ROME — Utter devastation greeted Brett McGurk when the presidential envoy slipped into Syria over the weekend and visited the border town of Kobane a year after Kurdish forces repelled Islamic State extremists.
The remains of some of the estimated 6,000 Islamic State fighters killed in Kobane are still being pulled from rubble, McGurk said. He and Defense Department officials who accompanied him saw the landing site of heavy weapons and ammunition the United States airdropped to the Kurds. They attended a memorial for Kurdish fighters who died and talked to others hospitalized with wounds from more recent clashes.
More than once, McGurk used the word “poignant” to describe the two-day visit to Syria that aimed to assess how things are going in the multinational campaign to beat back the Islamic State.
“It was important to see this with our own eyes and talk to people on the ground,” said McGurk, who also was joined on the secret trip by French and British officials. “It’s obviously something all of us will both remember and also reflect upon as we realize how long we have to go to defeat and destroy this barbaric terrorist organization.”
McGurk and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are in Rome to attend a Tuesday conference of more than 20 nations that are part of a much larger coalition involved in countering the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL. McGurk told reporters traveling with Kerry of mounting concern that more foreign fighters are flocking to Libya as it becomes more difficult, and more dangerous, to travel to Syria and join the fight there.
“They are now trying to make Libya their hub,” he said. “I think that’s part and parcel of the success we’ve had in Syria. If you’re a foreign fighter joining ISIL in Syria, you’re going to die in Syria. I think they are learning that.”
McGurk was the most senior U.S. official to visit Syria since Ambassador Robert Ford stole across the border in May 2013 for a brief meeting with opposition leaders. Ford had left his post a year earlier when the U.S. Embassy suspended its operations in Damascus.
McGurk said he discussed upcoming moves in the Syria campaign with “battle-tested and multiethnic anti-ISIL fighters” who are “hectically” engaged in battle with the extremists. The Islamic State, a radical offshoot of al-Qaeda, has declared a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria.
His visit was seen as an effort to placate Syrian Kurds, who are among the most capable forces fighting the Islamic State. But they have so far been excluded from Syrian peace talks just beginning in Geneva, largely because Turkey sees the Syrian Kurds as natural allies of Turkish Kurds who are militant separatists.
In Geneva, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura met for two hours Monday with the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition. “We came here to discuss . . . lifting the siege and stopping the crimes done by Russian airstrikes in Syria,” Salim Muslet, a committee spokesman, told reporters after the meeting.
Opposition representatives initially refused to attend the talks, which were originally scheduled to begin last Friday. They said humanitarian steps were supposed to precede the opening of negotiations with the Syrian government on a political end to the civil war. Muslet called the conversation with de Mistura positive and said the opposition is now waiting for a report after he meets with the government side Tuesday.
De Mistura had a more upbeat take on the significance of the meeting with the opposition, saying it marked “the official beginning of the Geneva talks.” The challenge, he said, is for the talks to proceed on “different levels,” with simultaneous negotiations on a cease-fire and a political transition. Although the opposition has also demanded the release of prisoners, especially women and children, being held by the government, de Mistura said he was waiting for the committee to provide a list of prisoner names.
International stakeholders in the negotiations, including the United States and Russia, are present outside the talks but are not directly participating. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Anne Patterson, met in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov on Monday to press for an end to Russian airstrikes in Syrian civilian areas. Patterson, a senior U.S. official said, “urged Russia to use its influence” with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to push for full humanitarian access to all Syrians in need.”
DeYoung reported from Washington.