John Kerry’s visit to the Middle East featured trips to Cairo, Baghdad, Erbil (in Kurdistan), Paris (to meet with Saudi, Emirati, and Jordian foreign ministers), and Jidda, Saudi Arabia (to meet with King Abdullah). There follows selections from a variety of interviews and statements regarding US policy in Iraq and Syria. The most important highlights are, first, that the United States finds the current Iraqi government unacceptable in a whole variety of ways and, second, that it wouldn't think of interfering in domestic Iraqi politics to force a solution upon them. Also, Kerry calls strenuously for a unity government in Iraq but claims not to have raised or discussed with Prime Minister Maliki the question of a salvation government.
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Kerry’s Statement at the US Embassy in Baghdad, June 23:
So this is a critical moment for Iraq’s future. It is a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders, and it’s a moment of great urgency. Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq’s leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands. The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks. And the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL – not next week, not next month, but now.
In each of my meetings today, I stressed that urgency and I stressed the responsibility of Iraq’s leaders to act, whether the meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, with speaker Nujaifi, with ISCI leader Hakim, or Foreign Minister Zebari, I emphasize that defending Iraq against ISIL depends largely on their ability – all of them – to form a new government and to do it quickly. It is essential that Iraq’s leaders form a genuinely inclusive government as rapidly as possible within their own constitutional framework. . . .
The President understands very clearly that supporting Iraq in the struggle at this time is part of meeting our most important responsibility: The security of the American people, fighting terrorism, and standing by our allies. Iraq is a strategic partner of the United States, with shared interests in countering the scourge of terrorism, maintaining stability of the global energy markets, and easing the sectarian polarization that plagues this region. That’s how we have to understand the stakes here in Iraq, and that’s why we have to understand the serious threat that ISIL poses to Iraq and the urgent need for Iraq’s security forces to therefore be well-supplied, well-equipped, and well-trained. That is why President Obama has prepared a range of options for Iraq, including enhanced intelligence, joint operation centers, steady supplies of munitions, and advisors to work with and support some of Iraq’s best units.
With this support, we are living up to our Strategic Framework Agreement. The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective. It will allow Iraqi security forces to confront ISIL more effectively and in a way that respects Iraq’s sovereignty while also respecting America’s and the region’s vital interests. The Strategic Framework Agreement also commits the United States to support Iraq’s constitutional process. That is specifically stated, and that is part of why I stressed in today’s meetings the importance of keeping the constitutional timeline and of forming a new government as soon as possible, because forming a new government is critical to the ability of Iraq to be able to make progress and be successful. . . .
The United States is not choosing any leader; we are not making any preconditions with respect to who can or can’t take part. That is up to Iraq. It’s up to the people of Iraq to make that decision. And what we asked for today is also very much in line with the message that Grand Ayatollah Sistani offered just a few days ago. As I told Iraqi leaders today, and as I’ve made clear to my counterparts in the region, neither the United States nor any other country has the right to pick who leads Iraq. That is up to the people of Iraq. So it is when all of Iraq’s people can shape Iraq’s future, when the legitimate concerns and aspirations of all of Iraq’s communities – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – are all respected, that is when Iraq is strongest. And that is when Iraq will be the most secure. . . .
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With Margaret Brennan of CBS News, June 24:
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, both you and the President have said that a safe haven for ISIS is a national security threat for the United States. But that safe haven already exists, and it’s in Syria. Now it’s in Iraq. So how do you actually reverse those gains?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, it’s not a safe haven at this point in time.
QUESTION: Syria’s not?
SECRETARY KERRY: I would say it’s not particularly safe. They’ve been kicked around and attacked by the moderate opposition and by others there, including Assad, so they’re moving around, and may be one of the reasons that they chose to move into this other territory. But look, the bottom line is the President and I stand by that, absolutely. And the President is carefully putting together an appropriate counterterrorism strategy to deal with this, but you have to deal with it thoughtfully. And that is exactly what we’re doing.
If the President were to just make some decision to strike here or there, there’s no backup, there’s no “there” there in the Iraqi Government, it could be completely wasted. It’s not a pathway to victory. So what you need to do first is get the government formation done here in Iraq. You need to have leadership that can unify Iraq, reconstitute the military, the army itself here in Iraq, and help them to be able to push back.
