Interview With Steve Inskeep of NPR

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Bloomington, Indiana
October 15, 2015

QUESTION: I want to ask about Syria and ask about the perception – the widespread perception – of the President’s policy in Syria. Why do you think it is so common that this policy is perceived as weak?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for the simple reason that it’s hard to understand a policy in which people don’t have your troops fighting the war, so to speak. But I think the President has taken a very patient, very thoughtful, and very deliberate set of steps to galvanize other countries and use appropriate action from appropriate sources.

For instance, there are Syrian Arabs on the ground who are fighting and fighting very effectively, and we are helping them. There are Kurds in the region who are fighting and fighting very effectively; we are helping them. We’re providing airstrike support, we’re providing ammunition, some training and information, and so forth. So I think the American people are tired of the notion that Americans have to go abroad to fight the fight that ought to be fought by the people in the neighborhood.

QUESTION: You mentioned, though, helping Syrians on the ground. Is the United States doing or going to do anything to help Syrians who are now being attacked by Russian aircraft, who are on your side, who are being supported by the U.S.?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we are now having that discussion with the Russians right now. I talked to my counterpart today, to Sergey Lavrov. We raised the issue of this de-confliction process. We’re very near coming to an agreement on exactly how that will work, and my hope is that it will lead to a broader set of understandings about where the targeting ought to be and what is truly helpful and what is not.

QUESTION: Well, help me understand that. I understood de-confliction as making sure that U.S. warplanes do not get into a conflict --

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s the immediate – that’s the short-term, de minimis de-confliction. But it is possible – possible, I say – that if you have adequate cooperation on the early steps of this horrible word de-confliction, then it may be possible to actually engage in a broader conversation about how ISIL is going to be defeated and who will bear what responsibility.

QUESTION: Are the Russians --

SECRETARY KERRY: But if they are supporting Assad and that’s all they’re doing, or that’s the principal reason they’re there, it is going to be impossible not only to find a way to have any kind of cooperative efforts, but it’s going to be very, very difficult to keep other players from supporting jihadists who will be attracted to that fight.

QUESTION: Are the Russians agreeing even in principle to rule out attacks on U.S.-supported rebels who are attacking the Syrian Government that Russia supports?

SECRETARY KERRY: They have said that they are not going after the moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army. They have said – and you can hear in my voice the difference between saying and doing – that they are exclusively focused on the extremists, on al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham and, of course, Daesh – ISIL. The fact is that Assad considers anybody who is opposed to the regime a terrorist, and to some degree I would presume that some of the targeting has reflected that through the Russians.

So look, we’re in an early stage of this conversation with the Russians. My hope is it will be possible to have clarity on these issues.

QUESTION: Your predecessor, former Secretary of State Clinton, said in a presidential debate the other night, “We have to stand up to his bullying,” meaning standing up to the bullying of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In what way, if at all, has United States stood up to his bullying?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve stopped him cold with respect to what was happening in the Ukraine. He was planning to march forward into Kyiv. We put the sanctions on him together with Europe, which we have held together under very difficult circumstances; succeeded in pushing a negotiated process towards the Minsk agreement; and we worked very closely with the French and the Germans in the implementation of Minsk. We have a team of people working on that almost full time. And we, I believe – even today in my discussion with foreign secretary – Foreign Minister Lavrov, we talked about further steps for implementation of Minsk, which he agrees have to happen.

QUESTION: What about in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: So I think we’ve done seriously – well, it remains to be seen what their full strategy is in Syria. I mean, everybody says, oh, Russia is there. If Russia is there to go after ISIL and to in fact help prevent the takeover of the country and to secure a political track which will result in the end of the war, that could be positive. If Russia is there to uphold Assad and fake it with respect to the extremists and terrorists, that’s a serious problem. And we are not at a point where it is fully clear whether Russia will engage in a serious political track or not and whether they will in fact cooperate and work through this process as our militaries talk.

We’ve just had one or two meetings now on the military to military. We will be closing out that initial effort to make sure our planes aren’t crashing into each other and people aren’t shooting each other down, and when we get that in place and working, then there’s the prospect of broadening it.

QUESTION: Just supporting Assad is a very clear strategy which people can understand. That must be very appealing. What leverage, if any, do you have to push the Russians toward a more complicated strategy?

SECRETARY KERRY: The fact that if they’re supporting Assad, they’re going to attract great difficulties for themselves and for any hope of a unified, secular Syria. Syria will crumble under the weight of a prolonged war with them simply supporting Assad, because there will be more and more jihadis who will come, supported by people in the surrounding countries because Assad is still there. So Putin does not have a simple, easy track here. This is not a situation where he’s just moved in and taken over and everybody says, “Oh, wow, he’s doing something we couldn’t.” No he’s not. He is not going to be able to stop the war by being there. He may be able to reduce the pressure on Assad that came from the opposition, but the jihadis will grow, and over a period of time there will be a much worse consequence for Syria itself. And I don’t think we should sit around and wait for that time, because it’s totally dangerous for Europe, for more refugees flowing out; dangerous for Jordan, dangerous for the region; and it could be ISIL that actually winds up gaining in that process.

QUESTION: You’ve said the President --

SECRETARY KERRY: And that would be absurd. That would be a farce, and I think President Putin understands that.

