Kerry’s Secret War Plan for Syria

Secretary of State Kerry urged President Obama to launch secret missile attacks inside Syria without admitting the U.S. role, a plan that Obama rejected, according to a new report cited by Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

Jeffrey Goldberg’s newly published book-length article on Barack Obama and the Middle East includes a major revelation that brings Secretary of State John Kerry’s Syrian diplomacy into sharper focus: it reports that Kerry has sought on several occasions without success over the past several months to get Obama’s approval for cruise missile strikes against the Syrian government.

That revelation shows that Kerry’s strategy in promoting the Syrian peace negotiations in recent months was based on much heavier pressure on the Assad regime to agree that President Bashar al-Assad must step down than was apparent. It also completes a larger story of Kerry as the primary advocate in the administration of war in Syria ever since he became Secretary of State in early 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in Paris on Jan. 12, 2014, for diplomatic meetings on the Middle East. (State Department photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in Paris on Jan. 12, 2014, for diplomatic meetings on the Middle East. (State Department photo)

Goldberg reports that “on several occasions” Kerry requested that Obama approve missile strikes at “specific regime targets,” in order to “send a message” to Assad – and his international allies – to “negotiate peace.” Kerry suggested to Obama that the U.S. wouldn’t have to acknowledge the attacks publicly, according to Goldberg, because Assad “would surely know the missiles’ return address.”

Goldberg reports that Kerry had “recently” submitted a “written outline of new steps to bring more pressure on Assad.” That is obviously a reference to what Kerry referred to in Senate testimony in February as “significant discussions” within the Obama administration on a “Plan B” to support the opposition that would be more “confrontational.” Kerry made no effort in his testimony to hide the fact that he was the chief advocate of such a policy initiative.

But Goldberg’s account makes it clear that Obama not only repeatedly rejected Kerry’s requests for the use of force, but also decreed at a National Security Council meeting in December that any request for the use of military force must come from his military advisers in an obvious rebuff to Kerry. Immediately after Kerry had suggested that a “Plan B” was under discussion in the administration, it was a senior Pentagon official who dismissed the idea that any confrontational move was under consideration, including the well-worn idea of a “no-fly zone.”

Kerry’s campaign for cruise missile strikes actually began soon after he became secretary in February 2013. At that point Assad was consolidating his military position, while al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s affiliate0 and its extremist allies were already in a dominant position within the armed opposition, according to U.S. intelligence. It was hardly a favorable situation for trying to build an opposition force that could be the instrument of the negotiated settlement he had in mind.

At Kerry’s urging Obama signed a secret presidential “finding” in May 2013 for a covert CIA operation the objective of which was to provide enough support to the rebels so they wouldn’t lose, but not enough so they would win. But that was a compromise measure that Kerry believed would be inadequate to support a negotiated settlement.

He wanted much more, an urgent program of aid to the opposition, and he resorted to a shady bureaucratic tactic to advance his aim. Beginning in March 2013 and throughout that spring, the armed opposition accused the Assad regime of using Sarin gas against opposition population centers on several occasions. The evidence for those accusations was highly doubtful in every case, but Kerry seized on them as a way of putting pressure on Obama.

In June 2013, he went to the White House with a paper assuming the truth of the accusations and arguing that, if the United States did not “impose consequences” on Assad over his supposed use of chemical weapons, he would view it as “green light” to continue using them. At a National Security Council meeting that month, Kerry urged shipments of heavy weapons to the rebels as well as U.S. military strikes, but Obama still said no.

After the Aug. 21, 2013 Sarin attack in the Damascus area, Kerry was the leading figure on Obama’s national security team arguing that Obama had to respond militarily. But after initially agreeing to a set of U.S. missile strikes on regime targets, Obama decided against it. One of the reasons was that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged to him privately that the intelligence was not a “slam dunk,” according to Goldberg’s account.

In lieu of a missile strike, however, Obama agreed in October 2013 to a very risky major escalation of military assistance to the Syrian opposition. That fall the Pentagon sold 15,000 U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis, and throughout 2014, the Saudis doled them out to armed groups approved by the United States. Dispensing anti-tank missiles was a reckless policy, because it was recognized by then that many of the groups being armed were already fighting alongside Nusra Front in the northwest. The missiles were crucial to the capture of all of Idlib province by the Nusra-led “Army of Conquest” in April 2015.

