EU divided over Assad's role in future Syrian government

Extent of co-operation with Syrian president to be focus of Brussels summit

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: EU foreign ministers issued   a strongly worded statement on Monday condemning Russian’s military activities in Syria and blaming Dr Assad for more than 250,000 deaths in the country. Photograph: EPA/SANA/Handout

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: EU foreign ministers issued a strongly worded statement on Monday condemning Russian’s military activities in Syria and blaming Dr Assad for more than 250,000 deaths in the country. Photograph: EPA/SANA/Handout

 

EU leaders are set to clash over the escalating conflict in Syria amid divisions among member states about the role of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in any future government.

Leaders of the 28 EU member states gather in Brussels today for a summit that is expected to be dominated by the refugee crisis and the conflict in Syria. The EU continues to struggle with a mass migration movement that has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees leave Syria for the EU.

Having agreed on a controversial relocation programme for 120,000 refugees last month, leaders will explore ways of engaging with countries outside Europe including Lebanon, Jordan and particularly Turkey, in a bid to stem the flow of migrants leaving conflict zones in the Middle East.

Plans for a European border force and a reassessment of the Dublin convention, which obliges refugees to seek asylum in the EU country where they first arrive, are also on the agenda.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers issued a strongly worded statement condemning Russian’s military activities in Syria and blaming Dr Assad for more than 250,000 deaths in the country. “There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria under the present leadership,” the joint communiqué noted, but it made no mention of any role the president might have in a transitional government.

Engagement by West

Angela MerkelPoland

Britain and France, who have been participating in US-led military air strikes against Islamic State for the past year, have called for his removal, though British foreign secretary Philip Hammond hinted the timing and manner of his removal could be up for discussion.

Speaking ahead of today’s summit, one senior EU official from an east European member state said engagement with Dr Assad is inevitable. “We must see how much of Assad we can accept. We have to see how we can include elements of the current set-up in Syria to find a realistic solution there.”

The intervention of Russia on the side of Dr Assad in the Syrian conflict was condemned by the EU earlier this week.

Yesterday Moscow said one of its fighter jets had come into close proximity with a US jet over Syria last Saturday “in order to identify it”. The incident – which saw the Russian plane come within two to three kilometres of the US jet, according to Russian officials – prompted talks between the two sides yesterday, the third set of talks in recent days.

Following the launch of a proposed action plan for EU-Turkish co-operation last week during President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Brussels, EU leaders are scheduled to discuss Turkey at today’s summit.

A delegation of EU commissioners scheduled to visit Ankara earlier this week will travel there today following the weekend bomb attacks in a bid to get political agreement in Turkey for the plan.

In a letter to heads of state, EU Council president Donald Tusk said an agreement with Turkey “makes sense” if it effectively reduces the inflow of refugees, but he warned concessions to Turkey will only be justified if this is achieved.

Turkey, in accession negotiations with the EU since 2005, has been pressing the EU to liberalise visa laws for Turkish citizens and progress accession negotiations, in exchange for help on the refugee crisis.