August 4, 2012

I was stunned to read the assertion that Bashar al-Assad ever had “prominent admirers in the United States, including Sen. John F. Kerry” [“For besieged Syrian dictator Assad, only exit may be body bag,” front page, Aug. 1]. Mr. Kerry never claimed or believed that Mr. Assad was a “reformer” or had any interest beyond regime survival. But that one interest was the reason that former secretaries of state James Baker and Henry Kissinger and Sens. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) believed it was worth testing U.S. engagement with Damascus, after eight years of isolationist policies had moved Syria only closer to Iran.

There might have been a path forward, a possibility that was well worth exploring: Syria desperately needed economic help to prevent a powder keg of demographic pressure from exploding, and we wanted peace with Israel and an end to Syria’s coziness with Iran and terrorist organizations. History showed that Syria had occasionally taken positive steps when engaged by the West — most notably in supporting the first Gulf War following Mr. Baker’s 12 visits to Damascus.

In testing an engagement policy, Mr. Kerry always insisted that actions, not words, counted. He doesn’t regret testing Syria’s intentions, but he does regret that Mr. Assad squandered the opportunity. Mr. Kerry has condemned the regime, urged Mr. Assad’s departure and pressed for a managed transition that would respect the aspirations of the Syrian people and help end the bloodshed.

Jodi B. Seth, Washington

The writer is communications director for the Senate ­Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. John F. Kerry.