John Kerry is traveling to the Middle East and Europe later this month to unveil his new plan to get Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. "I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his current perception," the new secretary of state said this week. "My goal is to see us change his calculation."
The State Department hasn’t released an itinerary yet, but there’s some speculation that Kerry may use the opportunity to visit Damascus to see his one-time dining companion. Indeed, pro-Assad Arab media outfits claim that Kerry will visit Assad. Such a visit would hardly be surprising given the number of trips the then Massachusetts senator made to Syria starting in 2009, when he became the administration’s key interlocutor with the regime. None of those consultations changed Assad’s calculations, or Assad would not have killed more than 60,000 Syrians in the last two years in a conflict that threatens to damage U.S. interests around the region.
If anything, Kerry’s visits encouraged Assad in the belief that he had, if not American support, then at least the tacit acquiescence of the White House. Kerry seems never to have grasped the fact that Assad did not interpret those visits the same way he did. If Kerry thought he was engaging in “confident, carefully calibrated diplomacy,” Assad saw it merely as a useful photo opportunity. From the regime’s perspective, why else would Obama continue to send dignitaries to Damascus if the Americans were truly against Assad? That is to say, Kerry could beat Assad over the head with a loafer until the Syrian despot begged for mercy, but as long as the regime’s official photographers published only shots of the Syrian president welcoming the esteemed American official, it wouldn’t matter what Kerry did or said. All that mattered was the optics—the White House is on board with the regime.
Whether Kerry is really headed to Damascus or not is in some way beside the point, for in naming a secretary of state who just can’t get his fill of trying to change Assad’s calculations, the White House has already sent a message to Assad.
Obama must be relieved that Kerry is never going to stab him in the back, like Hilary Clinton did when she said she supported arming the Syrian rebels. CIA director David Petraeus also wanted to arm the rebels, said Clinton. Later Leon Panetta joined the chorus—I, too, wanted to back the rebels, said the secretary of defense, and so did Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. Perhaps those four spoke out with an eye to history, wishing to distance themselves as much as possible from a growing catastrophe that may well suck in every American ally on Syria’s borders, especially Jordan, Israel, and Turkey.
But it’s useful to see how Clinton and Panetta’s revelations will be interpreted by the Assad regime. Obama’s national security principals now say they wanted to arm the rebels, but all that means is that for the last two years they all lied, either directly or through their friends in the American media. Look at the excuses the White House used for not backing the regime’s enemies.
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