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.
Late Sunday night, shortly after the delegation plane landed, Hiatt, Rogin and I asked Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, to respond to the senators’ characterization of Kerry’s remarks. She emailed the following response: “Like [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough this morning on the Sunday shows, Secretary Kerry has stated publicly many times that more needs to be done rapidly by the regime to move chemical weapons to the port at Latakia, that we need to continue doing more to end the conflict, and that he has pushed the Russians to help in this effort.”
Psaki’s response continued, “No one in this administration thinks we’re doing enough until the humanitarian crisis has been solved and the civil war ended. That is no different from the message Secretary Kerry conveyed during the private meeting. The meeting was an opportunity to hear from and engage with members of Congress and it is unfortunate that his comments are being mischaracterized by some participants.”
In a separate email sent Monday morning, Psaki responded to the claim that Kerry is reintroducing the idea of supporting arming certain rebel groups. “It’s no secret that some members of Congress support this approach, but at no point during the meeting did Secretary Kerry raise lethal assistance for the opposition. He was describing a range of options that the administration has always had at its disposal, including more work within the structure of the international community, and engaging with Congress on their ideas is an important part of that process.”
On the matter of Syria, the feeling at the Munich Security Conference, the world’s premier gathering of security experts, was that of helplessness. On the first night of the conference, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative for Syria, said, “We’ve just had eight days of negotiations in Geneva. … I’m sorry to report there was no progress.”
The impotence of the West, as evidenced by the failure of Geneva II talks, and by continued reports of mass murder committed by Assad’s forces, prompted former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter to publicly compare the situation of Syrian citizens today to that of Jews in World War II Europe. “In the United States, we often ask, ‘Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the trains?’ We aren’t very different,” she said.
There are many reasons a secretary of state — particularly one who has been more inclined to intervene in Syria than many of his colleagues in the White House national security apparatus — might see this particular moment in the three-year-old Syria crisis as an inflection point. The utter failure of the Geneva peace talks is one reason. Reports that Syria is not complying with its promise to divest itself of its chemical weapons stockpiles is another. Add to this the recent disclosure of damning evidence that the Syria regime has tortured and starved 11,000 people to death (more than 130,000 people so far have died in the civil war), and it is understandable why Kerry would believe it is time for a new American approach.
But the main impetus for a dramatic new approach might be the claim made last week by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, that one of the main jihadi groups fighting in Syria, the Nusra Front, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” Clapper compared parts of Syria today to the tribal areas of Pakistan, which have long been havens for jihadi terror groups.
(In her email this morning, the State Department’s Psaki wrote that “while Secretary Kerry restated what we have said many times publicly about our concern about the growing threat of extremists, he did not draw a direct connection to the threat on the homeland or reference comments made by other administration officials. This is a case of members [of Congress] projecting what they want to hear and not stating the accurate facts of what was discussed.”)
If it is indeed true that the al Qaeda-oriented Nusra Front is seeking targets in the U.S., then the Syria conflict must become, by necessity, a paramount national security concern for the U.S. The impact of Clapper’s testimony could be profound: If parts of Syria are becoming, in essence, al Qaeda havens, and if jihadis are plotting attacks on American targets from those havens, then the Obama administration, which has made the fight against al Qaeda the centerpiece of its national security strategy, will have to engage in Syria in ways it has so far tried to avoid. Such engagement would be terribly complicated, because the U.S. would essentially be facing two despicable adversaries in Syria that are battling each other: Assad’s forces (and its Hezbollah and Iranian helpers) on the one hand, and the al Qaeda-inspired and affiliated foes of Assad, on the other.
This is why McCain argued to us, on the flight from Munich, that it is all the more important now to provide support to those rebel formations that could plausibly be designated as “moderate.” He said: “All I can do is hope that there is cumulative evidence, the failure of Geneva II, the atrocities of the 11,000, the continued regionalization of the conflict — sooner or later, the president will decide this is in America’s national security interest.”
President Obama’s position on Syrian engagement has been far less forward-leaning than that of his secretary of state. “All along John has wanted more vigorous action,” said McCain. “I said to John on the way out, ‘Don’t make it a half measure.’ I said you’ve really got to do something to change the momentum.”
Obama has never believed the more moderate rebel factions would be capable of defeating the Assad regime (and it should be noted that these rebel groups, despite McCain’s beliefs, are particularly weak today). McCain opposed Graham’s suggestion that the administration begin using drone strikes against al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Syria. “Eventually you’ve got to confront them, so to me, it’s a choice of, do we hit them after they hit us, or do we hit them before they hit us?” Graham said. “Because eventually we are going to engage these guys, and it seems to me there’s an appetite growing among the Arab countries and even a little bit [with] Russia quite frankly that we’ve got to change the momentum when it comes to the al Qaeda presence.”
AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais