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Remarks at the Ministerial Meeting of the Small Group of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Rome, Italy
February 2, 2016

FOREIGN MINISTER GENTILONI: (In progress) we are now beginning this third ministerial meeting of the so-called Small Group of the international anti-Daesh coalition, and I think that one of the issues that we could discuss and deliver today is to have even more frequent meetings of this Small Group during 2016. We had last year only one meeting, and one in 2014, but the situation needs a strong coordination, and perhaps we could deliver to have more frequent meeting this year.

We made important progress since the first ministerial meeting in December 2014, and particularly, we are pleased with the coalition's ability to diversify its activities, to consolidate its membership, to work out increasingly sophisticated strategies to disrupt Daesh. We have had up and downs, but more recently, more ups than downs, and Daesh lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent of its territory in Syria. And this is a tribute to the joint commitment and resolve of all of us.

However, we know that we have in front an organization that it's very resilient and able to plan strategically, and so we should not underestimate it. If anything, we should be even more wary and watchful, because we know that the more Daesh is squeezed in its core territory, the more it is tempted to pursue its terrorist activities elsewhere by targeting other countries, and we are witnessing renewed activity in Libya and in sub-Saharan Africa, both directly and through its affiliates; or by looking to strike inside our own countries.

In the past few months, the threat in our own homeland has taken on a new, more dangerous dimension requiring the coalition's focused and coordinated attention. As we move forward, I think we should also be able to critically assess our strategy, and this is the goal of our meeting today: our military efforts, our diplomatic engagement – particularly on Syria, where the humanitarian catastrophe continues, our commitment to defeat Daesh financially and on culture and information. There is surely potential to strengthen our individual contribution to the different lines of effort of the coalition as well as to improve coordination and synergy among ourselves.

I am sure, colleagues and friends, that today we will do great work, not just in recognizing the important results we have achieved, but also in discussing openly tools to make our cooperation broader and more effective. And with this in mind, I now have the pleasure to give the floor to Secretary of State Kerry. John.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good morning, everybody. And Paolo, thank you very, very much. First of all, on behalf of everybody, we thank you for hosting us here today. We thank the Government of Italy. We thank the people of Rome for putting up with whatever disruptions come with this many ministers from so many countries coming together. This is the Small Group, but as you look around the table, it doesn't look so small and I think that's because ministers are joined by members of their team, which is appropriate. And today we're here not to make a whole lot of speeches, but we're here really to have a dialogue, to talk, to intervene, and to share thoughts, to try to produce as powerful an upgrade in our efforts as is achievable. And I want to thank every country here for their leadership. There isn't one country at the table that isn't making important contributions to this counter-Daesh effort.

And yesterday, Afghanistan, which we all know has its own challenges in which we are, most of us, involved in helping, has also decided to join the coalition, recognizing that it too faces challenges and wants to make its contributions to this effort. So we welcome that. So it's now a 66-nation partnership, and much has changed since our last ministerial in Paris. I know that, for me, a lot has changed because I was privileged to share some thoughts with you a few hours before I had my leg operated on in the hospital, and I was this disjointed voice coming in from nowhere and I had no idea what you heard or whether, given my input at that time, it was coherent. But we've made a lot of progress since June, and I just want to share a few thoughts with everybody.

At that time of our last ministerial, Ramadi had just fallen, and there was a pretty dark and dangerous narrative that was emerging. Daesh had regained momentum, so people said, so Daesh told the world, as it announced its caliphate and was marching across large swaths of territory with the difficulties that it had been – that we had been presented with folks who had decided not necessarily to fight at that moment. There was a sense of impunity. And the narrative itself allowed Daesh to recruit people, to create a sense of inevitability. So all of us joined together. This was a really responsible, global counter-effort. Along with many of you, we all urged patience. We said this is not going to happen overnight, but we are going to defeat Daesh. We've always recognized – everybody here has always said this will be a multiyear effort, and it's going to demand sustained contributions and effort by every country.

So we all adapted – I think effectively – to what was happening on the battlefield. We deployed more special operations forces. As you know, President Obama has made the decision to put more American Special Forces into the efforts in Syria itself. We've expanded training efforts for groups that were effective in fighting Daesh. We acquired better intelligence. We upgraded our intelligence. We improved our targeting. We welcomed more countries to the leading edge of this multifaceted campaign, and we'll talk about that today. Nine different lines of effort that we are focused on, all of which, cumulatively, can make a difference.

