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Kerry Brokers Trump’s Plan for Syria

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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If Donald Trump wins the presidential election in November, he might want to make Secretary of State John Kerry his special envoy for U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war on terror. While the men disagree on many things -- from the Iran deal to the provenance of the Islamic State -- their Syria policy is on the same page.

Just look at the cease-fire Kerry says he reached in Geneva on Friday night with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. If a cessation of violence holds for a week, then Kerry has committed -- over the overt skepticism of the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community -- to work with Russia's air force to target al-Nusra, the jhadist group that only recently claimed it was no longer al-Qaeda’s franchise.

The U.S. and Russia since November have tried to coordinate their air strikes over the crowded skies of Syria against the Islamic State. But that hasn't gone well. Russia keeps bombing U.S. backed opposition groups, civilian targets like hospitals and, in June, a U.S. special operations base.

But Kerry is a persistent diplomat. On Friday evening, he told the press: "After a period of reduced violence, then we will see the United States and Russia taking coordinated steps to isolate and defeat the terrorist groups that have added immeasurably to Syria’s suffering and misery -- and we will facilitate a political transition, which is the only way to bring about a durable end to this war."

More on that last part in a bit. For now, notice how Kerry is proposing something Trump has been advocating for more than a year. Here is what Trump told Bill O'Reilly last month: "Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing, frankly, if we actually got along with Russia and worked out some kind of a deal where we go and knock the hell out of ISIS along with NATO and along with countries that are in the area? Wouldn't that be wonderful as opposed to fighting?"

On the other side of this issue is Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. She is far less trusting of the Russians in general, and has long advocated a more robust American role to end the atrocities in Syria. As she liked to remind audiences in 2015, she was among those in President Barack Obama's cabinet who urged him to do more to support the Syrian opposition in 2012. Today, Clinton supports a no-fly zone in Syria, though she promises no U.S. ground troops, which many experts say would be needed to implement such a zone. (Obama also promises no ground troops in Syria, but nonetheless he has sent a few hundred special operations forces there.)

Politics aside, there are good reasons to doubt the Kerry-Trump plan for Syria will work. Assuming the cease-fire sticks for seven days, which is no sure thing, is it even desirable for U.S. intelligence officers to be sharing the locations of U.S.-backed rebels in Syria with a Russian Air Force that has been bombing them for nearly a year?

Evelyn Farkas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under Obama, told me Saturday that "joint operations are always risky."

She emphasized that such joint operations are conducted with allies and close partners, not adversaries like Russia. "Our fundamental objectives are counter to that of the Russians, I don't understand how we would trust the Russians to stick to their delineated areas given their conduct thus far," she said. "Frankly I would worry. The Russians will take whatever territory they can through whatever interpretation of the rules they can get away with, and then they will try to take more."

Robert Ford, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and Obama's former ambassador to Syria, is also skeptical. "Whether it's John Kerry or whether it's Donald Trump, neither one is prepared to do the things that deal with the crisis in the first place," he told me. "More bombing does not fix the underlying problem, I see nothing in the agreement that enables one to go towards the political solution. Getting to the negotiating table, by itself, is not a solution."

Kerry has not grasped this lesson. For more than a year now, he has been trying to get Lavrov to pressure the Assad regime to enter a political process for Syria, and at almost every turn the Russians have failed to deliver on Lavrov's promises. Kerry has paid a steep price for his diplomatic tenacity and patience. When he was pressing for new political talks a year ago, Russia was building up its air operations in Syria. Kerry did next to nothing to counter those Russian escalations while he was trying to restart the political negotiations. As a result, Russia projected real military power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s.

On one level, Kerry seems to understand that Lavrov's word alone is not worth much. After praising Obama's courageous choice to support the cease-fire, Kerry let slip that he doesn't actually know if Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, agrees with his own foreign minister. "I hope likewise President Putin has made a decision to commit the resources of Russia to try to make sure the Assad regime lives up to its obligations and to work with us," Kerry said Friday night.

Kerry will also have his own work cut out for him in getting the Western-backed opposition to support his agreement. Kerry says he is warning the U.S.-supported groups to separate themselves from Nusrah and support the plan for the political transition. But it seems unlikely the rebels will go along with it.

Evan Barrett, the deputy director of the nongovernmental Syrian Emergency Task Force, told me Saturday that the political Syrian opposition groups supported by the West will have a very hard time selling this plan to the groups fighting on the ground. "In order for the West to offer a compelling narrative for opposition groups that could pull them away from integrating with extremists like al-Nusra, we need to show them that the world has more compassion and belief in a stable and secure Syria than these extremists do," Barrett said. "By partnering with Assad and Russia, the U.S. government shows it has no greater compassion for Syrians than al-Qaeda or Assad."

Barrett told me that for the last year his group has largely stopped asking the Obama administration to do more in Syria and urged them instead to do no more harm. Urging the opposition to negotiate now is a bad deal for Syrians who wish to be free of their dictator. Because of Russia's intervention a year ago, Assad has been able to regain his momentum and much territory.

This last point was made in the Washington Post Saturday by two advisers to Clinton's campaign, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and former undersecretary of defense for intelligence Michael Vickers. They write, "Putin’s significant intervention in Syria 12 months ago -- via the Russian air force and Russian special forces -- propped up Assad at the exact moment that the Syrian leader appeared to be losing his grip on power and might therefore be amenable to negotiating a transition of power."

Morell and Vickers wrote those words in an open letter to Trump, criticizing the candidate's embrace of Putin. But the section on Syria could have just as easily been addressed to the current secretary of state.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eli Lake at

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Tobin Harshaw at