Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS
December 21, 2017
MS NAUERT: And we have Brett McGurk, our special presidential envoy. Brett has some comments, and then he’ll take a few questions from you.
QUESTION: No maps today?
MR MCGURK: There will be one.
QUESTION: There will be one?
MR MCGURK: Yeah. So thanks, everyone. I guess it’s the last briefing of the year, so I thought we would kind of sum up the overall campaign. Here, got one.
MS NAUERT: The laser thing?
MR MCGURK: Yeah.
MS NAUERT: Oh, you have one. Okay.
MR MCGURK: Yeah. Sum up the campaign against ISIS over the past – over the past year and where we are, and kind of a little bit on where we’re going. And we’ll have more to say about that in the coming year, particularly over the coming weeks.
I think it’s worth recalling ISIS used to be controlling basically a state, 100,000 square kilometers, the size of the UK; planning and plotting and carrying out major terrorist attacks against our partner homelands; inspiring attacks here in the homeland; responsible for the violent murder and – violent murder of American citizens James Foley, Steve Sotloff, Peter Abdul-Rahman, as well as the death of Kayla Mueller; committing acts of genocide against the Yezidis as they swept into Iraq, and other minority groups; displacing Christians from their – from their ancient homelands; and destroying our common heritage. We’ve really never seen anything like it, 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries around the world pouring into this so-called phony caliphate.
So in January, when the new administration came in, when President Trump came in and Secretary Tillerson came in, we faced real critical challenges in terms of major plotting attacks against us and against our partner homelands coming from Syria and Iraq. And they were aspiring to kind of major, 9/11-type attacks. That’s what they really aspire to do. And so long as they had these safe havens and sanctuaries, particularly cities, a city like Raqqa, and at the time they still controlled half of Mosul, it was really hard to root them out.
So really, three key decisions were made right off the bat as soon as President Trump came into office. Number one, he issued a directive within, I think, his third day for all of us to really look to accelerate the overall defeat of ISIS. He delegated authorities immediately to Secretary Mattis and our commanders in the field. When Secretary Tillerson came in, he made clear to all of us that if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority, and our priority is the defeat of ISIS. One of his first major events here at the State Department was gathering almost 70 countries here at the State Department from our global coalition; it’s now one of the largest coalitions of its kind ever assembled in history, with 74 members. And we all gathered here in March really to map out the next phase of the campaign over what is now the last 10 months, particularly Mosul and Raqqa.
The Secretary also made the decision very early on to deploy a small team of experts from the State Department into Syria to work with our military partners as we got into the campaign in Tabqa and Raqqa, which I’ll talk about. We established task forces here at the State Department and the Department of Defense to coordinate the interagency in a way that had not been coordinated before. And we developed an overall global campaign plan called the Defeat ISIS Strategic Plan, which has been approved by the President. So prioritize the defeat of ISIS. If everything’s important, nothing’s important. And accelerate the campaign. And I’ll bring you into the campaign and describe kind of how this has gone over the last year.
Second, when he looked at the situation in Syria, decided we have to set conditions for a political settlement in Syria by de-escalating the overall conflict. This is a conflict that killed 400,000 people, displaced 11 million people, and obviously the situation – we had to look to ways to bring it under control. We had tried things like national ceasefires; they hadn’t worked. So we really – we really took a new approach.
Looked at different parts of the country. Tried to establish de-escalation zones, ceasefire areas, and really pragmatic, pretty hard-nosed diplomacy with the Russians. And looked at Syria in terms of phases. Number one, you have to defeat the physical caliphate of ISIS; so long as you have a caliphate in the middle of Syria, it’s really hard to get a realistic, meaningful political process underway. And you had to overall de-escalate the overall conflict to move ahead on the political process based in Geneva under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. I’ll talk a little bit about that.
Finally, holding Assad accountable for his chemical weapons use and proliferation. I think the April 6 strike ordered by the President – we actually happened to be in some negotiations with the Russians while all this was going on – had a pretty dramatic effect, I think, on the overall situation, our ability to exert some leverage on the overall situation in Syria. So those three key decisions, I think, have made a difference and have helped us speed some things up. I think I have a map. Okay.
