Landmark U.S. Raid In Syria Killed ISIS Leader In Northwest Syria NPR's David Greene talks to Brett McGurk, the former U.S. Special Envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS, about the operation that killed the organization's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
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Landmark U.S. Raid In Syria Killed ISIS Leader In Northwest Syria

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Landmark U.S. Raid In Syria Killed ISIS Leader In Northwest Syria

Landmark U.S. Raid In Syria Killed ISIS Leader In Northwest Syria

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I want to bring in another voice here. It's someone who worked for President Trump fighting ISIS. Brett McGurk was U.S. special envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS. That's until he resigned last year after Trump announced a troop withdrawal from Syria. Thanks for being here this morning.

BRETT MCGURK: David, great to be here.

GREENE: So as Greg was just saying, I mean, there's this reality that you need troops on the ground, in some cases, to get intelligence. But the president has been pulling troops out of Syria at the moment when this raid happens, the president basically arguing that that this successful raid shows that you can fight terrorism without needing to have troops based there on the ground. Does he have a point?

MCGURK: Well, first he deserves credit for ordering this raid, which was a gutsy call, and the right call. It really is a landmark day. And it's a tribute to our men and women to do this difficult work. It's a - I think a day to reflect on the thousands of victims of ISIS. So it's a significant achievement and a landmark day.

But it didn't just happen. It takes years of really painstaking work to build the relationships, the information, the networks to lead you to a pinpoint location like this and then to be able to execute an operation so flawlessly. And in this case, it appears to be the Syrian democratic partners that we've been working with for almost five years that were essential to helping to make this happen.

GREENE: These are the largely Kurdish forces the United States had been working with and that feel very betrayed right now because of the president's pullout. But again, as the president has argued, I mean, he suggests that this kind of raid can happen - you can fight terrorist groups even if you don't have troops there. So going forward, I mean, if there are not U.S. forces there, does that necessarily mean that raids like this can't happen, or does the president have an argument?

MCGURK: This isn't - it's not a movie. And so, look, I was involved very closely with this. You know, almost every special forces operation in Syria against significant ISIS leaders - all of them that I was aware of - came from our partners and sources on the ground. And so the answer is really no. If you don't have access to be able to put base and stage, if you don't have relationships somewhat nearby the target to know what's going on, it increases the risk for our troops.

So ideally here, that October 6 call with Erdogan would not have happened. So we would still be in a position of some strength across the northeast with all of those networks that we've built over a painstaking number of years. And then, with the information now being analyzed from the Baghdadi compound, which is surely just a trove of information, we would be able to act on all that information.

But over the last 3 1/2 weeks, we have already pulled back from most of northeast Syria. So the famous iconic cities of Raqqa, Manbij, where the attacks in Europe were planned and staged, we've left those areas. And they're now controlled by the Russians and the Assad regime. So...

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about that because, I mean, you mentioned Turkey's leader in the phone call that Trump had with Erdogan, which led the way for Turkish troops to come in. But I wondered if I could ask you about Russia and your experience in their involvement. I mean, President Trump says Russia is among the countries who can take up the fight now against ISIS. I mean, the U.S. and Russia have counterterrorism intelligence sharing, right? Is there anything wrong with this arrangement - like, going forward, the U.S., you know, keeping intelligence and giving it to the Russians, if it's actionable, to fight on the ground?

MCGURK: Well, first, it's very limited what we share with the Russians - and for good reason. And the Russians cannot do anything like we - what we just did. There's also a bit of a disconnect in the policy because the people working the policy are saying they really don't want to work with Russia in Syria and looking ways to actually counter the Russians, whereas the president, whenever he speaks of Syria, says, you know, well, hey, the Russians can do this. The truth is, the Russians really can't.

And what we have done in northeast Syria, which was the heart of the ISIS caliphate, was just extraordinarily effective. It defeated the physical caliphate. It take out - took out most of ISIS' leadership. And it developed networks that we had to follow up and make sure that they couldn't reconstitute.

GREENE: So you're suggesting a raid like this might be very difficult in the future.

MCGURK: In - deep into Syria? It certainly will be. And I think - but in the immediate term, what would be best case here is that this raid happens. It's a landmark day. We are able to analyze everything off the Baghdadi compound - which I would love to see, just knowing where all these people are operating - and then you immediately follow up. And you just totally unravel the networks.

GREENE: All right. We'll have to stop there. Brett McGurk, thanks so much.

MCGURK: Thank you so much.

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