Media coverage of Syria on Sunday has been taken over by a statement from US Secretary of State John Kerry that “we have to negotiate in the end” for a resolution of the four-year crisis.
Many outlets are interpreting this as a US acceptance of Bashar al-Assad, at least at the negotiating table, softening the long-time American position that the President has to give up power as part of a transitional process.
However, the reported statement — to be broadcast later today by the US channel CBS, is ambiguous. Kerry makes no specific reference to Assad as “politically essential” to a settlement — the line taken by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura as he shifted the long-standing demand for the President’s departure. Conversely, he does not repeat the previous American position that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must depart.
So it is unclear whether Kerry is saying that Assad must be brought to the negotiating table as a partner who will retain power or as a President who must accept dismissal:
We have to negotiate in the end. We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process [of June 2012, which called for Assad’s departure and the transitional government]….
What we’re pushing for is to get [Assad] to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that.
We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure.
On Friday, CIA Director John Brennan said that the US does not want a chaotic collapse of the Syrian regime, as it could result in Islamist extremists taking power.
Asked at the Council on Foreign Relations if Washington was worried about who might replace Assad, Brennan replied, “I think that’s a legitimate concern” as “extremist elements” are “ascendant right now” in some parts of Syria:
The last thing we want to do is allow them to march into Damascus.
That’s why it’s important to bolster those forces within the Syrian opposition that are not extremists.
However, Kerry did not turn this into a definitive “Not the Extremists, So We Have to Accept Assad” on Sunday. Instead, he merely repeated, “There is no military solution, only a political solution”, and then left open the issue:
To get the Assad regime to negotiate, we are going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating.
That’s underway right now.