WASHINGTON (AP) — In a sharp shift, the White House, which once declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad's days were numbered, said Friday that Assad had managed to prolong his grip on power and U.S. officials could not put a time frame on when his regime might come to an end.
The White House's public acknowledgement backed up the private consensus in the Obama administration that Assad maintains a firm hold on power and that nothing short of a military strike will push him out quickly.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that while the U.S. still believes Assad's tenure will end, putting a time frame on his departure would be difficult.
"His capacity to unflinchingly unleash brutality against his own people in order to sustain his own rule has certainly prolonged his stay in power," Carney said. "It will not last forever."
Carney's comments were a marked softening of the administration's oft-repeated assertions that Assad's demise was inevitable and his days numbered.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, testifying Thursday on Capitol Hill, also acknowledged that Assad is trying to hold on to power but would ultimately be "taken down."
Assad's 13-month crackdown on a popular uprising is estimated to have left 9,000 people dead and led refugees to pour into neighboring countries.
The United States has been supporting a U.N.-backed cease-fire between Assad's forces and rebels. But the deal also inherently acknowledges that Assad controls the armed forces and holds the power to suspend attacks on civilians and rebels.
With rebel forces poorly armed and disorganized, efforts by Arab Gulf states to pay them failing, and sectarian divisions looming in Syria, the U.S. and its allies seem prepared to leave Assad where he is. Even if he could be ousted, the near future in Syria would involve civil war among ethnic groups now under Assad's boot, or a slow and bloody war with rebels or proxy fighters armed from the outside.
The U.S. has edged toward supplying the rebels with communications gear and other nonlethal aid but has ruled out either a military assault or a supply of heavy weaponry for rebel forces.
On Friday, the Obama administration announced that it would provide an additional $8 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the new funds bring total U.S. humanitarian assistance for Syrians to $33 million. All the money is going through U.N. agencies or U.N.-accredited humanitarian organizations, she said.
"We have very much been able to get to the people in need," Nuland said.
She said aid groups are appealing for more money as they gain greater access to people Syria, "which is why we keep giving more." A severe food shortage in parts of Syria is also increasing the need for more aid.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.