Manama Dialogue

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Manama, Bahrain
October 31, 2015

Good morning. John, thank you so much for your introduction and for your leadership at the helm of IISS, which is more necessary and more valuable than ever before. And it is especially good to be here to sit on a panel with my esteemed colleague and friend His Excellency Sheikh Khalid.

I’d also like to thank the Government of Bahrain and especially his Royal Highness Crown Prince Salman for hosting what is truly a timely gathering. And it is very good to be in Bahrain—a close, valued, and longstanding partner of the United States.

As we look across the world, the strategic environment in which we are operating is more fluid and more fraught with complexity than ever before.

Power is shifting among, below, and beyond nation-states. This shift is urged on by the rapid pace of technological change, the growth of economic interdependence, and scale of global connectivity.

It requires governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors—from the mayors of mega cities to the private sector to super-empowered groups and individuals. All of us are linked in unprecedented ways—incentivizing new forms of cooperation but also creating shared vulnerabilities.

Among those vulnerabilities is the weakening of state authority, the erosion of order, the emergence of ungoverned space, the proliferation of weapons and technology, the surfacing or resurfacing of sectarianism and religious extremism.

Between states, we see it too—the growth of regional rivalries, the spread of dangerous proxy wars, the stoking of violent extremism. The most severe consequences of all this destabilization impact citizens themselves—as millions of men, women, and children are pushed to the brink of survival, overwhelming the capacity of the world’s humanitarians to respond. And nowhere is that more evident than right here in the Middle East.

A forum like this offers an urgently needed setting to assess these current realities and discuss how to build the future we all seek for the Middle East—one that will sustain peace, security, and stability over the long-term. One that will encourage innovation, ensure the equal participation of women and girls, spur inclusive growth, and uphold the rights of all citizens.

It has become fashionable of late to argue that the United States is disengaged from the Middle East—from this task of securing the present and helping to realize a brighter future. It's fashionable—but it's wrong. We are more deeply engaged today than ever before—diplomatically, economically, culturally, and, yes, militarily.

What this argument is really about is the nature of our engagement—especially for those whose definition of engagement is weighed heavily towards large-scale, open-ended military interventions.

We have a broader definition of engagement—a different one than we saw in the decade past. One that seeks to use all the sources of American power—the might of our military but also the reach of our economy, the determination of our diplomacy, the universality of our values, and the powerful attraction of American education, science, technology, and innovation. One that builds the capacity of willing partners to fight for the future of their own countries. One that strives to marry wisdom and strength, humility and confidence.

It is tempting to want a neat answer that imposes order and ensures freedom and stability overnight. But the challenges before us defy silver bullet solutions.

We should and we must debate our strategies and consider the full range of all our options—knowing that there can be consequences to inaction. But we cannot deny the lessons we’ve learned over a decade of sacrifice about the effectiveness and sustainability of indefinite and undefined military interventions that have vast unintended consequences. And we cannot overlook that the most sustainable solutions are best generated by the people and governments of this region—with our strong support—not imposed from the outside.

Vice President Biden likes to say that in many places he visits, he hears that the United States is all at once the source of all its problems and the only solution. The fact is most of the turmoil in the Middle East is not about us. Nor can we magically solve its problems.

But we are using our unique capacity to mobilize our partners and the international community against common threats, and we are working to empower those in the region who are committed to building a better future for their people.

Our engagement today is grounded by our deep and enduring commitment to the Middle East and to its people. This region is home to some of our oldest and closest friends and allies. As President Obama has made clear repeatedly, defending them against aggression has been, is, and will remain a vital national interest of the United States.

The region's oil supplies have powered industries and economies for generations since the Gulf prospectors first struck oil in Bahrain in 1931. And while we are now more energy sufficient, Middle East oil continues to drive the global market, and we remain determined to secure its supply.

But it’s not just the wealth under the ground that drives economic growth. It’s this region’s extraordinary human resources and their capacity for innovation and for entrepreneurship. But only if we work to unleash the potential of all its citizens. We would be shortchanging our own future if we fail to support theirs.

We believe deeply in the future of this region. We also know that this kind of progress cannot be sustained without security, and growth will never last without peace.

