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John Kerry Testifies on Anti-ISIS Strategy

Aired September 17, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You're watching Secretary of State John Kerry testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the Obama administration's strategy to fight the terrorists of ISIS. We are going to stick with this.

Let's listen.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: But we need to move and to move rapidly because of the urgency of this danger.



Secretary Kerry, I was struck by the language in your opening statement. ISIL must be defeated, period, end of story and, collectively, we will be measured by how we carry out this mission.

From a military perspective, the plan of carrying out this mission involves the combination of Iraqi forces in Iraq, greater -- from the military perspective, more capacity, of course the Kurds, moderate rebels in Syria, and American airpower, no combat boots on the ground on the part of the United States.

But over the last few days, since the president's made that announcement, there's been real doubts expressed by military experts over that -- whether that strategy will achieve what you have defined as our goal.

"The Washington Post" reported that the top U.S. commander in the Middle East advised the president that we needed a modest contingent of American troops, especially special operation forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs yesterday in the Armed Services Committee said that if local forces don't work, he would recommend U.S. ground troops potentially to the president.

So, my question is, if it becomes clear that the only way to achieve the defeat of ISIL, period, end of story, is for the engagement of American ground troops, will that be something the president will consider at that time?

KERRY: The president will not put American ground troops into Iraq. And the president made it clear again today in a statement that he made at CENTCOM that America can make a decisive -- I'm quoting the president -- "We can make a decisive difference, but I want to be clear. The troops that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission."

We believe -- and we're not going deal with hypotheticals about what happens if and this and this. We believe there are any number of options as to how one can guarantee the effect on ISIL long before you were to get to the hypothetical conversation about Americans.

So, I understand the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose job it is to look at it from his perspective in terms of his military and his judgment. But the president has made a judgment as commander in chief that that's not in the cards, and that's where we are.

RUBIO: So even if the only way -- if the military experts --


KERRY: I'm not going to deal with a hypothetical.


RUBIO: Well, it's not a hypothetical. It's actually -- it appears to be -- quite frankly, we're relying on a military strategy built on rebels who at this point are under assault not just by ISIL, but by the Assad regime, by local Iraqi forces, of which testimony say up to half are incapable of fighting at this stage, and Kurds that have been great fighters, but are only willing to protect their territory.

This is a very clearly stated goal. And the reason why it's not a hypothetical is, there may come a point where what you're saying is that if the only thing that can solve the problem is U.S. combat forces, we're not going to do that, and ISIL gets to stay.

KERRY: But I think we are so far away from that quote being the only way and hypothetical, honestly --

RUBIO: Then let me ask you this.

KERRY: No, let me just -- let me just finish that question.

I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, but you're presuming that Iran and Syria don't have any capacity to take on ISIL. I mean, who knows? I'm not going to get -- I don't know what's going to happen here. Let's start down this road --


RUBIO: Well, let me ask you about that then. So, what you are saying now is that there is the opportunity, the potential that the U.S. would be coordinating with Iran?

KERRY: No, I never said anything about coordinating. If we're failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make. You prepositioned this on the notion we're failing. I don't believe

we're going to fail. And we're not setting out --


RUBIO: I didn't preposition --


KERRY: Yes, you did. You said if we fail.


RUBIO: Well, again, I will go back to the report.

I mean, a number of people, including former Defense Secretary Gates, has expressed his -- his belief that it's not possible. A number of highly qualified military experts have said they do not believe that the goal you have stated in your opening statement is achievable without a U.S. presence.

KERRY: There are lots of possibilities. There are lots of possibilities between here and there.

The president has said he is not going to put American --

RUBIO: Well, you mentioned Iran. And Iran yesterday said that not that it was on the sidelines of these negotiations. They claim that the U.S. ambassador in Iraq reached out to the Iranian ambassador in Iraq and asked to discuss some sort of level of coordination.

