As UN Endorses Syria Plan, Obama Says Assad Will Probably Have to Go

United Nations Security Council reaches resolution on Syria, but makes no mention of Assad; Obama also signs into law new tougher sanctions against Hezbollah.

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he holds his end of the year news conference at the White House in Washington, December 18, 2015.

REUTERS -  President Barack Obama said Syrian President Bashar Assad "has lost (his) legitimacy" and will have to "leave," as the UN Security Council approved a resolution outlining a peace process for Syria involving talks by representatives of the Damascus government and the opposition, but said nothing on the critical issue of what role Assad will play.

"I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the parties to be able to move forward in a non-sectarian way. He has lost legitimacy," Obama said.

The president said diplomats need to find a way to create a political transition that allows Assad's allies like Russia and Iran to ensure "that their equities are respected" in Syria.

The UN resolution acknowledges that the peace process will not end the conflict because it bars "terrorist groups" operating in the country, including the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front, from participating in a cease-fire.

Obama has trod carefully around the subject, and though for years he has demanded Assad resign, no political transition has ever been agreed upon, and Russia's move to defend Assad has complicated diplomatic efforts to find a way for Assad to give up power and resolve the country's civil war.

Obama has drawn fire on his approach to Syria from Republican presidential candidates who say he has left a leadership vacuum that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to fill.

On Friday, Obama also signed into law legislation that increases sanctions on Hezbollah, the White House said.

"This strong, bipartisan bill intensifies pressure against the Hezbollah terrorist organization and provides the administration additional tools with which to target Hezbollah's financial lifeblood," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.

Obama appeared in the White House press briefing room for a year-end news conference and talked tough about the prospects of defeating Islamic State militants who control broad swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

UN resolution

Foreign ministers from 17 countries met on and off for more than five hours to overcome divisions on the resolution's text.

The resolution has been described as a rare gesture of unity on the Syria peace process by a council often deeply divided on the crisis.

The draft resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, requests that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convene representatives of the Syrian government and opposition "to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process on an urgent basis, with a target of early January 2016 for the initiation of talks."

Within six months, the process should establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance," with UN-supervised "free and fair elections" to be held within 18 months.

The draft calls the transition Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, stressing that the "Syrian people will decide the future of Syria."

The draft also says cease-fire efforts should move forward in parallel with the talks, and it asks Ban to report within a month of the resolution's adoption on a way to monitor the cease-fire.

The draft notes that the cease-fire "will not apply to offensive or defensive actions" against groups considered terrorist organizations, meaning that airstrikes by Russia, France and the U.S.-led coalition apparently would not be affected.

Meanwhile Friday, some 20 foreign ministers tackled those and other difficult issues for a possible end to Syria's civil war, including sorting out which Syrian groups will represent the opposition in peace talks in the new year.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said he presented lists submitted from each country of groups they consider terrorist organizations. He said some countries "sent 10, 15, 20 names" and others more.

"Now I think there will be follow-up steps in terms of countries meeting again to set criteria which will help filter the list," said Judeh, whose country is tasked with putting the final list together.