Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
February 6, 2019
8:35 A.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, everyone, for joining the call today to discuss the D-ISIS Ministerial, which is one of the most important events on our calendar this month. We have the 79-member global coalition, which is 74 countries and 5 international institutions coming together today at the State Department to move forward in unity and common purpose on our commitment to defeat ISIS.
This will also be an opportunity for the global coalition to reflect on how our campaign has evolved and discuss the course for continued cooperation.
Just for your information, this is the coalition’s 10th Ministerial meeting and its 21st senior-level meeting overall since it was formed in 2014. It started out as a coalition of 12 members, and we are now 79 strong. And we’ve also continued to grow since January of 2017, and we have welcomed 11 new members — 5 in 2018, from Africa and Asia — as we continue to expand our reach and cooperation against our common enemy.
I would also draw your attention, of course, to the President’s remarks last night in the State of the Union Address, in which he both expressed his great appreciation for our men and women in uniform’s strong efforts to destroy the territorial caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the enormous gains that we’ve made. As I’m sure you all know, we’re down to a minimal amount of territory still controlled by ISIS, and expect that to be wrapped up shortly.
So as we welcome our American soldiers home from that very discreet mission, we are, at this moment, engaging with our friends and partners in the coalition to map out the next phases of the struggle against ISIS, which of course includes the vicious ideology that they espouse. And so that will be a major topic of our conversation today.
So that’s basically how I wanted to set the scene. And then we can open up to Q&A.
Q This is Tom Bowman with NPR. I’m just wondering, are you any closer to setting up a buffer zone with Turkey? And will there be any role for the U.S. in that buffer? And also, do you expect some number of NATO boots on the ground in northeast Syria once the caliphate comes to an end?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Tom. As I’m sure you know, we’re in closed negotiations with our Turkish counterparts to see what might be possible in terms of a buffer zone that would both protect Turkey’s legitimate security concerns about its border, and also protect the partners that we’ve been fighting with over the course of the last few years.
And so — and I don’t think we’re prepared to comment on what might make up an international force in that safe zone because those conversations haven’t been concluded yet.
Q Hi, there. This is Nick Schifrin from PBS NewsHour. Thanks so much for doing this. One — just a quick one — can you just kind of give us any kind of preview of what the President is going to say today?
And, two, raising the prospect of countering the ideology — as you know, the U.S. has tried to do this in multiple, kind of, iterations over the past five years, largely with multiple failures. So what do you think you can do to avoid the failures of some of the people in the U.S. government who have tried to counter the ideology and have not succeeded in the last five years? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Nick. I think that the President actually pretty effectively previewed last night — you know, when he talked about the 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria that ISIS had controlled — that we’ve liberated virtually all of that from those bloodthirsty killers.
And I think, there, you actually get to the heart of why his approach is different. He’s been willing to call the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism by its name. You know, he went to Riyadh on his historic first trip abroad almost two years ago, and challenged the Muslim world to solve this from within.
And, again, I think that’s a key difference — that he doesn’t believe that the United States can solve this problem externally. He thinks it is something we can assist with, it’s something we can encourage, but that that has to come from within the Muslim community. And I think that’s something he’ll talk about this afternoon as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the countering ISIS’s ideology, a big theme of today’s discussions at the Ministerial will be with the communications working group, which is made up of over 30 members of the coalition, which have cells placed in countries around the world that are constantly working to put out material and counter ISIS propaganda working across the globe. So that will be highlighted in today’s discussion.
Q Hi, thank you for doing this. Jeff Seldin from Voice of America. Just curious, one of the big concerns that some of the U.S. partners on the ground have voiced is the SDF in particular, about all of the foreign fighters that they’ve captured and what to do with them. I know that eight departments put out a call and other Pentagon officials have also called for countries to repatriate.
But just how big is the problem? It seems like the (inaudible) groups are saying that the number of foreign terrorist fighters that are being held has increased by hundreds, if not thousands, over the past month or so. And what is the plan for what will happen to them once U.S. troops leave Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s an excellent question because — and that is one of the key issues that we’ve been very focused on. Obviously, these are the worst of the worst, and we’ve been very grateful to our SDF partners for their detention of them. And we very strongly believe that countries do need to take back their nationals who have been captured.
I believe that one American has already come back and gone to Texas for his trial, so I think we’re setting an example by doing that. And that would be our top — our first choice would be for them to be repatriated to their home country.
And then, if there are ever remnants of them, we’re going to have to find another solution. But that is certainly an issue that has our urgent attention.
Q Yes, hi. Good morning. Joyce Karam with The National. My question to you is: If your consulting with Turkey doesn’t work out, are you still planning to withdraw from Syria regardless?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President’s direction is clear that when the territorial caliphate of ISIS is destroyed, that is the mission of the American troops in northeast Syria, and he will want them to come home.
And I wouldn’t want to predict failure given the success of our recent discussions with the Turks. So I think we’ll remain optimistic that creating this safe zone is in both of our best interests and that we’ll be able to get there.
Q Hello. Good morning. My name is Majeed Gly from Global Media Network. My question is about Iraq. As you know, there has been a major defeat against ISIS, but now there are concerns of the emergence of ISIS. How concerned are you with the comeback of ISIS in Iraq?
