The United States won't insist on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's immediate ouster as it seeks a political settlement of the country's six-year civil war, President Donald Trump's counterterrorism adviser said on July 20.
"I don't think it's important for us to say Assad must go first," Tom Bossert said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "The U.S. would still like to see Assad go at some point. That would be our desired outcome."
The White House's position represents a significant change from Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, who insisted Assad must go as part of any political settlement in Syria.
Other Western powers have also softened their opposition to Assad recently, most notably France under recently elected President Emmanuel Macron, who like the White House says that Assad's stepping down is not a precondition for reaching a peace agreement in Syria.
Bossert said there needs to be a political outcome in Syria, not a military solution, and the Trump administration still believes that Assad staying in control does not offer the best hope for a peaceful Syria.
Whether Assad's leaving "comes first or second or soon thereafter, it would be a nice outcome," he said.
Bossert spoke following news reports that Trump had decided to halt the CIA's covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels battling the Assad government.
Both changes in the U.S. position are sure to please Russia, which has long pushed the United States to stop arming anti-Assad rebels and has insisted that Assad should be able to run for reelection and stay in power if he's elected again during a negotiated political transition in Syria.
The phasing out of the secret weapons program was reported by The Washington Post on July 19. Officials told the newspaper that ending the operation reflects Trump's interest in finding ways to work with Russia.
The program was begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to relinquish power.
Bossert said the Trump policy of working with Russia in Syria, starting off by forging a cease-fire agreement in the southwestern part of the country, is paying off.
"What clearly this president has done has obtained some cease-fire that's durable through some cooperation with the Russians despite all the domestic political brouhaha...I think he has demonstrated a desire at least to have safe havens so that we don't have a refugee and a migration problem that plagues Europe and eventually the United States in a way that we can't maintain security control of," he said.