In a stunning reversal of policy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that Washington will have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Assad for a political transition in Syria and is exploring ways to pressure him into agreeing to talks.
Kerry, who made the comments during an interview with CBS News in Egypt, did not repeat the standard U.S. line that Assad had lost all legitimacy and had to go.
“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said.
“We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference which called for a negotiated transition of power to end the conflict.
Kerry said the United States and other countries, which he did not name, were exploring ways to reignite the diplomatic process to end the conflict in Syria.
“What we’re pushing for is to get him [Assad] to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that,” the secretary of state said.
“We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure,” he added.
Syria’s state news agency reported Kerry’s comments in full. It also said Damascus has called for a political solution before, and accused the U.S. of undermining such efforts, by militarizing the conflict and supporting “terrorists.”
Kerry’s comments, which enraged supporters of the opposition, also came on the fourth anniversary of the uprising as anti-regime demonstrations were held in several foreign capitals over the weekend.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf quickly took to Twitter to spin Kerry’s comments, insisting that Washington’s policy had not changed. “Policy remains same & is clear: there’s no future for Assad in Syria & we say so all the time,” Harf tweeted.
Harf said Kerry was repeating the “long-standing policy” that supported a negotiated process with the regime taking part, as in earlier Geneva rounds.
Kerry “did not say we would negotiate directly with Assad,” she added.
Also, Britain insisted that Assad could not remain in power.
“Assad has no place in Syria’s future,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, in response to the comments by Kerry.
“As the [British] foreign secretary said last week, we will continue applying sanctions pressure to the regime until it reassesses its position, ends the violence and engages in meaningful negotiations with the moderate opposition,” she added, while also relaying the remarks by Harf.
The United States led efforts to convene U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva last year between a government delegation and members of the main opposition-in-exile group, the Syrian National Coalition. The talks collapsed after two rounds and no fresh talks have been scheduled.
The Geneva formula has been interpreted differently by the various sides – Moscow has indicated that it doesn’t believe the 2012 document explicitly calls for Assad’s departure, while backers of the opposition stress the stipulation that a transitional authority with “full executive power” is the objective, meaning no role for Assad.
Russia convened some opposition and government figures in January for talks on the crisis but they yielded little progress and were boycotted by the Coalition.
“To get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating,” Kerry said.
“That’s underway right now. And I am convinced that, with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad,” Kerry added.
The National Coalition reiterated that Assad’s departure was a demand of the uprising against him.
“The overthrow of the head of the regime and its security apparatus is a key demand of the revolution as part of any future political solution and is also a primary goal of any negotiation process,” the Coalition said on Twitter.
Any attempts to make the opposition change its goal of overthrowing the current regime and including it in the dialogue would go against the will of the Syrian people, the group said.