Excerpts of the Department Press Briefing – December 11, 2018

العربية العربية

U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
Briefer: Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino


2:35 p.m. EST

MR PALLADINO:  Hello, everybody.  We have a special guest today I’d like to announce, and who will speak at the top.  We have our Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk.  And Brett will be providing you with an update on progress that’s been made and our efforts to continue.  Please.

MR MCGURK:  Great.  Thank you.  It’s great to be here again.  I thought with everything going on I just would provide – I’ve done this periodically – but an update on where we are in this overall campaign to defeat ISIS.  Obviously, a multifaceted effort, truly global campaign.  My focus today will be particularly in Iraq and Syria.  We have a lot of brave Americans serving on the frontlines in this campaign, including personnel here from the State Department, so it’s good just to touch base every now and then and kind of describe what’s going on.

So I think first I’d like to start with where we were in 2014.  I think that is important, just to put – remember where we were back in the summer of 2014.  About – ISIS controlled about 100,000 square kilometers, really mindboggling statistics.  Eight million people, Iraqis and Syrians – nearly 8 million people living under control of ISIS; their revenues almost a billion dollars per year; committing acts of genocide against minorities in Iraq; planning major terrorist operations, including against our homeland, but carrying them out in the streets of Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul.

So obviously we organized a global coalition to combat this threat.  Where we were when the Trump administration came in, in early 2016* – that’s the second slide – about 50 percent of the territory had been cleared.  We were in the middle of the Mosul campaign.  We had not put together the final steps of how we were going to take down the headquarters of what was the caliphate in Raqqa.  The President, on his first day in office, said he really wanted to accelerate the campaign, focus, really prioritize effort on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to defeat the physical caliphate.  We made some adjustments to the campaign and pretty much dramatically accelerated the overall pace of operations.

So if you look at where we are today, I think it’s quite significant.  We really are now down to the last 1 percent of the physical territory.  If you can see the little tiny splotch of red – can you go to map three, please?  Okay.  Well, that’s the right one.  That’s map three.  The final splotch of red down in what we call the Middle Euphrates Valley, those operations are ongoing, with the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported, of course, by small numbers of coalition forces on the ground.  And there was a more detailed briefing today, I think given from the Pentagon.  But our Syrian Democratic Force partners on the ground have pushed into the town of Hajin, which is a real one of the final strongholds of ISIS just over the last 48 hours.  So that’s a pretty significant achievement.

Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative.  We’ve talked about that many times.  Nobody working on these issues day to day is complacent.  Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.  Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.

As a coalition, we’ve mobilized troops from a total of 31 nations to help contribute, to train Iraqi Security Forces.  And also we have coalition partners with us on the ground in Syria.  We’ve mobilized about $19 billion in stabilization, economic, humanitarian support.  Every single military operation has been conducted with a humanitarian and stabilization plan, so all the territory that we have retaken from ISIS from our coalition has held.  That’s quite a significant achievement.  We want to keep it that way.  So we’re at a point in the campaign where we’re really now looking ahead to make sure that we can endure and sustain all of these gains.

A big focus of that, of course, is stabilization.  So if you can go to the next slides, please.  Stabilization we’ve heard a lot about.  We’re prepared to maintain the stabilization effort in Iraq and Syria.  This will really take a period of years.  In Iraq, we have completed about nearly 3,000 projects all across Iraq; as a coalition, raised about a billion dollars total.  This has been a big success.  Over 4 million Iraqis have returned to their homes.  Overall, that is a historical achievement.  In terms of campaigns like this, conflicts like this, that level of rates of returns of people to their homes is unprecedented.  But we still have 1.8 million Iraqis displaced from the conflict, and that’s too many.  We want to see them ultimately return home.

In Syria – it’s much more difficult in Syria.  Of course, we are not working in coordination with the central government; we’ll not work in coordination with the Assad regime.  We are not working with major international partners, just given the dynamics of the Syrian conflict.  So we’re doing a lot of this with our partners on the ground.  And State Department personnel who are working on the ground are doing a great job.

