National Security

Kerry offers no new moves on Syria in latest summary of policy

Secretary of State Kerry at the U.S. Institute of Peace Thursday.
Secretary of State Kerry at the U.S. Institute of Peace Thursday. AP

His remarks Thursday were billed as the long-awaited explanation of U.S. strategy in Syria, but Secretary of State John Kerry signaled no policy breakthrough Thursday in a war that’s worsening by the day as Russian intervention scatters even more refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe.

President Barack Obama and other world leaders will address the Syrian civil war next week at the Group of 20 economic summit in Turkey. Expectations are so low for any agreement among nations with competing interests in Syria that Kerry counted it as a success that the states were even talking. Throughout his speech Thursday, Kerry was defensive in tone, as if offering an emotional retort to critics across the world asking: Why can’t the United States do more to stop the bloodshed?

“From the beginning of this crisis, there has not been a single idea for addressing the Syrian conflict that has been discussed in public that hasn’t also been the subject of intense scrutiny within the administration,” Kerry told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank. “Whatever questions one might have about the content of our policy, there should be no doubt about the effort made to consider every option for ending this crisis.”

Despite pressure from allies and advocacy groups to get more involved, the Obama administration appears to be sticking with its relatively conservative approach: step up humanitarian aid, keep military involvement to a minimum, push for a negotiated political transition, and focus on fighting the Islamic State rather than the government of President Bashar Assad.

Kerry recapped the administration’s actions so far, emphasizing a renewed diplomatic effort to get invested nations, including Russia and Iran, at the same table to hash out a plan for a change of government. Kerry will meet with his counterparts in Vienna, Austria, over the weekend before Obama and the other heads of state take up the matter at the G-20 conference.

Whatever questions one might have about the content of our policy, there should be no doubt about the effort made to consider every option for ending this crisis.

Secretary of State John Kerry

So far, the only agreed-upon action to emerge from that approach is what Kerry called the “possibility of exploring” a nationwide cease-fire – a prospect riddled with problems, starting with the fact that al Qaida and Islamic State extremists aren’t likely to abide by it. A succession of U.N. envoys have tried and failed to arrange a cease-fire since the conflict began. Russia’s weeks-old intervention has made a cease-fire even less likely.

The Russian airstrikes have driven more than 100,000 people from their homes, worsening an already horrendous humanitarian crisis.

Even if the disparate nations can agree on a cease-fire plan, there are still sharp differences on the broader, thornier questions of when and how – perhaps even whether – Assad should relinquish power to a transitional authority.

Kerry didn’t feign optimism.

“I cannot say this afternoon that we are on the threshold of a comprehensive agreement; there remains much work to do,” he said. “The walls of mistrust within Syria, within the region, and within the international community, are thick and high. But those walls will never be breached unless we make a concerted and creative effort to surmount them.”

Roy Gutman contributed from Gaziantep, Turkey.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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