So let me just kind of brief on this map. It’s the current situation, and just a situation – if you can all see it. Everything in green on this map, everything in green used to be controlled by ISIS, so over 100,000 square kilometers. Everything in light green was controlled by – I’m sorry – everything in light green – everything in dark green, the dark green, was controlled by ISIS in January of this year. Everything in light green and dark green has been taken away from ISIS; it’s about 98 percent of their former caliphate. And significantly, 50 percent of all the territory that ISIS has lost, they have lost in the last 11 months, since January. So 50 percent of all the territorial losses against ISIS have come in the last 11 months over the course of 2017. Seven point seven million people used to be living under ISIS are no longer living under ISIS, and 5 million of those people were liberated over the course of this past year. So when we came into office, there was still about 5 million people under ISIS; they are no longer under ISIS.
Returnees – we’ve talked about this in the past. The pace picked up. In Iraq we have returned 2.7 million Iraqis back to their homes. Again, that is a historically unprecedented rate of returns in a conflict like this – 1.4 million of those returnees in this past year. In Syria, for the first time – the Syria situation still remains totally unacceptable. All the violence and the loss of life is attributable to Bashar al-Assad and his regime. But in Syria, for this – this year, for the first time, we did see significant returns, about 715,000 according to UN data, actually returning to their homes; 50,000 from outside Syria. And I think the focus on de-escalation had a contribution to that.
So based upon all that, I can kind of bring you into the – what we did over the last year and how this really came together. So there’s a number one on the map, which – oh, I guess this doesn’t work with the TV. There’s a number one – there’s a number one on the map at Tabqa, which I can point to right here. Tabqa – the battle of Tabqa began on March 21st, but what’s significant about it is kind of how it began. And I happened to be in Syria right around this time, and the force we’re working with, the Syrian Democratic Forces, identified an opportunity, but they had to launch almost immediately. They said, if we can launch within days to hop over a body of water about 10 kilometers and catch ISIS by surprise, they thought that they could seize Tabqa, the Tabqa dam, and the Tabqa airport.
So our commanders, having the delegated authority, wasted no time, put this operation together. It launched on March 21st, ended on May 11th. And I visited Tabqa shortly after the battle, and it wasn’t just the battle; it was the first time we also had State Department personnel working together to kind of help facilitate the humanitarian and stabilization aftermath of the conflict. So they worked to clear landmines, get humanitarian aid into the city. And the population before the war in Tabqa was 70,000; the population today, about 110,000 since ISIS has left. And without Tabqa, had Tabqa not been seized, Raqqa would not have been able to be taken because Tabqa really kind of helped close the noose on Raqqa. So that delegation of authorities made a specific, immediate difference in that very significant battle.
Second was Raqqa. So shortly after the Tabqa battle concluded in May, we looked at, again, all the options for Raqqa. You’ve reported on this, many of you. We looked at every possible way to do Raqqa. A couple options were presented to the President, and really the option that he determined was the most viable option was the option to use our partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces. And a couple reasons for that: the other option would have required really tens of thousands of American troops on the ground, and that’s a model that we do not want to return to. So the battle of Raqqa began on June 6, D-Day as it’s known, but it began on June 6, and it concluded about five months later. Very, very difficult street-by-street fighting. I was in Raqqa about three weeks ago and you could see the aftermath of this battle. Our force that we work with, the Syrian Democratic Forces, about 400 were killed in the battle, about 700 wounded. No Americans were lost in this battle. We did lose one coalition special forces operator from our – one of our coalition partners.
Displacement. In the battle of Raqqa, in the province, about 264,000 people were displaced, and in the early phase of the battle, you could actually see the displacement. We actually really had to catch up. But having our team of experts on the ground, we immediately flooded resources into Syria and were able to manage the humanitarian displaced population from Raqqa fairly well. About 34,000 now have returned.
One reason why it’ll take a while to get people back into their homes of Raqqa is that ISIS has – basically, every single standing structure in Raqqa has an IED in it. We’re finding that as our teams that we have – we’ve trained about 125 Syrians now together with experts to really clear the streets of these areas that have been cleared, and it takes a lot of time. We’re finding an IED in almost every freestanding structure.
