WASHINGTON -- Desperately seeking to sell the Syria mission, and still hoping to get Russian cooperation or at least acquiescence, Secretary of State John Kerry turned the other diplomatic cheek Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had called Kerry a liar, accusing him of deliberately ignoring the role of al-Qaeda militants in the Syrian opposition. In fact, Kerry has acknowledged repeatedly that al-Qaeda and its allies are a factor in Syria -- and potentially a fast-growing one.
But hey, no blood, no foul.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Kerry said that he had spoken by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday and that Lavrov lamely claimed Putin was the victim of “some translation that was not correct.”
“Look, things happen in this process," said Kerry. "I am not going to get personal about it. I am very comfortable that we need to move onto bigger issues."
Kerry can use all the friends -- or non-enemies -- he can get as he soldiers on through the hard sell of proposed American cruise missile strikes against Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in retaliation for the massive chemical attack allegedly launched by the Assad regime last month.
His voice rising, his tone as urgent as a police siren, Kerry promised in the interview that President Barack Obama was not leading the United States into a military “quagmire” in the sands of Syria.
Facing deep skepticism from his own party and from allies around the world, Kerry -- who made his public debut in 1971 as a Vietnam vet protesting that quagmire of a war -- drew ever more narrowly the administration’s description of its plan for military strikes in Syria.
Kerry said that if the U.S. strikes, Assad will not attempt to retaliate. Why? Israel, for one. “I do not believe Assad will respond this time because he doesn’t want Israel to retaliate against him. He doesn’t want to invite the United States to do that.”
The secretary added, “A number of Arab countries are 100 percent prepared to be part of this action.”
Democrats in Congress, many of them deeply uncomfortable about supporting Obama’s plan, worry that the proposed “thread the needle” strikes would inevitably lead to wider military involvement. They cite language in the pending Senate resolution that stresses the need to “change the momentum on the battlefield” in Syria and that requires the administration to submit plans for doing so.
And the proposed resolution only bars “the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purposes of combat operations” -- terminology that, in theory, would allow for “advisers” of the kind the U.S. has used during other wars, including Vietnam.
“My constituents understand the thread-the-needle purpose of punishing Assad,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). “But they worry about us getting into another military quagmire, this one in Syria.”
That fear is the biggest political obstacle that Kerry and Obama face, as Kerry well knows from his own decades in the Senate.
“I want to assure everybody that we have no intention nor will we put American boots on the ground and get sucked into a quagmire,” said Kerry, sitting in the ornate, Versailles-style conference room on the 7th floor of the Department of State in Foggy Bottom.
“We are not -- I repeat -- we are not considering taking over or assuming responsibility for their civil war. We may help them [the Syrian opposition], as we have decided to do in response to the earlier use of chemical weapons. The president ratcheted up the assistance to the opposition. The opposition is there, and they are prepared to fight. They haven’t asked us to come in and fight. And they will fight," he said.
“There will be no American forces on the ground for any purpose.”