Senators Mock Kerry’s Threat to Stop Talking to Russia: ‘No More Lakeside Tête-à-Têtes’

Patrick Goodenough | September 29, 2016 | 4:28am EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Geneva in September 2013 to discuss dealing with the Assad’s regime chemical weapons stockpile after it carried out a deadly attack near Damascus. Kerry has now threatened to stop engaging with Russia over Syria. (AP Photo, File)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry’s threat to stop cooperating with Russia over the Syrian civil war brought a derisive response Wednesday from two Republican senators, who described it as “the one threat the Russians feared most.”

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) – both longstanding critics of the administration’s Syria policy and of Russian President Vladimir Putin – issued a scathing and sarcastic statement.

“Finally, a real power move in American diplomacy,” it began. “Secretary of State John ‘Not Delusional’ Kerry has made the one threat the Russians feared most – the suspension of U.S.-Russia bilateral talks about Syria.”

“No more lakeside tête-à-têtes at five-star hotels in Geneva. No more joint press conferences in Moscow,” the statement continued. “We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo.

“After all, butchering the Syrian people to save the Assad regime is an important Russian goal,” said McCain and Graham. “But not if it comes at the unthinkable price of dialogue with Secretary Kerry.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby defended Kerry’s threat to stop cooperating unless Russia and its Syrian ally stop air attacks in Aleppo, saying it was easy for people to criticize when they are not accountable for the outcome.

Kirby said Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone conversation that the U.S. was preparing to “suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria,” unless Moscow takes immediate steps to end the assault and restore a ceasefire that collapsed last week.

The administration in recent days has become increasingly frustrated with and outspokenly critical of Russia and the Assad regime’s actions in the besieged city, which it says include bombing hospitals and aid convoys – acts that violate international law.

Asked about the criticism, Kirby cited Kerry as saying the administration was not apologetic for “going the last mile to try to achieve a diplomatic solution here, because we continue to believe that more violence, more war, more bloodshed, is not the answer, and that the best way to end the civil war is to get the two sides back together again in Geneva.”

“There’s nothing that the secretary’s going to apologize for, congressional criticism or not, about talking to the Russians, who have the most influence on Assad, to try to get this to stop,” he said.

But, Kirby continued, Kerry has also said his patience is not limitless, and Wednesday’s warning to Lavrov demonstrated that it was “wearing extraordinarily thin.”

“So it is easy to criticize the efforts that the nation’s chief diplomat is making … when you aren’t accountable for the results of those discussions and when you don’t necessarily – have thought through all the unintended consequences of more violence, more bloodshed, or military solutions in an already bloody war,” he said.

Asked whether Kerry had given Lavrov a time limit for ending the assault on Aleppo to avoid a suspension of the bilateral cooperation, Kirby said it would not be “useful for me to put a date on the calendar.”

But he added that Kerry made it very clear to Lavrov that the required steps needed to be taken “now.”

In response to a question about what the consequences would be for a non-complying Russia apart from no longer talking to Kerry, Kirby replied that the civil war would continue, terror attacks against Russian interests would continue, Russia may lose more aircraft and “continue to send troops home in body bags.”

More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria’s five-and-a-half-year civil war, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported this month. A U.N. special envoy over the summer put the estimated figure at 400,000, while a research group, the Syrian Center for Policy Research, last February estimated as many as 470,000.

President Obama first called on President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside” in August 2011. At the time, the estimated death toll was between 1,800 and 2,000 people.

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