Syrian FM: Assad’s future is a ‘red line’

Walid Muallem said ‘nobody can touch the presidency’

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Syria President Bashar al-Assad is a “red line,” his foreign minister Walid Muallem said upon his arrival in the Swiss town of Montreux Tuesday, on the eve of long-awaited peace talks with the opposition.

“The issues of the president and the regime are red lines for us and for the Syrian people,” the official SANA news agency quoted Muallem as saying shortly before his delegation arrived in the Swiss city of Montreux for the talks.

“Nobody can touch the presidency.”

Muallem promised that the government delegation would make every effort to ensure the peace conference bore fruit.

“We are committed to working for the success of this conference so that it is the first step on the road to a dialogue between Syrians on Syrian soil,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon earlier said the talks will be based on a previous agreement reached in June last year. That agreement, often referred to as Geneva I, called for the formation of a transitional authority in which President Assad would not play a role.

Members of his regime would, however, would not be excluded in the envisioned interim government.

All international parties invited to the peace conference agreed to Geneva I recommendations as a baseline for further negotiations.

Iran, a staunch ally of President Assad, refused to recognize the Geneva I communiqué as a precondition for attending the Geneva II conference.

The U.N. chief shocked many parties on Monday when he sent an invitation to Iran to attend the conference. He later quickly withdrew the invite following outcry from the Syrian opposition, its Arab allies and the United States.

International diplomats have built up the importance of the talks for weeks, insisting that there was no other way out of the war that has killed more than 130,000 people, according to Associated Press.

But they have simultaneously lowered expectations for a breakthrough. Russian news agencies, citing diplomatic sources, said the talks were expected to last seven to 10 days, then take a short break.

High-ranking delegations were arriving Tuesday from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending, AP reported.

Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents - the first of the uprising - are to start Friday in Geneva.

But it’s also unclear how the opposition coalition, a weak and fractured umbrella group with almost no sway over the most powerful rebel groups inside Syria, could enforce any agreement reached in Geneva.

A new report emerged on Syrian regime atrocities, written by three former war crimes prosecutors who said they received thousands of photographs documenting torture and executions from a defector within the Syrian government. The report, which could not be independently verified, was commissioned by Qatar, which has been deeply involved in the conflict and is attending the peace conference.

The report documents the systematic killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities. The images showed victims’ bodies with signs of torture and maltreatment.

Its emergence Tuesday appeared timed to affect deliberations at the peace conference. Participants in the talks diverge sharply on their scope, with the Western-backed Syrian opposition saying its goal was to establish a transitional government “in which killers and criminals do not participate.”

The front lines of the war have been largely locked in place since March, and despite suffering enormous losses, neither the government nor the opposition appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position.

“We must take small steps,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, citing cease-fires and humanitarian corridors.

(With AP and AFP)

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