Operator: Welcome to the Atlantic Council Members and Press Call. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. We will open the line for questions following the speakers’ opening remarks. Please remember to press star one on your telephone to ask a question.
Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. Please be sure to introduce yourself when asking a question. I will now turn the call over to Atlantic Council who will introduce the call and begin our discussion. Mr. Wechsler, please go ahead.
William Wechsler: Thank you very much. Thank you, everyone, from taking time out of your day to listen to us talk about this subject. My name is William Wechsler. I lead the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs here at the Atlantic Council.
My most recent job in government was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism where I worked on the policy end on a lot of kinds of raids and direct actions that we saw recently against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
I am joined here with two of my colleagues. Tom Warrick (as well is a new) fellow with us and just retired after a decade at the Department of Homeland Security as the Deputy Assistant Secretary there for Counterterrorism, and one of my deputies, Kirsten Fontenrose, who’s most recent job in this administration was Senior Director at the National Security Council for Gulf affairs.
We’re all going to begin by just taking a few minutes talking individually about some of our perspectives. Then I’m going to ask a few questions of Tom and Kirsten, and then we’re going to quickly open it up for everyone else’s questions. So please as we’re talking if you have any questions, just make note of them and we’ll try to make sure we get to them all by the end of this call. We anticipate this call taking just now less than an hour.
A few things that I want to begin by highlighting, and I know that we sent around a piece that I wrote this morning, but just to summarize some of those points that I made, first and foremost, what this raid shows is that despite all the absolute chaos that there is in Washington right now and the political challenges that frankly make it very difficult for some people in the U.S. government, even some people in the foreign policy elements of the U.S. government to do their jobs effectively, there remains other parts of the U.S. government that do their – that continue to do their jobs very effectively. These are serious people doing serious work, and our counterterrorism community is described that way.
The work that was – that was done here, that culminated in this raid in many respects took – is years in the making, very specifically is months in the making. These things don’t happen overnight. They appear to be regular for people that are watching the news all the time, but I can’t stress enough that they are not routine.
At the end of the day, Americans put themselves and their lives at significant risk in order to make all the rest of us safer, and we have to start with that kind of understanding.
And similarly we also have to understand that it’s only the United States that does this. We – there are scores of countries that are part of the coalition to fight the Islamic state. There are other countries with forces in the region. There are other countries that at least report to want to fight the Islamic state as much as we do that are right nearby the city of Idlib where this raid took place or the outskirts where this raid took place.
Turkish forces and their proxies are right outside their town, and there are a variety of different checkpoints in and around that town. Syrian forces are just to the south supported by Iran, supported by Russia.
If you listen to all of these countries, you’ll hear them all talk about their desire to fight the Islamic state. At the end of the day, none of them who were much closer took action against al-Baghdadi. Only the United States does – did.
And that brings me really to my second point which is this operation was undoubtedly a victory for the United States, undoubtedly a success for the world. It will have a meaningful impact on the Islamic state in the short-term before the – before another leader is chosen, and it will further the trends that we’ve seen with the Islamic state. Most recently as their physical caliphate crumbled away of them becoming a more decentralized organization.
We have operations not only in this part of the Middle East, but across the Middle East, in many parts of Africa, in South Asia, in Southeast Asia, with operational reach into Europe, into United States and elsewhere.
That decentralized organization will remain, and the United States will still carry a disproportionate share of the burden in dealing with the external threats that emerge from that organization.
But even – but even taking a bigger step back, this isn’t necessarily only about the Islamic state. This is about the entire Salafi jihadist movement, and it’s important to recognize that we’re not talking about all of terrorism. We’re not even talking about all of Islamic terrorism. We’re note even talking about all of Syria’s Islamic terrorism.
What we’re talking about is specific brand and branch of Sunni Islamic terrorism which is a Salafi jihadist movement, and why that grouping whatever we call its name, whether it’s Al-Qaeda, whether it’s the Islamic state, whether it’s a number of other organizations that exist, or whether it’s future organizations that will grow up, what’s different about that – those kinds of terrorist organizations is that whenever those organizations develop some kind of safe haven, whenever they have a physical sanctuary that provides them with the ability to act with impunity, they inevitably and invariable start to develop external attacks.
And that’s what makes – that’s the fundamental difference between them and all other types of terrorist groups, many of which have more local direction.
Doesn’t mean that Salafi jihadist groups have no local inspirations for their actions, of course they do. But what’s different is that it eventually become external attacks, and the United States has a poor track record of consistently looking at these attacks – at these organizations and wanting to get ourselves to believe that they won’t develop external attacks.
