Kerry’s spokeswoman clarified his remarks, stating that U.S. policy was unchanged and Assad had no role in the country’s future, while several countries that back the opposition vowed they would never negotiate with the Syrian president.
Jen Psaki said that while the United States accepted the need for representatives of Assad’s government to participate in any negotiations, “it would not be and would never be – and it wasn’t what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply – that that would be Assad himself.”
“We continue to believe … that there’s no future for Assad in Syria,” Psaki told reporters.
But in Damascus, Kerry’s statement was touted in the media as a policy reversal and Assad said he was waiting to see whether the remarks would be followed by action.
“We are still listening to the comments and we have to wait for the actions and then we’ll decide,” the Syrian leader told Iranian television.
Assad has long accused Washington of “supporting terrorism” because of its backing for the Syrian opposition, and repeated Monday that any shift in policy required an end to that.
“We have no choice but to defend our country,” he added. “Any international changes that come about within that framework are something positive, if they are honest and have an effect on the ground.”
Kerry said in an interview broadcast Sunday that Washington could negotiate with Assad.
“Well, we have to negotiate in the end,” the U.S. envoy said, when asked by CBS television if he would negotiate with Assad.
Kerry stressed any talks would be in the context of the 2012 Geneva communiqué, which calls for a transitional governing body with full executive powers but makes no mention of Assad’s future.
Damascus insists Assad’s departure is not up for discussion, but the opposition and its backers say he can have no role in Syria’s future after a bloody 4-year-old civil war.
“What is there to be negotiated with Assad?” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state-run Anatolia news agency. “You are going to have what negotiations with a regime that has killed over 200,000 people and has used chemical weapons?”France said the goal remained a negotiated political settlement and unity government in Syria that excludes Assad.
“Any other solution which would keep Mr. Assad in the saddle would be an absolutely scandalous, gigantic gift to [ISIS],” French Foreign Minister Fabius said.
Fabius said Kerry had assured him Washington had not altered its stand and he made clear Paris believed Assad should not stay in power.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said a lasting solution to the conflict could be achieved only through “a Syrian-led political process leading to a transition.”
That meant also talking to representatives of the Assad regime, she told a news conference in Brussels. “I guess Secretary Kerry’s position was in this sense … I don’t think he was referring to Assad himself but rather the regime.”
Syrian media described the remarks as evidence of the “failure” of Washington’s policy on the country.
“Facing a fait accompli, the American administration has backed down and recognized the need to reposition its policy on the Syria crisis,” wrote pro-regime Al-Watan.
“This is a new recognition of President Assad’s legitimacy, his key role and his popularity, and the resulting necessity of negotiating with him,” it said.
Kerry’s comments also drew consternation from the Syrian opposition.
Samir Nashar, a member of the National Coalition, said the remarks had “blurred the American position.”
“America used to say that Assad had to step down … But now, Kerry has adopted this ambiguity that keeps Assad afloat in any political solution,” he told AFP.
Nashar said the remarks “are an intentional test to see the reactions of Syrians and of countries that support the Syrian revolution.”
But on the ground, activists said Kerry’s remarks were unsurprising. “From the beginning, the Americans abandoned the revolution, and they prove it more each day,” said Abu Adel, an activist in the rebel-held Jobar area outside Damascus. “We cannot accept Assad staying on after the deaths of tens of thousands of martyrs.”