RUSSIAN PLANES are still bombing Western-backed forces in Syria every day and targeting hospitals, bakeries and humanitarian corridors. Moscow is still insisting that blood-drenched dictator Bashar al-Assad remain in power indefinitely while trying to exclude opposition groups from proposed peace negotiations by claiming they are terrorists.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted Tuesday after meeting with Vladimir Putin that the Russian ruler and the Obama administration see Syria “in fundamentally the same way.” Unfortunately, that increasingly appears to be the case — and not because Mr. Putin has altered his position.
For four years, President Obama demanded the departure of Mr. Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people with chemical weapons, “barrel bombs,” torture and other hideous acts. Yet in its zeal to come to terms with Mr. Putin, the Obama administration has been slowly retreating from that position. On Tuesday in Moscow, Mr. Kerry took another big step backward: “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” he said. He added that a demand by a broad opposition front that Mr. Assad step down immediately was a “non-starting position” — because the United States already agreed that Mr. Assad could stay at least for the first few months of a “transition process.”
Mr. Kerry’s rhetorical capitulation was coupled with the observation that the administration doesn’t “believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria.” But he now agrees with Mr. Putin that the country’s future leadership must be left to Syrians to work out. That’s a likely recipe for an impasse — especially as Mr. Assad is still saying he won’t even negotiate with any opponents who are armed or backed by foreign governments. At the same time, the administration’s forswearing of “regime change” sends a message to Mr. Putin and his Iranian allies: The power structure in Damascus that has granted Russia a naval base and served as a conduit for Iranian weapons to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon can remain.
Mr. Kerry says he is trying to forge a political process that will lead to a cease-fire and eventually a political deal. The next step will be a meeting Friday in New York in which governments in the International Syria Support Group are to discuss which opposition forces will be included and which banished as terrorists. If a cease-fire could be reached — including an end to Russian and Syrian government bombing — that would be a valuable achievement, even if the political talks go nowhere. The result could be coexistence of government- and rebel-controlled zones in Syria, and a concentration of local and international firepower against the part of the country controlled by the Islamic State.
For now, however, even that looks like a long shot. Not only does the Assad regime have a record of blatantly disregarding U.N.-sponsored cease-fires, but also Russia manifestly does not see Syria as the West does, as its vicious and apparently deliberate strikes on civilian targets far from Islamic State territory show. Mr. Kerry said that he had raised those attacks with Mr. Putin, who graciously “took that under advisement.” If and when the Russian bombings cease, there will be more reason to share in Mr. Kerry’s sunny view that Russian and American views on Syria are converging.
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