You were in the KRG yesterday and observed the latest on the Mosul operation on the field.
Well let me first say thank you very much for having me and I try to come here to Ankara as much as I possibly can. As I think I just mentioned, this is my seventh trip this year – I think in the last two years alone I've been to Turkey more than any country, second only to Iraq. It is always very good to come here and consult with Ankara, particularly after being in Iraq. I'm mainly just here to compare notes with the Turkish government, and also I expressed my condolences for the loss of life your soldiers have suffered in this Euphrates Shield Operation. I think it's actually quite poignant that the fact we lost an American hero fighting in Syria against Daesh around the same time that you have lost soldiers. It just shows the fact that we are close allies and we are very much in this fight together against Daesh. I also expressed my condolences for the loss of life of your citizens in attacks against Daesh, and I think it is important to remind the entire world that really no country has suffered more in terrorist attacks than Turkey against Daesh; Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakır, Adana. You have been under threat from Daesh and you are taking the fight against them quite aggressively. I also expressed my condolences, of course, for the loss of life of Turkish civilians and your brave soldiers in the fight against the PKK, which is also a terrorist group to the United States. I think reviewing where we are, I had a very good meeting just now at the Presidential Palace, and also with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about where we are in this overall campaign against Daesh, and also reflecting little about how far we've come, which I can discuss in some detail.
In terms of Iraq, it is very significant now that the Mosul campaign is underway. We are about six weeks into that campaign – this, of course, will be a very long-term campaign. But, most importantly, the planning for this operation was about six months in the making. We worked very hard with the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to ensure very close cooperation between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi security forces.
You've mentioned my visit close to the frontlines in Mosul, and I was able to see with my own eyes this really historic cooperation between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga, which is really giving some momentum in the fight against Daesh in Mosul. And just this morning, in fact – there are three axes of advance towards Mosul – the axis from the east, where I was yesterday, breached into the city fairly early and that's been very tough fighting, but they continue to make progress, the Iraqi counterterrorism service forces. That axis is now being reinforced and is making progress this morning as we speak. And just today the southern axis coming from the southeast, has also now breached into the city – that's the Iraqi Ninth Armored Division.
So what I would say is this is very difficult effort. We are facing suicidal enemy, which is using civilians as human shield. They are moving into an urban environment, which Daesh wants to hold onto – they do not want to lose Mosul. But so far the operation is very much on the original track and we are hoping to get the east side of the city cleared fairly soon, although we are not putting a time frame on it. This is not a race - this will take as long as it needs to take. And we are being very mindful, at Prime Minister Abadi's direction – that is of course, also our policy as the coalition – to maintain protection of human life and civilian lives. That makes it hard when you face an enemy that is using civilians as their own shields, but we are going to proceed methodically and carefully until we get Daesh out of Mosul.
·When do you think that the Mosul operation will be concluded?
I get this question a lot, and the answer I give is we're not going to put a time frame on it, but I think if you look at other battles – and I've been now seeing this from stage one when it looked like it was almost impossible to organize a force to fight back against Daesh – I mean you remember in 2014 when Daesh was just continuing to expand, all of their propaganda said we are going to retain and expand the Caliphate, it's going to be unstoppable, and it was difficult to organize local forces on the ground to begin to fight back and to reorganize the Iraqi security forces to fight back. But if you look at each [battle] – Ramadi, for example, when the Iraqi security forces went to take back Ramadi, that campaign took about six months overall. Some of the major battles in Syria, such as the Kobani operation – that took six months. You know, Daesh poured thousands of fighters into Kobani, and eventually they culminate – they basically decide it's no longer worth the losses they are suffering, and in Kobani we killed over 6,000 Daesh fighters. It was a fairly significant operation, and again – I was here in Ankara throughout that campaign and that would not have succeeded without the cooperation of Turkey, opening the corridor for the Kurdish peshmerga to come in – a number of things we did together to make sure that it succeeded. But that took six months. Ramadi took six months. Baiji took even longer. So Daesh is a very tough enemy, and we do not use tactics such as the ones the Russians are using in Syria, in which they have absolutely no regard for human life. We're very precise in the way we deploy our precision fire from the air, and artillery fire. That can mean it takes a little longer, but it also means the defeat of Daesh is a lasting one. And that's why I think it's significant, particularly in Iraq, that we have now taken back about 56 percent of the territory Daesh used to control in Iraq, and not a single significant speck of territory has been retaken by Daesh. So, the days in which the Iraqi security forces might retake a town and then lose the town, or retake a city and lose a city – I mean those days are over, and Daesh has not been able to retake any territory it's lost. And that's both because of the professionalism of the Iraqi forces, but also because a key principle of our campaign is that the forces that hold the ground after Daesh should be local forces from the area that know the ground and that are invested in protecting their own people. And Mosul will be no different – I saw the governor of Nineveh province yesterday, and discussing with the Iraqi government – you know, the hold forces in Mosul: We want local police from the area to hold the ground. It takes time to build up those forces, but that is the primary objective, and I think that's a reason why Daesh has not been able to retake any territory that it has lost.
