In a statement that surprised many, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said early Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be part of negotiations with the West.
"We have to speak with many actors, this includes Assad, but others as well," Merkel was quoted as saying at a news conference following an E.U. summit in Brussels. Many German commentators and journalists described the statement as groundbreaking. "Approaching Assad would be an about-face in the way the West is dealing with Syria," Der Spiegel concluded in its online edition.
Merkel's statement came as Germany is trying to accommodate thousands of refugees every day — with many more on their way to the country, which predicts up to 1 million arrivals by the end of the year. A significant number of them have fled Syria to escape the fighting between Assad's forces, the Islamic State and other groups.
Germany has been the Western country most financially affected by the suffering and killing in Syria, as Western attempts to arm and train Syrian rebels and to end the war have failed. Among Western leaders, Merkel has now most clearly voiced the need to change course. Whether other countries will join her call remains uncertain, though.
In her comments, Merkel argued that negotiations should not only be held "with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia."
The United States in particular has been staunchly opposed to negotiating with Iran over Syria. Iran — along with Russia, which is expanding its military presence in Syria — is the strongest backer of Assad.
Merkel's willingness to bring Assad and Iran to the negotiating table will be met with skepticism in other Western countries, primarily in the United States and France. Last weekend, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that the United States was "prepared to negotiate" but that “Assad has to go.”
French President Francois Hollande has expressed similar sentiments.
When Hollande called for new negotiations on Wednesday, he reportedly said: “I call for a new peace conference so that all the countries who want to see peace restored in Syria can contribute. All those who can contribute … should get around the table." Hollande repeatedly emphasized that Assad was part of the problem, not of the solution, and that he must go.
Many voiced concern that Merkel's comments may have gone too far. "If Assad joins the Syria negotiations, the Syrian opposition will stay away. Has nobody told Merkel about that?" said Peter Neumann, a professor at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.