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Dispute over Assad's future threatens Syria peace talks

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-23

The opening day of the Geneva 2 peace talks ended in sharp divisions over the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict in Syria has left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.

The international “Geneva 2” peace conference aims to follow through on plans developed at talks in Geneva in June 2012 for a transitional government for Syria and, ultimately, a democratic election in the war-torn country. But the Syrian opposition and the United States remain adamant that Assad can have no future role, while other participants  – namely Russia  – say all sides in the conflict must play a part in mapping out the country’s future.

The United States and the Syrian opposition opened the conference by saying that Assad lost his legitimacy when he crushed the once-peaceful protest movement that began in March 2011.

“There is no way – no way possible in the imagination – that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry. “One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation, and a region, hostage.”

Syrian opposition leader Amhad al-Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition had waited until the last minute to confirm his attendance at the peace talks, which are largely opposed by the rebel brigades doing the actual fighting in Syria.

Al-Jarba reiterated Wednesday that any discussion of Assad’s continued hold on power would effectively end the talks. A transitional government “is the only topic for us”, he said.

The Syrian opposition plans to present a three- to six-month timetable for setting up a transitional governing body that does not include Assad, opposition delegate Anas al-Abdah said Wednesday.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides must have a say in the country’s future and condemned any "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012 UN agreement that called for Syrians to “democratically … determine their own future”.

Foreign 'terrorism'

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the delegates that terrorists with foreign support had torn his country apart. He accused both the West and Syria’s neighbours of sending money, weapons and foreign fighters to aid the rebels.

“The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly,” he said. “Syrians here in this hall participated in all that has happened. They implemented, facilitated the bloodshed, and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent.”

He then refused to give up the podium, despite requests from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” he told Ban. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hit back at the Syrian regime's claims, calling them "unfounded accusations".

"This is not about having a general discussion about Syria, hurling abuse or slogans, nor a way to gain time nor to make speeches repeating the word 'terrorism'," Fabius told the delegates. "This is about finding a political deal for Syria involving a transitional authority with full executive powers."

Assad has accused France of acting as a "proxy" for regional powers Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which support Syria's opposition rebels.

Low expectations

Iran was notably absent from the talks after the UN disinvited its envoys following threats from the Syrian opposition to back out if delegates from Tehran were present. Iran and Russia have been Assad’s strongest supporters throughout the conflict.

Diplomats have played down expectations for the Swiss peace talks, although they have also said repeatedly that they are the only hope for ending Syria’s civil war.

Assad’s forces have gained ground in recent months against the rebels who, Assad claims, are made up of mainly foreign terrorists allied with al Qaeda.

As the diplomats sparred in Montreux, Syrian forces battled opposition fighters on Wednesday in clashes ranging from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to the city of Daraa in the south, activists and state media said.

The UN chief warned that the talks offered only a "fragile" hope for a peace deal.

"Enough is enough; the time has to come to negotiate," Ban said. "Syrians must come together to save their country, protect their children and find a peaceful path."

"We must seize this fragile chance,” he said.

At least 130,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began after a peaceful uprising in March 2011 against Assad’s rule. The unrest has also forced two million Syrians to flee their homes, according to UN estimates.

The UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told delegates he would be meeting with both sides on Thursday to discuss the next step in negotiations.

"Tomorrow I am going to meet them separately and see how best we can move forward," he said.

Syrian regime and opposition delegations have been scheduled to restart talks on Friday.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

 

Date created : 2014-01-22

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