White House Says Syria Strategy Working

White House spokesman Josh Earnest fields a question during a press briefing at the White House in Washington October 15, 2014. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and Pentagon sought to portray a unified stance on Syria on Friday after reports that a memo from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel criticized U.S. strategy as fuzzy on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said U.S. strategy against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was working. He denied Washington was focused on weakening the Islamic militants at the expense of its parallel goal of pushing Assad out of power.

"The policy that we have for Assad is really clear: We believe that he's lost the legitimacy to lead," Earnest said in an interview on CNN.

President Barack Obama has been criticized at home and abroad as failing to address attacks by Assad's forces that undermine the Syrian opposition Washington will ultimately need in the region. The Obama administration has said it wants Assad out but hopes to defer that challenge to focus on Islamic State.

Reports emerged on Thursday of a two-page memo from the secretary of defense to national security adviser Susan Rice warning that Obama's Syria policy was in jeopardy because of a failure to clarify U.S. intentions toward Assad.

Hagel declined to discuss the memo on Thursday. But when asked about Syria strategy at a Pentagon news conference, he acknowledged that Assad may be benefiting from U.S. attacks on Islamic State fighters in his country and stressed that a diplomatic, political solution was needed to stabilize Syria.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby downplayed any disconnect with the White House and said U.S. officials were constantly reviewing Syria options.

"Like any strategy, you want to constantly reassess and review and talk about it and make sure that in the execution of it you're doing it the right way," Kirby said. "And I think that's what the secretary was talking about yesterday."

Asked if U.S. strategy has helped Assad, Earnest said Washington's most important national security objective was to make sure Islamic State did not have a safe haven in Syria.

"You'd have to ask him what he thinks about the United States and the international community coming into his country, without his approval, to take care of a problem there," he said.