Remarks With German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Treaty Room
Washington, DC
February 29, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Good evening, everybody. Well, Frank-Walter and I wanted to take advantage of Leap Year, the extra day in February, so we figured we’d get together once again. We are hardly, hardly strangers. We spent an enormous amount of time in Vienna, in Lausanne, in Montreux, in Geneva, and already in Munich this year, and we’ve spent a lot of time working together, cooperating, and talking about the critical issues in front of Europe, the world, the challenge of countering violent extreme – extremism.

And I think that all of the work that we’ve done together, Frank, really testifies to the tremendous relationship between the United States and Germany. And we also share, obviously, a very full and complicated agenda. This evening we’re going to have a chance to break bread and have a meal. In Munich a few weeks ago we had a chance late at night just to get together, and Frank-Walter has always showered us with this wonderful hospitality, so tonight it’s our turn to reciprocate. And I am confident we will manage to mix some very serious issues with some good laughter and a little bit of relaxation.

The truth is that in Europe, in the Middle East, and around the globe we face more significant challenges all at one time than perhaps at any time in recent memory. One issue that we are obviously going to talk about tonight is Syria, where we’ve worked very closely together and where the diplomatic process that was launched in Vienna on February 11th has enabled us to move forward on two areas. First, it has made possible, for the first time in years in some cases, the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance to some communities that have been under siege for even years. And this has already resulted in direct aid being passed on to 116,000 people that we can count already, and the UN hopes to reach another 150,000 this week and 1.7 million by the end of March; that is to say, within the month we are entering, 1.7 million people, providing that we can hold on to this process.

We are determined, obviously, to access humanitarian deliveries both on a nationwide basis and on a permanent basis. That’s our goal. In this connection I want to express tonight that I am concerned about reports that the Assad regime – probably no surprise – continues to drag its feet in providing the permits. Much of this aid could move faster. And so we call on the Assad regime to, at least in a moment of cessation of hostilities, try to show some measure of decency, if that is even possible. And our hope is that they will also stop their people, their troops and their officials who get in the way or manage these shipments, from actually putting their hands into the shipments and taking out medicine or taking out other preferred items simply to keep for themselves. That’s not the purpose of this. So this obstructionism that has existed has to stop, and we call on the Russians and the Iranians to do everything in their power to leverage their client to understand the stakes here.

Second, the International Syria Support Group proposed a cession of hostilities that went into effect on Saturday. Today is Monday. During that time I’ve had a couple of conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and we have agreed that while there have been some number of violations reported on both sides and we take them all very seriously, we do not want to litigate these in a public fashion in the press. We want to work to eliminate them, and we have agreed on a process by which we will do that. There is a team of people on the ground in Geneva and a team of people in Amman, Jordan, and they are in touch with each other and with people in Syria. And we are going to track down each alleged violation and work even more now to put in place a construct which will help us to be able to guarantee that missions are indeed missions against Nusrah or missions against Daesh, one of the two. Those are allowed. So it is not a surprise that somebody might see an airplane flying or an airplane even dropping a bomb. The question is: Where have they dropped it and who’s underneath it? And that is the real test of how this plays out over the course of the next days.

The support group’s task force met today, and it will continue to meet regularly in order to try to promote compliance. Everybody knows what has to happen. Aerial bombardments and shellings against participants in the cessation of hostilities has to end. Those people who have decided to be part of the political process and who have, in fact, ceased fire are within the political process and within the protection of the cessation of hostilities unless they are members of Nusrah or Daesh, and we are coordinating as best as possible to be able to designate and understand where Nusrah and where Daesh, in fact, are.

So it’s obvious that the next few days are going to be critical in determining whether or not we are able to develop some real momentum towards a de-escalation of the conflict. That’s the goal here. And we’re, of course, under no illusions about the obstacles that still exist. This is hard. But the fact is that we need to stop the cycle of fighting and of bloodshed that is destroying Syria. It is that simple. And make no mistake, the diplomatic path is the one and only path that can isolate terrorist groups such as Daesh and al-Nusrah, and create over time a stable, united, whole, non-sectarian Syria, which is what all of the parties at the Vienna table agreed to do and agreed to do in the United Nations Security Council resolution. That means that Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Emirates – all of the parties that are at the table, key in the region – Turkey, Qatar, others, Egypt, the United States, Britain, Germany, France – have all agreed together that we must try to have a united and non-sectarian Syria in which the people of Syria decide the future.

