Remarks on American Foreign and Energy Policy Priorities

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Atlantic Council
Istanbul, Turkey
November 20, 2015

Thank you all very very much. It is wonderful to be here, and Jon, thank you for your incredibly generous introduction and your very warm words. I have very fond memories at the beginning of the first term of the Obama administration working closely with Governor Huntsman when he was Ambassador to China. He has been and is an extraordinary public servant, both a leader at home in the United States and of our foreign policy abroad. It’s a great pleasure to be with you.

And Fred, and everyone at the Atlantic Council, thank you for what you’re doing every single day to help give greater vision, greater perspective, to bring new ideas into the conduct of our foreign policy, especially at this challenging time. It could never be as valuable as it is today. We are grateful for the work that you do.

And it’s very good to be here in Istanbul. First of all at one of the preeminent energy forums in the world, but also to be here in Turkey, one of the closest partners and allies the United States could have.

I also want to take just a moment to thank a superb team that we have here led by our Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass. I see several of his predecessors are with us as well. In fact, I see what looks like, what could constitute a wonderful meeting in the Situation Room back in the White House given the number of colleagues who are here with us today. It’s wonderful to see all of you.

This has been an incredible week for our embassy, but also for Turkey. It started with the G20 in Antalya and the remarkable job that Turkey did in bringing that together. And I also want to praise our team for the great work that they did in making that work so well.

So look, I know that, first of all, I’m late and I’m the only thing that stands between you and a beautiful dinner on the banks of the Bosphorus, so I will try to be relatively brief, but I also want to try to do justice to the subject as Ambassador Huntsman laid it out.

This is indeed a very appropriate setting for this discussion. A place where continents literally converge and great civilizations meet. From where we stand today, we look out at a world that is more fluid and more fraught with complexity than I believe any time 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, the 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 corporate giants to super-empowered groups and individuals. All of us are linked in unprecedented ways, incentivizing new forms of cooperation but also, as we know, creating shared vulnerabilities.

Among those vulnerabilities is the weakening of state authority, the erosion of order, the emersion of ungoverned states, the proliferation of weapons and technology, the surfacing or resurfacing of old hatreds and the stoking of new ones.

The most severe consequences of all these developments fall on those least responsible. Foremost among them are the refugees who struggle to find sanctuary from violence and a future for their children. We are living in an unprecedented moment in the history of refugees. If you put all of the refugees in the world together today, they would make up the 25th largest country in the world.

Last week our hearts were once again broken by the tragedy of this excruciating reality of which the refugees are the first victims as terrorists extinguished the lives of innocent people in Paris and in Beirut. This kind of wanton, indiscriminate, nihilistic violence is something with which Turkey and Ankara just recently is also so tragically familiar.

Yet even in their depravity and inhumanity, these attacks did not and could never undermine our commitment to defend and protect the very ideals that they challenge. The ideals of dignity and tolerance, of justice and freedom. Ideals that will prevail.

The violence we’ve seen in Paris and Beirut and Ankara, to say nothing of Homs or Mosul, is only strengthening our resolve to degrade and ultimately destroy Da’esh.

Fourteen months ago the global coalition to counter Da’esh did not exist. In that short time, with the leadership of President Obama and the United States, we have brought together 65 countries. We’ve launched more than 8,200 airstrikes. We’ve forced Da’esh to change how it conducts its military operations, impeded its command and control, deprived it of 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq.

A year ago even Baghdad and Erbil were under imminent threat.

Today from the critical border towns of Kabbani and Tal Abyad in Syria to Tikrit in Iraq, we’ve liberated communities and enabled people to begin to return home. Baiji which was under assault for months, is now securely in the hands of Iraqis, whose forces are also trying to retake Ramadi.

Over the last weekend Kurdish forces secured a strategic victory by liberating Sinja, cutting off Highway 47, the principal East-West line of communication, weapons transport and foreign fighter movements and illicit oil and fuel flows between Mosul and Raqqa, the two key places that Da’esh controls in Syria and Iraq, respectively.

