Ahead of Syria Conference, U.S. and Russia Soften Positions on Assad

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Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad
Photo: Pool BENAINOUS/HOUNSFIELD/Pool BENAINOUS/HOUNSFIELD/GAMMA

Days before international talks on a resolution to the Syrian civil war were set to convene in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appeared to accept Russia’s longstanding position that peace talks could not rule out letting dictator Bashar al-Assad stay in power.

Kerry’s revelation that the U.S. and other Western nations were not after “regime change” in Syria earned him fierce criticism in the press. The Washington Post slammed him in an editorial, saying his statement conveyed the message that 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.”

On Thursday, however, diplomats involved in the talks revealed that Russia had “no objection” to Assad ceding power as part of a peace agreement, suggesting that the softening of American and allied stances on the thorny question of Assad’s fate had enabled Moscow to do the same.

As one diplomat told Reuters, “What you’ve got is a move that will end up with Assad going … And the Russians have got to the point privately where they accept that Assad will have gone by the end of this transition, they’re just not prepared to say that publicly.”

Unfortunately, other diplomats say that even if Assad can be forced into retirement, the price of his removal might be letting him slink away to Russia or Iran rather than face justice at the International Criminal Court.

Although such an outcome would severely disappoint millions of Syrians, Politico quotes a former Obama administration official as saying: “It’s hard enough to get rid of him as it is … If he was under indictment there would be even less of a chance.” Arab states have also made their peace with letting Assad escape prosecution if he will agree to leave.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued an 86-page report on the horrors of Assad’s prisons, based in part on 28,000 photos of Syrians who died in state custody, smuggled out by a defector code-named “Caesar,” which “found evidence of widespread torture, starvation, beatings, and disease in Syrian government detention facilities.”

In its statement announcing the release of the report, HRW urged the attendees of the peace conference to “make the fate of the thousands of detained people in Syria a priority.”

U.S., Russia Soften Stances on Syria’s Assad