Secretary of State John Kerry in blunt terms told a group of Syrian civilians last week that U.S. diplomatic efforts to stop the killing in Syria haven’t been supported by threats of military force, in a seeming acknowledgement of his frustrations with an inability to halt the bloodshed, the New York Times reported Friday.
"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 the audio published by the Times.
"I’ve argued for use of force. I stood up, I’m the guy who stood up and announced we’re going to attack Assad because of the weapons, and then you know things evolved into a different process," Kerry said in the audio. "But the bottom line is that Congress refused to even vote to allow that."
The comments were recorded during a 40-minute meeting during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the Times reported.
Kerry and the U.S. have been negotiating with the Russian government for weeks to put in place a nationwide cease-fire aimed at ending the five-year civil war. Previous agreements have collapsed due to violations.
The most recent brief ceasefire collapsed as Syrian government forces — and allegedly Russian forces — have bombarded the besieged city of Aleppo in a massive new offensive.
Around 400 civilians have been killed in Aleppo in a the last eight days, 100 of them children, Kerry said Thursday.
Kerry had indicated his support for a strike against Syria in the past, in 2013 after it was revealed Syrian forces used chemical weapons against rebels. He courted support among European allies for an attack in September of 2013, NBC news reported at the time.
Kerry at the meeting said the U.S. had no legal justification to attack Syria, the Times reported.
The Times characterized the meeting in which the audio was recorded as being held at the Dutch Mission to the U.N. on Sept. 22, and involving a small group that included representatives from groups providing education and rescue services in rebel-held areas, and diplomats. The report does not say who recorded the audio.
State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment Friday on the audio reported by the Times, but confirmed the meeting took place.
"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 firsthand and to express our continued focus on ending this civil war," Kirby said.
In the audio, Kerry also says he is frustrated by the diplomatic process, and said: “The problem is the Russians don’t care about international law, and we do."
He said that Congress and the American people would not support sending U.S. troops to end the conflict. He told the group that efforts to arm more rebel groups could cause other states involved, like Iran and Russia, to "up the ante."
"Russia puts in more, Iran puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and you all are destroyed," Kerry said in the audio published by the Times.
Kerry also suggested that an election could be set up in an effort overseen by the United Nations — an election which could include Assad, the Times reported. He said that any refugee anywhere in the world is eligible to vote.
President Barack Obama in 2011 called for Assad to step aside, and the Obama administration's position has been that Assad must go, but through a political transition.
Talks between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition have been stalled since May. Previous meetings have yielded no concrete progress towards that goal.