Under a new British and American plan Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, could be offered safe passage as part of a diplomatic push to convene a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva on political transition in Syria.
The initiative comes after Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama received encouragement from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in separate bilateral talks during the G20 in Mexico.
A senior British official said: “Putin indicated that they were not hooked on Assad staying in power indefinitely . . . Of course they go on to say that it’s not up to the international community to decide. But those of us who had bilaterals with Putin thought there was just enough out of these meetings to make it worth pursuing the objective of negotiating some sort of transitional process in Syria.”
Asked whether if this meant Assad being offered immunity, the official replied: “It is hard to see a negotiated solution in which one of the participants agrees voluntarily to go to the International Criminal Court.”
Western officials are now attempting to organise a summit in Switzerland in “the next few weeks” to be attended by Assad and other members of the regime, representatives of the opposition, members of the UN Security Council and “regional players” – including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Any such plan may have to be implemented quickly, said the senior British official, as the country appeared to be descending into a “sectarian civil war . . . You get the sense that there isn’t much time before the situation becomes irreparable,” he said.
At a press conference following the G20 summit in Mexico, PM Cameron warned that there was little time left to resolve the crisis. “It is welcome that President Putin has been explicit that he’s not locked in to Assad remaining in charge in Syria,” he said. “What we need next is an agreement on a transitional leadership that can move Syria to a democratic future.”
Russia has been Assad’s strongest international supporter since the Syrian uprising began 15 months ago. It has twice vetoed attempts by the UN Security Council to sanction his regime.
Nevertheless, Western leaders have seized on a slight shift in Moscow’s support to Assad and increased pressure on Russia to accept a new initiative that would eventually lead to Assad’s departure.
Putin yesterday appeared to accept the idea that the Syrian leader should go, but only within the context of a careful transition. “It’s important that there’s not only a change of regime, but it’s also vital to reach a situation that if a change of power occurs — and it could occur only by constitutional means — it should result in peace and stop the bloodshed,” the Russian President said at the G20.