Saturday, December 12, 2015 8:45 am
Washington helped broker an agreement reached on Thursday by more than 100 members of Syria’s opposition parties and more than a dozen rebel fighting groups ranging from Islamists to Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups – but not Islamic State – to send a joint team to meet the government under U.N. auspices next month.
The initiative is driven at least partly by their focus on defeating a common enemy in the form of Islamic State, which has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and is increasingly ordering or inspiring attacks on the West and Russia.
But in an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE, Assad said he would not hold political talks with any armed groups, and accused Washington and its ally Saudi Arabia of wanting “terrorist groups” to join negotiations.
He said Syria had had contact with armed groups for one reason only: “to reach a situation where they give up their armaments and either join the government or go back to their normal life … This is the only way to deal with the militants in Syria.
“There’s no point in meeting in New York or anywhere else without defining terrorist groups,” he said. “For us, in Syria, everyone who holds a machinegun is a terrorist.”
Foreign ministers of countries opposed to Assad are due to meet in Paris on Monday to prepare for talks with Russia and Middle Eastern countries in New York on Thursday with a specific focus on trying to form the opposition delegation for the peace talks.
Before Assad’s remarks were published, Washington said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Moscow on Tuesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The experience of a failed peace conference in Switzerland two years ago had kept expectations for the latest push low.
DEMANDS THAT ASSAD LEAVE
The rebel groups issued a statement at the end of their two-day conference in Riyadh saying Assad should leave power at the start of a transitional period, and calling for an all-inclusive, democratic civic state.
Although the demand goes beyond what Western powers are calling for, it is rejected by Assad’s patrons Russia and Iran.