Serious -- seemingly serious, at least -- moves are underway by the big players in Syria's nearly five-year-old war. Kerry was in Moscow last night meeting with Lavrov and Putin. The discussion, as reported by the "newspaper of record" (in separate stories by Andrew Kramer and Ben Hubbard), centered on what opposition groups will be allowed to attend peace talks in New York at the end of this week.
Last week the Saudis convened their own conference of the opposition in Riyadh. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra weren't invited, but neither were the Syrian Kurds, the only truly consistent anti-jihadi secular fighting force. Things basically fell apart when Ahrar al-Sham dropped out. The main non-ISIS anti-Assad fighting force is the "Army of Conquest," made up predominantly of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham units. Without the principal components of the Army of Conquest participating in the talks, it is hard to imagine a substantive peace deal emerging from the ongoing Geneva process. The Saudi conference did not help matters by reiterating the "Assad Must Go" mantra as a precondition for negotiations, which Kerry was careful to disavow in Moscow.
Something is definitely shifting. Obama appeared at the Pentagon on Monday and called out the Turks, Saudis and other members of the GCC. If the waves of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa didn't cause a change in course, Paris and San Bernardino certainly have. The French neoliberal center dodged a bullet with Le Pen's underwhelming performance in the second round of regional elections. But Trump is surging.
A once somnambulant but now stirring electorate, combined with Russian gains on the ground in Syria, have highlighted the massive failure of the West's anti-ISIS military campaign. The original promise made last year was that Mosul would be liberated by the end of 2015. When that was met with howls of derision, the time table was sped up to the spring. Now it is apparent that not even the December date will be met.
And what has to be troubling for the United States is that its New Cold War, based as it is on the February 2014 coup in Kiev, is beginning to lose its luster in the capitals of Europe. Italy delayed the renewal of the EU's economic sanctions against Russia.
The goal has always been regime change in Syria. The stakes increased when Obama pushed through the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. In order to gain the support of his allies among the sheikhs, Obama had to recommit to taking out Assad; that is being pursued by the old routine of employing jihadist proxies. Now that the jihadist proxy war is creating destabilizing blow back in the West, Obama is hoping that once again a deal can be hatched with Russia.
It is too late probably to prevent Syria from going the way of Libya. But maybe Europe and most of Iraq can be salvaged.