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The nuance suggests the U.S. is willing to allow Assad to hang on in power for part of a structured regime change. But the administration is also making it clear that Assad’s eventual departure must be agreed on by all parties as part of the transition, and that it cannot accept Russian ideas about promoting reform or greater dialogue in Syria as a substitute for true political change.

Meanwhile, Assad on Wednesday appointed a loyalist Baath party member as prime minister. Assad had promised after the parliamentary elections to make the government more inclusive to politicians from other parties. But the appointment of Baathist Riad Farid Hijab, a former agriculture minister, raised questions about his commitment to that idea.

Klapper reported from Baku, Azerbaijan. Associated Press writer Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.