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Continuation of Senate Foreign Relations Cmte Hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry

Aired September 17, 2014 - 15:30   ET


SEN. BOBO CORKER, R-TENNESSEE: Tell me what's been accomplished. Who -- what Arab Sunni nation is gonna have a ground force in Syria? What Arab Sunni country is gonna be flying in and bombing and doing missile raids with a Arab insignia on the side of the plane? Tell me that.

KERRY: Well, Senator, you will hear that at the appropriate time within the next days as John Allen and the team work with all of these countries for the permissions, for the basing, for all the things that will take place.

I've told you they have told...


CORKER: Let me ask you this,,,

KERRY: No, no, no, let me...

CORKER: ... are you convinced that that will happen?

KERRY: Let me finish.

CORKER: Are you convinced that that will happen?

KERRY: Well, I've already said that. I testified...


CORKER: So we will have Arab Sunni countries participating in the ground effort in Syria?

KERRY: No, I didn't say the ground effort. And -- and we're -- you know, right now the plan is to work through the -- and our judgment is that we can be effective working in the way we are.

Let me say a couple of things. First of all, with respect to our...


CORKER: Well, you can say the answers...

KERRY: Well, no...


CORKER: ... to my questions, OK?. I'm not gonna be filibustered...


KERRY: No, I'm gonna answer your questions.


KERRY: I'm gonna answer your questions.

I'm sure the chair will be, you know, happy to have the kind of dialogue I talked about earlier. It's important to talk this through.

CORKER: I've got 2:34 and four more questions.


KERRY: Well, Senator, you haven't let me answer any of them yet. So, let me try to answer the question.

CORKER: Well, the question is, what Arab Sunni country is going to be putting boots on the ground in Syria against this now claimed army by your deputy...

KERRY: At this moment, no country has been asked to put boots on the ground or no country is talking of it. And we don't think it's a good idea right now. So there's no discussion of that at this moment.

Now, with respect to the judgment about asking Congress to do it, I'm asking. Do it. Pass it. We'd love to have you do it. But we're not gonna get stuck in the situation when we have the authority of not exercising our authority to do what we believe we need to do to protect the country. So we're asking you to do it. Pass it tomorrow.

CORKER: You're asking us to do it, but you're not giving any details because you don't have them.

KERRY: That's not true, Senator.

CORKER: Well, then share them.

KERRY: Senator, I'm not gonna share them in public here today.


CORKER: Share them in a classified setting.

KERRY: I'm confident there will be so many classified briefings that you'll be tired of them. But, at the moment, we're not gonna lay this out until John Allen has had a chance to come to the U.N. on Friday, until we have had a chance to work closely with all of these countries in order to make this as effective as possible.

CORKER: Do you realize how unserious the things that you have laid out and the things that were laid out yesterday sound, when you're discussing training 5,000, in your all's own words, doctors and dentists and others, in Saudi Arabia over a year. I don't know whether they're being trained for offensive or defensive. I'd like you to clarify that, activities.

My understanding is that they will be given higher tech equipment after they prove themselves on the battlefield.

Do you understand how unrealistic and how that effort on the ground where they are based, where ISIL is based, doesn't match the rhetoric that the administration laid out.

And therefore, you're asking us to approve of something that we know, the way you've laid it out, makes no sense.

We have a strong sense that our army, our military leaders, have urged you to put special forces on the ground. But, no, we're not gonna do that.

So, this doesn't even seem serious. It seems like a -- it seems like a political answer to the United States as they cry out about this uncivilized activity. But it doesn't seem real to me.

And if you're willing to get in a classified setting and lay out all these details and tell us which of these countries are gonna be flying their flag into Syria, they're gonna be putting people on the ground, because we know, we know the Free Syrian Army cannot take on ISIL. You know that.

You talk about a multiyear process. We're talking decades if that's going to be our salvation.

So I'll just close with this. I'm disappointed. I was disappointed in the briefing we had last week.

I do want us to deal with this in an effective way. You've not laid it out in a way that meets that test. I hope when we come back, and before you've put people in harm's way unnecessarily, you have a plan that achieves the end that you just laid out.

But we know right now, that's not where you are. And, again, I hope you'll seek it, I hope you'll say that you're not gonna do it without it.