They do. It was true in first with Al-Qaeda in Sudan and then in Afghanistan. It was true in Yemen. It was true in Iraq and in Syria. It was true for Al-Shabaab. In Somalia it’s true for Al-Qaeda and the Islamic (moderate).
It’s true again and again and again for this kind of terrorist organization. And so, therefore, what our strategy has been after a lot of trial and error is to work indirectly, to work by with and through our local partners to deny Salafi jihadist organizations the sanctuary that they need to present that kind of threat, to enable our partners to have counterterrorism campaigns and then giving us the (plates then an) access to do the kinds of direct action on the ground like we just saw.
One of the bigger challenges that we see in front of us is with the recent decision to publically and sharply abandon the SDF and the Kurds who we’ve been working with for a long period of time and everybody has seen as our primary partner in these actions against the Islamic state that those kinds of actions have ramifications specifically for our ability to future operations like this in Syria, but even more generally as the – as our partners elsewhere see what we have done to the Kurds and wonder if we might do that to them next.
And perhaps this might not matter that much if our entire strategy was only about direct action. If we believe that we could combat these terrorist organizations effectively by dropping hell fires from the sky, but it is very important when we have concluded that the optimal strategy is indirect action working by, with and through these partners. That’s the — that’s the second point I want to make.
And the very last point I want to make has to do with the announcement that was made and how it was made. I can’t stress enough that in the administration in which I served, I always had a belief that wasn’t always followed in that administration, was that the only people that should speak publically and in front of cameras about operations should be operators. And there’s a lot of reasons why, in terms of operation security.
Whenever that wasn’t the case, generally we ran into problems. We’ve never had a situation like we saw yesterday where the President of the United States spoke so openly and for so long about matters of operational security. And this will just make future jobs harder. Happy in the questions and answers to go into exactly how that might evolve, but it’s something that was — that was unfortunate.
And similarly unfortunate is the potential, and we’re not there yet. I want to stress this. But the potential for (politicalization) of our counterterrorism. Now, there’s no doubt that this — that was done yesterday, was — what was announced yesterday was a huge victory for President Trump. He should take credit for it, because if it had gone the other way he would be taking all the blame. So — and it’s entirely appropriate for presidents to remind their supporters that they accomplished things like this.
But there is a line between doing that and really politicizing events that should be victories for the entire — for the entire American public, indeed the entire world, and making them purely partisan victories. I was concerned that we may be going down that path and it’s an avoidable path. A lot of other foreign policy issues are unfortunately very politicized these days.
Counterterrorism has been one of them that we have generally avoided that kind of politicization and it’s been for the better all in all. And so, I would — I would — I would like to make sure that we do — that we do that.
I know that when I was in office, anytime we did an operation like this, we had a whole of standard operating procedures of calling everybody on a bipartisan basis who is any of the key leadership positions, for instance, in the Congress, and that was a routine thing that we did to make sure that it was always bipartisan. So, it was just a point that we learned today, that that might not have been followed.
These are the things that can we easily do to avoid problems in the future. That’s what I wanted to just open it up by saying those points. Let me — let me move it on to Tom, who’s going to talk about his perspectives.
Thomas Warrick: Yes, hello. My name is Tom Warrick. I’m formerly of the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Security Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy. I served 10 years before that in the State Department.
I’m going to be making five points today and then begin into some of the other issues and any questions that you all might have.
Number one, as Will just said, we have to start with the point that yesterday was a great day for the civilized world. Al-Baghdadi and the terrorism that ISIS carried out throughout the Middle East and by extension with operatives elsewhere are, in fact, the reasons why terrorists are regarded as the evil people that they are.
It’s certainly the case that everyone involved in the effort to target al-Baghdadi, on the operators on the ground to the people who provided necessary intelligence from the United States from our key allies to — from those countries that allowed us to have operating basis from the leadership in the Defense Department, the (I.A.), State Department, Homeland Security, elsewhere, who were working on this, including the White House and President Trump, all deserve the thanks of the American people and our allies for helping make us more safe.
My second point though is that we need to remember that ISIS was a well organized group. It group out of the (bothased) model of the governments of Iraq and Syria. It documented its procedures very thoroughly; it ran a very ruthless totalitarian effort on the ground, from 2014 until earlier this year. And so, it has been preparing for the day when its leader would be killed in a way that everyone needs to keep in mind.