Also in Syria, the United States is not funding the stabilization effort, particularly in the northeast, where we’re on the ground militarily.  We’ve talked about this before, but the President made clear the coalition should help really support those efforts.  And when the Secretary met with coalition partners on the margins of the NATO summit just a few months ago, we raised over $300 million.  All that money is now in the bank, and thanks to the contributions of key coalition partners we now have the stabilization efforts funded all the way through early 2020.  That is a fully coalition-funded effort, which obviously we will continue.

So longer term, we want to set the foundation here to make sure the success is enduring.  In Iraq, of course, we’re working closely with the new Iraqi government.  Iraq had an election earlier this year; it was a difficult election, a very difficult summer in Iraq.  They came through it with a new government, a peaceful transition of power, and we’re working very closely with that government, both to sustain the effects on the military side and also on the political and economic side.

There is a trade delegation today in Baghdad, the largest trade delegation the Chamber of Commerce has organized anywhere in the world this year, and it is led on the U.S. Government side by Secretary Perry and also our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Andrew Peek.

In Syria, I know Jim Jeffrey was here last week talking about the very significant effort to try to bring a resolution to the overall Syrian civil war, and then of course the global coalition, which is something I’m focused on day to day.  We want to make sure this coalition remains intact and can sustain these efforts.  Secretary Mattis last week in Ottawa – I was with him in Ottawa with the main military contributors to the coalition to make sure that the military contributions to the coalition can continue, the training of the Iraqi Security Forces can continue, and we’re quite confident that we have those pieces in place.

And we are planning to bring the civilian members of the coalition with a ministerial here early next year.  So that’s in the planning stages.  We’re fairly confident that will come together.  And those meetings, which happen about every four to six months, have been really critical to make sure that this is a truly collective effort, and we have the burden-sharing from the coalition that we need to have, make sure that this sustains itself.

So with that, we’re down to really the last 1 percent here in the conventional military fight, but we are positioning ourselves for the longer term, and we feel pretty confident those pieces are getting into place.

And with that, I’m happy to take a couple questions.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s start with Carol, Washington Post.

QUESTION:  Hi, Brett.  Could you give us a – your sense of why it has taken so much time to get down to this final 1 percent in the final offensive, and how much longer do you foresee this taking till you complete the job?

MR MCGURK:  Thanks.  I defer a lot to DOD, obviously, but I’ve been into Syria about 20 or so times here over the last few years.  The distances are quite vast.  That’s number – that’s one issue; if you look where just it is on the map, way down in that Middle Euphrates Valley, it is quite a distance.  It is also the last major stronghold.  We’ve gotten to a point where almost every ISIS fighter is wearing a suicide vest.  The extent of IEDs and placement – it’s very, very difficult fighting.  So it’s taking some time.

We’re also very careful to make sure that we are protecting the civilian population.  The report I received this morning from what’s happening in – on the battlefield in that area just over the last week or so, about 1,400 civilians have come out, are being cared for, including by the forces that we’re working with.  And I think you may have some briefings yesterday about the fact that ISIS is using hospitals and civilian infrastructure to try to defend itself, particularly in Hajin.

So it’s going to take time, but it will get done, and it’s a very difficult campaign.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s go to al-Hurrah.  Michel.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Until when the coalition will be staying in Syria?

MR MCGURK:  Well, we have multiple objectives in Syria.  So the military objective – very clearly, the military objective is the enduring defeat of ISIS.  And if we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave; you have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring.  So the enduring defeat of ISIS means not just the physical defeat, but make sure that we are training local security forces.  So that will take some time.

We also have other interests in Syria, which I think you heard from Ambassador Jeffrey.  We want to see a resolution to the Syrian civil war through the UN Security Council resolution process.  And we also want to see the removal of foreign forces from Syria, particularly the Iranian-commanded and proxy forces from Syria.

