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‘Media diplomacy’ and the deal on Syria

Abdallah Schleifer

Published: Updated:

When asked if there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do or offer to stop an American attack, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s response sounded off the cuff: “Ah, sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community, in the next week… all of it, without delay.”

Kerry’s words – broadcast around the world on satellite TV – were quickly and brilliantly seized upon by the Russians, who turned it into a proposal that could not be refused by Kerry, Assad or the U.S. President Barack Obama.

Suddenly, the U.S. administration would be spared either caving in or having to defy both Congress and American public opinion by launching a missile attack.

It also spared Assad some difficult moments. First, the threat of American intervention, however minor or limited, would have at the very least energized the insurgency and allowed it to advance on the battlefield in the immediate wake of U.S. missile strikes at Syrian army concentrations. More importantly, it will spare Assad the necessity of following through on his own threats of some major world-shaking reprisal.

Yet was this scenario the intention of Kerry, or the U.S. administration? Was it a well-calculated move by Kerry, or media-made diplomacy?

Planned, or off the cuff?

In his extended remarks prior to taking questions, Kerry made no allusion to the idea of calling off an American attack in return for Syrian compliance over chemical weapons. Instead, he praised American-British relations, and made a passionate case for a U.S. attack to punish Syria for crossing Obama’s chemical red line.

Kerry’s words were brilliantly seized upon by Russia, suddenly, the U.S. would be spared having to defy both Congress and American public opinion

Abdallah Schleifer

Kerry’s very phrasing - “ah, sure” - and his dismissal of any possibility of Syrian chemical disarmament ever happening - “but he [Assad] isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously” - suggests that it was spontaneous.

Russia almost immediately transformed Kerry’s remarks into a proposed Russian-American initiative, indicating that the United States, however grateful it may be in private, was being dragged along. And this initiative - assuming it does not get sabotaged by Kerry’s or Obama’s clumsiness - has carried the day.

So was this another example of “media diplomacy” – a viable solution to the Syria question being decided live on TV, rather than behind closed doors? It would not have been the first case in the history of Middle Eastern conflict.

In 1977, the then CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite helped bring together Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachin Begin for simultaneous satellite interviews on a split-screen. These meetings are said to have laid the groundwork for the 1978 Camp David agreements.

That was not a set-up. It wasn’t the White House that put Cronkite up to it, it was CBS that proposed the dual-interview idea, purely because of its news value.

Yet the final answer regarding Kerry’s London press conference – whether this was another case of “media diplomacy” or brilliant calculation – will be known only when Kerry publishes his memoirs, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin publishes his.

But right now, it is Putin who is Man of the Year in my book. First he published an op-ed in the New York Times admonishing the U.S. administration. Putin then saved Obama from embarrassment or political blunder by transforming Kerry’s remarks on Syria into what – for the moment – is seen as a game-changer.

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Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

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