Senate Given Positive Outlook for ISIL Defeat

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Undercutting warnings about the Islamic State group, a U.S. representative to the anti-ISIL coalition told senators Tuesday that the group is steadily losing territory, fighters and morale.
     “The trajectory is positive,” said Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the anti-ISIL campaign. “ISIL has not had a major battlefield victory in over a year. It has lost 47 percent of its territory in Iraq, and 20 percent in Syria.”
     McGurk said the strategic nature of the territory retaken — including most of the Syria-Turkey border; key cities of Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah; and major transit points between the main city of Raqqa and the group’s capital, Mosul — matters more than those percentages.
     When pressed by a sometimes skeptical committee on whether coalition forces would be able to hold the retaken territory, McGurk said ISIL has been unable to retake any of its lost territory so far, which indicates the coalition is doing something right.
     The anti-ISIL coalition has also stemmed the flow of foreign fighters, and the territorial losses have sent the group’s morale plummeting.
     “We have seen credible reports of ISIL executing its own fighters on the battlefield. Whereas it once claimed to represent the people under its control, it is now executing anyone seeking to leave its control,” McGurk said.
     Anti-ISIL coalition gains have also made it more difficult for the group to operate in the open, and train or communicate, he said. Its coffers are running dry, forcing the group to slash pay and services, which has led to internal resistance. Some fighters are looking for a way out, he said.
     Stabilization efforts on the ground have also improved, allowing local communities to return to their homes and secure their cities. McGurk said he hopes the 80,000 displaced Iraqis from Fallujah, which Iraqi forces reclaimed from ISIL on Sunday, will begin returning to the city next month.
     McGurk presented his optimistic assessment several weeks after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history left 49 dead and 53 injured at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
     Federal investigators have not found a direct link between ISIL and the shooter, Omar Mateen, but he apparently pledged his support to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a 911 call before law enforcement killed him at the scene.
     In one caveat to the optimistic prognosis, McGurk said ISIL has always called for external attacks and has called for more of them as it loses territory.
     The testimony echoes CIA director John Brennan’s warning to the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that the group will try to inspire lone-wolf attacks.
     “This is very difficult to stop,” McGurk said.
     Republicans, including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, have long criticized President Obama’s Syria and anti-ISIL strategy. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., pressed McGurk on the speed of the progress, and expressed discontent at the administration’s lack of a solid game plan to defeat ISIL.
     “Our strategy is defeat,” McGurk responded, highlighting what he called a three-year game plan that will require the coalition to go city by city to cut off key operational nodes, something that will take more time.
     The game plan failed to impress Johnson. “That’s my point, we’re not doing this fast enough,” the senator said.
     McGurk indicated that the coalition is south of Mosul, but is making steady progress toward ISIL’s capital. Though he cautioned that the fighting near Mosul and Raqqa will be hard, McGurk said anti-ISIL forces will start moving toward Raqqa after clearing out the Manbij pocket, the final stretch of land with an international border.
     As for the Syrian part of the ISIL equation, McGurk refrained from advocating for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal, calling forced military regime change risky.
     But he did say containing the Syrian conflict is essential.
     “This war simply will not end with Assad leading the regime in Damascus,” he said.

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