Tony Badran

Kerry’s Assad accommodation

Although the administration sees Assad as “problematic,” it nevertheless wants to preserve regime “institutions.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) meets with Iran

On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, Secretary of State John Kerry reminded everyone—in case anyone still harbored doubts—that the Obama administration had no intention of removing Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power.  “[W]e have to negotiate in the end” with Assad, Kerry said. His choice of words elicited a harsh denunciation from US allies such as France and Turkey, and from the Saudi-owned press, all of whom reminded the Americans of the need for Assad to go.


The State Department, along with some commentators, rushed to walk back Kerry’s statement, dismissing any notion that it represented a shift in US policy. “Our policy has not changed—there is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said afterwards.


But, spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained, the US has always favored a political settlement of the Syria conflict, a policy which necessitated negotiations with the regime. The Secretary of State, therefore, simply spoke in shorthand, referring to the regime as “Assad.” His slip of the tongue aside, Kerry was reiterating an unwavering US policy.


But it is false to suggest that the goal posts of the administration’s policy haven’t moved. The foundations of the current policy were established by the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for the US and Russia to convene representatives of the Syrian opposition with representatives from the regime so that they could negotiate a settlement with each other. Moreover, at the time, the administration patted itself on the back for finding a way to exclude Assad from this process. It explained that the composition of a transitional authority had to be mutually agreed by the regime and the opposition. Assad would play no role, because the opposition would never allow it.


Within a few months of the Geneva Communique, however, administration officials began explaining to reporters that they didn’t want to see the opposition win outright. Fearing chaos in Syria, the US was in no hurry to see Assad go. By the end of 2013, senior White House officials were talking, on background, about Assad “staying for the foreseeable future.” One senior official, speaking to the Wall Street Journalvoiced “regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside.”


After the predictable failure of the Geneva II Conference in January 2014, President Obama began to revive Assad as a negotiating partner. Subtly revising the American interpretation of the 2012 Communique, Obama explained that Assad would not “preside” over “the entire process” of transition to a new regime; a choice of words that left no doubt that Assad would preside over a “transitional” period of unspecified duration. 


Therefore, it is accurate to say that Kerry didn’t say anything new. But that’s only because the policy had long ago abandoned working to push Assad out—assuming President Obama had any serious intention of pursuing that goal to begin with.


In fact, the administration’s longstanding emphasis on “preserving regime institutions” and its mantra that there was “only a political solution” to the Syrian conflict, have ensured that its policy could only lead, sooner or later, to an accommodation with Assad.


To the allies of the US who oppose Assad, such as the French, the Turks, and the Saudis, the State Department’s defense of Kerry’s gaffe rang especially hollow, because two days before Kerry spoke, CIA Director John Brennan said the same thing. When asked, at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, whether the US “needed” Assad to be in power “as an opposition to ISIL [the Islamic State],” Brennan answered with an unambiguous “yes.” Asked again whether the administration feared a collapse of the Assad regime, Brennan again replied that this was a “legitimate concern.” For, although the administration sees Assad as “problematic,” it nevertheless wants to preserve regime “institutions.” 


So, does this mean that the administration is setting the stage to resume direct engagement with Assad? Probably not. What Kerry’s and Brennan’s comments clarify is the fact that the administration has long been settled on keeping Assad in place, and that it will oppose any push to remove him. But the US does not actually need to talk to him directly in order to benefit from his presence, because the White House has a direct line to Assad’s patron: Iran. Why bother haggling with a subordinate when you can negotiate with the boss?


No, the administration is conducting the broader strategic conversation about the region with its new partner, Iran. 


The US allies who slammed Kerry’s statement understood that this was no mere slip, administration protestation and reassurances notwithstanding. When French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says, “There will not be a political solution… as long as Bashar al-Assad stays, and John Kerry knows it,” he is effectively rejecting the Obama administration’s entire policy. 


Ultimately, then, this flap over Kerry’s remarks reflects something bigger than just a slip of the tongue. It is bigger, even still, than a disagreement with allies over just Syria. Kerry’s and Brennan’s remarks were a reflection of a strategic shift in US policy toward Iran and its regional interests. And the howls of indignation that erupted in the Middle East and in France to those remarks reflect the profound discomfort of America’s traditional allies with its Iran alignment. 


For all its sophistry, however, the State Department was entirely right about one thing: there’s nothing new here. This drama has been unfolding before our eyes for a very long time. 


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) on March 18, 2015 over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne. (AFP/Brian Snyder)

There will not be a political solution… as long as Bashar al-Assad stays, and John Kerry knows it,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Long before the revolution, US policy on Syria has been the same since 1974. The Syrian regime is protected by the US because the regime accommodates Israeli interests. For 40+ years, the Syrian regime never fired one bullet across the Israeli-annexed - not just occupied, but annexed - Golan Heights, while 5 miles away in southern Lebanon, it waged endless wars with Lebanese and Palestinian blood against a dubious occupation of south Lebanon and for the Quixotic liberation of Palestine. For 4 decades, Syria protected Israel's flank and plundered and raped Lebanon. Yet, US presidents annually met with the butcher in Geneva to congratulate him on "keeping his word" in their shady deals with him. They spoke glowingly of him as a "cunning foe" who deserved respect, while at the same time placing his regime as a founding member of the State Dept list of "State sponsors of terrorism". In Lebanon, the US supported all local collaborators and enablers of the Assad regime (who today are by and large the March 14 bunch by the way), and opposed anyone who stood up against the Syrian occupation. Prior to 2003, when Colin Powell first used the term "occupation", the US described Syria's rape of Lebanon as a mere "presence". In 1988, and in railroading Lebanon into the Taef Agreement, US State Dept envoy Edward Murphy threatened Lebanon with chaos if the Lebanese parliament failed to elect Syria's hand-picked stooge Mikhail Daher. And chaos it was in the 1988-1989-1990 horrifying interlude leading to Taef. So, why is Badran today surprised or upset that US policy has remained the same since 1974? It has been an unwavering constant of supporting a dictator in Damascus as long as he protects Israeli interests. Assad has kept his word. So, the Americans will continue to love him. I am not surprised. Neither should anyone.

    March 20, 2015

  • jrocks

    Hani boy, I don't think Tony is 'surprised' as you say. On the contrary, he's saying it's no surprise at all and, in fact, one shouldn't be surprised because this policy has been clear from the beginning (though less clear to others). But then again, I didn't really think you'd get it anyway.

    March 21, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Jsucks: You keep picking up my scent wherever I go. As the pro bono attorney and spokesman for "Tony", you seem to fail miserably at your job. Perhaps you forget that "Tony" often claims Israel and Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arabs are all America's traditional allies. So, if as you posit on his behalf, "Tony" is not surprised that the US has been in bed with Assad to protect its ally Israel for 40 years, why should "Tony" be criticizing Assad now since he continues to serve America, Israel and America's other Arab allies so well? The US cannot be with Assad and against Assad at the same time. It seems to me your neural density is vanishingly small to allow you to comprehend kindergarten level politics, let alone defend a giant of a pundit like "Tony".

    March 22, 2015

  • ariane hechter

    this is also why Hizbula is no longer considered a terrorist organisation by the White House

    March 19, 2015