Interview With Abderrahim Foqaraa of Al Jazeera Arabic
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for doing this, first of all.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
QUESTION: Let me start you off with a very broad question on Syria: How important is Syria to U.S. interests in the region, do you think?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, resolving the conflict of Syria is very, very important because Syria is having a profoundly negative impact, number one, on the production of jihadists, on the creation and growth of Daesh and the danger it represents, on the impact on Jordan, on Iraq, on Lebanon, on Turkey, and now on Europe as a result of this massive flow of refugees. So it is a – really an international urgent priority to try to resolve the crisis of Syria. Now, we don’t have a long-term, direct interest in Syria the way the Russians appear to be asserting it or the Iranians, apparently, obviously, through the years have had. That’s not us. That’s not what we’re looking at. We want a stable, unified, secular Syria where all minorities can be protected, where people can pursue their lives without oppression and interference. And that’s what we want. That is our goal in Syria.
What the Russians want we don’t know for sure yet. But what the Russians have done is insert themselves directly into a civil strife and a sectarian strife, and I think that’s very, very dangerous. We’ve been there to fight ISIL, Daesh. If they’re there to fight Daesh, fine, no problem. But if they’re there to prop up Assad, that will attract more terrorists, more foreign fighters, and that will be bad for Syria and for everyone.
QUESTION: Well, let me pick up on that. I mean, you have obviously expressed concern about what the Russians have been doing in Syria in recent days. How much further do you actually go beyond concern? Do you feel that what the Russians are doing is a threat to the region or to U.S. interests in the region?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we think that if the Russians are there to support Assad, it’s a threat to the region because it will attract more jihadis, more foreign fighters. It will wind up in greater violence and possibly in the destruction of the country. So that’s a threat. Is Russia’s presence automatically a threat? No; not if it chooses to be part of the fight against Daesh, but also part of a legitimate effort to have a transition and to bring about peace in Syria. That’s what we want – peace in Syria. And we’d like to see proof from Russia and the Iranians that they’re genuinely ready to move to the Geneva process which calls for a transition in Syria.
QUESTION: Now, having said what you said now, if you wind back to 2011 when the issue started in Syria, do you feel that what the Russians are doing now is bring you – bringing you closer to a solution, or are they making a solution even more difficult to obtain?
SECRETARY KERRY: We really don’t know yet. And we’re exploring – I’ve had conversations with the foreign minister of Russia; President Putin met with President Obama. We are trying to ascertain whether or not they’re prepared to be a legitimate part of solving the problem politically. We hope they will. It would be better for everybody if they did. But if they’re there to fight for Assad as part of a sectarian war and put themselves on the side of Iran, Hizballah, Assad, Russia’s going to have problems, the region is going to have problems, and unfortunately, I believe more extremists, foreign fighters will be attracted there, and they’ll fight Russians and Assad.
QUESTION: Now, has the Russian action in recent days done anything to actually crystalize the U.S. position on Assad? Because in the region, as you know, there are people wondering: What exactly is the U.S. position?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. We – no, I hope not. But if they are, let me be absolutely clear: There is no way for Assad to be part of the long-term future of Syria by – because he – not because we say so – nothing to do with us – but because his own actions have made him unacceptable to the millions upon millions of Syrians who have been affected by his choices. When 12 million Syrians are wandering around, displaced people; when people are being driven out of the country by his barrel bombs, his torture, his gassing, his army; when he has failed – and he has never attacked Daesh. In fact, he’s cut oil deals with Daesh; he’s let their electricity continue to flow to Daesh-dominated communities. He literally has only attacked the opposition to him – his own people. And that’s why our feeling is that even if we wanted to partner or something, we couldn’t because the war can’t end. Assad has to make the decision to save his country, and the only way he can save his country is by saying, “I will be part of the future, the effort to transition. I will help in the transition but I will not continue to be the president because it will not heal the nation, it cannot end the war.”
QUESTION: Well, you mentioned three interesting words there. You said long term and then you said transition. So he’s not acceptable to you in the long term. Is he in the short term?
SECRETARY KERRY: He can work in the transition because that’s what the Geneva Communique calls for. It calls for a transition by mutual consent. So both sides will have to agree on future process and leadership. That can’t go on forever, obviously, because you can just – you could destroy Syria if you simply wait forever. But for a reasonable period of time, Assad could certainly – and it’s important to have him be part of that because there are people in minorities who will want to know that they will be safe. People will want to know there won’t be revenge. You want to keep the government institutions intact. You want to make sure that whatever transition takes place is fair and reasonable so it actually gets you the end result you want, which is a unified, secular Syria where all minorities are protected, where they can choose their own leaders for the future, and we bring people back from the refugee camps and the country comes back together.
QUESTION: But on the other hand, there are Syrians, including some factions of the opposition, to whom any mention of Assad staying even another day is unacceptable.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think everybody – most reasonable people have accepted the idea. I mean, is it acceptable? No, nobody likes it. Of course nobody likes that. But you have to be realistic about how you have the transition actually take place, and you have to be realistic about people’s fears and concerns on the ground who don’t know what would come in place of him, who have great fears for their own lives and safety and property and so forth. That needs reassurance also.
So you need to do this in an orderly way, and the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Emiratis, we, the French, the Germans, the British – all the people who have been supportive of a legitimate political process believe it is entirely reasonable and fair that there be some period of transition.
QUESTION: Now, obviously, there are Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad and against ISIS who have – who at least claim they have come under Russian attack in recent days.
SECRETARY KERRY: Right.
QUESTION: Is there any scenario whatsoever in which the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect those rebels?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President is considering all the options that are available right now, and we have made it very, very clear to the Russians: Do not attack the legitimate opposition. They have said they understand that. What we are looking for is not a military victory. We’re looking for the political resolution that we always looked for in the context of Geneva, and so they don’t have to fear that we’re somehow building up a takeover military. What we’re trying to do is have a legitimate transition now in order to save Syria and to have a unified, secular, whole Syria going forward.
But if the Russians insist on fighting against them, there could be very serious consequences, the most serious of which would be that other nations supporting those people will have no choice but to double down, and Russia itself will become a target of those people. And that’s why I say what they’ve done, if they’re not there to actually fight Daesh, is very dangerous for the long term.
QUESTION: Now, the Russians are doing what they’re doing in Syria. We heard some pronouncements from Baghdad, from Prime Minister Abadi talking about perhaps welcoming Russian action against ISIS in Iraq as well. Have – has the Obama Administration been hoodwinked by Putin in the Middle East, beginning with Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t think in – I don’t think any way whatsoever, not remotely. He has consistently been open about his support for Assad. This is not new to us. And Russia has been on the ground in Syria for many years. Russia has people in the air defense systems who have been on the ground. Russia has used the port of Tartus for many, many years. So this isn’t new; it’s just at a higher level.
But what they’ve come in to do, they say, is to fight against Daesh, and we will put that to the test. If they are there to fight and support Assad principally and that’s the reason for this, as I said, I believe it’s a very dangerous decision and it will destroy Syria because it will attract more fighters, and then, unless you have the political solution, it’d be very hard to put Syria back together again.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure.
QUESTION: Appreciate it, thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you so much.