·Turkey has stated its red lines, which are preserving Mosul's demographics and advancement of non-local groups entering Mosul. What is the latest on the ground? Are the ground forces taking these red lines into consideration?
This operation is led by the government of Iraq and Iraqi security forces, and so the government of Iraq sets the policy parameters for the overall campaign plan. They have made very clear – Prime Minister Abadi has made very clear – that it should be primarily the people of Mosul who are invested in their own liberation. He has made very clearly from the beginning, and this is the policy of the government of Iraq, that the Hashd al-Shaabi does not have a role in the overall advance on Mosul. They should not be going into populated areas in these parts of the country. The liberating forces should be the professional Iraqi security forces – the Iraqi counterterrorism service forces, and – significantly – about 15,000 local Nineveh-based tribal fighters that have also been organized. So that is the underpinning of the campaign plan for the liberation of Mosul, and of course it's one that we very much agree with. And so far, and I saw it with my own eyes, the plan remains very much on track.
·When do you think the People's Protection Units' (YPG) withdrawal from Manbij will be completed?
Our first objective in terms of how to clear Daesh out of Manbij was to use moderate opposition forces to the west of the Mare line and push to the east – and we actually invested quite bit of resources in that again, particularly in a very intense seven-day period, about seven or eight months ago. But every day we were also watching what's happening in Manbij under Daesh. Manbij was the access route where terrorists would come – a lot of the terrorist attacks to be conducted around the world are planned in Raqqa – but they would send their operatives, they would organize in Manbij, and they would infiltrate out to conduct their attacks. So Manbij was a major threat to you and to the entire world, and we knew that it was kind of a hub of what we call their external operations. That is why we worked very closely with your government – and everything we have done in Syria, it's important to emphasize, has been done with complete transparency with Turkey. While we don't agree on everything tactically, we are open with each other and fully transparent in everything that we are doing. So, given the fact there were threats emanating against all of us from Manbij, the decision was made that we had to choose another course to get Daesh out of Manbij, and so we organized the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to cross the Euphrates River and ultimately take Daesh out of Manbij.
Now, it's also important to reflect how difficult that battle was. Manbij took three months to clear from Daesh. Why was that? That's because Daesh put up a fight in Manbij in which they gave orders to their terrorist forces inside Manbij to fight to the last fingernail. And we believe 3,000 terrorists were killed in that battle of Manbij, including some of their most high-end units… it took three months… Most importantly [in Manbij] we have collected 15 terabytes of information about Daesh. All of this intelligence information is analyzed, collected and disseminated, including – we share together, we share information with you [and] this information has helped us protect against plots and foreign fighters. That is why the Manbij operation was so significant and that is why the operation ultimately ended up coming from east of the Euphrates across. But we did agree with your government beforehand, and with the forces that liberated Manbij from Daesh, that elements of the YPG, when the battle was over and when the area was secure, would eventually move east across the river. That is something that we made a commitment on and the YPG is also committed to that. And so the YPG has announced that it's their policy to move east across the river. It is our view at this point that the substantial amount of these forces has moved east across the river, and it is our policy, in Manbij and everywhere else, that forces holding the ground should be the local forces. So we are investing in training local people from Manbij to control themselves, to govern their own affairs and to secure their city.
