Remarks at the Small Group Session of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS

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
Amman, Jordan
November 15, 2017


Good morning friends, colleagues, and members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It is an honor to be with you today to discuss the incredible progress our 74-member Coalition has made against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Just over three short years ago, ISIS was rapidly expanding. The world had never seen anything like it. 40,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries poured into Syria and then Iraq. ISIS infiltrated and then took control of entire cities, from Raqqa in the summer of 2013, to Fallujah in January 2014, then Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi … and even approached the edges of Baghdad.

It controlled millions of people, entire cities, including dual capitals in Raqqa and Mosul, generating revenue through oil and gas, taxes, antiquities, trade, hostage taking, of more than a billion dollars per year.

It enslaved thousands of young girls, committed acts of genocide against minority groups, sought to destroy our common human heritage, and established franchises in its quest to spread terror.

From this so-called caliphate, ISIS planned and plotted major attacks against our homelands. It sent teams of terrorists from Raqqa to attack innocent civilians in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul.

It worked to inspire attacks from its Raqqa-based media hubs in the United States and multiple capitals of Europe. When President Trump came into office, some of our earliest national security meetings were about plots being hatched out of Raqqa and surrounding areas.

Everyone in this room knows what happened in response to this threat. We built a coalition, now the largest in history, with 70 countries and four international organizations – NATO, Arab League, EU, and INTERPOL – and, together, we fought back.

Our campaign plan relied on local forces to do the fighting, fusing military efforts with immediate humanitarian and stabilization assistance in liberated areas, and building a global network to combat ISIS foreign fighters, financing, and propaganda.

When President Trump came into office, one of his first directives was to accelerate this campaign. This resulted in a comprehensive campaign review led by Secretary Mattis and a new strategy that has been more efficient and effective than ever before.

The record now speaks for itself.

  • The Coalition and our partner forces have cleared nearly 90,000 square kilometers, liberating over 95% of the territory ISIS once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Over one third of these gains have come in the last eight months alone, thanks to the accelerants authorized by the President earlier this year.
  • ISIS has not recaptured a single meter of this territory.
  • Over 7.5 million people have been liberated from ISIS.
  • Our civilian-led efforts have helped return 2.6 million Iraqis to their homes, and we are beginning to see a similar trend-line in Syria.
  • Foreign fighter flows into Syria have nearly stopped altogether and ISIS financing is down to its lowest level, with sources outside Syria now dry.

So together, we have come a very long way – but there is more to do, and that is the main theme of my talk.

The liberations of Raqqa and Mosul are major milestones. But ISIS remains a determined enemy and it is not yet defeated.

My remarks today will highlight three non-military areas that, in our view, require enhanced focus over the coming weeks and months:

  • First, our stabilization efforts: we must continue to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. This will require more investment from all of our coalition capitals.
  • Second, our diplomacy to stabilize the region after ISIS: we must work diplomatically to find political arrangements in Iraq and Syria that can continue trend-lines towards stability and an enduring defeat of ISIS, without a new ISIS, or extremists linked to Iran, filling the void.
  • Third, we must continue to adapt and strengthen a global network to counter ISIS’ own global network of foreign fighters, financing, propaganda. (A network to defeat a network, a key theme of this conference.)

I. Stabilization in Iraq and Syria

I will begin, first, with stabilization.

In building our campaign plan, we sought to correct for what has not worked in the past. We did not seek to direct reconstruction projects, or build political structures that had no firm basis in the local community and legitimate authorities.

Instead, we focused on immediate priorities – humanitarian relief, de-mining, and essential services (electricity, water, health) – working “by, with, and through” local partners to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of people to their homes in the wake of ISIS. This planning was done in parallel with our military planning, and every military operation was matched with a humanitarian and stabilization plan.

Let me focus on two examples, Mosul, and Raqqa.

In Mosul, we planned for a worst-case scenario of one million IDPs (internally displaced persons) – and that worst case came true. Throughout the battle, which lasted nearly nine months, over one million people were displaced. Yet every one of those persons according to UN data, every single one, received assistance. This record is due to our preparations, including over $2 billion raised in March after Secretary Tillerson gathered all the members of our Coalition in Washington.

