Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that next month peace talks may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources say.
The message, delivered to senior members of the so-called Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.
"Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an extremist militant takeover would ensue," said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia.
Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the Coalition member added: "Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year."
The shift in Western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Assad towards combating extremist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition.
Like U.S. President Barack Obama's rejection of air strikes against Syria in September after he accused army forces of using poison gas, such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against the Syrian government, but also widen a gap in approach with the militants' allies in the Middle East.
Unlike in Libya in 2011, the West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant groups including al-Qaeda affiliates to emerge as the most formidable rebel force, raising alarm among Washington and its allies that Syria, which borders Israel and Iraq, has become a Centre for global terrorism.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, however, believe that tackling militants is less of a priority, with Riyadh in particular furious at what it considers U.S. appeasement of Assad and his Iranian backers. Riyadh sent only a junior diplomat to the Friends of Syria meeting in London.
Also signaling differences with Washington, opposition militants in Syria have said that Turkey has let a weapons consignment cross into Syria to the Islamic Front, the rebel group that overran the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, seizing arms and Western equipment supplied to FSA.
Peace talks are due to start in Switzerland on January 22.
Islamic Front rejects talks with U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus has said a newly formed Islamist alliance in war-torn Syria has refused to meet with American officials, in an interview aired Wednesday on Al-Arabiya television.
"The Islamic Front has refused to sit with us without giving any reason," Robert Ford said, a day after U.S. State Secretary John Kerry described as "possible" a meeting with Syria's biggest rebel alliance.
"We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria," Ford was quoted as saying on the Dubai-based channel's Arabic website.
Ford returned to Washington in February 2012 after rising security problems forced the closure of the U.S. embassy in the Syrian capital.
Six opposition groups came together last month to form the Islamic Front, which brings together tens of thousands of fighters and seeks to oust President Bashar al-Assad and establish an Islamic state in Syria.
Last week, the Front overran the northern headquarters and two warehouses belonging to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, prompting Washington to cut off non-lethal aid to the main secular military opposition in the north.