NEW YORK – Bashar Assad should face a criminal trial, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said, while keeping open the possibility the Syrian president could temporarily remain in power to oversee a transition to a more inclusive government.
Cameron made the comments on Sunday as he flew to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where he’ll meet with other leaders to discuss possible solutions to the 4 1/2-year conflict that has seen Islamic State take control of parts of the Middle Eastern country and led to an exodus of millions of refugees.
“People who break international law should be subject to international law,” the prime minister told reporters traveling with him. “He’s butchered his own people, he’s helped create this conflict and this migration crisis, he’s one of the great recruiting sergeants for ISIL,” Cameron said, using another term for Islamic State. “He can’t be a part of Syria’s long-term future.”
There’s growing acknowledgment among the U.S. and its allies that the previous hard-line isolationist strategy toward the Syrian leader will not shorten the civil war. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among leaders who’ve accepted the possibility that Assad may need to stay in power in the short term to oversee a change of government.
Cameron’s reference to Assad not playing a part in Syria’s “long-term” future, made in answer to a question about him having an interim role, is a signal that the U.K. is open to the same option, though the prime minister said he was “not going to speculate” on whether it might happen.
Syria has been torn apart by the civil war, which started as an uprising against Assad’s government and involves Western-backed rebel groups as well as Islamic State. Russia has continued to support Assad, and President Vladimir Putin will also be involved in talks in New York.
“Conversations about how we bring about transition are important and that’s what we want to see greater impetus on,” Cameron said. “What we have to discuss with Russia, what we have to try to reach agreement about, is that it’s in everyone’s interests that this part of the world has stability, that it has governments that can represent all its people, that it isn’t fomenting terrorism.”
It’s also important for Iran to play a part in discussions about the future of Syria, Cameron said. Britain and Iran have reopened their embassies in Tehran and London since the Iranian government reached an agreement with world powers to limit its nuclear program.
“We have to talk to all of the countries that are involved,” the prime minister told reporters. “Following the important nuclear deal, it’s time to have longer conversations about the future of the region and the future of Syria.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, criticized Cameron for not scheduling a speech at the UN. Labour said Britain should push for a UN Security Council resolution to combat Islamic State and create safe zones.
“What matters now is a broad and comprehensive plan as the foundation for a political solution to the conflict,” he said in an e-mailed statement. He left the door open to Labour backing airstrikes within Syria.
Cameron plans to use his meetings with world leaders in New York to highlight the £1.1 billion ($1.7 billion) Britain has spent on assistance to displaced Syrians in the Middle East and to urge others to follow his lead. The U.K. plans to accept 20,000 more Syrian refugees from camps in neighboring countries, though it’s refusing to join European Union efforts to provide asylum for those who have fled to Europe.