Kerry: Syrian conflict is ‘the worst human catastrophe since World War II’

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to my interview with Secretary of State John Kerry.

I sat down with him earlier today at the State Department, before the public release of that intelligence report on Russia.

But I began by asking, now that we have confirmation Russia interfered in the election, does that fundamentally change Washington’s relationship with Moscow?

Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: My pleasure. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now that it has been confirmed that the Russians interfered aggressively in the U.S. election, does this represent a fundamental change in the United States’ relationship with Russia?

JOHN KERRY: Well, that remains to be determined.

It certainly represents a major challenge in that relationship. It’s a hostile act. It has serious consequences, and we’re going to have to work that through.

And I say we. I mean the United States, the next administration is going to have to approach Russia very clearly understanding what has happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think more needs to be done to retaliate as of now?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I think that President Obama made it clear that we would retaliate at a time of our choosing and ways of our choosing.

And that means some of them, the public will know about, some of them, they will not know about. Obviously, with two weeks left, I think that the administration coming in is going to have to make some judgments of its own about what the next steps will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s reported the Russians were celebrating the election of Donald Trump. Why would they be celebrating? What do you think?

JOHN KERRY: I’m not going to speculate. I really think it’s too important. And I just am not going to speculate.

I think there has been a lot of news articles. You all have been covering this for some period of time. People are going to draw their own judgments, but I’m not going to add to that speculation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think Vladimir Putin wants? You have been dealing with him for a long time. What do you think he’s after?

JOHN KERRY: Well, he’s after a lot of things.

There are a lot of motivations. He obviously has agreed with us on some things and disagreed with us on others. And we managed to find common ground and work together effectively on the Iran nuclear agreement, where Russia assumed major responsibilities to try to get the agreement done and to make it work.

So I can give you a long list of things where Russia and President Putin have found common ground and worked with the United States. But, on Ukraine, on the implementation of the Minsk agreement, on Syria, we have obviously not been able to find the same kind of common ground, despite good efforts.

And those are problems that are going to continue into the next administration. My hope is the next administration will approach Russia strategically, with a clear purpose of trying to find more common ground, but without giving up on fundamental values and principles that are at the core of the United States’ foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, are you concerned that that could happen? You have talked with your successor, the designate, Rex Tillerson. Does he have the same view of Russian intentions that you do?

JOHN KERRY: Well, he and I are going to sit down, actually, I think next week, and have an opportunity to really debrief and to go into these subjects.

So, I can’t comment on what his approach is going to be or what he’s thinking at this moment about that. I can tell you that I think there is an opportunity here, still, for President-elect Trump and then President Trump to try to reach out to Russia and see whether or not they can put to test the proposition that we could find things in which we can agree and perhaps on some things on which we’re going to agree to disagree, but, nevertheless, put the world in a better place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at this moment, you’re not worried that the incoming administration could be naive?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I have questions, like everybody has questions, Judy.

But I’m not — as secretary of state, it’s inappropriate for me to start speculating publicly or get caught up in the day-to-day back-and-forth. I don’t want to do that. I think it’s inappropriate.

I think there are clear strategic possibilities that, if the new administration pursues correctly, could open up avenues of cooperation and reduce tensions and perhaps put to test whether or not there could be, you know, a more improved day-to-day relationship between us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria. I happened to sit down yesterday with Vice President Biden. I asked him whether that represented a failure for the United States. He said no.

My question to you is, if it’s not a failure, doesn’t it at least, beyond being a humanitarian disaster, represent an enormous missed opportunity for the United States to shape events in that part of the world?

JOHN KERRY: Well, we did shape events to a certain degree.

It is certainly going to be debated whether or not they were shaped enough or whether certain options that might have shaped them differently were taken or not taken.

But I agree with the vice president that the fact that we were not able, which is a disappointment, clearly, to push the parties into a place where they made a different set of choices, that’s disappointing. But I don’t think it represents, you know, some sort of failure on our part.

You can try and try and push people. The old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And here, we led people to water, the water of peace proposition, the water of Geneva of a process. We laid out through our leadership the International Syria Support Group. We brought Iran to the table. We brought Russia to the table.

We had assurances that Assad would do certain things. He didn’t. He chose not to. So, the Russians failed, actually, to deliver Assad in a way that they said he would.

The Iranians failed to deliver the process that they said they would, because they continued to prop him up in ways that went way beyond the agreement that had been reached in the Geneva agreement to try to come to a political resolution.

So, look, did the whole process fail? Did the international community fail to solve it? Yes, profoundly. But was that a specific failure of the United States? History will debate whether some choices might have been made or not made that might have altered that, but I don’t think it falls exclusively on us that this problem hasn’t been solved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are U.S. interests advanced with the way things stand today in Syria?

JOHN KERRY: With the way they stand today?

No, nobody’s interests are served by what’s happening in Syria today. It’s a catastrophe. It’s the worst human catastrophe since World War II. And, as I said just now, it represents a failure of the entire international community to come to grips with solving it. And it’s a tragedy for the people who have been caught in the middle.

But I am proud of what our administration has done, of what we did day to day to try to get a cease-fire in place. I am proud that we are the largest donor of humanitarian assistance for refugees. I am proud of what we did with the ISSG.

And I regret that we were not able to be successful in getting the parties to Geneva. But I deeply believe that we are on the cusp of seeing that happen over the course of the next months, and that it will be the framework that we put in place that is ultimately going to be the structure around which peace in Syria is built.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Several other countries I want to mention very quickly. Israel.

You got a great deal of attention with the speech you gave about Israel’s policy, talking about the settlements. Right after that, they announced — Israel announced they’re expanding the settlements. We know the attitude about Israel of the incoming president-elect, Mr. Netanyahu.

So, my question is, were you as secretary of state shouting into the wind?

JOHN KERRY: No, I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so at all.

Every administration through our history has said that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and they do not have legal validity. We didn’t break new ground with that, except that we reiterated and reaffirmed that we are not going to sit by idly and watch a sort of extreme element within the current government move in a direction that we believe is dangerous for Israel, reduces the possibility of peace, prolongs the potential of conflict, and is completely contrary to American values and interests, which have been expressed by Republican and Democrat administrations alike throughout history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question.

You’re seen as the most shoulder-to-the-wheel secretary of state we have had in a long time. You have been to every — virtually every global — or you have been dealing with virtually every global trouble spot around the world. You have given this job long hours. You have traveled nonstop.

What are you the most proud of? What is your greatest disappointment as you walk away?

JOHN KERRY: Well, you know, I’m going to duck you slightly here, in the sense that I honestly don’t dwell on the disappointments.

There are some. And we have talked about a few of the things that are undone. But I am very proud of the department. I think we are more engaged in more places in the world, simultaneously dealing with more crises, and with greater effect in those more places in the world, than at any time in American history.

I think the world is safer without Iran with a nuclear weapon. The world has got the potential to be safer if we fully implement the Paris agreement.

So, yes, I think, all in all, the Obama administration and what President Obama has focused on has lived up to our need to protect American interests, to live our values and assert our values, and to stand up for future generations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you very much.

JOHN KERRY: Thank you.