Syria: Weighing the U.S. Response
Secretary of State
The video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.
Now this is an interview, but it’s also an open-source conversation. You’ve posted incredible questions on the Google+ events page. We’re going to get through as many of them as we can today. Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you so much for joining us.
SECRETARY KERRY: Lara, thank you for having me, and thanks for all you’ve done to shed light on life in Syria. Very important.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Thank you. Now, jumping right in, you’ve said that Syria could stop a U.S. strike if it hands over all of its chemical weapons within a week, and you’ve also said that you’re waiting for a proposal from Russia. We understand you’re just off the phone with Foreign Secretary – Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. What did he say?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Foreign Minister Lavrov had some interesting observations about the ways in which he thinks we might be able to achieve this. He is sending those to us. They’ll be coming in formally in the course of the day. We’ll have an opportunity to review them, and as the President has said, if we can in fact secure all of the chemical weapons in Syria through this method, clearly, that’s by far the most preferable and would be a very significant achievement.
MS. SETRAKIAN: What specifically do they need to do? What does Russia, what does Syria need to do when we’re talking about dozens of chemical weapons sites across a war-torn country?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for better or worse, the fact that Assad has been running a highly controlled and very hierarchical process has forced them to contain all of these weapons in the regime-controlled areas. As a result of that, it is our argument that they therefore can control access to these sites. And so we believe that they need to show us an entirely verifiable, completely accountable, and ongoing verifiable process by which we know we have all of the weapons, access to any sites in question, unlimited access, investigation, verifiability. This cannot be a game, and that we have made very, very clear to the Russians, and I hope – and I think so far, there are indications we will at least be able to have a serious conversation. Whether we can meet what is necessary for President Obama to make the judgment that the objectives are being accomplished, we’ll just have to see.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Nick, let’s jump to you for your first question.
MR. KRISTOF: Sure. Secretary Kerry, thanks so much for joining us. Now you say we have to be sure this is not a game. What specifically is our bottom line here? That – Russia has said that the U.S. – for a deal to work, that the U.S. will have to renounce the use of force. It has said that a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 is unacceptable, and that it wants a presidential statement instead. Are these acceptable to you, or do we need – in fact, need a Chapter 7 Security Council resolution to make this go forward?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, we need a full resolution from the Security Council in order to have the confidence that this has the force that it ought to have. That’s our belief and obviously, right now, the Russians are in a slightly different place on that. We’ll have to see where we get to. I mean, obviously, I’m not going to negotiate this out in public now.
MR. KRISTOF: Go ahead.
SECRETARY KERRY: (Laughter.) Thank you.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Please --
SECRETARY KERRY: But I am – what I am giving you is a very clear sense – I think every listener, I think everybody listening, common sense tells us we don’t want to buy into something that isn’t going to get the job done, then we’re right back where we started from. So this has to be a transparent, accountable, fully implementable, and clearly verifiable process, and we’re going to have to work at how that’s going to be achieved.
But it also has to have consequences if games are played or if somebody tries to undermine this, and I think the whole world needs to invest in that. I believe the world is ready to invest in that. It is clearly preferable to sending a message that-- by use of force, which, in the end, wouldn’t in fact contain all of the weapons. So hopefully, we can make this work, and this is something we’ve been discussing for a little bit of time, for some period of time. And my hope is with good faith, it could be brought to fruition. But I don’t want to raise expectations because there are some big hurdles in terms of the verifiability and implementation that we have to cross.
MS. SETRAKIAN: You said in a House –
MR. KRISTOF: And Secretary Kerry, if I can just follow up on that, so you’re skeptical of what may be unfolding. Now what happens if indeed the negotiations continue for the next week, two weeks, and nothing – and it turns out that Russia is playing games, Damascus is playing games? Now at that point, the wind has gone out of the sails of the Congressional authorization and yet we are no further along in terms of control and getting access to those chemical weapons in Syria. What happens then?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, we’re not planning to drag it on that long. We’ve made it very clear in our conversations with the Russians this has to be done quickly. That’s what I said in London. That’s what I repeated yesterday and again today. And the President of the United States, I believe, will make that clear in the course of the next couple of days. But the President retains his authority as President always to do what is necessary to protect the security of our nation. So I think the Russians and the Syrians understand that full well, and no matter what happens with respect to Congress, the President is the President, and he has that power.
