Interview With Fareed Zakaria of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
November 15, 2015

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a pleasure to have you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be here, thank you.

QUESTION: Let’s start with Syria, because you are heading for negotiations there. I should say that again. Let’s start with Syria, because you are going to be deeply involved in negotiations about Syria. You say in your recent speech that the President and you do not believe that there is a military solution to the Syrian problem, and yet the United States is increasing its military involvement, engagement over the last year, all of which is designed to strengthen your negotiating position to bring the adversaries to the table that may force them to make concessions. Isn’t this very reminiscent of the incrementalism of Vietnam that you criticized as a young man?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. This is very different because you have every country in the region opposed to the principal fighting force on the ground against all norms, all standards of decency, which is ISIL, Daesh. Even Iran, Russia – they’re all opposed to Daesh. And that is a unifying factor, number one. Number two, I think the Russians and others understand that Assad is not a leader for the long term, that he cannot unify Syria. And what we’re really trying to see if we can do now is work a process where organically through the process Syrians themselves will make it clear what the direction of their government is going to be. I mean, even Iran has put on the table a plan which involves a ceasefire, a unity government – unity government – a constitutional reform process, and an election.

QUESTION: But it’s an odd negotiation where neither the Assad regime nor ISIS are at the table, so the warring parties are not at the table.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, ISIS is never going to be at the table. There’s no table for ISIS. ISIS has to be eliminated, destroyed, pure and simple. There’s nothing to negotiate with ISIL. So – and everybody has agreed on that.

But why is there a need to up the effort? What President Obama is doing is upping the effort against ISIL. He is – and he is upping the support to the moderate opposition because they are helping to affect the calculation of Assad as to whether or not he has to negotiate. I mean, that’s why this has gone on for three and a half, four years, because Assad has, up until recently, deemed that he really had no compulsion whatsoever to come to the table and negotiate anything. We went through the Geneva conference of a year ago or so. It was a farce because Assad simply refused to put anything on the table or negotiate. So you have to put pressure on.

Now, the reason Russia came in is several-fold. Obviously, they have interest in the region and so forth they wanted to protect. But principally, Russia came in out of a place of weakness with respect to Assad. Assad was hurting. Assad was losing territory, and he was losing it to a combination of the opposition and, unfortunately, the extremists. The extremists are a great concern to Russia, because there are at least 2,000 Chechnyans there fighting, and they don’t want them coming back to Russia. And they’ve constantly talked about the need to take on ISIL to a greater degree.

So if in fact Russia were targeting ISIL predominantly, then that has the potential to also alter outcomes. Unfortunately, that’s not what they’ve been doing. Russia has targeted indiscriminately to some degree and hit moderate opposition, which shores up Assad, and unfortunately doesn’t do the job of going after ISIL. So we’ve been working with that. That’s part of this negotiation, is to isolate who people are going after and whether or not there is a capacity to have a coordinated effort on the political settlement even as there is a coordinated effort in going after the worst of the extremists – ISIL, al-Nusrah.

QUESTION: And the new military move is to – with the help of the Kurds, the Peshmerga, the United States is trying to essentially retake Sinjar, this very critical town.

SECRETARY KERRY: Correct, even as we’re speaking.

QUESTION: Do you believe that that will happen, and in what timeframe will Sinjar be recaptured?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I do believe it will happen; yes, I do.


SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – in a battle it’s not wise to say when exactly something’s going to happen, but it’s the – I think it’ll be over the next days, weeks, whichever. There are a solid group of ISIL fighters that are entrenched within the city. There is a very large force of Peshmerga who are moving down now. We’ve been involved in providing strikes. But I am convinced that Sinjar will be liberated as we have liberated Tikrit, and currently the Iraqi forces are moving on Ramadi.

I mean, there is a concerted strategy here, Fareed. I keep hearing people say, “Well, what’s the strategy? What’s” – the strategy’s clear. President Obama in the very beginning said we’re going to degrade and defeat ISIL, we’re going to stabilize the countries in the region – Jordan, Lebanon, work with Turkey – and we are going to seek a political settlement. That is exactly the strategy today and it is working to a degree – not as fast as we would like, perhaps, but we are making gains. We have liberated major communities. About 75 percent of the border between northern Syria and Turkey has been secured. You have another piece where we are engaging in an operation with the Turks to secure the final piece west of the Euphrates River. There is pressure being put on al-Raqqa. There are major disruptions to the leadership and command and control of ISIL. Their territory has been shrunk by some 17,000 square kilometers. There’s a difference in the way they have to operate as a result of our operations.

