PARIS // Syrian president Bashar Al Assad must leave office as soon as a transitional authority is set up, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said on Saturday, insisting that there is no way he can retain power.
Talks between the regime and Syrian opposition, due to resume next week in Geneva, aim to set up a political transition process to end the country’s five-year-old war. A UN-brokered international road map foresees a transitional authority by the middle of this year and elections by mid-2017.
“Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process,” Mr Al Jubeir, whose country backs the Syrian opposition, said in Paris. “There is a transitional body, power shifts from Assad to the transitional body, and then he goes.”
After that “the transitional body drafts a constitution, prepares for elections. Some are arguing that no, Bashar leaves at the elections in 18 months, that’s not how we think. For us it is very clear, he leaves at the beginning of the process, not at the end.”
Mr Al Assad enjoys firm backing from Iran and Russia, however, and his military position has strengthened in recent months, especially since Moscow entered the war last September. Meanwhile, the United States and other Western governments that had previously called for the president’s early departure have since quietly backed away from that demand.
Earlier on Saturday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said that Syria peace talks set for March 9 would now begin the following day with participants due to arrive in Geneva over several days.
The United Nations said the delay was due to “logistical and technical reasons and also for a cessation of hostilities that began on February 27 to better settle down”.
A pro-Damascus Lebanese television channel, Al Mayadeen, reported from its own sources that talks had been moved to March 13. This claim could not be independently verified.
A first round of talks in early February was cut short amid intensifying Russian air strikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces.
But a partial – and fragile – truce drawn up by Russia and the United States and backed by the UN Security Council is now in its second week, despite accusations of violations.
The opposition is dissatisfied with the implementation of the deal, however, and has yet to say whether it will attend the new talks. Fighting continues in many parts of Syria, and rebels say the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and fighters from Iran-backed Hizbollah, has kept up attacks on strategically important front lines.
Fighting has also continued between rebel groups and Kurdish-backed forces in northern Aleppo, and between rebel groups and ISIL.
On Saturday the extremist group regained control of a border crossing with Iraq that was seized by a group of rebels on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Also on Saturday, the Observatory said that 135 people had been killed in areas covered by the truce agreement since it came into force. In areas not covered by the truce, 552 people were killed, said the Britain-based monitoring group, which tracks the conflict via sources on the ground.
The fall-off in violence has made aid deliveries easier in some areas of the country, but Mr de Mistura said the Syrian government should be processing aid faster.
“Lorries are waiting for 36 hours,” he said. “And medical aid must be allowed.”
On Wednesday the World Health Organization said Syrian officials had rejected the delivery of medical supplies, including trauma and burn kits and antibiotics, in a convoy to the besieged town of Moadamiya two days earlier.
Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said on Friday that conditions for peace talks were “not favourable” and that medical and food supplies were being blocked despite the truce.
Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the main Saudi-backed opposition grouping, said it had named a new president.
Anas Abda will replace Khaled Khoja as head of the group.
* Agence France-Presse, Reuters