US watched ISIS rise in Syria and hoped to ‘manage’ it — Kerry on leaked tape

Middle East
on 23 Comments

Last fall Secretary of State Kerry met privately with anti-Assad Syrian activists at the U.N.  The meeting was secretly taped, and you can listen to the tape here:

The New York Times got a hold of the tape back in September and wrote a story about it. So did CNN. More on their accounts later.

The thrust of the conversation was the mutual frustration of Kerry and the Syrians that Bashar al-Assad was still in power and able to commit atrocities with the support of the Russians, who don’t adhere to international law the way we Americans do. I’d recommend listening to the whole tape; but the conversation went something like this:

The Syrians complained we aren’t helping enough.  Kerry and his associates said we and the Saudis and Qatar and Turkey had provided huge amounts of aid to the rebels, who unfortunately were sort of aligned with extremists.

“Nusra makes it hard,” Kerry said, referring to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. “Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] both make it hard, because you have this extreme element out there and unfortunately some of the opposition has kind of chosen to work with them.”

The rise of extremists had led to Russia’s intervention. Kerry said (at minute 26) that when Daesh, or ISIS, started to grow, the US watched and thought we could “manage” the ISIS situation, because it might push Assad to negotiate, but instead Putin came in. Kerry:

“The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth. And that’s why Russia went in. Because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad.

“And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”

The Syrian activists present wanted more US aid, but Kerry and an aide said more military aid was problematic. “Right now we’re putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” the secretary of state said. His aide said that arms are a double edged sword, because “when you pump more weapons into a place like Syria, it doesn’t end well for Syria. Because there’s always someone willing to put in arms from the other side.”

Kerry spelled that out:

“The problem is that, you know, you get, quote, enforcers in there and then everybody ups the ante, right? Russia puts in more, Iran puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and you all are destroyed.”

Kerry said the US wants a “political process” to supplant the fighting: elections, with millions of Syrian refugees in other countries allowed to vote– so that in his view Assad was sure to lose.  The Syrians present rejected this. One insisted that Assad had to be toppled by an invasion, because Syrians even outside the country would fear for their loved ones in the country. Kerry said a ground invasion by America would not be supported by Americans, due to thousands dead from our other wars.  Kerry said he was one of those within the Administration who wanted more action, but he lost the argument.  He was as frustrated as they were.

“It’s hard because Congress will not authorize the use of force.”

So the conversation was mostly about that frustration, but along the way Kerry said some rather revealing things. Combine this with the wikileaks revelation that the US State Department and Hillary Clinton knew our Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar were giving ISIS “clandestine financial and logistic support” as it swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014, and you have the anti-interventionist view of America’s role in the Syrian war all nicely set out by John Kerry and someone in the State Department: We and our Arab allies supplied weapons. This caused the violence to escalate.  The good rebels “kind of” work with extremists, who get direct funding from our Arab allies. We thought the rise of ISIS would prove useful in pressuring Assad, but Putin intervened not because Russia wants to bomb civilians but because of the rise of ISIS. So our arming of the rebels and our clever hopes to manage the rise of ISIS while it put pressure on Assad led to more violence.

This all sounds like a list of reasons for why the U.S. shouldn’t have intervened, along with the fact that we had no right to do so.

How was this presented in the New York Times story of September 30, 2016? Anne Barnard framed it in terms of the US failing to exert the beneficent use of force.

Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly exasperated, not least at his own government.

Over and over again, he complained to a small group of Syrian civilians that his diplomacy had not been backed by a serious threat of military force, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.

In fairness, Barnard did focus on what the participants in this conversation would have thought important—Kerry representing American Good Intentions and the views of those who want America to use its military might to overthrow a brutal government that isn’t one of our own clients.

“So you think the only solution is for somebody to come in and get rid of Assad?” Mr. Kerry asked.

“Yes,” Ms. [Marcell] Shehwaro said.

“Who’s that going to be?” he asked. “Who’s going to do that?”

 “Three years ago, I would say: You. But right now, I don’t know.”

But the emphasis was on the fact that in the view of those present, the US hasn’t done enough. The geopolitical context the tape provided was simply absent from the story. No doubt Assad and the Russians are responsible for many atrocities, but surely anyone listening should have been able to pick up on the fact that Kerry was inadvertently making a devastating case against US intervention in Syria.

As for the arms we put in, Barnard states: “But he also said any further American effort to arm rebels or join the fight could backfire”.

What about the arms already sent? “Right now we’re putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” Kerry said, unquoted by the Times. Was there something in Kerry’s logic that would show our past arms support did no harm, but future support would? Doesn’t his argument point to the painful awareness that some of the hundreds of thousands who have died in Syria died because we and our allies kept the war going?

