WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States denied it has proposed including members of the Syrian opposition in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, contradicting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking in St. Petersburg, Putin said on Friday he agreed with what he said were U.S. proposals to incorporate parts of the opposition into the current Syrian government. Putin also said Assad accepted there was a need for a political process.
"The U.S. proposal is absolutely acceptable. We must think about the possibilities of incorporating representatives of the opposition into the active ruling structure," Putin said.
Asked if Washington had made such a proposal, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby replied with a flat "no."
"There is no such proposal," said another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying U.S. policy on Assad's departure has not changed.
The United States and Russia support opposing sides in the five-year-old Syrian civil war, with Washington backing opposition forces seeking to topple Assad and Russia supporting the Syrian president, including with direct military intervention.
The 2012 Geneva Communique, backed by Moscow and Washington, called for the establishment of a "transitional governing body" that would exercise full executive powers over Syria and would be formed by "mutual consent."
The document said such a body "could include members of the present government and the opposition," but Washington has long argued that "mutual consent" meant Assad must go because the opposition will never accept his staying.
Assad sits at the top of the active ruling structure and it did not appear there was any resolution to the underlying U.S.-Russian disagreement over whether he should stay or go.
For five years, the United States has argued that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead Syria because of the suffering his forces have inflicted on civilians. Russian officials question who might succeed him and argue that chaos would be worse.
Asked if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had broached the idea of opposition officials joining an Assad government during his regular talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kirby replied: "No means no."
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and James Dalgleish)