Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on Sunday he saw a widespread acceptance among major powers that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could stay in office, as Western countries appeared to relent on preconditions for Syria talks.
«I think today everyone has accepted that President Assad must remain so that we can combat the terrorists,» Rohani told CNN during his visit to New York for the UN General Assembly.
Iran and Russia are the key allies of Assad, who has faced Western demands that he step down amid a war that has killed more than 240,000 people and caused four million to flee.
But with the focus now on tackling the Islamic State group, Rohani said cooperating with Assad was the only way to defeat the hardline jihadist group.
«In Syria, when our first objective is to drive out terrorists and combating terrorists to defeat them, we have no solution other than to strengthen the central authority and the central government of that country as a central seat of power,» said the Iranian president.
Rohani appeared to extend an olive branch to the West by adding that the Syrian opposition should also play a role in the country’s future, alongside Assad.
Cameron ‘open’ to role for Assad
The Iranian president’s comments came as British media reported that Prime Minister David Cameron was open to Assad playing a role in a Syrian transitional government.
Cameron was quoted by Sky News as saying the Syrian president could play a temporary role, but should not be part of Syria’s future in the long run.
Sky’s correspondent, travelling with Cameron to the United States, said Cameron was not ruling out that Assad could be part of a transition, but «what he is very clear about is that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future in the long run».
Earlier, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper quoted a government source as saying Cameron was open to keeping Assad in power in the short term while a unity government was formed in the country after more than four years of civil war.
British officials have increasingly departed from US and Western policy of not talking to Assad, underlining a rift between Europe’s main powers over the role of the Syrian leader after more than four years of civil war.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said last week it was necessary to speak to «many actors, among them Assad».
German government officials, however, denied Merkel was backing the positions of Spain or Austria, who see Assad as possibly playing a role in an interim solution for Syria that would involve joining with international military forces to defeat the IS group.
Putin-Obama talks Monday
In a further sign of Europe’s shifting positions, French President François Hollande said on Sunday that Assad’s ally Iran could play a crucial role in finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
On Saturday, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said he was open to Syria talks without preconditions, but that Assad would eventually have to go.
The subject also came up during talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart, John Kerry, on Sunday.
Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Lavrov said that while Russia doesn’t approve of the US position on Syria, both sides were willing to work together in order to find a resolution to the conflict there.
Their talks came ahead of a bilateral meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, which is set to take place on Monday.