There will also be a need to – and President Barzani talked to me about this here today. He said there’s no pure military victory here; you’ve got to have a political solution. And a political solution will involve empowering the people in the communities where they are now to push back against them. That’s what happened originally in Anbar Province, in Fallujah way back a number of years ago, and so you’ve got to sort of put together an appropriate strategy, which is precisely what the President is doing. . . .
SECRETARY KERRY: . . . I’m sure he’d like to have the United States have – become his air force. But the question is: Is he prepared to become a legitimate government? Is the government here prepared to do what’s necessary?
QUESTION: Maliki, you’re talking about?
SECRETARY KERRY: Not just Maliki. Will they all come together in a unified government that has the ability to make whatever the President decides to do a success? It would be a complete and total act of irresponsibility for the President just to order a few strikes, but there’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success.
So what we are doing is a deliberate, careful, thoughtful approach, listening to the people here, listening to the allies, listening to the partner countries in the region, and putting together something that can work. And the President always reserves the right, as he does anywhere in the world in any crisis, to use force if it’s going to be to the advantage of a particular strategy. And he reserves that right. But he and I and our government are insisting that the constitutional process needs to be respected in Iraq, there needs to be a unity government that is prepared to stand up to ISIL, prepared to reconstitute the military, prepared to make the decisions that actually can turn the present . . .
SECRETARY KERRY: What I’ve learned is – on this trip – that there’s a great dissatisfaction here in Iraq with the current government. And I ran into a universal sense of a commitment, a desire by Iraqis to make up for the mistakes that have been made in the past. Now, what that means in terms of personalities or individuals who might fill one role or another, I can’t tell you. That’s up to Iraqis.
What we did impress on people – what I did impress on people – was the urgency of their making this decision, of following the constitutional process, and providing a framework within which the friends of Iraq have an ability to be able to be helpful. Without a government that is confident and prepared to move forward and bring the unity that is necessary, it’s very difficult to see how you can be successful in taking on ISIL, at least in its current format.
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Interview with Kim Ghattas of BBC, June 24, 2014
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s exactly what a government formation process is about. It’s not up to the United States of America or some other country to come prancing in and tell Iraqis who their leaders ought to be or what they need to do. What we’re trying to do is honor a process. They have chosen to have democracy. They have a constitution. They have a constitutional process by which they now will choose a new government after they have elections. I mean, 14 million Iraqis came out, they voted. They’ve participated in the democratic process. That’s, frankly, a huge affirmation of the constitution itself and of this democratic moment. So now it’s up to Iraqis to decide who can unify Iraq, who will they all come together and join with in an effort to seize this moment. . . .
QUESTION: So no military airstrikes before a government formation?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, barring some exigent emergency or something that predicates that the President makes a decision which he always has available to him with respect to any country or any crisis in the world. But basically, there must be a government here so that there can be a strategy going forward, because just a strike alone is not going to change the outcome. You need to have a full-fledged strategy that is being implemented which is principally a political strategy.
And as even President Barzani and his folks today said, there has to be – they concur there’s no military solution. There may be military action, but there has to be a political solution that deals with empowering the people in the communities where ISIL is today to be prepared to take them on. That takes a certain amount of preparation, strategy, implementation. And what President Obama is trying to do is encourage that process to come together as rapidly as possible, because without it everything else would be wasted.
QUESTION: We’re running out of time. I want to try to squeeze in two very quick questions. You’re fighting ISIS. You’re calling on your allies to fight ISIS. President Assad of Syria says he’s fighting ISIS. How long until the U.S. is going to turn around and work with President Assad again?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, President Assad is one of the principal reasons – the principal reason – that ISIS exists. President Assad is a magnet for jihadists and foreign fighters from around the world, and that’s why they’ve been conglomerating in Syria and spreading their tentacles out. So if President Assad really wants to fight terrorists, he would declare that he is not going to continue to serve, he will work for a transition government, and he will end the crisis of Syria. That’s the way you deal with it.
QUESTION: And a final question, Mr. Secretary, about the verdict, the sentences handed out yesterday to Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo. You were just in Cairo. You described yesterday the sentences as chilling. And yet the U.S. continues to provide Egypt with various forms of aid, including military. What is the U.S. really prepared to do at this stage to pressure Egypt to show clemency?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve actually reduced our aid. We are not providing aid directly to the government. We provide aid to the military because there’s a military-to-military relationship which is critical to security in the Sinai, to the truce with Hamas in Gaza, to counterterrorism. And we’ve had a longstanding relationship, and the military, frankly, played a very key role in helping to bring about the elections and the transition on two occasions.
