Roundtable With Print Journalists

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Chief of Mission's Residence
Paris, France
November 17, 2015

MR KIRBY: (In progress) minutes. The Secretary is not going to give any opening comments, and I’ll just ask you to be respectful of one another and we’ll try to get through as many questions as we can.

SECRETARY KERRY: And I’ll suck on a lozenge if you don’t mind.

QUESTION: Totally acceptable.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the French president, President Hollande, has now said he’s going to Washington next week, and that the following week he’s going to Moscow, and he’s talked about building a grand coalition against ISIS. Putin this morning said he was – after announcing that the jet crash was a terrorist act, said he’s invoking Article 51 and he’s instructed his military to increase airstrikes on the Islamic State. Everybody wants to sort of step up efforts now. How do you get all of these things working as one entity?

SECRETARY KERRY: We coordinate in the sense that – I mean, obviously, if we’re in the same theater operating, it is essential that we not – not only not conflict in a way that could be risky for an incident or for any of our aircraft or personnel, it’s actually much more effective if we are exchanging information and working together to attack Daesh. The critical thing is that we are also moving on the political front with respect to the Vienna process, and particularly the implement – full implementation of the next steps.

I have confidence that the Saudis, after our meeting at the G20, are fully seized of the importance of moving rapidly with the opposition. It is entirely possible that once the opposition has met, chosen its negotiators, we could more quickly get to the table and get to a ceasefire.

QUESTION: Does this mean increased coordination with the Russians on airstrikes that we’ve been unwilling to give --

SECRETARY KERRY: Increased what?

QUESTION: Coordination, intelligence sharing on the airstrikes with the Russians that we’ve been unwilling to do up until now?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s not a per se coordination because the political track has to have legs, and it doesn’t – it’s coming together; it’s not there yet. We have said when the political track shows the measure of reality in terms of the transitional process, we are prepared to consider – get into a discussion of coordination. For the moment it’s a matter of making certain that we’re hitting the right targets and that we are not running any risks of conflict between ourselves.

But it’s possible that if the political process moves more rapidly that there could begin to be a greater level of exchange of information and so forth.

QUESTION: Did Hollande ask for anything specific today? I mean, what are you willing to do --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re going to upgrade our own level of coordination. I mean, the French are part of our coalition of 65 countries. And we already have a coalition. I mean, let’s be honest here. We have spent a year working with the coalition. The French and we are flying out of the same places, in the same missions, and we’ve done so with a full exchange of information. But we have to make sure – you can always improve. You can always find a way to do more or streamline. And I think everybody feels they want to check out the system to make sure that nothing did fall between the cracks or that nothing was missed, and I think our teams will be working very hard to make certain of that.

Remember, though, we had no specific information about – we’ve had generic information. For instance, when ISIL releases a video like yesterday saying Washington’s next, well, we’ve known that for ages. Washington is on the target list. New York’s on the target list, other places. And of course, we had the Boston Marathon bombing, which was a one-off homegrown kind of lone-wolf operation between two brothers, and a crockpot, as the President said yesterday. And those are realities. I mean, one of the hard realities of this situation – and it has been true since 9/11 – is that someone with terrorist intent has to be effective or competent once. We have to be effective and competent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And if somebody wants to kill people, it’s pretty hard not to find some public event or some way in which you can go do harm if you want to kill yourself. We’ve seen it at home in America, not in “normal” terrorist kinds of activities, but in theaters, different ways people have chosen to play out their psychopathic/mental disturbance/bent, twisted ideology, whatever, in ways that have done harm to people. So – and we’ve had too many shootings.

So you can do this. What we need, what we’re trying to do is prevent wholesale, large intrusions and we’ve been pretty effective at it, frankly. We have interrupted a lot and stopped a lot of things that people never hear about and never see. So a lot of people are working very hard every single day to protect America and to share information with and help protect our friends and allies.