But the military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS.  We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave.  So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring.

Now, a sign of that: areas that we have cleared of ISIS, they have not returned or actually seized physical space.  There’s clandestine cells.  Nobody is saying that they are going to disappear.  Nobody is that naive.  So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.

QUESTION:  We’re talking about years?

MR MCGURK:  Not going to put a timeline on it at all.

QUESTION:  Well, you seem to say – sorry.

MR PALLADINO:  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Me?  Brett, you seem to say the military’s objective is the enduring defeat of ISIS.  So does that not mean, then, given the qualification of enduring defeat – does that not mean that American soldiers will remain in Syria for some time unforeseen, into the unforeseen future, even after the physical caliphate is totally wiped off the map?

MR MCGURK:  I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.

QUESTION:  All right.  And then on the civilian side, which you’re more familiar with, what does that mean for U.S. money going into – money and programs that are going into it?  Because the President has made no secret of the fact that he wants out as soon as is feasible.

MR MCGURK:  So we look at the resourcing, obviously, every day.  So you have ends, ways, and means in any strategy.  And you’re right, the President has made clear to us – look, we’re doing an awful lot on the coalition side, particularly on the military side, so when it comes to the civilian side of this campaign, the coalition should step up and fund it and we should increase our burden-sharing.  And we’ve done that.  So all the stabilization efforts in that part of Syria are now being funded by the coalition.  All that money is in the bank.  A lot of it is being implemented by U.S. diplomats on the ground.

I’ve been to Raqqa four times.  I’m not going to – it is a very, very difficult situation.  My first time in Raqqa, we found a cell phone from a dead ISIS fighter that had where they had placed IEDs in particular areas of Raqqa.  Almost every standing structure had an IED, so we had to train people to go in, actually clear the IEDs.  It is hard, painstaking work.

But if you go back now, people have come back; about 150,000 people have come back.  That’s the kind of stuff we want to make sure continues, and I’m confident, as one of the leaders of the coalition, that we will have burden-sharing from the coalition to sustain that.

QUESTION:  You mentioned this area of Syria.  Is it not true that the area of Syria where the U.S. is funding or is involved has shrunk dramatically over the course of the past 18 months?  Well, maybe not dramatically, but it’s a smaller chunk of the country than what it used to be, correct?

MR MCGURK:  No, I don’t think that’s the case.  Look, on the counter-ISIS campaign, it’s grown dramatically.  I mean, it started with about – it started with a little dot in that northeast part and has grown.  So now, obviously, we have worked closely with our coalition partners and through deconfliction with the Russians that draw a line at the river to make sure that this is done in a very careful way without risk of accidents.  And we’ve now, over the last three years, have basically defeated ISIS in that entire part of Syria, and it is now an area that is heavily influenced – not controlled by us, it is heavily influenced by us, and we want to make sure it remains one of the most stable parts of Syria.

QUESTION:  Could I follow up on this – on this?

MR PALLADINO:  Okay, Said, then Laurie.

QUESTION:  Yeah, very quickly on the point that Matt raised.  So you’re saying you’re not dealing with the Syrian Government or the major – the other international players and so on.  So how do you deal with this small area that is east of the Euphrates, in the northeast of the Euphrates?  Is it like an independent place?  Do people come and go wherever they want in Syria?  And how is that reflected on the rest of the country?

MR MCGURK:  I’m trying to think how to answer your question.  Look, it is – it’s difficult.  It is challenging.  It is incredibly complex.  And we went into this part of Syria because there were major threats to us, our homeland, to our partners, to neighboring states including Turkey when ISIS was controlling this entire area, and we were determined to clear ISIS out of this area so it does not have safe haven to continue to plan and plot those types of attacks.  The attacks in Paris, the attacks at the Brussels airport all were planned, organized, coordinated in Raqqa, and combat teams were basically sent from this part of Syria into the streets of those capitals to kill innocent people.  So we’re going to make sure that that can’t happen.

