Remarks at Herzliya Conference

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
Herzliya, Israel
May 10, 2018


General Gilad, distinguished colleagues and friends, it is a true honor to join you at the Herzliya conference. It is a particular honor to be here during such a historic week in Israel.

Allow me first to recognize my friend General Gilad. Amos has always made himself available to discuss the complexities of this most complex region with myself and many of our colleagues; we have all benefitted greatly from your hard-earned wisdom and decades of experience serving your country.

So I just want to say thank you, Amos, for your lifelong commitment to this great country, protecting your people and now for bringing such a remarkable group of people every year.

My discussion today will be in three parts.

First, I will provide an update on our campaign to defeat ISIS.

We have made a tremendous amount of progress since I was here last year, and I will discuss what was done and what we still have left to do.

This is also a timely discussion as only ten days ago we launched what is likely the final phase of operations to defeat what ISIS used to call its caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Second, with the end of the territorial caliphate in sight, I will touch upon the future of Syria after ISIS, which I know has been a hot topic of conversation here over the last couple of days, and what we must do to ensure these gains are lasting.

What does lasting mean? To the United States it means that ISIS cannot return, and just as importantly, other extremist groups – whether foreign Jihadists linked to al Qaeda, or foreign mercenaries linked to Iran and Hizballah – cannot take advantage of this new phase. So we’ll discuss that.

Third, I will discuss southwest Syria, the site of a ceasefire agreement reached between the U.S., Jordan, and Russia, and holding in place now for nearly ten months. And in that context I’ll discuss some of the events over the last 24 hours.

This is unfinished, however. I will discuss expectations on all parties – particularly Russia – to ensure a lasting and stable peace in this critical area, which protects the borders of our allies and guarantees that threats from any source cannot gather let alone entrench in this strategic corner of the world.

(Map 1)

So this is unfinished business in the south west and I’ll discuss expectations on all parties, particularly Russia, to ensure a lasting and stable peace in this area which protects the borders of our Allies and guarantees that threats from any source cannot gather, let alone entrench, in this strategic corner of Syria.

I’ll begin with a review of the ISIS campaign, starting from the worst point. And it’s useful to remind ourselves what was happening only a few years ago. The first map depicts the worst phase of this.

By the fall of 2014, ISIS really was a quasi-state, it was controlling 7.7 million people, over 100,000km2 square kilometers. The size of the UK. Plotting major attacks against the west.

It had resources unmatched for any terror group in history, about $1B per year and that was growing. More than 40,000 foreign fighters, which is kind of mind boggling, but 40,000 jihadi fighters, many with their families, poured into Syria, from over 100 countries around the world.

Inside those territories on the map, which ISIS was controlling, ISIS was:

Committing mass atrocities and acts of genocide. We are still finding the mass graves today. Particularly in northern Iraq in Mosul, we found a couple of mass graves just in the last month.

ISIS was seeking to destroy our common heritage, from the ancient sites of Palmyra, to Christian homelands in the Ninewa plains, to the Grand Nouri Mosque in Mosul, seeking to destroy all of them. And in the case of the Grand Nouri Mosque, it did so.

And they plotted attacks against us: From Raqqa, ISIS was training teams to attack our capitals and our homelands. In Paris, a team deployed from Raqqa killed over 100 people in the street of Paris November 2015. In Brussels, a team deployed from Raqqa and killed 32 at the Brussels Airport March 2016. From Istanbul, to Berlin, Nice, San Bernardino, and Garland, Texas, ISIS terrorists in Raqqa were working everyday to inspire attacks all around the world.

We honor all the victims of these terrorist attacks.

So in response to this threat we built a global coalition, and began what we knew would be a long campaign to fight back, working by with and through local partners on the ground. This really was a different way to fight these wars. Working with Iraqis and Syrians to do the fighting, and US and Coalition forces doing the advising and the assisting.

Let’s shift to the second map. (Map 2)

When President Trump was inaugurated on January 21, 2017, less than fifty percent of the campaign had been completed. This second map depicts where we were at that stage, end of January 2017. The green are areas that had been cleared of ISIS, the orange red were areas that had not been cleared.

The President asked us to speed it up – and he ordered a strategic review to be led by Secretary Mattis and to be completed in 30 days.

In that strategic review, we identified a key decision-points for the president, including:

  • delegating more authorities to commanders in the field;
  • providing additional resources to our partner forces in Syria;
  • finalizing the campaign to seize Raqqa from ISIS;
  • deploying a small team of diplomats to support stabilization behind the lines;
  • Increasing the burden sharing from our coalition partners;
  • accelerating our regional diplomacy, including what we viewed as a potentially historic breakthrough between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Decisions were taken – and the results have been decisive.

