Britain’s Top Diplomat Hints Assad Could Remain Syria’s President Under Peace Deal

Britain’s foreign minister says Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to seek another term as Syria’s president if any agreement is reached to end the country’s nearly six-year-long civil war.

The United States and its Western allies have long insisted that Assad must relinquish power in Syria as part of any peace agreement. But the latest remarks by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson could signal a possible major shift in policy by one of Washington’s closest partners.

Neither British Prime Minister Theresa May nor U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned Syria during their joint news conference at the White House Friday. Johnson did not accompany the British government chief on her visit to the U.S., but he discussed the situation in Syria with members of Parliament in London.

Time to re-evaluate

Johnson said the transition of power in Washington since Trump’s inauguration should prompt all sides involved in the Syrian conflict to re-evaluate their positions. Taking note of the U.S. president’s planned telephone discussion on Saturday with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, Johnson admitted that taking a new approach toward Syria would have potential drawbacks.

But speaking to the international relations committee of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, Johnson said there is now a need to be “realistic about the way the landscape has changed” and seek a fresh approach to the Syrian crisis.

“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go. It’s been our long-standing position,” Johnson said. “But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens.”

Meeting with Bannon

Johnson discussed foreign policy and other issues earlier this month with senior members of Trump’s team, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, in New York. Long known as a gadfly within Britain’s Conservative Party, and for his outspoken, irreverent views, Johnson was a journalist and served as mayor of London until 2016, when his strong support for Brexit, Britain’s breakaway from the European Union, catapulted him into the job of serving as his country’s top diplomatic post in May’s Cabinet.

Russia has sought to impose its influence as a power broker in the Syrian civil war, and Trump has repeated his desire to have a good relationship with Russia.

Russia question dodged

A White House adviser said Trump and Putin may discuss lifting U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and support for secessionist groups in Ukraine. Speaking at his news conference with Britain’s May, Trump did not answer directly when asked if he planned to ease any of the financial measures targeting Russian businesses.

If there is an agreement to end the civil war in Syria, Johnson said in London Thursday, Assad should be allowed to run for president in elections overseen by the United Nations. Russia and Iran have made similar proposals, saying Assad should be free to seek re-election during a future political transition period.

The 51-year-old Syrian government leader, trained as an ophthalmologist, has ruled his country since 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had tightly controlled Syria for three decades.