CENTCOM: The War with ISIS in 2020
The Islamic State could regenerate in areas controlled by the Assad regime, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace on August 12. “The conditions are as bad as or worse than those that spawned the original rise of ISIS,” he said. He warned that ISIS has operated with “more freedom” west of the Euphrates River and in the central Badia desert – territory not controlled by the United States or its local partner forces. McKenzie said that “without sustained pressure” ISIS could regain control of physical territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq “in a relatively short period of time.” The following are excerpted remarks by McKenzie.
The Post-Caliphate Challenges
McKenzie: Moving forward from the territorial defeat of ISIS, the campaign for the enduring defeat hinges on three conditions. First, we need sufficient security capacity at the local and state level, to prevent ISIS remnants from posing a threat to stabilization efforts and governance. Where authorized, CENTCOM and coalition forces will support the development of operational and institutional capacity to sustain these hard-won partner gains at the tactical level. Second, with security assured, national and international stabilization efforts can focus on meeting the basic needs of the population and repairing the devastation of years of conflict. This will set conditions for the third and enduring phase: a return to the norm of institutional governance by sovereign states. This would be the conditions that will allow displaced persons to safely return and generationally impacting reforms to be put in place to prevent resurgence of radical ideology.
We believe ISIS continues to aspire to regain control of physical terrain. Without sustained pressure, they have the potential to do so in a relatively short period of time. Local security forces are the key to preventing a resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The underlying conditions that allowed for the rise of ISIS remain. They've been compounded by the physical destruction required to dismantle the caliphate. The amount of time and resources necessary to address these conditions is significant. COVID impacts are going to further complicate all other aspects of stabilization.
How to De-globalize ISIS
McKenzie: One of the things we want to prevent is the development of what we call “connective tissue.” Originally, as the caliphate envisioned itself during their heyday, the caliphate sat in the Euphrates River Valley and western Iraq, and then it was connected to a variety of what I would call “franchise organizations,” ranging from the Pacific Ocean to South America to Western Africa, all around the world. They envisioned those sub-caliphates as reporting back. Money would flow back and forth. Fighters would move back and forth. That was the idea of a global jihad. The middle of that has now been taken away.
What we want to do is prevent the globalization of the problem. There's a degree of globalization inherent in the internet and in cyber capabilities because you can sit any one place in the world and talk to anyone in any other place in the world. What we face now is the idea of distant radicalization, the idea that inspired attacks can occur. An inspired attack is an example of someone who self-radicalizes, perhaps in the United States, perhaps in Western Europe, through exposure to the toxic literature on the internet and decides to take up jihad and do something violent there. It's very hard to stamp out, and it's made ubiquitous by the presence of the internet. But what we have been able to do is reduce the directed and enabled attacks that come from the central caliphate, where they provided money, or they provided other kinds of things.
That's hard for them to do. It’s very hard to fight an idea within a boundary. We do think globally about this. It comes down to this: prevent connective tissue, create conditions where local security forces are regularly able to contain it, recognize that it's not going to be bloodless. There are going to be eruptions. There are going to be problems. But what we want to do is get to a point where these can all be handled by local security forces.
We remain completely focused in Syria on operations against ISIS. We re-oriented last October into what we call the “eastern Syria security area,” which is a boundary that runs along the Euphrates River, about midway north and cuts over to the east. That's where we are. That's where we work with our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners. We have a supplementary task to aid them in their defense of the oil fields that are in eastern Syria, which allows them to be able to gain income from that which they will then be able to use to help them to prosecute the counter-ISIS effort.
I don't think we're going to be in Syria forever. I don't know how long we're going to be in Syria. That's going to be a political decision, not a military decision. It's not going to be made by a uniformed officer. We'll be ready to respond to that. We do want to get smaller there. I just don't know when that's going to be. I do know that as long as we remain, we're going to work very hard to finish off ISIS. They really don't have the ability to hold ground anymore. That remains an aspirational goal of theirs. Constant pressure is actually very important, and we're working with our partners to ensure that pressure is maintained. It is a uniquely complex operational environment.
