U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC Tuesday morning that America and Russia had agreed on “some fundamental principles” for solving the ongoing civil war in Syria, while insisting President Bashar al-Assad must “go off into the sunset” to resolve the crisis.
“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” Kerry told the hosts of the program Morning Joe, describing a conversation between President Obama and Russian head of state Vladimir Putin Monday as “genuinely constructive” and “very civil.” He added that he believed it was important for Assad to “make it known to the world that he does not have to be part of the long-term future” and should “go off into the sunset” following the return of peace to Syria.
Kerry’s statements echo those of President Barack Obama to the United Nations Monday, in which he insisted that the “tyrant” Assad must step down from his position as head of state. They contradict, however, a statement Kerry himself made last week that Assad’s “long-term presence” is necessary for peace in Syria and are at odds with the official Russian position that Assad is pivotal to the stability of Syria and defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS).
During his speech to the UN General Assembly on Monday, Putin urged the world to unite behind Assad against the Islamic State, while condemning Western powers for “policies based on self-conceit, and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity,” which he blamed for the political chaos prevalent in the Middle East. “It is now obvious that the power vacuum created in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa led to emergence of anarchy areas,” he added, “Those immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists.”
Russia sees Assad as one of the few leaders preventing such a power vacuum from emboldening the Islamic State. The official position of the United States is that Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in 2012 disqualifies him from being a legitimate head of state.
The Russian government–whose people are among the non-Mideast world’s most likely to abandon their homes to wage jihad with the Islamic State–has recently escalated its military activity in Syria. Putin has sent a number of military experts to work with Assad, as well as supplying weapons and other aid. Russia has increased its diplomatic presence in the fight between ISIS and Assad, fomenting an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria at the exclusion of the United States this weekend. Russia has also taken the lead on scheduling “peace talks” between Syria and the nations with major interests in the peace process, bringing Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the United States to the negotiating table.
Despite Russian actions, a new poll finds that the majority of Russian people disagree with Putin’s involvement in Syria. A Moscow polling firm found that more than two-thirds of the Russian people oppose sending Russian troops to Syria to defend Assad’s regime.