On December 5, Secretary of State John Kerry said that supporting “builders as opposed to the destroyers in the Middle East” is the glue of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. In a keynote address to the annual Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, Kerry warned that ISIS “has become an overt, declared threat to the interests of the United States and to law-abiding men and women across the globe.” He also emphasized the Obama administration’s three missions to achieve U.S. goals regarding ISIS. The first is to mobilize partners to defeat the militants. The second is to end the Syrian civil war through diplomacy. And the third is to prevent instability from spreading beyond Syria’s borders. The following are excerpts from his speech.

[I]t is America’s support for the builders as opposed to the destroyers in the Middle East that informs every single aspect of our policy in the region. This is the glue that holds the components of our strategy together. And yes, there is a strategy. I know the criticisms. We all hear them. We know how the chatting heads on cable television can command any day the negative, because the negative sells and the negative polarizes and the negative creates a self-selecting audience. But it doesn’t mean that that’s wisdom.

So there is a strategy that we can work on together whether we’re mobilizing a coalition against terrorism, which we have undertaken to do, or trying to halt the sudden outbreak of violence, which I traveled to Israel recently to try to do, or striving to put in place new foundations for prosperity and stability. Our goal, our strategy, is to help ensure that the builders and the healers throughout the region have the chance that they need to accomplish their tasks. And I’ll tell you this is a struggle to which we are deeply committed for the simple reason that the outcome is vital to our security interests too.

That is why we are supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition by helping its leaders to reconcile differences and to defend their nation’s borders. It’s why I was there just a few weeks ago for a strategic dialogue and why we have worked with civil society in Tunisia to support democratic procedures and strength the rule of law.

That is why we are engaged in a vital UN-led effort to forge a genuine government of national accord in Libya. And it is why we are convening – we, the United States, have called together and asked us other nations to join us with Martin Kobler in the UN to go with urgency to Rome in a few days in order to convene a conference so that we can help the people of that embattled nation find the common purpose and the internal stability that they need to literally cobble together a legitimate government around which we can organize future efforts which are essential to being able to push back against Daesh, which seeks to fill the vacuum.

That is why we are encouraging all the parties in Yemen to reject violence. It’s why we’re working for a negotiated settlement and with the parties working to agree on a process of political transition in which all can participate and the interests and the rights of every single faction will be respected.

And that is why we have led the effort to mobilize a coalition of more than 65 countries to fight and degrade and defeat Daesh. I ask you all to remember about 12 months ago there was no coalition against Daesh. Daesh had just started to move through Mosul and into Baghdad, and the President made the decision to unleash our airstrikes and to mobilize forces, and we moved immediately to keep faith with our obligations and our commitments in the region.

And the urgency of defeating Daesh cannot be overstated. Daesh are a mixture of killers and kidnappers, smugglers, thieves, and apostates who have hijacked a religion and combined a medieval thinking with modern weapons to wage an especially savage brand of war. They have conjured up an abhorrent theory that rape of non-Muslim women and girls is condoned by God and is a form of prayer. They butcher teachers, burn books, shut schools, destroy ancient sacred places including the tombs of the prophets Jonah and Daniel. And they have seized the director of antiquities in Palmyra, made him kneel in a public square, cut off his head, and left his body tied to a pole. This man was 83 years old and he had been in charge of preserving Palmyra’s cultural heritage for more than 50 years.

Daesh executes people not for anything they’ve done but for who they are and for what they believe and for how they choose to worship God. They are fighting against everything that our ancestors fought for and stood for through the course of history and particularly the 20th century. They have a contempt for decency, for modernity, for liberty, for rule of law, the sacredness of an individual, and for truth.

And so it is that Daesh has become an overt, declared threat to the interests of the United States and to law-abiding men and women across the globe. And their aggression has fueled a refugee crisis that is placing an extraordinary burden on our friends in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and now all of Europe with a profound impact on Europe itself.

And in recent weeks we have seen in Paris, Egypt, Beirut, and elsewhere the evidence of their desire to carry out and inspire murderous acts wherever they can. That is why President Obama at the very outset, folks, the moment we saw what Daesh was doing and how they were moving and coming into Iraq, he declared that we must defeat Daesh. And that is why we are now increasing the pace of doing so.

The President has defined three missions to achieve our goals. The first is to mobilize our partners to accelerate and broaden the international campaign to defeat Daesh. The second is to work diplomatically to bring an end to the Syrian civil war, because every single country consistently from the beginning of the Syrian revolution has said there is no military solution to this; it has to be a political one. And if you’re not looking for it, you’re certainly not going to find it. You’re not going to stumble on it out there, and everybody here knows that.

And the third leg of the strategy, or pillar, is to ensure that the instability created by the war in Syria does not spread further beyond its borders. And so we must support Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, any country negatively impacted by it.

