Kerry Said to Express Doubts About Syria Strategy

President Barack Obama’s top diplomat is no longer convinced the policy in Syria is working.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

For the past two and a half years, the Obama Administration has projected an aura of confidence to the public about its policy on Syria. Despite clamors from some members of Congress for more active military engagement in the conflict, officials have resisted the temptation to intervene on a mass scale, with a certain private assurance that the policy they have been following is the most responsible course of action the United States can take.

That confidence seemed to pay off when Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle and destroy his chemical weapons stockpile in order to avert the use of military force — an event that President Barack Obama brought up himself during his State of the Union address this week as an example of his administration’s foreign policy achievements.

But it appears much of that confidence is now being tossed aside by some of the Obama Administration’s most senior members. According to reporters Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, Josh Rogan of the The Daily Beast and Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, Secretary of State John Kerry is one of the officials beginning to doubt whether America’s policy in Syria is doing anything to push the Assad regime out of power.

In a private meeting with congressmen that was supposed to be kept confidential and off the record, America’s top diplomat apparently expressed doubt that the administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict is working. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s Syria policy, provided glimpses of Kerry’s reservations to the three reporters. Assuming that McCain and Graham are telling the truth, their remarks lead to one conclusion: John Kerry is doubting the very policy that he is tasked with carrying out.

Among Kerry’s chief concerns, according to the senators, is the steady growth and power of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria as well as their aspirations to eventually use the country as a base of operations for attacks against the United States. “He openly talked about forming a coalition against Al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “The first thing [Kerry] said is, ‘The Al Qaeda threat is real. It is getting out of hand.'”

Al Qaeda was not the only thing on Kerry’s mind. Senator Graham also told reporters that the secretary touched on every major issue that has been a focus of America’s policy in Syria, from the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons to the fact that peace talks in Switzerland have done nothing to slow down the war.

“He acknowledged that the chemical weapons [delivery] is being slow rolled; the Russians continue to supply arms [and that] we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy,” Graham remarked.

The State Department denies that Kerry made any suggestion about changing strategy in Syria. That statement, however, may not make much of a difference in Washington DC where there has always been speculation that the secretary is not entirely on board with the president’s more restrained and cautious direction in the war. And, as often occurs in the capital, whether or not reports of Kerry’s doubts are accurate is less important than the fact that the reports are out there.

For lawmakers like McCain and Graham, who have argued for increased lethal support to the moderate Syrian opposition, airstrikes on strategic Syrian military facilities, the formation of no-fly zones and the establishment of humanitarian corridors, these accounts will serve as a useful piece of leverage to drive American policy in a more activist direction.