Syria’s government and opposition, meeting A the first time, angrily spelled out their mutual hostility at a UN peace conference here Wednesday when world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcing out Bashar Assad.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who led the Saudi delegation to the conference, insisted that there could be no role in Syria’s transition for Assad and those whose hands are “stained in blood.”
Speaking at the conference, Prince Saud also called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are backing Damascus against rebel forces.
The UN conference must not lose sight of the goal of a political transition in Syria, the Saudi chief diplomat said, adding: “The time is right not to let down the Syrian people again.”
Syrian Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the meeting to sign up to an international plan for handing over power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem said Assad would not bow to outside demands and painted a graphic picture of “terrorist” rebel atrocities supported by Western states who back the opposition and were present in the room. “Assad isn’t going,” the Syrian minister said.
The United States and Russia, cosponsors of the conference, which UN officials hope will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday, also revealed their differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations.
Western officials said they were taken aback by the combative tone adopted by Al-Muallem, who also defied UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plea to shorten his speech. Some diplomats questioned whether negotiations could continue.
US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is “no way” Assad could stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urging an interim coalition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides had a role and condemned “one-sided interpretations” of the 2012 pact.
Opposition leader Jarba called for the government delegates to turn against their president. “We want to make sure we have a partner in this room that goes from being a Assad delegation to a free delegation so that all executive powers are transferred from Assad,” the National Coalition leader added.