EU at odds over Assad role in Syrian transition

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with the Iranian Khabar TV channel in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on October 4, 2015. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters (Reuters)

By Francesco Guarascio BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union countries are struggling to find a common position on the role that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should play in the solution of the Syrian crisis, diplomats said on Friday. Ahead of a regular meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, diplomats are working to reach a compromise between countries which want Assad to quit immediately and others ready to accept a "flexible" transition. "There is consensus among member states that Assad will not be part of a future governance of Syria but how to formulate that exactly is to be seen," an EU diplomat said. With pressure on EU governments to work for an end to the war heightened by the arrival in Europe of large numbers of Syrian refugees over the past few months, France is keen to see Assad go as soon as possible, while Germany would prefer to have him involved in the transitional phase before he quits. Under discussion is also what should happen to the Syrian president after he leaves, with hardliners preferring him to be referred to the International Criminal Court, while a softer option would be a voluntary exile in Russia. The issue is so divisive that EU foreign ministers for many months have refrained from adopting common conclusions on Syria and its rulers, despite the worsening situation in the field. "We are talking about flexible transition arrangements," a second EU diplomat said. "Transition is key now. You won't see 'Assad must go' in the EU's position," the diplomat added. This would be a significant turnaround from past positions when the Assad administration was considered not even fit to fight Islamic State due to its "brutal" actions. Other diplomats are more cautious and point out that the key issue is stopping violence against Syrian people. Even if a compromise is reached on a transitional phase for the Assad rule, EU states appear divided also on its duration, with some countries insisting on a "clearly defined transition" and others making clear that "it's not up to us to define how long it should last". Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters the key to peace was a managed transition, even if that left Assad nominally in place for a time: "If ... we have to accept that Assad will remain as titular head of state for a period of time, do I really care if that's three days, three weeks, three months or even longer?" he said. EU diplomats will meet again on Saturday to finalize a common text to submit to foreign ministers, and may need to meet again on Sunday. In less controversial parts of the conclusions, ministers will underline that Assad's administration should immediately stop using barrel bombs against its own people, diplomats say. On the military role of Russia in Syria, EU countries are set to urge Moscow to focus its attacks exclusively on Islamic State targets. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent warplanes and tanks to support Assad. (Additional reporting by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alison Williams)