Bashar Assad has no future in post-conflict Syria but his fate is ultimately up to the Syrian people, EU foreign ministers said Monday in response to an apparent shift in U.S. policy.
The United States and the European Union have consistently demanded Assad stand down in any peace deal. But last week Washington signaled it would no longer focus on Assad's ouster as it concentrates on the wider fight against terror groups such as Daesh.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Assad is "a war criminal"
who has been an obstacle to peace for years but she says the United States isn't ruling out cooperating with him to defeat the Daesh.
Haley echoed the Donald Trump administration's declaration last Friday making clear that the U.S. focus is on defeating Daesh. She said it was not pursuing a strategy to push Assad out of power.
In London last Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested that Assad's status is not the most important question right now.
Asked what this meant for EU policy, bloc foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said she believed it "would be impossible" to return to the status quo in Syria.
"It is for the Syrians to decide, but for all Syrians to decide," she added.
In a statement, the foreign ministers said the EU stands ready to help rebuild Syria but "only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition... is underway."
They also called on the Syrian regime and its backers, notably Russia, "to undertake all efforts to ensure: a full cessation of hostilities; the lifting of sieges; and full unhindered sustainable country-wide humanitarian access."
They said the EU will work "to help ensure accountability for war crimes, human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including the confirmed use of chemical weapons."
Mogherini on Tuesday, co-hosted with the United Nations, a two-day conference on Syria's future in Brussels focused on the disastrous humanitarian situation in the country after a war which has claimed more than 320,000 lives.
She stressed that this was part of efforts to prepare properly for the end of the war while U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva continued to search for a peace settlement and Russia and Turkey brokered talks between Damascus and the opposition on a cease-fire.