Syria’s ‘mission of hope’ stuck over Assad's future

Syrian opposition leader calls on Assad to hand over power to a transitional government at the Geneva II peace talks

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The second Syria peace conference in Geneva got off to a rocky start on Wednesday when sharp disputes over the future of President Bashar al-Assad threatened to wreck negotiations before they began.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Western powers, Russia and Arab countries had all agreed to hold the conference on the basis of a previous Geneva conference, held in June 2013, in which rival parties agreed to form a transitional authority with no role for President Assad.


But the dynamics of the Syrian civil war have changed since June 2013 and today Assad is believed to have the upper hand on the ground with his rival rebel groups busy fighting each other.

The Syrian regime appeared in the opening session of the conference Wednesday less willing to compromise than it was seven months ago.

Assad’s major supporter Iran refused to recognize the Geneva I agreement, thus was not invited to Geneva II.

Before the conference kicked off, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said the peace talks were unlikely to be successful, according to the official IRNA news agency. “Because of the lack of influential players in the meeting, I doubt about the Geneva II meeting's success in fighting against terrorism ... and its ability to resolve the Syria crisis,” Rowhani said.

“The Geneva II meeting has already failed without it even being started,” he added.

Speaking at the conference, Syrian opposition leader said Assad must hand over power to a transitional government.

“I call on (the regime delegation) to immediately sign the Geneva 1 communique (setting out) the transfer of powers from Assad, including for the army and security, to a transition government,” Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition, told the delegations gathered in the city of Montreux.

Jarba’s speech was broadcast on the Syrian state TV accompanied by videos titled “the crimes of the Syrian opposition.”

While the U.N. chief urged the warring sides to seize the opportunity to resolve their conflict, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said: "Assad will not be part of that transitional government."

The Montreux Palace hotel facade is reflected in a pool as security officials rest during the second session of Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux Jan. 22, 2014. (Reuters)
The Montreux Palace hotel facade is reflected in a pool as security officials rest during the second session of Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux Jan. 22, 2014. (Reuters)

“There is no way, not possible in the imagination, that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain legitimacy to govern,” he added.

Syrian defiance

Addressing John Kerry, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said that no one outside the Syrian territory has the right to remove Assad from power.

Yesterday he said Assad’s future would be a “red line” during negotiations.

Muallem spared no time to call the country's opposition “traitors” and foreign “agents,” in his remarks.

“They claim to represent the Syrian people. If you want to speak in the name of the Syrian people, you should not be traitors to the Syrian people, agents in the pay of enemies of the Syrian people,” Muallem said.

He accused countries who have imported terrorism in Syria to be attending the talks.

“Countries that have exported terrorism are sitting among us now,” Muallem said.

“These countries have preached to Syria with honor, while they soak in mud and backwardness,” he said.

“These countries have used their petrodollars to export terrorism to Syria,” he added, in an apparent reference to Gulf states, who have supported the Syrian opposition.

“It is regrettable to me and to the people of Syria that representatives of states in this room are sitting with us today, while blood is on their hands -- countries that have sent weapons ... encouraged and financed terrorism,” Muallem said.

“They have not looked at their own glass houses before throwing stones,” he said.

“The mask has fallen and we can see the real face of what they want -- to destabilize Syria .. by exporting terrorism -- to hide their barbaric behavior,” he thundered.

Syria criticized the role of foreign Sunni Islamist fighters who have flocked to the war-torn country -- though Assad is backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah -- and says it is locked in a “war on terror.”

“Who told you that Syria wants to go back 1,000 years,” he said, warning against extreme Islamism.

“It will not stop in Syria,” he said.

He singled out Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for backing the opposition.

“All of this would not have happened if it had not been for Erdogan -- they did not know that magic would turn against the magician one day -- terrorism has no religion,” he said.

“I have the right to give the Syrian version here,” Muallem said, when he was confronted by Ban Ki-moon for speaking longer than the set speech time. The comment erupted into a brief bickering episode between the pair, as the Syrian delegate said he “promised” to speak only two more minutes, adding: “Syria always keeps its promises.”

Arab stance

Nabil al-Arabi, the Arab League chief, said that a political solution in Syria is still possible and stressed on the importance of a transitional leadership in the country.

During the conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that there can be no role in Syria's transition for President Bashar al-Assad and those whose hands are “stained in blood.”

Prince Faisal called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are backing Damascus against rebel forces.

The United Nations conference must not lose sight of the goal of a political transition in Syria, he said, adding: “The time is right not to let down the Syrian people again.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks to Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal prior to the Geneva-2 peace talks in Montreux Jan. 22, 2014. (Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks to Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal prior to the Geneva-2 peace talks in Montreux Jan. 22, 2014. (Reuters)

The U.N.-backed talks are set to bring on the same table representatives from the Assad government as well as the main opposition backed by the West.

On the eve of the conference, the situation in the war-torn country did not seem to calm down especially with the accusation by three former war crime international prosecutors that Assad’s regime has been “industrial-scale killing” and torturing detainees.

But the Syrian justice ministry on Wednesday slammed the report as “politicized,” calling the shocking photos in the document “fake.”

“The justice ministry completely denies the veracity of the report,” Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the ministry as saying in a statement.

“It is a politicized report that lacks objectivity and professionalism,” the ministry said.

It is the first time that the Syrian regime and the opposition will meet since the beginning of the civil war which killed more than 130,000 dead and left millions displaced.

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