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ANALYSIS: Will UK policy shift on Assad’s future solve Syria crisis?

Britain proposes Assad retain power during a six-month political transition. It will have a hard time convincing Russia, Iran and even the US
File photo shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AFP)
NEW YORK, United States – A shift in Britain’s policy on Syria that could permit President Bashar al-Assad to temporarily keep his job during a transition of power was struggling to gain traction on Thursday amid tepid responses from the United States and analysts.
On Wednesday, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond proposed a policy shift by Britain, which along with other Western countries had repeatedly called for Assad to go as a precondition for bringing the country’s civil war to an end.
His comments were quickly rebuffed by US State Department spokesman John Kirby, who said the four-year-old conflict that has claimed some 250,000 lives would not be resolved until Assad was out of office.
“Nothing’s changed about our position that Bashar al-Assad does not have a future, should not have a future, in Syria; that we need a political transition to a government in Syria that’s responsive to the Syrian people and doesn’t include him,” Kirby said.
Faced with refugees spilling across Syria’s borders, Britain is carving out a new strategy that would involve limited military strikes on leaders of the Islamic State (IS) group along with diplomatic efforts to install a government of national unity.
Addressing a parliamentary committee, Hammond called for a political rather than military solution in Syria and suggested that Russia and Iran – Assad’s main international allies – might accept a plan that saw him stay on temporarily.
Under the scheme, Britain and other Western powers would agree to a transitional period of up to six months in which Assad would hold power, but the Alawite leader’s security apparatus would be shut down.
It is a tough sell. This week, Reuters reported that Russian troops have begun fighting in Syria to back Assad’s government. Iran provides Damascus with intelligence, equipment and ground forces; the Tehran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah also plays a key combat role.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, a policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said the UK plan was just a “slightly delayed” version of a long-stated goal to oust Assad that would struggle to win fans in Moscow and Tehran.
“It’s almost guaranteed to fail,” he told Middle East Eye.
“The idea that Russia and Iran who have for so long tied their positions to that of Assad would consent to a process that pre-emptively commits him to leaving in six months is a complete non-starter.
“For both countries a shift of Western and UK policy would be a willingness to make the Assad question an issue to be decided by the transition process – in which he would play a central role – rather than a pre-decided outcome, which they would see as immediately undermining their positions.”
Others see the move as indicative of a growing willingness of Britain – and perhaps other Western powers – to compromise on long-held calls for Assad’s removal to end the protracted conflict and its ensuing surge of Europe-bound refugees.
“Western powers are more desperate because of the refugee crisis,” Adam Whitcomb, an analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs think tank, told MEE.
“Creating peace in the region, whether it be lasting or short-term, will abate the migration crisis in Europe. In order to get the needed support of Russia and Iran, a political option must be pursued that may involve Assad staying in power.” 
But, according to Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute think tank, this leaves Britain with another headache.
“Assad is not the worst actor in Syria, and he is key to a stable Syria. The problem for Western countries now is the political difficulty in walking back everything they’ve said about Assad needing to go,” Cristol told MEE.
Although Assad’s forces are accused of using barrel bombs on civilians and many other atrocities, Syria’s complex multi-front battle also involves the IS group, a zealot militia accused of enslavement, mass rape and genocide-like assaults on religious minorities.
“Now the talk is ‘transition,’ but you need stability to have a stable transition,” Cristol added.
“I suspect the timeline for Assad to go will keep getting pushed into the future. While it will be politically impossible for many countries to ever re-open embassies in Syria so long as an Assad is in power, we will eventually learn to live with him, as we did for so many years before.”
According to Hussein Ibish, a scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Britain’s softening towards Assad is driven by the refugee crisis and desires to defeat IS, which controls a huge Sunni-majority area across the Syria-Iraq border.
Convincing the US, however, will be hard, he said.
“This comes at a time when US rhetoric towards the regime is actually getting much tougher as Washington and Tehran re-engage each other on issues beyond the now-finalised nuclear agreement and, it seems, rediscovering the depth of their disagreement on everything else, including Syria,” Ibish told MEE.
“American policy, one should hasten to add, remains unchanged and emphasises the battle against IS and downplays the question of a post-Assad Syria.”