Interview With Nicolle Wallace, Mike Barnicle, Mark Halperin, Richard Haass, and Katty Kay of MSNBC's Morning Joe

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City
September 29, 2015

Date: 09/29/2015 Description: Secretary Kerry Speaks About Syria, ISIL, World Affairs on MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' - State Dept Image

QUESTION: Joining us now on set exclusively, the Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, great to have you with us this morning.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be here.

QUESTION: Boy, we saw two very different views of the world yesterday from President Obama and President Putin specifically as it pertains to Syria, two different strategies: the President saying effectively Assad has to go through a managed transition; Putin says we need to partner with Assad. Is there any middle ground between those two points of view?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s what Foreign Minister Lavrov and I have been instructed by both leaders to try to find out. But what I will tell you is yesterday’s meeting was genuinely constructive, very civil. There was a very candid discussion. And I think both leaders are looking for a way forward, because everybody understands that Syria is at stake and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.

Now, there was agreement on some fundamental principles. There’s an agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united; that it needs to be secular; that ISIL needs to be taken on; and that there needs to be a managed transition, but there is a difference obviously in what that means and what that outcome may or may not be. My sense is that – I have a meeting this morning with our coalition friends – many of them, not all of them but some of them this morning – and then we’ll be – I’ll be meeting with Lavrov again tomorrow. And we are looking for a way to try to get to a point where we can manage a transition and have agreement on the outcome and you could resolve it.

Now, let me just say you could end this violence within a very short period of time, have a complete ceasefire – which Iran could control, which Russia could control, which Syria could control, and which we and our coalition friends could control – if one man would merely make it known to the world that he doesn’t have to be part of the long-term future; he’ll help manage Syria out of this mess and then go off into the sunset, as most people do after a period of public life. If he were to do that, then you could stop the violence and quickly move to management.


SECRETARY KERRY: So this really all hinges on one person’s choice and on the supporters of that person who insist that he is the essential ingredient to the future. He’s not. And you cannot bring peace in Syria as long as Assad is, in fact, there.

QUESTION: Given what you know, though, about President Assad and the way he’s behaved even just over the last three to five years, what makes you think that he will be managed out of power?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don’t know that. We honestly don’t know that. But Assad himself has said on several occasions recently that if the people of Syria don’t believe I should be there in the future, then I would step – I would leave. He has said it. He has, on occasion, hinted that he wants a political settlement of one kind or another. I think it’s up to his supporters, his strongest supporters, to make it clear to him that if you’re going to save Syria, Assad has made a set of choices – barrel bombing children, gassing his people, torturing his people, engaging in starvation as a tactic of war. I mean, all of these things that he has done, there’s no way even if President Obama wanted to just play along that you could actually achieve peace, because there are 65 million Sunni in between Baghdad and the border of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who will never, ever again accept Assad as a member – as a legitimate leader. They just won’t accept it. It doesn’t matter what we’re thinking. And the Russians need to understand that you cannot have peace unless you resolve the question of Sunni buy-in. They are the majority of the country, 60 to 65 percent. They’ve been ruled by Assad, who represents a minority Alawite element, which is about 12, 13 percent. And because of the choices Assad made, it’s very difficult to see how you resolve this without buy-in from the Sunni world.

QUESTION: Is it – I’m sorry. Is your job made any more difficult by the fact that some question our credibility and our word because we drew a redline in Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons by Assad on his own people and we didn’t follow up?

SECRETARY KERRY: Nicolle, I’m really glad you asked that question.

QUESTION: I’m sure you are. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I really am glad. No, seriously, because there is so much misunderstanding about that, and I understand the misunderstanding. But the fact is --

QUESTION: Not just from your critics. I mean, we hear that all over the world.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no, look, I accept – I accept that friends of ours have decided that the President’s non-strike has somehow impacted perceptions of us. But I believe they are dead wrong and I think the critics are dead wrong, and here’s why. The President made his decision to strike. He announced his decision to strike publicly. And the purpose of the strike was to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. That’s the purpose.

Well, while we were in the process post-announcement --

QUESTION: Wasn’t it so that when we speak, we mean what we say?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, yes, except that the Congress started to weigh in. I was on a telephone call, a conference call with over a hundred congressmen.

QUESTION: Democrats and Republican.

