Some European Union countries which withdrew their ambassadors from Syria are saying privately it is time for more communication with Damascus even though Britain and France oppose it, diplomats said.
Those states have become more vocal in internal meetings about the need to talk to the Syrian government and have a presence in the capital. London and Paris reject this, saying President Bashar Assad has lost all legitimacy.
This makes a change in EU policy unlikely, but the debate underlines a predicament for Western states which ostracized the government at the start of the crisis, imposed sanctions, and four years on still find Assad in power.
Diplomats say the calls have come from or would be supported by countries including Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria and Spain, as well as the Czech Republic, which did not withdraw its ambassador. Norway and Switzerland, which are outside the EU, are also supportive.
Although Europe has long faced divisions on Syria, the calls have increased since Islamic State advanced in Syria and Iraq last summer and US-led strikes started against the group.
US officials say there is no shift in their policy regarding Assad, even as their focus is fighting Islamic State, an al-Qaida offshoot which is also an enemy of Damascus.
“Some states say: Bashar is a reality, we have to take this into account if there are threats to Europe,” one European diplomat said, referring to the risk of attacks at home by jihadists returning from Syria.
The EU first imposed sanctions on Assad and his circle in 2011 as authorities cracked down on protests. The crisis has spiralled into a civil war, killing more than 200,000, a level of suffering that some diplomats see as justifying contacts with Damascus in pursuit of a political solution.
While it is generally understood that there will have to be negotiations, diplomats said, Britain and France see Assad’s departure as a precondition. But the collapse of his government has become less likely as the war rolls on.
“We’ve been waiting for it to fall like a house of cards, but the problem is that we’ve been waiting for that for four years and that isn’t happening,” a senior EU diplomat said.
For the latest news follow us on Twitter
Join our Weekly Newsletter