John Kerry is traveling to the Middle East and Europe later this month to unveil his new plan to get Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. "I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his current perception," the new secretary of state said this week. "My goal is to see us change his calculation."
The State Department hasn’t released an itinerary yet, but there’s some speculation that Kerry may use the opportunity to visit Damascus to see his one-time dining companion. Indeed, pro-Assad Arab media outfits claim that Kerry will visit Assad. Such a visit would hardly be surprising given the number of trips the then Massachusetts senator made to Syria starting in 2009, when he became the administration’s key interlocutor with the regime. None of those consultations changed Assad’s calculations, or Assad would not have killed more than 60,000 Syrians in the last two years in a conflict that threatens to damage U.S. interests around the region.
If anything, Kerry’s visits encouraged Assad in the belief that he had, if not American support, then at least the tacit acquiescence of the White House. Kerry seems never to have grasped the fact that Assad did not interpret those visits the same way he did. If Kerry thought he was engaging in “confident, carefully calibrated diplomacy,” Assad saw it merely as a useful photo opportunity. From the regime’s perspective, why else would Obama continue to send dignitaries to Damascus if the Americans were truly against Assad? That is to say, Kerry could beat Assad over the head with a loafer until the Syrian despot begged for mercy, but as long as the regime’s official photographers published only shots of the Syrian president welcoming the esteemed American official, it wouldn’t matter what Kerry did or said. All that mattered was the optics—the White House is on board with the regime.
Whether Kerry is really headed to Damascus or not is in some way beside the point, for in naming a secretary of state who just can’t get his fill of trying to change Assad’s calculations, the White House has already sent a message to Assad.
Obama must be relieved that Kerry is never going to stab him in the back, like Hilary Clinton did when she said she supported arming the Syrian rebels. CIA director David Petraeus also wanted to arm the rebels, said Clinton. Later Leon Panetta joined the chorus—I, too, wanted to back the rebels, said the secretary of defense, and so did Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. Perhaps those four spoke out with an eye to history, wishing to distance themselves as much as possible from a growing catastrophe that may well suck in every American ally on Syria’s borders, especially Jordan, Israel, and Turkey.
But it’s useful to see how Clinton and Panetta’s revelations will be interpreted by the Assad regime. Obama’s national security principals now say they wanted to arm the rebels, but all that means is that for the last two years they all lied, either directly or through their friends in the American media. Look at the excuses the White House used for not backing the regime’s enemies.
Assad's not using planes to shoot the opposition like Qaddafi did, the Americans reasoned early on. This was followed by numerous other justifications for standing aside and letting first the peaceful protestors and then the unarmed opposition stand alone. We don''t know who the opposition is, they said. Israel has warned us against moving too quickly to topple Assad. The Syrian army is too powerful, and their air defenses are virtually impregnable. We'd be arming al Qaeda. It is better to let our two enemies, al Qaeda and Iran, shoot it out. The effort to back Assad is hurting Iran. The American people don't want another Middle East conflict. Getting the Russians on board is the only game in town. The conflict calls for a political solution since there is no military solution. Arming the opposition would only make things worse. We need to protect the Alawites and other minorities. The use of chemical weapons would change Obama's calculation. There's nothing we can do to craft a positive outcome.
Administration officials portrayed themselves as the adults in the room, cautious pragmatists who didn’t want to drag the United States into a potential quagmire that could not help but damage American interests. But Assad sees it like this: Obama’s defense and security advisers were all lying. They all wanted to arm the rebels—except the president. Obama, Assad realizes, is the only one who matters. And now to represent his foreign policy he’s chosen a man who knows us, a man who’s broken bread with us Damascus. John Kerry is a man we can do business with.