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Combating Terrorism in Iraq and Syria: Stephen Kontos and the Counter-ISIS Coalition

In the midst of war, terrorism, and instability, Stephen Kontos was tasked with uniting a coalition to combat one of the Middle East’s greatest terrorist threats—The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. Through their work, Kontos and his team turned a cramped conference room of a dozen people into a dedicated coalition of over 70 countries collaborating on counterterrorism in Iraq and Syria.

The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at a conference in Washington, DC, 2019 | U.S. Embassy in Syria
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at a conference in Washington, DC, 2019 | U.S. Embassy in Syria

The Syrian Civil War, with civilians and rebels fighting against what they deemed an oppressive regime under Bashar al-Assad, provided a perfect storm of chaos for ISIS to spread its influence. While Kontos had been working with the U.S. Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations [CSO] since 2012 to provide non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition movements, ISIS’s capture of Mosul in July 2014 signaled an alternative rising threat. ISIS gained territory and power in the region, prompting the United States to focus its attention from aiding Syrian opposition to solely addressing the terrorist group. In 2014, Kontos was tasked with coordinating the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Global Coalition to Counter ISIS to eliminate the threat once and for all. With numerous actors invested in the Syrian civil war and Middle East counterterrorism, the U.S. Coalition saw the importance of banding efforts to bring about the greatest chance of defeating the terrorist group.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see how Stephen Kontos championed informal diplomacy through impressive coordination and effective diplomatic power. Kontos and the Coalition presented a blueprint of large-scale multilateral cooperation, proving that members can be dedicated and productive despite an informal obligation. Kontos had to configure sustained dedication to such an informal diplomatic effort, navigating various perspectives, reservations, and priorities to maintain the harmony of the united front. His case study presents interesting questions of negotiation, collaboration, and diplomacy in its purest sense.

While Kontos was instrumental to facilitating U.S. assistance and policy regarding Syria and the Islamic State, these complicated tasks are far from the only issues that Kontos tackled throughout his impressive career. He had already accumulated a slew of career-defining operations by the time he worked with the Coalition. Rebuilding Bosnia after the Balkan civil war, addressing Homeland Security immediately after 9/11, conducting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks—each of these daunting tasks gave Kontos the skills and expertise that served him in coordinating the Counter-ISIS Task Force.
Stephen Kontos’ interview was conducted by Dan Whitman on July 17, 2020.

Read Stephen Kontos’ full oral history HERE.

Check out our Moments on the Syrian Civil War or the Middle East more broadly.

Drafted by Aubrey Molitor

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Excerpts:

“It fell to the task force to do the necessary legwork and sign up as many nations as possible.”

The Beginnings of the Counter-ISIS Coalition:
KONTOS: … Our job was to build diplomatic support for the global coalition: first, persuading foreign governments to join and, second, convincing them to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq. The task force was not involved directly in the military campaign, which was remarkable in that it came together so fast. More importantly, the military campaign against ISIS, especially air operations, involved an unlikely alliance of the U.S., NATO partners, and half a dozen Arab countries. That was a real coup for Secretary of State John Kerry who, in August 2014, convinced the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and Morocco to deploy fighter aircraft alongside those of the U.S. and its Western allies––notably the UK, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, and Australia, among others. But enlisting the Arab countries to join the military campaign was vital to demonstrate that the fight against ISIS wasn’t anti-Muslim, but rather a broad-based effort by the civilized nations of the world to eliminate a movement that exploited Islam to justify its crimes.

That was the beginning of the Counter-ISIS Coalition. After General Allen was appointed, also in September 2014, the National Security Council tasked the interagency to come up with a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. One of the key parts of the strategy was the creation of an international coalition to destroy ISIS and its sources of support. It fell to the task force to do the necessary legwork and sign up as many nations as possible. We spent hours and hours working on this, getting information out, and seeking pledges of support. With the help of State’s regional bureaus, we communicated with almost all our embassies abroad and made calls to countless foreign missions in Washington. By November 2014, at the direction of Secretary Kerry, the task force was consumed with organizing a big international conference that the U.S. would host in December in Brussels. The sixty participants in the Brussels conference became the sixty founding members of the Global Coalition, which by 2020 had expanded to more than eighty members. I’ve heard that historically this was the biggest international coalition ever assembled. All our work after 2014 was devoted to care and feeding of the Coalition.

“The military campaign was crucial, but by itself, without the other lines of effort, it would have been far more costly in lives and resources.”

Foreign Collaboration on State Preservation:
KONTOS: The military campaign was crucial, but by itself, without the other lines of effort, it would have been far more costly in lives and resources…. Each of the civilian lines of effort was coordinated via a working group comprised of Coalition members who, in effect, volunteered to participate. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the leadership role played by governments other than the U.S. The counter-financing group was co-led by Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. The foreign fighters working group was co-led by the Netherlands, Turkey, and U.S. This group attracted by far the most members––over sixty, as I recall. The United Kingdom and U.S. co-led the communications or counter-ISIS messaging group, while Germany and the United Arab Emirates co-led the stabilization working group. The military campaign was coordinated primarily by U.S. Central Command or CENTCOM, which hosted liaison officers from each participant military….

