Kerry’s Interview with Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya

U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C.
September 19, 2014

Secretary Kerry’s Interview with Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya

QUESTION: Sir, thank you for this opportunity. Let’s talk of the latest news. The Congress approved your package, aid, for the Syrian rebels. What does that mean on the ground immediately?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it doesn’t mean anything immediately. That’s a process that’s going to take a matter of months. What it could mean immediately is the knowledge, the morale boost to people that they know that this process is going to take place now more robustly and in the open for people to see. It also means that people know that this is not just – this is not America. This is the community, this is the neighborhood, these are the interests of the nations that are there, and we’re there to help. We’re not there to come back in the way that occurred in Iraq. We don’t want that, and people in the region don’t want that. We know that. But nobody can tolerate the insults to Islam that ISIL represents.

QUESTION: Okay. Sir, you went to Jeddah and had a meeting with most of the major countries there. Did you get ironclad guarantees from the Turks, for instance, that they would really control the borders and stop the flow of the jihadists to Syria? Did you get from the Gulf states, particularly Qatar and Kuwait, guarantees that they will stop the flow of private funds to ISIS and Nusrah?

SECRETARY KERRY: We got significant guarantees of one kind or another from everybody that was there. Different people have different pressures or different concerns at this moment. But absolutely, every one of those issues was on the table. We must shut borders. We cannot have foreign fighters flocking to a country – and most of them are coming because of the way Assad has treated the people of Syria. So they’re coming to fight back and to push back, and unfortunately it’s taken a very dangerous and very ugly turn. But there are guarantees to help on foreign fighters, on financing, on borders – border control, on military, on aid, training, and even on direct military action.

QUESTION: Do you envision a military role for some Gulf states like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others?

SECRETARY KERRY: They envision – it’s not what we envision, but we welcome the broad support of a lot of countries. This is not the responsibility of one country, one place; this is a global responsibility. This kind of terrorism threatens every country. It threatens women, children, stability, the future. It’s hard to grow the economy in a country in the middle of this kind of turmoil and chaos.

So everybody has an interest in stopping people from committing genocide. Tying hands behind the back, shooting people in the head, cutting off heads, raping women, selling children. No – this is unacceptable by any standard of behavior, and it is important for the entire Islamic world to reclaim the legitimacy of Islam. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said that ISIL is enemy number one of Islam. The 21 clerics who represent this order that is permitted to issue fatwa – the only one that can do so legitimately, invoking the Prophet’s name and invoking the Qu’ran, the only one can do that – they have said clearly this is the order of Satan.

So I think that everybody understands this is – what we’re trying to do is provide the capacity for peace and stability to exist, and for inclusivity in the governments. We don’t want to see the sectarian division. We’re trying to see if this is a moment where people could really come together and help to shape the future.

QUESTION: Sir, you spoke with Iran about ISIS. Where does Iran fit in this struggle now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, ISIS is an enemy of Iran. Iran is threatened by ISIS. And Iran clearly has an interest in not allowing ISIS to continue its current activities. We welcome whatever Iran chooses to do or thinks it can do to deal with ISIS. We’re not in a position right now to coordinate in some way that we know of, but we’re open to a communication. We’re open to understanding how they feel they could be constructive.

QUESTION: But you’re still concerned about Iran’s role in influencing —

SECRETARY KERRY: Very much so.

QUESTION: — domestic politics in Iraq.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, absolutely. And not just the domestic politics of Iraq, but what’s happening in Syria. I mean, support for and working with Hezbollah, which is now not just in Lebanon but it’s moved over into Syria and it’s become an active participant in the fight to sustain Assad is part of the problem.

And so we have to figure out – let me make clear: We do not believe there is a military solution, ultimately, to Syria. You have to have a political solution, and that is a political solution that protects all of the interests of everybody – minorities all have to be protected – Druze, Christian, Alawite – everybody has to have an ability. And Syria has a great history as a secular country that is ready to welcome people. Frankly, Assad in his attack in a sectarian way of young people who simply wanted to have a better future has really brought this incredible turmoil of death and destruction.

QUESTION: Can you defeat ISIS in Syria without engaging the forces of Assad at a time when the Syrian opposition says, look, we are fighting ISIS and Nusrah, but also we are fighting Assad, we need change.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for the moment, the only entity that’s been really legitimately fighting ISIL has been the opposition, the moderate opposition. And the moderate opposition drove ISIL out of Idlib province. It drove – it’s fighting in Aleppo, it’s fighting in Damascus suburbs. So if we are helping and the community is helping to defeat ISIL, it seems to me that’s going to have some ability to create a different dynamic in Syria itself.

