Remarks Before the Daily Press Briefing
Secretary of State
September 12, 2016
SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday to all of you. Let me begin, if I can, just by – you can sort of see it with some of the banners and the large fish out in front of the State Department that this is a big week for the department, because on Thursday and Friday we’re going to be hosting our third Our Ocean conference, which we started two years ago with the meeting that took place in Chile interrupting this, and now this will be the final one for me as Secretary.
But happily, other countries have viewed this as an important enough initiative that for the next three years there are hosts who will be announced at the meeting on the weekend – on Thursday and Friday. We have almost 40, I think it’s about 40 ministers, foreign ministers; about 25 or so environment ministers. That is a large contingent of ministers who are coming here because of the global interest and commitment to this endeavor. And I think it’s going to be a very important set of substantive, impressive announcements that will be made in the course of those two days.
One of the reasons for this is that this is an issue that literally affects everybody on the planet. And it should be at the top of the global agenda, and that is where President Obama and the State Department are trying to put it in the course of these last three years.
Second, let me make a quick comment about good news, because obviously we know we live in a turbulent era and too often there are (coughs) one challenge or another about conflict that, unfortunately, doesn’t bring good news. But I believe it’s important to note a very important humanitarian accomplishment from late last week. I was going to mention it but it was so late – or early in the morning in Geneva – that I didn’t.
But on Friday of last week, the last 280 members of the exiled Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin e-Khalq, or MEK, as they’re known, were moved out of Camp Liberty in Iraq. And their departure concludes a significant American diplomatic initiative that has assured the safety of more than 3,000 MEK members whose lives have been under threat. And as everybody remembers, the camp they were in had on many occasions been shelled. There were people killed and injured. And we have been trying to figure out the way forward.
Well, the last 10 years have been filled with reminders of this challenge. I first became involved in this effort when I was in the Senate, and that is why during my first year as Secretary I appointed Jonathan Winer, one of my longest-serving and most trusted advisers, as our emissary to find a way to help the MEK be able to leave Iraq.
After steady progress over a period of months, I visited Tirana earlier this year and I discussed with the Albanian Government how to assist in facilitating the transfer and the resettlement of the last group of MEK members from Camp Liberty. Albania has a proud tradition of protecting vulnerable communities, as it did during the Kosovo conflict and in sheltering large numbers of Jews during World War II. I am very grateful that in this case too Albania was willing to play an important humanitarian role. I also want to thank the governments of Germany, Norway, Italy, the U.K., Finland, and other EU countries for helping to save the lives of the MEK. And this is a major humanitarian achievement, and I’m very proud that the United States was able to play a pivotal role in helping to get this job done.
Finally, I’d like to take just a few moments to review with you the latest developments in Syria and the – I think you all are familiar with the agreement itself, but let me just quickly kind of summarize what Russia and the United States agreed on, which is a plan that we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering, and resume movement towards a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.
Now, the key elements of the plan, just so everybody is very clear about it, are, first, the resumption of a nationwide cessation of hostilities that excludes only al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusrah and Daesh. Now, this renewed cessation of hostilities went into effect today our time – not our time, but today about noon our time; at sundown in Syria a few hours ago. And the earliest reports are that there’s some reduction in violence as well as a few reports of fighting here and there, though it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions, and I am not drawing any definitive conclusions.
I will say that there is a report that just crossed my desk from Reuters that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that major conflict zones in Syria were calm after the ceasefire took effect at 7:00 p.m. on Monday. Their quote is, “Calm is prevailing,” the director said, giving an early assessment – I repeat, early assessment. And there will undoubtedly be reports of a violation here or there, I am confident, but that’s the nature of the beginning of a ceasefire almost always.
The second thing that we agreed on is that humanitarian assistance needs to begin to flow. Now, that can take a day or two or so. It depends. But the UN has indicated that they are prepared and preparing to take those deliveries in. And it is important – and a very important part of this equation – that access to humanitarian goods takes place. That includes all of the embattled neighborhoods of Aleppo over a period of time.
Now, we spent a lot of the last few weeks developing very specific arrangements to enable the passage of aid to Aleppo through the two main access points, Castello Road and the Ramouseh Gap. I don’t think I have to spell out for you how urgent this assistance is – in some cases, literally the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of people.
Third, we provided a provision that as long as there is a sustained period of reduced violence – reduced violence – and increased humanitarian access, and by that we mean seven consecutive days – the United States and Russia will set up a Joint Implementation Center to facilitate coordinated military action in response to the threat posed by al-Nusrah and Daesh. Now, under that arrangement, as soon as U.S.-Russia strikes begin, then the Syrian regime will be prohibited from flying combat missions over areas in which the legitimate opposition is present or al-Nusrah present, as defined by the map that has been agreed upon between Russia and the United States with the regime’s consent according to Russia.
