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Paris, Berlin disagree over Assad role in political transition

French and German officials can't agree on the status Syrian President Assad could have in a political transition. While Paris is ready to consider his staying on in an interim position, Berlin remains opposed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the regional French newspaper "Le Progres" on Saturday that a political transition in Syria does not require the immediate departure of Assad.

"A united Syria implies a political transition," Fabius told the paper. "That does not mean that Bashar al-Assad must leave even before the transition, but there must be assurances for the future."

Paris had previously insisted that Assad step down as a precondition for a political solution to end the nearly five-year-old conflict, arguing that he was personally responsible for mass slaughter and the exodus of refugees.

The comments come as France is trying to cobble together a broader international coalition to defeat the "Islamic State" (IS) following the Paris terror attacks last month and as international talks on reaching a political solution in Syria gain momentum.

Role of regime in fight against IS

A crucial part of the fight lies in bringing together the armed Syrian opposition against IS, but questions remain over the role of Assad's forces and Russia, which are targeting both IS and opposition groups.

On Monday, Fabius said it was "obvious" that the Assad regime could not cooperate with the international coalition against IS.

"If we achieve a political transition and it's no longer Bashar in charge of the Syrian army, there could be joint actions against terrorism. But under Bashar it's not possible," Fabius told France Inter radio.

Germany, which will contribute to the military mission against IS, has ruled out any cooperation with the regime.

On Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said the European position was against working with Assad.

"For Germany and the European Union, it is clear that we will neither work together with Assad nor the Syrian Army," he said in an interview with "Der Spiegel" published on Saturday.

But that comment seems to conflict with statements made by Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who suggested last weekend that international partners may need to cooperate with the Syrian army during a transition period to defeat IS.

Opposition meeting

In a sign that Syria's opposition might consider negotiations with the regime, political leaders and several armed groups are set to meet in Saudi Arabia next week to discuss forming a united position ahead of peace talks with regime representatives next month.

Most Syrian opposition groups had previously shot down the idea of any negotiations with the regime while Assad is still in power.

A preliminary road map agreed last month by 20 countries in Vienna envisions peace talks between the opposition and the regime by the start of the year, but leaves out the future role of Assad.

It merely speaks of a potential transitional period leading to "free and fair elections (that) would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months."

cw/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)

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