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Remarks to the Press on Countering ISIL

Special Briefing
John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL
Washington, DC
October 15, 2014

GEN. ALLEN: Good afternoon, everyone. It's good to see you all. Many familiar faces. What I'd like to do today is to discuss my trip of last week, which was the first trip I took in my capacity as the President's Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. But before I do that, what I'd like to do is to re-articulate my specific role in the strategy.

Now, this is a robust coalition. It's made up of many diverse actors, all seized with the reality of degrading and defeating ISIL as a global challenge. And as the President's special envoy in this capacity, my task is to consolidate and integrate and coordinate the coalition activities across multiple lines of shared effort.

This first trip and many of my early travels will be about the consolidation of the membership and the integration of what partners and potential members can contribute and how we integrate and harmonize those efforts to the accomplishment of the strategy.

We've heard a lot about the five lines of effort to this point: supporting military operations and training; stopping foreign fighters; cutting off access to financing; humanitarian relief; and de-legitimizing ISIL and degrading its messaging. And a key and a main takeaway from this trip was that we all agreed that while the military side is important to the outcome, it's not in – it is not sufficient in and of itself. And there's a strong consensus across this coalition about our shared goals and the objectives on all the lines of effort and a strong commitment to work together closely.

Now, you've all had daily readouts from Jen on our meetings of last week, and so I'd like to talk about the key themes that we saw emerge from our conversations with the partners and the coalition members about how we can take the fight to ISIL where it operates. And where it operates, as we see it, is in the physical space, in the financial space, and in the information space.

In the context of the physical space, or the battle space if you prefer, naturally it's getting a lot of attention. And we had a number of very productive conversations about coalition efforts to defeat ISIL on the battlefield. A number of the partners have expressed their desire to participate in advising and assisting and building partner capacity and working in security sector reform.

In Iraq, we met with a broad cross-section of government and security officials, tribal leaders, and sheikhs. And in all of those meetings, we not only discussed the transformation of the Iraqi Security Forces but also the formation of the Iraqi National Guard which will seek to connect volunteers and tribal fighters into a formal structure at the provincial and national level.

In Amman, we expressed our support for the targeted airstrikes by the Jordanian Air Force in Syria. And as you've already heard, our Turkish partners have voiced their support for training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition, and there is a DOD team on the ground, a joint team from the European Command and the Central Command on the ground in Ankara today, working out operational details.

I can't stress enough how much we discussed confronting and contesting ISIL's messaging in the information space and disrupting their recruitment and their radicalization of foreign fighters. Every country and partner we met with has a unique and vital role to play in this within the context of their particular cultural, religious, or national norms. And indeed, this diversity is turning out to be a real strength for the coalition. We've already seen many countries take action on particular issues associated with foreign fighters. For example, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have declared it illegal for its citizens to fight abroad. And Bahrain and Kuwait both announced that it would monitor ISIL sympathizers. Saudi Arabia arrested and convicted several Saudi nationals on terrorism charges, including an arrest of multiple individuals with alleged ties to al-Qaida in September.

For many partners there was a very sharp and often troubling intersection of the susceptibility of the citizenry of their countries to extremist messaging and the ISIL narrative, and a willingness to become a foreign fighter as a result of that narrative. So we discussed this nexus extensively with Egyptian and Turkish leadership. We also discussed it with Arab League leadership in Cairo as well, and how they can support and strengthen moderate voices across the region. And already, influential political or religious leaders from the region and around the world have issued statements rejecting ISIL's violent and divisive ideology. I'd particularly note the 22-page letter issued in late September by 120 Islamic scholars to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his fighters denouncing ISIL militants and refuting its religious underpinnings.

And finally, in the financial space, we had productive conversations about disrupting ISIL's finances and cutting off ISIL from the global financial network. The EU and NATO partners have already made great strides on this area, and on my trip next week to the Gulf region, we'll look to build even more important progress into disrupting financing and foreign fighter lines of effort.

Several Gulf states have taken steps to enforce their counterterrorism laws more effectively, including Kuwait's newly created financial intelligence unit, Qatar's new law regulating charities that includes the establishment of a broad – of a board, pardon me – to oversee all charity work and contributions, and the UAE's new CT law in August that tightens counterterrorism financing restrictions and clearly defines terror-related crimes and penalties. And in the coming weeks, Bahrain will host an international conference focused on identifying counterterrorism-financed best practices and developing an implementation plan.

