A remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry that President Bashar Assad should be included in negotiations on a Syrian political transition provoked alarm and dismay on Monday among commentators close to Gulf governments opposed to his rule.
“Bashar has no legitimacy after killing his people and driving 11 million out of their houses. How can you sit down and talk to him and keep him in power? It’s a big joke for us,” said Abdulaziz Al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center based in Jeddah and Geneva.
“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said. “We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference which called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict.
One major US ally appeared to differ. France said it was sticking to its opposition to talks with Assad, saying these had to include Syrian opposition members and elements of the exiting regime — but not Assad — to pave the way to a unity government.
Other Gulf countries, which have backed Syrian rebels against Assad, worried about Kerry’s remarks. “The fact that Assad is still in the picture is something we have lived with and accepted as an interim arrangement. If Mr. Kerry was talking about this same interim arrangement — one year or two years until negotiations reach some fruit — we understand,” said Sami Al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti adviser to the GCC.
“But if he means that even after negotiations Assad would stay on, that is unacceptable.” Nasser Al-Omar, a cleric with over 1.6 million Twitter followers, tweeted on Monday that Kerry’s comments were evidence of a deal between Tehran and Washington to make Iran “America’s policeman in the region.”
Meanwhile, Assad said Monday that only Syrians can decide his future. Asked about Kerry’s statement, Assad said, “We are still hearing statements and have to wait for actions. Then we will decide.” Assad added that any “talk about the future of the Syrian president is for Syrian people alone.”
Assad said Damascus is not concerned about comments made from abroad, describing them as “bubbles that disappear after some time.”
Assad said that international overtures are positive “if they are sincere.” He added that such a move should start with “ceasing political support to terrorists, stop financing them and stop sending weapons.”
He said that pressure should be exerted on European countries and regional states who give “logistical, financial and military support to terrorists and then we can say that the change has become real.”