QUESTION: What about pressure now?
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me – I will come to that. And in addition to that, we are only providing assistance that goes directly to the people.
Now, we have made it clear that our – in my conversations in Egypt while I was there, I made it very, very clear that if this road towards democracy, if there isn’t a change in these, whether it’s the Al Jazeera journalists or whether it’s activists who’ve been imprisoned or others who are demonstrators who were simply caught up and still, if that doesn’t begin to change, it’s going to have a profound impact on the ability and willingness of the United States to engage. And I communicated that very directly yesterday to the foreign minister.
I do not view this, as their ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement, as somehow interference from outside. I view this as a universal standard that most countries attempt to apply to journalists or to their own citizens. That sentencing is indeed chilling and it’s a terrible message, and it will, unfortunately, have an impact, a negative impact, on Egypt’s ability to attract investment, to have stability, to begin to move in the direction it wants to go.
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Press Availability at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 25:
QUESTION [from James Rosen of Fox News]: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I wanted to ask about two different facets of the Iraq crisis, if I may. First, I presume you saw the comments that Prime Minister al-Maliki made in his weekly address, in which he spoke of a “national salvation government,” quote unquote, as a coup against constitutional processes in Iraq and one in which he declared his refusal to participate. I wonder what you make of those comments, whether you regard them as helpful or not to the task of government formation in Iraq, and whether it is still the professed position of the United States Government that the Obama Administration is utterly disinterested in the question of whether al-Maliki stays or goes.
And the second facet of the crisis I’d like to ask you about is this: I wonder if the disclosure that Iran has been secretly flying drones over Iraq – from an airfield in Baghdad, no less – and has been secretly shipping literally tons of military equipment to the central government in Baghdad serves effectively to complicate the United States’ own evolving military operations and diplomatic mission in Iraq, and whether in fact it represents a widening of the war there.
SECRETARY KERRY: So let me take each question. With respect to the prime minister’s remarks about a so-called salvation government, that is not something that I discussed with him. That is not something that was on the table in the context of our meetings while we were there. In fact, there was no discussion that I had with any of the leaders there regarding a so-called salvation government. And I’ve heard reports about it, but I’m not sure exactly what it is that he rejected or spoke to.
What I do know is that in the prime minister’s remarks today he did follow through on the commitments that he made in our discussions. He clearly committed to completing the electoral process, he committed to meeting on the 1st of July and having the Council of Representatives come together, and he committed to moving forward with the constitutional processes of government formation. And that is precisely what the United States was encouraging. He also called on all Iraqis to put aside their differences to unite in their efforts against terrorism. That is also what we had discussions about.
So what he said today with respect to the things we talked about was entirely in line with the conversations that I had with him when I was there. And the constitutional process that we’ve urged all Iraqis to commit to at this time, we believe is critical to the ability to form a government.
Now, Iraqis will decide that. And the United States is not disinterested in what happens in a future leadership, but the United States is not going to engage in the process of suggesting to Iraqis who that ought to be. It’s up to Iraqis to make those decisions. And we have stated clearly that we have an interest in a government that can unite Iraqis that, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani said, will not repeat the mistakes of the past and go backwards but can actually bring people together. It’s up to Iraqis to decide who has the ability to do that and who represents that future.
With respect to Iran and its intentions and role in Iraq, frankly, you should best direct that question to Iran and to the Government of Iraq. But from our point of view, we’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension. And so it’s very important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide.
Remarks by Secretary Kerry, June 2014 (various dates), US Department of State
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From Michael R. Gordon, Saudi King Promises Help in Delicate Effort to Unite Factions in Iraq, New York Times, June 27, 2014:
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From Michael R. Gordon, Saudi King Promises Help in Delicate Effort to Unite Factions in Iraq, New York Times, June 27, 2014:
“Both the secretary and the king believe that the security challenges that Iraq faces require a new government,” said the State Department official, referring to the government formation process underway in Baghdad.
“The two shared a view that all of Iraq’s communities should be participating on an urgent basis in the political process to allow it to move forward, and that both the secretary and King Abdullah in their conversations with Iraqi leaders would convey that message directly to them,” added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department protocol.