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White House Press Call On Counter-Islamic State Campaign – Transcript

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The US White House released Friday the following transcript of the Press Call on the Counter-ISIL Campaign.

Following is a complete the complete transciption as released by the White House.

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Press call by Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication; Christine Wormouth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL on Counter-ISIL Campaign

MR. PRICE: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining the call. We wanted to provide an update on the campaign to counter ISIL. First some ground rules — the call will be on the record, but it will be embargoed until the end of the call. As such, we ask that you not tweet or use the contents of the call until it is concluded.

We have three senior administration officials on today’s call. We have Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. We have Christine Wormouth, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. And we have Brett McGurk, the Deputy Presidential Special Envoy for the Coalition to Counter ISIL.

So again, this is on the record, but embargoed until its conclusion. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ben Rhodes.

MR. RHODES: Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call. I’ll just make some brief opening comments and turn it over to Christine and then Brett.

First of all, generally speaking, as we’ve looked at the situation in Iraq and then particularly in Syria, we’ve been pursuing an effort that aimed to counter ISIL and degrade its safe havens and dislodge it from areas where it has established itself. At the same time, in Syria, we have made clear that we continue to believe that only a political resolution can bring lasting stability and ultimately create the conditions for the defeat of ISIL. And we’ve been working with international partners, of course, to provide a significant amount of humanitarian support to the Syrian people, including those who have been harmed and displaced by the ongoing conflict.

Again, we have a very broad coalition of countries that have joined us in these and other efforts in Syria in particular. And today, we’re going to focus on one element of what is the broader strategy in terms of our efforts to counter ISIL.

Over the last several months, we have made progress in degrading ISIL in both Iraq and in Syria. What we have found, of course, is that where we have effective forces on the ground who are in the fight against ISIL, we are able to make much more progress with respect to our airstrikes and our other support for opposition forces. And the President’s direction has consistently been that we need to constantly be evaluating what is not working and what is working in our strategy, and make necessary adjustments.

Clearly, we have had significant challenges associated with our training-and-equip program related to the counter ISIL mission, and we have been looking at ways to address those deficiencies. At the same time, we have seen opportunities emerge where we’ve been able to equip forces fighting ISIL on the ground in Syria and seen them make significant gains, particularly in northeastern Syria. So today’s announcement represents an ongoing process where we aim to learn from what works in our strategy and aim to make corrections where we see things that are not working.

So, with that, let me just conclude by saying this is, again, one element of how we’re going after ISIL and seeking to degrade ISIL within Syria. At the same time, obviously, there is a much broader strategy that encompasses efforts to pursue a political solution, to provide humanitarian support, to stop and stem the flow of foreign fighters in and out of the country.

But why don’t I turn it over to Christine to give a bit more background on the specifics of today’s announcement?

UNDER SECRETARY WORMOUTH: Well, as Ben said, what we’re really trying to do here is build on what has worked for us and learn from some of the things that have been a lot more challenging. So a key part of our strategy remains trying to work with capable indigenous forces on the ground. And we’ve seen in places like Kobane, for example, or Tal Abyad — we’ve seen how it works where we combine our sustained air campaign with offensive operations on the ground by capable ground partners.

So what we want to do coming out of this review is to build on that and work with groups on the ground who are already fighting ISIL, and provide them some equipment to make them more effective, in combination with our airstrikes. So to do that, we will be — as Brett said, we’ve worked with some of these groups and know who they are. We will be taking some of the leaders of these groups who are already fighting on the ground, putting them through the same rigorous vetting process that we have used in the original program, and then giving them basic equipment packages to distribute to their fighting force, again, to help enable their offensive operations.

That’s really sort of the core of the approach. And obviously, as we start doing that with some of these groups who we’ve been getting to know much better, we will also be looking for other groups on the ground who are fighting ISIL where we could probably use this same kind of approach.

That’s really the heart of it. And again, I think we’ve seen some of these groups on the ground be very effective, particularly in the northeast, and we want to help them be more effective going forward.

