The Syrian political opposition is dead set against the brand-new Obama-administration policy to pursue a new diplomatic negotiation with Russia in an effort to avoid a military strike on Syria, saying the delay and possible cancellation of Obama’s strike would only embolden Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Early Monday morning Washington time, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to a question at a London press conference by saying the Syrian regime might be able to avoid a U.S. strike if it turned over all its chemical weapons within a week. Kerry added that he didn’t expect that to happen. By the end of the day Monday, the Obama administration had turned Kerry’s comments into a new U.S. policy, and President Obama personally pledged not to strike Syria until his administration had explored Kerry’s idea, which was subsequently endorsed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Most of Washington woke up and read another gaffe by Kerry and thought it was just that,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. “By the end of the day, it seems like it is a new policy under serious consideration.”
For members of the Syrian opposition who view the strikes as a needed boost in their two-and-a-half-year struggle against the government, the prospect that Obama is backing down from his aggressive stance on striking the Syrian regime is the latest in a string of delays they call unhelpful and unwise.
“I really believe that this regime has had so many opportunities and we shouldn’t wait. We need immediate accountability. I doubt very much that the regime would give up its stockpile of chemical weapons just to avert a strike,” said Khalid Saleh, official spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, in an interview. “The regime has committed so many crimes against humanity and was allowed to get away with it. A delay would embolden the regime more.”
The Syrian National Coalition has been working with Syrian-American organizations to lobby members of Congress to support the president’s efforts to carry out limited strikes against the Assad regime. The coalition says it has always seen the strikes as a needed step to punish the regime and change the momentum on the ground.
“We believe it’s way overdue, but ... we’ve been trying to engage the U.S. public to convince them this is the correct course of action,” Saleh said. “We absolutely believe that a strike would change the momentum on the ground.”
Opposition and rebel groups inside Syria, including the Free Syrian Army, have been planning their own strategy around the U.S.-led strikes, which they were fairly certain were coming soon. The FSA was hoping to consolidate its control over certain areas, to provide protection to more Syrian civilians, and to encourage defections on the military side, Saleh said.
The Obama administration’s position on Kerry’s remarks evolved over the course of the day. Officials initially sought to downplay the comments. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with Kerry in London, said in a statement to the traveling press that Kerry made a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.”
Kerry’s point was that “this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons. Otherwise he would have done so long ago,” Psaki said.
“We absolutely believe that a strike would change the momentum on the ground.”
Back in Washington, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry made “a hypothetical statement,” but that the administration would take a “hard look” at the Russian statement calling on the world to act on Kerry’s comment.
In a speech Monday afternoon, National Security Adviser Susan Rice argued for the strike and didn’t mention the Kerry idea. Indeed, Rice said the U.S. had exhausted the diplomatic track.
“The fact is, President Obama has consistently demonstrated his commitment to multilateral diplomacy,” Rice said. “He would much prefer the backing of the United Nations Security Council to uphold the international ban against the use of chemical weapons, whether in the form of sanctions, accountability, or authorizing the use of force. But let’s be realistic—it’s just not going to happen now. Believe me, I know. I was there for all of those U.N. debates and negotiations on Syria. I lived it. And it was shameful.”
On Monday afternoon, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton emerged from a meeting with Obama and declared that Kerry’s idea was now under serious consideration.
“Now if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” she said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction, and Russia has to support the international community’s efforts sincerely or be held to account.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Monday afternoon that a planned Wednesday procedural vote on authorizing the use of force in Syria would now also be delayed.
By early evening, Obama had pledged to let the Kerry-Lavrov discussion play out while he continued to lobby Congress to vote for authorizing the use of military force inside Syria. He also floated the possibility that a deal struck with Russia could allow him to avoid a strike altogether.
“I welcome the possibility of the development. And John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterparts,” Obama told Fox News. “I think we should explore and exhaust all avenues of diplomatic resolution of this, but I think it’s important for us to keep the pressure on, and to quote a—or to paraphrase, at least, a former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan: it’s not enough just to trust; I think we’re going to have to verify. So the question is, can we construct something that allows the international community to have confidence that these terrible weapons will not be used again?”
Speaking to NBC, Obama called the Kerry-Lavrov idea a “potentially positive development.”
"We are going to run this to ground. John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart,” Obama said. “We’re going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.”