Syrian regime says Assad ouster is a ‘red line’ ahead of peace talks

Both the government and the main opposition grouping, which is being represented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), have agreed to attend negotiations in Geneva after the last round collapsed in February.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem sits beneath a portrait of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad as he speaks during a press conference in Damascus on March 12, 2016. SANA via AP
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DAMASCUS // The Syrian government on Saturday said the ouster of president Bashar Al Assad remains a “red line” just two days ahead of renewed talks aimed at ending the conflict.

The UN-brokered negotiations in Geneva are the latest push by the international community to find a solution to Syria’s five-year war, which has killed more than 270,000 people.

Both the government and the main opposition grouping, which is being represented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) at negotiations, have agreed to attend the talks after the last round collapsed in February.

Chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush and HNC delegation head Asaad Al Zoabi were in Geneva on Saturday.

“The regime was counting on the opposition not to come to Geneva ... but it is here, and it will have a united stance, vision, and negotiating strategy,” said HNC delegation member Hassan Abdel Azim.

The HNC has repeatedly called for Mr Al Assad’s departure at the start of any transitional period, but Syria’s foreign minister said that was out of the question.

“We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency ... Bashar Al Assad is a red line,” said Walid Muallem.

“If they continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva.”

He said the government delegation would go to Switzerland on Sunday.

Despite their appearing to be no common ground between the two camps, however, US secretary of state John Kerry appeared hopeful on Saturday that progress would be made at the talks.

Ending a visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, Mr Kerry said he had discussed developments in Syria with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saudi King Salman, and top Saudi officials.

“We believe that the start of talks this next week in Geneva presents a critical moment for bringing the political solution to the table that we’ve all been waiting for,” he said.

He added that progress on the transitional government should take place “as soon as possible”.

Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, meanwhile, said: “I would emphasise that people see the future of Syria without Bashar Al Assad.”

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said the meetings in Geneva would not last more than 10 days.

The negotiations, if they take place, will cover the formation of a new government, a fresh constitution and UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months, Mr de Mistura said.

However, Mr Muallem said the UN envoy had “no right” to discuss future presidential elections.

“Neither he nor anyone else, whoever they may be, has the right to discuss presidential elections,” he said. “This right is exclusively for the Syrian people.”

The foreign minister said the negotiations would aim to form a “unity government” which would then appoint a committee to either write a new constitution or amend the existing one.

“Then we will have a referendum for the Syrian people to decide on it,” he said, adding that a federal division of Syria was not an option.

The HNC has also insisted on Syria’s territorial unity, but says talks must create a “transitional governance body with full executive powers”.

Chief opposition negotiator Mr Alloush said Mr Muallem’s comments were “ridiculous and show that the regime is not serious about the political process”.

Also on Saturday, Mr de Mistura told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that although Syria's Kurds were not invited to talks, they should be given the opportunity to voice their views on the country's political future.

Regime backer Russia had called on Mr de Mistura to include Syrian Kurdish representatives in peace talks.

Despite the lack of political consensus, violence in Syria has decreased since a landmark truce between the regime and rebels across parts of the country began two weeks ago.

Brokered by the United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, the cessation of hostilities appears to be largely holding despite accusations of violations.

Ending a visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, Mr Kerry said US and Russian officials would meet later in the day to discuss opposition complaints of truce violations.

“Our teams are meeting today with Russia in both Geneva and Amman, where very detailed lay downs will take place regarding these allegations,” he said.

Air raids by the Syrian regime killed seven civilians in rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitoring group also said a rebel group was claiming to have shot down a regime warplane in central Hama province, but a pro-government Facebook page blamed “technical difficulties”.

Mr Kerry said “perceived” violations of the truce should not derail the peace talks, however.

“The level of violence by all accounts has been reduced by 80 to 90 per cent, which is very, very significant,” he said.

The UN’s top humanitarian officials said on Friday that the truce had brought “fragile glimmers of hope” to the humanitarian situation, but “it is just not enough”.

* Agence France-Presse