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West signals to Syrian rebels Assad may stay
A Syrian man helps an injured man following an airstrike in Aleppo's Maadi neighborhood on December 17, 2013.  (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-KHATIEB)
A Syrian man helps an injured man following an airstrike in Aleppo's Maadi neighborhood on December 17, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-KHATIEB)
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AMMAN/BEIRUT: Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar Assad and his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources said.

The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.

“Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.

Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the Coalition member added: “Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people.” The shift in Western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Assad toward combating Islamist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly 3-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition.

Like U.S. President Barack Obama’s rejection of airstrikes against Syria in September after he accused Assad’s forces of using poison gas, such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Assad, but also widen a gap in approach with the rebels’ allies in the Middle East.

The West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant Islamists including Al-Qaeda affiliates to emerge as the most formidable rebel force, raising alarm among Washington and its allies that Syria has become a center for global jihad.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, however, believe that tackling militants is less of a priority, with Sunni power Riyadh in particular furious at what it considers U.S. appeasement of Assad and his Iranian Shiite backers.

Peace talks are due to start in Switzerland on Jan. 22, when foreign ministers are expected to gather at a Montreux hotel. The conference will then reconvene on Jan. 24 for the start of actual negotiations.

The Coalition has agreed to go to the talks while insisting on Assad’s immediate removal, but a Middle East diplomat said opposition leaders should be “more creative” in their tactics.

“For Geneva to produce an arrangement acceptable to the United States and Russia, the opposition would have to accept taking part in a transitional administration with a strong Alawite presence,” the diplomat said. “Assad may or may not stay as president but at least he will have diminished powers.

“If the opposition rejects such a deal, they will lose most of the West and only have Saudi Arabia, Libya and Turkey left on their side.”

A second member of the Syrian opposition, who is in touch with U.S. officials, said Washington and Russia appeared to be working in tandem on a transitional framework in which Alawites would retain their dominant role in the army and security apparatus to assure their community against retribution and to rally a unified fight against Al-Qaeda with moderate rebel brigades, who would be invited to join a restructured military.

A senior Western official said that Russia and the United States have discussed which government officials – and up to what level of seniority – could be retained.

A declaration last week by the 11 leading Western and Middle Eastern countries opposed to Assad blamed the Syrian leader’s military crackdown for the rise of Islamist militants but said the opposition must uphold democratic values.

Aafak Ahmad, a former Syrian intelligence official who defected to the rebels two years ago and is in contact with U.S. and Russian officials, said Moscow wanted an Alawite to lead the military in any transition.

“Russia is not sticking to Assad but the red line for Moscow is the preservation of the Syrian army,” he said. “It realizes that, with five decades’ experience in the army and security, the Alawites are best placed to fight Islamist militants.

The apparent concessions on the part of Western powers come as Assad forces appear to escalate attempts to regain ground lost to the rebels in the north of the country ahead of any talks.

Syrian warplanes stepped up airstrikes on rebel-held districts in Aleppo Tuesday, the third day of an assault that has killed more than 100 people, activists said. The opposition aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that the airstrikes had killed 15 people, including two children, in the rebel-held Shaar district.

Seventy-six people, including 28 children, died in air raids Sunday, opposition groups said. The city was hit by another round of airstrikes Monday.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Tuesday that hospitals in Aleppo have been overwhelmed by the massive influx of wounded from the attacks, which have “emptied stocks of critical drugs and medical materials for lifesaving procedures.”

“Repeated attacks often lead to chaos and make it more difficult to treat the wounded, thereby increasing the number of fatalities,” said the group’s coordinator in Syria, Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York Monday that the situation in Syria has “deteriorated beyond all imagination” and insisted that the fighting stop before political dialogue on Syria can start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 18, 2013, on page 1.
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