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Saudi foreign minister says Assad should leave sooner, not later

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PARIS (Reuters) - Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave at the beginning of a political transition, not at the end.

“For us it is very clear it’s at the beginning of the process, not at the end of the process, it’s not going to be 18 months,” Jubeir said during a visit to France.

His comments came days before the United Nations plans to reconvene peace talks to try to end the five-year-old civil war in Syria.

The United States and other Western governments that were previously calling for Assad’s early departure have quietly backed away from that demand as his position has been strengthened by Russia’s military involvement in Syria since last September.

Jubeir also said Saudi Arabia will take delivery of French arms it originally ordered for Lebanon.

In February, Saudi Arabia suspended a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army in response to Beirut’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

“We made the decision that we will stop the $3 billion from going to the Lebanese military and instead they will be rediverted to the Saudi military,” Jubeir told journalists during a visit in Paris.

“So the contracts (with France) will be completed but the clients will be the Saudi military”.

Reporting by Leigh Thomas; writing by Maya Nikolaeva; Editing by Mark Trevelyan