Interview With Christiane Amanpour of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Waldorf Astoria Hotel
New York City, DC
September 24, 2014

QUESTION: Chris, thank you, and we’d like to also welcome our viewers who are joining from around the world as we take this first opportunity to interview Secretary of State John Kerry at this amazing time in history right now. Welcome to the program.


QUESTION: Welcome to CNN, Secretary Kerry.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m very happy to be here. Thank you.

QUESTION: Can you confirm what we’ve all been talking about, that there’s a second day of strikes underway on targets in Syria and Iraq, and that the leader of the Khorasan Group and another major leader have been killed?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s a – there’s definitely a second day and there’ll be a third and more. This is going to go on. The President’s been very clear that we’re going to do what’s necessary to get this job done. So the answer is this will go on for some time in various forms. One of the things I’d like to emphasize, Christiane, is that everybody’s fixated on the strikes, but this is a very broad-based strategy which involves foreign fighters. The President will chair a UN Security Council meeting today on foreign fighters. It involves cutting off financing. It will involve a major effort to reclaim Islam by Muslims, by those to whom it belongs. And I think you will hear more from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, from the Council, from people all around the world who are outraged by what ISIL is doing to Islam.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the death of the leader of the Khorasan Group, which you struck – we were all surprised. Nobody had really been paying attention to it. Has the leader been killed?

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t personally confirm that at this moment, no.

QUESTION: Regarding one of the key items that you just mentioned, that the President said, to cut off the flow of funding to ISIS and other such groups, many of the coalition partners who you have got – the Arab coalition partners – have been blamed for either directly funding or turning an eye away from the funding going to these groups. What are you going to say to them, and are you convinced that they’re on board to stop this funding?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m absolutely convinced that the coalition is on board. There’s no question about it and they proved that in the air, in their willingness to join. Historically, to many people’s amazement, they all came together. We had a very frank meeting yesterday with all of them, with the President. They’re committed to this because this is a threat to every nation, and they see that. It’s also a threat to legitimacy. It’s a threat to statehood. It’s a threat to their futures. And so it has much bigger stakes than just immediate counterterrorism and so forth.

QUESTION: And you can be sure that they’re going to cut the funding off?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me talk about the funding for a minute. In the very beginning, Christiane, when the efforts to oust Assad took place, there were people who made calculations that the important thing is to remove Assad, yes, there are some bad apples there, but we want to get him out. And that, unfortunately, resulted in funding to different groups, and it was, frankly, a sloppy process. It did not provide the coordinated, concerted effort that was needed.

So since then, there’s been a real focus on this financing, and state-sponsored support of these groups, I believe, is over. It has ended. There are still individuals within certain countries who have been funneling money to these groups. And the theory back in the beginning by many of these people were, “Well, we’re going to get rid of Assad, and then we’ll focus on these bad apples.” They realized it morphed into something more ominous, more threatening, and so I think people have really pulled back. There’s a sense of purpose now in this focus against ISIL.

QUESTION: You say a sense of purpose; the President has laid out a multi-year task ahead. Quickly, the Khorasan plot, can you confirm precisely what it was and the imminence of it?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, these are remnants of al-Qaida – core al-Qaida, as we called it. These are people who were definitively plotting against the United States and the West. We have been tracking them for some period of time now, and it is true that we didn’t put a lot of public focus on it, because we really didn’t want people particularly – we didn’t want them to know that we were, in fact, tracking them as effectively as we were. So this would have happened with or without ISIL. We were focused on them and the moment actually was ripe. There were active plots against our country. We knew where they were and we did what we needed to do.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the plots were precisely?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’m not – I can’t. I’m not going to go into that, but suffice it to say that we knew that there were active plots against the country.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, I’d like to ask you about the military campaign. You yourself are a former military, you fought against insurgents yourself in Vietnam. This is an insurgent war. Can they be flushed out by air power alone? Once you’ve done the first one or two days of fixed targets, buildings, vehicles, this and that, surely it needs special forces on the ground to be able to identify future targets --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are a lot of different --

QUESTION: -- (inaudible) special forces.

SECRETARY KERRY: There are a lot of different parts of this, Christiane. There – clearly, intelligence comes from people on the ground. There’s no question about that. But there are lots of people on the ground already in different forms and I’m not going to go into all of that, but there are intelligence systems, there are other countries, there are lots of inputs to intel with respect to ISIL. That’s number one.