In more than Syria, the coalition has secured 85 percent of the Turkish-Syria border, and we’re enhancing our air campaign and efforts on the ground with Turkey to help drive Da’esh out of the remaining 15 percent, a 70-mile stretch that it still controls--thereby closing of its most vital supply line for foreign terrorist fighters and materiel.

We’re also stepping up support to moderate opposition fighters throughout Syria including in the South to help them consolidate the gains they’ve made. Among other forms of support, President Obama has authorized a number of U.S. Special Forces on the ground in Syria to advise and assist them. And in Iraq, U.S. Special Forces are already working closely with Iraqi military leaders to plan and execute ground operations and train Sunni volunteer fighters to regain Anbar and Ninawa provinces. This engagement is providing the space for steady, sustainable gains by Iraqis to take back their own country.

In short, in both Iraq and Syria, we are starting to squeeze Da’esh--from the East, from the North, from the South. As we undermine the foundations of its self-declared Caliphate, the edifice will begin to crumble.

As our military forces strike at the heart of Da’esh, our global coalition is doing a number of other things. It’s providing humanitarian relief and stabilization support to liberated communities, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, including by deepening cooperation and coordination among our law enforcement and intelligence communities. We’re working to counter Da’esh’s narrative of nihilism and cutting off its financing. Our strategy is the aggregate of all of these lines of effort. That strategy will defeat Da’esh, a determined and dangerous enemy.

And just to illustrate some of these lines of effort and the progress we’ve made recently, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis the United States has provided over $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance across the region to help save lives, rebuild communities, and prevent Syrian children from becoming a lost generation.

Just yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a school in Adana that educates Syrian children in the afternoon, on the second shift. Teachers literally come and teach a second day of school in the afternoon and into the early evening. This is truly heroic work by Turkish teachers, administrators, local and national officials. And it is helping to prevent a lost generation.

We see the same efforts being made in Lebanon and also in Jordan, both of which have also opened their arms to refugees despite the incredible strain that it puts on their countries.

And with the United Nations we’ve also established a critical stabilization fund so that when towns are liberated we can provide, with the plans in place, security and services that allow people to return home.

On another front from this effort, a total of 45 countries have passed or are updating existing laws to more effectively identify and prosecute foreign terrorist fighters. The United States now has information sharing agreements with more than 45 international partners to identify and track the travel of suspected terrorists.

Turkey, perhaps the most critical geographic partner in this effort, has increased detentions, arrests, and the prosecution of suspected terrorist fighters. It’s improved its information sharing, and it’s taking important steps to improve border security as well.

Now every day Da’esh and its supporters produce as many as 90,000 Tweets and social media posts glorifying violence and issuing a siren call for susceptible young men and women to become foreign fighters. We are fighting back hard in this space. In the press, in the social media, pointing out the reality of what these terrorists are doing to their fellow Muslims and anyone else in their way. That social space is changing.

At the beginning, 14 months ago, 15 months ago, if you looked at the social media space it was dominated by Da’esh -- 80 to 90 percent of the messages and information in that space was pro-Da’esh. That has entirely flipped and now that space is dominated by anti-Da’esh messages, and it’s beginning to have an impact.

In Abu Dhabi we created a digital communications hub to tackle propaganda and recruitment efforts head on by engaging and amplifying moderate independent voices from the region, voices to represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world.

And we’ve sharply increased our ongoing efforts to disrupt one of Da’esh’s main strengths -- oil and gas. Every day, as many of you know, Da’esh generates an estimated $1 million per day from oil sales within its territory. Using the revenue to strike out against citizens in the region and abroad. But it also leverages its control over these critical resources as a propagandistic symbol of its authority and legitimacy. So this is a dual-edged sword for Da’esh.

One of the difficulties in getting at the source of financing is that it’s basically internally generated in that it controls the oil and gas within the territory that it currently controls physically and it actually mostly sells it within that territory. Some of it is then sent out of the country, but the revenue itself is basically internally generated, making it difficult to cut it off by simply cutting off the flow of financing into and out of Syria and Iraq.

