The United States will have to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remove him from power and bring the Syrian civil war to a close, Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview that aired Sunday.
Kerry said the U.S. is working hard to ratchet up pressure on the Syrian regime to bring Assad to the table to negotiate a political transition and stem what Kerry called “one of the worst tragedies any of us have seen on the face of the planet.”
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“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said in an interview with CBS News. “And what we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that and it may require that there be increase pressure on him.”
Kerry’s comments come as the Syrian conflict is entering its fifth year and reaffirm the Obama administration’s belief that diplomatic efforts are the best way to remove Assad from power.
The U.S. has previously tried to bring Assad and Syrian opposition forces to the table to negotiate and political transition, but those efforts never got very far.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reaffirmed the same view in a press briefing Thursday.
“As we have long said, Assad must go and be replaced through a negotiated political transition that is representative of the Syrian people,” she said.
Her deputy, Marie Harf, released a statement Sunday after Kerry’s comments attracted significant attention, noting that U.S. policy “has not changed” and that administration officials have repeatedly said that a political solution is the only way to “bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
But she also cleaned up Kerry’s remarks, pointing out that Assad would never be directly involved in negotiations.
“By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process. It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate – and the secretary was not saying that today,” Harf said.
Kerry responded that “we have to negotiate in the end” when asked whether he would be willing “to negotiate with [Assad].”
Kerry said in the CBS interview that the U.S. would negotiate with Assad, “if he’s ready to have a serious negotiation about the implementation of Geneva I,” referring to initial international efforts in 2012 to negotiate a political transition.
The conflict in Syria has been a massive source of instability in the Middle East, leading to the rise of extremist militant groups in the country and straining neighboring countries’ resources struggling to deal with the influx of refugees.
The rise of ISIS brought a renewed focus on the Syrian conflict and pushed the United States to lead an international coalition that began bombing the militant group in Iraq and soon after in Syria last year.
But the U.S. has resolved to keep its warring coalition out of the business of attacking the Assad regime, striking only ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria.
The U.S. has trained some moderate rebel factions in Syria and is looking to arm some of those groups, but only so that they can combat ISIS – not the Syrian regime.
The regime has been accused of war crimes and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.