The American policy shift is being dictated by the urgency of the situation on the ground in Syria and the problems that poses for achieving a negotiated end to the civil war on terms that Obama favors.
U.S. officials maintain that Assad cannot remain in power under any agreement that might emerge from a future peace conference in Geneva, a process that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov endorsed last month.
But with Syrian government forces now winning the war, there is little incentive for Assad to agree to any deal that would require him to give up power. His recent military gains have been propelled by the arrival of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon and a steady supply of Russian weapons.
“Between now and then, there does need to be a change of things on the ground,” said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss internal diplomatic deliberation regarding Syria, referring to future peace talks. “This is an important part of the preparation for Geneva.”
The topic will be taken up by leaders of the Group of Eight, who meet Monday in Northern Ireland. Obama will also see Russian President Vladimir Putin on the summit’s sidelines to discuss Syria, among other issues.
On the eve of the summit Thursday, administration officials announced that they have concluded that Assad has used chemical weapons against opposition forces, crossing a “red line” that Obama had drawn previously. French, British and Israeli officials had come to the same conclusion several months ago.
But Russian officials on Friday called the evidence shared by the U.S. administration and its European allies inconclusive, setting up a difficult meeting between Obama and Putin in the days ahead.
“We still continue to discuss with the Russians whether there’s a way to bring together elements of the regime and the opposition to achieve a political settlement,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Friday. “There are no illusions that that’s going to be easy.”
Western diplomats say Putin is unlikely to soften his support for Assad at the G-8 summit, given Russia’s strategic interest in preserving the Syrian leader in power and in facing down a U.S.-backed policy initiative to oust him.
Alexander Lukashevich, spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing Friday in Moscow that reports about the American decision to send arms to the Syrian opposition “cannot fail to be perceived with serious concerns.”