By John Kerry, US Secretary of State
(United Nations, New York City, September 30, 2015) — Mr. President, thank you very much and thank you for the chance to address this council, to all the colleagues on the Security Council. I appreciate the fact that Russia’s presidency has chosen to focus on this issue, and I welcome the opportunity to talk about the urgent challenge of countering terrorism in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.
This is a topic that the council has explored many times. Going back to the 9/11 attacks and even before, we have come together fairly often to condemn terrorism and also to take concerted action to counter violent extremist organizations. So this is not a debate about goals, I don’t think. We all oppose the aggressive ambitions of such organizations as ISIL, al-Qaida, and groups that initiate or that are imitating them or affiliated with them. We all oppose the atrocities that they commit, and we all want to end the suffering that they continue to inflict.
So there’s no debate about that. The question that we face is: How do you best do it? There are basic principles that we believe should guide our strategy. First, in confronting terrorism, we have to take a comprehensive approach. That was quite eloquently talked about by our heads of state at the Countering Violent Extremism Summit that President Obama hosted. There was a great deal of discussion. I thought there were some very articulate statements about how one approaches the root causes. We have to deny safe haven, disrupt the flow of foreign fighters, block access to financing, and expose the lies that terrorist groups propagate – and that is particularly challenging in this world of constant media, constant access, 24/7/365. We’re living in a very different world, and terrorists have learned how to exploit that media in all kinds of ways.
We also need to exert pressure in support of peace, perhaps one of the most important components of our responsibility in places such as Libya, for instance, where instability feeds the kind of chaos and fear in which extremist organizations thrive – and we see that now with the presence of ISIL in Libya.
So this is the fundamental strategy that we’ve laid out for countering violent extremism. We’ve adopted this strategy. We’re strongly engaged in implementing it. We welcome the large number of nations that have joined as international actors in the counter-ISIL coalition and the Global Counterterrorism Forum and other regional organizations. But obviously, more needs to be done. We’ve been able to counter some foreign fighters and kept them from traveling, but still too many have been able to travel and still been able to reach the destination. We’ve been able to slow down and stop some elements of the financing, but still there’s too much money that still is able to reach terrorist activities and actors.
So our goal is to take urgent actions against immediate threats while also facing up to longer-term measures that prevent the recruitment of future generations of terrorists and improve governance and enhance economic opportunities so that radicalization is less likely. This is an enormous challenge for all of us; we know it. There are countless countries where 60, 65 percent of the population in some cases are under the age of 30, under the age of 25, the vast majority, under the age of 18 in majority in many countries. And unless they find opportunity and options, their minds will be stolen; their opportunities will be robbed forever by bad actors who grab them in that vacuum.
We also need to improve governance and enhance economic opportunity so that radicalization is less likely. Too many places still see too much corruption, and corruption robs the populations of their due and of their possibilities.
In each of these areas, we intend to work hard with all of you and with others not here to improve our chance for success by working with the concerned elements of civil society, including NGOs, religious leaders, and the private sector. And meanwhile, we have to continue our efforts to alleviate the immediate hardships that terrorists are causing. While we’ve been pushing humanitarian relief into areas, the international community absolutely has to do more. We are staring at a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding not in one or two places, but in multiple places, simultaneously.
And the humanitarian disaster that we are witnessing in and of itself should be enough reason to take on ISIL. And this has been a major topic of our discussions here over these past days, but it has to remain a core concern for all of us in the weeks to come. Every nation can do more. Two UN Security Council resolutions – 2139 and 2165 – clearly require – and everyone around this table voted for them – clearly require humanitarian access to besieged areas, and they call for an end to barrel bombs, specifically, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war.
Now, I’d like to add a few thoughts about Syria, specifically, ISIL and Russia. The United States supports any genuine effort to fight ISIL and al-Qaida-affiliated groups, especially al-Nusrah. If Russia’s recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat that organization, then we are prepared to welcome those efforts and to find a way to de-conflict our operations and thereby multiply the military pressure on ISIL and affiliated groups. But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad. Moreover, we have also made clear that we would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaida-affiliated targets are not operating. Strikes of that kind would question Russia’s real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.
Now, we have informed Russia that we are prepared to hold these de-confliction talks as early as possible – this week. But let me be clear: The United States and the coalition will continue our ongoing air operations as we have from the very beginning. We have conducted a number of strikes against ISIL targets in Syria over the past 24 hours, including just an hour ago, and these strikes will continue. Let me be clear: The coalition that we have built, more than 60 countries strong, has been taking on ISIL for more than a year – by liberating Sinjar Mountain, liberating Kobani, liberating Tikrit, where now more than 100,000 residents have been able to return to their homes and resume their lives; defending Mosul Dam, defending Haditha; protecting Baghdad, rescuing endangered minorities; killing ISIL leaders and facilitators; and taking away the entire northern border of Syria for ISIL east of the Euphrates River.
