By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States insisted on Monday it would never negotiate directly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, edging away from comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry, and it cast doubt on any immediate prospects for third-party talks to resolve Syria’s civil war.
Kerry’s apparent suggestion in a CBS television interview on Sunday that there could be a place for Assad in efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict drew swift criticism from European and Arab allies.
Seeking to calm the diplomatic storm, State Department and White House officials sought to clarify Kerry’s remarks and show that Washington’s position on Assad had not softened.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while the United States accepted the need for representatives of Assad’s government to participate in any negotiations, “it would not be and would never be - and it wasn't what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply - that that would be Assad himself.”
“We continue to believe ... that there's no future for Assad in Syria,” Psaki told reporters.
Washington has made clear that its top priority in Syria is the fight against Islamic State militants, who have seized large swathes of the country as well as parts of Iraq. Syria's civil war is now into its fifth year, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions of Syrians displaced, and Assad is showing no signs of abandoning power.
"We have to negotiate in the end," Kerry told CBS when asked whether the United States would be willing to negotiate with Assad. “We've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process," he added, referring to a 2012 conference that called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict.
Kerry also 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.
Psaki said the United States is having “many discussions” with the Russians – who are close allies of Assad – in addition to European and Gulf partners.
When asked whether any new diplomatic efforts were under way through third parties such as the United Nations, she said: “There's no process underway. There's no process that's about to start.”
She said the United States was open to hearing more about a Russian proposal to convene new Syria talks, but added that she could not predict "an outcome that will move the ball forward.”
The United States led efforts to convene U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva last year between the Western-backed Syrian opposition and a government delegation. The talks collapsed after two rounds. Russia convened some opposition and government figures in January but they yielded little progress and were boycotted by the main opposition coalition.
Russia on Monday invited the U.N. envoy for Syria to a second round of meetings scheduled for the beginning of April, Interfax reported.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Leslie Adler)