WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Monday defended its policy on Syria and disputed media reports that Secretary of State John Kerry had told a group of U.S. lawmakers the current U.S. policy on Syria is not working.
Kerry met with the bipartisan group on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, Germany, during the weekend.
Included in the group were senior Republican lawmakers John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who favor a more muscular U.S. policy to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and Democrats Chris Murphy and Sheldon Whitehouse.
McCain and Graham told reporters that Kerry said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was failing to uphold a promise to give up chemical weapons and peace talks in Geneva to put in place a Syrian transitional government were not succeeding, according to The Daily Beast.
Citing Graham’s account, the report said Kerry acknowledged that the chemical weapons plan is being slow rolled, the Russians continue to supply arms and that the U.S. strategy is going to have to change.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who was present during the meeting with the senators in Munich, said on Monday that Kerry did not say U.S. policy on Syria was failing.
“At no point did he, during the meeting, did Secretary Kerry raise lethal assistance for the opposition,” Psaki told her daily briefing. “At no point did he state what, I think, was quoted, that the process has failed.”
She added: “The secretary said during the meeting, as he said publicly - as we all have said publicly - that of course we need to keep considering what more we can do, what more we can do to put pressure on, what more we can do on the humanitarian front.”
Psaki said the administration had acknowledged more was needed to ease Syria’s humanitarian crisis.
“No one in the administration thinks we’re doing enough until the humanitarian crisis has been solved, and the civil war has ended,” Psaki said. “As you all know, there are ongoing discussion within the administration about what steps to take, what we need to do,” she added.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the comments from McCain and Graham were “a case of members projecting what they want to hear and not stating the facts of what was discussed.”
Asked whether Obama believed that the current U.S. policy on Syria was the right one, Carney responded: “Absolutely.”
“There is no other path ultimately for Syria that does not include or is not driven by a negotiated political settlement,” Carney added.
Whitehouse and Murphy, the two Democrats at the meeting, said in a joint statement that they were surprised to read the Republicans’ accounts of Kerry’s assessment.
“The characterizations reported on today do not reflect the conversation that we heard,” they said. “Neither of us recall the Secretary saying the policy of the administration in Syria was failing, nor proposing new lethal assistance for Syrian opposition groups.”
An estimated 130,000 people have been killed during Syria’s nearly three-year-old war, with around 250,000 trapped by fighting and in need of humanitarian aid.
U.N.-sponsored peace talks between the government and opposition groups, which have been supported by Washington and Moscow, ended on Friday in Geneva with no progress toward ending the civil war. The two sides are meant to resume the next round on February 10.
Meanwhile, the United States accused Damascus last week of dragging its feet on eliminating its chemical stash and asked Russia to increase pressure on Assad to speed up the operation.
Assad’s agreement to give up the chemical weapons helped avert potential U.S. air strikes, but delays in shipping them out of the country have caused many in the West to suspect Syria is stalling.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the delays were due to a difficult security situation and logistical issues, and Assad was not to blame.
As America’s top diplomat, Kerry has been the most vocal American figure on Syria, working closely with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to bring Syria’s warring sides together for talks, and easing concerns among Gulf allies that the U.S. is doing enough on Syria.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ken Wills