Paris: Syria`s President Bashar al-Assad must go, but it might be necessary to talk with him as part of a deal on a transition of power, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview published by French daily Le Monde on Friday.
Departing from a strict U.S. and Western policy of not talking with Assad, Hammond`s comments appeared to underline a rift between Europe`s main powers over the role of the Syrian leader after more than four years of civil war.
"Assad must go, he can`t be part of Syria`s future," Hammond told Le Monde newspaper. "If we reach a deal on a transition authority and Assad is part of it, then it will be necessary to talk with him in his capacity as an actor in this process."
His comments echoed German Chancellor Angela Merkel who on Thursday at an EU summit in Brussels said: "One has to speak with many actors, among them Assad."
German government officials, however, denied that Merkel was backing the positions of Spain or Austria, who see Assad as possibly playing a role in an interim solution for Syria that would involve joining together with international military forces to defeat Islamic State.
Hammond was speaking after talks with his French and German counterparts as well as European Union foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini in Paris on Thursday night to coordinate their positions on Syria before meetings at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
But according to two European diplomats the meeting "achieved nothing." It merely emphasised the differences of opinion over the role Assad could play in a transition, they said.
"(Foreign Minister Laurent) Fabius and Mogherini do not think that Assad can have a role or can be talked to," said one of the diplomats. "It sends the wrong message to Syrians. If he stays it`s purely symbolic and for a short-period only."
Without directly answering whether there was a rift between the European ministers, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said they all agreed on the need for a political transition and that Assad did not represent the future of Syria.
"If Bashar al-Assad were an element of the solution and if keeping him in power would have enabled the stabilisation of the situation, we would have seen it in the last four and half years," Nadal said.
"But today keeping him in power only makes the crisis worse and the country has become a gigantic open-air cemetery. France`s position is that only a political transition can resolve this crisis and the departure of Assad is an part of that solution."