John Kerry: Russia Has No ‘Easy Track’ In Syria

· Oct. 16, 2015, 10:59 am

Secretary of State John Kerry stepped before a packed auditorium Thursday. He was at Indiana University for the opening of a school of international studies.

“I have managed to completely forget that when running for president in 2004, I was crushed in Indiana,” he quipped.

Kerry was welcomed Thursday as he promoted the Obama administration’s recent international agreements, like deals on Pacific trade and Iran’s nuclear program.

But Kerry also spoke of darker issues — like Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war. Russian warplanes are backing the government of President Bashar Assad, entering the third week of strikes against what the Ministry of Defense says are “terrorist targets.”

The U.S. has struggled to find forces that can oppose Assad as well as the Islamic State.

After the speech, Kerry sat down with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, who asked about the difficult task of convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin to target only Islamic extremists, not the Syrian rebels who oppose Assad.

“If they’re supporting Assad, they’re going to attract great difficulties for themselves and for any hope of a unified, secular Syria,” Kerry said.

“Putin does not have a simple, easy track here,” he said. “This is not a situation where he’s just moved in and taken over and everybody says, ‘Oh, wow, he’s doing something we couldn’t.’ No, he’s not. He is not going to be able to stop the war by being there.”

Interview Highlights

On whether the United States is doing enough to help U.S.-backed Syrians who are now being attacked by Russian aircraft

We are now having that discussion with the Russians right now. I talked to my counterpart today, to [Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov. We raised the issue of this “deconfliction” process. We’re very near coming to an agreement on exactly how that will work, and my hope is that it will lead to a broader set of understandings about where the targeting ought to be and what is truly helpful and what is not.

On the goals of the “deconfliction” talks with Lavrov, and whether they will go beyond the goal of keeping U.S. and Russian warplanes out of conflict with each other

That’s the immediate, that’s the short-term, de minimus deconfliction, but it is possible that if you have adequate cooperation on the early steps of this horrible word “deconfliction,” then it may be possible to actually engage in a broader conversation about how ISIL is going to be defeated, and who will bear what responsibility.

On Russia’s goals in Syria

Syria will crumble under the weight of a prolonged war. Putin does not have a simple, easy track here. This is not a situation where he’s just moved in and taken over and everybody says, “Oh, wow, he’s doing something we couldn’t.” No, he’s not. He is not going to be able to stop the war by being there. It could be ISIL that actually winds up gaining in that process, and that would be absurd, it would be a farce, and I think President Putin understands that. …

It remains to be seen what their full strategy is in Syria. … If Russia is there to go after ISIL, and to in fact help prevent the takeover of the country and to secure a political track that could result in the end of the war, that could be positive.

If Russia is there to uphold Assad, and fake it with respect to the extremists and terrorists, that’s a serious problem.

On the recent violence in Israel against Israeli civilians

There’s no excuse for the violence. No amount of frustration is appropriate to license any violence anywhere at any time. No violence should occur. And the Palestinians need to understand, and President Abbas has been committed to nonviolence. He needs to be condemning this, loudly and clearly. And he needs to not engage in some of the incitement that his voice has sometimes been heard to encourage. So that has to stop.

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