Remarks at the 30th Overseas Security Advisory Council Annual Briefing

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John Kerry
Secretary of State
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
November 18, 2015

Well, Bill, thank you very, very much. Good morning to everybody. Thank you all for taking time to be here. Thank you for, Bill, your – not just the introduction, but for your outstanding leadership of the Diplomatic Security Service. And I want to thank Schlehr from Raytheon and from my home state, and the 34 member organizations of OSAC for your tremendous contributions at a moment where the reality of what George Shultz thought of doing 30 years ago or so has a lot more meaning, a lot more impact.

Yesterday I returned from Paris – the city of lights, as it is known – where, as everybody knows too well, last Friday the forces of darkness tried to take that light away, replacing it with fear, with terror, with death, with chaos. And obviously this tragedy came on the heels of terrorist strikes in Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, and the explosion of a commercial aircraft in Egypt, which we now know from the Russians they have deemed to have been a terrorist act.

Last weekend, as I think most of you know, I was in Vienna, where we brought together a broadly representative international group and agreed on the outlines of a plan to try to bring the Syrian war to an end. The Syrian war, as we all know, is a combination of things. It’s a civil war, yes, but it’s also a proxy war, regrettably, and that has to end. And that is why the President commissioned me particularly to seize the initiative and to go out and try to bring the parties together, and for the first time we were able to bring all of the parties to the table, including Iran and Russia. Some criticized that, but I have to tell you, I don’t know how you end the war if some of the biggest stakeholders aren’t at the table, prepared to try to find a political solution.

Now, it is complicated, no question about it. And there are forces at play that have been at play long before the United States of America became a country. Now, that doesn’t mean that they are irreconcilable or impossible to be able to deal with. There were a lot of Sunni and Shia living together quite peacefully before the Middle East began to boil over in the way that it is today due to a lot of different factors – not just the Iraq War, though that obviously played a key role in it; nobody can hide from that fact – but also a clash of culture and modernity; a clash of – a process that has been building for some period of time as certain players have supported certain philosophies and ideologies and spread them through investments in various countries, and those are coming back to bite people today.

But in the end, I do believe that the vast majority of people – vast majority of people, and I hear this wherever I go – are absolutely, totally committed in an unprecedented way to come together across ethnic, across religious, across political, across cultural lines to fight for decency and for stability and for a future that is not based on creating chaos and violence.

Daesh doesn’t have a platform, folks. They’re not arguing about health care or infrastructure or schools. They don’t want schools, and to whatever degree they want anybody educated, they want them educated exactly by what they believe people ought to be learning. They kill people because they – they kill Yezidis because they are Yezidis. They kill Christians because they are Christians. They kill Shia because they are Shia. And people need to understand this: There is no negotiation. There’s nothing to negotiate when you license rape as a form of daily life and call it the will of God. Show me a religion anywhere, including Islam, which teaches that. This is a complete aberration. A lot of them are ideologues run amok, but a lot of them are also criminals run amok, and people for whom this is an adventure and a great opportunity to go out and be paid to do whatever you want – rape, pillage, and plunder.

So this is a moment for all of us – let me make that clear. This is a moment – a generational moment, perhaps, but it’s a moment in history where we have to all of us collectively stand up and say no, we’re not going to accept this, but also we’re not going to be intimidated by it. We’re not going to be somehow cowered in our pursuit of daily life and of the values which drive us as a country and as people, as human beings. We’ve worked too hard and too long after two World Wars and through the Cold War, and the creation of the United Nations and all that comes with it, and all of our efforts to try to carry values and interests that talk about resolving things through rule of law and living peacefully together, notwithstanding differences, and promoting tolerance – tolerance, one of the most important words in life today and one of the most important organizing principles of any decent society.

So that’s our obligation, folks, and we need to absolutely make clear our willingness and our determination to stay together, to protect each other, to show that we are not intimidated and that we will never allow these terrorists to achieve their vile aims.

Now, let me make my point as clearly as I can: There are no grounds of history – religion, ideology, psychology, politics, economic disadvantage, or personal ambition – that justify the slaughter of unarmed civilians, the bombing of public places, or indiscriminate violence towards innocent men, women, and children. And such atrocities can never be rationalized, and we can never allow them to be rationalized. There’s no excuse. They have to be stopped.