And my second question is, recently there has been very negative reaction to President Trump’s comments with regard to — in an interview last week, he said: Our troops, our military presence in Iraq is to counter Iranian influence. The Iraqi Prime Minister announced today that he hopes that President Trump retracts those comments. What is your reaction? Is the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq — the goal of it — is countering Iran, or just fighting ISIS? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that question. I guess we’re a little surprised by the reaction to the President’s interview because what he said wasn’t exactly new. He had already said it in his public remarks at Al Asad in December that he was considering redeploying some of the troops out of northeastern Syria to our assets in Iraq for precisely what you are mentioning: the potential resurgence of ISIS. Because he certainly doesn’t want to give up the gains that we’ve fought so hard for.
In terms of observing Iranian presence in Iraq and Syria, that’s what he said, that they would be there to watch, to keep an eye on the Iranians. And certainly, as we look at the influence of Iraq across the region, the places where they’re intervening are not exactly an advertisement for good government and prosperous security.
So I think that we are perfectly justified in wanting to keep a close eye on them.
Q Hi there, Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Thanks for doing the call. I wanted to ask a little bit about the political process that you foresee in Syria, the involvement of the Assad regime, and whether the U.S. would support a deal between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jennifer. I mean, I think that the Assad regime — it’s very hard for us to envision a future of Syria in which Bashar al-Assad can play a responsible role. I mean, certainly it would be desirable for him to completely change his governing style, allow for free and fair elections, remove malignant foreign influence from Syria, and govern in a way that is beneficial to all Syrians. That would be great.
We’ve seen no indication that that would be the case, and so we’re going to stick to our current policy while being the number-one humanitarian donor to Syria. We are not going to do anything in terms of reconstruction that would bolster the regime absent fairly significant political concessions on the part of Assad.
So we are supporting the U.N. process. We very much hope for a brighter future for the Syrian people, but it’s hard for us to envision that with Assad at the helm.
Q Hi. Can you hear me? Thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the question about the Al Asad base, and also reports that the U.S. is considering maintaining a presence in Syria at Al-Tanf. Can you talk about whether there are any changes that are being made at these bases, either specifically for the ISIS fight or to counter Iran?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, can you state your name and affiliation please?
Q Hi. This is Lara Seligman from Foreign Policy. Can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, thanks. Thanks, Lara. In terms of al-Asad, we were on the trip with the President at Christmas and he was very impressed with both the facility and the commanders that he met with there. And so I think he — as he said, you know, we’ve spent a lot of money on this. It’s not — we don’t want to go back and re-litigate why we are or are not in Iraq. We have this asset, and he thinks it’s something that can be extremely valuable to us, both in terms of, as he said, “keeping an eye” on the Iranians and then also, if necessary, to hit ISIS again. And he’s been very clear that we’re going to keep a very close eye on ISIS as well and not allow it to fester and resurge in any way.
In terms of Al-Tanf, that is — in terms of the drawdown plans, Al-Tanf would be the last place that we would withdraw from, and I think that’s something that has not been scheduled; it would be conditions-based.
Q Hi, Brian Karem, Playboy Magazine. Real quick question. Is there any concern from this administration that, as we wrap up in the Middle East, the Russian hegemony or Russian influence in the region will overcome our own?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, Brian. I would actually challenge the premise of that question. I don’t think we’re wrapping up in the Middle East. And if we are, I’m out of a job. But — (laughs) — I think if I could draw your attention to a couple of things:
In October of last year, with the memorandum of understanding we have with Israel — it went into effect on October 1st, which is a historic commitment of $38 billion over 10 years to Israel’s security. And I don’t think that is exactly a symbol of wrapping up. And you can also refer to the five-year MOU we signed with Jordan a year ago, last February, as another extremely important demonstration of America’s commitment to the Middle East.
I would also direct you to the developing MESA concept. We had a very successful economic forum in Oman last month, which was attended by all of the Gulf countries, including the Qataris and Jordan and Egypt. We have another meeting coming up in two weeks on that.
So I just — I don’t think it’s accurate to say that because 2,000 troops are coming out of Northeast Syria that we are wrapping up in the Middle East. I think the President is very cognizant of the presence of both Russia and China, as well as Iran, in the region. He wants to make sure it’s not a place from which attacks can be launched against America, but at the same time, he wants the region to begin to take on its own defenses — that’s what MESA is about — and share the burden of this kind of collective defense. And so that’s how we’re implementing his policies in the region, not retreating from it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for the questions. We’re just going to wrap up just quickly with the themes to expect from today’s D-ISIS ministerial.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the day has four themes. The first is recognizing the final liberation of Iraq and Syria from ISIS control and what must be done to ensure an enduring defeat.
The second is to affirm the coalition’s ties and commitment with a new Iraqi government with the foreign minister present.
The third is to map out the requirements for the coalition in 2019, so a range of ways the coalition is working to share the burden and to contribute to the efforts. And maintaining pressure in the global fight. A lot of the coalition members that are there are working against ISIS in their own countries. And this will be a moment to confirm that — reaffirm that commitment going forward.
The last theme is on ensuring that ISIS is held accountable for the crimes it has committed. And as part of that, the coalition will honor Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and U.N. Special Advisor Karim Khan.
So are the themes for today’s meeting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, everyone, for joining the call. Thank you.
END 8:53 A.M. EST