and Zeina Karam
BEIRUT: Syria’s foreign minister laid out a hard line Wednesday, saying Bashar Assad will remain president at least until elections in 2014 and might seek another term, conditions that will make it difficult for the opposition to agree to U.N.-sponsored talks on ending the civil war.
Any deal reached in such talks would have to be put to a referendum, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem added in a TV interview, introducing a new condition that could complicate efforts by the United States and Russia to bring both sides together at an international conference in Geneva, possibly next month.
Drawing a tough line of its own, the main exile-based political group, the Syrian National Coalition, reiterated that any negotiations require “the head of the regime, security and military leadership to step down and be excluded from the political process.”
While the Assad regime has agreed in principle to attend peace talks, the opposition has not, insisting it first get international guarantees on the agenda and timetable. The coalition has been meeting for the past week in Turkey but spent most of that time arguing about membership issues, rather than making a decision about Geneva.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that while Russia and the United States have asked him to convene a meeting as soon as possible, “there are still many elements that we have to clear.” He said there is still no agreement on a date, on who will participate, and on the membership of a united opposition delegation.
In his wide-ranging comments, al-Moallem, an Assad stalwart with decades in top positions, reflected a new confidence by the government. The regime had seemed near collapse during a rebel offensive last summer but has scored a number of battlefield successes in recent weeks.
“Our armed forces have regained the momentum,” he told the Lebanese station Al-Mayadeen, suggesting that the regime is digging in. Asked when the civil war might end, he said: “That depends on when the patience of those conspiring against Syria will run out.”
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011, turned into an armed insurgency in response to a harsh regime crackdown, and escalated into a civil war. The fighting has killed more than 70,000 people, uprooted more than 5 million and devastated large areas of the country.
The conflict has taken on strong sectarian overtones — most of the armed rebels are Sunni Muslims, a majority in Syria, while Assad has retained core support among the country’s minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiite Muslims.