A former senior Obama administration official said Thursday the White House is hotly debating whether to step away from demands that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down as a precondition to peace talks to end the country’s five-year civil war.

Some within the White House want to increase support for the moderate Syrian opposition to pressure Assad, while others want to step away from the demand, said Phil Gordon, former special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region.

Gordon spoke briefly to The Hill following a media roundtable on Syria hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, where he argued that the demand should be dropped since it is vigorously opposed by the Russians and Iranians, who back Assad.

“I think Assad is a war criminal and should face justice and is an immense part of the problem; it would make more sense to defer that hardest question of all, because we’re not going to agree on that, with the regime, with the Russians or the Iranians,” he said. “To maintain that as a precondition for deescalating the conflict is a recipe for continuing the conflict, and that has proven to be the case for some time.”

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