Now, that is precisely where the Advisory Council is playing an indispensable role and where you can play a larger role going forward. But let me make this clear: We don’t have any illusions about how complicated this is. Most people don’t think that another invasion by Americans in yet another Muslim country in which the local citizens are not prepared to fight back and hold the land that you then gain makes a lot of sense, which is why our strategy – and there is a strategy and it is clear and it’s working, not as fast as anybody would like, but working. We have liberated communities in Iraq and in Syria. Tikrit, which was taken over by ISIL, has now seen 100,000 Sunni be able to come back and rebuild. Baiji refinery, which was under assault for months, is now securely in the hands of Iraqis. Ramadi – the forces of Iraq, where they’ve lost 200 people and some 1,200 wounded, are fighting to retake Ramadi, and they will. Sinjar was just liberated over the weekend with several thousand Peshmerga routing Daesh from that community, and they scattered. And just in the last few days we have taken on their oil revenue, which is where they are really getting their money to pay for this – these tentacles that are reaching out. And we destroyed over 161 oil trucks, and that will continue – a campaign that will deprive them from their smuggling to Iraq and to Turkey from which they get literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition, we have shut off three-quarters of the border of northern Syria into Turkey, and the last 98 kilometers is an operation that we will engage in together with the Turks in order to shut that off also. And there are Syrian Arabs and Kurds who are starting to put pressure on al-Raqqa, and in the last few days you’ve seen Russia and France increase the bombing level against al-Raqqa. And we will see greater coordination in this effort.

But there’s another side of the coin. Why do all these fighters come there? Where are all these people? Where do they come from? They came to fight Assad. They came to fight because he and his response to the Arab Spring was to send his thugs to beat up the young people who went out to demonstrate for jobs and for opportunity and for a future. And when the parents of those young people saw what had happened to them, the parents went out and demonstrated. And they were met not with thugs, but with bullets and bombs, ultimately. Now you have over 300,000 citizens of the country who have been killed, barrel bombed, tortured, starved, gassed – which is against international law, as everybody knows. And three-quarters of the country has already voted with their feet. They’re displaced people. They are refugees – 4 million refugees, and the rest of them displaced within the country itself, seeking refuge and shelter from the man who supposedly leads the country.

It’s a 65 percent Sunni-majority country. Are you telling me that even if the United States wanted to keep him and sat there, you couldn’t do it, because those folks won’t stop fighting because of what he has done. That’s the other complicating factor here: Daesh and Assad.

So for the first time, we got people to sit down at the table and everybody, including Iran and including Russia, signed on to a communique that said we all want a united Syria; we all want a secular Syria; we all want a Syria in which the minorities are fully protected and there is tolerance and respect for different religions and different cultures. All of us signed on to that, including signing on to a transitional process of governance where you put together a governing capacity that can take some of the power that Assad currently has in order to run the country and put together a constitutional reform process, which everybody signed on to, and ultimately have an election. And now they have signed on to somewhere like six months to try to do the political process, and a year to be able to have – year and a half to have the election. That’s unanimous.

Now, the difficulty will come in the application. We all understand that. But I will tell you that I think every country there understands this is dangerous, what is happening, and it is empowering evil people. So hopefully, common sense can prevail, and we have seen a lot of that in the last few days, happily. It’s been hard to come by, but I think more people are now prepared to show it, and we are, over these next few days, constantly open to figuring out how we could qualitatively apply more pressure, do a better job.

The President has made critical decisions. He’s decided to put a certain number of American Special Forces on the ground in Syria in order to enable other people to be able to target and learn how to do things more effectively, and we’re confident that that will put additional pressure. And I am certain that working with everybody – if the political process works, the theory of the case is very simple: If you can get a transitioning council, if you can begin to move power to an accepted entity, then you have the ability to bring everybody in the region together to go after Daesh and ISIL, and that includes the standing army of Syria as well as the opposition together – providing you have a legitimate political process.

That’s how much hangs in the balance right now on this political effort – to see if diplomacy can actually succeed in creating the transition and, indeed, empowering all of us together. Because what is notable about this situation is that every single country in the region is opposed to Daesh, every single country in the world, every civilized person in the world. So I am convinced that if we are clever, creative, patient, tenacious, persistent, and steady, we will have the ability to be able to destroy Daesh, and in the doing of that, send a message to Boko Haram, to al-Shabaab, to al-Qaida, to any other entities in the world that the world will stand united against barbarism and against an attack on our very purpose and on reasonableness itself.

Our embassy has, as you know, been working around the clock, delivering the full range of consular assistance to everybody who is in France, to all Americans in France, and we’re going to continue to help however we can. But I will thank you today profoundly for the work of OSAC, because behind the scenes, you have performed the role that you were conceived to play – as a point of contact for our private sector in a moment of crisis and a source of information, intelligence, and security for U.S. organizations abroad.

