The Obama administration’s failure to enforce the “red line” it drew for intervention in Syria against President Bashar Assad in 2013 “cost” the US “significantly” in the Middle East, US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the annual Saban Forum on Sunday.
The remark appeared to be the first time Kerry has stated that not following through on the threat to retaliate against Assad for his use of chemical weapons to kill 1,500 people in August 2013 damaged the US’ reputation in the region.
He noted, however, that he thinks President Obama’s decision not to attack Assad has been “misinterpreted” — Obama did want to bomb Assad, Kerry said, but he wanted to get approval from Congress first.
As Obama was waiting for that approval — which Kerry said was “not forthcoming” — the US accepted a Russian-backed deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile in return for not enforcing the red line.
“I know the cost — this has been a topic of conversation here — of the President’s decision when he decided not to enforce the redline through the bombing,” Kerry said when asked if there was anything he wold have done differently during his time at the State Department. “But in fact, that’s greatly misinterpreted.”
“People have interpreted it as his decision not to when, in fact, he never made a decision not to bomb. He made the decision to bomb. He simply decided he had to go to Congress because David Cameron lost the vote in the parliament on a Thursday, and on Friday, President Obama felt, hearing from Congress, ‘Oh, you got to come to us, you got to come to us,’ he would go there and get the decision. Well, the decision wasn’t forthcoming, and in the meantime, I got a deal with Lavrov to get all of the chemical weapons out of the country.”
Kerry noted, however, that in end it “doesn’t matter” if the red line promise was misinterpreted or not, because “perception can often just be the reality.”
“We got a better result out of not doing it [bombing Assad], but it was the threat of doing it that brought about the result, and the lack of doing it perception-wise cost us significantly in the region,” he said. “And I know that and so does the President. As much as we think it’s a misinterpretation — it doesn’t matter. It cost. Perception can often just be the reality.”
Kerry concluded on a more optimistic note, however, saying that the US is “on the right course” in the region and will stay that way as long as “we do not retreat.”
“Not just militarily with our presence and our potential use of force, but more importantly right now, our ability to try to deal with these countries’ governance and their ability to be able to address these young people and the possibilities of the future,” he said. “If we don’t do that as a country, we will be inviting a lot of other problems as a consequence.”
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