Four days after Secretary of State John Kerry announced — with many notes of caution — a new U.S.-Russia deal on a cease-fire in Syria, he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that it is the best option, and one to which the U.S. remains committed.
"What's the alternative?" he asks. Without the deal, he suggests, there would be even more deaths in a conflict that already has killed nearly 500,000 people.
The cease-fire went into effect at sundown Monday, the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura confirmed Tuesday that there had been "a significant drop in violence" during the first 24 hours of the truce, though pockets of the country were still seeing isolated incidents of violence.
In the interview, Kerry notes that even if the U.S. and Russia eventually cooperate in going after the Islamic State and al-Qaida, a diplomatic solution still will be needed to resolve the conflict between Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S.-backed moderate opposition groups. He also discusses U.S.-Russian relations more broadly, though he declined to comment on Donald Trump's praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the Syrian cease-fire plan
What's the alternative? The alternative is to allow us to go from 450,000 people who've been slaughtered to how many thousands more? That Aleppo gets completely overrun? That the Russians and Assad simply bomb indiscriminately for days to come, and we sit there and do nothing? That's the alternative to trying to get this done, if America is not going to go in with their troops — and America's made the decision we're not going in with our troops. And the president's made that decision.
So therefore we have to use the tools we have. And the tool of diplomacy is working to try to get an agreement where we hopefully can get to the table and work on a common-sense way of resolving this. Because ultimately there is not a military solution.
On the consequences of failure
If you fail to get a cessation in place now and we cannot get to the table, then the fighting is going to increase significantly. It will ratchet up without any belief in the possibility of a cessation. ... There'll be more refugees, more displaced, more migrants heading to Europe. You'll have massive potential increased sectarian conflicts — Sunni-Shia, Iran. I mean there are all kinds of forces that could suddenly become unleashed as a result.
You could wind up with enclaves, conceivably a Kurd area, a Sunni and maybe even Sunni extremist area, a moderate-slash-whatever you want to call the western enclave that Assad controls.
But you will have continued war. You will have people with suicide vests for years to come, continuing to go after Assad. And there will be a level of instability and extremism that threatens everybody — including Russia, where you have 2,000 [Chechens] who are fighting in Syria now, and they're worried about them coming home.
On severing the U.S.-backed moderate opposition from al-Qaida affiliates
We are not going to support people who are fighting alongside al-Qaida. Period. ... I think they will make common-sense decisions. And their sponsors [Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia] will encourage them to make common-sense decisions, because their sponsors have joined in condemning al-Qaida, and condemning Nusra [Front] as al-Qaida. ...
As they separate, or as we work to know better exactly who's where, there are refined ways that we can have to actually make sure we're taking on Nusra and not taking on the legitimate opposition.
On how he concluded that a deal with Russia was possible
I don't know for sure yet. We're testing this every day.
We went to Geneva with the idea of seeing if we could get an agreement. We got an agreement. Will the agreement now be implemented day-to-day, the way it has to be? That's why we have seven days of required reduction of violence, in order to build confidence that they are in fact serious, and that we're not being led down a garden path here.
On Russia's hacking of Democratic National Committee emails
There's a lot of chaff around obviously. It's disruptive, but people are being accurate in laying out what we know. Look, there are, this is a complicated set of circumstances, and there are things that we obviously, deeply disagree with, with respect to Russia's choices.