So that’s why the coalition has targeted Da’esh’s oil operations from the beginning, damaging and destroying more than two dozen mobile refineries and about twice as many collection points where truck drivers load crude oil.

But what happened was that Da'esh quickly adjusted and repeatedly to our attacks, the result of operating in the region with their long and thriving history of illicit oil trade. But we’ve adapted as well. After the fall of Mosul, Da'esh used Iraq’s Ajeel oilfield to fuel its war machine. But with support from coalition airstrikes, Iraqi security forces retook that field just a few months ago.

More recently Iraqi forces reclaimed the Bayi oil refinery, denying Da'esh access to its strategic location and refining equipment.

Then in August, Kurdish forces with coalition support pushed ISIL out of the Ain Zalah Field in Northern Iraq. In both Iraq and Syria, we’ve aggressively gone after Da'esh’s ability to benefit from energy resources and we’re not letting up now.

I think as you saw in the last few days alone, we’ve destroyed over 160 oil trucks, disrupting fuel supply lines the terrorists used across Syria and into Iraq with the key infrastructure in the Omar oil field, one of the two most important oil fields for Da'esh, and we can already say that its oil production took a serious hit in the most recent strikes.

All of that said, as you look across all of these lines of effort that constitute our strategy to deal with Da'esh, it’s also true that Da'esh is not going to be defeated ultimately while war continues to ravage Syria. A war that Bashar al-Asad has waged against his own people.

Now in its fifth year this conflict has caused a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. One in every 20 Syrians has been killed or wounded. One in every five Syrians has fled the country as a refugee and half of those remaining are internally displaced within the country.

As a frontline-state Turkey has borne the brunt of this crisis, and I just want to say again how grateful we are to Turkey’s leaders and citizens, as well as those in Jordan and Lebanon, who have generously opened their doors and opened their hearts to those in need.

But in Syria what this has done is, of course, created a sanctuary, a haven for Da'esh, but also a magnet for the recruitment of foreign fighters. Simply put, as long as Assad remains, there will not be peace.

That’s why Secretary Kerry is working so hard to pursue a political transition that ensures Syria’s unity, its independence, its territorial integrity and its secular character. And for the first time we’ve now managed to get all of the major outside stakeholders around the table and starting to move in the same direction.

In Vienna last week, all the parties, including Russia, including Iran, agreed that formal negotiations should begin around January 1 between the opposition and the regime with the broadest possible spectrum of Syrian opposition chosen by the Syrians themselves.

They agreed on the steps to a political transition outlined in the Geneva Communique, including the formation within six months of a credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance; a schedule and a process for drafting a new constitution; and determined eligibility for voting and candidacy in elections. And they agreed that free and fair elections would be held within 18 months.

They also agreed to press for a nationwide ceasefire as soon as representatives of the Syrian government and opposition take the initial steps towards the UN-supervised transition.

Now you all know that real differences remain, especially concerning Assad’s future, but the prospects for a political transition are better than they have been in a long time. And ironically, part of the reason for this is Russia’s in extremis intervention to hold onto its sold foothold in the Middle East, the Asad regime.

That intervention has done two things. On the one hand, it’s increased Russia’s leverage over Asad. But it’s also increased the conflict’s leverage over Russia. Moscow increasingly realizes it cannot sustain or risk the growing costs of its actions.

By putting its air power at the service of Asad, Hezbollah and Iran in their vicious campaign against the majority of Syrians, it risks alienating 85 percent of the Muslim world that are Sunni including its own Muslim population. It’s also made Russia a target for Da'esh as seen in the horrific bombing of the civilian airline in Sharm el-Sheikh. This in turn has created a compelling incentive for Russia to work for, not against, a political transition and to shift its focus from defending Asad to defeating Da'esh.

It is in the interest of all of us, including Russia, to preserve Syria’s future as a unified, sovereign state and defeat Da'esh which poses a threat to all of us.

We have to break the mindset encouraged by both Asad and Da'esh as the only choice Syrians have is between the two of them. A different future is not only possible, it is imperative, and we will not rest until we find a way forward in exactly that direction.

