There is a military option in Syria that will end with the removal of President Bashar Assad if the political route doesn’t lead to his departure, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Tuesday.
Adel Al-Jubeir told a group of reporters the military option could take longer and would lead to more destruction in the embattled region, but the choice is up to Assad and whether he accepts the political roadmap agreed to by key nations in 2012. That deal would have him hand power over to a transitional government.
“There is no future for Assad in Syria,” said Jubeir, according to The Guardian. “There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.”
Al-Jubeir didn’t specify what Western and Arab opponents of Assad’s regime may or may not do to counter the new military buildup in Syria by Russia, one of Assad’s closest allies.
“We’re not talking about” it, he said.
However, the Saudi minister said the Free Syrian Army and moderate forces are fighting against Assad and receiving support from a number of countries that “will be intensified.” Al-Jubeir’s comments appear to mark a divergence from the position of the U.S. and its Western allies that there is no military solution to the conflict – that it must be solved politically.
President Obama said in his speech to the General Assembly on Monday that "while military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully."
Obama has said he’s willing to talk to Russia and Iran about how to end the Syrian conflict, which is in its fifth year with more than 250,000 people killed, and millions displaced and fleeing the country. Russia and Turkey have proposed a meeting that would include the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The U.S. has repeatedly insisted that Assad must leave power.
Reuters reported E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. have considered using the P5+1 group to address Syria. She said that other options, including using the European Union’s influence in the region, have been explored.
"I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy," she told reporters Tuesday.
Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia opposes sitting down with Iran in any talks on ending the war in Syria. He called Iran “an occupying force in Syria” and said it cannot be part of the solution until it withdraws its forces from Syria, as well as the Hezbollah fighters and other Shiite militias that it sent to the country to support Assad.
The Saudi minister said the political roadmap based on the 2012 Geneva agreement included a governing council composed of elements of the existing government and the opposition would assume executive power — leaving Assad aside — to work on maintaining state institutions, drafting a new constitution, and holding elections to form a new government.
"Sometime between the formation of this council and elections, the theory of this is that — whether it's a day or a week or a month, I don't know— Assad would sail into the sunset," Al-Jubeir said.
"If Bashar Assad accepts the political process where he transitions out of the country, I think we can get somewhere," Al-Jubeir said, "but we haven't seen any indication that he would do this, nor have we seen any indication that his two main supporters, Russia and Iran, are prepared to push him in that direction. So while we hope that the process will succeed, I believe, given the position of Russia and Iran, our hope is not that great."
Al-Jubeir dismissed widespread belief that Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is in an intense battle with Shiite Iran to be the dominant power in the Middle East.
"We've been living in the Middle East all our lives," he said. "We're not the ones meddling in the affairs of other countries. The Iranians are. So you should look at it as Iranian aggression against other countries in the region."
Al-Jubeir added that if the Russians were serious about fighting Islamic State extremists sometimes known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, who control large regions of Syria, "they could join the existing international coalition."
"But for them to go out and insert forces into Syria, which is the first time that the Russians have done so in decades, is a big step, and is an indication that their objective may be to prop up the Assad regime, more than it is to fight Daesh," he said.
Al-Jubeir implicitly criticized the U.S. and other opponents of the Assad regime for sparking the current exodus of thousands of Syrians to Europe to escape the conflict. He said Saudi Arabia was calling early on for a no-fly zone and robust arming of the Syrian opposition, and claimed if this had been done early on, "we would not be in this situation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.