So I reiterate our call for all parties to abide by the cessation of hostilities, to cooperate in the delivery of humanitarian aid, and to support negotiations that are aimed at a Syrian-led political transition in accordance with the 2012 Geneva communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Now, the urgency of this diplomatic effort is reflected – more than reflected; I mean, it is underscored a thousand different ways – in the horrific refugee crisis that began in the Middle East several years go and has now spread to Europe. And although the refugees come from many different countries, nothing would do more to ease the forces that are driving their flight than an end to the war in Syria itself. And I want to be clear that the United States considers the refugee crisis to be global. The impact first was felt, obviously, by Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey, and they’ve borne an unbelievable burden in the course of these four and a half, four-plus years of war. It is not a regional challenge, though. It is a global challenge and it is not somebody else’s problem. It’s a test for all of us. And President Obama and our government respects deeply the efforts that Germany, the EU, and others in Europe have been making to integrate more than 1 million refugees who arrived last year.

As diplomats, our goal is to make it easier for people to live peacefully in their own country, in their own homes, and not feel compelled to move elsewhere. And that remains our goal even as the United States has given over $5.1 billion in order to assist victims of the Syrian conflict to date, and as we strive to enable refugees to send children to schools and find ways to be able to keep body and soul together.

For its part, Germany co-hosted the London donors conference in February that brought in $11 billion in new pledges for Syrian relief. And Germany has contributed generously itself – extraordinarily generously – not just in the giving of money but also in the very difficult task of taking in migrants – an unprecedented commitment of care for new arrivals within its own borders. I was very struck. One of our people from the State Department went to – recently was in Berlin and went to a place to visit where people were being received, and there were average German people going to that location and taking care of people in the morning for two hours before they went off to work for themselves. That is a great gift.

And other issues on our agenda this evening are clear. The United States is very grateful for Germany’s leadership in supporting a democratic and sovereign Ukraine. And we welcome Germany’s chairmanship of the OSCE, which is one of the reasons Frank-Walter is here, as we seek to achieve a durable and effective ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and as we seek to achieve the full implantation of the Minsk agreements.

In Libya, both the United States and Germany have been strong backers of a new Government of National Accord. And we applaud the naming of a cabinet and we call on all parties to close ranks behind this government and against the threat that is posed in Libya by Daesh and its presence in the territories. Almost all of the Daesh presence, I might add, are foreign fighters, and they are only interested in what they can plunder from Libya’s people and from its oil fields.

Finally, tonight I really just want to reiterate on a personal level the friendship and the admiration that we have for the German Government and its people. Last year the United States became Germany’s leading trade partner, and our students routinely cross the Atlantic to attend class in universities of each other’s countries. And whether the issue is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change, ensuring NATO readiness, or the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, I think the United States is privileged to be able to know that we can count on Germany to be engaged, we can count on Germany to be constructive, and when necessary, we count on Germany to lead. That’s a good feeling to have and it’s one that we are very grateful for every day.

So I’m pleased to yield the floor on this leap year day to Frank-Walter.

FOREIGN MINISTER STEINMEIER: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much for the friendly words of welcome, and of course, I would also like to thank you for inviting me again to Washington. If I have been correctly informed, this is the fifth bilateral visit I’ve paid to you in Washington, but you rightly pointed out that these days we seem to be meeting even more often on international – in international fora than we do bilaterally to talk about the issues you highlighted in your introductory remarks. We meet more often, we exchange views more often than ever before.

However, I’m not quite sure whether that is a good symbol or good sign for the state of affairs, because every time we meet, we tend to talk about crises and conflict and about how we can tackle these conflicts and crises. Times are indeed difficult, they’re turbulent, they’re dangerous. And perhaps, when we look to the people in both our countries, it’s fair to say that never before have we been aware of how important it is that our transatlantic partnership, that our transatlantic friendship actually functions, that it is strong and solid and sound, because we rely on it and we need it. I think the world relies on us cooperating well.

This works well between both our administrations, but of course, things are facilitated by the fact if the people responsible also get along with each other. And if I may use this opportunity to say the following, I admire your passion for foreign policy. I admire your staying power and stamina and persistence. And there is one principle very important in foreign policy, and that is never to give in, never to allow oneself to be infected by those who at an early point in time seem to be able to foresee that things are not going to work out, that efforts will not be successful. We believe that we have to show persistence, that we should not give up after the first failure but have to try again.

