The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Kerry: It’s time to give up on Assad the reformer

Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven that he has no problem killing peaceful protesters in the streets, some of the most prominent advocates of engaging with the Assad regime are rethinking their views. That list now includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who told The Cable today that he no ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven that he has no problem killing peaceful protesters in the streets, some of the most prominent advocates of engaging with the Assad regime are rethinking their views. That list now includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), who told The Cable today that he no longer believed the Syrian regime was willing to reform.

Kerry, who has served as Congress’s point man on engaging the Syrian regime, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as recently as March 16 — shortly after the current uprising had begun — that he still expected Assad to embrace political reform and move toward more engagement with America and its allies.

"[M]y 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," said Kerry, who has met with Assad six times over the past two years.

But in an exclusive interview today, Kerry said he no longer saw the Syrian government as willing to reform. "He obviously is not a reformer now," he said, while also defending his previous stance. "I’ve always said the top goal of Assad is to perpetuate his own regime."

When pressed by The Cable about his earlier, rosier view of Assad, Kerry denied he had expected the Syrian regime would come around.

"I said there was a chance he could be a reformer if certain things were done. I wasn’t wrong about if those things were done. They weren’t done," Kerry said.  "I didn’t hold out hope. I said there were a series of things that if he engaged in them, there was a chance he would be able to produce a different paradigm. But he didn’t."

"I said we have to put him to the test. I’ve always said it’s a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that’s the end of it."

In light of the current crackdown, during which over 700 Syrians have lost their lives and thousands more have been arrested, Kerry admitted that the ship has sailed for U.S. engagement with the Assad regime.

"We can’t [continue to engage] right now," he said. "This is an egregious situation. There are a lot of human rights abuses and we have to respond appropriately."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to point to Capitol Hill when asked why the administration ever believed that the Syrian government could be peeled away from its alliance with Iran or would pursue a path toward greater freedom and democracy for its people.

"Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer," she said March 27. And on May 6, she stated that the Syrian regime has "an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda."

However, Kerry’s about-face suggests that the administration’s allies in Congress have no interest in taking the fall for the administration’s optimism regarding Syria. Meanwhile, those in the Senate who have always seen Assad as a despotic and cruel leader are claiming vindication.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable on Tuesday that lawmakers’ contention that Assad could be a reformer was "one of the great delusionary views in recent foreign policy history."

"It wasn’t just Kerry, it was a whole lot of people, first of all the administration," McCain said.

Two other top Democrats continued to defend the two-year drive to engage the Syrian government in interviews with The Cable on Tuesday.

"Even Qaddafi looked like a reformer for a while and he gave up his nukes. So things flip around pretty quickly in the Middle East," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "Assad sure doesn’t look like a reformer today."

Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Assad still has a chance to do the right thing.

"I don’t think Syria has shaken out yet, I don’t think we know what Assad will or won’t do…. I wouldn’t be overly optimistic," she said.

Feinstein also sounded a cautious note about Washington’s ability to pressure Syria to choose a path toward reform.

"I don’t think we can be everyone’s keeper. We’ve got five nations under active civil war in the Middle East now and I don’t know that we can be telling every one of them what they should or shouldn’t do," she said. "If they’re not going to listen to their own people, it seems to me that we’re not going to make much of a difference."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin