Friday, December 21, 2012

SecState[?] John Kerry and his "dear friend" Bashar al-Assad

Follow clayclai on Twitter President Barack Obama has just nominated Senator John Kerry for the position of Secretary of State. I believe John Kerry first came to public notice as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970's. Probably his introduction to the Senate came in April 1971 when he became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before congress. More recently he has been a senator himself and chairman of the very same Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he first testified before more that forty years ago. More recently, he has been President Barrack Obama's point man on US relations with Syria and it's dictator President Bashar al-Assad.
Senator John Kerry with "dear friend" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
John Kerry visited Damascus as part of the Cardin Congressional delegation in February 2009. While there, Mr. and Mrs. Kerry had dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Assad. He also had private meetings with Assad. He returned from this visit, full of hope for building good relationships between the Assad regime and the White House:
"I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region," ... "My hope [is that] in the next days things will begin to emerge that can begin to signal that kind of different possibility."
Seymour Hersh interviewed Kerry about this trip and wrote about it in the New Yorker, 6 April 2009, and he reported on Kerry's hopes:
These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February-his third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. "He wants to engage with the West," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. "Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he's willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights-with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it. "Of course, Syria will not suddenly move against Iran," Kerry said. "But the Syrians will act in their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with Israel with Turkey's assistance-and over the objections of Iran."
As President Obama's conduit to Assad, as he developed his new policy of engagement with Syria, John Kerry made numerous trips Damascus during this period. It must have been after one of these trips that the incident reported in Commentary Magazine took place:
Staffers describe their collective cringe when, after a motorcycle ride with Bashar al-Assad, he returned to Washington referring to Bashar as “my dear friend.” Bashar may be a lot of things, but “my dear friend”—an address Kerry used only with a select few, such as the late Ted Kennedy—should not have been one.
And indeed, with Kerry's guidance, relations with the Assad regime were steadily developed. By August 2009, a US military team was in Damascus for talks. A Stratfor analyst summarized the developments to that point:
Syria offering intel cooperation on AQ, Iran, HZ Syria facilitating March 14 win in Lebanon Saudi pouring money into Syrian coffers US and Saudi rewarding Syria with diplomatic recognition (notice how quiet everyone is about Lebanon) Signs that Syria is moving forward -- big Syrian military/intel reshuffles; Iran threatening to destabilize the Syrian regime; HZ anxiety this is all covered in our analysis
Less than a year later, in March 2010, an internal Syrian email [soon to be released by Wikileaks] catalogs the developments in the past year from the Syrian pov:
1? Since January 2009, there have been multiple visits to Syria by US officials, including:
? Administration officials, namely Under Secretary of State William Burns, Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, White House?NSC Senior Director Dan Shapiro, and Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, among others. ? Members of Congress, such as Senators Judd Gregg, John Kerry, Ted Kaufman and Benjamin Cardin; and Representatives Adam Smith, Tim Walz , Alcee Hastings, Stephen Lynch, Howard Berman, at the head of several congressional delegations. ? High?Ranking military officers from US Central Command.
2? US Officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of improved US relations with Syria, the positive role Syria can play in the region, and the need for Syria to join peace efforts. 3? On July 28, 2009, the US administration initiated steps to ease American sanctions against Syria, starting with allowing the export of material related to information technology, telecommunication equipment and civil aviation. 4? The US lifted an advisory that warned American travelers about security concerns in Syria. 5? The US is getting ready to send back its ambassador to Damascus. 6? Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Al?Miqdad was invited to Washington in October 2009 for high?level talks with US officials. 7? Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa has been having regular meetings at the White House, the State Department and Congress with various US officials, after 5 years of boycott.
The next month, April 2010, Kerry was back in Damascus again, according to State Department cables released by Wikileaks. Maybe Kerry was taken in by the urban upper-class manors of Bashar al-Assad; maybe there was something that reminded him of his Yale Skull & Crossbones days, or maybe it was just the shared class-consciousness of people in power, but whatever caused John Kerry to connect with the dictator, other things were happening in Syria that ultimately should lead to the overthrow of his "dear friend" Bashar al-Assad. The status quo of the entire region was about to be overthrown from below, by the very forces that were never consulted in Kerry's negotiations with Assad. Already two dictators had been overthrown, in Tunisia and Egypt, Qaddafi was shooting at protesters in Libya and demonstrations were starting to breakout in Syria when Haaretz reported, 24 February 2011:
