The U.S. and Russian governments have expressed support for an agreement signed last year in Geneva calling for a transition negotiated between the Syrian government and the opposition. Under the deal, each side would have veto power over those chosen to attend.
The Obama administration and its allies, along with the opposition, have interpreted this to mean a guaranteed veto over the participation of Assad and his strongest backers. The Russian government has previously said that would be an unacceptable precondition for the talks.
In announcing the new partnership on Tuesday, however, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats left Assad’s fate vague. The agreement suggested that Russian support for Assad has softened since the emergence of new evidence that his government has probably used chemical weapons on a small scale in the war.
“We are not interested in the fate of certain persons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a midnight news conference with visiting Secretary of State John F. Kerry. “We are interested in the fate of Syria itself.”
The diplomatic overture here came as President Obama invoked a “moral obligation” for the United States to act in Syria as his administration considers new ways to assist rebel forces seeking Assad’s overthrow.
Obama has supported the rebels and hundreds of thousands of refugees with humanitarian assistance. But he is weighing whether to escalate the U.S. involvement by sending lethal aid, a step that could be avoided if the new U.S.-Russia diplomatic initiative shows progress.
Obama’s considerations gained urgency late last month when the administration acknowledged that there is evidence that chemical weapons are likely to have been used in Syria’s conflict. He has called the use of such weapons a “red line” that would change his approach to the conflict, although in ways he has yet to specify.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday with visiting South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama called for patience, saying he must confirm that Assad used chemical weapons before making any policy decisions based on a “perceived” violation of his red line.
“I don’t make decisions based on ‘perceived,’ ” Obama said, using language from a reporter’s question. “And I can’t organize international coalitions around ‘perceived.’ We’ve tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn’t work out well.”
At the time Obama first called for Assad to step down in August 2011, 2,000 people had died in Syria’s civil war. Today that number exceeds 70,000, and Obama addressed the impatience with his policy at a time when he is seeking to end U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts after more than a decade of war.