Russia may be willing to sideline Syrian President Bashar Assad as part of efforts to combat Islamic State and in order to maintain its influence in the Middle East, according to US and Russian officials and Syrian opposition leaders.
Bloomberg reported early Monday that American, Russian and Saudi officials and members of the Syrian opposition have been discussing the issue at least since June, when Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed in St. Petersburg.
Russia has since then embarked on “whirlwind diplomacy,” Bloomberg said, holding talks in Moscow with key officials from the region.
US President Barack Obama has in recent days warned Russia to rethink its apparent efforts to bolster Assad after more than four years of brutal civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. Moscow in turn has insisted that it is not seeking to shore up Assad’s regime, but rather is supporting what it says is a key element in combatting Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, however, has long sought Assad’s ouster, arming Syrian opposition groups fighting the regime forces.
According to Bloomberg, US and Russian officials say they’re mulling a “transition plan,” which would effectively leave Assad powerless even as he remained interim head of state.
US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month in Qatar for talks on the Syria crisis. The State Department said after the talks that Kerry told his counterparts that there was no place for Assad in Syria’s future.
“All three leaders acknowledged the dangers posed to the Syrian people by the rise of extremist forces and the need for a meaningful political transition to enable a unified fight against ISIL and other extremist groups, to include the important role played by opposition groups,” the State Department said.
“There’s a convergence on the threat of ISIS [Islamic State],” Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, told Bloomberg. “This convergence wasn’t there when they last tried diplomacy two years ago.”