UK PM May fights back tears as she is applauded out of parliament

British Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in Parliament on her last day in office as Prime Minister in London, Britain July 24, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS?

LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers gave outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May a standing ovation as they applauded her out of the House of Commons chamber after her final, at times emotional, appearance as leader on Wednesday.

May, 62, appeared to be fighting back tears as she left, stopping to shake hands with the speaker, John Bercow, on her way out. She will officially hand over to her successor Boris Johnson later on Wednesday.

“Later today I will return to the backbenches and it will be my first time in 21 years so it is going to be quite a change,” May told lawmakers as her final weekly question session in parliament came to a close.

Praising the link between lawmakers and the constituents they represent as “the bedrock of our parliamentary democracy”, May’s voice quivered as she finished: “That duty to serve my constituents will remain my greatest motivation.”

The hour-long session, which her husband Philip watched from the public gallery, saw lawmakers from across the political divide pay tribute to May’s public service and sense of duty, despite voicing their disagreement with many of her policies.

Television footage from a news helicopter over parliament showed parliamentary staff lined up in a courtyard, clapping and taking photos on their phones as she walked to her car to return to her Downing Street residence for the final time.

She is expected to make a short speech in Downing Street before going to see Queen Elizabeth to formally stand down and recommend Johnson be asked to form a government.

May took over as prime minister in the aftermath of the 2016 vote to leave the European Union and is standing down just over three years later having failed to deliver Brexit, her divorce deal with the bloc rejected three times by a deeply divided parliament.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Stephen Addison)

Weak U.S. employment report casts pall over economy

FILE PHOTO: Brochures are displayed for job seekers at the Construction Careers Now! hiring event in Denver, Colorado U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed sharply in May and wages rose less than expected, raising fears that a loss of momentum in economic activity could be spreading to the labor market, which could put pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

The broad cool-off in hiring reported by the Labor Department on Friday was even before a recent escalation in trade tensions between the United States and two of its major trading partners, China and Mexico. Analysts have warned the trade fights could undermine the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion next month, the longest on record.

Adding a sting to the closely watched employment report, the economy created far fewer jobs in March and April than previously reported.

The economy thus far has been largely resilient to the trade war with China. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, which prompted retaliation by Beijing.

Last week, Trump said he would impose a tariff on all goods from Mexico in a bid to force authorities in that country to stop immigrants from Central America from crossing the border into the United States. Talks are ongoing to prevent the duties from kicking in at 5% on June 10.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday the central bank was closely monitoring the implications of the trade tensions on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

“Today’s report makes a cut more likely, and supports our view that the trade tensions will ultimately slow growth enough for the Fed to respond in September and December with cuts,” said Joseph Song, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 75,000 jobs last month, the government said in its closely watched employment report, falling below the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising by 185,000 jobs last month. Job growth in March and April was revised down by 75,000.

In the wake of the weak report financial markets priced in a rate cut as early as July and two more later this year. U.S. Treasury prices rallied, while the dollar dropped against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher.

May’s disappointing job growth was flagged by a report on Wednesday from payrolls processing firm ADP showing the smallest gain in private payrolls in nine years last month. Another report this week showed a drop in online ads by businesses looking for help.

Last month’s slowdown in job gains, however, probably understates the health of the labor market as measures such as weekly applications for unemployment benefits and the Institute for Supply Management’s services employment gauge have suggested underlying strength.

WORKER SHORTAGES

Some of the weakness in hiring last month could be the result of worker shortages, especially in the construction, transportation and manufacturing sectors.

Monthly wage growth remained moderate in May, with average hourly earnings increasing six cents, or 0.2% following a similar gain in April. That lowered the annual increase in wages to 3.1% from 3.2% in April. The average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours last month.

The moderation in wage gains, if sustained, could cast doubts on the Fed’s optimism that inflation would return to the U.S. central bank’s 2% target.

The tepid employment report added to soft data on consumer spending, business investment, manufacturing and homes sales in suggesting the economy was losing momentum in the second quarter following a temporary boost from exports, inventory accumulation and defense spending. Growth is cooling as the massive stimulus from last year’s tax cuts and spending increases fades.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product rising at a 1.5% annualized rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

The unemployment rate remained near a 50-year low of 3.6% in May. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.1% last month, the lowest since December 2000.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, was unchanged at 62.8% last month.