Now, it's fair to say that the world – and I found those of you who were at the World Economic Forum sure heard this from businesspeople around the world – that economies are being hurt by this instability. Tourism is being cut off by this instability. The certainty that people need to be able to make investments is being affected by the uncertainty. And so the world expects us to keep the world safe.

So this meeting is an important meeting in the context of our responsibilities. We are surely not here to brag about anything. We've here to recommit. We're here to reevaluate. We're here to make better judgments about things that we have started that we could do better. But eight months later, it is fair to say that our persistence, our unity, our concerted commitment from every different country in whichever way you are committed, is all making a difference. It is making a difference.

And one of the difficulties in this challenge is that if you're a terrorist you only have to get it right once. If you're a country trying to protect your people you have to get it right every day, all day, all year. Our challenge is extremely complicated and challenging and I think it's been pretty remarkable, despite Ankara and Paris and Bernardino, California, and other places, how significantly we have been able to push back. We're not telling people we're there yet but we are seeing that our concerted effort is moving in the right direction.

A more encouraging story compared to just last June, six months ago, seven months ago. A more – a different story is emerging. Iraqi Security Forces themselves fought courageously and successfully to recapture Ramadi. And despite the fact that some countries offered help Prime Minister Abadi wanted Iraqis to do it – and Iraqis did it, and they retook Ramadi and they are now securing Ramadi and moving on to the next challenge.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have retaken thousands of kilometers of territory from Daesh. Daesh's supply routes are cut off. Places like Kobani and Hasakah, Tikrit and Sinjar, have been liberated. A hundred thousand Sunni were able to go back to Tikrit and begin to rebuild homes and rebuild the community. Sinjar liberated. Our coalition has provided air support, equipment and training to make these advances possible. All told, since coming together we've launched almost 10,000 airstrikes. We've killed more than 90 mid-level or high-level leaders of Daesh since last May. We are closing in on full control of the Syria-Turkey border. We are hammering Daesh's heavy weapons, its training camps, its oil fields, supply routes, cache sites, infrastructure. Just last week we learned they had to cut the pay to their fighters by 50 percent. We're pushing Daesh out of more and more territory that it once controlled – as Paolo said, about 40 percent in Iraq and about 30 or so percent in Syria.

Now, we all know that this battle, ultimately, is going to be won by forces on the ground. We've always said that. And coalition members have trained nearly 20,000 regular Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers as well as more than a thousand Iraqi police officers. And those police officers, by the way, have been deployed, many of them in many places, and they're making a difference. And Italy has played a critical role, and others, but Italy really has been one of the lead countries with respect to the training. The expertise of the carabinieri that they have brought to bear in training police in Anbar, in Nineveh, in Salah ad Din, has made a huge difference.

So the challenge now, my friends, is pretty straightforward: to push ahead with a strategy that we have learned will work, and to do so relentlessly, giving Daesh no time to regroup, no place to run, no safe havens in which to hide.

Now, this will not be a profitable meeting if we don't also talk about what we can do better. Because we're still not at the victory that we want to achieve and will achieve in either Syria or Iraq, and we have seen Daesh playing a game of metastasizing out to other countries – particularly Libya, but other places – where they take a group that already exists and they just label them Daesh, and they claim the caliphate is growing. So that's both a physical challenge, but it's also a communications, messaging challenge. And we'll hear from Under Secretary Rick Stengel and a team about what we are doing globally to address that part of the challenge.

Daesh is, in the sense of metastasizing – and I'm not going to call it like a cancer; it's more like a weed, where you can cut off the top of the weed or you can pull part of it out but if you leave the tentacles there it can continue to grow. And we've got to come at it in a way over this next year that gets right underneath the ground and at the weed itself.

So we need to build more progress and we believe we have a plan in place to be able to do that, choking every resource, choking every method of spreading its terror, and we're going to continue, I guarantee you, not just to do what we're doing today, but President Obama has made it clear we're going to do more even, and we have been going through a series of meetings to define what that will be and over time we will lay that out.

Now, today we need to make clear to everybody that we also need to expand our financial contributions to the funding facility for Iraqi stabilization. It's one thing to clean Ramadi but you've got to come in underneath it and make things work. Services have to be delivered. Police have to work. Schools have to open. There has to be stabilization and we need to build that so people can rebuild their lives and believe there was a reason to go through this fight.