So, while the loss of territorial control disrupted ISIS’ organization, they had been planning for their own resurgence and for the death of their eventual leader. So, my third point is, that we have to understand that just as it took a lot planning, as Will indicated from our side, for yesterday to occur, ISIS’ plans for this eventuality have also been in place and probably for about an equivalent amount of time.
My fourth point is, that the death of Baghdadi is going to slow down ISIS’ plans for a resurgence, but it will not stop them. ISIS has been working to try to reestablish territorial control in some parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria, focusing primarily on areas outside of Turkish control, even with their ambitious plans for controlling the border strip along the Turkey, Syria border.
And the decision by the United States, by President Trump to pull U.S. forces out of much of northeast Syria would have the opposite effect of speeding them up.
The net result of this obviously we will find out overtime how this is going to work, but yesterday we saw something that his going to slow down ISIS’ plan for resurgence just as the U.S. decision to pull out of much of northeast Syria would have had the effect of speeding up ISIS’ plans for resurgence.
My fifth point is, that safe havens are the key to whether terrorists are able to constitute their efforts to try to regain control, carry out operations outside of their territory, recruit over the internet and do all of the other things that make them a threat to the United States and all of our key allies.
And it’s to that end that, as Will indicated, the effort to eliminate terrorist safe havens is something that very much affects the security of the homeland and of our allies. And the interesting thing about — one of the interesting things about where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed was that he was in a providence in northwest Syria, where other terrorist groups operate, not just ISIS.
And so, all of the efforts that have been underway, both the governments of Turkey, by the Syrian Kurds, by the Assad regime, by the Russians and even by the Iranians and their proxies, in northeastern Syria, doesn’t change the fact that this one particular area of northwest Syria is a safe haven in which al-Baghdadi tried to hide out, but where other terrorist groups like (Jawad) Al Nusra, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and others have been able to set up a terrorist safe haven right across the Turkey-Syria border.
So, what we want to try to leave everyone with on my part of this, is that threat to the homeland and to our allies has been diminished, but certainly not eliminated by yesterday’s success. And that what we should be working towards is the elimination of terrorist’s safe havens, those actions that make that easier are obviously to the good of all of us, but those decisions that make harder obviously have concerns to those of us in the counterterrorism (fleet).
William Wechler: Thank you very much, Tom. Kirsten, can you give us a little bit of insights on how some of the other countries in the region and who have particular concerns about Syria are reacting to this?
Kirsten Fontenrose: Sure. Let’s start with Iran. As you probably saw, the Iranian regime came out with a comment to kind of downplay this operation saying well, what’s the big deal if you killed him? He’s your creature. And we may laugh back here but the unfortunate truth is that this conspiracy theory that ISIS and Baghdadi are creations of and paid operatives of the U.S. government is a fairly prominent conspiracy theory in the region.
And unfortunately again that was doubled up on by the Russia expression of doubt over the confirmation of his killing because this now coming from two different sources will cause many in the region to question whether or not U.S. government simply withheld Baghdadi away to an island in order to give the president a win and a better chance for reelection.
And we should not write those theories off, because they will resonate and it will probably grow. We’ll see quite a bit of that. And it will be as well accepted as is the U.S. insistence that he is dead.
So — but the Russians have a good reason for putting out a statement about doubt over this confirmation because if they have to admit that the U.S. flew an operation over their airspace and they were not aware, and that calls into question not only just their control of the airspace but also this new identity for themselves they’re trying to paint as a (inaudible) of security for Syria makes them look kind of stupid.
So, it does help them to say we’re not sure it’s actually happened. We can’t confirm it. We didn’t see anything. They definitely have invested interest in coming out from that angle. The bad side being that it then reinforces these conspiracy theories about one, whether it went down at all and two, who Baghdadi was answering to.
In Iraq, the ongoing coordination between the U.S. and Iraq in terms of military and intelligence teams is what predominately facilitated this operation. And the reason that’s meaningful is because the administration currently has a policy of non-engagement with the Iranian backed element of the Iraqi government.
So, the good that could come from this is it could perhaps put the U.S. Iraq relationship higher on the radar of the president. And we could see engagement that’s necessary instead of the insistence of sticking to an old summary of conclusion through an old cabinet meeting about non-engagement there. Only good can come from that conversation as a knock on effect to this.
In Turkey, you all probably also saw how Erdogan praised the operation but definitely look at his statements because what you can infer from those is that he is looking for (inaudible) international approval to go further and deeper into Syria. Reportedly for the purposes of chasing down additional ISIS but definitely for the purposes of advancing Turkey’s objective there, so be on the watch for that.
