U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry must have said something really outrageous the other day, judging by the reactions.
After a March 15, 2015 interview with Margaret Brennan of CBS News in which Kerry briefly discussed the idea of negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. administration suddenly became the target of angry denunciations from all over the world, and much of the Syrian opposition seemed ready to explode with indignation.
Khaled Khoja, president of the U.S.-backed opposition leadership-in-exile known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, stated that “no Syrian will accept shaking hands with the bloody hands of Bashar Assad,” and that “Assad is nonnegotiable. He will not be a part of the solution since he is part of the problem." Kerry’s comments were “surprising and negative and condemned,” added the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Walid.
French Prime Minster Manuel Valls said that “there will be no political solution, there will be no solution for Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad remains and John Kerry knows this.” A frequent critic of U.S. policy, Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, declared that talking to Assad would be “like shaking Hitler’s hand,” and that if Kerry did so, “it will never be erased from the memory of the conscience of humanity.”
As for Assad, he too disparaged Kerry’s remarks, telling Iranian TV that “we keep hearing such comments, but we have to wait for actions and then we will decide.” Syria’s enemies must begin by cutting all support for “the terrorists,” Assad said, or there is no point to talking.
What Kerry Said (Or Part of It)
So what did Kerry really say? According to the CBS show Face the Nation, which broadcast segments of Margaret Brennan’s interview with the secretary, he said this:
KERRY: We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome. Why? Because everybody agrees there is no military solution. There is only a political solution. But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That’s underway right now. And—and I am convinced that with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad.
INTERVIEWER: And you’d be willing to negotiate with him?
KERRY: Well, we have to negotiate in the end.
At that point, Kerry is muted midsentence, the camera cuts to the CBS studio and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer takes over, saying “so there you hear the secretary of state saying we may have to negotiate with Assad.” And when reporting the interview, most other major channels—like CNN—did the same thing, cutting Kerry short after he has said “we have to negotiate in the end.” That is the version that made it around the globe.
The United States Still Wants Assad Gone
The perception that the White House had softened its stance against Assad sparked an outrage. U.S. government officials quickly sought to clarify that there was no change in policy and that the United States is still seeking Assad’s resignation—something Kerry had not explicitly mentioned in the interview.
“Policy remains same & is clear: there's no future for Assad in Syria & we say so all the time,” tweeted Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokesperson. She also sent out a link to recent speeches in which this was clearly stated. One was by Kerry himself in February 2015, saying that “there is no place for a brutal dictator” like Assad.
Another was an address by the U.S. Ambassador to Syria Daniel Rubinstein on March 12, 2015. He said that Assad “has long lost legitimacy and he must give way for a real political transition,” because “Syria can never be stable under a tyrant whose regime has displaced, detained, tortured, barrel bombed, gassed, maimed, injured, and killed so many innocent men, women, and children.”
Continued Support for the Geneva Formula
So had the United States changed its policy between Rubinstein’s comments on March 12, and Kerry’s interview on March 15? Of course not. Listen to the rest of what Kerry is saying and the media mayhem makes no sense.
In the very next sentence—the one that so many news editors left out, apparently thinking it had no significance—Kerry made it clear that this did not represent a change in U.S. policy by restating a crucial condition: “We've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he said, adding that there would only be a point in talking to Assad “if he's ready to have a serious negotiation about the implementation of Geneva I.”
Geneva I refers to the Geneva Communiqué, a June 2012 document agreed upon by all of the major foreign governments involved in the Syrian war except Iran. The document calls for a transitional body that would usurp the powers of the presidency and says it should be composed of representatives from both sides of the conflict who are chosen by “mutual consent.” While the Geneva Communiqué is intentionally silent on Assad’s future role—because it would otherwise be impossible to get Russia (never mind Assad himself) to endorse it—the United States has always declared that it considers the “mutual consent” requirement to be an effective guarantee of Assad’s removal or sidelining.
A Tempest in a Teapot
In other words, the formal U.S. position stated by Kerry in his March 2015 interview was the same as what he stated in February—indeed, it has been the same since the adoption of the Geneva Communiqué in 2012. It was also identical to the position of the exiled Syrian opposition: “Our attitude is to start negotiations with the regime in order to get rid of Bashar Assad” Khoja explained, even as he was criticizing Kerry’s remarks.
If anything, the United States seems to have hardened its official position in the past few days, with Harf saying after Kerry’s interview that it “has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate—and the secretary was not saying that today.” That seems to rule out Assad’s personal participation in any future transition talks, a condition that the United States had not formerly made explicit.
So what all this amounts to is simply a bit of sloppy journalism by CBS, CNN, and many others. Most Syrian opposition members and world leaders—including Assad—seem to have commented on Kerry’s remarks without even bothering to find out what he actually said. And that certainly says more about the current state of the news media and today’s Twitter-driven political discourse than it does about White House policy on Syria.