Our commitment to regional security anchors all that we do today—and the future that we’re trying to shape for tomorrow. That is why President Obama and Secretary Kerry were so determined to address the international community’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. After two years of negotiations, every single one of Iran’s pathways to a bomb is blocked through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action far into the future.

The nuclear deal is just that—a nuclear deal. We have no illusions about its larger impact. We remain laser-focused on Iran's many other objectionable actions—and especially for us here today its efforts to spread instability throughout the region and to support terrorism.

As the Camp David Summit demonstrated, we are bringing new intensity to our security cooperation to meet these ongoing challenges from Iran. That intensity is producing concrete results.

We are linking the ballistic missile defense systems of the Arabian Peninsula. We are providing special operations training. We're cooperating more deeply on maritime security, strengthening cyber security, and bolstering cooperation in intercepting foreign fighters, terrorist financing and elicit cargoes. And we're expediting sophisticated military sales—including recently announced F-16 support to Bahrain; some of the most advanced ships in the world for Saudi Arabia to patrol the Gulf; air and missile defense systems to UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

We have also joined with Arab states and dozens of other partners across the globe in a coalition to counter and ultimately defeat Daesh. Our military campaign is paired with comprehensive efforts to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters, counter Daesh’s narrative of nihilism, and curtail the flow of financing.

Fourteen months ago, this coalition didn’t exist. In the short time since, it has brought today 65 countries, launched more than 7,700 airstrikes, forced Daesh to change how it conducts its military operations, impeded its command and control, confronted its propaganda machine, and deprived it of 30% of the territory in Iraq that it held just a year ago.

From the critical border town of Kobani, Syria to Tikrit, Iraq, we have liberated many communities and enabled many to finally return home.

In northern Syria, the coalition has secured 85 percent of the Turkish-Syrian border, and we’re enhancing our air campaign and efforts on the ground to help drive Daesh out of the remaining 70-mile stretch that it controls—and so closing off its most vital supply line for foreign fighters and materiel.

We also stepping up support to moderate opposition fighters to help them consolidate the gains that they have made begin to put pressure on Al Raqqa—Daesh's self-proclaimed capital.

Ultimately, however, lasting peace and stability for the region cannot be imposed from above, from the outside, or by force. They need to be built from within by governments that are inclusive, accountable to their citizens, and interconnected with the world. Security assistance alone cannot get governments there. It requires political accommodation to ensure the freedom, dignity, and security for all citizens.

As my friend the Foreign Minister said, the civil war in Syria remains the region’s most immediate and complex challenge.

The refugee catastrophe is an outgrowth of Asad’s vengeance against his own people, and the cost of the conflict rises every day—for the region, for Europe, but most of all, for Syrians. There is no end in sight unless we make one. And this is exactly what Secretary Kerry is working so hard to do, including in Vienna this week, where parties came together with a new sense of urgency. The discussions were constructive, and all participants agreed to a number of things, including to press for a nationwide ceasefire and pursue a political transition that ensures Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character. As Secretary Kerry said, this is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter.

Russia's intervention in Syria is a powerful example of the law of unintended consequences. It will have two primary effects. First, it will increase Russia's leverage over Asad. But second, it will increase the conflict's leverage over Russia. And that in turn creates a compelling incentive for Russia to work for, not against, a political transition.

Russia cannot afford to sustain its military onslaught against everyone opposed to Asad’s brutal rule. The costs will mount every day in economic, political, and security terms—but at best only to prevent Asad from losing, not to make him win. There is no military victory to be had.

Meanwhile the quagmire will spread and deepen, drawing Russia further in. And Russia will be seen to be in league with Asad, Hezbollah, and Iran—alienating millions of Sunnis in Syria, the region, and indeed in Russia itself. Already, Russia's indiscriminate air campaign—while dropping many bombs—is making virtually no gains on the ground.

And yet, we share many important interests with Russia in Syria. Defeating Daesh, which poses a threat to all of us. And preserving Syria as a unified, sovereign state, with a secular, inclusive and non-sectarian government, its institutions intact.

We can and we should make common cause of these common objectives. That requires a political transition that leads to Asad's departure, because none of those goals is achievable as long as he remains. As Secretary Kerry has said, Russia has a choice now about how to move forward—and we would welcome it making the right choice for our shared interests. We have to break the mindset—encouraged by both Asad and Daesh—that the only choice Syrians have is between the two of them. A different future not only is possible—it is imperative.

