By Carlo Muñoz - 12/04/13 04:11 PM EST
Islamic militant groups battling alongside Syrian rebels to oust President Bashar Assad could play a crucial role in bringing the country's civil war to an end, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Any plausible peace plan to end the ongoing carnage in Syria "cannot be achieved by [limiting] ourselves to narrow strips of interest," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.
Hagel's comments come after recent reports claim the Obama administration is pursuing direct talks with Islamic militant factions in Syria.
The White House is specifically targeting militant groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda's Iraqi cell and its Syrian offshoot, Jabhat al Nusra, which has taken on a significant role within the ranks of the Syrian rebels over the course of the 2 1/2 year war there.
The outreach aims to “find out whether these people are worthwhile bringing into the diplomatic process,” a senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
That said, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. military and intelligence officials are still working to identify which militant groups in Syria would be amiable to negotiations.
"We are still learning about some of those groups," the four-star general said, adding much work remained before Washington would be willing to allow any of those groups to the negotiation table.
That said, reaching out to some of the Islamic militant factions of the Syrian opposition "is certainly worth the effort," Dempsey added.
Peace talks, led by U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, are tentatively scheduled for January in Geneva.
Members of the Syrian National Council, the loose federation of secular rebel forces in Syria backed by the White House, will attend the talks on behalf of the opposition.
But members of the Syrian Military Council, led by Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim Idris, will not participate in the negotiations.
The Free Syrian Army is the largest and best-organized rebel force battling to oust Assad for the past 2 1/2 years.
But the group's absence from the talks, combined with the government's unwillingness to consider a transition of power to rebel-led groups, has further inflamed doubts in Washington the Geneva talks would bring Syria's bloody civil war to an end.
"I think we have to pursue it; we have to continue that dialogue ... [but] Assad isn't interested in cutting a deal," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said earlier this month.
"It's a chaotic situation, and it will be for awhile ... we need to be mindful of our limited ability to force [an] outcome," Smith said in a speech in Washington.
For its part, Damascus is dismissing any notion that upcoming peace talks between the regime and rebel forces would end with Assad stepping down from power.
"The official Syrian delegation is not going to ... surrender power" as part of any negotiated peace deal, a Syrian foreign ministry official told the country's state-run news outlet, SANA, in November.
"If they insist on these delusions, there is no need for them to attend" the peace talks, the official said at the time.