Opening Remarks on the United States Strategy To Defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
September 17, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Corker, and members of the committee, my friends and former colleagues, I really thank you for holding this hearing on an issue that is obviously fraught with all the high stakes that both the chairman and the ranking member have just described and all of the members of the committee understand deeply. And I really look forward to this opportunity to both define the threat that ISIL does pose, the ways in which it does, and of course, our strategy for defeating it. And all of that could not be more critical for the country.

During the years that I had the privilege of serving here and working with different administrations, it always struck me that American foreign policy works best and is strongest when there is a genuine discussion, a dialogue, a vetting of ideas back and forth, really a serious discussion – much more than an articulation of one set of ideas and then another, and they just oppose it each other and they sit out there and there’s no real effort to have a meeting of the minds. So I want to make sure that by the time we’re done here today I’ve heard from you, I know what you’re thinking; and you’ve heard from me and you know what we’re thinking, what the Administration is thinking; and that you have a clear understanding of what it is that we have done so far, of how we see this and how, hopefully, we can come to see it together, what we’re doing now and of where we go next.

And I state unequivocally, and it’s not a passing sentence, that I welcome the input, need the input of this committee because it is together that we’re going to be much stronger and much more effective in guaranteeing the success of this effort. And it’s a big effort in a lot of ways. It’s about ISIL in the immediacy; but as we will, I think, discuss today, it’s about a lot more than that.

So I want to underscore at the start – you know there’s some debates of the past 30 years, 29 of which I was privileged to serve in the Senate, that will undoubtedly fill up books and documentaries for a long time, and Iraq is certainly one of them. Iraq has caused some of the most heated debates and deepest divisions of the past decade, a series of difficult issues and difficult choices about which people can honestly disagree. But I didn’t come here today in the hope we don’t have to rehash those debates. The issue that confronts us today is one in which we all ought to be able to agree: ISIL must be defeated, period, end of story. And collectively, we are all going to be measured by how we carry out this mission.

As I came in here, obviously, we had some folks who spoke out, and I would start by saying that I understand dissent; I’ve lived it. That’s how I first testified in front of this country in 1971. And I spent two years protesting a policy, so I respect the right of Code Pink to protest and to use that right.

But you know what? I also know something about Code Pink. Code Pink was started by a woman and women who were opposed to war but who also thought that the government’s job was to take care of people and to give them healthcare and education and good jobs. And if that’s what you believe in – and I believe it is – then you ought to care about fighting ISIL, because ISIL is killing and raping and mutilating women, and they believe women shouldn’t have an education. They sell off girls to be sex slaves to jihadists. There is no negotiation with ISIL; there is nothing to negotiate. And they’re not offering anyone health care of any kind. They’re not offering education of any kind, for a whole philosophy or idea or cult, whatever you want to call it, that frankly comes out of the Stone Age. They’re cold-blooded killers marauding across the Middle East making a mockery of a peaceful religion.

And that’s precisely why we are building a coalition to try to stop them from denying the women and the girls and the people of Iraq the very future that they yearn for. And frankly, Code Pink and a lot of other people need to stop to think about how you stop them and deal with that.

So I --

AUDIENCE MEMBER: More invasions will not protect the homeland.


AUDIENCE MEMBER: More invasions will not protect the homeland.

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me make a --

AUDIENCE MEMBER: More invasions will not protect the homeland.

SECRETARY KERRY: So it’s important for people to understand --

AUDIENCE MEMBER: More invasions will not protect the homeland.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- important for people to understand --

AUDIENCE MEMBER: More invasions will not protect the homeland.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- there’s no invasion. The invasion was ISIL into Iraq. The invasion is foreign fighters into Syria. That’s the invasion, and it is destructive to every possibility of building a state in that region. So even in a region that is virtually defined by division – and every member of this committee understands the degree to which these divisions are deep in that region – leaders who have viewed the last 11 years very differently have all come together for this cause. They may agree on very little in general, but they are more unified on this subject than anything that I’ve seen them unified on in my career.

So as President Obama described last week when he spoke directly to the American people, we do have a clear strategy to degrade, defeat, and destroy ISIL. And it’s not in its infancy. It has been well thought through and carefully articulated and now is being built in these coalition efforts that began with the meeting in Jeddah and moved to Paris and will move to the United Nations this week when I chair a UN Security Council meeting on Friday. The United States will not go it alone. That has been a fundamental principle on which President Obama has sought to organize this effort. And that is why we are building a coalition, a global coalition. There are more than 50 countries that already have agreed or are now doing something. Not every country will decide that their role is to have some kind of military engagement, but every country can do something. And we’ll show exactly what that means.