We followed this immediate humanitarian plan with a stabilization plan. In Mosul today, over 340 stabilization projects totaling over $200 million are underway. I have visited water treatment facilities just outside Mosul that are now running thanks to coalition contributions from your capitals, electricity generation facilities now being repaired, and schools being refurbished. We have also flooded resources to the local level to put young men back to work and bring life back to the streets.

In east Mosul today, nearly all of those displaced during military operations have returned. More than 350,000 children are back in school. Markets are open and daily life is beginning to return to normal.

West Mosul is more difficult. The final phase of the battle – which was incredibly costly for the Iraqis, with an exceptionally high number of heroic Iraqi Security Force members killed or injured fighting hundreds of foreign fighters wearing suicide vests – destroyed most of the Old City. Large-scale returns have not yet begun in west Mosul due to IED contamination and lack of access to many neighborhoods – over 700,000 remain displaced.

At the UN General Assembly in September, in a meeting with Coalition foreign ministers, Secretary Tillerson emphasized the need for further assistance for west Mosul – and key contributors have stepped up, particularly Germany with a large contribution for west Mosul alone. The quicker we are able to fund and implement stabilization projects the sooner we will be able to reduce the costs of the humanitarian crisis. We are committed to returning the population of the western side of the city as soon as possible, as we did on the east side of the city.

Elsewhere in Iraq, as I mentioned, stabilization programs and Prime Minister Abadi’s policy of decentralization have enabled the return of 2.6 million Iraqis – nearly all Sunni Arabs displaced by ISIS – to their homes.

In Anbar province alone, one of the earliest provinces to fall to ISIS in 2014, over one million Iraqis have returned home, including almost the entire populations of Ramadi and Fallujah. Similarly, in Salah Ad-Din province, the entire population of Tikrit has returned, and life has returned largely to normal with the university open and children in school.

Again, this happened because we planned for stabilization in parallel with military operations, preparing to remove explosive remnants of war, ensuring the central government carried through its policy of de-centralization, and focusing on immediate high impact needs with coalition contributions helping to ensure that our military gains were enduring. That ISIS has not reclaimed any areas it lost in Iraq is a record that speaks for itself, and we now must work to keep it that way.

Syria is more challenging. We do not have a government to work with, and we will not work with the Assad regime or support reconstruction in areas he controls until there is a credible political process that can lead to a government chosen by the Syrian people – without Assad at its helm. Yet, in areas where the Coalition is operating, we have applied the same lessons from Iraq, with focus on immediate high-impact needs.

I was in Syria shortly before operations in Raqqa concluded in mid-October. As in Mosul, we visited key stabilization projects just outside the city, including a water treatment facility to restore fresh water to the city. To provide a scale of what we confront, at this one facility, coalition supported de-mining teams were still at work – and had already cleared more than 150 explosive devices. ISIS in its waning months is salting the earth with explosives to ensure life cannot return to areas it loses.

As a Coalition, therefore, we are stepping up our de-mining activities, training local Syrians to spot and then clear all manner of IEDs left behind by ISIS terrorists. I am grateful for recent contributions from Germany, France, and the UK to help close the $50 million gap in funding for these de-mining programs; I would ask all of you to encourage your foreign ministries to find ways to help in these areas. I was pleased to be joined on my latest visit by a delegation from Saudi Arabia, and we are able to connect any Coalition partner with a list of urgent projects to help return Syrians to their homes.

Today, as we speak, our de-mining teams are in the streets of Raqqa, clearing the main hospital, which was not significantly damaged during the fighting. Rubble removal teams are clearing streets to bring humanitarian aid into the city, and reach the displaced. To date, over 830 metric tons of humanitarian aid has been delivered to more than 40 locations around the city of Raqqa, and local councils are facilitating the delivery of aid to civilians in fully cleared areas of the city itself. We are building on success that we have had in nearby cities, such as Tabqa, where normal life is returning.

This is essential, and unglamorous, work. A small team of U.S. experts – on de-mining, humanitarian assistance, and essential services – is working hand-in-glove with our military and partners on the ground.

