A Syrian refugee rides his motorcycle with his son at Atmeh refugee camp… (Hussein Malla / AP Photo )
WASHINGTON — John Kerry opened his diplomatic mission to Syria in 2009 with a decidedly undiplomatic question for President Bashar Assad: Why did so few Arab leaders trust Assad?
One month into President Obama's first term, the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was in Damascus to explore the possibility of Syrian-Israeli peace talks. But minutes into their meeting, Kerry pressed the Syrian autocrat to explain why other Middle Eastern rulers said Assad always "says one thing and does another ... or he says he will do something then doesn't do it."
Assad, clearly startled by the question, demanded examples. "I need to know this," he said, according to a State Department memo later disclosed by the website WikiLeaks.
As Kerry heads off Sunday on his debut trip as secretary of State to nine nations in Europe and the Middle East, his blunt exchange with Assad offers insight on his determination to use whatever it takes — even insults — to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, his personal passion.
Kerry has made it clear he wants to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a long and sporadic process whose latest collapse occurred during Obama's first term. He is well aware that failed attempts tarnished the reputations of elder statesmen and presidents for decades, including Obama.
He is not deterred.
"We need to try to find a way forward," Kerry said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month. He said the window to create an independent Palestinian state and to ensure Israeli security soon "could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous."
Kerry will accompany Obama next month on the president's first visit to Israel since entering the White House. They won't present a U.S. peace plan, aides said, but will gather ideas, serve notice that Obama is again considering the issue and make it clear that Kerry speaks for him.
Yet Kerry and Obama have sharply different attitudes and approaches to foreign crises. The differences raise questions, if not doubts, about how far Kerry can go to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.
Kerry is fired by a desire for a diplomatic success in the Middle East that could secure his legacy. Obama is chiefly focused on winding down America's wars overseas and preventing other conflicts from spreading.
Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, interprets Obama's high-profile trip and other White House signals as "a cautionary approval" for Kerry to try again on restarting talks.
Obama is "saying let's be careful, so if there is no opportunity here we won't be too exposed," said Kurtzer, now at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who has dealt frequently with Kerry, admires him but sees daylight between America's new top diplomat and the president.
"Frankly, I'm skeptical that the president has yet made a commitment on the Middle East," said Muasher, research director of the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "And for anything to be accomplished, a presidential commitment will be needed."
Kerry's commitment is clear. He made his first official phone calls as secretary to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. His predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made her first trip to East Asia.
Some of Kerry's advisors envision him at some point beginning frantic Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy between Middle East capitals to nail down a deal.
Kerry, 69, is no global diplomacy neophyte. While in the Senate, he served as an unofficial diplomatic troubleshooter for Obama in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere. In some cases, he drew political flak for his efforts.
In February 2009, he and two House members were the first U.S. lawmakers to visit the Gaza Strip after its takeover by the Hamas militant group two years earlier. The goal was to assess humanitarian needs after a three-week Israeli military offensive, but critics said Kerry was giving undeserved legitimacy to Hamas, a group the State Department had labeled a terrorist organization.
Kerry also came under fire for meeting five times with Assad from 2009 to 2011, part of Obama's effort to reach out to countries that were shunned during the George W. Bush administration. The White House saw a huge potential payoff if Kerry could help move Damascus toward peace with Israel and break its alliance with Iran. But the effort fizzled, and conservative critics mocked a photo of Kerry, Assad and their wives dining in Damascus, as well as Kerry's later praise of his host as "very generous."
Since then, Assad has presided over a civil war that has claimed almost 70,000 lives in the last two years and has defied calls for him to step down.