Will America Talk with Syria’s Assad or Not?

John Kerry calls for negotiations but the State Department insists he didn’t mean with Assad.

American secretary of state John Kerry answers questions from reporters in Montreux, Switzerland, March 4
American secretary of state John Kerry answers questions from reporters in Montreux, Switzerland, March 4 (State Department)

Four years into Syria’s civil war, the United States may have come round to the view that President Bashar al-Assad needs to be part of a political solution.

Despite earlier insisting that Assad “must go,” Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News on Sunday, when asked if the United States would be willing to speak with Assad, “We have to negotiate in the end.”

The State Department rushed to clarify that Kerry did not mean direct negotiations with Assad.

“By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process,” a spokeswoman said. “It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate. And the secretary was not saying that today.”

Maybe not. But it seems rather hardheaded to continue to exclude the Syrian dictator from any effort to mediate an end to the conflict in his country.

The United States believe Assad “lost legitimacy” when he started killing his own people but not all Syrians agree. Many minority Alawites and Christians have stuck with him for fear of a radical Sunni takeover. By Assad’s design, the peaceful protests that started in 2011 morphed into a fanatic, sectarian uprising that is dominated by violent Islamists — primarily the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and the self-declared Islamic State. Both groups have been targets of American airstrikes in Iraq as well as Syria.

Nor do all powers agree that Assad should step down. Iran is his ally. To an extent, so is Russia. China still considers Assad to be Syria’s legitimate leader.

China and Russia have used their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to forestall any international military intervention in Syria. If world powers are to find the much-desired political solution to the Syrian crisis, the views of China and Russia cannot be ignored.

Americans’ outrage is not without cause. Assad’s henchmen have indiscriminately and purposefully targeted civilian areas, using crude and deadly barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons, withheld food and medical aid from Syrians in need, executed rebel sympathizers and systematically raped, tortured and killed detainees. But Assad is also a major party to the conflict.

Unless the United States are willing to impose a “political solution” on Syria on their own — meaning, intervene in the conflict with force — it is difficult to see how Assad can be altogether sidelined.