The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
That quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, came to mind when I read about the U.S.-Russian pledge to convene an international conference within weeks that will aim to end the civil war in Syria. The pledge came after Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart in Moscow, but Kerry gave no hint of how he planned to overcome Russia's unwillingness to pressure Syrian president Bashar al Assad, and the Syrian opposition's unwillingness to talk with representatives of the regime that has killed almost 80,000 people.
Indeed, the administration has been urging Moscow to use its influence to ease Assad out for the past year with nothing to show for it. Russia has made clear, repeatedly, that it will not do so.
In fact, it is hard to imagine how this conference will ever take place. Russia's position doesn't appear to have changed. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's statement that "We are not interested in the fate of certain persons," which some interpreted as indicating that Moscow is distancing itself from Assad, is merely a repetition of things he has said before. It probably means that, should Assad's inner circle choose to oust Assad, the Russians wouldn't oppose this, but they no doubt realize this is highly unlikely.
A far better indication of what Kerry can expect from Moscow is the fact the Russian President Vladimir Putin kept the secretary waiting for three hours while he held a cabinet meeting. No doubt Putin believes he is in the driver's seat when it comes to the Syrian issue. President Obama has made clear that he is looking for an excuse, any excuse, not to act on the regime's apparent use of chemical weapons – which violates a red line that Obama previously said would be a "game changer."
Knowing Obama wants a lifeline, Putin has tossed him one – on Russia's terms – meaning that there can be no pre-condition requiring Assad to step down before talks begin. Given the fact that the U.S. support for the Syrian opposition has been so limited – and includes no weaponry – Washington has no leverage to make the opposition swallow that bitter pill.