(Map 3)

This next slide is where we stand now. And it is what has been done since President Trump came into office. More than 50 percent of the gains on the ground were made in the last really in the last year and a half, particularly in 2017.

The city of Mosul is fully liberated and coming back to life. Incredibly, more than 800,000 displaced people have returned to their homes. The United Nations is now accessing all the neighborhoods inMosul, with needs-based humanitarian assistance and nearly 650 quick-impact stabilization projects have been completed or are under way. All being supported by our historic Global Coalition of 75 members. I was in Mosul just a few weeks ago, and the west side of the city where there was the last phase of the fighting was really just devastated in the final phase of combat. But the east side of the city, quite remarkably, is coming back to life and almost the entire population has returned, and 500,000 girls and boys are back in school. These are boys and girls that were living under ISIS not too long ago.

Next door in Syria, Raqqa is also fully cleared of ISIS, no longer the hub for terrorist plotting around the world; and while a more difficult situation than even Mosul, in Raqqa, over 100,000 residents have returned to the city. As we speak, in Raqqa, and I’ve been to Raqqa twice.

As we speak, Coalition-funded stabilization programs have restored some water and power services around Raqqa.

Coalition-funded demining teams have now cleared 445 structures, this is ongoing every single day, because what ISIS does before they retreat or loose a battle, that they just salt the earth with IEDs or landmines so people can’t return. So we’re working with local Syrians to get a handle on that problem. We’re also working with the United Nations to get more international support and NGOs in these areas which used to be controlled by ISIS.

Our Global coalition, which I mentioned, 75 members, is mobilizing its support. In Mosul, for example, coalition partners like UAE are helping to rebuild the historic grand Nouri Mosque, Germany is supporting initiatives from mine clearing to water to health services, and together during the Mosul campaign alone our Coalition raised over 2.2B to enable the humanitarian response.

This response was quite extraordinary, this was one of the largest combat operations in an urban environment since WW2— over 1 million citizens were displaced during the fighting and remarkably, I think due to the planning we had done over months before the battle started, all of those displaced received aid and assistance.

Overall, the numbers now speak for themselves.

Over 7 million people who had been living under ISIS are no longer living under ISIS – 5 million were freed from ISIS over the course of 2017 alone in our accelerated campaign, and Iraqis and Syrians are returning to their homes in these areas. In Iraq we have very good statistics from the United Nations, about 3.7 million Iraqis who were displaced are now back in their homes. And that record of returns is historically unprecedented for a conflict of this kind.

Most importantly, ISIS has reclaimed none/none of the areas it lost through coalition-enabled operations. This is an important data point that we have worked to maintain.

By contrast, Russian backed Syrian regime have a different record: constantly having to re-clear areas that it takes from ISIS. Quite famously Palmyra, an area south of the river, that they were not able to hold from areas that they cleared of ISIS.

Our record as a coalition is different, and that is because we apply different standards, focused on a more durable result.

I want to point to two areas on this map labeled numbers 1 and 2, where we have recently relaunched operations with our partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, this is a force of about 60,000 fighters, to liberate the final ISIS strongholds.

Let me preview this operation to the extent I can in this forum.

These look like small areas on the map (what’s left of the red underneath area 1 and 2), but they contain entrenched ISIS strongholds. We think most of the leaders and foreign fighters that are left are holed up in these areas and they are prepared to fight probably until the death.

The Jazeera desert is a traditional extremist stronghold, before ISIS it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq ISIS facilitation route. Similar to how this all started, ISIS is once again attempting to disperse throughout the al-Jazeera Desert across the border between Iraq and Syria, bide it’s time, regenerate, and metastasize. And we’re not going to allow them to do that.

Ten days ago, coordinated operations launched on both sides of the border to entrap ISIS in these remaining havens, from which they will be deliberately and systematically rooted out. And that is ongoing as we speak.

At the number two, just north and south of the river is the traditional stronghold. It is not a surprise that these are the last areas on the map that we still have left to clear . We believe a number of ISIS leaders are holed up in this area everyday now, and we get reports every single day of what’s happening, ISIS leaders are choosing to fight to the death or some are choosing to escape but they’re not getting very far. And in the last few days, the Syrian Democratic Forces picked up entire families of foreign fighters, and other military age males who had joined ISIS from other countries. In the last two weeks alone, based upon multiple sources of information, Coalition airstrikes have killed nearly 40 ISIS leaders near the town of Hajin (just about where the 2 is on that map)

For those that are left, it is a lost cause. Make no mistake. This will be a very difficult fight, probably lasting months. But, as we have done to date, there is no question in the outcome.