Now we’ve seen how energy resources can be wielded as a weapon of repression—-as tools to finance radical ideologies or territorial expansion. But the great power shift that we’re witnessing in the world also affects our energy security in positive ways by actually remaking our ability to use these resources, to help reduce conflicts and spur more inclusive growth.

It was not so long ago that the security of Europe’s energy supply was routinely subject to coercion and political pressure from its biggest suppliers. In 2005 and again in 2009 Europe could only watch as Russia halted its gas flows through Ukraine in the dead of winter. That specter rose again in 2014 -- a stark, cold reminder of what continued dependence on Russia would mean for the aspirations of all of Europe.

The United States remains, as always, strongly committed to European energy security. That’s why our Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs continues to engage relentless with our colleagues in the European Commission and member states to help implement the European Energy Union Strategy.

Europe does not need more pipelines that redirect the same Russian gas supplies via different routes to the same European customers. Instead it needs improved interconnections and strategic LNG infrastructure so the gas that arrives anywhere in Europe can be delivered to any customer in Europe. Thanks to technological advances, a democratization of supply sources, new infrastructure projects, Europe is on track to greater security with a more transparent, integrated, and stable energy market.

A year ago the Baltics were virtually an energy island, entirely dependent on a single source for all of their natural gas needs.

Now they’re on track to be one of the most integrated energy regions by the end of this decade. The Estonia-Finnish undersea electricity cable is completed; a new floating LNG facility in Lithuania is in place -- aptly called Independence. Today, Lithuania and Estonia receive gas from this LNG terminal, and Latvia is making legislative reforms so it too can receive alternative supplies and be a critical storage hub for the region.

A planned gas interconnector with Poland, potential gas interconnectors with Finland, Poland and Estonia, and the opening of power interconnections with Sweden and Poland make the Baltics far less dependent on any single source and far more secure than ever before.

Now we need to take the same approach with a number of other strategically located projects, including building floating LNG terminals in Croatia and Greece, and completing the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector.

The opening of the Southern Gas Corridor will change the energy map of the continent by building the links needed to deliver Caspian gas from Azerbaijan to Europe, energizing growth all along the length of its lines, while enhancing Europe’s energy security.

Having said all that I want to be very clear: this is not a strategy designed to eliminate Russian gas from the European market. Russia will and should remain a major player -- so long as it plays by the rules. No nation should use energy as a political weapon to target citizens and undermine their aspirations, just as no nation should be allowed to impose its will by force on another.

To this point, the United States remains united with the European Union and its member countries in our support for Ukraine. For its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, its energy security, and its right as any free nation to pursue the path set by its own citizens, not by anyone else.

We are firm in our commitment to hold Moscow to the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and to keep the pressure on until it does.

We’re working shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners in Ukraine to strengthen its energy security including by providing technical assistance to increase domestic production.

More work remains, including for Ukraine to liberalize its electricity market, to adopt a law providing for an independent regulator and implement the gas sector reform program agreed to with the World Bank and the IMF.

While we work to prevent the use of energy as a political tool we’re also putting forward a competing vision for where cooperation in the energy sector can foster collaboration and greater prosperity from the shores of the Mediterranean to the steppes of Central Asia.

There’s no better example than the Eastern Mediterranean which has become one of the brightest lights in the geopolitics of energy.

As countries move from net importers to exporters, energy becomes a tool for cooperation, for stability, for security and greater prosperity. For the first time in the history of their countries Jordan and Israel have begun to work together on the construction of a pipeline to bring gas from Israel to Jordan.

And recent discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean are awakening Cypriots to the value of coming together to unlock the island’s economic potential as a critical transit hub for energy flows from across the Eastern Med into Europe.

Finally, just as important as that physical infrastructure are the energy policies that go with it -- the soft infrastructure of laws, regulations and public policy priorities that enable our societies to benefit from innovation and entrepreneurship in this rapidly changing environment.

That’s true in the United States as it is anywhere else.

