QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for speaking to the BBC. I wanted to start by asking you: Why are we in Erbil? You were in the Iraqi capital yesterday. Do you consider this a separate entity? Is this the new Iraqi reality that Mr. Massoud Barzani is talking about?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, not at all. But the Kurd participation in the governing formation process is very, very important. The Kurds have been very key to helping to draw a line against ISIL. They’re cooperating in the security arrangement, and I think it’s very, very important to touch all of the bases. And because of some of the internal politics of Iraq right now, it was important for me to come here and I’m glad I did.
QUESTION: The Kurds are fighting back against ISIS. They’re also trying to hold more territory and gaining ground themselves. Is that going to stay like that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s going to be something that has to be resolved by Iraqis, by the new government. They have to form a government, so whatever that government is is clearly going to have to tackle some of these issues. But we believe, I believe, President Obama believes very deeply that a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq and it is very, very important for that unity to be shown now to deal with the internal political crisis as well as the security crisis.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of talk about unity, a lot of talk about the politics. But on the ground, ISIS, as we call it, or ISIL, is making a lot of gains. They’ve just reportedly seized the largest oil refinery, Baiji in Iraq. How do you even start to reverse these territorial gains, or have you accepted that this militant group now simply holds territory?
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely not. And President Obama is very concerned about it, but the President also is deeply concerned about the political situation in Iraq. Without the formation of a government, without an adequate transformative decision by the leaders of Iraq, anything that the United States or others or allies or friends would do to try to fight back is going to be limited, if not impossible. You need a competent, unified government that is prepared. That’s the first step. The second step is, obviously, you’ve got to reconstitute the military, and that’s going to take this political leadership to help to do that. And then you’ve got to lay out a strategy and understand exactly what you’re doing. But I have no question but that every country in the region will combine in order to ultimately take on and expel ISIS, because it is simply unacceptable to have a terrorist organization grabbing territory and challenging the legitimacy of governments and then challenging neighboring countries externally with acts of terror.
QUESTION: Unity is important, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hated by the Sunnis. How can there be peace while he’s still in power?
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: It’s not up to the U.S. to pick Iraq’s leaders, but they do look like they need a bit of help. Are you going to appoint, perhaps, a special envoy or a special representative?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no We have an extraordinary ambassador here and an assistant secretary of state who’s been out here many, many times. They both have very good relationships with all of the personalities.
QUESTION: But they need sustained support, sustained help and mediation.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s an organic process, which is the best way for this to, frankly, take hold and is playing out right now. And one of the things I’ve come away from in the last 24 hours in all of the meetings I’ve had is a sense of urgency, a sense of commitment, and a determination by Iraqis themselves to take steps to go forward.
Now, words are cheap. We know that. So it’s actions that will matter. And we will watch very carefully and continue to nudge and to encourage and to try to provide a clarity of the vision that is at the end of this process, because that’s the way they’re going to earn the most help and support from everybody else in the world.
QUESTION: You’ve promised sustained and intense support for Iraq’s security forces, but so far that’s only translated into 300 military advisors. That’s not very intense.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re setting up the joint operations command. In addition to that, we have very significantly increased the intelligence gathering that is taking place here. The President has insisted on doing what our military believes it needs to do in preparation for any contingency. But most important to the President and to me and to all of us is the government formation. If you don’t have --
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.
QUESTION: Are you going to push for a pardon?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re going to push for appropriate response by Egyptian authorities that liberates these journalists and recognizes the freedom of people to spread news, to report on news, and to be able to live up to the international standard with respect to journalism. And that’s what we will continue to press for.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure, thank you.