UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Senior Administration Officials On Counter-ISIL Coalition Efforts

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
July 28, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you and thanks, everyone, for joining us on relatively short notice today. As the operator said, this is a background call with Senior State Department – or Senior, rather, Administration Officials and – to provide an update on Counter-ISIL coalition efforts. For your records, I will briefly present our officials joining us today. The first is [Senior Administration Official One]. Secondly, we have [Senior Administration Official Two]. And then also we have [Senior Administration Official Three]. Henceforth, they will be known as senior Administration officials one, two, and three. And a reminder again that this is an on background call.

With that, I will hand it over to Senior Administration Official number one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. I wanted to give a – just a brief update on a couple things and then get into some of the issues regarding Turkey's cooperation and role in the coalition.

First, General Allen and Under Secretary Stengel will be heading to Canada for an important meeting the Canadians are hosting on Thursday with a small group of the global ISIL coalition. The small group really pulls together about 23 top contributors in the coalition, and we're very pleased to be hosted by the Canadians who are one of the top members of the coalition. They're the only member of the coalition that is conducting airstrikes together with us in both Syria and Iraq. And we are very pleased also with the contribution Canadians have made on the ground in Iraq, in a train and advise capacity, and also in their humanitarian contributions. So we're very pleased to be joining the Canadians in Quebec and to have a very in-depth discussion with these core members of the coalition. This is a session at the director level to really roll up our sleeves and get a real feel for how things are going across all of the nine lines of effort that constitute our strategy.

Turkey, of course, will be in that meeting because Turkey is a critical member of the coalition, and Turkey has been in the news recently. But I wanted to kind of put a frame on our conversations with the Turks, which really go back almost nine or ten months. We've been in constant conversations with Turkey from the earliest days forming this coalition, given the vital role that they will play in defeating ISIL. And of course, our charge from the President to degrade and ultimately to defeat ISIL, which is exactly what we're doing.

These conversations began and they have been very constructive throughout, and we've made a lot of progress throughout. And this has been a very linear process. So we first came to an agreement on the train and equip program, which is really important, working very closely with the Turks in terms of getting units out of Syria, training them, and putting them back in. That's a complicated process that we worked out with the Turks, given a lot of back and forth from DOD and State. And we also came to agreement with Turkey in terms of various forms of surveillance in Syria, so we can help get a real handle on the ISIL networks in Syria.

And then about six weeks ago, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu mentioned that Turkey was open to our flying armed ISR missions off of Turkish bases. And then most importantly, just last week we came to agreement to open up Turkish bases for U.S. manned and unmanned platforms to hit Daesh targets in Syria and in Iraq. And that's very significant because it's something that we've been talking to Turkey about for some time, but it's a complicated issue and we've had a number of discussions with them.

But the important thing here is that that agreement came after months of talks and a very kind of sequenced set of steps and agreements that we've had with them for some time. Now, we've also discussed with Turkey the possibility of working with them in a coordinated way and with moderate opposition groups to begin to clear out what is really the last stretch of border – the last stretch of international border with Turkey that is controlled by ISIL. It's the last stretch of international border for the caliphate. It's only about 98 or so kilometers, about 68 miles, and we want to work very closely with Turkey and we need Turkey, of course, to really close up this last stretch of border. It's in their interest. They have come to us. They've asked for help, and we have agreed to help.

So as part of this agreement, we've agreed to sit down with them and look at ways that we might be able to organize moderate opposition fighters in coordination with us and the coalition to clean out this last stretch of border. How we do that, the mechanisms, the modalities, we'll have to sit down with them and we're going to be doing that with them over the coming days and weeks and we look forward to that conversation. And again, this will be part of the linear progression that we've had with Turkey for some time.

So we're very encouraged by this opening with Turkey. We think it is potentially a very significant development in the ongoing campaign against Daesh. It's complicated, as it is with everything else in this campaign, but it also fits within the overall state of the campaign as of right now. If you just step back and look at where we are and you kind of look at a map of the overall theater, in what ISIL perversely calls its caliphate, you can see that they're coming under tremendous pressure from all sides.

The northern Syria border, and which they almost controlled completely, is no longer controlled by them. If you look from the Euphrates River to the east, that entire border is now controlled by groups that are very hostile to Daesh, including some of the Syrian Kurdish groups and also some of the Free Syrian Army Arab groups that have been very effective in getting Daesh/ISIL off the border. That has taken away their primary border routes and the primary entry point for foreign fighters and for explosive materials. It's a very significant development and has begun to put serious pressure on Daesh in Raqqa, which is really their self-proclaimed capital.

If you move to Iraq and you look at what's happening in the Euphrates River Valley and in Anbar province, units that we have trained and have undergone our months of training are now in combat and they're moving on Ramadi and they're actually making some progress day to day, and actually some very significant progress. I think CENTCOM put out a statement today – there's been 20 airstrikes in Ramadi over the last four days, and that is directly enabling the Iraqi Security Forces that we have trained, and they are squeezing Daesh in that critical area.

If you go up the Tigris River Valley and you look at Tikrit, which was in the news a couple months ago but it's not anymore because right now it's a fairly good-news story, we've had about a hundred thousand families, a hundred thousand individuals – these are Sunnis from Tikrit, from the environs of Tikrit that have come back into the city and its environs. About 50,000 now have returned to the streets of Tikrit. This is a very significant development. If you look historically at sectarian conflicts, this is almost unprecedented in terms of the time that this has taken. Usually it takes much longer, a period of years. This is taking a period of months, and that's because of very close cooperation between the Iraqi Government and local leaders in Salah ad Din.

Also in Anbar province, since we deployed to Taqaddum and with very good political cooperation with the Iraqi Government, the mobilization of Sunni tribal fighters is also increasing now in a very good and encouraging trend line. And of course, the Kurdish Peshmerga continue to hold their lines and conduct operations and very effectively to put pressure on Daesh.

We still have a long ways to go, but we think we are making some pretty good progress. And if you look at the map where it stood about eight months ago and particularly before the campaign in Kobani began, and you look at where we are now, I think you can see that we're making some pretty decent progress on our way to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. With that, we'll turn it over to questions now.

Operator, can you go ahead and queue up the first question please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by placing the # key. Once again, *1 at this time if you wish to ask a question. We'll first go to the line of Pam Dockins with Voice of America.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Actually, two questions. First of all, in terms of Turkey's role, the – U.S. officials are saying the goal is to create an Islamic State-free zone along the border between Turkey and Syria, but can you clarify first of all really how this is going to be different from a no-fly zone? What's going to be the difference? And then secondly, can you comment on the Secretary's upcoming trip to Egypt? Part of that will be looking at security and ways to fight militant threats in the region. Specifically, what is the United States looking for from Egypt in terms of fighting the Islamic State?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me first just talk briefly about the border, and I think if you look at a map and you look at the Euphrates, everything that's east of the border now is no longer in the hands of ISIL. That was not the case eight months ago. And what we did – I think it's actually very significant to go back to – and two bookends for when President Obama spoke with President Erdogan. One was in October, and that was when we did an airdrop to the defenders of Kobani and President Obama discussed that situation with President Erdogan. We then went to Ankara and opened up a corridor for Kurdish Peshmerga to bring heavy weapons into Kobani, and what that did was really helped the defense of the town, and then with our cooperation we really massively defeated Daesh there and then began to control the rest of the border. The point being we've learned an awful lot over the last seven, eight months, how to work these issues militarily, diplomatically and politically.

And now we have a kind of final stretch of border to work on that we're going to work cooperatively with the Turks on that. In terms of what exactly it looks like and how it will look and what the modalities are, that's what we have to work out with them. It will not be a no-fly zone just as Kobani was not a no-fly zone. But if there are significant operations going on in an area – we've now done about 5,600 airstrikes, about 40 percent of those in Syria. We've learned an awful lot, so we're fairly confident that we can figure out how to do this. And it will be done in a way that the objective is to get Daesh out of this area and to allow life to return.

I really can't talk specifically about Egypt. I will say, of course, the Secretary will also be in Doha, and as part of that conversation with the GCC, he'll be very focused on the political and diplomatic line of effort, particularly with respect to Syria, which is critical because everybody agrees – and our partners agree to this – that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. It has to be a political and diplomatic solution, and that is something that the Secretary will be focused on quite intensively.

Did you want to add anything?

