Interview -John Allen
“Asli Aydintasbas: Thanks for meeting me for the interview. I heard you have recently been to Abu Dhabi, right?
General Allen: I was.
Aydintasbas: So, let me start with the obvious question. Is there a policy review, what’s happening? We have all seen the CNN story. Are you reviewing Syria policy?
Allen: We are always looking at the strategy. We have a policy with regard to Syria, which is that the U.S. intends for there to be a political outcome that represents the voice and the desires of the Syrian people. And that policy with that outcome does not include Bashar Al Assad. With respect to the strategy…
Aydintasbas: Doesn’t include or…?
Allen: Does not include Bashar Al Asad. With respect to the strategy, it is the nature of strategies that we are constantly assessing and reassessing the strategies, and that’s what is underway now.
Aydintasbas: So, basically the President has said “We are not working on toppling Bashar Assad”.
Allen: Well, once again, our policy is that we will help to pursue a political outcome in the context of the Communique of Geneva II which looks for a negotiated political outcome that does not, in our case, include Bashar Al Asad. I think that is very different than toppling. So, in this case, we are looking for a political outcome that does not include Bashar Al Asad.
Aydintasbas: You are looking for a transition, that I understand; you wish for a transition, that I understand. But the question here is of course the priorities. My understanding from what your president, President Obama has said at G-20, is that it is not a priority to overthrow Bashar Assad right now.
Allen: If that’s what he said, then I’ll go with what the President’s comments were . If that’s what he said.
Aydintasbas: So, in this whole dilemma, “ISIS first” vs. “The regime first”, in terms of what the source of problem is or who to tackle first in Syria, where are you?
Allen: Well, we are clearly going to be dealing with ISIL. ISIL is a threat to the entire region and that threat not only spans Iraq but spans Syria. It is a threat to Turkey, a threat to the United States and a threat to the region. The strategy with which I am associated is to help to build the coalition, which ultimately brings together in this case 60 countries who are intent on being engaged on ultimately defeating ISIL. That’s the role that I play. And eventually, of course, our policy intent for the U.S. is that there be a political outcome in Syria that does not include Bashar Al Asad. While we will be doing work in Iraq, which is the main effort at this point but does not mean it is the only effort, so we will be working the ISIS issue associated with Iraq, [and] we’ll be doing that in Syria as well.
Aydintasbas: Why are you here?
Allen: I am here to continue conversations I have had with the Turkish government.
Aydintasbas: Can you tell me where you are in terms of your discussions on safe zones…?
Allen: No, I don’t want to get into those details. This is a long-term conversation that we have been having. It is, I think, a very positive conversation on the whole. I have been very clear that we view our relationship with Turkey as a deep friendship. It is a long-term friendship, an old alliance. And in the context of this emergency, we are in a conversation, the U.S. with the Turkish government but more broadly within the context of the coalition as well, on how we can partner to deal with this emergency.
Aydintasbas: Technically speaking, is Turkey part of the coalition?
Allen: It is.
Aydintasbas: I believe State Department spokesman several times said that safe zones and no-fly zone are not on their agenda right now, is it on your agenda?
Allen: What I want to say is that the conversation I am having with Turkey is a wide-ranging conversation about the measures that we could take together, ultimately, to deal with this crisis, and I don’t want to get into any particular aspect of that conversation.
Aydintasbas: This is what I want to, I would be very curious in terms of what your response is, when Turkish officials tell you that they have constraints when it comes to fighting ISIS as in you know we have a border, they could blow up things here, etc. So you know there are understandable reasons for them to be reserved and cautious about taking on ISIL. What is your response when you hear all these reservations and constraints and complaints? What do you as somebody lobbying in the other direction?
Allen: Well, I am not lobbying, obviously. First of all, I am extraordinarily respectful of Turkey’s sovereignity, territorial integrity, all of those things. Turkey has been a dear friend of the United States and a partner in so many things over the years so I am very sensitive to concerns. We also recognize that every single participant in the coalition, every country that is involved, every country that has an interest in this comes to the table with its own national interests. And we absolutely must consider Turkey’s national interests and special considerations. It is very clear that Turkey is a frontline state, [and] has had to endure the effects of terrorism for a long time. And so we know that fıgures into the thinking of Turkey as it considers its way ahead and the moves it may well take in conjunction with ISIS. So, we are very attentive to that.