And the Iranians already gave us our answer. You said you were open to some sort of dialogue with them if it was -- had any sort of promise to be productive. He's already answered the question. He says he sees no point in coordinating with a country whose hands are dirty. That's what he said about us. He says, quite frankly, that -- he said this, not me, please. He says that you're lying, that we did not exclude them from the talks to join the coalition. They excluded themselves, that they refused to participate.

And he went on to say that, in Iraq, the U.S. goal is to turn it into a playground where we can enter freely and bomb at will.

I would just say that any hopes of coordinating with Iran, who I consider to be just as evil as ISIS, is something that I would discourage for a number of different reasons.

But I want to just ask you this one more question. And it has to do with the rebels in Syria. Later today, Ambassador Ford is going to testify that the greatest enemy that the moderate opposition faces is the Assad regime. In fact, there are credible reports today that the Assad regime has stepped up its targeting of moderate rebel or non- ISIS rebel forces, in the hopes of wiping them out so that they, the Assad regime, will be the only alternative left in Syria.

If we are interested in supporting the moderate rebels, will it not require us to protect them from Syrian as well, from the Assad regime as well, if we hope that they can develop into a credible fighting force?

KERRY: ISIL first, that's our policy.

RUBIO: Well, but Ambassador Ford is going to testify later today that the biggest enemy they face is the Assad regime bombing them. And there are reports today, credible reports, that Assad has stepped up his campaign attacking these moderate rebels. They may not be there for us to arm.

KERRY: That's not our judgment, but we obviously recognize that there are serious challenges with the Assad regime.

And our policy has not changed of opposing the Assad regime and helping the moderate opposition. And in classified forum, I think we have a better opportunity to discuss what we're doing additionally in order to do that.

MENENDEZ: Senator Shaheen.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being here and for all of your tireless efforts to address the ISIS threat.

That is a threat that I believe was really brought home to the American people by the barbarous and heinous murders of jams and Steven Sotloff. And, as you may know, Jim Foley grew up in New Hampshire and Steven Sotloff went to prep school there. And so they both have ties to my state.

And I think people in New Hampshire and across the country really felt very personally those murders. I appreciate -- and I said this yesterday at the Armed Services hearing with General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel -- that I appreciate the efforts of our men and women in the military to make a rescue attempt to free those, James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the other Americans being held hostage.

But I have been very troubled by the comments from the Foley family that have been reported about their concern that they did not -- were not communicated with and did not have support from our government as they were trying to deal with the hostage situation for their son.

And I wonder if you could -- well, let me rephrase this. I hope that post the murders that this administration and future administrations will seriously reassess what can better be done to support families who are dealing with this kind of a crisis.

Some of the reports have pointed out that there are other that there are other -- that there are other countries who have different ways of dealing with the families. And I certainly hope that you will help in this effort as we look at how we can better support those families.

KERRY: Well, Senator Shaheen --

(COUGHING) KERRY: Excuse me.

Senator Shaheen, first of all, let me begin by saying that I know how personally deeply involved you were in Jim's case, and in working with us to try it to keep the focus on it. I know how close you were to the family, and I know how much effort went into the prior effort when Jim was in Libya. I worked on that personally, and on this subsequent effort.

We raised it with country after country to try to get foreign minister or some contact if the country. Is there a way to get proof of life? Is there a way to find out where he is? What is -- is there a way to negotiate the release?

Most recently, even in the last two months before he was barbarously killed, I was talking with people in one of the Middle Eastern countries who traveled to Syria on our behalf in order to try to find out whether there was a way to secure the release of these hostages.

And we -- I know that you also made an incredible effort to reach out to country after country. I know the Czech Republic, others, you were very much active in this, engaged in it.

When we got him out of Libya, which we worked hard to do, I -- you know, was in touch with people on GlobalPost who I know very closely. They are friends of mine who are part of that effort. And so they were always in touch with me and talking personally about it.

Now, I have read these accounts of things that have happened -- or their judgment. I talked to Diane and John Foley after Jim was killed. I think everybody here would just, you know, shudder at what they have to go through.

