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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain could accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in place for a transition period if it helped resolve the country's conflict, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Wednesday, in what appeared to be a softening of tone on the Syrian leader.
Britain, along with other Western countries, has repeatedly called for Assad to go, saying it is a precondition for bringing an end to the brutal four-year-long civil war that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and shattered the country.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Russian forces have begun participating in combat operations in Syria to help defend Assad's government, citing three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation there.
Hammond told parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that a political rather than military solution was needed and said Britain had made clear to Russia and Iran, Assad's principal international allies, that it would be prepared to discuss a plan which saw him stay on temporarily.
"If there is a sensible plan for transition that involves Assad remaining in some way involved in the process for a period of time we will look at that, we will discuss it. We are not saying he must go on day one," he said, adding that the transition could be a period of months.
Asked about the comments, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman told reporters Britain had not changed its view that Assad should not be a part of Syria's long-term future.
"We have been clear that there is going to need to be some sort of transition," she said.
"(If) international partners want to work with us and look at what that transition would be, and help really start discussing and working on that transition then of course those are conversations we should have."
Hammond rejected Russia's suggestion Syria could hold snap parliamentary elections which could see Assad share power.
"That is not an acceptable position. The international community cannot in my view facilitate and oversee a set of elections in which somebody guilty of crimes of the scale that Assad has committed is able to run for office," he said.
Britain will not be able to help reach a political solution by "talking nicely" to the different players in Syria, Hammond added, calling on Russia and Iran use their influence on Assad.
"Essentially this is going to have to be a decision made by the sponsors of the key players in Syria, and in particular Iran and Russia deciding to call the shots with the Assad regime - make it clear that there has to be change," he said.
"They can do that, they can make a phone call. Russia and Iran could have a discussion today, make a phone call to Damascus tomorrow and change the future of this situation."
Editing by Stephen Addison and Guy Faulconbridge