QUESTION: And do you feel you have it --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re --

QUESTION: -- to be able to expand the campaign?

SECRETARY KERRY: We will continue. General Allen is going out there this next week with Ambassador McGurk. They will be there working on this networking of intelligence, this networking of entities on the ground. We will be training openly, thanks to the congressional vote, Syrian opposition. We believe that with the open effort against ISIL from many different players in the region, there’s going to be much greater confidence in this possibility to the opposition, and there will be more recruits. There will be more – the morale will go up. People are going to be more willing to fight.

In addition to that, there are other options. The President’s been clear there won’t be American special forces on the ground, but there are plenty of ways to begin to bring greater pressure on ISIL.

QUESTION: Plenty of ways; you’ve been doing this now for six weeks-plus in Iraq itself against ISIS --


QUESTION: -- whatever targets. They have not been flushed out, Secretary Kerry. They are not retreating.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I understand.

QUESTION: They are not surrendering. They also are not flooding back to the central government – the prime minister, who you have helped stand up.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s – the government is in its infancy, in its very first days, still in formation. And it was very important that Haider al-Abadi came here, the prime minister, that he’s had meetings. They will go back and they will continue to do what they need to do. We will be working with them to reconstitute the military. The military has not yet come back together completely.

Now, we know there are – I won’t go into the numbers, but there are an adequate number of brigades ready to fight and capable of fighting. And of course, they haven’t been flushed out yet. In fact, they’re bunkering down. They’re kind of going --

QUESTION: And more villages are falling.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that will – is possible for a period of time, but what we’ve done is we’ve stopped the onslaught. That was what we were able to achieve with air power. They were moving towards Erbil. They were moving towards Baghdad. Baghdad could well have fallen. Erbil could have fallen. They could have control of all of the oil fields. We re-secured the Mosul Dam, we protected the Haditha Dam, we broke the siege at Amirli, we broke the siege at Sinjar Mountain. So airpower has been effective. And now, as their supplies begin to get hit and other things begin to happen, I believe there is the possibility of a slow degrading that ultimately – and I say ultimately because the President’s been clear this will take time. You and others should not be looking for some massive retreat within the next week or two. There are going to have to be major efforts to stand up tribes, to do the kind of thing that happened with the Sons of Anbar, with the Arab – with the awakening, the Iraqi awakening that took place years ago.

QUESTION: So that leads me to my next question. I interviewed the new prime minister, al-Abadi, last night, and he says that he wants to bring the Sunnis in. Clearly, that is the backbone of your strategy, the political part of it. Do you believe that he gets it and that he will be able to do something dramatic and radical to convince the Sunnis that they’re part of this nation again?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s critical, absolutely critical, and the first steps have been taken. I believe he understands the challenge. Obviously, he has pressures on him. We all understand that. And we’re all going to have to work together very carefully at this. But it is imperative – I cannot underscore how important it is – that this be one nation with all the different parties coming together with an opportunity to be part of the decision-making and part of the future. And if it does break down into the sectarian divisions and a refusal to share responsibility and decision-making, that would be very problematic. But we believe this government came together precisely around that promise. That’s why there’s a new prime minister. That’s why there’s a new president. That’s why there’s a new speaker. And they are clearly moving in the same direction at this point in time.

QUESTION: Regarding Bashar Assad, all of us know Bashar Assad must go. That’s what the President of the United States said, that’s what many regional allies said three years ago. He’s not only there, but you have informed him of these strikes. You’ve informed Iran of these strikes. I’d like to get your confirmation about how that happened.

People have said – your ambassador said to me there must be no sense that this is going to help Bashar Assad. Are you sure that what you’re doing in Syria will not help Bashar Assad?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me make it clear. Bashar Assad has lost an ability, not because we say so, but because the facts on the ground tell everybody that when you have killed 200,000 of your own citizens, when you have driven a huge percentage of your population into exile – a million and a half refugees in Turkey, a million and a half or so in Jordan and Lebanon, another four million or so dislocated within your own country, you drop barrel bombs, you gas people, you torture people – how do you imagine having the legitimacy to be able to govern that country? Now --

QUESTION: But you’re not going after him now?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, this is not about Assad now. This is about ISIL. But we are continuing to train openly and to equip and arm the moderate opposition. And over the years, we’ve gotten pretty good at vetting and understand – we’ve done 20 years now of this – we did it in Iraq, we’ve done it in Afghanistan – and our folks know how to separate people and begin to determine to the greatest extent possible who is really moderate and prepared to fight.

Remember something: Even in these last two to three years while Assad has been waging his duplicitous efforts against both the opposition but also not going after ISIL – while that’s been going on, it’s been the opposition that’s been fighting both, and they’ve survived. They drove ISIL out of Idlib province. They held the line in Aleppo. They pushed them in Deir al-Zour. They’ve proven themselves to be willing to fight, and now we believe with – if ISIL begins to have less capacity to get in their way, they will have more capacity to achieve their goal.

QUESTION: There’s been a huge amount of debate within the Obama Administration for the past three years of this war in Syria. Many – the whole entire, practically, national security apparatus of the President – wanted to do something like this much earlier. Secretary Panetta – former Secretary Panetta, former CIA Chief Panetta said it recently that we should have probably done this much earlier, what we’re doing now. The President dismissed people mostly who promoted this kind of thing, thought they were trigger happy, used certain terms against it. Do you regret that this wasn’t done sooner? Would it have been easier if we were doing this a few years later, precisely what you’re doing now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, let me make it clear: The President never dismissed anybody. The President engaged in extremely thoughtful and comprehensive discussion to figure out the pros and cons and pluses and minuses. And the President made his decisions based on judgments that were shared by a lot of different people. So I’m not going to get into the debate of the past. I honestly don’t have that luxury right now. Others can carry that debate.

We’re focused on the now and we’re focused on the future. And what is clear is the President has determined that he has the legal capacity – remember, there were serious questions of legality about what could and couldn’t be done previously. There was a big debate over chemical weapons, even. We didn’t have the same kind of legality to go do chemical weapons that we do now have, because of the request of the Government of Iraq; we didn’t have a request from the Government of Syria; because international law clearly recognizes a right of self-defense and collective self-defense, and we have the legality to do what we’re doing today. That mattered to the President.

And I think it is important that we have allies who are prepared to engage in this too. ISIL raised this threat level to a point that everybody understands the stakes. There is much more at stake than just ISIL and Iraq, and this is not just an internal fight. This is a fight that involves all of us, because there’s a level of depravity, of just fundamental evil in what they are doing that challenges states and challenges values and the mores that we have lived by or tried to live by for a long time. And if that was free to run rampant over those countries, there could be chaos in the region and far greater dangers for everybody.

So we’re standing up to that. That’s the right thing to do. The other debate can go on, but we’re focused on what we’re going to do now and what we’re going to do to succeed.

QUESTION: And finally, you talk about a much bigger regional situation at stake – to wit, Iran. You’ve made a huge amount of efforts. Do you believe that by the deadline of November 24th you will have a deal? The French foreign minister, your counterpart, said as things stand now, no, the gaps are too far. What creative diplomacy regarding centrifuges are you proposing now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are still gaps. There’s no question about it. But we have the month of October and several weeks in November to continue to negotiate. We’ve been very clear with Iran that we need to try to see some progress. We need to move forward. We’re working very, very hard, Christiane, to make sure this historic moment is appropriately put to use, but without – and this is very important – without compromising one bit what must be achieved in an agreement. We’ve made it clear that each pathway to a potential nuclear weapon must be cut off. There has to be a clarity to Iran’s willingness to prove that it is a peaceful nuclear program. And this has to stand the test of scrutiny of all of us – of Congress, of our friends in the region, and of each of us. I’ve said many times no deal is better than a bad deal. But our hopes are – President Obama’s hopes – the entire Administration knows the world will be better off if Iran and the United States can find the agreement that satisfies everybody’s test that they do not have a pathway to a bomb, that they will be living by international standards and more in order to prove that, and that we can see a way towards a safe and secure nuclear bomb-free region. That’s the key here and that’s what we’re working towards, and we hope they will do it.

QUESTION: Thank you. So much more to ask you. I know your time is up. Thank you very much for joining us this morning.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thanks. Good to be with you.