Now, these areas have been clearly and jointly defined by our experts. What this would mean is it would take Syrian warplanes and their barrel bombs out of those skies and prevent the regime from doing what it has done so often in the past, which is to bomb a civilian apartment or hospital and claim that in doing so they were really targeting al-Nusrah. And I would hope that everyone who has deplored these kinds of attacks – and that should be everyone, period – is going to support the effort to bring these assaults to an end by virtue of providing for the calm and allowing these seven days of reduced violence to take place.
Now, I want to be clear: As important as each of these measures is in their own right, they are designed not for the purpose of having a ceasefire for the purpose of having a ceasefire. They are designed in order to provide a period of calm that restores some sense of seriousness of purpose to the Russian effort and the willingness of Assad to go to the table and negotiate. This is designed to bring people to the table in Geneva in order to get under the auspices of the UN and begin to negotiate a political transition and the restoration of a peaceful and united Syria.
Now, this afternoon, I reiterate my call to all parties to observe the cessation of hostilities. This is an opportunity for Syria, an opportunity for all of the people who’ve been under siege, and it’s an opportunity for a political, diplomatic process under the auspices of the United Nations to take the plan that Staffan de Mistura has developed and begin to work and see if it is possible – if – to have a diplomatic and political solution.
I want to praise the opposition’s courage in embarking on this arrangement and call on them to separate themselves from al-Nusrah in those areas where intermingling has been a problem. And to everybody concerned, I emphasize that every element of this arrangement is based on the reciprocal actions that need to be taken, not simply the promises that have been made. Promises are one thing. It’s the actions that will define whether or not this will be able to come together. If there is no compliance with the cessation of hostilities and no fulfillment of the principle of humanitarian access, then this arrangement, including the joint implementation center, will not go forward.
Now, I want to be clear as well that for all of the doubts that exist – and we know there are many – there will be challenges in the days to come. We expect that. I expect that and I think everybody does. But despite that, this plan has a chance to work. We know that Russia has stood up in the person of the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and said that Assad has agreed to this plan, and they have obviously joined us in accepting responsibility for trying to put this into place. And we know that in Syria, as writ large, the desire for an end to the killing and the suffering is widespread, so there are a lot of people who will welcome an Eid gift of the moment of moving back from the day – daily destruction and inhumanity that has characterized Syria for the last five years.
We know that the international community, including leading Arab countries – Turkey, Iran, Russia, Europe, and the United States together – have all come together on a set of principles aimed at reducing the violence and making possible a Syrian-led political transition. And we know that the cessation of hostilities that went into effect last February did provide a glimpse of what a better future could look like. People returned to the streets for a while, went to cafes. They were able to even demonstrate on occasion. And they were able to go to work and attend school without fear until people resorted back to the habits that we’re trying to end.
Over the weekend, I read a story that referred to the U.S.-Russia plan as, quote, “flawed and full of caveats.” And I have to say to all of you, sure, this is less than perfect. This is perhaps one of the most complicated places in the world. But let me ask you: Flawed compared to what? Compared to nothing? Compared to daily violence that absolutely guarantees a future of even more violence and possible sectarian explosion in the region? What we have been seeing in Syria day after day, week after week, month after month is a lot worse than flawed, and it has been, it remains a profound human tragedy and a stain on the international community’s ability to be able to bring people to a table to try to negotiate outcome for something where everybody knows there is no military solution. There’s just escalation if kinetic is the route people choose to go.
Now, I’ve been in public life for more than four decades now, and I have never seen a more complicated or entangled political and military, sectarian, somewhat religiously-overtoned issue than what exists in Syria today. There are a bunch of wars going on, a bunch of different tensions between people, and you can cite them, whether it’s Kurd and Turkey or Kurd and Kurd or Sunni/Shia or Assad versus or others versus Assad or countries that don’t get along with each other in the region. This is a very toxic mix of interests and of agenda.
So this catastrophe developed step by step, folks. And it can only be reversed on a step-by-step basis. The U.S.-Russia plan is designed to advance the process of trying to reduce the violence so that we can get people to a table where they don’t just point to the bombs that are dropping on them which prevent from negotiating or the food that is being prevented – and medicine – from being delivered which prevents them from negotiating. This is the best thing we could think of, and President Obama has gone the extra mile here to try to find a way to see if we can bring people to the table, then end the violence while they go to the table to try to settle this.
