Press Availability after the Counter-ISIL Ministerial Meeting

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
July 21, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. As I think you know, today we convened a meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of the counter-Daesh coalition. And with the welcome addition of Interpol, that coalition now stands at 67 members. And today’s sessions included presentations from the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Carter; Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk; the Director of National Intelligence, General Clapper. And we had a lot of time through three different sessions – the main session this morning, a luncheon session, and then a long session this afternoon – to be able to have a full discussion with almost, I think, everybody weighing in. And I think one thing that really struck me today was the extraordinary breadth of agreement about the strategy, about what we have accomplished, what we still have to accomplish, and the direction ahead. Across every region and in every aspect of our work the level of commitment could not be higher. And the recent spate of vicious terror attacks in various countries from the Middle East through Europe and elsewhere has only made every single member of this coalition more determined to succeed.

Now, I think it’s really important to remember that the counter-Daesh coalition came together less than two years ago, starting from ground zero in terms of this kind of broad, cooperative initiative along many different lines of effort, as we call them, but ranging from the kinetic, the military direct action; to the training; to the counter-foreign fighter movement efforts; to the counter-financing efforts; to the targeting of their infrastructure, their payment routines; to the exchange of information, the sharing of intelligence. There’s been a major growth in the capacity of the coalition to actually become more and more effective every day.

At the time that we came together – when President Obama directed me to put this coalition together – at that point in time, the terrorists were rampaging through broad parts of both Syria and Iraq. And everybody remembers the images of these parades of Toyotas with machine guns, with black flags and ISIL members, seemingly unopposed at that moment in time until President Obama ordered the beginning of air attacks to stop them from moving into Baghdad, even, itself. They were overrunning and plundering key cities, murdering or enslaving thousands of people, and they were destroying ancient cultural sites and declaring themselves the leaders of all of Islam.

One of the things that leapt out to me today in the course of our discussions were the Arab countries themselves – Muslim nations, not just Arab – were stating unequivocally that they believe they have made it clear that what Daesh is doing and what Daesh is does not represent Islam. And obviously it is far more powerful for that message to come from the Muslim world than it is from us.

So today we can come to Washington as we did, defense ministers and foreign ministers – 45 countries, I believe, represented – 45 strong, and today we can say that the tide has turned. Our coalition and partners on the ground have driven Daesh out of nearly 50 percent of the territory that it once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of the territory in Syria, where it’s obviously more complicated because we don’t have the same forces on the ground. But coalition airstrikes have degraded Daesh’s leadership, disrupted its ability to carry out offensive military operations. In fact, Daesh has not since last May been able to take over a community and hold on to that community or advance in terms of the territory that they were claiming. They have only shrunk and moved backwards.

In addition, we’ve hammered their oil facilities, their tanker trucks, their cash storage sites. And since our coalition last met at the ministerial level, the number of Daesh fighters has shrunk by at least a third and recruiting has slowed down – less people moving from other countries – and defections we know have increased, because we have the ability to know that. The coalition is now firmly committed to helping the government and the people of Iraq as they prepare to finish the hard job of driving Daesh completely out of their territory so that they can go then forward and rebuild their cities and rebuild their lives and build Iraq into the inclusive and cohesive society that the people of Iraq want to see.

To that end, yesterday, our widely-attended pledging conference raised more than $2 billion in new funds in order to meet the humanitarian and stabilization needs which are immediate needs. As we have moved faster than some people anticipated to take back Fallujah, take back Ramadi, take back Tikrit, the demand to be able to renew the services in those communities and be able to deliver services to people who want to come home and have come home, beginning with Tikrit, where more than 100,000 Iraqis have returned to Tikrit and are now living in their homes again and they have secured their land. But that requires stabilization support, which comes both in form of people in support as well as equipment to support and funding for various initiatives.

So the coalition is now determined to do what is necessary to defeat Daesh in Syria, where the group has been weakened but still we know remains entrenched in Raqqa. And to date, coalition partners have carried out more than 4,000 airstrikes, an effort that is clearly now going to benefit by the decision of four additional coalition members to join the air campaign.

Now, we know, as I said earlier in my opening comments to all of the ministers, that defeating Daesh is a challenge. We know that. We’re making progress, but we want to make more and we want to do it faster. We also know that getting at it in its core areas is obviously a challenge and we’re going to prepare carefully and we’re going to proceed relentlessly, but I’m confident that we are going to succeed and we’re going to – what do I mean by that? We’re going to deprive Daesh of its geographical base and we’re going to strike a heavy blow against that organization in those two areas where it had most secured territory and from which it was announcing its caliphate.

But Daesh will still remain dangerous even when that defeat takes place, and the reason is they have dispersed people over the course of a number of years to various countries, and as we were reminded today by the participants of this coalition. In fact, we were reminded by the foreign minister of Iraq himself, who said people have come to Iraq from more than 100 countries, attracted by the initial narrative that Daesh was pushing through the social media.