So this is something we feel very deeply, so much so that I remember the hours we sat in the Situation Room in the White House working with our brilliant military, who did a remarkable job of designing a rescue mission, and the president made the difficult decision, because it's always difficult -- you are putting American service people at risk, going into another country. They have air defense. You don't know what's going to happen, and you know you're going in where there's ISIL.

And I sat in the White House in the Situation Room and watched that entire mission unfold, and was amazed by the capacity of our military people to do what they did, a high-risk mission performed flawlessly. And the intelligence was correct to every degree, that they went the right place, they did things correctly. It just was empty. They had moved them.

And we don't know exactly how soon or when ahead of time. And you have no idea how just the feeling in that room when the message came from our people on the ground saying, nobody is there. So we felt that and feel it to this day.

But, you know, if they feel unhappy, somehow, that it wasn't worked properly, whatever agency it was, we have to make sure in the future that we are going to make sure that that's just not a feeling -- I mean, first of all, we hope no other family has to suffer that and go through it.

But to whatever degree that's a possibility or an eventuality, we have got to make sure that people feel better about the process. And I can assure you, the president on down, everybody feels that sensitivity.

SHAHEEN: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

And for the hostages who are still being held, I hope there will be an effort to look at how those families are being supported.

Mr. Chairman, I know that my time is up, but I just wanted to make one more comment, because I know, Mr. Secretary, that you have repeated the president's argument that this military campaign doesn't require a separate authorization for the use of military force.

But I certainly believe that, if we are going to commit to a long-term effort to address ISIS, that having specific congressional action that is bipartisan to support that effort is very important. And I believe we should undertake that, and I know the chairman has said that he intends to do that, regardless of whether the White House and the administration comes to Congress or not.

So I certainly support that, and I hope that the administration will work with us as we do that.

KERRY: Yes. Well, we are coming to Congress. We are here and we welcome it, and we look forward to working with you on it.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

And I -- Senator Shaheen has expressed to me on more than one occasion already her desire to work with the chair and others on behalf of such an AUMF. And we look forward to working with you and other colleagues as well.

Senator Johnson.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Secretary, obviously, these are pretty complex issues. I do not envy you and the president in your task at all. You are in my prayers. The president is in my prayers. I actually ask all Americans to include you in their prayers, because, if you succeed -- we all want you to succeed -- that means America and Americans remain safe.

I have been listening to you and the president very carefully. I'm sure the world has been as well. And words have real meaning. So, I appreciate the fact that you have testified today here that ISIL must be defeated, period, end of story.

The president in his speech to the nation said that the goal here to is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS, but here's my concern. Here's my problem in the final two paragraphs of his speech to the nation, president said, our own safety, our own security depends on our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation.

But, Mr. Secretary, by taking options off the table, isn't President Obama doing to do what it takes up to a point. And as secretary of state, as you're dealing with potential coalition partners who are also listening, if we state a goal and the world doesn't believe we're 100 percent committed to it, is that going to be difficult for you to get the kind of commitment out of our potential partners to do what they need to do to actually achieve that ultimate goal?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: That's a very fair and very good question. And, by the way, thank you for your comments and your prayers.

The answer is that the president and the military folks currently believe we have the capacity, we have the plan, we have the coalition to be able to do the job. Now, you know, there are a lot of countries in the region who have capacity going forward who, in our judgment, if somebody is on the ground ought to be lining up first. So, there are a lot of options here before we start getting to the talk the president's taken off the table.

JOHNSON: OK. So, we've covered that ground.

Let me ask you, in your discussions with, for example, Saudi Arabia -- do the potential Arab states, do they understand how fragile American public opinion will be toward this effort, toward this destruction, if they don't fully commit? And when I think fully commit I'm thinking back to the first gulf war when America only had to pay for about 15 percent of that and almost 50 percent of that effort was paid for by Gulf States and the other portion was paid by Germany and Japan. Do they understand why it is so important for them to step up to the plate and visibly support this effort?