U.S. Senator John Kerry and Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly began drafting an unofficial position paper that would define the principles of negotiations with Israel. U.S. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and a close associate of U.S. President Barack Obama, has been working together with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the last few months on a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel. ... Kerry has met with Assad in Damascus five times over the last two years. The issue of restarting Israeli-Syrian talks was raised at all of these meetings, and a few months ago, the two began exploring practical ideas for doing so.
In his public report back, 16 March 2011, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said:
"President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had," Mr. Kerry said. "I think it's incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way. ... "So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it."
As compared with his view on future relations with Syria under Assad, the views he expressed at that Carnegie talk about Libya under Qaddafi were quite hawkish, and sound ironic today, given his non-interventionist stand on Syria:
With Libya on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Kerry stressed that “the international community cannot watch from the sidelines as a quest for democracy is met with raw violence.” Kerry endorsed recommendations by the Arab League and the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace and said that U.S. and international leaders should consider “whatever is necessary” to prevent further escalation of violence.
Whether Kerry knew it of not, the day before his Carnegie talk, 15 March was the "Day of Rage," the official start of the Syrian Revolution. Wikipedia describes the day this way:
Simultaneous demonstrations took place in major cities across Syria. Thousands of protesters gathered in al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama. There were some clashes with security, according to reports from dissident groups. In Damascus, a smaller group of 200 men grew spontaneously to about 1,500 men. Damascus has not seen such uprising since the 1980s. The official Facebook page called "Syrian Revolution 2011" showed pictures of supportive demonstrations in Cairo, Nicosia, Helsinki, Istanbul and Berlin. There were also unconfirmed news that Syrian revolution supporters of Libyan descent, stormed into the Syrian Embassy in Paris ... After the first day of the uprising there were reports about approximately 3000 arrests and a few "martyrs", but there are no official figures on the number of deaths
Since that first day, the death toll has climbed towards 50,000, with hundreds of thousands arrested or disappeared and half a million seeking refuge outside of Syria.
New Syria policy needed
John Kerry has come a long ways since his first days as an anti-war activist, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Obama's man in Damascus, he put a lot of time and energy into a plan that depended on the continued success of one man, or at a minimum, the regime that he represents. John Kerry had no illusion about what kind of government Assad ran; when he co-sponsored the Syria Accountability Act in 2003 he said,:
The Syrian government has historically ruled by methods such as torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged detention without trial, and limits on freedom of speech and the press.
Yet he bet on that government and he clung to the hope that Assad would survive, and with him, all those plans the two of them had made together, long after the revolution against his rule had begun. In June 2012, Klein Halevy, a Jerusalem-based contributor to the New Republic, recounted a meeting she had with Kerry in 2011:
Last year, I was part of a group of Israelis who met in Jerusalem with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry had just come from Damascus with excellent news: Bashar al-Assad was ready for peace with Israel. When one of the participants mentioned that demonstrations had begun to challenge Mr. Assad’s legitimacy, Mr. Kerry’s response was: All the more reason to negotiate while he’s still in power.
That was then and this is now. Clearly Assad's "still in power" days are numbered. I'm sure John Kerry and everyone else in the Obama administration realize that now. They refused any military aid to Assad's opposition and even did their best to deny them heavy weapons, but that has only delayed, at great human costs, the inevitable defeat of the Assad regime. If and when John Kerry takes on the tasks of Secretary of State, I hope he can grab something of the past from his own history as a protester and as a soldier in a rebel army [VVAW] that can help him relate to those who will most hopefully will be running Syria in the near future. It looks very likely that Syria will be his first big foreign policy challenge. He must realize that all the fancy plans he made over the years with Assad and now as dead as Qaddafi. He will now have to lead the United States in building a new relationship to Syria with the knowledge that our recent actions and lack of humanitarian concern, has done almost nothing to endear us to the Syrian people, and he will rightfully be seen as one of the chief engineers of that policy.
John Kerry as he appears in my film Vietnam: American Holocaust What a long strange trip its been!

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