MODERATOR: All right then. Great. Thank you. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We'll go to the line of Dion Nissenbaum with Wall Street.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this call. I wanted to ask you a little bit about Turkey and the PKK and the YPG. As you know, Turkey has taken the opportunity now to launch airstrikes against PKK, and I think they've launched more strikes against the PKK than they have against ISIL at this point. There are also allegations that they've been hitting the YPG, and the peace process here seems to be coming unraveled in Istanbul now. So I wanted to see if you could comment a little about that, about how Turkey seems to be trying to use this to actually hit the Kurds and that that could, in fact, undermine the efforts that have been made and the advances that have been made by the YPG in Syria. And you all know very well that the lines between the PKK and the YPG are not as clear as you would like to claim that they are.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me address that for 30 seconds and then turn it over to Senior Official Number Two. It's really important here as we – because there's – everything seems interwoven, but it's really, really important. We came to an agreement with the Turks about two weeks ago, and then shortly before our two presidents discussed the agreement to kind of figure out if it's something that wanted to do together, the PKK launched a series of attacks inside Turkey killing Iraqi police officers and soldiers – Turkish police officers and soldiers, excuse me.

PKK then took credit for those attacks and promised more attacks. That was the triggering event for the Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq, and we have said that Turkey has a right to self-defense, and we full support them in their efforts against the PKK to the extent that the PKK are provoking and attacking Turks on Turkish soil. That was the triggering event. The PKK situation had nothing to do with our discussions with Turkey regarding the fight against Daesh, and we're, of course, in constant communication with the Turks in a number of areas here. But I just wanted to make clear there's a very clear – kind of if you do the timeline, the attacks against the PKK – the PKK attacks in Turkey that precipitated the Turkish retaliatory strikes was the triggering event.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I would – I – just to add onto that a couple of things, I think as folks know, the PKK is a designated terrorist organization by the United States, and we have always been clear that we condemn the PKK's terrorist attacks within Turkey, and we also respect Turkey's right to self-defense. We call on the PKK not to continue these attacks, which are provoking Turkish retaliation, and we're also urging the Turks to be judicious in the operations that they're taking. On the second part of your question, related to the PYD, we have seen reports that I'm sure you have seen about whether or not Turkey is attacking PYD forces in Syria. Our understanding from the Government of Turkey is that they've said that they would investigate these incidents, and the Turks have also been clear that their military action is directly solely at ISIL inside Syria and in response to PKK attacks in Turkey against PKK encampments.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We'll go to the line of Tom Bowman with NPR.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks again for doing this. If you could give us a sense of when this will start, when the U.S. aircraft will start flying out of these bases – we've been told bases plural, I've been told three bases. Does that sound right? And also the types of aircraft we're talking about here, manned and unmanned. And also, how much time will this save flying out of Turkey bases as opposed to others in the region?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you for the question. We are just now sitting down with Turkish counterparts to begin to plan and try to answer some of those questions you've raised, which are good questions. We're working that now. I think there'll be more to follow once plans have been agreed to and – both in Turkey and here in Washington agreements have been reached that these are the right plans and this is what we want to go forward on. We're working very hard on it. We're working very hard with our Turkish colleagues. We want to try to implement as soon as we can, but there's – it's important that we get the plans right so that the operations go smoothly. We believe that the savings to the coalition by operating out of Turkish bases will be quite significant in a lot of different ways. And we think this is going to really take the fight to Daesh in northern Syria, and we think we're going to be able to work closely with those moderate forces that are in the field to help them, to support them. And so we're working hard toward that end.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: From the line of Michael Gordon with The New York Times.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. It's been mentioned by [Senior Administration Official One] and the recent senior official that the plan envisions working with the moderate Syrian opposition. Given that the DOD program has yielded only 60 or so vetted and trained moderate Syrian fighters, presumably you're talking about working with elements of the Free Syrian Army and perhaps people who have been trained through (inaudible) programs. Can you say whether those Syrian moderate opposition personnel who might be inserted or operating as part of this effort in northern Syria – will they be vetted and known to the U.S. Government? Will you be clear who they are and that they're not affiliated with more radical elements in Syria? And then lastly, one thing we haven't heard from you is any reference to safe zones. The Turks seem to talk endlessly about creating safe zones. Presumably that's not really your goal here, though it might be a byproduct. Can you please explain how the safe zone concept relates to your concept of operations here? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: A couple things just to start out. In terms of the moderate opposition forces that would take part in any sort of maneuver operation on the ground – as I think I said in the opening, we're going to work that out. We've agreed with the Turks that any such thing would be mutually agreed. So that's something that we're going to work out. There's a lot of different groups on the ground; there are obviously groups we absolutely will not work with. I think we've been very clear about that. And so again, I think the answer is we'll see. There are groups on the ground that can be consolidated, that can maneuver. And we have learned that when we have a group on the ground that we can coordinate with, that can maneuver in coordination with our airstrikes through a very clear command and control chain, we can be devastatingly effective against Daesh.