In terms of the program we originally conceived, we’re going to pause that for now. As I think Ben said, we’ve had some significant challenges, so we’re going to pause the training that we’ve been doing where we’ve recruited specific individual fighters. But there may be an opportunity in the future where situations on the ground are more fruitful, and if so, we will potentially be able to take that kind of approach in the future. But right now, I think given the complexities of the situation, we’re going to take sort of an operational pause.

We’ll continue to support, of course, the fighters we already have who are out there on the battlefield, particularly in the Mar’a line area. We’ll continue to support those folks who have come out of the program.

Why don’t I stop there.

MR. McGURK: I would just make three points. I think overall we always have to keep in mind this is the most complex situation imaginable. It’s the most dynamic situation imaginable. Every part of the map is different and we need different tools at different points. I think we’ve learned over the last year that the more we can be adaptive, the more we can look to seize opportunities as they arise, the more effective we can be.

At the same time, the more we try to rigidly fit kind of a square peg into a round hole and try to do things the way we might have envisioned them, the less effective we’ll be. So some examples of that — Christine mentioned Kobane. We never really focused on Kobane when we put the strategy together, and then Kobane became an opportunity for us. And one of the goals when we put the strategy together was to secure the Syria side of the border with Turkey. And building on what happened in Kobane, we’ve managed now the entire — if you look at the Euphrates River, which bisects Syria, the entire eastern — Euphrates to the east has now been denied to ISIL. And that’s because of what we did in Kobane, with decisions the President made to do an airdrop at a critical time to the defenders of Kobane back in October, and then opening up a corridor to Turkey with the Peshmerga, getting them in there, and then working with Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs to begin offensive operations outside of Kobane, and that is to close that entire pocket.

Through that process, we’ve gotten to know a lot of these fighters, a lot of the leaders — Arabs, Kurds, there are Christians there. And so we’re looking for ways to take advantage of those relationships and harness them. And I think that’s something that we’ll obviously be doing going forward.

Also in Iraq, situations that arose such as Tikrit — Tikrit kind of arose. It was initially led by militia groups. That offensive stalled. And then we had an opportunity to help the Iraqi security forces liberate the city of Tikrit. We had a number of issues after that happened and we managed to work through those. And now, working with the U.N. and with the coalition and an international stabilization fund we’ve established, we have about 65 percent of the population from Tikrit now coming back to the city. And that’s quite significant. And we’re learning lessons from there as we look towards Ramadi.

So this is dynamic, it is complex. We need to be flexible. We need to be adaptive. We’re changing things we’re doing all the time. And I think the announcements today reflect some of the changes to the T&E program. And it’s not halting the program. Those stories are just not true. It’s adapting it to make it more effective, and to apply immediately to the forces that are on the ground fighting ISIL now as we look to make more progress over the next six months.

MR. RHODES: Great. Thanks, Brett. With that, we’ll move to questions.

Q Thank you very much, all of you. Question about — with this shift, which has really been signaled by the Pentagon for a couple of weeks now, the pause, how do you assess whom you will be working with on the ground, given the complexity of the different groups on this and some of their backing, and some of the others? And how complicated is this — how much more complicated is it by the Russian air campaign, especially this week with the cruise missile strikes and what’s actually happening on the battlefield?

MR. RHODES: So I’ll make a couple of comments and turn it over to Brett and Christine.

On your second question, one of the points that I think we would make is we’re actually going after ISIL, which Russia is not doing. We see the vast majority of the Russian strikes targeting non-ISIL opponents to the Assad regime when, in fact, what we are doing with a very broad coalition is seeking to dislodge and roll back ISIL’s present in Syria. Much of the activity that we’ve pursued with respect to supporting forces that are making progress against ISIL on the ground has taken place in eastern and northern Syria. That will be ongoing.

We see the Russian actions as extraordinarily counterproductive in terms of eroding the space for political resolution. And insofar as Russia is targeting opponents of the Assad regime who are not extremists, they are, at the same time, undermining the political resolution that they have stated they support, and risk getting themselves, as the President said, immersed into a quagmire in Syria.

Our focus is on countering ISIL. The one point I’d make, just because we did make — the opening, is that when we look at the T&E program, a substantial amount of the resources allocated for this program is focused on equipment. And a lot of that equipment, of course, continues to be available to us. And so we will be able to draw from the equipping side of the T&E program to get what is — resources that are necessary into the hands of groups that are in the fight against ISIL on the ground that could also potentially benefit from our air support and other types of support.