So finally, I want to reiterate that this was, while a long trip, it was a very important trip. And we learned that this is a very complex and long-term undertaking, and this global coalition has literally existed for less than 40 days. We have a lot of work to do and we've been at it a short time. But the good news is that there is a common vision for the future, and we look forward to working together closely with the members of the coalition, ultimately, to achieve our objectives.

So thank you for your attention, and we'll take some questions.

MS. PSAKI: So we have a limited amount of time for questions. I'm just giving you a heads-up. Lara.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: And I'll do an entire briefing after this (inaudible).

QUESTION: Great. General, Secretary Kerry has said several times that your job – that you could speak about how the ball was moved forward. Specifically, can you talk about how the ball was moved forward with regard to Incirlik and the use of the base there? And also, can you explain why the U.S. has increased its airstrikes in and around Kobani so dramatically recently if Kobani is not a strategic importance to – military goal for the U.S.?

GEN. ALLEN: With regard to not just Incirlik, but other potential resources, we had, I think, very detailed and very constructive conversations with the Turks. They're old friends and they're NATO partners, and we talked about a variety of areas where we could work together.

The conversation with respect to how those kinds of details will ultimately be resolved is underway right now. The CENTCOM-EUCOM team that is on the ground is talking about operational details. We have also committed to continued political consultation on the variety of ways that the Turks can contribute to the coalition. And there have already been – as you probably saw on the readout from my trip, there have already been some commitments by the Turks at this point in areas where they will be of assistance to us with the idea that additional details will come from further consultation later.

And so there is a ongoing dialogue with the Turks, and we look forward to that dialogue continuing in context of a political consultation, and we expect that more details will be forthcoming. But at this point, I don't want to get into the specifics of Incirlik or any particular other base other than what we've already announced.

QUESTION: And Kobani?

GEN. ALLEN: Well, Kobani – obviously, we're striking the targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes. I'd be very reluctant to attempt to assign something, a term like a "strategic target" or a "strategic outcome" for the strategy. Clearly, there was a need given the circumstances associated with the defense of that town. There was a need for additional fire support to go in to try to relieve the defenders and to buy some white space ultimately for the reorganization of the ground. And so we have picked up the tempo and the intensity of the airstrikes in order to provide that white space.

MS. PSAKI: Margaret.

QUESTION: Thank you. General, thank you.

GEN. ALLEN: Hi, how are you? Good morning – or good afternoon.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. You talked a bit about the approach to Iraq. I'm wondering if you can explain more specifically what the approach is in the Syria portion of this given that it is so strategically and operationally important, it's a base of operations for ISIS. So can tell us what the point – what the timeline is, perhaps, for some of these ground forces, whether there would be any kind of protection afforded to them through air support either through a buffer zone or any kind of protection once we put them on the ground, and if there is any coordination with the FSA?

GEN. ALLEN: At this point there is not formal coordination with the FSA, so hit that point first. Obviously, information comes in from all different sources associated with providing local information or potentially targeting information. And we'll take it all when it comes in and ultimately evaluate it for its value.

The Syrian portion of this strategy is very important. At this point, the intent of the coalition is to build a coherence to the Free Syrian Army elements that will give it the capacity and the credibility over time to be able to make its weight felt in the battlefield against ISIL. It's going to require a build phase; it's going to require a training and equipping phase. I think you have probably seen that there are countries in the region that have announced – Turkey being one of them – that has announced a willingness to host those centers for our trainers to begin to build that capability. But it's really – it's a holistic approach. It's not just building the additional forces that will go into the Free Syrian Army; it's also an emphasis that I made when I met with the political echelons of the free – of the moderate Syrian opposition that they need to begin to build and work together to create a coherent political superstructure within which they will ultimately have a political role to play in the outcome of our strategy overall with regard to Syria, which is a political resolution of this conflict.

And so when you have a strong political superstructure and it's tied to a credible field force, which is our hope to build, a field force which ultimately deals with ISIL but in the context of the holistic approach – the political portion and the military portion – creates the moderate Syrian opposition as the force to be dealt with in the long term in the political outcome of Syria. And so that's the intent. It's not going to happen immediately. We're working to establish the training sites now, and we'll ultimately go through a vetting process and begin to bring the trainers and the fighters in to begin to build that force out.