These military operations are reinforced really in the last couple of years by our diplomacy in the region and what comes after ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Throughout this campaign, we have focused with equal energy on what comes after ISIS and setting conditions to ensure this extremist group cannot return.

I have already discussed how this is being done at the local level, through our stabilization programs, but we have been equally focused, at the broader strategic level.

With respect to Iraq, our diplomacy has focused on opening doors that have been closed, particularly between Baghdad, Riyadh, Ankara, and GCC capitals.

These initiatives, spearheaded by the Iraqi government, have delivered results, most notably the historic opening between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, including the opening of the Ar’ar border crossing and the re-establishment of flights, commerce, security, cultural, and economic ties between these two countries. All of which have been frozen for nearly three decades.

In March, HH Emir Sabah of Kuwait hosted 76 countries, which together pledged $30 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction after ISIS. Over $10 billion came from the GCC, and Turkey – an unprecedented and promising development, which we hope to further advance.

The Coalition is also working with the Government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces to combat ISIS remnants. They are trying to return to an insurgent cellular structure, which we’re determined that the Iraqi Security Forces can stay ahead of that. And very important for Iraqi Security Forces to have full control over its sovereign control over borders. These efforts will be ongoing.

Syria, of course, is more difficult. We are not working with a government, and we will not work with the Assad regime – nor will we support reconstruction in regime areas absent a serious and credible political process that fully implements the principles of UNSCR 2254, and that’s a principle reaffirmed this month by the European Union and our Like Minded partners.

So let me focus the second part of my discussion on Syria after ISIS.

I know this has been a broad topic of conversation here over the last couple of days.

As I already mentioned, our partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, relaunched operations in eastern Syria to liberate the final ISIS strongholds just a couple of weeks ago. The fighting will be difficult, but there is no question they will prevail but this will take some months.

We are also looking beyond ISIS, and here I would like to reemphasize some key principles stated by the President and from the State Department over the last few weeks:

  • First, we are fully committed to completing the fight against ISIS and rooting out its remaining havens.
  • Second, the U.S. will remain on the ground in Syria until ISIS is defeated and the so-called caliphate is completely eliminated.
  • Third, we will work to ensure local forces, enabled by our regional partners and allies, consolidate these gains, stabilize liberated territories, and prevent the return of ISIS.
  • Fourth, we will continue to work with Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to secure their borders from ISIS and other threats.
  • Fifth, we will work to ensure that ISIS cannot return, and that the Assad regime or Iranian supporters and the networks that Iran supports cannot exploit populations liberated from ISIS.
  • Finally, we will protect our forces and those of our partners – as we have demonstrated over the past year. If anyone on the ground in Syria wishes to threaten U.S. Forces or our partners, the response will be decisive and devastating.

In parallel, as we work to advance the political process to end the underlying civil war, the United States is committed to ensuring that all Syrians, including Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen, and other minorities in northeast Syria where the fight against ISIS has been most intense, have a full seat at the table and an appropriate say in their future in alignment with UNSCR 2254.

Let me focus on one of these principles that was a focus here throughout the last few days: the desire of the Iranian regime to exploit the current situation in Syria for its own hegemonic ambitions. It is in the interests of all parties to the conflict in Syria – including in particular Russia – to ensure that Iran cannot succeed, because the risk is a far broader conflict.

Here is the basic issue: as the civil war has begun to wind down, Iran has begun to pursue its own objectives on Syrian soil. It is seeking to entrench military positions, together with sophisticated weapons that have nothing to do with fighting terrorists and everything to do with protecting power outside of Syria’s borders – including a direct threat to Israel as well as U.S. interests and American citizens in the region.

These activities have not gone unnoticed — and they will not go unanswered.

Russia has repeatedly and consistently claimed to support the principles of Syria sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Syrian state. Those are principles we share.

They were even enshrined in a statement between President Trump and President Putin. In Da Nang, late last year, both Presidents affirmed in a joint statement their “commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character, as defined in UNSCR 2254.” We remain fully committed to those principles.

And in our view, a sovereign Syria, means all foreign fighters, including Lebanese Hizballah, or Iranian-backed fighters from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan, should leave Syria. It means Iran must not pursue its own hegemonic agenda on Syrian soil.