Hiring slowed across all sectors in May. Manufacturing payrolls increased by 3,000 last month, after gaining 5,000 positions in April. The sector is struggling with an inventory overhang that has resulted in businesses placing fewer orders at factories.

Manufacturing payrolls will be watched closely for signs of any fallout from the trade tensions. Factory output has weakened and sentiment dropped to a 31-month low in May, with manufacturers worried mostly about trade.

Employers in the construction sector hired 4,000 workers in May after adding 30,000 jobs to payrolls in April. Leisure and hospitality sector payrolls increased by 26,000 jobs last month.

Professional and business services employment rose by 33,000. Transportation and warehousing payrolls fell as did retail employment. Government shed 15,000 jobs, the most since January 2018.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

British cigarettes, a body in the road: memories of D-Day

Yves Faucon, 86, from Tilly-sur-Seulle in the Normandie region visits his town's military cemetery as he attends an interview with Reuters in Tilly-sur-Seulle, France, May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Richard Lough

TILLY-SUR-SEULLES, France (Reuters) – It is the sounds and smell of war that are indelibly imprinted in the memory of Yves Faucon, who was 12 when allied troops landed in Normandy and set about driving Nazi Germany’s forces out of France.

“I remember seeing a German body lying on the road and a column of British tanks advancing. One ran over the body,” recalled Faucon, now 87. “It made a grim noise.”

Faucon’s village of Tilly-sur-Seulles, south of Bayeux, lay on the frontline of the allied push toward the city of Caen. The village was won and then lost by the British more than 20 times over a three-week period.

“One morning some Brits arrived and chatted with us. I’ll always remember the smell of their English tobacco. It wasn’t something we were used to.”

More than 150,000 allied soldiers stormed the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, bursting through German coastal defenses to open the way to the liberation of western Europe from the Nazi regime.

Seventy-five years later, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May will attend ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the largest seaborne invasion in history and the soldiers who gave their lives.

Faucon’s widowed mother ran their family-owned hotel in Tilly-sur-Seulles. It was requisitioned by the Germans and as many as 250 German soldiers were holed up in the building. One lunchtime, Faucon said, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who commanded the 7th Panzer Division during the 1940 invasion of France, ate there.

Yves Faucon, 86, from Tilly-sur-Seulle in the Normandie region shows a photograph of his mother's hotel in downtown Tilly, which was destroyed during operationsÊafter D-Day, as he attends an interview with Reuters in Tilly-sur-Seulle, France, May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Yves Faucon, 86, from Tilly-sur-Seulle in the Normandie region shows a photograph of his mother’s hotel in downtown Tilly, which was destroyed during operationsÊafter D-Day, as he attends an interview with Reuters in Tilly-sur-Seulle, France, May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

“A German soldier watched on as she (Faucon’s mother) cooked for Rommel. She said to him: ‘If I was going to poison a German I would have done it already’.”

Faucon was awoken at dawn on the morning of the landings by a schoolmaster who told him to dress quickly and grab a blanket, as the incessant pounding of artillery on the coast 20km (12.4 miles) north reverberated through the air.

“They put us in a roadside ditch. We hid there the whole day, 80 of us,” said Faucon, who still lives in the village that lay in ruins by the time it was liberated. “The first English soldiers we saw were flanked by Germans. They were prisoners.”

The British forces suffered heavy losses in the battle for control of Tilly-sur-Seulles, fighting which forced the Faucon family to seek refuge in neighboring villages and remote homesteads.

Outside Tilly-sur-Seulles, flowers are planted at the feet of more than 1,200 crosses in a manicured war cemetery, most of them marking the final resting place of British soldiers.

“When you read these headstones, many of them say ‘Rest in Peace’. But they didn’t know peace,” said Kenneth Loughman, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain who served in Vietnam and was visiting the region’s memorials. “We gotta end going to war.”

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Britain removes word ‘unlikely’ from no-deal Brexit guidance

FILE PHOTO: EU and Union flags overlap during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government has removed the word “unlikely” from its official Brexit guidance telling companies and citizens how to prepare for a disorderly exit where the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.

Theresa May’s government has issued a string of technical notices in recent months with advice on what needs to be done before the country leaves the world’s largest trading bloc on March 29. They cover everything from the movement of organs, blood and sperm to nuclear regulation and organic food.

The notices had originally referred to the “unlikely” chance that Britain leaves the EU without a deal. The documents now refer to simply a “no deal scenario”.

“Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed,” one notice on aviation rules says.

“However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario.”