CNN had a similar focus to the Times.

Kerry also expressed sympathy for the Syrians’ demands that the United States intervene more forcefully amid Syrian and Russian airstrikes against civilians, telling the group that he “lost the argument” for using military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

One would be hard pressed to think of an example where activists passionately opposed to US interventions or crimes or the crimes of our allies had a private conversation with an American Secretary of State. How many Palestinians or victims in Yemen or for that matter, Syrians opposed to the rebels ever get to have such meetings? No need to worry about media bias in reporting such conversations, because they never seem to happen anyway. So Kerry can go on about our adherence to international law, drawing a distinction between us and the Russians, in the certainty he won’t be contradicted by people in Yemen, as 1000 children die each week largely because of our Saudi allies, with our support. And Kerry probably won’t be speaking with people from Gaza, though in a hot-mic situation Kerry himself angrily referred to the Israeli bombing of the strip in 2014 as a “hell of a pinpoint operation.”

Wikileaks tweeted about the tape last week, spiking interest in the matter. The audio has received a fair amount of attention on some rightwing blogs, who call Obama a traitor for supporting ISIS.  That exaggerates what is on the tape. On the left the references have been intermittent so far. Joe Lauria at Common Dreams correctly summarized the conversation:

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S., rather than seriously fight Islamic State in Syria, was ready to use the growing strength of the jihadists to pressure Assad to resign…

This left libertarian site also seized on the gist:

Leaked Tapes Reveal John Kerry Admission That U.S. Was Pulling For ISIS In Syria, Russia Fighting Terror

Mark Ames

How is this Kerry recording not a major scandal? The cynicism is stunning

Even NBC’s Bill Neely has picked up on the disturbing content of the audio:

Why #Russia intervened in #Syria, by John Kerry. And why the US watched #ISIS rise & wanted to use it.

This is puzzling. One would expect the MSM to suppress the really interesting parts which go against the narrative usually pushed, which is one where we are the undoubted good guys, if somewhat feckless, and the Russians are pure evil. But why hasn’t it gotten more attention on the left? You aren’t going to find a better case against our intervention in Syria than the one made by Kerry here.

Great thanks to Donald Johnson.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

23 Responses

  1. HarryLaw
    January 11, 2017, 5:16 pm

    This is a good article, for Syria watchers the fact that the US has used Islamic state for its regime change purposes is irrefutable, this was obvious when Islamic state traversed hundreds of miles between Syria and Iraq in thousands of new pick up trucks kicking up hundreds of tons of dust on their way to take Ramadi and Mosul. Did the US see them with all their drones and satellites in space which can read a cars number plate, no, or rather yes but they needed to pressure the Iraqi government you see, so they did nothing. Similarly they watched thousands of Islamic state oil tankers take stolen oil from Syria to Turkey to fund more terrorism. It was only when Russia shamed the US with such aerial photos that the US had to take action.
    Assad has huge popular support in Syria, Russian, Iranian and Lebanese support is within International law, the US has no right to be in Syria and the arming of terrorists to effect regime change is both a war crime and contrary to the UN Charter. Once again the US is on the wrong side of history, when will they ever learn? One important note, the secular Assad government has the support of Syrians of every religious persuasion and most of the Sunni majority, because the opposition comprise mainly Jihadis who do not believe in democracy, any overthrow of Assad would mean the expulsion or death of the Syrian minorities.

    • Annie Robbins
      January 11, 2017, 7:33 pm

      harry, i agree with you it’s a good article. in fact i think it’s the best coverage of the kerry tape thus far. but we part ways at the very end of your comment:

      One important note, the secular Assad government has the support of Syrians of every religious persuasion and most of the Sunni majority, because the opposition comprise mainly Jihadis who do not believe in democracy, any overthrow of Assad would mean the expulsion or death of the Syrian minorities.

      i don’t think it’s true that the opposition is comprised of mainly jihadis. i think it’s true the fighting force of the opposition is dominated by jihadist and for this reason assad has even more support by syrians than he would have if that were not the case. but i think there are a lot of syrians with legitimate complaints against assad. i think there are ordinary secular syrians, ordinary religious syrians of every stripe who have concerns about assad. but i’ve always felt the jihadists completely dominated the (fighting) forces opposing assad.

      note in biden’s reveal: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/hillary-clinton-wikileaks-email-isis-saudi-arabia-qatar-us-allies-funding-barack-obama-knew-all-a7362071.html

      Vice-President Joe Biden told students at Harvard in October 2014 that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world”. Biden poured scorn on the idea that there were Syrian “moderates” capable of fighting Isis and Assad at the same time.

