President Bashar al-Assad told UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday that talks to end Syria’s civil war would only succeed if foreign powers ended support for rebels fighting to overthrow him.
Brahimi is in Damascus to meet Syrian officials in an effort to shore up support for faltering peace talks.
State television quoted Assad as telling Brahimi,”the success of any political solution is tied to stopping support for terrorist groups and pressuring their patron states.” Assad’s government calls the armed opposition terrorists.
More than 115,000 people have been killed in the 31-month armed uprising against the Syrian government triggered by a bloody crackdown on protests.
Brahimi has been traveling throughout the Middle East to drum up support for Geneva peace talks, and the Syrian leg of the tour is the most sensitive as he needs to persuade a wary government and an increasingly divided opposition to attend.
A diplomatic source told AFP he was to hold talks with Assad in the morning, and journalists said he was later seen leaving his Damascus hotel with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad in a convoy of UN cars.
On the eve of his first talks with Assad since December, Damascus said only Syrians can choose their future, rejecting Western and Arab demands the president step down.
“Syria will attend Geneva II based on the exclusive right of the Syrian people to choose their political future, to choose their leaders and to reject all forms of external intervention,” Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Brahimi.
He also said all statements about the country’s future, especially “the one from London,” were “infringements on the rights of the Syrian people” and “preconditions to the dialogue before it has even started.”
That was a reference to an October 22 meeting at which Assad’s opponents and countries that back them – including the United States – declared he had no future role to play in Syria.
Brahimi insisted the Geneva talks would be “between the Syrian parties” and that only Syrians would decide their future, the official SANA news agency reported.
The Algerian envoy added there was agreement on “the importance of ending the violence, terrorism and respecting Syrian sovereignty,” according to SANA.
The main opposition National Coalition has said it will refuse to attend any talks unless Assad’s resignation is on the table, and some rebel groups have warned anyone who goes will be considered a traitor.
In a defiant interview broadcast earlier this month, Assad himself cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying he will not negotiate with any group tied to the rebels or to foreign states.
With prospects dimming of Geneva II taking place next month as hoped, Assad sacked his vice premier, Qadri Jamil, for being absent without leave and carrying out unauthorized meetings abroad.
The dismissal comes after Jamil met with the US pointman for Syria Robert Ford in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the proposed talks.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Ford met the “Syrian deputy prime minister, who … led a government-affiliated internal opposition party and who has now reportedly departed that post”.
“Ambassador Ford stressed that we must all work for a political solution on the lines of Geneva, that Assad and the inner circle have lost legitimacy and must go.”
Jamil himself told Lebanese television he planned to return to Damascus and defended his meetings abroad.
“Our meetings with international parties to halt the bloodbath in Syria are legitimate,” he said.
In the latest measure of Syria’s disintegration, the World Health Organization confirmed 10 polio cases in the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, all of them in children under the age of two.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)