Former envoy to global coalition against ISIS on Syrian conflict

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Ambassador William Roebuck, the former Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, and current executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute. Roebuck provides an intricate history of the conflict in Syria and U.S.-led efforts to battle the ISIS caliphate. He details his work with U.S. special forces and partners on the ground and discusses the involvement and sacrifices of Kurdish forces in the region. Roebuck also offers thoughts on the Biden administration’s possible approach to resolving the ongoing conflict in Syria.  

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • On defeating the ISIS caliphate: “With the military piece of the global coalition over the last few years, we have dealt a catastrophic military set of setbacks to ISIS, to their leadership, to their organization and to their ability to plan terror attacks. They’re still around in remote areas of Iraq and Syria. It still requires attention and pretty constant work – but it’s under control now.” 
  • Partnering with the Kurds to combat ISIS: “They were highly motivated. They were able to take casualties. They were quite well disciplined in a military sense. They fought well; the US Special Forces folks that I spoke to repeatedly indicated that they were the best group that they had trained and equipped in their experience doing this over several decades. So their contribution to the fight against ISIS was absolutely essential.” 
  • Trump administration’s decision to pull out of Northern Syria: “I did not know. We did not know it was coming. I would say, to put to put it fairly – we were blindsided by it. It created an incredibly stressful set of pressures on our relationship with the SDF. It threatened the coalition that we had built with them to fight ISIS and it threatened to destabilize the entire northeastern part of Syria; it was a very difficult situation to deal with. I had some incredibly tough meetings with General Mazloum when I had to sort of bear the brunt of his disappointment and anger that at this sudden shift in policy that threatened his forces with, you know, destruction – but also threatened a humanitarian catastrophe, basically, for Kurdish people if it got out of control. And I wasn’t the only one. Ambassador Jeffrey also had some tough meetings with General Mazloum, and he was feeling understandably betrayed, I think, and disappointed in the end.” 

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – WILLIAM ROEBUCK

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS  

MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show.

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Thank you. Mike, I’m delighted to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: So as you know, we’re going to we’re going to dig into Syria and ISIS. But I first want to ask a couple of questions about your career, if that’s OK. And I’d love to start by asking you what got you interested in the world, in foreign policy and in the Foreign Service?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Thank you for the question to sort of open things up, Mike. I got interested in international relations and the world, I think, years ago. Coming out of undergraduate school, I joined the Peace Corps, motivated primarily by a desire to travel and some idealism, wanting to volunteer and improve things. And as I was overseas as a volunteer, a whole world sort of opened up for me. I was in Africa, in Cote d’Ivoire, but also learned a lot about the Middle East from friends who were there working, who were from the Middle East and eventually went to the Middle East and worked as a teacher and, by a circuitous route, law school, etc.. I ended up in the Foreign Service and became a diplomat for the for the U.S. Department of State and had built my career ever since, primarily in the Middle East. So that’s really how I got into the whole business.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you’re a little bit unusual in that you you’ve got that law school piece in there. Did you find that helpful during your foreign service career?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: It was it was very helpful. I studied in law school. You get the whole array of courses and particularly first year, everybody takes the same basic set. But I focused on my latter two years on international law and got a lot of exposure to international public law, private, international, private, more business transaction type law, international human rights. And it was very useful as a as a framework coming into the the Foreign Service. In the end, you sort of have to get your hands dirty, so to speak, with experience. You get to learn how diplomacy is made, how visas are issued, how you sort of break into the foreign service doing immigration and visa work. But law studies were very useful as a background.

MICHAEL MORELL: So you’ve joined the Foreign Service, you’re at the State Department. Can you give us a sense of the trajectory of your career, where you served, where you spent time, the kind of issues you’re involved in? Just kind of a rough sketch would be fantastic.

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Sure. So I came into the Foreign Service as a young, what we called it back then, junior officer. I was assigned to be a consular officer in Jamaica. Basically, like a lot of the young officers who came in back then in the early nineties, right out of the shoot, my primary focus was on visa issuance and helping American citizens who were in trouble. And then I knew I wanted to work my way to the Middle East. That was my interest.

