John Kerry on “Regime Change”

Speaking in Moscow on December 15, 2015 after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry said—as part of his prepared statement—that, “the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called ‘regime change,’ as it is known in Syria. What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria…” Unless Mr. Kerry is using the phrase “regime change” as a synonym for violent overthrow, his statement is perplexing. Is it a superficial attempt to curry favor with Russian hosts? Is it a change in policy? No doubt a clarification will be forthcoming. It is definitely needed. More importantly, the Vienna process launched six weeks ago needs to start saving Syrian lives.

Since August 18, 2011, when President Barack Obama called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the American objective with respect to Syria has been one of regime change. That which has been consistently lacking is a strategy to bring it about.

In place of a strategy there has been a fervent wish for a negotiated political transition, by means of which a particularly loathsome war criminal, along with his closest partners in crime, would be changed out for something inclusive, legitimate, and civilized. Having a strategy—even one aimed at setting a basis for productive negotiations—would have taken the president places he did not want to go, especially given Iran’s role in facilitating its client’s survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide. No need to offend the Supreme Leader over Syria.

The alternative to an effective strategy aimed at making good on President Obama’s words has been to beg Moscow for help in moving its client toward the exit: first in 2013, resulting in a Geneva conference fiasco; and now in 2015, with a Vienna peace process that, in six weeks, has not even stopped the wholesale massacre of Syrian civilians. Indeed, it has not sprung a single political prisoner from Assad’s dungeons or lifted a siege that starves and sickens civilians. Instead Russia has piled on, slaughtering civilians with its bombing runs and complicating relief operations in northern Syria, disastrously coincident with the onset of winter.

The administration—with Messrs. Obama and Kerry in the lead—has stated clearly and eloquently why a role for Bashar al-Assad and his regime (the balance of the ruling family and its key enablers) in Syria’s political transition is absurdly inadmissible. This has been the administration’s position since the beginning of the crisis. Yet with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) in eastern Syria, the anti-Assad rhetoric has sharpened. Desperately lacking a sufficient ground combat component in Syria in its battle against ISIL, the administration dreams of a Syrian government-nationalist rebel united front against the self-proclaimed caliph and calculates—quite correctly—that the dream cannot materialize with the Barrel Bomber in Chief either at the helm or in the ranks. He and his partners are simply drenched in blood and objectively unable to play a unifying role. For the grand, anti-ISIL coalition of armed Syrians to come about, the regime must change.

Indeed, the P5 agreement reached in Geneva in June 2012—the “Action Group for Syria Final Communique”—was a blueprint for peaceful regime change in Syria. Why Russia signed it is anyone’s guess. It has spent over three years trying to redefine its very clear language and meaning. And the Assad regime has rejected the document categorically. Perhaps it can be excused for declining to facilitate its own transition. Yet the American negotiators at Geneva—supported by French and British partners—made clear their goal of putting paid to Assad. All the Russians asked for in the proceedings were no explicit mention of Assad and no reference to “people with blood on their hands.” In return they agreed to a “mutual consent” clause giving opposition and government negotiators veto power over nominees to a “transitional governing body” exercising “full executive power.” Assad’s political fate was thereby consigned to the opposition.

The suspicion here is that the Department of State will, sooner rather than later, issue the requisite “what the Secretary really meant to say” clarification. It will likely define “regime change” in a Saddam Hussein or similar violent context, reiterating that the objective of the United States is an Assad-and-ISIL-free Syria of inclusivity, citizenship, and rule-of-law—a place where political legitimacy can fill vacuums now occupied by two rapacious criminal enterprises largely in the business of living-and-let-living with one another, working with Russia and Iran to eliminate nationalist alternatives.

More salient in the near-term is the question of when this Vienna process will begin to produce positive results for the people of Syria. Six weeks have slipped by since the initial meeting at the end of October. The Assad regime continues its reign of terror in the skies above residential neighborhoods. It continues to besiege some 600,000 people. It does these things in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It does so with an enhanced sense of impunity due to Russian and Iranian support and participation. Does anyone on the United States government payroll ever raise these matters with Iranian and Russian counterparts? Will the recent Human Rights Watch report on the “Caesar” photos of people murdered in regime prisons get the attention of a single American official?

In his Moscow statement Secretary Kerry also said, “But we do believe that nobody should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists. Our challenge remains creating the conditions on which an alternative can emerge.” The first and most important “condition” for anything good to happen is to take civilians off the bullseye in Syria: stop the bombing, lift the sieges, and empty the prisons of political prisoners. Can the sweet-talking of Vladimir Putin be put on pause long enough to address this urgent matter?

If the foreign ministers of the ‘International Syria Support Group’ meeting in New York this Friday will not lift a finger to help the Syrian people, nothing else they do will matter. The ‘regime’ is not the only thing requiring change. Moving civilian protection to the front of the diplomatic queue is all that can prevent this Vienna process from becoming an open-ended permission slip for murder and mayhem.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: (Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 15, 2015. Kerry said he wanted to use a visit to Moscow on Tuesday to make "real progress" in narrowing differences with Russian leader Vladimir Putin over how to end the conflict in Syria. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)