The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.
Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.
"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."
"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.
But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.
"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.
Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."
"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.
"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."
Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.
"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."
Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.
"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."
Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.
"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."
Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.
In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.
"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.