And to be honest, we have made headway in the last year or so when we look to some of the problems we have settled with, when I look to the efforts both of us have undertaken in order to bring about an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, that Iran has renounced the nuclear bomb. And in so doing, we have created the preconditions that allows Iran to develop into a constructive partner or at least can become a constructive partner in the Middle East.

I still remember the time in Vienna on the occasion of the signing ceremony, and we had the opportunity to briefly exchange views, and I said that the signature is not the end of the responsibility for us as members of the international community. It’s but a fresh start. It’s a new beginning. We have to continue to be responsible; we have to make sure that we put to good use the means at our disposal to ensure that Iran continues along the road that he by signing the agreement signaled he was willing to take – it was willing to take.

But at the same time, when one looks to the elections that have just taken place in Iran, we have come to realize that this agreement has not only foreign policy meaning, but it’s also been a sign, a signal for the young people, instilling them with fresh hope. And when one looks at all that, I think it’s fair to say that the agreement with Iran has been welcome and positive in two different ways.

Now, when we look to Syria these days, I don’t think I have to describe in great detail what’s going on: five years of civil war, 250,000 people killed, many failed attempts in the past to bring to an end the war. We should not lament that. We should not complain. Yes indeed, efforts have been undertaken that unfortunately did not defuse the conflict. Yes, there have been special envoys sent off, special representatives of the United Nations that have failed in bringing about an improvement in the situation. But being aware of those failed attempts in the past provides greater precision to the task ahead, because we have to make sure through our efforts and endeavors that the murder and the killing in Syria comes to an end.

Now, where do we stand right now? I think, John, you were right in making the point that we have to take a very realistic look at matters. We have taken a visible step forward since Munich. The very night following our negotiations in Munich was the point in time where it was possible for the first humanitarian aid supplies to go into Syria. We’ve continued that; 120,000 people that have been completely cut off from any humanitarian aid or supplies have now been provided with assistance, and we hope that very soon we’ll be able to get in medical supplies and equipment too.

In Munich too we agreed on concrete steps aimed at defusing the conflict, bringing about a cessation of hostilities; hopefully in the medium term a ceasefire. No one present there was naive. We are all aware that and we were all aware at the time that it would be extremely difficult after five years of a civil war – especially difficult for the opposition, which consists of a hundred different groupings. For them it’s especially difficult, as I said. But then again, it was in Munich and in the days following Munich, especially in the talks you have had since with your Russian colleague, we’ve been able to create a momentum – a momentum that has at least made sure that we have been able to clearly and visibly reduce the violence of the struggle.

In the last few days, we’ve been able to make sure that people who had not been able to leave their bunkers and the ruins of the buildings dare to take a step out into the roads. There was one image on television where you saw a cafe, a street cafe, being reopened in the midst of these ruins there. The first few people were visible where they were trying to clean up the place and restore to the extent possible the ruins of their former apartment or houses. That is a signal, and that should be an encouragement for us to continue. Even if we have to admit that the solution that we have found is far from being perfect, it is not the political solution to the problem. What’s important now, and John Kerry pointed that out, is that we make sure that the cessation of hostilities becomes more long-term in nature, so as to allow us to begin the negotiations about a political solution to the conflict.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN representative, is ready. He was very clear in his latest public statement in that respect. But it’s not enough to rely solely on the readiness of the special representative of the United Nations. The conflict parties too have to be willing to go in that direction, and we can only pursue that path if we make sure that violence does not escalate further. Indeed, it’s fair to say that tangible progress has been achieved in the last few days, and what is important now is to make sure that this progress becomes more permanent in nature, and in so doing, it is possible for us to resume negotiations in Geneva.

I very much look forward to the time we have to spend together tonight. Of course, we are going to talk about Syria first and foremost, but I trust we’ll also have time to talk about a few of the other conflicts that have kept us busy of late. In the run-up to the next Normandy format meeting at the level of foreign ministers – it will take place in Paris Thursday this week – we will no doubt also have to talk about Ukraine and how to defuse the conflict in order to prepare the ground for a political settlement. We will have to talk about this especially given the turbulent days in the political life, the domestic political life of Ukraine. And undoubtedly, the Middle East will also figure on our agenda tonight, and Libya. That will not come as a surprise to you.

In the talks that we’ve had with Libyan representatives we’ve been able to get an idea of how far we still are from something to be called a political solution, and that solution is urgently required. We need it. The people in the region need it, because if solutions are not being brought about, if the Government of National Unity does not find a way or means to gain a foothold in Tripoli, then the conflict will spread. And that is not in our interest. It’s not in the interest of the Europeans, the neighbors of Libya, and it is not in the interest of the United States of America, which is to say there’s a lot that we have to attend to with regard to the international conflicts on our plate.