West of the Euphrates River, in areas that we do not control, where the regime controls ground with their Russian patrons, the conditions are as bad as or worse than those that spawned the original rise of ISIS. I'm not encouraged by what's happening out in the west. We should all be very concerned about that. We have a vision for stabilization It maybe an imperfect vision, but we have a vision. I'm not sure that out in the west there's any vision at all beyond violence.
Question: In northeast Syria, there are more than two million Arabs under SDF control and there have been tensions between the Kurdish population and the Arabs. Is the U.S. government doing anything to stabilize those areas? Do you see that Arab-Kurdish issue as something to be worried about?
McKenzie: I'm worried a little more about it now than I was earlier when we were fighting, when we had a common opponent. That relationship was very good. Now that the common military campaign is over, it has required considerable adroitness on the part of the SDF if they want to successfully manage that problem. The Iranians are also active there as well.
The Syria-Iraq Border
Question: That's a pretty long porous border between Syria and Iraq. Are you still seeing a lot of movement of ISIS fighters back and forth across that border?
McKenzie: Some of the Iraqi security forces have pushed up against it, so it's better than it used to be. Right about the time ISIS had its final collapse in the spring of 2019, ISIS had a very good plan in place to move people into Iraq. They executed that plan. A lot of people came in during that time period. I think it is harder for them to execute that movement now.
Deconflicting with Russia
Question: Is there any coordination or common discussion with the Syrian or Russian forces, given that there's a common goal of defeating ISIS in a more permanent way?
McKenzie: We deconflict with the Russians. We’re carefully bounded on what we can do. We talk to them through a deconfliction channel. It's usually done below my level. It’s done at the level of my three-star commander in Iraq and Syria: CJTFOIR Army Lieutenant General Pat White. He talks to his counterpart when we need to deconflict in specific operations. We have a more technical channel that goes between our air operations center and their air operations center. We talk to them about specific things, but the talk is strictly deconfliction. It is not what I would call coordination or anything beyond that.
Our primary goal in deconfliction is to prevent miscalculation. When you have high speed, very sophisticated aircraft operating in a constrained space and sophisticated air defense systems, you want to prevent the occurrence of an event that could be unfortunate for everyone. We have very little coordination with the government of Syria. The government of Syria has actually missed opportunities in the past to try to come to a resolution with the SDF in the east. The government in Damascus has never been noted for its political adroitness or ability to accommodate change.
Question: There are reports that ISIS members are returning to areas under Turkish control in Syria. Is the Pentagon worried about an ISIS resurgence in the Turkish controlled areas? The SDF has accused Turkey of helping to smuggle ISIS individuals out of al Hol and other IDP camps. Do you agree with the SDF assessment, and what's being done about that?
McKenzie: Generally, west of the Euphrates, conditions are much worse than they are east of the Euphrates river, particularly with the resurgence of ISIS. I don't have any particular visibility into what's happening inside Turkish-controlled areas. We’ve got better visibility actually north of al Tanf, in that area out there the Badia desert, areas like that where we have a little more visibility on what's happening with ISIS. They are operating there with some limited degree of freedom, certainly more freedom than they have east of the Euphrates River. I have no evidence that anybody's been smuggled out of a camp in order to go across.
Question: Are you concerned about increased friction between Iraq and Turkey? And how have Turkey’s air attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan affected the U.S. partnered missions in the region? Has the U.S. gotten any reassurance from Turkish officials about this issue and these actions?
McKenzie: Turkish strikes in northern Iraq induce additional friction and induce additional complexity of the problems that we face. At the same time, Turkey does have legitimate national security concerns and they're going to address those. We keep a very close dialogue with the Turks. All significant military problems occur at the junction of a map sheet or some other boundary. You've got to bring another combatant commander in. Turkey is part of European command. I talked to General Todd Walters, my good friend and the EUCOM commander, frequently about this issue. We have a good continuing dialogue going on with the Turks. I'm very comfortable with that level. If I need to get a message across, General Walters is very good about it and vice versa, as we go back and forth across our border. Having said that, when you're when you're striking targets, potential for miscalculation is very high and the potential for collateral damage very high.
