Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, opposition sources said.
The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of al-Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.
“Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.
The shift in Western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Assad towards combating Islamist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition.
Such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Assad, but also widen a gap in approach with the rebels’ allies in the Middle East.
The civil war pits Assad against rebels supported by Turkey, Libya and Gulf Arab states.
Unlike in Libya in 2011, the West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant Islamists including al-Qaeda affiliates to emerge as the most formidable rebel force.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, believe that tackling militants is less of a priority, with Riyadh in particular furious at what it considers US appeasement of Assad and his backers. Riyadh sent only a junior diplomat to the Friends of Syria meeting in London.
Also signaling differences with Washington, opposition activists in Syria have said that Turkey has let a weapons consignment cross into Syria to the Islamic Front, the rebel group that overran the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, seizing arms and Western equipment supplied to non-Islamists.
Peace talks are due to start in Switzerland on January 22.
The Coalition has agreed to go to the talks while insisting on Assad’s immediate removal, but a Middle East diplomat said opposition leaders should be “more creative” in their tactics – notably in agreeing to take part in transitional arrangements that would leave some government members in key positions.
“If the opposition rejects such a deal, they will lose most of the West and only have Saudi Arabia, Libya and Turkey left on their side,” he said.
A senior Western official said that Russia and the United States have discussed which government officials – and up to what level of seniority – could be retained in a transitional phase but that they had not agreed any fixed blueprint.