We are now in a position where, because of the success of the military campaign, we are heavily influencing that part of Syria, want to make sure that we maintain a permissive environment and stability, and basically freeze the lines in place as Jim and others work the longer-term political solution.  So obviously, it would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now.  I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s go Laurie.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for this.  There seems to be a division that came up in the Pentagon briefing earlier today between – within the U.S. military – regarding the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilization Forces.  General McKenzie, in his confirmation hearing, suggested that they were not under the control of the Iraqi Government and that was a problem.  Colonel Ryan said this morning that they were under the control of the Iraqi Government.

What’s your view of that?

MR MCGURK:  I didn’t see the Pentagon briefing this morning, but I think it’s safe to say some of those elements are under control of the Iraqi Government, some of them are not.  And those that are not strictly under the control of the Iraqi Government are a problem, and that is a problem that the Iraqi Government has stated is a problem.  It is the policy of the new Iraqi Government to bring all armed actors strictly under its control, under state control.  That’s obviously a policy we very much support.


QUESTION:  Apologies if I missed this, but you said one percent of the territory remains, but how many fighters do you still see left to be defeated?  And can you share a little about where you see the fighters going after they have been defeated?

MR MCGURK:  I get this question a lot.  I just try to stay away from numbers because the numbers have been all over the place over multiple years.  It’s not numbers; it’s capabilities.  So we – the degradation of ISIS’s capability to be able to mass maneuver forces, to be able to do what it used to be able to do, is significantly degraded.  So I’d just – I’d stay away from numbers.

And it depends.  Everyone who counts numbers can count differently.  So there’s the hardened fighter and someone who just might sit in his living room and agree with the ideology.  So I don’t want to put numbers on it, but I will say there is a significant concentration of the most hardened ISIS fighters in that little splotch of territory, and that is why it is so difficult, and we’re going to make sure they can’t get out.

QUESTION:  We’re still talking tens of thousands of fighters, aren’t we?

MR MCGURK:  Of fighters?  Again, I just want to get away from – I don’t want to get into numbers.  I would say it’s safe to assume in that area, a couple thousand very hardened fighters remain in that area.

QUESTION:  And when you say it’s like the last one percent in the conventional military fight, I mean we understand that maintaining the gains will take a long period of time, but do you have a sort of timeframe for the conventional military fight?  Is it going to be another year?  I mean, ballpark, what kind of timeframe?

MR MCGURK:  Ballpark, you’re talking a period of months.  So – okay?

QUESTION:  Are you getting closer to get them ready?

MR MCGURK:  So Baghdadi – look, Baghdadi is – used to be – he’s the – declared himself the caiph of this territory and the ruler of millions of people, and he now has no territory to declare himself the so-called caliph, and he is in deep, deep hiding at best.  There have been times we thought that he was no longer around, and then he would issue an audio tape, so it’s hard to say.  But he is in – what we know for sure, he was in very, very deep hiding, and we have managed, thanks to the great work our folks are doing out there, to target and capture and detain some of his closest associates.  So if he’s still with us, I don’t it’ll be for too much longer.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s go to the back.  Sir, your outlet?  Thank you, yeah.

QUESTION:  Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.  Sir, the main reason to go to Syria is to eliminate or defeat ISIS, but after Syria and Iraq, they are regrouping themselves in Yemen and Afghanistan.  Also there were a few incidents in Pakistan to claim by the ISIS, having (inaudible).  So the question is that what measures or actions are being taken to prevent the expansion of this terror group?

MR MCGURK:  So thanks.  Good question.  Of course, a great question.  This is part of the overall global campaign.  So when you look at ISIS globally, what they used to have in Iraq and Syria was basically a headquarters in which they financed and funded and provided direction to these affiliates all around the world.