U.S. Central Command is responsible for 20 nations in the Middle East. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are all within my area. I am a geographic combatant command. I command a geographical part of the earth for the United States and work with our partners and allies within that area. Turkey falls within the European Command boundary, so therefore the geographic boundary between Turkey and Syria is not only a boundary between those two nations but, for the United States, it's a geographic combatant command boundary. Luckily, while there's always friction associated with that, EUCOM and CENTCOM, the two respective combatant commands, work closely together. What overcomes that kind of friction is a personal relationship between commanders, the hard work of the staffs, and the ability to reach out to the country teams and our diplomats in each of those countries.
We also need to recognize that Turkey has legitimate security interests. We agree that the PKK has been a terrorist organization. It has attacked the Turks. We share a different view of the SDF and what they've been able to do for us. We don't believe that they are one and the same. That's the disagreement that we have with Turkey. We continue to work with them on that problem as it goes forward. We do recognize that Turkey has concerns about what flows over the border into Turkey and what goes on in Syria and other parts of the theater.
McKenzie: Our presence will be adjusted in concert with the Government of Iraq. There's going to be a requirement for us, our NATO and our coalition partners to have a long-term presence in Iraq. That is a grave concern to the Iranians because that works against what they want, which is for Iraq to be pretty directly under their control and for us to be out of the theater.
Over the last seven or eight months, we have had to devote resources to self-protection that we would otherwise devote for the counter-ISIS fight. We've had to pull back and our partners have had to pull back. We've done some things to harden our positions and to make it more difficult for Iran to actually attack us in Iraq. We've been very successful. Commanders on the ground there have done a great job.
We’re also seeing that the Iraqis are better. You would like to believe when you train someone over a period of time, that eventually you don't need to be quite as closely associated with them tactically on the ground. We're seeing the fruits of the training that we conducted over the past several years. They're good enough to begin to fight aggressively against ISIS within the physical boundaries of Iraq, and that's good enough.
The fact that we're getting smaller is actually a sign of campaign progress. We don't want to maintain a huge number of soldiers forever in Iraq, we want to get smaller. We want to return to a more normal security cooperation environment with Iraq as we go forward. That's going to be a political decision that will be made by our national leadership in concert with the Government of Iraq.
The strategic dialogue that's going to occur here in the next few days is a good sign of the healthy nature of that dialogue. It is not what Iran wanted. It's not how they saw things in January or February. Things have gone against them. They will eventually respond to that. I do not know what the nature of that response will be, but we will certainly be ready for it should it occur.
Question: How does the global coalition move forward with reconstruction and stabilization in Syria, while Russia, the Syrian regime, and Turkey all have a vested interest in undermining the SDF and SDC [Syrian Democratic Council]?
McKenzie: We’ve got to do the rebuild. Unless you're able to get money in there to rebuild the infrastructure then nothing else is going to happen. That needs to come from a variety of donor states. It shouldn't be just the United States that pumps that money in. There are other states that have a far greater interest in it than we do that are going to be more closely affected by a bad outcome than the United States.
If we can find a way, for example, to generate income for the SDF from the oil fields -- that income can then be equitably distributed in the long term. That's a way to actually begin to generate that. We're not looking at oil fields as we know them in Texas or even other partners in the Middle East. These are generally fields that are not in very good shape. We will aggressively support any defense support stabilization that we can do going in there, but the money is not going to come from us. It's going to have to come from other agencies and entities, not only in the interagency, but more particularly in the international community. Our vision would be that that wealth needs to stay there. The Russians, on the other hand, want to extract the wealth.
There's a closing window. We need to move quickly on it. The Arabs, the Kurds, those are factors that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, we expect that the regime is going to want to push to the east because they want to control the same things. That's an economic engine, it’s one of the key parts.
As people sit in Damascus and look at trying to rebuild their economy, they think they need control of that. We don't have a resolution to that yet. We sit on the Euphrates River, and they're not going to be able to come east while we're there and while our SDF partners are there. I don't know what the long-term solution could look like there. I don't have a lot of hope for whatever the Syrian regime might or might not bring.
At the political level, Ambassador [James] Jeffrey is engaged with the Russians on talking about this. We do outreach at the political level. There is outreach going on as we try to find a way to go forward. We need to rebuild the infrastructure. We need to find some form of generational capability to provide basic quality of life for these people. That goes hand in hand with security. I don't want to minimize or say that's an easy path forward.