And we all know that our campaign is not over after Raqqa. An estimated six thousand ISIS fighters remain trapped in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and we are determined to root them out on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. The Syrian Democratic Forces that won the battle in Raqqa have already made considerable military progress in the fight against ISIS along the east side of the river.

Our stabilization efforts must keep pace. In Syria, our U.S. team lead on stabilization has just deployed for a one-year tour, and we must be prepared as a Coalition to sustain this commitment and help ensure that ISIS’s defeat is enduring.

Over the past 8 weeks, partners have pledged approximately $1 billion, and we hope to meet our overall pledge goal of $2 billion for humanitarian assistance, demining, and stabilization needs in Iraq and Syria for 2018 by the end of the year. However, we are still facing a gap of $500 million in unmet needs that will be critical to ensuring we can get people home to western Mosul, as well as a $50 million gap for ERW in Syria.

II. Diplomatic and Political

If stabilization is the immediate step in the wake of military operations, the diplomacy is the medium-term step and most essential for longer-term gains.

It is also, by far, the most difficult, with history, culture, internecine local politics, and regional relationships, all in a constant interplay as events unfold on the ground.

In post-ISIS Iraq, we want to see an Iraq that is united, federal, democratic, and strong, able to exert its own interests, counter pernicious Iranian influences, and integrated into the Arab fold regionally.

This will take time, and national elections, now set for May 12, 2018, will be pivotal. For now, we can outline three important focus areas for our coalition – military, economic, and political.

First, we must ensure the gains we have made with the Iraqi Security Forces – on the mat three years ago but now some of the most battle-tested and professional in the region – continue. That means a force that is disciplined, professional, and answers only to Iraqi chain of command up to the Prime Minister. Together we have trained over 120,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces. As the Government of Iraq has stated publicly, militias or other armed factions that do not answer to the Prime Minister must be reined in.

This will require an enduring coalition commitment. Training, logistics, counter-terrorism, security sector reform, and intelligence – these missions will endure after ISIS, and they will be essential to ensuring that ISIS cannot return.

NATO, one of the newest members of our coalition, will also have a role to play, and I was encouraged during a recent briefing to the North Atlantic Council and last week at the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels that all 29 NATO Allies confirmed their readiness to contribute.

Second, to stand on its own post-ISIS, a strong and sovereign Iraq should enjoy diversified regional relationships. President Trump and Secretary Tillerson earlier this year identified an opening between Iraq and Saudi Arabia as a priority, a focus that has paid off with a historic rapprochement between these two partner capitals.

The Iraq-Saudi border is now open and commercial flights beginning for the first time in 27 years. Security and economic exchanges have begun, and on October 22, King Abdullah, together with Secretary Tillerson and Prime Minister Abadi inaugurated a permanent coordinating council between both countries.

With Jordan, we are working to establish a secure commerce route between Baghdad and Amman – $1 billion in trade before ISIS – and with Egypt and Jordan, the Iraqis are discussing a pipeline from Basra to Aqaba, an export line independent of the Arabian Gulf, ultimately delivering oil and gas to Egypt.

These are long-term projects, but they are essential to long-term stability.

Third, Iraq must have a strong economy, and here our coalition has played an important role behind the scenes, encouraging key reforms, which unlocked an IMF Stand-by Arrangement (SBA) and World Bank development loans. Next year, our key partner Kuwait will host a reconstruction conference to focus on the longer-term reconstruction needs in cities liberated from ISIS. We are grateful for the leadership of Kuwait for putting together this conference.

Finally, all components in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, must be full partners in a unified and federal Iraq. This means a functioning federalism, with authorities delegated to provinces and the Kurdistan region, and the region accepting its constitutional role in a united and federal Iraq. The United States is fully and actively engaged to de-escalate the tensions that erupted in some of the disputed internal boundaries, and we are continuing to work towards a comprehensive package of measures to calm tensions at this hour.

In Syria, as President Trump said the other day, we are entering a new phase. This phase will focus on de-escalating violence overall in Syria through a combination of ceasefires and de-escalation areas. These bottom-up efforts will be designed to create the conditions for a national level political process in Geneva on the basis of UNSCR 2254, including the drafting of a new constitution and UN-supervised elections with diaspora voting. At the end of this process, we should see a new Syria, whole and unified, with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government.

