DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar Assad’s removal remains a “red line” for the Syrian government, the war-wracked country’s foreign minister said Saturday ahead of fragile peace talks in Geneva.
Walid Moallem also told a news conference in Damascus that the government delegation to the talks due to start Monday will wait no more than 24 hours for the opposing side to arrive.
“Our delegation will leave for Geneva tomorrow… We will wait 24 hours and if no one is there, then we will return,” Moallem told a news conference in Damascus.
But he said the government refused to discuss the fate of Assad.
“We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency… Bashar Assad is a red line and is the property of the Syrian people,” Muallem said.
The main opposition body, the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has repeatedly called for Assad’s departure at the start of any transitional period.
“If they continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva,” Moallem said.
The last round of UN-mediated talks in Geneva between the government and the HNC collapsed in February.
At the time, the HNC delegation arrived in Switzerland around 36 hours after the government, but waited another two days to head to the UN headquarters.
Moallem derided the HNC for “spending the last round in hotels,” calling on them to immediately head to the UN headquarters this time around.
Call for ‘unity government’
Both the government and the HNC have agreed to participate in the fresh round of indirect talks in the Swiss city.
UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said the talks would cover the formation of a new government, a fresh constitution, and UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.
But Moallem said de Mistura had “no right” to discuss future presidential elections or any agenda items.
“Neither he nor anyone else, whoever they may be, has the right to discuss presidential elections. This right is exclusively for the Syrian people,” the top diplomat said.
Instead, Moallem said the negotiations would aim to form a “unity government” which would then appoint a committee to either write a new constitution or amend the current one.
“Then we will have a referendum for the Syrian people to decide on it,” he said, adding that a federal division of Syria was not an option.
Fighting across parts of Syria has decreased after the regime and rebels agreed to a landmark ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow, but both sides have repeatedly accused each other of violations.
“We committed to the cessation of hostilities starting on February 27, and we are still committed,” Muallem said.
“But our right to respond (to fire) is a legitimate right and cannot be considered a violation.”
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