We believe that this is the only realistic and possible solution to this conflict, is ultimately a political outcome. I urge all the parties to support it, because it may be the last chance that one has to save a united Syria.
So I thank you and I’d be pleased to respond to a couple questions.
MR KIRBY: We’ll start with Matt. We got time for two, folks. Matt, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You probably saw or heard President Assad’s comments this morning – at least from earlier today – in which he said that he was going to continue to strike at terrorists wherever they were and drive them out of the country. Given that, and the fact that from what you just said it appears that his air forces are not grounded for the next seven days, that they will be able to continue operations, how exactly are you going to gauge this reduction in violence that you’re trying to achieve when they – and I think it’s a when rather than an if – when they continue attacks on Nusrah – that they say are on al-Nusrah but which you have said in the past are really against the opposition? How do you gauge that reduction of violence? And if you can’t do that, I’m not sure – can you explain how the next seven days are supposed to be different from the last seven months? And then —
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah —
QUESTION: — if you get – if you are able to gauge a reduction in violence, it’s okay and the JIC gets set up, what is the consequence for a violation after that period? Is it just that the JIC dissolves and there is no more U.S.-Russia cooperation? Thanks.
SECRETARY KERRY: If what?
QUESTION: If there is a – supposing you get the seven days of reduced violence and the JIC gets set up, and then there is violation after that, from the government or – government side, is the only consequence that the JIC gets dissolved?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. Well, let me go to – let me go through each of those. First of all, it is a fact that under this agreement, except in the area that we have agreed on with the map, which is where the opposition is – and if Nusrah happens to be there, then Nusrah is included – that Assad is not supposed to be bombing the opposition because there is a ceasefire. Now, he is allowed and will be able outside of that area after – if the JIC gets set up – to target Nusrah, but that will be on strikes that are agreed upon with Russia and the United States in order to go after them. So the issue is the seven days, which you’ve raised. And during these seven days, there is a demand that there be a reduced level of violence, and calm, and access. And that is to the satisfaction of each of the parties: satisfaction of Russia, satisfaction of the United States.
So yes, there’s some discretion in that. And if we deem that Assad is using these days in order to continue the practice that I just cited of pretending to go after Nusrah but bombing the opposition, we don’t have seven days of calm, folks. And so Russia here plays the critical role. Russia needs to make it absolutely clear to him that they want the seven days and that he needs to abide by that. And if we have serious questions about it, we’ll raise it with them, and we will not have seven days of consecutive calm and therefore we will not get to the joint implementation center.
Now, if we get to the joint – and again, I want to repeat: Russia said Assad has agreed to this ceasefire and he has agreed to the terms of this agreement. So we need to see that, and we will measure that over the course of the next days.
And finally, once the JIC, the joint implementation center is working and functional, then there is a method for resolving within the JIC these questions about a violation and what has happened. And it will not terminate it automatically immediately; that process can play out. But at any time – and there is a clear clause in the agreement – that either party believes this is being violated and the other side is not acting in good faith, either party has the ability to simply withdraw without – and terminate the arrangement.
So there has to be a display of earnest, good-faith effort to try to make this work, and we will judge that very quickly, I think. I mean, already our teams are continuing the efforts within the Geneva cell, which has already been established. I’m told the meetings today were very productive, very professional, very constructive, and they’re talking about how they proceed in the next days. And we will see what happens with respect to the next seven days. But Russia has a very clear responsibility; we also have a very clear responsibility with respect to the opposition, and we’ve been having those discussions with the opposition. This is a time for them to separate from Nusrah and to make it clear that they do believe in trying to put to test the political process. This is a test. Can you get to Geneva, can you put together a legitimate political negotiation, which can only happen in the context of a reduction in the level of violence? And we’ll see where it goes.
We’re going to measure it every single day and we’ll see where we are. It’s certainly too early to make that measurement today. It’s only a matter of a few hours.
MR KIRBY: Last question for the Secretary goes to Barbara.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just, I wanted to ask you a bit more about separating between al-Nusrah and the opposition. You said there would be zones that have been set up, but the fact is that there is a lot of intertwining between opposition groups and al-Nusrah and these are the most effective military alliances. So what steps will be taken to persuade the opposition to pull back from that?
