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In trusting Russia, Kerry gives ground to Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry began his attempt to revive the United States’ Syria policy several months ago by emphasizing the need to “change the calculation on the ground for President Assad.”

The Syrian ruler clearly had no intention of stepping down and saw no need to negotiate a political transition. So, Kerry said, the United States and its allies would take steps to bolster the opposition so as to alter the regime’s calculus.

Yet now Kerry seems to have reversed his strategy. Rather than taking steps to turn the tide against Assad and then inviting a dying regime to negotiate, he is rushing to convene a peace conference early next month in cooperation with Russia before applying any serious pressure.

Instead of delivering arms to the opposition, Kerry on Tuesday suggested that “additional support” for the opposition would come only if “President Assad decides to miscalculate again” by refusing to attend the proposed conference.

This switch back to the multilateral diplomacy that has repeatedly failed in Syria is happening at a time when Assad not only is not feeling more danger, but has been making battlefield advances with the help of fresh fighters from Lebanon. If the regime’s calculations have changed, most likely they have swung toward greater confidence. Not a shred of public evidence suggests that Assad is willing to negotiate his own departure.

So why is the Obama administration laying “enormous plans,” as Kerry put it, for the peace conference? It appears as if the administration again is hoping that the Russian government of Vladimir Putin will deliver Assad. The administration made that same bet last year, only to be stiffed by Putin. Yet Kerry seems to have become a believer. The Russian foreign minister, he said, had told him that he already had the names of Assad’s negotiators.

It’s certainly possible that a Syrian government delegation will show up in Geneva. But that won’t indicate a change in Assad’s calculations – only, most likely, another maneuver to buy time and forestall greater Western support for the rebels.

As for Putin, there’s no sign that he has altered his principal objective in Syria, which is to prevent a regime change promoted by the West. Russia continues to deliver arms to Assad, possibly including a sophisticated missile system that would complicate any air attacks by the United States or Israel.

Kerry is right that the ideal endgame for Syria is a negotiated settlement. But the administration’s rush to enlist Russia and the Assad regime in talks before acting to change the balance of forces on the ground means this initiative, like those before it, is more likely to provide excuses for U.S. passivity than an end to Syria’s carnage.

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