Kerry was ready to take a risk on Nusra Front and its allies becoming unstoppable in order to jump-start his strategy of diplomatic pressure on Assad. But Kerry overplayed his hand. The Assad regime and Iran feared that the newly strengthened military force under Nusra Front control might break through to take over the Alawite stronghold of Latakia province. They prevailed on Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene with Russian airpower.

As the Russian campaign of airstrikes began to push back the extremist-led military forces and even threaten their lines of supply, Kerry’s strategy to pressure the Assad regime to make a major diplomatic concession became irrelevant.

Kerry’s demands for U.S. cruise missile strikes became even more insistent. Without them, he argued, he couldn’t get the Russians to cooperate with his peace negotiations plan. Goldberg quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage.”

Obama, who had already succumbed in 2014 to domestic political pressure to begin bombing the Islamic State, saw no reason to get into even deeper war in Syria in support of Kerry’s plan – especially under the new circumstances. Assad was not likely to step down, and in case, the war would only end if Nusra Front and its Salafist-jihadi allies were no longer able to get the heavy weapons they need to fight the regime.

The real origin of the present Syrian peace negotiations is thus Kerry’s ambition to pursue the illusory aim of winning a diplomatic victory in Syria by much greater pressure on the Assad regime. Ironically, in setting in motion the military build-up of an Al-Qaeda-dominated armed opposition, Kerry sowed the seeds of the military reversal that ensured the failure of his endeavor. As a result he became the rather pathetic figure shown in Goldberg’s account pleading in vain for yet another US war in Syria.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.[This article originally appeared in Middle East Eye at]

22 comments for “Kerry’s Secret War Plan for Syria

  1. March 25, 2016 at 03:04

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  2. John XYZ
    March 15, 2016 at 18:31

    I don’t get it, why would Kerry want to launch attacks like that? Would he want to convince Syria, Russia, and Iran beyond a reasonable doubt that Assad is not the problem? And that people like Kerry are only in power because of the foolishness of the masses? Because that’s almost certainly how the message would be received. It may be moot by now, because the US has involved itself in so many pointless provocations, that those countries are probably already convinced. But it would pose a setback to any peace efforts underway, because the Syrian government would have difficulty perceiving the opposing parties as acting in good faith after such an attack.

    [I thought I’d already posted this, but I don’t see the post, so maybe there was some kind of glitch]

    • LJ
      March 16, 2016 at 13:49

      No glitch bro, it’s the Exorcist

      • John XYZ
        March 17, 2016 at 11:29

        Nah, I’m sure it’s a glitch now. The original post reappeared, but I was also able to reproduce the glitch on another page. Made a post, and at first it was there, but when I came back it was gone. Then I made a second post to the same article, and the original post was back, along with a whole bunch of other posts which weren’t visible the moment before. Then, I cleared the browser history, and all of the new posts vanished again. So the posts are all certainly there, but if and when they show up is up in the air.

        Sorry this is off-topic, but it’s relevant to the site.

      • John XYZ
        March 17, 2016 at 11:55

        If it was the Exorcist, then he has no clue what target to go after :)

  3. JCWilliams
    March 15, 2016 at 15:07

    Got a big ouch for poor Kerry. I’m embarrassed to say I voted for the guy against GWBush talk about a pair of losers. Weren’t they Fraternity Brothers?. Wow . He’s a NeoCon too? Who isn’t these days except Trump? Maybe he’s lying too. Well, in ten months if Hillary wins maybe Kerry will get his wish anyway and Europe will get the Qatar to Turkey Pipeline and Erdogan will become God or something in his huge new Presidential Palace. Hezbollah, then Iran then the Russians saved Assad . What now.? Nixon should have let Charles Colson “Get his Boys” and kick John Kerry and those Vietnam Vets for Peace’s butts when they were Camped out on the White House Lawn. He said the Colson. Are You Crazy? How about a do over now.

