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 to Syria 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 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 extremists of the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and 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.
"They are now trying 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 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 Syrian 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 multi-ethnic anti-ISIL fighters" who are "hectically" engaged in battle with the extremists. The Islamic State, a radical offshoot of al-Qaida, 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.
McGurk said it was a coincidence that his Syria visit came just as the Geneva talks are getting started. He said planning for the trip had been underway for a long time.
The Rome conference is a follow-up to one held in Paris six months ago. Foreign ministers from more than 20 countries, plus the United Nations and European Union, will attend.
A senior State Department official, speaking anonymously under the agency's ground rules for briefing reporters, said the goal is to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State, both on the battlefield and in shutting down its financial base and its ability to communicate effectively with potential supporters.