job that our American team is doing here on the ground in Erbil and also in Baghdad.

So, obviously, with President Barzani and in all of these engagements, we discussed a number of issues that are on the horizon, including the scheduled referendum, which is scheduled for September 25th. We did, of course, reiterate the position of the United States, that this referendum is ill timed and ill advised. It is not something that we can support. That is not simply our position. That is the position of our entire international coalition. So I don’t have to go into all of those details; they have been discussed many times.

I think, most importantly, we had a very, very positive and constructive discussion about a potential alternative path to the referendum. And this was a discussion, again, the United States, the United Nations, the UK, representing all of the partners here of the Kurdistan Region, so many partners of Iraq to talk about a potential alternative path.

And I think President Barzani and his team issued a statement after the meeting noting that this was a very constructive discussion, which it was. I think he welcomed the constructive discussion. That was stated. And also about this alternative that was presented. We understand that this decision is not his alone. This is a decision that has to be made by all the political leaders here in the Kurdistan Region.

And so we would obviously very much encourage the political leaders here in the Kurdistan Region to embrace this alternative path. It is a path focused on a sustained process of negotiation, dialogue, making sure we have a very serious effort through negotiation to resolve many of the outstanding issues that are confronting the region, and the central government in Baghdad.

And I might have to disappoint you because I’m not going to discuss the details of our diplomatic engagement. So I just want to say that they were very constructive, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet with so many leaders over the past two days. And I am hopeful that they will have follow-on discussions here over the coming days, and that they will be very fruitful.

Then I can take a couple questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Mr. McGurk, (inaudible). Do you think the objection of U.S. Government to the Kurdistan referendum for independence is in contrary of basic elements of liberty and democracy of the United States?

And my question has another part. The U.S. Ambassador told the Kurdish Party if you hold the referendum it would cause to have conflicts with Hashid Shaabi. Does the United States want to pressure Kurdistan in this way?

MR. MCGURK: We don’t want to see any conflict like that. We want to see a united focus on the war against Daesh, which, again, is not over. I think it’s very important that we had these meetings today between Iraqi commanders, Peshmerga commanders about the upcoming operation in Hawija, which will be a very, very difficult battle. It’s an essential battle. Daesh remains – they have a headquarters sitting in Hawija, just south of here. We have to make sure that that is rooted out in a smart way.

On the referendum, I’ll just say, look, I get this question a lot, the United States. I have to – there is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody. To have the legitimate process, you want to have observers, you want to have the United Nations, you want to have international legitimacy. And there is no international legitimacy for this process. That could be because of the timeline that was put on, it could be for a number of reasons. But where we are is that heading into a referendum on September 25th there is no prospect for any sense of international legitimacy to this process.

So, therefore, that path is a very risky one, and we’ve made that point very clear. And again, this is not just the United States’ position, it’s the position of the entire international coalition that I help lead. All these countries have come to us and said, you know, they do not support this.

So I think there is a reason for that. And so we have obviously worked very hard with our partners and with the leaders here in the Kurdistan Region and in Baghdad on an alternative path. And so we are very hopeful that that path can be embraced, because the path forward right now is a very risky one.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) In your discussion with Mr. Barzani, have you proposed any date for referendum, or you proposed until when the referendum should be postponed or delayed? I mean do you have any preferred date?

MR. MCGURK: No. We discussed a process that would be a very intense process to resolve many of the outstanding issues that have to be resolved on all sides through a process of negotiation. And so, again, I don’t want to get into the details here. This is a decision for the Kurdistan leadership of the Kurdistan Region, and they will have those discussions here very soon.

And again, I think it is a very well-prepared alternative. It’s not just the United States, it’s the United Nations that’s speaking, it’s some of your closest partners and friends. And I think it is a very good alternative and something that can help not only diffuse some of the tense environment that we’re seeing right now, but also ensure lasting stability, not only here in the Kurdistan Region, but also south of here. And that is really what we need in the post-ISIS phase.

We do not want to give any space for extremist groups on any side to return. And so we’re working with all sides, all political leaders, to find an alternative path. And we think we have a pretty good one now on the table.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) There were stories that the (inaudible) parliament can should be open for today, and then postponed for tomorrow. And there are stories that it can be postponed for another day. Do you have – have you discussed with President Barzani when the parliament should be restarted?

MR. MCGURK: So the parliament here in the Kurdistan Region has not met in almost 22 months. And I think that’s indicative of some of the political disagreements that have been ongoing here in the region.

