U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a meeting last week with a small number of Syrian civilians and others, said he had lost an argument within the Obama administration to back up diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria with the threat of using military force, the New York Times reported on Friday.
The newspaper said it had obtained an audio recording of the 40-minute discussion that took place at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations on Sept. 22.
The approximately 20 participants included representatives of four Syrian groups that provide education, rescue and medical services in rebel-held areas and diplomats from three or four countries, the Times said.
The meeting took place days after a cease-fire Kerry had negotiated with Russia had collapsed and rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo were coming under heavy airstrikes as Moscow and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government rejected a U.S. plea to halt flights.
The Times said Kerry repeatedly complained that his diplomacy had not been backed by a serious threat of military force.
“I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument,” Kerry said in an audio clip posted on the Times website.
“We’re trying to pursue the diplomacy, and I understand it’s frustrating. You have nobody more frustrated than we are,” Kerry said.
The recording was made by a non-Syrian who attended the session, the newspaper reported, adding that several other participants confirmed its authenticity.
Russian forces joined the Syrian war a year ago, tipping the balance of power in favor of Assad, who is also supported by Iranian ground forces and Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon and Iraq.
The Times said several people in the meeting pressed Kerry on what they saw as contradictions in U.S. policy.
The Times said State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on what he described as a private conversation. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“While we will decline to comment on a private conversation, Secretary Kerry was grateful for the chance to meet with this group of Syrians, to hear their concerns first-hand and to express our continued focus on ending this civil war,” he said.
It has been widely reported that Kerry pushed President Barack Obama to take a more robust path in Syria, to give teeth to U.S. efforts to force Assad aside.
But Washington’s top diplomat has been careful to present a united front with the White House in public, even as he attempts to work with Moscow to rein in Assad’s forces and build space for a political dialogue.
In August 2013, after Assad had been accused of firing chemical weapons at civilians, Kerry gave a ferocious speech that was seen as prefiguring a retaliatory U.S. military strike — only for Obama to back down only hours later.
Kerry refers to the speech incident in Friday’s leaked recording, but blames the U.S. Congress for refusing to vote to authorize the U.S. military to take action against Assad.