And I hope you'll lay out a plan that will convince us that you're serious about doing the things you said you're gonna do to the American people and to us about ISIL, because you haven't done it now.

And I hope you'll lay out a way to pay for it -- to pay for it -- because we know this is gonna take many, many years, and it has to do with the safety of our citizens.

KERRY: Mr. Chairman, can I, I hope, answer a little bit here?

Senator, you know, I must say to you, I really find it somewhat surprising for you to suggest that as the president of the United States talks to the nation and commits to take strikes in order to deal with ISIL, as we have come back from a week of very serious meetings with nations around the world, all of whom are committed to this, that you sit there and suggest that it's not serious. Now, with all due with respect to you, Senator...


KERRY: ... let me just tell you something, point-blank. The moderate opposition in Syria has, in fact, been fighting ISIL for the last two years. And since last January, the Free Syrian Army has been engaged with ISIL in Iglid (ph), in Aleppo, in the Damascus countryside, in Dira-el-Azur (ph), and groups such as the Syria Revolutionary Front have fought off ISIL. They've expelled them from Iglid (ph) province, which borders Turkey, and includes the border crossing.

Over the past two months, moderate brigades have been deployed in northern Aleppo to prevent ISIL from capturing key border towns, including Azus (ph), through which a large quantity of humanitarian assistance is now being sent.

But they require our support.

Senator McCain knows that. He's been screaming about it for some time.

CORKER: We've all been screaming about it.

KERRY: All right. Well, that's...


CORKER: And you've all done nothing, or at least not much to talk about.

KERRY: Senator, let's just understand that the fact is that what has propelled ISIS to some degree is a word called success. And as ISIS has had success, they've used social media and they've appealed to grow their numbers to greater fighters.

As they have now suddenly been put on their heels and as the United States and other countries do seriously commit to this endeavor -- and believe me, what we're doing is serious -- then, if success begins to turn and move towards the Free Syrian Army and the moderate opposition, I believe you'll see greater numbers of recruits.

That's why the president is asking for that open training under Title X in order to try to build that up as fast as possible.

Our estimates are there are now currently tens of thousands still of fighting members of the opposition. And if you can get more people better trained -- and, by the way, every month that I have been secretary of state, we have been adding to the effort of what we are doing with respect to the Syrian opposition, and most of that needs to be covered in a classified setting, as you know, but our assessment is that we can, and given the urgency of the situation begin to move this program to a greater degree.

So, will it take a period of time? We've all said that, yes. But we're confident that we have the ability to be able to change the situation on the ground.

MENENDEZ: Senator Boxer?

KERRY: By the way, I do have a list here. I'm not going to go into all of it now, but there are -- Albania has sent in the last, we have had at least 18 flights that we've taken in to Irbil. We've been providing additional weapons to the peshmerga. Other countries have been doing this, Australia's committed a number of different items to this, I'm not gonna go into them publicly. Bulgaria's providing aid. Canada, several -- sending various kinds of assistance. Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Germany.

There are -- look, there are a lot of countries here. And, by the way, they're all serious, too, or they wouldn't be on this list.

MENENDEZ: Senator Boxer?

BOXER: Secretary Kerry, thank you for your tireless work.

I think it is shocking and a sad state of affairs that we heard just now such angry comments aimed at you, Mr. Secretary, and through you, at our president, instead of at ISIS, a savage group, who decapitated two Americans and have warned, and I quote, that "the thirst for more American blood" is right out there.

I think it's shocking. I'm actually shaking and trembling.

This is not the time to show anger at the people who are working night and day, whether you agree with them or not, to protect our people.

Now I want to talk about the AUMF. I voted against the one in '02, which started the disastrous war in Iraq. I voted for the one in '01, and I've reread it about six times.

Mr. Secretary, the lawyers I've consulted with believe that you have the authority to go after ISIL.

It's very clear. You read the parts. If people listen to you, you read the parts that are correct.

Now that is not to say that I wouldn't welcome working on a new one. But I want to say right now the way things get filibustered around this place and the way politics gets played around this place, I am proud that you say you're going to do your work to protect the American people.

This is just a sad opening of a hearing. I've never seen it, and I've gone through some tough ones.

Now I want to say this. The Iraq war inflamed the long-simmering sectarian divisions in that country.

I know you don't want to get into the past. It's fine. I think it's worth mentioning, because from my point of you, that's a war I voted against. I am for going after ISIL, because there's such a difference.

