Kerry Says U.S. May Negotiate With Assad

The secretary of state says Washington eventually will have to talk to Assad. But his remarks may take the heat off Syria’s president that would bring him to the table.

03.15.15 5:16 PM ET

ISTANBUL — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a television interviewer on Sunday that Washington will “have to negotiate in the end” with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Kerry told CBS News on the fifth anniversary of the Syrian government’s vicious crackdown on popular protests, which triggered the civil war, that the United States is engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts with allies to persuade Assad to negotiate an end to the civil war.

Asked if he is ready to negotiate directly with the Syrian strongman, Kerry responded that if Assad is “ready to have a serious negotiation” about implementing an agreement made in Geneva in 2012, “people are prepared to do that.”

Kerry omitted the Obama administration’s refrain that Assad will have to relinquish power if there’s to be an end to the conflict that has seen more than 200,000 deaths.

The remarks will do little to persuade insurgents that the United States is committed to ousting the Syrian president or increasing support for the rebels who have made that their objective. It’s not even clear how pressure on Assad will be sustained if this represents an evolution of the American position.

Kerry said negotiations are important “because everybody agrees there is no military solution; there’s only a political solution. But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That’s underway right now.”

“We have to negotiate in the end,” said Kerry. “And what we’re pushing for is to get [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. We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure.”

But the fighters who would apply that pressure are not inclined to give their lives for half-way measures.

As the old Churchillian axiom tells us, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” but for Syrian rebels the Obama administration, despite protestations, has seemed keener on negotiating with Assad rather than fighting him or shaping the military circumstances that would force him to accept that he has to go.

In principle the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is not opposed to talks with Damascus but it is adamant that Assad should play no part in a political transition.

In the U.N.-sponsored Geneva agreement Kerry referred to there was no future offered for Assad in a political transition but neither was there any demand in it for him to be excluded and to leave office. That omission was at the insistence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said it should be left to the Syrian people to decide who could take part in a new post-civil war government. Lavrov was also quick to shoot down Western spin following the making of the agreement that, of course, Assad would have to go.

For Syrian rebels Sunday’s comments by Kerry fit into a pattern that they identify as starting before the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, whose defeat has become the top priority for the administration.

Back in 2011 President Obama was firm, declaring “Assad must go” for killing peaceful protesters. The next year he drew a “red line” warning the Syrian president not to use chemical weapons against his own people. But in August 2013, when Syrian government forces did use chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, the administration drew back from unleashing punitive airstrikes and opted instead for a negotiated deal brokered by Russia for Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile to be given up. Even though that accord successfully eliminated virtually all of Assad’s most dangerous chemical weapons, the rebels had hoped that, above and beyond that objective, a U.S. air offensive would tip the balance on the battlefield in their favor. When it did not happen, disillusionment was widespread.

Kerry’s remarks about negotiating with Assad come just days after CIA Director John Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that a Syrian government collapse could be highly dangerous. “What we don’t want to do is to allow those extremist elements,” such as ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and al Qaeda, to seize power from a collapsed regime. “The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus.”

“They see the war just through the prism of the jihadists now,” laments a rebel commander in the strategic northern Syrian city of Aleppo. “But what they don’t understand is that many fighters won’t accept Assad remaining in power—there have been too many deaths for that.”

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Kerry did not elaborate on CBS about what additional pressure may have to be applied to get Assad to negotiate seriously. There was no immediate reaction from Syrian officials or from the state media to Kerry’s comments. But the rebels argue that only battlefield gains by them—or airstrikes by the U.S. on Syrian government forces—will force Damascus to accept serious talks built on the principle that Assad can play no leadership role in the future of the war-torn country.

They point to some reversals Syrian government forces suffered at their hands last week, when a weeks-long encircling maneuver of insurgent-held districts in Aleppo was disrupted by the rebels seizing a crucial crossroads at Handarat. Rebel fighters also defeated a government effort to capture al Madafa hill north of Aleppo. “The advances by our forces on the outskirts of Aleppo show we are to be trusted,” argues Hisham Marwah, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition.

He describes the midweek gains as a clear signal that even “after four years Assad still can’t defeat the Free Syrian Army and can’t stop the revolution.” He added: “It should send a message to his allies, Iran and Russia, that Assad can’t impose a military solution.”

Representatives of the Syrian government last took part in talks in Moscow in January with opposition figures from Damascus, but the main Western-backed opposition group shunned the conference. In February there were talks between the official opposition and the SNC and a roadmap was outlined for transition—but Assad’s future was glossed over.