Assad Opponents Rebuff U.S.-Russia Call for Syria Talks

Syria’s opposition is spurning efforts by the U.S. and Russia to convene talks between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his opponents in an effort to end two years of warfare and empower a transitional government.

The Syrian National Coalition said any political solution “should start with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and the pillars of his regime,” according to a statement yesterday on its Facebook page that cast doubt on prospects for new talks.

Seeking to assuage such concerns, Secretary of State John Kerry said today that Assad won’t be part of any transitional government. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed May 7 to press for an international conference seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which the United Nations says has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011.

Assad’s government welcomed the joint initiative. Syria believes Russia will maintain its opposition to interference in Syrian internal affairs and the use or threat of force, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to the official news agency SANA. The “credibility” of U.S. backing for a political solution depends on “working seriously with its allies to halt the violence and terrorism,” it said.

Kerry, speaking during a visit to Rome, said that conversations yesterday with the opposition and other nations to prepare the ground for the U.S.-Russian initiative have been productive. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, arrived in Istanbul yesterday to meet with opposition leaders in a bid to persuade them to participate.

‘Mutual Consent’

Seeking Russian support, Kerry had earlier softened the U.S. public demand that Assad must go, saying a decision on Syria’s leadership transition must be made by “mutual consent” of the current regime and the opposition. Russia says Assad’s resignation can’t be a precondition for talks.

The U.S.-Russian proposal is short on details and circumvents the future status of Assad should talks get under way. At the White House yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. hasn’t shifted it basic view. Syria’s future “cannot include” Assad, he said.

Opposition officials expect that the U.S. will try to use the influence from friendly nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to get them to attend a conference where Assad and his government are represented, Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, told Al Arabiya TV. The starting point for any negotiation is Assad’s departure, he said.

‘Hopeful News’

The U.S.-Russia initiative “is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy for Syria, said in a statement.

Russia, whose ties with the Assad dynasty date back to the Soviet era, has vetoed three European-drafted UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown and threatening to impose economic sanctions. Russia has defended its actions, saying the opposition was equally to blame for the violence and that Western powers were seeking a Libya-style regime change.

In Geneva last year, Russia and anti-Assad nations agreed in principle to UN-brokered guidelines to bring the conflict to a close. Still, difficulties arose when it came down to details and bringing about a transition.

Kerry met May 7 with Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin amid calls from some Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress for American intervention in the civil war.

‘Certain Persons’

During the news conference with Kerry, Lavrov faulted the rebels for impeding talks, saying he’d talked the previous day by telephone with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who confirmed the Assad government’s readiness for dialogue.

Lavrov said Russia feels strongly that it’s “up to the Syrian people” to decide the fate of its current leaders and the composition of a future government. He added that Russia isn’t “interested in the fate of certain persons” -- a reference to Assad.

Kerry said opposition leaders have expressed their commitment to holding talks, issuing a declaration in Istanbul last month supporting a transition proposal. The Geneva communique called on all parties to cease violence and participate in a Syrian-led political process to create a transitional government.

“The alternative is that there’s even more violence,” Kerry said. “The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos.”

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