So ISIS, as they lose territory, kind of salt the earth to make sure that life cannot return. We do believe the outlying neighborhoods of Raqqa, which are fairly well intact, we will see significant returns to the center of the city. Having seen it with my own eyes, it is fairly well destroyed. I think it’ll be a very long time before people are able to return there.
We are in the business, as we’ve said before, of stabilizing these areas, clearing landmines, humanitarian – basic water, basic health, electricity. We are not engaged in nation-building exercises and long-term reconstruction.
Let me point to number three. This is right here. And this is where you can see the red on the map, and that is where ISIS still has some small safe havens. I point to it because there is still very significant fighting going on. And I just want to emphasize this point: This isn’t over. The fact that we’ve made a lot of progress this year, nobody who works on these problems would tell you that we’re popping champagne corks or anything. This is not over. This has a long way to go. Even on the ground in Syria, there’s probably some months of operations left in this area. Heavy fighting is ongoing; 31 airstrikes, coalition airstrikes in the last week alone. And we killed three very, very senior ISIS leaders right in that area in the last week, and we’re capturing, actually, as we speak, a number of fighters trying to flee.
Last week, a significant milestone: The Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces linked up at the border, just kind of tightening the noose on ISIS. And this area also has been critical in terms of deconflicting operations with the Russians, something we’ve talked about throughout the year. We’ve kind of drawn some lines on the map with the Russians about where their forces would be, where we would be. This is a professional military-to-military engagement focused on deconfliction. We’re not coordinating operations but making sure we don’t have any accidents. That’s extremely tense from time to time, but overall that has gone quite well and accelerated the pace of operations. So the engagement with the Russians has actually, I think, contributed to the demise of ISIS at least in the caliphate.
I’m going to go down to the – just southeast Syria. I’ll start moving a little faster. But right here is a garrison called al-Tanf. We have a small U.S. military presence there. We’re working with the local force. There are still ISIS in the area. There was an operation – we actually engaged with a column, our military personnel, with our partner force just last week in a very heavy engagement.
But another reason why our presence is important there is there is an IDP camp right on the Jordanian border. About 40,000 people are there, and we want to get aid to that camp. We want to get aid to that camp from the Syrian side, and we’re working – we’re pushing, particularly through the Russians, to come up with a common plan to get aid to that camp. And we have called on the Russians to be cooperative in that effort, and we were pleased that earlier this week the UN Security Council resolution renewed resolutions known as 2165 that authorizes cross-border assistance into Syria. That was quite an important development as we manage the humanitarian situation in Syria.
So that’s Tanf. We are present at Tanf, and we’re going to be present at Tanf to make sure ISIS cannot return and also to manage this difficult humanitarian situation. We will also remain present in the other areas of Syria to make sure that ISIS cannot return and to make sure that we can help with the stabilization effort so people can return to their homes.
The final point on Syria is in the southwest. It’s number five. I point to that because this is the southwest – it’s a de-escalation zone that we negotiated with Jordan and with Russia earlier this year. I think I described it as a painstaking negotiation over many months. That was very true, and it was finalized on July 7th in a meeting between President Trump and President Putin. I think it’s been – it’s not without problems, but it has been a – one of the most successful ceasefires to date. I think we’ve saved a significant number of lives, returning Syrians to their homes. We’re monitoring the ceasefire every day in Amman. About a thousand Syrians are now returning every month, according to UN data, from Jordan, the first time we’ve seen that trend – that’s something positive, we want to keep it moving – and about a thousand every week displaced from Syria returning to their homes in this area. So total, about 5,000 a month.
We worked to re – kind of strengthen the ceasefire earlier this year – or just last month when we finalized what’s called a memorandum of principles, greater definition to the ceasefire. Key principle: The existing arrangements in these areas can remain in place, so opposition structures remain in place pending a long-term political settlement to the civil war through the Geneva process; and also a commitment, very importantly, to remove foreign forces from sensitive areas of this zone. And what that means are Iranian-backed forces, Iranian-backed militias should not be in this area. That’s something that the Russians have signed onto. And also, we need to remove foreign jihadi-like presence from this area, and there remains a persistent ISIS cell, which is the red blotch just on the corner of the map.
And President Trump and President Putin in Da Nang issued a very important joint statement which memorialized that memorandum of principles in the southwest and also the steps going forward on the political process.
