The Syrian president can remain in power for as long as it takes to end the conflict, Britain’s Foreign Secretary conceded last night (Sunday), even as the embattled dictator blamed the West for the crises thronging his country.
Philip Hammond said that the UK could accept Bashar al-Assad remaining as titular head of Syria for three years or more if it meant ending the conflict, but that the president would have to pledge not to run in any future election.
“If the price for doing that is that we have to accept that Assad will remain as titular head of state for a period of time, do I really care if that’s three days, three weeks, three years or even longer? I don’t think I do,” he said, speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Mr Hammond said that for any agreement on a managed political transition to be reached, Mr Assad would have to give up control over Syria’s security apparatus. He added that there was no agreement with Moscow and Tehran on such a transition.
“The key is that there must be a transition – at the moment there is no agreement with the Russians and the Iranians even that there should be a transition,” he said.
Britain has always insisted that Mr Assad cannot be a part of Syria’s long-term future, but that position appears to have softened in recent weeks.
Mr Hammond’s comments came a day after David Cameron criticised Russia for “backing the butcher Assad and helping him and really making the situation worse”.
As Russian warplanes bombed the rebel groups around Mr Assad’s northwestern heartlands yesterday, the Syrian president described the West as “the biggest contributor” to terrorism there and said that the Russian intervention must succeed “or else the whole region will be destroyed”.
Moscow waded into Syria’s messy civil war last week, launching a military campaign to protect the regime’s north-western heartland while claiming to target Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), a force mainly concentrated in the east. “The alliance between Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran must succeed or else the whole region will be destroyed,” Mr Assad said in an interview broadcast by Iranian state television, insisting they would achieve the “practical results” that the US-led anti-Isil coalition has not managed.
Experts have warned that Russian intervention risks causing unprecedented jihadist mobilisation in Syria. Isil and al-Qaeda have evoked parallels between the Syrian conflict and the Soviet failures in Afghanistan which led to modern jihadism. Western nations and opposition groups have called on Russia to end attacks on civilians and non-jihadist opposition, fearing that they will churn the morass of war.
Mr Cameron said yesterday that Russia’s intervention was a “terrible mistake”. Mr Hammond said that Vladimir Putin should not resort to military force in order to achieve his goals abroad.
“It looks like a classic bit of Russian asymmetric warfare – you have a strong propaganda message that says you’re doing one thing, while in fact you are doing something completely different and when challenged you just flatly deny it,” Mr Hammond said.
“We just need a Russia that accepts there are rules in the system, and you can’t throw your toys out of the pram and resort to military force every time you don’t get your way,” he said.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, warned that Russia’s intervention could leave Moscow isolated in a region where it has few friends outside of the Syrian regime, Iraq and Iran. “This may be a sign of a step that will take it to loneliness in the region,” Mr Erdogan said.
The Russian defence ministry said yesterday that its latest strikes had hit a jihadist training camp, disrupting control systems and supply lines. It was not possible to verify the claim. The US-led coalition has failed to achieve a similar goal during over a year of air strikes.
In the north-western province of Homs, residents said that air strikes had hit areas controlled by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
One activist said that most of the casualties were women and children, among them a three-year-old boy. Dozens of civilians have been killed or maimed in the Russian air campaign, including rescue workers apparently targeted in a secondary attack as they retrieved casualties.
Jabhat al-Nusra said in a statement that fighters in the area around Talbiseh were forming a joint military “operations room” to co-ordinate their campaign against Russian attacks.
Separately, 100 officers from the FSA said that they would be focusing efforts on Russian forces. “The first targets of its [Russia’s] planes were the densely populated villages inhabited by unarmed villagers fleeing from the Assad regime in Homs,” said the Homs Liberation Movement, a faction of the FSA.
Russian involvement has galvanised rebels from across the ideological spectrum, accelerating defections to Jabhat al-Nusra, and sending ripples of anger through opposition groups.
On Saturday, the strikes appeared to hit a rescue team in the north-western province of Idlib. 29-year-old Issam al-Saleh was killed in a follow-up air strike as his team searched for survivors from the first.
After defecting from the regime along with his six brothers, Mr Saleh had spent 18 months working with the White Helmets, a team of first responders that has been described as among the bravest in the world.
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