When President Obama took office, the security of America’s energy future was not exactly a subject for optimism.

But seven years of foresighted investments are beginning to pay off for the citizens of the United States and the world beyond. We’ve increased, as you all know, production in significant ways. We’ve doubled the distance that our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025. We’ve tripled wind power generation. We’ve multiplied solar power generation in America 20 times over. And we’ve made breakthroughs in battery storage, as well.

We’ve cut our total carbon pollution more than any country on earth, so this combination of liberating existing sources, traditional sources, and bringing in new sources and renewable sources, has totally changed the energy picture for the United States.

Since the United States and China made their landmark announcement to reduce emissions, more than 150 countries have announced their own emissions targets inspired by the impact of collective action.

These bold policies are limiting the damage done to our environment today, as well as demonstrating it’s possible to fight climate change and secure the benefit of a cleaner, greener, energy future. And in a short time in Paris we hope to send a very strong message that the world is serious about solving this challenge and warding off what Secretary Kerry has called “possibly the single most profound betrayal of one generation to another in history.”

All of you in this room this evening represent some of the brightest minds and strongest leaders on energy policy in the world today. As the new era takes shape all of you, all of us need to continue to look over the horizon, alert to the vulnerabilities but also awake to the opportunities. With equal parts strength and wisdom, we can fulfill the solemn and sacred responsibility our generation has to protect our nations but also to preserve the world for those who will follow.

Thank you very, very much.

Ester Brimmer: Good evening, Deputy Secretary. Good to see you again. If I may ask again about the relationship between the various powers who are working towards a solution in Syria. We understand there may be a Security Council resolution, what will be the role of the UN and the larger international communities facing these challenges? Thank you.

Deputy Secretary Blinken: First of all, I want to be clear that I’m not running for President of the United States. [Laughter].

So the UN has an absolutely critical and central role to play in this effort. Indeed, any negotiations that actually take place would be under the auspices of the UN. The UN is already playing through Staffan de Mistura a vital role in working back and forth between the regime and the opposition, and also among the opposition, trying to help it come together as we’re doing.

And going forward, assuming this process takes off, not only will it be under the auspices of the United Nations, but ultimately when it concludes with elections in 18 months, the UN would be playing the lead role in making sure those elections come off freely, fairly, and appropriately.

So this can’t be done without the United Nations. We’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with its Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura who is a remarkable diplomat, and the collaboration could not be closer.

Fred Hof: Mr. Secretary, the latest statement out of Vienna anticipates initial elections in Syria by mid-2017. Would you anticipate that Da'esh will be gone by then? And if so, how?

Deputy Secretary Blinken: So there’s always the danger in taking that one extra question, especially when it comes from Fred Hof. [Laughter]. But nonetheless --

Here is ideally what would happen. Assume the political transition actually begins to take root and take off. Part of it involves a nationwide ceasefire, except for Da'esh and Nusra. If we can begin to marshal not just the coalition we have but also the Russians and also parts of the regime that are willing to focus their entire attention on Da'esh and other extremist forces, I think that will multiply the prospects we have of actually getting closer to its defeat.

But you’re right, that even in those circumstances it’s entirely possible if not likely that by the time we get to elections Da'esh is still around and trying to wreak havoc. But if this transition takes off with everything that goes along with it, it can be isolated in smaller and smaller parts of Syria and Iraq. And again, we’re already seeing that take place, even in the absence of the transition.

As I said in Iraq, it’s something that most people don’t recognize, and I just want to say it again. The amount of territory that Da'esh controls compared to a year ago is down 40 percent, and the efforts that are now starting to get some traction in the North in Syria where the border is so critical and where we are regaining control of its entirety, putting ourselves in a position also to begin over time to put some pressure on Raqqa. All of that starts to squeeze Da'esh and starts to deny it space.

But ideally, the objective here is to turn everyone’s attention and focus to Da'esh, and if we do that by the time elections roll around I think they’ll be in a place where they can be held credibly albeit with areas that will be beyond reach.

Thank you.

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