At the same time, we have mounted a comprehensive campaign to cut terrorist financing, curb recruitment of foreign fighters, and expose the lies that ISIL is perpetrating. Today, as we speak, south of Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga are heroically liberating villages from ISIL under the cover of coalition airstrikes. In addition, we continue to admire the courage and the resilience that has been demonstrated for four long years of struggle by the legitimate opposition to Assad.
Let me remind this council that coalition air operations are grounded in well-established military procedures, firmly based in international law, and the requests of neighboring states for collective self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter. That foundation has not changed, and we will continue our mission with the full sanction of international law.
Pursuant to these procedures in Syria over the past year, the coalition has now conducted nearly 3,000 airstrikes against ISIL targets, and we are now in position with France, Australia, Canada, Turkey, and other coalition partners joining the campaign, to dramatically accelerate our efforts. This is what we will do. Over the coming weeks we will be continuing our flights out of Incirlik base in Turkey to apply constant pressure on strategic areas held by ISIL in northwest Syria.
We will also be sustaining our support to anti-ISIL fighters in northeast Syria. These efforts will put greater pressure on ISIL’s operational areas, and we will ensure through precision airstrikes that ISIL leaders do not have any sanctuary anywhere on the ground in Syria.
So ISIL will soon face increasing pressure from multiple directions across the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. But as we have said from the start and as the Geneva communique codified, this fight cannot be won in the military sphere. It will require a political solution for the crisis of Syria. One thing is certain: The vast majority of states around this table know that the ISIL forces, ISIL itself, cannot be defeated as long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria. It cannot happen by definition of the lines of this battle. It cannot happen because of who has lined up with whom and because of the nature of these protagonists.
And the reason for that is defined in the beginning by how this fight itself began. This fight began when young people, young Syrians looking for a future, wanting nothing more than opportunity and jobs and education, when they went out to demonstrate for the future and to claim the aspirations of young people, and Assad sent his thugs out to beat him – beat them up. The parents were outraged by the fact that their children, demonstrating peacefully, were beaten up. And they went out with their kids and they were met with bullets.
That is how this whole thing began – people in a country looking for a future who were instead met with repression, with torture, with gassing, with barrel bombs. Assad will never be accepted by those that he has harmed. Never possible to become a legitimate leader in the future. Never possible to lead a reconciliation nor a unification of a country. That could not happen until he makes clear his willingness to actually heal the nation, end the war, and decline to be part of the long-term future.
Today we must be focused on finding a solution that will stop the killing and lay the groundwork for a government that the Syrian people themselves can support. We know that the terrorists can neither unite the country nor govern it. We know that Assad can neither unite the country nor govern it. Neither extreme offers the solution that we need and want. What is more, our ability to develop a credible international political process would be a farce from the beginning – incredible enough that it won’t stop people from fighting – if it were perceived as a way to extend or strengthen Assad’s hold on power.
As President Obama said on Monday, “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a simple return to the pre-war status quo.”
My colleagues, the Government of Russia has argued that we must support Assad in order to defeat ISIL. But the reality is that Assad has rarely chosen himself to fight ISIL. As the terrorists made inroads throughout large swaths of Syria and Iraq, raping, enslaving, and murdering civilians along the way, the Syrian regime didn’t try to stop them. Instead, it focused all of its military power on moderate opposition groups who were fighting for a voice in Syria.
Make no mistake, the answer to the Syrian civil war cannot be found in a military alliance with Assad. But I am convinced that it can be found. It can be found through a broadly supported diplomatic initiative aimed at a negotiated political transition – a transition that has been accepted by the Security Council, accepted by participants of the Perm 5 – consistent with the Geneva Communique, which would unite all Syrians who reject dictatorship and terrorism and want to build a stable and united society.
So in conclusion, I call on all concerned governments – including Russia, including Syria – to support a UN initiative to broker a political transition. Further delay is unconscionable. The opportunity is before us. And if we can succeed in marginalizing the terrorists in Syria and in bringing that country together, we can, all of us together, do exactly what this was set up to do, this Security Council and this institution. We can strike a huge blow against violent extremism not only in Syria – also in Iraq, across the Middle East, and around the world. And nothing would be more in keeping with the high purpose for which this Council was created 70 years ago. And nothing would better serve the interests of the people that all of us represent.
I hope we can achieve that. Thank you.