Foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir says there are no circumstances where Bashar al-Assad can remain in power – whether that exit is through politics or by force
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir (left) in New York with US secretary of state John Kerry
Saudi Arabia has called on Bashar al-Assad to give up power or be removed by force, raising the global stakes at a time when the Russians are shipping troops and military hardware to Syria in an effort to prop up its beleaguered leader.
The threat was made on Tuesday by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir.
“There is no future for Assad in Syria,” Jubeir told journalists at the UN general assembly. “There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.”
“This could be a more lengthy process and a more destructive process but the choice is entirely that of Bashar al-Assad.” The foreign minister did not specify how Assad would be forcibly removed, but pointed out that Saudi Arabia is already backing “moderate rebels” in the civil war.
The Saudi intervention fuelled an already heated row at the UN over Syria’s future, where the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, issued a forthright defence of the Syrian regime, describing it as fighting a lonely and “valiant” battle against Islamic State extremists.
Saudi Arabia says there is 'no future' for Assad in Syria
Putin has redoubled his support for Assad by a significant and growing military deployment in Syria. US officials said on Tuesday that four advanced aircraft, Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” fighters had arrived at Latakia air base in western Syria, bringing the total number of Russian planes stationed there to over 30.
The planes are ostensibly there to attack Isis, but have yet to fly any combat missions, western officials say. Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, derided Russian claims to be leading the anti-terrorist campaign in Syria, as “media strikes rather than real strikes”.
“The fight against Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isis] is an absolute necessity but it must not be just a fight only through the media. It must be a real one,” he said. “And when I’m looking at who is really committed in the fight of Daesh … as far as Bashar al-Assad is concerned, it’s still recent and it’s still modest. So as far as our Russian partners are concerned, up to now they didn’t yet [do anything] against Daesh.”
By contrast, Fabius said: “We the French this week struck against a Daesh camp. We have to judge realities and not mass media.”
The US has also carried out airstrikes against Isis inside Syria, and following an Obama-Putin summit on Monday – which US officials said brought greater clarity on Russian intentions – the US defence secretary, Ash Carter, issued instructions on Tuesday for communications channels to be opened with the Russian military to avoid the chance of collision on exchange of fire in Syrian airspace.
The US meanwhile sought other means to contain Isis. As Barack Obama opened the anti-Isis summit on Tuesday, the US government announced sanctions against 25 people and five groups connected to Isis in moves it said were aimed at hitting the activities of financial, logistical and recruiting operatives.
Opening the summit, Obama said: “This is not going to be turned around overnight … There are going to be successes and there are going to be setbacks. This is not a conventional battle. This is a long-term campaign – not only against this particular network, but against its ideology".
“But, ultimately, I am optimistic. In Iraq and in Syria, Isil [another acronym for the Islamic State] is surrounded by communities, countries and a broad international coalition committed to its destruction,” he said. “Like terrorists and tyrants throughout history, Isil will eventually lose because it has nothing to offer but suffering and death.”
Reiterating his position that Assad cannot stay, Obama said: “In Syria, defeating Isil requires a new leader and an inclusive government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process. And as I’ve said before, we are prepared to work with all countries, including Russia and Iran, to find a political mechanism in which it is possible to begin a transition process.”
Fabius also argued it made no moral or practical sense for Assad to remain if the goal was to rebuild a new, free and united Syria.
“How can you imagine that the Syrian refugees – 80% of whom fled Syria because they were under threat from Assad – how can you imagine that they go back to Syria if we tell them that the future of Syria is Bashar al-Assad?” Fabius asked. He said a political transition mechanism had to be negotiated, but was not specific about timing.
Meanwhile, he said that France had revived the idea of the creation and enforcement of “safe zones” inside Syria where civilians would be protected both from the regime and Isis.
“It could be an idea to have within Syria one or two or three … safe zones, security zones, in order that these zones will be able to welcome Syrian people without forcing them to go out of the country. We are working on that,” Fabius said, again without offering details on how such zones could be achieved.
Russia continues to promote a separate negotiating effort, seeking to recruit countries to its view of Syria and the need for Assad to remain. The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is chairing a ministerial meeting to that end on Wednesday. French officials said that Fabius would attend.