We have seen what these investments mean in Tikrit, for instance. Thanks to more than $50 million committed to the stabilization by members of this coalition over 90 percent of Tikrit's people are now returned to the city. The main university reopened its doors. The community has overcome Daesh's tyranny through its own determination and perseverance. It's a great story. It really is. When you think about where we were six months ago in Tikrit and where we are today, it's a great story. Tikrit may serve as a model for other newly liberated communities such as Ramadi, Sinjar, Kobani. As we all know, Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy Brett McGurk just went in with a couple of his colleagues – France and Britain – went into Kobani the other day and he can personally tell you what he saw of what is happening.

Beyond our financial support, we have another challenge. We have to help the Government of Iraq remove the thousands of lethal explosives that are left behind by the terrorists. What happens is when Daesh leaves almost every house they put a booby trap hoping that when the family comes back or somebody opens a door or walks in they're blown up. So war continues in that sense. We, many of the countries around this table, have particular expertise in ordnance removal and we need to do this.

It also means we need to back the broad-based diplomatic effort to de-escalate the conflict and achieve a political transition in Syria. We've done a lot of work – everybody at this table. A lot of you are on the telephone. A lot of us have been talking together. They are – the talks officially begin now in Geneva. I'll come back to that in a minute. But we have an opportunity here that we didn't have a few months ago and my profound gratitude to every country that came to Vienna twice and to New York under tough circumstances. Everybody's schedules were pressed but we got to the talks and that was the objective.

In Libya, we're on the brink of getting a government of national unity and that will prevent Daesh from turning Libya into a stranglehold on that country's future. And as everybody here knows, has – that country has resources. The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue. So it means we need to push full speed ahead with training security personnel and we need to ensure that there is a decisive military edge not just to clear territory but to create a safe environment for a government to begin to stand up and operate. And this is, I think, a major obligation for those countries – us among them – who were there at the very beginning when we felt compelled to protect the people from 10,000 or more people being slaughtered by the dictator of the country.

Finally, our coalition has a profound responsibility to answer the urgent, the compelling, the stunning – to address the absolutely stunning images and reality of life for real people on the ground in Syria. This is required by international law, my friends, and it is required by simple human decency. The situation on the ground for the Syrian people is unfathomable. We haven't seen a catastrophe like this since World War II and it's unfolding before our eyes. People in Madaya eating leaves and grass or animals of one kind or another that they manage to capture. People who have not had a resupply for months. A hundred and thirteen requests by the United Nations to provide supplies and only 13 have been granted by the Assad regime. Starvation as a tactic of war is against the laws of war and it is being used every single day as a tactic by the Assad regime. So we need to speak out powerfully about the urgent need of Geneva to deliver a ceasefire, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to get civilians from stopping being bombed on a daily basis by those with airplanes who are dropping bombs.

So I hope everybody here will join in calling for an immediate halt to the indiscriminate use of weapons and attacks on civilians; an end to the sieges around towns and population centers; and for the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to every area designated by the UN as besieged or hard to reach.

The Syrian regime has a responsibility – in fact, all parties to the conflict have a duty to facilitate humanitarian access to Syrians in desperate need. And this has to happen not a week from now, not two weeks, not in a month. It shouldn't even be a bargaining chip. It ought to happen in the first days and I hope everybody here will help us to make that happen.

So with sufficient and – through the sufficient effort by everybody, with continued military, financial and humanitarian contributions by the members of this coalition, I'm absolutely confident – I have no doubt we are going to degrade and destroy Daesh. And we're going to do it not just because we're against what they're doing, which is enslaving people and destroying culture and destroying history and trying to sell the notion that raping young women is somehow the will of God and that it's all right, but we're going to do it because everything that we stand for in terms of decency and civilization and culture and obeying the rules of law and order and rule of law itself is worth fighting for. It always has been, and every one of us has come together based on that notion.

So this is a very important morning, a very important meeting, and we look forward in the course of the working group reports and the back-and-forth and give-and-take to clarifying even further how we can do this faster. The impact of this crisis on Jordan, on Lebanon, on Turkey, on the region, throughout the Horn of Africa, throughout all of the Arabian, Southcentral Asia and the world – this narrative, which is a false narrative – a false narrative about Islam, a false narrative about legitimacy, about a state – requires every single one of us to get this job done as fast as we can. And I know everybody here is ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Thank you, Paolo.

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