So with respect to Daesh, our strategy is to attack the organization at its core in Syria and Iraq, and to strangle the networks that it is attempting to establish in other countries. We have said from the beginning that this would be a multiyear fight, but I’m telling you that we can already measure important gains. To date, the coalition has launched more than 8,200 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and the number is rising now every day. In the past half year, the coalition and its partners have worked with Iraqi forces in liberating Tikrit, and now 100,000 Sunni have been able to return to Tikrit and begin to rebuild their homes. We’ve liberated Sinjar with the Iraqis, obviously. They have liberated. We have supported it. And we have removed terrorist commanders from the battlefield. We have cut off terrorist supply lines. We’ve been hitting their oil facilities particularly hard over the course of the last months, including in recent weeks nearly 400 tanker trucks have been destroyed, and we are pushing Daesh out of 25 percent of the territory that it has once controlled. Now we are intensifying the pressure on Ramadi, on Mosul, in northern Syria along the Iraqi-Syrian border, on finances, recruiting, and propaganda. And the British have just begun to launch strikes of their own. Germany is stepping up with more support. And we are increasing the presence and capacity of United States Special Forces.

But we understand and I think you do too – I hope – that the fastest way to defeat Daesh is to halt the outflow of refugees by bringing an end to this war. And that is why the second core element of our strategy is political – a renewed diplomatic initiative, again, which have led, convening people in Vienna twice within two weeks to create a broader and more action-oriented effort than ever previously attempted in order to isolate the terrorists and set Syria on the path to peace.

Last month in Vienna, the International Syria Support Group, which we did summon together and who came together in a great cooperative effort, called for negotiations between the government and the moderate opposition with a target date to begin of January 1st. And even just now driving over here I was in touch with folks in Doha talking to them about what is happening with the Saudis, who we are – who are convening a conference of the opposition in order to have the opposition choose their negotiating team, their platform, and be ready to go to the table. And Russia and Iran are at the table for the first time joining with us in this communique which was consensus unanimous in which they agree that there has to be a transition.

Now, what shape it takes we’re going to have to fight about, but the governments involved are going to meet later in this month in New York in order to continue to move this process forward. Our goal is to facilitate a transition that all parties have stated that they support: a unified Syria; a non-sectarian Syria; a Syria which will choose its own leadership in the future by an election that they have all agreed will be supervised by the United Nations under the highest standards of international law and of elections, with fair, full, transparency and accountability, in order for even the diaspora to be able to vote for future leadership.

The purpose of this transition will be to establish a credible, inclusive governance within six months. The process would include the drafting of a new constitution and arrangements for internationally supervised elections within 18 months. And I can’t promise you everybody is going to make it happen, but I can promise you that the legitimacy of this effort will exhaust diplomacy and call on all of us then to make the choices we need to make in order to end this war.

Meanwhile, a nationwide ceasefire will go into effect between the government and the responsible opposition, assuming they come to the table and they begin this initial process. Imagine what that will do to take the pressure off of refugees, off of day-to-day turmoil. This step would also further isolate the terrorists and enable the coalition and its partners to then go after Daesh and other violent extremists with greater unity and power.

Now, I want to be clear. We are not naive about the obstacles that exist for success in this diplomatic effort or any other one, nor even the one that I will come to in a few minutes about Israel. It is difficult. All of it is difficult. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago. And this is a conflict in many ways that has been going on for centuries. It’s not new. That doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. There remain sharp differences and divisions within the international community regarding Syria, especially the role of President Assad. And we have emphasized from the outset that for this to work the process has to be Syrian-led and has to be Syrian-implemented.

But we also saw in Vienna an unprecedented degree of international unity on the need to implement a political transition. I want you just to imagine how difficult it is to get Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and Iran in the same room at the same table for the same purpose. We had representatives from governments that don’t agree on much else except coming together to support this process. So we have a lot of work still to do, but make no mistake: This is the most promising political initiative that we have had in years, and it deserves to be pursued to the fullest.

Now, we have also worked hard to mitigate the incredible burden – the third pillar – that of the war that has been placed on the neighbors, on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Israel. And today we have contributed more than 4.5 billion. We are the largest contributor to humanitarian relief and we are constantly encouraging other countries to open their own wallets, because even as another winter closes in, the help for far – the help that is needed far, far outweighs the supply. We’ve also been helping Lebanon and Jordan to strengthen their ability to defend themselves from external threats.

Now, as I said earlier, U.S. policy is to support the builders, not the destroyers. Our approach to Syria is designed with that goal in mind.

AMBASSADOR INDYK: I am very conscious of the pressures on your time, so just one more question, which is if we can go to Daesh.

