Interview With Hasan Muawad of Al-Arabiya

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Manama, Bahrain
April 7, 2016

QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, first of all, you must have heard the reports that Syrian regime troops and their allies are launching a major attack against the opposition south of Aleppo. Is – this is the end of the truce?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, they’re launching an attack, to our understanding, against Nusrah. And under the cessation of hostiles, Nusrah and Daesh are both targets of everybody. So we will be talking directly with the Russians to make certain that that is what the limit of the attack is, but it is fair game to go after Nusrah.

QUESTION: Do you think that such attacks would affect the Geneva talks, which are due to be restarted soon?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, providing it’s against Nusrah and providing it is against Daesh, it shouldn’t affect the talks. But there are also been an occasion when Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh-al-Islam or somebody has also, unfortunately, been accused of stepping over the line. What we’re trying to do is keep people from fighting. We’re trying very hard to get everybody, all sides, all people who have signed up to the cessation of hostilities, to respect the cessation of hostilities. We will make certain, through our task force in Geneva and our task force in Amman that are working on this every single day – we will make certain that the regime is not violating this by using Nusrah as an excuse to attack people who have signed up for the agreement. That would be a violation.

QUESTION: Okay. Mr. Kerry, now, it is said that the negotiation – negotiating position of Mr. Assad probably has been strengthened as a result of recent military successes his troops made recently. Do you agree to that?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I don’t agree with that, because it doesn’t matter what he does on the ground. The fact is Bashar al-Assad cannot possibly regain legitimacy in order to run Syria. No one will believe – or very few people will believe that he is capable of uniting the country that he has gassed, that he has barrel bombed, that he has tortured, that he has starved, and that he has driven into exile, created refugees and created displaced people. How can that man become the legitimate leader of the country in the future? I don't believe that can happen and nobody I know believes that can happen.

So he needs to understand the Russians and the Iranians support a transition in Geneva. That’s what they’re negotiating. And if Assad does not agree to have a legitimate transition, Russia has indicated they will not continue to support him. And we will certainly see an increase in violence and a return to war. This whole challenge of a peace process depends on Assad being reasonable.

QUESTION: Now, obviously the sticking point in these talks is the future of President Assad.


QUESTION: In a clear-cut statement, do you see Assad staying in power during the transitional period?

SECRETARY KERRY: By definition, the Geneva process, which Iran has signed up to, Russia has signed up to, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Turkey, Qatar – everybody has agreed and supposedly the regime has agreed that there will be a transition, the creation of a governing body that will begin to assume powers with respect to the day-to-day administration of Syria while they create a new constitution and head to an election. And it’s important for Assad to recognize that that is the only way to bring peace to Syria. If he makes this about him going forward, this war will continue. And I assure you, the result will be increased violence, increased pressure.

QUESTION: Okay. Mr. Kerry, do I understand from your answer that Assad will remain in the transitional period?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, during the transition, Assad has to be part of that transition by definition within the Geneva communique, because the Geneva communique requires the transition to be by mutual consent. So mutual consent means that Assad has to agree and the opposition has to agree. But they both have to agree to compromise people who will help to move things forward while the new constitution is developed and while we lead up to an election where the people of Syria choose the future leadership.

QUESTION: Okay. Mr. Kerry, there are reports that you and the Russians have reached an understanding, in fact, that Assad should leave Syria to another country within the next six months. Can you confirm that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, what Russia and the United States have agreed is what we have agreed with many other countries too – that there has to be this transition, that there has to be a unified Syria – united, secular; a Syria that’s nonsectarian, that respects all minorities, in which the Syrian people have a chance to choose the future.

Now, we have also agreed that Assad has to begin to be part of that transition and that the transition needs to be the next subject that they discuss in Geneva, and that out of the transition comes a new Syria. Now, the Russians have made it very clear that Assad committed to them that he will take part in this transition, that he will help support a new constitution, and that he will have a presidential election. And if he doesn’t, then I believe the Russians will not continue to support Assad.

So Assad needs to recognize that the world – and I mean the world – will not accept the idea that he can be a viable, unifying person in Syria. He can’t. He has gassed his people. That is against the laws of war. He has starved his people as a tactic of war. That’s against the laws of war. He has barrel bombed women and children against the laws of war. He has tortured people, by tens of thousands. That is also not just against the laws of war, it’s against all laws of humanitarian behavior. So Assad has huge accounting here, and that’s not going to go away and it will not allow him to unify Syria.

QUESTION: This brings me to this question: If ever Assad accepts to depart or to leave power, would he be given what’s so-called a safe exit?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s what has to be negotiated, obviously. I would certainly argue that if Assad is prepared to be a constructive component of bringing peace to Syria, that would obviously be a very important consideration, and clearly, people should respect that effort and Assad should be able to live, I would hope, safely thereafter. But if he’s not willing to do that, he is going to attract more terrorism, more violence. And ultimately, Syria will suffer for that, obviously, but I think he will too.

