Assad ‘part of solution in Syria’ — Julie Bishop signals policy change

• SEPTEMBER 26, 2015

Australia is set to abandon the Abbott government’s long-held position that disgraced President Bashar al-Assad step aside as part of any durable peace settlement in Syria, in what amounts to a major policy shift designed to hasten the end of the bloody civil war.
Instead, the Turnbull government has reluctantly accepted that Assad, whose brutal regime has been blamed for the majority of civilian deaths in the 4½-year conflict, may form a part of any future government of national unity designed to preserve the crumbling Syrian state.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Weekend Australian there was an “emerging consensus” that the Assad regime would be likely to be pivotal in any ¬attempt to fortify the Syrian state and prevent further gains by the terror group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

“Given Australia’s significant contribution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq and our involvement in militant operations against Daesh, it is inevitable that we will play a role as an advocate for a political solution in Syria,” Ms Bishop said.

“It is evident there must be a political as well as a military sol¬ution to the conflict in Syria.

“There is an emerging view in some quarters that the only conceivable option would be a nat¬ional unity government involving President Assad.”

Until now, Canberra had been staunch in its view Assad must go before any peace initi¬ative could begin or an enduring political sol¬ution could be achieved.

Canberra’s about-face reflects an interplay of factors, including Islamic State’s strength on the ground as well as the changed political environment in Australia, where Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to take a less hardline but more pragmatic approach to the Syrian crisis than his predecessor did.
Prior to his removal, Mr Abbott said Assad “should go”, des¬cribing his government as a “dread¬ful regime” that had committed “monstrous” atrocities against its own people.

More than anything, the new position reflects the shifting power-politics of the Syrian civil war, including the recent build-up of Russian troops in Syria, who have been flown in by Russian President Vladimir Putin to shore up Moscow’s weakened ally in Damascus.

Washington, too, has softened its opposition to the Assad regime, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying the US was now prepared to countenance the presence of Assad as an interim player in resolving Syria’s civil war. Previously, Washington had said Assad’s ouster was a deal-breaker in political negotiations.

The calls for Assad’s removal began in the early stages of the civil war, when his downfall looked assured, but the dictator has held on for longer than expected, thanks largely to vicious infighting among Syria’s fractured rebel movement.

Assad’s resilience has created a quandary for the West, which finds itself facing a much larger problem in the form of Islamic State, a bitter foe of both the Syrian regime and Western democ¬racies. Last week, Mr Kerry said Washington was not going to be “doctrinaire” about the timing of Assad’s removal.
“It doesn’t have to be on day one or month one,” Mr Kerry said. “There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”

Ms Bishop also indicated Assad did not have a long-term role to play in his country’s future.
“The specific role and duration of President Assad’s involvement would likely be temporary,” she said.

She added that any peace settlement would require the backing of the UN Security Council, where both Washington and Moscow exercise veto rights.
“Therefore the views of Russia and the US are vital,” Ms Bishop said.

Moscow has significantly bolstered its presence in Syria, deploying about 28 fighter planes and about 2000 personnel to Latakia, Assad’s Alawite stronghold.

The build-up has provoked mixed feelings in the West, which has welcomed help in the fight against Islamic State but is apprehensive about the Kremlin’s long-term ambitions in Syria.

Ms Bishop gave credence to speculation that the Russian ¬effort might indicate Assad’s regime was weaker than many thought, perhaps even close to collapse.

Since it began in 2011, Syria’s civil war has become one of the most brutal in recent history, leading to an estimated 220,000 deaths and driving hundreds of thousands more from their homes, a development that has triggered the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

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