Barack Obama’s remarks on Syria during his annual news conference Friday were by then little more than damage limitation. “I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting,” Obama said, but that was just his opinion. He then added that any solution in Syria will have to ensure that the “equities” of Russia and Iran are “respected.” At the top of the list of equities in Syria is of course President Bashar Assad. Not that Obama’s equivocation should be surprising. The scene was already set earlier this week — the week in which Obama’s U.S. fell in line with Putin’s Russia.
The key sentence came after John Kerry’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last Tuesday. “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” the U.S. secretary of state said at a press conference. Just like that, he confirmed what many had believed was an increasing erosion in America’s long-held position that President Bashar Assad must leave power for there to be any solution to the Syrian war.
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Four and a half year ago, President Barack Obama announced that “Assad must go.” This week, though, it was left to White House press secretary Josh Earnest to subsequently insist that “our position hasn’t changed and I don’t think that’s what Secretary Kerry was trying to convey.” But even Earnest had little to say on how the United States would insist on Assad’s removal, simply stating the Americans’ “vigorous moral objection to his leadership.”
Overseas, Kerry was making things perfectly clear. Last Monday, in a meeting with ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in Paris, he said the demand by Syrian opposition groups that Assad’s departure be a precondition for any peaceful solution was a “nonstarting position, obviously.” And in Moscow, in preparation for another round of international talks on Syria’s future in New York this weekend, he said the United States and Russia are now focusing “not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad.” The meetings in New York have now taken place and the U.N. Security Council resolution is being prepared with a rare sense of U.S.-Russia agreement and of course no mention of Assad.
America’s Arab allies are now struggling to come up with a list of opposition groups who aren’t considered Islamist terrorists as well as preparing to sit across the table from the Russians and Iranians – the Assad regime’s foreign backers. At this stage, it’s not clear which of them will be there and what they are being offered.
Kerry said the target was on facilitating a peace process in which “Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria.” He added that “no one should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists,” but with no indication of how they are to be given a third alternative.
Kerry’s prescription sounds very similar to the Russian-Iranian position that elections should be held in Syria, without any preconditions for Assad’s departure. What’s unclear is how elections can take place in a country where half the population has been forced to leave their homes and at least four million have fled altogether, with the stream of refugees only increasing.
It is tempting to see Kerry’s position as a capitulation in the face of Russia’s implacable policy of unconditionally supporting Assad, including the deployment of dozens of fighter jets and other forces in Syria. But in an extensive interview that appeared in The New Yorker last week, Kerry sounds as if he believes negotiations with Assad are still possible – at least, that is the interpretation of the interviewer (and New Yorker editor), David Remnick.
In the article, Kerry insists on not mentioning the Assad regime’s war crimes and the mass murder of at least 250,000 Syrians. Kerry is nostalgic for the Assad he met in 2010, when as a senator he was sent by the Obama administration to see whether the peace process between Israel and Syria could be renewed. He visited Damascus along with his wife, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, dined with Assad and “had an impression that this guy had serious business plans, growth plans, development plans, wanted to change.” And Kerry still wants “to try to talk common sense to him through this process.” He won’t describe Assad’s actions as more than “enormous, gigantic mistakes, and I think they are disqualifying mistakes.” But according to Remnick, Kerry believes the young Assad made those mistakes mainly due to pressure from his family, who feared the downfall of the Alawite hegemony.
Whatever Kerry really thinks of Assad, and whether there is any chance of his forlorn hopes being fulfilled, the shift of the United States and its allies’ military and diplomatic resources from Assad to fighting the Islamic State group seems complete. Last Monday, Obama arrived at the Pentagon and issued a briefing in an attempt to reassure the American public – fearful of terror attacks in the wake of the killing of 14 civilians by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California – that progress is being made on the front against ISIS.
However, at the Pentagon he was forced to admit that “we are recognizing that progress needs to keep coming faster. Nobody knows it more than the countless Syrians and people living under the terror, and the people in San Bernardino and Paris and elsewhere who are grieving the loss of their loved ones.” No one mentions any more that the number of Syrians killed by the Assad regime is dozens of times greater than those murdered by ISIS.
With ISIS topping the Western agenda and at the heart of this week’s debate between Republican presidential candidates, Obama – who continues to oppose sending ground forces to Syria – has little choice but to rely on an alliance with Russia. It’s another position that quickly eroded: Only three months ago, the administration condemned Russia’s deployment to Syria and for long weeks resisted military coordination, yet now it’s intensifying cooperation.
This works for the Russians in other places as well. In Moscow, Kerry said he had a “good discussion” with Putin on Ukraine, and that if the Minsk cease-fire agreement is fully implemented, “U.S. and EU sanctions can be rolled back.” No wonder that in his annual press conference on Thursday, Putin felt confident enough to admit for the first time that Russian forces are operating in Ukraine, to compliment Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, and say that Russia’s plans in Syria “generally overlap” with those of the United States.