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France says Assad could stay in power for transitional period

Hint that France could be softening stance on Syria's president comes as Assad government official visits Egypt for first time in 3 years
Bashar al-Assad pictured during a recent media interview (AFP)

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said he no longer believes that Bashar al-Assad must leave power before any political transition can begin in Syria, speaking in an interview published on Saturday.

"The fight against Daesh is crucial, but it will only be totally effective if all the Syrian and regional forces are united," he told the French regional newspaper Le Progres, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

"A united Syria implies a political transition. That does not mean that Bashar al-Assad must leave even before the transition - but there must be assurances for the future."

The comments mark a turnaround in France's position on the Syrian president, as it has previously demanded the removal of Assad, describing him as a "butcher" of his own people.

But there had been signs Paris might moderate its position as its priority shifted to tackling the IS group which carried out the Paris attacks last month.

Last week Fabius suggested that, during or immediately a transition of power away from the current president, members of Assad’s armed forces could join up with the armed Syrian opposition to combat Islamic State, a suggestion met with derision by opposition leaders.

France, like the United States and members of the international coalition waging an air campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq, is seeking political or military options involving all the local and regional parties to find a solution to the four-year-old war in Syria.

Further indications on Saturday that France could be softening its stance on Assad came as a member of his government arrived in the Egyptian capital Cairo for the first time in over three years.

Mohammed Walid Ghazal, Assad’s housing and development minister, arrived in Cairo on Saturday morning for a visit scheduled to last several days.

Sources told the German Press Agency that Ghazal would take part in events organized by the Arab Engineers’ Union and would meet with officials from Egypt and the region.

Ghazal’s visit marks the first time a high-level member of the Syrian government has openly visited Egypt since the Egyptian ambassador was withdrawn from Damascus in 2012.

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