And I believe that when you combine what is happening in Iraq with what is happening in Syria, there’s enormous amount of pressure that is continually being ramped up with respect to ISIL. Now, ultimately, we want more forces on the ground to be able to do it – not ours. There are going to have to be people on the ground.

QUESTION: But isn’t that the key, which is in Syria you can defeat ISIL or Daesh, but then somebody has to govern that real estate?


QUESTION: And what has tended to happen – and we don’t have local partners other than the Kurds. You leave or the Kurdish forces leave, and ISIL will come back or Assad comes back. So aren’t those moderate Syrians, just by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ own admission, there just aren’t many of them?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. We understand that. But on the other hand, if – if you can move rapidly towards a political settlement, rapidly over the next six months towards an election, et cetera; if you could have a ceasefire; if – these are all ifs. I understand that. But you have to have several strategies, and we do. One is the military pressure against ISIL – the military pressure that has taken place from the moderate opposition against Assad, and the political track where we’re trying to get the parties united.

And in – two weeks ago in Vienna, we had a major step forward where everybody, including Iran and Russia, signed on to a unified, secular Syria to maintaining the structures of the government, to all opposing ISIL, and to protecting minorities coming up with a process that leads to an election, and now we’re working at doing that.

This Saturday, we will meet to try to unify who the opposition is. And all agree that these are the people who will now sit down as Syrians to decide who’s going to negotiate for them. They’ll decide it, not us. This has to be a Syrian-led proposition. And Assad will also provide a delegation and they will sit at the table. And Iran and Russia and all of the rest of our partners – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, et cetera – are committed to driving this political process that will have a transitional council that will begin to take over management of certain activities in Syria yet to be defined and determined in the negotiation, and that will lead to a sort of transitional process. And ultimately, that is where we hope the issue of Assad and his future will be resolved.

QUESTION: And is it fair to say that the Administration and you are now more comfortable with Assad staying for some transitional period that could be years rather than having him – requiring that he leave immediately?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t think we’re looking at years, but we’re looking at a period of time during which – and again, the Syrian process is going to have to decide that – during which, yes, he has to be part of the transition. That was contemplated originally in the Geneva communique in 2012. It is what we have worked on as an operating principle in this. And some time ago, we decided that it was futile to be sitting there saying Assad has to leave, Assad has to leave each day before you do anything, and the war continues to wreak havoc and creates more refugees, more pressure on everybody in the region and elsewhere.

So I think there’s a reality that now is being pursued here to try to find a way where Syrians will create a future Syria and we will support that, all of us – Iran, Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, all of the players, Egypt – will come to the table, leverage a political outcome, because this is wreaking havoc on everybody and everybody understands that. Syria cannot survive as a unified Syria if this goes on interminably. And who knows what additional pressures are placed on Jordan and Lebanon, where the breakpoints could be, or even what happens with respect to Europe and the pressures put on Europe through the mass migration?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Donald Trump says that if you look at all the regime changes that we have engineered or encouraged in the Middle East – from Iraq to Libya to Yemen – in every case, you have had a political vacuum, political chaos, and a greater humanitarian disaster than existed before. Isn’t that true? And if that’s true, why would the Assad regime’s departure be any different?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, number one, when you say in all the cases of, quote, “regime change,” Iraq is the one that stands out, obviously, and it was catastrophic. And I opposed going in the way – I thought it was ridiculous what we did, and as you know, I ran against the sitting president and made that point again and again and again. It turned history topsy-turvy. We’re still paying a price in terms of our foreign policy for the outflow, and some of that is from the decisions that were made afterwards – sending home the army, the complete disbanding of the institutions.

But it’s those lessons learned that are guiding what we are trying to do with all of the stakeholders in Syria. Obviously, Iran has serious interest and has had influence in Syria. Iran is at the table. Russia has had interest in Syria. I mean, Russia helped build the air defense system in Syria. Russia has had long-term interests in the region, has had people on the ground, and --

QUESTION: But won’t the Assad army go underground and fight as an insurgency just as Saddam Hussein’s did?

