WASHINGTON - Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel acknowledged Thursday that US-led air strikes against the Islamic State group, one of the Syrian regime's main adversaries, could help President Bashar al-Assad.
"As we and the coalition go after ISIL (IS) to help the Iraqis secure their government, but also the Middle East, yes, Assad derives some benefit of that, of course," Hagel said.
But he noted that Washington was pursuing a long-term strategy that opposes any role for Assad.
"We've got to manage through the realities of what we have in front of us with some longer term strategies and objectives as to how we eventually get to where we think we need to go," Hagel said.
Asked if the United States still wanted Assad to step down, Hagel said: "That's the policy of this administration."
President Barack Obama's strategy to defeat the Islamic State group has been heavily criticised at home and abroad for potentially empowering the Assad regime, as American and allied warplanes are bombing one of Assad's primary enemies while avoiding any confrontation with the Damascus regime.
Hagel wrote a memo to the White House's national security adviser Susan Rice last week sharply criticising the administration's policy in Syria, arguing that Washington needed to clarify what its stance was toward the Assad regime, defence officials said, confirming a New York Times report.
Asked about the memo, Hagel did not confirm or deny it but said he and other top officials had a responsibility to offer the US president candid advice.
"We owe the president and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct," Hagel said.
The memo was cited in the Times article by Hagel's aides as an example of how the Pentagon chief is more assertive behind the scenes than his reserved public performance might suggest.
Hagel warned that the Syria policy was "in danger of unraveling" due to confusion over the US stance toward Assad, the paper wrote.
The Obama administration has focused on defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq first, and portrayed US-led air strikes in Syria as a way of disrupting the jihadists' supply lines.
Washington also plans to arm and train a group of 5,000 "moderate" Syrian rebels, but has not committed to attacking Assad regime forces that threaten moderate rebel fighters.
US and coalition aircraft have not come under hostile fire from the Assad regime's substantial air defences or had radar lock onto their planes during bombing missions in Syria, which began more than a month ago.