Four years on, some in Europe support talking to Assad

Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria and Spain, Czech Republic, Norway and Switzerland said to support move, while France, Britain reject dialogue
Four years on, some in Europe support talking to Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Getty Images)
By Reuters
Thu 19 Feb 2015 12:02 PM

Some European Union countries which withdrew their
ambassadors from Syria are saying privately it is time for more communication
with Damascus even though Britain and France oppose it, diplomats said.

Those states have become more vocal in internal
meetings about the need to talk to the Syrian government and have a presence in
the capital. London and Paris reject this, saying President Bashar Al Assad has
lost all legitimacy.

This makes a change in EU policy unlikely, but the
debate underlines a predicament for Western states which ostracised the
government at the start of the crisis, imposed sanctions, and four years on
still find Assad in power.

Diplomats say the calls have come from or would be
supported by countries including Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria
and Spain, as well as the Czech Republic, which did not withdraw its ambassador.
Norway and Switzerland, which are outside the EU, are also supportive.

Although Europe has long faced divisions on Syria,
the calls have increased since ISIL advanced in Syria and Iraq last summer and US-led
strikes started against the group.

US officials say there is no shift in their policy
regarding Assad, even as their focus is fighting ISIL, an al Qaeda offshoot
which is also an enemy of Damascus.

"Some states say: Bashar is a reality, we have
to take this into account if there are threats to Europe," one European
diplomat said, referring to the risk of attacks at home by jihadists returning
from Syria.

The EU first imposed sanctions on Assad and his
circle in 2011 as authorities cracked down on protests. The crisis has spiralled
into a civil war, killing more than 200,000, a level of suffering that some
diplomats see as justifying contacts with Damascus in pursuit of a political
solution.

While it is generally understood that there will
have to be negotiations, diplomats said, Britain and France see Assad's
departure as a precondition. But the collapse of his government has become less
likely as the war rolls on.

"We've been waiting for it to fall like a
house of cards, but the problem is that we've been waiting for that for four
years and that isn't happening," a senior EU diplomat said.

The United Nations Syria envoy said on Tuesday the
Syrian government was willing to suspend its bombing and shelling of Aleppo so
a local ceasefire could be tested, a plan EU foreign ministers had backed in
December.

"It is important the European Union support
the UN mediator and his effort to create a ceasefire," Denmark's Foreign
Minister Martin Lidegaard told Reuters. "In relation to that, we cannot
avoid to talk to the regime in Damascus since they represent an element of
power."

European diplomats point to what they see as the
shift in the US stance on Syria. US officials say they have not relented in
their goal of Assad leaving power but see no policy likely to achieve this at
an acceptable cost.

As a result, for months they have tacitly lived
with Assad staying in his post and have made clear their focus is to combat
ISIL.

"We don't know what this coalition wants and
the United States is not deciding," said Bassma Kodmani, director of the
Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative and a former member of the main Syrian
opposition in exile.

"That's leading to calls in Europe that Assad
is the lesser of the two evils. The debate has come full circle."

In public, EU foreign ministers have ruled out dealing
with Damascus. After a meeting in October they said "the Assad regime
cannot be a partner" in the fight against ISIL.

For its part, the United States, along with Turkey,
reached a tentative agreement to train and equip non-jihadist Syrian fighters
who oppose Assad.

The EU has imposed sanctions on officials,
businessmen, institutions and trade and bans the import of Syrian oil or
petroleum products. It has 211 people under sanctions and 63 companies or other
organizations.

In October it expanded sanctions to include 12
government ministers, two senior military figures and a United Arab Emirates
company it accused of helping supply oil.

"Bashar al-Assad has been murdering his people
for years," French Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said last week when
asked whether France should resume intelligence sharing with Damascus in the
fight against ISIL.

"He is not part of the solution for Syria so
we don't need to choose between a bloody dictator and a ruthless terrorist
army. The two should be fought," he said.

Assad is keen for the West to reopen embassies,
diplomats say, ruling this out for now. Some see a middle ground: talking to
Damascus but condemning violence and pressing for aid access.

"I would hesitate to use the word engage, it
is about communicating again," a third diplomat said. "We lack
visibility."

Even in Paris there are some misgivings about the
way the crisis was handled. Closing the embassy was a mistake, said a senior
French diplomat who had called for more dialogue with the Syrians and their
ally Iran.

Several EU countries have diplomats who travel to
Damascus but are not based there officially. "Others who kept them open
were able to have eyes on the ground and keep a relationship with Assad,"
the French diplomat said.

"We don't have a clear idea of what's going
on. Within intelligence circles the will to renew the dialogue is there."

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