KERRY: Yes. And, in fact, King Abdullah has said to me personally we will do whatever is needed to be done. We are committed fully to this effort and they have been.

Now, there are bigger complications than just sitting here and talking about having the kingdom of Saudi Arabia put its troops on the ground in Syria. Next door to Iran, with all of the extraordinary complications of the region regarding Shia, Sunni and other geostrategic challenges. So, we need to be working at this very carefully with all of the nations that are part of the coalition recognizing we have to win. And we're just getting started at that.

So, I can tell you we're not going into this in order to fail and nor are any of these other people that are signing up.

JOHNSON: Let me offer -- I'll be up in New York next week representing the United States at the U.N. with Senator Cardin. I'd like it to offer whatever I can do to the Arab states that they do need to be fully committed to this battle.

Let me ask you now the question. The analogy I've been using -- here is another concern of mine, if this is going to literally take years, the analogy I've been using is, if you identify a hornet's nest in your backyard, you realize we got to take care of that. But if what we're really doing is anything in the backyard and poking that hornet's nest with a stick, isn't that a concern right now if we aren't fully committed to wipe out ISIS quickly?

You mentioned Brett McGurk provided powerful testimony back in the end of July about the threat that ISIS really does represent being able to funnel 30 to 50 suicide bombers into Iraq per month. And now, we've seen the suicide bombers come from Australia, Germany and America with passports and Mr. McGurk's comment was they could easily funnel those suicide bombers into the West and into America.

So, that's my concern, about allowing this not being fully committed and not getting in there, not cleaning out the hornet's nest as quickly as possible. Don't we just increase and increase the time when we're really under threat and danger?

KERRY: Well, we hope not, Senator. Obviously, that's not our strategy.

I mean, look, ISIL -- why do we have to focus first on ISIL and focus on it the way that we are because they're seizing and holding thousands of square miles of territory, because they are claiming to be a state. They're not a state in so many ways and we can go through that.

They are confronting and defeating thus far conventional army with conventional tactics. They have -- they are avowed genocidists, avowed genocidists, who have already practiced genocidal activities at a certain level.

Yazidis, Shia, people that they've decided to go after along the way, Christians, and they have a very large amount of money unlike lots of other terrorist organizations because they cleaned out the banks and they have sold oil and done other things in the process.

And so even al Qaeda, bold as they were in what they decided to do, didn't exhibit these characteristics and didn't have those capacities. And that's why we -- we believe and we think most of the region has come to understand this including the moderate opposition who are already fighting ISIL.

So, we believe we have the makings of an ability to be able to have a very significant impact and already, by the way, France and the United Kingdom are flying with us over Iraq and several other countries are now starting to be willing to join that. So, we think we have the building of an ability to be able to turn that around.

I guarantee you, the president's goal is to defeat them and as you and we see this unfold and make judgments about how well we're doing, we can, you know, have further discussions about what else it may or may not take to get the job done. But at the moment, these are the judgments that are being made.

JOHNSON: Thank you. You made a strong case for defeating ISIS and being fully committed to doing it. The sooner, the better. Thank you. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Durbin.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Mr. Secretary, as I look at this challenge from ISIL, I think there are two distinctly different parts to it, relating to Iraq and Syria. I don't believe there's any future for Iraq unless Iraq is committed to that future. The new leadership there has given us some hope, but ultimately we have to trust that we can either train or provide the skills and support necessary to the Iraq army that, in fact, they will not be so overrun with corruption that they cannot be an effective fighting force. That is -- it's a big task, but I think it is at least we're hopeful. It's within our grasp.

I look at Syria and see a totally different circumstance there. Syria is a dog's breakfast of violence and terrorism and deceit and carnage that has gone on for three years. Here we are talking about arming, equipping and training a moderate force within Syria.

Now, I've read the language that was being considered in the House unless it's been changed in the last day or so. Never mentions the word Assad once when it talks about what we're trying to achieve in Syria. It comes down to this basic question, it looks to me that there are at least three identifiable forces in Syria. Assad, ISIL and what we hope are moderate opposition forces we can work with.

