Acceptance of President Assad’s centrality will mark a dramatic turnaround in the policy adopted by the West and their Gulf partners

The wheels of a western-backed “regime change” project in Syria appear to be falling off as members of opposition signal that President Bashar Assad may be allowed to stay in power and even contest elections in future to steer the country’s political transition.

Reuters is quoting a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as saying that the group was told in a recent meeting in London of the Friends of Syria — an anti-Assad alliance — that next month’s talks in Geneva may not lead to President Assad’s removal.

On the contrary, Mr. Assad will be a key a player in any transitional administration, and could even run for elections next year. “Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” Reuters quoted a senior member of the coalition who is close to Saudi Arabian officials, as saying.

He added: “Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people.” President Assad’s current term ends in 2014, when fresh presidential elections may take place.

Analysts point out that, if confirmed, acceptance of President Assad’s centrality in Syria’s transition will mark a dramatic turnaround in the “regime change” policy adopted by the West and their Gulf partners soon after the Syrian uprising commenced in March 2011.

The turnaround in position has apparently been triggered by the growing dominance of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, hostile to any negotiations, within the broad spectrum of the Syrian opposition. The preference for a political rather than a military solution to the crisis became perceptible after Syria decided to eliminate its chemical weapon stockpiles-a move that was followed by a joint initiative by Moscow and Washington to back Geneva peace talks.

The assertion of armed extremists peaked earlier this month when Salim Idris, the commander of the so-called “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) was forced to flee Syria for Qatar after the “Islamic Front” — a militant organisation — took over his group’s bases and warehouses along the border with Turkey. The incident that brought into sharp focus the power struggle between the FSA and al-Qaeda affiliates persuaded the United States to suspend “non-lethal” support to the FSA, fearing that the passage of this hardware may end up in the warehouses of its extremist foes.

As the countdown for talks begins, the decision by Jihadi groups, which control large territorial swathes, not to participate in the Geneva talks is likely to impede the enforcement of any deal that might result from the dialogue process. On Tuesday, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi announced that the Syrian peace conference at the level of Foreign Ministers will open on January 22, 2014 in the Swiss town of Montreux. Two days later, representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition are expected to hold separate discussions in Geneva.

Its shifting stance over Syria has exposed a growing rift between the West and Saudi Arabia — a leader in the anti-Assad campaign, which continues to advocate a militant course. In a scathing op-ed in The New York Times on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz said: “We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East.” He added: “This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by.”

The high profile prince — a rising star in Saudi royalty’s generation-next — warned that Riyadh was prepared to defy the West, if it did not carry out a course correction. He asserted that Riyadh will undertake its “global responsibilities” in the political and economic domains “with or without the support of our Western partners”.

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