Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS

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

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for making time. There are many countries in this coalition that you’re building against ISIS who are basically weak links. The U.S. has said they’re allowing funding; they’re allowing fighters to flow into Syria and Iraq. How do you trust them to do what’s needed?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s going to tighten up, and it has to tighten up, and we’re going to make certain, as a consequence of people joining the coalition, that they’re paying attention to what the standards are that we’re going to live by. And we intend to try to hold people accountable. This raises the – it raises the transparency and accountability as a consequence of what we’re doing. And obviously, yes, there are some who have not been as intense as we would like them to be in curbing the flows of money or even some foreign fighters. But now they’re going to have to be, and we’re going to have people in place and systems in place that are really watching this very closely.

QUESTION: So how do you get Qatar and Kuwait to stop allowing money to flow? I mean, what happens to them if this continues?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve – there have been sanctions when people have violated one of the rules already, with respect to the flow of money for Iran or oil or otherwise. But we expect people to be really very diligent. We – they view this as a serious threat. They understand the consequences. And I think everybody’s going to redouble their own efforts in order to try to tighten the vise here. They realize it’s critical.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. at war with ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re engaged in a major counterterrorism operation --

QUESTION: Not a war?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- and it’s going to be a long-term counterterrorism operation. I think “war” is the wrong terminology and analogy, but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity, and it’s unfortunately too prevalent in certain parts of the world, and in certain cases represents a direct threat to the United States and to our interests in those regions. So we’re going to have to, obviously, be super focused on that. But I don’t think people need to get into war fever on this. I think they have to view it as a heightened level of counterterrorist activity. It’s – have a slightly higher level of activity, but it’s not dissimilar to what we’ve been doing the last few years with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in Yemen and elsewhere.

QUESTION: So how do you measure success? I mean, what’s the end (inaudible)?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you measure success in this case by your capacity to literally, ultimately destroy ISIL. I mean, it’s measurable. ISIL --

QUESTION: Taking its leaders off the battlefield?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it begins – no, it’s more than that, Margaret. You have to begin by taking back territory in Iraq. You have to deny them the capacity to own an entire village that belongs to Iraq, or a town or city. And that is the effort that will now be undertaken, but that effort on the ground will be undertaken by the Iraqis themselves. What we will do is help to advise them, train them, equip them; provide the capacity for them to be able to do that, to reclaim their country and drive ISIL out. And ultimately, ISIL will be very isolated, and there are other means that will be brought to apply to them – both there in Syria, elsewhere – that will diminish their ability to be able to threaten the United States, Europe, the region, and particularly Iraq.

QUESTION: Well, when it comes to Syria, how do you avoid becoming Assad’s air force?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, because we’re not – this is not targeted at Assad. This is targeted at ISIL, and Assad doesn’t even control those parts of Syria where ISIL has taken control.

QUESTION: But he claims he’s fighting them as well – a common enemy.

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s just fraud. That’s --

QUESTION: That’s fraud? He’s not fighting ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, he’s not fighting ISIL. In fact, there’s major headquarters of ISIL that sits in a number of – I mean, major places, evident to everybody, and he’s never taken them on.

QUESTION: So when it comes to the campaign in Syria, though, if there are U.S. airstrikes, the U.S. has long said the rebels aren’t an army. They’re unknown, they’re not ready to fight, they don’t have the capacity, they’re disorganized, they’re divided. What has actually changed?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, this is not about the rebels. This is about ISIL and about its threat. And so the President has made it clear that where we have actionable intelligence that requires somebody to act in order to take ISIL out and to deal with ISIL, we will do so, even if it is in Syria.

Meanwhile, the President is committed to continue to train the moderate opposition and to augment their ability to be able to take their own fight to Assad, but that’s not different from what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years, except it will happen to a greater degree and with greater intensity.

QUESTION: When will that begin?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s already begun.

QUESTION: The industrial-scale training of --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean --

QUESTION: -- the Syrian moderate --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- the Congress has to approve of the next echelon, but the training component is something that we’ve already been involved in.

QUESTION: Now, you’ve been speaking to so many leaders throughout this region today. Has anyone offered support? I mean, have you made real progress on getting the release of those Americans still held hostage in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Every country there today, with respect to – I’m sorry. Your question is did we get support --

QUESTION: The Americans that are being held hostage in Syria. Have you made any progress?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, again, with respect to hostages, we have consistently been careful to protect them to the degree that we have any ability to do so. But that certainly begins by not talking about what we’re doing or not doing, or what we know or don’t know. So all I can tell you is that we have never ceased to exercise every effort possible. With respect to the two hostages we tragically lost, we reached out to any number of countries. In every conversation I had with people who had some kind of contact to people in Syria or in the region, we asked them to help us.

And as you know, the President of the United States launched a very daring and critical rescue mission with our amazingly competent military personnel, who performed it flawlessly. But unfortunately, they weren’t there. So we will continue every effort possible to try to secure the release of any hostages.

QUESTION: And they are still alive?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to go into any details at all except to say we will continue to try to do everything possible to secure the release of any hostage – ours or anybody else’s.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir, for your time.