So the idea here is we're not painting on a blank canvas. We learned an awful lot over the last 10 months. And so we think we have some ideas of how to do this. We have to sit down with the Turks and figure it out. But in terms of who the groups will be, they'll be mutually agreed between us and Turkey.

And safe zone, whatever you want to call it, the idea is to get Daesh out of this area. And once Daesh is out of an area, we have seen elsewhere that normal life can begin to return. So that is the objective.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: And just to emphasize, too, that vetting and training and putting trained forces back into the field, working with them – this is going to take time. And I know that there has been some disappointment in some areas that things aren't moving quickly; they look at pure numbers in terms of who's been returned, et cetera. I think that's just the – a lot of ways not the appropriate metric, where what we're doing is making sure that those that come in for the training, those that we reintroduce back on the battlefield are those that we can work with, those that have the same goals that we have, those that can work with – whether it's with the air or with others there on the battlefield. There's a lot of things that we have to make sure happen before we can begin training and to make sure that the training leads to effective forces on the battleground. So that's what we're going towards, and I think once we get the plans done and we begin to have available air flying out of Turkey, I think you're going to see quite an effective force operating against ISIL.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Next question. We have time for just a few more questions.

OPERATOR: From the line of Karen DeYoung with Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I have a couple questions. One is if you can clarify a little bit about the Turks. I know that – I mean, I'm sorry, about the Kurds. I know that there have been some reports here saying that the United States is allowing the Turks to attack groups that have been the most successful against ISIS. I'm particularly referring to the Yezidis. How do you assess the PKK's role in the anti-ISIL campaign? Have they been valuable? Do you see them as having connections at all to the Peshmerga in addition to the Syrian Kurds? And what will it mean to do without them in the fight?

And my second question is whether since these air operations will be occurring quite close to where the Syrian Government is operating, what steps are you taking to make sure that there's no conflict between Syrian and U.S. air assets?

And finally, did I understand you to say that flights from Incirlik, strike flights would also be going to Iraq in addition to Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me try to break that down. I just want to be really clear on a point I made just a bit earlier. If the PKK did not launch a series of attacks in Turkey, Turkey would not be attacking the PKK in the Qandil mountains of Iraq. So the triggering event here were the attacks from the PKK on Turkish soil killing a number of Turkish police officers and soldiers, and we've seen more since.

So that was the triggering event. And I can't speak to the PKK's role against Daesh. I can say if the PKK wants to open a new front with the Turks, that would really not be a smart thing to do. What I can say is that we've worked very closely with the Kurdish Peshmerga, which incorporates, of course, the KDP-PUK and a number of groups within northern Iraq that we've worked with for a number of years. And of course, Syrian Kurds in northern Syria working with and alongside in many instances Free Syrian Army groups have been very effective against Daesh. And of course, that will continue because our effort is to defeat Daesh, and that's a goal that we share, we share with Turkey.

But again, if the PKK did not launch attacks in Turkey, Turkey would not be launching these attacks in northern Iraq. And you can go back – it's really the first time this has happened in some years, but you go back to the 2007 to 2010 timeframe, this is a fairly constant pattern. Nobody wants to see the pattern continue. That's why we've called for de-escalation. We also recognize Turkey's right as a close friend and NATO ally, their right to self-defense.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Can I just add one thing on that, which is important to separate out the PKK from the PYD. The PKK is the designated terrorist organization in Turkey that, as my colleague has said, has in recent days launched strikes or has launched attacks on Turkish police and soldiers that has precipitated Turkish retaliation in self-defense against this designated terrorist organization.

The PYD has been the group operating in Syria, and the Turkish Government has made clear that its action is not directed against the PYD in Syria; the Turkish action is directed in retaliation at the PKK, many of which are based in military encampments in Qandil, which is mountains in northern Iraq. So it's important to be separating these two groups and these two sets of incidents.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And Karen, in terms of the Syrian Government – and we've been at this now for some time, about 5,600 airstrikes. I don't have the exact number in Syria but it's about 40 percent or so. And from the first night of the strikes, we've been very clear through various channels to the Syrian Government that we were going after Daesh and that they should not come into the area in which we're operating.

