French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that France is prepared to accept a political transition in Syria that includes regime leader Bashar al Assad, indicating a softening stance towards Assad.
In an interview published in the Le Progres newspaper on Saturday, Fabius claimed that Syria’s priority is to unite against DAESH terrorist group.
"The fight against DAESH is crucial, but it will only be totally effective if all the Syrian and regional forces are united," Fabius said.
"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," he added.
The French foreign minister’s words seem to be a u-turn on previous comments made to France Inter radio on Monday.
Speaking from a UN climate change conference in Paris, Fabius told the radio station that he could only foresee the Syrian army cooperating with opposition forces against DAESH if Assad is not in power.
"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," he said.
"It is obvious that it's not under the leadership of Mr Assad that the army could be engaged alongside the moderate opposition."
Fabius also reiterated comments made to France's RTL radio last month, in which he said the Assad regime could possibly participate in a joint effort to defeat DAESH, insisting that the fight should be led by local forces.
"The experience of recent decades, whether it is in Iraq or in Afghanistan, shows that Western forces on the ground quickly appear like occupation forces...The operations must be led by local forces: Syrian, moderate, Arab, Kurdish, or, if necessary, then in coordination with the Syrian army, which is impossible without a political transition," Fabius said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also urged the the regime and opposition forces to come together to fight against DAESH on Thursday, before Assad’s departure, during his speech at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Belgrade.
“Part of the political strategy that we’re trying to effect in the Vienna process is geared towards trying to get the political transition in place, because if we get a political transition in place, we empower every nation and every entity to come together – the Syrian army together with the opposition, together with all the surrounding countries, together with Russia, the United States, and others – to go and fight DAESH,” Kerry said, referring to talks previously held in the Austrian capital to end the Syria war.
France is part of the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes on DAESH targets in Syria and Iraq for the past year, and has stood firmly with the opposition against Assad since the war started in March 2011.
Last week, French President Francois Hollande said during his visit to Washington that Assad should step down “as soon as possible."
However, in light of the Nov. 13 attacks by DAESH sympathisers in Paris that claimed 130 lives, France’s policy has been shifting to prioritise the elimination of the more imminent threat of DAESH terrorist, especially since the largest group of foreign fighters from Europe joining DAESH are French citizens.
Assad, meanwhile, has made no commitment to leave office, and continues to insist that he will only step down if popular consensus in Syria bids him to do so.
"[It] depends on how my feeling is regarding the Syrian people. I mean, do they want me or not? You cannot talk about something that's going to happen maybe in the next few years," Assad told the Hong Kong based Phoenix Television channel in an interview in late November.
We need to make the dialogue, but the concrete steps should follow at least a major defeat of the terrorists and the government takes control of a major area that has been captured by the terrorists," he said, adding that it would take "maximum of two years" to produce a new constitution and hold a referendum on it.
Notably, the Assad regime defines all opposition groups as "terrorists," and has been responsible for most of the quarter of a million confirmed deaths in the four-and-a-half-year long war.
Assad’s main supporter Russia, which was a participant in the Vienna talks, has also called on the West to back down from its demand for Assad to resign if they are truly interested in forming a united global front against the DAESH terrorist group.
Russia and Iran, which have been intervening in the war to prop up the Assad regime, likewise dismiss opposition forces battling to bring down his authoritarian regime as “terrorists.”
According to agreements made by the participants of the Vienna talks, the transition period in Syria will start on Jan. 1, 2016 and will continue for six months in which a new government will be established, following which an 18-month process is expected to be realised during which a new constitution will be made and new elections will be held.
Whether Assad will be a candidate in these elections is still unclear, but Assad told Russian lawmakers during a meeting in Damascus in October that he is willing to to run for another seven-year term in office.
A number of previous attempts by the Assad regime to undertake reforms on the road to democracy after the uprising started failed to convince the majority of Syrian people, as well as the international community, that such moves are genuine.
In February 2012, a referendum was held on constitutional reforms which would limit the rule of a president to two seven-year terms while the regime continued to bomb opposition-held parts of the country.
Although Syrian officials said that nearly 90 percent backed the reforms with a 57 percent turnout, the referendum was dismissed as a sham by a number of Western officials and was boycotted by the country’s biggest opposition groups - the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria.
Syria also held a presidential election in regime-controlled areas in June 2014, with Assad triumphing over two other candidates with 88 percent of the vote. According to the regime’s constitutional court, the turnout was 73 percent, but this figure has been highly doubted.
US Secretary of State John Kerry at the time called the election, which saw 21 candidates barred from running before they were held, “meaningless.” The European Union, meanwhile, said that the elections were “illegitimate and undermine the political efforts to find a solution” to the conflict.