Let me jump quickly to Iraq. I’ll go very quickly. Mosul. When we came in in January, east Mosul was liberated on January 26th. The battle of west Mosul had not even begun, and we knew that would be an enormously daunting task. We have trained a total of 123,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces. The battle of Mosul, the cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga, was something that was historic, something we still want to build upon even as there’s tension between Baghdad and Erbil, and something that carried over into the battle of west Mosul.
The battle of west Mosul began on February 19th and concluded on July 10th. It really consumed the first half of this year. It was the main focus of Secretary Tillerson’s gathering so many members of our coalition here in March, where we raised about $2.2 billion, and a lot of that money went immediately into the campaign of Mosul. What’s remarkable about the Mosul campaign is that of a million displaced from Mosul, the worst-case scenario that we had planned for, nearly every single Moslawi that was displaced received humanitarian assistance and aid. So even with a million displaced, we did not have a massive humanitarian crisis because of the planning that went into this, and that meeting in March was quite significant. In Mosul today we have about 500 stabilization projects are ongoing, and we are still working very closely with our coalition to make sure that we have adequate resources for that.
Finally on the map I want to just talk about two developments here in the bottom. This is the Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia. I point to the border crossing, but what’s really significant there is that President Trump and the Secretary very early on, within the first weeks, identified an opportunity to really open – reformalize an opening of ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Secretary had an important conversation with Foreign Minister Jubeir. Foreign Minister Jubeir visited Baghdad on February 25th, the first visit of a Saudi foreign minister in 30 years, and from there, chipping away, we really kind of really opened up this relationship. Speaking personally as – I’ve worked in three administrations; I remember President Bush going a number of times directly to King Abdullah to really encourage this, the argument being that we want to re-anchor Iraq in the Arab world, diversify its regional relationships. Very important, something the Iraqis want; we think it’s in our national security interest. And finally, this broke open.
I visited the – I visited that border crossing in August when it opened and it was quite a remarkable scene. And then on October 22nd, Secretary Tillerson met in Riyadh with King Salman and Prime Minister Abadi to formally launch the Iraqi-Saudi Coordinating Committee. We now have, for the first time in 30 years, direct flights moving between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, two border openings, and this continues to move forward. So that was a real significant breakthrough that we saw this year.
I’d just point finally to the other border crossing, the Turaibil border crossing with Jordan. That’s a multi-billion-dollar-a-year commerce route, and we’ve also worked very hard to open that because our ally Jordan is really first and foremost in our minds when we manage this very difficult situation.
Looking forward a little bit into next year, Kuwait will host a very – two very important conferences in February, one together with the World Bank and the EU on a reconstruction event for Iraq to help reconstruct some of these areas; and secondly, our coalition will gather, similar to the event we had here in March, in Kuwait in the February time frame.
Finally, when it comes to ISIS, we’re not just focused on the physical space of the caliphate, though that was the calling card; it was what held the organization together. We are also, as you know – talked about this a number of times from this podium – foreign fighters, counterfinance, countermessaging is a constant, 24/7 effort from here.
On foreign fighters, it – really an incredible effort, global effort, from all members of our coalition. And working with one of our newest members of the coalition, INTERPOL, we now have from 60 countries about 40,000 names in a database of known ISIS-affiliated fighters who try – have tried to travel or did travel to Iraq and Syria. And the UN Security Council today, we believe, will pass a very important resolution, really strengthening the Resolution 2178 that passed a few years ago. And our colleagues here, Nathan Sales and the CT bureau, doing a terrific job on that. So we hope to have more news on that later in the day.
Counterfinance – we’ve completely decimated ISIS finances by targeting their oil and gas reserves, and they really have no ability to raise significant revenue from what used to be their state-like holdings in Iraq and Syria. But they do still find ways to move money around, and Sigal Mandelker and our colleagues at the Treasury Department working constantly to identify these networks, sanction them, and root them out.
In countermessaging, just a remarkable improvement from what we used to see, and I give the private sector here tremendous credit – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Very difficult to start a Twitter account now with an ISIS-affiliated message. You’re taken down really almost instantaneously; almost a million accounts have been taken down. And we’re working closely in the region with Saudi Arabia, UAE, all of our partners, and in East Asia with Malaysia and others to counter ISIS’s ideology.