Syria remains an extremely complex situation, but last month at the UN General Assembly, sixteen countries – all key partners of ours on Syria – met and agreed to the following principles:

  1. First, it is imperative that we continue the campaign against ISIS and efforts to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra to ensure that neither can retain safe haven.
  2. Second, a political solution to the Syria crisis can only be resolved through full implementation of the Geneva process under UNSCR 2254.
  3. Third, there will be no recovery and reconstruction support for Assad controlled areas of Syria absent a credible political process leading to a genuine political transition supported by a majority of the Syrian people.
  4. Finally, de-escalation zones and other ceasefire initiatives – such as the southwest Syria ceasefire negotiated by the US, Jordan and Russia – are necessary but not sufficient to set a foundation for the political solution through the Geneva process.

We will be discussing these issues further and in more detail in our partner capitals over the coming weeks.

III. Strengthening our Global Coalition Network

Finally, expanding the lens away from the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria, our coalition has worked on building a network to defeat ISIS’s global network.

Our Coalition has focused from the outset on building a global network to disrupt ISIS’s foreign fighter flows, counter its financing, and defeat its propaganda.

Counter Foreign Fighters

For foreign fighters, UN Security Council Resolution 2178 for the first time called on all member states to enact laws to help identify and counter the flow of foreign terrorist fighters across borders. As a coalition, we have worked to integrate law enforcement and intelligence to share information in real time, and added INTERPOL last year as a formal member of our Coalition, fusing information from 60 countries for a global database that now includes nearly 43,000 names.

The objective is for every border patrol agent, customs official, or policeman on the beat, to have access to the same database of information – thereby stopping known terrorists who have fought with, or tried to fight with, ISIS, before they can carry out an attack. We are making progress:

  • More than 69 countries now have laws to prosecute and penalize foreign terrorist fighter activities (for instance, the act of traveling outside one’s country to join a terrorist organization).
  • At least 70 countries have prosecuted or arrested foreign terrorist fighters or their facilitators.
  • The United States has concluded information-sharing arrangements with over 60 partners to help identify, track, and deter known and suspected terrorists.

And through an information-sharing platform here in Jordan, more than two dozen coalition partners are working 24/7 to analyze and share information from the battlefield and open sources to connect dots and stop attacks on our homelands. This innovative approach, with co-location and sharing information in real time, has stopped attacks, and we believe marks the wave of the future.

We are also grateful for Turkey’s extraordinary efforts along its border to halt the transit of foreign fighters into or out of Syria. Their operations in Euphrates Shield helped finally stop this transit route, and protect our homelands.


ISIS’s ability to generate revenue has also been significantly reduced.

Coalition airstrikes have struck 5,000 ISIS energy targets, including 2,000 tanker trucks and cash storage facilities. We are also now in the proces of enabling operations to seize oil infrastructure still under ISIS control.

The Departments of State and Treasury are working closely to designate known ISIS financiers, and we believe most outside sources of revenue are severed.

Counter Messaging

Finally, our coalition is now countering ISIS’s message 24/7, working with partner governments to create a network of messaging centers and initiatives that expose, refute and combat terrorist propaganda. Messaging centers in UAE, UK, and Malaysia are having an impact, as are the leading efforts from Saudi Arabia to counter the false appeals to Islam from ISIS and other extremist groups.

The private sector is also fully engaged. Twitter has now suspended more than 935,000 ISIS- related or ISIS-affiliated sites since August 2015. In the first half of this year alone, Twitter removed nearly 300,000 accounts related to terrorism and 75 percent of them were taken down before they could post an initial tweet. These efforts must continue.


With major combat operations against ISIS nearing completion, we must not lose focus. Together, we will need to continue to grapple with the challenges ahead. ISIS is an adaptive enemy, and we will need to remain engaged with the considerable kinetic and non-kinetic resources only our Global Coalition can bring to bear in order to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat.

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to speak with you, and I look forward to continuing this discussion throughout the day.