SECRETARY KERRY: Democrats and Republicans. They were all saying, “Oh, you’ve got to come to us. You’ve got to ask us for permission. You’ve got to do that.” And then lo and behold, unbeknownst to everybody, on a Thursday before the weekend we were going to strike, David Cameron went to the parliament and lost the vote. Now, how in the wake of Britain’s parliament deciding no in a democratic fashion, with congressmen screaming, “You’ve got to come to us,” can the President decide to stiff democracy in America and say no? We anticipated winning that vote and winning it quickly.

But something else happened on the way to the forum. We achieved a deal with the Russians that didn’t wind up in two days of strikes that would have sent a, quote, “message,” but would not have removed the weapons. We struck a deal to get all of the declared weapons out of Syria. Never before in a conflict has that ever happened, that during the conflict weapons of mass destruction are taken out of the zone of conflict. And thank God we did that, because if we hadn’t done that, today ISIL would have those chemical weapons in large parts of the country.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I want to get back to the question of where we go with Russia. They are clearly, along with Iran, doubling down on support for Bashar al-Assad. What chance do you think you have with your counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to basically say, “Okay, we’ll try it your way for, say, six months – double down. And if – and we think when – that doesn’t work, then we’ve got to basically find a post-Assad Alawite leader who’s willing to work with the Sunnis”?

SECRETARY KERRY: But I don’t think it’s a question of, quote, “us finding.” I think that’s one of the basic premises here. We have to create a process which has legitimacy for the people of Syria. And we have to have a process where the Russians and the Iranians and the neighbors – all of them, Saudis, Turks, Qataris, a very complicated brew – that you have to bring them together and they can find agreement. That’s the fundamental premise of the Geneva Communique that you will have, by mutual consent, a process of transition.

Now, yesterday I had a chance to talk with President Putin at the end of the meeting, and he clearly – I mean, he said to me very directly, “I will think about that. I will think about this challenge of how we win.” Look, this is not easy for Putin. Everybody says, “Oh, Putin’s made a big move.” Well, Putin is there now; and if he wants to fight ISIL alone, that’s a challenge, folks. And if he does fight ISIL alone, how does it work out for Russia to have sided with Assad, sided with Iran, sided with Hizballah, when they’re trying to reach out to the rest of the Sunni world in the region? That’s not a good equation for Russia.

And moreover, even if it were, it won’t work to end the violence because the Sunni world will never accept Assad again. Look, this revolution began with young people in Syria demonstrating because they wanted a future. They wanted opportunity, education, and so forth. They went out and they did it. Thugs came out and beat them up. The parents got angry that the thugs beat the kids up, and they went out and demonstrated, and they were met with bullets. They were killed. That’s how this began.

And Assad has made a series of choices ever since then that is literally destroying his country. Three-quarters of his country is displaced. It’s in Jordan, it’s in Lebanon, it’s in Turkey, and in the desert. The threat is that those people in the desert and others could become the next acolytes of ISIL if we don’t find a way to join together to go after ISIL. And if Russia is there alone fighting them, guess what? Russia becomes the target and Russia starts seeing – who knows – MANPADs will find their way in there, airplanes will fall out of the sky. They will become vilified. They’ll become the new magnet, together with Assad, for the jihadis.

If the threat is jihadism – and it is – and the threat is the destruction of Syria so that all of these refugees are swamping into Europe and changing the whole character and politics of Europe, this is the time to unite to find a way out. And as I said in the beginning, if – Assad himself could save this whole process by saying, “I will engage in a managed transition where we all work together to stabilize the government, save the institutions of government, and turn on ISIL and preserve Syria.” That could happen. It all depends on one man, and Russia and Iran should not be so stubborn here that they tie this whole thing up simply because of one person.

QUESTION: The world saw yesterday two leaders – President Putin and President Obama – in very contentious and different speeches before the United Nations. During the course of the meeting with President Putin yesterday, President Obama – you were in the meeting – what were the points of agreement?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the points of agreement are that we want to resolve Ukraine. Ukraine was the first topic, by the way, and we spent a fair amount of time on Ukraine. And I think there’s a path that we discussed that we will follow up on in order to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues in order to fully implement Minsk. And there’s a very important meeting on October 2nd with President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel and Putin in Paris, I believe. Hopefully we can work over these next three months – there’s a potential to try to make progress in Ukraine if people want to cooperate.