So, I mean on the good side this is a boost for Turkey’s border security. But there’s a contingency here that we haven’t talked about and certainly Turkey wouldn’t say they’re looking for but there is a possibility that in the shadows this operation could potentially shake loose (ISL) members who know don’t have a leader and would be open to potentially joining the extremist leading forces that are being paid by the Turks.
Not all these folks are ideal logs. Some of them are simply opportunists. And if you’re extremist enough leaning for them, they’ll tale your check. So, I would worry about some of these forces potentially joining some of that sort of scattered put together group of operatives.
I think on the good side of this for the U.S., we’re going to see — this kind of operation is a great collection potential for the (IC) because a lot of these cells will pop up looking for guidance and so I’m sure our collectors are all over that and hopefully the international community is too even the folks who don’t pitch in on the ground can at least be of assistance with intel.
Since ISIS is a brand for a world view, the bad side of this is that I think we’re going to see additional planning (inaudible) to have even tenuous ties to the group trying to prove that they are still viable as a movement in order to boost recruitment and funding raising and to ensure that they are not relegated to sort of the dust bin of counter insurgency history.
I think at the senior levels of the true ISIS internal rings of power, we’re going to look for a fight for privacy between the next generation leaders of the movement who were born and bred in the region and foreign fighters from the west who were to have challenged Baghdadi’s role in the past year.
These foreign fighters feel more savvy and more confident than their regionally born and bred counterparts. And I expect we’re going to see a move on their (inaudible) to take over what is left of the central core of this movement.
I’ll touch just briefly on why I think congress was not informed on this. It is unusual but I think there was very likely concern that the Democrats in congress would try to slow role or block this operation in order to prevent the president from claiming a victory. And the White House may have thought they did not want to come up against that slow role and moved on without that (inaudible). Thanks, Will.
William Wechler: OK. Let me ask you guys just a few questions before we open it up to those listening in. We don’t know a lot about the operational details that weren’t being in the papers.
But one of the things that you have read in the paper is that our operatives — our special operations forces who did this came, flew all the way from Iraq instead of that incredibly short amount of distance that would’ve been from our NATO ally in Turkey. What should we read into that?
Thomas Warrick: I think one of the things that has been problematic in the last several years is that in 2016 there was an agreement between the United States and Turkey, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the then Turkish Minister of Interior on working together on border security. That particular region where al-Baghdadi was found and was killed is one of the hot beds of a whole soup of (inaudible) organizations.
And therefore that border is one of the most closely watched by counter terrorism experts. Even though ISIS controlled territory much further east, that particular province has been one certainly that folks have been looking at very, very closely.
It takes only a matter of a few hours for a terrorist to sneak across the border and drive to anywhere in Turkey. That’s part of the reality of the road network in that part of the world. But what I think it reveals is the Turkish USCT cooperation is one of those things that has not been certainly what the United Stated would’ve wanted.
It has been as many people have said very transactional and not at all strategic. And I think one of the ways in which that manifested itself, Will, as you say that they chose not to (inaudible) counter terrorism operation from Turkish territory not quote sure how the Turks would react either at such an operation were proposed or if such an operation were planned or executed. We’d be able to keep all the necessary details as secret as they needed to be for the protection of our forces.
But it is striking to simply look at a map and say that the travel time which the president in his statement said was the most dangerous part of the entire mission, the time flying from where the base was to the target site and back was the most dangerous part that could’ve been cut down enormously if the United Stated and Turkey had a much more strategic counter terrorism cooperation relationship and that just isn’t there.
On the other hand, it’s good news that it is there with the Iraq Kurdistan region and the authorities (inaudible) very good counter terrorism partners of the United States for many, many years. And if there’s one thing to note about this is that the reinforcement of the relationship between United Stated and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities is something good that we’ve been able to count on.
William Wechsler: Kirsten, just following up on that, there have been a lot of reasons why in the frustration between the Turk and the Syrians and the Russians in the middle why the safe haven has been maintained over the years. In the wake of this operation, do you anticipate a larger offense taking place in this area?
Kirsten Fontenrose: I do. I think that’s exactly what the Turks are looking for. It may be part of the reason that that — that part of the reason the administration did not go with Incirlik was because they expected the Turks to make it contingent upon approval for additional operations, but I think the Turks are going to look for that now and I think they assume that now, with the international community behind this operation, that their call for meting out additional ISIS cells in the area will be approved and will be given the green light.
