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Assad can be part of transitional government, says UK foreign secretary

The UK had previously expressed their objection at supporting any international deal that would keep Syrian President Assad in power
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond arrives to attend a meeting with members of an anti-Islamic State coalition (IS) at Lancaster House in London on 22 January 2015 (AFP)

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has stated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be allowed to stay for up to six months as part of a transitional government to bring peace to Syria.

Hammond’s comments reveal a different track for Syria. The British government had previously stressed it would oppose any deal that allowed Assad to cling to any vestiges of power. Prime Minister David Cameron two years ago dismissed any arrangement that would allow Assad to stay in control, saying that supporting such a deal would be “unthinkable”.

“We are not saying Assad and all his cronies have to go on day one,” Hammond said. “What I am not prepared to discuss, is what I understand to be the Russian and Iranian position, that we need to move to elections in Syria and it will be for the Syrian people to decide in those elections whether Assad should remain as their president.”

Instead, Hammond stated that Assad could remain as part of any transitional body as long as his sponsors Iran and Russia agreed to demand his eventual departure. The foreign secretary is mindful that any long-term backing for Assad could drive up support for the Islamic State group, which has captured large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Protests first broke out against Assad and his government in early 2011. While the demonstrators originally called for reforms, the harsh government crackdown quickly helped the protests to spiral into a bloody civil war in which more than 240,000 people have been killed and millions displaced both internally and internationally. 

Assad has been accused of committing war crimes against the Syrian civilian population but has managed to remain in his position due to the unwavering support from allies Iran and Russia.

The support of Assad by these two countries had led to a political deadlock at the UN and beyond that hasled to a failure so far to find an international diplomatic deal to end Syria’s civil war.

Tory MP Daniel Kawcznski condemned Britain’s change of heart toward Assad.

“I would be appalled by that, of any engagement by our country with a tyrant,” he said.

Hammond, however, stressed that Assad would not be part of Syria’s future.

“That is not an acceptable position,” he said. “The international community cannot, in my view, facilitate and oversee a set of elections in which somebody guilty of crimes on the scale that Assad has committed is able to run for office. That has to be clear. He cannot be part of Syria’s future.”

The foreign secretary also emphasised that British military action in Syria would be limited to stopping the Islamic State group from expanding its influence and power.

“The objective is to defeat ISIL and that means we have to get to the controlling brains,” he said, referring to IS under a different acronym. “At the moment we are attacking an enemy in Iraq and if we formed the judgement that this air-based campaign was more efficacious if we attacked ISIL in Syria, we would ask parliament.”