So for Moscow, we would ask basic question: is it the sovereign decision of Damascus to allow Iran and its proxies to use Syrian soil as a launching pad for attacks outside of Syria particularly against Israel? If so, does Russia agree with that decision? Does it have no influence to reverse it? And if not, isn’t the biggest violator of Syrian sovereignty, which Russia claims its presence is in Syria is meant to uphold , isn’t the biggest violator os Syrian sovereignty your erstwhile partners in Tehran? So what are they going to do about it? A simple question, and a questions we call on Moscow to act upon.

 

In the meantime, make no mistake: Israel has every right to protect its borders, to include freedom of action to take measures in self-defense. This is a bedrock principle for the United States, one that is unwavering, and will never change.

 

And I think this was clearly demonstrated just last night. Iranian forces launched 20 rockets on IDF positions on the Golan Heights, a number of these rockets were intercepted by the iron dome anti-missile system. Others fell well short of their target and actually landed inside Syria. There were no injuries from this attack, but it was provocative, reckless, totally unacceptable, and called for a response. And in response, Israeli Defense Forces rightly struck dozens of Iranian military targets inside Syria. I just returned before coming here at meetings in your Ministry of Defense, and the Israeli Defense Forces that struck last night were precise, proportional, highly effective, and of course they have our full endorsement and we commend the teams from the IDF that carried them out.

At bottom, Iran’s presence and activities in Syria have nothing to do with protecting the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Syria. And again the stated basis for Russia’s presence in Syria exists. In fact, Iran’s presence risks a wider conflict that would mire Syria in ongoing turmoil for months and years to come.

So, we call on Russia to act. To use its influence to rein in these activities – in furtherance of its own stated intent, as expressed at the highest levels, to support Syria’s sovereignty and independence.

And, where it is unable or unwilling to do so, we recognize and fully support Israel’s inherent right of self-defense and freedom of action to protect its borders and defend its people as was demonstrated last night.

All of these issues come to a head in southwest Syria. In southwest Syria ISIS is present – an affiliate known as Jaysh Khalid bin Walid, controlling territory on the borders of Israel and Jordan. Foreign jihadi fighters are present, some affiliated with Al Qaeida-linked extremist groups, but in very small numbers that exist in northwest Syria. And Iranian backed militias are present, seeking to carve out their own safe havens primarily in areas controlled by the Syrian regime.

Over the first six months of 2017, the United States, Jordan, and Russia negotiated a comprehensive ceasefire in the southwest. This was a protracted negotiation, U.S.-Russia-Jordan, with expert teams detailing a “line of contact” across the southwest Syria and through Daraa city.

President Trump and President Putin finalized the ceasefire at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7. Since then, it has largely held. This is a significant achievement in itself. One year ago, this southwest corner was on the verge of a major conflict, and Daraa city was at risk. Since then, the fighting btwteen the opposition and the Syrian regime has largely stopped, hundreds of families have returned to their homes, and thousands of lives have likely been saved.

We are determined to keep this ceasefire in place. Russia, which has deployed its own monitors to regime areas, tells us it shares this objective – and this is the only ceasefire that was endorsed by the United States and Russia. So it is a test, and a threshold test on the extent to which we might be able to work with Russia on other issues related to Syria.

The ceasefire and stopping the fighting is also not the entire agreement. Russia, the United States, and Jordan agreed to remove all foreign fighters from the southwest zone. Jordan and the United States have taken measures south of the ceasefire line, and the Russians have taken some – but not enough –on the north side of the line.

The objective is a southwest at peace, secure, and not a threat to anyone, whether the Syrian people who have suffered long enough, or Jordan to the south, or Israel to the west – with no foreign proxies anywhere near this zone.

If Iran believes it can use this corner of Syria to establish expeditionary facilities, it is badly mistaken. Israel has every right to act against such threats. And Russia has an obligation to ensure it never reaches that point. Our objective remains a diplomatic resolution to these very serious and very complex issues, but the jury is still out on whether this is possible over the long term. We hope it is. But we’ll see.

 

So in conclusion, I will sum up with three points:

 

First, our ISIS campaign has accelerated over the last 18 months. The end of the territorial caliphate is now in sight for the first time. We will not stop until this mission is complete, and we will continue to enable Iraqi forces on the Iraqi side of the border, and local forces in Syria to root out clandestine ISIS networks.

Second, as part of a comprehensive campaign, we are equally focused on ensuring that any vacuums after ISIS cannot be filled by other extremist groups, including foreign militias backed by Iran. We call on Russia in particular to support these efforts, which will be essential to any lasting settlement.

Finally, our bedrock commitment to the security of Israel is unwavering, and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to self-defense.

Again, Amos, thanks for inviting me, and I hope to come back again next year hopefully with some good news. It was an honor to address all of you.

I look forward to the upcoming panels.