But I don’t know, Brett or Christine, if you want to speak to the vetting and relationships.

UNDER SECRETARY WORMOUTH: Sure. Why don’t I speak to that? I terms of — certainly, it remains a complex battlefield. As Brett said in his comments, we have been working with these groups for months in many instances. So we have I think pretty high confidence in them already. In the meantime, the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force that’s led by Major General Mike Nagata, that will continue to do work. And part of what General Nagata’s efforts will be focused on is finding other groups, helping identify other groups in Syria on the battlefield who we may be able to take this approach with.

So we will continue to look for other opportunities like the ones that we’re seeing with the Syrian Arabs. And again, the approach we’re going to take — just to reemphasize it — is to identify leaders from those groups to make sure that we vet their sort of larger units at the unit level, pull the leaders out, subject them to very rigorous vetting, and then give them basic equipment packages.

MR. MCGURK: I would just add also, to just put into some context — this is really kind of — in northern Syria, an active fight against ISIL is going on around the town of Mar’a, we call it the Mar’a line. It’s been a static line for some time, but ISIL has been trying to push there for some time. And we’re working with units on the Mar’a line who are fighting as we speak, have been fighting quite heroically now for a number of weeks.

So a question begs itself: Is it best to take those guys out and put them through training programs for many weeks, or to keep them on the line fighting and to give them additional enablers and support? I think the latter is the right answer, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.

In northeast, the Arabs, Christians, Kurds I mentioned, we have very deep relationships with them now, and those are going to continue. And I think the adaptations we’re announcing today will help us accelerate that effort. And then of course, in the south, obviously, a defense of Jordan is critical to us. And a number of moderate groups in the south have been quite successful, and we’ll be looking to continue to support those groups.

So I think what this does is it allows us to be a little bit more flexible, a little bit more adaptive, a little bit quicker to get the groups that are fighting now the support they need.

Q I want to ask about the U.S. approach now to Assad. I know what the U.S. stance is toward Assad — that Assad must go — and I would not expect the administration to be changing its stance. But in terms of the approach, if the U.S. focuses on countering ISIL, I’m wondering if, as you take a look at what’s working and what’s not working, you are going to consider adjusting how much of a priority you place on that now. Has the President asked those in the NSC who sort of maybe would make that case to come back and make another — make that pitch to him? And do you think that the U.S. has any hope of military coordination with Russia, or is what you’ve learned from the past two weeks that de-conflicting is the absolute best you can hope for? Thanks.

MR. RHODES: So in terms of our military efforts inside of Syria and our ongoing military campaign inside of Syria, that has always focused on ISIL, given the profound threat that ISIL poses to the people of Syria, but also to our partners, our allies and, potentially, to our homeland. And that is why we initiated our airstrikes, and that was why we initiated this particular training-and-equipping program, which is obviously evolving with the decisions that we’re announcing today.

At the same time that we are countering ISIL, we’ve made very clear that we see no lasting resolution to the conflict as long as Assad is in power; that the vacuum that ISIL filled was in many ways created by Assad’s own brutality against his own people, which caused him not only to lose control of vast amounts of territory, but also to lose any legitimacy with a large majority of his population.

So we continue to believe very strongly that any political resolution has to involve Assad leaving power as part of a process of transition. And so one of the reasons to provide support to a variety of opposition groups in Syria is clearly to fight ISIL, but another reason is to ensure that there are credible opposition factions in the country who could be a part of a transition that brings together different constituencies and the type of transition that can lead to greater stability.

So the President is not in any way looking at revisiting Assad’s position in Syria because the people who have rejected Assad are the Syrian people. And there’s no military solution that could be imposed upon them in which Assad stays in power. That would be a recipe for more extremism, a recipe for more conflict. And it’s just simply something that we don’t think would work.

