Does Secretary Kerry’s Statement on Syria Signal a Change in US Policy?
Many people are expecting an explanation from Secretary Kerry in regards to his statements about Syria.
It is nowadays difficult to follow U.S. foreign policy and understand the message that it is giving to the world about its direction, goals and aims – and for the followers of recent debates on “credibility addiction,” yes, it is increasingly damaging both credibility and confidence in America’s judgment After almost four years of puzzling inconsistencies, “red lines,” ambiguities and U-turns, now according to a report in the New York Times, the U.S. is signaling some shifts in its policies toward the Syrian civil war and is underscoring a “retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar Assad, step down immediately.” It is still not clear if there is a real change in the policy of the administration, which was launched by a statement by President Obama in August 2011. It is obvious that President Obama avoided saying anything negative about the Assad regime and instead focused on his ISIS strategy in Syria in his State of Union Speech last week.
Reports about the changing position of Obama’s administration quote Secretary Kerry as the most significant evidence of their argument. Answering a question from journalists, Secretary of State John Kerry last week said, “It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad.” Secretary Kerry did not mention the brutality of the Assad regime or its loss of legitimacy and obviously did not say anything about the impossibility of a solution with Assad.
Under these circumstances and while waiting for a reaction from the administration in regards to these reports, it may be a good idea to remember previous comments and statements by Secretary Kerry in regards to the Syrian civil war and Bashar al-Assad. Secretary Kerry was a significant actor in U.S. policy towards Syria even before becoming Secretary of State, and during his tenure he demonstrated a firm approach about Syria. Senator Kerry in the first months of the Syrian conflict approximately 44 months ago, after being criticized for his earlier position about the Assad regime stated: “I said there were a series of things that if he (Assad) engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn’t. The chance was lost and that’s the end of it.” In fact, as many other actors, he also changed his position and demanded that Assad step down following the regime’s atrocities in city centers and its unwillingness to reform. A few months after this statement, the administration also pronounced a similar position about the regime and asked Assad to step down.
After becoming Secretary of State, Mr.Kerry made his first overseas trip to the United Kingdom in February 2013, and Syria was one of the main topics on the agenda of his meeting with his British counterpart. In the joint press conference, after condemning the brutality of the regime, Kerry said for a viable solution in Syria “Assad has to go.” In May 2013, this time in a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart , Secretary Kerry underlined that Assad is not part of their plan for the future of Syria. He stressed that they are working to create “a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgment President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government.”
The Obama administration’s “red line” about the Syrian conflict was violated by Assad in August 2013. After chemical attacks by regime forces, Secretary Kerry made a passionate speech after the release of the intelligence reports, and in this speech he called Assad, a thug and a murderer. He also underlined the responsibility of the world when it faced such transgressions of humanitarian values and international norms. Kerry in his remarks stated, “”It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.” However, in the meantime, although President Obama signaled a possible attack on Syrian targets, he was making sure that the regime would not be hit by U.S. airstrikes. Many in the international community tried to explain that chemical weapons did not blow up themselves and that punishing missiles not the hands on the triggers will be absurd after such a major breach of international norms. But the administration did not change its decision. Later, some reports about the decision-making process demonstrated it was mostly the president’s decision to delay the airstrikes. But Secretary Kerry, who called the Assad regime a thug and a murderer, soon in a press conference provided a way out for Assad, which was immediately picked up by the Russian government. Assad rescued his regime by giving up the chemical weapons.
After this change of mind by the administration about punitive action against the Syrian regime, in October 2013, 16 months ago, Secretary Kerry one more time insisted that Assad can not play any role in the future of Syria. He said, “We believe that President Assad has lost the legitimacy necessary to be able to be a cohesive force.” This statement came a week after saying that Assad “deserves credit” for agreeing to the destruction of chemical weapons. Although giving credit to an illegitimate regime was not favored by many, those familiar with the decision-making process knew that it was not his call.
Secretary Kerry 12 months ago in January 2014 again signaled his steadfast position about the Assad regime before the convening of an international conference and stated, “If he [Assad] thinks he is going to be part of that future, it is not going to happen.” A month after this statement, following the failure of the international conference on Syria, Secretary Kerry this time rightfully blamed Assad with state terror and for being a magnet for terrorism. During a press conference on his visit to Indonesia, responding to a question about the regime’s insistence on terrorism he said: “As for Assad, who says he wants to talk about terrorism, Assad himself is a magnet for terrorists. He’s the principal magnet of the region for attracting foreign fighters to Syria. … Moreover, Assad himself is engaging in state-sanctioned terror against his own people. When you indiscriminately drop bombs on women and children, when you starve people and torture people by the thousands, those are acts of terror.”
Secretary Kerry expressed similar arguments even after the rise of ISIS and the beginning of airstrikes by the international coalition to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS. Many analysts during this period were arguing that without a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Assad regime, the operation would not gain the full support of the opposition and some of the allies in the region. According to them, in the absence of a strategy to deal with Assad, even if the operation can destroy ISIS, a power vacuum will emerge, and it will be filled by a similar group. Three months ago on the Charlie Rose show last October, Kerry provided a similar line of thought about the future of the strategy to deal with ISIS. He stated: “The bottom line is we will not have peace in Syria ultimately as long as Assad remains the focus of power and the center, magnet if you will, for extremism. It is impossible to envision that. … The question now is how do you focus on Iraq first, stop them from growing in Syria then begin to bring more pressure to bear on them in Syria. But it will not take away the fundamental notion within much of the region that Assad ultimately has got to go. He is the magnet, and you cannot stop all of this within there.”
Now, after all these statements, many people are expecting an explanation from Secretary Kerry in regards to his statements about Syria.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on January 25, 2015.