John Kerry just made a key admission about the US' policy in Syria

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John Kerry: 'United States Stands Ready to Work with Russia'

Secretary of State John Kerry signaled a seemingly significant shift for the US' policy in Syria on Tuesday, after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

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"The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change," Kerry said in reference to the US' preferred outcome to the Syrian civil war, according to The Associated Press.

The statement appears to conflict with years of US policy.

US officials, including president Barack Obama, have insisted since August 18, 2011, that embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from power.

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John Kerry just made a key admission about the US' policy in Syria
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, centre, and UN special envoy for Libya Martin Kobler shake hands after their press conference, following an international conference on Libya at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. Foreign ministers were poised to endorse a U.N.-brokered national unity plan for Libya at a Rome conference aimed at prodding the North Africa country's bickering factions to fulfill their commitment to sign the agreement and abide by its terms. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps off a plane upon arrival at Ciampino Airport near Rome Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. Kerry is in Rome for a high-level gathering on the crisis in Libya. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, walks with White House senior advisor Brian Deese, left, and US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, centre, to attend a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius during the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris, on Thursday Dec. 10, 2015. (Mandel Ngan Pool via AP)
U.S Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his speech during a news conference at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Wednesday, Dec. 9 2015. Kerry is announcing that the United States will double its commitment to helping vulnerable nations adapt to climate change impacts such as increased extreme weather events. (Mandel Ngan, Pool via AP)
Secretary of State John Kerry and his daughter Alexandra Kerry, left, attend the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors reception in the East Room of the White House, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in Washington. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors Honorees are singer-songwriter Carole King, filmmaker George Lucas, actress and singer Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa, and actress Cicely Tyson. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, left, welcomes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. Kerry will hold bilateral meetings to discuss the migration and refugee crisis. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands during a joint press conference at the Kremlin on December 15, 2015 in Moscow. / AFP / POOL / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 15, 2015. / AFP / POOL / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 15: US Secretary of State John Kerry attends a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not seen) in Moscow on December 15, 2015. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ROME, Dec. 13, 2015-- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and the UN Secretary-General for Libya Martin Kobler after the International Conference on Libya in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 13, 2015. Representatives of the international community at a Rome conference on Libya endorsed on Sunday a UN-backed deal aimed at bringing Libyan rival factions to a unity government. (Xinhua/Jin Yu via Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - 2015/12/09: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers press remarks at the Caring for Climate Business Forum during the COP21 the World Climate Change Conference in Paris. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a UN Foundation breakfast meeting on oceans at a hotel in Paris on December 8, 2015 on the sidelines of the COP21 climate change conference. / AFP / POOL / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry boards a plane to return to Washington, at the International Airport in Athens, on December 4, 2015. / AFP / POOL / JONATHAN ERNST (Photo credit should read JONATHAN ERNST/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gives a statement at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. Kerry said the U.S. supports Colombia's peace talks with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
ROME, ITALY - DECEMBER 14: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) hold a meeting at Villa Taverna on December 14, 2014 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by U.S. Embassy in Rome/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech in Lima on December 11, 2014, during the UN 20th session of the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change and the 10th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol being held from December 1st to 12th in Lima. AFP PHOTO/CRIS BOURONCLE (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech in Lima on December 11, 2014, during the UN 20th session of the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change and the 10th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol being held from December 1st to 12th in Lima. AFP PHOTO/CRIS BOURONCLE (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov (L) before a working lunch at the State Department in Washington, DC, December 10, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 9, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at the Royal Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with attendees before a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, poses with his Arab counterparts for a group photo after a meeting with them in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry's visit, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was aimed at pinning down Middle Eastern allies on what support they are willing to give to U.S. plans to beat back the Islamic State group, which has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, listens to Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal answer a question after a meeting with Gulf states and other Middle East countries in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry's visit, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was aimed at pinning down Middle Eastern allies on what support they are willing to give to U.S. plans to beat back the Islamic State group, which has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement after a meeting with Gulf states and other Middle East countries in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry's visit, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was aimed at pinning down Middle Eastern allies on what support they are willing to give to U.S. plans to beat back the Islamic State group, which has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement after a meeting with Gulf states and other Middle East countries in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry's visit, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was aimed at pinning down Middle Eastern allies on what support they are willing to give to U.S. plans to beat back the Islamic State group, which has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, waits for a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, attends a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
Oman Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, right, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits for the start of a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new U.S. plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaik Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, left, meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the Royal Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards his plane in Amman, Jordan, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center left, is greeted by officials with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, center right, upon his arrival at the Royal Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement before meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the Royal Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the Royal Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014. Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia, on Thursday to try to persuade officials from across the Mideast and Turkey to put aside longstanding rivalries to more vigorously pursue the Islamic State — and, in doing so, ward off a threat that has put the entire region at risk. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, walks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, walks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks out over Baghdad, Iraq, from a helicopter on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Baghdad Airport in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Kerry landed in the Iraqi capital just two days after newly sworn Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seated his top government ministers, a crucial step toward restoring stability in a nation where security has spiraled out of control since the beginning of the year. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)
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But the US has also hoped that Assad could be "eased out" as part of a Russian-brokered political transition since mid-2012. And the US has done little to actually affect regime change: A US-led train-and-equip program aimed at assisting anti-regime forces was scaled back amid criticism before it was ended in October.

