U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry admits being "frustrated" after losing an argument with the White House to back up diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria with the threat of using U.S. military force, The New York Times reported on September 30.
The newspaper said it obtained an audio recording of a 40-minute discussion Kerry had with a group of antiregime Syrians at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations on September 22.
The approximately 20 participants included representatives of four groups that provide education, rescue, and medical services in rebel-held areas of Syria, and diplomats from three or four countries, The Times said.
The meeting took place days after a cease-fire Kerry had negotiated with Russia had collapsed and rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo were coming under heavy air strikes as Moscow and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
The Times said Kerry repeatedly complained that his diplomacy had not been backed by a serious threat of military force.
"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 one of several audio clips posted on The Times' website.
"We're trying to pursue the diplomacy, and I understand it's frustrating. You have nobody more frustrated than we are," Kerry said.
The recording was made by a non-Syrian who attended the session, the newspaper said, adding that several other participants confirmed its authenticity.
It has been widely reported that Kerry pushed President Barack Obama to take a more robust path in Syria, to give teeth to international efforts to force Assad aside and end a civil war now heading into its sixth year.
But Washington's top diplomat has been careful to present a united front with the White House in public, particularly as he has spearheaded repeated attempts to work out a cease-fire deal and a revival of peace talks between the warring parties.
Russian forces joined the Syrian war a year ago, tipping the balance of power in favor of Assad, who is also supported by Iranian ground forces and Shi'ite militia fighters from Lebanon and Iraq.
The Times said several people in the meeting pressed Kerry on what they saw as contradictions in U.S. policy. They expressed frustration that U.S. efforts in their country are focused on fighting the Islamic State group and not on Assad or his allies.
One woman, Marcell Shehwaro, asked "how many Syrians" had to be killed to prompt serious action by the United States.
Kerry responded that "Assad's indifference to anything" could push the Obama administration to consider new options, The Times said, but he also said that "any further American effort to arm rebels or join the fight could backfire."
State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on what he described as a private conversation.
With reporting by The New York Times, Reuters, and AFP