So my second tour was in Jerusalem, where I did mostly political reporting work in the West Bank. And did various things – keep an eye on how settlements were developing, Palestinian politics and those types of issues, and from there on, I just I sort of went from one post to another in the Middle East because that was my my interest. I did Gaza politics for several years working out of the embassy in Tel Aviv, but commuting to Gaza several days a week.

I was in Baghdad. I was the political chief for our US embassy in Damascus back in 2004 until 2007. And I was chargé d’affaires, essentially acting ambassador in Libya in Tripoli for six, seven months and did some other stints out there of shorter periods in 2013. And then I was our ambassador to Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf area from 2014 to 2017. So sort of served all over the Middle East and handled a variety of issues, a lot of maintenance of bilateral relations with these countries, cooperation on counterterrorism. Particularly as I rose up in the latter stages, I did a lot of commercial advocacy for U.S. companies and trying to build U.S. trade relations and investment in the Gulf, for example. So a very assorted set of assignments.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Bill; Syria and ISIS. So your last job in the Department was as the Deputy Special Envoy to the Coalition to Defeat ISIS. And before we get to that fascinating job, perhaps we can start with a bit of history here for my listeners. Can you walk us through, from a big picture perspective, the period from the start of the civil war in Syria to when you walk into that last job of yours?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Sure, I’ll give you a very thumbnail sketch – so protests, I mean, up until the Arab Spring in Syria – Syria was a police state. It had been run by the Assad family. Hafez al-Assad, the father, passed away. The son was the president in the late part of the first 2000s. And then the Arab Spring broke out and, over time, peaceful demonstrations were replaced by violent outbreaks. The Assad regime, I think, wanted that to happen and did not allow any space for peaceful protests. So over the course of years, from 2000, late 2011 and 12, through really theyears up until I went out there, there was armed insurgent groups of varying levels of Islamist complexion who were fighting against the Assad regime, being armed by different external players. The Russians entered the conflict in, I believe, 2016, somewhere along in there and essentially put the conflict on a much more favorable footing for the regime and they have essentially prevailed – I would say militarily, but they can’t control the whole country.

So there are large swaths of Syria now that are not under the Syrian government, the Syrian regime’s control. And that’s sort of where we are. I think the military situation is stalemated, but we haven’t been able to move into a real full peace process or any sort of political solution for the future of Syria. Although it’s not without trying. The UN has been heavily involved. We’ve been heavily involved with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and a Geneva process. But it just hasn’t gotten a lot of traction.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Bill, great, great arc of history on the Syria political front. Can you do the same thing with regard to ISIS?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Sure, so, ISIS got its start in Iraq. It developed out of some predecessor organizations that developed in the wake of the war that occurred in Iraq and all that set of developments that occurred in 2003 until 2012 time frame. By 2014, ISIS had exploded into Iraq and Syria, controlled large swaths of territory in both countries. At one point, I think it had control of about 40,000 square miles. It took over large cities in both countries, Mosul in Iraq and other cities, Raqqa in north northern Syria and really controlled the northern band of both countries. It was able to establish an external plotting platform to plot terror attacks in Europe and other capitals and represented a serious security and strategic threat to the United States and Europe and to other countries in the world.

President Obama wanted to take it on, but wanted to do it in a way that involved others. It wasn’t just a US government venture. So he organized the organization of this international or global coalition against ISIS. And it has evolved into an organization with 83 members, mostly states, about 79 countries and a few other organizations, and has proven remarkably nimble and effective at fighting ISIS. And I think we can say that without using the the word defeat. I think we can say that. With the military piece of the global coalition over the last few years, we have dealt a catastrophic military set of setbacks to ISIS, to their leadership, to their organization and to their ability to plan terror attacks. They’re still around in remote areas of Iraq and Syria. It still requires attention and pretty constant work, but it’s under control now.