QUESTION: And could you address the – whether there would be any air support, either through a buffer zone or through some of the planes we have in the sky already?

GEN. ALLEN: I think we're going to consider all means necessary to provide for that force, and what particular measures we may take to do that, I think it's too early to tell specifically with regard to a term or an effect. But we'll certainly consider how that force ultimately will be employed overall on the ground and how the political entity will achieve its – our objective and its objective, ultimately, which is to represent a broad spectrum of the Syrian people and to make its voice be felt at the negotiating table eventually for the political outcome.

MS. PSAKI: Lesley?

QUESTION: General, thank you. One – one and a half questions. One is: How much --

GEN. ALLEN: One and a half.

QUESTION: How much is Turkey's issue really about wanting to get rid of Assad and not necessarily focused on ISIL? Can you come to some kind of agreement on that one?

Number two, the Islamic State has also just put out a video, a number of images on where it's making advantage – advances. Are the airstrikes having an impact? Are you pushing them back? Is this going to be won?

GEN. ALLEN: You said there was just something that came out a moment ago.


GEN. ALLEN: Give me that again, please.

QUESTION: The Islamic State has released a number of images on – about a base in Anbar that they've taken over.

GEN. ALLEN: Ah. Mm-hmm. I think we would say that the Turkish objective, and our objective in the end with respect to the regime in Syria, is the same. It's a political outcome. In our case, it's without Assad being a participant in that political outcome. I'll let the Turks talk for themselves, speak for themselves in terms of their view on the matter. So I believe that in that regard, we're lined up very closely.

They are focused with laser-like quality on the issue associated with ISIL. They're very concerned about ISIL for a whole variety of reasons, not the least of which is the enormous humanitarian crisis that has been created by ISIS in – just to the south of the border, but also that has generated a stream, an enormous stream of humanitarian – of refugees and a humanitarian requirement by the Turks. And the numbers vary depending on the reporting, but there's well over a million and probably approaching a million and a half refugees in Turkey. And Turkey has been dealing with that humanitarian crisis now for some period of time. So it's twofold. It's obviously being concerned about the humanitarian signature that they have inside their country – the refugees – but it's also a concern about ISIL's presence on their southern border and the ability to generate even more of that.

MS. PSAKI: Elise. Sorry.

QUESTION: And on the issue of the strikes, I mean, are you – do you feel you're making inroads on – are you pushing them back, or is the battle still – the outcome – who's winning this at the moment?

GEN. ALLEN: Well, I'd be careful about assigning a winner or a loser. We had come in early along with the intention that the airstrikes were to buy white space to impede the tactical momentum of ISIL. And that in fact has occurred in some areas. They still retain some tactical momentum in other areas, and that's to be expected. They – we're only new into this strategy. We're only new into the use of airstrikes. As I said, in some areas – Amirli, Mosul Dam, Haditha – those airstrikes were very helpful. We're actually focusing, obviously, around Kobani, providing airstrikes to provide humanitarian assistance and relief there, obviously to give some time to the fighters to organize on the ground. But in the Anbar province, our hope is to stop or halt that tactical initiative and momentum that they have there.

MS. PSAKI: Elise.

QUESTION: Thank you, General Allen. Just a quick follow on Turkey, and I have another question.

On Turkey, I mean, there are few – as you noted, there are few countries that are facing a threat or the impact as much as Turkey, and it does seem as if while other coalition members have kind of eagerly come to the table, it does seem like it's a lot more of a harder sell with Turkey. And if you could lay out what the reluctance is here – is that an issue of their dealings with the Kurds, is that also Assad, is it a combination of such, and how much longer do you think this will take?

We've also heard a lot about – you laid out this policy on training the opposition in Syria to a capable fighting force and acknowledged that it would take a long time. It seems as if there's a kind of "Iraq first" strategy while that fighting force is built up and capable and dealing with leaders on the ground on Syria, but really focusing and concentrating on the battle space in Iraq. Could you kind of lay out a blueprint of how you think that will go?

GEN. ALLEN: Sure. Clearly, the emergency in Iraq right now is foremost in our thinking: stabilizing the government, giving Prime Minister Abadi the opportunity to build a stable government that is inclusive. He has – I've met with him several times now just recently on the trip. He was very clear that it is his intention to be the prime minister of a government that is inclusive of all the elements of the population in Iraq.