So ISIS will be around for a while, so this is a – we have a long way to go. But we did make some progress this year, and I wanted to kind of bring you into it a little bit, decisions we made early and then how they played out. And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
MS NAUERT: Matt, do you want to start?
QUESTION: I’m just curious. It sounds to me – well, it doesn’t sound to me – you said it – that changes from the policy of the previous administration are responsible for this success. You were in charge of implementing the policy of the previous administration. Why if – why – was it doomed to fail? And why did you – why did the previous administration continue to do what it was doing when you mention these three or four changes to it that seem to have brought success?
MR MCGURK: Yeah, thanks, Matt. I think I’d answer it this way. I think this isn’t a – it’s not a political statement. It’s the fact that we had to do a lot to get the foundation for our campaign set. A transition in wartime from one party to another – you look historically, it can always be a difficult endeavor. I actually give great credit – think an untold story – the transition actually on these issues was very smooth. The transition team here at State did a great job and we met regularly with the transition team and said look, there’s about three or four key decisions that, if they’re made early – and we did say at the time we think we can actually defeat the physical caliphate – we actually moved faster than we thought – but three or four key decisions.
Some of them were decisions that the former administration didn’t want to take at the end of their time in office so passed forward. But I will just say it takes – it takes focus and attention and prioritization from the top, and that’s what we got on day one from the President, and when the Secretary came in, and from Secretary Mattis. And those decisions were made. The delegations made a difference. The decision on Raqqa – we looked at the entire – we looked at all options. And the decision the President made in May was quite significant and —
QUESTION: Are you saying the previous administration, there wasn’t that involvement, that it wasn’t that big a priority for the senior members of the last administration?
MR MCGURK: That’s certainly not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that decisions that were made early in the new administration to accelerate the campaign – these are big decisions; it’s not something you just go and make. But they were made early and they had a major impact. And I think the – I think it speaks for itself.
MS NAUERT: Next question. Nick.
QUESTION: Brett, could you just – I just have a couple of numerical questions and then one sort of bigger question. The first is do you have a current tally for the number of civilian deaths as a result of coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
MR MCGURK: So as you know, we study this quite carefully. I’d really defer you to the – our CJTF colleagues who study this quite carefully. I can’t give you a number here. But let me give you an example on Raqqa. So I’ve read some reports that in Raqqa, at the end of the day, like thousands of ISIS fighters escaped. So I was just in Raqqa, and here’s what ISIS was doing in the final days of that battle. Down to about two neighborhoods, probably about 300 ISIS fighters left. Whenever they would go outside to move from one fighting position for another, they would take a child with them or a bunch of civilians with them, basically using them as human shields. That’s how they fought in Mosul. That’s how they fought in Raqqa. That’s how they fought in al-Qaim. That’s how they fought throughout the campaign.
So this is extremely, extremely difficult. Our Syrian partner forces and Iraqi forces, and particularly the Iraqis, took a number of casualties and Iraqi soldiers died because in Mosul in particular the humanitarian priority was put at the top of the campaign plan. So a number of times we did not do an airstrike, did not do certain military activities, because of the risk to civilians.
In Raqqa, these two neighborhoods saturated with remaining civilians and a limited number of ISIS fighters – it’s when local tribes from the area came and said we have to actually evacuate all of these civilians. And so that local deal was made. We think about 4,000 civilians – and we track this extremely closely – and a very small number, a very small number of foreign fighters, about 300 total, ISIS fighters. But the truth of the matter, these guys are using – they came to Syria and Iraq and they purport to be representing the Sunni population, then they use the Sunni population as human shields.
So I’m sorry I can’t give you a specific figure, but I just wanted to kind of – I’ve been in some of the centers – in Syria I was in one during the Raqqa battle – of how these decisions are being made. And it is extremely difficult when you confront an enemy like this.
QUESTION: Just two quick follow-ups. One is you talked about geographically reducing ISIS control. Do you have numbers of fighters who remain, who were able to flee? And then second, the Pentagon today accused Russia of intentionally violating the deconfliction agreements with the U.S., particularly with air forces. Do you have any comment on that?
