Secretary of State John Kerry formally accepted Russian demands during talks in Moscow this week to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power.
“The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” Kerry said from Moscow, as reported by the Associated Press, before announcing a “major international conference on Syria” to be held later this week in New York.
Kerry reiterated the U.S. position that Assad, accused by the West of massive human rights violations and chemical weapons attacks, won’t be able to steer Syria out of more than four years of conflict.
But after a day of discussions with Assad’s key international backer, Kerry said the focus now is “not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad.” Rather, it is on facilitating a peace process in which “Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria.”
Kerry’s declarations crystallized the evolution in U.S. policy on Assad over the last several months, as the Islamic State group’s growing influence in the Middle East has taken priority.
The Washington Post portrayed the words “Assad must go” as carefully chosen by President Obama after months of deliberation in 2011, because the President was “cautious about the consequences.” The Post even described it as “his only true red line in the Syrian conflict,” after the chemical-weapons red line became a joke. He gave windy speeches about history and destiny, while then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confidently predicted Assad would succumb to demands from his neighbors to step aside.
“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” President Obama declared again in August 2011. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
When President Obama backed down from backing up his “red line” bluster with force, Kerry was dispatched to work out some kind of diplomatic solution to the WMD crisis, which the President thought would involve the Syrian government atoning for the unspeakable sin of chemical-weapons deployment, lest it be excommunicated by the “international community.”
Instead, Russian president Vladimir Putin seized on a few thoughtless words in one of Kerry’s droning speeches, and used them to run Team Obama out of the Middle East.
The Russians are clearly calling the shots in the latest attempt to find a diplomatic solution in Syria, with a great deal to say about which groups will be classified as “terrorists” and denied a seat at the negotiating table.
“No one should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists,” Kerry added.
For bonus humiliation points, Kerry even claimed the Administration does not “seek to isolate Russia as a matter of policy” over Putin’s adventures in Ukraine, even though Obama explicitly declared Russia to be on “the wrong side of history” – the same phrase he uses to describe ISIS – and said he would use economic and diplomatic sanctions to “isolate” Putin.
As Reuters notes, in contrast to President Obama and Kerry’s dithering and equivocation, Russia has “remained consistent in its view that no foreign government could demand Assad’s departure and that Syrians would have to negotiate matters of leadership among themselves.”