White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested to reporters Wednesday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could maintain a prominent position in the Syrian government if the country's people desire it, although he said such an outcome is unlikely to happen.
Earnest's comments from the White House daily press briefing come one day after Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is "not seeking so-called regime change" in Syria, an apparent reversal from the Obama administration's long-standing position dating back to 2011 that Assad must be removed from power and cannot continue to govern.
In response to a question posed by CBS's Margaret Brennan about the president's view of the current political transition process in Syria, Earnest said the Obama administration continues to assert that "President Assad has lost legitimacy to lead that country" because he has continuously attacked his own people, and "as a practical manner," cannot successfully bring together Syria because of his violent actions.
"This needs to be a process that reflects the desires and ambitions of the Syrian people," Earnest added.
Brennan pushed Earnest on the subject, asking the press secretary, "So Assad could be the prime minister. He could have another role in the government. He just can't be the president?"
Earnest noticeably did not say no, instead saying that decision will be up to the Syrian people.
"It's hard to imagine the Syrian people, most of whom have been violently attacked by Bashar al-Assad, are going to be at all supportive of him having a senior role in their government. But again, the Syrian people will have to decide that. But it would be, I think, an irrational decision…"
Earnest also emphasized to Brennan that, even though diplomats from around the world are negotiating a political transition in Syria, this process cannot be conducted "over the heads of the Syrian people," which is why there is an effort to engage the diverse Syrian opposition.
Brennan then referenced Kerry's comments from Tuesday about not seeking regime change in Syria and asked, "Can't you explicitly say this isn't about Assad has to go anymore? It's about, you know, what role he plays in the future."
The White House spokesman said in response that it is difficult to envision a Syrian voter wanting Assad to stay in office and that this diplomatic process will be lengthy, but Earnest did not affirm that the embattled Syrian president had to necessarily leave a position of power.
Since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, which was triggered by Assad's violent repression against domestic protestors, President Obama has consistently said Syria's leader has no place in his country's future, especially after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in 2013.
The United States began to soften its position in October, however, as Russia was increasing the scale of its military intervention in Syria to ensure that Assad, Moscow's ally, stays in power. Rather than demanding that Assad must leave as soon as possible, the administration began saying he could stay in office in the short-term as a diplomatic outcome was being negotiated.
The administration's stance that emerged this week on Syria is aligned with Russia's long-standing belief that the Syrian people must decide their country's future without outside impositions from foreign powers.
The United Nations Security Council will be meeting in New York on Friday to discuss the Syrian political transition, among other issues, and Kerry will be pushing to accelerate the diplomatic process.