Merkel Open to Talks With Assad, as Russia Ups the Stakes in Syria

Published: 25th September 2015 08:15 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th September 2015 08:15 AM   |  A+A-

MOSCOW: Angela Merkel has for the first time suggested that Bashar al-Assad could remain in power in Syria in what has been seen as a major shift in Western policy in the region.

The German chancellor yesterday (Thursday) called for wide-ranging peace talks with parties including Mr Assad.

Her comments came amid reports that Vladimir Putin is preparing to unilaterally attack Isil in Syria if Western powers do not back his plans to take on the jihadists while allowing Mr Assad to remain in power.

Russia has sent dozens of fighter jets and helicopter gunships to Syria and yesterday announced a series of naval drills in the Mediterranean.

Signs are growing that Western leaders are now softening their opposition to Mr Assad remaining in power.

Mrs Merkel said: "We have to speak with many actors. This includes Assad, but others as well.

"Not only with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, who has been a fierce critic of Mr Assad, also suggested for the first time yesterday that the Syrian president could have a role to play in a future political transition.

"The process could possibly be without Assad, or the transitional process could be with him," he said.

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, have suggested that Mr Assad must step down but that there could be a transitional period during which he remains in power.

Russia's decision to increase its military presence in Syria has provoked concern among Western powers.

Mr Putin has drafted a request for the Russian upper house of parliament to approve the deployment of 2,000 air personnel to Syria, but has yet to formally submit it, according to Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources. Mr Putin's spokesman denied the claim.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said that the "Russian build-up in Syria only complicates an already complicated and difficult situation".

Russia's increasing involvement in Syria is likely to dominate next week's session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Mr Putin is scheduled to meet Barack Obama on Monday.

"It would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement," a US official told AFP.

The Russian defence ministry said the naval exercises announced yesterday had been planned since the end of 2014, and described them as part of the "traditional" autumn exercises carried out by the country's armed forces.

The rocket cruise Moskva, destroyer Smetlivy, and the landing craft Saratov will be among the vessels slated to take part in exercises in September and October, the ministry said in a statement.

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