AMMAN Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources said.
The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of al Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.
"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," said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.
Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the Coalition member added: "Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people."
The shift in Western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Assad towards combating Islamist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition.
Like U.S. President Barack Obama's rejection of air strikes against Syria in September after he accused Assad's forces of using poison gas, such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Assad, but also widen a gap in approach with the rebels' allies in the Middle East.
The civil war pits Assad and many Alawites, backed by Iran and its Shi'ite Muslim allies, against Sunni Muslim rebels supported by Turkey, Libya and Sunni Gulf Arab states.
Unlike in Libya in 2011, the West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant Islamists including al Qaeda affiliates to emerge as the most formidable rebel force, raising alarm among Washington and its allies that Syria, which borders Israel and Iraq, has become a center for global jihad.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, however, believe that tackling militants is less of a priority, with Sunni power Riyadh in particular furious at what it considers U.S. appeasement of Assad and his Iranian Shi'ite backers. Riyadh sent only a junior diplomat to the Friends of Syria meeting in London.
Also signaling differences with Washington, opposition activists in Syria have said that Turkey has let a weapons consignment cross into Syria to the Islamic Front, the rebel group that overran the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, seizing arms and Western equipment supplied to non-Islamists.
Peace talks are due to start in Switzerland on January 22.
The Coalition has agreed to go to the talks while insisting on Assad's immediate removal, but a Middle East diplomat said opposition leaders should be "more creative" in their tactics - notably in agreeing to take part in transitional arrangements that would leave Assad's fellow Alawites in key positions.
"For Geneva to produce an arrangement acceptable to the United States and Russia, the opposition would have to accept taking part in a transitional administration with a strong Alawite presence," the diplomat said. "Assad may or may not stay as president but at least he will have diminished powers.
"If the opposition rejects such a deal, they will lose most of the West and only have Saudi Arabia, Libya and Turkey left on their side."
A second member of the Syrian opposition, who is in touch with U.S. officials, said Washington and Russia appeared to be working in tandem on a transitional framework in which Alawites would retain their dominant role in the army and security apparatus to assure their community against retribution and to rally a unified fight against al Qaeda with moderate rebel brigades, who would be invited to join a restructured military.
He criticized U.S. and European officials for continuing to indulge in rhetoric that Assad has no future role to play in Syria, without spelling out how his rule will come to an end.
"Even if Assad is sidelined and a Sunni heads a transitional authority, he would have no power because neither Washington nor Moscow appears to want to end the Alawite control over the military and security apparatus," he said.
A senior Western official said that Russia and the United States have discussed which government officials - and up to what level of seniority - could be retained in a transitional phase but that they had not agreed any fixed blueprint.
RUSSIAN RED LINE
A declaration last week by the 11 leading Western and Middle East countries opposed to Assad blamed the Syrian leader's military crackdown for the rise of Islamist militants but said the opposition must uphold democratic values.
Islamists "undermine the Geneva ... process and threaten Syria's territorial integrity as well as international and regional security," the Friends of Syria said in a statement.
Aafak Ahmad, a former Syrian intelligence official who defected to the rebels two years ago and is in contact with U.S. and Russian officials, said Moscow wanted an Alawite to lead the military in any transition.
"Russia is not sticking to Assad but the red line for Moscow is the preservation of the Syrian army," he said. "It realizes that, with five decades' experience in the army and security, the Alawites are best placed to fight Islamist militants.
"The political solution has to be gradual and involve a collegiate leadership. If Alawites are assured that there will be no retribution against their lives and property they would accept that Assad and the first line of his lieutenants leave."
(Edited by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald)