While President Obama has been seeking to reassure Americans this week that the terrorist threat posed by ISIS and other radical jihadist groups can and will be defeated, Secretary of State John Kerry has been working quietly behind the scenes to put the president's strategy into effect. Mr. Kerry has been meeting for weeks with leaders of the 65-nation coalition against ISIS led by the U.S. as well as with representatives of Russia and Iran, the two major backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The goal is to get all the actors in the region to focus on defeating ISIS, but that can't happen until the parties also reach some kind of consensus regarding what future role Mr. Assad will be allowed to play in Syria once ISIS is defeated.
The U.S. believes Mr. Assad and his brutal suppression of political opponents are the main source of instability in Syria and that no progress is possible toward ending the country' five-year civil war as long as he remains in power. But so far Russia's involvement there has worked at cross purposes to the U.S.-led coalition. While Russian President Vladimir Putin insists his country's airstrikes are targeting "terrorist" groups, most of the attacks have struck moderate Syrian opposition fighters and Kurdish militias backed by the U.S. That's left an impression that Russia is far more concerned about propping up the government of its longtime ally Mr. Assad than in defeating ISIS.
Mr. Kerry hopes to unravel this diplomatic and military conundrum by negotiating a broad cease-fire between the U.S.-trained and equipped rebels and Mr. Assad's forces so the focus could instead be turned to eradicating the Islamic State. Stopping Mr. Assad and his supporters from attacking our allies will require complex negotiations to clarify the definition of "terrorists," which so far Mr. Putin has taken to mean any group opposed to Mr. Assad's rule. A formal ceasefire would put the Kurds and moderate opposition groups off limits for Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
The second part of Mr. Kerry's strategy involves an even more complex set of negotiations involving the moderate Syrian opposition, the Assad government, Russia, Iran and the U.S.-led coalition to work out a political settlement satisfactory to all sides — obviously no easy task given that Russia and Iran have a huge stake in maintaining their influence in whatever future Syrian government eventually emerges. Mr. Kerry hopes Mr. Putin, in particular, eventually can be persuaded that Russia's interests in the region can be protected in a post-Assad era and that he will agree to a transition period leading to Mr. Assad's peaceful departure from the scene.
It's evident that Mr. Kerry has a lot of moving parts to keep track of and there's still no assurance that Russia and Iran will agree to a cease-fire — or series of cease-fires — with the moderate opposition. Nor has Mr. Putin yet publicly announced any interest in easing Mr. Assad off the stage, though Mr. Kerry almost surely has been discussing that possibility with his Russian counterpart behind the scenes. In the absence of at least some positive response from the Russian side it's difficult to believe Mr. Kerry would go out on a limb to predict, as he did last week, that a coalition of Americans, Russians and Syrian forces could wipe out the Islamic State "in a matter of literally months."
Mr. Kerry and U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon both have said they hope to clear the way for a cease-fire in Syria within the next few weeks. Given the intractable nature of the conflict in Syria that is a very ambitious goal — some would say impossible — but there clearly is an increased sense of urgency among U.S. officials to show progress in the war against ISIS. There's no underestimating the difficulties Mr. Kerry faces as he tries to put Mr. Obama's strategy for defeating ISIS into practice, but thus far, it appears to be the best shot we've got.