·Turkey also supports local people's role in controlling and administrating in the Daesh-held areas. Is your policy the same as Turkey's in this regard?
Yes our policy here is the same. We have also expressed concerns when forces from Manbij have moved into areas in which they have told us they would not, and when some of the forces associated with the Euphrates Shield operation have moved in ways which were not fully coordinated, because these forces ended up clashing with one another. It is our view that that is not constructive, given the fact Daesh is such a significant and such a lethal threat, and a threat to all of these groups. So we are trying to work with everybody to encourage a common focus on Daesh. That's something we continue to work with every day… and it's something we'll continue to focus on.
·Can you give a certain date on when you think the YPG's withdrawal from Manbij will be completed?
The YPG has expressed their own policy, that they have already left Manbij. You have seen the images of those forces going east across the river. Many of those forces are now moving in what we call the isolation phase of Raqqa, something we've discussed very closely with your government. So, again, it's our view that, particularly as local forces take control of the streets of Manbij, that this has largely been fulfilled.
·How would you evaluate Turkey's role in and contribution to the anti-Daesh coalition?
Turkey was a founding member of our coalition, going back to September 2014. Fighting against Daesh is… a global campaign and we really focus on Daesh in three main dimensions, and I will talk about Turkey's contribution in each dimension.
The first dimension is the core. We called the core Iraq and Syria. This is the core of their phony so-called caliphate, and it's their primary objective to retain and expand their territory. And of course now we are rapidly shrinking their territory. When I first started to come in here in this role in 2014, as I mentioned, Daesh controlled your entire border with Syria. Now they don't control a single kilometer of that border. That is one of the significant turning points in the entire campaign. The Euphrates Shield operation is what finally closed off this this 98-kilometer strip of territory that we have been trying to close off for some time. So it's one of the most significant turning points over the last six months. I really can't emphasize enough the role that you have played to make sure that your border is shut off to these terrorists.
As I just mentioned, about two years ago a thousand terrorists every single month were coming into Syria to fight with Daesh. About a year ago we got it down to about 500 a month or so, approximately. Now it's really just a handful – it's negligible. That is because of our cooperation and because of the role that Turkey has played to make sure this activity stops.
Also Turkey is the co-lead of the foreign fighter working group within the coalition. This is how the coalition organizes itself globally in terms of "where are all of these people coming from?" Sometimes people say "all of these terrorists are coming from Turkey and Turkey has to shut its borders" and our answer was, "Yes, we are working very closely with Turkey on that." But all of these foreign fighters are coming from other capitals so this is a responsibility of the entire world to make sure that this flow stops. Turkey has been a very close partner with coalition members around the world in terms of sharing information as citizens from other countries… are trying to come into Syria – Turkey stops them and shares that information with those countries to allow them to have their own investigation... So I think that role really cannot be overestimated, because it is critical to protecting all of us. And of course we fly from İncirlik Air Base to make sure we are applying significant pressure from the air against Daesh and opening İncirlik Air Base to this campaign was a significant development… Turkey also plays an important role in the counter-ideological messaging space. If you look at Daesh's most recent propaganda messages… [Daesh] calls for attacks primarily against to Turkey… I think that is significant because [it shows that Daesh knows] Turkey is fully engaged against them. I think it is a reminder to the whole world that Daesh is trying to turn its sights on Turkey because Turkey has very effectively turned its sights on them.
·As you know Turkey does not differentiate between the PKK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and considers the PYD a national threat. Why does the U.S. not take Turkey's concerns seriously on the matter?
The U.S. takes Turkey's concerns very seriously as a close NATO ally, and shared security threats is something we discuss constantly. The issue about the PYD in Syria and the Syrian Kurds is something we have a very close and fairly intense dialogue about. The fact of the matter is we have to do all we can do to defeat Daesh. We have to be able to work inside Syria and be able to put pressure on Daesh… With all that said, we are very mindful of the fact that what comes after Daesh has to be sustainable and our principle is we want local people in charge of their areas in the wake of Daesh.
