US backing for Syria peace talks hosted by the Russian government in Moscow this week is being seen as further evidence that the Obama administration has quietly dropped its longstanding demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any settlement.
As recently as last October, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said there would never be peace in Syria “while Assad remains the focus of power”. But now Kerry has changed his tune. At a meeting this month with Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy, Kerry omitted any reference to regime change in Damascus, voluntary or involuntary.
Kerry’s emphasis on the terrorist threat is key to understanding the White House shift. Defeating Islamic State fighters who control roughly half of Syria and large swaths of Iraq has become the Obama administration’s top regional priority
ahead of ending the civil war or cutting a nuclear deal with Iran – though the latter aim would be advanced if Washington and Tehran can agree on Syria.
From the Russian perspective, curbing terrorism in Syria and beyond has always been the most important objective, as Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, reiterated in remarks prior to the three-day peace conference, which opens in Moscow on Monday.
Not long ago, a Russian-sponsored conference involving officially tolerated Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian government represented by its UN ambassador, Bashar Jafaari, and a handful of individuals from the main exiled opposition alliance, the National Coalition, would have been dismissed in western capitals as a stunt.
But in what appeared to be an admission that both Washington’s Syria policy and the Geneva peace process launched in 2012 have run out of road, Kerry said he hoped the meeting would be “helpful”.