Interview: McMaster on Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Kurdish Issue
By Alhurra October 25, 2017
National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster is a longtime Army officer who gained national attention for a book that criticized the military's leadership and strategy in the Vietnam War.
In 2005, he was recognized for leading one of the first successful counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, and later became an adviser to General David Petraeus. In February 2017, the Army lieutenant general became President Donald Trump's national security adviser.
McMaster spoke this week with Alhurra, a U.S.-funded Arabic-language news network, discussing recent developments in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Qatar.
Question: Let's start from the recent developments; recently, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Iraqis to disband the Iran-backed militias. The Iraqi prime minister rejected that. Do you intend to pursue this matter and how?
McMaster: Well, we have to support the government of Iraq, we have to support Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi, who's done, I think, a tremendous job under very difficult conditions. But, as everybody knows, the Iranians have done a very good job, also, of infiltrating and subverting Iraqi state institutions and functions, as well as creating these militias that lay outside of the Iraqi government's control. And, I think, what they intend to do is use them opportunistically to advance Iranian interests. You see that in reaction to the Kurdish referendum, for example, and, so, what really needs to happen is all of the drivers of this terrible fitna, this terrible sectarian violence, have to be addressed and that has to be removing all causes of that kind of violence.
Q: How much of a role did Iran play in that Kurdish referendum?
McMaster: Well, the role that they placed is they took advantage of divisions within the Kurdish Regional Government, divisions within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan after the death of Jalal Talabani, God rest his soul, and what they have done is tried to advance their interest at the expense of long-term security and stability in Iraq.
Q: How much of a role did Iran play in the takeover of Kirkuk?
McMaster: Well, Iran did play a role in the recent actions, in the recent wake of the Kurdish referendum. They played a role politically, dividing the Kurdish Regional Government, and dividing the party in Sulaymaniyah, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and to use those divisions to assert their own interests and so this is what is concerning. The United States is very committed to a unified, strong Iraq. We're also committed to a strong Kurdish region within a unified Iraq. So, what we're very concerned about is violence that could continue, that could place in jeopardy all these gains against Daesh [Islamic State] in recent months.
Q: Could the U.S. have done more to stop the referendum that was unilateral? And you objected to it.
McMaster: Well, the United States was very clear, that we thought that the referendum was not a good idea, especially coming at this time when the Iraqi people are just emerging from this horrible trauma of fighting against these horrible terrorists who were perpetuating this cycle of violence and causing so much human suffering. And, so, what was important is for Iraq to emerge from this conflict in a way that brings communities together, not divides Iraq's communities further.
Q: And is it still possible to contain the Iranian influence in Iraq at this stage?
McMaster: I think it's very possible to contain the Iranian influence. The United States thinks that Iraq should have a relationship with Iran. Iran is its neighbor. But what we want is an Iraq that is strong and what we see with Iran is applying what you might call a Hezbollah model to the Middle East. In which they want governments to be weak, they want governments to be dependent on Iran for support, but what do they do? They grow these militias that lay outside the government's control and threaten governments with those militias if those governments take action against Iranian interest. This is not in the interest of the Iraqi people. And, I think, what's been clear about what the United States wants for Iraq that is different from what others want for Iraq is the United States wants Iraq to be strong.
Q: And, basically, I want to ask about the dispute going on between Baghdad and Irbil. I mean what do you think should be the solution from your point of view, to continue the dispute between the central government and the KRG?
McMaster: What I think we have to do is help, as we have been, facilitating the dialogue between the Kurdish leaders and between Prime Minister Abadi and to focus on what is really in the interest of the Iraqi people. What is within the interest of the Kurds, with whom we have such a close relationship over so many years after, you know, the trauma of Saddam Hussein and how he victimized the Kurdish people, how the United States came forward after 1991 to protect the Kurdish region and allowed it to flourish. If anyone who's traveled in Sulaymaniyah and Irbil and Dahuk and walked on those streets. I mean these are beautiful cites that have enjoyed peace and security. And it's an example, I think, for what all of Iraq should achieve, is with peace and security comes prosperity, comes better lives for people's children and everybody wants that. So, I think, this dialogue should focus on what is best for the people of Iraq, what is best for our Kurdish friends, for whom we have so much affection as well as all Iraqi people.
Q: You mentioned the Hezbollah model and I would want to ask you, how concerned are you about a bigger, a possible bigger threat now that you took some actions including the bounties that were announced by the Department of State or the recent sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard?