So even as it is losing ground in the Middle East, we know already that they’re going to try to transform themselves into a global terrorist organization, network capable of orchestrating attacks, as we have seen in various places. And that is also going to take time and is hard work.

Countering this network plan, this global networking, was the subject of the afternoon’s discussion today – the major focus among coalition members. And we talked about the importance of real-time communication between countries, information sharing so that our police and our border guards and airport security officials know when they are coming into contact with suspected terrorists; so they know if, in one country or another, someone is visiting who had been to Iraq. That depends on the flow of information and coordination between the coalition members.

We talked about efforts that are already underway to counter Daesh’s messaging on the social media, efforts that are now showing significant signs of progress, particularly with the entry of many of the Muslim nations, Arab and otherwise, who are opening up their own communications channels, which are the most effective of all. And so sometimes, people who have defected are coming on and telling people and sharing with people the mythology of Daesh, the lies that people are told, the exploitation that takes place, and that has a profound impact in helping to counter the recruitment and change the overall narrative.

And we talked the need to create opportunity in areas of the world where populations are most susceptible to terrorist recruitment. And we also acknowledged that radicalization can result from any number of specific causes. There’s no one thing that is always the instigator of a particular recruitment initiative. And obviously, some of these recruitment efforts are quite unique to the individuals who are involved, as we learn more and more about their lives and about their mental state at a particular moment.

Finally, we agreed on the importance of conveying a very simple but compelling message that we hope to spread everywhere that people will understand and heed. And that message is that terrorism of the type that we have seen committed by Daesh, by accomplices, literally results – so far, anyway – in nothing but death – nothing but death and destruction. It doesn’t advance any particular cause. Most people in the world couldn’t tell you what the cause is, except an explosion of anger and hate that results in the death that I described. Nothing that they do is going to lead us to abandon our principles, our beliefs, because they don’t offer any alternative. It’s not going to prompt us to change the way that we organize our societies and it’s not going to lessen our commitment to human rights; it’s going to strengthen it, including women’s rights and our commitment to the rule of law. It is not going to drive us from public places, it’s not going to drive us from restaurants or sports arenas, from our houses of worship or from celebrations of cultural and national pride.

People around the world who are listening to Daesh propaganda should know beyond a scintilla of doubt that when the story of our era is written, the world is going to look back and say that Daesh made zero difference beyond the cruel suffering that it caused and that every single person who committed murder or suicide at its direction did so shamefully and in vain.

So I think the message coming out of today’s meeting is clear: The counter-Daesh coalition is going to go forward from Washington today united, more determined, with a clear sense of its mission and its strategy. And we’re going to press on vigorously with our partners in this endeavor, our partners in Iraq and Syria and in other countries, in Libya. We also met and talked at length about Libya and our commitment to the Government of National Accord and our efforts to fight Daesh there also. And we are going to be steadily intensifying our efforts until this terrorist occupation of whatever territory it holds today is ended. And we’re going to be working with friends across the globe with increasing strategies and increasing commitment and increasing savvy to root out the terrorist networks and to find new and innovative ways ourselves to enhance our communications, to disrupt the enemy, and to safeguard the lives of our citizens. That’s what today’s meeting was about and it’s one of the best meetings that I have attended during the time that I’ve been Secretary of State. And I think it will be productive and that’ll be measured, obviously, in the results on the ground.

So with that, I’m happy to take a few questions. How many are we --

MR KIRBY: Sir, we’ve got time for just a few. The first one will come from Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you. You just talked about unity in the counter-ISIL coalition, and given that NATO is sort of the beating heart of this coalition, could you respond to Donald Trump’s remarks about NATO unity and his suggestion of a potential financial quid pro quo in the U.S. meeting or not meeting its treaty obligations under NATO? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, I’ve said this before and I need to say it again: I am not going to get into the presidential race. I’m not allowed under the law to become engaged candidate for candidate, pro or con. I’m not in politics. So let me just restate American policy with respect to NATO, because I want our NATO partners to be clear about where we stand. This Administration, like every single administration, Republican and Democrat alike, since 1949, remains fully committed to the NATO alliance and to our security commitments under Article 5, which is absolutely bedrock to our membership and to our partnership in NATO. I might point out every NATO country is a member of the coalition against Daesh, and 20 of the 28 nations were here today.

So that’s how important NATO is in the work that we are doing, and in coordination with our allies we made it clear in Warsaw just a few – what, a week or so ago at the summit that we are going to continue to increase the capability, the readiness, and the responsiveness of NATO forces to address any threat and to deter further destabilizing activities that occur. And the NATO is as unified as it’s been. People are plussing up the amount of money that they’re contributing, and we are ourselves strengthening our presence in the forward lines. And I think everybody believes that that is making a difference to the security of our country.