·Turkey criticizes the U.S.'s strategy to support the YPG and claims that the strategy 'to use one terrorist against to another' will fail. What are your thoughts on the matter?
The fact is we want to work first and foremost with our partners in Turkey and the opposition to fight and defeat Daesh. We have been working on this matter for years – some of the initiatives have worked and some of them have not. But, as I mentioned, it's not for lack of investment on our part – we have invested an enormous amount, particularly in elements of the moderate opposition across the Mare line. The fact that Turkey is on the ground with the Euphrates Shield operation is a very significant development. We are actively supporting your forces in the Euphrates Shield operation.
So, I think I'd just leave it that your government and ours – we have some disagreement, but we have no disagreement on the fact that we need to defeat Daesh. I think the record, if you just look month-by-month over the last two years of what Daesh was able to do inside Syria – two years ago compared to what it can do now… the record is quite good. So, we have a small presence inside Syria as you know, everything we are doing is fully transparent with your government, we have some disagreements. But I am quite confident that, as we continue work through this, we can increasingly see eye-to-eye.
·Is the U.S. trying to create a Kurdish corridor on the Turkish- Syrian border?
We are not trying to build a Kurdish corridor, this is not our policy. Our policy is to defeat Daesh. We are not supporting the creation of a Kurdish corridor. That is not part of our agenda, that's not our policy, we make that very clear to the Syrian Kurds. But it's also important to keep in mind that the Kurds in Syria have also been a primary victim of Daesh. They want to fight against Daesh and we are helping them to fight Daesh. We are also trying to work with all the Kurdish groups to try to improve relations between all these groups, including in Iraq between the PUK and the KDP. It's a different situation, but we believe that stronger relations between those Kurdish groups means a stronger Kurdistan region, which is an important necessary condition for a strong Iraq and, of course, central to our own national security interest. So we're trying to improve the relations between the different Kurdish groups, and that is something that we'll continue, but we're not supporting any sort of a broader agenda, and certainly groups that have such an agenda would not receive support from the U.S. in terms of advancing that agenda on the ground.
·How would the U.S. react if the Turkey-backed FSA targets Afrin after the liberation of al-Bab?
We will support forces on the ground to fight Daesh. We will not support forces on the ground to pursue any other agenda. That means if the Syrian Kurds are going to go fight somebody else, they are going to get no support from us for that. If the moderate opposition is going to go fight the Syrian Kurds, they're going to get no support from us for that. We believe… [these kinds of incidents] just give space to Daesh to breath. And I'm telling you, if we give Daesh space to breath we will see more attacks around the world. That is why we try to encourage everybody to focus on this common threat. It remains a significant concern that the longer we leave Daesh in Raqqa to plan and plot attacks against all of us, they will be able to succeed in carrying out some of those attacks.
·What role will Turkey have in the Raqqa operation?
We are now undergoing what we call the isolation phase of Raqqa. The next phase will be liberating the city from Daesh. So, the question is, what will be the force that will actually liberate Raqqa?
If you look at the situation in Iraq in terms of the fight against Daesh, we support the Iraqi government [and] local forces on the ground that have support from the government. But, in Syria, we will never work with the Assad regime, so we have to find forces that are able to maneuver in an offensive way against a very disciplined enemy. This is extremely difficult.
What we are doing now is the isolation phase of Raqqa. If you think in terms of Mosul six months ago we were in the isolation phase and then about six weeks ago we launched the actual liberation phase of Mosul. So as we are moving on the isolation phase of Raqqa, we are also working in parallel to identify and organize the force that will be the liberation force for Raqqa. Obviously we want to do that, not only in full transparency, but in cooperation with our close allies here in Ankara, but we are working on that now and I don't want to get ahead of the process. But the bottom line is we have to get Daesh out of Raqqa as soon as possible and to do that we have to have a force that is able to do it on the ground. So our militaries are meeting to determine exactly how that can be done. I'm hopeful that we will able to identify that force and provide them the support that they need to succeed.