What we’ve tried to do is make what was a global transnational problem into a regional problem and then a local problem.  So if you look at the Syria and Iraq situation, for example, what was truly a transnational network – and we had 40,000 foreign fighters pour into Syria over the course of this conflict – we’ve worked to make it a more regional local problem.

So again, they will have clandestine cells in Iraq and Syria, they’ll have terrorist cells, they will be in hiding, they’ll have networks.  But that’s a very different situation than what we’re used to seeing in which they were threatening us.

Similar, obviously, in Afghanistan, there is a very sophisticated ISIS cell in eastern Afghanistan that we’re working to make sure remains a localized phenomenon.  But again, this will be – that’s why this is going to be a long-term effort.  It’s kind of like police work; you have to keep at it day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out.


QUESTION:  (Inaudible) I know you deal mainly with the military part of this, but as far as stabilization goes, are you seeing any rebuilding in the government parts of areas that you’ve cleared?  I know that the coalition is in control of one area, but are you seeing any rebuilding going on as far as on the Syrian side – the Syrian Government side?

MR MCGURK:  No, not much, and there won’t be until there’s a political resolution to the civil war.  That’s just the reality, I think, of the situation.

QUESTION:  Not even from the Chinese or —

MR MCGURK:  It is – I mean, the World Bank estimates are into the multiple billions of dollars in terms of the reconstruction needs.  So until there is a resolution to the civil war that can bring the international community to bear, they’re going to be in a very difficult situation.

On the Iraq side, we distinguish stabilization, which is the immediate needs – and we’ve been pretty ruthless in prioritizing this.  It is clearing mines, water, electricity, basics to get people back to their homes, and the long-term reconstruction, which is a multi-year effort, which is really undertaken by the EU, the World Bank.  And we had an important meeting in Kuwait last year in which they, through different financing mechanisms, generated about $30 billion for that long-term effort.

But I’m in Iraq a lot.  There is frustration about the pace because it takes a very long time, particular in western Mosul, which was the fiercest part of the fighting in that battle.  So it’ll take a period of years.  One reason we have this delegation of 50 American companies in Baghdad today, and with Secretary Perry, who visited Baghdad and Erbil today, is to make clear that you really have to harness the power of private industry to secure the reconstruction needs of Iraq.  That’s something the new government has told us they really want to do through various economic reforms, and we’re going to work with them as best we can to help achieve that.

QUESTION:  And are you seeing people going – excuse me.  Are you seeing people actually going back into those areas in Syria that you’ve stabilized?

MR MCGURK:  In our areas?  Yes.  So displaced – Raqqa’s a good example.  About 150,000 people have gone home.  So if you go to Raqqa, the devastation will kind of set you back on your heels, because it is incredible.  And when I was first there, almost all the streets were totally impassable.  Now all the streets have been cleared of rubble, most of the landmines in critical areas have been cleared, and people are coming back to their homes.  So it is difficult, but that’s why we are prepared to sustain this and do all we can through the coalition.  We are counting on the coalition to fund the stabilization efforts in northeast Syria, and I’m quite confident that we’re in place now for that to continue.  As I mentioned, it’s now fully funded through early 2020, and we’ll work to make sure we can sustain that.

Okay.  Okay, guys, thanks a lot.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you, Robert.  Very quickly, since Sunday night, the Israelis have raided Ramallah and they, in fact, still are there.  They raided a news – the Palestinian news agency.  They arrested a couple of journalists.  I wonder if you have any comments on that, or you saw the report, or how would you counsel the Israelis.

MR PALLADINO:  Yeah.  We’re aware of those press reports.  I would – and I would refer you to the Government of Israel.

QUESTION:  You don’t have any comment on raiding a news agency and arresting journalists?

MR PALLADINO:  I don’t have anything further for you on that right now.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Very quickly, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then since then you’ve moved the embassy there.  Has this been – has it helped the process?  Has it helped the peace efforts?  Where do we – where are we from then until now in terms of your efforts to put forth this peace plan that been talked about so much?

