John Kerry: Russia Has No 'Easy Track' In Syria : Parallels Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war could end up helping Islamic militants, the secretary of state told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "That would be absurd, it would be a farce," Kerry said.

John Kerry: Russia Has No 'Easy Track' In Syria

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


SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I have managed to completely forget that when running for president in 2004, I was crushed in Indiana.


INSKEEP: Kerry was welcomed yesterday. He promoted big international agreements like deals on Pacific trade and Iran's nuclear program. He also had to address darker issues, like Russia's intervention in Syria's war. Russian planes are backing President Bashar al-Assad. The United States has struggled to back rebels who oppose Assad and the Islamic State. After Kerry's speech, we sat in a classroom and talked of President Obama's policy.

Why do you think it is so common that this policy is perceived as weak?

KERRY: Well, for the simple reason that it's hard to understand a policy in which people don't have your troops fighting the war, so to speak. But I think the president has taken a very patient, very thoughtful and very deliberate set of steps to galvanize other countries and use appropriate action from appropriate sources. For instance, there are Syrian Arabs on the ground who are fighting and fighting very effectively, and we are helping them. There are Kurds in the region who are fighting and fighting very effectively. We are helping them.

INSKEEP: Is the United States doing or going to do anything to help Syrians who are now being attacked by Russian aircraft - who are on your side, who have been supported by the U.S.?

KERRY: Well, we are having that discussion with the Russians right now. I talked to my counterpart today - to 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.

INSKEEP: Well, help me understand that. I understood deconfliction is making sure that U.S. warplanes do not get in conflict...

KERRY: That's the immediate. That's the short-term, de minimus deconfliction. But it is possible - possible, I say - 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.

INSKEEP: Are the Russians actually...

KERRY: But if they are supporting Assad - and that's all they're doing or that's the principle reason they're there - it is going to be impossible to keep other players from supporting jihadists who will be attracted to that fight.

INSKEEP: Are the Russians agreeing, even in principle, to rule out attacks on U.S.-supported rebels who are attacking the Syrian government that Russia supports?

KERRY: They have said that they are not going after the moderate opposition or the Free Syrian Army. They have said - and you can hear in my voice the difference between saying and doing - that they are exclusively focused on the extremists, on al-Nusra and al-Ashram (ph), and, of course, Da'ish - ISIL. The fact is that Assad considers anybody who is opposed to the regime, a terrorist. And to some degree, I would presume that some of the targeting has reflected that through the Russians. My hope is it will be possible to have clarity on these issues.

INSKEEP: Your predecessor, former Secretary of State Clinton, said in the presidential debate the other night, we have to stand up to his bullying, meaning standing up to the bullying of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In what way, if at all, has the United States stood up to his bullying?

KERRY: Well, we've stopped him cold with respect to what was happening in Ukraine. He was planning to march forward into Kiev. We put the sanctions on him, together with Europe, which we have held together under very difficult circumstances.

INSKEEP: What about in Syria?

KERRY: So I think we've done, seriously - well, it remains to be seen what their full strategy is in Syria. I mean, everybody says, oh, Russia's there. 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 which will 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.

INSKEEP: Just supporting Assad is a very clear strategy which people can understand. That must be very appealing. What leverage, if any, do you have to push the Russians toward a more complicated strategy?

KERRY: The fact that if they're supporting Assad, they're going to attract great difficulties for themselves and for any hope of a unified, secular Syria. Syria will crumble under the weight of a prolonged war. So 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. And it could be ISIL that actually winds up gaining in that process...

INSKEEP: You said the president...

KERRY: ...And that would be absurd. It would be a farce. And I think President Putin understands that.

INSKEEP: You said the president gave the green light to send more weapons to Syria and rebels that the U.S. supports. News reports have indicated that anti-tank weapons and others have been arriving. When you say Putin needs to know that he cannot stop the war, are you sending that message with those weapons...

KERRY: No...

INSKEEP: ...That Russia will not be able to stop the war on its terms?

KERRY: No, no, absolutely not. That is not what we are doing at all. And it would be, I think, a very misplaced policy to try to be quite so cynical in that regard. What we are doing is supporting those people who have been legitimately committed to a political process and who want a political say as Syrians in the future of Syria. What we're doing is helping the same people we have been helping for more than a year. President Putin has willfully and individually decided to insert himself into the middle of that. And our message to him has been we're not changing what we have been doing because we've been fighting ISIL.

INSKEEP: That's Secretary of State John Kerry at Indiana University. Kerry also took questions from students and made some news. A student asked if it's time to send U.S. troops to Syria. Kerry replied, not yet, no, and then added, quote, "Will we need to put enablers on the ground? I think so." He said these enablers could be special forces troops not in direct combat, helping Syrian rebels. Kerry added the president has not decided to send them. The State Department says this has long been under discussion. Elsewhere today, we ask Secretary Kerry about violence in Jerusalem.

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