MR MCGURK: So with deconfliction, I’d have to defer to DOD. There was an incident on December 13th that – again, whether it was accidental, whether it was intentional, don’t know. There have been direct, very high-level senior engagements between our military colleagues and theirs, and we have not had a significant incident like that since, so the deconfliction line overall has held. We had some – in June – look, in June we shot down a Syrian plane just south of Tabqa when they crossed the line that we had agreed upon. So this is serious. This is really, really serious business. But for the most part, the deconfliction lines have held.
In terms of overall fighters, we think there’s about – I hate to put numbers on it, but in some of these areas where they still are, about 3,000 or so. That’s kind of our assessment. In terms of an exodus of ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq, it’s our best estimate – and all we can do is give our best estimate from our Intelligence Community – but think that there has not been a significant exodus of foreign fighters from Iraq.
MR MCGURK: I hate to – I have it in my head, I just hate to even say. So I’d defer to some of my colleagues on that.
MS NAUERT: Dave Clark from AFP.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this. Beyond the red areas marked on that map, there are lots of other areas in the world – Libya, West Africa, the Philippines, Afghanistan – where groups that have raised the ISIS banner have sprung up. Are these groups in tight communication? Is it a movement? Is it –is there that command and control, or is this just an inspirational kind of branding exercise from local insurgents? And will the campaign continue until you’ve ridded the whole world of people with the ISIS flag?
MR MCGURK: So look, it’s a great question. And it used to be a very well-connected organization being run out of Raqqa, with direct communication to Boko Haram, which then part of it split and became ISIS in Nigeria; direct communication to Libya, direct communication to Sinai, direct communication to Afghanistan. We’ve pretty much severed a lot of that, particularly from Syria. But look, ISIS became a brand, and a lot of pre-existing terrorist groups – you’ve seen this in the Sinai, for example – start to raise the flag of ISIS, mainly to recruit foreign fighters and other things.
But make no doubt that the defeat ISIS strategic plan that I mentioned is not an Iraq-Syria plan, it’s a global campaign plan. So we use different tools in different parts of the world. But certainly in Mindanao and in Philippines, when they popped up and tried to establish themselves, we worked very closely with Australia, with members of the coalition, with the Philippine armed forces, to root them out.
So this is going to go on for some time. And the main priority number one is protecting our homeland; but second, make sure that they cannot have sanctuary to recruit and attract foreign fighters.
QUESTION: Now just let me do a follow-up on that. So the Russians are saying that ISIS is defeated in Syria; you’re saying there’s still some 3,000 or so there. Does that reflect different understanding of the intelligence, or is that a political thing and they want to have an excuse to kick you out of Syria now – job’s done, leave us and Assad alone?
MR MCGURK: Well, as I said, look, we’re advancing our own national security interests in Syria. We’re going to stay in Syria to make sure there’s an enduring defeat of ISIS, to make sure we can stabilize these areas. That’s very clear. No, ISIS is not – is not totally defeated in Syria. As I mentioned, I think I gave you the number of airstrikes we’ve done in the last week alone, so that’s very clear.
And another key statistic: Every coalition-enabled – meaning our coalition – enabled operation against ISIS, ISIS has never been able to come back and reclaim a territory that we helped liberate. Frankly, the Russians can’t say that. In Palmyra they did the kind of concert. They got a lot of attention. Then ISIS actually came back and retook Palmyra. We’re having some problems on the south side of the river, in which Syrian armed forces claim to have liberated these areas and we see ISIS trying to come back. It’s not happening in the areas that we helped liberate because we do a lot of extensive planning for what comes afterwards.
So bottom line, to answer your question, no. ISIS is not totally finished in Syria. We still have a lot of work to do.
MS NAUERT: Nick from Fox News.
QUESTION: This is somewhat related. But do you see indications that the Russians are now eager to get out of Syria? And do you think – and maybe this is premature, but if so, do you think that could fast-track the Geneva process?
MR MCGURK: So we have agreed with the Russians that the only way – the only way – to bring an end to this conflict is through Geneva, through 2254. We’ve also made clear as a coalition that there will be no international reconstruction assistance for regime-controlled areas of Syria absent that political process really moving ahead in a credible way that can ultimately lead to a political transition. We also happen to believe that the end point of that political process, which is UN-sponsored parliamentary and presidential elections, so it’s all Syrians vote – that means the entire diaspora votes. The 5 million people who were displaced from Syria can vote and the Russians have now signed up to that. We believe that if you get to that point – and that’ll take some time – that Bashar al-Assad will no longer be in power in Damascus. The Russians might have a different view.
