In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya from Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ramped up his criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling him “the single biggest magnet for terrorists” and the only person who stands in the way of peace and the future of Syria.
Full transcription of the interview with Al Arabiya’s Rima Maktabi:
QUESTION: Hello, and welcome to this exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry on Al Arabiya. Thank you so much for this interview.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure, happy to be with you.
QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, you’ve just come from Montreux. So when will we see this new Syrian governing body with all Assad’s powers transferred to it?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, this is a very difficult negotiation, obviously. Yesterday, you had 40 countries and organizations, all of which with the exception of one were talking about a transition government and the need to have a change in Syria. The one that refused to talk about it is obviously the Assad regime. So everybody understands this is going to be a painstaking, difficult negotiation. But in the end, because the Geneva I communique requires a transition government by mutual consent, there is no way that the opposition is ever going to consent to Assad being part of that future.
So if Syria is going to find a political solution, it has to find it through a transition government, and Assad needs to put Syria in front of Assad. Assad – this should not be about one man, one family. This should be about all of the people of Syria and the future of Syria. And Assad right now is the one person who stands in the way of peace and of the future for Syria.
QUESTION: You can say the reverse: It’s not only about Assad; it’s about the Alawite minority, it’s about the Assad regime. If the opposition won’t agree to a government with Assad inside, Assad will not agree to the government with --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but you see, that’s not – the fact is that Assad has to decide that he is prepared to put the future of Syria ahead of himself. Everybody is prepared to protect the Alawite. Everybody is prepared to protect the institutions of the state of Syria. Nobody is talking about destroying the institutions. People want the government to be whole. They want the capacity of Syria to stay whole and to stay secular and to be pluralistic and to protect all minorities.
So Assad – people within the Assad regime who don’t have blood on their hands could clearly continue to be part of a governing transition process as long as they receive the consent of the other side, and vice versa. The other side has to receive the consent of the – of people within the regime.
But the key here is for people to find the personalities in Syria – and they exist – that everybody respects, people who have government experience, people who have business experience, people who are well known and respected, people who have the ability to be able to look beyond sectarian divisions and be able to heal the wounds of Syria.
QUESTION: So there is an alternative to Assad?
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, there is.
QUESTION: Is he ready and open to (inaudible)?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously, he’s not ready, no. He’s not ready at this point in time. But I think over time, providing Russia, the Saudi Arabians, the Turks, the Qataris, the Jordanians, the countries in the region, and even perhaps Iran could contribute to a reasonable process by which Syria is protected and the people of Syria are protected.
But the way it’s going now, you have one man fighting to hold on to power; directing all of the people, the army, and the security forces of Syria; dropping bombs on innocent people; killing children, women, university students, doctors; using Scud missiles against innocent people; using gas against his own people. This is a man who has committed war crimes and still somehow wants to claim legitimacy to be able to govern the country. It’s beyond my understanding of the people of Syria that I’ve met through history that they would want or ever cede legitimacy to somebody who is engaged in the activities that he has engaged in.
QUESTION: How will you engage Iran? It’s – Iran was not present in Geneva II. President Rouhani’s statement today was all about extremist groups. He totally overlooked the presence of the Revolutionary Guard in Syria, didn’t even come close to mentioning Hezbollah fighting in Syria. How will you engage Iran?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Iran has to be engaged realistically and on a basis of honesty. Iran understands that the Geneva I communique calls for a transition government with full executive authority by mutual consent. Iran could have come to Geneva, but they refused to embrace that standard. So what Iran needs to do is either show that it’s more than words, that its actions are willing to join the international community, or it will be very difficult to have Iran be part of this.
But Iran clearly has an impact. Iran has IRGC personnel on the ground in Syria conducting military affairs. Iran is the principal supporter of its client, the terrorist organization called Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not just in Lebanon; Hezbollah is fighting in Syria. Hezbollah is the principal difference in the fighting that has taken place on the ground in Syria.
QUESTION: They say they are protecting the Shiites, the Alawites, and probably --
SECRETARY KERRY: The way to protect the --
QUESTION: -- this is the most – this is the first statement we – on high level that we hear about the minorities. Are you going to send international troops to protect minorities in Syria? How are you going to do it within Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: If peace could be made in Syria, if there is a peace agreement, there are many countries that have already offered to step up and be peacekeepers in the new Syria. There is no question but that we are all prepared to help provide protection for all of the minorities. I say to any of the Alawite who are fighting with the belief that somehow only Assad can protect them: That is not true. Assad is putting them at risk today. Assad is putting all of Syria at risk today. Assad is responsible for the potential disintegration of Syria. And the way – and Assad is the single biggest magnet for terrorists there is. He is a one-man super-magnet for terrorism.