      i agree with that. i don’t think there ever was a “moderate” army capable of fighting assad and i don’t think if the opposition won “moderates” would be in any position to take on isis or AQ. but i think it’s a mistake to assume, because of this, “the opposition comprise mainly Jihadis”. i think the bulk of the opposition to assad is civilians (although i don’t think at this juncture the majority of syrian civilians oppose assad – under the circumstances given the likely alternative). just because the most powerful forces fighting assad are jihadists, it’s a mistake to think the syrian opposition to him is primarily a bunch of jihadists. there are real legitimate concerns against him because he’s a powerful strong arm dictator. he’s not left or liberal and he tortures people. but he kept syria stable in a hostile environment (prior to the revolution). there’s logical reasons why most syrians support him, especially given the alternative of being ruled by AQ/isis.

      • gamal
        January 11, 2017, 8:12 pm

        “i don’t think it’s true that the opposition is comprised of mainly jihadis. i think it’s true the fighting force of the opposition is dominated by jihadist and for this reason assad has even more support by syrians than he would have if that were not the case. but i think there are a lot of syrians with legitimate complaints against assad. i think there are ordinary secular syrians, ordinary religious syrians of every stripe who have concerns about assad. but i’ve always felt the jihadists completely dominated the (fighting) forces opposing assad.”

        thats very astute and one might add those of a revolutionary leftist perspective also have plenty of legitimate complaints about the Syrian ba’ath, in the end the national security outlook crippled them and the inter-Arab catastrophe of the last half of the 20th century, they became timid if steadfast, for all his courage Assad is a mediocre leader, in comparison to the Kings or Western stooge Sissis however he is the messiah.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 11, 2017, 8:33 pm

        in comparison to some of our western leaders too. dick cheney comes to mind. fallujah. what we did to iraq — we brought this on.

      • Citizen
        January 11, 2017, 10:29 pm

        That’s my take too, Annie. Also agree with your comment re ilk like Cheney.

    • robertsgt40
      January 13, 2017, 3:38 pm

      Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. What goes around comes around. And today Kerry is in Vietnam? As a Vietnam vet, this makes my stomach turn.

    • Egbert
      January 15, 2017, 5:54 pm

      The US Treasury has a department – the Office of Foreign Asset Control – that is supposed to interdict terrorist funding streams. It is public knowledge that ISIS was selling its oil via middlemen in Turkey. The OFAC did absolutely nothing to stop this traffic. So either OFAC is incompetent or it deliiberately allowed the oil trade to continue until it was stopped by Russian bombing.

      In addition, a high ranking US military commander admitted in a Congressional hearing that the US had spent $500 million training an unspecified number of ‘carefully vetted moderate rebels’ to fight in Syria. He stated that all but 5 of these individuals deserted to al Qaeda after being trained. That did not stop future training exercises.

      It is also clear from the reconciliation process between the Syrian government and the various rebel factions that the majority of people fighting the government in Syria are not Syrians, but paid Wahabbist mercenaries from countries such as Saudia Arabia, Libya, Chechnya, the Uigher province of China, Pakistan and so on.

      Israel has also provided medical care, arms and acted as the air force for the terrorists in the area adjacent to the Occupied Golan. These terrorists have recently cut off the water supply to around 5 million people in Damacus and the surrounding, a major war crime.

      What is going on in Syria is not a civil war, it is a full blown war against Syria carried out by proxy forces on behalf of the US, Saudia Arabia and Israel.

  2. jonjames
    January 11, 2017, 7:24 pm

    ISIS cannot be contained or “managed”. It can only be destroyed. The US got way behind on this one.

  3. Rusty Pipes
    January 11, 2017, 8:21 pm

    Bill Neely is better informed on this issue than most in American MSM and he has interviewed Bashar Assad in Damascus. His tweet reflects that level of awareness. That may not translate into what the network wants him to cover on air.

  4. Annie Robbins
    January 11, 2017, 11:37 pm

    Kerry said a ground invasion by America would not be supported by Americans, due to thousands dead from our other wars.

    i’m glad he said this. i made this point in my article about goldberg’s obama doctrine article — where he built the case everyone in washington thought we should invade syria and obama was going to be responsible for america losing our superpower status because we didn’t. his was a very long opinionated article and he mentioned the american people only once.

    http://mondoweiss.net/2016/03/goldberg-does-obama/#sthash.UX882lkc.dpuf

    We are told that Congress had “little interest” in a strike but he doesn’t tell us why. U.S. lawmakers weren’t down with the strike — and for good reason: the American public didn’t want another war in the Middle East.

