EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini has said that Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad should be included in a political transition to end the conflict in the country.
Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Wednesday, Mogherini said that "I think we have learned from the Iraqi lessons that we need to guarantee that political processes and transitions need to guarantee not only the safety, but also the inclusiveness for all components of societies in the process."
"And this is what we're working at - so a transition where for sure Assad is and will be part of the starting point," she added.
Mogherini’s comments mark a change in the EU’s stance towards the Assad regime, which until receiving the support of Russian air strikes this month had been on the back foot in the four-and-a-half-year-long conflict.
The war in Syria has to date claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people, most of whom were killed by regime regime air strikes and indiscriminate barrel bombings from helicopters on civilian areas.
Approximately half the country’s population has been displaced, with around 6.7 million seeking refuge elsewhere in Syria and 5 million moving onto neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
This year around half a million refugees, mostly Syrians, have entered Europe, hoping to get asylum in economically well-off EU countries.
It is by far the worst refugee crisis to affect Europe since World War Two and has put pressure on the EU to push for a solution to the Syria conflict.
However, there has been a difference of opinion on whether a political transition in Syria should or should not include Bashar al Assad.
Russia, which insists on Assad’s involvement in the process, hosted the regime leader earlier this week in Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first trip abroad since the beginning of the war.
The US condemned the visit, with White House spokesman Eric Schultz telling reporters that "we view the red carpet welcome for Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, at odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria."
Saudi Arabia, Turkey stand firm against Assad
Following Assad's visit to Moscow, President Putin briefed the leaders of US allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have consistently opposed the Assad regime.
Nonetheless, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu continued to insist that the Assad regime had lost all legitimacy to rule, while Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir on Thursday said that Assad’s removal from power was necessary to defeat the ISIS, claiming the regime acted as a magnet "that attracted foreign fighters from all over the world” to fight for the terrorist group.
"We discussed the situation in Syria and how to find a peaceful solution for the conflict that guarantees Syria's future and leads to a transitional period that does not include Bashar al Assad," Jubeir said after holding talks with his Austrian counterpart in Vienna.
"We believe that the Russian interference in Syria is very dangerous because it exacerbates the conflict," Jubeir told reporters. "We believe that it will be viewed as Russia inserting itself in a sectarian conflict in the Middle East. We're concerned that this will trigger emotions in the Muslim world that will cause an increase in fighters to go to Syria."
Although Russia initially said its air strikes in Syria would target ISIS militants, the US had raised concerns that Russia is also targeting US-backed opposition groups. Nonetheless, the US on Tuesday signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to avoid incidents in the Syrian skies during their parallel operations against ISIS.
The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the US are due to meet in Vienna on Friday to discuss the conflict.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister also called on Iran, which has also been backed by the Assad regime with military support, to be involved in the transition process, in addition to Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Assad 'ready for dialogue'
President Putin also said on Thursday that Assad is ready to make contact with the opposition to engage in dialogue. Putin previously said Assad would be willing to call a snap parliamentary election and share power with a “healthy opposition," without elaborating further.
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.
Following a visit to Moscow in August, Khaled Khoja, the head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, stated that "the Russian leadership isn't clinging to Bashar al Assad" but rather is aiming to preserve Syria's territorial integrity. However, the meeting did not clarify whether Khoja’s statements signaled a shift in Russia’s Syrian policies, or merely showed an attempt by Moscow to rally Syrian opposition support as a new push to aid in bringing peace to the nation.