QUESTION: Okay. Sir, you keep saying that first we have to degrade ISIS and then defeat it. What does defeating ISIS means? Are we talking about decimating the leadership? Are we talking about killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Are we talking about driving them out of Mosul and Raqqah?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, what we’re talking about is destroying ISIL’s capacity to carry its terror to any communities in the region, to reduce its ability to be a threat to the stability of Iraq, to reduce its ability to be a threat to Syria, the United States, Iran, all of these countries. Obviously, there may be some person who still walks around and runs around who calls themselves an ISIS supporter. But the key is to end their ability to be a terrorist threat to the region, to – externally from the region, and particularly to Syria and Iraq.

QUESTION: There’s a lot of focus on the Kurds, arming the Kurds, equipping them and helping them. Is there any lingering doubts or concern on your part as the United States that this could hasten the process of Kurdish self-determination and even independence?

SECRETARY KERRY: If the leadership of Iraq reaches out and creates the kind of relationship which we believe is appropriate and can be created, I believe a lot of that argument and that churning will be resolved. The key is to be inclusive, and at the same time to give people a certain level of autonomy to be able to make decisions and still be part of a country. I believe that’s possible, and obviously, we hope that will take place.

But the Kurds, the Peshmerga have been absolutely critical to helping to stop ISIL. And in fact, Baghdad and others within Iraq as a whole should say thank you to the Peshmerga who have been essential in the fight of taking back Mosul Dam, of holding the line so that ISIL couldn’t go to Erbil. Imagine if they had all of that oil under their control. So it seems to me there’s a positive that has come out of this that needs to be respected and acknowledged by the leadership in Baghdad.

QUESTION: What would you like the legacy of this Administration to be in Syria and in Iraq? Now it’s obvious that this Administration will leave the war, again, for the next administration. We’re not – we’re talking about a long confrontation here. Talk about that a little bit.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, we believe very deeply – I believed that going into Iraq originally, the war in Iraq, was an enormous mistake. It is known that I believed that because I ran for president against George Bush and I made it clear during that what I felt about that war. That said, we are where we are. The United States wants Iraq to be a country that controls its own destiny. We want every country in the region to be able to have their sovereignty, their independence, their territorial integrity, and we want the people in those countries to be respected, to have opportunity, dignity, and to be able to live in peace.

We believe there is no military or conflict that is going to be resolving this. It has to be done by leadership agreeing to respect people and create a government that works for everybody. That could happen in Syria still. It’s happening in Iraq. Iraq’s leaders deserve enormous credit for putting together a government under very difficult circumstances, a government that has pledged to be unifying, inclusive, and to respect everybody’s need to be part of the choices for that country. That’s what we want. We do not want to be there. We don’t want our troops there. We want these countries to be important partners in the strategic interests of peace and stability.

QUESTION: There were some concerns in the region in the past that the United States was going to focus more on Asia, the pivot to Asia and all that, the United States turning its back to the Middle East, the United States producing more oil and all that. Did you sense these lingering doubts and —

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure.

QUESTION: — did you deal with them?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I did – yeah, I heard a lot about that when I first came in. I’ve always – I’ve never used the word “pivot.” I think it’s the wrong word because “pivot” gives people the impression that you’re turning away and doing something. What we’re doing is rebalancing. We’re rebalancing in a way that we are able to do both, all of the things we need to do. Obviously – just look at my schedule – I’ve made I don’t know how many trips to the Middle East. I’ve worked very hard on these issues. They’re unavoidable. At the same time, I’ve also been five or six times to Asia, to China and to Vietnam, to the Philippines, to Malaysia and Indonesia, Burma and Japan and Korea.

So we’re deeply involved in both places and we’re working to help try to create more stability, less conflict, less confrontation in both of those areas, and mostly to take advantage of this extraordinary moment. I want the people who listen to Al Arabiya to focus on their region. The Middle East could be a powerhouse economically. There’s enormous talent there, there’s enormous opportunity, a great deal of demand for education, for jobs, for growth, development, energy, for the – for water projects, for – I mean, you name it – agriculture. These are the things we should be working on together, not how do we arm this group or how do we fight that group. People need to recognize that the future is being stolen from them by these radicals who preach nothing but a sort of extremist notion of how people ought to live. And they tell everybody else how they ought to live without offering a job, without offering education, without offering healthcare, without offering any notion or vision for the future.

So this is a moment of choice and we hope that our friends in the Middle East will join us in seizing the future and rejecting this effort to go back to some ancient past of conflict and killing and oppression.

QUESTION: Unfortunately, now our time is up. (Inaudible), John Kerry, Shukran.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Shukran. Thank you, sir.