And there are two strains of thought as people speak out against the policy of the administration.

One is -- they say, "You're not doing enough. Go back with those ground troops, more war, more boots on the ground, American boots. They're the only boots that work."

You've proven, just with a few examples, that that's just not true. And I certainly reject that.

And the other, the second school of thought represented in some of the folks out there, who I like and -- and -- and talk to all the time, they think we shouldn't take the fight to ISIL. "Forget it. It's too complicated. It's fraught with uncertainty. We should sit on the sidelines."

I oppose that. You cannot sit on the sidelines -- at least, I cannot -- when you have a group that's selling 14-year-olds, as my -- my former colleague said -- 14-year-olds as slaves, giving them as gifts to their fighters, murdering ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis and Shiite Turkmen, and again, warning that their knife will continue to strike the necks of Americans.


BOXER: They have a very simple goal. They say, "If you don't take our twisted version of Islam, you either flee, you convert or you die."

So no, I'm not going to sit idly by.

Mr. Secretary, I have a question for you.

I was on -- I was being interviewed, and I was expressing these views that I just expressed, that are certain areas where it's gray, and there're certain areas where it's clear, to me. I mean, everyone takes their own lens to the question.

And I was asked this question: "How can we make sure that the Syrian moderates we help are the right ones"? And this particular reporter said, "Well, we've heard reports that the Syrian moderates signed a nonaggression pact with ISIL."

My answer to that was there are all kinds of Syrian moderate groups, and we're certainly not working with those who don't see it our way.

Could you expand on that answer or...

KERRY: I'd be delighted to.

Let me just say to you, that's disinformation fundamentally put out by ISIL.

The moderate opposition recently restated its commitment as a national movement to fighting extremism generally and including ISIL, and a recent statement that they reached a truce is simply baseless, not -- not accurate, and they have not, and they will not.

BOXER: Thank you.

And then just -- I mean, I -- I don't have enough time to ask everything, so I'll ask one last question. What roles do Iran and Russia play in this conflict, and how do the interests of these two countries factor into the president's counter-ISIL strategy?

I know it's very delicate, but how would you respond to that?

KERRY: Well, you know -- well, Russia obviously is a principle line of support to Assad, and Assad, as we all know, has neither proven the willingness nor the capacity to go after ISIL.

And -- and -- and Russia was at the meeting in Paris. China was at the meeting in Paris. Both spoke out powerfully about the need to stand up to ISIL.

And Iran, as you know, there was a subject of whether or not they might have been invited. There were certain problems in trying to make that happen because of country objections with respect to their presence, et cetera, and it wasn't -- it didn't happen. But Iran obviously is deeply opposed to ISIL.

Now we're not coordinating militarily or doing anything, but we have had brief conversations on the side of our negotiations that are taking place, the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations, and we're prepared to see whether or not Iran can contribute in a constructive way.

But that would require also changing what's happening in Syria, where their IRGC is on the ground and supporting Assad and been engaged in activities, Hezbollah, on their behalf, whom they support.

So there're a lot of areas of twisted conflict in the relationships here. And we are looking -- you know, it would be negligent not to be open to listening to some change in the dynamic or some possibility of constructive activity, but we're not relying on it, waiting for it, organizing around it or, in fact, coordinating with it at this point in time.

BOXER: Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Before I turn to Mr. Risch, you know, I -- Senator Risch, let me just say to the secretary on this subject, I heard what you said, but to me, Iran is a regional instigator

It is a patron of the murderous Assad regime. It's a sponsor of sectarian divisions inside of Iraq. It uses Iraq's airspace to send troops and men into Syria.

And some of us are really concerned that -- first of all, their end purposes are not our end purposes and secondly, that some of us are concerned that negotiations with Iran, you know, are affected by -- to the extent that they express any desire to be helpful, they want to do it at the cost of concessions at the negotiating table.

I know you're shaking your head, and...

KERRY: Not going to happen.

MENENDEZ: I wouldn't expect anything else.

But I have to be honest with you. When we hear these back channel efforts and then they get outed by the Ayatollah, it creates uncertainty in that process.

So I don't want to take more time from my colleagues.

Senator Risch?

RISCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

John, I -- I share some of the anger of Senator Boxer when it comes to what's been going on with beheading of Americans. I mean, this is a -- this is a tough time for America, for Americans to be watching their fellow citizens being beheaded by the -- these savage people.

And -- and something's got to be done about it, and I -- I fully empathize with the problem you've got. Where it's happening is such a complex situation with complex cultures and what have you, and you've got to do something about it.

I want to throw in with the chairman. He -- he mentioned three points, I think, in his opening that he was hoping he'd hear, and -- and I haven't heard yet, and that is he talked about hearing the plan that you have. And he wants -- he wanted to hear what success looks like, and he wanted to hear metrics as to how we measure progress.

John, I'm just not there yet. I'm not convinced.

And this is particularly true where I think everyone's in agreement. The president's in agreement. Congress is in agreement. The American people are in agreement. No one wants boots -- American boots on the ground.

I mean, that just is not going to happen. There's nobody -- nobody going to go there with that.

In fact, had the president come here and said that, "Look, I want authorization for airstrikes" -- you and I both know how effective the drone program has been and how good it has been as far as accomplishing the goals that we have in Yemen, in -- in Pakistan and -- and other places -- if he'd have come here for that, you'd had have no problem with me.

As far as the boots on the ground, who do you get to do it?

Well, we know the Iraqis can't do it. They dropped their guns and uniforms and went home at the -- at the slightest bit of threat.

The -- with all due respect, I -- I know everybody talks about the moderates, opposition and the -- the rebels -- we've been through this for over a year, and I'm just not convinced that there is such a group there.

So you said, "Let's talk about this, and let's see if we can't come up with some -- some way to do this."

You have the best group around to be able to do this for the boots on the ground with the Kurds. They've been -- they've been incredibly successful. They've been a reliable -- they've been reliable to us. They're great fighters. I mean, if anybody's gonna succeed on the ground in Iraq or, for that matter, in Syria, it's gonna be the Kurds.

Have you guys given thought to partnering up with them? What am I missing here?

KERRY: Well, you're not, Senator. They've been extraordinary. And that was our first line of effort, obviously. That's why we put the joint operations center in Irbil right away. And that's why we elicited immediate support. I mean, we really had to hold that line. That was critical, and that's why the president was prepared to use some strikes, actually, to help guarantee that that happened.

And there's a huge flow of weaponry. As I said, 18 flights that I know of from us have gone in now to Irbil. There are flights coming from other countries too, Italians, others. Lots of countries have been supporting the Kurds in this effort.

And, you know, I think this is the work that John Allen needs a chance to sort of develop a little bit, see how it's gonna go.

The bottom line is the commitment to destroy ISIL. And that means what I described earlier today. And -- and, for the moment, growing the moderate opposition is one way of coming at it and we'll see, you know, what else may be possible as we go forward.

RISCH: Well, I appreciate that. And it's encouraging for me to hear that you have engaged the Kurds. I think that...


KERRY: Oh, very, very much so. I...


RISCH: Let me -- let me, with the little time I have left, I just want to make absolutely certain of your testimony. You originally said, when you're meeting with these groups -- these other countries, they've said, and I'm quoting you, "what can we do to help?"

But you've also said that, nobody has agreed to put boots on the ground, and then I think you said that you haven't asked them to put boots on the ground.

So, let me be very clear about airstrikes. Has anybody committed that they would fly their flag in and do airstrikes into Syria?


RISCH: And they are committed to do that?


RISCH: OK. That's good. In the classified setting, we'll be able to get who those people are?


RISCH: That is much more encouraging. Thank you.

And, with that, my time is up. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Senator Cardin.

CARDIN: Well, Secretary Kerry, first of all, thank you for your incredible service.

And I -- what you have stated expresses my view on the need for international action against a barbaric terrorist organization, ISIL. It requires an international response.

I think President Obama's been effective, particularly in the actions in Iraq. The military strikes have been very effective in pulling back ISIL's advancements. And I think the president deserves credit for doing that and certainly has my support.

You've been effective in bringing about an international coalition, and that's extremely important. Whenever we are involved in missions like this, it must include international presence.

And you have been very clear that we will not have combat ground troops as part of this campaign.

And I support each of those statements.