QUESTION: So you would send American troops to protect the minorities?
SECRETARY KERRY: That is not what I said. I don’t think it would be appropriate. I don’t think anybody believes that American troops should be on the ground. But there are many countries whose troops could be accepted and that would be willing to be able to be there as peacekeepers. I have no question of that.
QUESTION: You asked the FSA to fight al-Qaida groups in Syria and al-Qaida affiliate groups. But New York Times and Wall Street Journal mentioned that Western agencies are dealing with the Assad security apparatus to also coordinate over European fighters who are fighting with al-Qaida affiliated group. We are confused here. Is Assad your partner in fighting extremists?
SECRETARY KERRY: No.
QUESTION: Or is it FSA?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know what disinformation that is. But we are not coordinating with Assad. We are not working with Assad. Assad is not the protector against terrorists. Assad is the magnet for terrorists. Assad is the single biggest attraction for terrorists. Before Assad started killing his own people, these terrorists were not in Syria.
QUESTION: What about your European allies?
SECRETARY KERRY: And the fact is that more and more terrorists keep coming because Assad keeps killing and Assad keeps directing his people to engage against innocent civilians. And when people see innocent people being killed in the broad numbers that they are on a sectarian basis, which is what he is doing, then that attracts the most radical of those sectarian parties.
QUESTION: What about your European partners? Are they dealing with the security apparatus?
SECRETARY KERRY: I have no knowledge of it. I honestly don’t know.
QUESTION: Will you arm the FSA in its fight with the al-Qaida groups?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, not in the current circumstances, obviously. But if we had a transition government, and if the transition government was moving towards a democratic process where the people of Syria can choose their leadership for the future, it is conceivable that in those circumstances, the Free Syrian Army would become an instrument against the radical extremist elements.
QUESTION: So they will be left alone to fight now?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. The Free Syrian Army is currently fighting at the direction of Assad against its own people, and so the opposition is clearly fighting against them. What I’m talking about is what is possible if you made peace. I believe that a peace can protect all of the minorities – Druze, Christian, Ismaili, the Alawite – all of them could be protected, and you can have a pluralistic Syria in which minority rights of all people are protected. And if you have a transition government with full executive authority by mutual consent, then the Free Syrian Army does not have to be fighting its own people; it can direct its attention against the radical extremists.
QUESTION: That’s clear. Probably you’re perceived one of the most ambitious foreign ministers for the U.S. You want to bring a century-old peace process back on track, put the Syrians together and get a resolution, and also strike a deal with Iran. So for the coming few questions, it will be really passing the insecurities and the skeptics of the GCC and the Arab world.
SECRETARY KERRY: Sure.
QUESTION: So you are perceived as a country that for 40 years were against Iran, you had allies in the region that helped you in that, and now you left them in the dark, struck a deal with Iran.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I --
QUESTION: The deal is not even clear or very – or made public with its details and specifics.
SECRETARY KERRY: Actually, the deal, Rima, could not be more clear, and we have not left anybody in the dark.
SECRETARY KERRY: We are extremely diligent in working with our friends in the region. I have just made, I don’t know, maybe my 14th – 20th trip to the region, many of which were to Israel, Jordan, to the West Bank, to the Palestinian territories. But sometimes, I’ve traveled exclusively just to the Emirates or just to Saudi Arabia or to one of the countries in the region. And the reason is because we have been extremely energized in making certain that our friends know exactly what we’re doing. We have briefed all of our friends in the region. We are talking with Iran about a nuclear program, that’s all. We are trying to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon which would change the balance of power in the region.
What we are doing is profoundly in the interests of our friends in the region. I am absolutely certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey – all of the countries in the region are safer today from the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon than they were before we made the agreement that we made.
Now, under the agreement we made, Iran has to undo all of its 20 percent enriched uranium. They have to take it to zero. That makes everybody safer. They have to limit their stock of 3.5 percent uranium. That makes people safer. The stock cannot grow.
QUESTION: They will remain a nuclear-capable country.
SECRETARY KERRY: But they cannot finish the Arak reactor during the time of this preliminary first step. They have to have inspections.
QUESTION: The Iranian deputy foreign minister said --
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just finish.
QUESTION: -- it will take a day to resume enrichment (inaudible).
SECRETARY KERRY: They have to have inspections every day of Fordow. They have to have inspections every day in Natanz. We didn't have that before we made this agreement. Now, yeah, if they broke out – if they decided they’re going to throw this agreement away and go start enrichment again, sure, they can turn around. But guess what? If they do that, then the military option that is available to the United States is ready and prepared to do what it would have to do. So I don’t think that would last very long. I don’t think that’s a wise choice for Iran. The fact is that the United States – the President of the United States has made it clear: Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.