MR KIRBY: Next question comes from Pierre Ghanem, Al Arabiya.

QUESTION: Thank you. It is obvious that the next step would be Raqqa; would be also Mosul. How complicated is this campaign and the presence of the regime activity, absence of any transition in Syria? How hopeful are you to come into terms with Russia on what’s happening in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, “hopeful” is the right word. I can’t say that I’m confident, because there are very tough issues that are being resolved, but I do reiterate what I said in Moscow. We made progress in Moscow, and in the last couple of days, as our teams have been working to do the homework that we said we would do coming out of Moscow, it has been constructive. So we’re going steadily and carefully down a road without making promises to people in public that we can’t keep, because I think people are already frustrated enough by what has been happening in Syria. So we’re going to go methodically. There is a possibility, if everybody does what they have said they’re prepared to do, that this could change what is happening in Syria.

So that’s our goal, I’m hopeful we can get there, and we’re going to do everything in our power to work in good faith in order to try to do so. But nothing that we’ve done or are doing in this process is based on trusting the word of somebody. It’s based on our ability to work out a series of measurable steps that each party would take in order to make this work. And the proof, as I said, will be not in the words, but in the final product – if there is one.

MR KIRBY: Final question today comes from Dave Clark at AFP.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. How does the turmoil in neighboring Turkey affect the plans that you’re making in the counter-ISIL coalition? Also the trouble in Libya and in Yemen – there are other areas beyond Syria and Iraq which are going through political crises at the moment. Are you able to coordinate operations against ISIS in those areas? And given the role that Iran plays both in Syria and in Iraq supporting local forces, have you also been able to engage with Mr. Zarif on these issues, just as you have with Mr. Putin last week?

And since I’m asking about Iran, do you have anything you can tell us about reports that a U.S. citizen was arrested on July the 17th, I believe, a certain Robin Shahini? His family are very worried. Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: I didn’t hear the last part of that. You asked about a U.S. citizen, July 17th?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) was arrested in Iran, reportedly.


QUESTION: And his family are very --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’ll answer that very quickly. No, I can’t say anything about that at this point in time.

With respect to the series of questions you asked about Turkey, Libya, Yemen and can we coordinate, et cetera, let me be very specific, because it’s very important. The foreign minister from Turkey was not able to be here today because of the events in Turkey and the security meetings that they’re having back there, but he sent a deputy who made a very strong statement to the effect that Turkey will not be affected by the events that have happened in terms of its commitment to the counter-Daesh effort; that Turkey is going to continue to be a working and full partner and member within the counter-Daesh coalition; and that they don’t see any interruption whatsoever as a consequence of what has happened, and that is directly from the Turkish minister who came here today in order to take part in these meetings.

Now, we are – we have had a series of meetings in the last few days. I think we – in Brussels, we discussed the coordination with respect to Yemen and Libya and Syria and Iraq. We also talked about Ukraine, where we have another challenge that we’re working on. In Brussels – after Brussels, we talked in London over two days in several meetings with key participants in this initiative and in these initiatives, and then I met with the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the foreign minister to talk about Yemen and the way forward. We met also with the Egyptians and the Emiratis about Libya, and I think in both places we were able to chart out specific steps that we hope to be able to take in the next days that can strengthen the Government of National Accord in Libya and begin to focus further on Daesh’s presence in Libya, and we have some very specific agreements on what we’re going to do to try to move that forward.

Likewise on Yemen, the Kuwait talks are resuming. We are pressing for steps to be taken to avoid the skirmishes on the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and steps to be specifically taken that could lay out a sequencing of the provisions that are currently stalemated within the talks in order to break that stalemate and try to move forward with some sense of urgency.

So all of these issues are really being worked on in all of these meetings simultaneously, including, I might add, in Russia. I spent not only a fair amount of the time – or the most amount of time – on the Syria portfolio, but we had a long discussion about Ukraine and the responsibilities of both parties to try to resolve the – to move forward and make progress on the Minsk agreement. And we are going to be talking with our counterparts I think almost every day in the next days to try to advance that process, which is a major priority of President Obama’s that he wants to try to see some progress on very, very soon.

So the answer to your question is that these meetings, these gatherings like the one we had today with respect to the Daesh alliance, gives us an opportunity on the side of those meetings to also make sure we’re working together in the most cooperative way with the most state-of-the-art options in order to try to resolve these other crises. And they’re all interconnected in their own way, and we understand that. Even though they have very unique characteristics in each place, with different sets of players and different exigencies between those players, there still is a connection of the dots with respect to Daesh – or al-Qaida in the case of Yemen – and the challenge of bringing complicated sectarian divisions together in a way that finds a solution. And I think we made, at least conceptually, some progress, and now we need to implement what we agreed on.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, everybody. That concludes today’s press conference.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it. Thanks.