Then we moved to Syria. It was a very constructive and – and as I said, the agreement is fundamentally that we want to try to resolve this. The agreement is that ISIL is a threat to everybody, and we need to come together to find a way to fight ISIL. The agreement is that we want to save Syria, keep it unified, keep it secular. So surely in those very fundamental principles on which we could agree we should be able to find some --

QUESTION: Could you envision the United States and Russia in some form of an alliance down the road against ISIL?

SECRETARY KERRY: Providing – providing they’re – and this is on the table. If you can resolve this transition of Assad, that is absolutely possible, but you have to have a clarity for everybody about the way forward. So what was agreed on further is that Lavrov and myself and our other colleagues – the French, the Germans, the British, and the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, the Jordanians – all of us --

QUESTION: The Iranians, too?

SECRETARY KERRY: In a appropriate manner. The Iranians are going to have to obviously be a component of it, but not at the table in a direct way, but at least not yet. And if we can proceed forward in a competent way here to find the formula by which we can know where we’re going in the political track, then it’s very, very possible – not even possible; it’s likely that people will say we’re all interested in destroying – ISIL is a threat to everybody. There isn’t one country in the region that doesn’t despise what ISIL stands for and is doing and that doesn’t want to eliminate them.

So we have staring us in the face here an enormous opportunity to actually find a way forward to have peace and stability in Syria, to reconstitute it. It’ll take years to do that. This will not be an easy fight even with concerted coordination with respect to ISIL. But it is far more doable with that kind of approach than otherwise.

Now, I heard Katty Kay’s name and I know Katty Kay said we didn’t have a plan. Well, there is a plan, and the President is moving forward with any number of options and ways to augment our efforts on ISIL. It’s not as easy as some people thought some parts of it might be, but there’s a lot happening, Katty.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, can I ask you one thing on what the plan is on the barrel bombs, because everybody agrees that that’s a priority – stopping Assad from barrel bombing his own people? Now that the Russians are involved in the way that they are, is there anything that United States can do to put pressure on Putin to put pressure on Assad as part of this new plan --

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, Katty.

QUESTION: -- to stop the barrel bombing?

SECRETARY KERRY: You’re right on target. And we raised that yesterday. I did talk with Lavrov about it and I talked with the Iranians about it, that they are both in a position in exchange, perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs. And we may even – I heard Richard earlier talking about some localized efforts at ceasefire. We’re working on that. That’s part of UN Special Envoy de Mistura’s effort. We’d love to see that happen.

But frankly, those localized efforts take a long time and they don’t deal with the larger issue of ISIL and the question of what you’re going to do to really have a solution here. We have to save Syria. The world has to save Syria. I mean, this has dramatic implications for the entire region, globally. I think as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UN, it’s a good moment to rekindle our efforts to make multilateralism work yet again. And I’m proud to say that in the Iran agreement I think we did show that it can work. A lot of those same – in fact, all of those same players are, in one way or the other, invested in and at the table in this effort, including China, who would like to help, and there may be ways to do that.

QUESTION: You don’t think it’s too late to save Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I really don’t, Richard. I met with many of – a number of refugees in Berlin the other day, and I was struck by how educated, intelligent, and patriotic they are. They want to go back. They love their country. And there are so many of them still in Jordan and in refugee camps in Lebanon and in Turkey, that if you could create the climate within which they could begin to come back, I believe there is such a history of secularism within Syria, even tolerance within Syria, that if we can deal with ISIL, yes. That’s the key. And with ISIL there, not a chance. And the eastern part – I mean, people talk about Assad running Syria. He doesn’t control his own country. He’s down to about 20, 25 percent of the country. What is this fiction that he is somehow the only person who can save Syria? There’s – with Assad there, there is no Syria. So that’s what the Iranians and the Russians need to really begin to focus in on.

QUESTION: And yet Putin says a partnership with Assad is the answer, so there’s a great distance there. We know you have to run to a meeting. We’ve got a million more questions for you. Hope you’ll come back soon.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be here. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much.

QUESTION: You could blow off the meeting and stay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Back in a moment.


QUESTION: You could blow off the meeting. (Laughter.)