This is the job John Kerry has wanted all of his life, and he’s blowing it.
It has been, and ostensibly remains, the policy of Barack Obama’s government that “Assad must go.” The president made this pronouncement in the summer of 2011. Now, five years into the Syrian civil war and with a multinational coalition involved in a military campaign against one of the Islamist elements fighting the government in Damascus, the dynamics on the ground have changed far more than has American rhetoric.
After years of stagnation, however, American policy toward Bashar al-Assad’s government appeared to shift over the weekend. Secretary of State Kerry revealed that it was now America’s position that Assad must engage in a multilateral diplomatic framework in which the United States would participate that has the aim of creating political transition in Syria. While Kerry repeated the claim that Assad had lost all legitimacy and must abdicate his office, this apparently cannot come before Assad’s government participates in talks with the leaders of the opposition forces in Syria.
Kerry insisted that this was not a dramatic reversal from his prior statements, but the shift in policy is difficult for any objective observer to ignore. Administration supporters point out that the State Department’s spokespeople have long said that a “negotiated” political transition in Syria that facilitates a transition to the post-Assad era is critical. But no American officials have supported America’s participation in those negotiations.
Moreover, as some have noted, the rhetoric of some American officials – including the secretary of state – would make participation in talks politically fraught.
“Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who’ve used these weapons in a time of war,” Kerry said in 2013 of the Syrian president’s use of chemical arms. “This is of great consequence to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, to the region, and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons.”
Now the secretary would have America sit down with this notorious human rights abuser and provide him with the legitimacy associated with participation in multilateral talks. At the same time Kerry presumes that Assad would cede that legitimacy and the upper hand in the civil war which he and his forces have fought so doggedly for so many years and simply leave the country. And, while it is unseemly to consider even offering Assad a carrot to incent his resignation, what would compensate for the loss of his prosecutorial immunity as a known perpetrator of war crimes?
The honest answers to this and other questions are so disturbing that they forced the State Department’s spokespeople to spring into action.
.@JohnKerry repeated long-standing policy that we need negotiated process w/regime at table – did not say we wld negotiate directly w/Assad
— Marie Harf (@marieharf) March 15, 2015
Harf clarified in an interview on CBS News on Sunday that the United States would never negotiate directly with Assad – merely his representatives and subordinates. Perhaps they imagine that Assad is personally flying missions over Aleppo where he drops chlorine gas-filled barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods.
— Marie Harf (@marieharf) March 15, 2015
Harf’s colleague, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki engaged in a bit of similar damage control on Monday in an appearance on CNN.
Psaki was repeatedly asked about the United States’ participation in these proposed talks, but she sidestepped the matter and insisted that the State Department has always favored multilateral talks that would negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict.
It gets worse. When asked how America planned to force Assad and his surrogates to the negotiating table for talks, Psaki insisted that discussions on that matter were ongoing. That’s right: There is no plan to get Assad to the table.
Finally, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota noted that Assad appeared to reject America’s offer of added legitimacy in an interview on Iranian television. “Any talk on the future of the Syrian president is for the Syrian people, and all the declaration from outside concern us,” Assad reportedly said.
To this dismissal, Psaki repeated the myriad reasons why the United States should not enter into negotiations with Assad or his government. “I think we have to take anything Bashar al-Assad says with a huge chunk – grain of salt here because he has killed tens of thousands of his own people,” Psaki insisted. “I think the international community is not going to stand by and accept his word that he’s thinking of the people of his country, and we’re going to continue to think of ways to put necessary diplomatic pressure on.”
Nevertheless, you are asked to believe that the American government sees no contradiction in the demand that Assad surrender his office while simultaneously providing him with the renewed legitimacy associated with America’s signaled willingness to negotiate with this murderous regime.
We are in the very best of hands.