So I would assume that we'll have a standard procedure. But really what the Turkish bases does, it basically allows us to accelerate, enhance what we're already doing. And we'll, of course, be working in close cooperation with the Turks in terms of how we do this and how we get set up, as my colleague, Senior Official Number Three, said.

But we'll also be very much focused in that particular stretch of northern Syria west of the Euphrates which Turkey is particularly concerned about, and of course, as a NATO ally we share their concerns.

MODERATOR: Great. We'll try to get just a couple more questions then. Next questioner, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. From Ilhan Tanir, Turkish daily.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two quick questions. All the others were already asked. It is about Incirlik. My first question is Incirlik Airbase, is there any limit on the Incirlik base for the fighter jets will take off from there, whether the region they can bomb or another restriction?

And the second question is Turkish foreign minister stated recently that Turkish jets air force will also be joining the coalition. Is there any way you can expand on that, whether Turkey also will use its air power to bomb the northern Syrian ISIL forces, besides the ISIL-free zone that is being discussed? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Thank you for those questions. A lot of what you're asking, we are working right now at the planning stage. There's a lot that has to be taken into consideration both by the Turkish military as well as the U.S. military as we figure out how we might operate together, where we might base, what we – how we might tactically use air forces, airstrikes, coming out of Turkey. So that is being discussed even as we speak. And in the coming days, I think we'll be able to talk in more detail, but right now we're at the planning stage and trying to get at a lot of what you were just asking.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: From the line of Paul Blake with BBC News.

QUESTION: Hi, I wonder if you could give us some more details about the core coalition meeting in Canada later this week. What level will it be at? What sort of particular things are going to be discussed? What do you hope to come out of that? And yeah, and particularly who you expect to attend.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So sure, I'm happy to address that. This is primarily at kind of the political director level of most of the participants. We'll be very fortunate to be joined by the foreign minister of Iraq. And the discussion is really focused on – we have these periodically. We just had a foreign minister level of the small group met in Paris about two months ago, and this is a follow-on to that.

So in Paris we set out a number of goals particularly in Iraq based upon the plan that was presented in that meeting by Prime Minister al-Abadi about what we're looking for and what we're hoping to do as a coalition.

Importantly, the UN will also participate in this meeting, and the UN is playing a really critical role on the ground in Iraq both in terms of stabilization – and that is focused on when people return to their homes such as in Tikrit, that services are being able to provide and they can actually return to their home and some level of stability.

In Paris we set up an international – a global fund for stabilization relief, and the UN is looking for about $80 million there, and we have that now funded up to about $25 million or so. And those funds are starting to be distributed in the streets of Tikrit. So the UN will provide an update of how this is working and how the lessons learned from Tikrit we might be able to apply in Ramadi and other places, and ultimately, of course, down the line in Mosul.

There will also be a discussion at this meeting about the humanitarian situation. Iraq is doing its best to meet the humanitarian challenges it faces. It's spending about $2 billion of its own money, but it is significantly stretched. The price of oil has continued to drop; its budget has been almost cut in half because of that. And the UN has put out an appeal to the international community for $500 million, and the UN will make – will discuss the humanitarian situation and where coalition members might be able to contribute.

So it'll be an effort to review really the five primary lines of effort: the military, the messaging – that's why Under Secretary Stengel will be there, and we just, of course, set up this important messaging hub in Abu Dhabi to combat ISIL messaging online 24/7; the humanitarian piece, the stabilization. So all the lines of effort will be discussed, and of course, counter-financing and counter-foreign fighters.

And I would just add, going back to Turkey, Turkey is a co-chair of the counter-foreign fighters working group. They've put about 15,000 or so individual suspects on their no-entry list. We're working very cooperatively as a coalition to deal with this foreign fighter challenge, which is a tremendous challenge. It threatens all of our partners around the globe. And that will, of course, be an intense area of discussion in Canada.

MODERATOR: Great. Last two questions. Next, please.

OPERATOR: Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour.

QUESTION: Hi. Again, thank you for doing this. Just a couple of follow-ups to questions and answers that have been given before. If you look at the PYD: one, how effective do you think they've been against Daesh in Syria; and do you accept what the Turkish Government is saying at face value, that that is not one of their targets? And then secondly, will the forces that have been trained and vetted – do you anticipate that they will seek haven in this whatever we're going to call it, buffer zone or safe zone?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: On the PYD and the Kurds in Syria, working with them and with the Free Syrian Army groups that work cooperatively with them, they've been very effective against Daesh. But importantly, the PYD has been clear also in its ultimate political ambitions, and that is it supports the territorial integrity of a unified Syria; it supports a federal entity within a unified Syria; and that is something that we think is very important.