MICHAEL MORELL: So so, Bill, let me ask it kind of two questions about this this big swath of time that we just talked about, one is about Syrian politics and the other is about the fight against ISIS. The question about Syrian politics is, as you know, there’s a debate about whether the United States should have done more in the early months of the civil war to support the opposition. There’s some people who say, Yes, we should have done more, and there’s some people who say No, you know, we need to be careful for all sorts of reasons. Where do you fall in that debate?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: I think in some ways it’s an unanswerable question. I think we, as we always do in politics, war and diplomacy, we’re always fighting the last war. I think the the framework of decision makers and policy makers as we headed into the Arab Spring was decisively shaped by what had happened in the previous decade in Iraq, where we did intervene decisively and for very good reasons, many of them – but maybe without a fundamental set of understandings about the country in the way it fit into this region. We broke the country really from its regional moorings and we’ve been dealing with those consequences ever since. So I think policymakers, and I would include myself in that, we’re pretty cautious about getting involved in Syria in a way where the United States would essentially own the conflict. There was a very dangerous brew of jihadi elements in the country; a direct U.S. intervention could have just – I don’t think there’s any question we could have pushed aside the Assad regime over time. But then you own the country and your very presence, your efforts exacerbate what is a terrorist threat and a terror insurgency. So I would have urged extreme caution. I probably would have in a few precise instances urged a more robust response to try to create some strategic deterrence and uncertainty, maybe, but I would not have urged a full US intervention.

I also was heavily involved in the Libya policies and we saw what happened there. So there were several cautionary tales that persuading people not to get to to rapidly involved.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, the second question, I think, is a pretty easy one. Were there any major differences in how the Trump administration fought the war against ISIS versus how the Obama administration did? Or was it pretty much the same?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: It was very similar. I think at the margins, they may have eased up some of the restrictions about particular actions that were being – that we took. But overall, I would say it was very similar. I mean, the US military composition that was out there was the same. There were people rotating in over time. But the basic structure organization, the way we prosecuted the the war against ISIS militarily and with the global coalition was essentially the same. It was very similar. There was a civilian piece to it that people like Brett McGurk and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey had charge of. And then there was the military prosecution of the war, which was the US military had the lead on, but with a lot of partners in the global coalition who contributed troops or either military capabilities.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, great. So now you’re in that last job. So you’re the deputy envoy. What’s your objective? What are you supposed to accomplish? Where did you spend most of your time? Can you tell us a little bit about the job?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Sure. So I had essentially a two-pronged job as deputy special envoy. Some of it was Washington-based and with travel to regional capitals helping Ambassador Jeffrey to manage that global coalition. We had different lines of effort, whether it was countering ISIS’s ideology or their money, terror financing activities, making sure we were drumming up enough support for stabilization activities and assistance in Iraq and Syria, those types of things. And that was my day job when I was back in Washington. I was in Washington probably about 30 percent of the time over those two and a half years.

And then that big 70 percent of my time, I was out in Syria and I was embedded with U.S. Special Forces in a couple of remote bases. My primary function was to ensure that we had good liaison with the Syrian democratic forces, our local partners, and in particular with the leadership. I was with them regularly. Sometimes every day I would meet, depending on if we were in a crisis situation, I might meet with General Mazloum and his leadership a couple of times a day. So I ensured that we had that liaison.

I got out a lot to sort of show the flag and create a sense that the US had a presence there diplomatically. I visited different cities, small communities to check on local administration to check on how the assistance that we were providing and others were providing was being delivered – and just classic political reporting and showing the flag. I did a lot of that also.

