Kerry's comments reveal little, reaction reveals a lot

Kerry's comments reveal little, reaction reveals a lot
5 min read
16 March, 2015
Were the US secretary of state's remarks merely a slip of the tongue? Or indicative of a change in Washington's stance towards the Syrian conflict?
Could Assad be invited to the negotiating table? [Getty]

US Secretary of State John Kerry caused something of a media furore with a statement that he wants to "re-ignite negotiations" with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

The comments were picked up around the globe with headlines suggesting Kerry had inadvertantly let slip a change in Washington's stance on Syria.

But was he actually saying anything new when he said: "We have to negotiate in the end"?

     Kerry's most recent statements publicly confirm what we could clearly see was a trend in US policy

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf quickly rebutted the fallout from the interview, saying her boss had merely repeated the "long-standing policy" that the US wants negotiations with the regime at the table - but not direct talks with President Assad.

Kerry was himself quick to clarify in the interview that the US supported negotiations based on the Geneva I process, which was agreed back in 2012 and would see an end to the conflict with the formation of a transitional governing body and free and fair elections in Syria.

Leading figures within the Syrian opposition have also long agreed that they would engage with elements of the regime if they were assured that, at the end of any agreed transitional period, President Assad would no longer be in power.  

Changing calculations

However, while Kerry's remarks do not signify a major change in Washington's course, they can be seen in the context of a general softening in attitudes towards Assad.

In the interview, Kerry did not reiterate the standard US line that Assad had lost all legitimacy and had to go.

"Kerry's most recent statements confirm what we could clearly see was a trend in US policy - and that is to accept talks that are more favourable to Assad than what was palatable a year or so ago," explained Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

"The approach is now less absolute and less dramatic."

Last week, John Kerry, alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, requested authorisation from sceptical senators for expanded use of force against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis).

During their questioning it was evident that there was no stomach for any kind of military engagement against the Syrian government.

Recent statements by CIA Director John Brennan that the US had "legitimate concerns" about who might replace President Assad given the rise of IS will have been warmly received in the Damascus presidential palace, but dismayed those hoping to unseat the president who resides there.

"The last thing we want to do is allow [the IS group] to march into Damascus," he added.

The shift towards the "IS-first" strategy is the main point of contention for much of the Syrian opposition and their backers - and they've been airing those concerns in public.

     What will you negotiate with a regime which has killed more than 200,000 people?
- Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey foreign minister

However, it is not just from the US that there has been a growing acceptance that Assad retains a stubborn grip on his power base. 

Prominent members of Syria's opposition are set to meet in April to discuss a proposal allowing President Assad to stay in power for two more years, followed by presidential elections.

Khaled Khoja, the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), said this month that, while the overthrow of the Damascus government was the group's final goal, the president's ousting is no longer a precondition for the resumption of peace talks.

A telling reaction

The reaction to Kerry's comments has perhaps been more telling than the comments themselves.

"The fact that everyone has jumped on this shows that there is a lot of suspicion due to the ambiguity in US policy in Syria," Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"The opposition are waiting for any signal like this because they are expecting it."

US relations with many of its regional allies have been strained by divergent approaches on Syria and Washington's change of focus to fighting IS instead of Assad.

Turkey and major Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are considerably more dogged in their desire to see President Assad unseated from power.

"What is there to negotiate with Assad?" asked Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. "What will you negotiate with a regime which has killed more than 200,000 people and used chemical weapons?"

Conversely, Syrian state-backed media hailed Kerry's comments as acknowledging Assad's legitimacy.

The Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, wrote that Kerry’s comments were, "a new recognition of President Assad's legitimacy, his key role and his popularity, and the resulting necessity of negotiating with him".

President Assad is in a comparatively strong position and has not signalled any significant room for compromise in any potential negotiations.

     The worst situation you can find yourself in is where you allies don't trust you and your enemies don't fear you.
- Nadim Shehadi

The regime is stretched and its extensive reliance on Iran and Russia for military and financial support is straining relations - but neither country is showing any signs of abandoning their ally.

"The government is in a relatively strong position right now. I can't see how it would make major concessions as things stand," explained RUSI's Shashank Joshi.

The bigger picture

Underlying all suppositions about Washington's game plan in Syria are the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Kerry has earnestly tried to convince his regional allies that the talks are not part of a wider rapproachment that would legitimise or bolster Tehran's vast influence in the region.

Despite the assurances, Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states and much of the Syrian opposition, fear a deal could be cut behind their back. 

"Everyone in the opposition is waiting to see what is going to happen with the Iran negotiations," said Majd Eddin Sankar, a Syrian International Relations doctoral candidate at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"The negotiations with Iran will have an effect on what's happening in Syria, even if in an indirect way."

Securing an Iranian nuclear deal is President Obama's signature foreign policy objective and his concerted pursual of these sensitive and secretive talks may go some way to explaining Washington's oftentimes confusing and ambiguous policies in the region.

The dilemma he faces is keeping his allies on board while the negotiations are ongoing.

"The worst situation you can find yourself in is where your allies don't trust you and your enemies think you are weak," said Nadim Shehadi of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies.

Unfortunately for President Obama, that is exactly where he finds himself now.