With just under 100 days until Britain is due to leave the EU, deep divisions in parliament have raised the chances of leaving without a deal.

May has struck an agreement with Brussels on the terms of the divorce but she was forced to pull a parliamentary vote on the proposal last week after admitting it would be defeated.

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Brexit department said the language had been updated after the government started to step up its plans for a no-deal exit.

“We fully expect to get a deal and believe that is the most likely outcome – that is what we are focused on delivering,” she said.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; editing by Stephen Addison)

Donald Trump’s visit puts Britain’s Brexit dependence on show

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – When Donald Trump visits Britain next week, Prime Minister Theresa May will have to face a harsh reality: Brexit makes Britain more dependent than ever on an alliance with the most unpredictable U.S. president in living memory.

Sandwiched between a NATO meeting and a summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Trump’s first visit to Britain as president comes at one of the most important junctures for Europe and the West since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

From challenging Western assumptions about the EU and free trade to courting the Kremlin and North Korea’s leader, Trump has delivered on his promise of an “unpredictable” U.S. foreign policy.

That leaves May, who held hands with Trump at the White House during her visit after his inauguration, in a difficult position as she seeks closer trade ties with the United States to offset the disruption of leaving the EU on March 29, 2019.(F

“The irony is that by leaving the EU, the United Kingdom will be less useful to Washington as an ally but it will also need the United States much more,” said Jeffrey A. Stacey, a former State Department official in Obama’s administration.

“So May has been thrown into the arms of the most unpredictable U.S. president in living memory,” Stacey said.

Over 50,000 people have signed up for a protest on Trafalgar Square in central London against the Trump visit, which will include a meeting with Queen Elizabeth and possibly even a round of golf at his Turnberry course in Scotland.

Even taking account of Trump’s penchant for deal making, the visit is likely to be heavy on rhetoric about an increasingly lopsided “special relationship” and short on specifics such as the details of a post-Brexit trade deal.

For supporters, Trump and Brexit offer the prospect of breaking free from what they see as obsolete institutions and rules that have weakened the United States and its allies relative to competitors such as China.

But for many British diplomats, Brexit marks the collapse of a 70-year British strategy of trying to balance European integration with a U.S. alliance based on blood, trade and intelligence sharing.

“May’s rushed diplomacy with Trump has been foolish: what has she actually got out of the relationship so far?” said one senior European diplomat in London, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“You Brits are leaving Europe but do you really want to jump into the arms of Donald Trump’s America? And more importantly, do you have a choice?” the diplomat asked.

HOLDING HANDS

Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election shocked British diplomats in Washington and relations between May, a vicar’s daughter, and Trump have been strained at times.

The enduring image of May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, when she became the first foreign leader to meet the president after he took office, was Trump taking May’s hand to help her down the steps of a White House colonnade.

But any good vibrations from that moment soon dissipated when Trump, the same day, announced plans to ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries – a decision that drew fierce international criticism and appeared to blindside May.

Days later, thousands marched on parliament to protest the decision to offer a Trump full state visit to Britain, and 1.8 million people signed a petition saying the invitation should be canceled because he might embarrass the Queen.

Trump has repeatedly thwarted British and other European diplomatic overtures, withdrawing from multilateral agreements on climate change, human rights, and a treasured deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Officials around May insist that Britain still has the capability to influence Trump, outlining a handling strategy that involves appealing to his self interest, “planting the seed” of an idea and allowing him time to consider its merits.

But, much will rest on the personal dynamic between May, a staid, career politician who prides herself on careful decision-making, and Trump, the brash, often-bellicose, former reality TV star who declared last month he would know within a minute whether a deal could be struck with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

“We talk about Trump and Macron because it seems interesting with some upsides. We talk about Trump and Angela Merkel because it’s ‘difficult'” said Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the U.S. and Americas program at the Chatham House think tank.

“Theresa May gets a bit lost in all of that. She has neither been strong nor weak, there doesn’t seem to be any special affection.”

Asked at last month’s G7 meeting in Canada whether Trump was a “good friend” to Britain, May said: “The United States and the United Kingdom are good friends. President Trump and I work together.”

But just hours after the meeting concluded he tore up a joint communique on trade, equality and the environment that May and other G7 leaders had labored late into the night to agree.

Therein lies the difficulty for May.