MS. SETRAKIAN: You said in a House committee hearing this morning that you wouldn’t let this become a stalling tactic. How long will you wait? How long is long enough? And also, you touched on how – that this has been in conversation for some time. Tell us the genesis for how this plan came about.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s up to the President as to how long we wait. I mean, the President makes that decision. We will dig into this as rapidly as possible. We’re already having conversations. We’re trying to exchange some ideas which we – not trying, we are exchanging some ideas to put this to the test, and we will see. But the President will decide what he thinks is the timeframe that he’s prepared to live with.
MS. SETRAKIAN: And when did this plan really come about? Because there’s not too much clarity about that at the moment.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve had conversations about chemical weapons for some period of time, and we have talked about the issue of trying to gain control of them both at the United Nations as well as in bilateral conversations with the Russians. But most specifically, we discussed this last week. Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, and I discussed it. President Putin discussed it with President Obama in St. Petersburg. And President Obama instructed him that both – that we would take it up at the foreign minister level and see if it, in fact, had any life in it, if it could be real. I obviously mentioned it in public in London on Monday, and we are where we are today.
But we have always been talking about the necessity to hold the Assad regime accountable for its possession of chemical weapons, which up until right now, but for the threat of the use of force, they have never even admitted they have. Now, they’re not only admitting they have them, but they say they’re prepared to try to live up to some international standards. That is only happening because we have shown them that we are prepared to do what is necessary to hold them accountable.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Let’s get Andrew Beiter into the conversation. Andrew, what’s the first question from the classroom?
MR. BEITER: Lara, thank you. And Mr. Secretary, on behalf of teachers around the country, especially those involved with Holocaust and genocide prevention education, it’s my pleasure and honor to be here. And the first question comes from my close friend and colleague, Joe Carr from Springville Middle School outside of Buffalo, New York. And as you know, students and younger adolescents have a habit of sometimes asking questions that are somewhat obvious in nature that go right to the core of the matter. (Laughter.)
With that in mind, while everyone gets the major issues associated with the use of chemical weapons, why is it that there’s such a concern now, and not for the past year and a half in which the death toll has gone to six figures? So if you could address that, I think that gets right to the heart of the matter.
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, Drew. And thank you for what you do in terms of your work with teachers and efforts to help make this kind of event happen. And Joe, let me just answer you directly and your students. We are deeply concerned about the overall loss of life in Syria. It’s now over 100,000 – somewhere around 100,000 people. And we have consistently spoken out against Assad’s slaughter of his own people using Scud missiles, using airplanes, which – against civilians, dropping napalm on children in schools. I mean, these are war crimes almost by any standard, but there hasn’t been a will in the global community, let alone in our own country, to get involved in Syria’s civil war. And that’s the way people see it, that it’s that kind of internal struggle.
He has used small amounts of chemical weapons, but our intelligence community was only able to make the judgment – a judgment – that he had in fact done it with a level of confidence that I might choose to believe it, the President might choose to believe it, but we wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable taking that publicly and arguing for the whole world that we ought to have a military strike about it. The President did, after that line was crossed, decide he was going to provide assistance to the opposition, the military opposition in Syria. And without putting American boots on the ground, without becoming directly involved, he decided we would support the opposition as a consequence of the earlier use of the levels of chemicals that we determined had been used.
Now, on August 21st, all of those prior levels and prior incidents were eclipsed with this one incident in which about 1,400-plus people died that we know of – that we were able to actually account for – more than that for certain, 400-plus children. And they died because of an attack that we had much more evidence in order to be able to prove it to the world.
That’s when the President decided that that was straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak with respect to his usage. And the President decided that it needed a response from the world because chemical weapons were suddenly being used as a tactical weapon in a civil war, and any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
That’s why we’re here where we are today. There’s a moral imperative to this, there’s a strategic imperative to this, there’s a practical military imperative in terms of sending him a message that his infrastructure, militarily, and his capacity to wage war could be affected if he continues to use these prohibited, outlawed, and outrageous weapons.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Mr. Secretary, you have a lot of angry Americans who don’t want a strike on Syria. You said this morning this wouldn’t be a war, but they don’t even want a hint of war. They don’t even want a risk of an escalation into war. We have two comments on our Google+ page – one from Wesley Swafford, one from John Lambert – asking in essence: Why should we launch a military strike on a country that hasn’t attacked us and when we need to fix things at home? What’s your response to Wesley and John?
SECRETARY KERRY: My response very directly is: This matters to your security, to each of us individually as Americans. We are, in fact, threatened by this use of weapons, because this use of weapons breaks a standard about the use of chemical weapons that has been in place for nearly 100 years. And in war, our soldiers have not been threatened ever since World War I when this was decided. Our soldiers have been free from chemical weapons in war because of this prohibition. We don’t want to see that broken now; that’s number one.
