This raises the specter that, rather than forging a new direction on Syria policy, the Obama administration is poised to repeat mistakes of the past.
The first of these has been to vest unrealistic hopes in the Russians. If the past two years should have taught anything, it is that the Kremlin is unlikely to help the United States orchestrate Assad’s exit.
This is not because of Russian arms sales or naval facilities in Syria, nor for any lack of U.S. engagement with Moscow. Rather, the Kremlin believes it has a broader interest in thwarting another U.S.-engineered regime change — seeing such interventions, stretching from Serbia to Libya, as a threat to international stability and as a precedent that could someday be used against itself.
More important, the Russians have less confidence than Washington does in their influence over Damascus. Even if Moscow were to pressure Assad, it is far from clear that would prompt him to consider leaving when countless other diplomatic and military setbacks haven’t, including the loss of Assad’s Turkish allies and the northern third of his country to rebels.
This points to a second, deeper problem with Kerry’s formulation. The United States has long staked its strategy on the hope that persuading Assad and the worst of his cronies to go would pave the way for a negotiated settlement between a unified Syrian opposition and remnants of the regime — avoiding an Iraq-like state collapse. But this notion of a “peaceful political transition” is increasingly questionable.
Rather than regime change without state collapse, the inverse is unfolding in Syria: the emergence of a failed state in which a contracted, consolidated Assad regime fights on — more sectarian, repressive and tightly aligned with Iran and Hezbollah.
Such a regime is less likely to be willing or able to negotiate its own end — regardless of whether Assad is its leader — and more likely to keep fighting, even if this means abandoning Damascus and establishing an Alawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast, protected by chemical weapons and militias sponsored by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, al-Qaeda-linked extremists continue to gain influence by providing the help the West won’t — likewise dimming the chances of a negotiated peace.
Washington can, of course, keep hoping that Russia will flip, Assad will go and a deal will follow that saves the Syrian state — but we cannot count on it. Just as Assad and the Iranians have their Plan B, so must we.