And our agreement for the safe zone has not limited them from conducting counter-ISIS activities, so they really already have kind of authority to do this, if you will. So I do think thing we’re going to see a lot more (of that).
Thomas Warrick: OK, and then the other thing is what Syria is likely to do, because I think we can expect Syria is going to want to try to take advantage of this situation and try to gain international support (in) carrying out actions that I know a lot of people in the past have considered to be (war) crimes and crimes against humanity in some of the ways that their forces have used chemical weapons and other tactics that are prohibited by the laws of war.
So I think this is going to see the lid pulled off of an aspect of it. And the United States, which has been one of the leaders, trying to hold accountable the Syrian regime for some of its actions in the past, it’s going to face a challenge trying to decide do you want those operations against terrorist groups in the (invalid) region to go forward or do you want Syria to comply with international humanitarian law?
That is a stark and in many ways a ridiculous choice, because in theory both should go forward, but I think this is what the Syrian regime may try to take advantage of.
William Wechsler: Yes, right. Unless there’s anything else one of you wants to (raise) at the moment, why don’t we go to some questions right here. What do — what do have — who do we have first?
Operator: As a reminder, to ask a question, (you will need to) press star, one on your telephone. To withdraw your question, press the pound or hash key. Please stand by while we compile the Q&A. Your first question comes from (Stephen Keaton) with Atlantic Council. You line is open.
(Stephen Keaton): Hello. Thank you for the very informative conversation. What — what do you feel America could do to get things better with the — with the Kurdish people?
Is it — is it realistic to feel that we should acknowledge that they deserve to have a nation? Is (inaudible) — the town in Northern Iraq, the big oil town, Kirkuk, is that — is that relevant as far as when President Trump is talking about the Kurds should go to the oil fields in Northeast Syria?
How realistic is it for them to have a nation? I mean, obviously there’s a lot of people in the — in the region there, especially Turkey, that never wants to see that. But it — I feel that — it seems to me that throughout the region we’re being looked upon as once again we’ve betrayed the Kurds. And what do you feel is realistic of options we have to try to make things better with the Kurds and the entire region at the same time? Thank you.
William Wechsler: Sure, let me answer a little bit, and then turn it over to — to you, Tom. (I mean, be) — allowing the Kurds or encouraging or providing the Kurds with the ability to carve out a state from four different countries in the region would be something that would open up a real Pandora’s box for the entire region.
And frankly, nobody knows this more than any of the Kurdish leaders that were there. The best case outcome is what we see in Iraq, at least most recently, where there’s a degree of autonomy but you’re working within a — the structure of a national government. That is, with all of its challenges, basically functional. And the disputes are managed largely through political means rather than through military means.
There was an attempt not that long ago by some Kurds in Iraq to threaten that understanding, and they were beaten back pretty badly. So I think — I think that is, as far as the intermediate term outcome, what is the best scenario.
In Syria, the problem is of course that the Kurdish areas that they were expanding from the perspective of Turkey. And some population areas which had minority Kurdish populations under Kurdish control had — started having majority Kurdish populations. So that was something that the Turks felt were inherently threatening.
As a response, though, what Turkey is trying to do is to remove the Kurds altogether from many of these areas, which is — we have a term for that and that’s ethnic cleansing. And when — unfortunately when the President of the United States publicly tells the Kurds to move out and go to the oil-rich areas inside of Syria, he’s abetting that kind of — he’s (in fact) actively calling for that kind of ethnic cleansing.
The reality is that the — and my point of view is that the focus on the oil producing areas of Syria have much — have much less to do with actually what’s in the best interests of either the Kurds or of our counterterrorism ambitions or of our future diplomacy inside of Syria, and have much more to do with what kind of argument is left that can resonate internal to Washington with the President of the United States, who has already clearly told to his administration that he does not accept the counterterrorism argument, he does not accept the Iran is there argument anymore, he does not accept the we need to position ourselves for a future diplomatic conclusion with Syria, he does not accept (itself) that we’re protecting them against the Turks.
The only thing that seems to resonate, in terms of those people who are arguing that we should keep some presence inside of Syria, is telling him that there is oil in certain parts of Syria, and therefore that’s what we need to take, because President Trump has been very vocal, very open in his criticism of — not to the Obama administration, but George W. Bush administration for not, quote, unquote, taking all the oil. And that’s what he saw as the appropriate endpoint of our military operations.
