'Kerry more willing to push White House on Syria'

The US is engaging with Syrian rebels more directly, supporting other countries that send them weapons and offering them more direct logistical aid. FRANCE 24 spoke to a leading Syria expert for insight into a crucially shifting policy.


Out of the various subjects broached during John Kerry’s 11-day, nine-country introductory tour abroad as new US secretary of state, perhaps none was as keenly anticipated as how to approach the Syrian opposition.

Though the Obama administration has staunchly resisted arming Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, Kerry indicated a subtle, but significant shift in policy by voicing direct support for Middle Eastern nations sending weapons to anti-regime forces in the country.

“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Kerry said after meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which, along with Saudia Arabia, has been arming the Syrian opposition. Kerry added that Washington was increasingly confident the weapons were going to moderate forces, rather than extremists.

Kerry also announced a new US programme to send food and medical supplies directly to rebels, an initiative in which it had previously declined to participate.

For further insight into how and why the US is moving toward more transparent engagement with the Syrian opposition, even perhaps leaving the door open for directly supplying weapons in the future, FRANCE 24 spoke with Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

An expert on Syria at the nonpartisan conflict management centre (created by Congress), Heydemann has been working closely with the State Department and elements of the Syrian opposition to manage what he calls “the challenges of transition in Syria”.

Here are highlights from the interview.

F24: After resisting the idea of armed Syrian rebels, the White House now seems eager to see certain opposition groups armed, even if the weapons don’t come from the US. Why the evolution?

SH: The US reluctance to be involved in arming the Syrian opposition goes back a long way. For much of 2012, the Obama administration took active steps to limit the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels. And now we see that the US is no longer standing in the way of other countries sending arms to the rebels – even if it is not ready to put itself in a role of managing the flow of weapons into Syria.

It had become blindingly clear to the White House that if it really hoped to create conditions for meaningful negotiations over the future of Syria, it needed to change policy: firstly, by demonstrating to Assad that the US is prepared to support the opposition, even if it’s in the form of non-lethal support; and secondly, to demonstrate to the Russians that there are real consequences to Russia’s continued support of the Assad regime. The White House knows it has to supplement its willingness to engage with Russia with some additional pressure on the Syria issue.

The overall objective of US policy in Syria is to create conditions that will lead to negotiations between the opposition and some elements of the Assad regime – not Assad himself – so that there is a transition from an authoritarian system to democracy. I think the administration now recognizes that putting pressure on the Assad regime – so it feels it could face defeat and direct challenges to its survival – is the only means of changing the calculus of the situation.

F24: It is widely known that behind the scenes, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially pressed President Obama to arm vetted Syrian rebels, but was rebuffed and then backed off. Does John Kerry as secretary of state change things?

SH: I think there was growing frustration at the failure of policy during Clinton’s tenure to achieve any kind of progress on Syria. Clinton felt it to be in her interest, and in the State Department’s interest, to be seen as a team player and to be seen as working in close cooperation and coordination with the White House – and not to openly challenge Obama. Obviously, she was appointed following a campaign in which they were competitors. Had she taken a more assertive stance with him, this could have become a serious rupture between the White House and the State Department.

Now, we have a new secretary of state who is more willing to push the White House to reassess its Syria policy and think about incremental ways that policy might be broadened. Kerry is very much his own person in that he comes out of a long Senate career, has enormous foreign policy experience, is deeply familiar with the Syrian file, and feels much more comfortable pushing the White House to revisit its Syria policy. I think we have to recognise that the person who holds the secretary of state office has made the difference in allowing the US to offer non-lethal support to armed groups.

F24: Last year, the US said it was concerned weapons would go to Islamists, and not moderates. Now Kerry says he thinks the weapons are going to the right people. Why this new confidence?

SH: Kerry was given assurances from Saudi officials that they are managing the distribution of arms in a way that the US should find reassuring. I think what he recognises is that there is already a very large pipeline of weapons flowing to Syrian extremists, and that the difficulties that the moderates have had in securing weapons have placed them at a disadvantage. Our fear that weapons may end up in the wrong hands actually created conditions in which, in fact, weapons were ending up in the wrong hands. In other words, an embargo on the supply of weapons to the opposition in the end was undermining our longer-term objectives in Syria.

F24: It has been reported that Kerry told his interlocutors abroad that the US has not ruled out directly arming the opposition in the future. What would it take to get the US to do that?

SH: If the US were to perceive that some kind of weapons could be provided, with no concern of proliferation or of the weapons ending up in the hands of groups that could use them against Israel or the US, that could carry weight.

But for now, there are other ways of indirect intervention that the US can pursue, such as training forces or providing intelligence to opposition commanders.

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