The White House said Wednesday that Syria's future cannot include President Bashar Assad, attempting to clarify the U.S. position a day after Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and Russia would convene a conference soon to seek peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the U.S. views Syria's future as being a post-Assad future. But he said it was up to the Syrian opposition to decide which elements of Assad's regime could be included in a transitional government.
Obama has long said Assad must leave office. But Kerry said Tuesday -- after meeting for more than five hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow -- it was up to the Syrian people whether Assad should leave.
Kerry and Lavrov declared that the U.S. and Russia would convene an international conference on Syria in the coming weeks with the goal of corralling Assad's government and opposition representatives into peace talks.
Kerry said the U.S. would make its looming decision on whether to arm some of Syria's diverse rebel factions, in part, on the progress made during the conference.
It was far too early Thursday, however, to say what the prospects of success for the new Russian-U.S. peace initiative were.
The primary Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, based in Turkey, issued a statement Wednesday stressing that any reconciliation dialogue must begin "with the departure of Bashar Assad and his regime."
In a written statement, the Coalition said, however, that it "welcomes all international efforts calling for a political solution to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and their hopes for a democratic state."
It wasn't clear whether the Coalition would even agree to take part in the conference. In spite of strong backing from the U.S. and other Western nations, the coalition has suffered from serious internal divisions and has only limited control of the rebel fighting groups on the ground in Syria.
Reaction from the Assad regime was also cautiously optimistic to the U.S.-Russia deal.
CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus reports that a pro-government newspaper quoted a Syrian official Thursday as saying the regime was "optimistic but we are waiting for more details."
"Sooner or later, all the capitals in the world will agree with the Russian position vis-a-vis what is going on in the country, because in general the Russian effort was founded on international law, the right of the people to determine their destiny without any foreign interference and the right of states to combat terrorism," the Syrian daily Al-Watan quoted the official as saying.
While the official was not named, Syria's state-controlled press serves as a mouthpiece for the Assad regime.
The challenge will be for the U.S. and Russia to get both the Assad regime and the opposition to agree on which, and how many members of the current Syrian leadership circle could feasibly play a role in any new transition government.
It also remained unclear which nations and groups would even be invited to participate in the Russian-U.S. convened summit. Some of the United States' most enthusiastic antagonists have a large stake in the Syrian conflict, including Iran and the Lebanon-based Islamic militant organization it backs, Hezbollah.
A new report from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threat Project has laid out Iran's alleged involvement in the Syrian war.
According to the report, "Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military in order to preserve Bashar al-Assad's hold on power," including sending ground forces to fight alongside Assad's own army. The report accuses Iran of "an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort" to keep Assad in power.
As the Obama administration continues to wrestle with the decision on whether to provide some of Syria's rebels with lethal arms, White House officials said Wednesday thatwould be provided to the opposition, but the money is not linked to any decision on arming the rebels.
The aid announcement was to be made by Kerry on Thursday in Rome, where his diplomacy includes a meeting with Jordan's foreign minister, officials said.
The new funds will help support 1.4 million Syrian refugees, including many in U.S. ally Jordan, and hundreds of thousands of other civilians still trapped by the violence inside Syria's border. Total U.S. humanitarian assistance in the two-year war will climb to $510 million.
The Obama administration has said it is considering providing weapons to vetted units in the armed opposition, among other military options, following last week's revelation of a U.S. intelligence assessment suggested chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.
An increase in the flow of heavy weaponry to the rebels, particularly in the south of Syria, from Arab nations fiercely opposed to the Assad regime, saw the opposition forces make significant gains early this year. Rebel factions were seizing new territory across the nation and, importantly, advancing towards Assad's stronghold of Damascus from the south.
More recently, however, Syrian government forces have reclaimed some key towns and forced the rebels to retreat, including from a crucial hub in the southern province of Deraa, near the border with Jordan.
Rebels have vowed to regain control of the town, which was essentially the gateway for much of the weaponry and fighters coming into Syria to support the opposition, but during the last week, the tide seems to have turned against the anti-Assad forces.