McMaster: I think what the most dangerous course of action to take is to not confront Hezbollah, to not confront these Iranian proxies who are propping up and the Assad regime, and helping that regime continue to murder its own people. To not confront Iran's support for Houthis in Yemen in a way that was perpetuating that civil war there. In a way that is not only creating even more suffering inside Yemen, but is also posing a threat in the region to Saudi Arabia in particular. And so, wherever you see problems, wherever you see communities pitted against each other and a destructive cycle of violence, you see the hand of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran. And in Lebanon, this beautiful thriving now country, its security has been placed at risk by the continued Iranian support for Hezbollah and the provision of Hezbollah with weapons and other capabilities that threaten regional security.
Q: You and the vice president [Mike Pence] had harsh words, tough words, for Hezbollah at the anniversary of the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut. How could you counter Hezbollah inside Lebanon when they are literally part of the government?
McMaster: Well, I think what really is necessary is to shine the light on Hezbollah. What are their actions? And what have been the consequences for the Lebanese people? So, we're commemorating yesterday the 34th anniversary of the mass murder attacks that killed U.S. marines and also killed French paratroopers and it killed soldiers who were there to bring peace, to end a very destructive civil war. But Hezbollah wanted to, as they always try to do, is to perpetuate conflict to allow them to portray themselves as patrons and protectors of an aggrieved community, the Shia community in Lebanon. So that consigned that bombing, that mass murder, consigned the Lebanese people to seven more years of deadly civil war. So, what is most important, not just for the United States but for all nations, is to confront the scourge of Hezbollah and to confront the scourge of the Iranians and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] who sustain Hezbollah's operations.
Q: Would the sanctions be enough to sort of curb these activities of either Iran or its proxies, including Lebanon, in the region?
McMaster: Well, we hope so, right? Inshallah. We would love for sanctions and diplomacy to help convince the Iranian people. You know the president and the vice president recently have a very strong message to confront the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to confront the Iranian dictatorship, but have very conciliatory words for the Iranian people. And, so, what we would hope for is that sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would incentivize others to organize groups within Iranian society to do legitimate business and not to do business to enrich an organization whose main export is murder and brutality.
Q: On that point, I mean, on the IRGC, why did the president stop short of announcing or designating the IRGC terrorist organization as many people expected?
McMaster: It's really just a matter of internal U.S. law. So what the president did is he used the most effective tool that he had, under executive authority, so he could immediately designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for terrorist activities and that gives him all the authority he needs to sanction individuals, to sanction entities associated with the IRGC, and one of the things we're really emphasizing now is working with allies and partners and like-minded countries to understand better who really are the beneficial owners of companies in Iran. And what we're finding is the beneficial owners are people who are looting their own country, who are taking money away from the Iranian people and then using that money for violent action across the whole Middle East. So, this is what we hope to work on now, is to be able to sanction that organization, entities within that organization that are connected to generating the funds that are used to create so much human suffering.
Q: Let's continue, and moving on to Syria and I would ask you, I mean what would be or what is the administration strategy post ISIS [Islamic State] in Syria or what the president called the next or the new phase?
McMaster: So, what is most important is to defeat ISIS, defeat Daesh, defeat these other takfirien groups such as Al-Nusra, to ensure that they no longer pose a threat to the Syrian people but also to really all civilized people, but to ensure that after the defeat of these groups that there can be enduring security and stability there. There has to be an effort to end this Syrian civil war and end the Syrian civil war in a way that gives all Syrians a say in their future government. And so how can it be that a government is in power who has been a party to this horrible, devastating war that has used chemical weapons against its own people? So, what really has to happen is not only the defeat of ISIS but an end to the civil war in Syria and also an end to the civil war in Syria that addresses other regional problems, as well. That reduces the nefarious, you know, the Iranian influence for example within Syria. And so, we're working very hard with our partners in the region and our allies broadly to connect what is happening on the ground in Syria to an enduring political settlement, this is as you know happening under the Geneva process with Ambassador Staffan de Mistura, who's a very fine man, and who has the interest of the Syrian people foremost in his mind and in his heart, and so all of us have to support the end of this humanitarian catastrophe.
Q: What is the United States doing sort of underground to support that solution, that political solution, what is the United State contributing to that dialogue?