It might seem incoherent for US officials to advocate Assad's removal without assisting in or even endorsing regime change. After all, the Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970 and the current Syrian state — with its security and intelligence apparatus largely under the control of family loyalists and members of the country's Alawite religious minority — is essentially a creation of the Assads.

Bashar al-Assad is a crucial and perhaps irreplaceable legitimizing figure for the often-fractious alliance of interests that has held the regime together through four-plus years of civil war.

Separating Assad from the question of regime survival risks misunderstanding the various sides' view of what they're fighting for in Syria. The nationalist or relatively secular opposition has long held the view that the regime and the Assads are inseparable from one another. The influential Syrian National Council's stated purpose, for instance, is to "dissolve the ruling Baath Party, and exclude President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime figures from a role in the transition."

The regime and its supporters also seem to agree that defending Assad is synonymous with preserving the regime. A serious peace push in early 2014 floundered on the question of Assad's survival, with the sides apparently disagreeing on Kerry's insistence that the negotiations "cannot be about one man's — or one family's — insistence on clinging to power."

Kerry's comments Tuesday were less internally inconsistent than they might seem, however.

The US believes that a negotiated solution to the conflict is preferable to drawn-out warfare, even if the combatants themselves don't appear to believe it. And the Assad regime is unlikely to enter into negotiations, the purpose of which would be to manage the regime's demise.

The conflict has also reached a potential inflection point at which it could make pragmatic sense to assuage Assad's suspicions over the US's intentions. As Aron Lund explained in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Western patience with the Syrian civil war and the country's armed opposition is wearing thin.

According to Lund's analysis, this month's opposition conference in Riyadh — which convened more than 100 representatives from a diverse range of Syrian dissident — represented a crucial and perhaps final attempt at creating a united front that's capable of carrying on a credible negotiation with the regime.

In light of the administration's investment in a negotiated outcome to the Syrian civil war, Kerry might be understandably nervous about giving Assad a pretext for skipping out on negotiations. As Lund noted, "The United States ... is imploring the opposition to come up with "creative language" on the issue of whether Bashar al-Assad should stay or go, seeing a measure of intentional ambiguity as the only realistic way to move forward."

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Among new efforts at uniting the opposition, the Russian-led escalation in Syria, the continued influx of Syrian refugees into western Europe, and the increased Iranian losses in the country, the conflict has reached a particularly sensitive moment. Kerry likely doesn't want to push any of the major combatants away from the negotiating table, regardless of the rhetorical acrobatics the latest peace effort might require.

Even if Kerry's statement is consistent with US policy, it's far from obvious that this policy will actually prove effective.

There have been numerous peace pushes in Syria dating back to former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan's March 2012 proposal. All of them assumed that the Syrian regime would endure in some form or another, despite the Assad regime's abuses. None of these peace efforts prevented the conflict from turning into a cascade of worst-case scenarios.

Past peace efforts have assumed that leaving the regime intact is one of the keys to ending the civil war in Syria. US officials are now saying this explicitly, even if it's a premise that events on the ground seem to consistently disprove.

"What we have said is that we don't believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria, but we didn't — we focused today not on our differences about what can or can't be done immediately about Assad," Kerry said Tuesday.

"We focused on a process — on the political process — whereby Syrians will be making decisions for the future of Syria. But we do believe that nobody should be forced to choose between a dictator and being plagued by terrorists. Our challenge remains creating the conditions on which an alternative can emerge."

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