Transcript of VOA correspondent Scott Stearns’ interview in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Q: Russia and Iran supporting Bashar al-Assad has been a problem for the United States from the beginning on Syria. On Islamic State, Iran has come around at least to your way of thinking. Russia, not so much. So, what do you do with the Russians on the issue of the Islamic State? Not only do they not seem cooperative, but you saw their reaction to the president’s speech and they seem to want to take it to the U.N.? It’s this Libya thing all over again.
A: Well, I would hope that Russia will come to see that ISIL really presents to threat to them, too. There are problems through many of the countries around Russia and near Russian even some of the parts of Russia where there are terrorists, many of whom will take, you know, example from ISIL and from what is happening there. So I think Russia needs to worry about ISIL. And the fact is that we are responding to the legitimate request of a country, to help that country. We have legitimate authorization from Congress in which we have been fighting against al-Qaida and its affiliates for some period of time. And I think over time Russia will see that the real need is for them to be more cooperative and stop supporting a guy like Assad who kills his own population and to help bring about a political solution. We are looking to Russia to help bring about a political solution. We still believe that’s the only solution for what’s happening in Syria.
Q: You and the president have both said that a lot of this will be done at the U.N. General Assembly. Do you fear that Russia might, you know, be an obstacle there?
A: Well, when we say done at the U.N. General Assembly, we are not talking about the Security Council and resolution, things like that. What we are talking about is simply, you have many countries assembled at the same time. The leaders those countries are all there. And we will air the issues surrounding ISIL at the United Nations with those leaders. I will be chairing a U.N. Security Council session on the 19th of the month. The president will chair one the next week on the subject of foreign fighters and we are going to focus on this challenge. And we hope Russia, will in fact, join us and recognize the degree to which it is challenged and engage in responsible behavior to deal with it.
Q: The president announced new sanctions against Russia today over its situation in Ukraine. Do you see any irony in the Russians complaining about your planning to act against the Islamic State when they are acting in Ukraine?
A: Ah, you know, I could probably go on for 20 minutes on that one. There’s a lot of irony and it’s really not worth commenting on.
Q: So you said yesterday in Baghdad, Iran’s doing what it’s doing against Islamic State but there is no cooperation with the United States. Given the size of the Islamic State threat, isn’t that an inefficiency in dealing with that?
Q: Is there any concerns that a lack of cooperation could lead you inadvertently to cross militarily, you know, you don’t want to be in each other’s way?
A: Well, that’s for certain, and I think the both Iran and the United States are smart enough to take precautions to make sure that there is a deconfliction with respect to that kind of possibility. That’s common sense. But it doesn’t amount to cooperation in terms of military operations or otherwise. And certainly we will keep people out of harm’s in way as appropriately. And we hope they would.
Q: A senior State Department official told us last night that it was her opinion that Kuwait and Qatar had a spotty record on restricting financial assistance to the Islamic State. Did that come up here today?
A: Well, I am not going to get into what country does what or hasn’t done what in the past and this and that and the other. We’ve got pretty good sense through our Treasury Department efforts and the past records of where the weak spots are with respect to movement of money and finance of terrorism and so forth. Clearly, part of our effort here will be to focus in on whatever country may be a weak link and that important chain. And we are going to focus on it. And we need to tighten up. We need to tighten up everywhere. And there are many different things that need to tighten up. Some countries have to tighten up the flow of money, others have to tighten up the flow of weapons, others have to tighten up the flow of foreign fighters. There are all kinds of concerted efforts that are going to have to be focused on in order to make this work.
Q: How do you take what happened here today and build on that tomorrow in Turkey?
A: Well Turkey will be, you know, Turkey’s a big border with Syria. It’s very, very important. Many foreign fighters have moved through Turkey. So there is a lot to discuss with Turkey about roles that can played here, but obviously they have some immediate sensitivities and we thoughtful about those. So we’re going to sit down as talk about the road ahead.
Q: If I can finish off subject, South China Sea. The Chinese appear to be dredging up a bunch of sand and rocks to try increase the size of some of the claims that they have in the Spratly Islands. How does that square with your understanding about the rival claimants not taking unilateral steps that might antagonize?
A: Well they all need to avoid unilateral steps. We’ve had long discussions with China about this. Our hope is that every country with claims will not self-help in the resolution of those claims except to go to a legal process, through arbitration, to court, resolve these issues peacefully. That’s our only desire. We’re not talking a position on the merits of one particular claim or another. We are taking the position that the entire region is safer and more secure if these kinds of issues are not resolved in a confrontational manner.
Q: But what do you say to U.S. allies frustrated when they see, the Philippines I’m talking about, when they see China doing that and they say, well, what is the consequence for China?
A: Well, we, all of us, believe the consequences lie in the application of the law. Nobody’s looking for confrontation here. And we’ve had conversations with China about how to approach the South China Sea and other conflicts in the area, the East China Sea and East Japan Sea and so forth, and we really need to continue to press for appropriate legal avenues as the appropriate remedy for resolving this. And we urged the Philippines, and we urge other countries, Vietnam and others with claims, also, not to take provocative actions. It’s not all falling on China, you know. There are different folks who have made different decisions at different times to try to flex their muscles with respect to this and none of that is obviously helpful.