Number two: We have a strategic interest. We have alliances, direct military alliances with Jordan, with Israel, with Turkey. They’re affected by the use of these weapons right in their neighborhood, on their doorstep. Israel is deeply threatened. And we believe that if we don’t stand up now and send a message to try to prevent the use of those weapons at this time, we can see those weapons used by terrorists, by others, make the region more instable than it is today, and even threaten us more directly here at home.
So we believe – sometimes wars have started later because people didn’t do things that might have prevented them earlier. And we believe that this is a moment where not sending this message now could, in fact, present us with much greater dangers at a later point in time.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Nick, over to your question.
MR. KRISTOF: Sure. Well, Secretary Kerry, given how important you say this is, given the stakes, then while cruise missile strikes may be on pause for the time being as a deal may or may not be negotiated, what about other alternatives to gain leverage with the Russians and the Syrians and also to make a difference on the ground? I’m thinking specifically about, for example, arming the rebels – giving more support to them, intelligence support, for example, but doing more with moderate rebels. Also perhaps cyber-offensive operations in Syria? Is there more we can do in those ways?
SECRETARY KERRY: Nick, I’m not going to go into all the details of what we’re doing because I’m not allowed to, but I will tell you point blank: The President has issued instructions several months ago to raise the level of American support for the moderate opposition, because the moderate opposition is very important to us in order to have a barrier, a bulwark against the very bad elements that are out there that do want to attack the United States of America. So we are supporting them as a matter of humanitarian concern for the people of Syria. We’re supporting them as a matter of our own strategic national security interests. And the President has decided and will continue to increase the support to that moderate opposition.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Andrew, why –
MR. KRISTOF: And –
MS. SETRAKIAN: Oh, go on. Go on, Nick.
MR. KRISTOF: Well, just to follow up on that, I mean, there’s been this enormous frustration among the moderate opposition – and indeed, Lara has documented that on her website – that despite the President’s remarks, they’re not, in fact, getting that support, and it’s the jihadis, the extremists who are actually getting all the weapons. So is that a question of that it takes time to ramp up? Is that going to be changing on the ground in the coming weeks or months?
SECRETARY KERRY: It already is, Nick, and I’m very sensitive to what you’ve just said and concerned about it, and it’s accurate. It is accurate to say that some things have not been getting to the opposition as rapidly as one would have hoped. Part of that was sort of early organizational effort, but then subsequently it took a while for Congress to approve certain components of it, and finally, it just takes time to start it. It was only in June that Congress, in fact, gave approval to certain things, and we’re now obviously in the beginning of September. So it is ramping up, but I can tell you that many of the items that people have complained were not getting to them are now getting to them.
MS. SETRAKIAN: What specifically, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to go into that here. I’m just not able to.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Sure.
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not allowed to, but suffice it to say in addition to communications equipment and medical equipment and humanitarian assistance – incidentally, the United States is the largest humanitarian donor to the crisis of the refugees – in addition to all those things, a coordinated effort is being made among the many supporters of the moderate opposition to get them the assistance they need.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Andrew, why don’t you come in with your second question?
MR. BEITER: Mr. Secretary, it’s under the topic of partners here and specifically the United Nations, and this question comes from my colleague, Cathleen Cadigan, an AP U.S. history and Holocaust studies teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School outside of Dallas, and specifically she’s questioning the use of – the purpose, excuse me, of UN peacekeeping forces, and her students are incredulous and want to know where the UN is at. And if you could please just elaborate why, in your opinion, is the UN so visibly absent on this issue.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the UN is absent on this issue, regrettably – and I really mean – I underline regrettably – because the Russians and the Chinese have blocked us, I think, now 11 or 12 times from being able to try to create humanitarian access routes, guaranteed direct access for humanitarian assistance. They have blocked us from condemning even the generic use of chemical weapons, let alone pointing the finger of blame at somebody, just the generic use. So we’ve been blocked by, particularly, the Russians, who up until now have been the principal supporters of the Assad regime together with Hezbollah and Iran.
And I think every listener, as you think about why this is important, you really need to ask yourselves: What does it mean to you that the principal supporters of Assad are Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization and a client of Iran with whom we are in a big struggle to prevent them from getting weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons. So we’re dealing on the other hand with Britain, with France, Germany, Italy, countless other countries, countries in the region, the neighborhood, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the Jordanians – are all struggling with the problem of what Assad is wreaking on their region, and I think that tells you a lot about who’s supporting whom and what is at stake.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Mr. Secretary, another question from the Google+ event page from Billy Glad. He says: “I’d like to hear something about how we’re going to pressure the rebels to expel al-Qaida. As you know, Jebhat al-Nusrah, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, they may be small in number, but they are the most influential. They’re the tip of the spear against the Assad regime. How do you see that problem going away?”
