Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rejected calls by the US secretary of state that he should take part in talks, insisting that “declarations from outside do not concern us”. But then John Kerry himself faced criticism for “alienating” US allies.
Assad’s rebuff came after Kerry declared on Sunday that the US would “have to negotiate in the end” with the Damascus regime – a remark that immediately generated alarm in the Gulf states – which are determined to see him overthrown – and gloom among western supporters of a more robust US policy.
France and Turkey insisted Assad could not be part of a negotiated solution to the crisis. Britain’s position is similar – though no statement was made repeating it. Kerry also conspicuously failed to repeat the standard US line that Assad had “lost all legitimacy” over the four-year civil war in Syria and so had to go.
Still, his headline-grabbing remarks to CBS News were quickly qualified by a State Department spokeswoman, who insisted that the US view had not in fact changed. “There is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria,” said Marie Harf. The format for talks remained the Geneva conference, whose second and last session ended without results over a year ago. If talks were to resume they would certainly again include Syrian government ministers, though not Assad.
Kerry said the US and others were exploring how to revive diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s war, which has left more than 220,000 people dead, displaced millions and destabilised the region. “What we’re pushing for is to get him (Assad) to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that,” he said.
The need to clarify the secretary of state’s meaning hinted at disarray in Washington, where overall policy towards Syria has been overshadowed by the narrower and urgent question of how to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the jihadis of Islamic State, as Barack Obama has formulated his goal.
It also underlined suspicions, especially in the Gulf, that the US is seeking to improve the atmosphere with Iran ahead of this week’s nuclear negotiations by making positive gestures towards Tehran’s ally in Damascus. That looked like an over-interpretation.
For the last few months, Assad has repeatedly signalled his view that he has won the war while he has stopped mentioning Geneva, implying that a negotiated political transition is off the table. The hope in Damascus is that the US and other western countries will recognise that Isis is the greater evil. Yet there is no sign that European governments are ready to resume normal relations with Assad.
John Brennan, the director of the CIA, addressed the issue with unusual clarity last week when he said Washington had reason to worry about who might replace Assad if his government fell, given the rise of Isis and other jihadis in Syria. “The last thing we want to do is allow them to march into Damascus,” Brennan said.
Assad’s comments on Monday suggested he still hopes the US and its western countries will formally abandon the policy first enunciated in August 2011 when they called for him to step aside.
“We are still hearing the declarations and we should wait for actions and then decide,” the president said. Any international change in attitude regarding Syria’s situation would be positive, he added.
But he reiterated that foreign countries should stop supporting “terrorist groups,” the blanket term Damascus uses for all rebels fighting to overthrow him. “Any talk on the future of the Syrian president is for the Syrian people and all the declarations from outside do not concern us,” he said on Syrian state television.
Other state media interpreted Kerry’s comments positively. “Facing a fait accompli, the American administration has backed down and recognised the need to reposition its policy on the Syria crisis,” wrote the newspaper Alwatan. Washington recognises the need to put its Syria policy “back on the right track by negotiating with President Assad to solve the conflict,” it added.
Kerry’s remarks “confirmed … the failure of the American-Zionist project against Syria,” said the paper al-Baath. “The west has begun to fear the terrorism it cultivated.” Other Arab commentators attacked the US secretary of state. “Kerry unnecessarily alienates US partners and is dismissed by Assad,” said Hisham Melhem, a columnist for the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV.
“This is beyond embarrassing.” Nadim Shehadi, a US-based Lebanese academic and analyst said: “Hard to believe that Kerry wants to talk to Assad while the bombing of civilian areas goes on.”
Asked about Kerry’s remarks, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters: “Assad’s regime is the reason for all the problems in Syria. What is there to negotiate with Assad? What will you negotiate with a regime which has killed more than 200,000 people and used chemical weapons? What result is achieved through negotiations?”