So I want to get back to the point that the chairman mentioned, and I guess just about every one of us have mentioned, in regards to the authorization of force. Because I'm not clear what we will do in Syria and I'm not comfortable yet as to what we will do in Syria. And I'm looking forward to more information being made available to us.

But my concern, I'd really like to get your thoughts on this, is that the authorizations that were passed in 2001 and 2002 were clearly aimed at a different circumstance. And if your lawyers' interpretations are correct, they're open-ended indefinitely, well beyond the Obama administration, and could be used to -- for long-term commitments, including ground-force commitments, in the future.

And that certainly was not congressional intent. I did not support the 2002 resolution. It -- as the chairman said, it was based upon misinformation. And 2001 was clearly aimed at the circumstances in Afghanistan, it was not intended to deal with the current circumstances in Syria. I would hope we would all agree to that.

So, I think it's absolutely essential that we come together and revisit the authorization issues.

More than that you would welcome congressional involvement, I think it's imperative that we attempt to clarify the authorizations on the use of force to meet the current needs.

In Syria, I don't think that's gonna be difficult. I think you're -- you've been invited in by another country. I think we can...

BOXER: You mean Iraq.

CARDIN: I mean, Iraq, excuse me, in Iraq, I don't think it's difficult in Iraq.

Thank you, Senator Boxer.

We've been invited in by the host country. It's clear we're not gonna put increased combat -- we're not gonna put combat troops on the ground there.

Syria's gonna be more difficult. Because, you -- there are many of us who are not prepared to authorize the use of force in Syria with the information we currently have. But that's something I think we have to work with. You have Article II power, the president has Article II power. So he always has the right for a short period of time to defend the interests of this nation as he sees fit, and that's his responsibility as commander in chief.

So, I don't think there's any immediate urgency for the congressional action. But I just think it's vital for the appropriate role and for moving forward beyond just the Obama administration, because, as you pointed out, this -- circumstances are not gonna end in the next two years.

And I would just welcome your thoughts as to how you think we should proceed in trying to deal with the type of authorization that can pass Congress, give you the comfort levels that you need, but protect us against any lengthy, particularly, combat involvements in these countries in the future, that should be done by their own military.

KERRY: Sure. Well, Senator, thank you very much. Thank you for your comments.

But, look, I wouldn't sit here comfortably and suggest to you, nor would President Obama, by that token, I know, suggest to you that this ought to go on indefinitely and that there shouldn't be an effort with Congress to define this. Of course, there should be.

I think the American people want it, deserve it, and it's an appropriate role for both branches to play, to work together to articulate that going forward.

The president has made it crystal clear, he's ready -- he's ready to do that. We know the chairman has announced that he's going to begin work to define that. We look forward to working with you to define it. That's how we go about it, is to work effectively to do it. Now, in the immediate moment, we have a prime minister -- do you have

the comments of Prime Minister Abadi from the press conference the other day? Get those out for me, please.

In my meeting with Prime Minister Abadi, at the end, we met with the press. And I'll just read you what Prime Minister Abadi said as an opening comment, not even prompted or a part of a question.

He said, "ISIL is a terrorist nation. It is mobilizing its international network to recruit people from all over the world. They have funds from all across the region. We are fighting these people. These people are" -- and then something inaudible about our communities attacking or something -- "minorities, women, children, they already" -- and then it was inaudible about women, killing or raping.

"They are a challenge to the whole region, to the international community. They are coming to Iraq from across the border, from neighboring Syria. Of course, our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible to protect Iraq and protect Iraqis and the whole region. What's happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border," that's on an international basis, but he says, "it's an international border, but there is a role for the international community, for the United Nations to do that role, and the United States to act immediately to stop the spread of this cancer.

"This cancer is spreading in the whole region and we have the resolution to fight the cancer in Iraq. We Iraqis will have both an inclusive government now, and we can do this job properly, everybody as a whole."

And he goes on to talk about how they will do it.

But he specifically asks for the United States of America to help in this role.

Now, our lawyers also are clear that Iraq has a right of self- defense. And Iraq is exercising its right of self-defense in asking the United States to help it. And we already have a military agreement with them with respect to that.

And so, Iraq is asking us to help them, and as a matter of right, if they're being attacked from outside their country, you have a right of hot pursuit, you have a right to be able to attack those people who are attacking you as a matter of self-defense.

So we believe there is a full justification here. And, obviously, that will be laid out further.