So people are using this in the Pentagon, in the Congress, Republican allies of the president, in a way to get him to agree to what they want to do for other — for other reasons. Tom?
Thomas Warrick: So the situation of the — excuse me — the situation of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria is quite distinct, as Will indicated. In Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have a place in the constitution, they have recognition of their regional autonomy in many areas of policy, including defense policy, one of the things that allows them to allow the United States and other countries to have the ability to operate in Iraqi Kurdistan territory.
And so that is in many ways the positive, correct, and upbeat way in which they have managed to find a place for themselves inside of an Iraqi federal state.
There was an effort by a number of Kurdish leaders, including those with considerable influence over Kurdish politics to try to have a nonbinding referendum on independence, which, not surprisingly, came out in favor in many ways, but was ultimately stopped by some confusing signals by United States policymakers as to whether something like that would be — would be (welcomed) or not; as Will indicated, it was in the end not welcomed.
But at least there is the possibility in the way the Iraqi Constitution was written that those aspirations can be — can be addressed in — with peaceful means. In Syria there was never any agreement, either among Syrian Kurds or — or among — or between Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs as to how affairs in Northeastern Syria were going to be governed.
And one of the sort of surprising things I think that historians may conclude from this episode, is why didn’t the United States or the international collation try to broker some kind of understanding that would’ve established a peaceful basis for those relations to go forward, but in fact that actually didn’t progress very far.
And certainly there as no sign that the Assad regime would ever agree to anything other that it’s own nominal control (from) Damascus of that part of Syrian territory.
So I think where we are right now is that certainly the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds for political autonomy have had to take a back seat to their physical survival in the face of the concerns that they have that the Turks are going to push them out of their historical lands and try to make their situation one of being internally displaced within Syria.
And it’s well said, it’s unfortunate the President — Trump tried to suggest that they should go into the oil rich parts of Syria because those are ethnically Arab, not Kurdish, and that would further compound the ethnic tensions that I know many U.S. policy makers have been trying to calm down in Northeastern Syria since those lands were liberated from ISIS starting in 2016.
William Wechler: Alright, let’s go on to the next question.
Operator: Your next question comes from Joel Gehrke with The Washington Examiner, your line is open.
Joel Gehrke: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to see if you can comment, both of you on two topics, one is — I don’t know if you saw the Syrian Kurds encouraged leaders — (Illmad) said this past weekend that they were talking to the Assad regime about incorporating the SDF into the Syrian military, I wonder what — how viable is that for the Kurds and what is at stake in terms of U.S. interest if that happens, and then on the other side and pardon me if this is a little bit clunkier, can we drill down a little bit on the significance of where Baghdadi was found.
The Kurds of course have sort of raised the suspicion that where he was in proximity to the Turkish order might be a sign that the Turks were looking the other way, on the other hand a different theory in the case is that the Turks might’ve helped identify his location by coordinating with HTS and some of the jihadists on the ground there. It seems like both of those scenarios involve the Turks being stitched up with some extremist groups, so I wonder if you could — just illuminate that a little bit?
Kirsten Fontenrose: The SDF inclusion into Syrian forces really is 100 percent to the benefit of the Syrian regime, and not to the Kurds. So what I would expect to happen is that they would be glad to take in a set of extremely trained, battle hardened, well coordinated troops who they would then put on the frontlines of their own military to continue fighting ISIS and probably other rebels.
So if I were the Kurds, I would be thinking I’m going to enter a military where I’m the best they’ve got and they’re going to put me out front to save ethnic Arabs, save ethnic Syrians, let me do the tough fighting and then relegate me to a desk job once they start beating up on folks who oppose the regime.
I’d expect to be put front and center in the ISIS fight and given tasks I didn’t agree with and only had half information shared. But if you are the SDF, if the choices are that or wind up in prison camps then you join, and you join and you hope by merit some of your commanders wind up in decision making positions and that you have — you can have some kind of way into some power circles.
It’s really — it’s not a good choice for the SDF, either way they’re going to be used, but certainly better than either being kicked out of the country or sent off to a gulad.
Thomas Warrick: And certainly none of that is in the interest of the United States because things that would tend to increase the Assad regime and it’s ability to carry out its policies ought be of concern to all of us.
And then as to the second question about the fact that al-Baghdadi was located in Idlib province — I mean all of us I think we’re immediately struck by it was just like Bin Laden hiding out in Pakistan in the sense that what he had done was to be away from the areas where you would have thought he would have been, the fact that he was hiding somewhere else really does I think show how these international terrorist groups have the ability to move around despite all the efforts to try to disrupt their operations.