Obviously, it’s been our longstanding position we want the parliament to return. We think the parliament should be activated. We think all political parties should participate in the parliamentary process. I understand there are active discussions now among the political leaders about reactivating parliament. Obviously, that’s something we very much encourage.

And when the parliament does come back, we hope it can be an environment in which the parties begin to work together to resolve and address many of the important issues confronting the Kurdistan Region.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Is that true, that you gave three options to KRG? One of them, if the referendum goes in Kirkuk and other regions, the U.S. will stop supporting the KRG?

MR. MCGURK: Yeah, not going to talk about our internal discussions, but we talked about a number of hypothetical scenarios. Obviously, there are worst-case scenarios all the time, and we want to avoid those. Everybody wants to avoid those types of scenarios. I am confident that we will.

All I can say is there is an alternative now on the table. President Barzani, when I was here with Secretary Mattis, was very clear. We’re looking for alternative options that can be acceptable by all the parties. And we’ve worked very hard with the leadership in Baghdad and with the leadership here and with our friends in the United Nations and with our friends France, UK, critical partners, to come up with an alternative. And we believe that there is a very good alternative path now on the table.

For Kirkuk to be secure, and for Saladin Province to be secure long term we have to get ISIS out of Hawija. And, obviously, those plans are under development, and I won’t get ahead of the process. But that’s a very intense focus of ours, and we want to make sure that nothing that happens here could jeopardize those operations, because we have to get ISIS out of Hawija.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) To what extent you think the Kurdish (inaudible) accept your alternative, and are you expecting them to answer you very soon? Or what you are expecting from the Kurdish leadership, or the meetings can go on for a long time?

MR. MCGURK: Well, we would encourage all parties to make decisions very soon, because, obviously, there is an issue of the calendar year. And I think there is two paths. There is a path to the referendum. We see that path as extraordinarily problematic, for all the reasons that we have discussed many times. I don’t have to again go into all the details here.

And again, I know a lot of – I get the question a lot, the United States this and that. This is not just about the United States. It is nearly every country that cares a lot about Iraq and about the Kurdistan Region has the exact same position. Obviously, one of your critical neighbors, Turkey, had a statement today about the referendum. So that is a path. The reality is that there is just no international support or legitimacy for that path.

So again, we’ve worked very hard with all the leaders in a spirit of cooperation and compromise, and I think we’ve come up with an alternative that can help avoid the risks along that path.

And again, I’m obviously not going to discuss all the details that were discussed in these meetings, but the meetings were very fruitful, they were very constructive, and there are now decisions to be made by the leadership of the Kurdistan Region, and we obviously encourage them to deliberate very seriously and very – as rapid a timeframe as possible, because it’s really decision time.

QUESTION: Excuse me. If PRG won’t accept the alternative, what is – will be your reaction?

MODERATOR: I don’t think we have time for a second question.

MR. MCGURK: Again, we’ve walked through with the leaders here all the potential scenarios. And again, it’s not just the United States. Many actors in the region will react to different paths. And that’s something that has to be taken into consideration.

We, as the United States, have our position. We cannot support this referendum for a series of reasons. We’ve made that very clear now for a number of months. But the spirit of the discussions we’ve had here over the last few days was about an alternative. And so, we’re very hopeful that this alternative offers a positive way forward for all sides – for Erbil, for Sulaymaniyah, for Baghdad – so that we can come out of this ISIS conflict in a spirit that helps stabilize the situation after.

And I’ll just give one anecdote. You know, in the Battle of Mosul I went to a hospital here in Erbil – I’ve discussed this before, but I was in hospital rooms with Iraqi soldiers recovering from wounds right next to Peshmerga heroes, and talking about the battle, and how they’re fighting a common enemy as brothers. And that is the spirit that we really need to come out of this post-ISIS phase with stability. And for stability and prosperity here in the Kurdistan Region, you have to have relations, positive relations, with Baghdad. It’s just a necessity.

So the spirit of our discussions in Sulaymaniyah, in Erbil, and in Dahuk was about how we can move down a path of negotiation and dialogue that benefits everybody coming out of this very difficult and terrible war.

And so, again, on behalf of all the families who suffered so much in this conflict against ISIS, I just want to extend our condolences for the losses. You’re really fighting on behalf of all of us. We Americans and our coalition partners have also suffered losses in this campaign. We’re in it together. It is not over. This war is not over. And that’s a critical message we had for everybody.

And so, to make sure that we continue to take the fight to ISIS, to make sure their defeat is a lasting one and has stability afterwards, we had very constructive discussions with all the leaders about an alternative, and it’s one that we very much hope they will embrace.

Thank you very much.

*Corrected