Q Thank you so much. Quick two questions. One is that is this the new — this new opposition group leaders also be obliged to fight only with ISIL? Or can they continue fighting Assad? And my second question is we have had many similar conference calls in the past; one in summer of 2013, again, with Mr. Ben Rhodes — telling us and was telling the world how U.S. is going to ramp up the support to Syrian rebels after it turned out that Assad regime was using chemical weapons on the civilians. And here we are more than two years later still talking about ramping up the support to Syrian opposition groups. Why should anyone believe this time is going to — different, change the game on the ground? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, on your second question, the only thing that’s really going to change the fundamental nature of the conflict is a political process. We said that in 2013, we said that in 2014, we’re saying that in 2015.

The conflict is not going to be won militarily. We have been very candid about that. This is not going to conclude with one force completely defeating another on the battlefield. It’s not going to be a military solution imposed by the Assad regime or by Russia. It’s not going to be a military solution imposed by one opposition group or any mix of opposition groups, even with the support of the United States and our coalition partners.

So again, our consistent position has been that there needs to be a political resolution, and that all of the countries that are concerned in the region and international community need to invest in that.

With respect to the opposition, we are continuing to try to achieve the two principal aims that I spoke of. One of course is empowering them to fight ISIL and to reclaim territory that ISIL controls in Syria. And the other is to ensure that there are credible, strengthened opposition forces. And we’ve been providing support in different parts of the country since 2013, as you mentioned. We’ve had groups receive U.S. — a variety of types of U.S. support in the south, in the north, and increasingly in the northeast as well, as they fight ISIL.

So we never — we didn’t expect then and we don’t expect now that you can end the conflict in Syria through support to an opposition group. What we can do is aim to roll back ISIL’s gains and aim to have partners who could be part of a political resolution that ultimately is the only way this conflict ends.

UNDER SECRETARY WORMOUTH: I would just say to the gentleman’s first question, the authority we have to conduct this train-and-equip program from Congress is really focused on fighting ISIL. And as I think you’ve heard from a couple of — from Ben and from Brett, our focus, sort of writ large, has been fighting ISIL. And the authority we have from Congress fits into that frame, and that really is how we focus the changes. That’s the broad context for how we’re adapting the program, and so that’s going to be the focus that we’re going to have with these groups that we’re going to provide additional equipment to going forward.

Q Thank you. If you’re going to rely on the vetting of rebel leaders and commanders rather than their actual forces, how do you prevent U.S. weapons from getting in to the wrong hands as they’re distributed among those forces? Doesn’t that risk have to rise, of that danger? And also, what specific weapons are being considered or planned for transfer? Are we talking about anti-tank rockets? Could this even include MANPADS? And finally, what, if any, though is being given to creating no-fly zones?

UNDER SECRETARY WORMOUTH: Obviously, this is a different approach, where we’re going to be vetting leaders as opposed to each individual fighter. And the way we’re going to be — but we still obviously want to have confidence in sort of the ultimate disposition of the kinds of equipment that we’re going to be providing.

So really, what we’re talking about here is providing — without getting into great detail, given the need for operational security — we’re going to be providing more basic kinds of equipment to these groups. And that’s one way we’ll try to mitigate the risk that we aren’t looking at every single individual fighter.

We have methods in place to be able to monitor that equipment. These were methods that we instigated with the original program. As we work with these groups and continue to see what kind of progress they make, and continue to build confidence, we may be able to look at additional types of equipment. But initially, we are certainly not talking about some of the higher-end types of equipment that the gentleman referred to.

MR. RHODES: Just on your last question, as I think you’ve heard us say, we’re focused here on the counter-ISIL mission, which obviously covers different parts of the country, in addition, of course, to the political resolution and humanitarian efforts that I’ve mentioned. We’ve not been considering a no-fly zone, given I think the extraordinary focus in terms of resources that that would bring without necessarily resolving the concerns we have about going after ISIL where they are, providing support to opposition groups in different parts of the country, not in simply one concentrated area, and pursuing a political resolution.

So what we’re focused on today is enhancing in particular the counter-ISIL mission.

Q Hi, everyone. Thank you for doing the call. Ben, could you speak to the reaction in Turkey, where there’s been concern about the U.S. equipping the Kurds? And also I just want to ask you to clarify — does this end all train-and-equip missions that the U.S. has going, or just the one being run by the Pentagon?