QUESTION: You’ve said the President gave the green light to send more weapons to Syrian rebels that the U.S. supports. News reports have indicated that anti-tank weapons and others have been arriving. When you say Putin needs to know that he cannot stop the war, are you sending that message with those weapons, that Russia will not be able to the war on its terms?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, not in the least. No, no, absolutely not. That is not – excuse me – what we are doing at all, and it would be I think a very misplaced policy to try to be quite so cynical in that regard.

What we are doing is supporting those people who have been legitimately committed to a political process, who want to see the Geneva communique implemented, and who want a political say as Syrians in the future of Syria. And they have been supported not just by us but by dozens of other countries because of their legitimate struggle for democracy, for representation in government, for protection of their minorities, and so forth. What we’re doing is helping the same people we have been helping for more than a year.

President Putin has willfully and individually decided to insert himself into the middle of that, and our message to him has been we’re not changing what we have been doing, because we’ve been fighting ISIL. And we are prepared to have a political track that seeks a resolution, providing you’re prepared to also talk about the future of Assad and how – what kind of role he plays going forward. But if their determination is to simply see Assad stay and that is the major motive of this effort, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, there is no way that we know of that the violence will stop under that equation, because more and more jihadis encouraged by Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will come to this fight. And the place will become more dangerous, and it may be impossible to put Syria back together again.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I know you’ve been paying close attention to the latest situation involving Israelis and Palestinians. A number of Palestinians have engaged in knife attacks, killing a number of Israelis; dozens of Palestinians have also been killed at this point. Do you see what is happening now as the beginnings of a Palestinian uprising? Is that the way to think about this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hope not, and I pray not, and that’s the last thing anybody wants. And I think it would be extraordinarily dangerous and --

QUESTION: What is the word to describe it, then?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t – I’m not going to find words and I’m not going to get into the what it is. It’s violence and it’s wrong, and the violence has to end, and Israelis have a right to defend themselves against any violence that is attacking innocent people with a knife in the Old City, in Jerusalem or elsewhere. No country should be under siege like that, and the Palestinians need to stop the incitement. They need to stop that kind of activity.

But at the same time, there is a need to see the broader conflict here and understand that there is not – there has to be some kind of ultimately negotiated political track that’s going to resolve the difference between Palestinians and Israelis that has existed long before Obama came to office, that has been there for years and years. Many presidents, many secretaries of state have been caught up in the middle of this struggle. We happen to believe that it is vital now to change the paradigm, and we’re going to be engaged in ways that reasonably hope to try to help that happen.

QUESTION: Do you mean to suggest that the lack of progress in the peace talks is in some way responsible for these latest attacks?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’m not saying that. I’m not – I don’t want to link anything that caused the violence. There’s no excuse for the violence. No amount of frustration is appropriate to license any violence anywhere at any time. No violence should occur, and the Palestinians need to understand – and President Abbas has been committed to nonviolence. He needs to be condemning this loudly and clearly, and he needs to not engage in some of the incitement that his voice has sometimes been heard to encourage. So that has to stop.

What I am saying is that when you stop the violence, when it’s done – which I hope is immediately – then you have to still look at how are you going to deal with the extant issues that have been there for a long period of time in a serious way that helps to resolve these differences when you have the opportunity to. And I think it’s very important to do that.

QUESTION: So much to ask about. We’re talking on a day when President Obama has acknowledged that U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan longer. There is now a timetable that goes an extra year into the future, into 2017. Why not simply acknowledge, Mr. Secretary, that this is just going to be a very long-term commitment, as your friend Senator John McCain has suggested it necessarily will be?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President has always said that we will remain committed for the long term to Afghanistan.

QUESTION: I mean a long-term military commitment – troops on the ground.

SECRETARY KERRY: We have – we will remain committed to the long term. But I don’t think the President sees it necessary at this point to start precalculating how long troops will be needed. But he’s obviously with this decision made it clear that he’s prepared to measure the situation on the ground, that he’s prepared to listen to the commanders, that he is going to do what is necessary to try to protect our ability to help Afghanistan to fight back against terrorists. We are not the combatants; we are the helpers, and we are training and providing assistance, and that’s very important going forward. It’s a very different role from what we’ve had previously.

But we also need to be there in order to protect ourselves from the terrorist platform, and we need our own ability to be able to prevent terrorism from attacking the United States. And that’s why we’re – the President made the decision he did. And it’s been many months in the making. This decision is something we have been engaged in in a long process of evaluation.

QUESTION: You’re saying it’s not because of the recent fall of Kunduz --

SECRETARY KERRY: It is absolutely not --

QUESTION: -- to the Taliban

SECRETARY KERRY: -- based on Kunduz. We were on track with this decision months ago, before Kunduz. We’ve been talking about this need. We’ve had many meetings. The record will show that, that there’s been a long process of evaluation about what will be necessary going forward.

QUESTION: How much does it bother this President, having spoken with him, that he will be handing off that problem, Afghanistan, to his successor – something he wanted to be done with?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, the President – I have seen in the President a guy who really cares about getting as much done as he can and turning over the world and the presidency in the best shape possible. He obviously hoped that there would’ve been greater progress with respect to both the military component and the governance component in Afghanistan. So I think he’s – but I don’t think he’s feeling it’s a matter of blame. I think it’s a – he’s going to have made enormous progress and moved the ball down the field in very significant ways, but it won’t be completed before the next president. That is a fact.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be with you. Thank you.