Interview With Barbara Plett Usher of BBC

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

QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, since the attacks there seems to be an emerging difference between France, which has declared war on Islamic State and wants action to reflect that, with President Obama, who thinks that the present engagement is adequate. How do you bridge that gap?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t agree that there’s a gap. I don’t agree with that at all. President Obama said we’re at war over a year ago, and he directed me and others to put together a 65-country coalition. We have put together six – or nine lines of effort that we’re pursuing against Daesh, including cutting their finances, going after their propaganda, cutting off the foreign fighters where we can. I mean, there are a whole series of things we’ve been doing for a year. So President Obama specifically said we’re at war with these guys.

Now, there is a heightened urgency to dealing with the foreign fighter component of it because of what’s happened, obviously, in Paris, and in Beirut and in Cairo – in Cairo – in Egypt because of the airliner. But this is not a surprise that Daesh has that capacity. They’ve always promised it, and we’ve always been alert to it. The problem is that it’s very difficult, much harder – if somebody wants to strap themselves in a suicide vest and go out and kill themselves, you can find a crowd of people somewhere in the world to hurt. It’s much harder to be 100 percent everywhere all the time to stop that.

So the key is to eliminate Daesh at its headquarters, in its home, where it has declared this phony caliphate, and that is in Syria and Iraq. And that’s what we’re doing. They’re controlling 25 percent less territory. We’ve liberated communities. The Iraqi Army is beginning to move. It’s going into Ramadi. It’s taking back – they’ve taken back Sinjar. We’ve got major efforts going in Syria now. And I think Russia is now more focused on Daesh as a result of what happened with the airliner.

So things are beginning to squeeze in on them. President Obama always said this will not be quick; it’s going to take a period of time. But we are methodically – and I think now systematically – growing the ability to be able to limit Daesh’s ability to grow within Iraq and Syria, and that will ultimately have an impact on what they can do elsewhere.

QUESTION: He has been quite clear about the methodology and the stamina of what they’re doing. But if there was a major mass casualty attack in the United States of this scale, do you think President Obama would still not sanction a major escalation against Islamic State?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to speculate about one major this or that. What we’re doing is trying to prevent those attacks from taking place. And the President has put in place what I think we all believe is a strategy that can guarantee that there’s something there behind the liberation, that police are being formed and trained so you can hold the community. You’ve got a military that’s being retrained and built up in their capacity. We’ve already seen what happens when the United States of America goes in and occupies a country and spends a bunch of years, and then you’ve got to – there’s got to be a developed capacity behind you. That obviously didn’t happen sufficiently before because the Iraqi Army just folded and walked away when the – when Daesh came in to Mosul and other parts of northwestern Iraq. And so we want to make certain that as we go along here that doesn’t happen again.

QUESTION: And you’re also working very hard on a political solution. In your view, Mr. Secretary, do you think the Russians are wedded to the Syrian regime or to Bashar al-Assad himself? And if it’s the former, do you think there’s a chance now that Mr. Assad could leave power?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m convinced the Russians are not wedded to Assad himself. I think they are wedded to the notion, but they don’t want to see Iraq, they don’t want to see Libya; they don’t want to see the leader go down or leave and then there’s chaos afterwards. Nor do we, by the way. The great lesson of Iraq is don’t disband the army, don’t send the institutions home, which is what happened.

So we are all united in our desire to keep the institutions of governance in Syria whole, but that doesn’t mean Assad. He’s a person, not an – he shouldn’t be an institution. And obviously, he has to be part of a transition if you’re going to end the war, because Assad is the magnet attracting these jihadis who come from all over the world to fight with the – with Daesh and others to get rid of Assad. And we’re convinced that in a systematic, careful way over the course of the next months, Daesh will continue to feel the pressure, continue to be compressed into a smaller entity, and ultimately will be degraded and destroyed.

QUESTION: And just briefly, you’ve set a timetable for a transition of 18 months. But realistically, how long do you think it’ll take?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s for an election. The political nature of the transition is within six months. That process, we hope, will begin in earnest sometime in December, by January 1st, somewhere in there. We want the negotiation to get started to put to test the proposition that Russia and Iran are serious about a real transition and real peace in Syria.

Now, we’ll learn pretty quickly whether that can work or not work. But if Assad does not transition, there will not be an end to the chaos of Syria.

QUESTION: So within weeks we might see something?

SECRETARY KERRY: We have a chance to see whether or not this political process will take life and whether or not the negotiating teams can be selected, come together, and engage in earnest – with all of us, by the way, in the process, urging them and coaching and helping to help shape the process, but Syrians themselves are going to have to decide that part of the future. And we will know, I think, in December or January whether or not that is taking shape.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.