And just with regards to what you were saying about the test of the political process, and it’s related to this question of the opposition – I mean, does this arrangement – do you sort of accept the idea that Syrian regime will go into talks in a stronger position? Because if the U.S. and Russia join together to hit the Syrian regime’s most effective enemies – that’s ISIS and al-Nusrah – and at the same time the opposition holds its fire, that will in effect be the result of what – how this ceasefire ends up.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s a good question, and let me be very clear in my answer to the second part of it when I come to it. But first, let me just say that in terms of the separation, you’re absolutely correct that in some places there has been what people have been referring to as marbleization of opposition with al-Nusrah, and yes, al-Nusrah has been, quote, “effective,” but al-Nusrah is al-Qaida. Al-Nusrah is a sworn enemy of the United States of America and of the Western world, of the allies, and of others in the region. And they have an external plotting entity that is plotting as I speak for attacks against some of our allies, friends, and ourselves.
So we cannot abide by – and President Obama has made it very clear – we can’t somehow adopt the moral hazard of just because they fight fiercely say, oh, we’re going to have – somehow allow al-Qaida to be the tip of our spear with respect to Assad. That would be crazy, and ultimately self-destructive because you’re going to have to turn around and deal with it. And it might even get out of control and produce something where you have a level of extremism and a level of terror and of the attraction of terrorists that you actually make matters worse in Europe, in the region, and elsewhere.
So we’re not going there. That is exactly why the President thought it was worthwhile making it clear to Nusrah, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and making it clear to Daesh, they’re outside of this and they are outside of this cessation.
Now, it is not advisable for the opposition, who have their support from some of the countries that are threatened by Nusrah, to be playing with Nusrah on an ongoing basis. That is a losing proposition. Because if we get the process moving forward adequately, it is clear that Russia and the United States are determined to take on terrorists because we both have – we have a mutual interest in doing that, and in terminating ISIL/ Daesh, as fast as possible.
So I believe that the opposition understands this and I don’t believe that Assad is sort of advantaged from that position. Why do I not believe that? Because if the talks fail, then it is going to go back to an increased effort against Assad, an increased amount of weapons, an increased amount of fighting, and Syria goes to an even darker place, and we can’t stop that. That’s what we’ve told the Russians. That’s what we’ve told people in the region – that the danger of where Syria is going is that it gets beyond the ability to create a united and hold together a united and nonsectarian and a secular Syria which can pull itself together and hold itself together.
And so Russia actually has an interest in not seeing this go there, and Assad has an interest in not seeing this go there. And if the talks fail – if there’s an inability to pull together over a period of time – by the way, it’s not going to happen overnight. That’s a long and difficult negotiation. But if there is a way to find a way forward to have a political resolution here, that is the best way for everybody to push back against the terrorists and to hold together a united Syria.
And if – and so the basic equation confronting Assad doesn’t change because he holds some new territory in the north of Aleppo or the south of Aleppo or somewhere else. It doesn’t change. So what? He holds it. The fundamental issue is still going to be: How do you make peace? How do you unite Syria? How do you bring these people together no matter where they are and stop the fighting, except against the hardcore terrorists who have been designated?
So I believe that there is no great advantage. As we’ve seen for three and a half years, everybody is always fighting for that last moment of advantage. And then you have a ceasefire. Does the fundamental equation change? No, not in the least. And I don’t believe it will now. So I don’t believe that they go in. The same fundamental challenge politically exists no matter where Assad is at this point. Now, it may be harder for Russia or Iran or somebody to persuade Assad to take steps; but if this war is going to end, he’s going to need to take steps. And I believe President Putin and others in the region understand that.
Now, with respect to Syria regime – oh, that answers the second part of the question. So —
QUESTION: Can you clarify something just super quick, Mr. Secretary? You said that it’s not advisable to the opposition to be playing with Nusrah; it’s a losing proposition because of their allies that are supporting them, but also because they know that you’re looking to take – the opposition understands that you’re looking to take on terror groups. Are you suggesting that if these marbleization doesn’t – if they don’t separate themselves, that they could get caught in the crossfire?
SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve made it very, very clear. And no, we’re going to be very careful in dealing with Nusrah in ways that the joint implementation group will allow us to do. But if they join with Nusrah in offensive action and attacks, then they’ve made a choice to be with Nusrah and then they clearly run the risk.
MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
 The following information is attributable to Spokesperson John Kirby: “We have seen reports, based on the Secretary’s comments — and those of the spokesperson — this afternoon, that the U.S. and Russia could approve of strikes by the Syrian regime. This is incorrect. To clarify: the arrangement announced last week makes no provision whatsoever for the US and Russia to approve strikes by the Syrian regime, and this is not something we could ever envision doing. A primary purpose of this agreement, from our perspective, is to prevent the Syrian regime air force from flying or striking in any areas in which the opposition or Nusra are present. The purpose of the JIC, if and when it is established, would be to coordinate military action between the US and Russia, not for any other party.”
U.S Department of State,