  4. Don
    March 15, 2016 at 12:44

    A fine article, as per usual from Gareth Porter. The characterization of Mr. Obama as “initially agreeing to a set of missile strikes on regime targets” (reference to Syria and the chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus) strongly understates Obama’s stance, as any viewer of his television presentation knows. He was nearly fanatic in his push for a military assault, claiming America “exceptionalism”, and how “we act!”, etc. This was not any acting job, as he is a poor actor. His emotionally-laden speech was equal parts fanaticism and equal parts ignorance, as evidence was slop (as has been proven). Give thanks not only to James Clapper, but the House of Commons for rejecting such a decision. Kerry’s ignorance is remarkable at times, but Obama initially swallowed it, then fortunately turned away when others told him “No”, much like he should have told himself.

  5. John XYZ
    March 15, 2016 at 12:13

    I don’t get it. Kerry would do this because he wants to prove to Syria, Russia, and Iran that Assad is not the real problem, and that people like Kerry are only in power due to mass stupidity?

  6. Steve
    March 14, 2016 at 23:04

    As a bonesmam, John Kerry is bad to the bone! Stagecraft as Statecraft? You betcha!

  7. Joe Tedesky
    March 14, 2016 at 21:49

    I am by no means defending Kerry, and I will not make excuses for Obama, but this Goldberg interview to me smells a little fishy. Is Obama’s interview a masterful piece of literature written to lay down a new Syrian war narrative? Is John Kerry the bad cop to Obama’s good cop? If my boss were to speak of me in such terms as Obama did referencing Kerry, I’d resign and get a new life. I have often wondered to if Obama was a peacenik surrounded by a bunch of Warhawks, but by the way this story is being told, I have a hard time accepting it’s telling. Okay, if this is an effort by the White House to cozy on up to the Russians, then it makes sense. On the other hand if Obama is sacrificing Kerry for the sake of his legacy, well then so much for presidential egos.

    • Peter Loeb
      March 16, 2016 at 06:11


      Gareth Porter’s documentation of Kerry’s role is consistent with his
      positions as Chairman of the Senate Committee on International
      Relations. My short-hand (to myself) phrase was to consider John Kerry
      as “THE SENATOR FROM AIPAC”. He remains a point man for
      Israel within the Obama Administration.

      The recent withdrawal by Vladinir Putin is a “game changer” precisely
      because Syria is stronger, the US-Israel funded so-called “rebels”
      are much weaker. I would guess (and this is only a guess!)
      that the potential nominees of both US political parties
      would handle this differently. Hillary would doubtless pledge
      her support for Israel in every case. It remains that even she
      might find the Israeli position impractical to say the least.
      Were Donald Trump President, it is impossible to even
      guess what he might do. One guesses that he flight dream
      of flailing his fists and threatening all who do not follow him
      with ultimate treason. Or is that just an act? A TV reality show?

      (See my response to Ray McGovern today which I titled “Mr.
      Putin’s Political Acumen.”.)

      —–Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  8. Drew Hunkins
    March 14, 2016 at 19:38

    A Hillary Clinton presidency is horrifying to contemplate.

    She’s a bloodthirsty warmonger who seems a bit deranged and mentally unstable. Despite all his drawbacks, Trump strikes a conciliatory note when it comes to Russia and Putin, he also denounces the 2003 invasion and war on Iraq, which Hillary championed. She’s the butcher of Libya who displays no contrition and whitewashes the terror she inflicted on that sad land. Hillary’s also played a leading role in turning Syria into a powder keg; if she had her druthers American soldiers likely would’ve had boots on the ground in Ukraine risking World War III.

    I think I’m leaning in William Blum’s direction on this one. Also James Petras has recently written that Hillary is likely worse, and at best, being generous, just as bad as Cruz and Trump.

  9. J'hon Doe II
    March 14, 2016 at 19:18
  10. Jay
    March 14, 2016 at 18:32

    Given Goldberg’s selling of the Iraq war in the pages of the New Yorker, I’d want more sourcing on this.