Aydintasbas: But what are your talking points?
Allen: Let me continue. We are also very attentive to the fact that Turkey has also I think very generously hosted a large refugee population and they have been well taken care of by your country. So, we are very attentive to Turkey’s interests and very attentive to Turkey’s concerns as they raise these issues. And so, for us, it’s being knowledgable of those issues over which Turkey has concerns, being understanding of the interests Turkey has, as we seek to coordinate our activities and look for those areas of common interests where we can obviously, to the extent we can, bring the maximum efficiency and effectivemess to the strategy.
Aydintasbas: So, how do you convince Turks to do more? What is your overarching argument when you are talking to Turkish officials and they are like ‘You know we would love to but this, that and the other’?
Allen: Again, I am not going to paraphrase what their comments are. We are in an excellent conversation with Turkish officials and I am not going to preview what the outcome of the conversation is going to be. In the end, Turkey will do what Turkey will decide to do and we’ll have a conversation about those areas where we can cooperate, those areas where we can combine our capabilities to have an important outcome. But in the end, Turkey is a sovereign country and Turkey is an old friend. And we recognize that Turkey will be very conscious of its interests when it commits. It already has committed to some extent on its participation, but as Turkey continues to consider how it will play a role in this process, we are going to be very conscious of that.
Aydintasbas: I am going to ask the same thing in a different, roundabout way. OK, now you are talking to Turkish public. What do you tell Turkish public in terms of ISIL, how can you convince me or the man/woman on the street that we, Turkey, should do something about ISIL?
Allen: First of all, Turkey is doing something about ISIL. But second, what the Turkish citizen needs to be concerned about is the growth of extremism in the region, how that extremism has in many ways undercut the stability of countries across the region, not just in Syria but clearly in Iraq as well.The reach of ISIL, the reach of that ideology of extremism and hatred, has had a wide range of effects across the region. And again, the Turkish citizens, who I have known for many years, have suffered from years of terrorism. And so this is yet another of the potential threats that is posed in the region that Turkey is considering , that Turkey is talking with us about, in terms of potential courses of action we might take together. And as a citizen in Turkey, watching the activities of ISIL to the south, watching the activities of extremist groups in Syria and others in the region, I would be very concerned and very attentive to what action Turkey would be willing to take or what the means by which Turkey could cooperate or collaborate with the U.S. and other partners in how to provide for Turkey’s national security.
Aydintasbas: Do you know what the latest is in terms of, how do you assess the situation in Kobane? Because, while there is the campaign by the coalition it is clearly now proving it would not be that easy to get rid of ISIL in that town.
Allen: I think the situation has largely stabilized there. We intend to continue to provide the support of the coalition for the defenders in Kobane, and at this point, while I would not attempt to predict over the long term how it will turn out. Both the activities of the defenders inside the city but also the fire support that has been provided outside the city with respect to how ISIL has been able to occupy key terrain and use that terrain to their advantage. That’s put them into a distinct disadvantage.
Allen: Well, ISIL has in so many ways impaled itself on Kobane. It has sought to create that moment, that particular action as its ability to achieve victory over a conserted defense, a victory over a group of resistance fighters who are in fact putting up a very stiff resistance and ISIL continues to pour fighters into the process. And as they pour fighters into the process, we are going to continue to bomb them, we are going to continue to interdict their supply lines, we are going to continue to disrupt command and control, and at the same time, do what we can to support the defenders. And ISIL will find that it is not going to be successful there.
Aydintasbas: Has it served, in an ironic way, a useful purpose ın terms of gathering all the ISIL guys in the same geographical location.
Allen: Any time you mass, to achieve the affect that they are trying to achieve with respect to Kobane, you create targets. And the precise number is probably not known but we are convinced that our air attacks have killed well over 600 ISIL attackers and created for them, some real problems. At what point do they decide that it has cost them too much.
Aydintasbas: And they haven’t made that decision.