This morning, I am pleased to announce that the United States will provide an additional $100 million in assistance in support of the Syrian opposition—bringing our total support for their efforts to $500 million.

This assistance enables local and provincial institutions to provide basic services; keeps schools open; it helps broadcast the voices of independent media; it empowers civil society leaders to hold their local governments accountable.

As a part of this assistance, we are providing $15 million to the Syria Recovery Trust, a multi-donor initiative that has already reached 2 million Syrians with support for essential services—like restoring access to electricity and rebuilding hospitals.

A lifeline for embattled communities, the Syrian Recovery Trust Fund helps liberated communities get back on their feet by supporting projects that are sometimes bigger than any one country can handle alone.

When a political resolution is reached, it will mean more than the end of the war. It will be the beginning of an effort to rebuild a nation under a new government—a monumental task that will fall to those whose existence is so fragile today.

And so we call on all countries to support the Syrian Recovery Trust Fund and help lay a foundation from which Syrians can repair their shattered lives and restore their country.

In Libya, the days ahead are critical. The United States looks to Libyan leaders to put the interests of the Libyan people above divisive politics, to endorse the final political framework text, and empower a Government of National Accord to begin to govern, restore stability, and eradicate terrorism. The United States and the international community will be Libya's determined partner in these efforts.

In Yemen, the United States shared the determination of our Gulf partners not to let stand the Houthis’ campaign to take over the country by force and threaten Saudi Arabia. We must focus our efforts on supporting the work of the UN Special Envoy to get all parties to return to UN-brokered political talks to find a lasting, peaceful solution, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

The citizens of Yemen—many of whom are in dire need of aid—cannot afford to wait any longer. It is incumbent on all concerned to protect civilians and allow humanitarian aid to reach all those who need it.

Secretary Kerry also worked with President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and King Abdullah to try to restore calm and bring about an end to the recent violence. As President Obama has repeatedly said, the United States will never stop supporting and defending Israel’s right to protect itself and its citizens.

Just as we will never stop believing in the necessity to give hope, opportunity, and a political horizon to those despairing of it. And just as we will never cease working to realize the goal of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side-by-side in peace and security. We can't want that future more than the parties themselves—but we have no greater concern than helping them achieve it.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hard to look back on the events in this region in the last few years and feel a great deal of optimism. Where there was hope for more open, accountable, and democratic government in 2011, there is now with—with some exceptions—more violence, more fear, more chaos.

We should reflect on the lessons of this experience, and all of us, whatever our convictions, should do so with some humility.

It’s not the call for freedom that has stoked instability; it’s the absence of open debate; the closing of political space; the failure to foster a culture of civic responsibility; and the conviction of those at the bottom that they will be pushed off the economic ladder the moment they begin to climb to the top.

Countering the extremist forces threatening the Middle East requires building institutions legitimate and inclusive enough to unite everyone—Sunni or Shia, conservative or liberal, secularist or Islamist—provided they pursue their goals peacefully.

When nations squeeze out moderate voices, they create a vacuum filled by extremists. When people feel shut out, their sense of alienation and marginalization sharpens divisions that extremists love to exploit.

That’s why the United States is working for a settlement in Syria that will give people viable choices other than supporting Asad for fear of terrorists or terrorists for fear of Asad.

It's why we support a peace process for Yemen that reunites the country rather than deepening sectarian divisions, why we are pressing the competing sides in Libya to come together in a government that represents all of the country’s people, why we have urged greater space for peaceful dissent in Egypt and here in Bahrain so that all who reject violence can share the privileges and responsibilities of participation in the political system.

We recently had reason to cheer when a coalition of human rights defenders, lawyers, business owners, and labor union leaders in Tunisia were awarded the highest price for peace in the world. By fostering an open society and nurturing inclusive politics and governance, Tunisia offers a promising model of the possible.

It's a model the United States will support and defend. Just as we will take action to secure our interests and values—and all those who share them. Just as we will continue to stand by and with our partners in the Middle East.

And just as we will work with equal parts strength and wisdom to build sustainable stability, security and prosperity in a region whose perils are outweighed only by its promise.

Thank you very much.