The ISIS Threat: Weighing the Obama Administration's Response

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Opening Remarks Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Washington, DC
September 18, 2014

 Well, thank you very much, Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel, all the members of the committee. It’s my privilege to be here today. I’m glad to have this opportunity. Let me begin by both congratulating you and thanking you for the vote that took place yesterday. We are enormously appreciative because stepping up the efforts with respect to the moderate opposition is an essential piece in any strategy against ISIL, and I’ll go into that a little bit in a moment.

I know the Chairman knows I have a hard stop on this because I have to be at the White House for the meeting with President Poroshenko, so I’m going to – I’ll try to really abbreviate and I’ll try to keep my answers short, but I also want to make sure I answer them – your questions sufficiently.

For more than 10 years Iraq has been a source of debate and some disagreement, obviously, up on the Hill, in the country. I think we’d waste time today if we focused on sort of rehashing past debates when the issue that confronts us is really straightforward and one on which we ought to all agree. ISIL has to be defeated, plain and simple, end of story; has to be. And collectively, I think every single one of us is going to be measured by what we do in order to guarantee that that happens. And the same is true on the international level. Even in a region that has been virtually defined by division over these past years, leaders who couldn’t find any agreement for 11 years and who agree on very little in general are all in agreement that ISIS has to be defeated.

We’ve been focused on ISIL, I will tell you, since it morphed into al-Qaida in Iraq in 2013 and picked up AQI’s mission under a different banner. And obviously, prior to that we were focused on it in the full context in what we were doing with respect to al-Qaida. In January, we ramped up our assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces, increasing our intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance–ISR– and flights to get a better picture of the battlefield and in order to expedite weapons like the Hellfire missiles for the Iraqis so that they could bring those to bear in the fight.

Early this summer, the ISIL threat accelerated when it effectively obliterated the Iraq-Syria border and the Mosul Dam fell. And there are complicated reasons for why that happened. It’s not just a straightforward they-ran-over-them deal. It has to do with the kind of army that Prime Minister Maliki began to create. It has to do with Shia and Sunni. It has to do with a lot of other ingredients.

But as a result of that, we further surged our ISR missions immediately over Iraq. We immediately set up joint operation centers in Baghdad and Erbil. And our Special Forces conducted immediately a very detailed assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces, because we needed to know in order to be able to answer your questions and the questions of the American people what might we be getting into here. Do we have an Iraqi army that’s capable of fighting? To what degree? What will it take to reconstitute it? So whatever judgments are coming to you now are coming to you as a consequence of that assessment.

And in addition to that, I’m proud to say that thanks to American engagement, ISIL’s movement, which was rapid at that point in time and perilous, was stopped. Together with the Peshmerga and the brave, courageous souls, the Kurds who stood up, we were able to not only stop them there but to liberate Amirli, which had been under siege, liberate Sinjar Mountain, to begin to bring our efforts to bear on Haditha Dam and make a difference. And by the time ISIL had launched its offensive in the north, President Obama began airstrikes to begin with on a humanitarian basis to protect American personnel and prevent major catastrophes such as the fall of Haditha Dam or the maintenance of the Mosul Dam and also to bolster the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish forces.

To date, we’ve launched more than 150 airstrikes. And I know that sounds like – it doesn’t sound like – that’s very few compared to the 16,000 that was mentioned earlier. But it’s a different deal right now, because I believe we rightfully, absolutely needed to get in place a structured, clear, Iraqi-chosen Iraqi effort that provided a government with which we can work going forward. If you didn’t have a government with which you could work going forward, nothing that we tried to do would have had the impact necessary. So the platforms we put in place last June have enabled us to be able to do what we’ve done now, and there’s absolute clarity to the fact that we blunted ISIL’s momentum, created the time and space to be able to put together a comprehensive strategy, get the inclusive government, and build a broad coalition. And that’s the way we ought to go at this.

We’ve redoubled our efforts to move the Iraqi political process forward. We’re clear-eyed about the fact that any strategy against ISIL is only going to succeed if it has this strong and inclusive government in Iraq, and I hope you noticed a photograph on the front page of The Wall Street Journal two days ago that showed Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, arm-in-arm with the Kurdish president of Iraq and with the Shia foreign minister of Iraq. They all came together in Jeddah, and that’s why I went to Baghdad last week – to meet with this new Iraqi Government and make certain of what they were willing to do and were committing to us, and encouraged them to discuss in detail their commitment against ISIL and especially their commitment to unify the country and do the things that haven’t been done for these eight years or more.