SECRETARY KERRY: If the Syrian – no, because they’re not being disbanded. That’s what we meant by preserving the institutions of the state. And because the transition is by mutual consent in which Assad participates – obviously with the input of Iran and Russia, and the opposition participates with the influence of all of its supporters – the effort is to have agreeable people – people that both sides agree have the ability to unite, the ability to administer, the ability to lead – that those people will be engaged in an agreed-upon transitional process, Fareed. That is different from what happened in Libya, different from what happened in Iraq, and that’s why this negotiation is so critical.

If that can’t happen, yes, it could be problematic. Of course you could wind up with all of those other sectarian tensions. And corralling all of this sectarian boiling pot is going to be very, very difficult. We understand that. But it is the best way. It’s the first choice of how one ought to try to settle this. And in the absence of that, there are other very problematic alternatives.

QUESTION: When you look at where Iran is after the nuclear deal was initialed, a number of people have pointed out that it seems to be far from opening itself up to the world and becoming more moderate and becoming more reasonable. It has maintained a very tough policy on, for example, jailing foreigners. It had this sham trial of the Washington Post reporter. Despite efforts that you have made, nothing has happened on that front. Ayatollah Khamenei has continued to make several very anti-American statements. Do you – are you disappointed in where Iran is today, given how hard you worked on that deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think this is – we made no promises and no – never stated any public expectations about what might or might not happen as a consequence of the agreement. And we always said to people this agreement is exclusively about the nuclear track. Iran also said it’s exclusively about the nuclear track. So no one stood up and said, “Oh boy, this is going to be this transformation.” People hoped; people have expressed that hope. There are people in Iran who express that hope. But there are also people in Iran who want to hold back and continue down the same old role. And that’s the struggle in Iran itself.

We are open, obviously, to an Iran that wants to adhere to the norms of international behavior and be a full participant in the international system, constructively. And my hope is – and let’s see what happens in Iran’s participation at the table now and maybe that is a first step. I don't know the answer to that yet. But Iran agreed to come to the table; Iran agreed to the principles that we just put together with respect to Syria. So I think that we just have to let some time go by. This agreement is now in its early implementation stage. We haven’t yet reached implementation day. I think that once we reach that and people begin to see Iran doing the things that it’s supposed to do – which, by the way, they have done for the last two years in the interim agreement – if that continues, then it’s possible that attitudes may begin to shift. I don't think anybody anticipated this would be some overnight change.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about Israel-Palestine. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet is ever more right wing. He has appointed as the head of public diplomacy a man who has personally criticized you as being an anti-Semite.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it was Obama he criticized for being anti-Semite. He may have also criticized me for that, but I was criticized for having a very low intellect.

QUESTION: All right, let me rephrase that. (Inaudible). The Israeli cabinet seems to have moved ever more to the right. Prime Minister Netanyahu has appointed as head of public diplomacy a man who has criticized you personally, criticized President Obama. Are the Palestinians justified in being skeptical that this government intends to pursue a two-state solution?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, everybody’s skeptical, Fareed, at this point in time, because nothing’s happened. Things have just sort of kept going in a status quo that President Obama and I have both said is unsustainable. And my hope is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to try to make some moves that will, in fact, open up some political space. The Palestinians also need to make moves. I mean, you can’t have incitement. You can’t have an absence of sensitivity to what’s happening on the other side by – anywhere. So I think it’s understandable that people are very, very skeptical, that there is a lot of cynicism, because – just – it hasn’t worked. And so many people in Israel just have a feeling that the Palestinians aren’t prepared to do what’s necessary in order to be real partners in peace. And the Palestinians have a belief that the government doesn’t believe in two states and therefore nothing will happen.

