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Opposition calls Assad stumbling block to peace in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad is the problem and Syria can only start to heal once he's gone. That's according to Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the Syrian opposition's delegation to Geneva where UN-mediated talks are deadlocked.

Syria's civil war, which started in 2011 after Assad's forces launched a crackdown against protests, has cost a quarter of a million lives and driven half the country's population from their homes, according to UN estimates.

An initial round of talks was suspended in February amid opposition anger at a Russian-backed government offensive near the northern city of Aleppo which sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing.

Talks in the balance

The standoff has prompted worries that the opposition could quit the peace talks, which started last month in Geneva, despite a reduction in fighting due to a ceasefire.

An international roadmap drawn up by the United States and Russia that paved the way for peace talks calls for a transitional government and a draft constitution by August, followed by UN-monitored elections.

Assad has rejected a transitional body with executive powers, as demanded by the opposition, instead calling for a national unity government.

Syrian elections

Parliamentary elections also held on Wednesday

are expected to be dominated by Assad's Arab nationalist Baath Party and other regime loyalists, according to state news agency SANA.

The outgoing parliament was elected in 2012 and al-Assad himself was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014.

About 63 percent of the population lived in government-held areas as of November, according to estimates by analyst Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

The new 250-member parliament being chosen Wednesday is expected to serve as a rubber stamp for Assad.

Western leaders and members of Syria's opposition have denounced the election as illegitimate and a provocation that undermines the peace talks.

Writing on the wall

An election poster of President Assad in Damascus

An election poster of President Assad in Damascus

The vote comes as the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, aims to renew "proximity talks" among opposition groups and regime representatives to chart a political transition.

The UN has dismissed the parliamentary elections and last week de Mistura said he was more interested in elections the UN Security Council voted should be held in 18 months as part of a political transition.

Russia, on the other hand,

called the elections necessary, insisting they would avoid a power vacuum.

Assad meanwhile rejects the idea of Syria becoming a federal state, a position advocated by the Kurds but rejected by the opposition and UN envoy.

Earlier this month the main Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), who were not invited to talks in Geneva, declared a federal region in territories under their control. They have taken advantage of the Syrian conflict to carve out three autonomous regions in the north.

Alawites turn on Assad

Leaders of Assad's Alawite branch of Islam have reportedly also taken a stand against his regime.

Assad's family belongs to the Alawite faith, which emerged in the 10th century and is often associated with Shiite Islam. The Alawites represent around 12 percent of Syria's population, but they've dominated the country's government and security forces for much of the past four decades.

The Alawite link to Shiite Islam is often seen as a key reason why Shiite Iran supports Assad's regime in the face of an uprising by Syria's Sunni majority and other ethnic groups. Some Alawites fear retaliation by these larger religious factions should Assad be overthrown.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds have been pressuring the Syrian opposition to fire Zoubi after he suggested in March that Kurds were "bandits and mercenaries throughout history."

The government strikes back

Meanwhile the government responded saying the opposition must relinquish its "dream of easing President Bashar Assad out of power in a transitional government," according to Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. He told The Associated Press that a transitional government amounts to a coup d'etat and "will never be accepted."

Mekdad added most of the world except Saudi Arabia and Turkey - the two main backers of the rebellion - have all but given up calls for Assad to step down.

jbh/kms (dpa, AP)

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