But obviously, ISIL has made some substantial gains in Iraq, and the intent at this juncture is to take those steps that are necessary with the forces that we have available and the air power that we have at our fingertips to buy the white space necessary for what comes next, which is the training program for those elements of the Iraqi national security forces that will have to be refurbished and then put back into the field, ultimately for the Iraqis to pursue the campaign plan, which they're developing, to restore the tactical integrity of Iraq and the sovereignty of Iraq. And it's going to take a while.

Now, this isn't sequential, because while that's occurring, we're going to also be undertaking the training and equipping program for the free Syrian elements at the same time. We have the capacity to do both, and there is significant coalition interest in participating in both. And as I said a few minutes ago, we have some partners that will be interested in providing what we call building partner capacity – so helping to refurbish the Iraqi Security Forces – and we'll have some partners that will be interested in security sector reform, which will be to assist the ministries in becoming more effective in supporting their operating forces in the field. But we'll also have partners that are interested in participating in the development of the free Syrian echelons that are going to be trained in the training camps also in the region.

So much of this can occur simultaneously or concurrently. It doesn't have to be sequential.

QUESTION: And Turkey?

GEN. ALLEN: With what regard?

QUESTION: With regards to, like, why is this such a hard sell with Turkey?

GEN. ALLEN: I don't know that it's a hard sell. I think what they want to be sure of is if they're going to embark and commit the national resources that will ultimately be committed to this that they want to understand how they'll fit into the program and how ultimately the coalition would operate out of Turkey, and those are valid questions. And the point of the planning team being on the ground and the point of our continued political consultation is to answer those questions for them and to go through a detailed planning process so they understand exactly what it is that they as a frontline state which faces, frankly, an awful lot of the many lines or faces participation in many of the lines of effort that we've talked about in terms of foreign fighters and disrupting finances and hosting coalition forces and potentially conducting military operations. They want to understand that, and they're owed that as a friend and as a NATO partner.

MS. PSAKI: Roz. And unfortunately, this is going to have to be the last question due to our time constraint.


QUESTION: Thank you, General. I wanted to come back to something you talked about particularly in your conversations with leaders who say that they're concerned about the vulnerability of their populations and the seeming attractiveness of ISIL's ideology, that people would be willing to leave their countries and take up arms for ISIL. How do you win hearts and minds, to use the phrase? Is it a simple matter of a PR campaign? What do you do, for example, about some of the anti-Muslim bigotry here in the United States, in Europe for example, that might make people feel as if their faith is under attack and they need to take up arms? It seems like it's a very complicated, long-term problem.

GEN. ALLEN: It is a complicated – it's a complicated subject. Each one of the countries that we spoke to were very concerned about doing just what you said, and that is outreaching to their populations and helping them – the populations themselves, the tribal structures within those populations, the elders, the clerics, the mothers, the teachers, all of the folks who are enormously important and influencing the direction of their youth – to reach out into those communities to assist them in dealing with the radicalization that occurs through social media and the internet and so on.

And so they voiced not only their concerns in reaching out to those communities, but they also in most cases voiced the concerns of the communities themselves and how they sought a partnership with the leadership in those countries to try to get after this growth and explosion, horizontal explosion through the social media, of access to extremist messages and radicalization.

So the foreign fighter piece of this, which ultimately is the result, was very closely paired with the conversation about attacking and contesting the ISIL message in the information sphere, the information space. And what was important was each of those countries saw the populations themselves as the first line of defense. And as they conducted their community outreach to those population groups and the influencers who I mentioned before, their hope was to try to have that first line of defense be the mechanism by which we can start to defeat the ISIL message as it is poured into the ears or into the eyes of those young children who sit in front of a computer or who listen to social media of some form or another.

And then, of course, it branches out across a whole process of border control and governing activities associated with transit from the source country by the various means necessary and ultimately into the battle space where they become often the suicide bombers, the unwitting suicide bombers in some cases, in many cases for ISIL.

So the national leadership was concerned; but importantly, they conveyed the message that the populations themselves were also concerned, and they saw here opportunities for partnership if they really exploit this an opportunity – opportunities for partnership they might not have had otherwise.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

QUESTION: I just have a quick --

MS. PSAKI: We'll hopefully do this again, but I'll be right back, Said, and I'm happy to take your question when I come back. We'll be right back. Okay, thanks, everyone.

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