And as I traveled around the region and Europe in the last days, the question that foreign leaders were asking me was not whether they should join the coalition but how they can help. We’re also – and I emphasize this – we’re not starting from scratch. This is an effort that we have been building over time, both on our own and with the help of our international partners. Even before President Obama delivered his speech last week nearly 40 countries had joined in, contributing to the effort to strengthen the capacity of Iraq to be able to strengthen its military to train, to provide humanitarian assistance. We’ve been focused on ISIL since its inception as the successor to al-Qaida of Iraq in 2013. And back in January, realizing that, we ramped up our assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces, increasing our intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, or ISR, the flights that get a better picture of the battlefield. We expedited weapons like the Hellfire missiles for the Iraqis in order to bring their capacity to bear in this fight.

Early this summer the ISIL threat accelerated when it effectively erased the Iraq-Syria border and the Mosul Dam fell. The President acted immediately. Deliberately and decisively, we further surged the ISR missions immediately. We set up joint operations centers in Baghdad and Erbil immediately, and our special forces conducted a very detailed, in-depth assessment of Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish forces. We did that purposefully, without jumping, as some people wanted us to, because we wanted to understand what is the capacity of the Iraqi army to fight? How many brigades, having seen what happened in Mosul, are still prepared to engage? Are we getting into something that, in fact, we don’t have the answers to with respect to who can do what?

And to date, we have launched – we have supported those Iraqi security forces that, by the way, helped in the liberating of Amirli, helped in the freedom of Sinjar Mountain. helped in taking back the Mosul Dam. And now we have launched more than 150 airstrikes, and it is because of the platforms that we put in place last January and even before that those strikes had been among the most precise strikes that we have ever taken. The percentage – I won’t go into it here, but I will tell you you’d be astonished if you heard openly now the accuracy of those efforts.

Those were put in place back in June, and those strikes have been extremely effective in breaking the sieges that I described and beginning to move confidence back into the Iraqi military. The judgment and assessments of our military that went over there to look at the Iraqi military came back with a judgment of a sufficient number of brigades capable of and ready to fight. And with the reconstitution of the military in a way that can bring the country together and not be divided along sectarian lines or viewed to be the army of one individual, it is entirely likely that there’ll be much greater and more rapid progress.

So that has given us time to put in place the two pillars of a comprehensive strategy against ISIL: an inclusive Iraqi Government, which was essential – there would be no capacity for success here if we had not been able to see the Iraqi Government come together; and secondly, the broad international coalition so the U.S. is not alone. We redoubled our efforts, frankly, to help move the Iraqi political process forward, and we were very clear-eyed about the fact that the strategy of ISIL would only succeed if we had a strong, inclusive government. And frankly, that required transformation in the government which the Iraqis themselves effected. With our support and several weeks of very complex negotiations, President Massoum nominated Haider al-Abadi to serve as prime minister. And shortly thereafter, Prime Minister al-Abadi – again, with our support and others’ – was able to form his cabinet and present it to the parliament, and last week that government was approved.

I have to tell you, it was quite astonishing to be in Jeddah the other day with the Saudis, Emiratis; the Bahrainis, the Jordanians, the Qataris, the Turks, the Lebanese, and Iraqis – Iraqis in Saudi Arabia. And everybody here in this committee knows what that relationship’s been like for the last years. And to hear the foreign minister of Iraq, who chaired the meeting, Saud al-Faisal say that they were prepared to open an immediate embassy in Baghdad – that’s transformative. The result is something also for Iraq that it’s never seen before in its history: an election deemed credible by the United Nations followed by a peaceful transition of power without any U.S. troops on the ground. I must say, I was sort of struck yesterday. The Wall Street Journal had an article talking about Arab divide, but above the Arab divide language is the Shia foreign minister of Iraq, the Kurd president of Iraq, and the Sunni foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, all in communication and jointly working as never before.

So I think people need to focus on what has been accomplished here. As you know, I went to Iraq last week. I traveled; I met with the leaders of Iraq. And throughout the entire process, we’ve been in touch with regional leaders to ensure that the new and inclusive government is going to receive support from the region. With this inclusive government in place, it is time for a defensive strategy that we and our international partners have pursued to get things together – get the inclusive government, know exactly where we’re going – to now transition to an offensive strategy, one that harnesses the capabilities of the entire world to eliminate the ISIL threat once and for all. President Obama outlined this strategy in detail. I’m not going to go through it in that detail, but I’ll just quickly say – I’ll be quick in walking through it.

At its core, our strategy is centered on a global coalition that will collaborate closely across a number of specific areas, including direct and indirect military support. Military assistance can come in a range of forms, from training and equipping to logistics and airlift, and countries from inside and outside of our region are already right now providing that support in these venues.