I think it’s fair to say that we agree on that we have to do what we can, undertake any effort on the basis of the friendship, of the partnership between the United States and Germany to strengthen and solidify that relationship. This is important bilaterally, but politically it’s also important when it comes to trade exchanges between both our countries and trade agreements that are the subject of negotiations right now. And when we look to ambitious timetables, I am confident that we will be able to stick to those ambitious timetables at the end of the day.

Thank you very much.

MR KIRBY: Idrees Ali from Reuters.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, Syria’s main opposition group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, said earlier today that the cessation of hostilities was basically, quote/unquote, facing “complete nullification” because of Syrian attack – Syrian Government attacks which continued. When comments like these are made, how concerned are you about the sustainability of this agreement?

And secondly, Mr. Mistura has talked about reconvening peace talks. What efforts is the U.S. making to get the opposition to come to the table?

And Foreign Minister Steinmeier, you spoke recently in New York about the increase in violence in eastern Ukraine and the problem in getting an election law passed for the Donbas region through the parliament in Ukraine. Are you concerned that we’re getting to a point where the Minsk peace deal is essentially dead? And secondly, how important is the Normandy format meeting in Paris which is coming up? Thank you.


SECRETARY KERRY: Go ahead. Go ahead.

FOREIGN MINISTER STEINMEIER: (Via interpreter) Well, you quoted me and, actually, that was a statement I made today to the Security Council in New York, where I had the opportunity to present the program of the chairmanship of the OSCE. And I, of course, touched upon Ukraine in that context and the efforts we have undertaken to bring peace to the country.

Before I did that and before I came here, I paid a visit to Ukraine – last week that was – and I talked to the important political players, the president, the prime minister, the chairs of the different political parties in the parliament of Ukraine. Of course, when you talk to them, they all say that the Minsk agreement is the only game in town, thus we have to continue to work on the basis of the Minsk agreement. But then again, the readiness of all conflict partly – parties to bring about tangible progress is very limited. And this is why the French foreign minister and I, we both traveled to Ukraine together, we both invited our colleagues to Paris Thursday this week, and we’re going to focus on one of the major impediments to progress on the road towards implementing the Minsk agreements. We’re trying to tackle that and to build bridges. Now, I’m talking about the electoral law for eastern Ukraine that – clear disagreements here amongst the different actors and players. If elections are to take place, everybody says, we need an electoral law, then we need a security condition on the ground that allows for elections to take place. We will be working on both these points together with the International Contact Group on Ukraine. And I hope that on Thursday we’ll be able to take a small step forward, because you’ve rightly made the point that the process of implementation has to continue. It’s again a question of the credibility of the process per se.

SECRETARY KERRY: So while I’m not asked the question, let me just say quickly that we are very supportive of the efforts for the implementation, the full implementation of the Minsk agreement. President Obama believes very deeply that – and he’s talked with President Putin just in the last few days about this – that both sides need to perform. It’s very important for Russia to live up to its obligations and to make sure the separatists do, and it’s also very important for the Kyiv government to undertake its steps, as Frank has just said. So we’re very supportive of that effort and encourage the parties to make the most of the opportunity that’s in front of them now.

With respect to the HNC and the ceasefire agreement, let me just say to everybody we are now in day three with some reported violations, all of which we take very seriously. And we are digging in through the process we set up to find out if, in fact, a violation did take place, or was it, in fact, a legitimate engagement against Nusrah only or Daesh only, or in some – a mix of the two. Or was it an engagement against the legitimate opposition that is, in fact, engaged in this process? We do not have at this point evidence to the effect that we would determine somehow that this is not resolvable or that we can’t keep improving the process. And so we call on all the parties not to be looking for a way to get out from under the responsibility of a cessation of hostilities, but rather to help the process to hold itself accountable.

And so we are asking for that evidence to be sent. We have a very specific process in place that violation reports go directly either to the Russians, if that’s who is complaining or one of their supporters, or to the United States, or to the UN secretariat, which has the responsibility for the administration of the task force. And our task force, as I said, met today and they are working through this. But ask anybody in Syria today. There were reports that Frank-Walter talked about. The vast majority are seeing a diminution in violence, a reduction in violence. And while there may be reports of 30 or 40, whatever the number of violations are, compare that to 400 sorties without any restraint.

