Syria Solution Requires Talking to Assad as Well, Merkel Says

  • Assad would have to go at end of process, Hollande reiterates
  • EU leaders agree on 1 billion-euro aid plan to stem exodus

European Union leaders called for broad international talks to end the Syrian civil war that’s created millions of refugees and left the bloc with a migrant crisis, with some mentioning the need to involve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in those discussions.

“We will have to talk with many actors,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said early Thursday after a summit of the 28-nation bloc in Brussels. “Assad will be part of that, but also others like the United States and Russia as well as important regional partners like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

EU leaders met in Brussels a day after their interior ministers reached agreement on how to share out some of the thousands of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe, turning their attention to how to prevent several million others still camped out in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey from joining the exodus. The heads of government agreed on an aid package of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for the refugee camps in the region, pledged to better protect the EU’s external borders, and spoke of the urgent need for a political settlement in Syria after more than four years of conflict.
French President Francois Hollande said any Syrian settlement would require the departure of Assad, but he didn’t rule out initial contacts with the Syrian leader, whose forces are fighting both Islamic State and western-backed rebel groups.

Political Transformation

“We must start right away a process of political transformation while stating clearly that Assad can’t stay on at the end of the process,” Hollande told reporters after the summit, adding that the Syrian president’s backers, Iran and Russia, must be involved in talks. Hollande said the EU’s meeting hadn’t gone into details of what a political solution could look like.

“We call for a renewed UN-led international effort to bring an end to the war that has caused so much suffering and forced an estimated 12 million people to leave their homes,” the EU said in the conclusions of the meeting. “The EU commits to doing its part in this respect.”

The United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is pressing ahead with an initiative meant to break the impasse in the war, which has killed 250,000 people. The envoy is assembling working groups of Syrian government and opposition figures for a process dubbed Geneva 3, after two inconclusive rounds of talks in the Swiss city.

Russian Jets

His moves come as Russia has flown military jets and artillery to a Syrian government air base near the Mediterranean, complicating the military picture. Meanwhile, a U.S.-led coalition is conducting air strikes against the Islamic State forces that occupy much of eastern Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro published Tuesday that “pillars of the army and the regime” must be part of a transitional Syrian government to prevent the collapse of the country.

Assad must not be allowed to stay in power, but “we won’t advance if we say that Assad must go even before we start negotiations,” Fabius said.

Assad has repeatedly rejected calls to step down, telling Russian media this month the president “comes to power with the consent of the people, through elections, and he leaves at the request of the people, not by a decision of the U.S., the UN Security Council, the Geneva conference or the Geneva communique.”

Hollande and Fabius have said that even with atrocities committed by Islamic State, about 80 percent of civilian deaths in the war are the result of actions by Assad’s forces.

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