I’ve also no doubt whatsoever that we will have the capabilities and the resources we need to succeed militarily. And President Obama made clear that we will be expanding the military campaign to take on ISIL in Iraq, in Syria, wherever it is found. But this is not the Gulf war in 1991; it is not the Iraq war in 2003; and that’s true for a number of reasons.

Number one, U.S. ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict. From the last decade we know that a sustainable strategy is not U.S. ground forces; it is enabling local forces to do what they have to do for themselves and for their country. I want to be clear: The U.S. troops that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. Instead, they will support Iraq forces on the ground as they fight for their country against these terrorists. And in Syria, the on-the-ground combat will be done by the moderate opposition, which serves as the current best counterweight in Syria to extremists like ISIL. We know that ISIL – as it gets weaker, the moderate opposition will get stronger. And that will be critical in our efforts to bring about the political solution necessary to address the crisis in Syria once and for all. That is one of the reasons why it is so critical that Congress authorize the opposition train-and-equip mission when it comes to the floor. But it’s also critical that the opposition makes the most of the additional support, the kind of support that they’ve been requesting now for years. And they need to take this opportunity to prove to the world that they can become a viable alternative to the current regime.

Number two, this is more than just a military coalition, and I want to emphasize that. In some ways, some of the most important aspects of what we will be doing are not military. This mission isn’t just about taking out an enemy on the battlefield; it’s about taking out a network, decimating and discrediting a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement. It’s similar to what we’ve been doing to al-Qaida these last years. The bottom line is we will not be successful with a military campaign alone, and we know it. Nor are we asking every country to play a military role. We don’t need every country to engage in that kind of military action, and frankly, we’re not asking them and we don’t want every country to do that. Only a holistic campaign will accomplish our objectives.

In addition to the military campaign, it will be equally important for the global coalition to dry up ISIL’s illicit funding. And by the way, the Bahrainis at the meeting in Jeddah have offered to host a meeting – because they’ve been already engaged in this – that brings people together to focus on precisely the steps we can all take to do this. And that can positively have an impact not just on ISIL but on other flows of terrorism support.

We have to stop the foreign fighters who carry passports from countries around the world, including the United States, to continue to deliver. And we also need, obviously, to continue to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance

And finally, and this is really – you can’t overstate this. We must continue to repudiate the gross distortion of Islam that ISIL is spreading, put an end to the sermons by extremists that brainwash young men to join these movements and commit mass atrocities in the name of God. I was very encouraged to hear that Saudi Arabia’s top clerics came out and declared terrorism a heinous crime under Sharia law and that the perpetrators should be made an example of. And I think – I might just mention – I’ll wait till we get in the Q&A. I’ll come back to this, but a very important statement was made today by the top clerics in the region, and I want to come back to that because I think it’s critical.

But let me just emphasize that when we say global coalition, we mean it. And this is not – and Australia, other countries, the Far East, countries in Europe have all taken on already initial responsibilities.

So, my colleagues, we are committed to working with countries in every corner of the globe to match the campaign with the capabilities that we need to fight it. And I can tell you today that every single person I spoke to in Wales at the Wales summit, in Jeddah, in Paris – where we had more than 30 countries and entities – they all expressed strong support for our mission and a willingness to help in some way.

We had excellent meetings and our meetings in Baghdad and in Cairo and in Ankara also advanced the process. At the conference in Paris, we took another step towards the UNGA meetings this week. And the UNGA meetings, unlike the meetings we’ve had thus far, which have all been behind closed doors, the UNGA meetings – these countries will be speaking out publicly at the United Nations Security Council and the world will begin to see what each of these countries are prepared to do.

So we have a plan. We know the players. Our focus now is in determining what each country’s role will be and how to coordinate those activities for success. Later this week, we’re going to have more to say about our partners and the contributions, and we still fully expect this coalition to grow through UNGA and beyond. One of the things that I’m most pleased about is we’ve asked one of our most respected and experienced military leaders, General John Allen, to come to the State Department and oversee this effort. He came within 24 hours of being asked, was at his desk at seven in the morning, and is now already laying out the campaign from a diplomatic point of view for how we coordinate, what will be needed, for all of these other aspects beyond the military piece. And had a long meeting with him yesterday, again today, and I am confident that together with Ambassador Brett McGurk, who will serve as his deputy; and Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson, who was so much a part of our effort against al-Qaida when she was our ambassador to Pakistan, we have a very experienced group of people engaged in this effort.

The fact is if we do this right, then this effort could actually become a model for what we can do with respect to the individual terrorist groups in other places that continue to wreak havoc on the efforts of governments to build their states and provide for their people. And I’m confident that with our strategy in place and our international partners by our side we will have all that we need, and with the help of the Congress, we will be able to succeed in degrading and ultimately destroying this monstrous organization wherever it exists.

I know that was a little long, Mr. Chairman, but I wanted to lay it out, and I appreciate your patience.