Speaking in Paris alongside his Qatari counterpart Khalid al-Attiyah – whose country is a key supporter of anti-Assad rebels – Kerry credited Bashar Assad’s Shi’ite allies for the regime’s improving position on the ground.
“Why has the situation on the ground changed? Not because of the Syrian military, but because of Iran and Hezbollah,” he said. “And Hezbollah and Iran represent the two only outside organized forces in Syria fighting on behalf of a party, the only two. And they are the ones who have made that difference.”
“So I think it’s time for the United Nations and for others to consider the appropriateness of their activity,” he added.
Kerry spoke at some length about the situation in Syria, but did not make a single reference to the presence in the rebel ranks of foreign-backed Sunni fighters, including Salafist militia and at least two al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations. (He made one reference to the U.S.-backed “moderate opposition.”)
But just hours earlier, a senior State Department official, briefing media ahead of Syria-related talks in London on Tuesday, voiced concern about the highly disruptive role being played in Syria by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Speaking on condition of anonymity in a background teleconference briefing, the official said ISIS was: distracting the anti-Assad opposition by forcing it to fight on two fronts; complicating matters by portraying its extremist face as the face of the opposition; emboldening the regime in ways that will make it harder to extract concessions from it during proposed negotiations in Geneva; and blocking the delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid – “a major problem.”
This is not the first time Kerry has appeared to play down the role of extremist outside forces on the opposition side of the Syrian conflict, while highlighting the role of extremist outside forces on the side of the regime.
When he did so on one occasion last March, it was also in the presence of a major supporter of the rebels – Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal – and a reporter asked Kerry about the risk that Saudi-supplied weapons would reach radical jihadists in Syria.
Kerry conceded that there was “no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands,” but then – although he was responding to a question specifically about concerns about extremists on the rebel side – turned the spotlight immediately onto the forces arming the regime.
“Believe me, the bad actors, regrettably, have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, unfortunately, and that’s happening,” he said, listing only those parties supporting the regime.
During Monday’s joint press appearance in Paris, Qatari foreign minister al-Attiyah was asked about concerns that Qatar has armed radical jihadists and had in that way contributed to their rise in Syria.
“I would like to say that anyone who doesn’t know what’s happening in Syria would say that Qatar is supporting radical groups,” he said in response.
Qatar was working closely with the Friends of Syria group to support “known parties” in Syria, he said..
“Therefore, talking about us supporting radical groups or extremist groups, this cannot be true in any way when we’re working with allies closely.”
The Friends of Syria group comprises the U.S., Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. It meets in London on Tuesday, with Kerry representing the U.S.