Allen: They haven’t made that decision. They are going to keep pouring those troops in and we are going to keep dealing with those troops as they go in. But when ISIL ultimately decides to withdraw from Kobane it will be a very strong indication, once again, that ISIL has not been able to achieve its objectives, just as Asad has been pushed out of a substantial number of places in Iraq at this point.
Aydintasbas: Why aren’t they making that decision?
Allen: Well, because I think, the sense is, if they pull out this is going to be a real indicator that the “march to victory” of ISIL has finally hit its high water mark.
Aydintasbas: It will be symbolic…
Allen: It will absolutely be symbolic.
Aydintasbas: But then, now I’m going to make another argument which is that, there is another way of looking at the Kobane situation, which is, it is also not a good sign in terms of our ability to deal with ISIL, in the sense that we are still not able to get rid of them in one, tiny, small town with airpower, peshmerga, weapons, heavy weapons, you name it. We cannot get rid of them from a tiny enclave. What does it say about the larger goals of your effort in the coalition?
Allen: But let us not focus only on Kobane. Let us talk about what happened in Iraq, where in fact ISIL has been pushed in a lot of areas. But let us just review the bidding of the last few weeks: ISIL had seized the Mosul Dam and that was taken back from it; they threatened the Haditha Dam– so there is the Tigers and the Euphrates River– they threatened the Haditha Dam, and they were pushed off of the terrain on which they were threatening the Haditha Dam. They were pushed out of the siege of Amerli.
Aydintasbas: Thanks to Hezbollah and Suleymani.
Allen: Don’t give them credit for something they did not accomplish but …
Aydintasbas: The guy was posting pictures of the …
Allen: Of course there are lots of pictures out there. The fact that he takes a picture with a couple of fighters does not mean that he directed the battle or ultimately achieved the objective. The point is that the Iraqi Security Forces supported by some local fighters were able to defeat ISIL at that location. And at other locations…
Allen: The drive on Bayji is another example where the ISF has been supported both in terms of their ability to move up Route 1 towards Bayji, but also supported by coalition air power. So there are places frankly where ISIL is being pushed out of a lot of positions. And our sense is, as we continue to deliver air power, as we continue to see the Iraqi security forces for example gain in capabilities – and this is going to take a while, but – as we see them continue to gain in capabilities, that the operational and tactical momentum has been checked. That is what you always seek to accomplish in a military operation.
Aydintasbas: Operational momentum?
Allen: Strategic momentum, operational momentum and tactical momentum. And our sense is strategic momentum is long past done. The operational momentum has been checked and in most places now, while there might be some exchange of terrain back and forth at a tactical level, even their tactical momentum has been checked. Now the point is, as we began to move forces in Iraq – Iraqi Security Force elements — into the attack, as we support those, now is the time to reverse what has appeared for some period of time to be ISIL’s invincibility. And, in truth, what we are learning is that they are very defeatable and we are going to continue.
Aydintasbas: You are learning that in Iraq but not in Syria yet?
Allen: Well, we have someone to work with obviously. We have someone to work with on a day-to-day basis.
Aydintasbas: You mean PYD?
Allen: No, I’m talking about the Iraqi Security Forces.
Aydintasbas: Oh, in Iraq.
Allen: Yeah. Over time with the train and equip program and the support that we will give to the moderate Syrian opposition. We will be working more closely with them.
Aydintasbas: Aleppo? They say that it is about to fall to the regime and how does that change your calculus?
Allen: We are obviously very attentive to what is going on in Aleppo. Again, I am not the military commander here; I deal with the coalition and the coalition in the context of the overall strategy. But I know that we are very conscious of what is going on in Aleppo and to that extent, if we are able to provide support we will provide support.
Aydintasbas: To whom?
Allen: Well, to the moderate Syrian opposition movement.
Aydintasbas: Of which there is dwindling numbers.
Allen: Well, there are. We recognize the current tactical situation has been difficult for them but we are going to provide the support that we can. The support that we have for some period of time, the train and equip program will be helpful to them over the long term. So we are going to remain very conscious of this.
