Kerry Hints at Shift in Strategy on Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | February 18, 2014 | 4:23 AM EST

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Monday, May 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Jim Young, Pool)

( – Expressing renewed frustration over Russia’s support for the Assad regime and the failure of recent Syria peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry hinted Monday that a shift in strategy may be needed, although he also said the administration still believes in a political rather than a military solution.

Before flying to the United Arab Emirates for talks on Syria, Kerry accused President Bashar Assad of “engaging in state-sanctioned terror against his own people” while obstructing the diplomatic effort in Geneva.

“It is important for the world to consider in these next days exactly what steps can now be taken in the face of this intransigence that is creating an even greater human catastrophe by the moment,” he said during a joint press appearance in Jakarta with his Indonesian counterpart.

Kerry said that during a second round of U.N.-mediated peace talks that ended Friday, the opposition delegation had put forward a well-reasoned proposal to move towards the creation of a transitional governing body – the key goal of the Geneva process – but the regime had for its part “obstructed and filibustered.”

“The regime stonewalled. They did nothing, except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country,” he said. “And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah, and from Russia.”

Kerry, who during a visit to Moscow nine months ago hammered out a proposal with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to move the Geneva process forward, gave a pessimistic assessment of the role Russia is playing.

“Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem,” he said.

“Russia, on several occasions, has stood up publicly with me, or in other places, and said they are committed to that transition government [as called for in the Geneva communique],” Kerry said. “And yet, we have not seen the kind of effort to create the dynamic by which that can be achieved.”

In Moscow, Lavrov rejected the criticism. “We are constantly being told to do more to help the peace process, but there are a few factors to consider,” he said during a press briefing, describing the opposition as divided, with some organizations trying to replace the mainstream Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

“In other words, a course is being set to move away from the negotiations track and once again place bets on a military scenario,” he said.

Russia and Iran echo the Syrian regime’s contention that the forces fighting to oust Assad are terrorists. The U.S. acknowledges that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are playing a significant role in the rebellion, but directs its diplomatic and material support to the SNC and argues that the longer Assad brutalizes the Syrian people in a bid to hold onto power the more the conflict becomes a lure for radical jihadists.

Assad himself is a magnet for terrorists,” Kerry said. “He’s the principal magnet of the region for attracting foreign fighters to Syria.”

At the same time as Kerry said the international community must look at “exactly what steps can now be taken,” he also restated the administration’s position – one that has so exasperated critics like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – that “we still believe there is no military solution with respect to Syria; there has to be a political resolution.”

At the U.N. in New York, Russia continues to oppose a Security Council resolution drafted by Western and Arab countries, designed to facilitate humanitarian access to Syrian citizens caught up in the fighting.

Moscow has threatened to veto the resolution – as it has done on three previous occasions during the three year-old Syrian conflict – painting it as a pretext for foreign intervention.

Specifically it objects to language saying that if parties prevent the delivery of aid or harm civilians, the council could vote for sanctions against those responsible.

Russian diplomats on Thursday offered an alternative draft, but no further progress has been reported.

Kerry on Monday urgedall members of the United Nations Security Council to join together and pass a meaningful, impactful resolution with respect to this humanitarian crisis.”

More than 130,000 people have died during the Syrian conflict according to U.N. figures. Kerry said the numbers of refugees flooding out of the country has risen by about one-third since October.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow