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Kerry just said he'd negotiate with Assad: here's what it means

  1. Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News that he would be willing to negotiate directly with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to end Syria's war.
  2. This is not actually a major shift for US policy on Syria, which for years has sought to reach a negotiated political settlement with Assad and the rebels.
  3. However, Kerry's willingness to meet with Assad directly — and to announce that publicly — does speak to the Obama administration's gradual softening of its line on Assad, which is a perhaps inevitable result of its ISIS strategy and its Iran nuclear talks.

What Kerry said about Assad

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

In his interview with CBS, Kerry actually made two statements about US policy toward Assad, and you've got to see them side by side to fully understand his comment.

"We have to negotiate in the end," Kerry said.

But he then went on: "And what we're pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that. We've made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure."

If you just look at the first statement, it could seem like an American change in strategy, or even a capitulation to Assad. However, taken with the second part of Kerry's statement — saying the US will pressure Assad to come to the negotiating table, rather than try to bribe him to be there — it starts to look a lot more consistent with past US strategy on Syria.

This is consistent with past US policy on Syria

President Obama. (Alex Wong/Getty)

The Obama administration has long said it wants to reach a negotiated political settlement with Assad; it pushed hard for rounds of negotiations at Geneva that all ultimately collapsed. The administration has also said one way it will pursue that settlement is by upping the pressure on Assad's government to try to force him to negotiate.

In the past that pressure has included, for example, arming Syrian rebels, although the administration has been more likely to threaten this than to actually do it. But the administration has consistently said the goal was not to topple Assad outright — wouldn't that just create a chaotic power vacuum, they worried? — but rather to pressure him to negotiate. A stated goal has often been for Assad to leave power himself but for his government to remain in power; essentially, early retirement.

Americans, in my experience, are generally not aware this is Obama's policy on Syria, though both the administration and Obama himself have stated it openly and, at least for the last couple of years, consistently. This is perhaps partly because Obama called for Assad to step down very early in the conflict's 2011 beginning — a position that at first sounded like regime change but that sounded mostly rhetorical to me, and has quickly softened to asking Assad to hand off to a successor — and perhaps partly because the US has not exactly trumpeted this policy to the heavens. No one feels good about saying we need to compromise with a murderous dictator.

But is there a shift here, if only a subtle one?

Obama Kerry Power UN

President Obama with Secretary of State Kerry and Ambassador Power at the UN. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit to Foreign Policy magazine's Middle East editor David Kenner, who pointed out repeatedly on Twitter that while this statement does not reflect a substantial change in US policy on Syria, it does reflect what he termed a change in emphasis.

While US strategy has always been to both pressure Assad and seek negotiations with him, Kenner pointed out that the emphasis has increasingly focused more on seeking negotiations and less on pressuring. Kerry, by saying he would meet with Assad, and by saying so in public comments, gave further credence to this shifting emphasis.

In other words, what we are seeing with Kerry's comments is more of what has been a long-term trend: the US is not changing its Syria strategy, but it is putting more emphasis on the goal of negotiating with Assad, and less emphasis on the goal of ousting or pressuring him. If you're wondering, then yes, that is good news for Assad.

This was probably inevitable

ISIS

An ISIS militant waves the group's flag in an unknown location. (ISIS video posted to YouTube)

Neither Syria nor Bashar al-Assad exists in a vacuum. The major events in the Middle East of the last couple of years have all pushed US policy in the direction of negotiating with — or even working with — Assad.

The first reason for this is ISIS. Both the US and Assad are fighting ISIS. The US clearly cares more about fighting ISIS than it does about pressuring Assad. And the US knows it can't beat ISIS without someone willing to fight them on the ground in Syria. The only plausible ally for that, in the US's view, is the Assad regime. Therefore, it has been easily foreseeable that Obama's ISIS strategy would lead him to take a softer line against Assad — and perhaps one day even partner with him.

To be clear, this was not inevitable three or four years ago when the conflict began, or perhaps even more recently than that. But the Obama administration's refusal to take a harder line on Assad allowed the Syrian leader to engineer the situation in his favor. There is very good reason to believe Assad tacitly allowed ISIS to rise because he knew it would make him the lesser of two evils.

The second reason for this is the Obama administration's ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. While both the US and Iran have repeatedly insisted those negotiations are focused only on the nuclear issue, and will leave out other issues such as ISIS (which Iran is fighting on the ground in Iraq), the negotiators can't blind themselves to the larger picture. Iran's strategic position in the region is ascendent as Tehran plays a major, on-the-ground role in the fighting in both Syria and Iraq. The US's strategy in Syria and Iraq makes it more reliant on Iran. And this makes the US more reliant as well on Assad, who is Iran's ally and proxy.

It is an ugly, unseemly reality that the US would find itself softening its line on a murderous dictator responsible for the deaths of many thousands of his own people. But it is reality nonetheless.