Aydintasbas: Is Aleppo part of your discussion with Turks?
Allen: Well, again, broadly it is the situation in Syria but the situation with ISIL very broadly, the situation with the coalition, how the coalition will operate both in terms of Iraq and Syria. And of course within Syria we talk about a variety of things.
Aydintasbas: Is PYD going to be the Kurdish forces in Kobane? Are they going to be part of the train and equip program ultimately?
Allen: We will be consulting very closely with Turkey about who gets into the train and equip program. And so I will not comment on that.
Aydintasbas: Does it not make sense to include them?
Allen: I am not going to comment on who is going to be in the train and equip program.
Aydintasbas: The relationship and the coordination you have with PYD has become a sticking point with Turkey. They are clearly not happy about it. How do you plan to go about continuing to help PYD forces?
Allen: You are talking about Kobane?
Allen: We are going to help the opposition in Kobane and that is the way we will articulate it.
Aydintasbas: And Turks now accept what you are doing in Kobane?
Allen: You would have to ask the ambassador in that regard.
Aydintasbas: And my final question is, basically, I know you are about to start the train and equip for 2,000 guys it has been reported I think, and then 2,000 guys in Saudi, and people are not really convinced – 2,000 guys here, 2,000 guys there – is enough to take on ISIL. I mean look how much difficulty Iraqi security forces had back early this summer, so what is that going to do?
Allen: It is not the only thing that is going to happen. Obviously we are going to support the FSA and the moderate Syrian opposition, we are going to continue to deliver air power, we are going to continue these capabilities through the train and equip program which is 5,000 a year for several years. We are going to keep a very close eye on the operational environment. We are going to look at the totality of the support that we give, to determine that we are focused on the right direction and the resources are being allocated properly and that we are doing all that we can to provide the kind of support that is necessary for the Free Syrians.
Aydintasbas: How do you define your goal, containing ISIL, degrading them?
Allen: As we said our goal is to degrade and defeat over time.
Aydintasbas: Any important points?
Allen: To make a couple of points, it is important that we understand again that my role is to work with the coalition, we work to consolidate the members of the coalition, to integrate the contributions that the members of the coalition are making into the strategy– and I will talk about the strategy in just a moment– and then ultimately to coordinate the role of the coalition. The coordination takes a number of forms. We will have on December 3rd, for example, our first ministerial meeting of the coalition.
Aydintasbas: Where is it going to be?
Allen: In Brussels. This will be the first political consultation of what will be a series of conversations where we will consult politically about the strategy and the way ahead. So consolidate, integrate the capabilities and ultimately, to coordinate the activities. We do it to cross five lines of operation; the first is a military line which is attracting so much attention. The other four are dealing with and impeding foreign fighters – both going to the battlespace and returning; disrupting the revenue flow to ISIL from the various means by which they generate; fourth is in humanitarian assistance; and fifth is in delegitimizing the brand of ISIL.
Aydintasbas: The PR campaign?
Allen: It is much more than that actually. Each country has an ability to contribute based on its audience, its population, based on its segments of population which are potentially susceptible for recruiting for ISIL. So it is much more than that. As we have organized in each one of those five lines, some countries can only contribute in one of those lines. Some countries can contribute in several, some in all of them. And so the activities between and among those lines seeks to create the synergy necessary to degrade and ultimately ISIL. So the conversation that we are having with Turkey is a very important conversation; we are able to find ways for Turkey to feel comfortable in its contribution across those lines of operation.
Aydintasbas: So sounds like you feel Turkey is on board?
Allen: I think Turkey has very clearly viewed ISIL as a threat, Turkey is already contributing in important ways, because it has a refugee population that has been inflicted upon Turkey. And I think as I said at a meeting the other day, I was very clear that Turkey deserves a lot of international credit for the work that it has done in terms of humanitarian assistance. So each of these countries ultimately makes its own sovereign decision wıth regard to how it will participate in those five lines of effort, integrating it so that we get the maximum return within that line of effort and between and among those lines of effort is the challenge that we will all face in the long-term. And then the political meetings from time to time help us then to ensure that we have a common political vision on the way ahead with respect to this strategy.”