It’s a very dangerous situation, very, very dangerous situation. I believe the prime minister and people in Israel understand that. I think they’d like to have a peace if we could move people to take steps to build a little bit of confidence and open up some credibility for that process. I’m sending our Special Envoy Frank Lowenstein over there next week. He will work through some of the ideas that we discussed at President Obama’s and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement in the meeting in the White House, we are discussing those. And we’ll see whether or not there is a way here to try to pull people back, at least – take small steps that can build some confidence – and then out of that, perhaps, be able to get back to discussions about larger issues. But I think we have to go very carefully and cautiously.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about climate change, Mr. Secretary. You are embarking on a big push for the Paris summit. You gave a speech this week. In that speech, you were very eloquent in criticizing critics in the United States who are still skeptical about climate change. But what do you say to those who say, “Look, that’s all well and good. But the real skeptics in a sense are countries like India and Indonesia and to an extent even China, despite some changes, that still continue to use massive amounts of coal, emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and that whatever the United States or Europe may do, that’s the real problem, and in those countries they want to develop, they’re not going to stop themselves from developing. The Paris treaty is not legally binding, so we will just cripple ourselves without doing much for climate change.”

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Fareed, that’s the challenge. And it doesn’t make a lot of change to develop and kill yourself as you do it. We’ve learned lessons about the downsides of the way in which we have produced energy – electricity and power and transportation and so forth – over centuries now. And we have to move to a low-carbon economy, all of us. If the United States all by itself tomorrow were to drive – carpool to work and bicycle to work and plant a bunch of trees and lower our emissions to zero, we can’t solve the problem alone. India, China, every country in the world has to be part of it.

Now, that’s why President Obama reached an agreement with President Xi – a groundbreaking, historic agreement – to join together to announce the intended emissions reductions that both countries would make as part of the Paris negotiations in hopes of inspiring other countries to do the same. Well, guess what? Now over 150 countries have announced their targets for emissions reductions, including India. Now, they’re not enough yet for about anybody. We’ve all got to move more.

But if we come together in Paris – and I believe we can, hopefully will – to have an ambitious set of targets that we will all try to reach, not – that we all agree to voluntarily try to reach, that will be an incredible signal to the marketplace, which already is seeing investment move into clean, alternative, renewable, different kinds of energy production. The solution to climate change is energy policy. And if we begin to move to the available technologies that are sitting there, we can change economies, we can put people to work. It does not come with massive dislocation. And we will continue to use oil and gas during this period of time in transition, and we can do so in ways that are cleaner, more effective, more efficient. So this can work economically for countries, and I think more and more leaders are becoming aware of that.

So it’s a question of what choices we need to make in order to preserve our ability on this planet to produce food, to have water, to live where people live today without massive dislocations of human brings, without massive damage from intensified storms and wildfires and droughts and all of the downsides that we’re already beginning to measure. So this is actually opportunity, not downside, and I think Paris will help define the full breadth of that opportunity. And it’s going to be trillions of dollars that will be invested in these new lower-carbon energy sources, and I think it’s – it can – has the chance of transforming everybody’s economy for the better.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a final question about the Keystone pipeline. You said – the State Department’s own review said that the Keystone pipeline would not have a negative impact or not a significant negative impact on the environment because the oil in Alberta would otherwise be transported by rail or truck, and that that was much worse then from an environmental point of view; pipelines are actually a very green way to transport oil. If that’s the case, critics say, the only reason President Obama and the Administration is now opposed to Keystone is because it wants to look good, that it is sacrificing American jobs to burnish its climate change credentials.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t agree with that, obviously. But let me just explain very bluntly why this is such an important decision and why I feel completely correct in the judgment that we made. When I go out and talk to other countries, and I sit like this, face-to-face, with a leader in another country and I say, “Hey, you’ve got to have a low carbon footprint and you’ve got to move your economy into a low-carbon economy,” they’ll look at you and say, “Well, what are you guys doing?” I ran into that for years when I was in the Senate, and now as Secretary of State I hear it from people. And if we just approve business as usual for the production of fuel, where we have a choice – I mean, we’re going to be doing some of it because the demand is critical or there’s an urgency or we have – there are already pre-arranged leases and other things.

But this was a decision that had reached a kind of critical mass with respect to are you going to practice what you preach or are you not. It’s that simple. And if we’re going to be a leader, as we are today in our work with China and with other countries, we thought it was absolutely critical to show we’re going to make some tough decisions, we’re going to move towards these other energy sources. We cannot keep on doing business as usual. It was a pretty simple decision.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, pleasure to have you on, sir.