PHOTO: US Secretary of State John Kerry “Who’s going to get rid of Assad?”

Since February, Syria’s opposition activists have spoken of their despair at a series of statements by US Secretary of State John Kerry in private encounters.

According to the activists, Kerry told them that they were responsible for Russia’s bombing of cities like Aleppo — “Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition” — and said that the opposition faced decimation unless it accepted political conditions which appeared to include President Assad remaining in power.

Kerry asked, “The Secretary of State continued, “What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”, acccording to the witnesses.

See Syria Feature: Kerry — “Go and Blame Your Opposition” for Russia’s Bombing

Now — thanks to someone who had an audio recorder and provided the output to The New York Times — we can listen to extracts from one of those private conversations.

Last week, Kerry met about 20 activists for 40 minutes on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, just after the Syrian military and Russia ended a ceasefire with an assault on a UN aid convoy and intense bombing of Aleppo. The meeting included
representatives of four Syrian groups that provide education, rescue and medical services in opposition-held areas; diplomats from three or four countries; and Mr. Kerry’s chief of staff and special envoy for Syria. The recording was made by a non-Syrian attendee, with several other participants confirming its authenticity.

“I Understand It’s Frustrating”

The Secretary of State portrayed himself as a defender of strong action against Assad, but one who was outnumbered in the Obama Administration: “I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument.”

He said that he understood the concerns of the activists:

Look, I get it….We’re trying to pursue the diplomacy, and I understand it’s frustrating. You have nobody more frustrated than we are….The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law, and we do.

But Kerry offered no apparent steps forward, saying that “a lot of us wish there was an enforcement mechanism right now…but we don’t have one right now” to prevent what the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, called Russia’s “barbarism” alongside the Assad regime.

Marcell Shehwaro asked, “What is the bottom line?…What he can do that is the end of it?”

Kerry replied:

The problem is that, you know, you get, quote, enforcers in there and then everybody ups the ante, right? Russia puts in more, Iran puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and you all are destroyed.

Kerry: Fight Jabhat al-Nusra, Don’t Fight Assad’s Allies

The Secretary of State explained that the US wants Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State and the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — the former Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting alongside rebels on some fronts — because “both have basically declared war on us”.

In contrast, Washington does not want the rebels to fight Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an essential ally of President Assad and his military Because “Hezbollah is not plotting against us”.

Instead of confronting Assad’s allies on the battlefield, Syrians should pursue a political solution to bring the opposition into a transitional government: “You can have an election and let the people of Syria decide: Who do they want?”

Let Assad Be Defeated in Election

In stark contrast to the Administration’s public position up to now — Kerry indicated that President Assad could be part of that election: “Everybody who’s registered as a refugee anywhere in the world can vote. Are they going to vote for Assad? Assad’s scared of this happening.”

The skeptical activists explained that people living under the regime’s rule inside Syria would not feel safe casting ballots against Assad, even with international observers, and that Russia would only agree to elections if it could ensure the “right” outcome.

Kerry then brought the conversation to an impasse: “So you think the only solution is for somebody to come in and get rid of Assad?” Mr. Kerry asked.

“Yes,” Marcell Shehwaro said.

“Who’s that going to be?” Kerry challenged. “Who’s going to do that?”

Shehwaro answered:

Three years ago, I would say: You. But right now, I don’t know.

“How Can This Be Accepted?”

Civil engineer Mustafa Alsyofi said after the meeting that Mr. Kerry had effectively told the Syrian opposition, “You have to fight for us, but we will not fight for you.”

“How can this be accepted by anyone?” Mr. Alsyofi asked. “It’s unbelievable.”