As the Russians like to remind the world, nowhere in the Geneva Protocol is there a demand that Assad must resign or even promise not to take power again in future. John Kerry appears to agree: In a joint press conference in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the secretary of state offered this stark reappraisal of President Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Assad quit the scene. “[I]t’s impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place,” he said. “But … I’m not going to decide that tonight, and I’m not going to decide that in the end.”

Kerry was forced to hastily repudiate his wishy-washiness in Rome by reminding reporters of the original U.S. stance. But his initial response may convince the Russians that the U.S. position on Assad’s departure is negotiable.

Kerry’s comment about Assad’s future mirrored Obama’s now-notorious “red line” on the use or mobilization of chemical weapons. After the White House admitted that Assad likely used chemical weapons against his own people — a step that Obama once said would be a “grave mistake” — America’s next diplomatic move on Syria was this effort to revive moribund peace talks.