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s really not fair to say. There’s a general comment, Lara – and you know the place pretty well – this sort of notion that al-Nusrah and the rest of these guys are the whole tip of the spear. That does a great disservice to General Idris and his forces that may be 30,000-40,000 strong in the northern part of the country, and they’re under the control of their own general, a very forceful individual who is quite separate from al-Nusrah and these other entities. They don’t like al-Nusrah. They don’t like these radical elements. You are correct in saying they have proven themselves to be probably the best fighters. They are the most trained and aggressive on the ground, but we are increasingly separating – not increasingly – we’ve put down a firm barrier between the assistance that goes to the moderate opposition and anything to those groups.
Obviously, we oppose those groups, and we’re very concerned about making sure they are separated. Their numbers are not as high as some people have estimated in terms of actual real fighters on the ground and capable, and the people in the region that I talked to who know both the region and this country much better than I do – and I’m talking about the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey – all believe that if you can hold Syria together as a country and if you could get to Geneva to the negotiations so that you ultimately have a transition government and the Syrian people choose their future, if that happens, they will expel – they will stand up against these other groups. They will not have any standing except by force, and they will be handled, I think, at that point by the vast majority of Syrians who want a secular country in which all people are respected and protected, where the minorities in the country are protected, including the Alawi. That’s their vision of the future. And hopefully, we can get to that point where these radical groups are isolated.
That’s another reason, incidentally, a powerful reason – I didn’t say enough about it in the beginning. But if Syria is allowed to just implode and America just says, oh, we’re going to wash our hands, we don’t care about you, you guys go fight – if that’s our attitude, the greatest likelihood is Syria implodes, the institutions of the state crash, that Syria breaks up. And then you have ungoverned, free open spaces where people like al-Nusrah and Alawi al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham and others who are far worse, incidentally, than al-Qaida – they will start operating and we will have to confront that for the simple reason that they’ve already announced they want to attack the United States and the West. That would mean we were willfully allowing ourselves to create a new Afghanistan where al-Qaida and Usama bin Ladin attacked us from originally. We simply, as a matter of protecting the security of the United States of America, cannot allow that to happen.
MS. SETRAKIAN: So to follow up on that, if that’s the hope, what’s the plan? How do you get Syria to that point? How do you specifically, in concrete steps, get both sides back to negotiations at Geneva 2?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, here, happily, is the other side of the story, which is a good side, which is the Russians have been working with us to try to bring about a Geneva 2 conference where we do negotiate this follow-on transition government so that the Syrian people would have an opportunity to choose their future. Right now, the problem has been Bashar al-Assad thinks he’s winning and has no desire to come to negotiate and will not negotiate a transition government. So we are intending, as I said earlier, to upgrade the support to the opposition to try to help the opposition be able to change the situation on the ground so that you can force this negotiation and create this transition government.
Look, it’s not easy. I’m not pretending any of this is easy. The choice is you do nothing, which is worse. The other choice is you go in and get really involved in their war, which nobody in America wants to do. So you’re left with what’s the least worst alternative among bad choices that could actually constructively make something happen? And that is to try to get the parties to the table by affecting the calculation of Assad and the opposition so that you come to the table and negotiate. We do not believe there is a military solution here. Ultimately, people are going to have to negotiate with each other, and we are doing everything in our power to push people in that direction.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Nick, over to your next question.
MR. KRISTOF: Sure. Secretary Kerry, so many of the people who posted questions that they wanted to ask you were variations of the theme that they understand that what you’re contemplating is a limited strike, but they’re also nervous that there will be retaliation, then it will suck us into something larger. And how do you respond to them? How do you reassure them about those concerns about being inadvertently sucked into something much larger?
SECRETARY KERRY: Nick, it’s a 100 percent legitimate question, and of course, we have thought that through very, very thoroughly. First of all, the President is absolutely determined, committed, resolute: There will be no American boots on the ground; we are not going to go in with Americans and get involved in Syria’s civil war. The maximum that we are doing is supporting the opposition. There are people there who want to fight, tens of thousands. They are simply asking America for help to be able to do it, not unlike the manner in which we asked the French in our War of Independence and Lafayette helped us to break away from the British. They’re asking for help from the outside, but they’re prepared to do their own fighting, and there are lots of people, incidentally, in the region and the Gulf who are prepared to pay for many of the weapons and do much of the things that need to be done in terms of the cost of this. So this is not a huge threat to America’s treasury or to America’s treasure in terms of our young Americans and the notion that we would get involved. No boots will be on the ground – not today, not ever in the future.