MR PALLADINO:  Well, as you point out, a year ago, the President – we recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that is a recognition of reality.  That follows up on – President Truman did 70 years ago and that was – we were the first nation to recognize the state of Israel.  And ever since, Jerusalem has remained the seat of the modern government.  It’s home of Israel’s parliament, supreme court, other bodies of government, president, prime minister.  And for decades, the United States put off recognizing this basic reality, and yet we came no closer to achieving a new peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.  So we’ve spoken often from this podium about the timing, and that is something that Jason Greenblatt and Special Advisor Kushner are working very hard on.  We place an extremely high priority on achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace that offers a brighter future for both Palestinians and Israelis, so we remain committed to sharing that and we will do that when – at the appropriate time.

QUESTION:  But it has not helped the peace effort, has it?  Has the move – I mean, I understand that you recognize reality and so on, and you did that, but in terms of this step helping in your effort to put forth or to release that peace plan, has it helped or has it hindered that process?

MR PALLADINO:  Trying the same old methods have failed for decades, and to continue to do the same thing over and over again would be folly.  Old challenges require new approaches, and that’s something that this administration is willing to do.

Let’s follow up on Israel, please.

QUESTION:  Yes.  So two questions:  One, are there any developments on the peace plan and when it’ll be released; and two, can you confirm reports that the State Department – that State Department officials have lobbied Congress to try to undo the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act before it takes effect in January?

MR PALLADINO:  On the second question, I have nothing for you.  On the first question, the administration continues to place a high priority on achieving a lasting peace, a comprehensive peace that offers a brighter future for both the Palestinian and Israelis.  We remain committed to sharing our vision for this, and we intend to release the President’s vision when the administration has concluded that we are ready, and I’ll stop at that.

QUESTION:  Have the Israelis been updated?

QUESTION:  Robert?

QUESTION:  Robert, hold on a second.


QUESTION:  Two things very briefly.  One, it seems to me that you’re suggesting that the fact that the U.S. had not recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until last year was an obstacle somehow to getting a peace agreement.  Is that your position?

MR PALLADINO:  Our position is we’re going – we’re not afraid to try new things, Matt, and we are – that was a basic recognition of reality.  We’re moving some contentious things off the table as we continue to drive forward, and then our recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a year ago did not take any position on final status issues —

QUESTION:  Exactly, so how does that move it off the table?

MR PALLADINO:  — including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty.  These are questions left to the parties involved.

QUESTION:  Yeah, so how does that take it off the table?  It – are you saying that the U.S. failure to – or U.S. lack of recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was an obstacle to peace?

MR PALLADINO:  I’m saying that this is an administration that is willing to take a new look at the reality on the ground.

QUESTION:  That’s great.  That’s not an answer —

MR PALLADINO:  And we’re willing to work and move forward, so —

QUESTION:  That’s not an answer to my question.  And the second thing is:  Can you take the question on the Wafa – on the raid on Wafa?  Does the administration believe that it was an appropriate thing?  The Israelis have an explanation for why they went in, which is they were in hot pursuit, they were chasing armed gunmen.  Do you accept that explanation, or is it okay – do you have an issue with the raid on the Palestinian news organization?

MR PALLADINO:  I would refer you to the Government of Israel for an explanation, for more information.

QUESTION:  Well, I’m not asking for more information about what happened.  I’m asking for what the U.S. administration’s position is on whether it is legitimate for them to do this because they had a reason to go in or if you think it’s bad.  That’s all.  I don’t need any more information from the Israelis about it.

MR PALLADINO:  Let’s move on.  Please, right here.

QUESTION:  Can you take the question, Robert?  I would like to know whether you’re going to take the question and at least make an effort.

MR PALLADINO:  We can take the question.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original English source should be considered authoritative.
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