Saudi FM: Assad’s future among sticking points on Syria deal

Bashar Assad
FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, speaking during an interview with the Iran's Khabar TV, in Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat says the timing of the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the withdrawal of foreign fighters remain the main sticking points to finding a lasting resolution to the civil war in Syria.

A senior U.S. official, meanwhile, says Russia’s military intervention into a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and forced 11 million from their homes will drag Moscow into a “quagmire” that will alienate Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken made the comments Saturday at the Manama Dialogue security conference, just hours after their two countries and more than a dozen others agreed to pursue a new peace effort involving Syria’s government and opposition groups.

Syria dominated discussions at the gathering of Western and Arab officials in the Bahraini capital.

Al-Jubeir, who arrived from Vienna to the Gulf island nation overnight, downplayed the significance of what had been achieved at the talks in Vienna, declaring in Bahrain that “We have not been able to reach agreement.”

He said the oil-rich kingdom’s policy toward Syria has not changed, and that it would continue to support what he called the moderate Syrian opposition.

He described the presence of foreign forces, particularly Iranian, as a roadblock to ending the fighting.

Shiite powerhouse Iran is Syria’s main backer and has given Assad’s government billions of dollars in aid and large amounts of weapons since fighting began. Pro-Iranian fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan have traveled to Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces, and Iran has deployed what it says are military advisers to support the government.

Al-Jubeir also made clear that the negotiations had done nothing to change Saudi Arabia’s position that Assad must go.

“Ideally he should leave this afternoon. The sooner the better,” al-Jubeir said.

Blinken was less blunt when it came to a timetable for Assad’s departure.

He suggested that Russia’s military intervention in Syria, though widely seen as a strong sign of support for Assad, could end up incentivizing Moscow to work toward a political transition that removes him from power.

“Russia cannot afford to sustain its military onslaught against everyone opposed to Assad’s brutal rule. The costs will mount every day in economic, political, and security terms — but at best only to prevent Assad from losing,” Blinken said.

He predicted a “quagmire” that draws Russia deeper into a conflict alongside Syria’s allies Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and which alienates Sunni Muslims both in the region and in Russia itself.

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