The Tale of Kerry, Zarif, and Assad
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made headlines last week when he was caught on tape with a crowd in Tehran participating in a chant calling for the destruction of the United States and its allies. While the crowd can be heard chanting “Death to America,” “Death to Britain,” and “Death to Israel,” Zarif is seen smiling and mouthing along. It’s worth noting that, in early May, former Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to have met with Zarif twice in an effort to preserve the Iran nuclear deal that they previously negotiated.
This is an unfortunate turn of events for John Kerry, who had grown quite close to the foreign minister of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Not only were Kerry and Zarif frequently seen backslapping throughout the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but Kerry regularly advocated for Zarif as a moderating force in Tehran’s revolutionary regime. During his efforts to sell the Iran nuclear deal to Congress and the American people in 2015, Kerry pushed the idea that the deal would empower Zarif and other supposed reformers, thus tempering the Islamic republic’s hostility to the US and its allies.
Kerry’s words of assurance were, of course, proven to be false — as Iran’s aggression in the region and hostility towards the West have only increased after the deal was implemented. Unfortunately, while this is an embarrassing moment for John Kerry, it isn’t the first time that he’s been so publicly humiliated by a US adversary for whom he had spent several years advocating.
Indeed, prior to ever meeting his Iranian counterpart, Kerry spent a half-decade courting none other than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In December 2006, when he was still a US senator, Kerry traveled to Damascus to meet, for the first time, with the Syrian dictator. Kerry apparently believed that, at the height of the Iraq War, American outreach to Assad was critical for the US mission in Iraq. Then-senator Kerry saw Assad as a reformer who could be peeled away from his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, and lured towards the West. Kerry even envisioned the possibility of a negotiated peace between Assad and Israel over the Golan Heights.
By 2011, after that initial meeting, Kerry was reported to have met with Assad a total of six times, including a visit in February 2009 when he and Assad dined along with their wives at an upscale Damascus restaurant. After the dinner, Kerry reportedly asserted that “Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region.”
In addition to his visits to Damascus, Kerry was actively advocating for Assad back home in the US. Jay Solomon, in his book The Iran Wars, describes Kerry as having emerged, by 2009, as the “Syrian dictator’s man in Washington.” And Kerry himself wasn’t shy about his lobbying efforts for Assad. In a March 2011 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kerry called the Syrian dictator “very generous” and said, “Syria will move … Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”
It should be pointed out that Kerry’s words of support for Assad at Carnegie were given during the very week in March 2011 that the initial peaceful protests in Syria began. As we know, Assad responded to the protesters’ pleas for reform with brutal crackdowns that led to a bloody civil war and the genocide of Syria’s Sunni population.
Thus far, Assad’s war has killed half a million Syrians, displaced more than ten million from their homes, and wrought havoc across the region and beyond. Although Kerry had scheduled another visit to Damascus, his courtship of Assad ended when the Obama White House nixed his planned March 2011 trip.
Of course, not many would have predicted in 2006 that Assad would go on to use chemical weapons and provoke a large-scale international crisis. But by the time Kerry began his diplomatic outreach, Assad already had a well-established record of mischief in the region.
When Kerry made his first trip to Syria at the end of 2006 — while the terrorist insurgency in neighboring Iraq was in full swing — Assad had been facilitating the movement of Al Qaeda fighters and suicide bombers from Syria into Iraq. Assad had also established the Damascus International Airport as the jihadi gateway for Sunni militants traveling from around the Middle East and North Africa looking to attack American forces inside Iraq. The Assad regime even arranged for buses to ferry fighters directly to the front lines.
As early as January 2004, the Bush administration was increasing its pressure on the Assad regime to halt the jihadi traffic into Iraq. Nearly three years later, and despite Assad’s support of a terrorist insurgency in which American soldiers were targeted and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed, Kerry saw no harm in reaching out to the Syrian dictator.
Even former French President Jacques Chirac — a Western leader widely known as sympathetic toward Arab strongmen — was wise to the nature of the Assad regime and its propensity for sowing chaos in the region, observing in the summer of 2006 that “the regime of Bashar seems incompatible with security and peace.”
To be fair, John Kerry was not the first US policymaker to be charmed by a duplicitous Middle East dictator. Still, the diplomatic capital of the United States is a precious commodity, and Kerry squandered a tremendous amount of it on a man responsible for the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. While the historical record of Iran’s nuclear program will continue to evolve, John Kerry’s outreach to Bashar Assad and Javad Zarif can be definitively described as permanent stains on the history of US foreign policy.
Joel Sonkin lives in New York City and writes about US foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @JoelSonkin.