On the very first night, OSAC created a website for the Paris Country Council, and that was available to over 150 members in the area, and since then, OSAC has been in constant touch with private sector constituents in and around Paris, offering advice and sharing security-related updates with U.S. organizations and businesses. OSAC also reached out to California State University, whose student Nohemi Gonzalez was among those murdered, and sent out security advisories to other young Americans who were studying in France. Moving forward, OSAC will stay connected with its private sector partners and will produce post-attack analysis and reporting that will help everybody to be able to prepare for the future.

So all of these efforts, frankly, combined remind us why George Shultz was prescient when he established this structure. And he knew from his own experience that the world was growing more dangerous, even as it became more interconnected. And he knew that it’s going to be very important for our diplomats and citizens to work together and to have each other’s back.

The events of the past few days speak to the essential need for us in government or business or nonprofits or elsewhere – faith-based organizations, whichever – to stay ahead of the curve in assessing new risks and taking protective measures to respond to them. We obviously cannot afford to be slow in sharing information because information that comes later, not at all, is a precursor to disaster. We have to be knowledgeable enough about local conditions and circumstances to discern the difference between an empty threat and a real one. And we have to stay in touch so that if an emergency arises, as in Paris last week, we know where you are and what you need.

Since Friday night, there has been a great deal of discussion about so-called soft targets – cafes, restaurants, sporting events, a concert venue, soccer stadium, and so forth – the types of places that you wouldn’t automatically expect to be a prime target for a global terrorist organization, which obviously are today. And these targets are viewed as anonymous destinations, chosen almost at random – you can go on Google Map and pick spots and map it out pretty easily these days. And the ultimate purpose of those attacks is to do what the name “terrorist” implies – to sow terror, to scare everybody. Shopping malls, a restaurant – anywhere. The idea is to make us believe that we are always going to be in such grave and imminent danger that we actually have to stop what we’re doing and change our choices and change our way of life.

And in the case of OSAC members, the work you’re doing is really important, obviously. You’re building infrastructure. You’re conducting business. You’re leading local projects. You’re providing needed services. You’re participating in civil society. You’re helping to build the opposite of everything that these people want to destroy. It’s pretty stunning when you think about it. A professor in Syria who spent his life curating and caring about art and was the most knowledgeable person about the history of Palmyra, 83 years old, hauled out into a village square and they chop his head off, string his body up, and then they go and destroy the Roman arch that was a symbol of this community.

Nobody who witnesses that kind of destruction and that kind of horror should have any doubt in their heart or in their gut about how critical it is for us to stand up. And we have stood up before, my friends – stood up to the fascism of World War II. We have stood up to the horrors of the Holocaust, stood up to extraordinary moments of challenge. Paris has had worse moments than it had last weekend, and it came out of it. And I assure you we will come out of this.

So we’re going to continue to expand and broaden our commercial and our academic connections overseas. We’re going to visit and invite visitors. We’re going to do the right thing by refugees. I mean, how is it that somebody can suddenly say that a 50-year-old woman with her grandchildren is going to be a threat and that we can’t process people adequately to keep faith with our values in this country? We’re going to continue to be proud in this department to represent the United States of America.

And make no mistake, none of you have to be nominated by the President of the United States or confirmed by the Senate to be an ambassador for the United States. Every single one of you is an ambassador when you travel abroad. And that’s what you and your companies represent every day as you bring with you a set of business practices and a set of hopes and opportunities and jobs that help to shape this world. It matters enormously that you carry that role of ambassador seriously, because in the process, you win friends for our country, you explain to people that we’re not telling anybody what they have to do; we give people a choice, and we don’t punish people if they don’t make the choice we wanted them to. You can help earn respect for those values, and you do. And all of this is multiplied when you reply to acts of terror with affirmations of courage and friendship and support.

That is why OSAC is so vital. That’s why we are so happy to have you all here today. And my message to you today is one of enormous gratitude: Thank you for all you have done and continue to do to keep Americans safe around the world, and to enable America to continue and individual Americans themselves to continue to contribute to international prosperity, to development, to democracy, and to justice.

And my message today is also one of encouragement on the accomplishments of the past 30 years and to continue strengthening our partnership and helping us to make progress in the years to come. Thank you very, very much. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

Source: U.S Department of State


Robert Williams

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Robert Williams

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