MR. RHODES: First of all, to be very specific, we’re addressing the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program that was initiated as part of the counter-ISIL effort in 2014. We are not ending that program. What we’re doing is we’re pausing the element that too fighters out of Syria and aimed to train them and then help them go back into the country.

However, the program itself continues because, as I mentioned, for instance, a significant amount of resources dedicated to this program focus on the equipment that would be provided to opposition forces. We will be using that equipment in different ways by trying to get it more directly into the hands of people who are in the fight. So it’s an evolution in terms of how we apply those resources.

And, frankly, we’re also not ruling out any future training, but we are acknowledging a pause in the way in which we’ve approached the program and conducted the training out of the country to date. And this focus on building on what we’ve seen work, which is developing relationships with leaders and units, and being able to get them supplies and equipment as they are in the fight against ISIL.

My colleagues may want to speak to the Turkey portion. I would just note that, number one, obviously, one of the elements of the opposition that we have worked with and had some success with have been Syrian Kurds, but also certainly Syrian Arabs as well. We base our judgments on who is fighting ISIL, but also on what their own affiliations are in terms of any potential support for terrorism and extremism. And we’re very, very careful to provide support to groups who, again, are not involved in that type of activity.

And I’d also note that Turkey is fundamental to this coalition. And we are working with them across a host of different lines of effort in both our broader Syria efforts on the humanitarian side, military side, counterterrorism side. And so that certainly continues to be the case.

MR. MCGURK: I would just — we’re working extremely closely with Turkey throughout this process. And Kobane, which I mentioned and Christine mentioned earlier, could not have actually happened without Turkey and without Turkey granting access for that Iraqi Peshmerga corridor, which was critical at a crucial time. That was kind of the start.

And since that process, we’ve been consulting extremely closely with the Turks throughout. And then of course a couple months ago, they opened Incirlik to the coalition for anti-ISIL missions. Turkey has invited a number of coalition partners to fly out of Incirlik, and we’re working with Turkey — I mentioned the Euphrates River before — to the west of the Euphrates, the last 98-kilometer strip — it’s more than a strip, it’s kind of a whole section that Daesh controls. It’s very strategic territory for ISIL. The town of Dabiq is there. Jarabulus, which is their main border point now is in that gap. And we’re going to be working with Turkey to apply as much pressure as we can there.

We stay away from terms like safe zones or protective zones because that implies ground and hold force that will take some time to develop. But we do want to do, and do urgently — and we’re working with Turkey very closely to plan this — is put significant pressure against ISIL in that strategic area.

And of course, the Mar’a line, which I mentioned earlier, the defense of that is — also having Incirlik is critical to that. It’s about a 15-minute flight, compared to about three hours coming from the Gulf. And we’re working closely with Turkey there.

So Turkey, as Ben said, remains a critical partners. Of course, we consult with them through NATO, as we did this week. That was Secretary Carter’s trip. And Christine might want to speak more to that. But again, a crucial partners. Complicated. They have an election coming up in three weeks, of course, but we’re consulting with them throughout this process.

Q Hi. Thanks. Christine mentioned that this announcement is the result of a review. Was that part of the broader review of the strategy or this particular program? And are there other ways that the President is considering changing his overall strategy, particularly factoring in Russia’s military effort? If so, what are those options?

On idea that’s out there is that you guys are looking at local ceasefires with the Assad regime. Is that on the table? Is there a broader discussion about shifting the emphasis in Syria temporarily to focus more on Islamic State and less on Assad’s exit? And just to clarify, you said, Ben, that a safe zone or a no-fly zone is not under consideration?

MR. RHODES: So first of all, I think, Carol, there’s been a very specific review of this train-and-equip program. I think that’s something that we’ve acknowledged for some time now.

I think more broadly, given how dynamic and complicated the situation is in Syria, we are regularly looking at whether there are additional adjustments that should be made to our efforts; whether there are additional options that should be considered. So this is not the kind of the thing where you step back and you conduct a broad review. This is something that we do in real time on a very regular basis at all levels of government.

We’re addressing one piece of it today with the train-and-equip program. But again, we’re constantly looking at our military campaign, our support for the opposition, our efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters, what opportunities there may or may not be on the political track. So that’s an ongoing process.

