US Secretary of State John Kerry told Syrian aid workers, hours after the Geneva peace talks fell apart, that the country should expect another three months of bombing that would “decimate” the opposition.
During a conversation on the sidelines of this week’s Syria donor conference in London, sources say, Kerry blamed the Syrian opposition for leaving the talks and paving the way for a joint offensive by the Syrian government and Russia on Aleppo.
“‘He said, ‘Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition,’” one of the aid workers, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her organisation, told Middle East Eye.
Kerry told reporters on Friday, as tens of thousands fled the Syrian government and Russian bombardment of Aleppo, that both Russia and Iran, another of Syria's allies, have told him that they are prepared for a ceasefire in Syria.
He said he would know “whether or not these parties are serious” after a meeting of the International Syria Support Group – 17 nations including the US and Russia – scheduled to be held in Munich next week.
But Kerry left the aid workers with the distinct impression that the US is abandoning efforts to support rebel fighters.
The UN-based Geneva talks were suspended earlier this week after the government and opposition delegates refused to meet. The opposition delegates stated that all bombing must stop before talks could proceed, while the government said the rebels were "not serious" about the push for peace.
Kerry’s mixed messages after the collapse of the Geneva process have put more pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, a senior Turkish source told MEE on Friday.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned at the donor conference on Thursday that tens of thousands of people were heading to the Turkish border from Aleppo. On the same day, Saudi Arabia said it could put troops in as part of a multinational force to fight the Islamic State group.
Both feel extreme unease at the potential collapse of the opposition US-recognised Free Syrian Army, according to the senior Turkish source.
Two Syrian aid workers said they approached Kerry at a donor conference drinks reception and told him that he had not done enough to protect Syrian civilians. He then said they should blame the opposition.
"He said that basically, it was the opposition that didn’t want to negotiate and didn’t want a ceasefire, and they walked away,” the second of the aid workers told MEE in a separate conversation and also on the basis of anonymity.
“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?’” the aid worker said Kerry told her.
Both aid workers said Kerry told them that he anticipated three months of bombing during which time “the opposition will be decimated”.
The second aid worker said the most that Kerry seemed prepared to offer were aid drops for besieged Syrian towns which he said he had discussed with Russia.
"He said they were close and they were talking to the Russians about it," she said.
A third MEE source who claims to have served as a liaison between the Syrian and American governments over the past six months said Kerry had passed the message on to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in October that the US did not want him to be removed.
Instead, the source claims, Kerry insisted that Assad should stop using barrel bombs, which terrify civilian populations.
The source claimed that Kerry said if Assad stopped the barrel bombs, Kerry could “sell the story” to the public, the source said.
Assad reportedly responded to Kerry that, in exchange, the US needed to “stop backing the rebels,” the source said.
Kerry’s line to Assad follows a series of reappraisals of American policy after the failure of its programme to train and equip Syrian rebel fighters.
The programme ended in a fiasco last August when a batch of newly trained fighters, called Division 30 and who were trained and armed by the US, was detected and apprehended after they crossed into Syria for the first time.
A month later, another group of fighters was seized by al-Nusra and their weapons were reportedly handed to al-Qaeda in Syria.
A report in the London Review of Books by Seymour Hershclaimed that the training programme had been sabotaged by generals within the Pentagon who did not believe it would work and who provided Assad with information about troop movements.
Most recently, Kerry has been criticised for pressuring the opposition to attend the Geneva talks, reportedly saying that the opposition would lose US support if it didn’t go.
Equally, however, the US administration has been flayed by criticism that it had accepted that Assad will remain leader of Syria. This is a move that some experts say has weakened US leverage with Russia as well as creating tensions with its allies in the Free Syrian Army who vow this is a red line.
When MEE asked the State Department about the aid workers’ claims and about allegations made by the liaison source, it directed MEE to Kerry’s statements on Friday and to Friday’s daily State Department press conference, but it had not responded specifically by the time the story was published.