“When he’s here, he’ll give, but I think when he walks away he will very quickly forget what the visit was about,” Vinjamuri said.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

UK PM May joins families to remember Manchester pop concert victims

Painted stones are left in tribute in St Anne's Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May will join Prince William at a memorial service in Manchester on Tuesday to remember the 22 victims of a suicide bombing on a pop concert a year ago, Britain’s deadliest attack for more than a decade.

Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton born to Libyan parents, blew himself up at the end of a show by U.S. singer Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena in northern England in the deadliest militant attack in Britain for 12 years.

People wearing Ariana Grande sweatshirts look at tributes left in St Anne's Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

People wearing Ariana Grande sweatshirts look at tributes left in St Anne’s Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

His victims included seven children, the youngest aged just eight, while more than 500 were injured.

On Tuesday, an hour-long service of commemoration will be held at Manchester Cathedral, including a nationwide one-minute silence at 1330 GMT, with William meeting some of the bereaved families privately afterwards.

“The targeting of the young and innocent as they enjoyed a care free night out in the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017, was an act of sickening cowardice,” May wrote in an article for the Manchester Evening News newspaper.

“It was designed to strike at the heart of our values and our way of life, in one of our most vibrant cities, with the aim of breaking our resolve and dividing us. It failed.”

In other events, singers from local choirs, including the Manchester Survivors Choir made up of those caught up in the attack, will join together in the city for a mass singalong titled “Manchester Together – With One Voice”.

It echoes a moment when crowds broke into an emotional chorus of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Manchester rock group Oasis after a minute of silent tribute days after the bombing.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, speaks on science and the Industrial Strategy at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples/Pool/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, speaks on science and the Industrial Strategy at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples/Pool/File Photo

“Thinking of you all today and every day. I love you with all of me and am sending you all of the light and warmth I have to offer on this challenging day,” Grande wrote on Twitter, including a bee emoticon, the symbol of Manchester.

Britain is seeking the extradition of Abedi’s brother Hashem from Libya over the attack, although the authorities do not believe a wider network was involved.

The Manchester bombing was the deadliest of five attacks in Britain last year blamed on militants which killed a total of 36 people.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Kate Holton)

North, South Korea fix April date for first summit in years

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon is greeted by his North Korean counterpart Ri Son Gwon as he arrives for their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea, March 29, 2018. Korea Pool/Yonhap via REUTERS

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea will hold their first summit in more than a decade on April 27, South Korean officials said on Thursday, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearization as tensions ease between the old foes.

South Korean officials, who announced the date after high-level talks with North Korean counterparts, said the agenda would largely be denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and improving inter-Korean relations.

The two Koreas had agreed to hold the summit at the border truce village of Panmunjom when South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a delegation to Pyongyang this month to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Thursday’s meeting was the first high-level dialogue between the two Koreas since the delegation returned from the North.

The two sides said in a joint statement they would hold a working-level meeting on April 4 to discuss details of the summit, such as staffing support, security and news releases.

“We still have a fair number of issues to resolve on a working level for preparations over the next month,” said Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of North Korea’s committee for the peaceful reunification of the country in closing remarks to the South Korean delegation.

“But if the two sides deeply understand the historic significance and meaning of this summit and give their all, we will be able to solve all problems swiftly and amicably,” Ri added.

Tension over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile surged last year and raised fears of U.S. military action in response to North Korea’s threat to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.

But tension has eased significantly since North Korea decided to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. The neighbours are technically still at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire, not a truce.

China commended both sides for their efforts to improve ties.

“We hope the momentum of dialogue can continue and that the peaceful situation also can last,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a briefing.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was encouraged by the recent developments with North Korea.

“I believe that in this world where unfortunately so many problems seem not to have a solution, I think there is here an opportunity for a peaceful solution to something that a few months ago was haunting us as the biggest danger we were facing,” Guterres told reporters on Thursday.

‘RESOLVE PROBLEMS’

Kim is scheduled to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in May to discuss denuclearization, although a time and place have not been set.

Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a surprise visit to Beijing this week, his first trip outside the isolated North since he came to power in 2011.

Even more surprising was Kim’s pledge to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. That commitment was reported by Chinese state media, although North Korea’s official media made no mention of it, or Kim’s anticipated meeting with Trump.

A senior Chinese official visiting Seoul on Thursday to brief South Korea on Kim’s visit to Beijing said it should help ease tension and lead to the denuclearization of the peninsula.

“We believe his visit will help the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, ensure peace and security of the Korean peninsula and resolve problems regarding the peninsula through political negotiations and discussions,” Yang Jiechi said in opening remarks during a meeting with South Korea’s National Security Office head, Chung Eui-yong.