Whether the Turks knew or whether the Turks helped us locate them, I have to say rather than speculate that — speculate on that, I would just wait for a few days because history has shown that details like this will come out, conspiracy theories aside, it’s almost always the case that something like this will become known because it’s in the interest of one or the other parties to the entire affair to have that come out. So I think we will know in a few days or weeks precisely what Turkey’s role in this was.
But certainly as for right now, we can celebrate the role of the authorities in Iraq and among the Syrian Kurds who had helped us in this. I do want to just draw attention that I know many people have also commented on to the fact that President Trump when giving credit to foreign nations listed Russia first.
And I think we’re going to have to find out more about why that was the case, what was it about Russia’s assistance that merited thanking them ahead of parties in Iraq, Turkey, and among the Syrian Kurds. I just don’t know the answer to that question. But it’s certainly one of the more intriguing side issues in this entire affair.
William Wechsler: And just further to what Tom was saying, you know the find, fix, finish cycle has a second half, which is exploit analyze, disseminate, and we don’t know yet, but undoubtedly our forces when they were on their target did not leave the moment that the target blew themselves up.
That they spent time there exploiting the circumstances for any types of information that they could, that they spent time talking to people they knew to talk to. They brought out whatever and whoever they needed to bring to continue those kinds of conversations. Those are — that kind of exploration is routine and I would expect that it would’ve happened in this circumstance as well.
After that happened then, that information is analyzed then it’s disseminated in such a normally — you would want all of that to stay very quiet and very secret within the U.S. government because if for no other reason it can immediately enable new target to emerge. It’s been our experience as we saw with Bin Laden and we saw with other very high profile events that — that that process sometimes leaks in these contexts, and if so, then the question you asked might get answered.
Another question that has been on my mind is they were not only in an area very close to Turkey, but they were in an area where we have multiple reports of al-Qaeda and all it various forms and a Pentagon official referred to Idlib as a location with the greatest proportion of al-Qaeda (served) entities anywhere in the world.
These entities have killed Islamic State actors before in this area because of the long stand grievances between their two. So the fact that the leader of the Islamic State was there and with his extended family and was seen to be quite safe and presumably with a degree of comfort there raises questions about what other kind of deal might have been done to allow that to happen.
Even before you go outside to the other parties in question. So, we don’t know the answers to those, but they will be fascinating to find out.
Kirsten Fontenrose: But you know, (if) we do learn that turkey was coordinating with some of these groups, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all, and frankly I wouldn’t necessarily criticize Turkey for it. We’ve had many instances where partners of ours have coordinated with certain (exchange developments) on the ground because they tattle on each other.
And so, often, if you can use them to report out on the other, then it winds up being really valuable intelligence collection. And the U.S. has been burned on this. We’ve learned the hard way, that usually this comes back to bite us, but other countries haven’t learned that yet, or maybe they’re just better at it. But it’s not an unusual tactic.
William Wechsler: Next question.
Operator: Your next question comes from Elisabeth Myers with Inside Arabia. Your line is open.
Elisabeth Myers: Thank you very much for having this call. I have a more fundamental question here. Inside Arabia’s American media, but we’re seeing a lot of reports in Arab media that the announcement is just strictly – is just simply false. So – because there have been at least four reports, in as many years, that al-Baghdadi has been killed by either U.S. airstrikes or other actions.
Given the penchant, shall we say, for exaggeration and spin from the White House, what is the provenance of this announcement, and how reliable and accurate can we – can we say this is?
William Wechsler: I have very high confidence in this announcement. We are professionals that do this work, as I said at the beginning, and benefitted from not being politicized, not from calling them (inaudible) operational terms that they called this with, at least it’s been reported in some places, 100 percent certainty. And it’s been certain in others that they had DNA samples that they compared against.
We have a pretty good track record of identifying people correctly in this area. It would – for us to believe otherwise would also require us to believe that the literally hundreds of people that would’ve been involved, very specifically, in the operation, all would – in the United States, all would have to be part of a conspiracy to keep it silent.
And it’s one thing that we have absolutely seen, is that, in most U.S. administrations and in this one particular, that you can’t believe that such a thing would happen.
Kirsten Fontenrose: Usually, when a strike happens, and I can tell you from being at the NSC when some of these things go on, that you don’t see a statement from the White House unless it is 100 percent (confirmed), unless you’ve sat there and watched in the Situation Room yourself.