Now let me just finish. We have kept all of our friends in the region completely apprised of this. They know exactly what we’re doing. We will brief them regularly. We will not make a bad deal. A bad deal is worse than no deal, and we won’t do that. But we are convinced that we are on the right track because clearly – clearly – the world would rather see us settle this peacefully rather than have to have a military confrontation.
QUESTION: Mr. Kerry, for the GCC countries it’s the same Iranian regime, and for the GCC countries they don’t want to see a nuclear Iran. But they also see Iran that meddles in Bahrain affairs, has Hezbollah in Lebanon.
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely.
QUESTION: Has Hezbollah in Syria. Destabilizes some of Yemen. All the Iranian ambitions in the region, is this okay with the U.S. as long as Iran is not nuclear?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. And we’ve made that clear. Of course it’s not okay.
QUESTION: How will you solve it?
SECRETARY KERRY: Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran is sponsoring Hezbollah. Right now, Hezbollah is engaged in the violence of Syria. We find that very objectionable. And there are other ways in which Iran is engaged in support for terror within the region. We don’t agree with that. No, we don’t. Nor do our friends.
But you have to take one step at a time. This is diplomacy, and we are working through the diplomatic process to end a significant threat that, if it isn’t ended, could create a confrontation within the region, will certainly see other states seek nuclear weapons, and you would have a far more dangerous Middle East than you have already today. So one step at a time. We are focused on the first step, which is the nuclear program. We are prepared to engage with Iran on the other issues.
QUESTION: Well, then you would ask them to disarm Hezbollah, for example?
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely. We believe they should stop supporting Hezbollah completely and totally. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and they should not support terrorism in the region. End of issue.
QUESTION: Okay. If things are positive, the deal works, will you withdraw your naval forces from the Gulf waters? Why do you need them if things are okay with Iran?
SECRETARY KERRY: Because there are many issues, unfortunately. We’re fighting al-Qaida, we’re dealing with problems in Yemen, with uncertainties in other parts of the region. The United States will do what is necessary to stand up for the freedom of navigation, for the free movement of oil and products in the region. We will stand up for our friends in the region who are threatened, and we will continue to have a presence in the Middle East for as far as I can see in the foreseeable future. But we will continue to work for peace. That’s why we are also working in the Middle East peace process.
Everywhere I go in the world, wherever I go, or when people come to see me in Washington, almost the first thing out of their mouths is: What can you do about making peace between Israel and Palestine?
SECRETARY KERRY: This has confounded people for ages. And if we don’t succeed in making peace, the risks for everybody are much greater – the risk of confrontation, the risk of violence, the risk of continued conflict. Another generation. Israelis threatened by rockets that come from Gaza and from other places. Those are things that we’re unwilling to live with on an ongoing basis. So --
QUESTION: I understood that in a month you would announce the framework between the Palestinian and Israelis?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t know if it’s in a month or in --
QUESTION: So we heard.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not sure when it will be. It will be when we’re finished with the work we have to do to get there. We’re still negotiating. We’re working in good faith with both of the parties. The leaders have been very, very committed to this process. My hope is we can achieve the framework for final status negotiations. But it’s very, very difficult and we have a lot of work to do.
QUESTION: Most Arabs and Palestinians don’t understand what this framework agreement is. What is it?
SECRETARY KERRY: The framework agreement would be the best thinking of both parties as to what the endgame of a peace agreement could look like and what they would agree to as a matter of principles as to how they would negotiate towards that endgame final status agreement.
So it could help create a guideline, if you will, a roadmap that takes you to not an interim place – we don’t want an interim agreement – but to a final status agreement where you have end of conflict, end of claims, there’s a Palestinian state, there’s an end of occupation, and security for Israel is clear, and people can see the future. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
QUESTION: So when will you invite Abu Mazen and Netanyahu to a summit like Camp David? When you have a date?
SECRETARY KERRY: At the appropriate time, perhaps.
QUESTION: Why are you so hopeful? It’s the Middle East.
SECRETARY KERRY: It is the Middle East, but I’m an optimist. Why am I so hopeful? I’m hopeful because I think the downside of not having peace is so unacceptable, is so dangerous for everybody, that I can’t help but believe that people will choose a wiser course and try to find a solution.
SECRETARY KERRY: I hope soon. The best we can do is work for soon.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for this interview. Thanks a lot. So we were with an exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry. Thanks for watching.SHOW MORE