And the third function, I would say, is I was a liaison with our US military to make sure that we were all knitted up and other capabilities to make sure that we were all knitted up together, you know, working from the same sheet of music.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Bill, in terms of the coalition in the fight against ISIS, who were the key players, who were the most significant contributors to the fight – how do you think about that?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Obviously, the United States provided the leadership at the diplomatic level and also at the military level. I think nobody would dispute that. I mean, we were the dominant military player in both Iraq and in Syria, but we did have key allies, of course, on the European side: the British, the French, the Italians, the Germans were all very important players with us. And we had lots of other key partners, some of our friends in the Gulf, the Saudis, the Emirates were active members of the coalition and were very helpful also in helping us when our funding for stabilization dried up. When President Trump froze it in 2018, a few of our Gulf partners and a few of our European partners stepped in and provided critical funding on the stabilization assistance side to. So I’d say those were the key players that worked with us and helped us.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what about the Kurds? Can you talk about the Kurds and their importance?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: The Kurds had organized with Arab elements in northeastern Syria, a local organization, the Syrian Democratic Forces that we relied on. And it was absolutely critical to defeating ISIS. This was a group that, as I said, had both Kurdish and Arab elements, but some of the critical leadership was definitely Kurdish that came out of, you know, previous organizations. They were highly motivated. They were able to take casualties. They were quite well disciplined in a military sense. They fought well, the US Special Forces folks that I spoke to repeatedly indicated that they were the best group that they had trained and equipped in their experience doing this over several decades. So their contribution to the fight against ISIS was absolutely essential. We worked with them. We provided training and equipping and some partnered type operations, but they were the backbone for the fighting.

They were also the backbone for our security, providing our security so that we could function over there. And then they were the backbone for the security for the region of the whole northeast, making sure our cities were secure with police forces and making sure that there was local administration to ensure that the humanitarian situation was addressed and people could move about with their daily lives. So they were, in answer to your question, shorthand: They were absolutely essential and they were great partners.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I’ve heard some people say that we could not have won the fight, we could not have done the damage to ISIS that you talked about earlier, we could not have taken away the caliphate without them. Do you think that’s fair?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: I do. I think that’s absolutely accurate. I mean, we had overwhelming air power and other assets. But to actually, you know, dig in and dig out a heavily embedded force like that that’s hiding among the local population, you have to have a fighting force on the ground. And they were that force in in Syria.

They had good intelligence, they worked seamlessly with our military on the capabilities that we could provide, and over time we slowly took back all that territory in Syria, just as we had done working with Iraqi military forces in Iraq. And it was not easy. But on the other hand, they did most of the fighting on the ground. They absorbed the casualties. Very few American lives were lost in that conflict while we were over there. You’re talking over a period of a couple of years, I think maybe a dozen or so us lost their lives, and a lot of those were not in direct combat, it was just related to the inevitable casualties you sometimes suffer in a combat situation.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, what motivated the Kurds to fight with us? Why was this so important to them?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: That’s also a very good question. I mean, part of it was a hatred of ISIS, a fear of ISIS. ISIS had attacked some of their cities and they fought with incredible bravery and tenacity to get ISIS out and to save their population in some of these cities along the northern border of Syria, so that was clearly a motivation.

I think they wanted, coming out of that partnership with us against ISIS, they wanted, I think, to build on the relationship with the United States. I think they wanted legitimacy to a certain degree for some of their political demands and some of their demands as a people, in terms of recognizing their cultural identity and language and things like that. I think that was also maybe a more general motivation for that.

They certainly wanted to maintain the relationship with the United States, and I think they continue to see us as an indispensable partner and as somebody that as long as we’re out there and focused with them on ISIS and partnering with them, they benefit from it in direct and indirect ways.

And then the final thing I’d say is it just to be honest, I don’t think they had a lot of options. And it was a very difficult situation. There was a war going on and we were an option that provided some advantages for them. And there were some overlapping interest involved. So they pursued the relationship. And it’s been it’s been a relationship that has been beneficial for both sides.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Bill, walk us through what happens when President Trump announces that we’re pulling out of Syria and allowing the Turks to invade northern Syria. Where were you when you heard that? Did you know it was coming? Did the Kurds know it was coming? Tell us what happened.

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: So I was in northeastern Syria at the time, moving back and forth between some remote US Special Forces bases where we were co-located with some of our local partner forces in the Syrian Democratic Forces, we call the SDF. I did not know. We did not know it was coming. I would say to put to put it fairly – we were blindsided by it. It created an incredibly stressful set of pressures on our relationship with the SDF. It threatened the coalition that we had built with them to fight ISIS and it threatened to destabilize the entire northeastern part of Syria. It was a very difficult situation to deal with.

I had some incredibly tough meetings with General Mazloum when I had to sort of bear the brunt of his disappointment and anger at this sudden shift in policy that threatened his forces with, you know, destruction – but also threatened a humanitarian catastrophe basically for Kurdish people if it got out of control.