And we look very closely that when they clear areas out of Daesh, to ensure that – these many areas are very multiethnic and it's complicated terrain, and Tal Abyad was a perfect example of that – to make sure the people are allowed to return to their homes when it's safe to do so is something that, overall, we think the record of the PYD is pretty good. It's complicated, but they've been very effective on the ground against Daesh.

But importantly is their overall political ambition for the unity and the territorial integrity of Syria, which is really a fundamental principle to us, and also to Turkey.

What was the second question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And just responding to that, your question on the Government of Turkey: I think as we've said, and it's also a point that we have discussed with the Turkish Government, the Turkish Government has made clear that their targets are ISIL in northern Syria, their targets are PKK in response to the attacks that the PKK has launched on their police and soldiers, and the Turks have clearly indicated that their military action is directed against those two targets. They are not targeting more broadly than that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I would just – again, the example of Kobani I think is pretty constructive, because in Kobani we had hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kobani that the Turks helped care for. The Turks were very concerned about the situation of Kobani for a number of reasons, particularly Daesh was about to take over the whole town.

We did an airdrop to the defenders of Kobani, and then we worked with the Turks, which very importantly opened up this critical corridor supply line through Turkish territory from the Kurdish Peshmerga into Kobani. And had that not happened, I think it would have been very difficult actually to hold on to Kobani. And the defenders of Kobani are incredibly heroic, incredibly brave. They fought off Daesh for months – we, of course, helped with airstrikes – and then kind of the situation has turned from there.

So I think Turkey actually played a very significant and very important role in that overall operation. So it's a difficult issue, but Turkey overall we've had very constructive discussions with them throughout, and as my colleague said, they have been very clear that their military operations in Syria are focused on Daesh. Their military operations in northern Iraq are focused on the camps and the PKK.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And this will be our last question.

OPERATOR: Barbara Starr with CNN.

QUESTION: A couple of questions. On this area that you're talking about being an ISIS-free zone, if you – I'm just trying to get my geography. So we're talking 68 miles or 98 kilometers west of the Euphrates. Is that correct? Can you give us a geographic marker of what – between what point and what point, and how deep into Syria you're thinking about having this cover?

And my very quick second question goes all the way back to Michael's question. Can you clarify: Are you open at this point to working with the FSA fighters on this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Barbara, the 68 miles refers to that last stretch of border. So I know a number of news organizations including yours I think have put out maps of areas that Daesh controls and they don't control. And if you look at that northern Syria border with Turkey, that's the last stretch of border that Daesh is really controlling. It's critical for them. And that is why we want to work to clear them out of there and also increase the pressure there in terms of the overall air campaign. And we've been doing a number of airstrikes. When you see the airstrike list, that we've done airstrikes near Aleppo, for example, it's often in that area just north and to the east where Daesh has its kind of – its defensive line. So that's why that's a critical area.

The depth, the shape, all that, the modalities, are things that we're going to be discussing with the Turks. But importantly, this is not going to involve, as Turkey has said, Turkish soldiers. There's been rumors about that; that's not the case. It's certainly not going to involve U.S. soldiers. It's going to involve moderate opposition groups on the ground that can maneuver, that we can coordinate with, that we can work with to fight Daesh, as we have done across both Iraq and Syria in various instances over the last nine months with some success.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I would just add that we're trying to clear the area of Daesh. We're not out there staking out zones and doing some things that I know have been discussed in years past – no-fly zones, as mentioned earlier; safe zones. That's – what we're trying to do is clear ISIL. We're going to do that by U.S. being able to provide in a more efficient way air support. We're going to be working with the – those that are – have been working with us in the past to clear out those portions of northern Syria that are now free. And we're going to intensify that effort, and the Turks are going to be very much a part of that. And we welcome what we've been able to work out with them, and we're going to be now putting detail to that – the discussions that we've had with the Turks for the past couple weeks.

But I think it's important not to confuse that with staking out these zones that you can identify with road signs and on big maps, and that's just not what's happening. What we're doing is we're going after ISIL wherever we find them up there in the north. We've got good partners to do that with, and once we get our aircraft planning done, you're going to see a lot of results.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you all for joining us and thank you to our speakers this afternoon. Appreciate the call, and have a good afternoon. Take care.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list