Syrians walk past a poster of President Bashar al-Assad on a street in Damascus on March 15, 2015. Syria is four years into its unrest, which started with peaceful protests in mid-March 2011 but quickly descended into civil war. (Youssef Badawi/EPA)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s remarks suggesting a willingness to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad to end Syria’s civil war ignited a storm of speculation over whether the United States has softened its opposition to the Syrian president.

In an interview broadcast Sunday, Kerry refrained from making the usual demand for Assad to leave office. The United States has to “negotiate in the end,” he told CBS News, adding that the strategy was to try to pressure the Syrian leader into talks.

“What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds,” Kerry said. “We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure.”

The remarks triggered a flurry of news reports and angry comments on social media.

Critics of Assad expressed dismay, saying the comments are more evidence of the Obama administration softening its stance on the Syrian leader. Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on Twitter described Kerry’s comments as a “slip of the tongue.”

Assad appeared to gloat in a response aired Monday on an Iranian television network. The Syrian leader, who rejects calls that he step down as part of a solution to the civil war, dismissed Kerry’s comments and insisted that any “talk about the future of the Syrian president is for Syrian people alone.”

[Graphic: A bird’s-eye view of war-torn Syria]

The Obama administration has long supported talks to end the war, even as it has demanded Assad’s departure. Last year, it helped broker negotiations between the Assad regime and moderate opposition leaders. But the talks quickly broke down.

Shortly after Kerry’s interview, the State Department issued clarifications. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the U.S. policy has not changed and that Washington would not negotiate directly with Assad.

“By necessity, there has always been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of this process,” she said. “It has never been and would not be Assad who would negotiate — and the secretary was not saying that today.”

To emphasize the point, Harf also wrote on Twitter that the U.S. policy “remains same & is clear: there’s no future for Assad in Syria & we say so all the time.”

Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the commotion over Kerry’s remarks is primarily an issue of unmet expectations over U.S. support for Syria’s armed opposition. The United States is seen as not doing enough to back the moderate rebels, he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, resume nuclear talks Switzerland before a March 31 deadline for a political agreement. (Reuters)

“I don’t think that the U.S. position is, in fact, shifting towards the regime, but there is a credibility issue, because people don’t see that the investments on the ground are commensurate with public statements,” Bonsey said.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst and author of “Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant,” said the uproar is emblematic of deep skepticism of the United States among opponents of the Syrian regime.

He said Assad’s enemies see Washington as more interested in fighting the Islamic State militant group, an Assad foe that is being targeted with airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, he said, the Obama administration is more focused on negotiations over the nuclear program in Iran, Assad’s primary ally.

“U.S. policy towards Syria is hostage to U.S. emphasis on the fight against ISIS and U.S. prioritization of the Iran nuclear talks,” Hokayem said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. He described the Obama administration’s Syria policy as “strategically and morally bankrupt.”

As evidence of the shifting U.S. priorities in Syria, he referred to remarks last week by CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan said the United States does not wish to see the Syrian regime collapse in a way that could be exploited by the Islamic State and other extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

“The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus,” he said at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“None of us — Russia, the United States coalition and regional states — wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus,” Brennan said.

Nonetheless, Brennan continued to emphasize the long-standing policy of backing the moderate Syrian opposition.

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