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Labour Party denies it supports Assad remaining in power in Syria

Shadow foreign secretary's question has been read as a proposal, allowing Assad to remain in power as part of peace deal with Iran
Labour Party shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry in Parliament (AFP)

The Labour Party has denied saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should remain in power as part of a peace plan for the war-torn country, a spokesperson for the shadow foreign secretary has said.

Emily Thornberry on Monday asked Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson about the government’s position on Syria, and many pro-Syrian opposition activists read her question as tacit approval for Assad remaining in place and providing reconstruction aid to Damascus.

Following Johnson’s return from a weekend visit to Iran, Thornberry enquired as to what Tehran was asking for in the terms of any peace deal.

“May I ask specifically what conclusions he reached from his discussions on the prospects for a political solution to end the fighting in Syria?,” she asked Johnson during a parliamentary session on Iran and other Middle East issues.

She was not advancing any proposals of her own, nor endorsing Iran's demands, and to suggest otherwise is a wilful misrepresentation of the parliamentary record'

- Spokesperson for Emily Thornberry

“Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction?”

This question has been interpreted by many as a proposal for a peace plan from Labour. 

Iran is a key ally of the Syrian government, alongside Russia, and has provided crucial financial and military support in the years since the war broke out in 2011, allowing Assad to remain in power.

In Astana, the Kazakh capital, Russia, alongside Turkey and Iran, have been holding rival negotiations to the Western-backed talks in Geneva. 

“If that is the case,” Thornberry asked, on a deal providing for Assad remaining in place, “will the UK government accept that deal, despite the foreign secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria?”

Johnson responded that the government supported the resumption of Geneva talks, and that on Assad’s future, “Our view is that it is obviously a matter for the people of  Syria, and we will be promoting a plan whereby they, including the 11 million or 12 million who have fled the country, will be given the chance to vote in free, fair, UN-observed elections to give that country a stable future.”

Many anti-Assad activists and commentators soon began sharing Thornberry’s question as Labour’s endorsement for the president, who has overseen a civil war which has killed nearly half a million people, and displaced half of the population.

This reading, according to a spokesperson for the shadow secretary, was a “wilful misrepresentation”.

"In response to a government statement on its talks with the Iranian government, Ms Thornberry asked what Iran was demanding on Syria, and how the government had responded,” the spokesperson told MEE on Wednesday.

“She was not advancing any proposals of her own, nor endorsing Iran's demands, and to suggest otherwise is a wilful misrepresentation of the parliamentary record."

Earlier this year, in a reversal of policy, Johnson admitted that the government was flexible as to the timing of Assad’s departure from power.

“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go, it’s been our longstanding position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens,” he told a select committee.

The US administration has now accepted a role for Assad remaining in place until the next scheduled presidential election in Syria, in 2021, according to the New Yorker this week, citing US and European officials.

On Monday, Putin made a surprise visit to Russia’s air base on Syria’s coast, again declaring victory over the Islamic State group and ordering a partial withdrawal of his “victorious” troops.  

A fresh round of Astana peace talks will begin on 21 December, Kazakhstan said Monday, and will focus on freeing prisoners, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the functioning of de-escalation zones and other issues.