    Florida’s Rep. Alan Grayson led a national charge against authorizing the attack, estimating constituents calls were “100-to-1” against the resolution and House members were “listening to their constituents“. In short, there was a huge public outcry against an attack. So no, Obama didn’t just fold. Overwhelmingly, the strike lacked backing from the American people and from congress. All that is glossed over in Goldberg’s narration. Maybe because he’s part of that Washington foreign-policy establishment that has a credibility fetish.

    Goldberg mentions the American people just once in the article. We “seemed unenthusiastic” about attacking Syria. That almost sounds lukewarm but I’d characterize it a gross understatement. More like cold, frozen cold.

    One would expect the MSM to suppress the really interesting parts which go against the narrative usually pushed……But why hasn’t it gotten more attention on the left? You aren’t going to find a better case against our intervention in Syria than the one made by Kerry here.

    i’m surprised you’re asking this question. it’s the same reason our site rarely covers syria, and when it does, it’s generally from one perspective. there’s not much of a free flow of conversation from the left on syria. activists for the opposition can be a tough bunch on social media. it doesn’t take much to get people screaming at you, accusing you of being a war criminal and justifying mass executions and being an orientalist. there’s a limited window even tho, as kerry pointed out, most americans have no desire to invade syria, nor appear to be on the side of AQ/isis. so much so, our politicians don’t talk about our ties with saudi arabia. but everyone knows about it, just read the commentary on the articles.

    and thank you donald, thank you very much.

    • broadside
      January 12, 2017, 6:47 pm

      “All that is glossed over in Goldberg’s narration. Maybe because he’s part of that Washington foreign-policy establishment that has a credibility fetish.”

      Maybe because he doesn’t want the American people to know that calling your chickenshit representative works.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 15, 2017, 8:13 pm

        broadside, when it’s done en mass, especially with a sympathetic president, it works.

        however, i don’t think any amount of pushback from the american people would have prevented cheney from getting his war on in iraq. not with all the effort extended in pressure, preparation and planning for so long — including flipping the election to bush as part of the long term plan. and who could forget that pearl harbor moment. lemonade out of lemons? that’s one way to look at it i suppose.

  5. oldgeezer
    January 12, 2017, 10:37 am

    Wow.

    Overthrowing democratically elected governments, propping up dictatorships, funding and training death squads, funding and propping up a criminal roque state which has committed a half century of crimes against humanity and flagrant violations of the GC, funding, equipping and training jihadists, conducting illegal wars, torturing prisoners, executing US citizens without trial….

    The world is lucky that the Russsians don’t follow international law the way the US does.

    • eljay
      January 12, 2017, 12:33 pm

      || oldgeezer: Wow. … ||

      Yup. The U.S. routinely batters and abuses the world as it pleases and sees nothing wrong with its actions. Russia (allegedly) attempts to influence one American election outcome and the U.S. hypocritically is beside itself with moral outrage.

      • HarryLaw
        January 12, 2017, 4:41 pm

        eljay, “Russia (allegedly) attempts to influence one American election outcome and the U.S. hypocritically is beside itself with moral outrage”. It was the Democratic Party leadership that maliciously influenced the US elections and shot themselves in both feet as revealed in the Podesta e mails 1/ Denigrating Bernie Sanders in favour of Clinton 2/ Having the debating questions given to Clinton ahead of the debates by Donna Brazile a commentator at CNN. At the time, Brazile was vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which should be neutral during the primary. She has since become the acting DNC chair, after Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down amid a separate leak of internal DNC emails, which appeared to show DNC staffers favouring Clinton over Sanders. 3/ Revealing some of the content of speeches to the Wall St banks where she said she had a public and a private position on these institutions. 4/ No fly zones over Syria, which could have resulted in WW3.
        This whole “Russia did it” episode is a tactic to deflect from the true wreckers of the US electoral process, the Democratic Party Leadership.

  6. Atlantaiconoclast
    January 12, 2017, 5:27 pm

    Great article Phil. But the reason Leftists are afraid to go there, is that they do not want to be labeled “conspiracy theorists.” They know that the MSM will never reveal enough of the truth to the American people for truth-telling about Syria to be believed. And most of them are even more terrified of the consequences of exposing Israel’s role in supporting the violence against the Assad regime, and his many supporters as well.