Secondly, we have very strong intelligence and very strong communications with lots of people that indicate to us the Iranians know that Assad did this. And the Iranians profess to be against weapons of mass destruction, against chemical weapons. Likewise, Hezbollah knows that Assad did this. Neither of them want to choose to go to war over something that so obviously the world knows Assad has done and will know he has done. The Russians do not view this as worthy of something that they feel they have the kind of interests there that would take them to war. Moreover, we have indications that that’s just not going to happen.
Now, might there be some kinds of retaliation in an asymmetrical way in some places? The answer is yes, it’s possible that someone is going to do something. But the truth is they are doing that anyway. We just had to move a whole bunch of our people a month ago in an embassy in Yemen because al-Qaida was threatening to attack our Embassy in Yemen. We have to issue instructions to embassies in various parts of the world on any given day because there are threats now, because there are people in the world who want to engage in jihad and want to tackle anything, any example of an attempt to hit and strike.
The problem is if we don’t stand up to that, if we don’t do it for something that has international rationale and history behind it, we’re going to have a very difficult time convincing countries and individuals they ought to stand with us against this kind of terrorism and have the fortitude to stay in there for the long haul. And that’s why it is important for the United States to keep its word, to mean what it says and say what it means, and not to suddenly walk away just because we’re – we saw a disappointment in Afghanistan or Iraq or in other places. This is not Iraq, it’s not Afghanistan. The intelligence is there for everybody to see and measure. Go to whitehouse.gov and look at the report that was declassified. And I’m telling you, there’s much more evidence than is in that report, but that report alone should convince people this is worth taking a stand.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Mr. Secretary, on the humanitarian side, over the course of covering this conflict we have Syrians asking us: Do Americans even know what’s happening here? Do they know that people are running out of food and water and some are marrying off their young daughters to have one less mouth to feed?
So to those Syrians, would you say that the U.S. and the world has done enough to help them?
SECRETARY KERRY: We probably haven’t done enough in some ways, but we’re doing as much as we can right now. The United States, I am proud to again say, is the largest humanitarian donor. We are doing an enormous amount to get food and shelter to the refugees. There are now 1.6 million refugees outside in Lebanon and in Jordan and Turkey. There are another 5 million people displaced within Syria itself. There are people desperate for food, and indeed as you’ve said, that people are marrying off a daughter simply to be able to survive. This is a terrible humanitarian crisis. And on a humanitarian basis, we Americans – I mean, how in good conscience can we simply wash our hands and say we are not going to care about these people, who desperately look to us and to the rest of the world for some kind of assistance against this dictator, who has proven that power for he and his family is far more important than safety and security for his own people? We have to change that.
I believe we have an obligation to try to do that. That’s who we are as America. That’s who we’ve always been. And we can do a lot more without going to war, without putting troops on the ground, but we do have – I think within the great Judeo-Christian and even Muslim ethic – we have a responsibility to try to alleviate that kind of suffering on this planet.
MS. SETRAKIAN: And my very last question to you, Mr. Secretary: Walid Muallim, the Foreign Secretary, Foreign Minister of Syria has just said he plans on having Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention. What would you tell him? What would you tell his government, his President Bashar al-Assad, taking this opportunity to address him here?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I know Walid Muallim. He has hosted me previously in Syria before all of this began a number of years ago. And I would hope that he and Bashar al-Assad would take advantage of this opportunity as a moment to try to make peace in Syria, to genuinely reach out, live up to what they’ve just said they would do with respect to the chemical convention, go further, help us in the next days working with Russia to work out the formula by which those weapons could be transferred to international control and destroyed, and even further demonstrate the way in which they will try to help make the Geneva process work, so that Syrians can choose a peaceful future that protects the rights of all people in Syria, end this civil war, help us be able to reach for peace. And I hope that perhaps in the next days they’d be willing to try to make that concrete.
MS. SETRAKIAN: Andrew Beiter, Nicholas Kristof, and of course U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you so much for joining us. And to everyone on Google+, thank you for watching.
MR. KRISTOF: Thank you, Lara.
MR. BEITER: Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Lara.
 Dawla al-Iraq wa Sham, also known as (ISIS), is a violent extremist organization known to operate in Syria. Alawi al-Islam is not.