By Elise Labott
Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday he had some ideas on how to change Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's thinking about remaining in power, which he hopes will persuade the embattled leader to negotiate with the opposition on an end to the violence.
"We need to address the question of President Assad's calculation currently. I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his current perception," Kerry told reporters after meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, adding: "I've got a good sense of what I think we might propose."
Kerry didn't elaborate, but said he planned to discuss the ideas during his first official overseas trip. He is expected to visit European and Mideast capitals later this month, although the trip has not yet been announced
But his stated desire to find a new approach toward Syria belies a reluctance from the White House to become more actively involved. The United States has limited its support to humanitarian aid and nonlethal aid to the opposition, ruling out military intervention and arguing that supplying weapons to the rebels would only further militarize the conflict and risk arms ending up in the hands of extremists.
A day earlier, during his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to keep pressure on the Syrian regime but did not renew calls made since August 2011 for al-Assad to step down. In a recent interview with New Republic magazine, the president signaled he is loath to bog the United States down in the Syrian conflict.
Warning about the dangers of the "implosion" of the Syrian state with continued violence, Kerry said the Obama administration wanted to see a negotiated solution to the conflict resulting in al-Assad's departure. Kerry noted comments by Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib, who has said he was willing to talk with the regime about a political solution.
"It may not be possible. I am not going to stand here and tell you that's automatic or easily achievable," Kerry said. "There are a lot of forces that have been unleashed here over the course of the last months."
But he pointed to an inevitability of al-Assad leaving power, which "hasn't sunk into him yet."
Kerry said part of al-Assad's "calculus" of staying in power centers around the financial and political support he enjoys from Russia, despite international criticism over its stance. Kerry said he was hopeful there "may be an equation where the Russians and the United States could, in fact, find more common ground than we have yet with respect to that."
Kerry's recent comments signal a clear desire to inject new ideas into U.S. policy toward the conflict in Syria, which after almost two years of violence has killed nearly 70,000 Syrians and seen the country spiraling into sectarian strife. Last week during a meeting with Canada's foreign minister, Kerry said the United States was evaluating new options to reduce the violence.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry was an early interlocutor for the Obama administration with al-Assad, even traveling to Damascus to meet with the Syrian leader. He eventually withdrew his support for al-Assad when he began using violence against the Syrian people. Kerry has since floated proposals to create safe havens for the opposition and arming rebel forces.
It is unclear whether Kerry still supports arming the opposition. Last week he refused to comment on a plan by former CIA Director David Petraeus, backed by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to supply weapons to rebel forces.
Citing the threat of Jabhat al-Nusra - recently designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department - and the influx of fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq, Kerry stressed the challenges of a more activist approach.
"It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation," he said. "And everybody understands it is a place that has chemical weapons, and we are deeply concerned about that."
Still, Kerry's comments on Wednesday may raise expectations for his upcoming trip, where he is also expected to try to reactivate the stalled Mideast peace process.
"The window is closing on this possibility, the region knows it," Kerry said Wednesday. "It deserves our utmost consideration and it will get that."
His upcoming visit to the Mideast will lay the groundwork for a trip by President Obama to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan in the spring. But Kerry warned against major breakthroughs, noting that it would be arrogant to propose a peace plan before hearing from leaders in the region.
"The president is not prepared at this point in time to do more than listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he is going to go to Israel," Kerry said. "I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices."
Kerry has signaled an early push to rekindle peace talks. His first calls in office were to Israeli and Palestinian leaders and during his confirmation he said he planned to renew efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
But just as on Syria, Kerry's peace efforts will be limited by the political will of a White House that seems preoccupied with domestic issues, particularly the economy.
The newly minted secretary of state is bringing a new sense of urgency, said one administration official who follows the Middle East. "He sees there is some fresh thinking required. It's just a question what the political leadership in the administration will tolerate."