US officials Monday denied there were any plans to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying he would "never" be part of any peace negotiations to end the brutal civil war.
Top US diplomat John Kerry appeared to suggest in a weekend interview that Washington would have to talk with Assad eventually if peace was to be forged, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki moved to clarify that assertion.
"As we have long said, there always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process," said Psaki.
"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."
Kerry's comments had caused consternation abroad, but Psaki said Kerry "was using Assad as a shorthand" to mean the whole Damascus regime.
Kerry had been asked by CBS television if he would negotiate with Assad, and replied: "Well, we have to negotiate in the end," adding that "what we're pushing for is to get him to come" to talks.
The US secretary of state, who met Assad on several occasions during his time as a senator, had stressed however that negotiations would be in the context of a 2012 Geneva communique which has called for a political transition in war-torn Syria.
Psaki added that the US was guided by the wishes of the moderate Syrian opposition in its role as a facilitator of any peace talks and it had made clear it would not negotiate with Assad at the table.
"Obviously, it would need to be representatives of both the opposition and the regime at the table, the discussions between them is the most important component," she said.
But she stressed that there was "no process under way, and there's no process about to start, so it's purely hypothetical at this point."
The war is now in its fifth year and has claimed some 215,000 lives and left millions displaced both inside and outside Syria.