Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) — Two prominent Republican senators say that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told them — along with 13 other members of a bipartisan congressional delegation — that President Barack Obama’s administration is in need of a new, more assertive, Syria policy; that al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria pose a direct terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland; that Russia is arming the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is generally subverting chances for a peaceful settlement; that Assad is violating his promise to expeditiously part with his massive stores of chemical weapons; and that, in Kerry’s view, it may be time to consider more dramatic arming of moderate Syrian rebel factions.
Kerry is said to have made these blunt assertions Sunday morning behind the closed doors of a cramped meeting room in the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, as the 50th annual Munich Security Conference was coming to a close in a ballroom two floors below. A day earlier, Kerry, in a joint appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the ballroom stage, gave an uncompromising defense of the Obama administration’s level of foreign engagement: saying that, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”
Kerry’s presentation to the congressional delegation suggests that, at least in the case of Syria, he believes the U.S. could be doing much more. His enthusiasm for engagement and dissatisfaction with current policy, is in one sense no surprise: Kerry has consistently been the most prominent advocate inside the administration of a more assertive American role in Syria. Who could forget his late August speech, overflowing with Churchillian outrage, in which he promised that the U.S. would hold the Assad regime accountable for the “moral obscenity” of chemical weapons attacks? (This promise was put on hold after Obama declined to strike Syria, and after the Russians negotiated the so-far mainly theoretical surrender of the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons.)
According to participants in the meeting, Kerry spent a good deal of time sounding out the members about their constituents’ tolerance for greater engagement in Syria. He was told, almost uniformly, that there is little appetite for deeper involvement at home. One congressman, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, told Kerry that his August speech on the need to confront Assad was powerful, but that the president subsequently “dropped the ball.”
Kerry’s Sunday briefing was meant to be private, but the Senate’s two most prominent Syria hawks, Republicans John McCain — the leader of the U.S. delegation to the security conference — and Lindsey Graham provided a readout of the meeting to three journalists who flew with them on a delegation plane back to Washington: Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; Josh Rogin, the Daily Beast‘s national security reporter; and me.
According to Graham, Kerry gave the clear impression that Syria is slipping out of control. He said Kerry told the delegation that, “the al Qaeda threat is real, it is getting out of hand.” The secretary, he said, raised the threat of al Qaeda unprompted. “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. He openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat.”
“I would not characterize what he said as a plea for a new policy, but that, in light of recent, dramatic developments, the administration is exploring possible new directions,” said one Democratic House member who was in the meeting. “He wasn’t arguing so much that the administration needs a new policy, but that the administration is considering a range of options based on recent developments.”
The delegation, which included such senators as Republicans Roy Blunt and Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, as well as such high-ranking House members as Michigan’s Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and New York’s Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Kerry for about 45 minutes, immediately before both Kerry and the delegation left on separate planes to Washington.