x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

West signals to Syrian opposition Assad may stay in power

Western nations have indicated that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar Al Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration.

Residents carry an injured man after an air strike from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in the Takeek Al Bab area of Aleppo. Saad AboBrahim / Reuters
Residents carry an injured man after an air strike from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in the Takeek Al Bab area of Aleppo. Saad AboBrahim / Reuters

AMMAN // Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources said.

The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a Friends of Syria meeting in London last week, was prompted by the rise of Al Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army.

“Our western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior coalition member.

Noting the possibility of Mr Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ended next year, the coalition member said: “Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people.”

The shift in western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Mr Assad towards combating Islamist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, diplomats have said.

Like the rejection of air strikes against Syria in September by the US president, Barack Obama, after he accused Mr Assad’s forces of using poison gas, such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Mr Assad, but also widen a gap in approach with the rebels’ allies in the Middle East.

Unlike in Libya in 2011, the West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant Islamists, including Al Qaeda affiliates, to emerge as the most formidable rebel force, which has raised alarm with Washington and its allies that Syria, which borders Israel and Iraq, has become a centre for global jihad.

Also signalling differences with Washington, opposition activists in Syria have said that Turkey has let a weapons consignment cross into Syria to the Islamic Front, the rebel group that overran the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, seizing arms and western equipment supplied to non-Islamists.

Peace talks are to start in Switzerland on January 22.

* Reuters