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Kerry: Engaging in significant operation
03:02 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Strategy has "things that one doesn't think of normally in context of war," he says

He says President Obama's strategy to quash ISIS with the help of allies will succeed

"Doing it with allies and partners isn't just smart, it's strong," Kerry says of Obama's plan

After talks in Jeddah with Persian Gulf leaders, he will go to Paris for an Iraq conference

CNN  — 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday would not say the United States is at war with ISIS, telling CNN in an interview that the administration’s strategy includes “many different things that one doesn’t think of normally in context of war.”

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

Kerry made a distinction between ISIS and terror groups operating in Somalia and Yemen.

“ISIL is an animal unto itself,” he said. “And it is significantly such a threat because of the foreign fighters that are attracted to it – which you don’t see in Somalia or … Yemen.” Most importantly, Kerry said, ISIL has attracted a “significant coalition” that is determined to go and destroy it.

Kerry, in Jeddah for meetings with Arab leaders to enlist regional support for a coalition to defeat ISIS, defended the administration’s insistence that the 2001 authority to go after al Qaeda and affiliates applies to ISIS. He insisted that, despite the split between jihadist groups, the origin of ISIS as an al Qaeda affiliate is enough to consider them connected.

“This group is and has been al Qaeda,” Kerry said. “By trying to change its name, it doesn’t change who it is, what it does.”

Asked how much of the interpretation lets Congress get away from a vote on going after ISIS – a scenario lawmakers would like to avoid in an election year – Kerry responded “none.”

Kerry said the opposition battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been outgunned and outmanned, but the administration believes that equation can change “if they receive proper training, if there are recruits that come in, and if it grows over a period of time.”

The regime’s legitimacy could never be restored, Kerry said.

“It is going to be our policy to separate (al-Assad), who is mostly in the western part of Syria, in a certain corridor from the eastern part of Syria, which he doesn’t control,” Kerry said. “ISIL controls that part. So it is clearly … not a very difficult task to target ISIL.”

The talks in Jeddah come a day after U.S. President Barack Obama outlined a plan to “dismantle and ultimately destroy” the Sunni extremist group that has seized a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria.

Videotaped beheadings, including two murders of American journalists, have led to the push for a broader counterterrorism mission, including possible airstrikes in civil war-torn Syria. But the United States has ruled out sending American troops for a ground offensive.

On Thursday, Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah before wider talks with other regional leaders.

Asked whether Saudi Arabia supports the extremist expressions of the Wahhabism version of Islam espoused by some terror groups, Kerry told CNN that the nation is “deeply committed to the effort to terminate ISIL.”

“They have never funded the kind of effort you’re talking about with respect to ISIL,” Kerry said, adding that a significant part of the counterterrorism effort will include stemming fundraising for terror groups.

After Saudi Arabia, Kerry will visit Turkey and Egypt for meetings with senior officials, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

In a statement after Obama’s prime-time speech Wednesday, Kerry said the President’s strategy would succeed “because doing it with allies and partners isn’t just smart, it’s strong.”

Kerry said his travels through the Middle East and Europe over the coming days were an effort to “meet a unifying threat with a unified response.”

While American leadership is “indispensable,” he said, “we cannot destroy this group on our own. Defeating this common enemy calls for a common cause, and we’re taking it on to succeed together.”

Obama spoke Wednesday with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, a senior administration official told journalists. “The Saudis made very clear that they support this mission, they will join us in this mission,” the official said.

The backing of Sunni-dominated nations such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey will lend support to any campaign to contain the spread of ISIS.

Turkey’s capacity or willingness to act may be limited by the fact that ISIS continues to hold 47 Turkish hostages seized from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

So far, Shiite-majority Iran has played the biggest role on the ground in northern Iraq, where its militias have been helping Iraqi forces.