- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2017

The vicious repression of Syrian opposition forces by President Bashar Assad over the last seven years, including the use of chemical weapons and intentional targeting of strictly civilian areas, has made it politically impossible for the head of the regime to remain in power, a top Turkish leader said Monday.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a regional security symposium in Britain on Monday that Mr. Assad’s brutal tactics, aided by Russian and Iranian forces, mean Ankara and other regional powers can’t accept Mr. Assad remaining power as part of a peace deal.

“It’s too hard to forget the past, so it’s hard to see how Assad could possibly remain in office,” Mr. Yildirim said during his speech at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Assad’s fate is considered the key question mark as the military campaign against Islamic State is wrapping up and the regime makes continued progress on the battlefield against Syrian opposition groups. The Trump administration has signaled it may be able to live with Mr. Assad in power in the short term, but say the long-term reconstruction of the country, which will rely heavily on international funds, will require a new leadership in Damascus.

Mr. Yildirim reiterated “it is for the people to decide” whether they want Mr. Assad to remain in power, but noted that any decision that would keep the regime intact would force Ankara and its allies “to make sacrifices in order to support their decision.”

Mr. Yildirim’s comments Monday come on the eve of the latest round of U.N.-brokered peace talks. Both the Assad government and rebel groups are expected to open talks in Geneva on Tuesday.

“We are all moving, I hope, in the direction of implementing … a political solution long overdue in Syria,” the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s talks. The Geneva negotiations will pay “particular up-front attention on a new constitution and U.N.-supervised elections” in Syria, as part of a peace road map approved by the Security Council in 2015.

But implementing the U.N. peace plan has been hampered by disagreements over Mr. Assad’s future in Syria. Opposition leaders on Friday announced that no progress on the U.N. road map could be made until the transition process to remove Mr. Assad from power begins, local reports say.

But Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, told Al Jazeera that the group was willing to proceed with peace talks without preconditions.

The Assad government had not yet named a delegation to the Geneva talks, and the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Damascus would postpone its arrival, citing the opposition’s demand that Mr. Assad eventually step down, The Associated Press reported.

Reaching a consensus on the international front over the Assad regime’s future has not been any easier.

Turkey has long opposed the Assad regime remaining in power in Syria. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for Mr. Assad’s immediate ouster in April, shortly after U.S. warships bombarded a Syrian air base reportedly used to launch chemical strikes against largely civilian targets inside opposition-held territory.

“If he doesn’t want to go, if there is no transition government, and if he continues committing humanitarian crimes, the necessary steps to oust him should be taken,” Mr. Cavusoglu said at the time.

Despite such comments, Ankara continues to ally itself with Russian- and Iranian-led efforts to broker a Syrian peace deal during parallel talks held by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran in Astana, Kazakhstan, beginning in May. Moscow and Tehran have been the Assad regime’s key allies in the civil war.

Russia continues to bank on the Syrian regime remaining in power in postwar Syria, in the hopes of maintaining or expanding its military presence in the Middle East. Turkey’s alliance with Russia over Syria also comes amid deteriorating ties with Washington, which Ankara claims is supporting armed Kurdish factions in the Islamic State fight that Turkey has characterized as terror groups.


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