McMaster: The most important thing is to ensure enduring security in areas in which ISIS is defeated, Daesh is defeated, and then to set conditions for mediation between communities to remove the driver of this violence and to ensure that people can return to those areas, reconstruction can begin. But, of course, we have a huge coalition to help with this once security is established in certain areas, like in the Euphrates River Valley and the northeastern part of Syria now, with the Syrian Democratic Forces making tremendous gains defeating Daesh in Raqqa. And so now, there's conditions for some reconstruction to begin, some stability to begin under the auspices of the global coalition. But, really, what must happen is a broader political solution because, really, it's hard to convince anybody to spend one dollar to help repair infrastructure for the Assad regime. So, there has to be an effort, I think, to move toward a broader political settlement.
Q: Generally, this is – this front in Syria, to what extent does it represent a critical battlefield or front for you to curb Iran's influence in the Middle East?
McMaster: Well, it's a really critical battlefront for the Syrian people. It's a critical battlefront for the Iraqi people. It's a critical battlefront for the people of the region, who've suffered so much. I mean, if you think about just the millions of people, I think 6.1 million refugees, 5 million more people displaced internally. All of those who have been murdered and wounded and victimized in horrible ways, I mean this is – this is a traumatized society. The most important thing that can happen is that peace be brought back, and security be brought back. It's very difficult to see how can there be an enduring peace if one side that has perpetuated and accelerated that violence is not – is not removed? And so, it's important for everyone in the region, in particular, to reduce ... the destructive influence of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, in particular.
Q: Of course. I mean, ISIS came right after al-Qaida, or al-Qaida was a real problem in the region, and how do you make sure another, you know, offshoot would not be generated in that region, and emerge after the fall of ISIS?
McMaster: Well, this is – this is the most important question, right? Is along with the reduction of Iran – Iran's malign activity. And so what has to happen is, the people, the people who had been the victims, they have to be empowered, with – with security and confidence in the security that they have. A legitimate security. They can generate some of that on their own, but they'll need support, you know, from others to be able to do that. But what's most important, as we all know, is to – is to break this cycle of violence by isolating – isolating these terrorists from the population. To not allow them any longer to portray themselves as patrons, as protectors, of mainly the Sunni Arab community. So, what is important is for that community to not feel any longer that it needs to depend on groups like this for their support, because they have a voice. They have a voice initially, locally, a political voice where they can – they can control their own future, their own destiny. But, ultimately, there has to be this broader political settlement that brings in all of Syria's communities, allows them to heal together, and to regenerate the kind of confidence that they need to live together in peace, and to pursue their interests through some form of a political system rather than through violence.
Q: About a political solution, I mean, do you see [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad playing any role in the political future of Syria at all?
McMaster: Well, when you – when you look at what is necessary to bring communities together, to end the cycle of violence, it is very difficult to imagine how Assad could be part of that. I mean, especially with the blood that's on his hands. And how he has had a hand in destroying his own country, and creating so much human suffering, using some of the most heinous weapons on Earth to commit mass murder against his own people. So what is, I think, necessary is to have the right leadership internationally, and then ultimately within Syria, that can – that can achieve the kind of accommodation, the kind of reconciliation that's necessary.
Q: I mean, quickly because I've – our time is running out, but I just want to ask you about the – the dispute between the GCC countries, the Gulf countries, and Qatar. I mean, did – is there any new initiative in the pipes that Tillerson – Secretary Tillerson took with him to the region? Are you – is there a new initiative to resolve that conflict?
McMaster: Well, the most important thing is for the – for the GCC to resolve this conflict in a way that makes good on the pledges from Riyadh from the president's very successful trip there, and his very productive meeting with the leaders of over 55 Muslim-majority nations. And, so, there is tremendous momentum coming out of that conference, and that momentum was based on those leaders' visions of how to defeat, how to defeat these terrorists that are victimizing so many across the world. And that vision was based on three things. Deny them any sort of safe haven [or] support bases; don't allow these terrorist organizations to control and victimize populations. The second was to cut off terrorist funding, funding to these organizations. And the third is to defeat their wicked ideology, this takfirien, you know, Qutbist ideology. And so, the leaders were committed to doing that. This is where we're seeing some – a lot of – progress in this area among the Gulf states, including with Qatar, but I think what everybody wants to see is what more can be done to fulfill that vision and restore unity within the GCC.
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