Merkel’s suggestion about talks with al-Assad hit wall of skepticism

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– Chancellor Angela Merkel’s willingness to include Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in talks about a resolution of the conflict met with a wall of scepticism across the political spectrum on Thursday.

Even her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, backpedalled on her declaration.

Direct negotiations with al-Assad should not be the first object in opening negotiations, he said. “That’s not the question that should be brought first to the table,” Steinmeier said. “It’s a question of stopping the fighting after five years of war in Syria.”

Merkel made her comments after the EU summit on refugees in Brussels early on Thursday morning.

“We have to talk to many stakeholders, including Assad,” Merkel said. Russia welcomed the move.

In Berlin, foreign policy leaders in the governing coalition warned against cooperating with al-Assad, according to “Die Welt” newspaper.

Roderich Kiesewetter, the top foreign policy expert of the CDU/CSU fraction, said al-Assad must pay a price if one were to negotiate with him, and one must make clear the “unease” with which it would be done, he said.

He called for the establishment of a protective zone for ground troops sent under a UN mandate.

The foreign policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary faction, Niels Annen, told the newspaper: “We must be careful that we do not create the illusion that a simple change of course by al-Assad would lead to a quick solution of the Syrian crisis.”

He said that of course, one should be prepared to talk to all sides. But a long-term solution with al-Assad was not possible.

“We may not forget that the Syrian dictator is responsible for more than 250,000 deaths, and through that, for most of the refugees,” he warned.

Merkel’s remarks were greeted in Moscow. They agreed with the views of President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskow told the Interfax news agency. It was “unrealistic” to exclude the “legitimate president” of Syria from the solution of the conflict, he said.

Russia is a close ally of Syria and has been sending weapons to the Assad regime.

The US, Great Britain and France have been rejecting talks with Assad.

However, according to government circles in Berlin, Merkel’s statement was not a U-turn. It was no news that the Syrian president, who has so far been isolated by the West, had to be involved, sources said. The main difficulty was to gather all parties around the table for peace negotiations. Alongside Russia this included Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Due to time constraints Merkel is unlikely to get an opportunity to talk to Putin at the UN Sustainable Development Summit meeting in New York from Friday to Sunday.

However, Steinmeier is due to be in New York for the General Assembly next week.

Following the death of 250,000 people and the exodus of 12 million refugees, decisive steps had to be taken now to defuse the conflict in Syria, Steinmeier said on Thursday evening ahead of a Paris meeting with the foreign ministers of France and Great Britain as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Conflicting interests should no longer impede joint action in the international community. “We urgently need a joint initiative to secure the possibility of maintaining Syria as a unified and secular state,” Steinmeier said. He emphasized once again that there would not be a military solution to the conflict in Syria.

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