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

Kerry, US gov't photo

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.