(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday conceded that President Bashar Assad’s position in the Syrian civil war has improved “a little bit,” but disputed that this was because of a Russian-brokered deal last fall to remove the regime’s chemical weapons.
Instead, Kerry said in a CNN interview that Assad’s strengthened position was the result of support from Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and “infighting” among the opposition.
A day earlier, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in congressional testimony also stated that Assad was in a stronger position now than a year ago, but he linked that directly to the chemical weapons deal.
“The prospects are right now that he [Assad] is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons,” he told the House Intelligence Committee.
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Kerry whether he disagreed with Clapper on that point.
“No, he didn’t say [Assad is stronger] because of the deal, he said since the deal,” Kerry replied.
In fact, Clapper said “by virtue of,” which according to the Collins English Dictionary is a synonym for “because of,” “on account of” or “thanks to.”
The agreement to have Damascus surrender its chemical weapons stockpile was negotiated by Moscow after the Obama administration threatened punitive military strikes in response to a deadly August chemical attack blamed on the regime.
The diplomatic coup by Russia, Assad’s close ally, resulted in the administration backing away from the bombing threat – at a time when it was struggling to win congressional support anyway.
Many experts warned from the outset that the chemical weapons agreement would bolster the regime, since its cooperation in carrying out the process would be needed, turning a reviled foe into a partner.
The administration portrayed the initiative, which was subsequently embedded in a U.N. Security Council resolution, as a major success. “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated,” President Obama declared in his State of the Union address last week.
Kerry in Wednesday’s interview called the chemical weapons understanding “a significant milestone.”
“The president of the United States made his decision to strike. He announced it publicly. That is, in fact, a significant point of leverage that helped to bring about the agreement to get the chemical weapons out,” he said.
“Now, before we got that agreement, Assad was using those weapons against his people. Now he’s not and he can’t. So we have eliminated a critical, grotesque tool that this man was willing to use ruthlessly against his own people. And we’re moving it out.”
Wednesday marked the second consecutive deadline the regime has missed in surrendering its chemical weapons. By Wednesday it was meant to have transported all of its declared stocks, some 1,300 metric tons’ worth, to the port of Latakia for removal by vessel. But Clapper told the House panel that only two shipments totaling about 53 metric tons had left Syria so far.
White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated a call for Syria to “abide by its commitments” but said the administration was “absolutely not” concerned that the agreement was falling apart.
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Stewart Patrick wrote Wednesday that Syria’s foot-dragging was not surprising.
“Syrian dawdling is understandable, because Assad understands that his chemical weapons arsenal has given him diplomatic leverage – which will evaporate when he is disarmed.”
At Russia’s insistence, last September’s Security Council resolution on the chemical weapons agreement was not passed under chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, which provides for coercive measures, and so contains no automatic penalties for Syrian non-compliance.
Instead, any response to a violation will require passage of a new, chapter seven resolution – and Russia would almost certainly threaten to use its veto, as it has done before.
Patrick described this as “a significant and potentially fatal weakness” in the resolution.