Coalition efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters demanded constant sharing of intelligence and law enforcement coordination. This was perhaps the most difficult nut to crack, because individual governments were reluctant to share intelligence secrets with such a wide group. The foreign fighters working group had the most members of any working group, many of whom lacked intelligence sharing agreements with the U.S. and others. It also stretched the idea of inter-agency cooperation. Most governments had different institutional arrangements for dealing with border security watchlists and international law enforcement cooperation. One of the Coalition’s break-through initiatives was enlisting Interpol to create a widely available database of suspected ISIS supporters and recruits. As the Coalition-backed military campaign shut off ISIS access to the outside world, the measures agreed by the Foreign Fighters Working Group prevented new recruits from making their way to the ISIS heartland.

“‘Are you going to stand up in front of all seventy Coalition members… and say that Turkey is opposing this language that you and everyone else previously agreed to? Are you going to tell them that Turkey alone is against this language?’”

           
A member carrying the ISIS flag near Dabiq, Syria, 2013, VOA | Wikimedia Commons
A member carrying the ISIS flag near Dabiq, Syria, 2013, VOA | Wikimedia Commons

Negotiating for Success:
Earlier I mentioned the big Coalition conference held in Brussels in December 2014. Special Presidential Envoy John Allen and his deputy Brett McGurk, who later succeeded General Allen, decided it was important to convene these conferences frequently to preserve Coalition unity. So periodically we would bring Coalition members together to talk about what more needed to be done, agree on priorities, plan strategy. I mentioned earlier that Coalition members did not sign any treaty or charter. Members simply declared publicly their support for the Coalition and participated in Coalition events. But in my opinion, the glue which actually held it together was the series of communiques and statements published after each conference. The conferences themselves alternated between those involving all the members and others limited to about thirty of the major military and financial contributors. This so-called Small Group acted as a steering committee, though we never used that term in order to minimize rivalries or ill-feeling among those who were not included.

I often got roped into drafting the communiqués. Brett McGurk did the first few, but later I ended up doing them. With a few exceptions, the drafting process was remarkably free of conflict. One of the exceptions involved Turkey and the Kurds. I remember that around 2016, we wanted to acknowledge the progress the SDF was making against ISIS in Syria.

Every time we mentioned anything having to do with the Syrian Kurds, the Turkish delegates would get their backs up. We repeatedly tried to come up with language the Turks would accept, dancing around the fact that the SDF was doing the bulk of the fighting on the ground against ISIS in Syria. We were able to agree on language that praised the Syria campaign but didn’t refer to the SDF by name. We did this after each conference for about a year or so, but after a routine event in early 2017, the Turks really dug in their heels and said, “No, we can’t accept any references to Syria.” This was a last-minute thing, just hours before the end of the conference and publication of the final communiqué. I think somebody back in Ankara looked at the statement text, which the conference delegates had already accepted, and said, “No, we won’t accept this language on Syria.”

I had to ask the Turkish delegation head, a deputy minister, “Are you going to stand up in front of all seventy Coalition members”––at this time, there were almost seventy members––“and say that Turkey is opposing this language that you and everyone else previously agreed to? Are you going to tell them that Turkey alone is against this language?” At that point, they backed down, but we had arguments with the Turks about the SDF every time.

Other delegations would raise minor issues that we easily resolved. For example, one of the delegations would insist, “You need to mention something about women,” or someone else would ask to add a reference to the Sawab Center or condemn ISIS looting of archeological sites. We almost always agreed to write in such suggestions. If you think about it, we never failed to produce an agreed communiqué––not once. There was always pretty much a consensus on everything. Even though the Turks didn’t want to acknowledge the SDF, everything held together, and the campaign succeeded to the point that ISIS was defeated on the battlefield and its forces destroyed or dispersed.

“…we were now leading a de facto international organization with sixty to seventy or more countries and international organizations.”

The Power of Informal Diplomacy:
WHITMAN: … So, you were now dealing with these issues at greater geographic distance. Were you still able to play a major role in the anti-ISIS, pro-Syrian civil society process? How did your work change by being in DC?
KONTOS: Well, the assignment changed. It was no longer focused on Syria or any one country. It was completely different, with a global focus. Whereas before we had been almost like an overseas embassy or mission focused on assistance in a particular country, we were now leading a de facto international organization with sixty to seventy or more countries and international organizations. So, it was completely different. I explained in the earlier session that the Coalition was entirely improvised. There was never any charter or official agreement. It was all done informally. The reason it held together is that from Allen and McGurk on down, we were all in frequent touch with our Coalition counterparts. And my office was responsible for all the diplomatic communications with Coalition members.

Whether to prepare for the conferences––we set up more than a dozen in three years––or to give briefings or solicit contributions, we reached out to foreign diplomats in Washington, corresponded with their foreign ministries, and of course, we always had to coordinate with the State Department country desks and interagency counterparts at Treasury, Defense, USAID, and other agencies. So, it was completely different… It’s important to understand that the Coalition was not created by a UN Resolution or any other official agreement. So, it was essentially an improvised and informal creation.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
The University of Chicago, 1972–1976
Joined the Foreign Service 1989
Washington, DC—Desk Officer for Palestinian Affairs 1991–1993
Podgorica, Montenegro—DCM 2008–2010
Washington, DC & Istanbul, Turkey—Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations 2012–2014
Washington, DC—Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Counter-ISIS Task Force 2014–2017