US and Britain may offer Assad clemency for talks
BRITAIN AND the US are willing to offer Bashar al-Assad safe passage – and even clemency – as part of a diplomatic push to convene a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva on political transition in Syria.
The initiative comes after British prime minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama received encouragement from Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in separate bilateral talks at the G20 in Mexico.
A senior British official said: “Those of us who had bilaterals thought there was just enough out of those meetings to make it worth pursuing the objective of negotiating a transitional process in Syria.”
With daily reports of civilian deaths and the conflict apparently taking on a more sectarian hue, Britain is willing to discuss giving clemency to Assad if it would mean a transitional conference could be launched. He could even be offered safe passage to attend it.
Another senior official said: “It is hard to see a negotiated solution in which one of the participants would be willing voluntarily to go off to the International Criminal Court.”
During talks at the G20, British and US officials became convinced Mr Putin was not wedded to Assad remaining in power indefinitely, although even this limited concession is disputed in Moscow.
On the basis of these discussions, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton will now seek to persuade former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to change the format of his plans to construct a contact group on Syria and instead host a conference using the transition on Yemen as the model.
In the case of Yemen, the president Ali Saleh was granted immunity in February, despite the massacre of civilians. His deputy, to whom he ceded power, is drawing up a new constitution.
Participants in the conference on Syria would include government officials, key opposition figures, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and key states in the Middle East such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Russia has been pressing for Iran to be free to attend.
The meeting, under Mr Annan’s chairmanship, would be held by the end of the month with an objective of establishing a broader-based government, leading to elections in 18 months time.
British officials said: “We do not think it makes sense to invite the Iranians for a number of reasons. We are under no illusions about this and are entirely realistic about the prospects of this happening . . . It could capsize on whether Iran gets invited, but it is worth a try given the gravity of events there.”
As an alternative, the US might go for a tougher UN Security Council resolution on sanctions, but the prospect of overcoming Russian objections and imposing a no-fly zone is not regarded as realistic. – (Guardian service)