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On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, Secretary of State John Kerry reminded everyone-in case anyone still harbored doubts-that the Obama administration had no intention of removing Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power. "[W]e have to negotiate in the end" with Assad, Kerry said. His choice of words elicited a harsh denunciation from US allies such as France and Turkey, and from the Saudi-owned press, all of whom reminded the Americans of the need for Assad to go.

The State Department, along with some commentators, rushed to walk back Kerry's statement, dismissing any notion that it represented a shift in US policy. "Our policy has not changed-there is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said afterwards.

But, spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained, the US has always favored a political settlement of the Syria conflict, a policy which necessitated negotiations with the regime. The Secretary of State, therefore, simply spoke in shorthand, referring to the regime as "Assad." His slip of the tongue aside, Kerry was reiterating an unwavering US policy.

But it is false to suggest that the goal posts of the administration's policy haven't moved. The foundations of the current policy were established by the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for the US and Russia to convene representatives of the Syrian opposition with representatives from the regime so that they could negotiate a settlement with each other. Moreover, at the time, the administration patted itself on the back for finding a way to exclude Assad from this process. It explained that the composition of a transitional authority had to be mutually agreed by the regime and the opposition. Assad would play no role, because the opposition would never allow it.

Within a few months of the Geneva Communique, however, administration officials began explaining to reporters that they didn't want to see the opposition win outright. Fearing chaos in Syria, the US was in no hurry to see Assad go. By the end of 2013, senior White House officials were talking, on background, about Assad "staying for the foreseeable future." One senior official, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, voiced "regret about the decision, in August 2011, to call for him to step aside."

After the predictable failure of the Geneva II Conference in January 2014, President Obama began to revive Assad as a negotiating partner. Subtly revising the American interpretation of the 2012 Communique, Obama explained that Assad would not "preside" over "the entire process" of transition to a new regime; a choice of words that left no doubt that Assad would preside over a "transitional" period of unspecified duration.

Therefore, it is accurate to say that Kerry didn't say anything new. But that's only because the policy had long ago abandoned working to push Assad out-assuming President Obama had any serious intention of pursuing that goal to begin with.

In fact, the administration's longstanding emphasis on "preserving regime institutions" and its mantra that there was "only a political solution" to the Syrian conflict, have ensured that its policy could only lead, sooner or later, to an accommodation with Assad.

To the allies of the US who oppose Assad, such as the French, the Turks, and the Saudis, the State Department's defense of Kerry's gaffe rang especially hollow, because two days before Kerry spoke, CIA Director John Brennan said the same thing. When asked, at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, whether the US "needed" Assad to be in power "as an opposition to ISIL [the Islamic State]," Brennan answered with an unambiguous "yes." Asked again whether the administration feared a collapse of the Assad regime, Brennan again replied that this was a "legitimate concern." For, although the administration sees Assad as "problematic," it nevertheless wants to preserve regime "institutions."

So, does this mean that the administration is setting the stage to resume direct engagement with Assad? Probably not. What Kerry's and Brennan's comments clarify is the fact that the administration has long been settled on keeping Assad in place, and that it will oppose any push to remove him. But the US does not actually need to talk to him directly in order to benefit from his presence, because the White House has a direct line to Assad's patron: Iran. Why bother haggling with a subordinate when you can negotiate with the boss?

No, the administration is conducting the broader strategic conversation about the region with its new partner, Iran.