By Elise Labott
It was unusually positive language for a top U.S. official speaking about the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but there was Secretary of State John Kerry giving the Syrian leader a pat on the back.
Speaking to reporters in Bali on Monday, Kerry hailed the quick pace at which inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been able to get on the ground in Syria and begin their work to destroy its vast chemical weapons arsenal, as called for in a recent U.N. Security Council resolution.
"I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed," Kerry said. "I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. Now, we hope that will continue. I'm not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it's a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."
Just last month, when making the case for military action against Syria, Kerry compared Assad's use of chemical weapons to that of Adolf Hitler's gassing of millions of Jews. So what gives with him now patting Assad on the back?
Granted, he was standing next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom he worked to lay the foundation for the U.N. resolution.
Moreover, the OPCW has acknowledged that Syria began destroying its chemical weapons program Sunday under the group's supervision.
In a statement on Sunday, the OPCW said that Syrian personnel are using "cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items," including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment.
State Department officials insist Kerry's comments were meant to encourage continued cooperation with weapons inspectors and did not signal a softening of the Obama administration's stance on the regime.
In fact, hours before Kerry spoke, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was meeting with the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idriss, where he reaffirmed Washington's commitment to a democratic, pluralistic Syria, free of Assad, and pledged to increase U.S. support for both the political and armed opposition.
But privately, some officials acknowledge the optics of the top U.S. diplomat praising Assad after more than two years of calling for his ouster reinforces concerns among the opposition that Assad's cooperation with the international community on the dismantling of his chemical weapons gives him job security.
"Yes, he is cooperating on the chemical for now, but there is a concern it sounded overly rosy and risks sending the wrong signal," one U.S. official said.
"Assad is still launching scuds on homes, and last week Syrian forces launched bombing raids on a school. Yes, he is cooperating for now but we have to make sure we are not patting the regime on the back."
At Monday's State Department briefing, Deputy Spokesman Marie Harf tried to soften Kerry's comments. While acknowledging Syrian cooperation with the OPCW was a "step forward," she declined to give the Assad regime "credit" and repeated the U.S. position that Assad has "lost all legitimacy to lead Syria."
Just because Assad's government is initially fulfilling its responsibilities to cooperate with the dismantling of its chemical weapons, Harf said, "that does not confer political legitimacy on them moving forward."
The United States and Russia have been trying to arrange peace talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva. The goal is a deal on a political transition that will end the civil war.
"This is the natural tension in our policy," says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "On one hand, we have a policy that wants to go to Geneva and work on a political transition that does not include Assad. But we also are depending on Assad's existence and authority to rid the country of its chemical weapons. These two policy objectives are markedly different to one another."
The Obama administration has maintained the two are not mutually exclusive and that progress on chemical weapons could lead to progress on a Geneva conference. But Tabler says comments like Kerry's could make a political solution more elusive at a time when the United States has struggled to get opposition leaders to name a delegation for the Geneva talks.
"When you are praising a dictator, it makes it much harder to attract the opposition to the table and have them believe they are getting a fair shake in negotiations."
Since the United Nations passed its resolution on the plan to dismantle Assad's chemical weapons, Syria's foreign minister said the regime would attend Geneva but warned that the idea of Assad stepping down as a product of those negotiations would be a non-starter.
For its part, the Syrian opposition has a delicate balancing act. Clearly comments like the ones Kerry made Monday are unwelcome. But knee-jerk reactions to them would only give a currency to the comments, which would signal a political defeat the opposition can ill afford. For now, they seem intent on treating the chemical weapons issue as separate from their own political and military objectives.
"We understand Secretary Kerry's comments refer to the U.N. disarmament process, though meanwhile, the conflict and massive use of conventional weapons continues unabated under Assad's hand," Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian opposition's representative to the United States, told CNN. "As Secretary Kerry and President Obama have said, Assad has lost all legitimacy both internationally and internally, and there is no role for Assad in Syria's future."
But Ghadbian drew the line at Assad getting credit for something he was legally required to do and only agreed to under the threat of U.S. military action.
"These initial disarmament steps come only after the legitimate threat of the use of force, and only after the Assad regime admitted to possessing massive stocks of illegal weapons and brutally used chemical weapons against innocent civilians on multiple occasions, for which it needs to be held accountable," he said.