Britain is resigned to Syrian President Bashar al Assad remaining in power and Russia gaining a new sphere of influence in the region, the foreign secretary has signalled.
But, speaking exclusively to Sky News, Jeremy Hunt cautioned that Moscow has also taken on responsibility for securing peace in the country because of its support for the regime.
It is the first time a British minister has spoken so frankly about the reality on the ground in Syria, as Assad’s forces strengthen their grip on power after regaining areas seized in a rebel uprising – supported by the UK and its allies – that began in 2011.
Britain has in the past demanded that Assad stand down, saying he has no legitimacy to rule after launching deadly attacks, including with chemical weapons, against his own people.
During a three-day trip to Asia, Mr Hunt told Sky News: “I think you know the British long-standing position is that we won’t have lasting peace in Syria with that regime. But regretfully we do think he’s going to be around for a while and that is because of the support that he’s had from Russia.
“Russia may think that it’s gained a sphere of influence. What we would say to them is: Yes – and you’ve also gained a responsibility.
“If you’re going to be involved in Syria then you need to make sure that there really is peace in Syria. And that means making sure that President Assad does not use chemical weapons on his own people.”
The comments mark a shift from his predecessor Boris Johnson, who said a year ago that Assad should be allowed to run for re-election but only in the event of a peace settlement.
The foreign secretary also said the fate of two alleged Islamic State (IS) fighters from the UK, who are accused of involvement in the murder of British and US hostages, must be decided within the next year.
He was referring to Alexander Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, suspected members of a four-strong hostage-taking group dubbed The Beatles because of their British accents.
The two men, who have been stripped of their British citizenship, are being held by Syrian Kurdish forces.
But concern has been raised that all IS detainees could be freed if US troops, allied with the Kurds, pull out of Syria under a plan announced by Donald Trump.
“That is one of the issues that is going to have to be resolved during the course of this year,” Mr Hunt said.
“We don’t think something is going to be resolved in the next month or two months. But the issue of IS prisoners in Kurdish-held areas is something that has to be resolved as part of an orderly withdrawal.”
He did not rule in or out the possibility that the pair could be brought back to the UK to stand trial – an idea that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has vehemently rejected.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate on what the solution would be,” Mr Hunt said.
“But I would simply say that our priority in this has always been one very simple priority just make sure these evil men see justice.”