So this is a process, and it is the only way to get to the table for the negotiations. Now, Staffan de Mistura, to answer the second part of your question, is prepared to invite the parties back after we purposefully have given a few days to try to work through what we knew would be some challenges. You can’t just take four years of violence, which is why we took the two weeks to build the process in itself. We now have a coordination process, and Russia has agreed with the United States as the co-chairs of the task force that we are working to make this succeed, not to make it fall apart. And we ask the warring parties themselves to show good faith and join in that effort so they can come to the table and negotiate the future of Syria.

Everybody has agreed that that future of Syria will be defined by what was agreed upon in the Vienna communiques and the United Nations Security Council resolution that is based on the Geneva communique of 2012, where you have a transitional government arrived at by mutual consent with full executive authority that has the ability then to engage in the constitutional reform and the electoral efforts necessary for the people of Syria to choose their government. But that transitional government will begin the moment we have the ability to get back to that table, they can begin to let it take shape. That is a far, far better way to try to resolve the future than what we’ve seen over the course of the last four and a half years.

MR KIRBY: Final question tonight comes from Stefan Braun from Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) One question to the Secretary of State and a question to Minister Steinmeier, and then a question to both of you.

State Secretary, I’d like to ask you the following question. The image that Donald Trump conveys of America and the United – in the world is not in any way close to the image that you depict of America in the world. Are you concerned? How dangerous do you think is this going to be for the United States?

And a question addressed the Minister Steinmeier: Today we’ve seen images from the border between Greece and Macedonia that have been shocking. Do you think that that is the death of Europe in a way? Are we witnessing that in a different way?

You also both describe the close cooperation between both our countries. Mr. Kerry leaves Germany a lot of leeway as far as Ukraine is concerned. You closely cooperate on Syria. But at the end of the year, you might end up having a new minister – foreign minister here in Washington. Aren’t you afraid that you’re running out of time when it comes to tackling these two big issues?

SECRETARY KERRY: All of that for me? (Laughter.) Well, I suppose the impolitic thing to say is that I’m concerned about anybody who isn’t me. (Laughter.) But the real answer is that I’m not in politics. I’m engaged in diplomacy. I don’t comment on the presidential race and I’m not going to begin now. And there’s ample chatter out there, believe me.

With respect to running out time, Frank-Walter and I don’t think of things in that way at all. I don’t know what the future brings, but I know that tomorrow I’m going to be working with this man and the next week and the weeks after. And we have a lot of time in the scale of diplomacy and human events to make good things happen. We’ve made a lot of good things happen together with our other colleagues who’ve been part of this journey, and I am convinced that we have an opportunity over the course of these next weeks, literally, to make a difference in any number of trouble spots. And for the rest, the future will take care of defining that.

FOREIGN MINISTER STEINMEIER: (Via interpreter) If I may add to what my colleague just said before turning to the question that you addressed to me, this is democracy. Foreign ministers in democracies every once in a while have to make the experience that the things that they have set in motion, that they are not there in the capacity of foreign ministers or secretaries of state to witness the outcome of that. I am maybe the exception to the rule because I was there present in the first few rounds of the negotiations on Iran 2005, and then I spent a few years in the opposition and then returned towards the end of the negotiations on Iran. But these are rare exceptions, I think it’s fair to say, to be here to have witnessed the beginning and the end of such a long process. Spending 10 years is really an exception to the rule.

But more seriously, if you are a foreign minister in a democracy, a secretary of state in a democracy, be that the United States or be that Germany, our task is to push the cart a little bit further down the road using the means at one’s disposal. And if that should – if we should be able to do so in Syria to help further defuse the situation, then I think it’s fair to say we have achieved a lot, both of us. And if we lay the foundation now for others to continue down that road, then I think that would be – it would be fair to say that that is more than we might have been able to hope for at the beginning of our cooperation.

Now, the question you addressed to me concerning Macedonia and the border to Greece, I don’t think much has to be – can be said on this topic. Everyone has seen the images on television and in the media. One can, of course, try to go one’s own in Europe, but one ought to be aware of the fact that that is not going to lead to a solution of the problem but to situations like the one we witnessed last night.

And in saying that, I am not denying the fact that you can do things nationally singlehandedly, but what you gain by having one European member-state like Greece be saddled with the problem of the refugees, making them deal with that, the images I’ve seen from the border between Macedonia and Greece are just further proof for me that we have to continue with even greater ambition to work for European solutions to this problem. And it is on the 7th of March that we hopefully will be able to take a further step in the right direction.



SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you all very much.