    • traintosiberia
      January 12, 2017, 11:15 pm

      Media is reinventing its relation with the “conspiracy theories” It is good to watch Glenn Greenwald and Assange on FOX It is gratifying to watch Hannity now finding and extolling the qualities of Assange and Snowden . Were they not long ago deemed as nothing but purveyors of conspiracies by conservative media? May be the divide between the left and right ,between the con and lib media are for the suckers who saunter to town hall meeting expecting to change the world . May be that why conservatives never asked any of its viewers or guests on the TV what there was in Clinton E mail . Lefties started crying about attack on personal and on privacy . Both just kept on beating about the bush and wondered if Bernie were too extreme for the Americans . At least on Trump, they seem to have traded places . For conservatives words are more hurtful than gun and bombs and for lefties it is the word and more words that could magically usher them in a new world .

  7. broadside
    January 12, 2017, 6:36 pm

    Good piece.

    ‘“Right now we’re putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” Kerry said, unquoted by the Times.’

    And that is the New York Times. Just another example of what’s fit to print, and what isn’t.

  8. HarryLaw
    January 13, 2017, 6:29 am

    Of course the US regime change operation in Syria has been ongoing since well before 2011.
    More e mails ….
    Robert Ford was US Ambassador to Syria when the revolt against Syrian president Assad was launched. He not only was a chief architect of regime change in Syria, but actively worked with rebels to aid their overthrow of the Syrian government.
    Ford assured us that those taking up arms to overthrow the Syrian government were simply moderates and democrats seeking to change Syria’s autocratic system. Anyone pointing out the obviously Islamist extremist nature of the rebellion and the foreign funding and backing for the jihadists was written off as an Assad apologist or worse.
    Then late last year the McClatchy News Service ran an article in which Ambassador Ford admitted that his “moderates” regularly collaborated with ISIS and al-Qaeda to the point where he no longer thought the US government should be arming them.
    So those who pointed out that the rebellion in Syria was foreign-driven and jihadist from the start were no longer crazy conspiracy theorists, but were rather conspiracy factists.
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/you-wont-believe-what-former-us-ambassador-robert-s-ford-said-about-al-qaedas-syrian-allies/5504906

  9. HarryLaw
    January 13, 2017, 7:04 am

    Of course this is not just about Syria, the real prize is Iran, who just happen to be the leaders of the ‘arc of extremism” or as I prefer the ‘arc of resistance’. Syria is but the low hanging fruit, on route to taking out Hezbollah, the Jihadis hate Hezbollah [Shia] with a vengeance and they have promised to destroy them after the fall of Assad, hence Hezbollah’s entry into Syria, the defeat of the head choppers is existential for them. The defeat of Assad therefore in geo-strategic terms is simple, it had to be simple because George Bush put forward the plan backed by Saudia Arabia and Israel and described by Seymore Hersh in the ‘Redirection’ here http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/03/05/the-redirection He describes how backing the Sunni against the Shia would empower the GCC states [who are but vassals to the US] and solidify US hegenomy in the region for generations to come. Enter Russia to foil the plan, now it is easy to see why the US is going ape shit, all their regime change scheming is coming to nought, they have backed the wrong side again. In my opinion Iran, if need be, could, and would field millions of Iranian troops into Syria to ensure it is only Syrians who can decide the fate of Syria, and not the sectarian GCC states plus Turkey ganging up against Syria with the assistance of the Neocon policies of the US, the Russians and Chinese agree with that.

    • Egbert
      January 15, 2017, 6:11 pm

      Different sponsors of the war want different outcomes.

      Saudia Arabia wants to reduce the influence of Iran. The US wants to get Israel off its back plus more exuses for increased MIC spending. Turkey wanted to get rid off Assad and maybe gain a bit of Syria. However, it is now faced with a potential Kurdistan on its borders. You can be sure that was not part of the plan as disclosed to Erdogan in order to get him to allow US-trained terrorists to pass through Turkey into Syria.

      Israel wants to break the land bridge between Iran and Lebanon so it can take out (or so it thinks) Hezbollah. It also wants more of the Golan and would like to gain control of the coastal areas of Lebanon and Syria, or more specifically the oil/gas resources in their coastal waters. To that end, early on in the Syrian debacle, it offered the Syrian Alawites sanctuary (they are located in the coastal area of Syria). The price for this generosity was not disclosed but Israel is fairly transparent in its actions.

      The Qataris were supposedly hoping for a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean. However, if the terrorists had succeeded, it is clear the Syria would be almost totally destabilised and reduced to permanent local conflicts (as in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq). Constructing a pipeline through such territory would not happen, c.f. UNOCAL through Afghanistan. So that explanation appears to be something that ‘the public could agree on’ as with the bogus WMD argument used against Saddam Hussein.

    • Maghlawatan
      January 16, 2017, 12:56 am

      Israel wanted war in Iraq but Iran won the war. Syria is stage 2. Hezbollah is now an army and Iran is a player in Syria.

      The last 2 Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by invading armies. Israel should get real.

Leave a Reply