I think out of this event in Paris will come an even greater level of vigilance and cooperation in some places that may have been a little bit less concerned about things hitting them in certain parts of the world.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Paris events will make the peace – a successful peace process more likely, or less?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t want to – I’ve never gotten into prognosticating outcome. I’ve talked about process. What we have now is a real, genuine process with possibilities. Four weeks ago we didn’t have that. I mean, as little as four weeks ago, there was no political process that was viable until we came together in Vienna, found the common agreement on principles, established a concept of giving life to a negotiation, with Iran and Russia at the table, which is unique in the last four and a half years. And we took that to the next level in the last meeting in Vienna and put dates in place – target dates, specific – a more specific process for putting together the negotiating parties with specific target dates. Very significantly, every party there embraced a ceasefire. So a ceasefire is no longer a speculative “let’s work towards it,” which came out of the first meeting. Everybody agreed, okay, here’s a way we can do it. And now all we need is the beginning of the political process and the ceasefire goes in place. That’s a gigantic step. Hollande said that today. If we can get that done, that opens up the aperture for a whole bunch of things.

So we’re weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria, and I don’t think enough people have necessarily noticed that. But that’s the reality. Iran, Russia – ready for a ceasefire. United States – ready for a ceasefire. Other countries have signed on to it, but there needs to be legitimacy to this political process. So the faster Russia and Iran and others give life to this process, the faster the violence can taper down and we can isolate Daesh and al-Nusrah and begin to do what our strategy has always set out to do.

QUESTION: But how concerned are you --

MR KIRBY: Sir, this is going to have to be the last one. Sorry.

QUESTION: How concerned are you that the – what happened here, to the degree that it has everyone wanting to target ISIL and step up the efforts there, is going to take pressure off of Assad and therefore --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not going to take pressure off of Assad because Assad is the magnet for the terrorists and Assad is the principal reason that you have as many foreign fighters pouring into Syria as you do, and he has played a significant role in not only giving birth to ISIL/Daesh, but in sustaining it. He buys their oil. He has sweetheart deals with them. He’s never attacked their headquarters, which has been sitting in Raqqa for four years. He has an air force. He’s done nothing, and everybody knows it. He is complicitous in the rise of Daesh. And therefore, as long as Assad is there, you cannot fully go get rid of this phenomenon because it’s focused on him and it’s part of a Sunni and part of a sectarian struggle – strike “Sunni;” it’s part of a sectarian division that has – that defines this conflict, and it’s part of what has created some proxyism in the civil war, which also complicates it. But all of the proxies were at the table in Vienna.

So moving on the political process, the next weeks can really be very critical to what can be achieved with respect to Syria.

QUESTION: So what is the next specific thing in the process? Did you --

SECRETARY KERRY: The next specific thing in the process is the Saudis, together with Staffan de Mistura, working to pull together the Syrian opposition. I talked yesterday to the president of the Syrian opposition, and he’s on board. He is ready to roll and working with the opposition on the ground in Syria and others to pull together a meeting. That meeting is critical. Out of that meeting can come a definition of the negotiating team, the leadership, the platform, negotiating positions, and then we’re ready to go. And Staffan de Mistura is ready to convene them. So – and he’s ready to convene them as early as in December, though we set a target date of January 1st.

So we’re going to keep the pressure on that process, and that’s very – that’s the next step.

QUESTION: But that’s --

MR KIRBY: Thanks, you guys.

SECRETARY KERRY: Get the parties together in order to give full life to the political process so that – even, Karen, it comes back to your question – then we are in a position to begin to be able to, quote, “cooperate on a broader scale,” which we can’t do until we have some definition. Okay?

MR KIRBY: Thanks, guys. We’re going to have to go.

SECRETARY KERRY: But we’re not talking about months, we’re talking about weeks hopefully.

QUESTION: Your next – what about you personally? I mean, your next direct involvement? What do you think that’ll be?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s continuing.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I do know. I mean, I’m going to be continually, over the next weeks, talking with the individual parties. I probably will call together the next meeting in about a month to check on where we are with respect to this process of defining the opposition.