In an interview published on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he no longer believes that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a necessary requirement before a political transition can get under way in Syria.
“A united Syria implies a political transition. That does not mean that Bashar al-Assad must leave even before the transition, but there must be assurances for the future,” Fabius told the French regional newspaper Le Progrès.
France’s top diplomat underscored that “the fight against Daesh is crucial, but it will only be totally effective if all the Syrian and regional forces are united”, he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.
“How is this possible if Bashar al-Assad remains in his position – he who has committed so many atrocities against – and who has a large part of the population against him?”
The comments mark a change in France’s position on the Syrian president, as it has previously demanded the removal of Assad, describing him as a “butcher” of his own people.
But there had been signs Paris might moderate its position as its priority shifted to tackling the IS group which carried out the Paris attacks last month.
France, like the United States and members of the international coalition waging an air campaign against the IS group in Syria and Iraq, is seeking political or military options involving all the local and regional parties to find a solution to the four-year-old war in Syria.
Fabius on Monday said that it was “obvious” Assad could not work alongside moderate rebels in Syria.
“If we achieve a political transition and it’s no longer Bashar in charge of the Syrian army, there could be joint actions against terrorism. But under Bashar it’s not possible,” Fabius told France Inter radio on Monday, speaking at the UN climate conference just outside Paris.
“It is obvious that it’s not under the leadership of Mr Assad that the army could be engaged alongside the moderate opposition,” he added.
Fabius reiterated that France would not send in ground troops to battle IS group fighters.
“The experiences in the past few decades, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, have shown us that Western troops are quickly perceived as occupying forces. [These] operations need to be carried out by local forces.”