So a lot of times, when we’d see – when we’d see reports, we’d hear about them at the same time everybody else would. “Oh, he may have been hit,” and we never took it seriously because our intel didn’t say that he was hit, and so, we just wouldn’t comment at all. And then, often, you might see a reporting, “Well, this strike happened, and it’s assumed that the – that the target was, fill in blank, a VIP, bad guy.”
And sometimes you get him and some times you don’t, but you don’t get the conformation. You may see rumors that he was target, or you may see rumors that he may have been killed, but you don’t have the president coming out and saying, we got this guy, unless the guy has been got.
Elisabeth Myers: Well, this is an unusual White House. That’s all I’m saying.
Kirsten Fontenrose: True.
William Wechsler: OK.
Elisabeth Myers: OK. Thanks.
William Wechsler: I think we may have time for one more question.
Operator: Your next question comes from Byron Callan with Capital-Alpha. Your line is open.
Byron Callan: Good. And thank you for doing the call. I just want to go back to the comments on Al-Qaeda and how you think ISIS might be changing its relationships with other groups in the wake of this event.
Thomas Warrick: ISIS has been at odds with, and as Kirsten said, it has at times killed members of other terrorist groups, and other terrorist groups have killed ISIS members. Such is the rivalry of people at that extreme edge of violence. One of the things that I think is certainly a possibility is that individual small units, or individual terrorists, would decide to change allegiance.
Many of these people think that they have signed up to some larger cause, and if the vehicle that they signed up to isn’t going to get them there, they’ll just simply jump on another vehicle. They are amazingly few ideological tests for the rank and file foot soldiers in many of these organizations.
That’s one of the reasons why it becomes so important for anybody who has military forces on the ground, to try to keep these terrorists from traveling, from crossing front lines, from going one from safe haven that’s about to be eliminated to another one.
And that’s going to be, obviously, a lot harder once the U.S. pulls out because Russian and Syrian and Iranian aren’t likely to be as good at stopping that as we and some of our allies might have been, had we stayed on good terms with them.
That having been said, I think what you’re going to see will be some degree of realignment of the terrorist cells in Syria, and it’s one of those things we’re just going to have to watch very closely, to see how that shapes out.
Byron Callan: Thank you.
Kirsten Fontenrose: I think we’ll continued balkanization of the ISIS network. I think they’ll have small groups, localized groups saying, “I don’t know who this new guy is. I don’t really owe him my fealty. I’m not getting as much money as I did before. I have grievances here. I run this territory.”
And so, the ISIS brand will still leveraged to create a profile larger than the groups would otherwise merit, but when they see that becoming less and less useful, we’ll see far more of these little groups with their own identities that they are the primary violent Jihadist movement in the world and trying to create their own brand.
William Wechsler: OK. Do we have – do we have time for one more, or – OK. Let’s just do one more.
Operator: Your next question comes from (Alexander Krevitz) with (Insider). Your line is open.
(Alexander Krevitz): Thank you very much for the presentations. I wanted to pick up on Thomas Warrick’s response to the question from William, regarding the forces flying out of Erbil. You referred to the KRG authorities. Are we – however, the president’s (saying) Iraq. So are we to read that this was done, I mean, obviously with coordination at the local level in their (village)?
That’s where the forces flew out of, but are we to read that this could possibly have been done without federal government’s authorization in Baghdad? Why would you reference to the KRG authorities and not Baghdad?
Thomas Warrick: Oh, well, I did not mean to (slight) the authorities in Baghdad. I mean, there are indications that intelligence from the Iraqi intelligence services played a role in contributing to understanding where al-Baghdadi was.
What I was actually, simply referring to was the fact of basing rights and that, under the Kurdish – I’m sorry – under the Iraqi constitution, the authorities in Kurdistan have the authority over the military forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. That was all.
I think we’re going to find out, as I indicated earlier, with regard to Turkey, I think we’re going to find out more in the coming days and weeks where all of the support for this operation has come from. As President Kennedy famously said in a different context, and updating the language a bit, “Victory has a thousand parents, while defeat is an orphan.”
And today is the day I think we’re going to start to see the thousand parents of this successful operation coming out, and I hope that everyone who deserves the credit gets their fair share of it.
William Wechsler: I think that’s a wonderful place to end. Thank you very much, everyone, for taking the time to listen in. And we look forward to doing more of these calls in the future. Thank you very much.
Operator: This concludes today’s conference call. You may now disconnect.