QUESTION: Now, if these present talks collapse for a reason or another, do you have a B Plan?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are a lot of other options, but I don’t think we want to talk about other options when the principal effort is right in front of us and we are engaged in it. I don’t want to start talking about failure until we’ve exhausted the possibilities of this very important opportunity that we have right now.

QUESTION: Is the military action on the part of the Americans still an option for you against Assad?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President will not take any option off the table; I guarantee you that. The President, however, has clearly stated that his preference by far is to have a diplomatic solution, a diplomatic process, that works with Russia, with Iran, with all the countries of the region, to bring real peace and stability to Syria, to see the foreign fighters get out of Syria. And that includes not just the foreign fighters who are part of the people fighting against Assad, but the foreign fighters of Iran, the foreign fighters of Hizballah. Everybody needs to pull back.

QUESTION: Okay. Mr. Kerry, I want to move to another subject now. You are on record as saying that the United States stands by Arab Gulf states against any threats. Now, recently Iran repeated its threats against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. What do you suggest to do about these threats?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are many things that we can do. One of the things we’ve done is we have put additional sanctions on Iran regarding its missile firings. We have just interdicted four large shipments of arms that were going to the Houthi. We are very much involved now in the effort at the UN to create a new resolution as a result of the activities that Iran has engaged in.

And our request of Iran is if you mean what you say about wanting peace in the region and wanting to be constructive within the region, then there are clear things that Iran can and must stop doing, like arming the Houthi, engaging in sending people and weapons into other countries to disturb those countries. There has to be a clear discussion between Iran and the rest of the countries of the Gulf about the future. That’s part of what we will be talking about tonight at the GCC Summit that we’re having.

QUESTION: In fact, this is a point which was made, obviously, by President Obama in a series of interviews recently where he called on Arab states here in the Gulf to work and cooperate with Iran – Iran, which you, the Americans, accuse of being a terrorist state. Is that not right?

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s correct. We believe Iran has been a state sponsor of terror, and that’s what must stop. But you can begin a conversation and figure out whether or not there is a peaceful, diplomatic, sensible way to try to change behavior, or whether or not you’re stuck with confrontation.

I mean, historically, we opposed for years the Soviet Union. We had many, many, many disagreements and arguments with the Soviet Union. We had an arms race for years and years. And then finally President Reagan and President Gorbachev agreed to begin to reduce the nuclear weapons, and then the Berlin Wall fell, and then Russia suddenly emerged as a nation by itself, and the rest of the former Soviet Union went its separate ways.

The same thing with China. We reached out to China, we’ve worked with China. So we can have differences with countries and still find a way to make some progress in a relationship. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

QUESTION: Now, the recent statements by President Obama were interpreted by certain elements here in the region that they indicate a shift in the interest or in the direction of the American policy in the region far away from the allies or the traditional allies of America. What do you say to that?

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s just not happening. I’m saying that when you have an article that is written by anybody, when they are writing their own opinion, that does not reflect the words necessarily or the thoughts of the principal being interviewed. I’ve had that happen; I’m sure you have at times. Somebody writes what they think. So the fact is President Obama is coming out here to the region in a couple of weeks. We’re going to have a summit with all of the GCC heads of state. I’m here now; we’re having a summit with the GCC foreign ministers, and we are talking about how we strengthen our relationship and how we continue to work together in a way that works for all of us.

And I’m very confident, very confident, about the strength of the relationship between the United States and the countries in this region, and particularly confident that we will continue to oppose the behavior of any country that tries to interfere with the internal activities and life of another nation that intends to try to create extremist disturbances or terrorist acts. We will oppose that and we will work with our friends to oppose it.

QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, now President Obama said recently that his first priority is to the destruction of Daesh, or ISIS, because of what they are doing in the region here and elsewhere. Now, what’s happening now in Fallujah in Iraq does indicate, in fact, that Daesh is still alive and kicking. Is that right?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s kicking, but I wouldn’t call it – I’d call it on the direction of dying. Daesh is in trouble. Yes, it still exists; yes, it is still a threat; yes, it still holds Mosul; yes, it is still in al-Raqqa, it is still in other places. But it is steadily, slowly, every day losing traction, losing capacity to be able to carry out its horrendous missions. And it has lost 40 percent of the territory it held in Iraq. It has lost 20 percent of the territory it held in Syria. We are increasingly see its finances being squeezed, and I’m telling you as I sit here today, Daesh is going to be destroyed over a period of time. I have no doubt about it.

QUESTION: This is clear. Thank you very much indeed.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir.