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State Department Spokesman Struggles to Answer Questions on Future of Assad

• December 18, 2015 10:47 am

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State Department spokesman John Kirby struggled Thursday to articulate the Obama administration's stance on the future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad when a reporter pushed him to explain whether Assad will remain in power as part of a political transition in Syria meant to end the country's civil war.

Matthew Lee, a reporter for the Associated Press, told Kirby that Secretary of State John Kerry's Syria strategy to "change the calculation for Assad on the battlefield" has failed since the Syrian leader is still in power. He then asked if the United States has signed on to a Russian plan for Syria that says nothing about Assad's role in the government going forward.

Kirby took exception to Lee's question, assuring him that "our view about Assad and his future has not changed. We still believe that he cannot be a part of the future of Syria."

Lee challenged Kirby, and the two had a tense exchange over U.S. policy on Assad.

"At the same time as you say that, though, you talk about how long he stays and in what position he stays, in what capacity he stays … the key word in those phrases is ‘stays,’ not goes. No?" Lee asked.

Kirby had trouble coming up with a response, stammering for a few seconds before saying, "Look, if you come to stay in my house, my expectation is that you're going to go."

"Especially you," Kirby added with a smile, drawing laughs from Lee and other reporters.

The spokesman then said that as part of the political transition in Syria, "there hasn't been decisions made about whether he leaves on day one, week one, month one. The secretary has said that himself. But that [Assad] has to go, that he has to give up power, that he cannot be the leader of Syria going forward, is not in dispute in terms of American policy."

"But I don't see anything in what you're doing, what's going to happen tomorrow or what has happened to this point that says that," Lee said in response.

Kirby explained that the political transition process is lengthy, and it will take time to iron out unanswered questions. He did tell Lee that "there is still disparity within the ISSG [International Syria Support Group] about Assad and his future," which is why, according to Kirby, the ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria are so important. He added the process is still in the early stages of development.

"No, it's not," Lee interjected. "It's three years old … there has been zero movement on Assad for three years."

"It's not like we're being complacent about it or we're happy about it," Kirby said in response.

Lee's questions come during a week in which the Obama administration has made an apparent shift in its Syria policy regarding Assad's future.

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 after Assad tried to stifle domestic protestors with force, President Obama has consistently said that Assad lost legitimacy to rule and cannot stay in power. On Tuesday, however, Kerry told reporters that "the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change [in Syria], and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the following day that Assad could maintain a powerful position in the Syrian government if the Syrian people desire such an outcome.

The administration's change in policy comes as Russia has increased its military intervention in Syria to keep Assad – an ally of Moscow – in power and ensure he maintains control over strategic parts of the country.

The ISSG, the body charged with leading the diplomatic effort to resolve the Syrian conflict, which consists of 18 countries – including Iran and Russia – as well as the Arab League and European Union, will be meeting Friday at the United Nations in New York to discuss how to accelerate the political transition in Syria.