There was a time not long ago when statesmen spoke with authority, confident that carefully weighed views received fair hearings, assessed by scholars and experienced journalists as necessary. Reactions to such prose, when required, were similarly solemn. We now live in 24-hour news cycles when myriad declarations fill our papers and, for those connected to online services and instantaneous commentaries, even faster assessments that, by the very nature of the beast, can only be superficial. Amazingly, everyone has an opinion even if few are in the know and while the process may appear to be far more democratic, it is by no means accurate. Often, such annotations are immersed in falsehoods, manipulations, disinformation and assorted types of falsifications. One can hardly make sense of anything worth making sense of as the vast majority of news consumers become spectators to their own lives.
An example of this outburst occurred a few days ago when US Secretary of State John Kerry answered a question about Syria on Face the Nation, a Sunday CBS News fixture watched by policy-makers, which added to the overall confusion that Washington regularly telegraphed to the Arab world. Beyond his reluctance to lead at a time when such leadership was critical, the US Secretary reiterated that there was no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a negotiated end. The affable diplomat, who was against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad before being for him, added: “What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that. We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure,” without identifying what that additional burden would be.
Naturally, such double-speak led a few to quickly conclude that a dramatic change in US policy was under way, with some maintaining that it was an admission of defeat or, even worse, an appeasement of Iran as the latter negotiated the fate of its nuclear programme with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany). Although Jen Psaki, the official Department of State spokeswoman denied there were any plans to meet Al Assad, the damage was done. Psaki clarified that Al Assad would “never” be part of any peace negotiations to end the brutal civil war even if Al Assad was cocky enough to hint that he was waiting for the inevitable phone call that would invite him to join the dialogue. Another spokeswoman, Marie Harf, insisted that the US view had not in fact changed and that “there [was] no future for a brutal dictator like [Al] Assad in Syria”.
Regardless of what Kerry intended to say, his argument highlighted the need to include the Baath regime in any solution, which contradicted earlier declarations that Al Assad had to go, that certain red lines could not be crossed, or that western efforts to arm and train revolutionary forces would eventually bear fruit. Of course, what Kerry did not say was that all of these concerns pre-dated the rise of Daesh (self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which was not one in the proper sense of the term. Kerry did not elaborate on how a comical Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi-led outfit, an armed militia at best, could stand up as an invincible foe against 60 countries bombarding rag-tag operations terrorising innocent victims in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.
Still, Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks elicited strong reactions from various capitals, all of which illustrated unprecedented levels of frustration with American amateurism. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius posited that any effort to include Al Assad in a political transition in Syria would be a “scandalous” gift to Daesh. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu displayed an equally strong reaction when he told reporters accompanying him to Cambodia: “What is there to negotiate?,” adding: “How will you negotiate with a regime that has killed more than 200,000 people and used chemical weapons [and] what result have you been able to get from negotiations so far?”
Traditional media-shy Arab leaders refrained from outright declarations, although the pro-government Saudi daily Al Watan provided a devastating assessment, as it insisted Kerry’s ideas were “very bad.” Hisham Melhem, a highly respected columnist for Al Arabiya, commented that the US secretary of state unnecessarily alienated US partners, before noting that he was even “dismissed by [Al] Assad,” allegedly because the Damascene claimed that only Syrians could determine the regime’s fate.
Ironically, the only media sources that added a positive spin to Kerry’s remarks were those published in the Syrian capital, with Al Watan crowing that Washington “faced a fait accompli, which forced the American administration to back down and recognise the need to reposition its policy on the Syria crisis”. For its part, the official party mouthpiece, Al Ba’ath, avowed that Kerry’s remarks “confirmed ... the failure of the American-Zionist project against Syria”. It further opined: “The west [had] begun to fear the terrorism it cultivated.”
Secretary Kerry’s declaration was premised on the notion that if the world wanted an end to the Syrian civil war, there were no other choices but to talk with Al Assad, even if no evidence existed to boast such a claim. Were that the case, it was fair to ask, why were a slew of countries — western and Arab — training and arming Syrian revolutionaries? Who determined that a military solution was impossible to achieve when the Syrian Arab Army lost so much of the country to revolutionary elements and, more recently, to extremist forces? Could it be that the realities on the ground were such that the Kerry declaration was a way to telegraph that the war would indeed continue for a few more years or, equally valid, was this a way to nudge Tehran to move along the P5+1 negotiations by making a parenthetical link with what Iran truly cared about?
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the recently published Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.