Question: We talked in the panel earlier about the importance of non-military means being brought to bear on this issue of violent extremism. Have you seen any of that start to take hold in terms of conversations you have with diplomats and development colleagues in the U.S. government?
McKenzie: I really would like to see us move to solutions where we're not applying the military element of power as the first choice. We're a very blunt instrument. We're a very effective instrument, but it's an arithmetic approach to an exponential problem. There are always downstream effects when you lead with a military. We can do a lot of great things--we can go in there and fix a lot of problems initially. But we’re never going to be as effective as the other tools of power working because you got to get to the root causes of those problems. We are not going to ever be good at getting to the root causes of the problems. What we can do is address the symptoms and manifestations of the problem, but the root causes of the problem require a far more delicate nuanced approach.
What just happened in Lebanon is an example of how we can actually help: a significant crisis when the ammonium nitrate blew up. We've been in direct support of USAID and other elements of the U.S. government. We've flown in planeloads of food, medicine, water, and supplies and also large medical kits, capable of treating thousands and thousands of people under USAID auspices. That is an example of how we can be used to leverage the other elements of power. The better way to find the long-term solution is to apply the other elements of power. There are times when you can't do that, and you're just going to have to go in, you're going to have to adopt a military solution because of the threat that you are presented. But at all times, you should seek to transition to a more holistic approach whenever you can do that. That's not easy to do, but I think we're beginning to see some signs of that. I welcome it.
Question: Let’s turn to the al Hol camp. Sixty-five thousand residents are in this camp, which is a small city. The vast majority are women and children. How likely is it that we'll be able to repatriate any significant number of these camp residents? And particularly with COVID now, so much movement globally has been shut down.
McKenzie: We’re involved purely in a supporting role. We help train the people that provide security at the camp. But we are not directly involved, except in terms of transportation. It's going very slow from my perspective. It needs to go faster.
I don't have an answer besides repatriation. Many people have been to the camp. It’s not a good place to live. Bad things are going to happen if you keep a lot of people there. Bad things are going to happen in terms of radicalization, and bad things are going to happen in terms of COVID, or even before COVID, I would tell people I was worried about cholera. I was worried about access to water. We were worried about a lot of a lot of other things.
We absolutely support the Department of State's lead on repatriation. We think it's absolutely critical. They are working very hard, but nations have got to agree to take them. It's concerning that we're moving so slowly because we can either deal with this problem now, or deal with it, exponentially worse, a few years down the road.
Question: There many foreigners, both fighters and families. But there are also significant numbers who are Syrian and Iraqi. How do you see the impact of the possible return of a other ISIS-affiliated fighters and families to Iraq? Is there a willingness to take them? Do you see that there'll be a downside in moving them back to what is still a very volatile situation in Iraq?
McKenzie: Al Hol arguably is one of the worst places in the world. I've got to believe that if you get them back into Iraq, it can't be worse. They’ll be back in the nation-state from which they came. But I'm not wearing rose colored glasses as I consider that possibility as well. Settling back in an area where you may not be welcome will be difficult and demanding, but I don't see a better solution. We can help the teams that go in there. But it really is an interconnected ecosystem of problems that really requires international agreement.
The coronavirus is uniquely poised to put friction in the very thing that we think needs to happen, which is the movement to home countries. There are 60 nations that are represented --although many of those nations have a fairly small amount. If we stay where we are, we're going to have huge problems. Huge problems in the near term, with lots of people potentially dying. And then huge problems in the long term because I have yet to see a scheme that can talk about de-radicalization at scale. You need to get people back into the barn from which they came.
The de-radicalization process needs to be embedded in the culture. It needs to be a Middle East solution. It needs to come from the region and will be even better if it came not only from the region, but from within the specific area that the people that had been radicalized came from.
Question: Central Asian countries have really been in the lead in taking back residents of al Hol, mainly women and children. Do you have any thoughts on why there's been a greater willingness for Central Asians to take their citizens back, versus a steep reluctance in Europe?
McKenzie: I really don't know. Smaller numbers, for one. In the case of Iraq, thousands of people are going to need to come back. If I were going to look for a causal factor that might be the one thing.
