BRUSSELS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad should be involved in any Syrian peace talks, amid mounting pressure to end the four-year conflict. The comments by the leader of Europe’s biggest political and economic power come amid increasing signs that Western powers who were once insistent on Assad’s departure may be softening their positions in a bid to end the war. US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that although Assad must step down, that need not immediately be upon reaching a settlement to end the country’s civil war. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has made similar comments. But French President Francois Hollande, whose country is set to launch air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, insisted Thursday that there could be no place for Assad.