News of Secretary of State John Kerry stating that the United States needs to talk to Syrian President Bashar Assad must have been received in Damascus with as much jubilation as a July 4th party in middle America. After years of being ignored by most of the international community, of being shunned and considered a political pariah, Assad must have been astonished to see Washington suddenly reverse the tables. And all it took was a short phrase from the Secretary of State.
“We have to talk to Assad,” said Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Kerry’s statement carries importance because it gives the Syrian president a new dose of legitimacy that he badly needed. Mr. Assad had become a political outcast. Neither Washington nor London nor Paris would talk to him. In fact, not only would they not talk to him, but they were trying to remove him from power.
Now these few words could possibly change everything and certainly not for the better. To begin, it will upset several U.S. Middle Eastern allies, primarily Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two key actors in the current conflict.
“I can’t find the appropriate words to express my anger at Kerry’s last stance,” said Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, someone who is rarely, if ever, at a loss of words.
Secretary Kerry’s actions clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Middle East and how things are done there. His statement sets the pace back several years and will instill uncertainty and even further mistrust of the United States amongst a number of groups in the opposition that were supported by Washington.
“Kerry is desperately muddling through the Middle East grasping at straws in order to win some positive praise for himself, first, and Obama second. Kerry may want a white feather to wave while pursuing another run and president, and Obama no doubt is looking for another unearned ‘peace prize,’” said Robert Jordan, a retired major from the U.S. Marine Corps who has served in the Middle East.
One Middle East observer summed up the situation by saying that Mr. Kerry’s short phrase — those little six words – has basically wiped out the chances of the Democrats winning the next presidential election.
This statement could also prove to be counter-productive in more than one way, as its consequences will have an impact on the ground in Syria as it will undoubtedly frighten some rebel groups who will become fearful of the government reclaiming the upper hand in the conflict. This would push them into bed with the extremists of the Jabhat-al-Nusra, or even more frightening with those of the Islamic State. That would make the IS even stronger than it currently is.
The outcome of such an unholy alliance would in turn be far more deadly for the pro-democracy forces and the Western power and would in turn possibly expand the danger level on neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and ultimately, would present a raised level of danger for Israel.
As the civil war in Syria progressed the U.S. and its Western allies, as well as Turkey and several Arab countries pushed for the removal of Mr. Assad, yet the Syrian president held on to power refusing to budge and that, despite the staggering number of casualties. International organizations estimate the number of killed in the four-year war has surpassed the 290,000, while the number of wounded hovers around the one million mark.
“We have to talk to Assad,” said the U.S. chief diplomat. Those six little words have drew statements of anger and surprise from many who hoped that a coordinated policy would finally remove Assad from power.
Secretary Kerry and presumably his boss, President Obama, fail to realize just how damaging those six little words can be, and will be. With those little six words U.S. political credibility — or what was left of it — went down a couple of notches in the Arab world today.
As far as political gaffes go, this was indeed a major one and the consequences will be felt in the weeks, months and years to come.
For weeks on end the Obama administration had failed to say anything about the war in Syria and were criticized for failing to have a coherent policy, or even a policy. Now that they have spoken it would have perhaps been far better if they had remained silent.