You’ve done an amazing job in managing to get all of these external parties around the table, even though, as you said in your speech, they disagree on so much. But how do you see them actually getting to agreement between Iran, with its commitment to the Assad regime – because if Assad were to go, they fear that their opposition in the regions is going to go; the Russians, who fear that if Assad goes, there will be chaos; and the Saudis, who won’t do anything unless Assad goes? How do you navigate that? In particular, how do you deal with the fears about the day after? Because that seems to be what motivates a lot of the concerns.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think the key is that you don’t have one day after. You have a process. And this is what we’ve worked very hard to achieve. And I had a very constructive meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Belgrade the other day on the sidelines of the OSCE. And that followed a very constructive meeting that President Obama and I had with President Putin and Lavrov the day before in Paris – two days before in Paris, where we really talked about these hard kinds of questions. And believe it or not, despite all the other problems, it was genuinely constructive in trying to find answers to this way forward.

I think Russia understands and I think Iran is coming to understand that no matter how much you might want to keep Assad, even if we were the most Machiavellian in the world and we went back on our promises and everything else – which we’re not about to do, I want to emphasize – but let’s say we said we want Assad. Okay, let’s keep him for a while and see what happens, and go fight Daesh. Couldn’t do it. You can’t do it. There is no way to stop the support for the Sunni fighters – and remember, most of this is on that side of the ledger. There is no way to stop them from attacking and going after Assad, as long as he’s there.

So no matter what your feelings are about supporting him, you can’t end the war. And if your goal is to get Daesh out of the picture, which ours certainly is, to get it out as fast as you can – because part of Daesh’s attraction is the fact that it’s there and it has this declared caliphate that is sort of taking on Russia and United States and giving people a sense of external assault by the rest of the world, which, if you have the right narrative, you can build into a pretty good recruitment tool. And that’s what they’re doing. And that’s the danger.

And so, if Assad stays, those who are continuing to fight Assad will attract more jihadis, more Daesh. And ultimately, it is they who will be the tougher fighters and the better armed and the more perceived as capable of getting rid of Assad.

Then what do you have? That’s your day of implosion, not progressive transfer. And I think that’s one of the things that’s motivating Russia and their understanding of this. Right now, Russia has just plunked itself in, gone into the fight to, quote, support their friend, Assad. But in doing so, they are supporting Hizballah, Iran, and Assad. And if you have an interest in having a relationship with the Sunni world, which they do, that is not a good equation.

So I think there is a reason here, and that’s what happens always in diplomacy, obviously, or in anything in politics. People have to have a reason for doing something. They have to have an interest. It has to – your interest has to be defined. You have to be able to make it tangible. In this case, Russia has lost an aircraft. They have seen what has happened with respect to the beheading of their Russian citizen the other day. There is – I just saw today’s newspapers, which had a report on unrest in Russia because of the economic situation.

So I think there are reasons that we all have to want to end this as fast as possible. And what we’ve tried to set up is a transitional negotiation where Assad has to, under the Geneva communique, begin to devolve some power. The election is fixed. We’ve all said we’re going to have an election. Even Iran and Russia have accepted that. Iran actually had its own proposal of a ceasefire, constitutional rewrite, a unity government, and election. So even Iran is pushing for a transition of some kind.

And the question here is: When and how can we get to the point where it is clear that really Assad has to make a choice? And you can have a smooth transition, where the Alawi are protected, the Christians are protected, the Druze are protected, the Ismaili are protected, the Sunni are protected, and you have all segments of society.

The other thing, as I said, that everybody accepted – which is not a small deal – is a non-sectarian, unified state. It’s absolutely vital to have Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia, the United States, and all of the other allies in the coalition united in wanting a united Syria. So that’s why I think this is sort of a decent shot.

Now, if Russia and Iran stand as a bloc and allow Assad to simply stiff the process, and we get no transition at all, then it will be clear who the problem children are, and our options will be narrowed, and we will have to make some tough choices, because we cannot allow this to go on. It is a security threat to the United States and every country in Europe. And it’s not just a threat to Europe in terms of what happened in Paris or elsewhere. It’s a threat because this migration can alter the politics of Europe in an existential way forever.

And so we all have an obligation to recognize the danger. It’s a danger to Russia, because there are more than 2,000 Chechens in Syria, fighting, learning the trade craft of terror, who could return to Russia and bring it to their Muslim population.

So there is a lot of reason that people, I think, have an interest here. And what we’ve been doing – and I think it’s the right strategy – is we’ve been trying to underscore to everybody what their interests are and get them to act on those interests. And if we can do that successfully, we may get somewhere. I’m not sitting here saying this will work. I’m saying it could, if everybody plays the role making the right choice of the road they go down. But if they don’t, we’re still going to have to go destroy Daesh; we’re just going to have to decide to do it in a different way.