  11. Josh
    March 14, 2016 at 18:31

    This does show clearly two things. One, Kerry is not the natural ‘dove’ that he was made out to be in the last half year or so – the supposed white knight pushing through the negotiated stand with Russia – he rather is an opportunist who, when possible, errs alongside the hawks in greater Washington. He is a Hillary, only with more rhetorical and often embarrassing bluster as shown during the Ukraine crisis. Second, it shows Obama as the supposed reluctant warrior, but one who allows CIA war games and ongoing multi-year actions, Pentagon’s occasional war drums, and dangerous populous pro-NATO budget rhetoric by Breedlove to go on under his nose – all the time. These main war lines are more constant than the presidential decree or non-existent ‘Obama doctrine’. A president whose anti-war feelings were muzzled until such time when the existing pack of rabid war dogs display too much irrationality; a president who was unable to channel his feeling into policy that contains the CIA and muzzles dangerous military rhetoric. A president whose Nobel Peace prize – or feeble peace dividend – is paid for in Russian rubles.

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 14, 2016 at 19:11

      Josh >> A president whose anti-war feelings were muzzled until such time when the existing pack of rabid war dogs display too much irrationality; a president who was unable to channel his feeling into policy that contains the CIA and muzzles dangerous military rhetoric. A president whose Nobel Peace prize – or feeble peace dividend – is paid for in Russian rubles.

      You can’t know JFK.
      If you did you’d know he was Murdered for the all oppositions you mention above… .

      • Bob Van Noy
        March 15, 2016 at 09:23

        Thanks J’hon Doe II, since this reporting on Syria has started, I simply can’t get the image of Jack and Bobby discussing how absolutely insane the joint chiefs meeting was during the Cuban Missile crisis. Or the look on JFK’s face recorded by a press photographer as he answered the phone, on the death of Patrice Lumumba. I’m no big fan of President Obama, but certainly the limitations of the White House are a “mixed blessing”.

  12. Deschutes
    March 14, 2016 at 16:54

    I always thought John Kerry was a dick, and here’s the proof! But gawd, what an asshole Kerry is, and has been for…erm…his entire time in public (dis)service. Married to a multi-millionaire heiress, he has like 9 20 room mansions spread throughout the world. There is not a better example of a career politician oligarch than this asshole John Kerry. Kerry is the personification of “The 1% who own and run the USA”. It’s a fact. Look at the misery this asshole has wrought since being Sec of State: Ukraine is in tatters, going the way of Iraq; Israel/Palestine “peace” process could not be more ruined, more farcical than under his watch; and now this: Kerry requesting cruise missile attacks on Syria! This guy is the personification of everything utterly wrong with American governance: he symbolizes ‘war without end’; he promotes American foreign policy through force–NOT through dialogue or detente; he is another eager pro-Zionist lapdog, ever eager to have American servicemen fight and die–for Israel. It is career status quo beltway pols like Kerry that are dragging America down. Kerry is even worse than the Clintons. Can we jettison him to outer space on the next Soyuz shuttle? Thoroughly despicable scumbag.

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 14, 2016 at 18:56


      an ultimate classic description/denouncement
      of John Kerry as “strong” liberal Democrat —

      Kerry, whom used Vietnam war crimes as his
      stepping stone up the Political ladder,

      sort of fatigued-out in the 2004 Presidential
      run, where karl roved the campaign in Ohio

      into a swift boat of explanations/withdrawals/
      accepting quittance for later denial of the truth

      in order to ascend to a Cabinet Post in the USA,
      false history is to be worshiped over integrity.

  13. J'hon Doe II
    March 14, 2016 at 16:07

    The real origin of the present Syrian peace negotiations is thus Kerry’s ambition to pursue the illusory aim of winning a diplomatic victory in Syria by much greater pressure on the Assad regime.

    Is Kerry’s arm being twisted via deep-state pressure as he applies arm bar leverage against Real peace talks???

    • Taras77
      March 14, 2016 at 17:51

      I would say that one person doing arm twisting is Samantha Power. She has been screeching to lob a few one million dollar missiles into Syria since day one, just to show how humanitarian we are. She is a very dangerous person who has not one iota of common sense or decency. It is just a question how much Kerry can ignore her or agree with her demands.

  14. Bob Van Noy
    March 14, 2016 at 12:46

    Thank you Gareth Porter. Recent insights into Hillary’s State Department and now this, are truly frightening about this Presidency. They simply Read like an extension of Bush/Cheney. Still,The President must be held accountable because of the old “buck stops here analogy”.
    One has to give Jeffery Goldberg credit for such an insightful piece.

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