And I wasn’t the only one. Ambassador Jeffrey also had some tough meetings with General Mazloum, and he was feeling understandably betrayed, I think, and disappointed in the end. And not to belabor it too much, we were able to turn it around. We dealt with some difficult decision-making and some interventions. Back in Washington, the president reversed course a little bit and we managed to salvage our presence in about half of the northeast of Syria. We salvaged the relationship with the SDF and we have managed to continue the fight against ISIS. But it was a very tough period that you referred to.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have any idea or, if you don’t know, any guesses as to what might have happened in that phone call between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Trump? And you know what what case President Erdogan might have made that President Trump found so compelling?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: I don’t know. I don’t have special information about what it entailed, the conversation. I think President Trump was not up until that point really convinced that it made sense for us to be in Syria, so he wasn’t really – but it wasn’t a hard case for somebody to make. And of course, President Erdogan knows that area like the back of his hand. They’ve been involved in those areas for you know, is their backyard. It wasn’t something President Trump was familiar with and he wasn’t convinced it was something we needed to do.

I think once he took the decision and he got the blowback and some people that he, you know, listened to carefully, including Senator Lindsey Graham and others, I think he became more persuaded of the importance of our role there. But I think at the time of the conversation, he wasn’t very persuaded that it was an important thing. So maybe it wasn’t that difficult to be talked out of it.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, do you think there will be any long-term consequences from that situation or do you think that we’ve moved beyond it and don’t need to worry about long-term consequences? How do you think about that?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: You mean the decision about the incursion? Yes. Yes, I think we’ve moved beyond it. I mean, it’s been very difficult for the Kurdish population to absorb because cities with large Kurdish populations like Tal Abyad have basically been emptied of the Kurds. So there’s been some, you know, some ethnic cleansing, whatever you want to call it – there’s been some severe disruption in human terms and in social terms there that is going to take decades to to repair.

I think on the military side and the political side, it’s a maybe a more manageable situation, but it just makes the overall situation, which is already extremely complicated and complex, even more so. Not clear to me what Turkey wants to do with that enclave or other enclaves that it’s created in northern Syria.

And the whole problem of Syria, all the the various stakeholders who are involved in it have competing agendas. And that’s an example of one competing agenda. It’s just very difficult to see going forward how you resolve all those competing agendas and find a political solution that stabilizes Syria.

MICHAEL MORELL: So looking looking forward, what do you think our policy should be with regard to Syrian politics on the one hand and keeping an eye on ISIS on the other? What what do you think the U.S. should be doing?

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: I think the new administration needs to, first of all, assess very carefully what our objectives should be out there. We had a set of objectives for the last three or four years to defeat ISIS, to try to implement a political solution for Syria under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 to stop the use of weapons of mass destruction, get the Iranians out and address the humanitarian suffering.

I think the new administration with the Biden team needs to look at those objectives and evaluate carefully if we have the leverage: Do we have the political leverage to accomplish that? And what are those sources of leverage that we have? We do have a small military presence. We’ve got sanctions against the regime that give us some leverage. We have this coalition. We have some blocking leverage in terms of normalization of diplomatic relations and reconstruction assistance. So we do have some leverage. But I do wonder if we have enough leverage to accomplish those things.

But I think the new Biden team needs to do an assessment for now. What we’re doing out there, I think, in the short term, can continue, is sustainable as US military presence is stable. The goal to defeat ISIS is sustainable. So they have a window to do this reassessment. But I think they do need to look carefully at what has happened and assess if we have the necessary political leverage to achieve what we’ve been trying to achieve. I’m not sure we do, but I think that’s for the new team to look at.

Two things need to be done very quickly. One is consult closely with key allies who have been there with us on the stabilization assistance side, the military side, and then consult with the Syrian people and determine as best we can what what they want. Part of the problem is they’re very divided.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, thank you very much for joining us, this has been terrific. And thank you for your service to the State Department and to our country over a very long and illustrious career. Thank you.

WILLIAM ROEBUCK: Thank you, Mike. Thank you very much for having me on your show.

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