What happened in Jeddah was literally historic in terms of the recent history of Iraq and the conflicts of that region. Iraq is now no longer isolated from its neighbors. Last week, the Iraqis weren’t just invited to come to Jeddah, but they were warmly received by the Saudis and by the rest of the countries there. And the Saudis announced in that meeting that they will reopen an embassy in Baghdad. That’s a big deal, and it’s essential. President Obama outlined the broader strategy in detail the other day. I’m not going to go through it all, but I just quickly highlight it because it’s important to continually remember this is not just an American effort, number one, and number two, it is not just military, not just kinetic, even within the military.

It is critical that we all understand how complicated it is, be – precisely because we’re not just focused on taking the enemy out on the battlefield, but we have to take out an entire network. I don’t know how many of you saw it today, but the Australians today arrested a large group of people that they suspected of being ISIL members, supporters, sympathizers in Australia who were planning some kind of extravaganza of brutality in Australia. So we have to decimate and discredit a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement and claiming with no legitimacy whatsoever to be a state. And it’s – there are similarities to what we’ve been doing with al-Qaida these last years, but frankly, it’s different for some of the reasons that Chairman Royce pointed out. These folks have now taken over territory in ways that al-Qaida never did. They have access to money in ways that al-Qaida never did. They have access to weapons that they captured from Iraqis, and they’re holding that territory and beginning to try to build a capacity for sustainability that challenges everybody.

So certainly, military support is going to be one component of this. And I sit here today – while I can’t go into all of the details at this particular moment for a lot of obvious reasons, I’m here to tell you that we have people in Europe committed to being part of kinetic effort; outside of Europe in other parts of the world committed; and in the region, Arab commitments to be part of this effort. In Syria, the on-the-ground combat will be done by the moderate opposition, which is Syria’s best counterweight to extremists like ISIL. And we can talk more about that moderate opposition – what it looks like, who it is, what they’re capable of today, what they could be doing – as we go forward.

In addition to the military campaign, we obviously need to dry up the illicit funding sources for al-Qaida. We have to stop the foreign fighters, people with passports from some of your states, people who could return here with experience in fighting in Syria or Iraq, and come back and engage in activities here. And the evidence of that is not in my saying it; a fighter who was in Syria traversed back through Turkey and other places, came back to Europe, a French sympathizer, went to Brussels and shot four people outside of a synagogue in Brussels.

So I emphasize that when we say in addition there’s another major step, and that will be to continue to deliver humanitarian assistance and to make a difference for the people on the ground so that they don’t get sucked in by the money that an ISIL can spend or even pay them.

In addition, we have a major effort to undertake to repudiate the insulting distortion of Islam that ISIL is spreading. I was very encouraged to hear yesterday that Saudi Arabia’s top clerical entity, 21 clerics, unanimously came out and declared again that terrorism is a heinous crime under Sharia law, and more importantly declared that ISIL has nothing to do with Islam and that it is, in fact, the order of Satan. And this is vital because we know that preventing any individual from joining ISIL, from getting to the battlefield in the first place, is actually the most effective measure that we can take. The top – the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia last week said that ISIL is the number one enemy of Islam and it might serve us all well to focus on it not in a name that gives it a state, but to focus on it as the enemy of Islam.

That’s why I spent the last days in Europe and in the Middle East building this coalition together with others, countries, and that’s why I’ll be tomorrow in New York at the UN Security Council at a session that is aimed to build up this coalition even more and to get even more specific about commitments from each country as to what they’re going to do. We have more than 50 countries now contributing in one way or another, with specific understanding of what those countries will do – some will provide ammunition, some will help with the de-legitimizing, some will engage in de-financing, some will engage in military assistance, some in training and assist, some in kinetic activities.

In addition, in New York with me tomorrow will be General John Allen. I think many of you know him, command in Iraq for – in Afghanistan for two years, 2011-2013, and deputy commander of Anbar in Iraq and great experience in the region, great respect in the region, knowledge of the Sunni tribes, of all the folks there that are part of the mix to be able to mobilize action.

And he can help us match up each country’s capabilities with the needs of the coalition. That’s another reason why we can’t lay it all out to you today is because in the Pentagon as well as in our intel community as well as the White House, we are marrying all of the needs with the particular coalition contributors. Ambassador Brett McGurk as well as Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson, who was so much a part of the effort against al-Qaida in Pakistan, are also leading the team. And I commit to you that we will continue to build and enhance the coalition well beyond UNGA.

So with that, I look forward to your questions and I hope we can get through as much as possible. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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