I mean, I don’t want to preview other areas of consideration. I would note we’ve — in terms of the political process, we obviously have been in support of a broader resolution of conflict. I think the United Nations has at times sought to determine whether or not there are other ways to de-escalate on a more regional basis. I think our concern there would simply be that there not be processes that advantage the regime to the disadvantage of opposition groups.

But again, we continue to be open to dialogue with all the parties in the region and international community and the United Nations about various ways to move the political process forward.

On the no-fly zone, that has been our longstanding position. Again, we see significant resourcing challenges associated with focusing on the establishment of a no-fly zone that could, frankly, take away from other elements of our counter-ISIL campaign, other elements of our support to the opposition in different parts of the country. We have had discussions about other ways to try to provide great humanitarian access and safety for populations in parts of Syria. So that will be an ongoing process. But a no-fly zone is obviously a significantly resource intensive effort.

So I think that addresses most of your questions. But again, we’ll continue to make any refinements as necessary in consultation with a very broad coalition. So we’re not the only party to this coalition. We’ve taken ideas from Turkey. We’ve worked with our European and Arab partners, as well. And that will certainly continue to be the case.

Q Hey, guys. Ben, if you could — or whoever actually wants to address this question of the criticism that comes at you guys from Capitol Hill and elsewhere that there wasn’t a kind inevitability that this kind of training program would fail, but rather a failure of execution of it; and whether or not part of the evidence of that is that the CIA training program is actually working maybe better than the DOD/Pentagon training program did. And then more broadly, I don’t think this — you mentioned Congress at all in this call. Is there any role for Congress in terms of kind of consultation with them as you enter a different kind of phase or a different kind of program that you’re going to put in place?

MR. RHODES: I’ll start. I’m sure Christine may want to add.

First of all, Congress — we’ve been consulting them on an ongoing basis. And frankly, their concerns were certainly factored into the adjustments that we’ve been making. And this will be an ongoing dialogue with Congress. And they have a significant role to play and a significant voice in how we consider these issues.

I think the one thing I’d say, Mike, is again, this has been focused on very specifically, the counter-ISIL campaign. There are certainly challenges associated with taking people out, as Brett said, taking people out of Syria to train them and to go back in to fight ISIL, specifically. And what we’ve found is the people who were actually in that fight and have an enormous stake, we have an interest in them staying in that fight and going on the offense against ISIL rather than taking time out of the country to receive that type of training.

That’s not to say that there may not be a role for that in the future. But I think what we’ve learned over the course of the last several months is we’ve had greater success — again, identifying those forces on the ground that are in that fight and getting resources to them as quickly as we can and as effectively as we can and coordinating with them so that they benefit not just from our training, but from our air support as they go on offense against ISIL.

But, Christine, you may want to add, I’m sure.

UNDER SECRETARY WORMOUTH: Yes, thank you. I would just say I think this is a very — a very, very challenging battlefield. As Brett has said, there are many different groups. There are many different extremist groups on the ground. So it’s an incredibly complex quilt. And given the complexity of the battlefield, I think the CJIATF has worked very, very hard and has done everything it can with a very complex mission to execute the program as effectively as it could.

Fundamentally, I think one of the major challenges we have was that the authority we have from Congress is focused on counter-ISIL. And that gave us a very high bar in terms of recruiting. Because obviously there are many, many individuals in Syria who want to fight the regime. We were focused on identifying individuals who wanted to fight ISIL. And that’s a pretty challenging recruiting mission.

And then of course, we have very, very high standards for the individuals to meet to be able to be a part of our program. So I don’t think at all this was a case of poor execution. The folks who have been involved in this program are professionals with decades of experience training indigenous forces; and I think have made modifications as we being to bring fighters out of the country and put them back in. We were constantly learning lessons and doing everything we could to make the program be as successful as it could. But it was inherently a very, very complex mission.

And again, those folks who were running the original program will continue to be looking at finding groups on the ground in addition to the ones that we’ve been working with in the last few months to try to build on that broader equipping program going forward.

And I’ll stop there.

MR. PRICE: Well, I think that concludes our call. Thank you very much everyone who participated.

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