Details of Syria pact widen rift between Kerry, Pentagon

Secretary of State John Kerry concedes the complexity of the Syria deal.
Secretary of State John Kerry concedes the complexity of the Syria deal.
Published Sep. 14, 2016

WASHINGTON — The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry announced with Russia to reduce the killing in Syria has widened an increasingly public divide between Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has deep reservations about the plan for U.S. and Russian forces to jointly target terror groups.

Carter was among the administration officials who pushed against the agreement on a conference call with the White House last week as Kerry, joining the argument from a secure facility in Geneva, grew increasingly frustrated. Although President Barack Obama ultimately approved the effort after hours of debate, Pentagon officials remain unconvinced.

On Tuesday at the Pentagon, officials would not even agree that if a cessation of violence in Syria held for seven days — the initial part of the deal — the Defense Department would put in place its part of the agreement on the eighth day: An extraordinary collaboration between the United States and Russia that calls for the U.S. military to share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria.

"I'm not saying yes or no," Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters on a video conference call. "It would be premature to say that we're going to jump right into it."

White House officials were also dubious. "I think we'd have some reasons to be skeptical that the Russians are able or are willing to implement the arrangement consistent with the way it's been described," Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Monday at a briefing. He added, darkly, "But we'll see."

For Kerry, the search for a reduction in violence in Syria, and ultimately a political agreement that will ease Assad out of office, is a matter of legacy and reputation. His first major project as secretary of state, reviving Mideast peace talks, collapsed before his first year in office was complete. His next major effort, the Iran nuclear deal, was far more successful.

But the Syria deal, as Kerry himself conceded at the State Department on Monday, is far more complex.

The first full day of the cease-fire passed Tuesday with no notable violations.