But I'm also told and have been told there are up to 1,500 different militia in that country, some are neighborhood militia.

How can we chart a course here that defeats ISIL in Syria and does not, in the end, strengthen Assad's hand? How can we find the so- called moderate opposition in Syria and believe that something will emerge there that results in Syrians deciding their own fate in the future as their responsibility?

KERRY: A very good question and the calculation is that -- even with the difficulties that they faced over the last year and a half particularly -- I remember when I first came in February of last year, the Iraq -- the opposition in Syria was actually in a slightly better position with respect to Assad and the other groups, and there weren't as many of the other groups at that moment in time and then regrettably they started to squabble, politically as well as which military group would do what. They lost some momentum with that, number one.

Number two, they didn't get enough supplies at that point in time.

Number three, the -- the country began to be flooded with these external fighters from outside, and some countries in the region who wanted to get rid of Assad started funding people who seemed to be tougher fighters who morphed into either al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham or ISIL, and they begin to fight. And so, the concentration on Assad was just dissipated and during that time some of the support that was coming from countries in the region was, frankly, also very badly directed and managed.

All of that has changed now. We have upped our support and our engagement, our training and things that we're doing. Other countries have upped it. They've worked out many of the leadership issues that existed. There seems to have been, even despite these difficulties, they've been able to fight ISIL and move ISIL out of certain areas and keep fighting Assad. You've seen this continuing.

Our belief, therefore is that as the principal antagonist to their presidency, more so than Assad in some ways starts to take hits and they gained greater strength, greater training, greater equipment and greater capacity the success will bring to on them, we think, larger structure, as well as a greater know how and ability. And if ISIL is defeated, they're going to be taking that experience in the same direction that they originally set out to which is to deal with Assad.

DURBIN: I would like to ask one last question. We know, and you've said it in this testimony, that Russia is supplying Assad. We have known in the past when there have been sources of money, equipment and other support for enemies. As we look at ISIL today, you told us in testimony that Russia -- you mentioned Russia -- and China and we know by its nature, Iran is a Shia nation, oppose ISIL.

Who are the countries -- which countries are aiding and abetting the ISIL cause either by providing resources, equipment and arms to them or allowing their trade to create resources and wealth so that they can continue the fight?

KERRY: We don't believe at this point that it is state supported. What we believe is that because of their success in particularly getting the bank in Mosul and other success along the way as well as in selling oil.

DURBIN: Let me stop you there. Who are you selling it to? Which countries are --

KERRY: I was just about to get to you. We have raised with a number of countries in the region the question of how they could possibly be getting oil out of the country. It's being smuggled out. And that's part of the approach here is to deal --

DURBIN: Through which countries do you believe it's being smuggled out?

KERRY: Well, it's being smuggled out from the border countries of Syria, obviously, which means either through Turkey or through Lebanon or south.

DURBIN: And are they joining us in the effort to stop the smuggling?

KERRY: They are, but obviously Turkey has difficulties right now. It has 49 hostages that are being held and they talked about that publicly and Turkey is -- you know, we've had some conversations with them and those conversations will continue.

DURBIN: The sooner we can cut them off from their sources of funds -- KERRY: That's exactly what the -- now, a lot of the money -- there is

other money that comes through social media, Internet, appeals, through individual fund-raising. We've been able to trace a one-time lump sum $140,000 that came through one country from an individual in the region and -- excuse me, that's why we're going to have this immediate focus on the movement of money and begin to really get tough in shutting down that flow of funds.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for laying out the strategy.

I think you know where this committee is and where I am in terms of wanting to give the president and the administration the authority and the wherewithal to move ahead and succeed in this mission, and all our foreign policy missions.

But I'm a little confused that the position that's being taken by the administration now that an AUMF is not required, would be desired, but not required now. I look back at one of the last hearings that you appeared in, was with regard to Syria and chemical weapons.

The president, as you know, had drawn a red line and said that he would act if they went beyond it.