World News

Austria says fight against Islamic State needs Syria's Assad

TEHRAN (Reuters) - The West should involve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against Islamic State, Austria’s foreign minister said on Tuesday, breaking with the view of most Western powers that say Assad is the source of the problem.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad answers questions during an interview with al-Manar's journalist Amro Nassef, in Damascus, Syria, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on August 25, 2015. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters/Files

Sebastian Kurz’s comments, during a state visit to Iran, reflect what some European diplomats have said privately for months, but they also expose a divide among Western countries on how to deal with Assad and the rise of hardline fighters four years into a war that has killed a quarter of a million and driven 11 million from their homes.

“We need a pragmatic common approach in this respect including the involvement of Assad in the fight against Islamic State terror,” Kurz told reporters.

“One should not forget the crimes that Assad has committed, but also not forget the pragmatic view of the fact that in this fight we are on the same side.”

While the U.S. priority in Syria is battling Islamic State, not unseating Assad, Washington has stuck by its position that Assad’s treatment of his own people has fuelled extremism and that he must go, a view shared by Britain and France.

U.S.-led forces have been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq for the past year.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo on Monday said negotiations with Assad were necessary to end the war. Some European officials privately advocate talking to his government, and Assad has said Western intelligence officials have visited Damascus.

Austria’s Kurz later clarified that he did not see Assad as part of a long-term solution, but that he should take part in any immediate peace talks.

Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, which, along with Russia, supports Assad, said bringing peace should be the first priority.

French President Francois Hollande on Monday repeated his view that “Assad is responsible for the situation in Syria” and must leave power “at some point or another”.

Rami Abdulrahman from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s government, not Islamic State, was the biggest problem in Syria.

“How many Syrian children, how many people have died in strikes by the regime’s barrel bombs? You want to include a criminal in this? The majority of people in Syria have been killed by the Assad regime,” he said.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut; Writing by Sam Wilkin; Editing by William Maclean and Robin Pomeroy