Yang, a top Chinese diplomat, is scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon told reporters Kim’s visit to China was not discussed with North Korean officials in their Thursday talks.

Trump and Kim had exchanged insults and veiled threats of war in recent months but the U.S. leader made the surprising announcement this month that he was prepared to meet Kim to discuss the crisis over the North’s development of weapons.

The North Korean leader’s engagement with the international community has sparked speculation that he may try to meet other leaders. Japan’s Asahi newspaper said Japan had sounded out the North Korean government about a summit.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono left open the possibility that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might meet Kim at some point. Kono said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that Japan was closely watching preparations for the North-South Korean summit and the Trump-Kim meeting.

Xi promised that Beijing would uphold its friendship with North Korea after his meeting with Kim.

Trump wrote on Twitter he had received a message from Xi late on Tuesday that his meeting with Kim “went very well” and that Kim looked forward to meeting the U.S. president.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING and Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS; Editing by Robert Birsel and James Dalgleish)

U.S. expected to open embassy in Jerusalem in May, official says

A general view of Jerusalem's Old City shows the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in the foreground as the Dome of the Rock, located on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, is seen in the background January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is expected to open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May, a U.S. official told Reuters on Friday, a move from Tel Aviv that reverses decades of U.S. policy.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced last year that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating even Washington’s Arab allies and dismaying Palestinians who want the eastern part of the city as their capital.

A May opening appears to represent an earlier time frame than what had been expected. While speaking in the Israeli parliament last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the move would take place by the end of 2019.

The opening will coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mary Milliken; editing by Grant McCool)

Syrian opposition calls on Trump and EU to put pressure on Russia and Iran

Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria's main opposition, poses for a photograph in central London, Britain January 16, 2018.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and European Union leaders should increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran to return to talks to end Syria’s civil war, Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Monday.

Nasr Hariri said that unless the West forced Assad and his big power allies to seek peace then Syrian civilians would continue to be killed.

“I would like to ask all those countries that promised they would support the Syrian people and their aspirations for democracy and peace: why didn’t they fulfil their promises?” Hariri, speaking in English, told Reuters in London.

The chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition grouping, Hariri called for Trump and EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May to get tougher with Assad.

All diplomatic initiatives have so far failed to yield progress in ending the war, which is now entering its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.

The map of Syria’s conflict has been decisively redrawn in favor of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during the past two years. They have recaptured major population centres in western Syria from rebels seeking to overthrow him and pushed back Islamic State in the east.

In the face of the collapse of rebel-held territory, most Western countries have quietly softened their positions that Assad must leave power as part of any peace deal. But the opposition entered the last formal talks last month without softening its demand Assad go, prompting the government to declare the talks pointless.

Nevertheless, Hariri suggested Western powers still had enough influence to push the government to negotiate.

“It is time for President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May to say: ‘Stop’,” the former cardiologist said.

“It is time for Trump, Merkel and May to increase pressure and bring the international community together to get a genuine and just political situation in Syria.”

Hariri represents the Saudi-backed umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups which are opposed to Assad and supported by the West. He said the next round of the so-called “Geneva talks” on the fate of Syria would take place in late January, probably around Jan. 24-26 in Vienna.

A spokesman for Hariri said the opposition would attend those talks.

MORE TALKS?

Hariri said discussions in Washington, including with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had been positive and that the Trump administration understood the situation.

“Iran and Russia are trying to deprioritise the transition,” he said. “We need the international community’s help to put pressure on the regime and their backers, Russia and Iran.

“The Americans want to test the Russians and the regime in the next round of talks. They want to move the Geneva process forward,” Hariri said.

When asked about U.S. plans to help support a 30,000-strong force dominated by the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), he said it could lead to Syria’s partition.

“What are the benefits of establishing such an army?” he asked. “It will open the door wide for a future struggle in the region. It could open the door to the future partition of Syria.”

Assad has responded to the plan by vowing to drive U.S. troops from Syria. Turkey has called the force a terrorist army and vowed to crush it. Iran said on Tuesday creation of the SDF force would “fan the flames of war”, echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Hariri said it was very unlikely that the Syrian opposition would attend a meeting on Syria organized by Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The opposition had received no invitation so far, and no final decision on attendance had been made.

“We have not been invited yet,” he said. “The general mood is not to go to Sochi. My personal view is that in its current shape, it is unacceptable to attend Sochi.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff)