U.S. nears ‘crunch time’ on Syria, says Kerry

Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview that the U.S. is nearing a final “crunch time” on Syria — in which it will either make progress toward a cease-fire or begin moving toward “Plan B” and new military moves.

For Kerry-watchers, it’s a familiar moment of brinkmanship: He’s making a last, desperate push for a diplomatic breakthrough with Russia and Iran at a meeting in Munich on Thursday, even as he warns that the U.S. has “other leverage” if diplomacy fails.

Kerry’s problem, skeptics would argue, is that his strategy has the same logical flaws that have scuttled three years of Syria diplomacy: Russia and Iran won’t compromise on their fundamental support for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; and President Obama won’t approve military tactics that could actually shift the balance. So each diplomatic inflection point comes and goes — with greater misery for the Syrian people.

But Kerry presses on, doggedly and, some critics would say, unrealistically. In the interview Tuesday, he offered a frank, on-the-record explanation of his approach.

From the beginning, Kerry has hoped that Russia will decide that its interests are best served by a political transition in Syria. Here’s how Kerry puts the dangers for Moscow if there’s no settlement: “The threat of implosion in Syria, and the threat of a very prolonged war that keeps Russia embroiled on the ground, and the threat of increased numbers of terrorists.”

But rather than seeing disaster ahead, Russia seems to think it’s winning. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, assessed Moscow’s motivations bluntly Tuesday in testimony to Congress: “Increased Russian involvement, particularly airstrikes, will probably help the regime regain key terrain in high-priority areas in western Syria, such as Aleppo and near the coast, where it suffered losses to the opposition in summer 2015.”

Kerry conceded that “ripeness” is crucial in negotiations. If one party thinks it’s winning, it makes demands that the losing side won’t accept — and the carnage continues. Kerry says it would be “diplomatic negligence of the worst order” not to make one last try for a cease-fire that could assist the thousands of civilians newly fleeing Aleppo.

“What we’re doing is testing their [Russian and Iranian] seriousness,” he said. “And if they’re not serious, then there has to be consideration of a Plan B. … You can’t just sit there.”

Although Kerry wouldn’t discuss specific military options in Syria, he did offer some broad outlines. The aim, he said, would be “to lead a coalition against [the Islamic State], and also to support the opposition against Assad.” He said Obama has already directed the Pentagon and the intelligence community to move “harder and faster” against Islamic State extremists, so that the terrorist group “is reined in and curbed and degraded and neutralized as fast as possible.”

Asked whether Obama would support more aggressive Special Forces tactics, Kerry responded that Obama has “already made the decision to put Special Forces in, and he’s made the decision to test the ‘proof of concept’ of how they are operating.” Impatient critics would argue that the proof of concept came 10 years ago in Iraq, and that Obama is temporizing.

Kerry said “sure” when asked if the administration would accept recent offers by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send ground troops into Syria, noting that Arab special forces “could augment significantly the capacity to … do greater damage to [Islamic State] much faster.” Certainly, wider Arab military involvement would up the ante in Syria.

Kerry pointed to the roster of other diplomacy that’s overshadowed by the Syria conflict: from North Korea to Ukraine, from Cuba to the South China Sea. And he discussed the nuclear deal with Iran, arguably his biggest diplomatic achievement, likening the Iranian pragmatists’ battle against hard-liners there to his fights with Congress.

“The hard-liners made Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif and President [Hassan] Rouhani’s life very difficult, just as hard-liners in the United States … made it difficult for our negotiations,” Kerry said. But he sharply cautioned against any U.S. effort to support Rouhani’s camp in this month’s parliamentary elections: “The worst thing we could do is meddle.”

Kerry’s tireless, implacable diplomacy led Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, to suggest in a tweet last week that perhaps he should run for president if Hillary Clinton falters. Asked about Murdoch’s trial balloon, Kerry responded: “I don’t think that’s how the process works. … There’s no reality to it whatsoever. … I’m doing my job and there’s going to be no change.” That sounded like a diplomatic non-answer.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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