I’ve seen the announcement that they – okay, ISIS has wrapped up and they’re going to withdraw from Syria, but that really remains to be seen. I think they will retain a fairly significant presence. And again, we will engage with them where our interests align and we will make very clear to them where our interests don’t align. So when it comes to Syria, you have to have some engagement with the Russians. There’s a military-to-military deconfliction channel. And on the diplomatic side, we’re engaged with them regularly.
MS NAUERT: Just a couple more questions. (Inaudible). Thanks, (inaudible).
QUESTION: I’m curious about the relationship between the U.S. and the YPG because obviously, that’s a major sticking point here, and I think a few weeks ago, Jonathan Cohen said that the relationship was temporary and tactical. We’ve seen Trump tell Erdogan that there are going to be adjustments made to that relationship. So can you give us – shine some light as to what those adjustments are going to be going forward?
MR MCGURK: So after the battle of Raqqa – so Raqqa, again, such an intense urban, like, assault – that’s why it required a presidential decision because we had to give some equipment – and it’s limited, extremely limited – all of which was very transparent to our NATO ally, Turkey – but that decision had to be made if we were going to do Raqqa, and it was. Now that that major phase of operations is over, there will be adjustments in the level of military support.
We will continue to remain in Syria and to work with local hold forces. The Raqqa internal security force is a force that we’re training to make sure that we can hold the ground and continue to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces. But as the years goes on, there will be adjustments to the type of support, just given the way the campaign is proceeding. I think that’s very natural. That was always part of the plan. That was what we briefed to the Turks before Raqqa and that’s what we’ve told them now. So that’ll kind of continue throughout the year.
But as we remain in Syria, we’ll continue to work with local actors. We want local people to be in charge of their areas and we will retain our policy of full transparency with Turkey.
MS NAUERT: Okay. And the last question, Robbie from Foreign Policy.
QUESTION: Yeah. I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on the peace process Russia is attempting to open up in Sochi. How will that impact the negotiations in Geneva? Is there any conditions in which the U.S. would support those talks?
MR MCGURK: So it kind of remains to be seen. We’ve heard Sochi was going to happen last month, then it was going to happen this month, now it might happen in January, now it might happen in February. We’ve engaged with the Russians on this about exactly what they have in mind and they have said that Sochi would be kind of a gathering of Syrian figures, and then what happens in Sochi would feed directly into Geneva. If that’s the case, that’s something that might actually support the Geneva process. What we would not support and what would have absolutely no legitimacy would be a parallel process that’s parallel entirely to Geneva.
Geneva is the locus of where the political settlement has to be struck. That’s not only U.S. policy; that’s now something the Russians have very clearly signed up to in the Da Nang statement. So I would just have to say it really remains to be seen.
We also have, I have to say, some real skepticism of anything in which the Iranians are a guarantor of a process. So the Astana process, for example, in which the Iranians play a guarantor role for de-escalation zones – one reason we’ve not participated in Astana, we observe, is because that just kind of lacks credibility. So we’ll continue to remain engaged with the Russians and we want to settle the Syrian civil war through a constitutional reform process leading to UN-supervised elections in Geneva. And that is the key to unlocking reconstruction assistance in Syria writ large. So we’ve been very consistent with the Russians on this. In Da Nang, they signed up to the overall roadmap, and so we’ll have to see. This will be a key focus here over the coming year.
Final point, just to sum up. When we looked at the situation in January, it was hard to see how you could have a really credible political process until you remove the physical caliphate and you bring the overall levels of violence down. And that’s why over 2017, we were so focused on defeating the caliphate and de-escalating the overall civil war. And that sets the conditions now for a more meaningful political process in Geneva. Staffan de Mistura was just here yesterday. We met with him about the next steps. And this will be a very intense focus of ours over the course of the next year, so we look forward to briefing you on that. Okay.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. Brett, thank you so much.
MR MCGURK: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.