WASHINGTON - Iraq’s prominent Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down to help find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
"It is fair for Bashar al-Assad to step down to help the country avoid the menace of war and dominance of terrorists,” al-Sadr said in a statement Saturday.
The statement came just days after the United States launched missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed and injured scores of civilians.
The mercurial Iraqi cleric, who on many occasions opposed the presence of Iraqi militia in Syria, said all involved parties should withdraw their military forces from Syria. He also urged Russia and the United States to stop interfering in Syria.
“I call on all [involved parties] to pull out their forces from Syria so that the people [of Syria] take charge of their affairs as they are the ones who have the right to determine their own destiny,” the statement read. “Otherwise, Syria will be in ruins and the only beneficiary will be [foreign] occupation and terrorism.”
In his Arabic language statement, al-Sadr, who, like many other political leaders in Iraq, has his own militia, known as the Peace Brigades, asked the Syrian president to hand over power to popular groups that could stand against terrorism.
Fragmentation of Shi’ite bloc
Al-Sadr’s has close ties with Iran and has been supported by Iran to counter U.S. influence in Iraq for many years.
Iran on the other hand remains a staunch supporter of Assad and his regime. The country has not immediately reacted to Al-Sadr’s statement, but the cleric’s demand for Assad’s removal from power distances him from his traditional ally Iran, bringing him closer to those who are in favor of an Assad-free Syria in the future, including the U.S. and the European Union.
“Calling on Assad to step down is in stark contrast to the Iranian position and hardline Iraqi Shi’ite position that view Assad's staying in power through the lens of a regional struggle for power,” Omar Al-Nidawi, a Washington-based Iraq analyst told VOA. “This is further evidence of the fragmentation of Shi’ite political bloc.”
Prior to the chemical attack, U.S. officials hinted that Assad could stay in a post-war Syria.
At a conference in Turkey last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that putting an end to Assad’s presidency was no longer a U.S. condition for moving Syria out of its current crisis.
The statement marked a shift in a long-held U.S. policy towards the war in Syria. But following the chemical weapons attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said there is no role for Assad in a future Syrian government.
"There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime," Haley told CNN on Sunday. "Regime change is something that we think is going to happen," she said.
In the wake of the chemical attack, the European Union also last week reasserted that Assad has no future in Syria.