Question: How does the global coalition move forward with the vast challenge of repatriating foreign fighters when even close U.S. allies, such as the U.K. and other European allies, are so unwilling to repatriate their own citizens?
McKenzie: The Department of State is aggressively engaging on this. We've got skin in the game in Syria. Some, not all, of our partners have skin in the game in Syria as well, and we recognize that in terms of forces that are there. But I just don't see any way to go forward without some form of repatriation, and that is a uniquely diplomatic national leadership question, not really a military question. I'm happy to provide the resources to move them when we are directed to do that, and I can move them anywhere in the world very quickly and in a safe and transparent manner. But I think it is uniquely a political problem.
It is hard to do when even your close allies are sort of hesitant to get involved in that game. It is very hard to do as a genuine practical matter. The way we contribute is we buy time. If we can keep the situation relatively stable, then our diplomats have an opportunity to work the problem, and we may be able to find a solution. That's another reason why I'm very comfortable with our position now in Syria.
Question: Do the conditions in and around the al Hol camp make it more difficult, given the security situation?
McKenzie: Yes. We've talked a lot about the situation inside of the camp, but there are also external threats to the camp. ISIS wants to get in there as well to liberate people. It's hard to move around up there. The routes are generally closed all around it. What you've got is a huge human problem overlaid with a significant military tactical problem.
Unfortunately, the history of warfare tells us when those two are juxtaposed, the military tactical problem is going to receive the majority of attention. We work to try to minimize that because we recognize we have a unique problem there. What we don't want to do is make the problem worse at al Hol. It’s bad enough as it is right now. So do no harm when you can, support the international agencies that go in there.
The last thing I would say about al Hol is that it truly is an international problem. It's going to require an international solution. No one nation, no one military, can solve that problem. It does require an international approach and I know our diplomats are working very hard to try to make that the case.
The COVID-19 Factor
Question: Might a COVID outbreak pressure the CTEF - the counter ISIS Train and Equip Fund-- to change the rules and expedite the Department of Defense to facilitate repatriation from al Hol? in other words to bring children back without fighters?
McKenzie: We’ll certainly take a look at that. That would not be my decision, obviously. That'll be a decision at a higher level. The coronavirus emerging in the camps has been one of my fears for a long time. Frankly, I'm surprised we've gone as long as we had without it showing.
First of all, it's a much younger population which withstands the virus a little better. On the other hand, I don't think it's a healthy population. There are going to be a number of morbidity factors that affect the survivability of the population, so I don't draw any strength from the fact that the population is younger and typically they do better against this. We will examine everything in concert without Department of State partners, who actually has the lead in this. We're open to anything that would be proposed. I got nothing specific on that, but I do note it and agree that that's certainly something to look at.
McKenzie: Russian support for the regime's Idlib offensive increased the risk of a humanitarian crisis in Syria. Reduction to a single crossing point in the northwest is impacting the international community's ability to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced persons and the local population. Very few are able to return safely to their home communities, facing either personal risks, widespread destruction and nothing to return to. Perception of safety is a far more acute problem than physical safety.
The story of “the Vanished 104” persists: refugees from Rukban, who after regime engagement were not heard from again. Syrian regime control of areas surrounding the al Tanf garrison complicates the return of the population of Rukban. Both displaced persons and security partners that have supported the fight against ISIS have faced forced conscription into the Syrian armed forces and even violent reprisals from the regime itself.
The United States government is working closely with the government of Iraq to return Iraqis currently in Syria in a manner that is both safe and secure. We support the Department of State’s leadership role within the U.S. government. The international community needs to support repatriation efforts, or the coalition’s D-ISIS efforts may be for naught. That's the best way to solve that particular problem.
The United States government supports the informed, safe, voluntary and dignified movement of internally displaced persons within Syria. We strongly urge all parties to work with the U.N. to adhere to the U.N. guiding principles on internal displacement. We continue to push repatriation as the priority for all the foreign persons in both camps and prisons, while allowing for civilian leadership in northeast Syria to repatriate Syrians.
Learn more about Hamas and how it relates to similarly aligned organizations throughout the region. Read more
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more