Interview With Barbara Plett of BBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
September 11, 2014

QUESTION: So Mr. Kerry, it seems quite a strong communique, but Turkey didn’t sign, and that’s the country that could control the flow of fighters into the battle zone. It’s a fundamental flaw, isn’t it?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. Turkey is very engaged and be very involved. I’m going to be visiting there tomorrow. I have full expectation as we go forward that we’ll work through whatever issues or questions that exist. But I think for the moment, they have a few sensitive issues. We respect those sensitive issues, and we’re going to work with them very carefully.

QUESTION: The Arabs have been asking for stronger American action in Syria for quite a long time now against the Assad regime. And President Obama could have taken the kinds of steps he’s talking about now two years ago when the Islamists were weaker. That’s what some of his top ministers were advising at that time. So should he not take some responsibility for the fact that the Islamists are so much stronger now? That’s what the Arabs think, anyway.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there may be some that somehow think that, but they have to examine who’s been funding these guys, where the money’s been coming from. And I think over time, people will realize the outgrowth of this is really the responsibility of Assad himself. Assad has been the magnet that has attracted foreign fighters. They came there to get rid of Assad. They came there because they objected to Assad killing vast numbers of Sunni people and randomly barrel-bombing and gassing and murdering the people of his country. And so that’s what attracted these fighters in the first place.

Now, we warned at the time – President Obama warned at the time that that was dangerous, that these guys were coming and therefore they needed to make certain that they separated their funding and it only went to the moderate opposition. It took about a year and a half to two years to effect that policy, and in the meantime these groups grew up. And then, I think everybody was surprised by the inability of the Iraqi army to stand up when they started coming into Iraq itself. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I don’t think that President Obama is one of them.

QUESTION: Well, how can you make sure that the Gulf Arabs do not play both sides of this struggle against extremism as they have --

SECRETARY KERRY: Because I think they’ve learned – I think there’s a very strong feeling in the community – and we saw that here today. The region recognizes the danger that has been unleashed, and they are full-throatedly ready to deal with that, and that’s why they committed today to take the actions that they committed to.

QUESTION: And what exactly will be the role of Saudi Arabia? We’ve been hearing from U.S. officials that it was ready to provide a base for training Syrian rebels, but the foreign minister didn’t seem to have heard that.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the details of what each country is going to do within the breadth of all of the things that they have accepted as possibilities will be worked out over the course of the next days. What they have done is sign up to the coalition, agree that ISIL has to be destroyed, accept the full parameters of President Obama’s strategy, and now it will be worked out with the military experts and the intelligence experts exactly which country is doing what within the framework of that strategy.

QUESTION: So you’ve got this agreement for a military and political campaign to weaken the Islamic State, which you call ISIL. But how can you bring stability if you don’t include the main Shiite player in the region, Iran, in this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Iran has its own antipathy towards ISIL, obviously. Iran is already attacking ISIL from its own bases. We don’t have any plans to cooperate with Iran. We don’t – it’s just not in the cards. We – but we’re – our focus is on ISIL, and we will continue to deal with Iran on the nuclear negotiations that we’re involved in. But we believe we can take on ISIL in the current coalition that we have, and that’s the breadth of the coalition. Well, it’s actually going to grow, but not with Iran.

QUESTION: And why do you believe that you can create a competent national Iraqi army when you weren’t able to do it the whole time you – when you were actually in the country, which is not the case now.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, don’t say me. I was --

QUESTION: You, the Americans, the Americans.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. That’s very nice, but I – first of all, I was opposed to our going in there, number one. Number two, I don’t believe that the blame lies in the lack of training. It lay in the sectarianism that entered into it after we left. And unfortunately, over a period of time, the recruitment began to become a one-sect military that lacked the trust and respect of people in the country and lacked a stake in standing up to ISIL in that particular part of the country when ISIL came in. That’s the principal reason that people cut their deals and either left and ran, or in some cases, even joined up with – in other cases, joined up.

What you have now is an army where President Obama sent an assessment team in some weeks ago prior to making any judgment about what he might or might not do in order to determine how capable the army was, whether it would fight, how much of it would fight, or not. And that judgment has shown us that there is a core of this army that is ready to fight, capable of fighting, well-trained, and we will build on that. There are also others who are there – not quite as capable or ready – but they’re still at a level of training where people believe they could be made ready.

So we think there’s a core entity there that does have the ability, given a government that they’re willing to fight for, given a unifying presence within Iraq of governance that they feel is worth fighting for, we think there’s a strong likelihood that there’s going to be a very different engagement in the future. And that’s exactly what countries are signing up for – to continue to train, equip, and advise those folks so that the performance is at a higher standard.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Kerry.

SECRETARY KERRY: You’re welcome.